Mercy and comfort

 

My father (R barber) in his shop at Seven Mile and Joann Street in Detroit, circa 1954

Today, October 24th is my father’s birthday. Born in 1922, Warren G. O’Brien would be 98 years old. However, he lived seventy-two years as the Scriptures say, and left us.

When my sisters and I were youngsters, Dad would tease Mom and say, “I married an older woman. “ I knew my mother didn’t appreciate Dad’s remark by her pursed lips.

           Decades later, I figured the math from Mom’s January 10, 1922 birthday and understood my father’s play on dates and words. There’s nothing he enjoyed more than stretching the truth for the benefit of a joke at someone else’s expense. 

           Well, Mom showed Dad a thing or two. She divorced him and outlived him twelve years.

           Such memories come to mind on October 24th when I enter the date into my journal. Some flashbacks I’d rather forget, for my father and I often failed to exchange forgiveness, compassion, and love.

Yet, God is merciful. He will not leave us comfortless.

           For instance, the day Dad appeared at my door unannounced. Although perturbed by his untimely visit, I was glad to see him. How long had it been? We’d become further estranged after his second divorce.

           I served Dad cups of coffee and leftover homemade spaghetti, forgetting he loathed Italian food. He lived on Little Caesar’s pizza.

Letting down my guard, I heard contrition in his voice. The loneliness in his brown eyes perpetuated by his improper behavior broke my heart.

Now was my chance, so I dared broach a subject most veterans of foreign wars avoid. “Dad, where did you serve with the Marine Corps during the war?”

“You don’t know?” he mocked.

“Now Dad, how could I know if you didn’t tell me?”

“Guam.”

“Why didn’t you ever talk about it?”

He paused. “Our sergeant said, ‘What happened here, stays here.’”

As his rifle kept in the back of the coat closet, Dad longed to forget the stench of ammunition, death, and human waste in Guam’s trenches. Yet, memory is not a compliant human faculty.

Since those few, private hours with my father, I’ve wondered if I could’ve aided him like a midwife to deliver his nightmares into the light. Yet, I prefer to believe he loved me and would not release his demons to torment my mind with war’s carnage. I’ve never read a combat story or watched a war movie, particularly Saving Private Ryan.

On Dad’s birthday, I sometimes imagine his whereabouts the morning the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. At age nineteen and the last child at home, I see him gathering eggs in Board Tree Hollow, Kentucky, unaware he’d soon enlsit in the armed services.

O’Brien family legend says Dad’s nine siblings gathered at Alonzo and Laura O’Brien’s house when their baby brother came home on furlough. They drank coffee all night and listened to his basic training adventures.

Dear Reader, I called my two surviving daughters this morning to commemorate their Grandpa O’Brien’s birthday.

God is merciful. He will not leave us comfortless.

 


 



Talking apples

Our Northern Spy harvest   
















It all began with little green apples.

Aunt Eloise mailed Mom a letter saying the fruit was ready for canning applesauce. Mom loaded up the car with her Mason jars and our suitcases. Dad drove us south to the McCoy farm where we lived the first four years of my life.

Without a care in the world, my sisters, cousins, and I climbed the scraggly trees to fetch a few apples. Sour as can be, we chewed around the worms.

“The apples taste better with salt,” cousin Kathy said.

My mother, aunts Eloise, Alma Leigh, and Dean, laid wood under the shade of a black walnut tree beside the homeplace. They hoisted Granny’s copper cauldron above the logs.

After they gathered chairs and bushels of apples around the pot, they lit the fire. The peeling and laughter commenced.

Without understanding how and why, I knew those women loved my sisters and me because they made us applesauce.

McCoy offspring, we ran willy-nilly while our moms filled the huge copper bowl with apple slices, sugar, and cinnamon. At last, the mouthwatering scent of the steamy, bubbling cauldron called us to our mothers.

“Don’t get too close. You’ll get burned,” they chimed like they did every summer.

But we got too close because we loved to squeal when the hot applesauce popped on our bare bellies and arms. We wore our blisters with pleasure until one-by-one, we lost interest in simmering applesauce.

Twenty-six years later and 500 miles away from the McCoy farm, the little green apple orchard was long gone and forgotten. When Michigan’s apple season arrived on Cummings Street in Berkley, I had no applesauce clan to peel and laugh with. No copper cauldron to set above a blaze.

