Monthly Archives: March 2012

Friends, Neighbors, Countrymen/women: On Visitors

As I sit here tonight, looking at the amount of work that has been accomplished in such a short amount of time, I am amazed.  Even though there is still work to be done, knowing that by mid-week next week it will be completed and that I will have begun the process of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, I think about just how this has come to pass.

First of all, the push to action came only with Dad’s last illness, leaving him so weak that he couldn’t walk for more than a few steps at all, even with assistance, needing me or Kay to bathe him, dress him, feed him.  The long-needed updates just never would have happened otherwise.  That’s a hell of a reason for renovating, but it’s true.  Without Dad’s illness, he never would have allowed all of this work.  Now, he just says (partly joking, but not completely), “it’s only money.”  I’ll go to the bank tomorrow to transfer some more money to the checking account so that I can pay for what’s left and have the cushion he likes to have.

Next, he actually had to be out of the house before work of this magnitude could be done.  I joke that I’m living in a construction zone but the truth is that I really am living in one. Most people don’t have to, I think, but I’ve needed to be here.  Just how chaotic could it be, just how crammed could it be, you might wonder.

At times, I have had to go across the street to Charles’s house so that I could use a toilet while the contractor and his dad and the plumbers were here, working in the bathrooms.  At one point I had a toilet in one bath that worked, and a shower in the other.  Now one is fully functional and the other will be soon.  There’s no point in trying to dust anything.  That would be pointless given the daily opening and closing of doors and the wind blowing in dust from the gravel drives.  Dust seems to appear hourly.  I no longer really care.  I could write in it — something multi-volume, I suspect.

And every room is simply a holding area as I pack and move boxes or bags out of one room to another.  Dad’s old bedroom contains both of his dressers, Mother’s cedar chest, a rocker, several dining room chairs (each holding other items, usually bagged), a desk, and the headboard of a bed (I’m going to repurpose it somehow).  And of course, the boxes of books and things.  Tomorrow the two big bookcases from my bedroom will end up there.  The living room has boxes and baskets, my chest of drawers, two small bookcases and a larger metal one, a library table, a folding table, the stereo cabinet, and the computer.

Kay’s room has stuff piled on her bed, and more boxes.  The one closet in her bedroom is now shallower, having been used for depth in the newly remodeled bathroom — and the new, walk-in shower with a bench. When Tim finishes with it, it will have shelves, giving us usable storage that can be organized and convenient.  And labeled properly.

My room has the only usable bed in the entire house, in fact, at least at this point.  That means that Kay and I really are tag-teaming it: only one of us can stay here at a time.  That bed has to be dismantled tomorrow, at least temporarily, for the new flooring to be put in place.  The old bedframe will go to the trashbin; I’m getting a new one that I’ll have to assemble and stain (thanks to Amazon and its offering of an Ikea double-bed frame).  So tomorrow night, I think the mattress will lie on the floor and I’ll think I’m back in the days of hippie chic.

At times, I sit here and stay out of the way while work goes on around me.  Sometimes I sit at the computer and read and surf the net.  But always I think about how short a period has actually passed since this began, and what an evolutionary process renovation really is.  Some of the work we planned for, but not all of it.

The first actual project, building a porch and ramp, went so quickly and beautifully that I was spoiled.  The second project, new flooring in three rooms plus the bathrooms, went pretty smoothly.  It was the unexpected need to rewire the entire house that has been frustrating to Tim and his dad.

They have battled for three days in the attic and with four (yes, four) separate breaker boxes, with 1946 wiring and with newer wiring.  They have sweated and crawled and discovered that even the newer wiring presented major conundrums and problems.  Wiring that was hot, that was jumped from another room, that led to nowhere, that wasn’t working. . . you name it, they found it.  Firewalls so dense that they broke drill bits.  Today they completed the rewiring.  Tim told me that they’d used “25 feet short of 1000 feet” of wire in the house.  His dad chimed in “And probably pulled 2000.”  I think he was joking, but I’m not sure!

Three days ago, a gas odor led to the discovery that the ancient gas dryer had to be replaced.  How old?  Well, it has an actual pilot light.  That’s what has rusted and that’s the source of the leak. The new dryer will be delivered on Saturday, but the deliveryman can’t hook it up.  It’s a gas dryer.  That means I have to call the gas company to hook it up and approve it with a little red tag.

We knew some of the plumbing was a problem.  We are replacing all of it. The plumbers already shut off and eliminated old gas lines to capped off gas hookups in bedrooms; the wall heater over the old bathtub was also gas, and it has been removed.  The gas line will be rerouted so that it doesn’t go under the slab; that line will be cut off and a new one run instead.

This house is, I have come to believe, the proverbial house that Jack built.  But Jack didn’t know jack, I have also come to believe.  I am amazed at the discoveries I’m making — the person who wired the addition was an electrician who worked with Dad.  He should never have been near electrical wires.  The plumbing in the addition had four different kinds of pipes, much of it salvaged from oil field surplus.

Everywhere we looked, something that had been pieced together no longer worked.  Galvanized pipes had holes in them.  Wires hooked at breaker boxes just ended in the walls, tied to nothing, doing nothing.  I could be frustrated at this, but I’m not.  After all, this house wasn’t a recent construction.

In the few weeks of this project, I have relied on the contractors (new acquaintances, Egan residents, and now I think to be categorized as friends), on long-time neighbors and friends, on family.  The two closest friends are people I’ve known most of my life, both also part of the Sun Oil family, as I think of it, who lived in the Egan camp.  One is a widow whose late husband worked for the company. In fact, when I think about it, she has yet other ties to our family, because her aunt lived next door to my grandmother in Beaumont many years ago, and the two women were friends; indeed, they even shared the same name, as I remember.  The other is someone whose late father also worked for it; he and I are 6 months apart in age,  went to school from first grade through high school graduation together, and he is also now retired, living again in Egan and caring for a parent.  They are family too, a family bound together by shared experiences that go back decades.

We know so much about each other, share so much, and provide support for each other in so many ways.  When blood relatives might be willing to help but can’t because they live elsewhere, the Sun family I am still part of can and does help out.

