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…

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 Healthier Roots Prevailed

The American Dream was the prevailing mindset:  there were opportunities for those who sought them and a political system that – in its purest sense – erased social classes via the ballot box.  Thus had the quintessential republic become a world beacon for opportunity, not opportunists; and this young country flourished as long as those tasked with governing maintained the disciplined checks and balances needed for a healthy milieu to support free enterprise.

Some old country practices and expectations naturally slipped right on through Ellis Island into the new country.  A family member contributed to support of the entire household, sometimes at the expense of a shortened, formal education.  Daddy was one of nine who had grown and matured, understanding full well the responsibilities of earning one’s keep as part of the workforce in the family’s laundry business.  As one of the babies, my father was lucky enough to finish high school, and then enter a trade school.  Not so the older daughters; many of them married early and became homemakers themselves; more often than not they, too, worked outside the home.  Two of my aunts had married foreigners who became naturalized citizens.   In keeping with another customary practice, my father and mother were married only six months when they moved “back home” to take care of his aging parents.

My father had his dreams like any young man of his generation.  He’d had the chance to tour the Orpheum Circuit.  As one of a barbershop quartet, he lost the big chance when one of the four decided he couldn’t commit to traveling the country, so went into hiding for several days; his action was long enough to permanently break off any remaining ties of a permanent contract with the entertainment circuit.

A marriage and two children later, Daddy was too old to enlist for WWII, so worked for the war effort at home.  After the war, he and Mom opened up a floor covering business.  Daddy understood the labor movement from both sides now, and was reforming his previous union mindset.  My father changed his voter registration to vote for Ike.  Eventually, my uncle joined as a full partner. By the mid-fifties, the linoleum shop was supporting two families and growing.

While not easily fooled by smooth-talking orators, Daddy liked men who told it like it is (and touched his own emotions).  Spiro Agnew was a particular favorite.  I can remember my father chuckling at Spiro’s deft handling of the press; that is, until the first American Vice President with a Greek lineage was exposed for federal tax evasion, then struck from the nation’s memory in quick form!  Daddy had voted for the Nixon-Agnew ticket.  We’d never let Daddy forget it.

The Brat and I guaranteed old Spiro would forever remain in our father’s conscience; a metal trashcan with Spiro’s cartoon image would ensure the proper place for additional garbage – political and otherwise.  We presented it to him for Father’s Day.  It stayed – well hidden but serviceable – under the shop’s main desk for many years.

When the Vietnam War was aired on nightly television, Daddy insisted that we watch Cronkite’s coverage each evening.  My brother had already received an honorary discharge, but others’ sons were fighting; thus, my father insisted that we remember the toll being carried by our fellow Americans. This was difficult for us around the table; several times, we asked if we couldn’t dispense with the war coverage just for one night.

My father was insistent: our young men were fighting in a terribly difficult terrain and under very divisive circumstances here at home; the least we could do was stay informed.  The news would stay on during dinner.  End of subject.

A Fork in the Road

I wanted the silverware more than I ever imagined, and they have proven to be magical wands full of memories.  I do not mix a can of tuna or turn a slice of meat in the pan without remembering the mannerism that I watched and absorbed all those years in the kitchen next door.  Our Italian neighbor could cook an entire meal and never have one dirty dish or pot left to show for it!  She was incredibly clever at keeping the counter clear and clean.  Unfortunately, neither her daughter nor I picked up that particular good habit.

But there is not a time that I pick up one of the forks that I don’t recall the tuna and red onion, or the breaded zucchini in the sizzling olive oil; or brains breaded and slowly browned on top of the stove; or anchovy paste, rubbed into the bottom of the salad bowl; or the celery sticks laced with her special cheese spread that decked the holiday table year after year.

Picking up a piece of the old silverware has nurtured my heart and comforted me when money was tight; I could always mix a can of tuna and smile. With a bit of luck and planning,  I can even go out into my own summer garden and cut fresh chard with the well worn, mis-sharpened blade of their old kitchen knife…and once again, transport myself next door…

Keyboard Harmony

Had I been asked back then, I’d have defined my parents’ definition of  “good music” as restricted to songs written before 1959, up to and including all Elvis gospel recordings and the weekly Lawrence Welk Show.  Period.

