September marks the end of so many things and by its ending, there marks a beginning.
September marks the end of the growing season, yet it is the beginning of the resting season for the earth. September's cool breezes mark the end of windows being left open all night but the beginning of quilts being taken from cedar chests and placed on beds.
It's also the beginning of school, of Wednesday night choir practices and theatre seasons and the end of just lazily doing whatever you felt like doing on lanquid summer evenings.
And in my family, September has marked the end and beginning of life.
Four members of my family have departed this life in the month of shortened evenings and lengthening shadows. For these holy dead, life has both ended and begun anew in the presence of the Lord.
For those left behind, life has also stopped in its tracks and a new life begins; a life to be learned to live without them in it.
September; Omega and Alpha. This week marks so much to remember...
In September 1968, I thought I had things more or less figured out in my world, small as it was.
When you're five years, the world basically melts down to just your town, your street, your house and whatever is going on in this micro sphere is what must be going on through out the rest of the world in every house in the world.
For me, the world was our town and some distant place called England which my Dad claimed to visit on a daily basis.
"Where have you been?" I would ask upon his arrival home.
"I've been to see the Queen!" he would insist.
"The Queen of England!"
I knew who that was. There was a stunning color picture of her in the front of one of our National Geographic books. That my minister Father was on a first name basis with the Queen of England was astounding to me. That he never took me to meet this queen was a source of great frustration.
"Does she ask about me and sister?" I always wanted to know.
Dad would assure me that she did, that he even showed her a picture of us which thrilled me no end but still did not make up for the lack of face to face with someone wearing a real crown.
Besides, time was of the essence if sister was ever to go and see this queen because any day now she'd be going to live with Jesus and go back to being an angel.
Jesus lived in heaven which was in the sky. Jesus could on occasion come to visit the Methodist church next door, (which is where God lived all the time), but his primary world was up there where all the other girls like sister Audrey became angels when they were done being Audreys on this earth.
I should pause here to relate that I was a very strange child in that while I would pepper people with questions on mundane issues such as why is the sky blue or why is so and so's hair a different color every week, when it came to the deeper issues like why can't my older sister walk, talk and go around like the rest of us, I chose to ponder this out on my own and arrive at my own conclusions which I then tended not to share.
After all, if it made sense to me, then it must be right and there was no further need to talk about it.
So with that in mind, I had reached the conclusion that Audreys were special beings that had been angels once and would be angels again when they were through with their missions here on earth.
Because they had once had wings, they couldn't walk very well on their feet nor could they use their hands that much. Angels communicated with thought so on earth, the use of the mouth to make words was an alien thing to them and they simply wouldn't do it.
Nor did they need to. Audrey couldn't walk to go and see this or that, instead, this or that came to her. She never uttered anything that came close to a word yet she spoke volumes with her eyes, her face, her laughter....and her tears.
Audrey was often ill. Audrey was often in pain. Audrey had already lived out 3 previous doctor imposed expiration dates and was closing in another one in that September 1968 so for this reason, my parents tried as gently as they could to explain to me that one day soon, my golden haired sister would be leaving us to go and live with Jesus.
And because I had already come to know that she was an angel trying to be a human, this did not duly upset me as they perhaps feared it would. I was concerned that she wouldn't know anyone up there. Yes, of course she would know Jesus but he was all over the place and who would she talk to when he was down here visiting his father at the Methodist church?
Of course, as an angel, she would have her wings back again so I reasoned that would be alright then. She could fly in the night time sky among the stars in the moonlight and perhaps she would come by and see me most nights. Yes, that would be fine. I would miss her but at least she wouldn't be sick and in pain anymore because, as I thought everyone knew, trying to be a human was hurtful for angels.
So that was my world as I figured it to be in mid September 1968; as colorful and flitting as a butterfly's wings and, as it would turn out...just as fragile.
According to the doctor, Audrey's time with us would be drawing to a close and likely very soon.
Years of numbing heart ache over Audrey's condition had already prepared my folks for her departure, but what of their youngest? It's one thing to tell the child that her sister would be going to live with Jesus but how to explain the funeral and the sight of one's sibling laid out in a casket?
So with that in mind, as a way of preparing me, Mother took me to the local funeral home.
In those days before SCI and other corporations turned the funeral services into an industry, funeral homes were just that; homes where one could hold a funeral. Ours was a big house built in the early part of the 20th century with a deep front porch. The front hall featured an elegant stairway with an elaborate banister and an unusual light fixture shaped to look like an elfin creature who balanced a multicolored globe on its elfin foot. I loved that light and always wished I could see it lit up sometime.
To the right of the hallway was a display room for the caskets and it was this room that my Mother wanted me to see. The funeral director's wife was a very kind woman with slivered white hair. She was also a good friend of my Mother's and I imagine she must have felt my Mother's pain at this moment very keenly. Mother/Daughter outings should be to shopping centers or the park, not to a casket display room. But, here we were.
