Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Uncle Buck

Odd, now that I think of it. I told you earlier I always looked on Aunt Thyra as being my second mom…but I just realized that I never thought of Uncle Buck as a second dad. He was just my Uncle Buck, and he had…and has…a special place in my heart like no one else. And yet both Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck treated me as though I were one of their own, and I never had the slightest doubt that I belonged.

Uncle Buck was an auto mechanic all his life, and a darned good one, too. He had a definite preference for Ford products and I still can close my eyes and see his four-door 1939 Mercury, which he had all during WWII (they stopped making passenger cars from 1942 to 1946 because of the war).

At one point he worked for a local dairy as a truck mechanic. Crates of milk were conveyed from the dairy to the trucks by putting them, like train cars, on a long track of metal rollers. He often worked weekends, and on such occasions, I’d go with my cousins Jack, Cork, and Fat to visit him. Those were my favorite times, because one of them would put me in an empty milk crate at one end of the rollers and push me, giddy with delight, down to the other end, where one of the other boys would catch me.

And I remember the dairy still had an old horse-drawn delivery wagon. It was no longer used, but it was there.

One of my earliest memories is of standing in the back yard of Aunt Thyra’s and Uncle Buck’s house watching him while he worked on the engine of a car in the driveway. It was the first time in my life that I was aware of the sound of someone breathing. And I see him in the coal bin of the basement, shoveling huge mounds of dusty coal into the fiery maw of the house’s furnace.

Often, when Mom and I were living apart from my dad, Uncle Buck would come by in a dairy truck and pick me up and take me with him wherever he was going.

Oh, yes…and I was never “Roger” to Uncle Buck. I was “Guggenheimer.”

But our very special time together was when he would take me down to the train station to watch the trains come in. He would put me up on one of those large, high-wheeled baggage carts that were high enough to be level with the doors on the baggage cars. I’d stand there, lost in wonder as the iron monsters chugged ponderously past, not eight feet away, grinding to a stop in a cacophony of clanging bells and groaning brakes, all wreathed in steam and smoke from the engine’s smokestack. And one time, while Mom was with us, Uncle Buck actually handed me up to the engineer and I got to stand in the cab of a real train! And it wasn’t until the engineer went about getting the train ready to move that Uncle Buck took me down. Mom was furious with him, sure that the train was going to pull out with me still in the cab.

Uncle Buck was probably the quintessential big brother. My mom worshiped him, and it was clear that he was always, first and foremost, her big brother. It wasn’t a matter of lots of kisses and hugs and open affection: they weren’t necessary…love often goes far deeper than that.

I was just getting ready to enter my sophomore year in college when Uncle Buck developed cancer. He’d been a heavy smoker all his life. No one in my immediate family had ever died before, so it never occurred to me that Uncle Buck might die. But he did. I got the call at college and immediately returned home.

A strange thing about immediate grief. There is much comforting and consoling among family members, yet each one suffers in his or her way, alone. I remember the funeral. I was there physically, but totally numb. That man in the coffin wasn’t Uncle Buck. Not my Uncle Buck. I last saw him in St. Anthony’s hospital and remember knowing, when we left, that I would never see him again.

At the funeral, I was sitting in the seat furthest away from the aisle and as everyone got up to file out, I managed to stand too, praying that I could make it outside. I couldn’t. The dam burst and I was swept away by a grief I’d never known until that moment. I heard someone say to my dad: “Get Roger.”

I don’t remember the rest of the funeral, or the burial. I do vaguely remember going back to Aunt Thyra’s and Uncle Buck’s big house on School Street…the house in which my mother was born and her mother and Uncle Buck died…for sandwiches and coffee, as that was what people did after funerals.

But what I do remember with crystal clarity to this day, and will remember until the day I, too, die, is Uncle Buck and how much I loved him.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com. You can find information about Dorien's books at his web site:  www.doriengrey.com: 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Aunt Thyra

My mom, about whom you’ll be hearing in later entries, was—not surprisingly—the person who had the most influence on my being whoever it is I am today. But in a way, I was blessed with a “second mother,” my Aunt Thyra, who hold a place in my heart very close to Mom. 

