Mother’s Day came and went like the walleye fishing opener. Father’s Day will pass like Grandma’s Marathon. Spring has arrived in Minnesota.
The neighborhood streets have been swept clean of the leftover winter crud just ahead of the annual tree bud, pollen, blossom and seed fallout from arboreal awakening. Fallen blossom petals from boulevard crabapples tint the street pink. Maples launch helicopters. Natural litter.
I haven’t seen this phase of spring at our house in five years. The past five Mothers Days we celebrated in Paris, Zug, London, Lake Como and Rome, all with our daughter and her family living in Europe, except last year when we planned to visit again but they moved home sooner than planned but Roxanne and I went to Europe anyway. We would go away in April (air fare what it is if you go to Europe you might as well go a month) and return before Memorial Day to an overgrown yard (maybe mowed one time by our son Vincent to discourage wildlife nesting) and morass of weedy garden we fondly call the jungle. We usually arrived in time to see our sparse gangly, spindly poppies bloom but too late for daffodils and tulips and usually missing out on the neighbors’ lilacs and the riot of crabapple. We would pick up with the hostas, lilies and phlox. Weed the weeds. Catch up. As Minnesota goes it’s already summer in progress by the time we came home.
This year it’s good to be here. Instead of someone else’s spring — Vondelpark, Rigi, Tuileres, Hyde Park, Parque del Retiro, Parc Guell — it’s good to be right here. Home. Buffalo Acres. The day to day of April and May. Who knew we have six red tulips in the jungle, a pink one and one white? We have a daffodil — yellow! Pink peonies? Really? All the autumn and winter detritus removed a month sooner, weeds clear, those poppies are shorter and sturdier this year. Roxanne sprouted zinneas, bachelor buttons, cosmos and sunflowers in a rack of indoor starter pots on the window seat last month and they transplanted nicely — Minnesota nicely — in the weeded gaps in the jungle flower beds. Roxanne has thinned the rampant prairie grass and laid cypress mulch around the borders of the house and garage where the day lilies dominate. We have pruned more bushes so far than we would usually do by mid-July, just to have something to do.
The birds are back. The sun rises before six and sets after eight-thirty. Yellow dandelions — by the time we saw the dandelions they were white puffballs. And cute little purple flowers amid the grass — some call it Creeping Charlie but I call it Ground Ivy.
Meet my old friend Moe — Moe Delaun.
It feels more rhythmic this year keeping up than playing catch-up. A month gallivanting around Europe then leads to a frantic catching up at home. This year we’re pitching in at home at a relaxed speed. When we were in Europe we sometimes talked about things awaiting us back home, well now as we do these things at a zen pace in real time we discover more put-off domestic details to attend to, chores and projects to undertake to pass the time and tidy up for the closing stages of life. Poking in the garden gives me moments to remember and savor our travels and the places we’ve gone and not feel sorry for a bucket list of unfulfilled dreams.
Married 45 years next year Roxanne and I have lived a charmed life, simply put. Our romance nearing fifty years goes like the eternal flame of the sun.
They say some men marry their mothers. Not me.
Mothers Day reminds me every year how different they were as people, as women and as mothers. About the only two things they had in common were each were strikingly good looking and both highly intelligent.
My mom passed away eleven years ago just a while after Mother’s Day and just before the Memorial Day weekend. Sudden. Heart attack. Not quite 73 years old. I used to cringe at the approach of Mother’s Day for its conflict between attention to my mom and the mother of my own kids, plus Roxanne’s mom and eventually our own daughter becoming a mom — for me it was like a holiday of anxiety like some people experience Thanksgiving. When my mom died the liberation simplified Mother’s Day so much for me it was like the transformation of Scrooge. I could pay more attention to the mothers I really liked, Roxanne and daughter Michel. The past years in Europe gave the day an exalted and exotic status. The more recent passing of my mother-in-law simplified things a little more.
This year for some reason I’m given to what Huckleberry Finn called the fan-tods, a melancholy bout of reflection. I feel guilty I wasn’t nicer to my mom. I wasn’t mean. I just wasn’t nicer.
For example I never took her to Ireland. It’s every son of an Irish descended American mother’s duty to take her on a trip to the Old Sod, but I resisted, put it on my much younger brothers Sean and Kevin who never did it either (though they came close, Sean went with her to Paris when he was in the Air Force stationed in Belgium, and Kevin once went with her to Hawaii to visit Sean, again stationed in the Air Force). I knew deep in my heart I could not travel with her. She was no Roxanne.
My mother’s name was Colleen Kelly. She was known far and wide as Kitty. Charismatic, she was regarded as colorfully eccentric to outright mad crazy. Her grandchildren called her Mimi.
