by Norman Allen, guest contributor
For my father’s memorial service, my sister suggested that I stand before the congregation and say, “We’d like to share with you exactly what it was like to live with our father. So let’s have a moment of silence.”
It’s not that Dad didn’t speak, it’s that he didn’t speak about the personal. He could rant against George McGovern and lift Richard Nixon up as a god, but remain entirely silent about my sister’s adolescent breakdown. A few years later, he declared my hero Jimmy Carter the “greatest embarrassment the White House has ever seen,” but didn’t say a word about my recent emergence from the closet.
Dad built his life on the foundations of a suburban existence: retirement plans, company loyalty, and a close-knit family that gathered to wave him down the street each morning and waited each night for his return. True to his class and time, he made himself a Manhattan before dinner and smoked incessantly. No one was going to change that.
But behind this rigid façade lay a man tragically eager to please. As kids we could always talk him into a double-scoop cone, if we could just get him away from Mom. As an adult, I learned that this tendency went much deeper.
Dad went to medical school because his parents told him to. Failing that, he accepted their second choice and became a mechanical engineer. In a rare moment of intimacy, on a father-son camping trip to the High Sierra, he confessed that his dream was to be a park ranger. I wonder what his life would have been if he’d had the courage to follow that ambition. Perhaps he would have found his voice leading nature hikes and campfire programs.
Dad never broke the habit of trying to please his parents, but he made sure that we didn’t suffer the same fate. He applauded my high school theatricals and provided financial support for a creative college major. On my weekly calls home, he always made sure that I was writing, though he never inquired about the specifics.
True to his nature, he remained silent and stoic through my mother’s seven-year battle with cancer, and continued so when he was diagnosed himself two years after her death. During Dad’s final months, I bathed him, mopped up his bodily fluids, and listened for changes in his breathing. The only concern he voiced was for the future of his dog, an oversized Sheltie who watches as I write.
It was Dad’s Lutheran pastor who put his silence into context. Older congregants, he said, had expressed a need for guidance as they considered death’s approach. My father provided the model they were seeking. Church members who visited in his final weeks all returned with the same tale: Dad was quiet, uncomplaining, unafraid.
In the end, we didn’t ask for a moment of silence at Dad’s memorial service. Instead I shared a story about Saint Francis sending his brothers out to spread the Gospel and telling them, “If necessary, use words.” When one of Dad’s elderly neighbors caught my eye and smiled her appreciation, I knew we’d made the right choice.
Dad was a quiet man, but he renounced his parents’ prejudices, encouraged his children’s ambitions, overcame his own homophobia to welcome new family members, and remained a steady presence through his wife’s long illness. If St. Francis is right, and our actions speak louder than our words, you might say the man never shut up.
Norman Allen is a playwright living in Washington, DC. His plays include In The Garden (Charles MacArthur Award), Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award), and The House Halfway, to be produced at this summer’s Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments
by Jenny Ward McDonald, guest contributor
Last fall the idea to visit the family graveyard came to mind for the first time in ages. Día de Los Muertos seemed like the perfect excuse to make the journey. I allowed life and distance to keep me away, however, and I never went.
I am not Latina, but I did develop a strong appreciation for Mexican culture while studying midwifery on the Texas/Mexico border. When I moved home to Georgia, I kept a piece of Mexico in my heart. Since the first idea to celebrate my ancestors Mexican-style entered my mind last year, the urge had only grown stronger. So as November approached this year, I resolved to do it. I invited my two sisters. One said she’d bake a casserole and we planned to picnic at the cemetery. On October 31st, they both cancelled on me. I was determined, however, and went anyway.
by Angela Blake, guest contributor
Photo by Alicia Reiner/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I am from fire.
I’m from the fire my father had for life and the fire my mother had for living. His was fueled by parties, drugs, wit, and self-involvement, hers by longing, anger, spite, and sweat. He was vivid; he hit her skin like sunshine and she finally felt warmth from an external source. She smoldered. He was curious to know how her sweat turned to the steam that hovered over her skin. What was her heat source? How could someone burn so hot without catching fire?
In the end, he combusted, was consumed by his own fire. In his 30’s, he was raging out of control, in his 40’s he was a smoking pile of embers. Today, he’s ash. He is gray and the heft of him scatters with the slightest breeze. Even his wit burned away. His heat from the outside stoked her burning on the inside and she nearly exploded. She had to protect herself or be destroyed.