We laugh a lot; we tease each other without mercy.  Our comfort level is clear in the ways we can and do tease each other.  There’s a shorthand of sorts that comes with such long-term friendships, as there is in any family.  Shared memories and experiences tie us together in wonderful ways.

So without Charles and Billie, I simply don’t know what I would have done.  I can whine or worry.  And I can laugh, always.

Other long-term friends offer verbal support and drop by to check in or call to see how Dad is and how I am.  They are also part of the network here that is so strong and so comforting.

My sister and I text constantly and talk nightly.  My cousins call or email every few days.

Tonight’s blog is perhaps a bit shorter than usual, but then I’ve got to work some more tonight before Tim and his dad come back tomorrow to put in vinyl flooring in my bedroom and carpeting in the old living room that will be Dad’s bedroom as well as in Kay’s room.  Yet more books have to be boxed and stashed somewhere.  And I’ve got to move the printers and computer to the new computer area in the office, somehow making room among the various pieces of furniture and boxes of things that are parked there for now, during the renovation.  Already there are plans on the docket — one more room in the house to clear out and to recarpet, window air conditioners to be replaced by a new central air system (and for the 1946 metal ductwork to be replaced also).

Tonight I am alone, but can hear and see the other visitors I’m still dealing with, ones that I don’t want.  When you live in the country (even in a small town like Egan that is really a village), there are fields.  And where there are fields, there are mice.  And when the weather has been as cool as it has here, those mice don’t want to be in the fields.  No, they want to be in the house, where it’s warmer.  Now I can hear them and if I turn around, see them scamper across floors, around boxes.  Nothing can be left on the counter that isn’t in a plastic, boxed container — the mice haven’t figured out how to nibble through anything like that.  Yet.

Which is why, when all this is completed, I will bring in another resident — one of my cats, possibly two.  Maybe they’ll discourage those particular, unwanted visitors.

Damn.  There goes another one, jumping off the counter onto the floor.  I think I have a mouse circus.  At least for now.

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Firewalls add protection not only in computers and software but also in homes.  Quite simply, the purpose of a firewall is to provide some kind of protection from getting in.  It provides a kind of blockade.

Today while they were working, Tim and his dad kept running into firewalls in the house, which meant that re-wiring didn’t go as smoothly as they’d planned.  Sometimes the old pine even broke drill bits.  Tough and resilient, it resisted change and updating.  All day, they fought the 1946 construction in the original part of the house.  What should have taken a matter of hours, perhaps the morning, took all day instead.  Tomorrow they’ll finish the back part of the house, the addition, and its wiring.

How that resonates with me today, on a lot of levels, personal and otherwise.  We put up firewalls to protect ourselves all the time, and that’s fine.  Until we realize that we forgot to take them down — or find that we can’t.  Protection from feelings, usually from deep pain or anger, keeps us going.  Yet at some point, those feelings come back up and blow the firewall away if possible.  We can be deluged by feelings we’ve barricaded ourselves from for far too long.

I know that I often deal with a difficult situation by compartmentalizing it somehow so that I can manage to deal with the immediate, the necessary.  When that’s over, when there’s time, I’ll collapse.  Physically, I just run out of steam.  Emotionally, I am drained and empty for a while.  Often all I feel is depressed or negative for a while.  If I’m fortunate, soon that will pass and I can face the emotions I had to put aside for awhile.  Sort of like those firewalls.

Lately, though, it’s almost the exact opposite: instead of emotions being blocked behind those firewalls, they seem to be right at the surface, ready to be agitated into action.  At times, it’s as though I’m an emotion waiting to be set off.  Today I simply had to walk off, take deep breaths, and drive around for a while — before I could go back and be polite.  Exhaustion doesn’t help me keep the temper under control, even though I want to.

The other thing those firewalls reminded me of today is writer’s block.  The frustration of needing to write, of wanting to create, but running up against block after block after block.  Nothing comes to fruition.  Nothing on paper is right.  Sometimes all I end up with is blank paper.

For a while now, almost a year, I’ve wanted to write.  Manuscripts wait to be revised, but when I pull them up, I am dry and empty.  At best, I can manage to work on a page or two.

Yet two weeks ago my firewall burst apart, and this blog came as a result.  Lots of emotions about retiring, about “losing my life,” about being a caregiver full-time — some recognized and others not so much.  Finally I found the words flowing with the very topic that had been my firewall:  my life here in Egan, my new life post-retirement.

Today, I didn’t do much while Tim and his dad worked.  Not much physical, that is.  I’ve packed a few boxes of books.  I’ve answered some email and read a lot, online and otherwise.  I’ve visited with friends, one I grew up with who lives in Lake Charles now, who stopped by on her way back from Lafayette.  The other is my friend who lives across the street; he ran an errand for me while he was in Crowley and I was just sitting here.  Having the time — taking the time — to spend with them is a real treat.  When I was still working, it was difficult to take the time for visiting with friends.  Now I have a lot of time for friends. So while Tim and his dad worked, I visited.

Mostly, I just tried to stay out of the way.  As the day passed and the firewalls frustrated them hour after hour, I thought a lot about why those firewalls had been put in, and why they were where they were.  I couldn’t tell you why the original design called for them, or why the builders put them where they did.  I just know that they’re there, and that they’ve both served one purpose and nearly halted another.

And in addition to the firewalls:  the wiring itself.  The original wiring, in the attic, is from 1946.  I have a piece of it to show my dad, the retired electrician, who will shudder when he sees it:  frayed, broken, and often bare, it was a fire hazard waiting for an event that (luckily) never happened. Sometimes we’re lucky and the broken places don’t lead to fires.

But the surprising problem wasn’t just that wiring but the more recent wiring, too.  Lines of it started, connected properly to the box, but led nowhere, and simply ended in walls without being connected to anything.  Some of the wiring, I think, came when my brother Phil did some work in the 1980s and early 1990s.  It’s good wiring, but not all of it was being used.  Maybe he was preparing for future projects, but those never came to be.  What did he have in mind?  I wondered; I asked Dad, but he didn’t know.  There were no notes telling us, just the mysteries of the unused wires.

Most houses have a central box (a breaker box, as they used to be known).  Ours has four.  Nothing was labeled, either, so Tim and his dad have puzzled out what led where, and what controlled what.

Extra wires to nowhere; four breaker boxes with unlabeled circuits and lines.

