Posts Tagged With: memories

Traveling to the Past: Farm Livin’ on the Ware Farm

Today in a bit I’ll be heading to the Ware family farm.  My grandfather bought the land in parcels, ending up with just over 140 acres of East Texas red dirt.  He managed to keep it through the Depression.

The farmhouse we have today — the one I’ll be staying in tonight — was only built in 1939-40.  Dad moved into it as a high school senior.  Until then, the family had not had a house with electricity, running water, or plumbing.  Neither of the two wood houses they lived in prior to 1940 still exists, but we know where they were.  The first was quite primitive, with a packed dirt floor, as I recall Dad saying.

The house they moved into in 1940 had three regular bedrooms and one small room that held a 3/4 bed; it also had a living room, dining room, kitchen, and a bathroom.  Family stories about the bathroom are quite funny.  Granddad, it seems, wasn’t convinced that it was hygienic to have the toilet so close to the kitchen, but Grandmother (who one of my dad’s first cousins refers to as “a progressive woman,” was determined to have it.  She won.  The bathroom was built, adjacent to the kitchen.  But Granddad built an outhouse and, I understand, used it for a while before he gave in about hygiene.

That house ended with the bathroom and kitchen — both had doors leading to a small porch that stepped down to the backyard.  However, after Granddad sold timber in 1956 or so, he built on an enclosed back porch, a small room for storage, and one more bedroom, large enough to hold two double beds and a crib.  That back porch enclosed the well that we used for water.  Though the well was connected to an electric water pump, there were times when we had to haul water from it by hand.  Only in the 1990s did we get “city” water.  That’s kind of funny, in a way — we are five miles or so out of the “big” town of San Augustine, which has a population of maybe 2500 people.  Only in the 1970s or 80s  did we get connected to the gas main — until then we had a propane tank.

This is the house now:


The farm is very much in the country.  I tell people it’s in San Augustine, but that’s not quite true.  It’s in San Augustine County, but it’s not in town.  It’s five miles or so out of town, in a tiny community called Bland Lake.  It’s country, clearly:


There’s a lot of pasture land now, and our barn’s still standing.  Sort of:


Both my grandparents’ families were from this area.  The Wares came to this area in the 1830s, just before the Texas Revolution.  Some other ancestors on that same side came about the same time.  My grandmother Ware’s family, however, were relative newcomers — they moved to San Augustine in 1900, leaving Barbour County, Alabama, for an area that friends had already moved to, and wrote back about.

San Augustine and Nacogdoches, Texas, have an ongoing disagreement about which is the oldest settlement in Texas.  San Augustine is also known as the point of entry for the border area between it and Louisiana (known as No-Man’s Land).  The town is also known for feuds along the lines of the Hatfields-McCoys.  With a violent past, it had its last shootout in the 1930s, and my aunt and grandmother were in town when that happened.  The problem was considered serious enough that TWOTWO — Texas Rangers were sent in to take care of it.

Granddad farmed with a horse and mules.  Only when he sold the timber in 1956 did he buy a tractor — and a new truck — and build on to the house.  The main crop was cotton, of course.  He also grew corn and potatoes and watermelon.  I can remember helping to pick corn and get potatoes.  I also remember getting in trouble for plugging watermelons with my older boy cousins — until Granddad put a stop to it, sternly.  He sold most of them for cash, another source of income.

Grandmother had her “truck patch.”  Most farm wives did.  Hers was, at its peak, pretty large.  I remember going up and down rows of peas and butter beans and other vegetables, sweating, with my little bonnet on that she’d made.  She always wore her own bonnet, long sleeves, and gloves — ladies didn’t get tanned, even farm wives.  She also milked and gathered eggs.  I loved to help with that — though I couldn’t milk worth anything.  Gathering eggs was much easier, and feeding the chickens was a neat chore.

My grandmother didn’t have a washing machine until the 1950s — and we still have it.  It was a ringer-type washer, and I was always fascinated by it.  We don’t use it, of course — but it still sits in the shed.

Dad and his brother and sister helped out, as farm kids did, and they’d laugh as they told us what it was like to run barefoot on the hot dirt as they picked cotton.  They’d tell us about using a kerosene lamp to read and study by.

By the time I was born,  none of the three kids was on the farm.  Dad worked for Sun Oil Company and lived in Beaumont.  Uncle James worked for Sun Pipe Line and lived in Louisiana, though he ended up in Beaumont as well.  My Aunt Mildred lived in Fort Worth, where she and her husband and two boys lived; she’d moved up there during World War II to work in a war-related plant, as so many did.  None of the grandchildren ever lived there either.

Grandmother died in 1962; Granddad died a couple of years later.  Yet the farm remains in the family.  For Dad and his siblings, this was home.  For us grandkids, it’s not home, but it’s special.  We spent many hours roaming the pastures, playing in the ditches and barn, and wandering where we weren’t always supposed to be.  One of my earliest memories, in fact, is here — when Dad was in the hospital in Beaumont for goiter surgery, I was at the farm with my grandparents, and feeling very lonely.  I can remember lying in bed in the fireplace bedroom, looking out the window at the pasture, and crying.  Granddad came in to hum to me and comfort me.  I was, at the time, probably 3.  This view is close to what I remember, though it’s in daytime, not night:


Over the years, we’ve worked on making the house safe and comfortable.  We get together several times a year there, working on one project for three days or so each time.  It’s work time, but also family time.  We take turns being responsible for meals, and we sit around at night and talk a lot.  And laugh a lot, too.

