dad family mom San Fernando Valley

Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom and Dad

Strangers in the Night

My parents met each other on St. Valentine’s day, 1962. They met at a bar in the San Fernando Valley. My mom was there to meet a date. She was then a 34-year-old divorced mother of four who lived with her kids at her parents’ house.

Parents don’t like to talk to their kids about the people they dated before they met their final mate. It’s as though they would rather not show their work in solving an algebra problem. My mom was a little more forthcoming about her pre-marriage experiences than my father was. I know she dated Johnny Grant, the recently deceased “mayor of Hollywood,” who she described as “all hands.” Hearing that ended my line of questioning for the day.

Still, I was the kind of kid who wanted to get to the very root of my origins, the point at which chance comes into play: that night, a bar, the San Fernando valley.

My dad was 26 at the time — eight years younger than she. He was working for the L.A. school district as a custodian (janitor) and going to night school to get a degree in geography. He was living with his parents at the time — he had moved to the area eight years previously from North Dakota — and he was soon to buy a house on the same street, just a few houses down.

I picture them both, in this bar, in a semi-rural suburb of Los Angeles, orange trees and tract houses, chatting with each other while she waits for her date to arrive. My father, probably post-break-up and my mother, post-divorce. They’re drinking martinis or scotch-and-sodas. The guy my mother is waiting for, whoever he is, calls and asks for her. He’s running late, he says. He wants to meet somewhere else.

No, she says. No. She’s not going somewhere else. She’s waited for him this long, and she’s talking to another guy at the bar anyway and, well, he can just take a long walk off a short pier.

And that’s it. The future starts. My father gets her phone number, one that strangely starts with a word, like TOrrington 7-5309. That night starts a chain reaction of step-children, marriage, my sister, myself, looking after ailing and dying parents, a move, retirement, another move to a new state, and death — all of it over 40 years.

A flat tire, a newspaper article, even a head cold could have made it all happen differently. They’re both gone now, which is the trouble of being born to older parents. The advantage of being born to older parents, though, is that they’re wiser and less likely to fly off the handle. My life has been made easy by older siblings who smoothed out the rough edges new parents always start with.

I miss them both very much. Whether they’re together in the afterlife or together in oblivion, I know they are together.

photo credit: Cocktails 4 Two by gwENvision

dad family grief mom Wendy

I’ve Fallen Into the Cellar

Today, this week, I’ve been in the grips of a monstrous depression that I can’t shake, no matter how hard I try. The weather has been, for the most part, fantastic, but that’s not enough to pull me out of this nose dive. I’ve tried everything I can think of. Just now, I was engaging in some online retail therapy, looking for an American DVD release of Zabriskie Point (no such luck), when I thought maybe what I need to do–maybe what’s been wrong with me–is that I haven’t been blogging.

I’ve tried to write again, but it just hasn’t gone through. What’s left to say after mom’s death? Part of me thought that this blog started as a reaction to my father’s death, so maybe it should end.

I miss my mom and my dad. Most of all, though, I miss my wife. We announced the first winner of the Wendy Jackson Hall Memorial Scholarship this week. I thought it would make me happy and give me a sense of completion. It doesn’t. It’s just one more rung on the ladder. I’m holding on to the ladder.

death mom

My Mother’s Last Stand

The doctor told my sister on Thursday night that if family wanted to come and see my mother before she died, now would be a good time. She had been asleep by then for 48 hours straight, fighting pneumonia and two other infections. By Friday morning, she was awake and able to recognize my sister and, later that night, she spoke, with difficulty, to my brother and another sister who had each traveled from different states to be by her side.

On Saturday morning, I thought she was coming out of this. Everyone now says she’s not. She’s dying.

It’s difficult to understand why she’s dying now. Over the last dozen years, she has starred in long-running series of personal medical dramas, starting with a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), a kind of temporary stroke that we noticed because the corner of her mouth started drooping one morning. By my wedding in 1999, she needed help going up steps, but was still able to dance with me.

Since then, it’s been a long, steady decline in her physical capabilities slowed only by thorough doctoring and complicated Rx combinations. Since then, she’s gone from cane to walker to wheelchair and back again. Since then, she’s endured several stays in the hospital, has been in and out of physical therapy, on and off oxygen.

