Make a Wish

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Yesterday morning, I went to the mall with my Mother.  I am in California and she is in Kansas, and yet, unbeknownst to her even, we found ourselves walking the corridors of Metcalf South Shopping Center, in Overland Park, Kansas, circa 1973.  I don’t even know what spurred the memory, as I swam my morning laps, but that recollection stayed with me for the rest of the day.

It was an autumn morning, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the date was September 28.  My mom brought me to the mall, we walked around, she bought me a popcorn jack-o-lantern at Topsy’s Popcorn.  I think there might have been some toy that came with it.  We got in the car and we drove home, me elated by my new acquisition.

I think of this day from time to time.  I don’t know why, other than it’s just a pure, happy memory.  My Mom was the center of my world when I was 5.  She was the prettiest, the smartest, the best singer, the best dresser, the funniest.  I loved my Dad, I loved my brothers, I loved my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and my cousins and my dog Pee-Wee, I loved God and Jesus and church, too, but my Mother, she was my favorite.  My Mommy.

I tried to unearth more details from this 43-year-old outing.  Did we make other purchases? Were we preparing for some special occasion?  Was it definitely 1973?  Am I sure that it was even a popcorn ball and not some other candy or toy that brought me delight on that day?  Did I beg for this treat or was it her idea?  Was it something we could easily afford or a small extravagance? And while I arrived at no answers, I luxuriated in the speculations, the recreation of the scene.

Because I am a bit of a history buff, I decided to google Metcalf South Mall.  When my Dad had his surgery in 2012 and we were based in Kansas City for three weeks, I once drove by the mall and could see it was not the mall of my memories.  The intervening years had not been kind.  According to Wikipedia,  Metcalf South closed its doors for good in 2014.  Sad, I know.

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Metcalf South Shopping Center opened in 1967.  If some of its nostalgic Pinterest fans can be believed it was “the place to be in Overland Park” in the 1970s.  All that I can remember from those years affirms that observation.

Because we lived in nearby Merriam, we went to this mall often, at least once a month, probably more.  I’d forgotten the centerpiece of the structure, a three-story fountain.   In scrolling through internet images last night, the memories flooded back, of all the times my Mom or Dad would give me a penny so I could add my hopes into the collection and make a wish.

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Last week, I wrote a piece about my parents where I alluded to some health challenges.  What I didn’t say was that my Mom was diagnosed with macular degeneration three weeks ago.  While she had told a handful of people, I did not want to say anything on a larger scale before she wanted to share the information herself.  On Monday, before she met with a specialist in Wichita, she posted on her Facebook page about her diagnosis and asked for prayers.

The doctor gave my Mom a shot in each eye that we hope will improve her sight and/or slow down the degenerative process.  As she faces some uncertainty about what the future holds, her spirits are good and she remains hopeful.  On Monday night, after they had returned home from Wichita, my Mother told me how, as they sat in the waiting room, my Dad comforted her by reading to her all the loving comments friends and family had written in response to her Facebook post.  And even though I was in California, and they were in Kansas, I could see it.

I don’t know what I wished for when I stood in front of that grand fountain back in the 70s. What we dream about when we are young isn’t always what we dream about when we get older.  And yet, here I am, on my way to old myself, and my wish is as pure and simple as if I was still a five-year old.

Yesterday was a bit of a gift. For a couple hours anyway, I was 5 and I was at the place to be in Overland Park with my favorite person.  And because memory can be kneaded and stretched in any way we want, I created a new one, or maybe just added onto the old one. I saw a little boy walking hand in hand with his young mother.  When they came to the sparkling fountain with millions of coins lining the pool’s floor, he asked his Mom if he could make a wish. She dug in her purse and found a penny, maybe it was even a wheat penny.  She placed the coin in his small hands and he closed his eyes and somehow he, miraculously, made a wish for something decades into his future, something his little mind could not possibly imagine in that moment.  He didn’t say it aloud, not even to her, but as he sent the currency into the air waiting for it to fall to its splash, he hoped.  The little boy hoped his wish would come true.

 

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More Than We Deserve

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Last summer, at a family reunion, my Father was asked to say grace before the evening meal.  Even though it’s my Mom’s side of the family, he is always the one who is called upon to pray.  He is a godly man and a good man. As our heads were bowed in prayer, one of the things he said to God was, “You’ve blessed us.  Some more than others. Some more than we deserve.”

I was glad we all had our eyes closed, so no one could see me crying.