I was her oldest child. Oldest of ten. She called me by my middle name, Michael, or Mickey, and for the first four or so years of my life I thought I was Michael Sturgis and my nickname was Buff or Buffy. You may wonder why my surname is that of my mother, Kelly, and not my father, Sturgis. My father, Dick Sturgis, allegedly and admittedly named me Buffalo Michael Sturgis instead of Michael Kelly Sturgis behind my mom’s back, filling out and signing my birth certificate at the hospital while my mom reveled in the heroics of her labor and delivery. He named me after his best friend in the world, a guy named Buffalo Denny, who died in a car crash in Michigan when I was about ten. It was a hard loss for my dad to bear but he claimed he got over it. As he used to say, none of us gets out of here alive.
Dad was Richard George Sturgis. Dick Sturgis. Dad loved his name was Dick. Proud to introduce himself as Dick Sturgis. Business card said Dick Sturgis. He was a car salesman.
Sold Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Ford, Dodge, Plymouth, Rambler, whatever was hot. Made a good living. Always drove a big new demo. (Mom always drove a late model Cadillac convertible. With so many kids we needed a big car and mom refused to drive a station wagon.) He loved selling cars, closing deals. He worked usually six days a week, open till closing. He would have worked seven days a week if Minnesota law allowed car dealerships to open Sundays.
He sold imports for a while. As a joke one weekend to get Mom’s goat he brought home a demo Renault Dauphine, that of the two horns, town and country, honk honk, bee-beep.
Dad’s favorite story was the time he sold a Ferrari Mexico Coupe. His friend Mr Denny, my namesake, had followed Dad into the car business and they worked together at Riviera Imports on Hennepin Ave. Guy came into the showroom and fell in love with a scarlet red Ferrari 340 Mexico Coupe. Didn’t have the cash and couldn’t get financed. He offered a stack of utility bearer bonds. Mr Denny was my dad’s boss, the guy my dad went into the office to okay tough deals. They took the bearer bonds, drew up the papers and closed the deal. Soon as the coupe was out of sight towards Lake Calhoun, Mr Denny and my dad took off downtown to find a broker by closing time to cash the bonds. Turned out they were worth thousands over face value and earned them both the fattest commission ever in 1950s dollars. Plus they heard from the customer the next day, called long distance from Albuquerque, he needed to order an engine because he’d blown the coupe’s engine doing 180 mph in the New Mexico desert on Route 66.
I cannot say my dad and I were close. Being the oldest kid meant I knew him the longest, not that I knew him well. He was kind to all his kids, all ten of us. Never laid a hand on Mom except in self-defense. He simply wasn’t around much. When he was around or we went places and did things together he seemed like a fun guy. He was not our disciplinarian — no wait till your father comes home because that could be really, really late into the middle of the night. He worked. He hung out after work with his friends. He played golf . He drank. He womanized.
Mom kicked him out for keeps when I was in 8th grade. Kevin wasn’t even born yet. I was 13. Mom organized a ceremony, filed papers for the sheriff to evict him. She might as well have hired a color guard. In front of the neighbors. My sisters cried. Mom explained to us that Dad wasn’t around anyway, he might as well live somewhere else, we wouldn’t miss him.
She immediately went on a dating spree. It lasted decades. Years later when my sisters and I talked about Mom we imagined she was making up for the adolescence she lost married to Dad at sixteen. Married at sixteen and not even pregnant. Dad was eighteen. Grandma Mary, Dick’s mother, tried to politely describe how hot Dick and Colleen were hot for each other. Efforts tried to keep them apart — Colleen sent to boarding school, Dick exiled down to his uncle’s farm — but Colleen ran away from boarding school when the nuns kicked her out and she tracked Dick down at the farm. Dick converted to Catholicism for Colleen.
There must have been some kind of fraud committed to get their marriage license. Grandpa Kelly, my mom’s dad, was a lawyer and probably could have found grounds for annulment, but apparently he told Colleen, you made your bed so lie in it.
Their teenage marriage presaged the era of Chuck Berry and you would have hoped his song about the teenage wedding would come true: “C’est la vie say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.”
It took about fifteen years but ten kids later it all crashed.
Along with the divorce decree Mom took advantage of the court to change her name back to Kelly. While at it she legally changed her kids’ names to Kelly too. We were all minors awarded to her custody after all. So I became Buffalo Michael Kelly. At the same time she changed the youngest kid’s first name from Peter to Kevin. If she was really out to get revenge on Dad I don’t know why she didn’t change my full name while she had the chance.
She called me Michael until I started kindergarten, when school insisted on calling you by your true legal name — no nicknames allowed, especially at St Simon of Cyrene. My name exposed a sore point with my mom, the shame from the nuns and devout Catholics for not naming her child after a saint. She faced this at my baptism and corrected herself by naming her next two Kathleen and Bernadette. But with the fourth child she lapsed — there is no St Molly. Or Kerry. Sean may be a play on John, or not. Then Meaghan, Heather and Mavourneen. Then Peter, who within his first year would be Kevin. All suddenly Kellys.
