Yesterday was darkness, overcast and dreary. Then, as if the universe has some semblance of a sense of humor, just as dusk was coming on, it snowed for a while. Winston hated the snow. Given the arthritis and metric ton of metal in his leg, a natural aversion to the cold isn’t exactly shocking.
This morning, on the day after, was as bright and sunny a winter morning as you could hope to see. I won’t pretend that everything is ok or that I’ve even started adjusting to the new reality. There are still moments when loss is a deep, yawning chasm. Even with the rest of us in it, the house feels unnaturally empty for his absence. In the sunshine today, though, there were also moments of glimpsing what’s beyond all that. At least the big, manly, ugly cry sobbing has given way to a more manageable leaking about the eyes.
There’s not one second of the day I haven’t missed Winston’s slobbering, or the ponderous thump of his steps coming down the hall. Hell, I even started making breakfast for him today before catching myself and very nearly coming unglued.
Today I am immensely thankful for the long Anglo-Saxon tradition of quashing all the bad feelings and getting on with it – stiff upper lip and all that. The rest of my now diminished pack needs the best of me and the gods know that just now I need them more than ever.
Look, so here’s the thing about Senator Warren and President Trump… I just don’t care. Arguing the finer points of an Ancestry.com DNA test makes you both look even more ridiculous than usual. That’s no small task given the two pols in question and yet the two of them have managed to yet again exceed exceptions… or is it that they found a way to nudge the bar just a little bit lower?
It doesn’t matter a lick to me if you’re 1/2 Sub-Saharan African, or 1/3 Anglo-Saxon, or 1/4 Pacific Islander, or 1/1024 Native American. Sure, I guess those are all fun factoids to trot out at parties but beyond that they’re mostly irrelevant. It’s the kind of differentiation that feeds into my general eye-rolling when someone defines themselves as Irish-American, or African-American, or Japanese-American. While interesting from the historian’s perspective, or for those who study mass migration, knowing where your 12x great grandparents came from is largely a “so what” kind of declaration. Congrats, your ancestors were Welsh shepherds. Here’s a cookie.
If you say you want to live in a country where people don’t judge or make assumptions based on your background, heritage, skin color, or ancestral place of origin, trying being “just” a plain old American. No hyphen needed. No percentage necessary. Just tell me you are an American and that’s all I need to know.
If you live long enough you’re sure to noice there are moments where you repeat habits and patterns of past generations. Resist as much as you want and there are some elements of your parent’s personality that are sure to come through lound and clear despite all protestations to the contrary. As much as the big story today should be that Fortress Jeff is now manufacturing hot air six percent more efficiently than I was when the day started that is, in fact, not the big story… even if the projected savings on electrical and propane changes alone would have rated a mention here.
I’m writing here tonight not to sing the glory of high efficiency HVAC systems, but because I caught myself squarely in the midst of following my father’s footsteps. You see, when I walked through to the kitchen to brew up another coffee, I noticed the demolished remains of the old furnace laying on the driveway. Next to the shredded metal carcass of the furnace was a stack of 3-inch PVC pipe, the former intake and exhaust, that had been cut into neat eight foot lengths ready for disposal. Being my father’s son, of course, I couldn’t let perfectly good PVC pipe get thrown away.
Despite the fact that I have never in almost 40 years had a situation where I though, damn I wish I had a 16 foot length of 3-inch PVC pipe handy, I went out to the driveway and toted the two lengths that were clean cut and without joints back into the garage and leaned them in the corner. I laid them up “just in case,” against a day that when I need just exactly 8 or 16 feet of pipe to take on some project here at the house.
These lengths of pipe join sections of trex and 1×2 that came off the access ramp that use to be in the garage, several coffee cans of mismatched screws, nails, bolts, and nuts, a few smallish squares of drywall, and some leftover tile that matches my kitchen floor. All of it is material in waiting – most likely for a project or requirement that will never come – but ready just in case.
What Annoys Jeff this Week is usually the place where I vent my spleen each week. Most of the time it’s easy enough to cull the “top three” things from the list and give them each a little paragraph of exposition. Some weeks, this one included, offer what I can only describe as an embarrassment of riches. In fact this week it would be easier to discuss the few things that have not annoyed me in some way.
1. The critters. Despite the bills for care, feeding, and entertainment, I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever begrudged one of my animals anything. Regardless of the stupidity going on “out there” beyond the four walls of the house, they’re consistent in their affection and pleasure at seeing me every afternoon. Even the cat. Walking through the door to be greeted by a wave of fur and slobber is the high water mark of each and every day.