When I was very young, my dad’s job required a lot of moving around from city to city, and each time my parents had to move, they would ship me back to Rockford to stay with Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck until they got settled in. Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck had three boys of their own, 12, 14, and 16 years older than I, and they were as close to brother as I ever got. Though I would never have told my father, I always considered myself more a Fearn than a Margason.

Charles (“Buck”) Fearn, my mom’s brother, was nine years older than Mom, and when he returned from WWI and married Thyra Cederland, my mother hated her for having stolen away her adored brother. But that passed quickly, and they grew to be as close as sisters.

Aunt Thyra was a typical woman of her time. She never worked, staying home to cook and clean and take care of the family and later become a full-time grandmother and great-grandmother. She never learned to drive a car. She was always heavyset, but had a very pretty face, and she always smelled of talcum powder or perfume, and she treated me with as much love as her own sons. Her hugs, which she gave freely though she was not overly demonstrative, were priceless.

Every Christmas eve, we would go to their house or they would come to ours and every single Christmas from the time I was about five on, Aunt Thyra would bring me a jar of olives. A strange gift, but she knew I loved them, and they were always special, coming from her. It was another special bond between us.

She always carried a large black purse which, when she came to visit, she would always put on the floor beside her chair.

On December 7, 1941, my folks and I sat in the living room of Aunt Thyra’s and Uncle Buck’s house and listened, on a grand old console radio with burled wood cabinet and doors and a yellow dial that showed the stations (and which is still in the family), to news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was our 9-11, and the effect on the nation was even greater. The next day we were back around the radio to hear President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech. And as we listened, Aunt Thyra could not help but look from one of her sons to the other. All three were soon taken away by the military: Charles (“Fat,” who wasn’t), the eldest and just married, and Jack, the youngest, were drafted while Don (“Cork”) enlisted in the Marines. (They would all return safely, but no one knew so at the time.) Three small blue-star flags were placed in the front window of Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck’s home.

Aunt Thyra joined several women’s groups doing whatever she could for the war effort, and the years passed and the war ended, and the boys came home.

Uncle Buck, who had been a heavy smoker all his life, developed cancer and died in 1953, at the age of 53, and Aunt Thyra continued on without him. Remembering now how Uncle Buck’s death devastated me and my mother, I can only imagine what it meant for Aunt Thyra. She never complained, never asked for sympathy; just went on with her life and devoted her time to the growing number of grandchildren.

When my own mother came down with lung cancer, having moved from Rockford to be near me in California, Aunt Thyra, who had never been on an airplane and had always expressed a deep fear of flying, got on a plane to come out to spend some time with Mom before she died. And she, Jack, Fat, Cork, and their families were there when I returned Mom’s body for burial beside my dad. I’m not sure what I would have done without them.

I don’t think Aunt Thyra graduated from high school, and she wasn’t particularly well-read or worldly, but she more than made up for any lack in the quality of her unconditional love. After the death of my parents, she was my rock—the one remaining sturdy thread connecting me to all the love of my childhood.

And then one day in 1976 she suffered a heart attack and, rather than calling for an ambulance, called for Jack to come take her to a doctor. He found her dead on the bedroom floor, where she had been putting on a pair of stockings. She would never allow herself to die less than a lady.

Life is never easy, and as we grow older, we lose more and more of the people who were part of the very foundation of our lives. Most of my foundation is gone now. And to this day, I grieve for Ray, for my father, for Uncle Buck and all my dead relatives, and most especially, I think, for my mother…and Aunt Thyra.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com. You can find information about Dorien's books at his web site:  www.doriengrey.com: 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Grandma Fearn

I never knew my maternal grandmother: she had died at the age of 42, with between 20 and 40 million others, in the great flu pandemic of 1918, carried to the U.S. by returning wounded American soldiers. I wish I had known her. I would have liked her. She was born Annabelle Erickson in Bergen, Norway in 1872. How and when she immigrated to America I do not know, nor do I know when and how she met my grandfather. But they did meet, and they had two children: a son, Charles, born in 1900, and a girl, Odrae, born in 1909.