Though it isn’t a working farm, we lease out pasture to a cousin’s husband; he runs cattle on it.  Since he’s there every day at least once, we are comfortable knowing that someone has an eye out for us.  If he doesn’t look at things, another cousin (who lives just down the road), drives by and keeps us informed of any activity, especially related to oil or gas-related lease information; he’s the county surveyor, too, as his dad (my dad’s first cousin) was.

It’s a small county, after all.

This weekend is the weekend of the Richards family reunion.  Grandmother Ware was a Richards; her father began the reunion tradition.  Until this year, it was always held on Labor Day weekend.  Now, we’ve moved it to October, when it’s a bit cooler.

There were, I think, 12 Richards children — my dad had something like 35 first cousins just from the Richards side.  Grandmother’s last sister died in 2010– at 104 1/2 — and she wasn’t the youngest.  Now the first cousins are the eldest, and I’m in “the younger generation” in their 60s.  Of course, there are a lot of our age- group’s children and even grandchildren by now.  It’ll be interesting to see how many turn out tomorrow; attendance numbers have fallen over the years.

When I hit the road in a bit, I’ll be driving for three hours or so, with one stop to rest my legs a bit.  I don’t take the same route we always traveled, though — that route takes me on two-land roads, twisting and turning through Louisiana and Texas.  Instead, I head up to North Louisiana to Many on a four-land road, much improved.  At Many, I take my break, then head west over Pendleton Bridge into East Texas, and finally take the two-lane road to San Augustine, out of it, past the small church and cemetery where Mother and Dad and Phil and other family members are buried, and then turn left on a farm-to-market road to the farm.  I’ll unload the food I’m bringing for tonight’s supper and for tomorrow’s reunion.  I’ll unload my small suitcase and put it in the fireplace bedroom that Dad always used.

It’s not that far, in miles, but it’s a long trip in memories and laughter and tears.  I can’t wait.

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Back to School and First-time Freshmen: 44 Years Later

Today many friends were heading off to school at McNeese State University for workshops, campus-wide convocation, and college/department meetings.  For the third time now I haven’t joined them as a new academic year begins.  Fall term begins on Monday.  I watch them, talk to them, and remember what it felt like to return to another year of teaching. While I miss the classroom in many ways and the students and certainly seeing my friends every day, I do not miss the daily schedule, the ever-increasing demands upon the faculty, or the shifting expectations of a state university.

This fall, though, what I am caught by, is something I read a couple of days ago addressed to first-time freshmen.  The exact advice wasn’t really what I was interested in. Instead, I found myself remembering what it was like to head off to college.

I graduated from high school in May 1969.  Two weeks later, I was living in a dormitory at McNeese State University (Bel Dorm) and taking 9 hours of classes in summer school.  I had my own mailbox at school.  I had my first checking account.

The absolute excitement of that time has never left me.  My various suitcases and boxes filled the back of the Chevy Bel Air station wagon.  As my dad helped me move that into the dorm room on the second floor, I remember having to yell “Man in the hall!” to warn the other girls.  Of course, they were yelling the same thing. Once my bags and boxes were in my new room, my parents and I went for lunch and then I watched them drive away.  No regret, no loneliness.  Just sheer soaring excitement.

Mind you, I had only moved about 45 miles away from home.  But it was another world.  From a small village of maybe 400 where everyone knew everyone else, I was now living in a city.  Certainly now I know that it wasn’t a big city, but I was living in it. And I was on my own.  Meeting a new roommate and having to get along was just part of the adventure.

There was never any question in our family that we kids would go to college.  My mother had gone to business school after high school, and Dad had attended the University of Texas for a couple of semesters.  He was an electrician for Sun Oil Company, and she was a stay-at-home mom.  Yet they’d saved for this, planned for this, and wanted us to experience what was possible.

Many of my fellow Sun Oil kids didn’t go on.  At least the kids of the “hands” or workers.  If they did, it was often the girls, who might become teachers.  Or the sons and daughters of the management, of course, would attend college.

For me, there was never any question that I wanted to get away — to go to school — to get out in the world.  Just as books had always opened the world for me ever since I learned to read, now the college classroom offered me that same path to a future I dreamed of.

My parents always laughed that I was the one ready to hit the road running as soon as I was born.  I was always eager to spend time with cousins and grandparents, not shy about going away from Mother and Dad for a week or two at a time.  That’s me.  Ready to jump in feet first.

I was no different then.  I knew some older students from Egan and Iota who were attending MSU.  Yet in the dorm?  I knew no one.  I had to meet new people and learn to get along.  I had to meet people in classes.  I had to join organizations.

I well remember registering for my first classes.  And pushing myself to get up in time to make class, since Mother wasn’t there with my breakfast to wake me up.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it.

It was a different world then for women students.  We had curfews — and as a freshman, my curfew was 30 minutes before the library closed.  We’d get an extra hour on Saturday night if no one on our dorm wing had received any demerits during the week.  Otherwise, I think our Saturday night curfew was 11 p.m.

Having to be in at 9 p.m. at night meant there was a lot of time to hang around with the other girls.  We had a communal television room on second floor, and a kitchen as well.  Yet some of us had our own tiny television sets and stereos.  Most of us knew how to cook various things.  It was amazing what I could do with an iron and aluminum foil,  or a hot-pot.  I remember seeing the cost for that summer term:  something like $85, I believe, paid for tuition and fees.  With dorm fees and cafeteria plan, my first year (3 semesters) cost Dad something like $1000.  Total.

I plunged into college life with glee.  Late-night jam sessions with guitars (we didn’t demand a lot of actual talent).  Ouija board sessions.  Dance lessons down the hall.  And yes, date nights where you had to stand outside the dorm doors to say goodnight and kiss your date — while everyone else watched.