She put down her longing, anger, and spite and put in more sweat. She worked and struggled and toiled and fought — she sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat — until the steam rose and condensed and rose and condensed, protecting her from the fire that was him and keeping the burn inside of her. It was a kiln, churning and working — always working — to produce something better, something that wasn’t just burning away life, but something that was living. She wanted to go on living, she needed to keep on living. She couldn’t let him take her, too. She couldn’t be burned away too. She had to work, work, sweat, sweat, burn, burn!
And I was born. I was ignited and her steamy sweat cooled me so I wouldn’t burn away. His flames, her burning, my birth.
I am living with a pocket full of ashes and a stomach full of embers. I am from fire.
Angela Blake lives in South Bend, Indiana and regularly rants, rambles, and reflects on life as a black chick in the Midwest at Afro(ec)centric.
Angela submitted this essay in response to our call-out for readers to fill in the blank, “I am from…” If you’d like to finish this phrase and share something about yourself, your heritage, your geography, your interior mind, your imaginings or vulnerabilities, read the simple guidelines and submit your work for consideration.
by Leah Elliott, guest contributor
(photo: Leandro Pérez/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
I never used to go anywhere without my cell phone. It was not only a means of communication, but my sole timepiece, and not knowing the time made me crazy.
That all changed one afternoon when my oldest son was two years old. After four years of living in the Southwest and its two seasons of hot and hotter, we moved to the upper Midwest. I couldn’t wait to experience the change in seasons, so one crisp October day I packed up my son and a picnic lunch and headed to a nearby state park to see some fall colors.
When we arrived, I unfastened the buckles of his car seat, retrieved our lunch, and instinctively reached for my cell phone. Then I paused.
It was one of those rare days when I had no other obligations or deadlines. My husband was on a business trip, so there was no one waiting for us to come home. I asked myself, 'What if I just don’t worry about time today?'
I returned my cell phone to its resting place among the loose coins in front of the gear shift and turned my full attention to enjoying the afternoon with my son.
After our picnic lunch, we wandered over to a pile of fallen leaves. My son splashed through them up to his thighs, tossed them in the air, and giggled as I buried him over and over. “Wow!” he gushed appreciatively as gusts of wind rearranged the pile and made little leaf cyclones.
While he was enthralled, I felt myself growing bored and impatient. I wanted to pull out my “five more minutes” ultimatum and move on to something I deemed more interesting; but, without my phone, I would have had no way of knowing when five minutes had passed. Then I reminded myself, 'There is nothing you have to do today except be with your little boy.'
I gave myself over to the freedom of not worrying about what would come next. Right now, nothing mattered except sharing in my son’s joy of as he raced through those leaves.
We went for a walk and came to a bridge spanning a river. I let him run back and forth across it as many times as he wanted, a carefree “Whee!” accompanying each crossing. We wandered farther up the path. He peered at the insects hopping through the tall grass, and I was right there with him. The ability to share in his wonder and curiosity came naturally once I quit clinging to a preconceived schedule.
When he tired of walking, we headed back to the car. I welcomed the delay when some flowers caught his attention. We stooped and examined them to his satisfaction before moving on.
I can’t tell you whether that afternoon lasted one hour or four, but I do know that we both had the time of our lives. Eckhart Tolle points out that humans existed for millennia without clocks. Our modern obsession with time perplexes me when I remember this. I wish for less attachment to time. I wish for more afternoons when time doesn’t matter. I wish for my son’s ability to be fully in the present moment.
I have to live by the clock day-to-day to keep appointments, interact with the adults in my life, and meet my children’s all-important bedtime deadline each night. Whenever I can, though, I put all my clocks out of sight and out of mind. I let my children take the lead and slip into their world, where nothing matters but the present moment and time is reckoned in hugs and laughs instead of hours and minutes.
Leah Elliott lives with her two sons in Fargo, North Dakota, where she is working on a master’s degree in vocal performance. She blogs about carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism at The Whole of All the Earth.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Get published by forwarding your original work on our submissions page.Comments
by Kate Moos, executive producer
In the late 1980’s, an unlikely series of events carried me to Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to meet high-ranking political figures and rebel leaders. But, it was an unexpected encounter with an unknown woman in Managua during La Gritería that made the trip so memorable and changed the way I see the Advent season forever.
