I’ve been going through old family pictures lately and thinking about what we leave behind. When I travel back to places I lived as a child, I think about what might have been. I notice the changes to those towns, to the houses where my family once resided. Time marches on in those places and I wasn’t there to see it.
My aunt passed away a few weeks ago and as I wander through her house, now empty except for the furniture, I wonder where did she go? All of her things are gone. Her jewelry, her clothes, her dishes. The house is just a house without her in it. The houses where I once lived are just houses. People, families, are what makes a house a home. I think of all the sad abandoned houses that were once full of life.
In addition to some of my aunt’s antique dish collection, there is a stack of photos and albums left for me. I marvel at the number of bad photos, often in duplicate and triplicate. My aunt’s diaries? Those I will keep.
I think about all of the sad houses. The ones that have been abandoned and left to fall apart. Someone died, maybe. All the stuff that made that house a home disappeared until soon there was nothing left of those who once lived there. Except a long-forgotten marker in a cemetery. Did those one-time occupants of those houses leave anything else behind? Am I leaving anything of myself behind?
As history becomes less and less important, I wonder what my children will remember of their family history. What will my children remember about me after I’m gone?
Maybe my writing will survive me. For awhile. But ten or fifty or hundred years from now no one will have heard of or remember me. Unless they happen across one of my journals someone saved or an ancient book I wrote.
Then will they do what I’ve done with so many of those photos? Say to themselves, “I don’t know who this is.” And toss it in the trash.
At my aunt Maxine’s funeral one my favorite hymns, Here I Am Lord was played along with How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace. Combined with Scripture readings focusing on Fruits of the Spirit, we did our best to convey the woman Maxine was and the kind of life she lived.
“I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart” seemed to be the words that Maxine lived by even though she never left her hometown. My brother Steve, who lives nearby watched over her the last year and a half of her life and was with her at the end. He and I had several conversations about Maxine and her choices and what she taught us.
Maxine lived simply. She was a frugal soul, having grown up on a farm during the Great Depression. My father used to joke that Maxine had the first nickel she ever made. She accumulated wealth, but didn’t quite seem to believe that she had. She never wanted to go anywhere. Steve believed she’d seen enough of the world outside the small town where she lived her whole life and had realized long ago that there was nothing better for her out there.
She worked, attended church, got involved in her community and took care of her friends and family. Based on things Maxine wrote, she believed that was her purpose in life.
Some may say it was a small life. Our society has a way of making us think we have to make our mark on the world in some big way. We hunger after fame and fortune but in the end those things are worthless. What will count are the lives we touched, the example we set.
Maxine’s answer to “What brings happiness?”
“Peace of mind. Love of friends and family.”
When asked, “What is the meaning of life?” Maxine replied, “To me life means being happy with a good outlook, seeing the best in people, being friendly to everyone, helping those you can, keeping close to God and living the life he intended for me.”
Those individuals who have what they want, the fame, the fortune, the followers, the careers, the influence, are some of the most unhappy, self-destructive, discontented people on the planet. Perhaps that’s because they weren’t meant to have any of what they spent their lives acquiring.
I will always believe Maxine had it right. This, it seems to me, is the key to contentment: Living the life God intended for you.
My favorite aunt, Maxine, passed away recently. She was just days shy of her 96th birthday. She was my mother’s older sister and leaves my mother as the last surviving sibling of the seven children in her family. Below are my Memories of Maxine which I shared at her funeral.
Memories of Maxine
My Grandmother Wagner told me once that instead of being sad when people die we should rejoice because they’ve gone to be with the Lord. Our tears are for ourselves not for them.
It’s hard to say why any one person holds a special place in our hearts. But for my brothers and me, Maxine was always our favorite aunt. Hers was the house you could go to where you’d never be judged, criticized or disciplined. Where you’d always be accepted just as you were.
My memories of Maxine are isolated. Picking blackberries one summer and watching her make a cobbler without a recipe that melted in your mouth nonetheless.
Dressing chickens with my mom and grandmother and her telling me if this is going to make you hate chicken, you don’t have to help.
Walking through her garden and around her house while she explained what every plant and flower was.
