A Daughter Still description here

Postponing the Inevitable

Mom, do you want me to call them?

No, that’s okay.  Let them enjoy their Thanksgiving.  Call them tomorrow if you want to.

That was how my mother and I decided to handle the news that Thursday morning.  I waited until the day after Thanksgiving, and then called my godparents to let them know that my brother had died.  I write this some thirty years later, and it is still difficult to piece together the emotions and the timeline.  There is no right or wrong way to share the news of a loved one’s passing; under any circumstances it is difficult; but when it is from suicide, one is dumbfounded and finds little comfort in what appears to forever remain unexplainable.

I grew up around first generation born Americans; the old country’s manner was still very much the watermark for who, what, when, where and why they thought and lived as they did.   Having little more than traditions to fall back on, some made the changes more easily; others never adapted.  Still others didn’t care or subconsciously decided nothing was that important to stop them from their immediate week’s business schedule.  Sometimes one was lucky and received an explanation or, at the very least, a mantra of sorts to help understand the world around us:

Life is for the living, Annette.

This expression was often recited to me from our silver-haired, next door neighbor, who was like a father to all of us.  He had watched our family go through an emotional roller coaster from the time my brother first became ill.  Many years before, I had run next door crying,  telling him Daddy needed help; Only Bro didn’t want to go back to the hospital and was running away!  Our fatherly neighbor chased my brother down the street, managing to catch him fairly quickly, though it seemed a much longer drama at the time.  Our neighbor talked him into walking back to the house, and then rode with him and Daddy on the return trip to the state hospital.

Daddy was also more aware than Mom just how great a toll the past seventeen years had taken on their only son.  Near or far, we had all felt my brother’s ups and downs this past year.  Even a trip to Disneyland earlier that summer had given the folks only a very brief respite from their son’s recurring illness. Daddy remained passionate; for the most part, he trusted his own instincts, but didn’t hesitate to listen for guidance from the professionals.  Neither of the folks was prepared for anything like their son’s mental breakdown or its long-term ramifications.  Much of what Dad heard and observed over the initial months and early years he kept from Mom;  he managed to hide certain details for long periods of time.  Ultimately, he couldn’t protect her or any of us siblings.  Nor could we as a family ease my brother’s anguish, no matter how much we remained involved over the ensuing years.

I was one hundred and eighty miles away from the home base; I might as well have been on another planet.  I had just finished setting up the buffet table for my in-laws and our cousins.  We would be about sixteen tomorrow, give or take a few little critters. I had picked up the paper and just read about a plane crash that had killed over one hundred people.  I remember thinking what a sad Thanksgiving holiday it would be for all the families affected by that crash; then the phone rang.

Once Big Sis and I finished talking, there was nothing for me to do but to maintain my end of the family unit. The youngest sister was on her way down for the holiday.  She had yet to hear, so would walk in Wednesday evening and learn then that our brother was gone.  Big Sis would stay until the youngest arrived; then leave to return home to her own family and her own kitchen.

Mom was cooking Thanksgiving dinner; my brother’s widow and their two beautiful daughters would still be there, just as they always were each Thanksgiving with Mom and Daddy.  This would be as nice a family dinner as anyone could hope for under the circumstances.

As my mother had chosen to do that Thanksgiving Day, I too chose the familiar; I cooked my planned meal, made sure everyone at my home had enough to eat, and continued any familiar rituals available to me for Thanksgiving’s sake…there would be plenty of time to grieve later.  Neither Mom nor I could afford to fall apart; we had loved ones to serve and leftovers to put away.

We Were Americans

Mom and Dad brought a common heritage to their first and only new home on Rubberneck Avenue.  Our table had the same four food groups from “down the house” like our grandparents‘ home: wine, French bread, salami, and cheese.  The traditional hospitality of offering a casa croute (sharing of the house bread) continued on Rubberneck as well.

While our table often identified us as French descent, herein lay the distinction:  we were Americans first.  We joined the melting pot of other first and second generation families whereby respect and love for country were inherently as important as the November celebrated reason for gathering.   Like the Pilgrims at Plymouth, we ate turkey on Thanksgiving; the main course, however, was followed by the required bit of French bread and blue cheese to enjoy with the last sips of wine, while we listened to the stories that our uncles with accents had to tell.

 

Author’s Note: plate pictured was always used for salami on holidays!

The Census Takers

Contrary to today’s penchant for overdoing all things, Halloween was pretty much a one day dress-up event years ago.  Beyond the costumes, trick or treating and the two-dimensional pumpkins and black cats hanging in the windows, the holiday itself was no big deal.

We didn’t jump in vans, didn’t hop from one area of the city to another, didn’t Trick or Treat until we were high school age; nope, Halloween Trick or Treating was for kids only.  We loved running from porch to porch, up the stairs where the lights were on to welcome us, quickly spitting out an audible thank you before running back down to the next walkway.  Our Trick or Treat bags were small, often plastic pumpkins or small paper bags we’d decorated, but they were adequate size for the amount of candy collected.