Before too long, I’d joined the college newspaper staff and the yearbook staff.

I was an English major.  That surprised me, frankly.  I remember that when I first filled out the papers at registration that June I meant to write down “Biology” as a major — I’d been planning on that.  In high school I had taken every science course available, including a second biology that was really a college course being piloted in some high schools.  What my pen wrote, though, was “English.”  Automatic writing?  Destiny?  Or just laziness because that was the easiest thing in the world for me?  I have no clue.  But that choice has threaded my life together.  Reading and literature opened the world for me as a reader and then as a student and finally as a teacher, a professor.

Living on campus in a dorm was a huge adventure.  I had curfews, yes, but I had a sort of self-determination, too.  There were rules and regulations beyond the experiences of today’s freshmen women:  no curlers in your hair outside the dorm; no jeans or slacks to class (at least for a year until rules changed).  We wore sweater sets, skirts and blouses, dresses.  And hose.  Every day.  Yet by the end of my college time (I graduated in December 1972), I was wearing jeans and t-shirts or peasant skirts and sandals.

My first fall semester was the first time that freshmen didn’t have to wear beanies or get hazed as freshmen.  The “college life” I’d read about and anticipated had been a 1940s-50s culture, evident in television and movies.  It was passing even as I entered college.

McNeese was then and is now basically a commuter school, yet it was possible for those of us who lived on campus to have a different experience, to be part of the campus life.  That was challenging at times, but fun.

Lake Charles isn’t that big — maybe 73,000 people — though it certainly has changed in many ways, offering many more cultural outlets and places to go.

It was huge to me, though, and I was limited that first year by not having a car.  I walked to K-Mart, to the drugstore near campus where I could cash a check, to Little Pigs or Taco Bell or maybe Burger Chef for a meal on weekends.  By the second year, my parents had bought a new car and I was driving the Bel Air station wagon.  I could haul lots of friends to the drive-in on nights when the charge was $1 for the entire carful of us.

We had dances.  We went to football games.  We entertained ourselves and, thank goodness, survived the stupid stunts of youth.

We laugh that the 60s finally hit Lake Charles and MSU — in the 1970s.  That was true in many ways.  There were controversies over the length of boys’ hair.  Over dress regulations.  Especially, though, over the hair issue.  That was somehow symptomatic of the turmoil going on all over the U.S.

Somewhere buried in my many photographs are some from those years.  I have some of the newspapers and yearbooks, and my photos are scattered in those as well.  Mostly, though, I have the memories.

What did I expect?  I didn’t know, not really.  I just knew that the world was opening up, and that I was ready for it, for whatever would come.

That I ended up back in Lake Charles, teaching English at McNeese State University, was hardly something I planned.  In my dream academe I thought I’d end up in New England — not that I’d ever been there at all, but it fit in with that ideal I’d derived from movies and television.  Instead, I got a job right back here, and made a career on the campus that made it all possible.

That opportunity has been both profoundly satisfying and profoundly frustrating.  To watch the college emerge as a university, with world-class faculty, and to be part of opening the world to other young people was without price.  Yet to experience the state funding issues that continue to rip apart state-funded universities in Louisiana is painful and frustrating.  This state has been slow to see people go to university; my generation was perhaps the first to do so in large numbers.  It may take another generation to regain lost ground.

All in all, though, I have loved being part of McNeese, both as a student and as a faculty member.

My friends are going back to teaching, and I watch them and have no pangs of regret.  Retirement came at the perfect time for me.  And once more, my world has opened up.  Retirement from McNeese was, I laugh, just another graduation.

And the first-time freshmen about to start their fall term?  I hope they are excited.  Their world is so much larger and fuller than mine was.  Yet for them too, university will offer a world beyond.

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Music Lessons, Guy Clark, and my Randall Knife moments

I’ve written before about music and its importance in my life.  From road music to house-cleaning music to relaxing music and grading music, somehow music always seems to sneak into my life.

Today it popped in as I was reading CNN on line and clicked on a link I saw about “True Love and Homegrown Tomatoes.”  Though the link was to the Eatocracy page of the site, I just knew what I’d find.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Though the focus was indeed on the deliciousness of home-grown tomatoes, the source of the title was clear to me:  a Guy Clark song long a favorite of mine.  Clark wrote this in 1983, a warm, funny Texas take on a Southern favorite — homegrown tomatoes. His lyrics celebrate the down-home lusciousness, the very ordinary homegrown tomato.

“Ain’t nothin’ in the world that I like better
Than bacon & lettuce & homegrown tomatoes
Up in the mornin’ out in the garden

Get you a ripe one don’t get a hard one
Plant `em in the spring eat `em in the summer
All winter with out `em’s a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin’ & diggin’
Everytime I go out & pick me a big one.”

With the first lyrics, I am transported back to childhood, to my dad’s garden, to picking tomatoes right off the vine and biting into them, juice dribbling down my chin.  Or to the simple presentation of thickly sliced tomatoes on a plate, sprinkled with a bit of salt.  Or even just slapped between slices of mayonnaise-slathered bread with lots of pepper and a bit of salt.

Yes, Clark’s got it right.  Nothing better than homegrown tomatoes — one of two things money can’t buy:

“Homegrown tomatoes homegrown tomatoes
What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love & homegrown tomatoes.”

He even jokes about how he’d like to end up:

“If I’s to change this life I lead
I’d be Johnny Tomato Seed
`Cause I know what this country needs
Homegrown tomatoes in every yard you see
When I die don’t bury me
In a box in a cemetary
Out in the garden would be much better
I could be pushin’ up homegrown tomatoes.”