Summer nights taking turns churning ice cream for hours but the ice cream was always soft and runny.
Sitting on the glider on her front porch in the evening watching the world pass by.
She was like my dad in that you could talk to her about anything.
I can hear her laugh over something silly and see her tapping her fingers on the steering wheel at a stoplight.
It was a little disconcerting to discover a few years ago that I had no plans for New Year’s Eve but my 90-something aunt did. Disconcerting but not surprising.
I guess my grandmother was right. My tears are for myself. Because now there’s one less person in the world who accepted me. Who never criticized or judged me. One less person who loves me. I’m glad she’s at peace and I can only hope she knew how much I loved her. And how much I’ll miss her.
7/8/08 Steve and I had many long conversations including yesterday in the car. We were discussing his relationships with women. I told him he didn’t have any respect for women in general. He said he thinks his problem is something deep inside and he probably needs therapy to get at the root of it. I did not know that Vicki was married to this guy she was with and she still lives in Bradenton. She manages an apartment building that her dad owns. The guy she married is an alcoholic but he worships the ground she walks on. She and Steve are still in touch. I told Steve the only sustaining relationship he seems to be able to manage long-term is with his dog. He loves that dog. It is about 30 pounds overweight and eats lots of table scraps and very little dog food.
Kevin came over later and the three of us discussed the medical treatment Dad has been subjected to and what that has led to.
Now this morning he seems a little perky. He ate anyway, and now he’s going back to bed. It must be about 9 a.m. so he’s been up for about an hour.
Frankly, I can’t wait to get away from my mother. If she wasn’t here, I’d stay indefinitely and try to help with Dad, but I think it’s past time for me to leave. I probably should have left today, but situation being what it was/is, I made the best decisions I could with the information I had at the time. Geez, now I can hear her nagging him about putting his oxygen mask in his nose. Then she says, “Can I get you anything else right now?” And he says, “No.” What he’s probably thinking, or at least what I’m thinking is, yes, can you please go away and leave me alone. More nagging about the oxygen. Okay, finally she exits the room. Country music blares from the radio.
She went over to take the church bulletin to Loretta and Dad got up and came out and sat in the living room for awhile. He needs and wants help to get up off the bed or out of a chair now, but he can still walk okay on his own hanging onto walls and chairs or whatever is convenient. Today I’m optimistic. Maybe he’ll be able to make that appointment on the 17th. But that’s 10 days away so who knows.
Pam Somebody from the Area Agency on Aging is to stop by between 1:30 and 2 today. This is the agency that’s supposed to send someone out to clean a couple of hours a week for free. I hope that works out. I was going to clean the refrigerator out and clean the counters in the kitchen, but Mom seems like she doesn’t want my help with Dad so I’m sort of inclined to not help at all and let somebody else do it. Maybe Melonie would like that job.
I forgot to say when we went to Joplin on Friday that we stopped at Home Depot (or did I say this?). I mentioned Home Depot, but this is about the bathroom hook. Dad has this series of little plastic hooks on the back of his bathroom door that he hangs his belts and shirt and pants up on. Last time I was here, or maybe it was the time before, one of the little plastic hooks had broken off and he wanted me to glue it back on with Super Glue, so I did and he was just so thrilled that I did that. It seemed to mean so much to him to have that hook fixed. So I had noticed this time that one of the hooks was broken and I didn’t see the little part that had broken off anywhere so I don’t think it could be glued back. So when I was in HD, I got a package of plastic hooks, thinking I’ll fix that for him and he’ll be surprised. I got the old hook off just by sliding a butter knife up under it and it popped right off.
The new package said to clean the area with rubbing alcohol and let it dry, so I did that. I think it was Saturday evening, Dad came out and he had the old piece of the hook in his hand and he wanted to know who got it off. He ruined the surprise! I had this plan to have that new hook up there before he even noticed the other one was gone and I told him that. So I went in and stuck the new hook on the back of his door. Yay. Now he has a good hook. I noticed this morning that his stuff is hanging there and the new hook is in use. Silly, huh?
7/6/08 Seriously, who takes someone else’s terminal illness and makes it about them? My mother, that’s who.
