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Above the Horizon: Part the Last


a

My great-aunt Ethel and Grandma Dorothy as girls in Montan

The Saturday after his mother’s memorial service, my Finnish father, who would regularly answer the direct question of “What are you thinking right now?” with “I don’t know,” talked to me about his life. As it turns out, he was more than just my parent, the guy who mowed the lawn and directed choirs and churned out homemade pear walnut ice cream (using Thomas Jefferson’s recipe); he was a fully-historied human being with a holster of experiences I’d not known about.

Francis and Dorothy as a young couple, holding new baby Larry; my dad is the three-year-old in the front.

On that Saturday night, as Dad and I sat at the dining room table alone, I learned that my grandfather–reputed as gentle and taciturn in family lore–had, through wordless reproach, made my father feel stupid, even worthless, for my dad had the ill luck to be born with a beautiful tenor voice into a world where handwork was valued. On the ranch, that this boy, my young father, would someday sing Die Fledermaus was secondary to his inability to fix a broken combine.


My dad (looking a bit uncomfortable), my grandma Dorothy, my grandpa Francis, and my uncle Larry

Because of family expectations, my elegant, artistic dad spent his teen years on the back of a tractor, circling in the fields; it was then and there that he began to shout songs to the clouds, angling for any activity that would make the time pass and draw his attention from the worry of a mechanical breakdown–which would require he seek help from big men in dirt-covered overalls, men who would squint with quiet scorn at his “useless,” tapered pianist’s fingers.

That night, as words poured forth from my father, he admitted to me, “My father and I never had conflict. We always got along. But we were never close. In fact, Dad would never assign me chores or tell me what to do on the farm–I could have stayed in the house all day, as far as he was concerned. It was Mom who, to keep peace, would notice what needed doing and then send me out to work. I’ve noticed that Finnish families, maybe all Scandinavian families, are matriarchies in which the women take the initiative. And the men like it that way. They’re comfortable with letting someone else take the lead and make sure things get done; that’s one of the things I like best about your mother and what my dad liked best about my mom.”

Awash in my dad’s reflections, I also learned that after high school, Dad was going to attend the University of Montana-Missoula but first won a scholarship for the summer to Billings Business School for being the 3rd-fastest typist in the state. So he took shorthand there and a vocabulary-building class in the mornings. He lived that summer just outside of Billings on his Aunt Louise’s farm (she who sang “How Great Thou Art” at the memorial), where he slept in the bunkhouse with his cousin Stanley. Everyday, Louise made my dad a lunch to take to school: a baloney sandwich. Part of the agreement about his living in Billings that summer and being released from ranch chores was that he would have to work, so he got a job with Service Candy and spent his afternoons filling vending machines with candy and cigarettes.

Then, one day, Phillip Turner, the conductor of the choir at the private liberal arts college in Billings, Rocky Mountain College, came into Service Candy and said he’d heard about my dad’s voice (from whom, no one knows) and asked that he consider attending Rocky that fall. When Dad said that he already had a scholarship to attend the university in Missoula, and he needed that money, Mr. Turner pointed out that Rocky had a “valedictorian scholarship” for $300, and my dad would qualify for that. Thus, in the July before he started college, my dad changed his plans. Grandma liked the idea of Rocky, as it was a church-affiliated college. With her approval, his course was reoriented.

A year later, having completed his freshman year at Rocky, Dad was ready to get away from Billings–more accurately, to get away from the ranch that was a mere 40 miles from Billings, a place he was still dutybound to each weekend, a place with an endless expectation of willing work. Plotting his escape, my dad applied to three Minnesota schools (liking the fact that his dad had grown up there): Hamline, Macalester, and Carleton. Ultimately, he decided on Hamline…but his folks told him he couldn’t go–they’d not help him.

He said he was going anyway. And he did.

For the next three years, every semester, just when Dad didn’t know how he would pay the tuition, a check for $500, the exact amount of tuition, would come in the mail from his mother, my grandma Dorothy. Even thirty-five years later, both of Dorothy’s sons remembered fondly, “If it weren’t for Mom’s egg money, we never would have gone to college.”


