Kathryn & the Sycamore

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.

karen-lauren-picasso-2018-okc-e1524698160114.jpg

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 martin young

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.

beck & kathryn

old man & girl kathryn martin
Kathryn Martin was an artist…this is one of many pictures she painted after the children were gone, while Marshall was on the golf course

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.

 

 

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55

Yesterday was Karen’s birthday. She is 55, but tells me her bones feel 65.

She looks 35. I’m a lucky man.

We went to the mall before dinner to check out Dillard’s 30% off of 50% sale where they price things really high then make you do complex math in your head to figure out the real price. After a while, I realize that I don’t need a pair of stylish Dior socks originally $20 but now $7 so I sit on a recliner in the middle of the mall and read 126 Happy Birthday wishes on Karen’s Facebook feed. This is obvious, but she has way more friends than me. Here is one of my favorites:

Happiest of birthdays to one of the best friends in my life. We may not see each other often, but when we do, we are just as goofy as we were in high school. Love you, Karen Mason Taylor!

Kim, you are spot on! She is goofy. Cute, but goofy.

We ate dinner at Laffa, described on the menu as Mediterranean & Middle Eastern. I asked our waitress what was different about the Israeli Cappuccino. She said, “It has a little whipped cream on top.” I replied, “OK, give me the Hot Green Lemon Ginger Honey Tea,” because whipped cream sounded Bavarian and I wanted something more Jewish and with a longer name.

We love the laffa which is a kind of bread. The menu says that laffa is named after the conical oven that is used to make it and that bread is thought of as a gift from God and only the hands should be used to break it because cutting it with a knife would be like raising a sword to God!  If some bread should fall to the ground, it is picked up and symbolically pressed to the lips & forehead as a sign of respect.

We tore Laffa bread with our bare hands and dipped it into West African Hummus-spicy, sweet potato & peanut hummus with a touch of coconut served with curried tehina, balsamic glaze & feta and Muhammara-roasted red pepper spread made with eggplant, walnuts, pine nuts, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic & spices.

There is even advice on the menu from a Jewish grandma which was apparently stolen by my grandma since my people are not as old as the Jewish peoples…(we are Upper Corner White Bread Okies…paternal grandparents northeastern Oklahoma and maternal grandparents northwestern Oklahoma panhandle):

“EAT! You’re skin and bones!”
– Every Jewish grandma’s catchphrase (Along with “take a sweater!”)

We dined with my brother Greg and his wife Jill. I always enjoy our conversations with Greg and Jill. They understand us. We talked about our children who are college age to 28 years old.

Karen is lower right if you need help

Isn’t it interesting how children believe their parents to be fools when they are of “a certain age” and then they pass through vintage moment(s), return to us, and want to hang out, ask for advice, laugh at our jokes (or at least not roll their eyes quite as dramatically)…and yet they are still our children, only smarter than us, better looking, and somehow poised and eloquent and we think it strangely odd?

Except for some moments when they revert to childhood bath hairdos. 

Before dinner, we parked near the Tulsa Performing Arts Center so after the 8:00 showing of the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, we would have a short walk in the downtown cold and darkness. I brought a stocking cap for the walk from the restaurant to the PAC which any Jewish grandmother would have admired. I told Karen my hat gives me such warmth that I would be happy to sleep outside tonight if I had to. She said that I could still snuggle with her if I wanted which made me glad I married her.

You can never be too careful or plan too well. This is how you get when celebrating birthdays on the downslope of 100 years…as if it matters at this point.

Birthdays change along with us, marking our lives like pencil marks on a door jamb. Some have fat candles, others pin tails on donkeys. This one was fine wine in a vintage oak cask. It was good to stroll along a city street with my girl during the calm of a winter’s evening, basking in the warm glow of family and conversation and a lovely table of food.

Happy birthday my love!

30 days to change

Studies show that if you repeat something often enough, say 30 days in a row, it becomes part of you. A habit if you will. That’s not really science, I made it up, but it seems true.

I’ve decided to practice this to see if it works. I’ll  give you a report after thirty days. I have many 30 day regimens already planned, but I will begin simply.

My first thought is to change something in my diet, to change my stance from vile hatred to, dare I say, affection. So I’m going to eat something I hate for 30 consecutive days.

Cucumbers…I despise cucumbers.

benefitsofcucumbers

For 30 days, I dine on one whole raw cucumber daily. I can’t wait…

 

 

I’m Younger Than That Now

My son texted me last night and said, “We have some really big news.”

This is life; we are born and given a name without our approval, then we fall in love and marry, have children, who then leave and have their own children, and only then are we empowered to rename ourselves.

This is our chance to correct all the misconceptions of the past. I love the idea of second chances. Especially if your last name is Light and your parents named you Bud…you want a do over.