Because I live several states away from them, I only see them a couple of times a year.  When I am in California and they are in Independence, in the house where they raised me, I can imagine them still being the couple in the pictures I have displayed in my home.  I can see them as high school seniors, or a young 1970’s Kansas City family, or the way they  looked when they visited me while I lived in New York and we went to Atlantic City for the day.

And then I go to them or they come to me, or sometimes we meet in the middle.  Within minutes, my Mom will tell me whether my hair is too short or the appropriate length.  And I will be shocked with the reminder of something I manage to forget when we are only talking or texting to each other from 1500 miles away: they are old now.

This weekend, I met my parents in Denver.  After they picked me up at the airport, we went to lunch at a Panera Bread.  And as we sat in a corner and ate our food, they told me about all the doctors’ visits they had made in the last few weeks.  They both retired this summer and now, like so many others, their days are filled with negotiating doctor and dentist and optometrist appointments.  As casually as they could, they shared the news of these visits and I sat there, with concern and sadness, as I gobbled up what might possibly have been the worst turkey club sandwich I’ve ever encountered.

For the rest of the weekend, as we drove around Denver and went to the Museum of Nature and Science and to dinner at my cousin Valerie’s house and services at historic Trinity United Methodist Church downtown, I tried to take as many pictures as possible, to document and memorialize our time together.  I’m not the biggest fan of the way I look in pictures these days, but I tried not to judge my wattled neck or squinty eyes too much.  Each moment together is something to be treasured.

I’ve tried to dissect why my Father’s prayer last summer has stuck with me in these last 14 months.  Part of it, I know, is that he reminded me of all of the challenges we have been through as a family, and the challenges he’s been through and the challenges my Mom has been through, and somehow, we are still here.  They are still here.

Maybe it’s the Kansas in us or the church in us, but I fear that we go through life worrying that we don’t deserve the blessings we have.  Or that suddenly all those good things might go away. I know that I am lucky that I know my Mother and Father love me.  I know that I am lucky that there are still things to laugh about, still things to see.

When I got home on Monday, and I presented Eric with the butter pecan cookies my Mom made for him, it struck me what a gift those cookies were from her.  Even something like making a batch of cookies is not as easy as it used to be.  And it doesn’t means she won’t make them anymore, it just greater reflects the deepness of her love. Also, probably a day will come when she won’t be able to make me cookies and a part of her will wonder, how does he know I still love him?  But I’ll know. In the 48 years I’ve been on this planet, everything she’s ever done for me has revealed that love. I’ll always know my Mother loves me.

I’ll be honest, I have been sad in the days that I’ve been home.  I miss my folks and like a spoiled child, I miss the version of my folks I see when I close my eyes.  And with each step and each breath and each blink, their lives will only become more challenging.  And back to that prayer, but I wrestle with this feeling that my parents deserve more.  I know, deserve is probably the stupidest, most egotistical word in the English language. Nobody deserves anything.  Except my parents, they do.  They deserve every blessing imaginable.

The truth is, God has blessed them.  While aching, weeping, and praying for more for them, I am grateful for every good thing, every good day, every good meal.  And certainly, I must hold to another truth, as I grapple with what our futures hold. If you are lucky enough to know them, you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway.  In giving me these two as parents, God has blessed me beyond measure.  More than I deserve.

 

Zest

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It’s not my usual pattern, but two nights ago, I took a shower before going to bed.  (In case you are worried that I do not bathe, I’ll tell you I generally shower in the morning.) Eric had added a fancy new bar of soap to the other 97 shampoos, conditioners, exfoliants and body washes that comprise our bathtub.  I picked up the soap, lathered it.  I liked the smell, it reminded me of something, but it took me a second to place it.

I love soap.  I mean, it’s nice that it cleans a person, but it also can leave behind a pleasant fragrance.  For me, and I don’t think I’m alone, a lot of memories are tied to fragrances.  Like rose water always makes me think of my high school friend Missy. Both chlorine and suntan lotion remind me of long ago summer afternoons spent at the Riverside Park Municipal Pool.  Night blooming jasmine makes me think of those months when I first moved to Los Angeles.  Dolce and Gabbanna cologne makes me think of my first big love, the one I took so many years to get over.

It took me a second, but I realized this soap reminded me of the soap my grandfather always had in his house, something called Zest. Remember Zest? I mean, I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am. It was Zest, Zest in the kitchen, Zest at the bathroom faucet, Zest in the bathtub. Always Zest.

