Friday, October 19, 2012

Reflections on a Friend's Headstone

I saw the picture of M’s headstone posted on Facebook.  A friend had been walking around the cemetery, saw her grave, and took the photograph.  It was the first time I had seen her headstone in all these years, and it brought back many memories of that period more than twenty-five years ago. 

One incident, in particular, had a tremendous impact on me.  A couple of years after M’s death, her mother sent me a book of M’s short stories.  She said M wanted me to have it.  I was honored, of course, and surprised her mother would send them to me (literally out of the blue), but I wasn't sure I was ready emotionally to delve into M’s stories.  I guess I was sad enough about her passing; if there was a reason M wanted her mother to send the book to me, I didn’t think I was prepared to understand and accept what she had to say, especially about dying at the young age of 34, with a young husband who likely would remarry, and two little girls who would never remember their natural mother. 

I knew M from high school (we were all in the same theatre clique and hung out together), and we maintained a close friendship throughout our college years and beyond.  With M, this was easy to do and, when I started a small theatre company after college, M was one of the first persons I called.  I often saw M and her husband at the restaurant I was managing and frequently talked with M’s parents when they too came in for dinner.  Unfortunately, I had been gone from the area for several years and working for an avant-garde artist in New York City when M died.  I learned of M’s passing when I returned home for the holidays; my oldest sister mentioned her funeral over dinner.  When she realized I didn't know about M, she said she was sorry to be the one to tell me and added, almost as an after thought, that it had been a really sad funeral.  I remember thinking, I wish someone would have called me; I guess there’s a certain loss of connections with friends by not remaining in the area. 

The last time I saw M, I was with my wife, and we were going into the local movie theatre at the same time she and her husband were coming out of the doors.  She was wearing a scarf over her head and seemed heavily bundled.  I focused the conversation on my leaving the area and how excited I was to be pursuing a life of theatre and writing.  It was a short interaction with people trying to get around us, but she was thrilled for me and wished me the best of luck. 

Several years later M’s book arrived on my doorstep.  In a letter, M’s mother said she had heard I was out of the theatre business, but didn't know how to find me.  One night, by chance, she ran into my oldest sister at a social gathering; my sister told her I was now, in fact, a fundraiser.  M's mother wished me the best of luck, hoped I was still writing, and gave me M's book as one of the remaining requests from her daughter.  

I was overwhelmed by the gift, and, I must admit, the book sat on my desk for an awful long while, hidden in the manila envelope in which it had arrived and, in time, lost under other books and papers.  Though I had opened the packet and knew the significance of what was inside, I felt like I needed to keep the whole thing at arm's length, sheathed and buried.  However, finally, I realized I wanted – no desired – to know what M had to say; I resolved I would read it when I was alone and had the time to reflect on what was written there. 

Presently, my work required that I travel to California.  On an overnight flight to San Francisco, in the darkness of the plane, with the overhead light beaming on M's pages, I read the book from cover to cover.  Most of the stories were written when M was in college and shortly thereafter, before she was diagnosed with cancer, though several were written more recently when she was a elementary school teacher, and one or two dealt with her realization of what was about to occur, given the prognosis.  Most significantly, the stories were funny, and poignant, and full of life, and so sad at the same time, and, looking out the plane's window down at the sparkling nightscape below, I finally mourned M, our youth, our dreams of being artists, and all that was lost to her and her family in her passing.  

The gift of M’s stories was the reminder of who M was and how she viewed life, even in the acceptance of her imminent death.  On the plane and, later, on the flight home, I wrote to M’s mother a long letter about each and every one of M’s stories and how insightful I thought they were, her happiness with her family, her love of her husband and her two daughters, and her strength in living with cancer.  With the mailing of the letter several days later, my unhappiness (and anger) over M's death, much of which I didn't even know I harbored, came to a close.  M’s mother wrote back several weeks later to thank me and to say she would save my letter for M's daughters, as a testimonial to the author they never knew. 

I heard from my oldest sister that M’s father died a few years later, M's husband never remarried, and my sister still sees M’s mother from time to time with her two granddaughters, both of whom are fully grown with husbands and children of their own. 

Funny, how the picture of M’s headstone brought back these memories.  I haven't thought of M and her short stories in years.  M’s book is still in my possession; I have kept it in my trunk for safe keeping, along with my own stories of our lives back then.

When I am Alone

When I am at home, alone inside, why am I so discreet?  Closing the bathroom door, even on the second floor, where no one could peek if they tried; or coughing with a hand covering my mouth, who cares if the germs, like butterflies, seem to fly about; or if I eat the last of the ice cream, good grief, who’s to see and admonish me for being a frozen dairy thief; or say to me – don’t drink all the wine, save it for your wife or someone else who stops by the house next time; Or stop me from playing with my knife –it's my life, who cares if the wrist is too close to the wish to make sense of this?

