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Archive for the ‘Personal Essays’ Category

I haven’t posted to this blog for a while, because of other commitments. Now that things have gotten a little easier, I’m back to posting some things. Here is another installment of my family history: the Strobel family.

Strobels

John and Emma Strobel, c. 1930. My dad said he took the picture.

When I was a teenager, I traced my mother’s side of the family, and then I hoped to write up a Strobel family tree. But then I went to college, became involved in other things, and drifted away from genealogy. Also, all my Strobel great-aunts and -uncles were deceased by 1961, when I was 4, and so I lacked that whole generation to interview. Such interviews had been crucial when I traced the Crawfords.

But I did trace my grandfather’s generation (he is number eight below) and the names of my father’s generation. Why is my name “Stroble” and all these people are named “Strobel”? Because my grandfather spelled the name both ways, and that was the way he spelled the name for my dad’s birth certificate. Grandfather’s tombstone has Stroble and his obituary has Strobel. In those days, you could spell your name as you wished, I suppose.

Here are my great-grandparents: John Strobel, b. Jan. 1, 1840, d. Aug 26, 1932. He married Emma Hotz,  b. July 7, 1846, d. July 7, 1937. They married June 20, 1865.

Their children: Mary, Lena, John, Ann, George, Charles, Amelia, Andrew, Gustave, Edward.

1. Mary Elizabeth (Lizzie) Strobel, Dec. 31, 1866, d. Aug. 30, 1904, married Frederick G. Schaefer, May 3, 1863 (in Germany), March 7, 1922: Children: Fred, Lady, Karl, Margaret

2. Lena Strobel, b. Oct. 18, 1868, d. 1955. Married Frank Hoffman, who lived 1864-1924 No children

3. John William Strobel, Dec. 12, 1870 to May 5, 1942. Married Sadie Durban. Children: Mary, Angeline,

4. Ann Strobel, b. May 11, 1872, d. Sept. 24, 1872

5. George Strobel, b. Nov. 13, 1873 Married Mamie Philips. Children: Lena, Lillie, Blanche, Emma,

6. Charles Nicholas Strobel, Nov. 5, 1876 till Nov. 27, 1961. Married Lillie E. Watkins, May 7, 1886 till Jan. 20, 1949. Their children: Tina, Leta, Jesse, Evalena, Donna, Delmar, Fred, Charles, Virgil, June. I want to add here that Dad was close to his first cousins in this family branch.

7. Amelia Strobel, August 20, 1880 till Sept. 7, 1961. Married Charles Holman, Oct. 11, 1877 till Oct. 1, 1951. Children: Van, Ethel, Paul, Leo, John, Mildred, Lucille, two infants, Gwendolyn and Leonard (twins, surnamed Holdman), Helen Mae (surnamed Holdman).

8. Andrew Christian Strobel, born Aug,7, 1882, died May 7, 1935. Married Permelia Jane Carson, March 22, 1890, d. Oct. 30, 1991. Her family, the Carsons and Colburns, are described elsewhere in this blog. Andy and Janie’s children: Paul (my dad) and Mary Gladys.

9. Gustave Strobel, Nov. 24, 1884 till Nov. 22, 1885.

10. James Edward Strobel, Oct. 12, 1887, Jan. 27, 1961. A World War I veteran, he never married, and was known locally for his horses. A person on the “Vandalia Memories” Facebook page wondered if I was any relation to Ed Strobel, because he was such a nice person and he let her ride his horses when she was little.

Around 1970 or 1971, my parents and I visited the St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Highland, IL. We found Gustave (“Gussie”) Strobel’s grave. Now that we’re in the era of the internet, there is that awesome site called Find-a-Grave, which identified a grave in Highland as my great-grandfather John’s father, Andreas Strobel (1804-Jan. 31, 1863): http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=strobel&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSob=n&GSsr=121&GRid=20406248&df=all&

Here is John’s page: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=25252546

Gustave’s: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=116669941

My great-grandmother Emma Strobel’s parents are also buried in that cemetery—which I didn’t realize when my parents and I visited it in the 1970s. They were Christian Hotz (Dec. 19, 1817, from Oestringen, Baden and came to America in 1841), died Feb. 22, 1902 in Highland. He married to Maria Eva Weber, who lived Feb. 22, 1822 till July 7, 1898. They married July 28, 1840. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=93228685

Here also is my blog post about John Strobel, including the text of his 1932 obituary. http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2009/05/my-civil-war-ancestor.html

I always liked my ancestry, although it is almost wholly British, Irish, and German, not untypical of central and southern Illinois. As I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, I’ve a family branch that began with a Mayflower passenger, a branch in colonial Virginia (which, unfortunately, included generations of slave owners). One branch (which I still

Andy and Janie Stroble, c. 1908

Andy and Janie Stroble, c. 1908

need to write about for this blog) includes a historian of the tragic Black Hawk War in 1832. Other branches from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales arrived before the Revolution. The Strobel branch, however, came much later, in the 1840s, reflecting that great emigration from the German states in the mid 19th century. They were also German Catholic, not a popular immigrant group among some Protestants at the time, which makes me wonder what kinds of experiences they had in Illinois. They were the last of my family groups to arrive in America. Though they first settled in Madison County, Illinois, John and Emma eventually moved over to Fayette County, IL, in time for my grandfather to be born there in 1882. And so by 1882, all of my family groups were in place in Fayette County, where I was eventually born and raised.

I’ll think about my grandfather this coming May 7th, the 80th anniversary of his death. He and my dad (who was 22 in 1935) walked together among the stores on S. Fifth Street in Vandalia, and Andy “just caught the door handle and fell,” in Dad’s words. He died of a stroke, age 52. “Everyone knew Dad, and liked him,” my father would say wistfully, and I’ve always wondered what nice times Andy and I missed because our lives did not overlap.

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I’ve written a few times on my blogs about going barefoot. Here are a couple lighthearted pieces from “Journeys Home.”

I like having at least a few times during the summer when I can go barefoot. Our previous neighborhood was a wonderful place to stroll shoeless. The relatively new sidewalks were smooth and warm. One neighbor often went barefoot when she walked her dog; she had on her work clothes but kicked off her shoes before taking her buddy out on his leash.

SoDriving2metimes, during road trips, I like to tiptoe shoeless into a crafts store or gift shop in a small town, or an antique store. I love these kinds of places, in little towns off the interstate, so much so that the scent of decorative candles and potpourri remind me of nice-weather drives. I stroll around the displays, and the hard wood floor or the durable carpet feels so nice if I’ve left my sandals kicked off in the car. It’s a silly thing to do but that’s the point: it’s humorous, a little bit self-mocking, and to me quite joyful.

Surprisingly perhaps, I nearly always get very warm service, and I always purchase something at such stores. During one road trip break, I stopped by a gift shop. and the cheerful clerk engaged me with stories of bouncing back from major surgery and meanwhile trying to run a business. The floor felt smooth and cool as I padded around the displays and chatted.

Taking another driving break, I stopped by a bookstore. A clerk greeted me warmly as I looked through a book and asked if I needed help. I said I hoped it was okay that I was barefooted and was told, “You’re fine!” I browsed for a while and ended up purchasing nearly $100 of books. The store’s carpet felt wonderful.

