Monday, November 26, 2012


Mom's stroke woke up a lot of people. I don't guess I'd really ever known how many people really loved and respected my mom, but I should have. Mom was a high school math teacher for 30 years. Some of the people she'd worked with she'd worked with for decades.

 Around town, she'd taught generations of children. Some of the kids she met as teenagers later sent their own kids (and maybe once or twice, their grandchildren) to her classroom to learn quadratic equations and geometry, among other things.

Many of them remembered her long after they'd graduated. Every year or two mom would tell me about getting pulled over for speeding just outside of town (Pearisburg is kind of a speed trap). The cop was always someone she taught, who knew her name without ever looking at her driver's license. They always told  her, "Miss Lynch, please slow it down."

She never got a ticket.

Mom was a fixture at the high school. She chaperoned winter dances, sold tickets for football and basketball games and went to the prom more times than my sisters and myself combined (I sort of blew the curve on that. I skipped).

My mother was a cheerful club and activities booster, a begrudging, but faithful school bus monitor and a regular foil for whoever the principal was, but she was also one of the ladies called on when they needed food for a luncheon or a meeting. She was also quick to send flowers and make a casserole when somebody lost a husband, a wife or mother.

Her life wasn't entirely the school. She was president of the local Woman's Club, active with the town library board and dabbled with the local historical society. Since she retired, she'd been volunteering at the Senior Center, spent a lot of time assembling puzzles with widows 20 years her senior.

Support for Mom came pouring in, really. My sisters and I received emails and phone calls from people we probably hadn't spoken to in years. Within hours of her being admitted to the hospital, friends, colleagues and the occasional nemesis started coming by to check on her. Her room filled up with flowers, balloons and cards.

It was all very humbling and affirming: the love so many had for my mother.

It was also very sobering. I will never receive this kind of acceptance or affection. The career I've chosen doesn't lend itself to these kinds of attachments. The people I work with will mostly move along, take jobs in larger markets or else get out of the business entirely and try to make a living. Nothing feels permanent here.

Only a few of us will stay on for the long haul (if we're even allowed to) and we are by nature so scattered by our interests, ages and socioeconomic status. I work with a lot of strangers and I remember that writing is a solitary pursuit.

There is no extracting me from my occupation. The occupation is a vocation. I am a writer who works for a paper. If I were to give up "news" I'd be a writer who works at a convenience store or a writer who digs ditches for a living. 

To be a writer at all, you have to want to be alone more than other people. You have to like your own company.

And so I envied my mother for her friends and the well-wishers that rallied around her. I felt guilty, but not guilty enough to regret never having become a teacher. My mother has had, I think, a wonderful life. She's done much more than survived. She's thrived. I don't know that I would have.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Here Now Then

I was fumbling with my tie when I missed the call. My phone buzzed next, a message from my sister: "call me."

I did. Her words came out quickly, not in a jumble, which surprised me. Susan sounded so calm.

"Mom fell," she told me. "This morning, she fell down in the kitchen about six o'clock."

I looked at the microwave. It was 10:30. Holy shit.

"Laura found her," she added. "She and Mom were going to bring the girls and come up for a couple of days."


"Around nine."

My mother on the floor of her kitchen, unable to move for three hours. Dear God, it was a wonder she was still alive.

And then Susan told me what we all suspected: mom had been taking falls for a while now, for a couple of years. Her hip, we thought, was bad. She had trouble getting up stairs and walking or standing on hard surfaces for substantial lengths of time. It was hard on her knees and her ankles, too. She had arthritis and I figured it was the pain more than anything that drove her to retire. I think she'd have taught Algebra for another couple of years if her body would have allowed her.

Instead, she took retirement a couple of years ago. She seemed to like it. Mom visited my sisters every couple of weeks, spoiled her grandkids and in the last few months had added my home to the tour circuit. I loved that. I wanted my kids to know her better.

It helped that I had a home that didn't make me want to burn it to the ground just looking at it. It helped that my house doesn't have a lot of steps, just a couple to get onto the porch.

The driveway is misery, though...

Susan said she and my aunt were headed to Pearisburg and that she would keep me informed. There was little question that I would not be along shortly. It was serious, but not life-threatening, apparently. Both of my sisters and my aunt were going to be there.

I said I'd be up in a couple of days and that was what was expected. I'm the least useful of us and seemingly the most obligated. I'd be in the way.