So it came down to this:  identify what to keep, what could be used, and what to eliminate and cut away.

Once the front part of the house, the original part of the house, was done and the receptacles covered, Tim and his dad called it a day.  They’ll finish the rest tomorrow.

I can’t wait to show Dad the wiring exhibit and tell him about those wires to nowhere.

I don’t need for fires to break out from the bared emotions but I’m glad my firewalls have been broken through for now, too.

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Lucky Thirteen

Many people consider 13 an unlucky number.  Not me.  My birthday is July 13, so I’ve always thought that was my lucky number.  Even more unlucky than the mere number 13 is Friday 13.  Once more, I think it’s a good day:  I was actually born on Friday 13.  Yes, I’ve grown up with all the jokes and comments.  I shrug them off.  If anything’s wrong with me, I usually say, it’s that my dad once fell asleep while rocking me and dropped me on my head. Actually, he didn’t — he simply rolled the rocker forward somehow, and I rolled on the floor as Dad rolled out of the rocker.  But it’s a much better story if I say he fell asleep and dropped me on my head.

I remind myself sometimes lately that I am indeed lucky — lucky to have been able to retire just when I did, the very month that Dad had pneumonia, the month that he could no longer drive, and the month where it became clear that he really was going to need someone to live with him full-time. I am grateful every day for that, because I would have had to leave work anyway — take a leave, or retire quickly.  And that the university offered an incentive for those of us who were eligible to retire — a real cosmic thumbs-up to me, I think.  Karma can be good to us.  It was certainly good to me in fall 2010, when that offer was made.  I took it up — was in the door at HR to sign up at 8:15 a.m. the morning the offer was valid.  I hoped to be first in line: I was number 8.  I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the offer.

The universal crapshoot rolled my way that fall, and I am fully aware of the fortune I was given.  Not a fortune of money, though there was an incentive package, but a fortune of time and opportunity.

Much of what I’ve read about the other baby boomers who are doing what I do catalog the difficulties we all face and share, but also the lost wages that result from being the caregiver who drives a parent to the doctor, or takes off to stay with ill parent, or run errands, or any of the myriad tasks that we perform at the drop of a hat. When I worked and had to miss class, I could teach online.  I was also close enough to commute many days.  I didn’t actually lose wages, though I’m sure I lost efficiency and focus.  But in reading about others, I’m far more conscious once more of just how fortunate I’ve been in the situation.

This afternoon, driving back from Lake Charles, I thought about the role good fortune has played in my life.  Along with my brother and sister, I was fortunate to have a loving family, immediate and extended, one that remains close and in touch.  My parents stayed together, through difficult times, and provided stability and modeled responsibility as well as fostered life-skills that continue to pay off.  We never lacked for food or clothing; we were never conscious of lacking anything, in fact, though now I realize that my father’s salary as an electrician just didn’t allow for a lot of extras.  Yet we had allowances and toys and books.  Always there was money for books.

We grew up knowing that we’d go to college, never doubting that.  Yet my sister had friends whose fathers were well-to-do rice farmers who wouldn’t send their daughters to college — that was a waste of money.  Years after I had a Ph.D., a family friend commented to my dad that he’d wasted his money — after all, I hadn’t “caught a husband.”  Dad simply pointed out that I supported myself, had a job, and owned my own home. My father grew up on a red-dirt farm in East Texas during the Depression; though neither of his parents went beyond 3rd and 6th grade, Dad and his brother and sister all finished high school when many of their cousins didn’t. He had two semesters at the University of Texas; his brother finished post-secondary studies.  My mother graduated high school and went to business school. For us, education was important; Dad saved for that, and all of us went to college.

Blue-collar income, but middle-class values about education.  I also came to know just how fortunate Kay and Phil and I were in another way — we were never told what to major in.  Instead, we were told to major in something we liked and enjoyed, because we’d be working and needed to like what we did.  Rather than having “success” defined by material goods or high salaries, we had it defined by job satisfaction and by our friendships and family and personal morality.  Doing right, living right, and being able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning: those were important.  Going along with the crowd or keeping up with the Joneses wasn’t.

Responsibility and independence were important for us– and not just things that were given lip-service.  We saw them modeled for us. Dad worked a job for which he was on call 24/7. Mother kept house and was the financial whiz who kept the savings and bank account records and managed to save something every paycheck in a Christmas account at the bank. She used layaway; there was certainly no shame in frugality.   We had chores around the house; our allowances were earned.  We saw Mother and Dad both read and watch television and keep up with current events.  Being the headstrong kid of the 60s, I remember many evening meals that I probably spoiled by disagreeing about politics and Viet Nam.  That others weren’t encouraged to speak their minds politically — even to differ with their parents openly — didn’t occur to me until I was an adult.  Thinking for ourselves, being politically aware and being tuned in to the world around us: yet more good fortune in my life.

As I sit here in my bed in this chaotic mess of a house, I realize just how fortunate I have been my entire life.  It’s not a crapshoot, I think.  There’s some kind of a plan, though of whose devising I’m not always clear.  I just know that there is one.

And when I go to bed and night and say my prayers, I always remember to be thankful for the fortune I’ve had and that I have still.

Good fortune.  Good luck.  Having grown up in a family where tough times were to be fought through with grace, I try to be equally graceful about the times I’m discouraged by just how much there is to do.  Today was one of those days where I just wanted to put my head down and cry.  I left Southwind feeling as though somehow I’d failed Dad by not having taken care of something, even though I know I can’t do it all, not at once.

I wanted to scream.  I didn’t.  I just got in my car, let a few tears out, and drove home to Egan, unpacked the car, and came in.  Tomorrow, I’ll get up and tackle the chore of packing the books and other things in my room.  I’ll manage to find someplace to stash the boxes I’ll fill, though right now I can’t imagine where that will be.

I’ll balance the checkbook and satisfy Dad’s need to know exactly what I’ve spent so far and exactly what’s in the bank.  A guess-timate doesn’t satisfy him. I know we’re not broke; he needs to know exactly what’s there.

Tonight, I’ll just take some deep breaths, read a little, and turn out the light at an earlier hour than usual.