I recall tiptoeing into a corner pharmacy for some items, and I realized that the store was being renovated. Shelves were moved and some items were out of place. A person asked if I needed help, and I thought I might be “busted.” Instead, the person helped me find the items I needed—and amid the remodeling, he couldn’t find them either! My feet made that gentle sound upon the floor as we went up and down aisles and finally located my products.

Going barefoot was a kind of a post-hippy fad during the 70s and part of the 80s, when I was in my teens and twenties. Padding into a store without shoes on wasn’t an uncommon thing to do back then. Proceeding into the grocery store, for instance, was a nice respite on a hot day; you could run your errand and feel the cool floors beneath your feet. Strolling barefoot around our small town shops was a fun thing on a Saturday or a warm late afternoon following school.

Even in the 90s and 00s, I occasionally noticed someone going barefoot out-and-about. Perhaps, like me, they like to keep the fad going, on at least a few summerime occasions. A family inside our local Baskin-Robbins included a shoeless young woman who ate a sundae and rocked a stroller with her toes to soothe a fussy baby. I grimmaced a little when I saw another woman going barefoot in a baseball stadium. The floors were gritty and littered. But she had on her baseball cap and bright team shirt with her jeans and was ready, with free feet, to root for the home team with her little group.

You might be thinking, “Dusty feet are gross,” and actually I agree completely. After I’ve taken a neighborhood stroll, or otherwise been out shoeless, I can’t wait to get home and get clean. But from another perspective: it’s pleasant to enjoy the day as you gain peaceful tactile memories through your soles and interact with other folks in this humble way. The humorous, necessary result, so reminiscent of childhood, is a temporary footprint upon your own feet—-something you can laugh at yourself about and quickly wash away.

Years ago I visited a coastal town for a summer craft fair. My fisherman sandals lay on the floorboard, and I regretted not wearing a lighter pair. So I left them behind. With my touristy camera over my shoulder, I sighed with relief as I strolled the warm sidewalks. I spent a pleasant hour or so padding among the booths and shops, as barefooted as if I were collecting shells on the beach. A lighthearted thing to do, if a little risky, but what a nice summertime memory. I did see a few other folks shopping barefoot, affirming that I wasn’t the only eccentric.

Another community’s warm, artsy district announced a bohemian ambiance among its several stores of clothes, books, gifts, art, and jewelry. Remembering that coastal town a few years earlier, I decided to repeat the adventure. Wearing  jeans and a knit or camp shirt, I felt happy and intrepid as I made my way from store to store, visiting any that seemed interesting, and I collected several purchases. The contrast of cool shop floors with the warm sidewalk felt delightful. One clerk inside a rock and jewelry shop gave me a strange look, but I did purchase a necklace. Another clerk, standing outside a clothes and accessories store, saw me pause at the window display and invited me inside! Joining shoppers in their sneakers and sandals, I found the day’s last treasure, a purse for my wife.

I read a book about the soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who is known for taking off her shoes and enjoying the grass and earth. “When I was a little child,” she said, “one of the things that gave me the greatest pleasure was to go to the park across the street and have my feet feel the earth and the blades of grass.” A friend and I decided to take a walk as we chatted so we drove over to her favorite park without our shoes on and strolled around: so peaceful!

In Ohio, a couple of favorite nature trails have grassy and dirty paths. I first took the trails in in walking shoes, so I knew the terrain and later felt okay about bringing no shoes or sandals. One of the trails alternated between pretty timber and open meadows, and included a few small hills to climb, plus the trail offered the comforting, nostalgic sight of an old barn as the path curved around and back into timber. A small bridge forded a stream that was sadly polluted, a shade of bright orange. But there was also a green pond where frogs croaked and turtles peaked above the surface. I watched my strolling toes, kept an eye out for stones on the trail, and on slopes I was aware of my toes digging into the soft earth for traction. On a stretch of damp soil I noticed behind me that my heels made small dents in the earth, a modest footprint on the land.

Back in the 1990s, when I was driving across southern Indiana on a day of light rain, I decided to visit the Lincoln Boyhood Cabins near Dale, IN. I’d been there once. Wearing a light windbreaker and summer shirt with old jeans, and sandals discarded on the floorboard, I wondered if I could visit the cabin barefooted. One way to find out, so I strolled up the damp mulch path. The interpreter, in period clothing, was interesting to talk to, and I knew some thing about Lincoln’s life to ask questions. We kept chatting as we went down the path. I felt lightheartedly pioneer-like having bare feet, which felt good in the light rain.

Unfortunately I had no big road trips this summer, the sidewalks in my new neighborhood are comparatively rough, and my ankle tendonitis was flaring up so I always took walks with supporting shoes. Maybe these times are over for me. But there is that famous piece wherein an old woman writes that if she could live her life over she’d start going barefooted earlier in the spring and stay that way till later in the fall. I enjoyed embracing that philosophy over the years and, who knows, between now and the end of Indian Summer there will still be nicely warm days for this kind of humorous walking.

*******

No Shoes, No Problem

This summer has been so hot, and I’ve limited outdoor time to the cooler morning hours.  I remembered a long-ago, perennially shoeless neighbor who grew up in Tucson and said the sidewalks were so hot, that she had to throw a towel on the sidewalk as she went barefoot. That made me laugh; you certainly couldn’t walk anywhere very quickly!

But that’s a cheerful thing to think about: deciding, as the day goes along, that staying barefoot is fine. It’s that moment when you think, “Should I slip back into my shoes?” but you think, “Oh, heck, why bother?” Many of us do like to putter around the house and yard shoeless. I like to rake leaves that way. The other day, I paused and chatted with a neighbor who worked shoeless in the yard, trimming plants and pulling weeds and tossing them temporarily onto the sidewalk. I said how much fun going barefoot is; my neighbor said she goes outdoors without shoes on to do something and then just continues that way with other yard chores. Wading for an hour or so in the tilled soil and mulch made gardening more enjoyable.

Once in a while, some of us like to feel “at home” beyond our yards. Shoeless walks, for instance, are so comfortable and relaxing (as long as I watch for pebbles and acorns on the sidewalk). Even a very short walk is delightful. “I’m always barefooted!” said an acquaintance when we were outside. The funny motions of the feet when you walk—the way the soles present themselves behind you, the pushing off of the toes and their emphatic landing—feel cool and light when you’re out and about barefoot in summertime.

One time a friend stopped by my dorm room and wanted to know if I wanted to go to the neighborhood market, an easy walking distance. I was ready for a break from studying and, glancing at my feet, I thought, “Oh, heck, I’ll just stay barefoot.” My friend and I had a nice early autumn saunter as we chatted about this and that, and the path to the store felt so good.

In one town where we lived, I often walked to the neighborhood market without my shoes. I watched my toes negotiate the various surfaces like sidewalks, grassy spaces, warm asphalt, and finally I enjoyed the chilly smoothness of the floor as I browsed for my items. The store owner was a joy to chat with—a nice friend at the time, we even talked about religion!—and praised me for my eccentricity. “I’m glad you go barefoot! I would, too, but customers give me dirty looks. But my feet are never anywhere close to the food, so what’s the problem?”

