Sonnet Upon Reading Old Letters

Pile of old letters

The Old House Sure is Quiet

The old house sure is quiet since you’ve gone.
Mom can’t get used to cooking just for two.
You won’t believe how much weight we’ve put on.
We’d hoped to get a note by now from you.

These letters now are half a century old,
Confirm I was a most neglectful son.
No matter how I wish the tale retold,
That page is turned. That episode is done.

And so I write this meager note to you,
Dear Father, only parent I have left.
Your fondness for your prodigal issue
Outlives their fondness, who left me bereft.
May you this orphan never leave alone,
May your fire find and melt this heart of stone.


(2018)

NOTES: Reading old letters is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been going through a box that includes the letters my parents wrote to me during my freshman year of college.

I am older now than they were then, and I am definitely identifying with them in this story.  I was the youngest of their children (by a long shot) and they had become empty nesters after having had children in the house for nearly 40 consecutive years. They were pushing 60, still working hard to make ends meet, and now suddenly living by themselves.

They wrote me several times a month, usually on Sunday evenings. They each filled both sides of a full sheet of paper.

The message that comes through, again and again, is: “Please write and let us know how you are doing.”

I have no idea how many times I wrote them back, but from the plaintive tone of their letters, it couldn’t have been very many.

And that figures. I was off on the Big Adventure of my youth.  Determined to grow up and become my own person and form my own beliefs. Remember, this was 1970.  Maybe not the peak of the counterculture, but you could see it from there.

I recently read an article about the attitudes of college freshmen over the years. The subject being investigated concerned the students’ desire to work towards a good job with security.

The year that scored the absolute lowest was–you guessed it–my year, 1970.  And I was pretty typical.  Despite my long-suffering father’s most excellent advice to “study something practical,” I thought my purpose was to discover Truth, Beauty, and Love.  I remember heading off to school with the express intention to NOT study anything practical that would lead to a regular job. (And I certainly succeeded at that! When I finally graduated five years later with a B.A. in philosophy and classics, I was fully qualified to be a fry cook, and that was about it.)

It took several years and going back to school before I developed any marketable skills.

But back to my folks.

They were such faithful correspondents. They diligently reported news they thought I would be interested in.  Like who they ran into up on the square … which of my old schoolmates were married and having babies … news from the high school.  Who was crowned homecoming queen–that was big news. And they faithfully reported the high school football scores each week.

I didn’t realize how much they had enjoyed going to my games, and although I was no longer playing, they would occasionally take in a game, or at least listen on the radio or read the local newspaper, and they would report the scores to me.

But of course, I was pretty much over all that.

Those days are sort of hazy for me, but I know I was finally off on my own and trying out everything I had refrained from doing in high school for fear of getting kicked off the football team.

My folks were lonely, to be sure. But beyond that, if I may project a little, they were being faced with their own mortality, and their own sense of purpose and meaning.

The more well-off set of their generation cashed out of their suburban homes and headed for Florida or Arizona and retired to a life of relative leisure. And who could blame them? They had put their lives on hold to save the world during WWII, then they had come back and built the greatest economy the world had ever seen.

But my parents weren’t quite in that class.  They had raised 4 boys, helped take care of a handful of grandkids, and now that I was gone, they weren’t sure what to do next. Except they had to keep on baking pies and driving busses and fixing tractors. Retirement really wasn’t an option. Meanwhile, the whole society, as reported in TIME magazine, seemed to be turning upside down all around them.

And then, when their prodigal son finally deigned to write from college, he babbled about crazy things. I was studying impractical subjects. I was planning to go to Mississippi to register voters. I was learning yoga and wanting to have serious conversations about serious subjects.

Neither of my parents had been able to get much of a formal education, yet they were patient with their insufferable son. My mother didn’t even get to go to high school because her mother had died during the influenza epidemic early in the last century, leaving her as the eldest daughter (although she was just barely a teenager) to run the household and raise all her younger siblings. My father came of age smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and was forced to drop out of high school to start earning a living, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day.