2. Living rural. Every time I switch on the television I find myself faced with an endless amount of stupid things happening. For the most part that coverage is dedicated to the things happening in major cities here at home and around the globe. Now I’m tuned in to the local news outlets closely enough to know that there’s plenty of stupidity happening in Cecil County, too. Fortunately, my little corner of the place is remarkably serene. Now there may still be plenty of stupidity happening nearby, but we have the common decency to (mostly) keep in behind closed doors.
3. Blood. You don’t get to pick your family. What you end up with seems to be mostly be left up to the luck of the draw. Let me say that knowing that, I feel like I’ve been given a very fortunate hand to play. I’m looking forward to that rare opportunity of spending some quality time with them this weekend.
If there’s anything else you can think of this week, it’s safe to just go ahead and assume that it has annoyed me at some point.
It doesn’t happen often, but there are some times, some moments, when I just don’t have the right words. Anything I manage to get down on the blank page feels somehow inadequate to the moment.
Saying a real goodbye is always a struggle. Saying a final goodbye almost beyond my weak capabilities. Since long before our written histories, honoring the dead was a task for the living. Maybe it should be hard to put those ideas into words. Maybe, at its core, goodbye should be something felt rather than something said.
Another of the too rapidly diminishing links to my youth is unexpectedly gone. My memories, though, remain – of summers spent “far away”, of learning to love the Chesapeake and those creatures that dwell on, in, and above its depths, of family in better times. Those memories remain and loom ever larger in my mind, making it that much harder to think of saying the inevitable goodbye.
As I’ve worked and reworked these few sentences tonight I keep coming back to a quote first heard long ago. One of our greatest warrior philosophers offered that “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” While it may be foolish, I’ll mourn tonight – but I’ll also be well and truly thankful that such a man lived.
This world is a little less warm and its light a little less bright for his passing.
In most parts of the country maybe people don’t really think of government as a family business. Here in the greater DC-Baltimore area – and in many small towns who find their employment life’s blood tied inextricably to dams, prisons, or other federal projects, it’s just one of those facts of life. In my last job it wasn’t at all unusual to find three or more generations of a family who have worked at one location since back before we had to go liberate Europe the second time. I have my own share of family who spent time working for or who are still on the payroll of their elderly Uncle.
I don’t know why it always comes as such a surprise to me when someone in the office mentions meeting a colleague’s wife, husband, mother, father, sister, or brother in the course of flailing around trying to get something accomplished. Jobs are competed, personnel specialists live for making sure the rules are followed, and still often the “best qualified” are those who were raised from birth hearing about the Byzantine intrigues, conference room power struggles, and petty office politics the place seems to engender. We might be the single largest employer in the country, but sometimes, aside from marathon meetings, epic delusions of grandeur, and billion dollar operating budgets, it does feel like we’re running the average mom and pop shop.
But then you get out to the parking lot – which would make the biggest of big box stores blush with inadequacy – and realize, no, it’s not at all mom and pop. It’s not the family business. And you really are located somewhere deep inside the belly of the beast.
There’s a certain smell to summer in proximity to the Chesapeake. It’s not the saltwater smell you find at the beach. It’s not the aggressive punch of decomposing plant matter in the wetlands right down along the water’s edge. It’s a smell I only know from a few miles inland. It’s salty and woody and vaguely marshy. It’s a good smell and a familiar one for me. For a few weeks during the hottest parts of the summer I’d catch it in St. Mary’s County when I lived down at the southern tip of the western shore. It’s here now, too, at the northern reaches of the Eastern.
My first memory of that smell, and where I remember it most distinctly, is an a little town in between those two points no one reading this would have ever heard of. It’s the smell of long ago summer visits to far away relatives, of horses, of learning to pick crabs and to shuck oysters, and swimming until the pool’s rough bottom had worn blisters on my toes. It’s s a smell of a simpler time, or at least one that seemed simpler by virtue of knowing so little about the world’s machinations. It’s the single smell I’ll (apparently) forever associate with one very specific place and time.
It’s not a smell I’ve ever encountered elsewhere in my travels – there’s no hint of it in Petersburg, or Honolulu, or Memphis. Oregon has its own particular smell of the old, deep woods and powerful running water, but it’s not at all the same. I picked up that fleeting scent a few nights ago. It’s that time of year. The instant recall and deeply fond memories of times and people long gone couldn’t possibly have been stronger. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being amazed at what small details the brain snatches for its own and hides away only to restore them with perfect clarity years and decades later.