The moment I first laid eyes on a casket stands sharp in my memory. Jewel toned with gold or silver accents, their lids opened to reveal rich interiors of velvet or satin. They were just like...giant jewelry boxes! They were beautiful!
I am sure that the women were likely explaining to me what a casket was, how it was used and all but their voices faded to a low hum in my head as I stood in stunned amazement at the sight of so much splendid beauty. What pretty boxes! Oh, how I wished I might have a box like one of these one day! I could keep my best dolls in it, put a mirror over it...
What's that you say? Mother's voice came back into focus in my head. These boxes were not for me, but someday Audrey would have one. Oh, that's good. Maybe I could play with it for her...wait a minute! Boxes...these things are boxes...
Of course! Suddenly I recalled seeing boxes like this coming out of the church next door and out of the church across the street. Bedecked in flowers, the boxes would be carried slowly to the big car parked in front of the church. In answer to my question over the contents, I was told that it contained people now going to live with Jesus and this was their send off ceremony.
I would watch as the box was loaded into the big car and then the big car would go ever so slowly towards downtown with all the other cars following behind. Of course they were headed for the cemetery but I didn't know about that place yet. I did however know that downtown was where the post office was and that is where boxes came from and went to.
Now it made sense to me! When you go to live with Jesus, you get a box. At the end of the send off ceremony, you get in your box and get taken with great fanfare to the post office where the post master would weigh you in and then put you on the back dock for the truck to pick up.
This is how you went to live with Jesus, via a box sent parcel post. When you got to heaven, Jesus would open the box and then there'd you be with Jesus and the angels. What you did with your box after that, I had no idea. Keep your spare halos and harps in it? Who knew, just so long as it was pretty!
I smiled up at Mother and the funeral lady who in turned seemed satisfied that I had understood what they had told me which of course I didn't on account of I hadn't listened to a word they had said.
Once again, I had figured it out all for myself and knowing that sister was going to go to Jesus in a pretty box made me feel a little better over her going off without me to live with Jesus and fly in the moonlight.
And naturally, I didn't share a word of this with anyone.
I had gotten to know Mrs. Keller pretty well if only by sight during my forced marches to and from the prison aka school. School had been introduced into my life that fall thus marking a major end and beginning in my life. So far as I was concerned this marked the end of my joy and contentment and the beginning of being forced to sit in a room full of noisy and oddly behaving strangers.
My days up til then had been marked in bluer than blue morning skies that I could watch and daydream about from my swing in the front yard. With church business and Audrey to attend to, my folks were very busy and no doubt thankful that I could so easily go off into a world of my own making.
Now that world had intruders who ate glue, stabbed one another with scissors and took things that didn't belong to them. The teacher was a nice enough lady but I was growing weary of her constant demands of my time in which she insisted I learn things like letters and how to tie my shoes.
Having to sit in that room with all those strangers doing things that made no sense to me was jarring to say the least. Obviously, I had done something very wrong to have wound up here and I wished with all my heart I could find out what it was I did to deserve this.
The sight of old Mrs. Keller bending over her garden in the morning and on her back porch in the afternoon was somewhat comforting to me. At least there was one soul left in the world who could do as they pleased with the day. I often wished that I could just veer off the sidewalk and go pull weeds with her rather than having to watch the teacher pull some foreign object out of so and so's nose.
(I should add here that my class was an exception to the rule from day one. The roll call included 5 boys who despite their tender years were already known trouble makers. I am told that teachers would visibly pale at the sight of their names on their class room assignments. In Sunday school, these 5 had helped introduce the practice of husband/wife teams teaching the class instead of just the ladies. One would teach, the other would shake, smack and pull first one boy and then another out of the room for a private "talking to".)
But there came a Wednesday when Mrs. Keller was not in her garden. Nor was she on the back porch at day's end. In fact, the house had a mysterious air of emptiness about it in the afternoon sun. Coming home, I was informed that Mrs. Keller had up and gone to live with Jesus.
I found it odd if not rude that she had never mentioned this. She might have at least called over the fence that she was going to leave soon and tell all us kids goodbye.
Two days later, Mother had me come home for lunch so that if I wanted, I could go and see Mrs. Keller at the church before she left.
I had never been to a send off before and was excited at the prospect of seeing what box she had picked out and what kind of flowers she would be taking to Jesus.
Imagine then my confusion over the sight of Mrs. Keller already in her box and seemingly fast asleep! Why would she be in the box already? Is she going to sleep thru her party?
Mother started to go over the points of why she looked to be asleep but in no time, my mind had wandered off from her and was arriving at it's own conclusions. Of course, it would make sense to be asleep on the journey. I had wondered that myself over how one would handle being in that box for the trip and sleeping would make it easier. None the less, what a shame to miss the party!
My critical child's eye focused on the box. It was rather plain. A pale gold, no decorations. The inside was a tan color, no fancy stitching and the flowers were about as simple as could be. To say nothing of her dress, a muted green number. This was not right! Not at all!