We had a bit of a generation gap.

And yet, my parents’ hobbies belied their lack of education. My mother read poetry. From an early age, she would recite the verses she loved to me from her beloved volume of the most loved poems of the American people.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She would dutifully clip poems out of the Capper’s Weekly and stuff them into the letter she sent to me each week.

My father, meanwhile, was a serious student of the Bible and ancient history. He would order Bible commentaries and translations of ancient writers such as Josephus and Philo to supplement his Bible reading.

Looking back with the perspective of time, I see a couple of very intelligent people who had their potential abbreviated by circumstance. I also see I was a very lucky kid who was in grave danger of pissing away great opportunity.

And most of all I see a clueless teenager who had no idea of the hopes and fears and heartaches of his parents.

Many years later, when my own children played their last high school games, graduated and went off to college … when they were thousands of miles away in another country and didn’t check in as often as I would have liked … only then did I have a glimpse of what must have been running through my own parents’ hearts so many years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sonnet about Home

You've read the ads and opulent brochures

Preparing to Go

As you distill your life, some sounds you keep:
The creak of joists, the refrigerator
Humming through the night, lulling you asleep.
Even in the dark you know every door
And how to find the switch for every light.
This house for all these years has been your home
But very soon you know will come a night
When you must leave these rooms, perchance to roam
Down fairer streets to dwellings not yet seen.
You’ve read the ads and glossy sales brochures,
Which promise life both active and serene.
You’ve bought the dream and all that it ensures.
You’re guaranteed a lot next to a green …
And yet … you fear your life there won’t be yours.


(2018)

NOTES: About 20 years ago, I travelled back to Missouri to visit my father in a nursing home. He’d been there for several months, and I could tell he was going stir crazy.

I thought he might want to go for a ride and maybe get a meal in a restaurant for a change of pace. But when I asked him what he wanted to do, he just said, “I want to go home.”

Fortunately, it was still possible to honor that request. He had kept his house and left it empty. I’m pretty sure was holding out hope to move back, when and if he were ever able to take care of himself again.

I was more than happy to help him escape the nursing home, if only for a short time. So we took the drive from Slater back to house near the old hospital in the southeast part of Marshall.

Dad had trouble walking on his bad leg, but we located the key, open the door and found the place just like he had left it. The air was stuffy, but everything was still in its place.

Dad plopped down in his big recliner and sat back with a big smile. “Home!” he said, drawing out the word for emphasis.

I checked the refrigerator, which was empty except for a few cans of beer, left by some visiting relative two or three years earlier. You see, dad never drank, and we never had alcohol of any kind in the house when I was growing up. But the refrigerator was still running and the beer was cold. When I asked him if he wanted a beer, he said sure.

So I opened two cans, and we sat together in the living room sipping stale beer and talking about the past.

He was as happy as I had ever seen him.

After awhile, the beer made him sleepy and he took a little nap in the chair where he had napped a thousand times before.

When he roused from his slumber, he knew it was time to head back to the nursing home. On the way, I swung by the Dairy Queen to get him an ice cream cone–something he had done for me countless times when I was a boy. It made me sad to deposit him back in that new residence that was most certainly not his home.

In the ensuing months, he went downhill pretty quickly. It turns out that was the last time I ever saw my father alive.

Transitions of my own

Dad had lived in his house for nearly four decades. My wife and I have lived in ours for only 25, but it represents the longest I have ever lived in one place.

We’ve raised our children here, made friends, and become part of a strong community.

A recent transition to part-time work, led to a discussion of retirement timing, which naturally led to a discussion of potentially moving.

For me the inertia is strong. My wife says we should downsize and move. I ask where. Neither of us has a good answer that satisfies both of us for long.

Whatever we do, we know we have accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff that must be pared way down.

Our kids are far flung. One lives in the San Francisco Bay area, the other in Memphis. Neither place appears to be a great place for outsiders like us to retire.

