My sisters and I loved these bi-annual trips to Iowa to see our relatives – we loved everything about it, except the. heat, humidity and mosquitos. We spent most of our time in the coolest part of everyone’s house – always, the basement. Even there, you could break a sweat lying still and reading in bed. In the sixties, everybody had fans but nobody had air-conditioning.
My grandfather wasn’t a man to disagree with. My sister Joyce didn’t like candy corn. On one of our Iowa visits, I noticed her eating it. “I thought you didn’t like candy corn,” I said. “If Grandpa says you like candy corn, you like candy corn,” she replied.
Grandpa said we’d like fishing, so there we were – not liking it, which he didn’t like. He didn’t like our queasiness about worms or how we squealed at the sight of a hooked fish flopping around the bottom of the boat. We might have been born Midwesterners, but by 1966 all three of us were California city girls, through and through.
“I feel a little guilty – like I manipulated her” – seriously? Is there a manipulative tactic I didn’t employ? Easter was my father’s favorite holiday and one of the busiest days of his year. Monday was his day off and I stole this one without a second thought.
That said, part of me doesn’t feel guilty – because every minute my children spent with their grandparents was blessed – and I’m pretty sure my parents treasured those times too. They were young grandparents, age wise. I’m not sure I was ready to be a grandparent when I was their age.
However, more than a decade later, I am so ready I have baby fever. Facebook friends post adorable pictures of their grandchildren and I ache and think, “I want that!” I see cute babies in restaurants and think, “I want that!” I have quite the opposite reaction on airplanes, when an infant breaks the sound barrier for the entire flight. When that happens, I shudder and think, “Thank God that’s not my problem.”
My brilliant niece Carly wrote an essay in high school about how their family’s animal hierarchy suffered a seismic upheaval every time a new feline entered the household. When a new human being joins an existing family unit, the reverberations can be – and usually are – far more extreme.
In the case of S and CD, not so much, unless both of them have successfully hidden their trauma for years. In my mind, the seven-year gap in their ages was as responsible for the smooth transition as their respective temperaments. CD was more engaged with his peer group, less dependent on his parents, therefore less inclined to resent her intrusion.
However, just because sibling rivalry didn’t rear its ugly head doesn’t mean our home avoided an earthquake. I’d repressed all memory of 3 AM feedings and dirty diapers but total recall returned with a vengeance. We all rose and slept to the rhythm of a baby. Sometimes the sheer exhaustion was overwhelming.
What I wouldn’t give to live through those golden days again…
This is one of those days with more significance today than when I wrote it; there was so much we didn’t know, couldn’t let ourselves imagine. This breakfast/lunch would be the last time I’d see and speak to my father while he was still mobile and able-bodied. Sam and I were lucky to get there at all. I was sound asleep on a Saturday morning when Sam darted into our room and said she just received a text from Janet – we were invited to breakfast for Daddy’s 89th birthday, starting five minutes ago. We threw on our clothes and raced over – even so, we were last to arrive and CD and Alex missed it entirely.
The word I used to describe it in this diary entry is so bland – pleasant. Foxy’s is a long-standing Glendale coffee shop on Colorado Blvd. It was another sunny day in California. In a large group like ours, it’s hard to indulge in much intimate conversation but – as he always did – my father engaged everybody at the table individually about what was going on in our lives. As usual, he said next to nothing about what was going on in his. He certainly didn’t mention he was in pain.
If anything, he might’ve urged us to spend more time with my mother, who was struggling to adjust to the nursing facility where she landed. (It would be weeks before we could move her to Solheim, the Lutheran nursing home they had selected for that far-off day in the distant future when they might need one.) Right now, all my mother wanted was to return to her life at their condo. None of us knew that life was already over. None of us knew we were already counting down hours and minutes.
If I’d known, what would I have said? The question haunts me because contemplating what I would’ve said if I’d known makes the banality of what I did say painfully obvious. We probably said “I love you” in the casual hello-goodbye way we always said it, not in the heartfelt way I wish I’d said it. Not like I’d say it if I’d known it was the last time. I would’ve told him he was the best father ever and the greatest blessing in my life. I would’ve said, please stay. I need more time to study the kindness in your face, so I can reflect a fragment of what you gave to me and anyone else who was lucky enough to drift into your orbit. I would’ve said, the world is a colder place without you. Nothing will be the same when you’re gone. I hunger for the sound of your voice. I’ll miss you every day for the rest of my life.
