October 6, 2011 § 2 Comments
The State of American Manners
One evening last week we stopped in at Target to pick up laundry detergent and a birthday card. We were hardly in the door before a gaggle of teenage girls eclipsed us, shrieking with laughter. I’d stopped to browse in a bin of inexpensive toys and they snatched and grabbed at things right in front of me, as if I were not even there. They jammed “roast turkey” hats onto their heads and screamed with the hilarity of it all.
“It’s animal day tomorrow, we have to get these!” one shrieked. A blonde girl knocked into me reaching for something in a bin. She seemed not to notice.
“That would be freaking awesome,” another roared, doubling over with laughter. They gobbled and cackled in their roast turkey hats, screaming with delight at how ridiculous they were, overcome with how amazing they would be at school tomorrow. The noise rolled over me in waves.
Then, like a whirlwind, they moved off towards the clearance racks in the women’s department, tossing and shrieking and laughing all the way.
I like kids. I even like teenaged kids. It hasn’t been so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in the midst of laughing, silly, hysterical group of girls. No doubt I’ve irritated plenty of adults in my day. (Though the presence of someone my mother’s age would have inhibited me a bit.) But these kids, these nice upper middle-class, well-fed, privileged girls were behaving like, well, savages.
No sooner had their whoops and wails faded from earshot, they were replaced by something even worse. The detergent aisle of this store is directly across from Girls Clothing. There, in a shopping cart, a little girl about five was screaming. Sobbing. Her mother, trying to pretend that nothing was amiss, went on browsing like she was totally unaware of her daughter’s meltdown, examining the details on a sweater collar or holding up a pair of leggings for size.
It was everything I could do not to march over there and ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, and what on earth gave her the idea that it was okay to “teach her daughter a lesson” at the expense of everyone in the store.
I held on to the shelf of Tide, knuckles white. The little girl continued to wail, hiccupping, sobbing some more. That spot, just above my left eye, began to throb. Finally, the girl’s father came and wheeled the cart away, the child silent in their departure. I suppose she’ll grow up to think it’s okay to knock into other shoppers and shriek in public and throw merchandise around in stores.
My husband and I talked about the two sets of rude people as we drove home. It seems we’re spending more time talking about rude people, lack of decorum, the inconsiderate among us. This is what happens all day long in public America—we’re running amok.
Drivers no longer merge onto highways, they barge. I’d point out that “yield” seems to mean nothing to people, but really stop signs don’t carry much importance either. Communities have had to install cameras at busy intersections because so many people blast through long after the light’s turned red. (Apparently Dayton has $450,000 owed them in unpaid red-light tickets.) People speed up so that you can’t enter the roadway in front of them.
They either park so sloppily over the painted lines that they take up two spaces or they intentionally take up two spaces so their precious vehicle doesn’t get dinged by some ten year old flinging open the door of the mini-van. They tailgate. On the interstate, they pull in front of you from the adjacent lane with inches to spare, just enough space provided you don’t speed up one more mile an hour. (Which of course they would do if you were trying to get in front of them.) They blow their horn if you don’t jackrabbit into the intersection the minute the light turns green, and God forbid you actually STOP before making a right on red. They pass on double yellow lines. They pass on city streets. Taking to the public thoroughfare is more and more like something out of Death Race 2000.
The police promise and threaten to be more active in going after aggressive drivers. If they are, it’s not having much effect. A City of Kettering police officer once stopped my husband for driving too slowly. We were meandering home in our Saab on a Friday evening, doing about 25 mph on a quiet city street. No doubt he thought “sporty car going slow equals drinking.” He was wrong. He said to my husband “Well, at least try to go the speed limit.” Excuse me?
When another driver actually allows me to merge into the lane in front of them, I am always surprised, and respond with a wave, “Hey, thanks!”
In Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, Peter Handke wrote that our cars are our kingdoms and in them we are kings of our own tiny empires. Tonight, a man in a minivan (arguably the worst category of drivers) pulled out from a gas station, crossing the road directly in front of us. He pushed past another car waiting for the traffic to clear and turned left across four lanes of traffic, in a cacophony of screeching brakes and blaring horns. He was on his cell phone and seemed not to notice. We may have constructed a cocoon, a paradise of “I,” but we are not islands unto ourselves. Everything we do in public affects someone else.
Not that the sanctuary of home life exists anymore. My husband is a fan of political commentary and talking heads inundate our living room with a constant stream of lies, scandal and notoriety. I suggested once that we go on a diet from this kind of television, if perhaps that would help us feel less at odds with our fellow Americans, less despairing of their behavior. There’s just no way that you can listen to a steady infusion of this stuff and not feel pissed-off. Just a week, I suggested, but we haven’t tried it yet.
Certainly there’s no haven from rudeness in cyberspace. It would be hard to imagine a playground where people are less courteous. The comments made on newspaper sites, forums for various hobbies and the ubiquitous Facebook go right past rude and often into the muck of verbal abuse. And I’m guilty of the same. Without the nuance of gesture or inflection, we are quick to take offence. Freed from inhibition by distance and a shell of anonymity, we post things that we would never in a million years say to someone’s face.
Sometimes this even happens between real life friends. A comment is made, a retort follows. Maybe the response was meant wryly or with a kind of nudge—but the recipient only sees the naked type on the screen, devoid of charm or affection, and the offense is laid bare. Friendships, some long-standing, end over these exchanges.
Staying connected via the cell phone has become a kind of hallmark of rudeness. Not just those texting or talking while they pull into oncoming traffic, what about the people who won’t get off the phone in the drive-thru of the fast food place, or the check-out line at the grocery store? Of course the reverse is true also. How aggravating is it to deal with a cashier who won’t look at you or speak to you or is too busy chatting with a colleague or flirting with the bagger to exert the minimum amount of grace required for his or her job?
One afternoon at Kroger, even though I was in a hurry to be somewhere else, I stomped off to find the manager to complain about just such a cashier.
“Oh, that surprises me about her. She worked at Elder-Beerman’s for forty years, ” he said, not bothering with an actual apology. I guess after 40 years in a pretentious department store, there’s no need to acknowledge the lowly grocery store customer.
Of course, there are still the garden variety bad manners: a cousin and his wife who have yet to thank us (by note, by email, in person or on Facebook) for the wedding gift we gave them. (A really nice stockpot, but maybe they were offended that we didn’t use their registry?) Of course, they haven’t thanked us for baby gifts either. Or the kennel club meeting to which I brought a lemon-raspberry cheesecake and one person, one person said thank you. It’s not that we do these things to be thanked, we make these gestures out of affection and goodwill, but you know it would have been nice to have the effort acknowledged.
I don’t want to give the impression that I think I’ve been perfect in this regard. I haven’t. Sometimes I have failed terribly at etiquette. I know the thank you notes for our wedding gifts went out far too late. I know I have been sharp when I didn’t need to be. Once I beeped my horn at a pick up truck about to back into our car in a parking lot and the driver jumped out, rushed back and spewed invective all over me. Not knowing then what I know now, I gave back as good as I got. He went back to his truck briefly and returned with a large handgun. Thankfully, passersby intervened before our lack of manners took a tragic turn.
Though I’ve never drawn a gun on anyone, I too have indulged in a few spectacularly public temper fits. Years ago, a man took the last table at an outdoor café, racing in front of us (laden with a tray of food) and sitting down to read his newspaper. We argued about his right to the table when he had not yet purchased food. When he turned his back to me and sat down, I slapped him hard across back of his balding head.
On an evening more than a decade ago, a woman in grocery store line behind me started piling up my groceries on the belt, so she could take her groceries out of the cart sooner. She said something about not wanting her bread to get crushed. It didn’t amount to more than some angry words and still today, there’s a part of me that wishes I’d come even more unglued—that I’d thrown her bread on the floor and stood on it. If you’re going to have Bad Manners make it a real production number rather than just this day to day loss of civility that’s gnawing away at reasonable discourse.
But I didn’t. And these days I think I could handle it a bit more deftly. (A lesson learned from the gun-wielding nutcase in the parking lot.) That’s a large part of what makes manners—stifling one’s emotional impulses for the greater good.
The other part is making the effort to acknowledge the others whose lives intertwine with ours, no matter how slight the connection. A wave to an acquaintance still serves to show that we are open-handed and unarmed. A smile begets a nod, even among strangers. Holding the door for other people is still generally appreciated, though there will occasionally be louts that sail through without a word as if you are a uniformed doorman.
Among my books are half a dozen navy blue volumes, each of them a different edition of the Emily Post Book of Etiquette, ranging from the 1920s through the 1950s. I have found them in thrift shops and book sales, each one cast off as something no longer necessary. It’s amusing to read about silverware arrangements or what sort of hat is appropriate to wear to tea, or the proper wording to decline an invitation to lunch.