 

 

years and then in a professional picture a few years later

My dad during the Hamline


If it weren’t for my father’s talking that night in the wake of his mother’s death, I never would have known that my grandma, the woman who, at the end of her life, needed an elevating chair to help her stand up, had loved to dance. My grandfather would not dance, being too shy, but while he leaned against the wall, she would circle ’round the floor at the dances held in the local schoolhouse, turning, swirling with other fellows in the community, a fact that made her two sons elbow each other and snigger that another man was touching their mother, and she was having fun at it, too.

Because of the words her death inspired in my father that night, I don’t picture Grandma Dorothy in heaven as I remember her on earth–sitting in a purple recliner with an oxygen tank next to her, complaining of dizziness, elevated blood sugar, shortness of breath.


Instead, I see her younger,

more vital,

kicking up her heels

against the backdrop of a broad Montana horizon

as she waits for her cows to come Home.

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Above the Horizon III

In the hour before the church service that would publicly memorialize my grandmother, we immediate family members left the windy cemetery and headed back to her bungalow, where she had lived since moving off the ranch more than thirty years earlier. As we all rattled around in her house, eating bars and leaning against her kitchen counters just as we had in adolescence, I had a few minutes to consider my cousins and who they’d become.

Strangely, although I grew up close to these cousins, geographically, they always felt distant, perhaps because their father’s life had diverged so dramatically from my own father’s. These two sons of Dorothy always got along, always remained companions to each other, yet one, my uncle Larry, followed the life of ranching and eventually long-haul trucking. On the other hand, my dad became a choral conductor and opera singer. At best, their common ground was yodeling.

As well, my dad had one wife in his lifetime, while Larry had several, eventually ending up with three children of varying parentage and, for awhile, a fourth–a step-daughter who remained in his life as long as his marriage to her mother did. Ultimately, I was left with three cousins: Shelley, Mary, and Luke. They weren’t given every opportunity, and none of them had a constant mother. In fact, Shelley and Mary’s mother left them when they were toddlers to return to her “career” tending bar in a casino. At that point, it was my grandma Dorothy who stepped in and essentially raised those girls.

Thus, it made sense, on a day of memorial for Dorothy, that I would look to Shelley and Mary’s lives as evidence of Grandma’s impact. Mary, who lived with Grandma even through the rebellious years of high school, had attended cosmetology school before marrying. Her husband’s job took them to Nevada for some years, to a place Mary hated so much that she finally looked up one day and said, “God, if you get me out of Nevada, I’m yours forever.” Damned if God and his minions didn’t get her husband transferred to Washington, causing Mary and the Lord to strike up a little thing on the side. Luckily, Mary found a way to merge her two passions in life: she shaves “PTL” (as in “Praise the Lord”) into the hair on the back of her sons’ heads–or, in more spartan months, just a cross. You have no idea how much it pained me to type that previous sentence, incidentally.

Less shackled to her faith and her razor, Shelley, too, married well and is raising successful children. Luke, like the girls, was largely brought up by my grandma; he entered the service and likes nothing more than restoring old cars and, speculation has it, growing marijuana. While I have hardly any relationship with these cousins today, due to our lack of anything in common (blank looks greeted me the one time I ventured a “So, read any good books lately?”), I took a minute, leaning against the counter, to marvel at these cousins, and I credit my grandma with giving them the wherewithal to resist taking up knives in their adulthood and randomly stabbing people who might be loitering outside the Rockvale Cafe, waiting for a booth for five. Indeed, I had a little moment, there by the frying pan in Grandma’s kitchen, watching a box elder bug crawl along the linoleum, one in which my bar-fueled brain had a flash: with family in the midst of grief, it doesn’t necessarily matter if people have a lot in common–just one commonality can carry the day.

After an hour of kitchen chat and gnosh, we wiped the crumbs off our chins and went to the memorial service at the Lutheran church. At the front of the church, an 8″ x 10″ photo of my grandma presided up front, which struck the worst part of me as a little hokey, but it ended up being quite affecting–it felt very personal to be confronted with Grandma’s steady gaze as the pastor spoke of her life on the plains, about her always knowing if even one of the cows was missing at the end of the day–not because she knew how many cows there were but because she recognized each of their faces–and about her being a helpmate to my grandpa.