From what Mom told me…and Mom was only nine years old when Grandma died…she was a warm and loving woman though like most women of her time, not effusively demonstrative of her affection. Her job, again typical of women then, was her family, and she did her job with flawless efficiency. Mom remembers the time she brought a young male classmate home from school and announced that they were going to get married. “That’s nice,” Grandma said, and then sat them down at the kitchen table for milk and cookies.

Though Mom wanted to learn to speak Norwegian, Grandma would have none of it. “You’re American,” she would say. “You will speak American.”

Hers was a world of Pastor-over-to-Sunday-dinner, of family picnics in the country, of close friends and loving relatives, of long conversations on the front porch on hot summer evenings. Hers was a world that sadly no longer exists.

Grandma had a young brother named Peter, whom my mother adored. Peter came over from Norway to live with Grandma and Grandpa. He was, at the time, 18 years old and, though he somehow managed to fool the doctors on Ellis Island, he had tuberculosis. As his health worsened, he was sent away to Arizona where, it was widely thought at the time, he could get better. But of course he couldn’t and, terribly lonely, he begged Grandma to let him come back to Rockford where within months he was dead. Dead at 18. Of tuberculosis!

Though I’m sure she never showed any favoritism between Mom and Uncle Buck, I suspect Uncle Buck was the light of her life. When America entered World War I, Uncle Buck wanted to enlist, over the strenuous objections of both Grandma and Grandpa. So he ran off and enlisted without telling them. He left home one morning and headed to the railroad station to board the train for his Army indoctrination, and somehow Grandma found out shortly after he left. She raced to the railroad station just as the train was pulling out. I had always thought that she never saw him again…not because he became a victim of the war, but because she did. But I found a photo of him, Grandpa and Grandma, and Mom in which Uncle Buck is in uniform, so…memory is not an exact science.

I have a photo of Grandma Fearn in her 1910 finest, and if you saw it, you might be able to make out the chain of a watch fob on her blouse. The original of that picture, hand tinted, hangs in an ornate gold frame over my bed, and as I type this, I can glance to my right and see the beautiful, delicate pocket watch it was attached to, in a small glass dome.

How can one condense a life into a few short paragraphs? I certainly can’t, but all I have to do is to look at that photo, or that watch, and Grandma lives, and though we never met, I know her as though she had always been in my life. Which she has.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com. You can find information about Dorien's books at his web site:  www.doriengrey.com: 

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Grandpa Fearn

It’s really a shame to realize one doesn’t know nearly enough about the history of the people without whom one wouldn’t exist. I’m ashamed to say I know very little about Grandpa Fearn’s, but what I do know I admire.

Chester (“Pete”) Fearn was born the year after the great Chicago Fire, in Pena, Illinois, a town so small it cannot be found on a Rand McNally road map, and quite probably no longer exists. I know almost nothing of his own family: as far as I know he was an only child. One of his grandmothers was a member of the Blackfoot Nation…to whom I am deeply indebted for my Native American genes, which I credit for the fact that I still have a full head of (though very little facial) hair.

His father committed suicide when he was quite young, and Grandpa left home to wander around the central Midwest. I doubt he had more than a third-grade education, but he was far from ignorant. He earned his living tap-dancing for money aboard the riverboat Natchez, sister ship to the Robert E. Lee. At some point he found himself in Rockford, Illinois, where sometime in the late 1890s he met and married Annabelle Erickson, my grandmother, about whom I talked in a previous blog.

Grandpa worked for more than 35 years at various Rockford factories and foundries, which repaid his efforts by giving him the black lung disease from which he eventually died at age 85. I’m sure if it hadn’t been for the lung disease, he’d still be around.

He and my mom shared the same sly sense of humor, which I’d like to think I’ve inherited. Two of his favorite sayings were “...don’t ‘cha know?” and, after a full meal, “My sufficiency has been suffancified.” He loved walking, and he loved his “snuss”—pocket tobacco snorted through the nose. And he never lost his love of dancing. On his 79th birthday, he was honored by Rockford’s Arthur Murray Dance Studio (the same one from which I had been ignominiously expelled), whose dances he regularly attended. His prized possession was his pair of tap shoes, which he kept so polished they glistened. Mom kept them for many years, and I often wonder what became of them.

Like Uncle Buck, he was always there for my mom, but he never interfered in her life or offered unasked-for advice. But if he sensed anything wrong in her life, he was always quietly there.