I worried about losing my mother for as long as I can remember. She used to drink to excess, buy cigarettes by the carton, avoid social interactions and exercise, and generously add butter and salt to almost anything she ate. Still, she’s outlived her oldest son, one of her grandchildren, both her first and second husbands (the latter was my father), and my wife. She’s had a tremendous will to live. I hope she still does.


Pulp Novels

Sitting in brown paper shopping bag, somewhere in the garage of my memory

My mother was a constant reader. She still reads a lot–more than I do–but when I was a kid, she was a constant reader. She used to watch TV with a novel at her side, and would read during commercial breaks. She read pulp novels and stories exclusively: mysteries, pot boilers, fantasmagoric tales, gothic romances, and the like with breaks for magazines like Red Book, McCall’s, and Reader’s Digest. I’d rarely see her open a hard cover since they wouldn’t fit in her purse, and she couldn’t crack their spines into submission.

As a kid, I thought reading a book was akin to running a marathon: a measure of one’s discipline and endurance. I read well for my age, and I read often, but to finish a whole book in less than a week (with more than 100 page and no pictures!) was a pretty awesome feat, indeed. If anyone was the champ at reading, it was my mom.

It seems to me now that she would go through one a day, but that’s likely an exageration. She ofthen bought them used and, despite their almost disposable nature, she never wanted to give them up. She would stack them in window sill, as if it were a bookshelf, or stuff them into brown paper shopping bags and stash them in our garage. She even boxed some up and stored them under her bed.

I was surrounded by the lurid covers of all these books. They run together with menacing typeface titles, half-nude women with faces fixed in terror or desire, decrepit sea mansions facing a midnight storm, a green mist. I judged all her books by their covers and never tried to read a single one.


Top News of the Summer

This is the first journal in a long while. Somehow I got off the track. I think the great weather has distracted me from writing. Suffice it to say, I’ve had a great summer. Computer problems and changes, too, have kept me offline. I won’t go into them–I can think of nothing less interesting to later read.

In fact, there’s so much to catch up on, I’m going to make a list (in no particuar order):

  • road paving
  • swimming from dock street
  • Wendy’s classes
  • house painting (exterior)
  • Project Kozyhome
  • Project Bizou
  • berry picking, jams, and pies
  • Jeff and Marcy visit
  • dry weather
  • lessons from the boat
  • Porter’s visit to mom
  • Aaron visit
  • Jane & Bill visit
  • Mike, Jenn and Emily visit
  • Bri & Tim visit

(remember ideas I had today: getting into the time-share management business in my next career and writing some lists of the best decade-to-decade pictures–maybe the best films made in the 60s about the 30s, the best 90s films about the 60s, etc.)

mom Wendy

Mom Screaming At the Cake

Went out to see mom for her birthday. Wendy and I put together a party for her, and it all went off pretty well. Wendy did a great job decorating with balloons and a banner, and there was more than enough food there for everyone who came. We got a picture cake for mom, where the bakery was able to turn a “glamour shot” of her taken at 16 and somehow print it in edible food coloring onto the cake itself. Wendy wanted to do it because when mom is surprised, she lets out a squeel. This time, though, she let out a scream. She seemed to appreciate the cake, but I think she was taken a little too off-guard by it. Wendy, too, said it was surprisingly difficult to cut into an image of her mother-in-law.

Yesterday we went for a drive to Lake Mead. We bought a Golden Eagle pass, which will let us into any National Park for a year. We’ll have to be sure to use it this summer.

Mom’s health isn’t doing well, though. She seems to have hit a point where, like dad, her medical conditions are complicating each other. Her feet and legs hurt, so she can’t stand or do too much walking. The doctor wants her to wear support hose to ease the vascular problems in her legs, but she doesn’t want to wear them because they hurt her legs even more. Vertebrae in her back are fractured, so she isn’t comfortable sitting or laying down too often.


Happy Birthday, Mom

Wendy and I have organized a birthday party for my mom with about 20 people coming–neighbors and some family. Yesterday, we went to Mom’s favorite Japanese place in honor of her real birthday (May 30) and we had a very nice time. She’s been there so much in recent weeks–Jeff and Debby, Lynnea and Walter, and I took here there on our last visits–that the staff is starting to recognize her. When we told them it was her 75th birthday yesterday, she got several hugs from people there and a card signed by everyone. The only downside was that I got a little broken up over missing Dad so much and wishing he could be there to see her on her birthday. Joe, the piano player, saw me in the restroom and offered some comfort–apparently Mom and/or Wendy told him about Dad dying. Maybe I’m supposed to be embarassed by weeping in public, but I’m not.