I went to church, arrived, as usual, late, sat in my sinner's pew toward the back and waited for my girlfriend to finish her set with the choir.

"What's wrong?" She asked right off and I told her.

"Why are you here?"

 I had no idea.

"I needed to go somewhere. I needed to feel like everything was ok."

"You're not ok," she said. "Let's get out of here."

And as the preacher marched through the opening words of his sermon, she pulled me out of the room. She stared straight ahead and I found myself looking up toward the pulpit. The pastor's eyes, slightly puzzled, tracked our movement.

We went into town, ordered food and I tried to explain that it was OK. It was all OK. None of this was entirely unexpected. Mom had never really taken care of herself. She tended toward being healthy by default, didn't get sick very often, but she took shit care of herself. She ate garbage, didn't exercise and had diabetes --plus, she wasn't young.

I was still kind of rattled, but talking about it helped and then the phone rang.

This was Laura, who told me that I shouldn't worry. She was at the hospital and Mom was resting.

"But she's had a stroke," my sister told me.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Midgets on mainstreet

Two midgets were on either side of the street; red buckets in their little hands, out begging for change. Occasionally one of them shook a sign explaining who it was they were collecting money for, but it was hard to read in the harsh, midday sun. Cars leaving the parking lots of local churches, on their way to lunch, slowed to gawk or to read. A few stopped. One or two rolled down a window and dropped handfuls of coins or a little folding money into their pails.

I'd just come from a church myself and thought I might stop, if only to ask if they were really there. A couple of hours before I'd swallowed just enough cough medicine to make the light coming out of the sky look funny. My cough was mostly gone, but the world looked phony and I was filled with dread and fear. The service had been a strange one.

I've been going to church again now for a while. I seldom miss a Sunday, except when I go to visit my Mom or when my girlfriend tells me she's skipping. I go to see her and to try to fit into her life a little more.

That hasn't been entirely easy. Twice married with kids (plus I'm a a decade and a half her senior), there aren't that many who are openly and unreservedly supportive of me. I'm this goofy freak that represents all kinds of things that go against their beliefs, but everybody likes her so they only condemn me in the gentlest of terms.

It wears on me a little. She has friends who spend a little too much of their time coming up with new and novel reasons why I'm around.

It always works out to I'm using her. What I'm using her for changes every couple of months. So far, it's been sex and different kinds of emotional stability. Pretty soon, somebody will suggest that I'm after her money. 

Anyway, I like going to church with her. It feels good and right to sit next to her in the pew and everyone is nice, though I'm not really part of the congregation. Of course, everyone knows why I'm there. I'm not there for the weekly message or to worship. I'm not even there to impress her folks or the preacher with my fine churchgoing credentials. I just go to see my girl, which sounds vaguely blasphemous, except I do pay attention. I listen to every word that comes out of the preacher's mouth and when the choir sings, I don't join them, but I read the words in the hymnal.

I don't know if it counts. I'd like to think it does, but there are some days when nothing I do counts for much, but I still do the work, still do what I feel like I have to, even if I don't know how it will all work out.

It might be that one day, I'll feel something: the spirit will move me. It might be that it already has and I'm just as I'm supposed to be.

I saw something of myself in those two people collecting change. They were a pair who might not measure up well against others more perfect, but they were still willing to do what others wouldn't. They were brave enough stand out by the side of the road and ask for donations ten minutes after most people had already given all they planned to give to anybody for the entire week.

It might have seemed foolish by some, but I marveled at their faith and their courage. I want to be like that.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Storm: moveable feasts

I'm not entirely sure why I'm blogging about the aftermath of the storm now. That was months ago, but maybe I need to get it out of my system to move forward.

I was without power for nine days. At the time, I remember that I bitched about it almost non-stop. I remember feeling helpless and angry and frustrated. I remember being pissed off a the neighbors for keeping me half awake night after night and how the dog wouldn't let me sleep past daylight. I remember being hungry and sick of eating food out of a can and stale bread.

I also remember being invited to sleep in the spare rooms of friends or to share their garages, but I declined them. I was a little too proud. I hate feeling weak. I hate asking for help --or accepting it as only help.

During the power outage, I went to Lewisburg. Those were the shit sandwich posts. I still have a hard time believing that actually happened --not the part about the helpful racist or the asshole rent-a-cop --but the rest of it. I was pissed.

