Saturday, November 28, 2009

Some black humor on the day

About fourteen years ago, after my parents' old cat Gretel died, my mom adopted a little calico kitten that she named Daisy. My dad grumbled about it, saying, "That cat's going to outlive me."

As the years went on, the two of them became fast friends--no small feat, given that Daisy was a bit of a psycho, and wouldn't really let anyone pet her.

Daisy developed renal failure early this week, and had to be put to sleep yesterday morning. Dad passed away early this morning. I think he'd be amused to know that his prognostication turned out to be wrong. In the end, it was a photo finish.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dear T. F.

Here we are enduring a somewhat stressful holiday week at Rose's old homestead. I won't go into all the details now, partly because it's not really my story to tell. But as I told my own folks during this past week: when we moved to Morgantown, it was difficult, challenging, and stressful--because change is all of those things. But now we're being reminded that change that isn't planned and isn't voluntary can be even more difficult, challenging, and stressful.

But of course there's some good with the bad, in all sorts of ways, and we try to take the comfort from that that we can. There's been a lot of family togetherness, and many family reminiscences have been bouncing around in the air, and I thought I'd post one I found especially sweet, Rose's note to the tooth fairy (oh-so-familiarly addressed as "T. F."), from a time maybe only a few years before her dad's first round of cancer. Although it's hard to keep in mind, it's also hard not to be thankful that he's had what seems like a thirty-five year reprieve, including a happily busy retirement of around twenty years.

But let's focus, rather, on Rose's note, which I find thoroughly amusing, sweet, and charming, although I know that she thinks it makes her sound pushy and demanding ("PLEASE GIVE ME 25c!"). But to me it reads like a perfect little poem:

I lost my tooth while brushing it;
It went right down the drain.
And when I thought about it,
It gave me such a pain.
Please give me 25c.

In an old diary that Rosemary has from about the same period, she has an entry that reads something like this, "I had a bad day; I spilled a lot of things." And even now, spilling things is still a sign of a bad day for Rosemary, and I marvel to recall how much she must share with the little girl who wrote these things. And I also try to help her keep from spilling things as much as I can, although I'm not always successful. Who could be? And anyway, sometimes things spill all on their own, despite anything we can do.

And while I've never really fancied myself a poet, and it may just be the stress of recent events, I can't help but thinking, somehow, that many poems might be usefully ended with the simple honesty and directness of Rose's note to the tooth fairy: "Please give me 25c." Offhand, at least, I can't think of a single poem that it might not improve. I don't know if the tooth fairy came through with the quarter or not, but Rose's parents have kept the note for almost forty years: and this week, that seems like an otherworldly gift of far greater value.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Greatest Generation

This is one of my favorite photos of my dad. Taken on V-E Day, in his barracks, he looks impossibly young. He was twenty, and I'm sure he fancied himself a man of the world. When he left his county-seat hometown of Grantsville, West Virginia, he hadn't seen much of the world, though he'd listened to it on the radio in the old henhouse that he'd wired up to live in during high school.

After two years of combat in northern Italy, he'd become fluent in Italian, having befriended a local family with whom he still exchanges Christmas cards. After V-E Day, he and some of his army buddies who also had leave traveled to Rome to see the sites, inadvertently alarming his mother back home when she didn't hear from him for several weeks after the surrender.

Like many vets, he came home and immediately went to college on the G. I. Bill, and the stories he tells about his undergraduate days at West Virginia University are among my very favorites. He lived in the old Episcopal parish house, Trinity Hall. The building had actually been condemned, but was allowed to remain open for a few more years due to the housing shortage when the student population swelled with returning troops eager to get on with their lives.

The Trinity Hall group was a motley bunch--most were first-generation college students, sons of miners and laborers from a huge variety of ethnic backgrounds. Smart, ambitious, and happy the war was over, they studied hard and played harder, each trying to outdo the other with practical jokes.

(My personal favorite has to do with one resident who was notorious for coming home drunk and waking everyone else up. Fed up, the other guys moved all of his furniture out to the front lawn after he left the house one night, recreating the guy's room down to running an extension cord out to plug in the guy's table lamp. The drunk had the last laugh, though: when he came home, he simply climbed into the bed right there on the lawn and turned out the light.)

My father has often said that the men of that generation were anxious to put the war behind them, to get back to the plans they'd had beforehand. And it's true, he never talked much about his war experiences when I was growing up. Apparently, I asked him once (I don't remember this) whether he'd ever seen a dead person.

He didn't answer me then. But in the last fifteen years or so, he's been talking a lot more about those years of his life, both during the war and after. And he's been to several reunions of both his Army Division and of the Trinity Hall guys, who managed to track each other down recently.