Dad didn’t have such a great day. Slept a lot, pain bad, didn’t want to eat once we got some breakfast down him. Mom was tired so she wanted to go to bed early, like 6:30, quarter to 7, but she was concerned that Dad hadn’t eaten all day. I told her when I got him up to take his pills at 8 that I’d try to get him to eat something.
Steve and I were sitting on the back porch and Steve heard Dad go into the bathroom, so I knew he was up and it was about 8, so I went in to get his pills ready. Mom was standing outside the bathroom door with her head down on top of the laundry basket that was sitting on the dryer. I asked if he was okay and I guess he was. So I went and got his pills and when he came out I asked if he wanted something to eat and I don’t think he really did, but he agreed to eat cookies and peaches. So I put it in a bowl and he wanted milk and I got it for him. He sat down at the counter and Mom sat down, too. When he was done pouring the milk, I went to put it back in the fridge because I was standing right there. Mom gets up, pulls her chair out and leaves and says, “Here, Barbara, you come and sit here and take care of your Daddy.” She walks off in a huff. I’m like, oh shit, we’re in trouble now.
So Steve and I discuss after Dad goes on to bed about leaving them alone, letting them deal with each other. I’m so sick of Mom at this point anyway. Sandy called and I talked to her. Sandy says, but Barb, your mother’s not right in the head. Yeah. Whatever.
So they got up again when I was watching TV, about 9:30, I guess, and I gave Dad some liquid morphine. Back to bed they go. I go in my room and later I can hear him coughing and them talking, but I think, no I won’t go in and help, let them deal with it. I went out to go to the bathroom (I think) or maybe I heard something different and when I went out Dad was on his knees by the nightstand and the bed. He’d lost his balance trying to get up and go to the bathroom. He got back in bed and I left. I thought, well, he hasn’t been to sleep so he must be restless. I went out and put some Ativan in the cup and left it on the counter. I went back to tell him it was there if he needed it and he wanted to take it right then, so I went and got it and some water. Mom says, “There’s water there on the nightstand.” But I didn’t know there was, so I had brought his glass out of the freezer with water in it.
So he takes the Ativan and I say, do you need to the go to the bathroom because you didn’t go before. He decides to go. I don’t touch him, don’t help him at all, except I tell him to go to the bathroom across the hall because I thought Steve was in his bathroom. So he goes in there by himself and I wait until he comes out so he can see to get back in bed and get his oxygen thing on, and all I do is hand it to him. And Mom’s laying there in the other bed and as I’m walking back to my room, she says, “I guess Barb helped you to the bathroom. I can’t even do that right.”
Oh, frickin woe is me. I stuck my head back in there and I said, I didn’t help him to the bathroom, he got there all on his own.
He’s dying and it has to be about her. It’s NOT ABOUT HER. WHY DOES SHE KEEP TRYING TO MAKE IT ABOUT HER? It takes a certain kind of selfish self-centeredness to make his illness about her.
Okay, I sort of get, I’m infringing on her territory. I’ve “usurped” her position as female head of household. I come in guns blazing, trying to get things done and she doesn’t like it. She resents it. I can’t help it if she can’t see to give him his medication. I can’t help if she doesn’t understand half of what’s going on. This isn’t my fault. I did not give him Stage IV lymphoma.
I can’t tell her what I think of her because it would just cause more stress and tension in the household and that wouldn’t be good for my dad. But I’d really like to slap her upside the head and say, “THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. HOW DARE YOU TRY TO MAKE THIS ABOUT YOU!”
Selfish, selfish, selfish. It’s appalling. I’m so amazed that I never saw her this way before. I just never realized how self-centered she was. I knew I didn’t like her, didn’t enjoy her, didn’t like being around her. I never really did, though God knows I tried at times to have some sort of relationship with her. She was a horrible mother. Really. She could never let anyone be who they are. Who you were was never good enough for her because it wasn’t ever who or what she wanted you to be.
I am so sick of her shit. I was thinking if I really start to lose it, I can go and get a hotel room in Springfield until I leave on Friday. But why should I do that? Why should I deprive myself of the last few days with Dad. Screw her and her self-centered bullshit.
