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Mother Love

While my twenty-six baby chicks are peaceably assembled in the bathroom, my sweet Collie-dog Maggie is coming unglued.  She harbors a deep-felt certainty that she is meant to nursemaid any and all infant creatures.  She had mothered my cat Espresso, for example, to the extent that he thought he was a dog.

 

That cat was an essay in perversion.  It’s not all my fault.  I had help raising him.  It was Maggie who had nursed and nurtured him in everything maternal but milk.  Maggie and I share a tendency toward bountiful hair.  She, born and coated to romp the icy plain of Prince Edward Island, rolling in the many names of snow that define that bleak coastal expanse, and I, who thanks to some wooly gene, grow hair fast as a naughty weed, are both hirsute critters.  She and her siblings brought life to that frozen Canadian shore as sure as she brought it to me, a good bit farther south.

 

When she arrived in her air transport crate at the relatively tropical latitude of Roanoke, Virginia, her undercoat was so thick it couldn’t be parted to reveal skin.  She looked like the promise of some arctic sled puppy waiting to grow into her harness and take off for Nome.  Soon the intelligence of her physiology arranged a molt, and she dropped an amazing excess of that glorious load.  Even in the most challenging of Roanoke Valley winters, she never regained her puppy coat grandeur.  But it was more than enough to satisfy the psychic longings of the five week old rescue kitten I acquired one spring, having spent a long dark winter needing someone, something, some-living-anything soft and cuddly to love.

 

I named him Espresso after his rich black glossy full-bodied coat and his whole-bodied, whole-psyche willingness to give himself up to his yearnings.  Maggie sniffed and goosed his little round exit sphincter with her cold intelligent nose and straightaway recognized a baby in need of mothering, while Espresso, recognizing a good thing when he found it, dug in and began a long frustrating search for milk and Mom.  Finding instead a delicious warmth amid a lush jungle of dog hair, he accepted a warm full belly, compliments of a standard cat bowl, and settled for the care of a Collie-dog nanny.

 

Of course with all that canine mothering he thought he was a dog.  He went for walks with the family, the two humans, the Collie and the Bichon Frizé.  We presented a strange assortment of Animalia to the natural fauna of the Roanoke valley countryside.  Maggie, ever mother, stood patiently while Espresso wound in and out about her legs, spinning a happy abstraction of good will.

 

In the course of things, Maggie goes away, her absence mourned by cat and human alike.  Espresso and I, truly an odd couple, grow ever closer, making of an old friendship a newly awakened need, a raging mutual desire for comfort and solace.  Dog gone, now it is the cat that usurps that “doggone” cold place in the bed, making of it a warm island of happiness, small but mighty.

 

Snuggling the feline body against the frozen isolation of cold winter nights, clever mechanical thermostat adjusted down to stretch resources in favor of eggs and peanut butter, milk and bread, gasoline and medicine, a new feeling makes a Sandburg entrance on little cat feet.  A living creature pressed against tautness of breast and body speaks to givingness as need.  Memory of milk, long dry, lets down as virtual hormonal angst, wanting—wanting to be given.  Glands activate.  Oxytocin pours into streams of coursing blood.  Brain tastes and translates primal need.  Memory wakens, recalling nights of hard young bodies twined in silent satisfaction, floating islands of fulfillment on an ocean of animal intent.  Now I know why spinsters and old ladies keep cats.

 

All this is unremarkable until Espresso equates my thick messy head of hair with his kitten memories of Maggie.  He buries his happy nose into the graying blonde tangle and kneads bread lustily while his thoughts drift back to being a babe at Maggie’s hairy teat.  He becomes relentless in his expression of adoration and need.  It demonstrates how strange and wonderful is this world of living loving creatures.  My cat is most assuredly a pervert, but he loves me.  What can I say?

 

Back to the bathroom door—from Maggie’s perspective, anything little and sweet is a love-object.  She self-identifies as its guardian.  Hearing little cheeps, she stands at the bathroom door and fairly shakes, her teeth rattling with the vibratory energy of her drive to mother.  When she sees me coming she begins to prance demonstrating the urgency of her need.

 

Of course I can’t let her in.  How would that play?  When she tumbles to what the little cheepers actually are, she would surely break into being a real dog and initiate a catch and kill scenario.  That would be ugly.

 

But she proves me wrong.  One day the door not fully secured, she slips in and makes her own inspection of the nursery.  A heat lamp hangs suspended from the ceiling, the chicks crowded beneath its golden rays.  Yesterday’s newsprint lines the floor with chicks applying their own abstract decor to its pages.  Maggie sniffs the babies, tastes their head fluff, twitches her nose and shake-rattles her head.  Yes, these are babies.  Well, all right then.  She settles onto the paper, curls about the little flock, and waits.