Beneath Daddy’s fatherly exterior was a former barbershop quartet singer who not only knew all four parts of any barbershop tune by memory, but also had performed at the Orpheum Theater during the thirties.  This was quite an accomplishment for young, first generation Americans.  Their quartet was billed as the Four Loose Leaves from the Book of Harmony. No recordings existed and the four had long since parted ways, but Daddy’s love for music remained.

Mom could sing, too, so as we grew and learned the words, we baby girls joined in.  Singing in the car became the norm, whether it occurred on longer trips to Livermore or shorter ones to visit our cousins.  So, you could imagine the folk’s excitement when at age nine I expressed interest in taking music lessons. I mentioned that my best friend at school was taking accordion lessons from the music store on the boulevard.  My parents agreed to speak with the store and an elderly gentleman wearing a hearing aid came to our home to “test” my musical ability.  He had me hold a guitar and I strummed it however many times.  Yes, their daughter definitely had talent. I expressed interest in the guitar.

Daddy’s response was both immediate and adamant:  a guitar was NOT an instrument. An accordion,   Daddy pursued, now THAT was an instrument. I wasn’t following all the nuances in this conversation, and I’m sure neither was the elder gentleman, so Daddy further explained.  In simple terms, an accordion could carry the entire melody.  The discussion ended.  I should take accordion lessons.  The gentleman left and it was forward march, literally, as I learned to play simplified renditions of John Phillip Sousa.

What was good enough for me was also good enough for my baby sister.  We actually excelled at the accordion, having slowly absorbed the old world musical rhythm, harmony, and appreciation for the more traditional forms of music, i.e. waltzes, polkas and the before mentioned marches.  It wasn’t long before we girls could identify our country’s armed services’ theme songs – all five of them – and knew at least the first verse from each.  One can imagine just how “cool” it was to play an accordion during the Pepsi Generation…and while Coke was teaching the world to sing…  NOT!

By the time performers like Joan Baez and Judy Collins sprang onto the music scene, I once again considered playing guitar.  Secretly, I pictured myself a stage performer or, better yet, the voice of a Disney character in a full length feature film.   Because I normally carried the melody on car trips, the idea seemed feasible.  I braved it and shared my thinking with the folks. No go.  Parents ruled in our household.  I would stay with the accordion, even if it meant Mom still having to help me carry the heavy instrument down to the boulevard… Daddy had discovered another two loose leaves and he was not about to let us drift away on some musical tangent.

“You call that music?” was the rhetorical question during my junior high years, especially when four young Englishmen first invaded our American household.  So, I learned to hedge my bets and glean the best arrangements I could from the current circumstances.  It was Daddy’s musical generation that he shared with us and, if we played it just right, we could get out of doing the evening dishes.  Keep the 1930 top ten melodies coming and Mom would soon join us in harmony, dish towel in hand.

Some children survive parochial school; I survived accordion lessons. Two decades later, we two daughters fully appreciated being the only ones under forty years of age who could share nostalgic moments at a piano bar with AARP octogenarians.

Now THAT was cool.

Because We Are All One

For many of us born between 1946 and 1964, World War II was relegated to the history books; not because veterans didn’t live among us, but because too many who had served had experienced a private hell on earth.  They had seen too much, and could not speak of the horrors without reliving the moments; so they spoke seldom and far too little. War widows, like my youngest aunt, moved forward, raising her young son with help from family until she remarried; and my cousin once again had a father.

Apart from personal stories like this, much of World War Two’s history came to some of us baby boomers from the printed pages of encyclopedias and historical textbooks.  I emphasize some of us.  I didn’t know my grandparents because they had passed away years before I was born.  But my friend Elaine Karen – whose Hebrew name was Elka – never knew her grandparents because they had died in the Holocaust.

Thank God Eisenhower requested that Congressional members and Allied leaders visit the death camps.  As Commander of the Allied Forces, he desired no more than all of humanity be reminded: such atrocities were real and had occurred from the hands of men.  One quotation featured in the Hall of Remembrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is from the man who was known affectionately as Ike:

 

 

The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were…overpowering…I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’

Written by General Eisenhower after his visit to the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp, it is one of many quotations featured in the museum.  This year, from April 7th thru 14th, marks the 75th official Day of Remembrance, also signified by the motto, NEVER AGAIN.  Take a few minutes, in between checking emails and other daily routines, to peruse the United States National Holocaust Museum’s website .  

 

Because we are all one; and today we are all Jews…

 

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