Same Train, Different Day

How Daddy and my godfather were best friends as young men still eludes me.  When I knew them both, there was nothing similar in either their approaches or attitudes toward life. Still, if opposites attract, then perhaps therein lay the explanation.

My godfather was Italian descent and worked as an accountant for Southern Pacific Railroad.  My godmother worked at a meat packing factory, so she was never a stay-at-home housewife until retirement.  They were married for as many years as my folks, but had raised no children of their own.

Because of different family commitments and schedules, it was seldom that the two couples actually spent much time together socially anymore.  But on occasion, we’d be invited to their home for a Saturday dinner.  Their invitation was special and we young ones were always included! Mom would dress us in our best clothes and wear a nice dress herself.  Even Daddy wore a nice shirt and a sport coat for the occasion!

Fortunately, the two childhood friends married women who truly enjoyed each others’ company.  Once we arrived, Mom spent time visiting in the kitchen.  Theirs was one of the few kitchens in which my mother could actually remain “company”, sitting to enjoy her drink. My godmother was usually finishing up the salad.

Winnie and I were served Shirley Temples for our cocktails, and could choose to stay in the kitchen with Mom or move out front to the living room and listen to my godfather and Daddy going back and forth.  During those evenings, three things were a given:

  • By the middle of the second round of cocktails, the two men would already be at odds over the day’s political issues;
  • The Italian dinner served would be exceptional; and
  • Waiting for us on the coffee table were two brand new coloring books with boxes of Crayola crayons.

Each visit, the books were the same.  The pictures to color were pen and ink illustrations of the sights and sounds found along the SP route.  New boxes of crayons helped make coloring the familiar pictures bearable, but given the colored photos and topics, creativity was limited; orange groves would always be orange. So would the mountains always remain brown and grey, just like their color photograph counterparts included alongside each black and white page.

Ultimately, Daddy and my godfather would begin to run down.  Before we left for home, my godmother would open her freezer and place some small ham steaks, sausages, and bacon from the meat plant in a bag for us to take home to enjoy.

At the end of the evening, we’d hop in the car for the short trip home. Most of the conversation was about how wonderful the night’s dinner had been!  We in the back seat changed the subject by admitting to the folks just how tired we were of coloring oranges and train tracks.  All Mom could do was giggle. Daddy was laughing too, adding that he’d noticed additional pencils, paper tablets, and other supplies his old friend had on hand.  It was obvious to us all that Daddy was still disgusted from the evening’s political arguments.

Daddy was still shaking his head and cussing under his breath when he drove up our driveway…

Plywood

I’m sure my father never thought twice about the plywood he delivered to my junior high school that day; but I remember it on occasion, especially on days like this when I think I haven’t accomplished nearly what I set out to do.

In fact, today was one of those the whole damn day was shot days as Daddy used to call them, walking into the kitchen to reach for the wine bottle and a glass from the cupboard.  This announcement was normally followed by a string of the what went wrongs:  the pattern that arrived was the incorrect color; one of the guys had a flat tire and was two hours late getting to the job site; or somebody forgot about a medical appt. and didn’t show up; or any variation on a theme that might affect a small floor covering business.

Daddy had heard me say that our eighth grade class was pricing wood for the showcase.  That’s all he remembered.  Before the pricing had even begun, I was called out of a morning class and asked to see my science teacher.  I arrived there and, to my great surprise, was told that my father had just dropped off two large sheets of 4 x 8 three-quarter inch plywood; my teacher had been in class, so he missed seeing Daddy, but was informed by a memo that we now owned had two large sheets of plywood-what did he want to do with them? Mr. L., my science teacher, was especially appreciative that Daddy had donated the wood sheets; so he asked me to please make sure to thank my father for the donated sheets.

I was on cloud nine that day…couldn’t believe that Daddy had taken time from his busy, time-sensitive schedule to drive by the school and deliver the plywood sheets.  My father worked.  He owned his own business.  He was a no-nonsense guy when it came to serving the public.  My father was an honest laborer, who made sure that the customer came first; normally, that meant that the family’s wishes were secondary.  Without his “hustling” as Mom called it, we’d have had no income. Neither Winnie nor I were allowed to chat on the phone for anymore than ten minutes tops.  Our home phone was an extension of our family business, so God help the daughter who dawdled and prevented a possible customer from reaching our home!!!

Daddy understood time was money, so made sure we understood it as well.  That day, I realized he had spent an hour traveling from his shop to my school, then making sure the plywood sheets were delivered to the right classroom (I still marvel that he even knew how to find the administrative office!!!)