The real Kellys — Mom’s kin — didn’t like that though Grandpa Kelly was dead, Grandma was remarried and Mom’s only siblings raised Kelly were sisters and married, none left named Kelly except now Mom. And us.
I did not mourn my loss of being named Sturgis. I still don’t mind even though it divorced me from from my father’s heritage, sketchy as it is. My Grandma Mary, dad’s mom, already had a different surname, McMann, having divorced my grandfather after WWII, remarrying and starting a new family, migrating to Ft Wayne, Indiana. Her family name was Farmer, and since she only had a sister and her own father was an only child, there were no known relatives named Farmer. They say my Grandma Mary’s mother’s name was Mueller, maybe Danish, born in Iceland and migrated through Canada. My grandfather George on my dad’s side was pretty much a ghost, completely absent and uninvolved in our family — people said he was intimidated by my mom. Mom said he didn’t like children. I only recall meeting him twice when I was a little boy and don’t recall a warm, beguiling grandpa. I think I resigned my dropping the name Sturgis less than disloyalty to a dad and his clan than going with the flow. At thirteen my family fell apart and my life crashed.
Within the parish of St Simon of Cyrene our status imploded with the scandal of divorce. Shunned. Rumors raged about an affair with a popular parish priest named Father Kevin who abruptly got transferred across the archdiocese. Mom was summarily and almost ceremoniously excommunicated from the Catholic Church, though she pretended she wasn’t whenever it suited her and she continued to take holy communion at other parish churches the rest of her life whenever she wanted to be Catholic. (Dad was excommunicated too but couldn’t have cared less; Sundays instead of mass he could be found drinking coffee at the Krispy Kreme, smoking Camels and reading a paperback by somebody like Mickey Spillane. The divorce relieved him eternally from Easter Duty and liberated him for more golf.) I graduated eighth grade as Buffalo Kelly with transcripts from St Simon of Cyrene. Mom enrolled me at the Academy of St Bernard high school, a college prep program, defying a perfect chance to integrate me into the public school system because my mom didn’t trust public schools, especially for her gifted eldest son. Years later she told people I attended Stanford when I was actually at San Diego City College.
In a short time we lost our house to foreclosure and more or less got run out of town, the Sturgis deadbeats. Exiled from our cozy suburban residence, we embarked on a series of commorancies — temporary places to live — in the inner city.
It could have been a fresh start. Single mom, ten kids, an opportunity to prove something and do extraordinary things. Instead we leaped headfirst down the rabbit hole of dysfunction. Our mom could have organized us as the family who persevered and created a home culture of quality aspirations. Instead she led us into haphazard anarchy treading down a mill of despair. She wasn’t just a bad role model, she was no role model at all. Oddly she preached the air of nobility when in fact she led us in the ways of the riffraff.
Lip service was paid to values of getting an education, practicing good manners, owning personal responsibility and treating others with respect and dignity. No fungible guidance on how to behave. Didn’t read to her little children. No plan to sustain stability to survive and prosper as a family unit. We could have been contenders.
I say “we” because I choose to accept some of the blame. As the oldest child I failed as a leader of my siblings to set an alternative example and maintain order to our household. I realize it wasn’t my role to be parent and guardian to my nine sisters and brothers. I and my two next sisters, Kathleen, called Leenie, and Bernadette, and to an extent the next one, Molly, rather wise and street savvy beyond her years, all under the age of 16, formed an alliance to keep things going — laundry, housecleaning, feeding the little ones, dressing them, reading to them, in Kevin’s case (we still called him Petey) changing diapers — covering for Mom day to day while she was out gadflying and days when she barely got herself out of bed. We used to have a cook and housekeeper helping us do chores, and now we did it all ourselves — good thing the kindly lady taught us how. We couldn’t keep up. We fell behind in school, except Bernadette who had priorities and was the first to crack and say, this isn’t my job. We had no social lives. No extended family. No parents. I gave up.
With a new name our family could have made a new life of at least above average prosperity if Mom had used her intelligence and personality, connections, peculiar tastes and talents to persevere somehow in basically raising her kids to, in turn, persevere in intelligent pursuits and develop talents. Instead she burned every bridge, freaked out, played the victim, overdosed, told everybody to go to hell and we all squandered chance after chance to be normal.
Dad meanwhile drifted further away living his own version of the playboy life. Hugh Hefner. Frank Sinatra. James Bond. Vito Corleone. He fought the divorce, though ineptly — Mom scorned him he didn’t fight enough, acted weakly — and lost. He was delinquent in support payments from day one into eternity. Mom had trust fund income from her late father’s estate, enough, my dad reasoned, to sustain a decent, average household economy if managed unextravagantly, in his opinion. She schemed to deny him visitation with his kids because he withheld child support and spousal maintenance, so he held back making support payments because she had her own money and wouldn’t allow him to see his kids. This went on forever, literally, which was long after Dad virtually disappeared from just about everyone’s life.