Places “where everyone knows your name” are precious, but it isn’t every day that you’re encouraged to be shoeless in public. I enjoy thinking of conversing with the owner as I stood by the checkout stand barefooted, as if I were standing at my kitchen counter. One day I stopped by the store in sandals, and the owner jokingly scolded me. I’d unintentionally denied her a cohort in escaping shoes for a while.

Forgoing shoes can be adventurous, because if plans change, you’ve committed yourself. I remember seeing two laughing friends in our savings and loan place. One had business but kept being sent to other offices. The friend, whose bare feet made hasty, gentle thuds upon the tile floors, was along for company but hadn’t expected the errand to be so complicated. During another summer, I decided shoes were unnecessary just to get an ice cream cone. I was the only unshod customer, but the line moved slowly, and the pavement was hot. I kept shifting as if I were practicing dance positions.

Back in the 1980s, I taught a history discussion section of a large lecture course. Such classes are scheduled in any available space, and this one happened to meet in a chemistry classroom. Signs warned students to wash their hands and keep their shoes on because of the chemicals. That didn’t deter one of my students, however, who came to class without her shoes on, every class period, well into autumn. She wasn’t bold and outgoing, but rather shy and quiet, crossing her ankles beneath the chair. I hope she doesn’t glow in the dark because of the chemicals, or turned into a super hero.

When my daughter was little, sometimes I wore no sandals (or had them off but nearby) when I took her to friends’ houses or to summer camp. I chuckled when a parent of one of her buddies wore no shoes when she drove Emily back home at the end of an afternoon. “Great minds.” One afternoon, I was working around the house when the time came to retrieve my daughter from “zoo camp.” I assumed she would be tired and we’d return home, so I passed on my flip flops. But, not in the least tired, she wanted to visit the zoo gift shop. As it turned out, bare feet provided agility for negotiating a crowd of parents and kids among displays of toys, books and plush animals as I kept up with a small, laughing daughter on the move. I did miss the humor of being barefooted in a jungle-theme place.

Going barefoot used to be a fad, and running errands without shoes was, though not an everyday occurrence, something you’d notice—or do. Leaving our local IGA, I saw an acquaintance heading into the store. She was dressed in her cool top and jeans and carried her purse, but her feet were bare. I assumed she had one of those pleasant “oh, heck” moments when she was already shoeless at home and decided to just stay that way for other tasks, in this case, a trip to the grocery.

When you’re shoeless while wearing a nice casual outfit, the contrast is another quirky thing about deciding, as the day goes along, that staying barefoot is fine. There is a photo online of Jackie Onassis shopping in Italy in stylist summer clothes, but no shoes. I chuckled when a classmate left the dorm for an autumn class, ready for the day in bare feet, warm clothes, down vest, and books and coffee mug in hand. I did that kind of thing, too; heading to the little market, for instance, I’d put on my old straight-legged jeans and camp or knit shirt and, if the day was chilly, a zip-up hoodie, and enjoy a good walk.

Back in the 80s, I noticed a little family in the grocery store. The father was barefoot and wearing linen slacks and shirt that you sometimes see folks wear to the beach on a chillier day. The rest of the family wore shoes. Over the years, whenever I’ve noticed a barefooted parent accompanying children with their shoes on, I jokingly wonder if the parent fussed and begged to stay barefoot until the kids say, “Okay, but just this once, and be careful!”

After the 100+ weather last week, cooler temperatures finally arrived. What a treat that the sidewalks and driveway weren’t so hot to the touch for bare feet and I could spend a time shoeless. Devoting a morning to house and yard work, I hauled old boxes from the basement (we just moved), I carried some stuff to the garage, and loaded the car with a few things for Goodwill, then I got the trash and recycling to the curb for morning pick up. Working in the garage is kind of gross, because one’s soles soon become unpresentable. At one point in my mighty labors, another neighbor stopped to chat. Once those chores were done, I decided I’d move to the porch and work on the laptop. After writing a while, I took a break and ambled down the street, still holding my laptop. I happened into the neighbor I mentioned at the first, also taking a walk. I chuckled that she’d caught me barefooted, she said that was okay because I caught her barefoot that other morning!

Aged seven or eight, I went to the park a half-block away, and I didn’t realize I was shoeless until I stepped on some thistles. In childhood, you go about your day’s pleasures and not think about shoes unless your parents insist on it. We adults don’t set out with the goal of a fun day, forgetful of our unprotected feet until we’re out and about and something reminds us. It did happen to me another time, when my family and I were staying at a lodge and relaxing in the characterful great room, with a nice adjoining gift shop and coffee bar. The next morning, I couldn’t find my flip flops in our room and realized I’d kicked them off downstairs the evening before as we drank coffee and then shopped. If you like to, going barefoot is a pleasant return to childhood and, once in a while, you feel so comfortable with nothing on your feet that you’re okay with not putting shoes back on, or even better, you relax and forget.

*****

Out and About Barefoot

The past few years, I’ve had an end-of-summer-post about going barefoot. I like having at least a few times during the summer when I’m out and about without my shoes on. Often, these are neighborhood walks. In our previous neighborhood, for instance, the relatively new sidewalks were smooth and warm. I loved to set out on a nice day for a stroll. A few neighbors were similarly inclined, like the neighbor who liked to kick off her shoes before walking her beagle.

A few years ago I found a website about how to cheer up when you’re blue, and among bits of advice, the website encouraged “taking humor risks.” “When you are stuck in your own thoughts, do something just a little wild to get out of it. And do the same thing to help a friend who needs a good laugh.” (http://www.beliefnet.com/Inspiration/2009/03/Cheer-Up-and-Laugh-Out-Loud.aspx?awid=5551460903877276033-1820) That’s a good way to think about my occasional forays without shoes. Even if I’m not so blue, it’s a cheerfully foolish little thing to do that can get me out of the doldrums, or add some humor to whatever I’m doing.

Sometimes, during a road trips, I like to tiptoe shoeless into a crafts store or gift shop in a small town. My sandals are kicked off in the car and I feel reluctant to put them back on. Surprisingly perhaps, I nearly always get very warm service, and I always purchase something at such stores. securedownload-8This summer I found something I’d misplaced, a plaque with a picture of John Wayne and a saying, “Courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.” I had stopped in a small town to take a break from a long drive, and decided to stroll among the antique malls without my shoes. Browsing in one nice shop (where the AC seemed to be underfunctioning, so I was glad I stayed cool), I noticed the plaque at my feet. I bought it and later did an internet search about the quotation. Apparently Wayne never said that in any of his movies, but it’s still an apt quotation: a simple reminder to not let our fears get the better of us.

I thought of the quotation again this summer as I was deeply worried about something (a symptom that turned out to be nothing). This summer, as the family chilled out, I decided to take a walk to the shops of the popular mountain town where we were staying. Using my worry as a reason (as if I ever needed one) to cheer myself with a shoeless walk, I kicked off my flip-flops and loved the feeling of the warm sidewalk as I padded down the way. Stopping at some shops, I found items for myself and for gifts. One clerk approvingly said she took off her shoes off in the store but her feet still gets dirty from people traipsing in from the street all day.

