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.

 

Mother’s Day Poem

My first poetic champion

ICE AGE

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.

You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.

Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.

So now for you I pick this small bouquet,
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.


NOTES:

My mother loved poetry.  Her own mother died when she was just a girl, so she dropped out of school to help raise her younger siblings.  She never got to go to high school, but she loved the music of English words artfully strung together.

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 filled a buffet drawer scraps of paper bearing homespun verse she had copied by hand, or clipped from the pages of Capper’s Weekly.  After her death, I found her Bible.  It was worn out and held together at the spine with pieces of packing tape.  Tucked amongst the hand-scrawled Bible verses and sermon notes was a tiny piece of paper where she had written this fragment from John Greenleaf Whittier:

Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest of these, it might have been

In her 70s, Mother began a long, slow journey with Alzheimer’s.  At first we thought she was just getting forgetful, but, in time, we realized she was losing her faculties.  She forgot names and nouns.

Early on, she devised clever strategies to trick us into helping her fill in the missing blanks.  “I’m going to the, um, you know,” she would offer, hoping one of us would bail her out by supplying “the A&P,” or the name of some other destination that had eluded her.

But, in time, she lost the ability to play Guess the Word with anyone.  She slipped away from us and never came back, even though she lived for years neither speaking nor, as far as we could tell, understanding anything spoken to her.  She lived so long probably due to some diligent care at the county nursing home in our small Missouri town, and to the fact my father visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

I wrote her a poem, which I read at her funeral.

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.

Thanksgiving haiku

clothes-pin-bag
We may have been poor
but we always had clean clothes.
Our mother made sure.


Notes:

I hadn’t seen a clothes pin bag like this is decades.  But, recently, in Sonoma of all places, in the laundry room of a little house my family had rented, I found this item from the past.  It was identical to the one my mother used all through the 1960s.

It seemed to be just another part of the retro-nostalgia vibe of the décor.  It took me back in time.  Back to that little house on East Mitchell Street, where a Missouri farm family found their slice of the American Dream.

My mother used to wash our clothes in an electric wringer washing machine that was more wash tub than machine. I’m pretty sure my dad must have proudly ordered it back in the 1950s from the Montgomery Ward catalog to make life easier for his wife, our mother.

The modern feature was the wringer that squeezed the excess water out of the clothes to speed up the line drying.

I suppose it was a big step up from the washboard down by the stream, but it still required considerable manual labor.

One day, my mother absentmindedly fed some clothes through the wringer and got her left hand caught.  I remember blood and crying and a bent wedding ring.

But, all in all, that was a minor event in the grand scheme of things.  We knew more than one farmer who had lost a whole arm in a disagreement with a stubborn corn picker.

When it became apparent that the first location of the clothesline in the back yard was interfering with the natural layout of the whiffle ball diamond, my dad relocated the clothesline, even though uprooting and transplanting the poles amounted to considerable work.

Is it my imagination, but is there nothing like the smell of clothes dried on the line in the July Missouri sun?  It’s a fragrance Proctor & Gamble can only wish they could duplicate.

Bounce just doesn’t cut it.

Poem for my first poetic champion

My first poetic champion

Ice Age

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.

You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.

Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.

So now for you I pick this small bouquet
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.


Notes:  This month, my mother would have been 105 years old.  She died nearly 30 years ago, but she began to leave us several years before that as she fell under the spell of some unnamed type of dementia.

She was my first poetic champion, instilling a love for poetry from an early age.  This poem was written back when she was still alive, but unable to communicate with us.

Mother was forced to drop out of grade school when her mother died in a flu epidemic.  She was needed at home to care for her younger brothers and sister.

Her tastes were simple and traditional, with a leaning towards folksy American poets, like James Whitcomb Riley and Eugene Field.  But she also like Robert Frost and Wordsworth.

We really only had one book of poetry in the house, a leather-bound volume entitled One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1929. It contained remarkably robust collection of poems, and she read them aloud to me often.

There were selections from Shakespeare, Emerson, Poe, Kipling, Byron, Keats, and even Whitman.  In the back of the book were some bonus classics of English prose including the Gettysburg Address, the Magna Charta, the Ten Commandments, and the Declaration of Independence.

I daresay, I got a better education from that one book than I received in four years attending a semi-prestigious liberal arts college during the self-absorbed 1970s.

 

 

Hometown Haiku

The gravestone of Jim the Wonder Dog.

My town’s motto states:
“Smart dog, nice folks ….” Pretty sure
the dog, too, was nice.


 

The most famous resident of my hometown was a dog

When I moved to the central Missouri town of Marshall in the late 1950s, I was six years old.  My father had literally sold the farm and was setting out on a bold attempt to pursue the American dream by going into the farm implement business. After spending the first six years of my life on a farm in northwest part of the state, Marshall, with its 12,000-plus inhabitants, seemed like a big city to me, full of potential and possibilities. For the first time in my life I had a room of my own and indoor plumbing.

One of the first things I heard about my new hometown was that it was that it had been the home of Jim the Wonder Dog.  It had been just a little over 20 years since Jim’s death, and many of my new neighbors had seen Jim while he was alive.  Someone gave us a book about Jim, which I eagerly devoured.  We were told to be sure and visit Jim’s grave out at the end of Yerby Street at Ridge Park Cemetery.  He was the only animal buried in the human graveyard, we were told, and he deserved to be there more than a lot of the people, one added.  We visited Jim’s grave with my mother, who brought flowers, because that’s what you did when you visited cemeteries in those days.

Everyone we talked to accepted the story of Jim at face value.  To them, Jim had been a true walking miracle.  He was a dog who could understand human speech, and follow instructions to the letter.  But more than that, he knew things that humans could not possibly know.  He was not only highly intelligent.  Jim was also clairvoyant, we were told.  Jim could predict the future.  He could accurately predict the gender of babies before they were born and he knew who would win elections and sporting events.

To a six-year-old boy with an active imagination, this was a fascinating story.  But I grew up and forgot about Jim.  I went away to college, and started a career and a family, and got involved with my life.

Years later, I returned to Marshall, and I discovered that Jim was enjoying a revival of popularity.  The Viking Hotel (formerly the Ruff Hotel) just off the town square, where Jim and his owner had lived, had burned down.  A civic group had raised some money, and convinced the city fathers allow a memorial park to be created on the site.

Jim was becoming a full-fledged tourist attraction.

Then someone (bless their hearts!), persuaded the city to adopt a town motto.  It reads, and I kid you not: “Smart dog, nice folks ….”

I admire the humility and sense of humor that animated that motto.  It is in the same spirit that I wrote this little haiku.