Even more, the pastor talked of my grandma’s last days, as her health faded. When she entered the hospital, she just wanted to “go home.” Later, when she was moved to an assisted-care facility, she was sure it was just a matter of time before she would go home. But my dad knew her stay there would be until the end, which turned out to be only two days. He felt guilty about that. Thus, when the pastor finally said, “Now Dorothy has gone Home,” fluttering shudders of sobbing passed through my dad. Sitting next to him, pressed against him, with no gusts of wind to distract me, I eyed the hymnals and hoped my left thigh felt warm.

Most moving was when the soloist sang “How Great Thou Art.” My grandma’s older sister, Louise, had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for seven years and was living in a memory-care home. By the time of Dorothy’s death, Louise did not recognize any family members, except sometimes my mom (not a blood relation…but occasionally she would pull my mom to her and ask, “Who are all these people?” when her sisters were visiting). We had not thought Louise would be at the service that day and, in fact, were unaware that one of her daughters had brought her–until that song. The soloist’s notes rang through the church, but after the first measure, he had a partner in Louise. Her voice, little used, croaked out the song along with him from her pew; she warbled a final duet. Strikingly, she’d forgotten everything else, from her own children to how to tie her shoes, but she remembered her hymns. For everyone in the room, it was humbling. After the service, greeting us over coffee in the basement of the church, Louise’s daughter announced proudly, “Mom never did need a songbook.”

As we made the rounds during the post-service reception, I grasped how important it was that I had made the trip to Montana, despite my initial reservations. With my sister in the Peace Corps in Moldova at that time, and my Air Forcean brother stationed overseas, too, I was Dad’s only kid that day. My father was not terribly touchy, but he kept me firmly by his side throughout the coffee hour, introducing me to every passing soul. At one point, my dad’s 8th grade teacher, Miss Huddleston, came up with her twin, Velma. I asked Miss Huddleston if my dad had been a good student for her. “Oh, yes, he played the piano for our class so nicely!” I pressed her further: “You mean he never misbehaved?” She assured me, “Oh, not Donnie! He was always very well behaved. But that Larry was another story…”

After the memorial service, we went back to Grandma’s house, where Mary and Shelley’s families were staying. We ate deli meats. We watched the kids play Nintendo. We sneaked glances at interesting bits of inheritance. We marveled at how much Stuff a person can fit into closets (Grandma never threw away a letter or card; she kept every aluminum top off of every yogurt she ate; she didn’t throw away milk containers; she had underwear in her dresser that was nothing more than shreds of fabric woven together with safety pins). We leafed through photographs, wondering who some of those faces belonged to, wondering why our mothers had let us wear such hideous orange-striped pants in the ’70s,

and we wondered if the presence of these pictures in her house had kept Grandma firm on the earth,

even when she’d left them in drawers for years,

even when her eyesight had failed.

Grandpa, Grandma, Larry, and my dad (looking rather fey)

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Above the Horizon II


(my grandma, Dorothy, third from the left, surrounded by her sisters in 1951; she was 36 in this photo, 5 years younger than I am now. Sweet Carol Channing, but I’m actually holding up pretty well. This is also the photo that one of my favorite large galpals once spotted hanging on the wall, a photo that caused her to holler out, “All I see is a line of breasts and hips; you didn’t stand a chance did you, hon?”)

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“Above the Horizon: Part Two”

We both interred and memorialized Grandma Dorothy on January 13th of 1999.

Well.

By day’s end, any self-possession I’d started out with had been adroitly flayed by the Ginsu knife that was my dad’s grief. His face had such a beautiful composition of lies and planes and dignity and character, and at the gravesite that day, during the interring of his mother’s ashes, all those lines crumpled upon themselves into the most terrible mask of agony.

He affected me so much that I couldn’t bear to look at him, for fear I’d have to drop to the frozen ground and pound my fists with the pain of seeing my uncomplaining, silent father attempting to keep his composure. Instead, I gloried at the backdrop of the Beartooth Mountains–a view that would prove sustaining when I stood in the same spot four years later, in February of 2003, interring my dad’s ashes next to those of his father, mother, and brother–and then distractedly browsed the surrounding tombstones, musing at how many Finns were buried on this Western plains hill. The sole thing that commanded my attention entirely was the unrelenting torrent of wind, a wind that caused the lanky pastor to yell out his words, lest they be blown away before reaching our ears.