I would never completely understand all the nuances or the actual costs involved, but I would always remember:  I was important enough for my father to make sure our class had the material to build the showcase for our science project.  There was no describing that emotion; even today, I “tear up” at the thought that my father, the man I saw as normally too focused on making a living to even tune in to his kids’ school projects,  would attempt such an extracurricular delivery; especially during a work day.  But it remains one of my very precious memories.

Perhaps, with any luck at all, I might have touched someone’s heart today…and the day wasn’t a complete loss.  I should be so fortunate…

When the Chimney Shook

Daddy didn’t contemplate life before him in rhetorical terms.  He might ask the questions, but he’d already accepted the circumstances and decided on his necessary role.  His was a tough act to follow; principled, he normally forged ahead with a quiet conviction.

Daddy was extremely loyal to family.  In his view, family was his original siblings.  Mom understood this loyalty, as she shared the same devotion to those “siblings”; their father was her guardian and she lived with them in her teens until marriage to my father. Familial assumptions of responsibility were theirs to share. As number seven’s daughters, we grew up watching this devotion and love for the older ones, Daddy’s name for the six children born before him.

We were ill prepared to influence him very much to think outside of the box. Devotion had become a hereditary virus of sorts; collected from our common good, we were emotionally spent beyond our capacities often under the mantel of doing the right thing.

Infected like the rest, I did the best I could to do my part; sometimes, it took a toll emotionally and I gladly buried my head in my studies and retired most evenings, totally relieved to shut away the day’s responsibilities.

Daddy’s actions always spoke louder than words. He did the right thing; as hard as it might be on him or us all.   Underlying the days’ tasks was the deeper belief and faith that we were doing the best we could; that there was a light at the end of this tunnel and we’d get through it.

Our family provided a home, food, a job and often transportation for a favorite uncle of ours who was an alcoholic.  Somehow, Mom and Daddy managed all this at the same time Only Bro was having his ups and downs, phases during which times his mental stability was very fragile. Daddy pursued, working his business around the needs of his customers, his son’s medical needs and his brother-in-law’s binges, covering the bases to provide for the immediate family with Mom’s support from the home front.

The carport was beyond the chimney and had no room left for an actual car anyway.   Daddy’s seeds and garden equipment, along with his tool bench and storage cabinets filled up what wall space there was.  Our family picnic table sat in the middle, out of the sun and accessible for backyard picnics.

As cars grew in width,   one had to be very cautious not to drive in and break any tomato plant branches or roll over the garden hose.  The drive might have accommodated two smaller cars, but our father drove a station wagon for business and personal use.  So, he rarely used the deepest end of the drive.

We always knew when Daddy had arrived home for the evening; once we felt the rumble, Daddy had hit the chimney; no point in going any further. We raced to the front door and unlocked it. Daddy was home.

What are ya gonna do?

That was Daddy’s summation of his day, as he stood there in the kitchen, pouring his glass of red and grabbing a piece of French bread with a slice of salami before dinner…

Household Expectations

When the doorbell rang and it was one of Daddy’s business friends, we enjoyed it as much as the adults.   We immediately left homework or other activities aside, greeted all of these “father types” with a hug and a kiss, and then sat down to enjoy a bit of attention ourselves during the visit.

Our home was nothing fancy or intimidating, just comfortably lived in.  Because Daddy’s business approach was genuine and all inclusive, he considered our home an extension of his business.  Daddy wanted guests to feel comfortable dropping by, any day, any time, and through any door.  Thus, he expected his household to be prepared.

Whoever stopped by, Daddy automatically walked into the kitchen to prepare a highball or pour a glass of red, then instructed Mom to slice the salami and some cheese and set a plate within easy reach.

Daddy especially enjoyed the men’s camaraderie; Daddy had been very bashful as a young man, so he wanted to make sure every visitor made himself at home.  Daddy would fling a piece of sourdough toward our guest; while the bread was in flight, he’d yell:

Don’t be bashful!

A slice of salami or cheese followed right after.  Our visitors soon learned to either help themselves quickly or plan to catch the home staples in mid-air!

One of Daddy’s pet peeves was not having enough for dinner to extend the offer to any unexpected visitor. If Daddy walked into the kitchen and Mom hadn’t cooked an “extra” chop or serving of that night’s meal, he could get really upset. This was harder on Mom than it was on anyone else; Mom didn’t shift as quickly or as easily as Daddy wanted her to, though she did make every effort to support Daddy’s expectations in the long run.

Truthfully, our guests didn’t really care about any refreshments.  They knew they were always welcome.  Our home was cheap entertainment for most of them, a respite from their own family troubles and a comfortable stop at the end of a tough day…certainly; one could forget his troubles after a half-hour around our household!

Mom enjoyed the attention too, but for most of the visit, remained in busy homemaker mode in her kitchen.  Consequently, she was unaware of the potted plant inventory that Daddy and a business friend decided to take during one of these visits. Because our living room was well filled with plants, antique vases and several family photos, our business associate told Daddy that our house looked like a funeral home – then proceeded to prove his point by counting all the potted plants around the perimeter, setting the stage for any and all follow-up banter at Mom’s expense.

When they had each stopped after reaching twenty-something in the living room alone, the men gave Mom their results.  Mom made it perfectly clear that she was not going to let anyone get the best of her regarding her beloved plants or children’s or grandchildren’s  photos!  And, she added, if she wanted to find a way to add more, she would!

Daddy never stopped laughing over the funeral home comment.  Obviously, such visits were a bit of respite for Daddy as well as his friends whom, in hindsight, I’m totally convinced were more able to laugh and relax around us than they could in most other places.

Heaven knows, at least when company was there, Mom wasn’t finding fault with the way Daddy’s shirt was buttoned, or how his pant cuffs were dragging…

A June Smile

My fourth birthday photo is a black and white snapshot of my half standing/half bending over my birthday cake; sitting beside me is a lovely lady with an all-embracing smile.  That is one photo I always love to look at; one of many black and white moments that I can cherish as often as I wish.

I don’t actually recall this particular birthday; certainly, I didn’t have many parties as a Christmas Eve birthday can easily pass by unnoticed during such a busy time of year.  But this was definitely my day to shine; and as the years later proved, this lady’s love for life and family meant there was always room for one more celebration and another child close by.

I was ten years old and still trying to figure out just how exactly we were related…she wasn’t a sister to either my father or my mother. Yet her warm welcoming smiles and hugs were there for us all…she definitely had room for an extra “niece” or two.

In our extended families, we cousins had lots of mentors whom we respected and looked forward to seeing each occasion; extended reunions were the norm, and intertwined branches of family and long-time friends appeared and just belonged there; indeed, their absence would have been noted by many of us younger ones who relied on the hugs and kisses to make the day’s reunion complete.

While my mother loved flowers, this lady actually wore them, in beautifully bright, bold and dazzling colors and prints.  They accentuated her olive skin and deep brunette hair, shining bright above the lovely patterns; hers was a stark contrast to my mother’s more classic stripes and small prints.

I was fourteen and attending my first “wake”.  Mom had stated that I was now old enough to attend memorials like this; so, she instructed me to dress up as I would for church.    The big deal for me was wearing my mantilla…a small consolation, but somehow it was very flattering and so, at least, I could look the part and appear more mature than I felt.  I sat quietly there, feeling very uncomfortable and nervous.

 Yes, I was sitting next to Mom, but all I perceived was my mother who was extremely  comfortable in this solemn situation; she had no idea just how very strange it seemed for me, or just how worried I was, were I to accidentally commit a faux pas midst all the adults looking on.

I decided to chance it and look around the room.  I turned around and just a few pews behind me I caught sight of a June smile; the one that was familiar, loving and unconditionally accepting, all at the same time.  She even waved and nudged her hubby to make sure he acknowledged me…just a simple nod and smile.  Sounds hokey, but this very backward teen immediately felt okay and “grown up enough” to sit through this rite of passage.

Such are the memories of a June smile from a lady who crossed my path and influenced me through most of my young adulthood; a mentor who treated friends and family equally; there were none who didn’t get a huge dose of love and hot meals when needed – blood lines or not.

The childlike part of me still craves a smile or a hug to console me; some days, I don’t even know why or what is troubling me, but God seems to provide a certain someone to cross my path.  I may not remember that fourth birthday, but I will always remember that smile.

When one has been lucky enough to have had a June smile come your way, one knows the value that it brings to a child’s heart.  It is incumbent upon one to pass it on…

THIS SOLDIER HAD A NAME; a Memorial Day Tribute

Dear Readers,

The month of May brings attention to our fallen; and additional families each year endure the Memorial Day Weekend in a new and solemn light, when a loved one has only recently joined the ranks of those honored at the end of this month.