People think these kinds of manners are archaic, and some of them are. Gentleman are no longer required to walk on the outside of the street to protect their feminine companions from harm. (Though it might not be a bad idea.) You will not be the scandalous talk of the town if you fail to use the correct fish service.
The essential elements of manners are still consideration and kindness, and they are still essential. Yet we are uncertain about them at time, reflected in the popularity of Judith Martin’s charming “Miss Manners” character (who has surely penned as many books as Miss Post by now) and the syndicated newspaper columns dealing with ethics. It’s as if we don’t remember quite how to behave—or we know how to behave but we want someone to share our outrage at the boors with whom we have to contend.
Living among others is a kind of dance. Sometimes it seems a series of missteps, other times we find ourselves gliding along gracefully with a minimum of effort. You lead.
Show a little consideration. Say please when you ask your teenager to take out the trash. Turn off your cell phone and stow it while driving. Let another driver go in front of you. Count to ten. Slow down. Don’t tailgate. Stop and smell the roses. Turn off the television. Write the thank you note, or at the very least, the thank you email. Don’t say something online that you wouldn’t say in person. Take your exhausted child home. Remember that you may be having an uproarious great time but the person next to you may be infirm or in pain. Don’t interrupt your wife on the telephone to ask her something trifling. Give a little extra. Stop listening to angry people, especially those that are overpaid. Smile at strangers. As our mothers instructed us when we were little more than babies, play nice.
I’m going to work at it too.
August 22, 2009 § 7 Comments
When I open the door of the empty house, the dog rushes in ahead of me. He barks, shouts of joy, but they die to nothing. He looks back at me, quizzical. Where is everyone? Perhaps they are out back, he must think, racing to the back door, begging to be let out. I unlock the door onto a patch chest high with weeds. He does not go out. Instead, he looks up at me, circles and sinks into a dejected heap.
We’ve come back to this house many times, Dog and I. Returning from journeys that crossed the country from border to border: family occasions, dog shows, girl journalist and her Dog in search of stories. Each time the door had opened on a cheerful cacophony of singing hounds, the television, the boy jubilant at our return. There was always someone there to embrace us, usually a meal on the stove, another dog or two rushing up to touch noses.
Not so this time. Now the house is silent, inhabited only by mice and memories. A fine layer of dust covers every surface. One door has blown open sometime over the winter. The Dog leaps to his feet to follow me as I move from room to room; not a chance that he’s going to let me out of his sight. He doesn’t know what’s become of the other dogs, but he is doing his best to avoid their fate.
Four days before we’d said goodbye to those dogs and husband and son, leaving Ohio for a few weeks in Montana to clean out the old house. He knew that. But dogs don’t think in abstract. (One of our dogs is very upset to hear a family member on the other end of a telephone; she’s very distressed that her person is locked up in that tiny box and how did they get in there anyway.) The dog knows only that they have always been here, and that they’re not here now.
I haven’t been in this house in a year. I haven’t lived here in two years, having taken our son in advance to start at a performing arts high school in Ohio. It’s a very complicated thing to move nearly two thousand miles across the country, leaving a pack of hounds, a coven of barn cats, a pair of crotchety ponies in your wake. My husband stayed on sorting out these conundrums: the ponies free to a family that found them delightful. The barn cats to a woman who’d just lost hers. One dog with cancer (Edward the Terrible) gently dispatched by our wonderful vet.
A few days before Christmas, on a morning when it should have been too cold to snow, but was snowing anyway, my husband loaded up the remaining three dogs in a minivan stuffed full of clothes, shoes, books, television, crockery and Christmas presents, and made his escape. The Dog and I have come to deal with what he left behind. Mail still on the kitchen table, a dozen chain link dog runs, letters from my late father, old toys, chipped coffee cups, books.
I did not choose this house. My husband’s ex-wife had insisted on it, a miner’s cabin with a singlewide trailer addition, creek side in the shadow of the Absaroka Mountains. Her twin sister still lives a mere quarter mile down the road. Then Merrilee decided to take their daughters and leave Elmer, and the proximity of her sister wasn’t so important anymore. We tried to sell the house 16 years ago but the market hadn’t boomed, and when we finally got an offer, we would have had to borrow money to accept it.
So I relented and moved in. First the trailer had to go. Then the green and tan shag carpet. The accordion door. In the end, we took the house down to the studs, moved the kitchen and the bathroom, put in a new stairwell. And then we stopped, leaving unfinished sheetrock on the walls, window moldings stacked in the barn. Elmer was working double shifts at the railroad; my newspaper work kept me away all hours. We were too damned tired when we got home to do anything other than the essential. And dry wall mud never reached the level of essential.
Montana was home for 17 years, longer than anywhere else. Two years ago when I set out behind the wheel of the Penske truck I didn’t look back. Our son had overstayed his welcome at the country school he attended. Elmer had retired from the railroad. I’d long finished my work as a journalist in this town. There was nothing keeping me in that little house in the shadow of the mountains.
Now it was very strange to be back.
In my return, I have fallen into the arms of friends, I have driven slowly up and down the streets of the town before going west to the house, a little panicked that I am touching the tar baby and will not be able to leave.
This is the house where my child was conceived. This is the house where he took his first steps. It is also where he fractured his leg badly in a freak accident. He was two; it was the day after Christmas, in the middle of a blizzard. The ambulance wasn’t running, our tiny truck cab was too small, we had to call Jane and Roger to help us get him to Bozeman, and they struggled out to collect us and sat around all night in the hospital while the orthopedist saw to Julian’s leg.
This is the place where we welcomed foals on wobbly legs, watched them grow into promising yearlings. Watched in horror as one hung herself from one leg from a round pen panel, pressured there by a ranch hand who thought he could train horses. When we pulled the pins the filly kicked the panel free. It hit my mother square in the face, knocking her unconscious. Paramedics knelt in the muck to ease her onto a stretcher.
Horses are buried there and there and there; a young stallion that tried to jump a neighbor’s barbed-wire fence and bled out; an ancient mare down with colic, a foal crippled from birth— a Northern Dancer grandson. His mother had gotten into astragalus; it causes birth defects. When he was tiny he could outrun half the horses on the place.
Up on the ridge is a spot where I took off my coat on a winter day to wrap it around the a calf half-dead from hypothermia, rubbing him hard all over to bring back the circulation while someone else ran for the phone. Just a day or so old, the little white-faced guy had fallen through the fence and rolled a bit down the hill. His mother, a first-timer, wandered away and left him. When the neighbor drove out along the pasture edge in his pick-up the calf was starting to respond. We put him in the warm cab of the truck, and I retrieved my coat. I heard they nursed the calf a day or so and he was good as new. That next fall he went off to slaughter, because well that’s what becomes of calves.
I was sitting at a desk in that corner of this little cedar shake house when the phone rang with the news that my mother in law had died. It was Elmer who answered when a call came from England that my stepfather was found dead in his apartment. I was sitting there curled in an oak desk chair, waiting for the call that my father, my anchor, had taken his leave, and when it came the world tilted dangerously beneath my feet.
This big mailbox used to be affixed to a large Poplar trunk we’d pulled out of the grove on the other side of the creek. In time, it rotted and broke off. We stuck the broken post in a galvanized trashcan full of river rocks and travertine. Every time it snowed the plow knocked it over, and it is lying on the ground now.
That’s where I’d get the mail, get out of the car, open the gate. If there was something promising, I might open it walking to the gate. That’s where I opened a very ordinary looking envelope with my name scrawled across it. It was a letter telling me I’d won a prestigious fellowship. And that’s where I read the letter of acceptance welcoming Julian to a performing arts high school. From there you could see the snow capped peaks of the tallest mountains in Montana.
The task before me is enormous. It is not just packing up a few books. It is room after room of dust and memories and objects that require my attention. Every day I take a load of stuff to the storage unit. Every day I take a load of stuff to the county dumpsters. We’ve decided to seek a renter, and that means restoring water to the winterized house. Which means buying a new water heater and having it installed. And when the water is restored, I find a pipe, cracked, that had somehow missed the winterization process, and I have to find a plumber, and then find the money to pay him.
Every day starts before seven, with McDonald’s breakfast for the Dog and me. Without fat and protein, I won’t last half the day; the regular restaurants don’t open for another hour. At that hour McDonald’s trade is tourists headed south to Yellowstone Park, no one to stop me and inquire, where had I been, what was I up to.
Work continues each day until I am filthy and exhausted, walking in circles because I am too tired to think straight. On the good nights, I go back to my friend’s house and stand in the shower, before we repair to Park Place, the only decent bar in town.