And I’ll remember to be grateful that there is a checking account, and savings, and that I have the opportunity to balance the checkbook knowing there’s enough money.  Not a fortune, true, but as my late great-uncle Ben would have said, “a right smart.”  That means enough, sufficient.

Gratitude for sufficient means, for love, and for another day to tackle the hard stuff.

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Twelfth Night

Tonight is twelfth night.

No, not the beginning of Mardi Gras season — that’s also Twelfth Night, January 6.  That’s when Carnival season opens in Louisiana.

Instead, it’s my twelfth night of blogging.  One of my dreams about retirement was to have time to write.  Well, I have time now, but find it used in very different ways than I’d planned.  I am writing — but not necessarily about what I thought would be the subject.

Yet it’s a subject that spoke to me, that came to me out of the very changes I’m dealing with.  Retirement, yes, but also caregiving for my father.

In the twelve nights, Dad’s been so weak that he could barely eat.  He’s been in the hospital.  Yet he has worked at physical therapy, improved, and despite the four days in hospital has improved.  He pulls himself up, he can walk with a walker, he feeds himself easily, and his appetite has returned.

A month ago, I was pretty sure he’d never recover enough to stay at home. Now I’m sure that he will come home to our home again.  It will be changed, but it will be safe and wheelchair accessible.

I’ve worked at a breakneck pace, driven by a need to complete the home renovations in a 3-week period.  The 21 days were up on Thursday, and we’re still working on the house, but I think we’ll be done by the weekend.  If you looked at the house, you might doubt that, because furniture and other things are completely out of place to free up rooms for new flooring.

Yesterday I painted bathrooms and packed part of my belongings in my bedroom.  Completely exhausted, I gave up trying to completely finish my room.  I had to leave, visit Dad, and drive to Lake Charles.  I’m here until tomorrow.

Just how tired I was became clear when I came in, put on my nightshirt, and crawled onto the bed with a blanket.  Too tired even to put fresh sheets on the bed, I simply skipped that and went to sleep.

Today I am still tired.  I guess I simply worked at such a pace that I couldn’t keep it up.  Add to that the stress of dealing with Dad’s quick trip to the hospital.  Even with as good a staff as I’ve found to be at Southwind, I have realized that had I not gone to visit on Monday evening, no one would have called the doctor, and Dad’s fever might well have climbed.  Would his infection have slipped into sepsis?  Possibly.  Heavy dosages of three different antibiotics have prevented that, though.  For now.  Infections are always part of the reality for dialysis patients, and constant monitoring of dialysis grafts is necessary.  Staying alert to changes, to anything unusual in behavior or demeanor, is second nature now. No one knows Dad’s normal state better than Kay, or me, or our closest neighbors.

Stress?  I must pump cortisol out like crazy, because I can function under stress like a well-primed pump.  But when the stress is relieved . . . I collapse.  Which is what I have felt since Saturday.

So my twelfth night is a night of indulgence, an indulgence of allowing myself to acknowledge just how tired I am, and a reminder that caregivers are limited in their energy.  Everyone tells me to remember to care for myself as well as for Dad.  I try to do that.  I have Lady Days with friends where we get pedicures and manicures.  I have massages once a month.  Sometimes, though, what I want is just to sleep.

I don’t know what I’ll find when I return to Egan tomorrow.  I don’t know whether my bedroom has been emptied so that new flooring could be put into place.  I don’t really know what the schedule is, since the surprise of having to rewire the house. Frankly, at this point the memory of the bags and boxes and piles of belongings moved out of place and stashed wherever there is room intimidates me.

One step at a time.  One task at a time.  Deep breaths.  And sleep.

Blogging helps me process what’s going on, what I’m feeling, and while I might not have chosen to write about retiring, returning to Egan, and caring for Dad, those are the subjects that have chosen me.

Tonight’s post is shorter, reflects my state of exhaustion.  Tomorrow?  I’ll discover it as it happens.

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It’s been one of those days.  I’ve managed to paint the two bathrooms, and the ceilings, though I need to put another coat of paint on the ceiling in the front bathroom.

I am now packing up more stuff from my room.  Well, some of it is packed.  Some of it is simply stuffed in bags and shoved into any spare place in the living room.  I have to get as much of that done tonight as possible, since tomorrow I think they’re putting the new vinyl flooring in my room.  They’ll have to move the heavy stuff.

As I’ve worked today, I’ve done so to various Lyle Lovett CDs.  The bouncy, jazzy, country tunes keep me going on a day where all I really want to do is go to bed and sleep.  Can’t do that.  Not yet.

Music keeps me going many times.  In the truck yesterday I was wondering why the local NPR station wasn’t on, and then realized that it’s set in my Mini Cooper, not in Dad’s truck.  There I seem to listen to various country and western stations.  Yesterday, though, I traveled to some Cajun music, and then found an oldies station that was playing swamp pop music — the Boogie Kings and Rod Bernard and other groups I grew up listening to.  Today, though, it was Lyle.  Long before he was nationally known, I remember him as the kid with really big hair who played at some pizza parlor in College Station when I was in graduate school there in the late 1970s and early 80s.  In fact, after I left, he was a grad student in the same department I’d been in, English.

I don’t remember a time without music.  Mother and Dad always had music around the house. Mother played big band music; Dad liked classic country and western.  They also sang around the house, often together.  Dad’s baritone and Mother’s alto harmonized on hymns but also on other songs.  At church, Mother often sang in Latin.  When I went to church with Dad, he sang shape-note harmonies with no musical instruments accompanying the congregation.  Even today, I am equally comfortable with both very different traditions of religious music.

At night, Dad often sang us to sleep, with country songs of Jimmy Rogers or more hymns.  We thought nothing of singing together around the house, or on car trips to Texas.  We had our own version of “California, Here I Come”: “Egan, Egan, here I come, / Right back where I started from.”

My mother’s mother, Ella, loved music too.  She had a stereo and 78s from the 1940s, but kept up with popular music of the 1950s and 60s.  She also loved to dance, and it was she who trained me to clean house while dancing around to music.  In fact, she taught me to dance to the Cajun songs she’d grown up with — by putting me on her feet and having my feet simply learn the steps by her own feet moving in time and in step.  I still love to crank up music and clean house (or frankly just crank up music and dance around the floor pretending to clean house).  Maybe I’m channeling her spirit when I do that.

At odd (and embarrassing moments for a teenager sometimes) she would simply break into song and dance.  Almost anywhere.  Now I’m a little more forgiving of that — maybe even understanding it.

Once, when I was living in Beaumont and teaching at Lamar University in 1975, I was out at a local honky-tonk on a Friday night.  And I mean a honky-tonk:  Club 88.  Somewhere in the Golden Triangle.  From our table, friends saw me out on the dance floor, bumping into someone, and then we hugged, and kept dancing.  When I returned to our table, a friend asked who the old lady was I’d bumped into and hugged.  I told him to be careful how he talked about my grandmother.  He said something like, “No, really, who was it?” And I said “No, really, that was my grandmother.”  Red hair in an upswept style, with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, she came to our table and met everyone.  They had the full Ella experience.  She loved to dance, and dance she did.  One of her favorite brothers, in fact, even died of a heart attack on the dance floor.  In the 1940s, she was friends with Harry James’s father, who taught band at the high school my mother attended.  Ella and her husband loved to go to Pleasure Pier with the Jameses and dance.  After Mother and Dad married in 1948, they’d go along too, though Dad’s paycheck didn’t always quite stretch far enough.

One thing that Texas and Louisiana have in common:  good music of many different cultures.  I mean, I grew up listening to the Neville Brothers music on local radio and watching Saturday dance shows with Cajun music; I also watched American Bandstand, even when it was in Philadelphia and a daily show (I was a precocious 4-year-old).  In Texas, in the 1970s, I somehow missed most of disco and fit right in to what was known as progressive country music:  Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Augie Meyers, Kinky Friedman, Nanci Griffith, or The Texas Tornados, or Townes Van Zandt.

Music has just been part of my life as long as I can remember.  Growing up here in Egan, I listened to the radio a lot. It connected me to the larger music world of the 1960s, to the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks. Now on my car radio, I sometimes catch different stations, or sometimes plug in the iPod.

Around the house, I catch my dad humming at times, just as his dad did.

Me? I’m more likely to turn up the volume and sing along.  Especially when I drive.

Which is what I will do tonight, when I finally hit the road back to Lake Charles.  Selecting appropriate road music is crucial for a successful road trip, no matter how far the drive.

If I’m headed to Texas, I’ll pick some Texas songwriters.  For tonight, I’ll want something you could dance to, so I can bop along in the driver’s seat as I make the 45-mile drive.  I’ll be tired and the beat will keep me awake and paying attention.

Music has always charted my life.  It reminds me where I’ve been.  Listening to Lyle Lovett’s “Bohemia” brought me back to the mid-70s in Texas and a Texas group called Kiwi, who sang it as well; in fact, I’ve got a cassette tape of them singing it.  In this house, I hear the music of my teenage years at times, certainly since I found some of the albums I left at Egan — the Monkees, the Dave Clark Five, the Beatles.  High school music.

Yes, music reminds me who I am and where I’ve been. It comforts me at times.  At others, it feeds my blue moods and fosters a melancholy streak. And then again it can elevate me out of the very blue mood other music might foster.

At times I even think about what I might want played at my own memorial service — and there’s a long, long list.  On smart-ass days (and there are a lot of those), I swear that John Prine’s “Please Don’t Bury Me” will be the first song played, if for nothing other than the line “And kiss my ass goodbye.”  Yet John Lennon’s “Imagine” is high on the list too.

Music fills the house today, and I can sing and paint, or sit and sing, as I wish.  My computer’s iTunes is full of music, diverse and never boring.  It has Adelle and The Dixie Chicks, Leonard Cohen and Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven and Robert Johnson.  I might pick the Neville Brothers, or I might choose to listen to the soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera or Mamma Mia.

Whatever I select will work with my spirits, taking me places in time and space.

I must have music with me, even if I don’t always play it.  I know it’s there when I need it.

For bedtime tonight, I could plug in some Sondheim, “A Little Night Music.”  But I think I’d rather remember my father singing one song in particular:  “Goodnight, Irene.”  I think he does see Irene (my mother) in his dreams.

Tonight, music will take me to dreams, relaxing me after a long day, allowing me to rest for tomorrow, for a new day.

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Slow Saturday

When I was still teaching, Saturdays always provided me the opportunity not to set the alarm clock.  Instead, I usually slept in.  Indeed, many Fridays (especially after a long, full week of grading and meetings), I went home, locked the door, and cocooned for the weekend.  I might not ever even get out of my nightshirt.  Weekends — cherished time for being alone, for being quiet, for just relaxing.

Now there’s no longer the contrast between working weekdays and weekends.  Rather, days often blend, one into the other, though now I tend to divide days between dialysis days (Monday-Wednesday-Friday) and the rest of the week.

With Dad in Southwind and the house in disarray, Saturday is just another day to set the alarm, at least temporarily, until the renovations are completed and the house in order.  Today was no different.

Though I longed to burrow back under the quilt, I rolled out at 7 a.m., dressed, and then indulged in the impulse to go back to bed for an hour.  Fully dressed in sweatpants and t-shirt, I did just that.  I figured I could manage that.

And so another hour passed.  Finally I realized that the sheetrock guy might well show up soon, so I padded to the front door and unlocked it, opening the door to look out the storm door at the grayish sky.  Just then, the contractor showed up and teased me about being sleepy and it being time to wake up.  I let him in, and we talked as the sheetrock guy worked, his young son acting as helper for the day.

When he moved on to the back bathroom, Tim (the contractor) went back with him to talk.  I sat and read, enjoying a bit of time curled up in a recliner.  After a while, I heard footsteps on the ramp and looked up, expecting to see my neighbor Charles, and saw my friend Jimmy instead.  We’ve been friends since first grade and he’s now a dentist.  In fact, he’s the one who led me to Tim, and thus to all the renovations now taking place around me.

Being back in Egan has been a series of revelations of sorts.  Perhaps “reminders” might be a better word choice.  Reminders of what the best of small-town life can be.  The knowledge that neighbors always check in to see not only how Dad is doing, but how I am.  Being able to call on friends, day or night, knowing they’ll be over across the street if I need them.