I’m done here. You can bet she won’t be getting much help from me in the future. I’m off the case. She can be someone else’s problem. I’m done with her.
My “holidays” rarely look like anyone else’s. I don’t live close to anyone I’m related to, and my family is small to begin with. My children are both in the hospitality industry and holidays mean more work for them and no time to take off.
Usually, I work my day job on holidays too because many of my coworkers do have family to spend them with. My “holidays” are when I can gather both of my children and their spouses in one place at one time with me and my husband for a day or two, such as this past week.
My daughter and her husband are here for a week. My son, who lives about three hours away arranged a two-day visit, although sadly his wife couldn’t join us because of her work schedule.
My Christmas has nothing to do with gifts bought and sent. It has to do with gathering the people I love most in the world in one place at one time and interacting with them. The joy of Christmas? This year I celebrated in February. But it could just as easily have been April or August.
When my son-in-law left to visit his parents, it was just the four of us again, like it was for so many years. None of us could remember the last time that happened, but it was kind of nice to just be around people you’ve known for thirty or so years. We know each other’s foibles. We tease and laugh with each other. We get each other’s sense of humor and we support each other. We are intimately familiar with each other’s history.
One night we played Pictionary Junior and cracked up at our ridiculous drawings and how long it took us or how quickly we got the answer.
Yesterday my husband, son, daughter and I went bowling! Again, none of us could remember the last time we did that or even the last time any of us had bowled. Years, we decided, for all of us. And our scores reflect that. But we didn’t care.
It was like the family outings when the kids were little. No one cared how bad they were. We high-fived over a strike or a spare and laughed at how goofy we looked in the ridiculous bowling shoes.
I of course had to draw a correlation between how each of us bowled and how it defined our approach to life. My daughter kind of tosses the ball six feet into the lane where it meanders toward the pins and decides which of them it will knock over. A perfect example of her laid-back go-with-the-flow approach to life. My son sets his ball down so precisely and smoothly it’s amazing and he packs enough power behind it to smack the pins hard. It made me think how, as a child, he’d just plunge into any experience with both feet. My husband (who won a bowling trophy at age 12 for his high score of 212) is very consistent. He starts off in the same place, throws the ball the same way. Me? I’m all over the place, adjusting and maneuvering and trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong. Yep, just the same as my approach to life! I did finally break 100 on the third game, though.
The holiday will soon be over, but I look forward to the next time all the people I love best in the world are gathered in one place at one time.
And so begins spending time with Dad’s side of the family. Friday night we are at my aunt Lenore’s house for dinner. Two of my cousins, her sons, Ron and Joe are there with their wives, Maria and Stacy along with Ron and Maria’s daughter Amber. Dad’s side of the family knows how to entertain. The moment you walk in you are offered a cocktail. Yes, please. I spot a bottle of Beringer White Zin. (Did they take notes from the last time I was here?) I had been informed that happy hour would precede dinner. It’s already seven o’clock, but there was a rosary being said earlier at the nearby church for a neighbor who had passed away.
We have such a good time. I love my cousins and always wished I’d grown up closer to where they live. In childhood I only ever got to see them during our summer visits. I ask Amber if she got the Wagner sarcastic gene. I tell them I’ve recently read that there is scientific evidence that sarcastic people are more creative and intelligent. “Then how do you explain my dad?” quips Amber. I threaten Ron that on my next visit I’m going to follow him around for a day as he goes about his farming duties. He is on board with that. I would really like to. I have this story idea, you see, about a farmer…
I drink a lot of wine. Possibly the entire bottle. Finally I get a decent night’s sleep, but what a headache when I wake up. I cure that with water, coffee, a walk in the cold morning air and Advil. Today we will visit Mom one last time and then go on to my cousin Janet’s for lunch.
I ask Mom if she remembers how much she used to like to sing. She says yes, but…now I just sing to myself. I say we could sing Christmas carols. She says she’ll sing if we start. I rack my empty brain for even one Christmas carol I know the words to and come up with Jingle Bells. So we all sing. I applaud at the end. Melonie starts right in with Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We sing it all the way through, our voices filling up the empty lunchroom. At the end Mom claps her hands.