Another cheerful thing about going barefoot, is that you discover other people who also like to, the way you discover someone else with a common interest, for instance someone who likes Monty Python and can recite humorous lines from the Holy Grail movie. Something I haven’t done for a long time, but will have to think about for next summer, is to undertake a project that doesn’t require shoes. Forty years ago this summer, for instance, I copied the inscriptions in our family cemetery, and for a summer morning spent wading in the grass, I figured shoes were unnecessary. Sometimes during student days, I’d tiptoe to the library with my sandals in my book bag and do research; my feet felt wonderful and I was highly productive.

My wife Beth and I have done household projects (like wallpapering a bathroom, oy) for which I skipped putting shoes on because I needed to stay cheerful for difficult work. I may jumpstart my old interest in rural landscape photography and devote some days barefoot.

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An essay that originally appeared in Springhouse magazine…

Recently, Stanley Fish, noted author and professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, wrote a piece for the New York Times called “Moving on.” He wrote about selling his books, because he was moving from a house to a smaller apartment. Although I kept several books that he needed, “the books that sustained my professional life for 50 years — books by and about Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Skelton, Sidney, Herbert, Marvell, Herrick, Donne, Jonson, Burton, Browne, Bacon, Dryden, Hobbes — are gone (I watched them being literally wheeled out the door), and now I look around and see acres of empty white bookshelves.”

He continues that a deeper reason for the relinquishment was that “it was time.” He had been engaged in conservations with fellow writers and now, he felt he no longer had the energy to continue those conservations as they developed among other writers in different ways. It was time to face the fact that he was not going to be continuing his work forever–and indeed, he isn’t going to go on forever, either—and now his books deserve book homes where they will be used by others.

I’ve relinquished books at different times of my life. The most drastic downsizing was in 2009, as we prepared to move. My books had lined the walls of our finished basement on ten maple shelves that I’d purchased at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. They weren’t really designed to be filled with books, and the shelves bowed a little beneath the weight of some texts, but they were pretty and served the purpose of holding what I estimated was over 1000 books. In spite of that large number, I felt like these were the books I needed for my work.

But as moving day approached, I thought twice about that. Many of the books were ones I hadn’t used for several years. What is the difference between thinking I’ll use a book, and feeling nostalgic about it because I purchased it for a certain now-completed purpose? (For instance, I had several books from my doctoral program, but I hadn’t cracked those books in several years.)

So I straightened my back and made drastic cuts in my collection. I took them to the local library to donate to their annual book fair. I thought, Now, I have my collection to the size I need.

But no, as moving day grew nearer, I became harder-hearted and removed four or five boxes-full of more books. Even then, after we had arrived in our new location, I decided to go through the collection again and donate more. A half-dozen more boxes of books (and some LPs, too) moved onward to the local book fair.

I still have lots of books! But they’re a more manageable number. Since online used book sites became so helpful, there is no longer the fear that, if I relinquish a text that I realize I still want, I can order another copy rather than perhaps never finding it again in book stores (although I still love actual book stores, like John Dunphy’s in Alton, IL.)

Still, giving up books can be an emotional process. A few years ago, Springhouse editor Gary DeNeal asked readers to share their top five or ten most precious books. Many of us do have books that we need. But you also do come to the point where a book you once cherished needn’t be kept any longer. Books, like anything else, can be kept too long. Just like household items given to Good Will or the Salvation Army, you have a sense that your belongings could be going good for someone else. But meanwhile, you’ll still have other books that you read, you enjoy, and you retain as keepsakes you’d hate to part with.

At our last house, repairpeople would traipse through the basement, look at my shelves, and say, “Wow, have you read all these?” It’s kind of a foolish thing to say to people: as if you don’t deserve to own a book if you haven’t read it. In my case, a lot of my books are reference books that aren’t supposed to be read cover to cover, and many more are texts that I use in my teaching. I also have antique books that relate to early Illinois history, and I don’t read them so that I can keep the old bindings in good shape. Some of them were books I used when I was writing my first book, about my hometown when it was state capital. But now I cherish these books as kinds of heirlooms—although heirlooms I myself purchased.

Several years ago I enjoyed Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “Unpacking My Library.” I went to look for the anthology in which the essay appeared. But (appropriate to this essay’s subject, I guess), I realized I had donated the book containing that piece. But I looked online and remembered what I’d read. Benjamin was the German literary critic who died tragically in 1940. In the essay, he goes through his boxes of books, stored for two years, and took great pleasure going through the books and reflecting on the wonderful benefits of a personal library. He thinks about the periods of his life associated with his books and the circumstances when he acquired each book.“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories,” he writes, adding that books don’t come alive in the owner, but “it is he who lives in them.”

That’s certainly true with my books. In what books do you live?

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securedownload-1A while back, I purchased a new wallet. Cleaning out my old one, I removed my no-longer-used laminated cards for video rental shops. I felt sad doing so, as I recalled our many trips to rent tapes and DVDs.

I looked online and learned that the first rental shop opened in 1977. The first time Beth and I used such a store was several years later, after we had left graduate work and worked at our first teaching jobs. The shop was in Flagstaff, AZ and was a cozy little place to the right of our Safeway grocery store and near our favorite local restaurant. I think they carried both VHS and Betamax tapes. I remember noticing the movie “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” and I wondered (rightly, in this case) whether it was risky to anticipate so boldly that a movie would result in sequels.

By the time we moved to Kentucky our daughter was young, and our movie watching became more kid-centered. There was a Roadrunner Video store in the nearby grocery store plaza. We frequented the place, especially in summertime. I had made the decision to stay home with our daughter during her grade school summers. At least once, we visited Roadrunner barefoot. We got all kinds of shows and videos over the years. I remember one called “The Brave Frog,” which I thought was horrible. When I looked the movie up on imdb.com, I realized that my opinion was pretty much the critical concensus! Of course, we also got the Disney classics, some cartoon shows on video, and straight-to-video movies that were more enjoyable than the frog one.

A Hollywood Video place opened down the street, which we also used, but the Roadrunner eventually closed. I was sad to see it go, with all the associations I had of “field trips” with our daughter. My parents also figure into all this nostalgia. Before they became too infirm to travel, they visited us in Kentucky. I still worked on a church staff then. My parents loved Westerns, so I rented “Unforgiven” for them to watch while we were at church all morning. They had wanted to see the movie and loved it, but Mom thought the language was awfully strong. True, you probably never heard John Wayne (their favorite Western star) use words like “shit hole,” etc.

Blockbuster stores predominated in the 00s, but now they’ve all closed as of January 2014. The three of us were happy to discover a little place called Family Video near our house. It operates in conjunction with a pizza store, which is a smart combination. We rented the Blu-Ray for “Silver Linings Playbook” not too long ago. There is still something very enjoyable about going to the rental place, which you don’t get from the (admittedly convenient) services Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video.

I found a short feature on YouTube that expresses the pleasures of renting movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26eQ3QpNB6Q

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355_31627078518_1197_nWhen I was a little boy, one old gravestone in our family cemetery fascinated me. The lettering was archaic and concentrated at the top of the stone. The inscription read “SACRED to the Memory of Comfort Williams, Who Died March 30, 1847, Aged 54 Years.” I knew we had Williams cousins in and around the area. When I was a VERY small child we attended the Williams family reunion in a nearby park.