I run into people at the post office when I go to get the mail.  Sometimes I know them; sometimes I don’t recognize them but know that I should.  Always, though, they ask about Dad, and ask how I’m doing.  And I know that their inquiries are not simply polite chitchat but are truly meant to elicit responses.  So I find myself lingering and talking, then getting back into the truck (or the Mini) and heading to Crowley or back to the house.

It’s the kind of place where you can show up at someone’s house, knock on the door, and be welcomed.  As Jimmy was welcomed today.  He’d come to see how the house was coming along, and it was fun to take him through the chaos and know that he could see progress.

When I was growing up here, all I could think about was leaving and going somewhere bigger, somewhere more exciting.  I still think I enjoy the amenities of a larger town, to be sure — bookstores and coffeeshops and stores other than Walmart.  Traveling to Greece for a few weeks in my place there or spending a week in London — my childhood dreams of living in other countries find some semblance of reality then.  Yet even with that love of travel possible, even with my home in Lake Charles, I find that Egan is comfortable and reassuring.

There are a number of people in Egan now whom I do not know.  Yet the neighbors are still the ones I had when I was 16.  We’re just older and grayer.

Coming back here has been, in many ways, like putting on a familiar piece of clothing that I’d put away to the back of the closet.  Other, fancier clothes hang there too, but the familiar comfort of hometown life has surprised me and wrapped around me, making me know I’m not alone, that it’s not that I must choose one place over another.

No, it’s not that at all.  I can have all the choices, all the places that make up my life.  Egan.  Lake Charles.  Athens.  Texas.  There’s room for all of them in my life.  All of them have shaped me and continue to do so.

Places have times, too — and right now, at this time, Egan is the place for me.  The others will still be there tomorrow or next week or next year.  When I was younger, I was oblivious to this truth — and only longed to leave, to escape.

Now I can cherish the opportunity to live here again, finding my pace here without skipping a beat.  Living in this moment, savoring it all.

I didn’t get as much done today as I’d hoped.  I got some painting done, and I can finish that tomorrow morning.  I didn’t get anything boxed and moved out of my room, but I can do that tomorrow too, since that won’t take more than an hour or so.

Instead, today I slowed down the pace, visiting with friends, shopping, cooking lunch, even napping.  I worked a bit, then dressed and went in to town to spend a couple of hours with Dad.  Even there we didn’t talk the entire time.  After catching up on news and chatting, we could just sit there comfortably.  He closed his eyes; I opened my iPad and started reading.  He mentioned a number of times how glad he was that we could talk; he’d missed me.

Eventually I left and returned to the house.  I ate supper and decided that work could wait another few hours.

Now I think I’ll crawl into bed, read a bit, and go to sleep. The alarm will go off at 7 a.m.  And I’ll eventually get up and finish the jobs I started today.

Slowing down today hasn’t been because I was still tired — at least not completely.  Not even mostly.  Instead, it was about being in the moment, enjoying the sudden cool spell after 80-degree-shorts-weather in early March.

Enjoying my time, my life.  A welcome day.  A good day.

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Some Rest for the Weary

Though not much went on today, I am exhausted.  I guess the week has taken its toll at last.  Restless night last night — don’t know why, but it was difficult to fall asleep.  And when I did, I kept waking up.  The alarm went off and at 7 a.m. I dragged myself out of bed, dressed, and waited.  And waited.  No real work went on today — the contractor had to get electrical wiring and ended up having to drive to Lafayette to get it.  He and his dad picked up and delivered the flooring for my bedroom.

So I ended up actually sitting around the house all morning, watching HGTV and washing clothes in preparation for Dad returning to Southwind.  HGTV is just too addictive.  For show after show I watched as people shopped for homes or planned renovations or hunted for international getaways.  None of these homes resembled anything I own or have owned or lived in.  Budgets that start at $200,000 and head toward $900,000 just amaze me.  Renovations that cost more than what I paid for my home in Lake Charles astound me.  High-end living?  Some of it.  But not all of it.  Some of the prices just reflect the kinds of homes that many people seek.  The mortgages must strangle them.  Or else their salaries are far higher than mine ever was as a professor (not that we make high salaries in Louisiana).

No, the home I am renovating now is far more modest.  Built in 1946 by Sun Oil Company, it was one of 9 houses or so that made up the Egan Sun Oilfield camp.  Returning veterans from WWII who worked for various oil and gas companies found a housing shortage, and houses such as this one were built to provide free housing for people like Dad.  Yes, that’s right.  Free housing.  Basically, we lived in a small compound in a small town ( a village, really, in the case of Egan) or even out in the country outside of small towns (like the camp we previously lived in, near Sunset, Louisiana, which is in turn near Opelousas).

All the houses were variations on a couple of designs.  Two bedrooms with a narrow back room that could work as a third bedroom.  One bathroom.  Either a small kitchen and a larger living room or a large kitchen and a smaller living room.  That was it.  The color palette was narrow, as I recall:  Desert Sand seemed particularly popular.  All the houses had hardwood floors in the bedrooms and living rooms and linoleum in the bathrooms and kitchens.

In the Egan camp, one double garage served two houses, sitting at the end of a gravel driveway off of the concrete road that ran in front of the houses over a cattleguard, and out to the highway.  Two rows of houses.  Two concrete roads. Backyards connected the backs of the rows, with a line of switch cane bushes dividing the yards.  Those of us who lived on the houses at the end of a row nearest the highway had the benefit of even more room to play:  there was a huge area that could easily have held another house on each row.  Across the road from the first row was yet another expanse of land, empty except for a huge swingset (made out of oilfield pipes, I’m sure). There were drainage ditches in front of the houses, and there were sidewalks from the front door to the road.

So this house has a specific history and purpose, not that many people today even know what oil-field camps were.

This house, in fact, isn’t one that we lived in at all.  We lived in two different houses, one on either road, at different times.  This house was one that another family lived in.  In 1966, the 20-year lease on the property was up, and Sun Oil broke up the camp.  Some of us bought houses and moved them onto land that we also bought.  I think my dad told me that he paid maybe $2000.00 for this house, and about $800 for the land.  My mother chose this house because it had a larger living room.  He and two friends who also worked for the company extended the house by taking the back wall down and built out from the narrow back room/enclosed porch.  They also placed the double garage we bought on the property, placing it on a concrete slab that they poured, and building a room and laundry room between the house itself and the garage — forming an L.