 

By the time I discover them, the chicks have written off the lamp and are gathered in aggregate about Maggie’s hairy belly.  Each chick has found a spot to inhabit and has nestled into it with a surety and gratitude for a love so freely given.  Nobody is seeking a warm teat, but everybody is happily at home.  Maggie, too, has drifted off to a heavenly peace.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

This was the kind of world that welcomed a baby Jesus so long ago.  How can we doubt God’s decision to place his son so judiciously in our care?  We are capable of such great harm but are equally capable of such monumental blessing.  It is appropriate that we, at this turning of the year, reach out to our fellow creatures with tenderness and even love.  Please do sleep in heavenly peace.  If chicks, why not humans?

Religion used to be our cultural carrier, but now it’s become Hollywood.  We can bemoan the situation or roll it into the biblical canon.  A useful exercise is to choose ten of your own favorite movies, arrange them in a meaningful order, and stand back.  What you see is a portrait of your own distinct personality.

 

For me, the result of this research is arranged below.  This little list must be part of any meaningful memoir left for the edification of my progeny.  I urge them to enjoy getting to know their ma and grandma and to begin accumulating their own playbills for ages yet to roll.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Sound of Music: Maria Von Trapp, finding love in all the right places, is every bit Dorothy Jeanette Martin.  Orphan, tom-boy, wanna-be-religious, not sure about all those children, but finally delighting in them, dreaming of and winning her own true loves, matrimonial then maternal.  Julie Andrews only acted the part.  I lived it, pirouetting on a West Virginia hilltop, singing my heart out to the wind and the birds who shared it with me.  Bluebirds and skylarks took flight— swooping again and again across swales of verdant green and flower tops.  They rode that ocean of floral fecundity.  Life bloomed!  I was part of it!  Julie could only playact and sing; I made real babies and figured out how they worked, or tried to.  I didn’t always do it right, but I did it with fervor.

 

Contact: Eleonore Ann Arroway, determined to be brilliant, scaring up her own adventure that braids science, spirit, and faith in a lustrous plait of meaning, stands in for Dorothy at this intersection of work and fulfillment.  I once promised to invent anti-gravity—a silly thought, but how was I to know where brave plans and delusions of questionable grandeur forked in the road?  Assured that such things were possible, I determined to set about doing them.  When I announced to my father that I would wed, he came to my remove in West Virginia, picked me up, and set out on a road trip to Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, where the rocket program was getting its start.  He had me wait in the car while he entered and chatted-up an old friend, remembered from Manhattan Project and Experimental Aircraft Association days.  He returned, sat in the car and asked that I give up my plan to make a family where none existed in my as yet untethered life.  It was a done deal.  I had only to enter the facility, accept the position he had secured for me, finish my degree program at night school, and all would be well.  I demurred.  It would have been a hollow victory to win the good fight based on my father’s history.  I had to make my own.  It was, as it turns out, the perfect decision.  The best part of the memory was that Daddy loved me enough to try to save me.  Nothing is ever simple.

 

Book Thief: Word is meaning, now as it was, even in the beginning.  Everyone has a place where the Nazi atrocity plays itself out in personal thinking.  For me it is this meaning dense terrain where Lisl Menninger meets a new adoptive family and sets out to put together what is real and important while trying to make a meaning filled life out of a world gone mad.  She crosses paths with a Jewish man, helps her family hide and care for him, and learns the joy of reading and writing from his well-deep understanding of Jewish wisdom.  Hitler’s war kills her family but saves her assurance of her life as a woman of honor and integrity.  She steals books, borrows them that is, but is not in any sense a thief.  It is an interesting irony that such a life-filled story is spun out in the hollow voice of Death.  Maybe her real larceny was her own life, stolen from Death, a pyrrhic victory snatched from the not-always-inevitable jaws of defeat.  As I prepare myself for the long sleep, I refer often back to the Book Thief for reality-checks and simple satisfactions.

 

The Education of Little Tree: A beauty filled understanding of nature as determinator of what is real and right, and what works, in a world too complex to know itself as fully human.

 

The Help: Race is not a useful discriminator even in a cesspool state like Mississippi.  People of goodwill can overcome our history if they care to and try.  In 2012 Cincinnati, I locked horns with an activist who insisted that I was a racist just because I have blonde hair and hazel eyes.  I bristled—insisted that I had been loved and cared for by one Lillie-Mae Choice, a black woman who was coincidentally housekeeper and maid of my aunt, Jewel Josephine MacNeil.  Lillie-Mae was my second mother, and I loved her.  It follows: I cannot be a racist.  I pointed to The Help as being one of my all-time-favorite movies.  The activist laughed and postulated that I was only enjoying the feeling of privilege accruing to my stature as a daughter of the South.  I walked out of the meeting and never returned.  She is, I suppose, still spewing such division.  I did not handle that well and wish I could find her, give her a hug, and sit down for a good talk and an even better listen.