In the house where I grew up with my parents, I remember using a lot of soaps: Irish Spring, Dove, Dial, Ivory and sometimes Zest. If I begged enough, my Mom would buy me Coast. Coast was my favorite. I don’t know why I loved Coast so much, I just imagined that it was what people who spent a lot of time on yachts smelled like. I did not love Zest, nor did I hate it. Zest just was. And like I said, Zest is what always was at my grandpa’s house.

I really only knew two grandparents growing up. My mom’s father died when she was a baby and my dad’s mother died when I was not yet two. And while I always felt a kinship to my mom’s mom, Grandma Sue, a bond over Scrabble and books and reading and writing letters, my Grandpa was always a mystery.

He was a farmer. When we’d visit, he’d let me go out to the garden with him. He’d pull up young carrots and wipe them off and let me eat them fresh from the garden. I’d ask him how the watermelons were doing since they were my favorite fruit but it seemed we always had to wait almost until the end of summer before the watermelons would be ready to eat. I used to have a tomato scented candle and I loved it because it smelled like my grandfather’s garden.

In the years before I was 7, when we moved from Kansas City to Independence, in part so my Dad could be closer to Grandpa, we would drive down to the farm for weekend visits. I remember my Grandpa would fry us hamburgers for supper and on Sundays, my aunts and uncles and cousins would convene at Grandpa’s for a roast beef dinner. Tuesday night, after my shower, as I was trying to fall asleep, I wondered who prepared the roasts for those feasts. Was it Grandpa or did Aunt Kay leave church early to get a head start on the meal? I don’t know, I just remember running around in the yard, climbing the septic tank and after eating, all the men (and boys) going fishing.

If my math is right, my Grandpa was about 64 when my Grandma Avis died. When he died, more than once, I heard my Dad say that he didn’t think he ever got over losing Grandma. He never remarried, never started a new life with another woman. Tuesday night, as I lay in bed, I wondered if I had solved the mystery of the Zest. My first thought was that he bought it because that’s what she always bought. And then I went just a bit further, maybe he always used Zest because it reminded him of the good times, when the children were young, before Avis got sick.

When I looked up the definition for zest, the first one I came across was “great enthusiasm or energy.” Of my grandfather’s 7 grandchildren, I am the only one too young to not remember him in the years before he was a widower. While I only remember a stoic, serious man, maybe in his life before, enthusiastic and energetic could have described him. I don’t know.

I do think energetic and enthusiastic are words that could be used to describe me. It’s part of my undiagnosed mania. My life is always either wonderful or terrible, nothing in between. I’ve never been called stoic even once in my 46 years. Sometimes, I think, oh man, I’d KILL to be stoic, which, you know, is a very unstoic thing to think or say.

Last night, I lay in bed, still thinking about my Grandpa Carl and my Grandma Avis, their love story. When I was little my Dad would always say the best fried chicken he’d ever had was his Mom’s. If it bothered my Mom that he would say that while we were eating her fried chicken, she gave no indication. These were the handful of years right after Avis had died and I suppose it was my Dad’s way of saying, “Boy, I miss my Mom” without having to actually say it. My Dad inherited more than a little of his father’s stoicism.

I wonder what my Grandpa would say if I told him that modern version of Zest in my bathtub cost $20 a bar. (In its defense, it’s a big bar.)

There is something of my grandfather in me. I hope so, anyway. He’s been gone for nearly 25 years now, all I have is old pictures and memories and the stories my older relatives share with me. I try to make the connections.

I mentioned briefly an ex I had that, once we broke up, it took me years to get over him. There was a point when I truly thought that I never would. But I did, eventually.

I know that in the culture we live in, there is a lot of value placed on moving forward, starting anew, evolving. I suppose that is for the best, all things considered.

But I have to say there is something beautiful and touching, albeit, heartbreaking about how my grandfather never started anew. My Grandma was a ghost who was always there in that house, a ghost who always clung to my Grandpa. She was never far away. Every hymnal in the pews of the country church our family attended bore the inscription, “Provided by the family of Avis Barnhart, in loving memory.” She was everywhere. When I was 12, my parents and I went to Hawaii with my Grandpa and although he had a good time, it was said and it was understood, this was a trip he should have made with Avis. And it was also understood that, in a way, she was there with us.