His vestments flapping in the wind like Grandma’s laundry had, the pastor stood, raised, on the cement outline of the family plot and asked if anyone wanted to add some words of rememberance. For a few minutes, it was silent.

Then, of the eighteen immediates huddled in a bunch against the blasting gusts, those least disposed to words spoke up. First, my grandma’s niece (my dad’s cousin), Sandy, contributed, “Dorothy was a kind lady.” From there, Dorothy’s sister, my great-aunt Ethel, observed, “She was a hard worker.” It was Ethel who, alongside Dorothy, had milked the ranch’s 80 dairy cows, morning and night, throughout their childhood. In such a case, being yoked to a “hard worker” was good fortune, indeed.

Furthering the tribute, my grandma’s youngest sister, Ruthie, agreed: “She worked hard. And she was unselfish. She cared.”

After that, no one else spoke. At the time, I fretted about the lack of commemorative words, thinking that at my gravesite–at anyone’s gravesite–there should be inspired, seemingly-spontaneous, even lengthy words of regret and ongoing devotion; for myself, I fancy a mass outpouring of bereavement, a stampede of verbal processing, so heartfelt that the sky will hear and know that I had been below it for even a short while.

However, my hard-working, unselfish grandma would not have countenanced or even understood such a luxury of words and public emotion. A few carefully-measured sentences, stoically acknowledged, were more than full tribute for this deceased.

After the graveside interment, we had about an hour before the memorial service proper.

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Above the Horizon I

 

I never felt particularly close to my paternal grandmother. She was pessimistic; she groused that I sat on the couch and read too much (“Don’t you ever go outside?”); and the candy jar in her living room only ever housed lemon drops and restaurant-style peppermint circles, which are the Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt of the candy world: ubiquitous and completely without redemption.

However, she knew how to cook a goose, and I respected the fact that she was–and remains–the only person I’ve ever known who could actually cook my goose (and trust me, it’s needed a good basting on occasion). Also, she was, fundamentally, a good person, and especially in junior high, a big part of me understood that finding a fundamentally good person was a rarity. I didn’t “get” Grandma–we’d never hitch up into a shoulder-to-shoulder percolation of “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang–we’d never hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, a you don’t stop the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.

But Grandma was all right.

In the 7th grade, when I was assigned a biology project to collect and identify a slew of wildflowers, it was my grandma (having never sat on the couch and read all day thanks to the 80 cows on her Montana ranch with bulbous udders that had them lowing for relief twice a day) who walked the acres with me, plucking flowers out of the ground and handing them over for cataloguing with a terse, “Think this one’s called Shepherd’s Purse.”

So when she died in January of 1999, at the age of 83, her passing meant something. On a deeply personal level, I wasn’t affected, to tell you true. But she was emblematic of something bygone, and that fact moves me still.

She died in Montana, a handful of miles from her birthplace: a sod dugout on the family ranch, that passle of acres where she spent the majority of her life milking cows, feeding cows, cooking beans to feed the pigs, baking pies to sell to local restaurants. At 18, she married a Finn, and they raised two sons on their ranch of nearly a thousand acres (small stakes in Montana terms). In sum, she was a classic 20th Century Western woman, placing value on work and work again over words and emotions and how big and open the sky loomed above.

Despite my recognition that Grandma had represented something classic, her death came just as I was facing the first week of a new semester, just as personal debt was at an all-time high, just as I was willing to acknowledge that I had never felt intensely linked to this grandmother. I wasn’t sure I’d be flying to Montana to attend her funeral.

Then a sage, in the form of a friend, planted herself firmly in front of my head-down horizon and made my flight to Billings possible, telling me, “Funerals and the like, these kind of things are more important than you know. I think you need to go do this.”

I made my way to Billings to find that my friend had been smack-on right. On that trip, I found that, even though I hadn’t felt a one-on-one connection with Grandma Dorothy, I could, after her death, appreciate anew all those she had left behind, the crazy-quilt of individuals who were patched together due to her life, stitched more tightly in her absence.

Wednesday, January 13th, 1999, was my grandma’s day of memorial.

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We Was Cute Once

 

Two weeks ago, my husband, nearly 37 years old, lost his first grandparent.