We avidly read articles with titles like “Best Places for Baby Boomers to Live,” and “Where Your Retirement Nest Egg Goes Further.”

We try to balance factors like weather, tax climate, cost of living, cultural attractions, and quality of healthcare.

We know there is a whole lot of marketing going on to people our age, but we keep coming to the conclusion there is no perfect place. So we put off decisions and fret.

Transition of a different sort

At the same time, I have been noticing intimations of another transition, more inevitable and more drastic than retirement. As I mentioned, my father passed away years ago. My mother preceded him in death. My three brothers–all much older–are gone now, too.

When my last brother died eight years ago, it hit me that I was now the last leaf on the tree. It feels strange for me, who was always the baby of my family, to now be the elder.

With troubling regularity these days, I get reports of schoolmates who have passed away. A couple of years ago I learned the first girl I ever kissed had died.

While previous class reunions marked the passing of a small number of our friends, these seemed like exceptional cases. Now we’re beginning to see our numbers diminish at an accelerated rate.

The prospect of my own death has never seemed very real or imminent to me. And it still doesn’t. I’ve got so many things left I still want to do. Places like Spain and Portugal and Norway I still want to see.  Grandchildren yet-to-be-conceived I still want to hold. Poems still unwritten. Tender moments still to share with my wife.

While I have a measure of attachment to the house where I’ve dwelled for the past quarter century, I’ve got a far greater attachment to this world, this body, this life.

And while I have faith in Jesus and assurance of eternal life, the attachment to this life strongly persists.

I know a very spiritual man who tells me not to worry about retiring because retirement is not a biblical concept.

He argues that we all have gifts we can put to good use until we die. And the best way we can prepare for the next life is to keep exercising our God-given talents doing something meaningful until the next life overtakes us.

He may be on to something. That perspective makes it seem less important where I’m physically located during the next phase of life, and more important what I’m doing with my time.

Poem: Shameless rip-off (but it worked!)

THE PASSIONATE WRITER TO HIS LOVE

Come live with me and be my love,
Assured before you voice your fears
That we will meld as hand to glove
With tender wearing through the years.

How could I love another more,
Or ever you abandon me?
So come, our prospects let’s explore
Assay our hopes in honesty.

I’ll write old-fashioned poems for you,
The kind that sing with foot and rhyme,
To soothe your ear and gently woo
Your cautious heart in its due time.

We’ll stay abed when springtime rains,
And care not if it’s ever done;
We’ll pedal wooded country lanes,
And bask beneath a merry sun.

In lilac-time I’ll break for you
The heart-shaped leaf and purple bloom
That flourished when our love was new,
And filled the night with strong perfume.

Like hardy husbandmen of old,
Who ploughed and tilled the fertile soil,
We’ll give ourselves to labors bold,
And harvest children for our toil.

And when the winter of our years
Bespecks our thinning hair with snow,
We’ll stoke our fire against the fear,
Companions though the chill winds blow.

Relentless time moves on apace,
Time leaves its vanquished under stone.
But we can win at time’s own race
By choosing not to run alone.

Defying reason, let’s unite
To form a sturdy three-fold cord,
A braid miraculously tight,
Of bridegroom, bride and gentle Lord.

If my proposal your love stirs,
If this be your desire for life,
If to my faith your heart avers,
Come live with me and be my wife.


(1985)

Notes:

Thankfully, sometimes love DOES work out.

After some bump and bruises, I finally found the love of my life. Thirty-three years ago I wrote her a poem. Not leaving anything to chance, I shameless ripped off the first line from Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love.” The rest was mine.

It may not have been wholly original poetry, but it did the trick. She said “yes.”

The funny thing is … soon after that I wound up practicing direct marketing copywriting as my day job.

After my experience with this poem, I should have known I was destined for direct marketing. The poem was my very first direct marketing letter.

I got a 100% response rate. Retention has been solid, and long-term value excellent.

Thank you, Christopher Marlowe.