In his later years, his Black Lung disease confined him to Rockford’s tuberculosis sanitarium (do they even exist anymore?), where he died in, I believe, 1957. One day the San, as it was known, called Mom to tell her that Grandpa wasn’t going to make it through the day, and I took her out to see him for the last time. At one point, Mom left to go to the restroom, and I was alone with Grandpa Fearn.

He looked at me and gave me a small, mischievous smile. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. A few hours later, he did.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com. You can find information about Dorien's books at his web site:  www.doriengrey.com: 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

A Can of Sardines

When you’re a kid, you accept everything as being natural, simply because you’ve not lived long enough to realize there are other ways to live. At the time I broke my leg, having three people (and I think we had a dog) live in a glorified sardine can—a 14-foot long trailer—was perfectly natural. It was just, well, what was. My mom cooked on a small kerosene stove with a canister of fuel which had a hand pump not unlike a bicycle tire pump. She’d have to pump it vigorously several times before she could light the stove. To this day I can close my eyes and smell the strong odor of kerosene and hear the soft “pffftt” as the stove lit.

When I was released from the hospital I was in a full body cast from just below my shoulders down to my right knee and all the way down my left leg and foot. There was a bar between my legs at the knee to keep my thighs immobile. I quite literally could barely move. And this was in the heat of summer. Mom used to keep knives in the icebox, which she would use, when they were cold, to slide down between my cast and my chest and back to try to cool me off.
For the next 62 years, I never slept on my back again.

It of course did not even occur to me at the time what my parents had to have gone through for the several weeks that they were in fact trapped in that sardine can with an immobile five year old boy. I never thanked them for everything they sacrificed for me. It would never have occurred to me that I should. That’s what parents are for.

I remember that I held a grudge against them for several years after they one time found it necessary to “rob” my piggy bank because they simply did not have enough money for something they needed—probably for me—and did not have enough themselves. Looking back on it now, I am indescribably ashamed of myself for my selfishness. But I was a child, and I take refuge in the fact that I couldn’t have been expected to know any better.

Oh, yes…and the evening of the day I had gone back to the hospital to have my cast removed…it was Halloween Eve, 1938, the night of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast…I had to be rushed back to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy.

I’d never thought of the reason, until now, why, after coming home yet again, my Grandpa Margason drove down in what was then the equivalent of a station wagon to get me and take me back with him to Rockford, where I was deposited at Aunt Thyra’s and Uncle Buck’s for the period of my recovery. I think I know the reason, now: my poor parents simply couldn’t handle any more at the moment.

Surely there has to be a special place in Heaven, if there is a Heaven, for parents. If there is, my folks are there. And even if there is not the vast expanse of a Heaven, they will always live in the sardine can which is my heart.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com. You can find information about Dorien's books at his web site:  www.doriengrey.com: 

Monday, October 02, 2017

Three Rules

If all the books of laws and regulations designed to keep humanity from running totally amok were lined up end to end, they would stretch far beyond the horizon. Yet in reality, fully 95 percent of them could be eliminated if everyone followed only three elementary precepts.

“Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” What could be simpler? The problem, alas, lies in the gulf between theory and practice and in the perversities of human nature (in this case, think of its application by masochists). But for the vast majority of people, the Golden Rule is just that…golden. We all like to be treated with courtesy and consideration. We all appreciate a smile from a stranger, and any simple gesture of kindness. But that other old saying “It’s better to give than to receive” doesn’t apply. We’re happy to get a nod and a smile from a stranger, yet to how many strangers do we nod and smile? Again, the perversities of human nature step in: we’re too busy to think of it, or we’re afraid any such gesture will be either misinterpreted or coldly rejected. So we do nothing. And far too often, we are so surprised by these small acts of kindness when we receive them that we do not reciprocate them.

I’ve related the story before of a young man in San Francisco who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. He left a suicide note in his apartment outlining his depression and sense of total isolation. The note ended with this (paraphrased) sentence. “So I am going to walk to the bridge, and, if anyone even acknowledges my existence along the way, I will not jump.” He jumped.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Adopted as a mantra by Alcoholics Anonymous, it was written in 1936 by a theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr. Who, alcoholic or not, can possibly argue with that precept? Yet how many of us actually follow it? The time, effort, and emotion expended in fretting over things over which we have absolutely no control is astonishing, and even more astonishing is that we seem incapable of recognizing and acting on those problems over which we do or can by trying have control. Easier to throw up our hands than to work to correct them.