It is because of the never-ending toll that strips away our country’s youth that I humbly submit this tribute.  While I wrote this piece for a specific young man, I hope that sharing it now will – in some small way – bring a sense of comfort to the many military families forever blanketed in sorrow each year on Memorial Day.

May God continue to Bless and Keep our Military Families in His care,

Annette Brochier Johnson

 

 

 

 

THIS SOLDIER HAD A NAME

“Another soldier fell this Friday” and the broadcast continued on;

This time the news became surreal, for the war had touched us, too.

This soldier had a name.

For those of us without a son, the past had met the present

Releasing a stream of déjà vu.

His son would be well cared for, as would his little girl.

Friends and family would come forward

To reassure each other as a generation had before.

“I’ll share my room with my

Cousin, Mommy. I’ll share my daddy, too.”

This soldier had a family.

Ever resilient, the ever constant family values

Were embedded on the hearts of all who shared this surname;

A covenant simply scribed in red, white, and blue.

Camping trips are a summer tradition;

This year will be no different, as summer will not hide.

The campfire will burn and crackle

When branches again entwine,

Sharing growing pains with Siblings,

Watching Cousins meet anew,

Recalling Grampa’s keyboard melodies,

And laughing at what campground antics bring!

This soldier had a voice.

Let each heart in its own tempo listen closely,

So that occasional off-keys and tears may soon transform

To joyous song and comfort all in reverie…

Save a chuckle for that chorus when you congregate and sing!

Peace within will bring forth smiles,

Finding solace now in small hands clasped

Tightly ‘round the photos of One of America’s Finest.

He is forever their very own soldier.

Remind them that there are others, too, who thank God for soldiers like their daddy

Whose service and sacrifices keep us safe in a world of war-torn strife.

This soldier had a mission.

And in serving, he shared The Word with whom he shared a common fellowship and duty.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.   John 3:16 KJV

My First Passion

Some of my earliest memories of a garden are with my neighbor in her backyard.

Hers was the one with lovely flowers that bloomed on the east side of the house.  Not accessible from the street, one had to be neighbors to reach the snapdragons, fuchsias, camellias and all flowering bushes that gave birth each year to a panorama of color.

This was especially important to me around May Day, when we made baskets at school from woven pieces of construction paper, then went home to fill them for our mothers.  We only had calla lilies and geraniums; not my favorites, especially compared to the camellias and the choices next door.  So, I always made a beeline to my Italian neighbor‘s house where I could choose something pretty to fill my basket.  She was my second mother, so was agreeable and made sure I had the prettiest blossoms for Mom’s basket.

I was outside often with her, as she went back and forth to the laundry room that was then adjacent to the garage.  In between, she was tending her yard, pulling unwanted weeds and shoots from around the rocks of the fish pond or along the back fence.  These were city lots, so sometimes it was very hard to tell where a plant began and where it soon claimed jurisdiction in one’s yard.  Her back fence was a small, narrow area; not more than four foot wide before it relied on the garage to continue as the permanent marker of the back property line.

But where the dirt lay beneath the fence boards also lay the roots of a passion vine.  This was a very miraculous flower, made more so by the legend that my neighbor shared with me in her Italian-accented English.

I was immediately enamored of this vine.  The flower petals were a tinged blue on white, in some places suggesting a violet to deeper purple shade.  The center was deeper still and when she explained it represented the crown of thorns that lay on Jesus’ brow, I was very taken by such a plant that spoke of an historical event!  This was the tip of the mysteries that I would grow to accept as a young Catholic child, but it was one of my favorites.  I looked deeply into the blossoms, as though the more I stared, the more I’d experience the passion that emanated from its story.

The vine would reappear each spring, somewhat leggy at first, and then eventually spill its beauty across the fence boards.  The location was one that I had to seek out; it was not easily visible and, as I grew older I could easily forget to walk around the Mechanic’s garage; somehow, like God, I just knew He and It existed, whether I visited or not with Him or His Vine.

So, it was several years before I realized that the vine was completely gone, and the garden spot wherein I had first encountered the meaning of passion was no more; most likely removed by a new property owner who didn’t comprehend the sorrowful beauty in the blossoms’ tale.

How wonderful that God would grace us with such a beautiful, living memorial for such a horrid, painful death.  In my childlike heart, I believed God wanted us to remember His Son’s pain, but spared us the true horror by minimizing the truth in the beauty of that blossom. I had no idea that it was early explorers and missionaries who had given the blossom its legend, specifically to explain the death of Christ in their efforts to convert native peoples.

A caring, accented voice had certainly shared the vine’s story with this teachable child…So be it.