Seemingly the most hale of his four living grandparents, his grandmother went into decline rather abruptly, with a kidney infection turning into congestive heart failure turning into pain and exhaustion that sapped her will to fight.

Her husband, a former bank president and World War II pilot, had been the one we’d all been watching. He is the one with Alzheimer’s and untreated prostate cancer. He has been the one everyone’s efforts have been concentrated upon for the last three years. Tacit agreement had it that he would be the first to go.

Yet he didn’t. He hasn’t.

Rather, his wife of more than sixty years belied expectations and, after painstaking caretaking of her husband, has left him behind, alone. Forlorn. Wishing for death.

Fortunately–although it didn’t feel that way at the time–Grandpa had already moved to the Memory Care wing of the Senior Home a couple of months ago, after he was found by a state trooper wandering down the side of the highway. So his transition out of the immediate life of Grandma (known to our kids as “GGma”) had already taken place. He was somewhat accustomed to being apart from her, down the hall, over in his new digs.

However, with daily visits and enduring devotion, they weren’t really apart. As GGma’s health became more grave, my father-in-law had to break the news to his father: “Mom is dying, Dad.”

And the Alzheimer’s? You know, that cruelest of diseases? It, of course, provided no mercy.

In this case, it meant GGpa–although unable to recall names and places–remained bitingly aware that his helpmate of decades was passing out of his life.

They had a private religious service together in her last days, led by their pastor. After it, GGpa was inconsolable.

Two days later, when GGma died–peacefully, comfortably, all wishes expressed–it was GGpa, with his unreliable brain, who sat beside her, lucidly, holding her hand, rubbing her cheek, even after she was gone.

The very image of them, there in the hospice, slices me in two.

Today, November 12th, would have been their sixty-third anniversary; yet after all that time, they were not a habit to each other. They were not one of those couples who sit in the Embers, indifferently eating their omelets, not speaking to each other, staring off into space. Rather, after sixty-three years, they had an active love for each other, feeling complete only in the other’s presence. Even GGpa’s advancing dementia couldn’t diminish their interdependence.

It is from this perspective of ongoing conscious appreciation that I greet my eighth anniversary with my groom a day after theirs, on November 13th.

He is, quite simply, my all, my everything, my favorite and my best. There are at least 4.569 reasons that add up to the way I dote on him. Here, I give you five of ’em:

1) He is unflappable and uncomplaining. This is a much-needed and -welcome counterpoint to all my complaints and flap.

2) He knows how to communicate with me in Jocespeak (woe to those who consider it a dead language!). I am, you see, a person who can get dramatically derailed during a slow bend down to tie her shoes. But with Groom giving me directions, I get it done every time. For example, when I go out to run an unknown route, he is smart enough not to tell me, “Turn right at Oneida Street,” but instead to break it down thusly: “When you see the big rock on the righthand side that looks like Richard Nixon with his cheeks waggling, turn right. After that, you’ll run for about the length of time it would take you to sing the extended dance remix of ‘Tainted Love’, and then you’ll take a left.” Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Similarly, when we were recently up the road at an important crossroads for migrating raptors (Ye Olde Birds of Prey), a place we go to often in the Fall, and he was off hiking with friends while Niblet and I hung around the main vantage point, resting our weary paws and awaiting their return, we got to witness the release of a big bird. It was tossed up into the wind above the overlook, and the whole thing was cool. When Groom and Friends returned from their hike a few minutes later, I tried to describe the bird to them. “Was it a hawk?” they asked. Weellllllll, er…..yea? I could tell them that it had parentheses-like curves around its eyes, and its beak looked rather like a bracket (<>). And, for big sure, it wasn’t an owl. So what kind of hawk had it been? “Like, not small,” I reported with authority. Groom knew then to ask, “Was it bigger than a package of Double Stuff Oreos?” “‘Bout the same size!” I reponded, gleefully. That answer, coupled with a photo I’d taken, narrowed it down. Due to his patience and bilingualism, Groom discerned, “It was a red-tailed hawk. See in the photo those red markings?” Not at all sure how they looked like my beloved Oreos, I nodded agreeably nevertheless.


The bird is released

3) He sighs gently and happily when I rub his wrist.