“This above all else: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Polonius’s bit of fatherly advice to Laertes in Hamlet is as valid today as when it was written 400 or so years ago. Unless we are true to ourselves, unless we can stand up for what we believe in and constantly strive to be better than we are, we might as well be a sea slug as a human. We belong to a contentious, often totally dysfunctional, all-too-greedy, survival-of-the-fittest race. Yet it is our capacity to acknowledge our shortcomings and work to improve ourselves that separates us from the other life-forms on our planet. Each of us faces, every day of our lives, the challenge to be better than we are. We all have the capability to change the world. We may not be able to single-handedly discover a cure for cancer, or eradicate poverty. Improving the lives of others needn’t be that complex, but as simple as giving a smile to another human being who might very badly need one.

Smiles and kind words cost nothing. It’s better to have 500 smiles ignored than not to give one which can make a difference in someone’s life. Who knows who is walking toward the bridge?
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com. You can find information about Dorien's books at his web site:  www.doriengrey.com: 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

If Only

My favorite painting at the Art Institute of Chicago is Ivan Albright’s That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (subtitled The Door) I identify with it in some strange way, probably because I frequently find myself looking back on the closed doors of my life and saying: “If only I could go back and change things…do or say something I should have but didn’t; not do or say something I shouldn’t have but did; take an opportunity not taken; follow path A instead of path B.”

We all have closed doors in our past we wish we could reopen, to change what lies behind them. Yet we never think that if we could go back and change just one thing, from that point in time on, all bets are off. For you cannot change the past without changing everything that then follows. Tossing one small snowball of change onto the steep snow-covered slopes of time could trigger an avalanche which would inexorably sweep away everything that followed. And one problem resolved would open up an infinite number of new and different problems.

I used to wonder, after I moved from Los Angeles to the Great North Woods of northern Wisconsin and bemoaned my subsequent lack of…uh, let’s say “social contacts”… what would have happened had I stayed in L.A. Then I realized that had I done so, I could quite probably had a contact which would have resulted in my contracting AIDS, which is more a game of Russian roulette in large cities than in rural communities.

So many things I’ve said to people that I wish I either had not said or said differently. So many situations to which I wish I had reacted differently. But if I had, how might that have changed my then-future (but-now-present)? Escaping one unpleasant situation undoubtedly would have opened the door to countless other unpleasant situations I could not possibly foresee.

There are things, however, I would risk a subsequent unknown future to have changed. The most recent was when I did not have my cat Crickett put to death when she developed a cancerous tumor. Instead, seeing no evidence that she was in pain, I let her live far longer than I should have. And before Crickett there was my dog Duchess, whose death was solely due to my stupidity in not recognizing the clear signs of diabetes which killed her. How could I have done that? How could I not have seen she was seriously ill?

But the greatest regret of my life—the one single thing I wish with all my heart and soul I could change, would be to let my mother die several months before she did. I think I may have spoken of this before, but when she was diagnosed with lung cancer after being a smoker all her life, she and I agreed that if it reached the point where nothing more could be done, I would instruct the doctors to let her go. But I did not. “We’ll try this,” the doctors would say, and I’d let them. When it didn’t help, they’d say “We’ll try this,” and I’d let them. And mom, out of her love for me, said nothing to me, though she told a friend that she just wanted to die with dignity. She did not. She died a withered doll hooked up to tubes and machines which only prolonged her suffering, of which she never spoke, and all because I would not…could not…let her go. I still cry when I think of it, and will never forgive myself for that selfishness.

And ten years from now, we will all look back at regrets for things which will have happened between now and then, and there will be no way we can come back and change them, either.
So what is the answer? There is none. All we can do is, as we hopefully already have been doing, the very best we can. We cannot see the long-term results of our actions, but perhaps we can give them just a bit more thought before we take them, and hope for the best. I wish us luck.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com. You can find information about Dorien's books at his web site:  www.doriengrey.com: