Sunday, August 29, 2010

Stories You Keep from Your Children

We don't blame them. Can our parents be faulted just because they took such horrific risks with their children's very lives? (Although clearly we should find ample opportunities to blame our parents for many things.)

It was a different era, raising children in the sixties and seventies. It was a time of innocence. And a time of ignorance.

Our parents didn't know better when they allowed us to run, shrieking and giggling, through the chemical fog spewing from the mosquito trucks that patrolled our neighborhood.

No seatbelt laws were in effect when they piled ten kids into a five-seater car, to haul us all to the county recreation center for a day of swimming.

They saw no need to stick around at the pool to supervise us. Nor did they accompany their children on our two-mile walk there for swim lessons, when the oldest was only ten and the youngest just seven. The news then didn't broadcast a stream of announcements about nationwide child abductions. No one could yet conceive of the necessity of something called an Amber Alert.

We roamed the neighborhood for hours with no declared destination and no cellphone for parental communication. We played in parks and in the middle of streets several blocks away until the streetlights came on. Or well after.

Not only did our parents trust society, they trusted us--even when we became teenagers. They never imagined what might transpire if we had friends over while they were gone. Likewise, they never thought to call and confirm that the party we were attending would be chaperoned. In many cases, they never knew at all where we were going when we headed out the door on Saturday night.

High school "After Prom" parties weren't school-sanctioned, lock-in events. They were hotel room keggers.

Some of us went on unchaperoned spring breaks our senior year in high school. We ventured to Fort Lauderdale or Daytona Beach, driving twenty-hour trips in our parents' own car. Only half of us were even eighteen, but our parents figured all of us were nearly adults. Legalities were only technicalities then.

Amidst all this reckless behavior, most of us managed to survive our youth.

But once we became parents ourselves? Oh, the difference a few decades make.

It's not that we're a generation of better parents. Perhaps, however, we're better informed, thanks to health and safety laws and the ubiquitous media. Maybe we're wiser, too, due to our recollection of what we did--and shouldn't have done.

With all that we 21st-century parents now know, we can hope our own children reach adulthood safely, and cause us no undue worries.

Just as long as they do as we say, and not as we did.

And we keep a few stories to ourselves.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bet Your Ash on That

It's been twenty years since my dad's death, and yet the man still finds a way to get around.

After my father passed away in 1990, my mother honored his wishes to be cremated. She bought a mausoleum vault in a cemetery twenty minutes away, overlooking a riverside metropark. Only after his funeral did we notice the park sign directly across from the cemetery entrance, identifying that section of the park as the Indianola Area.

"Indianola" was the name of the obscure, tiny street where my parents bought their first home, raised their family and spent nearly thirty years of their lives.

Cue the Twilight Zone theme music.

An eerie coincidence or a comforting form of fate that such an unusual and aptly named location should be my father's final resting place? (We went with comforting fate.)

Yet the mausoleum wasn't to be his final resting place. My mother wouldn't hear of it. Just because the man was dead, she figured, didn't mean he should have to give up traveling. Or golfing. Or fishing.

So, she kept a portion of his remains in the mausoleum and retained a personal stash of ash in an urn in her bedroom. And over the years, we scattered some of his ashes in a few of his most beloved places: the fairways at Toledo Country Club, the shores of Lake Erie and at Manistique Lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

We'd like to believe that some part of my dad will remain at those places forever. And he will enjoy his favorite haunts (no pun intended) through infinity.

What we didn't count on, however, was one particular place his ashes would unexpectedly wind up.

My mother became an impeccable housekeeper through the years. Living by herself in a two-bedroom condo resulted in little clutter or accumulated dirt or dust. Still, she had her carpets professionally cleaned annually because... well, that part of the story remains unclear.

What is certain though, is the horror she experienced when she entered her bedroom to observe the carpetcleaning serviceman desperately attempting to redo a wrong.

By vacuuming up the "dirt" he'd spilled on the carpet after he'd knocked over some ceramic container.

Hearing my mother scream, he jumped and gaped wide-eyed at her, even as he continued pushing the industrial-sized vacuum over the debris. When he finally turned off the sweeper, she explained in frantic sobs exactly what he'd been sucking through that undiscerning hose.

