Family Roots

Saturday afternoon, St. Patrick’s Day, an unusual time for me to sit down to write, but some ideas began to percolate as I took a late morning shower and I want to at least get started seeing what they have to offer.

I am in in my office, having just taken care of printing a check rather than using bill pay.  The dog, as has become her wont, only came halfway upstairs.  I have been trying to figure out why she does not follow me all the way up.  This is not a major issue, but rather an engaging puzzle.  Assuming a high level of doggie intelligence, perhaps she understands that the upstairs is now foreign territory since we live so much on the main floor.  On a lower level of cognitive functioning, maybe the dog treats my being upstairs the same as if I had left the house altogether.  Or maybe she is just confused.  Or enjoys the sun coming through the window onto the landing.

I think I’ll go with the last possibility.

Carol is sleeping but might waken soon, so I will just start heading in the direction that is forming in my head, with the intention of picking it up later tonight or tomorrow.

Today, I have on my well-worn Guy Noir sweatshirt.  That fact is what demanded attention, and I will return to it, for it will bring me back to Carol.

But before that, mentioning St. Patrick’s Day reminds me how my father when he was on the job or  in a social situation where he wanted to establish his presence would refer to himself as “the big Irishman.”

That self-characterization was factually questionable on two levels.

First, although unquestionably muscular, even powerfully built, at 5’9” at an estimated 190 lbs., he was not an especially “big” man.  I am three inches taller and carry perhaps ten more pounds.

But I don’t think of myself as “big.”

My father chose to describe himself that way because he was not being literal minded, as I sometimes am.  Rather, he was accurately indicating the enormous strength in that ordinary sized body.  I have no argument looking at his statement from that perspective.

The second point is more interesting.  Why call himself Irish?

To be sure he was born in County Armagh. But his parents were recent immigrants from Lithuania, and by the time he was about five they had moved the family to Manchester, England, where I still have an extended family of first cousins and succeeding generations.

So his Irishness was really just a matter of accidental place of birth. Nothing more.

And yet he liked to refer to himself that way.  I never spoke with him about this preference, but in my own mind I thought I had it figured out.  He must have calculated, consciously or not, that it was more acceptable in America, his adopted country, to which he had emigrated when he was twenty, to be Irish.

More acceptable than what?

Than Jewish.

He did tell stories of the antisemitism, he had encountered growing up in Manchester.  Or maybe he just thought the Irish assimilated here more easily.

That speculation, no doubt, revealed his lack of awareness of how Irish immigrants had been so scorned when they arrived here that the Know Nothing party rose to national prominence in the middle of the nineteenth century riding the vehemence of its anti-Irish, anti-Catholic agenda.

Carol is stirring.  I will continue this.

Later the same afternoon.  Shutterfly just gave me an unwanted shock by sending an email, which opened up with a smiling Carol beaming back at me. 

A promotion.  Trying to sell its services.  The picture was from eight years ago on our trip to California.  The unexpected image struck me hard.

To resume, and complete this long introduction to where I want to go today, while my father was an immigrant, my mother was born in New York, the daughter of Ukrainian parents. The Brooklyn in which I was raised was populated by immigrants of various ethnic and cultural persuasions trying to become American.  Those of my generation had pretty much crossed over into that identity.

Carol’s family background could not be more different.  Her distant antecedents stretch back to the eighteenth century while the more recent ones have been farming on this peninsula since the middle of the nineteenth century.

If America with the exception of Native Americans is comprised of immigrants, some of them have been here a very long time.

Before I met Carol, I had never heard of Garrison Keeil0r, or the Prairie Home Companion, his radio variety show that presented his thoroughly Midwestern, what shall I call it, yes, a New York, Yiddish based word, his thoroughly, unapologetic Midwestern shtick.

I became a fan, and thus the Guy Noir sweatshirt featuring one of his characters I am wearing today, serving as an emblem of how to some extent I merged my New York formed identity with Carol’s.  In other ways I adopted some Midwestern traits, much to the surprise of at least one of my brothers-in-law.  I have learned to use a chainsaw and split wood for our stove.  I have somewhat expanded my knowledge of birds from the familiar pigeons of New York to the occasional eagle flying in our skies or the humming bird at our feeder.

And Carol had learned to love New York when she lived there, the diversity, the energy, the cosmopolitan perspective.  She taught herself to navigate the subway system and to deal with the much greater intensity of interpersonal interactions in the city although I suspect she was never completely comfortable with them, as I never fully adjusted to  Midwestern reserve and conflict avoidance.

Our thirty-six years together now almost equally divide between our respective geographical and cultural roots.

We are both different for having experienced our differences.

But one of us is losing awareness of who we’ve become and seems to be retreating back into who she had been.

As I loaded the dishwasher after supper this Tuesday evening, I saw on the window sill the spent yahrzeit that I had lit a day late.  I have the date marking the anniversary of my mother’s death on my calendar, but over the weekend I had lost track.  More importantly, however, and perhaps part of the reason the day slipped by unnoticed, is that Carol used to join me in this little candle lighting ceremony, yet another of her efforts to help me remember from whence I came.

Spring is trying to advance against the stubborn remnants of winter evident in the patches of snow still on the deck and grassy areas front and back of the house.  The roads, for now, are clear, and I sailed into town for my weekly shopping.

With the approach of warmer weather, we will soon hear the heavy thumping of diesel driven tractors as the farmers begin to prepare their orchards for the upcoming season.  Accustomed as I had been to city noises, these sounds don’t really bother me.

And I expect Carol rather enjoys them, that in her current estate they can remind her of her farm family roots.  This is so even though as a young woman she had made up her mind that, as she has said countless times, she wanted to get out into the larger world.