The very first evening my regular drink is set before me with precision. The bartender still knows me well enough he doesn’t have to ask, so he asks other questions instead. Where had I been, what was I up to. The Martini is perfect, silver in my mouth. On the last evening there I will tell Glenn, the proprietor and bartender that other than seeing my friends, sitting at his bar was the absolute best thing about being back in Montana. I regret the qualifier now; sitting in Glenn’s bar was seeing my friends, my past, and comfort was in the company, and not just (as on that last chilly night) Irish whiskey in the glass.
On the other nights, it’s not so good. Once the water is restored, I stay at the house; in the brass bed I slept in from the time I was 15. The Dog sleeps across my feet so that I cannot escape in the night. The work is taking so much longer than I thought it would. I had thought that there would be people to give me a hand, and there are.
Jane and Roger stop by every couple of days, hauling trash, washing down walls, helping me drag out decades worth of junk. Jane’s mother died last year; she and her sisters were charged with the task of cleaning out the family home, and Jane knows what I’m up against. Their teenage daughter Emily comes out one morning and runs the Bush hog to knock down the waist high grass around the house.
It’s a cliché almost, that when you really need them that people will help you. The truth is that people are busy. They are busting their asses all day running a restaurant. She is a writer, looking after three small children and an elderly, compromised mother in law. She is working in a law practice 60 hours a week and putting up hay in the few hours of daylight left before and after a grueling workday. She is the only vet tech at the county’s very busy animal shelter. This is part of why I love them anyway, because they’re interesting people with full lives. I am grateful for all they give me.
But what about the others? How many stories did I write to support the opening of new businesses? How much free advertising did I give away? What about those Community Thanksgiving dinners I started and ran that fed 700 people each year? We gave whatever we could to every charity auction, every event, every theater production, every time someone needed us . . . but this is Montana, a place where it’s unseemly to ask for help.
Unless you’re dying or something, then you get a spaghetti dinner and a silent auction.
On the very worst night, hungry and dirty and tired and dispirited, I break down and cry, asking my husband these same questions, tears running down my face and spilling over the telephone. Where are they? Why won’t anyone help me? What about everything I gave to this community? He is quiet. And then he says, “You didn’t do it to get anything in return.” That is absolutely right. I didn’t do it to get anything in return, and somehow that makes me feel even worse.
In truth, it is his friends that disappoint me the most. Men he worked side by side with for twenty years, every one of them has pretended that they don’t know that I’m in town. They don’t return calls. They don’t come out to the house to see what’s going on. It is a measure of them I did not expect, and it leaves an ugly stain.
My mother, ever the pragmatist, tells me I have to hire someone to help, and I do. The word goes out that I’ll hire as many people as show up for nine bucks an hour, just be at the farm at 2 p.m. One guy turns up, a transplanted east coast carpenter and musician that I’ve known for years. He laughs at my duct tape belt. I’ve lost so much weight over the last few weeks that I had to fashion it to hold my pants up.
We take a load of furniture and boxes of books to storage. It pours rain, the kind that soaks you to the skin; we stand inside the open door of the storage unit watching it come down in sheets. After the rain abates, and after a few slices of pizza, Alex helps me load the Ohio bound U-Haul trailer with all the things I know I cannot possibly manage on my own: the washer, the antique filing cabinet, a heart pine dresser, Aunt Moe’s Persian carpet. He leaves with his little Saab full of stuff for the community thrift store, and he will come back a few days later to take another load to them. The money I pay him is money well-spent.
Many things leave the house bound for the landfill. The haymaking hard working attorney brings me her horse trailer one Saturday morning and we fill it with garbage and take it to the transfer station where they weigh it and charge me $12. The transfer station attendant pulls a sled out for her grandkids; my friend snags an air-conditioning recharge. The broken Dogloo and the worn out mohair chair are dumped without ceremony into a giant dumpster, set in a pit at ground level, the roll-off box. I paid more than $100 for the Dogloo; I used to really love that chair. Now I could care less.
Using the volume and weight of the trash that day for comparison, I figure that the amount of garbage I’ve taken from the house must be around 3000 pounds.
Other things leave in an estate sale that runs all day Wednesday without pause. People come to buy dog kennels and crates, an old FIAT convertible half-eaten by mice, tools, trinkets, crockery, the desk where I sat when I learned my father was dead. I am happy to take their money; there is nothing that they carry away that I am attached to anymore. It disturbs me that one woman steals things from me; a chain saw, a silver bracelet, whatever else she slipped in her pockets. Walking out to the outbuildings, I’m shocked to see how people have literally thrown things around while going through them. So disrespectful, just to get to that set of socket wrenches or that half empty can of WD-40. It’s hard to fathom what might have been stolen out of the sheds, so I don’t even think about it.
Loading the last of the boxes, the flowerpots, the bathroom scales, the floor lamps onto the trailer as the light fades from the sky, I muse about what makes someplace home. Is it all this stuff I came back for, that I set aside and wrapped and have used to fill every last space in the trailer? It’s a good thing I don’t have a bowling ball left to go in, because there is no room for it. Had the house fallen down where it stood we would have missed a few things we lost, but it is different when you’re standing there with the teacup (or the letter, or the painting or the spice rack) in your hand.
Is it your history in a place that makes it home? That you can’t go to the grocery without seeing someone you know? That your memories of that intersection or the post office steps or the sound that the doors to the county courthouse make is somehow embedded in your cells, is it that familiarity? It used to be that I felt like I belonged to this place. I wrote about it, championed it, I knew most of the people in town, and most of the people knew me. Big fish, and all that. It’s not like that anymore. But I don’t think that was what made it home.
Filling the water bottles for the Dog for the long trip home, I am thinking how much I’ll miss the water. Always extra cold, it came from a well hand dug into a spring (with pick axes and shovels the records read) in 1923, and it never ran dry, not even that time we forgot and left it running all day in a horse trough while we went to the movies. It is good, sweet water, perhaps the best I’ve ever had.
I do not number the dogs I am leaving behind. Buried under poppies, under daffodils, under the aspens, under the apple tree. If I stop to think about them, their slender bones wrapped in quilts, and gently bundled into the earth, it will be harder to walk away. If I think about their wagging tails, and eyes, blue and brown, their muzzles cupped in my hand, this place may seize my heart again.
Instead I think about the other dogs, the ones waiting 2000 miles across the Great Plains, and the husband, and the boy. I am overdue there. The Dog settles into the truck. As the house has emptied, he seems to understand that we are not staying on there with the ghosts, that we have just come back to pick up a few things. Gently, gently, pulling a fully laden trailer, I creep up the driveway, hopping out to close the gate behind me one last time. I do not look at the house, or the meadow, or the barns, or the poppies. I just look at the latch and make sure it catches on the ring.
I point the truck to the east and we head for home. A front is blowing in, and by the time we crest the hill out of the town, the sky behind us is black with rain.
April 20, 2009 § 12 Comments
for Doug on the loss of his Dad, and in loving memory of Larry Vonalt.
Last week we attended the funeral of a man we’d never met. I could not have told you much at all about him. I was four states and 900 miles away when I learned of his death. My husband read the obituary to me over the telephone, both of us learning that this gentleman had served in two wars, worked for the telephone company, he was 82, and he’d been married for 56 years. In addition to his wife, he is survived by four children, four grandchildren, a brother, a sister. While recounting the news of his death to my mother, tears spill down my face.
No, we’d never met Edsel Peters. If we’d seen him working in his yard or fishing at the lake, we would not have recognized him. But we mourn his passing because his youngest child, his baby boy, is our good and loyal friend. The kind of friend that will help you unload a moving van full of furniture in hundred-degree heat, who shoots baskets with your kid, a man of wit and grace and excellent humor. If the measure of a man is in the children he leaves behind, then Edsel Peters was a very fine man indeed.
Losing your father unmoors you. It doesn’t matter how grown up you might be, how accomplished. Suddenly you are rudderless, flying blind, walking the tightrope without a net. Three years ago, when I told my friend Judy that my father had died, she said, “Oh honey, you’ve done lost your right arm.” It was the absolute truth. I lost my sense of navigation. I was clumsy with grief.
Judy’s own father, Virg Lovell, has been gone forty years or so. He spent years raising and showing Foxhounds, and it was Judy, not her brothers, who followed in his footsteps, from the time she was two years old. Seventy years later, Judy’s still raising and showing Foxhounds, maybe the best in the country. She still talks about her father like he might well walk through the door.
We carry our fathers with us; perhaps in a gesture, a certain turn of a phrase, a predilection for Miracle Whip on our fried egg sandwich, maybe a tendency to sing along with the car radio. I wonder at times about my mother’s father, Bennie Lee Ouzts, who died after being injured in a logging accident when my mother was just twelve. Did he look out across the horizon lost in thought the way my mother does? Did he throw his head back when he laughed the way his sons and daughters do? I never saw my Nana do that, but each of the six children do.