One of my favorite Texas singer-songrwriters, Clark manages to write about so many ordinary moments in life.  The whimsey of “Homegrown Tomatoes,” a light-hearted look at the joys of food, gives way to other songs touching on memory and loss,.  Two of his songs bring me tears every time I hear them:  “The Cape” and “Randall Knife.”  Both of them take me to childhood, to family, and to the adult’s retrospective look at what’s been lost.

Growing up the 50s and loving Superman both on television and in comics, I was one of who knows how many kids who tied bathroom towels to my shirt and hopped off of steps, pretending I could fly.  The sheer fantasy of freedom, of flying, somehow faded with growing up, though flying dreams persist to this day (don’t go Freud on me).  So when I heard Clark sing “The Cape,” all of that joy rushed back.  Clark’s “boy” jumps off, falls to the ground; and “All grown up” he’s still at it, “pretty sure he could fly.” Even “old and gray” he’s still at it, “He’s still jumpin’ off the garage/ And will be till he’s dead/
He did not know he could not fly /So he did.”

The chorus reiterates what this song brings to me every time I listen to it:

“He’s one of those who knows that life
Is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath
Always trust your cape.”

That leap of faith, taking off and leaping, and trusting your cape. How often we grow up and grow out of that sense that we can do anything.  Fear holds us back, holds us down.  Remembering to trust the cape — that’s key.

Where “The Cape” takes me to something we often lose as we grow up, another song takes me back to being a child with a father to being an adult dealing with the loss of a father.

A tribute to his late father, “The Randall Knife” appeared in 1983.  The lyrics evoke both the child’s experience with the knife and the adult’s association of the knife with his father.

“He let me take it camping once
On a Boy Scout jamboree
And I broke a half an inch off
Trying to stick it in a tree
I hid it from him for a while
But the knife and he were one
He put it in his bottom drawer
Without a hard word one.”

Though the father never rebuked the son, it’s clear that the memory lingered for the son:

“There it slept and there it stayed
For twenty some odd years
Sort of like Excalibur
Except waiting for a tear.”

As an adult, the son sings of the loss of his father, of not being able to cry, not because of lack of love but because he wasn’t quite ready somehow.  And that his father deserved something better:

“And I couldn’t find a way to cry
Not because I didn’t love him
Not because he didn’t try
I’d cried for every lesser thing
Whiskey, pain and beauty
But he deserved a better tear
And I was not quite ready.”

Years later, the knife long forgotten in the drawer, the son looks back at the loss of his father, adding the perspective of yet more years between his father’s death and the song itself.

“My father died when I was forty
And I couldn’t find a way to cry
Not because I didn’t love him
Not because he didn’t try
I’d cried for every lesser thing
Whiskey, pain and beauty
But he deserved a better tear
And I was not quite ready.”

Later, when asked what he wanted to remember his father by, the singer continues:

“When we got back to the house
They asked me what I wanted
Not the lawbooks not the watch
I need the things he’s haunted

My hand burned for the Randall knife
There in the bottom drawer
And I found a tear for my father’s life
And all that it stood for.”

Long before my father was ill, long before he died, this song moved me to tears, but afterwards it just reduces me to puddles.  As Kay and I have gone through decades of Dad’s life, I kept discovering things that, like the Randall knife of Clark’s song, weren’t really much in themselves but somehow embodied the man who owned them.

I’d certainly cried many times before the loss, as well as during the months of watching my dad simply disappear in so many ways before my eyes.  Yet throughout I kept seeing my dad over time, as the young father who helped me, who admonished me, who tried to show me the honorable way to live with others.

Being a girl, I was never allowed to hunt with my older boy cousins or my younger brother.  Yet Dad made sure I knew how to handle the guns we had.  And while I might never use them in the same way, they are a reminder of something he held dear.

Some of the guns were his father’s.  One in particular — a pearl-handled pistol that Granddad Ware carried during World War II when he was a guard at the shipyards in Beaumont.  Dad had promised that gun to his nephew Charlie, and in May Kay and I got that gift to him.  Now we’re trying to figure out other gifts for the other boys in the family.  A few years ago, Dad gave my brother’s deer rifle to my cousin Barbara’s son James — James and his own father, Herb, had hunted together for years, and Dad though that Phil would like another young man to keep the tradition up.  Another gun needs to be selected for my cousin Mike, Charlie’s brother (their mother is Dad’s older sister).  And yet another for Jim, Barbara’s brother (their dad was my dad’s older brother).

Right now, I’m cherishing a 12-gauge shotgun that was Granddad’s.  And Dad used it too.  More than I can handle, probably, with a heck of a recoil, as I remember Dad saying, and as many others have warned me.  Yet the gun itself — made probably around 1902– is so much more than it appears.

It’s a link between generations, a clue to something about my dad and his dad, to the ties that link us together as family.

I’m a liberal with a gun.  When I went to the Antiques Roadshow in Baton Rouge last month, I took two items — both family heirlooms.  I brought a small dinner ring that had been my mother’s and her mother’s — a 1930s Art Deco ring, 14-caret yellow and white gold, 3-tiny-diamond ring.  It’s precious to me because it links me to them.  I can imagine my grandmother Ella wearing that ring.  It has a story, too.  She didn’t buy the ring; she wasn’t given it as a gift from a boyfriend or a husband.  While she was a single mother with two daughters to take care of, Grandmother ran a boarding house in Beaumont.  One of her boarders couldn’t pay rent at some point, and thus the ring came to my grandmother.  For me, it’s a symbol of a woman who was taking care of her daughters, who was a businesswoman and a stylish woman.  That ring is one I wear a lot.

