Rabbit in the Moon

“The Rabbit in the Moon” – a pendant made by my father. I just found this one while cleaning up my office. I still need to polish it up, but here it is as I found it.

Dad made a lot of things like this; it’s one of the things I miss about him; his abstract logician’s mind turned concrete in silver.

He made these out of old silver coins (a 1940’s Australian florin in this case). He said he learned the skill in the army; he was in the south pacific in WWII, and spent long, tedious hours on troop ships. Jewelry was one of the ways he passed the time, sitting on deck to catch cooling breezes, working with small hand drills and files to shape bits of silver coin (in the days when coins were still made of silver).

The image is of the Rabbit, pushing a wheelbarrow down a hill; my father used to say the wheelbarrow contains “books with pale blue covers, about the goodness of life”.

Miss you, Dad.


Gangster Grandparents

Chuck and Cookie Dillingham, circa 1927.

My grandparents on my mother’s side.


(click to embiggen)

He was from southern Oklahoma. She was a daddy’s girl from Sherman Texas; her name was Hazel, though I never once heard her called anything but Cookie. They were drinkers, card players. She was a flapper with temper – he was an inveterate ladies man, a baseball fanatic, a guy who liked to dance. He was ten years her senior, a dashing, masculine figure who loved fast cars and what she called ‘dirty blonds’.

He worked for the merchant marine in the years after WWI, then later, after they married and had their one daughter, they ran a diner in Long Beach (Chuck ‘n Cookie’s Diner). Later, they lived in Reno where he made a living playing poker (often as a shill for casinos, one of those guys paid to play on the house’s dollar, to dither people to the tables).

Cookie named her daughter Greta, after Greta Garbo. She loved movies and elegance, and felt deep shame over her own working class background. Low-class, she’d say, her favorite adjective for anything she didn’t like. There was nothing more loathsome to her.

The list of things I don’t know about them is far too long; things I should have asked my mother to write down. I have only a handful of photos, and an old photo-diary of Cookie’s. I don’t know when or where or how they met – I don’t know if it was at some bonfire my lake Texoma, or at some wild jazz dancehall, or if they met in Long Beach where he worked in the ship yards.

When I knew them, they were a retired couple. He smelled like tobacco and smoke, from the pipe he always had in his mouth or his hand. She smelled of gin and butter mints, and always had a jar full of cookies (which as a child I found ironic – gramma Cookie gave us cookies). When I knew them, they lived in an odd, incredibly tidy upstairs apartment in Long Beach. We saw them rarely – we lived in mostly in norther californis, they in southern. A couple if visits a year at most, apart from the one year we spent in east north-east LA when my father worked at at Cal State).

Later, her drinking got away from her. She’d struggled, my mother told me later, for most of her life. She was the vodka-for-lunch type of drinker, the flask in the purse type. She was also, most likely, bi-polar or something similar; the mood swings were worse when she drank. One day she had what people used to call a ‘nervous breakdown wandered away, and no one saw or heard from her for a week.

My grandfather faded after that; Cookie was in and out of a home, never really the same. As his health failed, we moved him north. He lived with us for a couple of years, before his heart finally gave out. he was near 85, and still fierce and proud, listening to sports on the radio and smoking his pipe.

Cookie held on longer. Her mind trickled away slowly, and each visit was harder for my mother, as Cookie asked who are you and what have they done with my daughter.

I never knew them, not in any real way. My mother’s relationship with her mother was strange, hostile and bitter, and I Cookie only as a plump little story-book gramma who cooked and handed out snacks.

What I have of them, the image that for me most defines them, is the picture above. That picture sat on our mantle from the time Chuck moved into our house; I saw it every day when I lived at home, every time I visited my mother after I moved out.

Who knows what story lives behind that picture; honeymoon? Road trip south, for the wild border-land fun of 1927 mexico? My mother was born in late 1928, so cookie would soon lose her flapper’s figure to pregnancy (she never regained it.)

In my head though, they are Bonnie and Clyde. There’s a shotgun under the seat in the car, maybe a tommy gun in the rumble seat (hidden in a violin case, of course.) He’s got a .45 under that jacket, and a straight razor in his pocket. She’s got a little pearl-handle .25 in her bag, and has used it more than once.

The money they’ve been spending, on a romantic trip to Tijuana, is ill-got and quickly gone.

And whose shadow is it in the foreground? She took that picture? It’s ominous, somehow, and all the more when we imagine them wheeling away in a hail of bullets, maybe minutes after this picture is taken.