Grandfather Free Verse

My paternal grandparents trying to stay cool during a brutal Missouri summer.
My paternal grandparents trying to stay cool during a brutal Missouri summer. The handwritten note says, “100 degrees in shade..”

The Day the Call Came

The day the call came
We had just dished up the ice cream.
A special treat for a Friday farm dinner,
(Not to be confused with supper.)
Mother had made it early that morning in ice cube trays.
“Freezer ice cream,” she called it,
Vanilla, made with Junket tablets to keep it creamy,
Even as it froze.
Not as good as the real, homemade ice cream cranked by hand,
But a whole lot easier.
And America was just starting its long affair with convenience.

The call came over the telephone
Mounted on the farmhouse wall.
With two bells for eyes,
You spoke into its honking, beaklike nose.
The earpiece cradled appropriately
Where the right ear should be,
While a hand crank made a poor excuse
For a drooping left ear.
It was a party line,
So the snoopy widow woman down the road
Knew as soon as we did.

The call came, and the man on the phone
Said Grandpa had just keeled over dead
At the auction over in Poosey.

So, we all got up—Mom, Dad, Big Brother and me,
And climbed into the ’50 Ford sedan
Dad was so proud to own.
The first car he’d ever bought brand new.

By the time we got to the auction –
It was a farm sale, really —
Where the worldly possessions of one farm family
Were being sold off.
One at a time.
By the hypnotically fast-talking auctioneer.
Not as depressing as the foreclosure sales
That were all too common
Just a few years before in the Depression.
This was a voluntary sale,
But a little sad nonetheless.

Some farmer was getting too old to run the place,
And didn’t have kids—or leastwise kids who wanted to farm.
A lot of boys joined the service in those days,
Or headed to Kansas City to find work, and a little excitement,
Rather than stay and try to coax a living
Out of that hilly, rocky dirt.

The man at the auction told us
Grandpa had been standing there in the sun with everybody else.
They were just about to start the bidding on the John Deere hay rake
When he grabbed his chest and fell right over.

Years later, they told me when he was a grown man
Grandpa had gone down to the river,
And been baptized, and filled with the Holy Ghost,
With the evidence of no longer speaking in profane tongues.
For, it was well known Grandpa had been gifted
In the art of colorful language.
“He used to could cuss by note,” was how Mother put it.
But after the washing with water and the Word,
Grandpa was never heard to swear again.
I only knew him as a white-haired old man
With a merry smile, and infinite patience
With Grandma, who required it.

And that was it, really.
Nothing more to say,
Except for the understated condolences
Of the country folk.
Nothing more to do,
Except for my father,
Now lately promoted to the role of the family elder,
Who assumed the duties and made the necessary arrangements.
Although I didn’t know quite what had happened,
I felt a lurch … as something shifted beneath me …
And I was yanked one more notch forward.

By the time we got back to the house,
The ice cream had long since melted
And now was returning back to solid state,
As it curdled in the September heat.


NOTES:  I got the news this week that a friend’s grandfather had passed away. This death was expected, and from all reports, merciful in coming. But there is still grieving to be done and respects to be paid. You can be happy your loved one is no longer suffering, but terribly sad that they’re gone.

This all got me thinking about my own grandfather, and day close to 60 years ago, and a bit of a poem I wrote about that day as best as I could recall it. It seemed fitting to haul this out of the vault, dust it off and publish it again.

Back in the 1950s on the farm, we didn’t have air conditioning. Shoot, we had just gotten electricity a few years before.

So when the long Missouri summers dragged on and the humidity rose, folks headed outdoors to keep cool. When the nights were really hot, we’d sleep outdoors.

The poem is about a day pretty much like the one documented in this photo. In fact, the events took place not too many days after this photo was shot.

Father Haiku

Dad's shirt from his days at Reeder Auto Parts
Photo courtesy of Terry Ball

Greased-stained forever,
Dad’s shirt bore proof of hard work,
and so did his hands.