 

Priest: Love trumps religion, even in the oligarchy of Catholicism.  This film was (and I assume still is) condemned by the Vatican, assuring its wide and popular dissemination.  A conservative and closeted gay priest is assigned to a Northern Ireland parish where he works with a liberal straight priest who is enjoying the sociable foot-warming of the parish housekeeper.  When true evil rears its ugly head, all such peccadilloes pale in the face of an authentic Satan.

 

Ghost: Good vs evil is an either/or spiritual choice.  It isn’t enough to leave it to others.  We must do it anew every day, a quotidian decision, daily to be made and lived into.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Gender is a shape-shifter.  Beauty is generously found in the garden and must be understood and befriended.  Goodness can hide in dark and quiet places, even as evil goes blithely on parade.  It is always necessary to discriminate and value a creative balance.

 

Dead Poet’s Society: Says as much about educating the next generation as it does about the abstraction of verse.  In a perfect world I would have been born as Robin Williams.  Wouldn’t that have been fun to play out?

 

Claire of the Moon: Love who you love, for heaven’s sake—and for earth’s as well.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

I invite you to summon your own set of Hollywood essays.  If you love a movie, it has already slipped into your psyche and recognized you as a friendly.  You will find yourself in their light and color, advancing film by film, frame by frame, set about your own shining sky of mind, an always honest mosaic of all that it means to be “The You.”

 

My father Kelsey and his sister Margaret, older by five years, walked to public school every day to the town of Azle, where they were proud of their perfect attendance.  It wasn’t an onerous journey, only a little over two miles, but they liked to take the short cut through the woods that put them on the Jacksboro Highway where they, often as not, could pick up a ride into town.  Their path through the scrub oak, briars, and prickly pears was hard won, requiring some dedicated work with a machete and often scaring up opossums, jackrabbits or armadillos.  It was Margaret who did most of the hacking, while Kelsey carried his father’s coping saw, severing the bushes down low to keep the stumps short.  Their path widened over years of use, finally becoming Greg Avenue, a euphemism for the double-rutted wagon track through the scrub that dead-ended at the Martin-Reynold’s home place.  The road, now dedicated to the county of Parker, is a two-lane asphalt not-quite-scenic by-way.

 

Margaret was a good enough student especially at arithmetic where she outshone all the girls.  But it was Kelsey who was the scholar.  He made straight A’s from the beginning, with Margaret playing little teacher to his precocious child.  They both received a lot of attention for their school work from their father, Harry Allen Densmore Martin, who was proud of his secondary school diploma and wanted his son, and daughter too, to enjoy the same benefits.  He worked the farm, not out of love for farming, but to make a life and a living; he played with ideas of what a grander vista might be like somewhere else, somewhere west like Oregon or California.  He was a tall, broad shouldered man, strong and capable at just about anything he put his hand to.  Most everybody knew how to slap together boards in those days, but he took some genuine enjoyment in the geometry of construction.  Over many years he became known as a finish carpenter and was always willing to take on jobs around Azle and environs just west of Ft. Worth.

 

In those days near every man worked a homestead but also needed to find a way to come up with spending money.  Harry had his carpentry which paid well but tended to be seasonal.  A blue norther could blow in with absolutely no warning and change all his best laid plans to finish a job, so most of the work got scheduled for the heat of the year.  He wasn’t all that fond of chickens, but they were a good way to bring in some money in between the farm work and the carpentry.  He built a galvanized tin commercial building to house a hundred or so layers and began making a weekly egg run into Ft. Worth.  His wife Minnie Mae Reynolds-Martin always kept an assortment of chickens and a rooster to provide an endless source of fixin’s for Sunday dinners.

 

On any given Sunday, the designated hen would be cornered and caught amid a great cacophony of cackling until death restored silence.  Minnie used an axe for chicken whacking, but Harry with his burly right arm would swing the bird round and round like a sling, and then snap the neck with a twist of his wrist.  Harry’s way was better, avoiding the bloody mess of the chicken running round and round with its head cut off until it fell to the ground and even then kept running until it forgot what running was about.  Where was it going anyway?  It is a puzzle why a snapped-neck-chicken would hang peaceably awaiting death, while an axed one made such a fuss.  Maybe getting swung in a circle beforehand made it dizzy.  It’s a mystery.

