Last One to Leave, Bring in the Dock

cabin

We are selling the family cabin this week, the last thing my father left us. He built it in 1968, with the same independence and drive he showed in everything else. He pored over plans for vacation homes, contracted the work himself, and kept meticulous records of it all. I know because forty-six years later, I still have the receipts, stapled together in thick stacks and tallied in his neat handwriting, detailing every purchase from the stones in the fireplace to a 45-cent package of nails.

The plan he chose featured a spacious layout, with huge beams in the living room and a wall of windows overlooking the lake. And although the decor is classic ’70s and the furnishings just as dated, it still stands as beautiful and solid as it did then. Good bones, don’t you know.

On Jan. 4, 1970, at age 45, my Dad died in a horrible accident. He spent one summer at the lake, doing the things he loved and putting up with a host of friends and family. And now that the cabin too is passing away, it seems like someone should tell his story. Not the whole story, but some of it. I wouldn’t want anyone telling my story bit by excruciating bit after I’m gone. I’m sure you wouldn’t either.

dad army

My father’s name was Andrew Simon. He grew up in Northeast Minneapolis, the second of six children of Lebanese immigrants. They owned a small grocery store where all the kids at one time or another were compelled to work. Northeast in the 1940s was a patchwork of immigrant neighborhoods. Dad was the rebellious kid. He ran around with his friends, got in trouble and in general just caused a world of grief for his parents, who weren’t the most patient people in the world to begin with. I’ve heard some stories; there are many more I haven’t heard and never will.

I know Dad was kicked out of a Catholic high school for boys and had to finish up at the public school. I know once he got mad at a streetcar, stopped his car on the tracks and refused to budge, throwing the streetcar line off-schedule and all the passengers into a tizzy.

When World War II came, he joined the army, serving most of his time on steamy little islands in the Pacific. At the age of 19, while still in the service, he married my mother, the smartest thing he ever did. She was a farm girl, sweet, lively, independent and good good good.

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After the war, with a wife and two small daughters, my father worked all kinds of jobs. He had always been smart, but who knew he was industrious and ambitious too. At various times, he sold vacuum cleaners and sewing machines, owned a nightclub (briefly) and a successful insurance agency (for several years). He opened a liquor store. He bought a small plane and learned to fly. Finally, he started a business installing coin-operated equipment in apartment buildings throughout the Twin Cities. The business grew and grew until he became, for his place and time, a rich man.

June 1963 #2

Dad wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t a perfect husband or a perfect father. But those stories don’t need to be told here, I think, if ever. He was fair and generous to a fault. He understood human frailties. He took care of us and left my mother well off. Well, she never loved any man but him her entire life. With only a grade school education, she kept the business running for 25 years after he died, always underestimating her gifts.

And Mom kept the cabin. In the summers we raised our kids and grandkids there, watching them swim and ski, fish off the dock and paddle around in the paddleboat. We cooked, played games, sang along to country songs and watched hundreds of sunsets.

At the cabin there is a little Jesus shrine near the lake with a plaque engraved with Dad’s name. I imagine the new owners will take it down now. I have no desire to go back. Losing the cabin is a hard, hard thing, but let’s face it, families are about loss and families are about building up. Memories fade, memories are made. Really, that’s all it’s about.

June 1963 #2

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Mama’s House

We sold Mama’s house yesterday. It took over a year to get it to a point where someone would take it. Everything seemed pretty okay to us right up until the time Mom died. She must have been the caulk holding it together.

We had to replace the brickwork on the chimney outside, which meant evicting a raccoon who had set up residence in there, no one really knows for how long. We just always thought the back room had a persistent musty odor. He didn’t want to go.

We found mold in the attic, and the roof was all spongy, so most of the top of the house had to be replaced. We put new flooring and counters in the kitchen and reglazed the bath fixtures. We yanked out the carpeting and tore down the dated wallpaper. We hauled things out, took what we wanted, gave a lot away, and trashed the rest.

The house is starkly empty now. No dining table where Mom sat every morning drinking coffee and reading the paper. No out-of-tune piano. No toys in the green room. No Anne Murray on the CD player. No spices under the cupboard or strawberry jam in the frig. No Mom.

We went over there on Sunday to say goodbye, my sister and I, our five daughters and a few related Johnny-come-latelies. We brought along a folding table and chairs and made some of the foods Mom used to make. Not the same as hers, mind you, but effort was expended. I made her one-of-a-kind fudge, which is touchy as hell; if you don’t pour it at the exact optimum moment, it’s either too soft or virtually unspreadable. She always got it right. Mine was on the soft side.

THESE PEOPLE WERE CLUELESS. I THINK THEY JUST CAME FOR THE FOOD.
THESE PEOPLE WERE CLUELESS. I THINK THEY JUST CAME FOR THE FOOD.

We drank Fuzzy Navels and brandy-7s. The granddaughters recalled many a weekend spent there, eating buttered popcorn and homemade fudge on the sofa, watching “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” and “The Benny Hill Show.” Mom loved Benny Hill. Someone pointed out that, in hindsight, maybe “Benny Hill” wasn’t the most appropriate television show for children. Too late. At bedtime the kids slept wherever, one on the sofa, another on the loveseat, someone sprawled on the floor; and the next morning, Grandma made them the kind of breakfast their mothers seldom did. Inevitably, come Sunday night, some child developed an illness of an uncertain but potentially fatal nature that precluded going to school Monday morning.

THESE PEOPLE USED TO BE ABLE TO SIT TOGETHER ON THIS STONE BENCH. NOW, NOT SO MUCH.
THESE PEOPLE USED TO BE ABLE TO SIT TOGETHER ON THIS STONE BENCH. NOW, NOT SO MUCH.