Within two years of the divorce Dick Sturgis left the Twin Cities in disgrace. An accused swindler, known deadbeat, philanderer, boozer and cheat, he would say he was a sharp negotiator, shrewd businessman who played by the same rules as everybody else. No criminal charges pending, he stayed employed somewhere, maybe despite his reputation, and maybe because of his notoriety, until the last year or so of his life, until his charm wore off and his health gave out before he even reached Social Security.
The time around my parents’ divorce was the unhappiest years of my life. At first I refused to concede that it made any difference in my life. I denied my parents had any real influence on me. They fought so wickedly, there was promise of peace and quiet if they kept apart. I used to secretly hope they would break up just to stop the fighting, and then when my wish came true and the fighting changed to something else, and I began to understand more what they fought about and realized they were trying to destroy each other with bad choices, almost deliberately. I blamed them now for their selfishness, destroying our family making reckless choices. I blamed them for corrupting me into believing that they were the adults who knew what they were doing. I figured if Mom could gin up the confidence to get married and go on her own at sixteen, then surely I her gifted child of almost that same age (aided further along by technological advances of the 20th century — don’t think that didn’t figure in my judgment) with a little help could manage our household until Mom stabilized and things could get normal.
I had hope something good would come of the divorce but it kept getting worse. Dad took off for Wisconsin. Mom embarked on a series of boyfriend trips to places like Acapulco and Honolulu, escalating the dating binge which lasted most of the rest of her life, searching for her own Ari Onassis. Maybe Dick and Colleen were victims of all that Free Love of the 1960s. Maybe it was the epidemic of identity crises sweeping through the culture in those days. Mom and I argued. I would passive-aggressively accuse her of child abandonment and she would scold me for disrespecting her and telling her what to do, then slap my face. Once I dodged the slap and she smacked a door jamb and told everybody I broke her finger.
Ultimately I gave up. I ran away from home.
Somehow Mom finagled our new parish to subsidize my tuition to the Academy of St Bernard, an all boys school, but midway through my sophomore year the school was contemplating not having me back as a junior. I was not gifted. I got a job at a cinema, and with a little money of my own I stayed out late, came home when I pleased, hitch-hiked flagrantly, drank beer and whiskey. After passing my driver’s test (in one of Mom’s boyfriends’ Grand Prix) I took up driving around in cars borrowed from parents of naughty girls, cruising the parkways in the middle of the night listening to the radio and looking for places to park. I smart-talked adults. I cut classes. At St Bernard I got caught passing a pornographic poem about Adam and Eve. When the principal — the Dean of Men, he was called — let me off with a warning, he impressed me with his milk of mercy when he stressed he would not inform my parents this time. He didn’t know it would make no difference.
Dick and Colleen were way beyond this or any future wake up calls regarding the nurture of their kids. We are fortunate indeed to not have ended up way worse. Some of us wandered and the younger ones were virtually born into a wilderness. We could have been devoured by predators or lost in the flood, all together or one by one. As things turned out, we all outlived our parents and their mistakes without committing fatal mistakes of our own, unguided or unwittingly flirting with danger or bumbling into life ignorant and unaware of higher expectations or opportunities to do better. Helped or hampered by white privilege, our family never came under investigation by the system of child and family protection. Even if anonymously tipped off, the social workers were busy working welfare cases far more dire and egregious of abuse and neglect than our mere white trashy dysfunction. Even white trash privilege offers expectation that a family like ours can figure it out and survive without bureaucratic intervention.
Two of us served prison time. Both as advanced adults. Molly went to the state pen in Pierre, South Dakota for repeat drunk driving. Bernadette did time at the federal pen at Lexington, Kentucky for kidnapping a newborn infant from a hospital nursery in Las Cruces, New Mexico the year after our dad died. Molly’s crime illustrates her stubborn sense of exceptionalism and the family propensity to alcoholism. Bernadette’s is significant because she was the most accomplished of the ten of us, a masters degree in nursing and working on a doctorate in public health, and she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Her defense presented a case that severe childhood abuse caused her to have multiple personalities and an uncontrolled other and not the real Bernadette masterminded the kidnapping of the baby. To prove her defense she presented a story of horror at the hands of our mom’s brutality and rage, and named me as Mom’s chief enforcer, putting us both on trial charged with driving her insane. She expected Leenie and Molly to corroborate her stories and expected me to confess and testify, to get even with Mom and set her free. We all had grudges against Mom but this was hardly the time or place to get even, so none of us were willing to go into federal court to condemn our mother just to help Bernadette skip the consequences of kidnapping a baby. Of all us siblings, Bernadette was crafty and bold, one who had run away from home the furthest and maintained the greatest distance — some of us joke that she is our family’s only Only Child. She told the US attorney our mom used to threaten to give us away to the Indians if we misbehaved. She didn’t strengthen any bonds portraying us as a sub-trailer trash clan. Her anecdotal fabrications and exaggerations weren’t far off the mark but they just weren’t true. I for one spent hours with the FBI and US attorney being questioned in anticipation of being called to testify for the prosecution. In the end the judge rejected the insanity plea. She lost on appeal. She served time. She remains remorseless about her strategy, and the irony remains that our mother’s abusive and neglectful behavior probably did drive Bernadette crazy. Along with the rest of us one way or another.