There aren’t many photographs of him. In my mind’s eye, he looks like Gregory Peck (though my mother will no doubt say “Of course not”) and I know that his nickname for my mother was Cooter (after the snapping turtle) and I know that his death became a kind of wound for my mother that never quite heals.
My Nana’s father died when she was just a girl as well. If I knew the exact circumstances, I have forgotten them. What I remember is that his death meant that my grandmother had to quit school in the 8th grade and go to work in the cotton mills. In the last hours of my grandmother’s life, my mother sat at the hospital bedside, watching Nana sleep. Suddenly, my mother said, Nana looked to a place somewhere above the doorframe, lifted up her arms the way a child will when she wants to be carried and whispered “Papa! Papa!”
For me the first death in the family was my father’s father, my Grandpa Paul Vonalt. He died just shy of 80, after an illness. I was an adult by then, and the news, conveyed to me by telephone did not dissemble me the way I expected it to. I felt very sad, missing in advance the unassuming man who taught me to fish for bluegills, sharpen pencils with a Swiss Army knife, how to paint hex signs. Every summer visit, he’d loan me his green Huffy 3-speed bicycle to tool around town.
I expected to go to Grandpa’s funeral. It was just a day’s drive, and I made plans to go. But my father told me not to come. He said that it was too risky with the February weather, that Grannie and Grandpa knew how much I loved them, that I didn’t need to come out, that I shouldn’t. Being that this is an extended family that reassembles for fish fries and baby showers and 40th birthdays, I was puzzled by my father’s insistence that I stay in Boston and not come.
It was only after his funeral that I truly understood why. My father needed that time to be the grieving child. Consumed by sorrow for the loss of his father, he didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to be there for me. I knew this finally because when Dad died, it was my husband who stepped in to care for our son and guide him through the loss of his Grandpa. I was too shattered to be anyone’s mother.
Daniel Sullivan was the first of my friend’s fathers to be lost. His daughter Noelle has been one of my closest friends for nearly twenty years. When I first met Noelle, her father was in remission. It didn’t last. I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t the friend that I should have been. We were new to this, to facing the unthinkable. Dan Sullivan fought the fight long and hard. I wish I could say that I was present for Noelle; that I provided tea and sympathy, a kind ear and arms to shelter in. But I wasn’t, at least not in the way I should have been. I didn’t know what to say, and I was a little bit afraid. If Noelle’s father could so easily slip away over the edge, what about my own?
In truth I had two fathers and in the end, I lost them both. My stepfather, Humphrey Clarke Booth, died while brushing his teeth, shooting straight to the sun, gone before his body hit the floor. That was always his style anyway. He was in England, the news came by telephone. This is the man who taught me to drive, (“remember to speed up in the curves”) bought me my first horse, my first car, ordered me my first Martini. He soothed my broken heart, smoothed the oft-ruffled feathers between my mother and me, and made damn sure the lunch ladies in the English primary school never again made comment on the way I held my fork. His death, instant and far away, was also a strange kindness, a leg up on being an orphan before I really had to face it.
And even then, I came undone. I stayed out all night, writing, drinking. When I slept it was fitful. When I ate, it was a dozen raw oysters and a few Bombay Sapphire martinis every night at the Livingston Bar and Grille. One night it was one of the wait staff that drove me home. Other times I’d crash on the studio floor of a painter friend. Finally I asked a woman I knew for something to help get me out of the fog. She gave me a prescription, but no one remembered to tell me that I shouldn’t wash it down with gin. That landed me in the world of ipecac and activated charcoal, discussing a Thomas Jefferson biography with one of the ER docs in between wretching. The next morning I felt much better, as if somehow I’d got my bearings back again.
My stepsister read Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night” at her father’s funeral. At the time it struck me as a peculiar choice, one made only because it is a plaint from child to father. And you, my father, there on the sad height/ Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage rage against the dying of the light. Reading it now, I realize that it is absolute stricken wail of a child. It’s beautiful and it’s brilliant, but that doesn’t disguise the primal nature of the plea: Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, Daddy, don’t leave me.
My father told me he was dying by asking me if I wanted his poetry books. My father and I had many of the same poetry books. (Perhaps another shared quality, like the way I hold the steering wheel, or a preference for Cabernet over Merlot) He was an English professor; I’d grown up reading Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and for a while was a poet myself. Some bookshelves bow under the weight of those slender volumes. If my father was offering me his poetry books it was because he would not need them anymore. That was in August. He taught his last class in December. He was dead the day after Christmas.
In the months between August and December, I wrestled with my father’s impending death. He was dying from laryngeal cancer. There had been immense amounts of radiation, and finally in a last ditch attempt the previous January they’d taken out his larynx, and made a permanent hole in his throat, given him a little black box on a cord around his neck in exchange for his voice. It was supposed to be the price for a cure, but they didn’t hold up their end of the deal.
It’s a parlor game to ask what you would do if you knew you only had a year, a few months, a few weeks left. I don’t know what my father might have said when the question was just hypothetical. When it was real, he went on with his life as he knew it. He drove down to his office at the university, met with students, taught classes, stopped by the Chef’s Pantry for good wine and roast beef and cheese on the way home. He took his wife to dinner, they listened to music. He sent emails to old friends and family members. They scheduled times for people to visit.
I suggested that we might come for Thanksgiving, and was told, no, Michael and his family were coming. I’m an only child. Michael is the son of my father’s wife. It was a stinging knockdown, one that left me sitting in tears. I wanted to finish the unfinished business; I wanted to clear the air, set things right. My father just wanted to go on with his life as he knew it. He asked for suggestions for the memorial service. I made them. He said he’d check with his wife. I lost my temper and reminded him he had other family. He sent back a six-word email “Why don’t you just cool it?”
I carefully crafted an email about how upset and enraged I felt about his impending death, how I wanted to set things right between us. He wrote that he didn’t want me to feel enraged. How could I help it? I wasn’t ready. Grave men near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay / Rage, rage against the dying of the light. It seemed that I could do nothing right. There are platitudes about having a chance to say goodbye. Sometimes it’s easier if you lose your father while he is brushing his teeth.
We went to see my father in the middle of December. He was clearly near the end. Dad went into the hospital to have a feeding tube put in. From his hospital bed, he wrote directions on a half-size legal pad as to cleaning out his office at school. I might have spent hours at his bedside, but instead I went up to the university and packed. Every few hours I would return to the hospital and ask what to do about various papers, or files, or stacks of literary journals. “Send them,” he scribbled, or “Take them if you want them,” or most often “Pitch it.” I took all the poetry books.
The doctors thought we had another month. They were wrong. As we drove away that night, through a snowstorm to Kansas City on our way back to Montana, I could not stop crying. My heart knew what my head could not yet accept. We promised to come back in two weeks. The last thing my Dad said to me, his mouth silently forming the words was “I’m sorry.”
“Me too, Dad. I’m sorry too.”
We got a phone call on the morning of the 26th. Dad had been admitted to the hospital, this was it. He might have until the close of day. I called every airline that flew out of Montana. If I could get to the airport in the next twenty minutes, I could catch the last flight that would have made a connection to get me to St. Louis at ten o’clock that night. But the airport was an hour and a half away.
“I’ll drive you to Missouri,” my husband said. “Don’t worry, I can drive straight through.” Straight through was1400 miles in the snow. I shook my head. He wasn’t even conscious anymore, it was time to act like the daughter of the pragmatist he was. The day seemed to go on without end. When the phone rang again about 8 p.m., it was all over. If we’d started driving, we would only have gotten as far as Denver.
My husband’s father died a long time ago, and when I’ve asked him about it, he changes the subject. Oh, he’ll say how he got the call. How no one in his family had told him that his father was dying. That he flew to L.A. by himself, as his first wife declined to accompany him. He’ll recall how he found a cash register slip on his father’s dresser for six Porterhouse steaks that were on sale at a great price. His father had bought them just a few days before he died and now Porterhouse steaks are forever entwined with that memory. The stories my husband tells about Pon Lieu are the stories of his life and never of his death. When I asked once how his father had died, Elmer said, “I think he just gave up.” I don’t have to ask him how he felt to lose his father; I know the answer to that.
I envy my friends who still have their fathers, and especially my cousins, the children of my father’s brothers. I worry about my husband and our 14-year-old son, who are caught up in that push-me-pull-you of adolescence. I can’t stand to hear them yelling at each other. Don’t they realize how precious is the time they have together, how we can’t really say which memories will linger on, which parts of the relationship become the legacy carried in one’s heart?