And this is a universal truth across generations. We want a name that highlights our better angels. I remember this about my Grandma Davis who typically cared very little about image and names. But there was one name we didn’t dare call her…granny.

This made for a perfect dare, and my sister prodded me to test the limits one day. I took the dare and called her granny. She hit me over the head with a rolled up Saturday Evening Post. She thought it made her sound old. I thought she was.

But like Dylan singing My Back Pages, “aah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” she must have thought the same thing that my generation thinks…we are younger than that now.

Our age defiance runs deep beginning with simple denial, to the subtle art of requiring our grandchildren to summon us with hip and youthful grand names.

Besides, if we are not naming ourselves, someone will. And it might sound not only old, but strange, for there is danger in allowing a toddler to name grandparents. The danger is that the name will stick like a sharpened #2 pencil thrown into an acoustic ceiling by a rowdy student, requiring a janitor with a ladder to make it go away. Otherwise, it will just hang there forever.

By virtue of the birthright bestowed upon the first grandchild, my daughter had the naming rights to her paternal grandparents. She named them Tampoop and Nammy. One stuck and the other, well, we had to get a ladder and remove it.

But why settle for the prosaic grandfather and grandmother?

The possibilities are endless. I’m thinking about Ace Umpa or Poppa Tart…or something Ukrainian that a baby can easily pronounce. Why not Baba & Gigi?

And the Greeks have wonderfully lyrical grand names…Yaya & Pappoús.

Karen asked me recently what I wanted to be called by a babbling grand. Perhaps I’ll be Bubs. Karen is leaning toward Keke.

And so it will be until the first grandchild changes it to Butts and Kaka. Maybe the old days of grandma and grandpa weren’t so bad after all, but just in case, I’m keeping that ladder handy.

Oh yes, the big news from my son and daughter-in-law. They are parents. We now have our third grand pet, Inola, a tiny furry bundle of Border Collie. I hope she calls me Bubs.

An Unwrapped Christmas

I have received many Christmas gifts, but can only remember a few. Likewise, my wife remembers the magic of Christmas, but not so much specific presents received.

Karen’s father, Thom Mason, worked three jobs to provide a magical Christmas for five children. His third job was bartender and he left a glass tip jar filled with coins under the tree for Santa and each Christmas morning the jar vanished, purportedly carried away in a sleigh by Santa to help pay the North Pole bills. Christmas morning exploded in color, tinsel, lights, and presents under the tree. It was simply magic. 

I no longer struggle to sleep on Christmas Eve. And I have always lived with a sort of Christmas dissonance, a stubborn belief in the magic of Christmas juxtaposed against a mocking cynicism of vapid Hallmark Christmas movies.

I’ve always wondered about Christmas without presents. 

Today we celebrated with only the gift of presence.

There were no gifts.

There was no tree.

Only a shared meal, shared dreams, tears and a prayer of blessing.

This was my favorite Christmas.

No presents, no tree, no lights, only family.

And, we were together at a beach house…which is a kind of present in itself.

So we ate ricotta pancakes and eggs and prosciutto and fried potatoes. And two sets of parents, the old folks in our group of ten, were challenged to tell about our challenges, victories, wants, and wonders for 2018.

And so the parents told stories about their lives and about their dreams and what they wonder about and six children stood over us and prayed a prayer while holding onto us and blessing us. It was Christmas turned upside down, the children wrapping joy as a Christmas blessing. 

I wandered down to the beach to read, my chair facing the sun, my back to the wind, and I watched sandpipers scooting across the beach hunting crabs, and pelicans cruising just inches above the crest of breaking waves. As I listened to the eternal surf break against the shore I thought about how Christmas really is a miracle.

It’s as simple as reading a book with your toes in the sand, hearing God’s presence in the musical constancy of the surf.

It’s Immanuel come near in a way that allows us mortals to see the glory of God without going blind

It’s the magical gift of grace for parents who deserve a lump of coal but get children praying over them.

Merry Christmas!

 

The Man with the Yam

This past Sunday, Preacher Daryl told us that grumbling and complaining is a sin as a friend of mine sunk lower in the pew after posting a Facebook rant about donuts, “Why are there no donuts shops open on Sunday morning?” Which made me think of Garrison Keillor’s story about the man who wrote a check hurriedly as the collection plate was being passed realizing later that he had forgotten to place a decimal in his number and the $100 became $10000. He wondered if he would be struck by lightning if he asked for the check back so he could void it and write another. Which is how most of us feel after grumbling on Facebook. We want our words back, a chance to re-write the check.