The second item?  I brought Granddad’s 12-gauge Winchester 1897.  When i took it out of the soft case, four or five men swarmed around me, admiring it, knowing exactly what it is.  One of them showed me that it wasn’t frozen, that it racked just fine.  I must admit that the sound was quite nice.

How much more Southern girl can you get?  A 12-gauge shotgun and a diamond dinner ring.

And so my Randall knife moments.

Guy Clark does it to me every time.  From making my mouth water for freshly sliced homegrown tomatoes (or unsliced ones right off the vine); to reminding me not to forget that life’s a leap of faith, to trust the cape and just jump; to making me cherish the Randall knife moments of a child missing her father.

When I finished reading the CNN piece, I thought immediately that I knew what I wanted to write about — all the Texas singer-songwriters who have woven through my life.  I never got past Guy Clark, however, and that’s okay.  There are many other days to write about those other fine artists.

Today, though, is a Guy Clark day.  Specifically, a three-song Guy Clark day.

I ended up searching YouTube for each song, and I’ll pass those links along to you.  If you’re not familiar with Clark, take time to listen.  You might be surprised.

“Homegrown Tomatoes” :

“The Cape”  :

“The Randall Knife” :

Yes, Guy Clark sings of the most ordinary items, the most ordinary memories, and the most common of experiences — and I can only recommend that you give him a listen.

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Photographs and Memories

Recently, I’ve decided that there’s a club no one invites you to join, but that you join without realizing:  the caregiver’s club.  Even though you intuit that one exists, there’s no real way to anticipate how it operates, not exactly, nor how it changes your life.

Most of my life, I think, I knew that I would end up being the primary caregiver.  I was, after all, the eldest.  I wasn’t married.  My career teaching at university meant that I lived closest to our parents.  My brother lived in Florida.  My sister lived in Natchitoches, in north Louisiana.  I also had the most flexible job.  I didn’t feel trapped.  I didn’t question it.  I was happy to fill that role.

Mother was ill for a long time; Dad retired early, at 60, and took care of her.  They had some good years before she became an invalid, with a wheelchair, and on dialysis.  For her, I was the fill-in, for the times when Dad and Phil went hunting out in West Texas.  Of course, I was also there many other times, and by the 90s it felt as though I began every semester with Mother in the hospital in Lafayette.  I learned how to read her blood sugar, how to get her into and out of the wheelchair, how to tell when she was probably having a small stroke, etc.  My knowledge of medicine grew around her.  Now I realize that her health really became problematic when she was only in her 40s, while I was teaching at Lamar University in Beaumont.  First was the blood pressure, then the brittle diabetes, then the congestive heart failure, then dialysis.  After a while, her medicines cost about $1500 a month — in the early 90s.  Yes, I learned a lot, especially to be grateful for solid insurance. I was the helper, the one who asked questions and took more notes.

But I knew I was only second-best; that was clear.  It was Dad she wanted, and he wanted to be there with her.  I don’t think I really knew just how close they were until then.  Somehow you don’t see your parents as anything other than, say, your parents.  Yet there was that one time in the hospital in Lafayette when I saw them look at each other and realized that they were still the young couple who’d fallen in love despite the odds of different religions and married in 1948.  I could help Dad out, and did.  But the job was his, and not mine, other than temporarily.  When Mother died on July 30, 1993, Dad and Phil were with her at the hospital, and I was in Egan; Phil had come in from Florida only the day before, and I remain convinced that Mother waited for him.  She hadn’t talked in several days at that point, but she was aware of us with her, and she wouldn’t leave without Phil being there.

I watched Mother and Dad take care of Phil, my brother, when he had cancer the first time, at 26.  He recovered, eventually moved to Florida, and was later diagnosed with a melanoma on his arm; that traveled to his brain, and then his spine.  By the time he was terminal, Mother had died.  Dad was once more the primary caregiver while Phil was in M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston in fall 1995.  I was there every weekend, from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, and on every holiday.  My sister, Kay, was there when she could be.  Again, I was closer and when my last class was over, I was on the road every Friday.  Dad slept in the pull-out chair; I slept on the floor.  If I could convince Dad to take a weekend off and go to Egan, I got the chair.  Occasionally I stayed in my cousin Jim’s condo; that was a real treat at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Phil was released two days after Christmas and came home to Egan, where we had hospice.  He died on January 4, 1996, with Dad and me and Phil’s fiancé, Darcie, at his side.

While he was at M.D. Anderson, I became familiar with yet more medical jargon and helped daily when I was there as nurses and Phil’s primary oncologist cared for him through one procedure after another.  For the first time since he was a little boy, he called me “Cheryl Lynn,” and I had to be there right at the bedside holding his hand most of the time.  Together, Dad and I helped take care of him, but during those weekdays while I was teaching, it was Dad who bore the heaviest load, because he had to be there alone.

Dad was such a vital person, independent and stubborn (I get my stubbornness honestly).  He went on dialysis when he was 80 or 81, and drove himself there 3 days a week. Well into his 80s he drove to East Texas almost every other week to meet his sister, Mildred (she’s 18 months older) so that they could mow the large yard and part of the pasture at the family farm.  I worried, but there wasn’t much I could do, frankly.

He was determined not to give up driving, and that was difficult for him.  Yet his family practitioner took that chore out of my hands, and when she put Dad on oxygen, that effectively ended his driving.  While I was still working, I relied on a close family friend to drive him to dialysis.  I spent a lot of weekends there, and eventually did more commuting to work than commuting to Dad’s.  Kay came in too on weekends, and spent time helping out.