Delinquencies. Depression. Identity crises. (Bernadette apparently had four.) Therapy. Drugs and alcohol. Therapy. AA. Religion. Two penal incarcerations. Could have been worse. No psycho killers.
Success stories? Leenie became a special ed teacher. Molly owned a roadside cafe in Deadwood. Kerry is a manufacturing superintendent. Meaghan a registered nurse. Heather is a champion equestrian and runs her own cleaning business. Sean enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school and retired to Florida as a Top Sergeant after 27 years. Kevin, whom we still occasionally call Petey, owns a piece of a business that remanufactures manufacturing equipment. Mavourneen is an office admin in upstate New York. Bernadette practices holistic medicine under the alias Dr Lourdes Sturgis somewhere in west central Virginia. All functionally employable, even me.
Dad eventually turned up a little over a year before Bernadette kidnapped the baby. On a Greyhound from Miami, where he lived in Liberty City where he had a flophouse room at a sort of halfassed-halfway house after being released from detox, and where he wore two pairs of pants to keep his wallet and cash in the pockets of his inner pair, Dick Sturgis returned to the Twin Cities with a secret case of melanoma and an obviously bad liver. Fired from his last job telemarketing hearing aids in south Florida for being drunk on the job and tipping over in his chair (lost the appeal on his workers comp case) he moved in with his father, who was long retired from the highway department down in Miami Beach. Then Grandpa George died and his brother, my dad’s uncle Bob representing grandpa’s estate, kicked Dad out of the house. When the time limit for his stay at the shelter in Liberty City ran out, he cadged bus fare to Minneapolis.
He moved in with his aunt, his mother’s sister, Aunt Winnie — for some odd reason we kids called her Aunt Weenie — rhymes with Leenie — behind her back. She was a dear gnarly lady who loved to read fiction like John O’Hara, always sympathetic to us wild kids though she never did anything. She lived alone and widowed in a senior high rise, well into her 80s. Like Dad she liked to drink. They chummed it up like it was some kind of old times. Dad expired one afternoon in Aunt Winnie’s bathroom in a bloody mess from gastrointestinal hemorrhage induced by heavy drinking. Aunt Winnie felt badly about it the rest of her days but laid some of the blame on me for not responding to a voice message she left on my home phone while I was at work, and when I got home he was already dead. The medical examiner told me there was nothing I could have done, he was dead as soon as he hit the tile.
Mom paid for his cremation. She also got his spousal benefits from Social Security.
Mom lived about fifteen years more than Dad. It can be said that in the years after kicking the last of her brood out of the nest she settled down and took a semblance of control over the drama of her life. Too late for us kids to benefit but by then none of us were dependent on her to survive. At some point she began to depend on us, for emotional outreach, to reconstitute our past to reinsert herself into our own version of extended family and make herself know to her grandchildren. She matured, showed some impulse control and discipline in conducting her personal life. It may have been the influence of a boyfriend who actually gave her good advice she listened to.
During the wild years after the divorce Mom was shunned by her family as the black sheep — they actually called her that to her face — which by extension is why my siblings and I barely know our cousins to this day, and few of us remember our grandma on Mom’s side, or our aunts, Mom’s sisters. We were all shunned — except Bernadette who got a job as an assistant au pair for one of our aunt’s neighbors — as bad influences on the cousins. Only when Grandma died did Mom begin to reconcile with her sisters, but that did not include the rest of her brood — they called us a brood, and also a tribe and a pack.
When Grandma died in the 1980s Grandpa’s trust fund dissolved and Mom finally came into some assets. A lot of us held our breath watching to see if she would blow her inheritance and buy the Brooklyn Bridge. She bought a townhome — no kids — in a modestly posh suburb. She got a reputable funds manager and attorney. No longer living hand to mouth on the stricture of the trust income — Mom never worked except as a local fashion model when I was little — and dodging creditors, hoping God would provide, now she paid her bills on time, balanced her checkbook and filed back tax returns. She got a part time job as a restaurant hostess to pay into Social Security. She bought a Camaro convertible.
For a minute there I thought she might get her high school diploma and go to college.
It’s one thing to forgive your parents for not being perfect, but it’s another thing to let them get away with not even being good. Good parents make sacrifices for the welfare of their children. My parents sacrificed their children. Mom would say she did the best she could, but I doubt it, I know she could have done better and she didn’t. Rather than punish her and Dad forever in my heart I’m inclined to believe living well is the best revenge.
“Don’t judge me,” Mom would say, and I would judge. “Buffy, God put you on this earth to be my son, not tell me what to do,” she said — when she called me Buffy I knew she was displeased. And I would criticize. She did what she wanted regardless. It was all I could do to recognize being sucked into the same friction and spite that demonized my dad.