Mother's reply over the plainness of the items was that Mrs. Keller had outlived everyone in her family and that there hadn't been anyone left to help pick things out for her. That struck me as being very sad.
At Mother's prompting, I said my good byes to Mrs. Keller but doubted that she had heard me as she looked to be very fast asleep and then made my lonely march back to the prison past the house without Mrs. Keller in it.
At naptime, during which I never slept, I pondered over the basic boring box Mrs. Keller was being shipped in and made up my mind right then and there that when Audrey went to go live with Jesus, she was not traveling in a boring box!
Burgundy, I decided, burgundy with a pink interior what had button tuffting like our couch did.
On the side, I envisioned gold scrolling to look like hearts or better yet, to look like a string of paper dolls in a row. Oh, that would be grand!
At home, I sat at the kitchen table and tried to put my plan on paper. The colors weren't right and the scrolling went over the margin but I had the general idea which I explained in great detail to my Mother as I drew. I then handed her the pages and went outside to play.
My poor Mother. Years later, I can only imagine what must have gone thru her head and her heart as she stood in the kitchen holding my renderings. Other Mothers got pictures of houses and flowers and maybe the family pet from their children.
Her youngest was drawing up plans for the oldest child's casket and acting as if this was the most normal thing in the world.
Needless to say they never went on the refrigerator. I don't know what she did with them.
I never saw them again.
On that Friday evening, September 20, 1968, I was still puzzling over why oh why Mrs. Keller had not said one word over her leaving to go live with Jesus. It wasn't as if she didn't know. Something like that had to have been planned in advance, it's not as if you and your box could just show up Jesus's door step without any warning.
I had a feeling that Jesus felt the same way about unplanned guests as my Mother did in that while it was lovely to see you, why in the heck didn't you call first? Of course Jesus wouldn't have said that nor did my Mom but you could see that she was thinking it in the back of her tight smile.
Please don't think that she didn't like visitors; she did. But understand, this was back in the day when ministers and their families, especially their wives, were expected to keep their houses like their lives; neat and tidy and ready for inspection at any minute.
Mom said that a good guest always called first and the best guests were the ones that waited until they were asked. I knew that she said this on account of some church ladies that were always and forever dropping in because they were "just passing by". With two small children, one of them handicapped, running the sweeper on an hourly basis didn't exactly rate high on Mom's list of things to do.
"If anyone were to drop by right now, " she would declare, "I swear I'll go right up the wall!"
This was her usual lament on those days when it looked as if the house had exploded from within and sure enough, the doorbell would ring heralding doom. I would wait with baited breath for that magical moment of my Mother walking straight up the wall like a fly but much to my disappointment, it never happened. She'd just put on that "gracious" smile of hers and act as if it were no big deal at all you dropped in for tea, no, not at all.
Another frequent visitor from out of the blue was my Aunt Marylou and Uncle John. They would just happen to be "passing through". They lived all the way over on the other side of the state and they always managed to have luggage with them for this extended drive. Never the less, they were just happening to be in the area and thought they'd drop in!
Mother, who swore by her many volumes of Amy Vanderbuilt's Gracious Hostessing Books, would get on that bright,tight smile and try not to go into orbit as everything in the house was turned upside down to accommodate the unexpected visitors with a proper bed fitted with proper sheets and the good towels that were dug out from the back of the closet.
I wondered if Jesus had good sheets tucked in the back of his closet or if that was something you should bring with you along with towels.
I was pondering this when a car rolled up the hill from the highway. A window rolled down and a familiar voice sang out:
The car was white and new looking. I didn't know it at all but I knew the voice and the face:
Aunt Mary Lou! And with her was Uncle John and oh, look! Grandma Mary Jane and Grandpa Ray! All just "passing through" on a Friday evening.
I smiled happily. This might finally be my lucky day to see Mom do a flying handstand up the wall!
Much to my disappointment, Mom did not climb the wall as I had hoped. She kept herself together, digging out the good towels, the good sheets, digging out the ashtrays for Uncle John and his ever lit cigarettes.
Aunt Marylou chattered and exclaimed over Audrey, her "daughter" as she liked to claim because they had the same fair colored skin and blue eyes. Grandma Mary Jane tried to coax me to come talk to her but I hung back.
"The child still doesn't like me!" she complained to my Mom who swept by with an armful of sheets as she headed to my room.
My room was a disaster. Mom knew it, I knew it and in about one minute Grandma Mary Jane was going to know it and then I'd have to hear about it.
Standing the middle of the room, Grandma would begin by looking shocked then dismayed.
Taking it all in, she would look at me, shake her head and then addressing my Mother would ask in plaintive tones why on earth she would ever "let the child live this way?"
Back and forth they would go then as if from a script; Mom retorting that the state of my room was the last thing on her list and Grandma's return that it wasn't as if she had a houseful of children to worry about and then....here'd come the clincher....