4) He raises our children with consistency and patience, yet he loves it when I point out the benefits of storing them in the freezer.

5) He has always and ever made me feel like my foibles increase my charm. Were I more perfect, he would love me less.

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For all these reasons, plus twenty-thwifty kamajillion others, he leaves me agog.

In an ideal world, he and I will die together, when I’m 104, and he’s 101. We’ll be on a hammock together, eating truffles and staring at the branches up above us in the sky, when suddenly our hearts will simultaneously stop beating.

The world not being ideal, this will most likely not be the case, although I am having a truffle fridge installed at the base of our biggest tree, just as a nod to possibility.

Alternatively and more realistically, then, I wish for a death like GGma’s.

Indeed, my acute and illimitable hope is that, in fifty-six years–better yet, in sixty-six–when I am at long last diminishing and facing the Great Beyond, it will be with my constant and enduring companion sitting next to me, knowing me as no other, stroking my cheek as I exhale one last time.

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Family, Edited







I went to a baby shower last weekend. Although it got a little woo-woo during the programmed portion of the event (a candle was lit in the center of the circle; we all held onto a long hank of yarn, one that apparently connected all our pulsing womanhoods into one larger life force; there were beads; there was sharing), I managed to stifle my desire to make a break for the door. This was a good thing, as conversation, once the compulsory estrogen communion was over, returned to an unorchestrated flow, during which Knocked-Up Friend noted that, because her IVF baby had been created quite deliberately, with the help of a village of medical types, and because the pregnancy was iffy, what with her being a fairly aged crone of 40, she hadn’t shared news of her pregnancy right away…but when she did go public, she expected the world to gather around her in a seizure of delight, making continued hoopla at her feet for the remainder of her nine months of maternal glow.

What a shock it was to her, then, to finally publicly join the ranks of the preggers in a prenatal yoga class. She entered the room, secure in the knowledge that she was the cutest pregnant woman in Duluth, only to realize that there were 10 other equally cute pregnant women there, all contorted into lotus position. The following week, when she went to her first birthing class at the hospital, her illusions were further snapped when she stepped into a room full of another 15 really cute pregnant women, all of whom inhabit Duluth. It appeared that the title of Cutest Pregnant Woman, with all its accompanying bling, glory and ballyhoo, would have to be shared with every other damn big-bellied woman in the Twin Ports region. She would not, to her dismay, be the sole Gestational Goddess in town.

The same lesson was pounded home to me five years ago, in the summer of 2002, when I was pregnant with the Wee Niblet. His being my second pregnancy, and with a very charming 2-year-old scene stealer already living in the house, I wasn’t actually under the delusion that I was the center of anyone’s universe, but, still, I was imbued with that special pregnancy feeling that I carried in my womb a profound and secret joy.

Then one day, as we awaited the arrival of my mom and her sister who were driving to Northern Minnesota all the way from Rectangular States to the West, the mail arrived.

And in the mail was a personal letter. How lovely to get a personal missive in the age of postal-service-whore-as-pimped-by-direct-mail!

Strangely, the letter was from my mom, who’d been on her way to us for days. She must have posted it just before she hit the road.

Assuming it would contain her usual “I saw this little snippet in the ‘Humor in Uniform’ section of READER’S DIGEST and thought it would make you chuckle” contents, I carelessly ripped open the envelope.

The first sentence read “The topic of this letter may surprise, even shock, you.” By the second sentence, the alveoli in my lungs filled with sludge, and breathing became difficult.

There I was, 35 years old, up the duff, about to become a child of divorce.

Naturally, my grades in school would slip due to all the hookey I would be playing as a result of my need to act out, a consequence of my feeling that my parents’ break-up was all my fault, which would mean I’d probably be hung over the day I took my SATs, and I’d never gain admission into a spendy private liberal arts college!

Or, more accurately, what with my advanced age, maybe I’d start refusing to clip coupons, pay taxes, and shovel the snow off my sidewalk after big storms. That’d drive home to dear old Ma and Pa the depth of the damage they’d inflicted!