Yet, I had a bushel of fruit, soup pot, stove, and a basement. And three hungry mouths to feed, as Mom would say.

While the girls raced Big Wheels around the mammoth gravity furnace, I peeled Northern Spys until lunchtime.

Afterward, while her two younger sisters napped in the silent house, one-by-one, my eight-year old handed me crisp Spys, Mom’s favorite pie apple.

Something squeaked.

“What was that?” Becky asked.

I looked up to the basement window above us and under the table and chairs where we worked.

Nothing.

“It’s probably a mouse,” I said.

Becky scooted close to me.

“Are you afraid?”

“No.”

I attempted humor to comfort her. “Perhaps the apples thanked you for being such a good helper.”

She smiled. “They can’t really talk, can they?”

Sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it, dear Reader?

Forty-two years later, overlooking our little orchard from the kitchen window, my husband and I peeled, cored, and sliced about a bushel of Mom’s favorite pie apple.

While I stirred bubbly sauce tinted red with our raspberries, I heard cousin Kathy’s squeal.

I hereby vouch for southern green apples and Northern Spys. They can talk.

They speak of familial love and belly blisters. Of copper pots, basements, and Big Wheels.

The comforting language of bubbling applesauce.  



Two rooms of my own


When our youngest daughter claimed her independence, my husband gained her bathroom. He moved his health and beauty aids from our master-bedroom bath to the other, just nine easy steps away.

            Since I’d never known the benefits of my own bathroom, I first founded a proverb on the sink’s countertop and in the drawers: “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

Meaning, I pitched my mate’s cruddy stuff from his former three drawers and installed my belongings.

The notion of a room of my own fell upon my ears several years prior when I attended my first writer’s conference. An aspiring journalist, I looked and listened for guidance to commence my new avocation.

The keynote speaker addressed her female audience, many in the “second shift” of our lifespan. “What are the necessary conditions to think and write our best work?” she asked.

I held my pen ready.

She introduced Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own.

I knew little about the English author other than she drowned herself in a river. That tragic end of her acclaimed success deterred me from reading her work as it did Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and other writers tormented by mental illness.

I preferred Jane Austen’s fiction for her happy endings and compelling characters, and Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction to inform my faith.

Yet, I’d paid $35 and invested a Saturday to sit amongst several hundred women who knew much more about the writing industry than I. So I scribbled the following.

“First, the woman’s mind needs to be fed,” the speaker said.

A housewife and mom who cooked my mother’s four food groups and loved to read, I agreed.

She continued, “Second, Virginia Woolf asks, what does it mean to write?”

Again, I pondered why I desired to step beyond the comfort and privacy of my daily journal, into the criticism of the competitive and sometimes brutal literary market.

To preserve family and local history.

To encourage the reader’s faith, hope, and love in God.

To enthuse vision for a peaceful and purposeful future.

Foremost, to the best of my ability, persuade people to write their hearts out.

What I took home that October day in 1993 was this: a writer needs a room of his or her own, a holy sanctuary with a door to close upon a conceived idea to feed and deliver with much joy and travail.

The following fall, I resumed studies for my Bachelor of Arts degree. Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, appeared on a class syllabus.

I opened my Norton Anthology of English Literature and read the sixty pages of Woolf’s brilliant review of the historical absence of women in literature.

Dear Reader, yesterday I sat on the banks of Stoney Creek under a blue October sky. Amber and scarlet leaves fell onto the water, swept downstream by rapids.

I thanked Virginia Woolf for inspiring a study of my own, and “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what (I) think” when in my shower.                                   



Loving Lily

My baby Ruth and her puppy Lily  

Ruth called the third week in July. “Mom, I bought a puppy.”

“I didn’t know you wanted a pet.”

My youngest daughter lives in a house with more windows than timber. Enough to make a mother worry and suggest a dog might be a good idea for safety’s sake. But I held my tongue.

             “Oh, I’ve been thinking about a puppy for a while, but I couldn’t take on the responsibility until after surgery.”

Running on the fumes of her rock-solid resilience for months, the surgery took place the second week in June, not one day too soon. Recovery laid Ruthie low a few weeks, but she bounced back in July like my spattering of snapdragons each summer.

“Boy or girl?” I asked.

“Girl. The breeder named her Lily. She’s wonderful, Mom.”

Quick and true, the force of my child’s sentiment recalled my puppy Sweetie—the steadfast joy and companionship a little ginger-colored cocker spaniel offered my growing family for eleven years.