"When I was her age...."
and about this time I would leave the room to go find Aunt Marylou to see if by chance, just maybe, she hadn't happened to put something in her luggage for me despite the fact that she was, after all, just "passing thru!"
It was "fruit basket upset" time around the place for awhile as sleeping arrangements were metered out. I drew the blow up mattress on the floor of my folks room, the Grandparents got my room in spite of it's messy look. Aunt Marylou and Uncle John got the couches in the living room. If anyone thought it strange that they should be sleeping apart, no one mentioned it.
Audrey of course kept her bed in her room.
I remember everything about that weekend.
There were eight years between Mother and Aunt Marylou but they were as close as twins and just as secretive at times. Far too young to join in their "big girl" camaraderie and not wanting a lesson on proper room cleaning techniques from Grandma, I spent most of my time with the men, especially Uncle John.
Ah, Uncle John. The smell of cigarette smoke and evening dew will always bring you back to me. Mom couldn't abide by his ever present smoking but, "he is good to you girls" she would reason and would let him smoke in the house.
Never the less, he generally hung out on the patio blowing smoke rings which I never tried of trying to catch with my finger.
"If you catch it, you can keep it!" he would say and that was enough to keep me after them.
(Easily amused, I know.)
That weekend he showed off a new trick of how he could fling my toy pocket watch out over the yard and, wonder of wonders, it would reappear in the wink of an eye behind his back!
He must have done it, oh, about three, four times for me when exclaiming that it was "my turn!" I snatched it out of his hand and let it fly.
It was a good throw for a five year old. I managed to set it sailing over the yard, over the sidewalk, even over the parking strip and into the street where it landed and shattered in a thousand plastic pieces.
Too shocked to cry, I looked up at him in confusion;
"But, it did it for you!"
I remember everything about that weekend.
This is Sunday morning, 09/22/1968. The blouse Aunt Marylou is wearing belongs to my Mom. White with blue dots, it went better with the suit than the blouse Aunt Marylou brought with her. Never mind all she asked for was a slip.
Aunt always had a way of forgetting some little part of her outfit and then she'd ask my Mom if she didn't have a spare slip or some shoes or gloves she could borrow. She did this knowing full well that Mom wouldn't be able to stop at just the slip or the shoes or whatever else.
Mom loved clothes, loved putting together outfits. She was very good at this and for this reason, Aunt Marylou would be sure and forget something just to give Mom an excuse to redress her sometimes from the skin out. Funny, Mom never caught on that her sister was doing this on purpose. I know that's what she did because later, I'd do the same thing when I came home to visit.
So here we are, standing to the side of the church that was in our front yard. It was a lovely morning, such a lovely day in early fall...
We went to church, we had lunch, the adults droned on and I waited for Uncle John to fire up another "cancer stick" so I could go back to catching smoke rings. At least those didn't break.
Around about 2PM, they got ready to leave. The car was packed up, goodbyes were said. Aunt Marylou promised that next time she would call to let us know they were coming, if only to please Mom. She promised this every time...
It was now about 2:30PM. They have a good four hour drive ahead of them.
I remember everything about that weekend.
I remember the car, the new white car, turning to go back down the hill towards the highway. Remember Aunt Marylou hanging out the back, driver's side passenger seat, blowing a kiss...good bye...good bye....
If I want, I can stop the film in my head right there and keep her frozen there for all time. The car need never reach the highway and what happened need never come.
She opened all the windows and doors wide to air out the house from Uncle John and his everlasting smoking. I liked that smell and wished she wouldn't do that because it took his smell out and also took out the smell of Aunt Marylou's perfume.
(If I could smell that one more time...I have no clue what it was she wore. They likely don't make it anymore)
I remember everything about that weekend.
In the excitement over our guests, Mom had almost forgotten that it was picture day at the school on Monday. This would be my first school portrait so I must look my best. Much to my woe, it is decided to re-pin my hair up in pin curls before bed. Sleeping on a head full of prickly bobby pins is something I will tolerate once a week on Saturday but two nights in a row?
The paper from school advises the outfit to be "colorful" but not overly so. My blue sailor suit with the red tie would fit the bill but alas, it's too short in the skirt now and too tight in the chest. Mom decides on some puffed sleeve number that I despise and hangs it on the door knob of my room.
The phone rings.
Mom answers but there's only silence on the other end and then who ever it is hangs up.
"I don't want to wear that dress, Mommy, I hate that dress!"
The phone rings again. Again the person on the other end has no desire to say a word despite a volley of "Hellos" from Mom and rings off with a "click".
Mom's getting frustrated now. Once is alright, likely a wrong number but twice...
The phone rings again and Mom pounces on it like a cat.
"HELLO! " she orders.
A pause and then a young man's voice. I hear Mom say, "Why, Danny Lee, what a surprise!" and then see her brows knit together.
"Yes of course," she says, "you want to speak to Robert, he's right here."
She's trying to sound all nice about this but I can tell she's miffed over him wanting to talk to Dad and not her.