 

Something was always getting killed on that farmstead.  That’s probably true of most rural dwellings.  Where there’s lots of life, death follows not far behind.  Field mice migrated in from the garden and pastures.  Snakes joined them, usually just garter, but all too often copperheads, a poisonous variety that often sent Grandma Minnie Mae running for her hoe.  She was a consummate snake chopper and never once got bit.  There were rattlesnakes too, but I never tangled with one of them except once on the far side of the milk barn.  It coiled up, commenced rattling, and set me on a ground covering run.  That old snake scared the bejesus out of me, but I managed to evade its fangs.  Black-snakes were common and liked to curl up in the hen nests hoping for a nice warm chicken egg to bite and suck.  They were five or six feet long, scary as hell, but not poisonous.  In any case, it was a good idea to look into a nest before reaching in for an egg.  No need to scare yourself to death.

 

The autumn of every year was hog killing time.  Grandpa stuck and drained his own pig but hauled it to the commercial locker for dressing and packaging.  For a fee he could rent a freezer-locker and store the meat for as long as it lasted.  Grandpa’s sausage recipe was the best I ever tasted.  He was partial to sage, and was that sausage ever loaded!  A freezer locker represented a big advance from earlier times.  The old method for preserving pork was to smoke the hams and shoulders and to keep the sausage by frying and then preserving it submerged in its own grease, balled and arranged in crockery pots.  That was primitive but tasty.  Grease was an effective preservative for meats as was sugar for keeping fruit.  It was a relatively newfangled approach to canning food to seal it in glass Ball jars.  As I visited summer after summer, I was able to see the march of progress in their kitchen and larder.

 

My earliest memories of being on the Martin farm were trips into town to deliver farm-fresh eggs, a stop at the drug store for a chocolate soda at the authentic fountain where he showed me off to his old friends and a swing by the frozen food locker for a package of sausage for tomorrow’s breakfast.  He loved to mention that I was his best grand-child, an odd statement since I was his only one.  When I asked about the incongruity, he only chuckled.  Once we stopped at the town library to talk to old Eula Nation, years ago a teacher at the school when my Dad was a student.  Mrs. Nation had in retirement decided to start a public library.  In those days, you could just do things like that.  Grandpa liked to parade me around as Kelsey’s daughter, from whom great things were expected.  That always made me start quivering in my boots.  I recalled how Grandpa had always called young and pretty Minnie Mae “the best.”  She too was “the only.”  Maybe that was his little joke on the women in his life.  I didn’t laugh.

 

It’s distinctly odd that the more I ruminate about this place, the more I sound like a Texan.  The words lose their self-conscious studied edge.  A drawl creeps in.  It’s the same with the chickens.  Years later when in turn of the twenty-first century Virginia, I had a flock of hens, I wrote about their escapades in the same odd picturesque Texan lilt and flow.  It’s a mystery.  Which voice is the right one?  Is there a right one?

Boxes

The ragged caravan of velocipedes moved down Erie Avenue headed for MEAC loaded with 195 boxes of great-bird fixin’s.  It was a unique experience showing up right-on-the-dot at the advertised 9:30 AM to join that lively crew of 17.  They were already locked and loaded, ready to go.  I was the first to volunteer and the last to show up—not late, not early, exactly on time— my signature approach to getting there.  But these Episcopalians were already grooving.  There were only a pathetic few cardboard containers left to fill my Highlander.  They were promptly stowed, and after a prayerful blessing we were off in a cloud of love-thy-neighbor dust.

 

I didn’t know where I was going, a common problem for me, new to the state, but I’ve learned that in Ohio you are just supposed to know these things.  I took off, roughly toward where I thought MEAC must surely be.  It worked.  In no time at all what had been a rough aggregate of disparate vehicles converged on the center of Madisonville, a merry clot of good will.

 

Everybody grabbed a stack of loaded cardboard from any vehicle and filed into the quiet grey building.  In no time at all vans were empty and an impressive stack of heaving containers strained a long row of sturdy tables, creaking, sagging, wanting just to give of their bounty.  And give they did.  The first donation was to the assorted Redeemer parishioners who volunteered for this project, asked by a frantic Liz Coley to lend a hand and a vehicle to the annual event.  I had hesitated to offer my car with its peeling clear-coat to a group of surely better ones.  But—why not?  The rest is history, or moving in that direction.  Getting to show up and be a part of this loving roundup is the best Thanksgiving gift a person could receive.  What fun to imagine the grateful happy faces soon to be arrayed about our stack of plain unwrapped boxes.

 

I’ll never forget this, my first experience of benevolent Episcopalians in action.  They came—they gave—they conquered.  And they didn’t have a whole lot to say about it.  They just made it happen.  The lady representing our Presbyterian counterparts rounded us up for a photo-op, and everybody agreed on a group grin.  There wasn’t even a flash as her iPhone gulped the cheerful scene.  Everybody waved and headed out to wherever.  Our job was done—this time.