I lived with my dad off and on in my teenage runaway years, in Wisconsin and California before he dropped out of sight. You could say I mooched him good. I say we weren’t very close, didn’t confide in each other much, kept a certain privacy, but I observed him more than he observed me. I did not want to be like him, suave and convivial gentleman as he was. He was old school debonair. A playboy. Ladies man. Sharp dresser. Republican, even in the face of his socialist mother and aunt. I did admire his taste in Aramis cologne though. I even tried golf as a little kid, never got any good at it and never shared his game. He never taught me how to rebuild a carburetor. As I did with my mother, I eyed Dad from the perspective of of the inside outsider who thinks he knows too much, only with Dad I kept my cynical opinions to myself. Let him do the talking about politics, not that I feared him I just didn’t need to bait him to hear him out. I told myself there must be a universe out there that didn’t depend on fast talking wheeling and dealing. We could talk sports but I did not appreciate his concern for the over and under, as I didn’t make bets.
When he would reminisce about my mom he was clear she was the love of his life. They didn’t have ten kids from sleeping in a narrow bed. There was cold resignation and willful detachment when he spoke about their past and sometimes he confessed he was glad it was over, like a stint in the army. He said he thought it was the best for the kids he stayed out of their lives, kept things uncomplicated from the strife with Mom. He accepted that Mom poisoned our minds against him as if he deserved it. “You know Colleen,” he’d say. “She always wins.”
When he eventually showed up the summer before he died he knew he faced some hairy eyeballs. At our little memorial thing we held at my house with his ashes in the plastic bag inside the plastic urn, Mom acknowledged it took some guts for him to show his face and look us in the eye. No one disagreed even as some testified they would never forgive him for ditching us.
When Dad reminisced about his old friend my alleged namesake Mr Denny, he would get chillingly unsentimental as he concluded reciting the facts as if he were a third party to their friendship, almost third person. Yet in his blue eyes there was a glimmer of a persona who wanted to express uncharacteristic emotion, love and grief, that he rationalized away like he rationalized away his lost marriage and fatherhood.
Mr Denny had all the world going for him. He was on his way to open his very own Chevrolet dealership in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The world by the ass. Just out of Indiana, south of Kalamazoo, there was an accident and he died. Back then we called them car accidents. Today they are called crashes, as though there are no accidents. Dad never ventured into the details of the crash that killed his friend, whose fault, only that it was a Sunday night, not especially late, and his friend was driving alone on a highway in Michigan on his way to open his very own Chevy dealership in Grand Rapids and bang he was dead. That’s how my dad would tell it. “None of us gets out of here alive.”
Mom on the other hand had an exquisite funeral at the Basilica, attended by everyone who ever knew her who was still alive (except her old night club friend Mona, who couldn’t get a flight out of Florida) and they tolled the bells at the procession out of the cathedral’s front doors and down the stairs to the hearse for Colleen’s last ride in a Cadillac.
I never took my mom to Ireland, or became a priest, but eventually I scattered her ashes in Galway Bay. Best I could do.
The first time I saw Roxanne was at a Target store where I was standing in a checkout line to buy a Mother’s Day card for my mom and Roxanne was the Target cashier. Roxanne was the prettiest girl I ever saw in my life. Our encounter was purely transactional, overwith as quick as you can say $2.03, but I saw she wore a nametag with a dymo label — Roxanne. So began the courtship of the mother of my kids.
Unless it was a Hallmark my mom would hardly read it, no matter how verbose the prose. Other brands like American Greeting and Carlton cards to her were low class. To tick her off I would give her cards from Papyrus and Shoe Box.
Roxanne and I don’t exchange cards anymore, just engaging glances and blown kisses.
We are better parents than my parents. I know that’s self righteous. I recall a time when I didn’t believe I would ever have kids, afraid I would screw them up. (I also used to fantasize that if I ever had kids I would get a court order to keep my mother away from them so she wouldn’t somehow screw them up.) I didn’t want the responsibility of misguiding a fresh life. As it was, Roxanne and I were married five years before we had Michel and I was 30 when Vincent was born. Roxanne deserves celestial credit for bringing about the best from our kids and evoking the best from me as a father.
Instead of exploring more Europe, running away from home to ruminate the past of western culture, making up for a lost education, catching up with things my parents were apparently unaware to pass on as important to know, this spring I’m staying home. Memorial Day would be our usual homecoming holiday. This year I’m already here. Stuck in my own roots and history, struck by what informs my own character. Memorial Day is officially to commemorate dead soldiers and sailors, but for me — it’s dubious whether my family tree includes anybody who served in the armed forces, though Roxanne’s dad served under Patton and her grandfather served during WWI — I tend to include all the dead in my commemoration. My parents. My mother who died on a Memorial Day weekend readily comes to mind. Memorial Day is like my own personal Dia de Los Muertos. The past five years it’s been an occasion mixed with reveries of Mother’s Day in exotic locales with daughter and grandkids and jealousy that my parents didn’t raise me in Europe. Or take me there on vacation. Or send me there to college. This year, at home this whole while, my fingers dirty with my own dirt, American soil, putzing in the yard and contemplating having this hundred year old house painted so it looks nice another ten years, it’s as much like Thanksgiving for me as Day of the Dead. Nothing turned out so bad. It is what it is, and if I’m unhappy I have only myself to blame.