My immediate reaction to this announcement that my mother had filed for divorce from me dear da–and informed me through mail in the age of telephone!–was, “What if this letter hadn’t arrived today? Mom will be here in an hour. Would she have gotten out of the car, sized up my body language, and then just fished around (‘So, how’s GrandGirl? Your pregnancy going well? Get any interesting mail lately? Great weather here by the lake!’) until it became clear that I didn’t yet know? And then, tomorrow, when the mail is delivered, would she excuse herself to the bathroom until the rustling sound of papers stopped, and the sound of bereft wailing began? Then she’d know I had read her note, and she could emerge from the bathroom, asking again, ‘Get any interesting mail lately?'”

But I got the letter that day, just before her arrival. I started sobbing immediately. An hour later, when she and my aunt pulled up in front of the house, I marched outside, grabbed her in a big hug and said, “I can’t pretend any niceties here. I just got your letter. And I’m so sad.”

“I am too,” she responded, falling into my arms. The rest of that night saw us on the couch, talking through this earth-shattering move she’d made.


To summarize my mother’s feelings: my father was not an expressive or demonstrative man; for forty years, she had felt unloved; she had tried to communicate her distress to him, but nothing ever changed; she had decided she’d be better off living alone than living with someone yet feeling so lonely.

I got all that. What made for a delightful and consistent father did not necessarily add up to marital bliss. I got it.

During our couch therapy that night, I told Mom that no one could find her happiness but her, and no one could go after it but her. So she should do what she needed to do. I also told her I was sorry for the pain she’d gone through all those years and in coming to the Ground Zero that signaled her readiness to make things change.

We pretty much ended up having a nice visit.

And yet.

I felt broken for my father, a quiet, gentle Finn defined by his reserve and thoughtfulness. I felt broken for his lack of representation during The Airing of the Grievances. I felt broken because his health was dismal, and he was 67, and he now faced his Golden Years alone. Personally, I felt broken because I’d just discovered, waaaaaaaay after the fact, that the story of my growing up years was a myth–I hadn’t actually grown up in a reasonably-happy, well-adjusted household but rather in a house of ache and missed connections and settling. Good thing I had been too busy watching re-runs of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES to notice any genuine human pain loitering there in the kitchen.


And on some level, I was broken that the child growing inside of me would never bask in the heady collective adoration of Gampy and Gammy. He would never sit between them on a porch swing, or on a couch, encircled by their palpable affection. There would be no circles of love at all, just straight lines between individuals.

After my mother’s visit, things got very sticky very fast. Mom and Dad continued to live in their house for another couple of months, until Mom moved into a little apartment and Dad into an independent-living home for seniors. We visited them during those last weeks together in their house, popping in on our way back to Minnesota from a wedding in Colorado. We brought with us a friend who was about to move to the Pacific Northwest, a friend who needed to outfit his new kitchen. And I’m here to tell you that, if you ever need to outfit your kitchen, stopping by the home of divorcing people is a pretty good strategy. They each are sure they need only one plate, fork, and glass. The rest? Friend can box up and take to his new life of friends and romance.

Staying in that house was tense. Awful. I didn’t know who felt how, who had been a part of which discussion, who needed help, or who didn’t want me to splinter a brave facade.

Then the news slipped out that my mom had actually been seeing someone else–not a physical affair yet, but an emotional one, made up of letters and phone calls exchanged behind my father’s back.

Gentle readers, my parents were church people. They had, under the banner of heaven, judged others for moral failings. They had, in the way of organized religion, pulled self-righteousness around them like an L.L. Bean Barn Jacket (color: Sandstone Pyramid; size: Extra Large).

Don’t get me wrong: my parents had always been tolerant, inclusive people, in terms of a worldview. But the soap opera aspect of my 67-year-old mother striking up a relationship with a guy she’d gone to high school with–and without ever telling my dad (that eventually became my job, when he questioned me directly, as did telling my brother and sister; my mother then asked what their reactions had been. Er, not so good)–was the most unexpected. Who knew our sleppy little hamlet of Pine Valley had been rife with divorce and infidelity and anger all those years? Suddenly, that summer, it seemed no one was without sin.

Well, except my dad, unless consistently trying one’s hardest is a sin. In the middle of all the ensuing stone throwing–my mom towards my dad (she needed to do that to work up the courage to follow through and to rationalize her right to do what needed no rationalization); my mom towards us kids (creating wounds that will never heal); us kids toward my mom; in some instances, us kids towards each other–the only one who never picked up a rock, the only one who wished fervently that everyone would just back off the hail of pebbles, was my dad.