 

But, there’ll be a next time.  Next time I’ll know that it’s a good thing to offer, even what is not much.  I couldn’t even think of lifting those boxes with my old tricky shoulders, but others could.  I can do some small part of what is needed, so I’ll be there.  The rest is up to God.

Old Wood

The truth is I am an aggregation of lovely bones cunningly festooned with living meat intent on staying motile to some glorious end.  I could make a finale to this puzzle of being me, but think what I would miss.  There are so many books to read, so many writing prompts to coax into luxuriant bloom.  How could I just stop?  My grandmother Minnie Mae used to moan, “I wish I had ever-thin’ done.”  She said this, rubbing her old hurting hands, like a blessing or maybe a curse on all the things she intended to do, wanted to do, must surely do before this day’s sun set over the calf pasture.  Then she would heave herself up from her wobbly wired-together rocker and head out to the woodpile for some kindling.  Mornings were for serious chopping, splitting the craggy oak logs into pieces that stood a chance of fitting into her wood-stove.  Men, once here, now gone, men with hard muscle that could man either end of a crosscut, had cut logs into stove length rounds, stacked to wait for splitting, then stacked to wait for carrying to hearth and stove.  As day followed day, the logs, rounds, splits, and even kindling disappeared, ferried into the house to cook and to comfort.  Minnie Mae could never declare ever-thin’ done as long as there was still wood waiting for her.  Her wood.  The coin of her existence.

 

I only knew Minnie Mae Reynolds Martin as a grouchy old woman who was glad to see me arrive and probably glad to see me go, though she cried every time, saying that she would surely not live to see me another summer.  It had never occurred to my child mind that she had once been young like me, much less being a beauty.  Daddies sister, my Aunt Margaret disabused me of that silly notion one day.  She pulled a book off her shelf, flipped it open to a hidden for safekeeping photogravure, a tiny image of Minnie Mae in her glory.  I didn’t believe her.  Couldn’t.  How could that alluring visage be my old wrinkled, sun-bonneted, feed sack adorned, foot-skuffing, slouching along Grandma?  Margaret explained that Grandpa, Harry Allen Densmore Martin, was besotted with her, adored her, always called her “the best,”

 

There was a kernel of wisdom lurking among her words that I didn’t want to see.  If Grandma was once young and beautiful, then I too might someday become old and grisly.  But time was on my side.  Aeons would pass before such a thing could happen.  I need only nestle into being my supple lush-braided dozen-year-old self and forget about the remote possibility of ever becoming old.

 

Buy old is time relative.  Now I’m eighty.  After these many years of trying to not be like Grandma, it’s time to get busy reading and writing—even playing.  I still have some good years left.  Grandma didn’t kick the proverbial bucket until she was eighty-nine.  That morning she had chopped the morning’s stove wood, baked buttermilk biscuits from scratch, made ham and eggs with red-eye gravy, and only then lay down for a rest before starting lunch.  When the ischemic attack kicked her in the chest, she reached for Margaret, who was sitting beside her watching the newfangled television box.  She could only jerk a bit of Margaret’s hair, so great was the pain in her arm and chest.  Margaret, zoned into the new wonder, ignored her, but gave her a good pinch to settle her down.

 

Since I haven’t ever touched red-eye gravy and am adhering to the paleo diet, I will surely have another nine years to read and write and learn.  But lacking a woodpile out back to keep me mean and fit, who knows?

Getting to Dead

Age is just as just,

as fair as eye for eye.

A time to lively live

A time to finely die.

 

The chicken and the egg

couldn’t quite agree

on which came first.

They agreed to disagree.

 

I’ve thought so hard

my brain is inside out.

Perhaps a better plan

would turn it outside in.

 

Everybody’s dying.

It’s the latest thing,

devoutly to be visioned,

finally achieved.  But…

 

It’s the locked gate,

the-Katie-bar-the-door,

of sad good-byes.

Who’s Katie anyway?

 

We all have to die.

I do.  You do.  We all do.

It’s the only right and

proper thing to do.

All living things must surely die.

 

 

When stray radiation from deep cosmos impacts a living cell, the nature of the attack, in the case of cancerous growth, is spoiling universal law that all must die.  Other mechanisms of change leave molecular mortality intact.  Those mutated cells are different but benign.  We know this, either scientifically or intuitively.  The ultimate arrogance is to wish for the eternal life which, in the natural order of things, we are denied.  Whole religions have been built to deal with that predicament.  Jesus did it and got away with it.  After three days, he got up and shuffled off—to a  great deal more than Buffalo.  But that’s another story.  It’s easy to get sidetracked when addressing the reaper, grim or gracious.