How would I ever explain Facebook to my grandparents? Their face book was newspaper clippings on a cork board secured by a push-pin where I once spotted my grandpa holding a gigantic yam. The caption read, “The man with the yam.”

Jesse Suit Tie
The Man with the Yam

I only knew him the last few years of his life, long after his hair had receded like plowed soil blowing hot across the Oklahoma plains. Grandpa Jesse in his youth looked like Henry Fonda in the Grapes of Wrath except with a fishing pole and less angry.  He went to California in the 1950’s to escape the pollen and dust of the Oklahoma Panhandle. He returned from California in the 1960’s when I was a boy.

Jesse Coffee Machine
Grandpa Jesse with his coffee vending machine

That picture of the man with the yam made me think that he was superhuman, all Popeye and spinach, I yam what I yam. Now my wife grows yams and tomatoes and kale and it is hard work making me realize how difficult it must have been to be a farmer, a dairy man with a herd of milk cows on the plains of Oklahoma when hard times were the worst hard times.

Grandpa Jesse married Mildred the year after the stock market crash of 1929, just as drought and perpetual plowing turned winter wheat into desolation and dreams into dust. The dust bowl still impacts how I eat a chicken leg. Grandma Mildred often chastised me for not eating efficiently, taking from my plate a mostly denuded chicken leg and gnawing it down to the gristle as if it were a sin to leave meat on the bone. I think of her still when I eat chicken…and when I begin to grumble about how difficult life is.

Grandma wrote prose like she ate a chicken leg, gnawing the subject down to the marrow,  sharing only the essentials in a letter she penned about her life as if to say modern folks know nothing about multi-tasking. She reduced the birthdays of six children into a single rich sentence.

“When my babies were born, they were delivered by Dr. Smith, who was also a vet and a dentist.”

My grandparents always had an eye on the heavens while living close to the good earth as they plowed it, gardened it, drilled water wells into it, and in the worst times of drought and wind they inhaled it. They made their living on a harsh landscape with the promise of better days. When Grandpa died, I was nine-years old and I remember Grandma Mildred describing his passing to a lady from our church as I walked up the stairs of our home. I was amazed that adults spoke about death and I dreamed of Grandpa for several months after that and once I saw him in the closet by my bed late one night. I was never afraid, but I did wonder if I was nutty or perhaps heaven had a revolving door with hall passes.

One afternoon not long before he died, Grandpa picked me up at school and asked me to help him. I sat beside him in his Ford truck as we drove to Woodland Park where he was working on a house. He said, “Can you stick your arm into that hole in the wall and pull out that wire?” I told him sure. But after trying for several minutes, I gave up. I had failed. He drove me home and as I was getting out of the truck, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a quarter, handed it to me and said, “Thanks.” I walked to the porch and sat down, watching my Grandpa drive away. He never made me feel that I had failed, and the quarter was his way of saying so, gratitude replacing grumbling even in the midst of a failed venture.

Mildred Fishing 2017
Mildred fishing

I’m not aware of any writing that Grandpa passed along, but Grandma wrote about her life for posterity at the behest of her children. Here is part of what she wrote:

My sister Ida and I walked two miles to…school. Mother, in later years, often told me I started out crying and came home crying. The winters were very cold. We also had to help milk cows before we left for school and again at night. As we girls had no older brothers, we worked alongside our Dad doing chores, field work and gardening. Dad always raised hogs and cattle. He would work in the fields until dark and then chores had to be done. I was eighteen years old and going to high school at a state school in Goodwell, Oklahoma when I met my husband to be. My mother’s mother developed cancer in February 1930 and as Mother was her only daughter, she needed to go care for her…I was brought home from school to take Mother’s place caring for Georgie, Essie and Wesley, besides chores, cooking, etc. Grandmother passed away in May. Because of this time out of school, I did not get to graduate from high school. Doctors in those days were not readily available and their knowledge was limited. I suppose they learned a lot of what they knew from reading medical books…

I never heard them complain much, except when I wore my short shorts. Maybe Grandpa complained about hard times to the dairy cows early in the morning while milking them, but Mom and her siblings told me that they never heard their daddy speak ill of another person nor complain to the cows or anyone else. And if he complained or griped about his lot in life, that too must have blown away with the dust. I thought that was remarkable. Maybe she just wasn’t around him enough. Or perhaps there really are people in the world who are like Grandpa…I hope so.

The Color of Water

“Nothing has done more to bring people of different races and different backgrounds together than athletics, certainly more than politicians have done. It’s why the Greeks invented the Olympics” Mike Leach, Washington State Football Coach

Coach Leach is probably wrong about the 2nd part, but the 1st part rings true, at least in my experience. Of course, in defense of politicians you have Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and the Civil Rights Act and…well, anyway, makes one think.