Back then, Ronald Reagan was the sitting president, the nuclear clock was ticking loudly, hemispheric relations were fraught with Cold War geopolitics, and the deployment of the state of Minnesota’s National Guard troops in central Honduras was part of a foreign policy that became a focal point for protest and debate. The state actually filed a lawsuit contesting the federal government’s authority to deploy the state militia overseas. Its significance is hard to grasp now, when our “weekend warriors” are an integral part of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was a different military and a different time then.
Revolutionary governments in the region were thought to destabilize American interests, even potentially the Panama Canal. In Nicaragua, the revolutionary Sandinistas toppled Anastasio Samoza, the last of a dynastic dictatorship. In El Salvador, “the disappeared” was a terrifying coinage used to describe the thousands of people who were killed by death squads.
In the midst of this as a local news reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, I accompanied a group of attorneys and lawmakers on a trip intending to learn about the long history of human rights abuses in the region, an important piece of history this blog post can’t begin to retell, and explore the constitutional and legal safeguards of those rights.
We had an exhausting itinerary and were being received by the highest ranks of Central American governments. We met with then-president José Napoleón Duarte in the presidential palace in San Salvador. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega came to meet with us in Managua.
These were, without exaggeration, dangerous times in Central America. As we rode from Sandino International Airport to the city of San Salvador, one of our guides nodded down a road where, a few years earlier, a Salvadoran death squad had murdered a group of church women. A couple days later we stood at the tomb of the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, all but enveloped by flowers and cards containing personal prayers and petitions from the faithful. …Comments
Maria Clara Paulino, guest contributor
In response to Speaking of Faith's show about the brutality of regimes around the world and the question of the people who disappear — and their children — I thought I would share with you a scene from my childhood in Portugal during the country’s fascist regime that lasted for almost 40 years and ended in 1974.
I wake up in the middle of the night, as I often do, and walk slowly down the steps of the long staircase. I am eight years old. I come to join my father, who sits in his office listening to a small voice coming from a small radio. The sound is muffled; the words sound detached. I do not understand what it says.
He smiles at the sight of my face peering through the crack of the door.
“So, you’re up,” he says.
That is all he ever says, and I am free to come in or go back. I like that freedom. I sit on his reading couch; the leather is cold to the touch at first, but softening and embracing as I sink into it. Soon he forgets that I am there.
But today he asks me to sit facing him. His voice is stern: “It may be a good idea not to sing this melody outside of this room.”
For brief moments, like now, when the voice that says things I don’t understand stops, a melody fills the air. It is always the same. It is beautiful, and I often carry it into the light of day like a fragment of a dream. Earlier, my mother had given me a concerned look as I left for school, bag full of books, the melody drifting from my lips.
“Not outside this room,” he repeats. “Will you remember?”
I nod, silently. The man’s voice drones on. I stare at the radio. “What is he saying?”
My father looks troubled by the question. “It’s the BBC radio service, in English.” There is a long pause while he chooses the words. “They tell you the truth about what is happening around the world — and in our country too.”
The leather under me goes cold and hard, and my hands curl and cry with sweat. My heart thuds against my chest, trying to fly from the question searing through me: “Will they take you away too, like they took Maria’s father?”
I am looking at his hair; his face is buried in his hands. I want to pin him down and not let him ever leave this room.
Then he looks up. “Yes, that may happen one day. On that day and every other day until I come back, if people ask you, ‘Where is your father,’ hold your head high and tell them. Listen, listen carefully. This is what you will tell them: ‘My father has been arrested because he believes in freedom.’”
We are looking in each others’ eyes now and I see it all clearly: I cannot hold my father in this room, nor can I hold my heart still. I cannot even hold on to me. I watch my childhood leave so suddenly there is no time for remembrance or reckoning.
“Will you do that? Can you do that?” His urgency brings me back. And a voice I do not yet know answers, “Yes.”
Ms. Paulino teaches English Literature and Art History at the University of Winthrop and at the University of Porto in Portugal. She currently lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina and has recently started a personal blog where she writes about “musings on a home in-between: languages, places, ways of seeing.”
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.