When I smell anything gardenia fragranced, whether it be a soap or a perfume or a candle, I remember my two trips to Hawaii. It’s always so bittersweet because a fragrance can bring back some wonderful memories and also make you ache for what is no more. But I like the idea, and really, I know it’s just an idea, but I like to think that that Zest might have kept the memory of Avis alive to Carl. That on days after working hard on the farm, he’d come inside, lather up with his Zest and momentarily at least, get whisked away to the happiest days of his life. And when his hands were clean, all the dirt washed down the drain, he’d go about fixing a hamburger or two for himself. And trust me when I tell you, those hamburgers were the best hamburgers I’ve ever had. I can smell them now.

Guest Blogger, Theresa Barnhart: Reunions

484332_3040530627217_533674844_nThe family on my Mother’s side has a big reunion coming up in a few weeks. It’s the first reunion that won’t be attended by my Uncle Sam, a larger than life personality who from the time he was a teenager and his own Father died, had been the acting patriarch of his family. Sam Petramala passed away on March 29, 2014. This reunion will not be the same without him and I know that my Mother is one of the people who will feel his absence the most. A quick story: at another reunion a few years back, my Mother became suddenly ill and we had to take her to the emergency room, where we spent a good portion of one of the days. That evening, when my Uncle saw my Mom as we came back into the hotel, he burst into tears once he saw her. He was a 70-something year old man who wept at the thought of one of his baby sisters being in pain. He always was her protector and I believe, from his current vantage point, he still is. All this is to say that I know my Mom misses her brother and I thought that if I asked her to write about reunions, it would give her a chance to share a little about the brother who was like a father. He was a dear man and this family reunion will not be the same without him.

Reunions

Ray asked if I would write about a family reunion we are going to this month. Webster’s Dictionary said reunion is reuniting, the coming together of a group which has been separated for a period of time. I checked the Thesaurus and added these words: rejoining, reconciliation, homecoming, get together. The more I think about reunions, I realize there are many reunions. The military person returning home to his/her family. The excitement of seeing the smiling faces and shouts of children saying “daddy I missed you!” The family dog greets them with kisses (licks) on the face. What a happy reunion and wonderful day. Another reunion which has a bittersweet homecoming is the person who died serving his country, the casket draped with the American Flag. Just recently a service man from this area came home to his final resting place. 62 years he was separated from his family and friends. He casket was met at the airport in Tulsa and escorted home to Caney, Kansas. He was honored by so many people who never knew him just respected and appreciated what he did for his country.

Another bittersweet homecoming is to come together to celebrate the life of a person who has departed from us. It is said a funeral is for the living. I believe this. It’s a time when people come together to remember and celebrate the life of this person. We gather together to support each other as we mourn for this person. In our family, we recently came together to honor and celebrate the life of my brother Sam. He struggled the last three years of his life so we could make more memories with him. Now he is at his eternal home. Rest in peace, my brother. We all love and miss you so very much.

This month we will have a family reunion. It is an event which happens every two years. If I remember right it was started by a group of family who came together for a funeral. They decided we needed to meet for a happy occasion. Family will come from Canada, Utah, Colorado, and many more states to numerous to mention. It is a big event for us! It is a time to greet each other and renew our hearts and minds. There will be great food, (Italians always have food) games, a banquet, did I mention food, and on Sunday a family picnic with lots of food! We will play games, and recognized the oldest family member and the youngest family member. Lastly during this weekend we will share stories, pictures and we will remember those who went before us to their eternal home and they will greet us when we go to our final reunion.

My Sweet Mama

photo-39As I type this, my parents are driving from Kansas to Los Angeles to see me. My Mom won’t see this for a few days, perhaps not until after she gets home to Kansas in a couple of weeks. I love the fact that my Mom reads my blog, it keeps me from writing about things I probably shouldn’t write about.

A few days ago, I was swimming my laps and there was a woman, probably in her 30’s, who was attempting to swim in the lane next to me. She’d splash, flap her arms against the water, kick mightily. She had no sense that the water was there to buoy her, propel her even. She’d never had swim lessons, clearly. And I give her credit for being out there, with goggles and swim cap, no less, trying to figure it out. She made me think of my mother, who also never learned to swim. I think the reason I became a swimmer was because she wanted me to take swimming lessons every summer, she wanted me to have something she longed for as a child.

When you find out the story of people’s childhoods, sometimes you wonder how they ever made it to adulthood. If they’ve grown into a person who thrives, it’s even more of a miracle.