 

Once accepting our hard-earned somatic humility, we must set about the question of getting to dead.  It can happen in an instant, as in flattened-by-a-truck, or can be accomplished over a gracious span of earth-time, relative of course, to whatever remove from light speed is the person doing the dying.  How long it takes to deconstruct a cell is controlled by the current length of its telomeres.  Every time a cell divides, a wiggle of its tail is used-up in the division.  When all are gone, that cell no longer divides.  Senescence ensues.  We have the science that proves telomeres can be lengthened with doses of the enzyme Telomerase, but such dramatic supplementation is typically cost-prohibitive.  So it doesn’t help all that much to understand how we age.  We must understand, accept, and harness that knowledge to our lively purpose.
We can slow telomere shortening, to wit:  Reduce stress, stop smoking, lose weight, exercise more, and eat better.  Frankly, we are sick of this song.  Death is the only sure-fire stress reduction.  Anybody dumb enough to smoke doesn’t deserve to live.  Anybody too greedy to push plate away when they’re full has already had much more than their share.  If we’re too bored to get up and move about, what do we have to live for anyway, if our get-up-and-go has got-up-and-went?

 

Which brings us full circle:  We decide when we should die.  Our very cells know the time.  Our skin decides to sag.  Our muscles get cranky and stage a litany of cramp.  Things that should rise don’t.  Our bones go porous and dump us on our color coordinated Persian rug, or on our dust-free Swiffer-slick eco-friendly no-wax floor.  No matter how well we are preserved, we know when our number’s up.  Our cells know—our organs know—why do we cringe from the knowing?

 

It’s our intelligence that deludes us.  Too damn smart we are to die.  If religion fails us, spirit will come through.  The Jesus message was inherently spiritual, though mainly lost to the mysticism of its own myth.  If fey, we grab on and ride our ESP, our drop-dead-pretty purple Unicorn, carrying us through any running of the bulls to satiety of china-shop exhaustion.  Even glorying in our surety that there is “more” won’t save us.  Before we get to whatever reward may be just, or justified, we must first give up spooky ghost.

 

Dying should be a project not an abdication.  I’ve got a window seat on the most fascinating adventure of a lifetime.  A prime consolation of nearly all seniors is the obsessive cataloguing of ills that point toward personal deconstruction.  It’s not that we are hypochondriacal, even if we are.  It’s that we are bored to death with parts of us unwinding and leaving us to fuss with whatever’s left.  We haven’t given up.  Why should they?  These were good organs, strong systems, dedicated to integrity of body, strength of will.  Given all the pills we bought for them, how dare they just lie down to some Q-sign oblivion?

 

That’s one side of the war; the other is our own.  My parts may still be cranking, but I’m as good as done.  I am free to see every pain as gathering end, every new symptom as possible final solution to an up-and-coming morgue-rat dilemma.  If every forgotten word is handed over to Alzheimer’s, every missed appointment consigned to senility, what’s to keep us out of the bloomin’ grave?  If I can’t pass by the bathroom door without stopping off to contribu-tinkle, what do I expect a bladder to do?  It will shrink, of course, but if I take over and do my human job, that bladder can be taught to serve a higher good.  Away from that lovely siren-flush, my bladder and I can pass whole afternoons gadding about the town.  If I greet words-remembered rather than lamenting words-forgotten, most words seem to hang around for more than enough of the fun.

 

When push comes to shove, my genome is the boss.  Ask those brown spots gathering all over little-red-headed-girl white skin.  Are they a Parthian shot from the melanin that was supposed to protect from a too-aggressive Helios.  The big M failed.  Not my fault, or was it?  Doc says it’s a gift from my ancestors, but I could have stayed out of the sun, like the old folks said, wearing the old-lady-ugly sun-bonnets they prescribed.  But I knew better.  A day at Jones or Myrtle Beach was worth any future carcinoma.  I’ve told my grandchildren how this works.  A visit to the dermatologist is oh-so-full of excitement and fun.  This month’s coterie of pre-cancerous lesions frozen off, as well as a suspicious mole snipped, packaged, and shipped off for biopsy, and maybe the next Mohs surgery.

 

Every system has its swan song.  All contribute to the dying, some more, some less.  “23 and me” is glad to trade good cash for an informed list of which systems are most likely to contribute toward biting the dust.  Then we can plot retribution.  I have tagged an ascending aortic aneurysm, a hiatal hernia (shortened esophagus leading to chronic gastro-esophageal reflux), a cardiac-insufficiency plotting an inevitable attack or throwing an embolism, nine thyroid adenomas in their own little cocoons of misery, allergies to bi-valves, molds and dust mites, as well as the ever-ubiquitous house dust, sensitivities to gluten, sugar, lactose, and GMO proteins.  None of this is intractable.  It’s all treatable and cannot serve to assure a speedy exit, and we haven’t even mentioned eyesight.  That’s too depressing to discuss.