She was in her place at the table when we arrived at 10:30 and says she’s hungry even though she must have eaten breakfast only an hour and a half ago. Steve fills up her water container and brings her a Chips Ahoy cookie. He divvies up the cookies from the package into sandwich bags and leaves a few for her each time he visits. Otherwise she will eat them all.
When we get ready to leave Mom seems sad. But I know thirty seconds after we’re gone she won’t remember that we were even there.
Janet always generously organizes a gathering for any of her family who are available to meet up when we are there. It is always a fun time. I used to feel a little guilty that Janet went to so much trouble for my visits, but she told me she enjoys it. She loves getting family together and she loves getting pictures of everyone. My last visit was extra special. It was the first time in two years her parents had been to her house.
Last year I remember thinking how each time I visit Missouri, I wonder who in my extended family won’t be there the next time I go. One year it was my brother. The next, an uncle. Then another uncle. This time it is both of Janet’s parents, my aunt Rosemary and uncle Bill.
What Janet’s perspective taught me was that my visits give us all the opportunity to make memories. If someone wants to fuss over you, let them. That big wedding or birthday party you’re hesitating to plan? I say go for it. Invite the people that are special to you. Take lots of pictures. It might be the last time you ever see them.
It’s all over the news on Veteran’s Day, the Navy Seal who shot Osama Bin Laden. He is to be admired for sure for his bravery and he is definitely an American hero.
But as we sit down to another of my culinary attempts (Crockpot Kung Pao chicken) I tell Bill he is a true American hero as well. He seems baffled by this, especially since he never served in the military.
Yes, I explain but you’ve stuck it out with me for almost 35 years. You’ve eaten my experiments more times than I can count without complaint. That’s got to count for something. Because I know it couldn’t have been easy. In truth, the man deserves a medal although he’ll probably never get one.
For most of his life he went into office battle every day providing for his family. He suffered his share of defeats there. I’m sure there were triumphs as well, but there might also have been days when he would have liked to chuck it all and walk away. But he didn’t.
He stuck it out. Through the births of two children. Raising of teenagers. Gains and losses. A sometimes crazy wife whose moods he didn’t understand. Were there days he wished he could just walk away? I don’t know but he never did.
He sucked it up and too often displayed what we in the family refer to as “The Meyers Stoicism.” It makes you want to smack them for not displaying any emotion whatsoever. He’d have been great in the military. Loyal to a fault. Standing up for what he believed in. Sucking it up, sticking it out, surviving without complaint.
There are so many American heroes. Some of them risk their lives to go overseas on dangerous missions to keep us safe. Some of them keep us safe here at home. They’re the tough, silent guys who don’t get much credit for bearing up under the pressures of everyday American life.
If you ever wondered why romance writers write romance, this is part of the reason, for me at least. Lots of romance novels are inspired by everyday heroes. They don’t make the news headlines. You’ve probably never heard of these guys. But you might be married to one. Maybe your father was one. Or your boyfriend, your brother, your uncle. They stick with you through the bumps on the road of life, and they’re still there when you get to “the end.”
Back in Sarcoxie I stop to visit Maxine once more. I won’t see her again before I leave. I wish I had the energy to go down to the square again. I want more pictures. I want to people watch and absorb the atmosphere. I have ideas for blogs but I’m exhausted.
Sunday Steve and I go to 10:30 Mass and stop to visit Dad’s and Kevin’s graves afterward. it’s a beautiful day. Warm, sunny and breezy. Of course it is. I’m leaving later.
Lenore has made spaghetti for lunch and it’s delicious like everything that comes out of her kitchen. My cousins and their wives are there. Pat’s been in a car accident and has a broken vertabra and other injuries. He’s in a plastic body brace that looks massively uncomfortable. He’s recently started a new job and is concerned about how long his recovery will be. Ron’s having job issues too and is currently farming full-time. He indicates it doesn’t pay very well at the moment. Joe’s just become a grandfather and there are baby pictures to see. Hmm. Another cousin with grandchildren. I’m sensing a theme here.