"Ask him what he wants!" she hisses. Danny Lee is her half brother who hardly ever calls let alone come to visit. Why on earth would he want to bypass her, his own sister....half sister.
The plot thickens when Dad announces that for what ever reason, Danny Lee wants to be sure Dad is where he can be alone on the phone. Now he's done it! Mom's dander is really up now!
She who can brooch no secrets to be kept from her stews in silence as Dad takes the call in the office. The fat really hits the fire when she hears Danny ask if Mother has rung off the other line yet. Bringing the receiver down with some force, she stalks off. She'll fix his wagon!
I watch as she pads like a cat to the back bedroom. There's another phone in there and I know what she's going to do. She's very good at deftly plucking that receiver from its cradle so that you'd never know she was on the other line. Par for the course with Mother.
The scream that follows is not par for the course. High, shrill...anguished. The scream carries on frantic wings all over the house. A crash of a wooden door; base beat of my Father's feet slapping, boom, boom, boom, boom across the floor, thru the living room, down the hall.
I cut thru Audrey's room, running to the hall. The scream is coming from the back bedroom. My Mother stands with the receiver in her hand, her mezzo soprano belting out one long,earsplitting scream then little ones, like an opera singer trilling notes and then another long high shriek.
My Dad is trying to wretch the receiver from her fingers, trying in vain to be heard above the auria of shock and distress.
This is why Danny Lee had called twice and hung up when he heard Mom's voice. This is why he asked to speak to my Dad alone. This is what he had to say:
They were getting close to home, Aunt Marylou, Uncle John, Grandma Mary Jane and Grandpa Ray when it started to rain. A two lane highway on a Sunday evening and it's raining. Every driving instructor tries to pound it into your head; slow down when it starts to rain...the first few minutes of a downpour are the most dangerous...slow down...slow down...
Likely John didn't slow down. He wanted to get home. The man in the other car on the other side of the highway didn't slow down either. He had been made to spend all day at the in-laws, a perfectly good Sunday. At least the Father-in-law had offered him some beer...make that two...maybe three. He was tired.
His wife was just weeks away from having their first child. Maybe she was tired too. The end of a weekend; the whole conga line of cars on that strip of highway is full of tired and over spent people all wanting to get home before dark, before the rain gets worse. Press down on the pedal, it's just rain...
Witnesses told highway patrol that it all happened so fast. One minute the other car is where it belongs on the road and the next, it's sliding, skidding, spinning into the oncoming lane of traffic where Uncle John's car is bearing down on the rain slick road...
Four miles away, customers in a truck shop hear the resulting crash as clear as if it had been in the parking lot. The cars behind Uncle John are sliding wildly, their drivers clawing at the steering wheels, trying to get clear of the hell that is exploding before them. The air is alive with flying debris...and bodies.
The force of impact slices the other car in two pieces, flinging its un-belted occupants airborne into traffic. Uncle John's car comes to rest some several feet away, crumpled, mangled.
The rain comes down.
Over on our side of the state, it's gotten cloudy. The attic door flies open with a crash and suit cases come bounding down the ladder. The phone is ringing, the doorbell chimes again and again as suddenly our house fills up with people.
Clothing is being tossed from the closet from the drawers into the suitcases. Everyone is racing around in circles. Someone tries to pull me away from being in the way of everything but I edge back into the fray. What is happening? What are you doing? Where are you going?
At one point, Mom takes me aside. Black streaks of Maybeline eyelash powder crease down her face like spider leg wrinkles. This frightens me and I pull back. Listen to me she is saying, listen to me...
An accident...the car...your Grandmother Maryjane...maybe all of them...gone...
"Where?" I whisper.
"To live with Jesus" is the reply.
She releases me, tells me to be a good girl, mind the ladies, help look after Audrey...
People are piling out onto the front porch. I follow them, push to the front of them.
I watch as suitcases go into the car, just like theirs did.
I watch as my folks get in the car...just like they did.
I watch as they go to pull away, go down the hill to the highway...
just like they did not more than two hours before.
And now they've gone to live with Jesus.
The thought hits me like a blow, the realization:
What on earth is to stop my folks from going to live with Jesus too?
"Shut up! Stop it" one of the ladies is shaking me now. A distant sound, a thin keening of grief. Someone is screaming.
"Stop it at once!"
A flash of flesh, the stinging crack of an open hand on a face.
The world goes dark.
Up to that point, I remember everything about that weekend.
I wish I didn't.
In the end, 4 people died that night: Aunt Mary Lou, Grandma Mary Jane, the pregnant lady in the other car and her baby.The crazy thing is that of all the victims from the crash site, the ambulance drivers and even the staff at the hospital had pegged Mary Lou as the most likely to survive. She was alert, talking, even smiled at one point. From her, the Iowa State Patrol got the names of the passengers in her car and the first report of what had happened.
Uncle John and Grandpa Ray were the ones thought to be the most in danger that night. Interior photos of the car make one wonder how anyone could have been pulled from there in one piece, let alone alive.