NOTES: Dad was a son of the Great Depression, accustomed to hard work. He didn’t have the chance to finish high school due to the need to find work to contribute to the family.  The work available was farm hand labor at a dollar a day.  Hoeing beans, putting up hay, stripping blue grass.  Good money if you could get it.

Too young for World War I, he got a pass for World War II because by that time he was the only adult male on his own farm.  The idea was to keep all the farms operating to provide for the war effort.  So while all 4 of his brothers-in-law went off to fight, Dad stayed home growing corn and soybeans and producing eggs and milk.

In the post-war prosperity, Dad prospered and saved his money.  Finally, in the late 1950s, he made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, sold the farm, and went into the farm implement business.

We moved from the farm to the farm town of Marshall, got a house with indoor plumbing and central heat.

Things went fine for a few years, but then something happened.  I was young and didn’t get the full story.  But either through some poor marketing decisions, or through some financial shenanigans by a partner, the business went into debt and had to be sold.

It was a defeat for Dad, but he didn’t let it defeat him.  He landed a job in the shop at Reeder Auto Parts.  It had to be tough going from the boss to being an employee again, but Dad never complained.

He just showed up everyday and kept chopping wood to do what it took to pay the mortgage and keep hamburger on the table. I recall a time when I was whining about needing a few dollars to buy some knickknack or the other.

My older brother Larry took me aside and gave me the older brother admonishment.  “Shut up and quit bothering Dad,” he said.  “Don’t you realize we could lose the house?”

I had no idea.

But, Dad kept working away.  Mom got a job baking pies at the MFA Grocery Story and we didn’t lose the house.

Let it be said that Dad was a master mechanic.  He made things work.  He also was perpetually marinated in grease and gasoline.

He would clean his hands with Goop grease cutter and then wash his hands with Lava soap.  But they never really got truly clean.

When I hung out with him I usually got the job of cleaning parts in gasoline.  I grew to hate the smell, and my mechanical ability has suffered accordingly.

He eventually went on to establish a freelance mechanic business.  He primarily served the farmers around Marshall, making house calls to repair balky tractors, combines, corn pickers, and hay balers right where they died out in the fields.

His services were in demand, and he had all the work he wanted.  Sometime the farmers would pay him in produce.  Like the old German farmer Ludwig who sent Dad home with a quart jar of canned horseradish.

As the family story went, brother Larry returned home late one night scrounging around in the refrigerator for something to eat.  Seeing a jar of something that looked like gravy, he unscrewed the lid and took a big snort.

Farmer Ludwig’s horseradish nearly blew the top of his head off.

I’d love to have some of that horseradish today.

 

Father haiku

Dad's last bottle of Old Spice

Amidst the clutter,
Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice.
I’ll wear some today.


NOTES:  One of the most precious mementos I found as we prepared my parents’ home to be sold a couple of years ago was a bottle of my father’s after shave lotion tucked away in a bathroom cabinet.  He must have purchased this particular bottle just before he went into the nursing home because it was still nearly full.

Dad had been an Old Spice man as far back as I could remember, and the rich fragrance stirred up a host of memories.  You see, this last bottle dates back to the 1980s and it smells completely different from today’s weak sauce sold under the Old Spice brand.

Proctor & Gamble bought the Shulton company in 1990 and started changing things.  I noticed that the glass bottles gave way to plastic.  The grey stopper changed to red.  But worst of all, the new owners messed with the formula of the lotion itself.

When I found that old bottle of my Dad’s and took my first whiff, I was shocked at how much stronger and complex it was compared to the modern recipe.

I hadn’t smelled that classic fragrance for decades, and there is something powerful about the olfactory sense that connects us with the past.

Dad had taught me how to shave lathering up his Old Spice shaving mug and soap and brush.  I scratched off my thickening peach fuzz using his heavy-duty razor, the kind that took the old style disposable blades.

Of course, I nicked myself and he had to show me how to staunch the bleeding with an alum stick.  Thank goodness he didn’t use a straight razor.  I probably would have bled to death.