Time zips by and I realize I need to get going. I’ve got to finish packing and gas up the rental car.
For all my dread leading up to the annual sojourn to Sarcoxie, as I leave I realize very few things are as bad as you expect them to be. I love seeing all the people I’m related to. I’m honored that they take the time to arrange these gatherings. My extended family is easy to love, easy to admire. Seeing my mother continue to decline is the sad part, the part I dread.
While I’m talking abut my mother with Maxine I realize my mother left her support system behind when she left Sarcoxie. She left her mother and her siblings. Her in-laws. Possibly even friends. Familiar territory and people she knew she could count on. She didn’t have a choice and she never wanted to leave. Maybe that’s why she always wanted to come back. It wasn’t the town of Sarcoxie itself. It was what it represented to her. It was home. She never really felt comfortable anywhere else or around other people.
It’s only now that my mother is gone in so many ways that I think maybe I can understand her a little. That’s enough of a reason for my annual Sarcoxie Days.
9/7/14 I’m on my way home! Yay! Yesterday we went to breakfast at The Hungry House with Maxine. It was raining and cold after the 90 degree heat of the day before – a shock to find it in the 60’s. The Hungry House is the only restaurant anywhere near Sarcoxie and it’s out on the highway. We take the back roads to get there as directed by Maxine. I’ve given up after The Sirloin Stockade and the corn dog at Chief Sarcoxie Days last night and decided to eat until I go home. I can’t win. I know Janet will have a spread at her house later.
After breakfast I visit Loretta (my dad’s cousin) who lives two doors down. She’s 102 and is thrilled when anyone stops in to see her. Her family has suggested maybe she should move into the local nursing home. She’s stayed there previously and they were nice to her and it was fine but she doesn’t see why she should go there if she’s still able to take care of herself. She apologizes for forgetting things, but I think when you’ve got 102 years of memories you’re entitled to forget a few now and again.
Steve and I find Janet’s house with no difficulty. Her sisters Cheryl and Connie are there along with assorted spouses, nieces and nephews and my uncle and aunt. It’s delightful to see everyone and watch them interact . I have to remind myself I’ve known these cousins since childhood. I saw them every summer. Now Cheryl is a grandmother and Connie will be one soon. They’re both a little older than me so it’s too early to panic.
I don’t know how Janet does all she does. She’s one of those perennially sunny-dispositioned people who make every event and every challenge appear to be a breeze. She turns every accident into a funny story – as when the coffee carafe breaks and leaks water all over her kitchen counter. Twice.
Cheryl has made a Boston Cream Pie that looks like a picture in a food magazine. Connie’s made apple pie with Missouri apples. Apparently the closer to home the apples are grown the better the pie. I initially decline dessert but eventually succumb. I’m on “vacation” after all.
We chat and play musical chairs to chat with someone else and take pictures. Janet takes most of them. If her camera is digital (surely it is) I hope she sends me copies so I can share.
On the way home Steve and I stop to see Mom again. She’s already sitting at her place in the dining room even though the lights are off and dinner won’t be served for 45 minutes. I’m pretty sure she has no idea who we are but we sit and chat as best we can. Oddly she knows all five of her brothers’ names (in order) and her sister’s name. Her parents’ names and her own. Her husband’s name. “Who could forget him?” she asks…without a trace of irony.
We talk about the sameness of the routine of her days. Steve says it’s like Groundhog Day. A reference we know she won’t get. Then he starts explaining the premise of the movie to her. Between her hearing issue, her confusion about what Steve’s trying to explain to her and his enthusiastic narrative, we start to giggle until he’s laughing so hard he can’t talk. Eventually he tells Mom, “I guess you had to see the movie.”
When Mom’s tablemates start moving toward their seats it’s our cue to leave. Mom has told us she’s hungry from the moment we arrived. But when I offered her an overripe banana from a basket on the counter she declined – preferring to wait for her meal. But I know what she was really waiting for was dessert.
(Every year I travel from Florida to Southwest Missouri where I was born to visit my mother and extended family. My journal entries turn into blogs. See the previous years’ blogs under “The House of Dust” and “The Guilt Trip.”)