We were fortunate, really, that we enjoyed each other.  We really liked each other.  Spending time together wasn’t a chore. And I needed to remember that, because there were still times when I was so tired and exhausted that I was snappy and bitchy.  (Just ask Kay!  We were each other’s “safe place,” and could unload with each other, then apologize, and it was all okay.)

So as Dad’s ability to live alone ended, I “lived” with him much of the time and commuted to Lake Charles, spending weekends at my own home when Kay came down.  She and I laugh about tag-teaming, but that’s exactly what we did.  My last semester and a half of teaching was spent doing a lot of driving, but it was no hardship.  I got tired at times, and learned to treasure sleep, but was so grateful that I was able to work out the responsibilities that way.

When I retired in May 2011, I spent most of the time in Egan.  Dad was still pretty mobile and relatively stable.  He was losing weight.  He was more unsteady on his feet.  While I was gone on a trip in December 2011, he got tangled in his oxygen cord and fell, and that was truly, I think, the beginning of the final slide.  By the end of December, he couldn’t really walk without a walker AND someone helping, but that was only for a few steps.

I bought all new clothes for him so that I could dress him — sweatpants and pullover sweaters.  I fed him too.  By the time we finally got a diagnosis for his problem — an L1 compression fracture — he was dependent.  His surgery seemed to help, but he went to a nursing home for rehabilitation care.  In the two months he was there, I got the house renovated for him.

He came home and had a good first week.  The second week?  Not very good, and he died at home just about two weeks after he’d returned.

He had been such a role model for Phil and Kay and me all of our lives, and was such a generous, loving man.  His own role as caregiver for Mother and Phil was unstinting and without complaint.  He gave joyfully of himself.  I think that by the time it was my turn for that full-time role, I had the way made easy.  I only hope that I lived up to my role model’s example.

Caregiving requires attention.  It demands much.  I don’t know when I’ve ever been so tired and exhausted.  Yet it can also be a blessing.  Time together, laughter, talks about so many things.  I would do it all again, even knowing the outcome.  While I was living with Dad, I spent time online looking for stories by other caregivers, looking for articles about others like myself.  There are a lot of us out there, and not everyone has the flexibility I had in my teaching.  Not everyone has the support group.  The club is huge, my friends.  Some of you are in it too, and we’ve talked about it.  Just as caregiving became my life, it continues to be part of me even though Dad has died.  It remains part of the way I live, defines how I see things.  How I appreciate things — family, friends, home, pets.  Even — maybe especially — time.

It’s been over a year since Dad died.  For the rest of the year afterwards till 2013 began, I think I hibernated.  Sometime in December 2012 I seemed to wake up.  The next six months have been a gradual recovery of my own life — or maybe a rediscovery, a re-invention, even.

At times, I’ve felt absolutely lost, without purpose.  So much of my life had been focused on teaching, a career I cherished and loved.  And then my life centered on taking care of Dad.  The second focus overlapped so much with the last months of teaching that I didn’t really have a transition period.  I simply moved into caregiving full-time. But after?  Neither focus was there; I was cut adrift and felt it.

I am slowly finding myself again, learning to make a life again.  Rediscovering my own home and finding the pleasures of it once more.  I’ve realized that I have never simply lived in this house without working.  Now I live here in a way that I never did before.  Schedule?  No, I don’t have one, but I’m setting one for myself.  Defined not by someone else (not most of the time) but by me and my interests.

In January 2013 I began (finally) the renovations on my home in Lake Charles.  For far too long I’d not been able to do what needed to be done.  But suddenly, it seemed, it was my time — and the kitchen project took off.  Progress there made me feel as though I hadn’t simply abandoned it to fall apart. I got the porch and brickwork repaired.  The kitchen’s not complete yet, but will be before too long.  And I don’t need to feel frustrated when it doesn’t happen immediately.

When I left for Greece in late April, I took a break.  Friends came to visit there.  I spent a lot of time reading and simply taking care of my apartment. I went to London for a long weekend.  I went to Istanbul for a few days with a friend. I visited with friends in Greece, had coffee, went to the movies, did the shopping.  And the last three weeks I was there I participated in a poetry workshop.  The companionship, the daily writing — what a treat.  The last dam of the writer’s block that has characterized my life for a year has (fingers crossed) been broken.

I know I’ve written about this before, but I am reminded of it all at the oddest times.  My cousin Mike sent Kay and me some photos he and his wife had of a few days of a trip to Lake Sam Rayburn; I’m not in either photo.  But what a treat to see Mother and Dad and Phil and Kay (and Mike and Sis) enjoying themselves.  Even now, I get a bit teary thinking of the photos.  Mother is there sitting with Dad; they’re laughing.  Phil is clearly telling a story in the photo of him in the boat — he’s grinning and has his arms stretched out as though to say “it was THIS big!”

To see them healthy and happy and laughing is to remind me that the caregiving has only been a blessing, truly.

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An Empty House

I am sitting in the living room in Egan, or what’s left of it.  Without a couch, with Dad’s bureau and chest of drawers, and with two recliners, it is instead some half-way house, which I guess is rather appropriate right now.

I’ve driven over for the day, ready to go through some boxes to put in my Mini to take back to Lake Charles, to put back where they started.  While I’m sitting here taking a break, Mr. Trahan is outside repairing the ancient garage doors.  With all of the renovations we had done, there are a few repairs left, those suggested by the appraiser who came a few weeks ago.  The curb appeal will be enhanced by these repairs.  Some were more decorative.  Others were substantive, like those garage doors, and a few rotten boards on the facing around them.  When Mr. Trahan is done, then I’ll have raw boards and a new fascia trim board around the bottom shingles of the house — ready to be primed and painted.   Of course, after the house is power-washed and bleached (yes, bleached.  It’s necessary in humid sub-tropical climates like ours.), the house will need re-painting too.