Worse still is my husband’s younger daughter from his first marriage. She is so caught up in her own anger and self-pity that she has excluded her father altogether from her life. He hasn’t heard from her in three years, and any attempts he’s made at communicating have gone unanswered. I want to take her by the shoulders and say “Don’t you realize?! Don’t you know how much you’ll regret this when it’s too late?”
It was only after my father’s memorial service that I learned from strangers that he had been proud of me, that he thought I’d turned out just fine despite everything. One person after another recounted for me the things Dad had told them about me. Sorting through his boxes and files, I found letters I’d written as a child, pieces I’d published in high school, poems I’d worked on, and reams of newspaper stories I’d written. I can’t help but wonder how different those last months might have been if only I’d known.
Driving in the car one morning the spring after my father’s death, I heard a bit of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Wood on the radio. I’ve seen the play, and I turned up the song.
People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. Holding to their own, thinking they’re alone. Honor their mistake. Fight for their mistakes. One another’s terrible mistakes. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good. Just remember: someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.
I’m a little abashed to say that I found the answer to the father-child conundrum in a Broadway song. All that expectation, all that disappointment, all that dependence and love and struggle. But there it is: People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. In recognizing my father as only human, I am able to accept having to let him go. I am glad he went gentle into that good night, and suffered no more. I miss him every day. I wish he could have come farther along the journey with us, but sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Still, we carry his map and his compass.
After the funeral of our friend’s father, I wanted to say some of these things. At least I wanted to say it gets better. It won’t always hurt so much. Your questions won’t have answers but the questions grow quieter in time. I wanted to say you won’t always feel like a fatherless child. You never stop missing your father, but you grow stronger in time. But I didn’t say any of this. I just hugged our friends and said how sorry I was.
March 31, 2009 § 6 Comments
Mysteries in the Washoe County Coroner’s Office
The first person on the list is a fisherman. Perhaps his name was Don, it was tattooed on his left arm. He was still wearing his waders when they pulled him out of the Truckee River thirty years ago this July. You think someone would have missed him. You know, at work, near the vending machines. “You know Don went fishing up near Reno, but he still isn’t back yet. I wonder what’s up with that.” You think that somewhere there would be a house where the newspapers were piling up, or a car found abandoned along the river, with the billfold locked in the glove compartment. You would think in all this time that someone would have come looking for Don.
Instead, as the oldest case, he heads the list of 42 sets of unidentified remains in the care of the Washoe County Coroner’s office in Reno, Nevada. Sometimes there isn’t much to a set of remains: the upper part of a skull, maybe a complete skull and tibia. Still, those were enough for a forensic anthropologist to determine that the former was a young man, somewhere between 16 and 24; and the latter a Caucasian man less than 35, who stood about five foot nine. Sometimes the remains are considerably more than a skeleton. Sometimes it’s the body of someone so recently deceased you can almost hear their soul departing. Sometimes there are plenty of answers, just not the most profound one: Who?
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
Northern Nevada is God-forsaken. Interstate 80 arcs across the top half of the state, passing through one of the emptiest places there is. This is not to say there isn’t beauty there, because the Sierras can be breath-taking, and there is certain poetry to the wide, wide expanse of the great basin. But on the whole it is mile after mile after mile of nothing. Most of Nevada is owned by the Federal government (don’t ask why), and it has long been known as the state of easy divorce and even easier weddings. Gambling is legal throughout the state; and in half of the 16 counties, so is prostitution. There are 2.6 million residents, and all but fifteen percent of them live in Reno or Las Vegas. The rest of the state is the sort of place where someone might go to be lost.
Perhaps that’s what happened to the thin young man with long black hair who rode his bicycle to a quiet industrial neighborhood in Sparks, and died there of a morphine overdose sometime in September of 2001, while the rest of the country could not stop thinking about the World Trade Center, could not stop talking about their grief.
Or perhaps the middle-aged man, who a few days after Christmas shot himself out in the desolation of rural Washoe County, his 9mm pistol in the sand beside him. Or the little old man, “elderly,” the report says, whose bones were found a few miles outside of Goldfield, once a boom town, now just another tiny place in the desert, somewhere between Death Valley and the Nevada Test Site. Where was he going? Where did he come from?
The Washoe County Coroner’s office has examined each of these 42 sets of unidentified remains, but they didn’t all come from the one county. They came from all across the northern half of the state, and even across the border, over the Donner Pass and into Truckee, California. They are under the jurisdiction of 19 separate agencies, including county sheriffs, city police departments, the Nevada Department of Investigation, the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The remains have come from as far south as Tonopah, as far east as just this side of the Utah border. It would seem fair to say that if you die in Nevada, suddenly or mysteriously, and you are not in Las Vegas that you may well end up on the table of Dr. Ellen Clark, or Dr. Katherine Raven the Washoe County medical examiners.
Of the 42 unnamed decedents, 35 of them are male. Thirty-three are white. 15 died in a manner that has been undetermined, seven died accidentally, ten were murdered, nine killed themselves and two died of heart disease; one of those a 50-year old toothless white man crossing the street in Reno. The other was young man, in his twenties. Nearly six feet tall, he weighed only 111 pounds and wore his brown hair close cropped. His body was found near the railroad tracks outside of Wendover, where he’d been observed wandering the day before. When he was found, on September 4, 2001 he was wearing only soiled briefs. Somewhere, somebody is wondering what happened to him.
Some of the circumstances of these deaths are depressingly commonplace: the body of a newborn baby girl found in February 1982 at a dam at Lake Tahoe; young men murdered and buried in shallow graves; a black man near Floriston, CA (January 1984); a man of undetermined race one mile west of Gyser Ranch (July 1988); a white man two miles north of the Interstate 80 Jessup exit, Nevada (April 1996). In March 1992, the Nevada Highway Patrol got an anonymous tip that led them to a grave east of Highway 338 in Lyon County, Nevada. There they found the body of a man with reddish hair, somewhere between 35 and 50, six feet tall. Rural Lyon county is something beyond rural. Without the telephone call, the body never would have been found. If only the caller had thought to leave the victim’s name, too.
Three of the deaths involved cars. You’d think that authorities would be able to find out something by tracing the cars. Even without valid tags, there are VIN numbers. Even if the one on the dash is gone or melted or crushed, there is usually one on the engine block as well. (It’s also surprising that so little is said about the make and models of the cars involved.) Nevertheless, these three gentlemen remain unnamed.
In July 1980, a short black man in his late twenties held up the Nevada Savings and Loan in Sparks. He fled the scene pursued by the police, and while traveling eastbound on the interstate, lost control of his car and struck a “fixed object.” He died from blunt force trauma.
Another holiday-time suicide was revealed in January 1984, when the remains of a white man were found inside a parked automobile, 45 miles east of Ely. A hose ran from the exhaust into the car’s interior.
The sadly comic and strangest of the deaths involving cars is another suicide. On November 9, 1986, in Reno, a man was witnessed sitting in the rear seat of a white Ford Pinto, “fanning” flames as the car became engulfed. He made no attempt to exit the Pinto, and his body was consumed in the fire, leaving his size and race undetermined. He must have been so frustrated. Remember that the Pinto had real problems with leaking gas tanks and explosions. Surely he thought, “Well, this will explode and that will be that.” Then he could hardly get the thing to burn.
The suicides carry with them an extra sense of poignancy. Perhaps these people were right, perhaps they had no one who cared about them. Does someone miss the tall thin man who hanged himself in an abandoned building behind the Maverick Gas station in McGill, NV back in 1984? He was found wearing a blue Air Force jacket.
Or the middle-aged man who decided while sitting on the banks of the Truckee River one summer day in 1987 that he couldn’t take anymore? He had to go to some lengths, use some ingenuity to kill himself with a shotgun.
One February morning in 1992, the employees of Summit Envirosolutions came to work at their office in a light industrial complex in Carson City, and found an old man sitting against the wall of the building. Why there, one wonders, did he decide he could go on no more, and put a bullet in his head.
Pity the poor railroad engineer who was the unwitting accomplice in the death of a very short middle aged fat man whose last decision was to step in front of an eastbound passenger train. Or the housekeeper at the Colonial Motel in Reno, who one hot August morning, opened the door to one of the rooms, finding the guest had used an elaborate IV device to end his life.
He’d checked in under a false name, Carlos F. Otero, using an address in the Bronx that wasn’t his. He intended to slip away under the radar, perhaps to protect the person who aided him in sliding across that threshold.
“Carlos” died from a dose of Thiopental. The drug is used in small doses to help induce anesthesia, and in some instances as “truth serum.” It also is the drug of choice for euthanasia, and in 35 states is used for execution by lethal injection. Someone helped “Carlos,” and someone knows who he was.
Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ’Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.
Out in the middle of the Black Desert is a little tiny town called Gerlach. It’s north of the interstate by 80 miles or so, train tracks run through there. In 1991 the desert outside of town became the site of the Burning Man festival, which brings upwards of 40,000 people into the desert the last week of every August.
The bodies found along the road to Gerlach predate the Burning Man, (with one exception, and he was actually found south of the interstate, near Wadsworth) but it is a strange thing that of 42 cases of unidentified remains, five of them would turn up, out of the vastness of northern Nevada, along the road to Gerlach. One was just a partial skull of a teenager, another the scattered skeleton of a young woman, possibly white or Native American. She had distinctive dental work. Another skeleton, this of a young man not yet 30 was found with a .22 caliber revolver nearby. The body of a petite young woman was found in a shallow grave 11 miles north of Gerlach. She was wearing an unusual gold bracelet.
It can be something as small as that left to distinguishes this human from another human. An unusual gold bracelet, or a pile of bones and a silver ring with stones, blue and red. Charred bones found after a range fire, indicate men dead long before the summer fires. The skull of a Native American man found on the road to the Winnemucca airport. Another skull, one with a hole, not from a bullet, but from a craniotomy.
The Homeless live among us virtually unseen, and die that way too. In Los Angeles County there are 800 unidentified remains. Many of them were homeless people; when you consider that the average homeless population in Los Angeles is around 60,000, a remarkable number come to the end of their earthly life with their identities firmly held.
In death, though, it isn’t so easy to tell whether or not someone was homeless. A man wandering the tracks in his underwear may well have been; who can say about a set of charred bones? Perhaps the older man with a full white beard found at the bottom of a ravine in his cowboy boots and fleece-lined jacket, perhaps he was homeless. Maybe he was just a rancher. In any case, no one has stepped forward in the last twenty years to claim him as one of their own. A man in his sixties found dead in a homeless encampment probably was indeed homeless, but what about the man found one summer morning under a mattress and sheet of metal roofing off an unpaved street in Sun Valley?
The police report notes that the area was known for “illegal dumping.” They describe the man as between 40 and 50, wearing full dentures (“Hang on a second, let me put my teeth in”) clad in brown corduroy trousers and a white t-shirt. He was barefoot. The report notes, wryly “No cause of death was determined. However the body and scene indicate the man did not walk there and cover himself with the mattress prior to his death.”
In Washoe County, “death by misadventure” often arrives via the Truckee River, which has given up three of the nameless dead. Each of them around 30, all men, one was said to be “fully clad in casual style clothing,” as opposed to, say, formal wear. The most recent, a decade ago, was a tall man (6’2”) with long brown hair, found wearing only white undershorts and black shoes, and described, curiously, as “found entwined in an orange traffic cone.”
Twenty years ago this week, a young man was found under five feet of snow near the Heavenly Valley Ski Resort. He was white, just shy of six feet tall, with a 30-inch waist, no more than 35 years old. He had all 32 teeth, in excellent condition. They don’t know how he died, perhaps exposure. Has someone been wondering for two decades what became of their adventurous son, their daredevil brother, their best friend from high school?
The women, though, six women and a baby girl, they all were murdered.
The baby left at the Lake Tahoe dam 27 years ago, does her mother still think of her? Is someone looking for the 60-year-old woman who was found in 1990, mummified in the sagebrush two miles south of Wendover? The woman with the distinctive dental work, her skeleton scattered in the desert on the road to Gerlach, surely someone wonders what happened to her.
Coming up out of the Truckee Meadows, the Mount Rose Highway comes up over the Carson Range of the Sierra Nevadas and summits at a beautiful alpine meadow the locals call Sheep Flats, before descending down to Incline Village on the north edge of Lake Tahoe. Sheep Flats is a favorite recreation spot for tourists and residents alike. On July 17, 1982, the body of a young woman was discovered there. She had been shot to death.
No doubt the Washoe County Sheriff’s office thought it wouldn’t be long before she was identified. She was in her late twenties, maybe thirty. The report reads, “The victim had not been there long and was clothed. She wore a bathing suit on under her clothing. She also wore a blue top, blue jeans and yellow tennis shoes . . . the victim is believe to be of European descent based upon an inoculation scar and unique dental work. Although many leads have been pursued, her identity and whereabouts prior to her death are still a mystery.”
The bulletin issued by the Sheriff’s office includes both a color photograph from the morgue and an artist’s interpretation of what she might have looked like imbued with life. Hazel eyes and sandy hair, a fair complexion, well-arched brow, the kind of forehead people used to call “intelligent.” Isn’t somebody looking for her? Was she so all alone in the world, in her blue jeans and yellow tennis shoes? Perhaps she is not just of European descent, but maybe a European tourist, her stuff left behind in a hotel room, or carried back to Europe by her killer with a story: she ran off, she married an American, she doesn’t want us anymore.
Eleven years later, another woman, this one found on the other side of the state, seventy miles east of Elko, on the north side of I-80, in a place described in the police report as “a vast and desolate desert bisected by one of the nation’s busiest highways.” She too, was white, between twenty and thirty, of average size and weight, blonde with brown eyes.
Under clothing the report reads: pink nail polish. She was naked in the desert, her arms extended to each side, legs slightly parted, posed as if crucified. They think perhaps she’d had a baby. There was a scar on her right calf, an assortment of moles and marks like most of us have. The medical examiner noted them with great care, measuring and describing each one. Her teeth were in excellent condition, though it was noted that she was midway through having a root canal. Did the dentist’s receptionist sigh with disgust when the girl didn’t turn up for her appointment? It is believed she was killed elsewhere and dumped at the site, toxicology reports show the use of alcohol and evidence of smoking pot. She was shot twice with a small caliber bullet, one bullet pierced her heart.
It seems so strange that no one would come looking for this particular young woman, so much so that she has her own MySpace page “JD 93 Elko Nevada”, and I CARE, a website devoted to missing person cold cases, carries scans of every newspaper story about her.
There’s not been so much attention paid to the woman whose body children found in a rock pile in Reno in June 1997. In her early to mid-thirties, she was white or maybe part Native American. She wasn’t very tall, about five-two and the most distinctive thing noted about her was a metal plate in her jaw. Her cause of death was not determined, but to borrow from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, it’s unlikely she buried herself in a pile of rocks.
She was certainly into western culture, found wearing dream catcher earrings, a black bolo tie with an arrowhead, a yellow metal and copper bracelet, a silver ring with a red stone. She was dressed in a western-style multi-colored shirt, blue jeans (size 10); white socks and gray tennis shoes, and wearing a black long sleeved jacket. Around her neck there was also a silver necklace with a silver whistle: many women have worn them for safety. It’s too bad it didn’t work for her.
The most recently found unidentified woman was black. She was dumped naked from a car along a dirt road off the interstate, near Mogul, Nevada, west of Reno. She was wearing just a silver ring on her right hand. About 30 years old, she’d seen some hard times. The medical examiner noted that the woman’s toenails were very long and were thickened and irregular. Her teeth were in poor condition and she was missing literally half of them. Her face showed healed fractures of the nose and jaw, on the right side. It may have caused her face to seem lopsided. Her body was found July 25, 2003.
When we mourn as a country, we often read out the names of the dead. We did this at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan; the names of the Vietnam War dead are poignantly carved into a field of black granite. We see these names and those people become more real to us. That these 42 people in Washoe County, these 800 people in Los Angeles county, these 4,797 people across the country, dead and unidentified and claimed by no one, that they are stripped of their names does not make them any less real.
The US Department of Justice has recently launched twin databases under the acronym NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons system.) One database is that of missing persons, the other is that of unidentified remains. They are working on developing the software that will cross-reference both sets of data in hopes of finding some matches. They are unwieldy and balky to use. Data hasn’t been entered in a very consistent manner, some records are excellent, some are so vague as to be rendered meaningless. You ought to be able to search via date or hair color or by distinctive gold bracelet, and you cannot. But it is a start.
Some of these people were truly lost. They were the last of their families; perhaps they were friendless in this world. But not all of them. Some of them are probably blamed angrily for their absences. Some of them might be missed every day, longed for by people who wonder whatever happened to their daughter, son, mother, father, brother, sister, friend. They need an answer, as do those who found the remains, whose startling discovery is etched forever in their mind, an endless mystery.
The last entry in the Washoe County Coroner’s list of unidentified remains is from May 8, 2005. A young man, white, slight of stature. He was wearing a black long-sleeved sweatshirt, gray-green slacks, a brown leather belt. His hair, black and wavy, was two centimeters long. He leapt from the roof of Reno parking garage. It was very early in the morning when he stepped out into thin air. Had he lost too much at the gambling table, was there a fight with a girlfriend? Did he have any idea when he was having his last hair cut that in a matter of days it would come to this? When he pulled on his trousers many hours before and fastened his brown leather belt, it probably never occurred to him that he would end up among the lost.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, A life of joy and peace.