Dad taught me how to change oil and change a tire.  And though he was a master mechanic, he never was able to get me beyond the most basic level of automobile repair.  My fault, not his.

Dad taught me more important things, as well.  Things like keeping your word and doing an honest day’s work.  Things like owning up to your mistakes and saying you’re sorry.

Although the Great Depression short-circuited his education and forced him to drop out of high school to earn a living, he never stopped learning.  He left behind a robust collection of books including the writings of ancient historians and early church fathers.

He took his faith seriously, and didn’t make it too complicated.  The most worn of all his books was his Bible.  It was literally falling apart from use, held together with duct tape.

Of course, as a teenager, I was much too smart to go for my father’s myths and legends.  It was only after pursuing my own path and hitting some rough dead ends that I wound up pretty much where he had been all along.

It was amazing how much wiser the Old Man seemed to me when I was 28 than he did when I was 18.

He taught me perseverance in hard times.  When his one foray into business failed when I was in grade school, he swallowed his pride, got up the next day and went to work for someone else to support his family.

When my brother Bill died in a scuba-diving accident leaving a wife and 3 young kids, my Dad flew halfway across the country to handle matters.  In the midst of what must have been his own inconceivable grief, brought that little family back with him and took care of them until they could get back on their feet.

The most poignant lesson Dad taught me was about faithfulness as demonstrated by how he treated my Mother.  Theirs was not fairytale romance.  When they got married in the depths of the Great Depression, Dad was working on a farm crew for a dollar a day.  He had to talk his boss into giving him Saturday off so he could have the whole weekend for a honeymoon.

They started out dirt poor, and only very gradually worked their way into what might be called the lower middle class.  It was a great day when we moved to town and got central heat and indoor plumbing!

But, to me, theirs was a great love story.   Dad always treated Mom with affection and respect.  There was never any question about his loyalty to her.  And, when Mom eventually began her long slide into dementia, Dad cared for her personally.  And when she finally had to enter a nursing home, he visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

So, a couple of times a year, I pull out that grey stopper from Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice and splash some on my face in his honor.  All day long I catch whiffs of bay leaf and clove and cinnamon, and I’m reminded of what it means to be a good man.

 

Hometown haiku

Raymond Ball with a 1940 Ford

Father, when you spoke
I believed you, for you spoke
with authority.


NOTES:  In many ways, my dad was a simple man.  Farmer.  Mechanic.  Forced to drop out of high school to work during the Great Depression, he never had the opportunity go back to school to pick up his education again.

He never travelled to Europe or learned a foreign language.  He never made a lot of money, or tasted the luxuries of life.

But he knew what he thought and what he believed.  And when he talked about his beliefs, his strength of conviction came through his voice.

Often he was expressing his belief in the products of the Ford Motor Company.  He was a confirmed Ford man.  He claimed he had seen the insides of enough cars and tractors to know how each one held up, and which ones were made out of cheap materials.

He would just utter a phrase like, “The Ford Model T …” and let it hang there and resonate in the air.  He said it with such reverence that those who heard it just knew that the Ford Model T had not only been a great automobile, but a miraculous product of a genius.

He could inspire similar feelings of reverence with exclamations like, “President Abraham Lincoln,” or “Old Thomas Edison.”  You just knew these were great men.

We  didn’t have pastors or full-time clergy in our tiny little Church of Christ congregation.   The leadership was handled by laymen like himself.  When he would stand up on Sunday mornings to “wait on the communion table,” he would recite the words by heart from the King James Version of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“That the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take it, eat: this is my body which is broken for you.  This do in remembrance of me.”

Hearing him say it, you had no doubt that this was just the way it had happened.

Perhaps the most convincing and poignant expression of his conviction came many years later, as his wife lay in a nursing home, long lost to dementia.  “Your mother,” he said, “was the best.  I never met another women like your mother. Never.”

And you just knew it was true.