We pulled our car into the driveway, narrowly missing a huge sycamore tree while striking the curb with the front wheel, and I told Karen that one can guess the age of a particular house by the width of the driveway. This house was from the Leave it to Beaver era.
Dinner at Picasso’s in OKC with Lauren, Beck, and Karen
Nowadays, these mid-century Edmond, Oklahoma houses are being transformed into California Craftsman Bungalows by youthful attention to the style du jour. Although, Kathryn’s home is pretty much as it was in the 1950’s, except for the sunroom added to the back of the house, where she spends her time watching the OKC Thunder on television and planning her 98th birthday party.
Kathryn loves sports and she tells me the Oklahoma City Thunder need to devote more effort to offensive rebounding. I watched the game later that night and thought, she’s absolutely right. She is an athlete after all. Although now her knees hurt and she has a soft brace around one knee as she recounts her exploits playing tennis as a young woman. She once came to Wann, Oklahoma, not far from where I live, to stay for a few weeks in the summer because her cousin lived there and they had a tennis court.
We went to Edmond to see babies. We also went to visit with Nanny, the grandmother of our son-in-law, Beck. The babies are the daughters of good friends. Beck’s grandmother, Kathryn Lyon Martin, once an Oklahoma A&M Redskin Beauty, has grown stately and majestic for 98 years, along with the sycamores of her middle America neighborhood.
Kathryn spent three years in the 50’s living and working at Tinker Air Force base while her husband Marshall served in Korea. But most of her adult life has been spent in this home in Edmond.
The babies we visited were incredibly cute. I made faces at Eloise and Ramsie the whole time and tried to make them like me, but that’s a tall order. I didn’t make any faces at Kathryn, but I did say yes when she asked me if I wanted a cookie. I always say yes to 98-year-old grandmothers who ask me if I want a cookie, knowing it won’t be as good as Karen’s cookies. I just do it to help them recover some of that old memory.
And the memory of this home and a life that once revolved around food and kitchen and children in the backyard and neighbor kids coming inside to ask for a cookie. I don’t want to be a smart alek (even though I am) like Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver:
June Cleaver: Eddie, would you care to stay for dinner? We’re having roast beef.
Eddie Haskell: No thank you, Mrs. Cleaver. I really must be getting home. We’re having pigeon pie this evening.
So I always say yes to cookies from grandmothers.
Kathryn still lives in the same home where neighbor kids came to play in the backyard unencumbered by fences that now restrict passage from yard to yard. There is a heavy round pipe swing in the southeast corner of the backyard and I imagine many swing set rules being violated, children falling in the grass laughing, crying, bruised, yet happy.
Life was different then. Not necessarily better, just less regulated.
She grew up in Geary, OK where there wasn’t much to do in a small town. So she would go to Catholic Mass with the neighbors even though she wasn’t Catholic. And when they left town, it was an event with life changing possibilities. Kathryn told us about a 1926 road trip to North Dakota when she was 6 years old. Her Mom and Aunt were driving a Ford, and I’m picturing the old coupe with the rumble seat. They went around a curve somewhere south of the Dakotas and lost Kathryn as she slid off the back trunk and fell head over toes into a borrow ditch. After a quick visit to the hospital, she was proclaimed fit, and they continued down the road.
Sensing an opportunity to gather perspective from someone who has seen a lot of history, I asked Kathryn about what events really shaped her, what was memorable to her. I was thinking three-character moments like 9-11 or JFK or FDR, but instead she shared a story about skinning cats.
Which meant something entirely different years ago, and as Kathryn told the story, I watched my daughter, a cat lover, turn a shade of gray.
But skinning cats doesn’t mean that…it means just hanging upside down from a tree limb and flipping yourself through your own arms, or other crazy such flipping and jumping about. Which is what Kathryn was doing one day with her little brother and he was underneath a slab of wood when Kathryn flipped over onto the wood and it fell down onto her brother breaking his leg.
I was looking for deep meaning and got skinning a cat with a brother’s broken leg…which seems more real and American anyway.
Beck and Lauren have a long-haired gray cat named Smokey. Kathryn’s husband Marshall was nicknamed Smokey, and Kathryn told us a story about a gray cat getting caught in the wall and birthing a litter. One of the cats was called Gray ball. Kathryn said, “Smoke tied some rags together and fished them down the wall but he couldn’t get the cat out…” So a fireman cut a hole in the wall. And so Smokey who tried to get a gray cat out of a hollow in the wall is now the great-grandfather of a gray-haired cat living in Denver with his grandson.
The world has changed a lot in 98 years. Kathryn spread her limbs like the sycamore as she listened to FDR on the radio and saw the headlines of VE day. She wondered about her husband in Korea for three years and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. She experienced the birth of radio, television, air travel, interstate highways, several gray cats, and four children. She grew with that sycamore, in her neighborhood filled with children swinging and playing in that great backyard without a fence.
We live in a digital world that’s full of firewalls and privacy fences. We hear a lot of talk about privacy these days. But we sometimes trade our unfenced backyards for the security of lives never shared. Life sometimes seems virtual, a digital world of ones and zeros. There is something rich and authentic about living in the moment, skinning cats and flying into ditches, and knowing at the age of 98 just what the Thunder need to win.
Kathryn’s life along with that sycamore tree seem very real. I enjoyed listening to her stories and viewing her pictures and paintings. Her reality is analog, a continuous stream of stories and experience, backyard swings and old sycamore trees and children playing and cats trapped in walls and broken legs and flying from a car into a ditch somewhere south of the Dakotas.
Talking to Kathryn made me think of Virginia Woolf who wrote this about memory:
Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world…may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the under linen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.
Memory exposes our family linen to the gale winds of life and we find out how much our linen looks like everyone else’s. That gives us comfort. For at some time in each of our lives, we’ve felt beautiful and broken, guilty and redeemed, welcome in our neighborhoods and tossed into a ditch. This is life.
Happy Birthday Kathryn! Thanks for telling your stories and painting your pictures and raising your family and serving your country.
You’ve helped bring us all a little closer to home.