March 21, 2009 § 2 Comments
a love note
There was an email from one of our closest friends this morning, wishing us a very happy anniversary.
“Hmm,” I thought. “She must have the date wrong.” Glancing up at the calendar, there it is written in my own clear hand “Anniversary,” in today’s little square. When my husband comes in from working in the raised bed where we’re planting this year’s herb garden, I grin at him and say “Happy Anniversary, honey.”
“What? Are you sure?” We married on the first day of Spring, sixteen years ago. You’d think we’d be able to keep track. By the end of the day, we have marked this occasion poking around in a junk shop, stopping at a restaurant for a couple of excellent hamburgers, then on to the hardware store for a new sprayer for the faucet on the kitchen sink.
Like our marriage, it is a companionable and comfortable outing. We share a few private jokes, and nudge each other occasionally over our “date.” Hell, we look like a Cialis commercial, who needs Hallmark and a trinket in a velvet box? I’d rather have peony bushes to line the front walk anyway.
This is the first anniversary we’ve spent away from the place where we met, wed and spent most of our married life up ‘till now. Funny how that distance gives you an extra dollop of nostalgia, and over the course of the day I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about that blustery March day in Montana sixteen years ago.
East coast wasp-y girl writer marries Los Angeles native Chinese railroad man father of two small girls. Their mother departed the scene long before I arrived; he and I met in the public library where I worked at the circulation desk. I had no idea he was as old as dirt as he seemed (and seems) very cute and boyish. We had a guest list as long as our arms, having decided to invite everyone we ever knew. What was remarkable is how many showed up . . . including Sir Brian Corrin and his lovely wife, Sheila, who popped across the pond for the occasion.
The best man, Webb Hardenbrook Green, had been my landlord in Boston. The maid of honor was also a man; Colin Burns, artist and lead singer of a death metal band. (Don’t be silly, he wore a tuxedo.) The other bridesmaids, in tea length periwinkle velvet, included my dear friend Noelle Sullivan (who sent greetings this morning) and sang Handel at the wedding and is herself a girl-writer, and Sheryl Dahl, a fifth generation Montanan, baker and bon-vivant. Elmer’s beautiful daughters in English lawn dresses led the procession; now they are both beautiful grown up women, married as well.
In the days before the wedding, we filled the church with tulips and pussy willows; branches cut early and brought inside to leaf. (March in Montana is very, very unpredictable.) The church had been used as a set in Robert Redford’s movie A River Runs Through It the year before. It needed little beyond spring flowers and a few exuberant swags of tulle to look festive. Grannie, my father’s mother, arrived at the airport looking every inch the Hollywood dowager, complete with big hat and small entourage.
Members of the wedding, guests, family poured in from across the country, arriving in flurries of excited greetings, warm embraces, laughter. Late on Thursday evening we’d gone in search of food and drink. Parents and stepparents, grandmothers and minor rock stars, English peerage and Montana railroaders, we eventually landed at the Timber Bar, in Big Timber, about 40 miles east of Livingston. It was a pretty quiet night at the Timber, a Montana workingman’s bar, linoleum floors and schoolhouse lights. When the front door opened, we looked up to see who it was, and to our surprise ten more wedding guests walked in.
Rehearsal dinner had been in Sam Peckinpah’s old apartment in the Murray Hotel, not just for members of the wedding, but for all of the out of town guests and some of the in town ones too. As we left the hotel, mist was swirling in the streets.
It was a four o’clock wedding, which leaves too little time to do much and too much time to do nothing. There were flowers to be fetched, a sweet pea bouquet like that my Grannie carried 57 years before. Last minute hair issues and a missing bridesmais. (She turned up.) My mother and my Nana and my groom sat at the kitchen table assembling the last of the programs, each decorated with a Chinese paper cut, each bound with a sewn binding of gold thread. I tried to eat breakfast, French toast, my favorite, but I swear it tasted like cardboard with maple syrup on it. Joan Hartwig, an expert in Shakespeare and a friend of my parents since graduate school, buttoned up all 35 buttons on the back of my velvet dress.
The ride to the church was in a horse-drawn carriage (two matched black Arabians) and at the last minute my stepfather asked me if I’d like him to ride along and you know, I was really glad for the company. I had two fathers at this event, and given my concern for bruised feelings, I chose to walk down the aisle unsupported by any man’s arm. You know, I’d been an actress and a performance artist in college; surely I could manage a two-minute trip to the altar. You wouldn’t believe how long the first two minutes and seven seconds of Claire de Lune seem when you’re shaking in your pale silk slippers.
Upon the altar, I realized that I’m wearing a ring on the third finger of my left hand, a little gold circlet, an everyday sort of ring that I’d forgotten to remove. “The wrong ring!” Silently, discreetly and only in a tiny panic I slipped it off and palmed it into Colin’s hand; I think he probably still has it.
Webb had the right rings in his pocket: mine a ring Elmer and I bought in a pawn shop with money unexpectedly left to me by my stepfather’s late mother, Mary Killick, a woman who saw good in everyone and who was charmed by Mussolini. Elmer’s ring is the one I’d worn on my middle finger since I was 15, it was my father’s wedding ring from his marriage to my mother.
The vows were complex. (Hey, I was a writer-girl and former performance artist, what did you expect?) They were a combination of homily and prayer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Rainier Maria Rilke, the traditional Lutheran marriage service, not asked and repeated, but answered from memory. When Elmer married the first time, in a civil ceremony Alaska in 1968, he was struck dumb: instead of saying “I do,” he was only able to nod. (Yeah, yeah, we know.)
He and I practiced and practiced and practiced. He memorized his lines until he could have said them in his sleep. At least that’s what we hoped. His voice rang out strong and true to the last line of Rilke “With only this one dream, You come, too.” During the recitation of his vows, he never once wavered, finally arriving at the great long riff that is the pinnacle of the Lutheran intent: “that I take you to be my wife from this time onward, to join with you and to share with you all that is to come: to give and to receive, to speak and to listen, to inspire and to respond, and in all circumstances of our life together to be loyal to you with my whole life and all my being, until death parts us.” The tears welling in my eyes spilled over.
The ebullient notes of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring filled the sanctuary, and we dashed down the aisle to receive guests at the back of the church, who kissed our cheeks and went outside to stand in the drizzle tossing rice. The Chinese say that all the rain that falls on your wedding day are tears you won’t have to cry in your marriage. Such pragmatists, the Chinese. My groom and I and the little girls climb into the carriage for a ride through the rain to the Park and down Yellowstone Street to the Depot, a handsome Italianate railroad depot designed by Reed and Stern, they of the Grand Central Terminal fame. People come out on their porches to wave as we pass by.
Meanwhile, back at the Livingston Depot, a fully loaded coal train has rumbled by. A coal train is extraordinarily heavy and it can send significant vibrations through a building. Before the wedding, our friend Sheryl, baker and bridesmaid painstakingly assembled the exquisite wedding cake at the Depot, hurried to change her clothes and rushed to the church by quarter to four. (That’s where she was.) But the rumbling of the coal train had set the cake to shaking and it had slumped, a delicious disaster on the cake table.
No one tells the bride anything when something goes wrong. I missed Sheryl long before I realized the cake wasn’t there. I would survey the room occasionally, greet guests, tip my head to Noelle, and mouthe, “Where’s Sheryl?” She’d shake her head, shrug a little. Finally I sent Webb to see what he could find out. I swear he and Noelle exchanged a look. Webb came back and whispered in my ear. When they took us to her, Sheryl was sobbing. This was worse than the cake. Cake is just cake even when it’s your wedding cake.
It wasn’t so bad that it couldn’t be served; it just didn’t look the way we thought it would. And it was the incomparable Velvet Underground Cake, from the recipe they used at Rosie’s Bakery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Here’s the recipe. They don’t credit Rosie, but they ought to, it’s definitely hers. It takes at least a day to make this cake and it is worth every minute of effort.)
“Well,” I said, hugging Sheryl, “let’s just eat it.”
The best man found a wedding crasher, a middle aged woman, crouching in the coatroom behind the coats. She had snuck in to hear the band, she was “auditioning” bands for her daughter’s upcoming nuptials. As it turned out, that particular band couldn’t be had for love or money (though I remember we had them for $600). We’d engaged the MSU Jazz Swing band to play jazz standards. The day before the wedding (yes, one day before) the director, Glenn Johnson, called to say he was very sorry, he forgot the students would be gone on Spring Break. But, he was quick to add, he said he knew some jazz musicians who would be willing to fill in this one time, friends of his, if that would be okay.