Grandma Mary Jane was dead on the scene. The old style lap belts back then did only one thing; keep the body in the car. It did not however prevent you from being thrown forward and whipped back like a rag doll.
Which is exactly what happened to her, breaking her neck in the process.
The lap belt had wrecked havoc on Aunt Mary Lou as well, cutting across the midsection, rupturing within, causing internal bleeding. She made it as far as the hospital and had no sooner been brought in when she died.
Minutes away in a car being driven like a bat out of hell by his brother, Grandpa Lloyd, Mary Lou's Father, gave a loud, shuddering sigh.
With tears streaming down his cheeks, he told Uncle Jess;
"You can slow down now, Jess, she's gone."
In another car, my Mother was holding onto the thin thread that at least her sister had been spared. She already knew that her Mother had died but at least Mary Lou was still alive...
"What happened, Mary Lou?", Mom would later write,
"Why didn't you fight harder for life? Didn't you know your beloved father was only ten minutes away?"
"Didn't you know how much I needed you?"
Every family has that one person, the lynch pin, that live spark that moves the whole unit along year after year. This person is generally the glue that holds the whole works together.
Over the years, people had pointed to Grandpa Lloyd, Uncle Jess or Mom as being those bonding and engaging elements. But in the light of forty one years later, I would have to disagree.
That element had been Mary Lou.
From what I am told about Aunt Mary Lou as a child is that she was a shy and introverted little girl and that she was terrified of going to the photographer.
The big box cameras of the day frightened her. I imagine it must have had something to do with the photographer having to dive under the black hood that must have got to her. She'd burst into tears at the sight of the contraption and then Grandpa would have his hands full trying to coax a smile out of her for the picture. Somewhere, there is a picture of a very young Mary Lou trying to smile gamely thru her tears which are coursing down her chubby little cheeks.
At any rate, a go-getter, Mary Lou was not. It was for this reason that Grandpa Lloyd, who also suffered from terminal shyness, decided that he would see to it that his second child, my Mother, would be, in his words, "first hog at the trough."
He needn't have worried. There was nothing shy or sans about Mother from minute one. She was a person that the world was going to hear from with or with out any coaching from the sidelines. Little Phyllis was the one that everyone talked about, she was the one that had the talent, had the nerve and the gusto.
Mary Lou tended to bob along in her younger sister's wake without much of a murmur. She got married, had two boys, lived her life in quiet, never making a speech or singing a solo or leading any club the way Phyllis did.
Mary Lou also wasn't known for lifting up prayers of glory like Grandpa Lloyd could do off the cuff or dispensing valuable straight forward advice. She couldn't hold a table of folks crying tears of helpless laughter like her Uncle Jess nor was she dashing here and there in tireless service to others as did her step-mother, Mother Marie.
Mary Lou simply was Mary Lou, that's all.
Twenty years ago there was a rather annoying little ditty from a movie called "Beaches" about a girl who was always in the shadows of her more outgoing friend, a "face without a name" but all along, the nameless girl was the "wind beneath my wings" who kept her vivacious friend aloft.
And so it was with Mary Lou. Just being her and just loving and supporting the star players of her own little family group had enabled them to soar like birds.
And on that rain swept Sunday evening in September, their wings failed them and down they came.
The rains came down and they huddled together, stunned and broken. By and by, the rain began to abate and a few brave birds would go out to try their wings again in a now unfamiliar sky stripped of all color.
Some would never fly again.
Some, like my Mother and Uncle Jess, could pick themselves up and start the long journey back to some semblance of the world before.
Grandpa Lloyd however took one look at this strange new world and decided that his participation in it was no longer needed. And gathering the wreckage of his ship, he crafted a rowboat of sorts and sailed away on a sea of tears. Like Rachel of the bible, he "would not be comforted" and for the remaining twenty years of his life, he bobbed about in his own private sorrow.
Mother Marie sorrowed just as heavily over her oldest step-daughter, a grief that was not helped much by her faith in the Seventh Adventist Day church which teaches that the dead are literally slumbering underground.
The thought of Mary Lou laying in the earth until judgement day disturbed her to no end. This concern would stay with her until one bright day in June 1979 when a heart attack brought about an end to this and all concerns.
The old homestead hung heavy in sorrow. MaryLou was all that Grandpa seemed to want to talk about. It got to the point that Mother began to wonder if her Father even cared for her any more at all. The relationship would be further strained eight years later when Mother went on to do what her sister had only dreamed about: leaving her unhappy marriage and starting out again on her own.
This had been the big secret that last weekend; Mary Lou had finally had all she could take of her marriage to Uncle John.
"I have no more heart left to break, no more tears left to shed", she had declared to Mom, "I'm putting some money by each month and come May of next year, that's it! I'm gone!"
May would be when her youngest would graduate from high school. She had done her duty she reasoned and now could be free without feeling bad about it.
"I am going to be happy, Phyllis!"
As she stood before her sister's casket, a mantra of sorts started up in Mom's head:
"She died and was not happy, she died and was not happy...."