Friday, October 12, 2012

My Family Story # 8: My Sister Allison and Brother Jerry

Allison Giles
For Allison and me, it was also a time of great mystery, and we knew that on the farm magical creatures lived amongst us.  Allison, a year and a half older than me, was only six when we moved to the farm and seven that December.  She and I were the best of friends and spent endless hours playing or doing our chores together.  We had no doubt that monsters were in the barn.  Even the small woods on the back side of our house were not to be trifled with in our play.  Though, to be honest, the small woods near the house were nothing like the big woods a large field away with its deep, impenetrable forest of trees and large piles of rock-mounds that we were positive were Indian graves – graves that were, in fact, for the ancestors of the very same Indians who were watching and stalking us every time we went in there alone together. 
Allison was not like Holly, though she too had a strong will that often would be at odds with what I wanted to do.  Whereas Holly had dark hair and more of an athletic build, Allison was blonde, more fragile, and more like Mother in complexion.   She was more of a “girl” and loved to play dress up, or with her dolls, or “house” together with me.  For many years, if I wanted to be with Allison, this was the parameters in which I had to operate.  She didn’t tolerate soldiers entering our play, or Indians attacking from the woods, or Viking appearing out of nowhere, all of which I thought were quite natural.  Being a boy, I was required, therefore, to take a few minutes of serious fighting every so often to protect her, her dolls, or restore order to our “house.”  I think she thought I was an idiot.
At one point we decided to build a tree-house in the small woods behind our house.  Of course, Allison and I didn’t know what we were doing and couldn’t find a tree that satisfied her requirements (large trunk to nail slats for a ladder, thick, low-level branches in which we could build a small platform, and, most importantly, located on the edge of the forest so we could run to the house anytime we heard something we couldn’t comprehend, saw something that made absolutely no sense, or smelled impending danger, such as a large wolf or worse, a witch).  Soon she grew frustrated with the effort.  Allison was no Charley – Charley and I built a raft on our creek and was ready to float it to the Mississippi if only the raft hadn’t sunk a few feet into the mud with us on it.  Allison, on the other hand, looked at the daunting task of building a tree house in an “actual” tree and decided that a “tree house” located on the ground near the edge of the woods right next to the lawn would serve perfectly for our needs.  Accordingly, for many an afternoon in the small woods the two of us created a beautiful home together, cooked cold water with grass and wild onions, and raised a family of babies, while, of course, always vigilant in waiting for the unfathomable that might be coming our way.
Jeremiah Blackmore Giles
Jerry was born on the farm approximately one year after we made the move from Pittsburgh.  He was conceived on New Year’s Eve, and, in fact, was the gift for the ultimate, modern farm family.  The night Jerry was born, the story goes, Daddy was down in the barn helping a huge sow deliver a large liter of piglets.  The fear was that the sow would roll over onto her babies or worse, eat them. The hired hand heard the phone and came running.  “Mr. Giles, Mr. Giles, get back to the house – your own sow’s delivering!” 
I remember, the next morning, discovering the sheets pulled off my parent’s bed and lying bunched up on the floor, which I thought was so strange, especially on a weekday.  Holly was there, of course, and got us all off to school.  Later, though, when Mother came home, Jerry was the tiny baby in her arms.  Jerry was her fifth child, more than six years younger than me.  No Korean War baby, but a new era baby, a soon to be “what you can do for your country” baby.  Unfortunately, like a kid who was always too young, Jerry suffered the consequences of too much going on with our family and never being old enough to participate or, even, understand.  Even as a kid, when we took a cross-country trip in our station wagon to see the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, and the Seattle World Fair back in the summer of 1962, Jerry was the one left behind with the older couple who lived on the farm across the road.  The story is told that they kept him in an empty corn bin until we returned six weeks later.
Even Jerry‘s name was different.  Holly was born on December 24 and named “Holliday” in honor of the occasion, Charley was a “junior” after our father; Allison was our mother’s maiden name, and I was named after Jonathan in the Bible and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name.   However, Jeremiah Blackmore was a name totally derived from the farm.  Jeremiah Black, a Pennsylvania statesman who served in President Buchanan’s cabinet, was born on our farm and was buried near the highway next to our lane in a private, fenced-in cemetery.  Recognizing this, in combination with “the Mores,’ the owners who had so thoroughly updated the property, my mother came up with “Jeremiah Blackmore”… Jerry, then, was a true testament to our farm and our beautiful spot in the Alleghenies.  Perhaps too, an indication of the happiness my mother and father felt that first year.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Woodstock and the Wild Bunch