It turned out to be far better than okay. The friends, as it happened included seriously well-regarded musicians like Eric Funk and Kelly Robertie, among others. It’s like expecting a cover band and getting the real thing. Not only that, they had a bigger repertoire, more Gershwin, and Eric Funk can sing. And they didn’t usually play wedding gigs, so they were having fun, breaking into a series of lively polkas, when one of my husband’s co-workers started the rest of the railroaders to pinning currency to my dress. Sometimes traditions just happen to you.
Somehow we miscounted tables, and didn’t have a place for the musicians to sit during breaks. So they sat with us, dispensing advice on marriage and love and the blues, eating roast salmon and medallions of filet and game stew. You can imagine the advice, but they offered it tenderly.
And not once, not twice, but three times they played us our song, Eric Funk talking over the piano . . . “The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend, the world with all its capers and how it all will end. Nothing seems to be lasting. But that isn’t our affair; We’ve got something permanent, I mean in the way we care. . .” And then he sang Gershwin’s very last song:
It’s very clear
Our love is here to stay;
Not for a year
But ever and a day.
The radio and the telephone
and the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies,
And in time may go.
Many things have changed since that day in March. Those musicians have scattered, they don’t play together anymore. Sheryl has closed her bakery. The pastor was sent to a church in the far corner of the state. I haven’t seen Colin since the day we put him on the plane. My Nana is gone, and so is my stepfather, and so is my Dad. We’ve left Montana.
But, oh my dear,
Our love is here to stay;
Together we’re going a long, long way.
In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble,
They’re only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.
March 17, 2009 § 3 Comments
On Things Irish and the Celebration of St. Patrick
by Larkin Vonalt
So many things about the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America bother me, and I have not been good company, watching throngs of green-attired Americans from the sidewalks, going from bar to bar in Boston, or Butte or Chicago. My friends used to say, “Lighten up, have another beer.”
The very last night I spent publicly celebrating the wearing of the green culminated in watching drunken young men urinate off the awning of the M&M Restaurant onto the crowd below. That’s it, I thought, there must be a way to mark St. Patrick’s Day that does not involve green wigs, green beer or puking.
The year before last we did return to Butte to watch the beautiful daughters of Sullivan-Daley clan, dear friends all, dance the parade route. I wore a green ribbon in my hair, and my Chinese husband had on a small button that read “Irish, sorta.” They say that on St. Patrick’s Day that everyone is Irish, and for many Americans that is literally as well as figuratively true.
In this country, we celebrate a number of holidays that find their roots in our ancestral cultures: Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, Chinese New Year. But Hallmark doesn’t market cards for those occasions, and no city dyes her river, and Americans don’t make such perfect asses of themselves as they do for St. Patrick’s Day. It seems a strange way to pay homage to a complicated people with such a complicated history, who despite or because of the struggles have given us a legacy of literature and music quite apart from any other.
Unlike my friend who sends me excerpts from the Irish Times, and brings me Irish tea and Irish socks and Irish linen and writes an excellent online journal about the Irish diaspora in Montana ( http://montanagael.blogspot.com/ ) I know almost nothing about Ireland. You don’t have to know much to begin to understand how intensely tangled a thing it is to be Irish. Even when I was just 19, and passionately interested in the hunger strike and eventual death of IRA activist (and MP) Bobby Sands in the Long Kesh outside of Belfast, I couldn’t figure out if he was a villain or a hero. Nearly 30 years later, I am still no clearer in my understanding.
This ongoing struggle between Protestant and Catholic, Loyalists and Irish Republicans is found even in what the “wearing of the green” is supposed to stand for. Originally, the color associated with the Catholic Feast Day for St. Patrick was blue. “Wearing of the green” refers to the wearing of a shamrock on your clothing, to show your Irish nationalism or at times, to show your loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. (St. Patrick, who lived 385- 461 A.D., used the three-leafed Shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish.)
Some Protestant Irish have taken to wearing Orange on St. Patrick’s Day as a sign of rebellion, drawing from William of Orange (the King of England) who defeated King James II, a Roman Catholic, at the Battle of Boyne in Dublin in 1688, ensuring a Protestant (and English) military dominance in Ireland, and creating tension that has existed ever since. Yes, ever since. 320 years.
I don’t exactly know how it is that I never went to Ireland. I went other places that meant less. Italy, for instance. I could have skipped those months in Italy altogether for a few days on Wicklow Head and been the better for it. I wept on the grave of James Joyce, still in self-imposed exile in Zurich. It was only 600 miles more to Dublin. If James and Nora could manage it in the twenties, well surely, I could have made the effort. I didn’t.
Joyce wasn’t the only Irish writer that stirred my heart. Oscar Wilde had been a favorite since high school. How could you fail to find amusement and encouragement in quips like “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,” or “Biography lends to death a new terror,” or “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
William Butler Yeats rounds out a trilogy for me. I named my thoroughbred mare “Pilgrim Soul” for a phrase in his poem “When You Are Old.” This is the stanza:
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
Yeats’ most famous poem is without question “Easter 1916” about the week-long Irish uprising. His ambivalence about the use of violence to achieve home rule is clear in every line. And so too, is his utter grief at the outcome.
And so, I no longer really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, so much as I mark it, acknowledge it, carry it in my heart, which if in reality is only a very very small part Irish, is wholly Eireannach for this one day.
In the morning, I will arise and go now (not to Innisfree) but down the stairs, dressed quietly, a dark moss green merino sweater. Breakfast won’t be much, Barry’s tea with milk and sugar in my usual leaf green mug. (No doubt the boy will wear something very green so as not to be pinched at school.) In the kitchen, I’ll choose music with an ear to the day: The Pogues, The Waterboys, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, U2.
I interviewed U2 in 1981 when we were all just pups, and they were playing in bars and opening for bands like J. Geils. Bono predicted their phenomenal success, we wished it for them but did not believe it. It disappoints me now how they have squandered it, with missions that are only about Bono’s ego and every record a re-hash of the one before it. Never mind, who knows what any of us would do with that sort of success?
Lunch will be simple. Potato Soup with brown bread and a Guinness. Perhaps in the afternoon, there will be time to peruse the Irish Times or curl in a chair to revisit William Butler Y. Dinner is the more complicated Limerick Ham. You didn’t think Corned beef and cabbage did you? Corned beef is not even Irish, but Irish-American. Immigrants in New York, looking for a cheaper alternative to the traditional bacon or sausage, turned to Jewish butchers, who provided them with the pickled brisket we associate with the 17th day of March.
My husband had an interesting question about the fact that St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, when many Roman Catholics have given up eating meat. Apparently, there is a special dispensation from the Bishop to allow for eating meat on the Feast Day of St. Patrick, and this has worked pretty well except for the very rare occurrence when St. Patrick’s Day actually falls during Holy Week and they have less wiggle room.
Limerick Ham is usually a cured leg of pork, traditionally smoked over Juniper branches. Okay, so no juniper branches and a leg of pork is a bit much for the three of us, so we adapt and cook a small smoked ham, first by boiling in apple cider and then finishing in the oven, and served with an accompaniment of potatoes and cabbage, with burnt oranges to finish.
4 Large oranges
5 ounces sweet white wine
1 tablespoon butter
10 ounces fresh-squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons Irish Whiskey (warmed)
Carefully peel the oranges thinly. Then with a sharp knife remove as much of the pith and white skin as possible, keeping the oranges intact. Cut the thin peel into fine strips and cover with sweet white wine. Put the oranges into an ovenproof dish. Put a little butter on top of each one, pressing it down gently, then sprinkle each one with a teaspoon of sugar. Put into a 400F oven for 10 minutes or until the sugar caramelizes.
Meanwhile mix the orange juice with the sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and let it get syrupy, without stirring. Add the orange peel and wine mixture and bring to the boil again, then cook rapidly to reduce and thicken slightly.
Take the oranges from the oven and if not fully browned, put under a moderate broiler for a few minutes. Pour the warmed whisky over them and set it alight, over heat. As the flames die down, add the orange syrup and let it simmer for about 2 minutes. Serve at once.
Perhaps a glass of Bushmill’s while clearing up, listening to the boy practicing the cello in the next room. Settling on the velvet sofa to watch a movie, maybe The Crying Game (exploring the themes of race, gender, sexuality and nationality against the backdrop of the Irish troubles) or Michael Collins, about the Easter 1916 uprising. Perhaps neither, perhaps simply to bed instead, taking the green ribbon from my hair, the words of Yeats running through me like a long deep river.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.