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.

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Hometown haiku

Marshall High School cheerleaders, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Unattainable,
cheerleaders stirred crowds and our
imaginations


NOTES:  Here’s another invaluable photograph from my friend, Susumu.  This must have been taken in the fall of 1968, amidst an exciting small town high school football season.

It most certainly was an away game.  The home games of the Marshall High School Owls were played at Missouri Valley College’s Gregg-Mitchell Field, and this setting does not look familiar.  I’m guessing it might have been the away game that year at the home field of our most hated rival, the Excelsior Springs Tigers.

Marshall had been playing second fiddle to the Tigers for several years, just unable to put together enough power to overcome dislodge them from the top of the Missouri River Valley Conference.

The year before, we had endured a humiliating defeat as the Tigers came into our stadium and beat us on a frigid night in Marshall.  Those old aluminum benches had never felt so cold.

This year turned out much better.  Coach Cecil Naylor had us worked into such a frenzy that we could have taken on a band of Viking berserkers.  We travelled into the Tigers’ home turf, took care of business, and vanquished them 20 to 0.

But I digress.

The topic is cheerleaders.  What is with their mystique?  And why couldn’t they get a date with their own classmates?

I could be misremembering, but it seemed that very few cheerleaders ever dated guys in their own class.  Older guys might work up the confidence to “date down” with a cheerleader from lower grade.  But mating between cheerleaders and a classmate was scare and rare.

One of life’s great mysteries.  The Cheerleader Paradox.

Mysterious even when you factor in the fact that in our little town, many of us had attended school together since first grade, and the rest of us had been together in the same building since 7th grade.

The long history and close familiarity meant that most of your classmates were like family.  That contributed to sense that the cute girl in chemistry class seemed more like your sister or your cousin than girlfriend material.

I mean, you’d grown up together!  You’d seen each other on good days and bad days.  Good hair days and bad.  You’d fought on the playground in grade school, and competed for teachers’ attention.  Not much mystery left.

But even that doesn’t explain the Cheerleader Paradox.

Dr. Freud, call your office.  I’m open to hypotheses.

Hometown haiku

Marshall, Missouri, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Old streets remind me
I did not know compassion
when I walked them then.


NOTES: I have come into possession of a treasure trove of photos from the late 1960s taken by an old schoolmate, Susumu.  He was our Japanese foreign exchange student when I was a junior in high school in 1968 and 1969.

Across the years and across the internet, we reconnected and he sent me the photos he collected during his year in my hometown.

Susumu saw things through his camera lens that I had long forgotten.  These are shots I would never have thought to take.  Simple street scenes.  Iconic buildings long since torn down.  Teachers and friends long forgotten.

The gift of these photos is almost indescribable.  It is as though I am seeing my hometown again, for the first time.  I’m transported back nearly half a century to the place of my childhood, to the places where I lived my formative years.

No fancy Instagram filters are required.  These photos already have the faded Kodachrome quality you cannot fake.  They come with authentic poignancy.

These photos take me back to my youth.  And my heart is filled with questions.  What if?  If only?  Didn’t I realize?

Spring haiku

Bobby Ball standing in the DuBois' driveway, late 1960s. on Rea Street.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

There once was a time
when blossoms and I were both
fresh and unabashed.


NOTES: When I was a junior, my high school hosted a foreign exchange student from Japan.  Susumu stayed with the DuBois family, who lived a few blocks away.

A couple of years ago, through the miracle of Facebook, I reconnected with Susumu.  When I discovered he had taken several photos of his days in my hometown, I was excited.  He very kindly shared them with me, and I have been lovingly looking through them and rekindling old memories.

Those photos include precious images of teachers long since gone.  Of friends and classmates not seen for decades.  And simple scenes of my hometown, a town that has changed so much since I walked its streets.

One of the photos was of me.  I don’t remember it being taken.  All evidence points to it being the spring of 1969.  I am outfitted in what passed for a tennis uniform in those days.  I must have just finished practicing with Susumu’s host brother, Dave DuBois.  We were teammates on the Marshall High School tennis team, and we practiced out on the new hard surface courts at Missouri Valley College.

From the foliage, it was early spring.  The tulip tree was in full bloom, but the other trees had not leafed out.  I wore a leather bracelet on my right wrist, which was the cool, hippie thing to do.

My hair was growing out and would need to be cut before football practice started in August.  (Coach Cecil Naylor really didn’t like long hair!)

Ah.  If I only knew then what I know now.

Ancestor haiku

Charlie Barlow and his team

Generations tilled
to eke out a meager life. Now I
scribble in comfort.


Notes:  I have to go all the way back to England in the 1600s to find an ancestor who had a desk job.  To the best of our family research, my great-great-great (etc.) grandfather was a clergyman back in the old country, who had the poor judgment to raise the ire of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In those days it didn’t take much to get your head separated from the rest of you.  Heretics and troublesome free thinkers could easily meet the same fate.

My forebear wised up in the nick of time and caught one of next boats after the Mayflower to the New World.  We are not sure if he stayed in the preaching business in his new surroundings in the Connecticut Colony, but as far as we can tell, all of those who followed him were dirt farmers.  (Which probably seemed like a safer line of work back then.)

Several generations later, after my great grandfather Frederick Ball narrowly survived the Civil War, he came back  home to find Connecticut getting crowded.  So, he headed west for the promise of cheap land and opportunity.  He wound up in southern Iowa, got married, acquired some land, and raised a family.

One of his sons was my grandfather, and he, too became a farmer, moving to Missouri to chase opportunity.  When my father came along, he showed considerable mechanical aptitude and had hopes of going to school to study engineering.  But the Great Depression dashed those dreams.  Dad had to drop out of school before he finished high school.  To  help support the family he became a farmer.

And  who knows, except for a twist  of fate or two, I might have followed right along and farmed myself.

But  my father had a bit of a mid-life crisis in his 40s.  When I was in first grade, he sold the farm and went in with his brother-in-law and a neighbor to buy a Ford Tractor dealership.  It was his one big entrepreneurial gamble in life.  And for a few years, it looked like it might pay off.

But some lean times for farm prices and some skullduggery by the neighbor-turned-business-partner, and the operation went broke.  They had to sell out cheap, and Dad was forced to fall back on his mechanical skills to make a living.

What this meant for me was that I spent most of my formative years in the town rather than on the farm.  So, while there were centuries of agrarian instincts bred into me, it didn’t take me long to adapt to indoor plumbing, central heating, and really close next-door neighbors.

And I certainly didn’t miss getting up early to gather eggs, milk the cow, or slop the pigs.

Oh sure, I still hoed beans, bucked bales, and detasseled corn as a hired hand in the summer.  But that was a job — not a way of life.

Even if my father had never left the farm, odds are I would have eventually left anyway.  That was the demographic trend during the whole last half of the last century.  The kids went away to school or to a big city for work, and tended never to move back.

It’s been hard on the farming communities.  And I know it was hard on the old folks left behind as their kids fanned out across the country.

When I stop to think about how much different my life has been from the generations before I marvel.  I have no explanation for why my entire adult career has been all inside work with no heavy lifting.

My father’s body bore the marks of a hard life in harder times.  He was kicked in the head by an ornery horse, and had headaches for the rest of his life.  His leg was caught between a hay wagon and a wall, and he walked with a limp.  He even had a few scars from surviving what he believed to be a mild case of small pox.

If the American Dream involves working hard and ensuring your children have a better life, then my parents and their generation certainly did their part.