 

The only thing for it is to treat, but with careful discrimination.  Of all these unremarkable complaints, which of them promises a dignified final repose?  In my case, it’s the aortic aneurysm.  No pain, no fighting for breath—just a quiet slipping away—never to wake nor worry.  Of course there’s the sleep apnea—just an innocuous she-died-in-her-sleep, leaving everybody sympathetic but pleased that oh-well-she-had-a-good-death.  My c-pap machine is on hiatus right now since a mole under its mask decided to go rogue and become a basil cell carcinoma.  It’s always something.  When all my various parts conspire to end this thing, who am I to say no?  I’m just along for the ride, a spectacular one.  It’s been fun, but it needs to be over.

 

But wait, dying is something other people do.  It is impossible to imagine a world without me in it.  It took three quarters of a century for me to awaken to how incidental I am to the universe of things.  I can relax.  God has everything in hand.  The world will keep on turning without me twisting the crank.  Maybe that’s why we so love our hamsters, cats, and dogs, creatures who adore us.  We are their gods.  Children know better.  They have seen us at our worst, and they know.  Liars all, we must at least make fun of death.  How else dare we speak the words—Happy Halloween!

Aunt Margaret

Born 1910 – Died 1998

 

It’s a fashionable thing nowadays to have a crazy uncle.  I can claim only a crazy aunt, but the uniqueness of her radiant life is more than enough to claim her place in my heart.  She, as I, was required to live in the shadow of Kelsey Martin.  She had four years, from 1910 to 1914, to be the star.  Then her brother took center stage.  Of course, he was the boy, the son, the apple of his father’s eye.

 

She was a cutie, but was only a girl.  She made good grades but not the straight A’s to match her storied brothers.  They lived two miles, as the crow flies, from the town of Azle, where they attended public school.  The established roadway measured nearer to three, and convenience dictated a creative solution.  When Kelsey lost his two front teeth at six and started to school, they began cutting through trees, bushes, brambles and prickly pears to the Jacksboro highway and a straight shot to the schoolhouse.  They carried knives and a machete for opening the path that years later became, and still is, a dedicated county road.

 

Margaret was odd.  There’s no denying that.  Her unique physiognomy was a one-off.  She looked for-all-the-world like an upside-down pear.  Like all the Martin clan she had no butt, the result of sitting and reading rather than running, climbing, fighting, and jumping the schoolyard rope.  She did have a sumptuous bosom which completed the visual of a top with no bottom.  Did her behavior echo the imbalance of her physique?  Pretty likely.

 

Grandpa tells of times when, in a fit of pique at schoolmates, Margaret threw herself on the ground and beat the sod with her rage.  She needed to express her considerable feelings and did it with a flourish.  She had never learned how to verbally declare emotion, so she proceeded to act it out to dramatic effect.  I personally saw her chase a carpenter off her land with a hatchet because he installed a roof over the back door to her house that she did not request.

 

Once when a business partner of my Dad was up to creative skulduggery, Margaret splashed white shoe polish all over his car.  She, with her considerable intuition, sensed his evil intent and set about encouraging him to leave.  It turns out, she was right.  Later the scumbag took out a contract on my father’s life and absconded with the entire company cash account.

 

Later, when a live-in sweetie was rolling in my Dad’s deep credit accounts while sneaking off to trysts with a waiter from the Green Oaks Inn, Margaret knew what was what.  Just knew.  She tapped the white shoe polish yet again, this time up and down the hallways of my Dad’s house.  When sweetie-pie took off with the waiter to South Carolina, stopping along the way to max out credit cards, my Dad’s history with the Parker County Sheriff came through.  She was nabbed in the act of unauthorized purchase.  The card was cut in half before her eyes and all accounts were frozen.  “All’s well that ends well” sounds good, but don’t believe it.  Loss of pride and self-confidence ensued from this fiasco.  It was Margaret, not my dad, who had understood and dared to act.

 

In her defense, she was always careful to choose safe props for her playacting.  The shoe polish was the washable variety used for summer whites.  Nail polish could have done terrible things to an auto’s finish or interior woodwork.  Hers was always the kinder choice.  She waved the hatchet but was careful not to strike.  In all my life I never knew her to actually hurt anyone or anything.  When she beat the ground with her rage, did she get any points for not beating her brother?