Renovations frequently provide surprises, and ours is no different.  In our case, the wiring needs to be completely replaced.  Tim, the contractor, was tying in a new motion-activated light for the front of the house and as he did, the wiring just crumbled in his hands.  Not exactly safe.  Some wiring still had insulation, but broken and chewed (thanks, mice and other creatures) and the lovely copper showed through.  Not something we’d planned on, but something absolutely necessary.

The newest wiring came from the 1970s, when Dad ran a 220-line to the front window for a window air-conditioner.  Central heating (gas) but window units.  Not for long — now we’re going to add central air-conditioning, since the duct-work is already there.  That duct-work is metal.  Vintage 1946.

I don’t even want to think about the lead that probably is still under the current wall paint in my bedroom and Kay’s, or that was in the original bathroom’s sheetrock that had to be removed.  If the lead hasn’t hurt us yet, it won’t now.  Nor will the asbestos shingles that were also standard finish for all the camp houses.  White, of course.  In the camp we used broken pieces to play hopscotch with on the sidewalks.  The broken shingle pieces could be used both to actually mark out the hopscotch blocks and to use as the pieces we threw.  No one worried then about friable asbestos products.  Or lead-based paint.

So today, while Tim searched for heavy-duty wiring in Lafayette, I sat in one of the recliners, drank Diet Dr. Pepper, watched HGTV, and found myself aching and weary. Yet I couldn’t simply lie down and sleep.  By noon, I realized that it might be raining again soon, and that our backyard was beginning to resemble a wilderness garden.  The riding lawnmower, parked under the truck/boat shed at the back of our yard, started easily enough.  But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t seem to really make the progress I thought I ought to make.  I moved the blade up and down, but after two hours and endless passes back and forth and then perpendicular to the original rows, the grasses and weeds looked more like I was rolling them to death rather than actually cutting them.  Clover patches didn’t really disappear.

I finally gave up, came in, and drank more DDP.  Guess I’ll need to get a friend to see if a belt slipped off somehow.

By three, I took a break to get the mail and make a run to the bank for an extra checkbook. Then back to the house.

Next up:  boxing some books and moving three pieces of furniture out of my bedroom (not alone — my sister came in and helped).  I’ll work more tomorrow on clearing out the two huge bookcases and piling those boxes somewhere.  The room will be the next for new flooring, and I’ll have all the small furniture and baskets out so that only the bed and bookcases are actually left.  I hope to repaint the room, too, though whether I can manage to get any of that done tomorrow is, frankly, doubtful.

Finally, I drove back to Crowley, filling the tank of the truck (OMG — gas prices!) and taking clean clothes to Southwind, where I was able to sit and visit with Dad.Today he was released from the hospital and is once more at Southwind.  I put away the clean clothes, placed the laundry hamper back in his closet, and sat and talked.  He is alert once more, with a healthier appetite, and renewed interest in everything.  We talked about the house, about the renovations, about the farm and family, and just enjoyed each other’s company for a while.

A quick trip to Walmart for more boxes to put books in and a few more things, and just as I drove into Egan, the rain that has been threatening all day finally came, though not for long.  Not yet, anyway.  I suspect that it’ll pour tonight or tomorrow.

So here I sit on Friday night, with a stiff neck and aching muscles from moving furniture and books.   For a lazy day, I got a number of projects started or advanced or completed.

Tomorrow the alarm will go off at 7 a.m. again, because even though tomorrow is Saturday and the weekend, the sheetrock guy is coming back.

Tonight I am just bone-tired.  My eyes even ache. It’s a good kind of tired, though.

But I’ll get some sleep tonight, I think, and the rest that eluded me last night.

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It’s strange how exhilarating it is to throw out bags of garbage, junk, and long-dead electronic items.  Difficult to start, admittedly, but addicting once you get started.

At least, that’s what I’m feeling in the last two weeks.  And just now, when I dumped 5 more bags into the contractor’s trailer.  I will have more to throw, I know, but for right now, I’m sitting at the computer desk, surrounded by so much stuff that I wonder whether I really have thrown out anything at all.  Maybe, in fact, when I go to bed at night, all this stuff simply reproduces itself.  Sort of like the essays and exams I graded for 30 years.

Those things, useful though they probably were in an earlier life, have past their shelf-life here.  Deep purging of material items is long overdue.  It’s tempting, in fact, just to dump away without examining the contents of entire drawers, full of items, or folders, or boxes.  Instead, though, I have to open the boxes, sort through the files and papers and drawers of things, assessing them.

Why did Dad still have three electric razors, in their cases, piled on Grandpa Charlie’s desk?  He doesn’t use an electric razor.

Why are there bank statements and bills going back to the 1990s?  Those are in a garbage bag and I will take them someplace that will shred documents, where I’ll pay by the pound.  I mean, I am not going to hand-feed bags of paid bills, ancient bank statements and the like through the 8-pages-at-a-time shredder that I can’t even get to because it’s under a desk that has chairs and an electric medical scooter and mysterious stacks of other stuff blocking it.

I’ve already sorted through dishes, and there’s a box of those ready to take to Goodwill.  I bought new Corelle dishes, figuring that at least if Dad drops those they probably won’t break.  And the dishes I’ve piled in a box?  At least three different patterns, none of which match each other, and no complete sets of anything.  Why oh why do we need so many pots and pans?  Some, I remember as I touch them, were from the two grandmothers, family heirlooms.  My Grandmother Ware’s cast-iron pots have their place with Dad’s.  Seasoned cast iron pots must never be thrown away, only cherished and passed on. My Grandmother Ella’s gumbo pots (huge, industrial-size pots) that came to Mother at some point. (Though I’ve got a smaller one from Ella in my own kitchen — she gave it to me when I first set up an apartment in 1975 in Beaumont.) A cheap set of pots that once served the camper Mother and Dad had in the 1980s.  Odds and ends, none matching, but so many still used and valuable.  Those I’ve managed to sort through and store, knowing that some will go to my kitchen and some to Kay’s.  Others, though — probably to Goodwill at some point.  Glassware:  same sort of story.  Most of those mismatched pieces are ready to go, though I still have another cabinet to work through.  There are, though, some glasses and dishes I won’t toss:  the very 50s stylish highball glasses from my grandmother Ella, rather Oriental and exotic (as she could be).  The complete set of Franciscan ware (the dark red pattern, not the pink one) that Mother kept for special occasions, that will be Kay’s.  That set occupies the highest shelf in one cabinet, and might as well stay since I’m too short to access that shelf without a ladder anyway.