But that happened after the meal at the church gym in Sissonville and I'm still thinking about that.

I am no stranger to soup kitchens. A few summers ago, I ate at Manna Meal off and on for a couple of weeks. I thought it might be fun to write about. I was also dead tired of eating pinto beans twice a day every day and sick to death of where the money from the plasma center was invariably going --mostly into the tank of my car or for groceries.

I was so bitter and I was lying to everybody. 

I remember at Manna Meal, most of the people serving food were nice, but not all of them. Some of them looked at us all with real contempt. The cringed if our trays got too close to their hands. Admittedly, a few in the crowd of strays making their way through the line for slightly dated and kind of bland food were in need of a bath or something a bit stronger. There were ex-cons among the diners and no doubt, some of them had done things that no amount of time in a jail would actually atone for, but that wasn't the majority of us.

Most of the people I saw at Manna Meal were old or just poor. I sat next to people who brought their kids, others who walked using crutches and even one or two who watched the corners of the room like they thought something was looking back.

The community at Manna Meal was very different than the community at the church. The folks in Sissonville were neighbors and friends. Everyone belonged. We were all one.

At Manna Meal, there was "us" and the "other." On the one side were the Good Samaritans. On the other side were the strays. One side was superior to the other.

It wasn't that way at the church. The people behind the counter there didn't have power in their homes either. They weren't any better off than the people they served and had no reason to think otherwise. The serving of food wasn't a chore. They did it with joy and enthusiasm. They sweated and slaved and seemed to be glad to do it.

Those served also seemed grateful.

At Manna Meal, some of the folks took their meals with something approaching humility, but not everybody. After a while, I guess, you get tired of saying thank-you for something you're eating because you can't do better on your own. You might take the charity for granted and after a while, the people who serve, despite their better intentions, maybe sometimes feel a little slighted and unappreciated.

Maybe charity in small doses makes everyone feel better: the giver, the receiver and the observer. Perhaps charity as a way of life leads to bitterness and resentment, again for the giver, the receiver and the observer.

It's only an observation. There is no solution. People still need to get fed, even if we get tired of doling it out and they get tired of eating it.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Storm: food and lodging

There was a kind of giddy thrill to the outage and at first I was kind of a tourist. I didn't really feel all that involved. The power was off at the house, but I had running water. I had hot water and I also had a comfy job Saturday night in town, where the power was on and the air conditioning was fine. The television was out and so was the internet, but so what?

I didn't really mind. I had my books, my long suffering novel and coffee. I could plug my laptop and my cell phone charger into the wall and keep in touch --at least, while I was in town. Outside of the city limits, cell service became sketchy. To text or call my girlfriend, I had to climb the hill behind my house, stand over the downed apple tree just to get the meanest of signals.

The first couple of nights weren't that bad. I broke out the camping lanterns and the candles. We went to bed when the sun went down and got up as usual. My four-legged alarm clock was good to remind me when it was time to be up in case the battery powered clock failed.

But it was hard to sleep. The house trapped heat and even by opening the windows, there was little resembling a breeze to be found. At night, I sweated on top of the sheets and woke up thirsty. Then the neighbors brought out the diesel generators. They cranked them up at dusk and ran them all night. The machines growled endlessly. It was like bedding down next to a truck stop --but without the hookers.

Meals were bitter times. As long as I could stand it, I ate fruit, Nutella and banana sandwiches, and choked down cans of cold ravioli. When I couldn't, I bought hamburgers and pizza and hated myself for being weak. I drank warm, peach/mango Kool-Aid.

One night, I drove to Sissonville; took my son and we ate an awkward dinner with my girlfriend and her parents. The meal was at a local church that had turned their gym into a shelter. Lined up outside, generators the size of Uhaul trailers noisily generated the power for the lights, the stoves, the freezers and the air conditioners.

Inside, it seemed like half the town had turned out.

The food came from restaurants and grocery stores and was served by volunteers as quickly they could get it out. I ate whatever they gave me, except the chicken nuggets, which must have been meant to be deep-fried. Baked, the meat came pink.

Regardless, I was glad to get it. The pasta and ham wasn't Nutella or peanut butter or ravioli. They had salad and vegetables. The drinks were cold and there was this fragile sense of community, something that had shown up as unexpectedly as a spiderweb hanging from a tree branch in the front yard, something that was beautiful, but wouldn't last.

It was good to be among others struggling.