My grandparents never were gangsters. He was an average guy, who worked average jobs. They didn’t own weapons, or have a secret past. But that’s how I know them; the wild and dangerous young couple on the back of a model-T ford. She’s the very image of a moll, and there’s something about his shadowed eyes and the un-easy set of his hands that says potential for violence.

I love these people – these grandparents who never existed. I want to meet them, and hear the stories they’d tell. I want to visit Cookie in jail, bring her cigarettes, and ask her about the day the road ran out for them, and how it ended.

They have a story to tell, those two. I just don’t know what it is, yet.

RIP, one year later

One year ago tonight, my mother died.

It feels like many times longer than that; the only reason I’m certain it was only a year is by checking the death certificate.

This last year has been so absolutely brim full of business that I feel like I haven’t caught my breath but once or twice since she passed away.

365 days ago at this moment, I was sitting in a dark room, watching a heart monitor slow; waiting.

THe lead up to that night was an un-believable up curve of stress, as I watched my mother decline. I spent those last few weeks fighting with Kaiser to have them take her condition seriously, and tryinb to figure out how the fuck to get my mother into a nursing home without wiping out her small savings.

As it turned out, when a doctor at Kaiser finally took the time to look, that my mother was barely hanging on. Her lungs where shot to hell by a lifetime of smoking, and everything in her was only weeks away from shutdown, starving for oxygen, poisoned by the C02 she couldn’t fully exhale.

When we took her off CPAP machines are artificial respiration, and dialed the morphine up, it was the first time in three years that she didn’t look afraid.

“I’m so happy,” she said, almost her last words, as a high dose of morphine freed her from pain or care.

I watched her breathing slow, and resolved to stay til the end. But I didn’t make it.

She died around 6am Sunday, NOvember 9. 2008.

I don’t really know, even now, how I dealt with it. People kept tilling me it would hit me; but it didn’t, not in any huge way. There were tears, and sadness. But there was massive relief, a pressure and worry I’d carried for years, alone.

It’s only in the last few weeks I’ve been able to miss her; only as the last few items of estate business have gotten resolved that I’ve been able to think of my mother, the person, rather than my mother, the burden.

Missing her feels better than worrying; I welcome it.

worst october since last october

So here’s how it’s been the last month or so.

First, about a month ago, Barb had to go in for abdominal surgery – a long story, which maybe I’ll tell much later. The short version is that the surgery was more complicated than planned, lasted twice as long as planned, and had a much longer recovery than planned.

The week before surgery, one of my kids brought home some ailment, the primary symptoms of which were dizziness and fatigue. Barb came down with it the evening she came out of surgery. Which means that in addition to pain and wooziness and nausea from surgery, she had spectacularly bad bed spins for the better part of a week.

At this same time (the actual day oo surgery), my eleven year old daughter Ruby sprained her ankle so badly we all thought it was broken (clearly she inherited my feline grace; she did it by trying to walk while her foot was asleep). She wound up on crutches, barely able to move; her whole foot wine purple and her ankle swollen up like a grapefruit.

Also around this time, we took one of Olivia’s favorite pet rats (Eddie, which is short for Edgar Allen Poe) in to the vet to have a cyst on his foot looked at. The conclusion was that it wouldn’t heal, and the choices were looking like euthanasia, or amputation. Now, normally I’m opposed to major intervention of any kind with pets that don’t live more than a couple of years; but I think we all transferred a bit of worry about the rest of the members of the family onto this big gray lump of a rat; we made a choice that’s opposed to my rules, and had him de-legged.

Since that time, Barb has caught every ailment that goes around. She’s had two or three different cold-like viruses (one of which might have been swine flu, her doctor says, though he can’t tell for sure). The last round developed into – in order – a sinus infection, then bronchitis, and then into full-blown pneumonia, with a lovely case of pleurisy (just take a look at the famous cases for a fabulous list of people who died of pleurisy.). She was very close to needing to go back into the hospital. She’s been fighting that – with an array of meds that makes me very, very glad I have good health coverage) – for well over ten days, and is still unable to do much of anything.

So it’s been a bit of a rough patch.

Last week, Eddie (legless ed, eddie the tripod, eddie three legs) took a turn for the worse. He’d been healing well; he was moving around like a tiny fuzzy elephant seal, eating like a champ, and seemed happy to get picked up twice a day for his medications. We figured he was out of the woods. And then infection set it.

I again had to make that hard choice; follow my rules and euthanize, or spend more damned money. I broke my own rules again. The vet had to remove a hunk of infected muscle the size of a sugar cube, and then stapled him closed again and sent us home with a double dose of antibiotics.

We though we were losing him; he pulled out his staples and left behind something like you’d see on a battlefield. And then, suddenly, the wound started to fill over with granulation tissue, stopped weeping, and Eddie started to come out of his little house to greet us when we come to get him out. He’s back to moving loping like an elephant seal, pathetically clumsy and yet fully able to get around his cage. He’s not, as they say, out of the woods yet. But we’re starting to hope.

Eddie and Barb and Ruby all seem to be on the same schedule; Ruby just got put of her cast, Barb’s ailment is slowly receding, and Eddie the Gimp is looking better. So (I almost want to knock wood here) maybe we’re past the end of one of the worst octobers in memory (at least the worst since last October, but more on that later.

Amazingly, Olivia and I have gotten through all this without ever getting sick, despite stress and severe lack of sleep. I’ve missed way too much work due to my nurse-and-single-parent role this last month, and I’ve been at no better than half capacity when I’m there; but I haven’t picked up a case of the flu, haven’t come down with a sinus infection, didn’t pick up the swine flu.

Either there’s a crash coming, or it’s my immune system doing that hyperdrive thing it does when I’m under extreme stress. We’ll wait and see how that plays out this next week or two.

the things we do

This is what happens when you drink with videographers. You get your beach house weekend turned into a music video.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xp_QvObmulo&hl=en&fs=1&]

This was a long weekend in Dillion Beach, CA; four couples, three children, seven cameras, 20 bottles of wine, fifty oysters, many cases of beer, and no internet connection of cell phones.

It was over too soon, but now thanks to film maker Dave Manzo, we won’t be able to forget it.

my father’s voice

My relationship with my father was deeply immature.

By that I do not mean that either one of us individually was immature; though in fact we were, both of us.

I moved out, for all intents and purposes, when I was sixteen; living most of the time at a girlfriend’s house. When I was home, it was mostly to party with my brothers’s friends, or with my cousins who lived with my family at that time.

When I turned 18 I took a night job, sleeping all day and working til after midnight. We saw each other rarely, and I moved out officially not long after.

So when I describe our relationship as immature, what I mean is, the development of our relationship ended when I was still a teenager.

Once I was out of the house, my life went off it’s own way. I developed a career, a social life. I grew up. I made that glacial crawl from boy to man, with every mistake and triumph, every lesson in love, finance, job, every mistake with the law.

My father, though, never saw me group up. He knew me as that son who left, the one who’d visit on holidays. And I never got to know my father, the man. I only knew him as my father, the father.

My father, I know now, was a deeply cerebral man. A deep thinker. He taught himself mathematical systems; he studied statistics, semiotics, symbolic logic. He transcribed music into different keys for fun; not to play it (he had only a rudimentary ability as a musician, and no real appreciation for music in it’s own right); he did it because the intellection exercise of the system was, for him, relaxing.

When I was 19, I knew little of that, and understood none. I knew my father as an emotionally distant man, a man who was uncomfortable with teenagers. A sensitive man whose feelings were easily hurt. I knew him as a man who backed down too easily when his kids challenged him, and who never stopped thinking of them as babies.

It wasn’t an easy relationship for me; I am aggressive, argumentative, dominant, intolerant of weakness. Everything about me challenged my father. I had no respect for him; I had no idea there was anything to respect. In my brash teenage arrogance, I felt I already knew everything there was to know about the man.

There would have come a time, I think, when we’d have ‘met’ each other; when we’d gradually have found common ground and begun to listen, more than talk. We shared interests in science, semantics, logic. We shared interested in engineering and problem solving, in sports, in art, in jewelry, in language.

My brother Ian’s illness interrupted us.

It wasn’t simply that my brother was there, living with my parents for the last several years of his life. It was that my brother utterly dominated my parents life. It’s hard to say exactly why; something was fundamentally broken in the relationship. Certainly, the injury he suffered as a infant was the root of all this; my mother never in her life forgave herself for it. But more, it was the system they built around him. One in which his needs must be met, his well-being insured. In which all else was secondary to his care.

My parents were obsessive people. It’s why my father was so good at what he did; why he overcame his handicap (dyslexia) to become an expert is his field. It’s why my mother was so incredibly clever with language; she studied it every day of her life. They were incredibly organized, with filing systems I can’t even imagine building and maintaining. When they committed themselves to something, they would not let go of it. Once they accepted that my brother was broken and needed care beyond what a child normally needs, they never let go of that commitment.

Typically, when one has children of one’s own, the playing field levels somewhat. Parents relax into the easy role of grandparents; they witness their children as peers and parents. For some, this becomes a battleground, but for us, it would have been the opposite. MY mother, certainly, only got to know me as I am now after my father and brother were both gone.

Timing can be a bitch though. Ian’s decline began around the same time my first daughter was born. And my parents, with typical single-minded commitment to the role of caretaker, pushed the lesser task of grandparent aside. Later, they seemed to say; when Ian’s better and we have time.

We never had time. My brother’s care went on and on; he never got better. My father’s heart, weakened by a life of too much food, too much drink, and too much smoke, gave out under the stress. He died one morning, while I was in europe with own family.

He died without ever getting to know the grand child who was so much like him, and without he and I ever having a chance to know each other as men.

Today, I was clearing out files in what was once my father’s office, digging through decades of incomprehensible tests and papers, still in perfect, obsessive order. And I found words of my father’s, neatly filed.

I found business correspondence; letters between faculty members at San Jose State and Cal State LA. I found scholarly papers and cover letters to journals requesting consideration for publication.

I found letters to the editors of various newspapers, and a fan letter to Phil Frank, the writer of the comic strip ‘Farley’.

I found a poem or two, a number of essays, and even several short pieces of fiction.

I found my father’s voice in all this. I could hear him in my head; but not as he spoke to me. I heard him as he would have spoken to his colleagues. As he must have spoken to my mother when they were dating. I heard a strong, confident writer’s voice. A man who knows that his greatest gift is with language.

I felt as if I’d found a window into time, and could see the man – not the father, but the man that I never knew. Yet it was one-way; like a recording. I could hear this sliver of who he was, and I wanted to say, look, dad, that’s me too. You never met the man I am; you never heard my writer’s voice. You never saw me as I am with my peers, my friends, my co workers. YOU never saw me parent my children. You were gone too damned soon.

I sat on a dusty floor in the room that was once my pernets, with old type-written, hand corrected paper around me, and struggled to understand what my father did for a living; his words and obscure symbols as foreign to me as the code I write is to my children. But it didn’t matter that I couldn’t make sense of some point, debated in memos between my father and his his friend Lou. What mattered to me was the profound intellectual respect in the dialog. The confidence.

My father rarely showed his creativity and brilliance to his children. Once we’d passed the age where he could tell us bedtime stories, he seemed to lose track of who we were, and we of him. While our house held his paintings, I never saw him paint, and had no idea he could write.

There is so much there; drawer after drawer. I’ve only begun to delve into it, in all the dusty work of clearing out the fragments of my parents lives. But I look forward to something I never was able to do while he lived; getting to know my father, the man.

mouse time

It’s not the three-weeks-on-a-tropical-island I need. Or the live-on-a-sailboat-with-a-beautiful-girl I keep dreaming about.

But it’s better than being at work.

Tomorrow I’m taking the family down to visit the mouse, braving bone-chilling (for SO Cal) temperatures and holiday crowds.

Early December is one of the best times of the year to visit Disneyland; the park is decked out for xmas, teh Haunted Mansion is overlaid with ‘Nightmare Before Xmas’, and Small World is re-done with enough holiday twinkle to defrost even my scroogian heart. We’ve missed the perfect window, last week; but I’m hoping poor weather and terrible economy make for less crowding.

I need a whole lot more vacation than this though. Three days off work and then I’m back home. I’m hoping for a lot of recharging in a short period, which means I need extra sugar and plenty of Pirates and Haunted Mansion.

birthdays and burials

Some years I like to do something social for my birthday. When I turned forty, we rented an entire bar, and danced to funky tunes while drinking ‘chocolate cake’ cocktails.

Some years I’d rather do something solitary; two years ago I spent my birthday diving on the big island.

This year, I did something that wasn’t really exactly what I wanted to do for my 47th birthday; I buried my mother.

One of the things I shared with my mother was a profound dislike of nonsense. Thirteen years ago, she and I sat in a funeral parlor in Los Gatos California, and jokeed about the oddity of the process. The funeral director didn’t know how to react to us; he attempted to maintain an air of sympathetic dignity while we discussed using a cigar box to hold Ian’s ‘cremains’, luaghing at how it would have pissed him off because he hated smoking so much. The entire process struck us as odd and silly. Later that day, we had a similar conversation at a local cemetery, this time with someone who was able to acknowledge the oddness of his profession.