But when I became interested in genealogy in 1970, when I was thirteen, I began to put family information together. I soon realized that I was related to Comfort (a woman’s name, I learned) and in fact, she is my 3-great-grandmother.

I don’t remember how I connected with an older, distant cousin named Helen Jacoby Dickes, but she provided me her genealogy of Comfort’s family. I still have her photocopy, with its faint type and slick paper common to photocopies of that time. Her genealogy was a terrific gift. I learned so much about the family. Comfort’s second son Josiah, who was buried nearby in the little cemetery, was my grandfather Josiah Crawford’s material grandfather.

Furthermore, I learned that Comfort had come to our home area (Fayette County, Illinois) with her five children, in around 1840, and that her family were buried in Obetz, Ohio, just south of Columbus. Buried there were were husband Josiah, her parents John and Margaret Weatherington, and her sister Rebecca and her husband, George Washington Williams. I would love to know more about her decision to go west. All these relatives buried in Obetz were dead by 1840; did she feel like she had no reason to stay in that area? Why did she come to Fayette County, Illinois?

At some point my parents took me to Obetz (I was stil young at the time). We found a row of graves: the bronze marker for John and Margaret Weatheringon, a grave-sized stone slab for George Washington Williams, and a bronze marker for him and his wife Rebecca Weatherington, and unmarked place, and then the grave of a relative named O.H. Perry Williams. According to Helen’s genealogy, the original gravestones were replaced with bronze markers in 1938—but there was supposed to be one for Josiah, and there was none. I’ve always surmised that the unmarked place to the right of George and Rebecca was Josiah’s grave, though I don’t know that for sure.

So Comfort’s husband Josiah Williams (his life dates are 1786-1826) has many descendants 230 miles to the west of his burial place. What about his family? Helen knew only that his parents were John Williams, married to a woman named Rebecca. In 1786, when Josiah was born, they lived in Kent County, Maryland. In 1790, they lived in Hampshire Co. Virginia (now West Virginia), where John appears in county records. Rebecca alone is found in the 1800 census with small children, so John may have died in the 1790s. In other records, Helen found three children of her’s:

George Washington Williams. His Find-a-Grave memorial is here.

John Williams. His Find-a-Grave memorial, with a link to his wife’s, is here.

Josiah Williams, born September 22, 1786.

“All these sons married Weatherington sisters,” writes Helen. And that brings us to Comfort (Weatherington) Williams’ family.

The Weatheringtons (or Worthington: the name is written differently in different sources) were descended from Nicolas Worthington who came from England to Maryland in 1650, or possibly from Capt. John Worthington, who also came to the colonies in the seventeenth century.

John Weatherington—Comfort’s father—was born in Hampshire Counity Virginia. and moved to Hamilton Weatheringontownship, Franklin Co. Ohio by 1805. His wife’s name was Margaret. Their bronze marker in Obetz reads: “Erected to the Memory of John Weatherington, Born June 23, 1755, Died in the Year 1831. Margaret Weatherington, Consort of John, Born Oct 23, 1759, Died Sept. 29, 1828.” As Helen lists them, their children were:

Isaac, born 1772, died August 18, 1837, married Elizabeth Hornbecker.

John, born 1774, died April 18, 1848

William, born 1778, died Feb. 2, 1862. Married Magdalena, born 1793, April 28, 1859

Rebecca, born 1781, died June 18, 1859. Married George Washington Williams

Margaret, married John Williams on June 7, 1807

Elizabeth, married Archibald Smith

Sarah, married John R. Delashmut

Comfort, married Josiah Williams.

Josiah served in the War of 1812 as a sergeant in Capt. Andrew Dill’s Company, 1st Regiment (McArthur’s Ohio Volunteers and Militia. His service commenced May 1, 1812 and ended April 30, 1813. He married Comfort Weatherington (or Worthington) in 1813. She was born in Virginia in 1793 and died in Fayette Co., IL March 30, 1847. Their children were:

Josiah and Margaret Williams

Josiah and Margaret
Williams

Margaret Williams, Nov. 15, 1815 to Jan 1, 1885, married Daniel Jacoby. Six children

John Williams, Aug. 29, 1817 to Apr. 17, 1867. Married Sarah Taverner. Nine children

Josiah Williams, Sept. 17, 1819. Married to Winneford A. Brown (with whom he had three children) and Margaret Adaline Brown (with whom they had eleven children. Josiah and Margaret are my great-great-grandparents: my material grandfather’s material grandparents. Here is a link to the history of the local Brown family.

Cordelia Williams, born about 1821, date of death unknown but probably before 1860. She married Benjamin Powell and then Dudley H. Mabry with whom she had one child.

Edmonson M. Williams, born 1824, date of death unknown. Married Barbara Crawford, with whom he had ten children, married a second time and had one more child. “Later he deparated from [his second] wfe, went West and homesteaded [in Kansas],” writes Helen. Barbara is my great-great-great-aunt through the Crawfords.

Rebecca Comfort Williams, born Feb. 25, 1827 to March 20, 1878. Married Robert James Pilcher. Four children. Robert is my great-great-great-uncle through the Pilchers (Grandma Crawford’s family).

When my daughter was 600 miles away in college near Pittsburgh, I stopped by Obetz a few times while traveling I-70. I’d visited the place three or four other times since first coming here about 40 years ago. The cemetery is a large and pretty churchyard at the outskirts of the village. I can only imagine how beautiful were the virgin woodlands and prairie in that area when Josiah died in 1826, how different the scene would have looked compared to today’s small-town scene. I was a couple days too early for Obetz’s Zucchini Festival.

Now that we’ve moved to St. Louis, I’m close to some local cousins who are also descended from this side of the family. A few weeks ago a cousin-couple here in town wrote me through Facebook and invited my wife Beth and me to an evening church event with them and another cousin-couple.

Say what you will about online networking sites, but thanks to Facebook I’ve been able to reconnect not only with old friends but also with several cousins with whom I hadn’t seen or contacted for ages! We can chat a bit, offer encouraging words, and stay connected.

It’s cliche to say, but what would Comfort have thought about the ability of her descendants to communicate? When she died in 1847, communication and travel were still pretty much identical; telegraphy was in its earliest days and limited to a few areas.

 

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April has been National Poetry Month since 1996. Poets.org has information about the month: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/47

For a long time I’ve loved reading poetry, especially contemporary poems, and also I hoped I would become a published poet myself. Though some of my poems have appeared in small presses, the latter dream has been mostly unfulfilled over the years. Recently I decided to get serious about pursuing that goal and have been very productive. But then I think: why do I have to take myself so damn seriously, as if my worth and productivity were the same thing? Why can’t I just enjoy reading poetry for its own sake? Fortunately I HAVE done that. In fact, given the choice between reading poetry and reading fiction, I’d always chose poetry.

My mother owned an old book, The American Album of Poetry, edited by Ted Malone and published in 1938. The poems were selected from magazines and other periodicals of the day, traditionally rhymed and themed verses of now forgotten poets—perhaps everyday people who simply enjoyed writing. Malone included two blank pages and said they were for beautiful poems never written by men who had died in the world war. Mom said she had begged her parents (Depression-era poor) to buy her the book, and later told her I wanted it as a family keepsake.