People knew people and neighbors didn’t move very often; generations watched second generations often grow up on the same block.  Cookies wrapped in wax paper or foil, home-made candies…one didn’t need to go through the bag to sort “safe” from “unsafe” treats.  Kids normally didn’t roam very far beyond the initial home front (about a three block area); if we even thought about going up another street or extending our route, believe me it had to be done with more than one parent’s blessings.  Neighborhood parents were just as watchful as your own.  It was a good time to be a kid as someone was always looking after your safety and holiday fun.

On occasion, Mom would let us help pick out the candy to give away.  Some years we’d have to remind Mom that raisins, no matter how cute they were in the small little boxes, were not really what we kids wanted in our bags.  She tended to go after the familiar:  Tootsie Pops, hard candies, peppermint sticks, bubble gum, things that were familiar to her when she was a kid.  We had a shallow wooden bowl that Mom used for the candy every Halloween.  She’d place it on the desk with a small notebook and pen; she liked to keep count of how many kids came to the door each year.  So did our next door neighbor.

It didn’t help that Daddy had already checked out the next door’s bowl of goodies; he’d return home, reporting how great the candy assortment was next door; none of his remarks improved either our home atmosphere or our bowl assortment.  Mom could be oblivious when she chose to be; just what was wrong with our candy selection?

At the end of the evening, when the porch lights had been turned off, Mom and the neighbor conversed via their respective kitchen windows (across the driveway) and compared their totals.  The variance was the same most of the time: for some peculiar reason, our neighbor always logged a higher number of Trick or Treaters.

These census counts became somewhat of a contest for the women, though none of us understood what the big deal was.  Certainly, the men were not interested in any of this nor were we kids.

Mom, always the one with the investigator mind, couldn’t figure out how any kids would have stopped next door to ring the bell without then following up our porch steps; both houses were in the middle of the block.  Likely, their methods differed; one ticked off numbers, the other counted the small number of candy bars left in her bowl.

Also very likely, Daddy had eaten more than one candy bar on his earlier visit…

 

 

Everything is Relative

Mom’s maternal instincts were just that; instinctive. Her own mother had died while Mom was still a toddler; her father died several years later.  At five years of age, she was standing on a box to reach the ironing board and taking care of her dad and a brother one year younger than she.  She adored her father and, from all reports, he was one of the kinder hearted men of his generation.

The nuns in “Sister School” (Mom always used this term) were the closest to maternal role models for Mom.  Mom obeyed more easily than her brother, who spent lots of time on the wrong side of the ruler.  Mom needed consoling when her brother was punished; she inevitably cried for him and ended up on the nun’s lap, hearing the nun explain that the punishment was for his own good; no doubt, some highlights of Hell were tossed in for good measure.

Mom understood she couldn’t save her brother from the nun’s wrath, so she reasoned that by being really good, she might at least save his soul; after all, she herself was especially disciplined; God might allow some of her good graces to be credited on her brother’s behalf, saving him from Eternal Doom.

Mom could occasionally fall under bad influences, as did any little girl who was easily influenced by an older family member.  She thought her older cousin knew everything, so she followed his orders, painstakingly smearing Limburger cheese on the neighborhood’s door knobs one Halloween.  While never caught, she both shuddered and giggled when she retold this story; her embarrassment at having done such a deed was still fresh each time she repeated it.

Basically, Mom was a good student who could be as creative and as successful and as trusting as the next little girl in her age group.  Mom entertained us when she admitted to not being very bright, and laughingly shared how – as a little girl – she sincerely believed that the mailman wrote all the letters!   My first reaction was one of embarrassment myself.  How could my mother have been so dumb???

Childlike naiveté and trust permeated well into maturity.  She committed herself to her husband and family with all her heart.  Throughout her adulthood, her never-ending faith belied the role she played in loved ones’ well-being.  Saving souls and protecting children from themselves seemed to be a strong, overriding motivator that compelled her to never give up on any child or loved one in spite of the reality or prevailing circumstances. Mom was consistent, if not always successful.

For us babies in the family, Mom was a particularly overly-protective, older mother.  Her style might have been rather suffocating if it hadn’t already been restrictive.  When we did get out of line, there was never a “Wait until your father gets home.”  Mom was perfectly capable of retaining order and she did so with enough conviction in both her tone and her hand to communicate any message quite clearly.

I remember chatting in the library before the Christmas holiday; we were comparing family traditions and tales, when one of my friends happened to bring up her mother, a delightful lady with a very playful personality.  Evidently, her mother had grown up near the town’s train tracks.  As the cars passed by, she yearly observed that in the first group of cars were sheep; in the next group of cars were the season’s harvest of cantaloupes.  Ergo, her mother reasoned that sheep lay cantaloupes.