Instead I said, happy birthday. Thanks for lunch, what a great idea. Let’s do it again for my birthday and Janet’s, coming up in less than two weeks. We didn’t have two weeks. In retrospect, I see his tumble during the photo shoot as foreshadowing but on that sunny day in February, it seemed like a careless mishap, nothing to worry about. We had years of sunny days to brunch in our future. Next time, the whole family – including my mother, who’d surely soon be ambulatory – would gather. We’d get everything right next time.
CD had recently turned three and (to the best of my recollection) he was Grandma and Grandpa K’s first great-grandchild (which makes sense since I was their first grandchild). There’s something special about seeing four generations together under one roof – probably because, inevitably, it won’t last long.
At this point in time, my grandparents were far from senile – they never did fall prey to dementia or lose their wits – but they unmistakably slowed down. After dinner, they spent most evenings watching TV. Grandpa favored what I considered “low-brow” shows like BJ & the Bear and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. I was still enough of a snob to be uncomfortably aware our family forebears seemed a tad un-intellectual (not anti-intellectual, just not very) compared to the parents of most of my friends, including J’s cosmopolitan parents. I wouldn’t pass such harsh judgment today, having learned in the intervening years that reading great books does not necessarily make you a great person.
My grandmother was a gifted pianist – she could play anything by ear and took requests. She knew every hymn in the book but her secular favorite was “Red Wing.” played at Lutheran services for years – and she passed her love and talent for music on to her children and grandchildren in varying degrees. I, for example, missed out on the talent part but inherited the love. By contrast, my cousin Wayne – by virtue of hours of daily practice even as an adult – became the most amazing pianist in the family, as natural and accomplished as my grandmother.
She was a petite Midwestern woman, determined to make herself smaller so she didn’t take up a disproportionate amount of space. If we had chicken for dinner, she insisted her favorite part was the neck. I’m certain I inherited my Fuchs disease from her but she never complained about it (although she constantly rinsed her eyes with boric acid – which, in another time and place, might’ve been a clue). She was a true Norwegian. She didn’t complain about anything. I could learn a lot from her.
In the early years of our marriage, John and I alternated holidays between my family and his – Thanksgiving in Fresno, Christmas in San Diego, reversed in the following year. Gradually we spent more holidays with my family because my parents and sisters all moved within five miles of my home.
I don’t recall when both of our mothers stopped volunteering to host Thanksgiving but they powered through longer than I could’ve. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve hosted Thanksgiving at our house, largely because when the question arises – “where are we doing Thanksgiving this year?” – I’m hiding in the bathroom.
Fortunately, my failings as a cook and hostess are compensated by my sister Janet and her husband Jim McCann, who do Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas ninety percent of the time. They are an indefatigable team, toiling from dawn till dusk to present the perfect meal without complaint (not entirely without complaint – but within civilized limits.) My contribution? Diet Coke and sparkling water.
Their house is well-suited to entertaining, with its vast rolling dog-friendly lawn. Singles and stragglers are always welcome. A good time is had by all.
Although I have a thousand photos of Thanksgiving at Jani’s, this blog is ostensibly about Thanksgiving in 1993, the first and last time I hosted the Rowell clan at our house. I’m posting those photos today to prove it.
I remember this dinner, which might be impressive if it was more than 4 years ago. It was one of the last relatively healthy celebrations of my mother’s birthday. There was no way to know it was one of the last although the fact it was an 88th birthday might’ve raised a red flag for some.
Not me. The prospect of my parents not being here was too unbearable to consider. Would occasions like this be sweeter or more painful if we knew it was the last time?
In 2013, my mind was on more mundane matters than mortality. I noticed how differently my children act in restaurants compared to my sisters and I. My parents never suggested we couldn’t afford to eat out, but all three of us intuitively ordered the cheapest entree on the menu and requested water instead of an expensive soda. How did we all receive the same explicit message without words?
My children didn’t receive it. Two out of three never so much as glance at prices. Apparently, they feel worthy enough to order what they want to eat or drink. No crisis has ensued. On the contrary, my father smiled and picked up the tab for the whole group (usually numbering 16 to 20 depending on how many significant others accompany their grandchildren.) He probably would’ve been equally accepting if my sisters and I ordered appetizers, drinks and other extras, but even today I’d call myself a cautous diner. Other people might call it cheap.