My parents had an old book called Chief American Poets (Houghton Mifflin, 1905), with selected poems by Bryant, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Whitman, and Lanier. I still have that book, too. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I’d read it as I lay in the backyard to work on my tan (a futile and tedious process, so I wanted to have a good book). I remember that Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis,” which he wrote when he was a teenager, Lanier’s “The Symphony” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” and most of Whitman’s poems were favorites.

In the 1980s, in the Southwest, I stopped by a feminist and New Age bookstore and found an anthology called The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. I almost left the book there because of the store’s indifferent service, but fortunately I purchased it anyway and, among the over 100 authors featured, I discovered several poets I liked (born in the 1940s and 1950s, thus the title of that 1985 book) like David Bottoms, W. S. Di Piero, Stephen Dobyns, Rita Dove, Lynn Emanuel, Louise Glück, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Hass, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, and others. I name these particular authors because, over the past thirty years, I also purchased books of their poems, and also books by Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke (in Robert Bly’s translation), Pablo Neruda, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Penn Warren, Michael Van Walleghen, Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Wright, David Clewell, Dan Guillory, Jane Hirschfield, Nancy Schoenberger, Langston Hughes, John Ashbery, Jane Kenyon, Robert Pack, Amy Clampitt, Dave Smith, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Wendell Berry, John Knoepfle, W. S. Merwin, William Stafford, Hayden Carruth, Jeffrey Skinner, George Bradley, Annie Dillard, Richard Kenney, Andrew Hudgins, and Anne Sexton. Some of these—like Van Walleghen and Milosz and Charles Wright and Kenyon and Bukowski and others—I return to a lot.

That Morrow Anthology amused me slightly because of the photographs of some of the poets: the forced sense of seriousness on their expressions, and a few looked downright hostile. One poet (whom I probably shouldn’t identify) had pursed lips like she was about to spit at you.

Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, is very serious (and sometimes elegiac) in his poems but nevertheless smiles for the camera! I turn to his poems a lot because I love the sound of his poems and also the depth of his connection to the natural world; I find that inspiring and I’d like to approach that conviction in my own poems.

Berry’s poems remind me of another personal preference: some ambiguity in poems is necessary and beautiful, but too much and I become frustrated as a reader. I read Dave Smith’s The Roundhouse Voices during our years in Virginia; the ambiguity combined with the urgency and sometimes danger of his poems left me unsettled. They were like stories for which I missed essential plot elements. Perhaps that’s Smith’s purpose. On the other hand, I love John Ashbery’s poems, about which critics debate whether they mean anything or are artistically surrealistic. (“Hasn’t the sky?” begins his poem “Clytemnestra.”)

Ashbery is often funny (for instance, his “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler WIlcox”), as is Billy Collins. As I read some of his poems I felt so pleased to be chuckling. Oh my gosh, this is wonderful, I thought, happy to find that although his poems could be serious (and they were beautiful) some of them pulled your leg. For instance, I love “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” where in vivid lines he admits he’s never fished that or any river.

I learned about Billy Collins from one of my best friends, Tom Dukes, who is a wonderful poet and teacher whose collection Baptist Confidential is one I turn to frequently. We both taught at University of Akron, and, when I wanted to take a class of his, I had to enroll as a freshman, something about which he still kids me. He sends me University of Akron Press collections that he recommends and also Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems anthologies.

It’s enjoyable to have little memories associated with certain books. I remember an intense seminary friend who picked up my recently-purchased Anne Sexton collection, hated it, and urged me to read Edna St. Vincent Millay instead. Still another day, another friend and I were on a day trip to see New England autumn leaves when we stopped at a Litchfield, CT bookstore and I purchased a paperback of Auden’s selected poems. His introduction intrigued me that he omitted some “dishonest” poems, which I later discovered were notable ones like “Spain” and “September 1, 1939.” I was in old jeans and nice shirt and barefooted one hot day when I swung by a favorite campus bookstore and, enjoying the cool indoor air on my feet, I found an Oscar Williams-edited anthology which I liked for a long time for its good selection of ancient to modern poems.

I’ve never attended a poetry reading except for one time, and it was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who visited our campus in the mid 1980s. He is a very dramatic reader of his poetry—a performer, really. A colleague read his poems in English first, and then Yevtushenko recited the same poem in his native Russian.

I read a lot of T.S. Eliot in divinity school. For some of us, seminary/divinity school can be a time of existential crisis or heartrending introspection, often spurred by a notable author. I’ve a friend who was knocked sideways by Kierkegaard. During my last year of divinity school, I spent so much time studying Eliot! I don’t remember what turned me to Eliot, but his poetry struck me with tremendous force. His now-familiar images–light, shadow, rock, dryness, fire, the dancer, the rose–and the way his poems communicated through their rhythms and sounds as much as by their words–not a new idea, but new to me at that time–awakened me and fascinated me. (Unfortunately I completely missed the antisemitic jabs in a few of his poems, being at the time naive to that, and I focused instead on the journey from despair to return.)

I purchased a book called A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem by Poem Analysis by George Williamson (Noonday Press, 1964) at a favorite store, Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany, CT. (http://www.whitlocksbookbarn.com/shop/default.asp) The old, used paperback, which I still have, opened meanings and explained many allusions and quotations. Williamson also described the poet’s influences which made him a leading voice in modernism—Dante, the Metaphysical poets, and the French Symbolists. Ezra Pound had been so startled, how Eliot had stumbled onto this combination and become modernist on his own.

Williamson quoted Eliot concerning the intersection of poetic technique and experience; both grow, but at certain intersections of the two, superior poetry results. This, too, was a new idea to me and seemed to me an excellent philosophy of life. (The end of “The Waste Land,” and of the poems of the “Four Quartets,” express that challenge.) Grad school was for me, as for many people, a circumstance where both my life-experience and my professional training were very much in process. Though not a “waste land,” the time was transitional. So during that time and after, I liked the idea of artistic wholeness (whatever artistry one may be devoted to) and spiritual growth as being two sides of a process–a process of living. Reading and occasionally writing poetry has been, for me, an important part of that process.

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Mom and I

The following post was a Thanksgiving piece on my main blog, paulstroble.blogspot.com

Some of my posts on this “Grace, Place” blog go together, and they all overlap as reminiscences of beloved hometown places. The three that I posted on 12/23/2010—-“The House and the Farm,” “Thinking About History,” and “Local People”—are certainly a little “trilogy”, recalling my grandmother, our genealogy project, family history, and local landscapes.  Another set involve various memories of Vandalia and its landscapes: “Downtown Vandalia” (8/15/2010), “Supermarket Memories” (5/24/2010), “First Car!” (3/1/2011), “Barefoot Adventures” (5/24/2010), and “We Happy Few” (7/14, 2010).  “Lincoln and Vandalia” (1/10/2010) and “Lincoln’s Big Jump” (7/14/2010) are more historical.  Still another set involve my childhood home: “Lawns” (7/15/2010), and “A Very Fine House” (12/24/2009). The following post continues the story of “A Very Fine House.”