Plastic tubs from margarine and other food products? Found dozens of  ’em.  Tossed every one of them.  Yet I keep discovering more, tucked away in corners and at the backs of shelves.  Waiting to be unpackaged and put into use:  real containers for storing and reheating leftovers.

Dozens of jars of home canning were stacked in the tiny dining room that also holds two upright freezers (yes, two, not one) and that held Grampa Charlie’s desk and a three-drawer filing cabinet.  Most were jellies and jams that Dad had put up.  Most were also long out of date.  Kay threw those away last weekend, keeping only those that are actually still edible.

Yet despite such abundance of some items, I find a lack of others.  No measuring spoons in the kitchen.  No large mixing bowls.  No measuring cup over a one-cup size.  So new items are showing up now. mixed with the old.  The kitchen pantry (aka another regular cabinet) overflows onto the one really usable counterspace.  That’s something that needs addressing and remedying, somehow.

Paperwork?  Bills?  Other necessary records and documents?  Dad has kept the books for the family farm; he also has his own financial records and bills.  I couldn’t face that entire task.Kay has gone through the two filing cabinets and four desk drawers, sorting what was there into two piles, one for the farm, one for Egan.  In each of those, she has separated what is 2011 material from anything earlier.    But I’ve now mailed off the farm documents to my cousin who is taking over maintenance of financial matters there.  Dad’s bills and documents were in filing cabinets, but often just tossed in — or piled in the four desk drawers.  Now, though, Kay has reduced the tons of paper to bags (to be shredded), boxes for past stuff to keep, and a portable file box for current stuff.  So much more decipherable.  She will balance Dad’s checkbook, too.  Of course, when I get to set up the office area, I also have to set up an area for my own bills.  Those will go into the purple file box I’ve already got waiting.

Then there are the drawers of Dad’s clothes — his wardrobe has had to change recently.  Weight loss is one reason.  His frailty is another.  Blue jeans have been replaced by sweatpants.  Pullover shirts and t-shirts replace buttoned shirts.  No more white undershirts and shorts; solid colors and plaids are easier to maintain.  His closet?  I’m not even touching that at all.

As I have sorted through his clothes, I realize that Dad’s been using some of the clothes that were my brother’s.  In my own bedroom closets, which I attacked in June, I threw out something like 15 garbage bags filled with some of my old stuff, but also some items that were Mother’s, and more that were Phil’s.  Since Phil was about 5 ‘ 9″ and never weighed more than 165 when he was healthy, that means Dad’s weight loss has been ongoing.  Now Dad weighs 145 as of this week.

Unearthing assorted items that belonged to Phil was one thing.  Finding two of his suitcases, labeled with his neat handwriting, threw me, though.  One night last week I simply sat in the kitchen on the floor and went through one suitcase — and cried.  I kept his ties, lovely and colorful, and plan to make something with them, though just what I don’t know.  The suitcase and the clothes?  Gone.  The other, larger suitcase?  Still waiting for me to work up the courage to open it.  Phil died in January 1996, yet grief has a sneaky way of popping up when you least expect it and serving you a gut-punch.

Today I took out the remaining files in one drawer of the file cabinet to put in a box — and discovered one file that held dozens of letters and notes that Phil had written to Mother and Dad, and then to Dad after Mother died in 1993.  I just put that file carefully into the box and wrote “Phil’s letters” on it so I’d know what was most important in that box.

Evidence of my brother and mother?  Everywhere.  Even a pair or two of Mother’s shoes revealed themselves when I pulled boxes and other things out of the bottom of Dad’s closets, though I would have sworn that Kay and I had found all of Mother’s clothes and donated those years ago.

Most telling, perhaps, is the calendar on the wall near where Dad’s bed was, from  1993, still left at the July page, with the dates of July 30 and 31 annotated: for July 30: “Irene passed at 4:25 a.m.” and for July 31: “Buried at Antioch 4:30 p.m.”  Despite all the years he’s survived and toughed through Phil’s last illnesses and death and his own health problems, somehow that calendar and the two simple, neatly printed statements cut through me.   The dual contradictory reality of Dad’s life clearly speaks here.  Somehow he lives in time yet some part of time and life stopped for him then.

Married in May 1948, Mother and Dad beat the odds of a mixed marriage (he’s Church of Christ, she was Roman Catholic — very unusual for then), of the loss of their first child, of Mother’s emotional illnesses, of losses of parents and then Phil’s first bout with cancer.  Somehow I had forgotten that once they had been young and deeply in love; maybe most children don’t really think of their parents in that light.  Yet in the last weeks of her life, as she lay in a hospital bed in Lafayette, I remember one moment where it hit me — I was sitting on a couch, reading, looked up and caught a look between them so personal and loving that I not only realized that they loved each other, but that they were in love and lovers.  I felt horribly out of place, as though I’d interrupted a personal, intimate moment.

Not only bound by duty and responsibilities and vows, but by love, still real, still deep.

And so I left her shoes too, along with the calendar and Phil’s letters.  Along with the condolence cards that I know are in the cedar chest — from the death of their first child in 1950, kept along with all our baby bracelets from hospitals, with school report cards and other mementos for me and Phil and Kay, and some of our baby clothes. My first pair of glasses, blue metal ones so tiny that it’s hard to believe I got them in second grade.

Those items are too precious to touch.  They are reminders of lives gone but still part of us.

Then there is the room where Phil kept his cartridge-loading equipment.  There is the double-garage filled with Dad’s tools, Phil’s tools, and those of my mother’s late stepfather, Glenn.  They’re waiting for attention too. Luckily, I can put those areas off for now. I’m working from the inside out in my purging.

Tonight when the sheetrock guy leaves, I will once more tackle the task of clearing out, of boxing up, and throwing away.  But I will touch only my own room, my own belongings.  That’s all I can handle tonight.

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