Friday nights are a great time to write as the work-week is over.  I like drinking on Friday nights, so do indulge me.  Luckily, I turned on the television and bumped into “Woodstock."  I have been enjoying the film immensely – while drinking several beers and contemplating dinner.  Jimi Hendrix just performed the “Star Spangled Banner” as a solo tour-de-force, and it is amazing how good he is, how young, and how long and nimble his fingers are.  Janis, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe....  Amazing! 
My friend, Ron and I drove up to New York City that weekend of Woodstock back in 1969; we were in Ron’s Ford Mustang picking up our close friend, Lynn, who had been working in New Jersey at a Salvation Army camp for underprivileged girls just outside of New York City.  We were sixteen and on our own.  Our plan was to sleep at the camp, then, drive into New York City and hang out in Greenwich Village before returning to the horrors of "farmbelt" Pennsylvania that night.  When we arrived in the Village that Saturday morning, we were shocked to see no one was there.  It was like a mysterious wind had emptied the sidewalks and stores and removed all the cars and taxis! 
Ron, Lynn, and I would be entering tenth grade that fall; we were from "the dead-of-no-where" Pennsylvania, and we didn't have a clue as to what was going on until we read the New York Daily News that morning.  Ugh!  Talking about being in the wrong place at the wrong time!  I can remember sitting in a diner trying to decide what to do – should we take off for Woodstock or stick with our plan to hang out in Greenwich Village?  Subsequently, we read the freeway was closed, with cars stranded everywhere, and decided ditching new Ron's Mustang wasn’t worth it either. 
Two good things, though, came out of that trip: in a record store in the Village I heard Al Cooper's album “Blood, Sweat and Tears” and realized I was listening to a great album.  I bought it immediately, and it still holds a place near to my heart.  The second thing was seeing “The Wild Bunch.”  God!  What a fabulous movie!  To this day, I remember endless details!  We were in a movie house in mid-town, and, I remember, we were allowed to smoke cigarettes while watching the film.  Three sixteen-year-old boys smoking up a storm – we were immersed totally in the experience.  And the movie was incredible!  On that screen, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and us – we were all one, and, in the end, we died together in the central plaza fighting the Mexican Army!  This was even more unbelievable than the Magnificent Seven or John Wayne and the Alamo.  This was four guys armed to the teeth, in the Mexican Army’s encampment, slugging it out to the death and in slow motion too!  Simply incredible! 

Still, several months later, watching the movie “Woodstock,” when it played in our local movie theatre, we realized, then, how much we missed not hiking up the New York Freeway! 
Now, sitting in my easy chair, drinking a few beers after a long week, watching a sliced-up, commercial-filled version of “Woodstock,” I can’t help but wonder about our decision – what if we had made it up to Max Yasgur’s Farm, would our lives have played out differently?  Yet, how much of an impact could it have had on three young, farm boys who still had three years of high school remaining in our "lost-in-a-dead-zone" world?  Of course, maybe things would have changed for Ron.  At the time, Lynn and I embraced what “Woodstock” meant to kids, like us, looking for a future, but Ron shied away from us that year, and our friendship, as a result, was never as close. 
Essentially, Ron joined the wrestling team that year and began hanging out with the athletes in our high school.  While Lynn and I explored pot and other drugs popular at the time, Ron embraced the binge-drinking lifestyle of the jocks in our school, and, ultimately, never was as comfortable being around us again.  Later, in college, at the beginning of our junior year, Ron crashed his Ford Mustang late one night dead-drunk from a long night of underage drinking in a bar just past the state line.  He died driving back to school; he wasn't wearing a seatbelt and, in the accident, was thrown into the oncoming lane.  I have thought about Ron many times – why he went the route he took back in tenth grade, and, again, years later – but mostly, I think about what it must have been like recognizing the bright lights of death speeding directly at you at sixty miles-an-hour.   
I remember, at the time, I was in college moving off campus.  My friends and I were living in various apartments before we could get the keys to our house.  When, finally, we unlocked the front door to our rental, a three-day-old telegram from my mother was lying on the floor waiting for me.  I recall vividly standing in the hallway stunned.  According to the text, Ron’s funeral, in fact, was being held the next morning.  Looking back, I regret letting my college friends talk me out of taking a bus back home. They kept saying I would never make it in time, there was too much to do with the house, and it was just a friend from junior high, after all.   
Today, I think of Ron and me drinking bottles of vodka together back in eighth and ninth grade in my basement or smoking cigarettes on the side streets between our houses, and, later, in high school, Lynn and I showing up stoned at parties and seeing Ron happily drunk with his new friends.  Mostly, I remember, how close we were in junior high: we were boys from screwed-up families who banded together, who spent hours listening to music, who thought nothing on a Friday night of walking the railroad tracks for miles to get to Ron’s father’s farmhouse where we could drink the booze in his father’s liquor cabinet, or, later, after his dad gave Ron the Ford Mustang, speeding over a hundred miles-an-hour to see if we had the guts to do it.  We were the Wild Bunch back then, yet, through blood, sweat, and tears, Lynn and I went on – but Ron, Ron, in my mind, remained behind, back in the plaza, fighting demons as overwhelming as the Mexican Army.