My mom passed away on September 30, not quite two months ago. She was 93 and had lived in a fine nursing home for six years. Dad died in 1999, and so this is the first holiday when I’ve had no parents to visit. It’s a tremendously sad, empty and lonely recognition. We all make journeys through life with our family members, and we can’t imagine it otherwise. The joys and imperfections of the relationship are our very lives. But when one “drops out,” we must figure out how to continue without him or her.

Thanksgiving elicits memories of holidays at my grandmother’s farm house, south of Brownstown, IL. I’m referring to Mom’s mother, who lived at the house where Mom was born in 1919. Many times, cousins from St. Louis and other areas could also come, so we’d have a big “feed.” In my little book Journeys Home, and in my Upper Room book You Gave Me a Wide Place, I wrote about my grandma’s farm house and the many childhood memories associated with the place.

A frustrating thing attends holiday memories: something which I understand now but would change if I could. Mom would complain about Dad to me, and she would share with me the ways that a few relatives (especially her brother and his wife) hurt her feelings. And yet she’d coach me not to say anything and be nice to them when we were all together. “What the hell?” I might have said, if I’d been more confrontational. Mom released her anger and hurt that way but expected me not to have any in response. Over time I began to struggle with depression as I bottled up that anger, being too young to know what to do. (I’m an only child, born fifteen years into Mom and Dad’s marriage, and I’m sure my lateness and onliness contributed to this dynamic.) My parents did so much for me, and of course I felt protective of Mom.

Today, those big family gatherings linger in my mind with warm nostalgia tempered with a recognition of the ways our family was unhappy in special ways, to paraphrase Tolstoy. But I don’t want to imply that Mom had tense relationships with other relatives. In fact, most of her family connections were close and loving. Our extended family members loved Mom very much, and so did my great-aunts and -uncles when they were alive. And also: Mom and her brother did work on their relationship as best as they could. It was hard for them both but they never gave up on each other.

Meanwhile, things were unhappy in Dad’s family. He made no pretense of liking his sister and had fallen out with his mother, too. When Dad referred to “the loudmouth bitch” or the “goddamn bald-headed son of a bitch,” we knew he meant his sister and stepfather, respectively. One Thanskgiving, we actually pulled off a family meal at Dad’s mother’s home, with Grandma and Mom and Dad and Dad’s sister and her family. It’s a nice memory now, but the meal had a “Sword of Damocles” quality, potential disaster just hanging there…

Do you suppress or ignore family tensions in order to have nice times, or do you give up any chance of nice times because of those tensions—perhaps even perversely enjoying the anger—-or do you figure out other ways? Each family has to work out those dynamics—again, in its own special way. For us, I’m so glad we shared Thanksgivings and Christmases with Mom’s family, giving me a lifetime of happy thoughts, not only of holidays at my childhood home, but also of Grandma’s farm and all my kinfolk. As I’ve written elsewhere, my relationship with Grandma and her farm and the larger family, as well as the overall sense of place I gained, are crucial things for my identity, thanks in large part to Mom’s and my frequent visits to the farm throughout my childhood and our various family get-togethers.

Mom was in poor health for many years. She developed rheumatoid arthritis during the 1970s when she was in her mid-50s. By the 1980s the disease had deformed her hands and feet but she was still ambulatory and functioning. By the 1990s (when she was in her 70s) she used a wheelchair more and suffered from heart ailments related to her arthritis. My dad, always the cook in the family, cared for her, but by then he was in his 80s and used a walker for household chores. It horrifies me to think that my mother suffered physical pain for over forty years. This is a reality that I can’t focus on for long because it’s so terrible and distressing.

A wonderful thing, though, is that Mom displayed both faith and bravery to other people, throughout all those years. She was really a great example and witness to many people. As I said already, she and her cousins had warm relations and she was a kind of hero to some of them, as well as other people. All of us do relate to our own immediate family members in different ways than to others—-which isn’t hypocrisy, it’s just the way we all are.

Mom and I became discouraged with each other sometimes, but we could always talk about things and work things out, in a way we never could with stubborn Dad. Still in my 20s in the 1980s, I wanted her and Dad to come to my graduations and events. But Mom said she didn’t feel good and it was an effort for her. I, in turn, recognized that it was an effort for her, but I was still young enough to want and need my parents to be present when, for instance, I graduated from my masters degree. She skipped my ordination, which hurt me, as did her sad, offhand comment one day, when she wished I’d made “better grades” in seminary. In fact, I’d graduated cum laude.

But this dynamic was related to the dynamic when Mom complained about people to me: she wanted me to support her—in her mind, to be her chief support system—and in a way, because she felt so badly, I wasn’t supposed to have feelings of my own. Her insecurities were such that she needed a lot of reassurance, and she tended to expect that people close to her do extra things to help her feel better. As I say, we talked about such issues, so that she’d feel okay and could recognize and acknowledge my feelings about things.

When my folks were becoming elderly and infirm in the 1990s, Dad was still the cook and provider, as Mom was becoming an invalid. This is a painful time for me to remember because not only was I worried about their well-being, but they were so needy of my help and also so resistant to any suggestions and ideas I had, especially if it required them spending any money. They wanted me to have a successful and happy life of my own—-but they also wanted me to drive over (250 miles one way) at least once a week (preferably more) so I could do chores for them for free. I did drive over as often as I could, and I tried to get them help. I arranged to have Meals on Wheels to be delivered to the house, so that Dad could have some respite from household work. But he canceled the service, declaring the food was “no damn good.” Then Mom and Dad would tell people I hadn’t visited that week, making me sound neglectful and uncaring, when I’d just been there very recently and had helped them.

If you’re an adult child with elderly parents, perhaps you understand the dilemma I had and the accompanying feelings. These are not at all uncommon circumstances. Someone I’m close to is dealing with this right now: she gives detailed instructions to the elderly couple she cares for, and the next time she checks in, none of those instructions have been carried out, but the pain and fear of the older couple’s need is still there. It’s as if these elderly folks, while pitiful in their need for their children’s help, don’t believe or trust anything their children say or do regarding the solving of problems. You get the mixed message that you’re wise and helpful, and still a foolish, unpredictable child. (And yet Dad always bragged about me to everyone: all the degrees I’d earned and the books I’d written. Between him and Mom, he was always the most vocally proud of my accomplishments. How I miss that and him!)

When you try to help your elderly parents, and when they resist your efforts, it is a maddening and painful dilemma. But you hesitate to argue and fight with your older parents—because what if that turns out to be your last conversation? It can also be maddening trying to share these dynamics with friends, for so many people (especially church people, in my experience) have sentimental feelings about motherhood and fatherhood. I recall a church friend who felt compelled to lecture me a little about my mother—-as if she had even met my mother, as if my frustrations meant that I loved my mother less. My friend was very invested in a vision of “motherhood” and thus I shouldn’t have shared anything about my family with her. It really does help to have friends who also have older parents, who know firsthand the struggles and feelings involved.

Amid all these things, there were the many holiday visits to see my folks. Pretty much every year, I (and my wife and I, and later our daughter, too) spent the holiday with my parents at their home in my hometown. I remember when Dad, in the 1980s, purchased a small camper for about $15,000 so they could come and see us, because we lived in Virginia and subsequently moved to Arizona for jobs. But Mom never felt like stocking the camper and traveling—”Can’t you come see us? It’s only a four day drive from Arizona, and it’s such an effort for us”—-so my folks used the camper one time. They were chagrined and regretful when they eventually sold it for about $1000. Don’t ask me why they’d spend so much money on a camper but were unwilling to spend money on airplane travel; it makes no sense to me, either.