“What’s Lily’s breed?”

“A black lab with the cutest eyes.”

“Melts your heart, doesn’t she?”

“Oh yes, I’m smitten. I pick her up tomorrow. I can’t wait to drive her out to the farm for you to meet her. She loves to run.”

I remembered Shadow, our neighbor’s black lab who brought his ball to me whenever I appeared in my perennial island. For eight years Shadow and I played toss and fetch until my neighbor asked a tough question one day.

“Iris, Shadow has arthritis in his hips. After he chases the ball, he cries all night in pain. Would you please not throw the ball for him when he brings it to you?”

I hope and pray Lily didn’t inherit the lab’s arthritic DNA. I’d love to play toss and fetch with her for a good, many years.

It was Saturday, September 5, when Ruth and Lily arrived. Ruth carried into my kitchen the equivalent of a baby’s diaper bag filled with Lily’s toys, and whatever else Ruth reckons necessary to fulfill her duty as a conscientious and loving pet owner.

Before we sat down for brunch, Ruth said, “Sit,” to Lily.

And Lily did—perhaps one reason why some folk prefer pets to children.

We cleared the table. Out came the tennis ball. Lily went running downhill. Her paws propelling above the grass and tongue lolling to the side solicited our admiration.

“Mom, let’s take a walk on the road,” Ruth said.

“Doesn’t Lily need a leash?” I asked.

“No. She won’t run off.”

And Lily didn’t.

“Isn’t she cute how she sniffs and wags her tail?” Ruth asked.

I laughed. “You’re talking like a proud mother.”

Later, Ruth put Lily in the passenger seat. 

“No seat belt?” I teased.

Dear Reader, Lily looked to me with her puppy dog eyes.

What’s not to love about my grand-dog? I lavished Lily with affection while Ruth fed her treats and handled the potty pick up.

Moreover, I beheld my baby’s beautiful, blue eyes for three hours.



The darkest hour of my life

These late September chrysanthemum days saturate my natural senses with the faculty of memory.

While I separate laundry in the morning, the ruddy scent of football season recalls my dorm room on Central Michigan University’s campus. I know the rustle of autumn’s falling leaves from walking to classes and the football field to cheer, Let’s go Chips!

Such moments soak into your bones and soul.

Later in the day, the sun warms my arms as I pull cabbages from the earth and carry garden waste to the burn pile. I remember Merilee, my freshman roommate in the fall semester of 1968. A personification of her name, she says, “You’ll have to come home with me some weekend and watch my brother slalom. ”

Fifty-two years later, I hear the speedboat; see Merilee’s brother in his wet suit spraying a fishtail with his ski on White Lake. In the house, Merilee holds her baby brother while her mother stirs spaghetti sauce for dinner.

That night, I sleep in the comfort of Merilee’s bedroom.

With four sisters in a three-bedroom ranch, none of us ever had a bedroom of our own. A year after my parent’s divorce, college came at the right time to escape the fallout. Although I want to reciprocate Merilee’s hospitality with an invitation to my home, it’s not a good idea.

In the waning sun, I return to the remnant of my beehive that survived last winter only to be sacked by yellow jackets. The sound of neighborhood children at play falls upon another beekeeping failure.

Frame by frame, box by box, I inspect the hive in bewilderment.

Why no honey in the top box? Not one sticky, healthy drop.

There’s no sign of disease in the two brood boxes. A handful of bees huddle over empty brood cells.

I remove the bottom box and find a cluster of dead bees on the bottom board. No sign of mites or wax moths. Yes, the hive must’ve swarmed and left the remainder too weak to fend off robbers.

There’s nothing else I know to do but leave the orphaned bees to themselves. I will begin anew next spring.

Long into the night, our neighbors gather around a bonfire with their family. A warm and moonlit evening when muted voices and laughter travel to open windows, I listen to the timbre of three generations. 

I recall the darkest hour of my life.

Merilee and our suite mates had left for Christmas break. I am in bed in my dorm room, too weak to open my eyes. I sleep and awake in the dark and daylight. And sleep again. Merilee and my mother don’t know I’m ill in bed. No one knows.

Dear Reader, I cannot remember rising to my feet. Or who rescued me. Or who drove me home. Yet, I stood as Maid of Honor in my older sister’s wedding December 28, 1968, recovered from the Hong Kong flu.

Surely, God’s healing, guiding hand rests upon me. Then. Now. And evermore.