Although for me, an English French Dutch Cherokee Indian American (don’t call me white) my first friendships with African-Americans began on a basketball court. A flat hard space that asked not your color, although I remember feeling inferior, that those friends were better than me and I had to prove myself to them.

I came from an all-white grade school into a junior high that exploded my world of sameness, suddenly understanding how different I was, that I wasn’t normal, that I was indeed the odd one, because of how little I knew about the beliefs and traditions, the myths and stories of people who didn’t look like me, who didn’t sound like me, amazingly, my new friends didn’t even play basketball like me.

My understanding of African-Americans had thus far been limited to my television set, seminal moments, mostly athletic, involving African-Americans, including the Black Power salute by Tommy Smith raising a black gloved right fist and John Carlos raising his left gloved fist while standing on the award pedestal after finishing 1st and 3rd respectively in the two hundred meter dash at the Olympic Games in October of 1968. I once sensed defiance in pictures of Tommy Smith and John Carlos. Now I understand defiant posture as a plea for justice, the animation of prayer in the oppressed, two men standing together with a white sprinter from Australia name Peter, asking God to set right the world, a world inhabited by red, yellow, black and white, a world that presented a gold medal to Tommy Smith but told him he was excluded from certain hotels and restaurants, country clubs and conversations.

There is a grand tradition of fists raised in the name of justice, some might even name it wrestling with God, times where prayer is more of a dialogue rather than monologue, spirited debating with God Almighty. Abraham questioned God’s promise and his own virility, Moses argued incompetence and asked God to send a more eloquent man to Pharaoh, Job ranted, David’s mouth grew parched calling for help, and Jacob transformed wrestling with someone you love into an art form by calling on God to bless him before he was beaten to a pulp. In the United States of America, African-Americans have prayed for many years with emotion, prayed with faith, prayed with belief that someday life will be better and not just better, just.

My upper left front tooth was chipped when I was fourteen years old by a raised fist, a shadow boxing match gone awry between Walter and me. Walter was different from me. He was from across the tracks, African-American, and the best athlete that I ever competed with. We were in the locker room feigning machismo, seeking affirmation, someone to tell us we were men.

We weren’t really fighting, just horsing around, he could have slammed dunked me and mopped the tile floors with my raggedy head. No, it was more like a big brother patronizing a younger, letting him get in a blow, shadow boxing playfully, just throwing punches with the intent of saying I could take you if I wanted, but not really wanting to hurt you. Except he miscalculated and busted my tooth.

Walter Reece 35th reunion
Ron Williams, Brent Taylor, Scott Stuart, Walter Reece, Kevan Mueller at 35 yr reunion

During the winter of our ninth grade year, I watched from the bench as Walter and Mike and Myron and Ricky, all African-American kids along with a white Catholic kid named Chet, led a team of otherwise short white guys to a rousing basketball win over our cross-town rival across the river, the all-white team that hadn’t been beaten in their entire three-year junior high career.

That was a surreal moment for all of us. I thought we had no chance to win. I never really thought about those four African-American starters, about how it made them feel, how it may have empowered them, helped them become stronger in a world still dominated by white teachers and coaches and principals and mayors and governors and presidents. Perhaps this tension was unspoken but visceral, resulting in many wildly thrown punches at something unseen, undefined, not yet born in our social consciousness.

I hadn’t heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech. I didn’t know much of letting freedom ring. I was just trying to get along as best I could. But I did know that the world in which I had been introduced left me uncertain, timid, unsure. The basketball court, however, was the place of refuge for me and for kids of all color, the place we lost our fear and found our competitive pride and spirit. For many of us who defined each other by sport, a basketball court was where we found freedoms ring.

I don’t really think of those days as the “good old days”. They were difficult, awkward, we didn’t even know we were punching and ducking, bobbing and weaving. We were, in fact, living out the words of the old Negro spiritual reconstituted by U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, believing in a Kingdom where all the colors bleed into one.

James McBride was the son of a black father and white Jewish mother and when he was young, he asked his mother about her being different. She would simply say ‘I’m light skinned.’ Then he began to think himself different and asked his mother if he was black or white. ‘You’re a human being,’ she replied. Then James asked her, “What color is God?” For years he asked this question and his mother declined to answer. Finally, one day he asked and she told him, “God is the color of water.”

These days I’m reminded of the surreal nature of this earth and that I’m a stranger in a strange land. But I’m grateful for those awkward days of youth and thankful for a slightly broken smile that reminds me of the way it used to be when we shadow boxed one another in the halls of our school bobbing and weaving and swinging, challenged to understand what it meant to live in a kaleidoscope world, in a Kingdom where all the colors are bleeding into one, in a Universe created by a God who is for all I know, the color of water.