My Mother is the fourth of five children. Her Father died when she was two and she was raised by her Mother and three older brothers, Sam, Rocco and Mike. There was never very much money. Sometimes I lie awake at night worrying about money and (as far as I know) I don’t have 5 children to feed. I marvel that my Grandma, singlehandedly, could have raised 5 children to be 5 big-hearted, funny, smart, loyal adults, but she did.

There are things that my Mom missed out on by not growing up with a Father. Swimming lessons was the least of it. There were no Father-Daughter banquets, no one to make a Father’s Day card for, her brothers were the ones who taught her to drive.

And because my Grandmother worked so much and because she was one of 5, I think my Mother was always hungry for her love. At my Grandmother’s funeral, my Mother was so bereft she tried to crawl into her Mother’s casket as the family was saying their final goodbyes. Her brothers had to pull her away. I remember standing there, wondering if I should go to her or hang back. I was 20 at the time, not the best years in our particular Mother-Son relationship. I was a little embarrassed, but also I wondered if I might one day do the same thing with her one day. (My Mom and I have both probably seen the end of Imitation of Life one too many times, to be honest.)

I’m still haunted by the matriarchal character Violet Weston from August: Osage County, played onscreen by Meryl Streep. Her adulthood is so embittered because her childhood was so difficult and cruel. It made me think of my Mother, whose hardscrabble youth must have been similar, and yet she grew into my Mother, a woman who is loved by all who cross her path. A woman who always makes my favorite pork and potato burritos when I come home, a woman who is deeply sentimental about Lifetime Christmas movies, a woman who bakes butter pecan cookies for Eric every Christmas, a woman whose first words after her son came out to her were, “Nothing will change my love for you.”

My Mom’s favorite song is The Rose. Whenever it comes on the radio, she reminds me that this is the song she wants sung at her funeral. I won’t forget. I love the song almost as much as she does and though I’ve never told her, it always makes me think of her, too. If I had a dollar for every tear I’ve shed while listening to this song, I could buy my Mama a solid gold casket.

So, this song is for my Sweet Mama, I love her so.

Lineage

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I’ve been swimming at the same pool for about 4 years now.  You get to know the regulars over time and there is a Russian woman who reminds me of my grandmother.  She has one lane that she likes best so if I’m swimming in her lane, I usually offer to switch lanes with her.  She always thanks me profusely and tells me that I am a good boy, or something along those lines.  Once when I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day, she thanked me and told me I had good parents.  Today, after we switched lanes, she said, “You are good person.  You are your parents.  You are your grandparents.”  I think that what she was saying is that the people we are is greatly influenced by our lineage.  She proceeded to tell me that when she visits her kids who all live in different countries, they go to the market together and she’ll say to them, “Why are you buying this?  This is the same thing your grandmother always bought.  You are your grandmother.”  And then she told me again that I was my grandparents.

What struck me about the conversation was that my grandmother had been on my mind all morning.  Just last night, I was called on stage to share an impromptu story and I talked about my Grandma Sue, who played Scrabble with me and knitted clothes for my favorite stuffed animal Chim-Chim and was sometimes known to tie a scarf around her head, hold out her hand and mourn, “Alms for the poor?”.  In general, I was not one of those cute kids that adults took a shine to, but my Grandma always treated me like I was funny and interesting and smart, even though I was probably none of those things.  I talked about how I was 19 when she passed away and I wished that I’d had the opportunity to spend more time with her.  A few years ago, one of my cousins told me a story about a time when she and Grandma worked breakfast and lunch together at another cousin’s cafe.  After their shifts were over, they’d go across the street to the dive bar and drink tomato juice and beer cocktails for the rest of the afternoon.  When Vicki told me this, I realized what I feel like I missed by her dying when she did: we didn’t get to become friends, drinking buddies.  My Grandma loved happy hour as much I love happy hour, apparently.

So this loss was on my mind this morning, when my swim buddy told me that I WAS the person she reminds me of, the person who’d been in my thoughts for those 72 laps.  There are ways that I am like my Grandma Sue. When I go to Claro’s Italian market, I know I buy the same pepperoni and olives and provolone that she used to buy, the same items my parents buy.  Food and family were always at the center of her life and I feel that I am the same way.  My meatballs are a variation of my mother’s meatballs which are a variation of her mother’s meatballs that I can only assume goes back much further.  It is a lineage.  

So this morning, I felt like I received a gift. Not only the reminder that my Grandma Sue is still with me, but also, in a funny way, I am her.