I’m actually happy.
It doesn’t matter to me whether I am or am not remotely related to a fallen lieutenant who died at Little Big Horn — I don’t see how we could be related if the men in that family traditionally went to West Point — or whether my dad’s dad was named after George Armstrong Custer. I am relieved I got through life without my name associated with a motorcycle festival although I could have drank and dined forever telling tall tales about being named Sturgis.
After my dad died Aunt Weenie told me my dad’s friend Mr Denny’s real name was Byron, Buffalo was his nickname. It doesn’t change a thing. No matter.
Whatever genetic combination that composes me, I am nobody’s copy. Not even as much likeness as one tulip in the jungle one spring to the next. No pretensions of noble blood of any tribe, there’s no tracing ancestors of my own at the empire capitals of Europe but rather to trace the paths of my descendants. My grandkids could have been in Manchester to see Ariana Grande.
In its common context the term “American soil” is mostly used as something being defended, but it literally means the dirt in yards and gardens like mine. I can guess that ten thousand, or one thousand years ago no wild peonies grew on this lot, or tulips, crocuses or daffodils, as it was not somebody’s lot back then but possibly a fen or a glen. I am stuck with it now, the hundred year old house and it’s detached garage, but everybody has to live somewhere. Ending up here is not so bad. The neighborhood may only go back a hundred years but the culture of the people around this land goes back thousands and thousands, comes from a population of various people who in some way imported themselves and their ways from some other place than this continent except the aboriginal native people, who also have been said to first arrived crossing a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska. On days like this.
My people are mutts. We are a litter of mutts. Woof. Domesticated.
Hear the birds at dawn. They chatter all day, birdsongs in tongues. Bird rap. Mating songs, call and response. Later in the summer they won’t sing so much, so urgently, so all at once.
Another year. Mothers Day. Memorial Day. Fathers Day. I am a better parent than my parent isn’t saying much, their bar set so low. This old homestead, my Buffalo Acres, is where my kids grew up. Where I raised my kids. I look around this place and I can see measures of memories of ways I was a good parent, a good father.
Except for once when my teenage daughter lit into me about risking all our lives for choosing to live in the ghetto, my kids have expressed no resentments against me or their mom, though they tease me from time to time about when I would cloister myself upstairs in the loft to write a book as if I lived up there with an imaginary family.
Michel is modest with verbal praise. Vincent says if anything we were too nice and not strict enough. That makes me feel good because I see what good people he and his sister are and what good lives they live, and I can proudly think my kids took advantage of parental too-niceness and turned it into a positive outcome.
In myself I see my parents, but not as a copy. I like to think I see actualization of their best traits, my dad’s gift of gab, his memory and recall, his taste in clothes, and I admire in a strange way the cynical edge he used to perceive the world and yet he played along. I catch myself and my brothers using mannerisms like his and wonder if it’s from our physical similarities, because neither Sean nor Kevin spent enough time with Dad to learn to imitate him. One the phone my son Vincent sounds like the voice of Dick Sturgis speaking.
Mom comes out in all us kids, especially my sisters as can be expected. I feel we are fulfilling her potential. Bipolar as she was, when she was manic nobody could match her zest for life. We channel her arrogance as self confidence tested by our own trials and errors. My sisters who benefited from the assertion of feminist power in their lifetimes got no support from Mom, who clung to a biblical belief that women should always subjugate themselves to men, who believed mothers should not work outside the home and scorned her daughters for pursuing jobs and careers, who espoused ladylike behavior and despised feminist politicians, especially Hillary Clinton who wore pant suits. Mom’s most admired women included Phyllis Schlafly, Anita Bryant and Nancy Reagan and she used to make fun of Eleanor Roosevelt for having a weak chin and buck teeth. Michele Bachmann was her kind of gal. I don’t know where Mom came to embrace arch conservative politics, maybe originating from her father, a corporate attorney, or her mother, a self-styled southern belle, but it seemed when I was a kid she raised us as JFK liberals. After the divorce she veered off towards Billy Graham and consorted with evangelical partisans and bible study conservatives. She had a crush on George W Bush, thought he was one handsome devil, and one can only speculate what she would think of our current president. She didn’t live long enough to see Barack Obama coming, but she was always on guard against Hillary Clinton — it was almost funny how Mom saw her as an archvillainess, and when we wanted to mess with her we only had to mention Hillary Clinton’s name. It’s unfair to wish our mom had been like Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, or even Aunt Weenie or her sister Grandma Mary, but Mom had ample chance to catch on to progressive politics but chose not to go there. In some ways she benefited from feminist cultural changes in her lifetime without supporting the cause, like getting the wages without having to join the union. Still, my sisters benefit, Roxanne, my daughter, and my grandchildren benefit from the gains women have made in modern society in my lifetime and fulfilling potential my mother did not dare to develop.