My sister was here for a couple of days over the weekend.  While she was here, she and our neighbors smelled gas.  On Saturday night, the gas company sent out someone to investigate.  The upshot of that:  the gas has been turned off and the meter has been removed.  A plumber must repair the leak and sign a certificate, and only then will we get our meter back and the gas turned on.  Until then, it’s cold water showers.  The irony is that the same plumbers who will show up to repair the leak were responsible for doing the work on the gas line two months ago.  Maybe the plumber will just do the repairs since the work is clearly defective somehow?  I can hope that, but don’t expect it.  I’m sure I’ll be writing the plumber another check.

Checks seem to disappear — for an appraiser, for the plumber two weeks ago for a water leak, for the new repairs going on now, for clerk of court paperwork getting affidavits of heirship on Dad’s vehicles.  Soon, I suspect, the rest of the forest I’ve already devastated by the checks I’ve written in the last four months will also disappear.

The house is empty now and silent.  I can hear the few vehicles passing nearby.  I can hear Mr. Trahan working outside.  Other than that, I hear only the tapping of the laptop keys and the air-conditioner in the back room.  No one lives here now, and that evidence is everywhere.

There is food in the refrigerator, true, but elsewhere is the detritus of someone living here full-time.  Now Kay and I visit the house, staying a few nights at the most, or even just visiting for the day as I am today.  Soon we’ll have the telephone and the television service terminated.  The television won’t be a loss.  Not really.  We can bring DVDs if we want to watch anything.  The telephone, though, is a bit harder.  It’s the telephone that has been our family number for decades, and when it’s gone, there’s no dialing it anymore.  Even though I know Dad won’t pick the phone up if I call it, I can still dial it if I choose to do so.  There’s a finality, however, about having that number turned off and knowing that someone else might be assigned that phone number.

We don’t need it, I know.  Cell phones make it redundant.  Yet it’s been part of our lives for so long that my fingers can dial it without thinking.  Soon, though, it will go the way of my grandmother’s phone number in Beaumont.  That’s been gone since the 1980s, yet I still recall her number , with the prefix TE from the 1950s.  I couldn’t remember any telephone numbers I’ve had along the way — not in Baton Rouge, or Beaumont, or College Station.  But these are burned into my memory.

Yesterday Kay brought over 8 boxes of books that we unloaded into storage.  There’s another bookcase of Dad’s books left to box, and some of mine as well.  I will probably tackle those in a bit, labeling the boxes so we know what’s in them.  Some will stay with us; others will be designated for the big garage sale I’ll have this fall.  The 10×15 storage unit I rented for Egan stuff is filling.  And there’s no furniture in it yet, not really.  I brought back some chairs from the farm last week — the chairs I remember using when I was 5, the chrome and red chairs that matched a formica-topped red and chrome kitchen table long gone.  I can’t use them, but couldn’t see them thrown away either.  I can see them go to the garage sale, however, since the retro/mid-century modern look is so popular.  These, I can reassure buyers, are not reproductions.  They are authentic.  I have evidence in a photograph of 5 or 6-year-old Cheryl sitting in one, grinning at the camera held by her mother.

Tools of all sorts are in that storage unit as well.  Some have already gone to friends.  I don’t even know what’s there, so later, when there’s time, I’ll ask knowledgeable friends to help me identify tools and decide what to keep and what to sell and what prices to ask for things.  There will be donations to Goodwill and to CARC as well.  Yet the more I bag and box, the more I find left.  And I know there are still cabinets in the garage to open and sort through.  Oh, and the four barrels up in the garage rafters. And the other assorted mysterious items stashed up there as well.  I don’t think anything is in the attic.  I’ll have to ask Tim, who rewired the house.  God, I hope there’s nothing more up there than the new wiring.

Then there’s still the little room that was Phil’s — after it was the room for our pool table.  Later Dad referred to it as “my little room.”  Charles labeled it “the downstairs room” because it’s actually on a slab, and there’s a set of three steps leading up to the main house.  It’s filled with stuff too. Dad’s hunting gear — the compound bows, the arrows.  Phil’s equipment for making bullets.  The who-knows-how-many sets of small antlers lining the walls.  My grandmother’s stereo cabinet, with her 78s and 45s and LPs still in it. A big desk from Dad’s office.  A work area for Phil’s bullet-packing equipment.  A bookcase jammed with books.  A few boxes of things that I moved here and have never used.  A closet yet to be emptied.  And off of this room, the laundry room holds more than the washer and dryer.  It has a trunk from my undergraduate days.  There are boxes storing all sorts of things.

There is a huge closet filled with Dad’s clothes.  My closet has some clothes I haven’t moved back yet.  Kay’s closet, now a storage area with shelves, is filled with random items moved there during the renovation.  The kitchen has been cleaned and lots of unnecessary pots and pans and dishes have gone to Goodwill.  Yet it is filled with what is still useful and what we will keep.

I anticipate it will take weeks to finish the task of emptying the house of the many things that still remain.

Yet as I sit here among those things, the truth of it all strikes me clearly:  the house is already empty in the only way that counts.

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Small Steps

Tuesday sunshine streams through the front door glass and through the windows.  As I sit here in the new office space, the sunshine through the window lets me see that the yard needs mowing again, so that’s another chore to add to the never-ending list.