This morning I woke up to a strange partial memory of Wendy and I coming to this plot with Dad before it was built, but I couldn’t remember the context of the memory–or even if it was true. Wendy said this morning that it was true, that we came out and stayed on Pammy’s pull-out couch and Mom and Dad where staying upstairs, probably to finish up the home-buying decisions. How could I have fogotten something that happened only four years ago?

mom movie

The Center of Convenience

Today is Monday; I have been in Vegas since Friday night. I am at a place called Terrible Herbst getting an oil change for Mom’s Isuzu truck. Mike Lennon came out from LA to hang out with me & mom. We had a good time together–mostly we went out for meals and talked while mom played at the casino.

   On Saturday, we all went to see About Schmidt. They didn’t enjoy it much, but I thought it was a great character study and a cautionary tale about an unexamined life. The character would save money obsessively and was much more concerned with having his needs met than meeting the needs of those close to him. He even constructed his own realities to suit his needs rather than confront his growing irrelevance/impotence. He has created such a well-worn groove in his life–a groove that swallows all of his relationships–that he stopped listening to the people around him and has even stopped seeing that the world has responded by shutting him out.

The movie starts in Shakespearean fashion with a banquet in honor of Schmidt’s retirement. He’s worked for 40 years at Woodman insurance; the name of the company is a subtle nod to his personality. As an actuary, he renders the lives of people only in abstraction–his job converts their hopes, dreams, and fears into dumb, naked probability. The only faces that emerge from the banquet crowd are those of his wife, his best friend, and his successor.

Part of what makes this movie so interesting is its interaction between plot and character. The plot throws realistic developments at him, and Schmidt reacts by believing each event defines the final true course for the rest of his life. Each one, though, is a false summit. Schmidt thinks he’s arrived only to find out there’s another summit right behind it.

The first summit is when he goes back to Woodman to help tie up some of the loose ends from his job. The new guy gives him the bum rush out of his office, and Schmidt finds down on the street that all of his hard work, which was neatly placed in storage boxes, is now sitting out in the rain next to a garbage dumpster. Schmidt felt a responsibility to Woodman, but it was misplaced. They were happy to get someone well-trained in computer modeling to replace Schmidt’s slide rule. His wife asks him about his day, and he lies to her outright, saying that it was a good thing he went down there since they really needed his help. This behavior is repeated throughout the movie and shows his defense mechanism against his own irrelevance. Ironically, it’s also the leading cause of his irrelevance. His alternate reality shuts him off from those around him.

After this first defeat, Schmidt decides to become a foster father to an impoverished African boy. He gets the pitch on TV and starts sending him money and hand-written letters. Aside from being a convenient way of inserting internal monologue into the story, “Little Nduku” becomes a surrogate for all the people in his life; Nduku is his confidant and his responsibility. Moreover, since he doesn’t ever expect to receive a letter from Nduku, he sees the boy as citizen No. 2 in his alternate universe. The boy can never question or even ignore the contents of his letters, also, since Schmidt is providing the money. Schmidt is sending messages of desperation in a bottle.

This relationship informs the one with his daughter. She’s getting married to Randall, a loveable loser. The course of the movie puts him at different angles, trying to prevent their getting married. He believes that Randal is not good enough for her, which may in fact be the case, but his judgement is blurred by putting his daughter up on a pedestal. She’s not as talented, smart, or beautiful as he wants to believe that she is, and that to him, this marriage would be undeniable proof of his failure as a father.

Randall, however, provides an even more alarming representation–the mirror image of Schmidt’s failure as a man. To Schmidt, Randall is a deluded loser. As a deluded loser himself, however, Schmidt is clinging to himself as a success. Look to the scene where he snoops in Randall’s room to find all his “participation” trophies and compare that to Schmidt’s blaming his family for never making it out of his job in 30 years.


No One Enjoys a Sunny Day More

I am sitting near the ferry’s bow while it sails toward the dawn. We’ve had some beautiful weather lately. I told my mom the other day that no one enjoys a sunny day more than the people of the Pacific Northwest, and she laughed.
Work was hard yesterday. Sometimes people have unrealistic expectations for what can be done. I try not to bring it home with me, but that is difficult. I got to sleed last night by counting down from 1,000. I got as far as the 620’s before I fell asleep.