It would’ve been fun to rehash these silly observations and memories with my parents, now that it’s long ago and far away and we’re all adults. I wish.
When I wrote this, I’d known my in-laws for less than a year but so far everything I knew was fabulous. They’d fit right in at one of Jay Gatsby’s wild parties or a formal meet-and-greet with a sitting US President. (No exaggeration – through them, J and I met Gerald Ford when he was in office.)
Other than J’s and my marriage and their own 40-plus year marriage, Chet and Flo had little in common with my parents. No value judgment is implied; they were different but neither one of them was superior to the other. Their strengths were in different areas.
John’s parents were more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than mine. They had more books in their house. They drank, they smoked, they went out to dinner and threw parties. They played a mean game of bridge. Florence was a joiner, an active voice in clubs and charities throughout Fresno. Born a privileged San Francisco socialite, she was confident with a strong sense of self but never a haughty snob. She could make anyone feel like her new best friend. She was so entertaining, so easy to talk to, even a deeply reserved introvert like myself stayed up till 4 AM because it was fun to hang out with her.
John’s father was the ultimate family man, a good thing for the father of seven to be. CD was the first grandchild for John’s parents and mine – consequently, he was deluged by love and attention from both sets of grandparents. Sam and Alex got their fair share, too.
Did CD favor the Rowells or the Knutsens? He looked a lot like John as a baby.
As he grew, so did his resemblance to my father.
But, then again, also the resemblance to J.
And perhaps a smidgen of a resemblance to me.
Which family had the more dominant genes? I call it a draw.
I wasn’t as lucky as my Iowa cousins or my children – they grew up in close proximity to at least one set of grandparents. Since my sisters and I lived within five miles of our parents, all of our children spent a lot of time with Grandma and Grandpa. I saw my grandparents once a year at most when we went to Iowa or they came to California.
Consequently, while I have vivid impressions of my grandparents, I can’t say I really knew them – certainly not as well as my cousins did. My grandmother was particularly elusive – quiet, sensitive, soft-spoken and introverted although in fairness most people would appear quiet in the shadow of my extroverted grandfather R.S. He was so gregarious and entertaining it was only natural that she let him do most of the talking.
I see elements of both my father’s parents in my father. Like RS, he was comfortable talking to others and easy for them to talk to – because, like my grandmother, he listened more than he talked. His gentle nature and sensitivity resembled his mother more than his father but he was very much his own man – as he had to be, to leave his family roots in Iowa to move to California.
What I like about this diary entry is the way Grandma spoke up for herself in a clear but non-confrontational way. She didn’t disagree or contradict RS often, but on the rare occasions she did, what she said was worth hearing. I wish I’d written more of it down.
Because I’m a pastor’s kid (PK), my father confirmed me – married me – and baptized my children. Every time I stood in front of the congregation and looked into his eyes, tears welled and I teetered on the edge of complete meltdown. I wasn’t sad, just overloaded with emotion. The same thing happens when I think about him now. The memory of my father officiating at CD’s baptism makes me reflect on unique aspects of life as a PK.
When I was two years old (before the Alien Baby emerged, and ruined my life), my father took me with him to give communion to rural parishioners. Halfway through the ceremony, his communicant’s eyes wandered so he turned to investigate what caught their attention. It was me, toddling behind, imitating his words of blessing and passing out imaginary wine and wafers.
We acted out Bible stories to amuse ourselves. The Good Samaritan was a favorite. My father played the battered victim near death by the side of the road. I took on multiple challenging roles ranging from a snooty priest to a snotty Pharisee and a self-absorbed Levite. Basically, I pretended not to see the dying man by the side of the road. At this point my sister Janet, bobbing with excitement, took center stage in the starring role of Good Samaritan. Between you and me, a monkey could have played her part. All she needed to do was hoof it as far as the kitchen and ask Mommy for a glass of water. When she accomplished this feat, dramatic tension peaked. Invariably she paused – and guzzled most of the water, saving a few drops for our dying dad. And I’m the one who got typecast as being selfish?
Sometimes Janet and I played Israelites in search of manna. Confused about what constituted manna – was it vegetable, legume or dairy product? We agreed it probably resembled chocolate chip cookie dough and hid globs of it in the sofa cushions for the Israelites to discover and devour. Who knew about salmonella in the fabulous fifties?
(Future blogs will explore other aspects of growing up P.K.)