In fact, the photo below was taken at his Division's last reunion in 2007, when they met in Washington, D. C. and were joined by members of the current Division. One of the current officers had seen the V-E Day photo above previously, and had brought along a copy of Stars and Stripes he'd found so that Dad could recreate the pose.

And he and my mother were down here in Morgantown the first week of October for another get-together with some of the Trinity Hall folks. Dad grumbled that they'd run out of things to say to each other, and that he didn't think they needed to keep meeting. But he still clearly enjoyed himself, and enjoyed recounting more stories of his days at WVU.

On the Friday night of their visit, Tom and Dad and I sat around visiting for awhile after mom went to bed. Suddenly, the fingers on Dad's left hand started trembling; a few seconds later, his whole hand was wagging back and forth, and then his left arm.

We all studiously tried to ignore it (that's the Hathaway way, I'm afraid), but in less than a minute Dad jumped up and said he was going to bed, too. I felt awful: was this something that I didn't know about, but that he'd been dealing with for awhile?

When it happened again the next night, I discovered that, in fact, the previous night's episode had been the first. And, in fact, he jumped up because he was so freaked out by it: "It's WEIRD!" he exclaimed.

Long story short: after a bunch of tests, he's been diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer, and had surgery last Thursday to remove the tumor.

Once a warrior, always a warrior: as soon as he woke up, Dad was cracking jokes and expressing his impatience with his slow recovery. He wanted to report to me immediately that his anesthesiologist was a graduate of WVU's med school. I learned from my mother yesterday that Dad discovered that one of the doctors who comes in to check on him is also fluent in Italian, so they've been chatting away in Italiano.

In many ways, his memories of his war and college years seem to be the ones that are sustaining him through all of this. We've heard a lot about those days on our visits to the hospital.

Funny how the things you try to get away from, put behind you, are the very ones that stick with you. And now, as in 1945, he just wants to get on with his life.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Rufus' story

One nice thing about small academic conferences is that they can meet in more out-of-the-way places...and the American Folklore Society has met, in the past, in wonderful small cities like Lafayette, Louisiana and Eugene, Oregon--and this year, in Boise, Idaho.

It's been over two years since I was west of...well, Chicago, since moving away from Colorado in the summer of 2007. There are many things I've missed since, mainly low humidity and good Mexican food. Boise delivered both, and then some.

The day before the conference officially began, I went on a day-long tour that took us to a Boise synagogue built in 1895 whose grounds are now host to a community garden used mostly by Somali Bantu emigres. Later we met and saw the beautiful work of two talented women who make stirrups, saddles, and rawhide riding accessories. After a great lunch of chile rellenos at Lalo's in Caldwell, ID, we made our final stop at a horse-training facility run by a crusty old guy who grew up, of all places, in Huntington, West Virginia.

(I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't make a note of and can't recall the trainer's name, but you'll see him in the video at the end.)

En route to the horse-training center, Deana Attebery, the master saddlemaker/rawhide braider (pictured above), got on the tour bus's PA system to explain that she herself was a student at the barn we were going to visit, and that the trainer would be riding a horse that used to belong to her son.

During her earlier demonstration, Deana had mentioned that her son, whom she'd been teaching to make saddles, had died several years ago, though she didn't explain how. During lunch, we sat together, and though she mentioned "the horse incident" a couple of times, I didn't press her for details.

Over the PA, she told us the harrowing tale. Her son, who was in his 20s and a lifelong rider, had been thrown from his horse, Rufus, and--as Deana said--"they both ended up in the river." The horse survived; her son didn't.

However, the horse only survived in body; Rufus was distraught and crazy-angry after the accident, a totally different horse than he'd been beforehand. No one could ride him; he bucked constantly when he was in his stall, and he was aggressive with Deana and her family.

I can only imagine how agonizing this must have been for Deana: Rufus was the only witness to her son's death, the only one who could explain what had spooked him and caused him to throw his passenger. The incident clearly haunted Rufus as much as it haunted Deana, but they couldn't talk about it. And they couldn't work through it. Eventually, Deana gave him to the horse trainer we were headed to see.

As Deana explained, under the trainer's care, Rufus was completely transformed. He went from being a manic, uncontrollable basket case to being the trainer's primary horse, the one he uses to train other reining horses. This is western-style riding we're talking about, so if you know rodeo, you'll understand what the trainer meant when he said that Rufus would make a good pickup horse--one that wouldn't be afraid to sidle up to a bucking bronc and have its rider jump on his back. That takes an exceptionally calm and "supple" horse, to use the trainer's term.

Check out Rufus now. That's an amazing horse. He could probably give us humans some training, too: how to overcome trauma, let go of guilt, and get a new lease on life.