Everything is relative. I was much relieved upon hearing that story.

If It Started with the Letter F…

On a regular basis, Brat eagerly climbed the fence two doors away to spend time with the neighbor and poodles.  While I had many choices around the block, most of the time I simply crossed the driveway to the next door neighbors’ back door.

I completely absorbed the family culture and influences.  In some ways, my neighbor had a more direct impact on my early identity than my own family.  Certainly, I identified with her Italian heritage, so much so, that for my first eight years I believed I was Italian also.

Only upon sharing that our next school project was to write about our nationalities did my mother correct me (and rather harshly) that we – including moi – were not of Italian lineage.   We were French descent.

“What’s French?” I asked.

Normally an innocent question might not have evoked a ballistic response; but that one did.  I didn’t remember seeing my mother THIS upset since the time I’d returned home after a day at school.  By that term, I was reading really well and was good at phonics. So in perfect diction I repeated the sentiment that was carved into one of the portable’s wooden sides; then I asked Mom what one certain word meant.

That was the first time I’d ever pronounced the particular word beginning with the letter F.  Believe me when I tell you: it was also the last time.  I learned that asking certain questions could get me into trouble at eight years of age.

 

Paste Buckets and Sweet Peas

Daddy prided himself on his yearly garden.

No paste bucket that had been emptied at the floor covering shop went unused; many came home to be repurposed as part of the vegetable garden; the buckets enabled Daddy to stretch the garden area.  He planted pepper plants, some zucchini plants and even tried growing pole peas in them, allowing the vines to trail upward along the old lattice fence to reach the late afternoon sun.

Because we had only a limited amount of garden bed in the backyard, Daddy used the area well, packing enough tomato plants against the pink stucco wall (side garage wall belonging to next door) to feed the third world …we were constantly amazed at how many plants Daddy could pack into the seven by ten bed!  Radishes, Lettuce, parsley, thyme, some Swiss chard and even kohlrabi – this latter veggie had been introduced to us by our Czech neighbor.   Often, marigolds filled spots in between the edibles to fight the garden pests.

The next door neighbor would drive into his garage, hear my father cussing and look over the wall.  Daddy would be on his knees, pulling the tomato worms off his precious plants, cussing at them as though it would make them leave and never return. Return they did and I can still hear the Italian chuckling and shaking his head, then admonishing Daddy to be sure all the worms were off “his” plants.  A repeated scenario, his reminding Daddy that the property line reached 10 inches deep into our garden was an on-going joke; in our neighbor’s eyes, all the plants against the heat-holding stucco wall were technically his.

Hey, Brochier…make sure you water those plants really well when you get through cussing out the worms…I want to see a good crop this year…

I can’t write verbatim my father’s response as it actually had little to do with gardening.  Suffice it to say that the two bantered on like this for years, one cajoling the other and the other never failing to come back with his best retort.

Daddy wasted nothing.  He kept old coffee cans and other trays and containers from any nurseries to plant garden seeds ahead, so he often dried seeds from his own beefsteak tomatoes and green bell peppers.  He and his buddies even exchanged seeds from year to year, comparing the easiest to grow, the sweetest varieties, and so forth.

One particular year, our cousin dropped off some seeds in an envelope; he told Daddy that they were among the sweetest peas he’d ever grown, so Daddy was really excited to have some of such high quality hybrid peas.  He put them away until sowing time, and then made sure he gave them lots of room to grow in his limited garden bed.  He staked the seedlings and had cross bars he’d made from salvaged wood strips.  Daddy was determined to have some very sweet peas to enjoy this season.

The plants had just the right amount of sunshine; the stucco wall helped bounce back some of the afternoon sun, so the tendrils began climbing up the makeshift lattice in no time!  Daddy was really happy with the progress until the small little pods didn’t grow any longer; instead, the little pods began to open.

Standing tall, smack in the middle of tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, Swiss chard and crawling squash plants fighting for room with the herbs and marigolds were multi-colored blooms of pastel pinks, lavender-blues and creamy white.   What the—! He called my mother out to the back to see; she confirmed what he already suspected:  those very sweet peas that Daddy had imagined he’d soon be harvesting for dinners were indeed sweet peas.

Sweet peas in all their beautiful, delicate glory!!!  Mom was absolutely delighted, as the blooms’ scent perfumed the entire back yard.  Some were even tall enough to cut and take inside to enjoy!

Down at the coffee shop, the guys had been counting the days until Daddy realized this garden “discovery”; you can bet they knew the minute their ears began burning!   My father resigned himself to being the butt of one very clever joke, but remained a good sport always. Obviously, Daddy became especially careful when accepting any future envelopes of “specially” dried seeds from this gang!

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…