The mantra got louder and soon became a full fledged opera waging war in her heart and head.
She didn't wait for my high school graduation, she waited eight years and then, that was it, the end. Over. Fruit basket upset time all over again.
I've often wondered; had Mary Lou survived, had she gotten her wish and made it out successfully, would Mother have waited longer for her own turn? Or would she gone sooner?
And of Mary Lou's sons; the oldest leaves us with a cautionary tale of never letting the sun set on one's anger.
Bitter words had passed between mother and son that August. He was home on leave and shipped back out to sea without having patched things up. It took a week to get him stateside for the funeral. Whereas the others had had that whole week of sitting with the body and letting go, the poor boy would only get one evening.
In my opinion, he's dealing with this still to this day.
I learned that evening that death did not come stealing sweetly like dreams in sleep. Death could swoop in on wings of fire and twisted steel, tearing apart the world as I knew it, as everyone knew it, from one moment to the next.
Aunt Mary Lou and Grandma Mary Jane hadn't known they were going to live with Jesus that day any more than Mrs. Keller had known when she went to bed that Tuesday evening that she would not wake to see the walls of her bedroom the next morning.
The only thing that would ever be certain was that up above, Jesus would be waiting, the good sheets and towels from the back of his linen closet washed and ready for the next batch of unexpected company.
Sorry. I had meant to continue with Audrey's story but life has a way of happening, y'know?
While I wait for the video version of her story to load up, let me fill you all in on the story of Audrey Natalia.
Audrey was born on March 1, 1958. She was full term, weighed in at 8 pounds and some ounces. She was healthy and feisty with blue eyes and a head full of reddish gold hair.
Mom and Dad had wanted to name her "Natalia" which means, "Nativity" or "the beginning" because for all intents and hopes, she would be the first of many more children.
However, some well meaning and helpful souls pointed out that "Natalia" was an unusual name that could get mispronounced and all her life people would be asking her,
"Now how is it you spell your name?"
and one wouldn't want that to happen to their daughter, would one? What to do? Mom recalled seeing a name on the side of a bakery truck for a line of baked goods by "Lil' Audrey" so the sleek and unique "Natalia" got shoved to the middle position and the dear, sweet sounding name, "Audrey" went to the head of the line. In the end, this name fit better somehow for this chubby cheeked little charmer.
She would still be the first of many of course.
Ah, the video is loaded now. You can see for yourself how she was. Such a darling little baby, such a camera FLIRT!
"She knows what a camera is for", Mother wrote in her journal. Gee, ya think? Hello, Ivory Snow! Forget that Brookie Cookie Shields kid, here would have been your goldmine!
As is common with the first born, every waking moment is recorded to film. In this manner, one can see that there is not one thing wrong with the child. Mom was very good at making sure sister was fed properly and up to date on all of her vaccinations, especially the polio jab. Mother was herself a survivor of the dread disease and no way would her baby girl be put thru that trial if she could help it.
She marks it in the baby book, all the lists of doctor visits, what shot was administered on what date. The 3rd dose of the Salk Polio is given in May, 1959 at Iowa Methodist Hospital.
Years later, in a medical journal that was meant only for those privileged few of the white jackets, an article relates how, in the spring of 1959, a laboratory in the south released a batch of the Salk Polio into the market that had been contaminated. A list follows of where some of the batch wound up and some of it lands in Des Moines, IA, Iowa Methodist Hospital.
And some of it landed in Audrey's plump little arm...
The changes are so little at first. One eye begins to wander a bit and this is captured in a photo from June. July; Audrey is often seen with one hand in her hair, tugging at those golden strands ever so slightly...
August. The once bright smile is gone. She looks upset, on edge. She raises her arms above her head as if to shoo the camera away from her. By September, the eyes have dulled, what some term the "one hundred yard stare" has set in.
Audrey on a merry-go-round, September, 1959. After this, the pictures stop.
The pictures start up again at Thanksgiving, 1959. Mom is holding a child, looks like a little boy, a very odd little boy at that with too short hair and a missed beat in his eyes. He smiles and in that smile, there is something familiar...
She smiles again now. The folks force something that passes for upturned lips for the camera, for the congregation...for each other. Only Audrey smiles and means it. What ever this was that came upon her, it's over now. She is the way she is going to be for the next 33 years of her life and all the tears and prayers in the world, not even that of Oral Roberts, is going to change this.
This has happened. This is here to stay.
So this is where I came in with this long day's journey into night already in progress. The doctors in Iowa City, (so called "Mecca" of medical wisdom in the day for that part of the world), had already passed judgement and basically pronounced Audrey as a lost cause best left up to God.
Ok, they didn't say it quite like that. To be fair, the doctor that spoke to the folks was more gentle than that. He was in fact, very quiet and soft when he told them that to be honest, he didn't know what in the world was the matter with Audrey but he did know one thing:
"Whatever this is, it is killing her. She is dying," he said.