She did, traveling west to Minnesota and east to New York, from this small rural community to the unspeakably larger environment of the metropolitan area.  As my retirement approached, it seems as though she had seen enough and she felt again the pull of the land and its agricultural rhythms, and made it clear that she wanted to return home.

And so we did.

And I learned the new rhythm.  Up until then, I had long been accustomed to the structure of the academic calendar, fall semester, spring semester, summer, and back to the fall. What I experienced here was similar in having a defined pattern, a beginning, middle, and end contained within the boundaries defined by nature, and the different harvesting time of the local crops, primarily cherries first in the spring and ending with apples in the fall.

I am curious to see to what extent Carol this year will tune into the farming activity.  I’m guessing that the noises of the farm vehicles will stir memories from the time when she drove them, especially the cherry shaker.  Will she recall, as she so often did, that she was the first woman cherry shaker driver on this Peninsula?

I hope she does.

If her hold on the present is shaky, and her ability to think about the future pretty well gone, her long term memory can still provide ballast to steady her as she rides on the troubling waters of confusion.

Coming on midnight after a spectacularly uneventful day, uneventful that is with the exception of one phone call.  Another physical therapist called, this one strongly recommended by the practice supervising Carol’s care.  Apparently, he has had good success with dementia patients.  He will call again to set up an appointment. 

He represents, perhaps, our last best shot.

As our equally divided bookcases represent our different reading tastes, so, too, did our approaches to our arable land.  Carol’s strong visual sense motivated her to plant flowers.  She had definite ideas as to what colors she wanted and where she wanted them to be.  Her last impulse in this direction was a desire for yellow daffodils.  The spot that I suggested, to which she agreed, is a stretch of lawn between our two flowering crab apples.  Creating a planting bed was more than I wanted to undertake in my present circumstances, so I hired a local husband and wife landscaping business to do the job.

Carol had one good season to enjoy that mass of yellow (with a few white sprinkled in for variety).  This year, unless the new therapist has unexpected success that enables her to get to a window, she will not see them.

Although I appreciate the color of flowers, and when I was a kid in Brooklyn I found little patches of soil in our landlord’s yard where I was permitted to grow zinnias, as an adult I prefer to plant things I can eat.  So I have a vegetable garden in which I attempt, with mixed success, to grow beans, potatoes, tomatoes, and different other veggies in different years, such as corn, cucumbers, zucchini, and so forth.

Although I planted the vegetable garden, Carol enjoyed weeding it.  In fact, she liked nothing better than to sit in the dirt attending to plants, be they flowers or vegetables.

I look over to the hospital bed where my farm girl wife sleeps, largely unaware at least for now of the impending planting season.

If she can no longer go to the outside, perhaps I can figure a way to bring it inside to her.

Late Monday night after a difficult day that has left me with little energy.  Will get this section started and look to continue in the next day or two.

Having left Carol dozing late morning, I went upstairs to my office computer to work on Quicken in anticipation of a meeting with our tax preparer the end of the week.  I came down after about half an hour with a basket of laundry.  Glanced at Carol as I passed by.

She looked a little restless, and I thought about seeing if she wanted lunch.  Took the laundry downstairs, dumped it in the machine, and started the wash.

I remembered that I had intended to call the dentist to schedule my regular  cleaning.  Her office had send an automated phone reminder yesterday on a Sunday.  Unusual, but effective. I felt I should take care of that.  We have a land line phone downstairs, but I decided to call from upstairs.

I came back upstairs into the living room.

Carol was not lying as she had been.

Her whole body was shaking.  I approached her on the bed to ask what was the matter.

That was when I saw the blood coming out of her mouth, mixed with spittle, accompanied by a gurgling sound.

Stupidly I asked her again what was the matter.  Of course, she did not respond.  More blood came out of her mouth.  I found a washcloth, wet it, and wiped her mouth as the blood continued to spill out.

I talked to her.  She did not respond.  I took her hand, and she held on to it.

The shaking stopped.  So did the blood.

But still she did not speak.

I sat with her, holding her hand.  Her eyes kept moving from left to right, but I am not sure she was actually seeing anything.

When I was sure the shaking and the blood were not going to start up again, I called the practice and described the incident to the nurse, who said it sounded as though Carol had had another seizure. The blood, she said, likely came from Carol’s biting her tongue.  She wanted to know if I wanted to have her taken to the hospital.  I was not sure what the right thing to do was.  I said I wanted somebody to check her out.  What I meant was I did not know how to accomplish that, but that was what I wanted.  The nurse said she would move people around and send somebody out.

Enough for tonight.  I need sleep.

 

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3 Responses to Family Roots

  1. Kathleen flores says:

    Interesting. One of my great great , 2 or 3 greats ,not sure, grandfather’s, Andrew Weisman , immigrated here and changed his name to Harrington, to get a job on the railroad, as they would not hire Jewish. He also picked irish. Huh. Irish wasn,t real popular in those days either. Also, my Mexican hubby also burns candles to remember his mother. Must burn all the way down. So, I hope Carol remembered her farm memories, as my 2 summers on the cherry farm were fond memories for me. Hope it warms her heart. Hats off to you Steve.

  2. trudy carpenter says:

    Steve, that seizure must have been frightening. I’m so sorry. Fresh hell.
    Trudy

  3. Lowell Kleiman says:

    Steve,
    I fully appreciate the divergent backgrounds of yourself and Carol, as Sheila — my good wife and soul mate for 50 years — and I are also from distinct backgrounds. My family, jewish grandfolks arrived from Poland about the turn of the century, while Sheila’s grandfolks (also jewish) arrived about the same time from today’s Ukraine (but Romania back then.) My folks peddled pretzels and chestnuts while Sheila’s invested in fur coats and fancy feathered hats. They all succeeded but in very different ways. New York versus the mid-West or Brooklyn versus the upper West Side? You decide.

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