Even though he couldn’t give my mom what she needed, he was the best of men.

Before my little family quit that tense visit in Montana, we spent a morning driving around Billings with my dad, having me added to all bank and legal documents as his new co-signer, since he would no longer have a wife. At the end of our trips around town, we stood in a bank parking lot, trying to find the right way to cap off seing each other in such a bewildering, foreign time. Before that day, I had seen my dad cry once before, at his mother’s funeral. In the parking lot, for the second time, I saw, felt him cry, as he came into my arms, and I held him against my thumping belly. He sobbed and sobbed. So did I. So did the onlooking Groom. Girl pointed at birds in the sky. He sobbed on. Finally, all I could whisper in his ear, so conscious of his unflagging reliability, his dependability, his constancy, was, “You deserve better than this.”

They each moved into their new, separate homes in early September. My brother, in the military and assigned to a base in Japan, flew home to help with the monumental garage sale and to march them each to a financial advisor. During that time, Mom took her new relationship to a deeper level. Dad, an extreme introvert, ate in a cafeteria, amongst strangers. He made plans to buy us a larger house in Duluth and to take over living in our smaller one, to ease our double mortgage plight.

Then, one night in November, he called 911, complaining that he couldn’t breathe. That was the last time he lived in a home, such as it was there in the senior center, his “home” of two months. That was the last time he wasn’t being ministered to by unfamiliar, clinical hands, save my sister’s. That was the last day his life held anything like predictability.

For the next three months, he was in the hospital, being discharged only briefly to rehabilitation facilities before re-entering the hospital. As his lungs and heart declined, we had some close calls, a scary night of intubation and the doctor on the phone with me at 11 p.m., telling me to call my siblings.

But he recovered enough to still have hope of returning to a life of regularity. During all of this, I was unable to travel due to an impending due date, and my brother was across the world in Japan. Heroically, and I don’t use that word easily, my sister single-handedly walked with him to the grave, using up all her vacation days plus some, driving and flying back and forth between Denver and Billings, sometimes twice a week. She may have her foibles, as do we all, but I’m never forgetting how capably she carried him for all of us.


Three months after he first called 911, my dad died. On that morning, at about 5:30 a.m., he was in his first full day at a new rehabilitation center, and he had called in a worker, a stranger, to ask for help turning over. In that action of turning over, his last gasp was forced out.

And that was it.

My sister was in Denver.

My brother and his family (my sister-in-law seven months pregnant herself) were in the middle of the long trip from Japan to Montana, having realized the now-or-never nature of his decline. I reached them by phone during their layover in Detroit and broke the news. I’ve never been part of a more horrible phone conversation, and I’ll never forget my sister-in-law’s voice in the background, keening, “What do you mean he’s dead? How can he be dead? But we’re so close.” And over that, I heard the voice of my niece, my dad’s first grandchild, then five years old, questioning, “Grandpa Don is dead? Daddy? Daddy? Is Grandpa Don dead? Daddy, is your daddy dead?”

I, having just given birth to Wee Niblet during the worst day of my life on January 17th, was in heavy recovery. And then the date of the worst day of my life changed. It became February 2nd, the day my daddy died.

So this man–who lived out his life a mere 40 miles away from the ranch where he had been raised, who taught at the same college for 35 years, who was a fixture in his recliner–died, alone, amongst people who had to check a chart to call him by name, in a room that had been home for 12 hours. That will always slice me in two.

My enduring grief over the nature of his death is assuaged a bit when I remember that, although he never saw the Wee Niblet in person, he did get to see pictures and did have a chance to tell me how proud and overwhelmed he was to have such a lovely grandson (and, in his typical generous fashion, he offered to send a cheque so I could hire some “help” during my torturous recovery from the delivery).

I don’t know if there is a heaven, but I know now why people need the notion of one. If there is one, my dad is there, in his easy chair, listening to choral music directed by Robert Shaw, surrounded by photos all four of his grandchildren, photos that show them thriving and embraced by love.


Indeed, my dad didn’t get his happy ending.

My mom’s still working on hers.

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So, you see, my second pregnancy wasn’t at all about me.

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