So that’s about it. We sat outside until it got dark, while the kids ran around the house in circles. We cleaned up and carted out the table and chairs. Gina left a nice note for the new homeowners and signed it “The Family of Luella.” Those who are inclined to shed tears did. We got in our cars, and we went home.

The people who bought it are real nice.

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Just a Little Christmas Horror Story

Such a busy weekend I had. I shopped for toys and gifts, baked bread and made soup, played Christmas music and danced around the kitchen. I did all these happy things so that I wouldn’t have to think.

I haven’t been watching TV or going on news websites. I turn the front page face down before reading the rest of the newspaper. I tune the car radio to the all-Christmas-music-all-the-time channel, and I don’t even like most Christmas music.

I won’t look at pictures of the first graders who died in Connecticut on Friday or the adults who died with them. I don’t want to know their names. I don’t want to hear the comments from their families. And I don’t want to think about the phone calls that went out to all the grandmas.

Because I am a grandma, of a sweet, smart, thoughtful first grader, and also a preschooler, second grader and sixth grader. I don’t want to think about what it would be like to know they wouldn’t be at my house on Christmas Day or any Christmas Day in the future.

I am angry and sad and sick to death of it all. Of mass killings that have become commonplace. Of turning on the local news and learning that another child was gunned down in their own neighborhood. I’m sick of the NRA and the enormous power of the gun lobby, the excuses and convoluted logic. I’m mad at people like me who didn’t fight harder for gun control.

I am going to two school Christmas programs this week. They will be fun and silly, and the kids will do what kids always do. But this year I will bring tissues.

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Mama Kissed A Soldier

My mother is dying. Her name is Luella. She was a kind and loving mother and a beautiful and amazing woman in every way. When she was still a teenager she met my father, Andrew, fell in love and loved him her whole life. They were nineteen when they married, too young, a product of the war that engulfed America and took all the young men away to be soldiers, sailors and marines, while all the young women stayed home, wrote letters and prayed.

The most horrific day in my mother’s life was the day my father was killed in an accident. He was just 45 years old. Although she built a full and active life afterward, losing him colored her world forever. I truly hope they find each other again soon.

Where Did You Come From? Where Have You Gone?

It will be two weeks tomorrow since Jim died, my hands cradling his head, six months and twelve days from the day we met. As it happened, the end came so quickly that there was no one else there. People say sometimes you can feel the spirit leave the body, but I never did.

It was an unusual situation. We’d been dating about two months when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and the prognosis was never good. He gave me “permission” to walk away, but I just kept hanging around until it was impossible to go. Now and again he would ask me, “Where did you come from?” But what could I say? I only lived fifteen minutes away.

So many questions. Who was in need? Who was sent? I know it was a comfort to him having me there in his last months, and I believe when he passed over to the other side, if there is an other side, he did so peacefully. In the week that followed, I spent a lot of time with his kind, wonderful family, went to the funeral and the cemetery and Shiva. Now there is a new normal. And still I find myself asking: Where have you gone?

What’s So Funny?

Haven’t posted anything for a few weeks. Life overtakes us sometimes, and the things we do when life isn’t overtaking us end up taking a back seat. It’s hard to be amusing when nothing much funny is going on.

We worry a lot about the ultimate virus, the big one, the great plague we aren’t ready for that causes widespread panic and decimates whole populations while the CDC in Atlanta frantically hunts for a vaccine. I guess it’s a real concern; but it also obscures the scourge that’s among us right now, an epidemic no one seems able to get a handle on.

Two years ago I lost my best friend to ovarian cancer. Since then I’ve watched cancer overwhelm the lives of friends and coworkers and the people they love. Another lifelong friend has spent a horrific year battling colon cancer. My uncle died of a rare form of liver cancer. My son-in-law’s father overcame prostate cancer. My friend Susan lost her mother to bone cancer. Ann lost her husband, soulmate and love of her life to pancreatic cancer in three months. Linda’s had her life turned upside down while lung cancer threatens her husband of 35 years. And I’ve watched young women stricken with breast cancer at a time when they shouldn’t be thinking about anything except their children or their careers.

I started dating Jim, a very nice, semi-bald man, in May. He’s totally bald now. In July he was diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to his spine. Could’ve, maybe should’ve walked away, but it never felt right. I’m no angel of mercy, mind you. We just hang out and I try to do what I can. It’s humbling and takes some time, and it’s very, very sad.

Chemo is a bitch. It’s supposed to kill the cancer cells, but it kills a lot of other stuff in the process. You’ve got that – one of the myriad forms of chemo engineered to thwart one of the myriad forms of cancer – and you’ve got an arsenal of pain medications, and that’s what you’ve got. That and a bunch of tortured loved ones wanting to help and feeling helpless. Jesus have mercy. Cancer is the plague among us, so familiar we haven’t exactly caught on yet.

In the meantime, my grandkids haven’t stopped being sweet and funny and oblivious. Cosette turns four this weekend. She had a birthday party in the backyard last Sunday, and I was persuaded to revive Grandma Judy’s puppet theater for the occasion. The theater fell over before the show began. We propped it up. The production was distinguished by even more mishaps than last year, if that’s possible, mostly because the audience members insisted on helping. We laughed a lot. Cosette is a joy and a blessing.

Toddler Bret is starting to take a few steps now. He’s a good-natured baby with zero patience. You put him in his high chair, he knows the food is coming, and still he sets to complaining immediately. Where’s the food? Give me food! Your food, my food, the dog’s food, anything! He likes to walk behind his ride-on toy, pushing it along, happy as a clam, until he runs into an obstacle. Then you’d better fix it and fast. He will not be stopped.

Anyway, I haven’t stopped blogging, but you are likely to see fewer posts further apart for a while. Such is life.

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