Some weeks later, we would stand on the grassy lawn of that cemetery interring my brothers ashes along with a rubber Bullwinkle.

The last funeral I attended was that of my father in law last spring; it was touching to see the outpouring of love and respect, and then later to hear ‘taps’ played while his casket was lowered into the ground. Yet he also misliked fuss and bother; the ceremony was for his wife. She’s an old-fashioned lady who likes things done correctly.

My mother wouldn’t have wanted that; she would have wanted to get it the hell over with; a feeling I share. So when I sat in those same seats a dozen years later, the answers were the same. No nonsense. Cremation. No casket. No funeral. Burial of the ashes only because we already had a plot. Just the cardboard box and the most basic bronze urn.

I joked about the cardboard box, and about caskets that look like furniture, and about the idea that dead bodies should be kept fresh. But no one laughed about it with me.

I choose the day I did – Friday November 28th – because it was a convenient day. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me.

Friday was an appropriately grim, cold gray day; I stood at noon shivering, on that same patch of grass that had taken my father’s body and my brother’s ashes, in the same cemetery where my grandparents lie side by side. Four below ground and five above; myself, my wife, my children, and my mother in law, the last living grandparent.

There was incense in the air from upwind, and the eerie skirl of bagpipes from down; burials with far more fuss and ceremony than ours. And as I waited for someone to bring out my mother’s ashes, the weight of death and sorrow struck me.

I hadn’t expected the rush of tears. I’d said my goodbye to my mother when I left her hospital room three weeks before; I’d let the tears come as much as they seemed to need to, and while the idea that she’s gone still shocks me now and then, I’d expected the same sort of dull ache of sadness that accompanied planting my brother.

I had to walk away; I grieve best in solitude.

After a bit, I wiped my eyes and came back; and with a quiet economy of motion, a groundskeeper brought out a small plastic box and removed the plywood and astro-turf lid from a shaft three feet deep in the clay. I wanted to tell my mother than she was going in the ground in something that looked like it should cool a six-pack.

I took the small metal urn, and placed it in the white casket. As when I stood alone with her in the hospital, waiting for her breathing to stop, I felt as if I should have something profound to say. That night, all that came to me was ‘goodbye, mom’.

This is where those who worship something have an advantage; they know what to say. I, though, had nothing but mute silence.

The groundskeeper took out a tube of super glue and fixed the lid in place, as if he were building some scale model of a casket. He carefully wrapped a strap around the box and lowered it into the earth, and then replaced the astroturf lid.

Five below, and five above. Now we’re even.

I could still smell incense; the bagpipes were gone. My family got into the car, and I took a walk. I tried to find my grandparents raves, feeling that somehow I needed to say hello to them, symbolically let them know their daughter now shared their address. But I took a wrong turn, and wound up in a row of child graves.

I’m come back later, I thought. You’re not going anywhere.

It was several long minutes, though, before I could pull myself together enough to get back in the car. As we drove to a nearby restaurant, Ruby quietly took my hand and held it.

Later that afternoon, we went back with flowers; red cyclamen for my family’s shared grave, white for my grandparents. My mother’s name is already on the small, flat stone; carved when the stone was set a dozen years ago. Too many names for so small a stone – Jack, Ian, and Greta. The plot is full now; but I don’t want my ashes in the ground in a suburban park in northern california. When I go, I’ve told my daughters, put what’s left in a sack with a weight and drop me down into the deepest ocean depths.

When I looked at my grandparents names, carved into red granite stones, it bothered me that my grandmother’s nickname – Cookie – wasn’t on the stone. Never once did I think of her, or address her – as her given name (Hazel). It bothered me also that her place of birth had been left off. My grandfather’s stone says ‘oklahoma’; hers should say ‘texas’. And I resolved to go back and fix it, and to fix my mother’s stone, which was done in haste. My mother wanted to be done with it, and hurried the choice without me. But the stone that is all that’s left of her life needs to say something about her, more than her name and the year of her birth.

The stones left to mark our graves will sit there a generation later. Strangers will stroll through the grass, looking for someone, or just looking. Grandchildren and great grandchildren, maybe, will look for a name they’ve seen on a family tree. That final marker should do more than just carry a name; it should say something about whomever it now represents.

It’s a silly thing, but markers mean something to me; before my next birthday, I need to fix that.