 

Margaret did have a big heart.  She loved me with a fierceness that was part of the undercarriage of my little life.  Unlike most grownups, she played with me.  We competed at cards, read books, and went for long walks, until I tired and begged for rest.  She told me stories of the pioneers who settled the land and held it to honor that sacred homestead contract, protecting their children’s lives and my future against the “trepidations of the savages.”  She showed me the sandstone steps cut from the banks of the spring that was rumored never to go dry.  The steps were still there, hidden under moss and cat-tail stalks, waiting to share their story.  We sat under the old bridge that crossed the creek in front of the house, listening to the frogs while she regaled me with tales of courage and derring-do.  Thanks to Margaret, I knew we were special, a delight I was to learn that I shared with every person I would ever encounter on God’s earth.  Margaret breathed that world and its people into scintillating life.

 

Thanks to Margaret, I learned to crochet.  It was her quiet patience that guided me through the intricacies of single crochet, double crochet, and shell.  We made lace doilies, a lovely decoration to what was a spare existence on the farm just west of Azle, the town that held for her so many remembered frustrations.

 

She had worked as a book-keeper for the REA (Rural Electrification Association), but left to fill a job as chocolate dipper at a Ft. Worth candy factory.  For a while her employee discount made fine chocolate affordable.  Then nothing.  No explanation.  One day an itinerant window-washer blew into town.  Margaret traded her “Martin” for his “Anderson.”  He stayed awhile and then was gone.  One day Margaret got a call that Jim had fallen off a skyscraper.  Suddenly a widow, Margaret began collecting Social Security based on his account.  In the benevolent order of things, life improved.

 

Margaret began attending a local fire and brimstone church.  When registering her irritation with all and sundry relations, Margaret began threatening to leave her considerable landed estate to the church.  She never did, but the threat served her well.

 

My dad, having learned that he could not be trusted with assets, willed his entire estate to Margaret, to safeguard it from “women.”  Grandma willed her own estate to Margaret for the same reason, given her son’s checkered history with the ladies.  Margaret in her turn left everything to me.  I spent the residual after her death on establishing an architectural design business.  In my own turn, I enjoyed the creative commerce until it fell to the cheating lies of a “friend.”  What is it about the acorn and the tree?

 

As Margaret aged, she became even more interesting.  She inherited Grandma’s inner ear problems. Soon, deaf as a stone, she worked at becoming blind as a bat.  Daddy built her a little house on her property.  She wanted only the basics and defended that concept with considerable insistence.  Having sent the carpenter packing when he dared to add the frippery of overhang to her back entrance, she defended any intrusion of “other.”

 

Years passed.  Blind and deaf, she attracted many well-meaning helpers to her door.  Local dignitaries concerned, my dad and I answered their call to assist and flew from our remove in California to her aid.  She wasn’t having any.

 

We couldn’t just leave.  She was wrapped in a dangerous isolation, no way to get food unless somebody thought to bring her some, and morsels dropped on the floor stayed there forever since she couldn’t see to pick them up.  We couldn’t just leave her there.  We loaded her into the car, flailing, kicking, and inveighing against our intervention.  I had no idea Margaret was so strong.  With the child-safe door lock mechanism engaged, we drove to the airport and sat her in a wheelchair.  I had forgotten about her strange vocal signature until we began to push her through DFW to our departure concourse.  Margaret was born with an unusual pneumo-pharyngeal arrangement that resulted in augmented vocalization.  From out of her RBG physiognomy issued a Wagnerian projection.  I inherited only a touch of this which I occasionally experience when I work up a super high resonance cough response to whatever irritant is my current problem.  It turns heads and raises eyebrows.  At DFW it turned heads, raised eyebrows, cranked open eyes, and stilled the room to silence.  As we moved through the giant space, Margaret’s voice filled it.

 

“Help!” she boomed.  “I’m being kidnapped!”

 

There was no recourse.  She couldn’t hear our entreaties to silence.

 

“Help!  These people are taking me from my home and are going to sell it!”

 

It would have been no big deal given garden variety ululation, but the booming diatribe rattled the terminal.  My dad and I cringed, worried that we might at any moment be accosted by airport security.  But nothing happened.  It must have been obvious that this was a well-meaning intervention.  We made it into the plane where Margaret spat on the attendant when assisted with her seat-belt while I pretended to not know her.

 

She settled in, working up a litany of “Help! Help! Help!” until my Dad lost his famous cool and got in her face with a “SIT THERE AND SHUT UP.”  She heard him, not with her ears, but with whatever always came through to her understanding of what’s what.  The remainder of Margaret’s very first flight in an airplane was uneventful.  She was docile until, when arriving at the assisted living facility in Los Angeles, she bit the nurse.

 

Our long friendship came through a rough time, and though I never was able to acquiesce to her demand that I return her to her Texas home, we were friends until many years later she decided to stop eating.  Soon it was all over.  Teaching always by example, she showed me how to stop the world and get off while the gettings good.  Next time around, she may have an easier ride, but she’ll never have a more interesting one.