My daughter Michel has some of my mom’s good looks. I see the future there. I see my mom if she had gone off to college and worked for a living, had a good life and dear marriage without so much drama and baggage and still have an interesting life. If my mom had had a good mother, and she did not. As I aspired to be a better parent than my mom, I see Michel and Sid trying to be even better parents, and that means the cycle of generational dysfunction is broken, I am confident of that. The last thing I want to teach my grandkids is that it’s normal to disrespect grandparents. Same with my own kids who grew up around Mimi and formed their own impressions of the Kelly matriarch without the help of my exposition, and I am chuffed that they remember her with kindness. It was only recently, maybe when she was living in Europe or just after she got back, it dawned on me Michel’s voice sounds like my mom’s. She may have inherited Mimi’s vocal chords, or maybe my sense of hearing is adapting to my memory, but I hear my mother’s voice in my daughter. That comforts me. It recalls a time in my life when I was unconditionally loved, when I was Michael or Mickey. It echoes what my mom sounded like if she were a mom like Michel.
If wishes were horses then beggars would ride, my dad used to say.
If Michel ever calls me Buffy I know I’m in deep trouble.
Taking another quote out of context, William Faulkner’s, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Funny when you come across a saying like that in your mind when you’re pruning yews. Looking at the house and eying it up for a paint job that might last another ten years, I should live so long. Past. Future. Now. Dead.
Mom’s heart gave out in the ER of a Colorado trauma hospital. She was not alone, Leenie was with her. Mom was visiting Leenie on a long weekend — just because you moved away from Minnesota you didn’t get to avoid Mom, she would come visit you. Mom had a heart attack at Leenie’s, and Leenie drove her to the trauma center where she died.
I got the call about 3:30 in the morning. It came as quite a shock. Everybody knew Mom had cardiac risk — her father died of a heart attack at the age of 59 — but it seemed Mom possessed an eternal flame, nobody saw it coming, herself least of all. She seemed immortal. She lived like she was a goddess.
Eleven Mothers Days Memorial Days ago. We all realistically believed Mom would age into gradually degenerating health but live long enough to spend all her assets on palliative care. Not so. We thought we would end up looking after her like she never looked after us, and in one night we were orphans. If it took our entire lives to get over our miserable childhoods, in one night it was all over, no more Mom to bind us, no more need to think of Mom in the future tense, she was suddenly past. Part of my grief was dealing with feelings that it was the best thing that ever happened to my sisters and brothers that they were suddenly free, but I dared not say so. All these years hoping Mom would finally get fixed, love us the way we each wanted to be loved, behave in a manner that did not embarrass us, stop ragging about our flaws, accept boundaries and respect our privacies, in one night everything was solved. No more recriminations. No more need for a fix. It tells me something that nobody called me to remember her passing.
All caught up with yard chores in time for a rainy day. The atmosphere here at the 45th parallel trends warmer overnight even as the days are not too hot, a hard freeze way unlikely. With atmospheric changes come storms, but the air is stable today if damp. The forecast says partly sunny. It’s amazing how lush and green the vegetation is this year. Like this is how everything always should be. Equilibrium.
Serene. In the canon of faith based recovery programs is a philosophical gem they call the Serenity Prayer. It essentially asks of oneself to accept what one cannot change and to take courage to change what one can, and hopes for the wisdom to know the difference. It’s that last part, knowing the difference, the wisdom part, where I stall. Ruminate. Look for the secret patterns. Where does responsibility begin and end? What is courage? The weather ball is green — no change foreseen.
If not change, at least there is maintenance.
I have been blessed with a charmed life. Graced. It’s about what comes next — I’m getting old now, chronologically. In percentage of life expectancy I can say I’ve already lived most of my life’s adventure already, yet I’m in a place where I can pick and choose the quality of what remains.
If this spring is different from others it’s the observation of the full passage of the season, a culmination of an era rather than a beginning. A reverse of autumn, un-fall, this spring goads me to look backwards and inwards for something to link myself, some kind of unified field theory of my existence, an internet of things about myself, a je ne sais quois, something that defies words but is not a new beginning but defines what is. That’s apparently all I ask. I would like to see Grand Canyon again. And Eiffel Tower. No going back in time, I go there in my mind, and if I go again it will be new. Somewhere in my memory bank is my long ago childhood, someplace not lost, noplace to return. Lessons learned. What I look forward to is summertime and I’d rather not start the cycle over with amnesia.