Yesterday was a good day, all in all.  I talked to Dad’s primary-care physician finally — and we’re waiting to see a few things before decisions about hospice are appropriate, she advises.  First, does his mental state improve once he’s off the Duragesic patch?  Second, can we get his pain under control?  And third, what does his nephrologist say?

By last night, with the patch off for 24 hours, he was clear and himself.  We had a good conversation, and he recognized my cousin Carolyn immediately, which was great.  They had a chance to talk, and that was good for both of them.  He was tired, but clear-headed.  He hadn’t had any pain meds since 11 a.m, but it was also not a dialysis day; this meant that he’d had PT in the morning, taken the pain pill, and been in bed all day.  We’ll see what the pain is like today, when he has PT, then dialysis.

Today will give us a better sense of how the pain is.  Dad’s doctor is waiting to have her call returned from the nephrologist, so we’ll see what happens then.  She doesn’t want any decisions made based on his mental state on Monday, when he started pulling needles and tubes out at dialysis.She and I talked for a while, agreeing that Dad’s pain level was our key here, and his quality of life our guide, coupled with information from his nephrologist.  So we’re on hold, sort of, waiting to see what happens.

But she knows I’m under no illusions about the future, too.  I’ve talked to cousins and aunts now, and they’re aware of the changes, the talks with doctors, and the decisions.  I texted everyone on Monday, after talking with Kay and making decisions about actions.  By yesterday, I’d talked to everyone.  Decisions will be made, but not necessarily in the next few days, which is a great relief to me, at least temporarily.  Those decisions will get here soon enough.  I have space to breathe, to work, and to think now.  And — fingers crossed — to enjoy Dad, clear-headed and conversational.

Yesterday I made progress here at home, with my friend Patty helping me.  I worked in the kitchen, clearing more cabinets, wiping them out and cleaning them, and sorting through food, spices, dishes, and everything else that was crammed together indiscriminately.  Now the food items are all together in the new little pie safe I bought in Lake Charles at an antique store/flea market.  Spices are in one covered container.  Only the cooking oils and salt and pepper and chili powder are in the cabinet near the stove.  In the narrow cabinet space between the refrigerator and the stove, where all sorts of things were shoved and way out of date, more cleaning was necessary — lots of mouse evidence from gnawed bags, loose beans and cornmeal, and so on.  Now that’s where the boxes of storage bags, plastic wrap, aluminum foil and garbage bags now get to stay.  They’re organized, easy to get to, and centralized; they’re no longer scattered in three places.

We’d stop and talk.  It’s the first time she has ever been here to Egan, so she was interested in everything.  She got to experience my day, with people simply walking in the house and chatting.  She met my good friends here and got to talk to them.  She and my cousin Carolyn talked.  After she left, I turned to Carolyn and said “Bessie Cobb.”  Carolyn smiled and said “I’d already thought that!”  Bessie was one of our grandmother’s oldest and dearest friends, a short little round woman from New Jersey who was just as straight-talking and direct as they come.  Bessie was just another one of our family, and Patty has always reminded me of Bessie.  Now I have confirmation of my impression.  Shared memories and experiences with Carolyn anchor so much for me.

We’d talk and visit.  Then it was back to work.

Typically, I was hoping for more, but then I always do.  Patty got the clothes washed, dried, and folded and worked on Kay’s room while I worked in the kitchen.  She’ll come back on Friday, and by then I hope to have other progress evident.  Now I’m washing Dad’s clothes.  I’ll do a bit of work here in the office area while the clothes are washing and then drying.  Maybe, only maybe will I get back to the kitchen area.

Small steps and progress — I can see this, though there are moments when I look at all that is left and get discouraged at that.  I forget just how much has been done in a short four weeks.  That’s me — I typically expect more to get done than is truly possible in a given amount of time.  I’m learning, though, to keep focused on the progress.

So . . . today:  clothes for Dad, more organizing of boxes in here, more garbage bags of “toss” and more boxes of “donate” — and then maybe the yard.  If the riding mower is working properly.  We’re supposed to get more rain on Saturday, and I want to get the yard done before another deluge.  The ground is soft, but it isn’t too boggy for mowing.  Not yet.  The clover is attractive, but we don’t live in a wild meadow, after all.

Sometimes I feel as though I’m one of those kid’s toys, the Weebles.  I get knocked around, knocked down, but keep popping back up after a little while, back in place.  Now, though, I think I’m a Weeble on a roller coaster.  The roller coaster ride differs every day now, with one day bringing me to the very depths of things when Dad is in great pain and moaning that no one should have to live like that, and the next taking me to the top for a little while — for a moment of respite when he’s pain-free and clear and talkative — before the track plunges down again.  I know the roller coaster won’t last forever and that at some point it will even out and glide home and stop.  Until then, I’ll breathe, and like the Weeble I’ll roll around, bounce around, and stabilize.  Repeat.  Repeat. Repeat.

Visits like the one yesterday from my cousin mean so much. She’s always been more like my older sister; we’ve always been very close.  I talk about needing a “Carolyn fix” at times, and those are always good for me.  We talk about all sorts of things.  Our mothers were sisters; they’re both dead now.  Our grandmother is dead.  Our aunts are gone too.  Her sister Terry has been gone for few years.  My sister is 7 years younger.  Carolyn and I talk about being the family memory now — and her children and Terry’s look to us.  It’s a sobering thought when you realize that you are now one of the family elders.  In our rather matriarchal family that’s a big responsibility.  A joy at times, but a responsibility.  As much as we talked to our mothers and our grandmother, there are still questions we’d love to ask, mysteries we’d love to get solved.

I’m energized today.  Tired and allergy-eyed, but energized and mobilized.

Progress yesterday.  Progress today.  Small steps.  Big gains.

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