"Take her home and let her die."
And so they took her home. And Audrey got a little better, then a little worse, then some better, then a lot better. An doctor of osteopathic medicine had begun to do treatments on her to which she responded very well. This was followed by an extended stay at a facility, now since gone, in Denver, CO where she responded even more. In fact, the mood was getting brighter all the time as Audrey could once again move about freely, focus on the world around her and show an interest in eating.
(This renewed appetite came following the laying on of hands by Oral Roberts. From what I have read, many recipients of prayer from Oral came away with a profound new love of food. They still couldn't walk, see or hear but boy, they sure could eat! Someone should do a study on this)
Audrey could walk again with the aid of a walker. The one shown in the picture is the same one that she came home from Denver in. As she grew, the walker did too, aided and abetted by more pipe and bits being welded to the frame.
Yes, Audrey is very skinny in the picture, isn't she? She could eat like a horse but most of the food had a tendency to come right back up. Her diet had to be very soft and easy to digest in an effort to at least get some nourishment to stay inside of her.
By the time I came along, this is how Audrey was; stick thin and in frail health. Yet the smile was almost always there. On good days, she was full of energy and high spirits, laughter and fun.
Audrey had fun? Oh certainly she did. She was smart too, let me tell you.
For example, she figured out how to turn on the gas stove by pushing the edge of walker against the dial at just the right angle. This in turn would cause a pretty blue light to come on! A pretty, dancing blue flame that she could watch up close.
This went on for awhile. She'd turn on her own private ballet in blue then get bored with it and amble off. Mom would come in, find the burner lit and assume that the resident toddler had performed this offense. Resident toddler would get scolded and told to stay away from the stove which the resident toddler had no interest in to begin with. Finally one day, Mom caught sister in the act and about had a heart attack.
This produced a new game; batter the baby gate. Mom strung up a baby gate in front of the kitchen entrance to keep Audrey away from the stove. Audrey took this challenge in stride and soon figured out that her walker could be used as a battering ram. Oh joy!
I can still see her in my mind's eye; Audrey slowly sliding around the dinning room floor, looking at the baby gate, observing its position. Scooting back, she'd get the gate in her sites so to speak, stand up to full height and run at top speed. The walker would slip and slide and then BAM! crash up against the gate which in turn buckled and had it not been for the kitchen chairs fortifying the works from behind, surely would have given way to the invading forces of Audrey the army of one. Oo-rah!
There came at last a day of victory. The gate could only take so much abuse and one fine afternoon, the sound of splintering wood and screeching wheels filled the house. Audrey came sliding at top speed into the promised land of the kitchen, eyes shinning with triumph, pushing the vanquished gate before her like a train of the old west with a bovine riding its cow-catcher.
And with those words, the average, hard working, tax paying AMERICAN was heard in no uncertain terms in the marbled, pretencions halls of our so called elected govt.
A hero has been made in this moment! GO JOE!!!
This morning saw yet another eerie sunrise in LA, eerie yet beautiful.
Wanting to get the full impact of this, I hastened to the nearest hillside that could afford me a full view of the sky. Trouble was, I would have to turn my back to the show unfolding in the clouds as I hiked up the hill.
I tried walking backwards which is actually a very good work out for the legs and rear end but at the rate I was going, it would take longer so I turned round and started hoofing it again wishing I didn't have to miss this.
I soon discovered that I didn't have to miss a thing; the effects of the rising red sun could be seen all around me as it lit up the houses, the trees and the hill beyond in a surreal rosy glow.
Then it hit me: this was like faith. I have never seen the Lord face to face but I can see his effect. I can see it in nature, I can see it in my fellow man and in me.
I can also tell the effects of no son just as surely as one can see the effects that no sunlight can work in humans and in plants.
Now I am not the first to have a revaluation like this, nor will I be the last but for me, this thought was pretty powerful.
Awhile back, I had gotten into one of those circular arguments over in that dive bar of a website, God Like Productions which, unlike its name would seemingly imply, is not Christ Like in nature.
A poster was going off on Christians, snarling in Arial point font;
"And how do you know your precious Jesus wasn't just a fairy tale???"
I replied to him;
and then went off to look at other threads. Awhile later I came back to the poster's question to find that he had told me in no uncertain terms just what he thought about me, my faith and what I could do with said faith that involved sticking it somewhere the sun does not often shine.
Someone better at this kind of thing than I had taken up the conversion so I went on but never the less I wondered, how does one explain faith to someone who has none? I wish now I could share this example with him or her.
Huffing and puffing and sweaty, I reached the top of the hill. Turing around, what little breath I had left was about taken away in the glory that lay open before me. The sun, now losing its redness never the less still painted the clouds beneath in shades of rose and pink with touches of blue.
The water on the harbor shone like a jewel, patches of silvered light here and there. I watched as a freighter put out to open water. A slight breeze stirred carrying in it a teasing scent of rain.
No, I have never seen the son, but in all things, I have seen his effect.