If it had ended there, it's a good guess the serviceman would have been scarred for life. Enduring sleepless nights or perhaps nightmares of a vengeful and dusty ghost.

But after my mom realized the gallows humor of the situation, her sobs turned to laughter.

Sometimes, in moments of horror or fear, there's nothing like a bit of dark humor to lighten things up.

Not only did she end up reassuring the carpetcleaner that no real harm was done, she actually rehired the man a year later. And why not? Surely no mistake he might make on the second visit could match the monstrosity of his first.

Knowing my dad's sense of humor, I'm sure he's still laughing about the whole incident too. In between his fishing and golfing and admiring the scenery of the places he's busy visiting.

Life is funny. And even afterward, one can still find something worth laughing at.

Yep, you can bet your ash on that.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Oh, How She Made Us Laugh

When we recall the loved ones in our life who have died, we generally do so with a tear at their loss, or perhaps a smile at some warm image. Yet there's a rare individual whose memory, even a decade after their death, still prompts us to burst out in laughter.

During the thirty-five years I spent with Alma Stoll, no one made me laugh as frequently or as heartily. My grandmother possessed the kind of good nature that naturally made people smile. It was her collection of antics, however, that induced our out-and-out laughter.

Malapropisms were her legend. No one could turn a phrase or switch around words quite like Alma. The minor ones elicited a simple grin. As long as she lived, for example, she referred to the Christmas nativity scene as an "activity scene." We stopped correcting her. It was more fun that way.

And occasionally she offered a doozy. Like the time she called my childhood home, announcing to my father that the news just reported a possible UFO. "Someone's spotted an Obscene Flying Object!" she told him. "Be sure to tell Gloria," she added in an excited rush of words. "I know she's really interested in that kind of thing!" Alma never lived that one down. Nor did my mother, whose apparent preoccupation with flying penises proved to be amusing news to all of us (including my mother Glo.)

Even in her mid-years, Alma showed an enthusiasm for life. This, along with her German bullheadness, led her to take on pursuits for which she wasn't quite capable. An avid fisherman, she once took the rowboat out by herself while we were vacationing. Later, our repeated attempts to call her back for dinner--through our yelling and motioning from the dock to the boat hundreds of yards from shore--proved fruitless. She seemed to have lost all control of the heavy wooden boat. She rowed in perpetual circles for nearly half-an-hour. Only after my father headed out in someone's motorboat to rescue her did we discover the cause of her problem: she had the anchor out the entire time.

With her typical good humor, she managed to laugh at herself that day. Just as she laughed at herself the time she called our house and, with growing frustration, kept asking my mother to repeat herself. "I can't hear you! Speak up! Honestly, Gloria, something must be wrong with this phone." Finally she paused. "Oh, wait a minute. I forgot," she said. "I have cotton in my ear."

That was the thing with Alma. We never felt we were laughing at her. We were always laughing with her.

The comical stories eventually slowed, as did Alma's body and mind, in her later years. The grandmother I knew became weakened by congestive heart failure and by dementia. The broken neck she suffered in a car accident, although thankfully not paralyzing, took its toll on her too.

The older, frail woman she was in the last years of her life tended to overshadow our view of her. At times, we had to remind ourselves of her former physical strength: how she cleaned piles of freshly caught perch and pounded rugs clean on her back porch.

We had to nudge our memories to recall her former mental strength: this woman who spent much of her youth in an orphanage, and declined an offer of adoption when it finally came, because she wouldn't leave her five younger siblings behind.

Yes, Alma was once vibrant and determined and inspirational. And oh, how she once brought us laughter.

I'd like to think she's smiling, remembering it all, right now.

I hope she's fishing tonight. And that someone else offered to row the boat.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Follow Me Over to "So Wonderful, So Marvelous"

Guest-posted this weekend on a terrific blog, "So Wonderful, So Marvelous." Read it here.

Be sure to check out the rest of Michelle's blog, where she posts on parenting, cooking and crafty activities, and makes the rest of us wish we were half as inspired and talented.

See you there?