Our many holiday get-togethers—-my parents and the two of us, and then daughter Emily—–were happy times, while stressful in minor, predictable ways. The television was always on, always to a cop show or a western, and kept at a very loud volume. I remember insisting that we turn off the TV when they were watching a “Miami Vice” rerun, and the action became so violent for our young daughter to watch. At the age when she still loved “Muppet Babies,” I hated having her watch Don Johnson get pistol-whipped….

Another typical “parental unit” dynamic concerned local folks. There in my hometown, Mom and Dad of course had many friends. Mom would coach Beth and me to visit so-and-so (any number of people whom Mom and Dad liked). We nearly always refused. The thing was, if we had visited these folks, Mom would’ve been sad that we spent less time with her! I just never knew whether this particular visit with my parents would be the last, and I wanted to have quality time with them. Thinking back, I don’t remember specific holiday visits; they run together as pleasant times, with a little sigh of relief when they were over.

Our daughter loved childhood visits to my parents’ home. My folks were “string savers,” and so their house was a bit of an adventure just to walk through. Their home (which I’ve written about in another blog post) was proximate to excellent parks, and so Emily and I would visit the several nearby play areas—the same ones I enjoyed as a child. Emily was Mom and Dad’s only grandchild, and of course she was precious to them beyond words. When Mom was under hospice care, she wanted pictures of Beth and me and Emily close by.

Circumstances both fortunate and unfair dot the map of one’s life. I always thought it so unfair that my father-in-law passed away when Emily was not quite five. They had such wonderful times, and he was the younger of the two grandfathers. But now she barely remembers him. On the other hand, my mother was able to follow Emily’s progress all through school and college, which is remarkable given Mom’s infirm physical condition. I know that all the nursing home staff heard about Emily!

A very nice late-summer visit to Mom and Dad’s house in August 1999 did turn out to be the last with Dad. It was a fun, happy visit with then-eight-year-old Emily having a good time at the house and playing in the parks. Then …. Dad died suddenly on September 16, just about three weeks later. Mom couldn’t function on her own, but she wanted to stay at her own house as long as she could. So I managed her finances, arranged for live-in help for her, and made all her health care decisions for thirteen years. Of course, she and I consulted about these things as matters arose. I may write about all that some other time.

As I think about my mom, I’ve happy memories of Mom taking time in the park to help me learn to ride a bike, and other great times when she helped me with things and guided me toward goals. Not so emotionally invested in my abilities as she’d later become, she was patient and supportive as I had difficulty balancing myself on the bike, and learned other things. She encouraged me in my meager abilities to play sports, but it was fine when I realized I didn’t enjoy sports, and she was glad I was happy not playing. She liked to share some of my interests. When I was little, my dad was often absent, around the house and also emotionally, because he worked so hard with such long hours to provide a good life and prosperity for his family. (And, as I’ve said, he could be stubborn and difficult.) In my own life, I strove to be like my mom as a parent, available when Emily needed me as she attended her schools. (Dad become that kind of parent, too, after he retired.)

Mom and I also had wonderful evenings when I was in elementary school and even into junior high when she helped me with homework; in a way, she and I were learning things together. As I write all this, the mental images that come to mind are the park and the living room table where I did homework, with her lovingly helping me.

She also was a huge influence on me in that she basically made me to go Sunday school, thus giving me a solid religious foundation on which I was able to build later. But she was perhaps a bigger influence in that she tried to live her faith in, for instance, caring for the elderly in our family. Dad’s mother and stepfather did alienate many people, and Mom did many selfless favors for them. And although I revere Mom’s mother, I recognize among my childhood memories the traits of stubbornness and favoritism that would’ve made her an exasperating, hurtful person to have as a parent. I didn’t like the way Mom used me as her “shrink,” but I appreciate Mom’s efforts to bring the family together. She was never exclusive, “forgetting” to invite certain relatives to get-togethers and events, but she really was a kind of quiet, self-depreciating glue for the extended family.

For Mom’s visitation, I decided not to have an open casket, as we had with Dad. When Dad died, he was still handsome and looked good—-as good as a corpse in a casket can look—-but Mom had become so tiny and frail, and her hands had been deformed for so long.

I didn’t realize how wise my decision was until friends and family saw the two pictures I placed on the casket—-one from World War II days, when she and Dad were newlyweds and he was in uniform, and the other from my wedding in 1984. I did a wonderful thing without realizing: I had spared her the comments people would’ve made about her hands—which she hated—-and her frailty. Instead, people talked about their memories of Mom and Dad and all the good things in and around our little hometown. That’s exactly what she would’ve wanted. The subsequent funeral message continued those good memories of Mom; her pastor gave an excellent eulogy, about which some of my wife’s colleagues (who drove over from St. Louis) commented later. Mom wanted so badly to feel loved and appreciated, and the visitation and funeral service celebrated her life and surrounded her with love.

Mom joined Dad in their side by side graves in my hometown, a couple who had been married for 58 years. Another typical sort of family story… In 1983 or 1984, I helped my folks choose a set of plots. When Mom was blue, she liked to drive to the highest point in the cemetery (one of the highest hills in this part of Illinois), where she had a good view of the downtown, including the Old State Capitol building where Lincoln had served. At some point, she decided she didn’t want to be buried in the rural cemetery where her parents and grandparents were buried; she liked this place better.

That day in the 1980s, we looked at available plots, and Mom was indecisive about which she preferred. I’d encourage her, and she’d agree, and then she’d slip back to indecision. “I don’t know if I can see the Statehouse the best from here,” she’d say, walking among the plots. Finally Dad, impatient to wrap this up, declared, “You won’t see anything when you’re buried!” Fortunately, she didn’t second-guess our eventual selection of their plots, and the view of the downtown from their stone is lovely, especially in autumn.

To say that our religious faith is a source of great comfort, is an understatement. I really do rejoice that Mom has now gained all the promises of eternal life, an imperishable body, and everlasting joy and peace. She has gained the happiness and wholeness she lacked in her earthly life for so many years. At home and in my car, I craved music that expressed everlasting life and home, like the requiems of Durufle and Faure, the music of Bach and Vaughan Williams, “Lux Aeterna” by Morten Lauridsen, and others.

As I prepare to hit the “publish” bottom for these thoughts (obviously leaving out many things in this comparatively brief post), my emotions are all over the place. I’ve feelings of peace for Mom, feelings of happy religious confidence in eternal life, gratitude for memories (with lingering annoyance about a few things, described here), and emotions of desolation and loneliness. I did feel tremendous peace as the hospice chaplain and later Mom’s pastor prayed for me, and as I appreciated all the supportive comments for us, from Facebook friends and friends who sent cards and flowers and donated in Mom’s name.

That sense of peace has stayed with me consistently, which makes me know (given my blues these days) that it’s the power of God’s Spirit at work. It’s the same Spirit that has worked throughout the lives of my parents and other family members, and in the journey through life that Mom and I made together.

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