The Remedy

We had finished dinner early, lost patience with finding something to watch on television, and the endless rain had dampened our spirits a bit. As a remedy, my husband located a treasure trove of Jean Shepherd recordings on the internet and downloaded one to play for us. He did this using his cell phone connected to our Bluetooth speaker. The reason I specifically mention this technology should become evident in a moment.

As the theme music from Jean Shepherd’s show, the Bahn Frei Polka, faded in, accompanied by kazoos and the added sound effects of horse’s hooves clop-clop-clopping, I began silent giggling that soon overtook my body so completely that I could no longer contain it, and I let out a huge guffaw. My husband smiled. The spell was broken.

That theme music transported me back to childhood, when our local public radio station rebroadcast Jean Shepherd’s shows. They were originally broadcast by WOR in New York. Even one silly variety of the station’s call-sign jingle was enough to bring on a chuckle or two: W-W-W-W–Somebody-Stop-Me!–O-R!

My parents had given me a bedside radio when I was young. It was sky blue on the front with sections for the clock, the speaker, and the radio dial. The slats protecting the speaker were white plastic, as was the casing. No doubt it was a cheaply made radio, but it was one of the most valuable things I ever owned.

That radio was my constant friend throughout childhood and into adolescence, seeing me through many quiet evenings and weekends when all I did was read or write or daydream; it entertained me, inspired me, and kept me company when I was alone. I listened to WPGC, WEAM, and “The Young Sound,” which was a novelty at the time but paved the way for commercial-free blocks of contemporary pop music.

We lived in a three-story townhouse. The dining room, kitchen, and living room were on the first floor, our parents’ bedroom and the study/guestroom were on the second floor. My kid brother (an appellation I would never bestow on him, except that it’s perfect for this story) and I had bedrooms on the third floor, which were separated by a short hallway and a bathroom. Sometimes we’d shut our doors at the end of the day and just go to sleep; sometimes we’d keep the doors open and slide toys and other stuff back and forth across the smooth wooden floor of the hallway until our parents got annoyed and chased us back to bed.

We were known to quarrel sometimes or call each other names, but we usually got along in our castle in the sky at the top of the townhouse. We usually minded our parents, but on Sunday evenings, we conspired to disobey them because that is when WETA played Jean Shepherd’s show. We’d dutifully wash up and dress in our pajamas. Then we’d leave the bedroom doors open and get into our beds, shut off our lights, and turn on our bedside radios.

The polka music would start and then the show would be on. It was usually 45 minutes of a stream-of-consciousness narrative—a combination of childhood reminiscences and social commentary—frequently punctuated by silly music and even sillier kazoos or nose whistles. The nose whistles were guaranteed to incite hysterical laughter.

But here is my fondest memory of those evenings: At some point I’d hear my brother chuckle or snort, which made me laugh, which then unleashed a nosier-than-expected fit of cackling between the two of us, and that is what would filter down to the lowest level of the townhouse. Next, we’d hear our father shout up the stairs at us, “Turn off those darned radios and go to bed!”

We’d ignore him and sometimes he’d yell upstairs again, but I think he knew we just had to listen to the whole thing. After all, he was the one who had introduced us to Jean Shepherd’s show, and he knew we couldn’t turn it off in the middle of one of his crazy stories. That would just be cruel!

When I met my husband, we got to talking about listening to the radio late at night. At the time, I was the only other person he’d ever met who had also listened to Jean Shepherd. The match was meant to be! So, on that recent evening after a trying day, he knew exactly what would bring some silliness and cheer into an otherwise gloomy evening.

We’ve come a long way from old plastic clock radios. However, Jean Shepherd’s timeless and familiar humor is a soothing balm. He’s been gone a long time now and his show even longer, but thanks to the internet, he can still provide belly laughs whenever we need them.

Adam Theodore Elizabeth Cron 1966

 

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The Doorbell

On a cold winter day in February, my husband and I finished lunch at one of our favorite spots. We’d missed dining there since we moved away, so we combined some errands and finished the morning slurping noodle soup, perfect for a mid-winter day.

“We really should check on Harry,” I said to my husband as we finished up. “Maybe he can’t hear the phone anymore.” “Or, maybe he never fixed the doorbell,” replied my husband. We had not been able to connect with Harry for about a year. We called every so often and had gotten no answer. I had met his daughter once under tragic circumstances and couldn’t remember her married name.

This is a story about how someone can become so isolated that no one cares if anyone else knows what happened to him. It’s also a story of how people hide information that is simply too painful to talk about.

We met Harry almost 30 years ago. My husband was assessing a problem at Harry’s mother’s house and they met there. He did some work for him, and they hit it off. Soon after, I met Harry’s wife. She was a warm and welcoming person and soon we became a foursome.

While pregnant with our daughter, we invited them on a boat trip. In the warm, shallow water on a late summer Sunday afternoon, we floated on rafts and tubes and shared our nervousness about becoming new parents with two people who had recently become empty nesters. Their easy manner and gentle encouragement erased our fears. The following winter after our daughter was born, his wife cooed over the baby and got great enjoyment over holding her and trying to get her to smile.

About a year later, we received the news that his wife had arisen in the middle of the night, gone out in the backyard in her nightgown, and shot herself. Harry, who was partially deaf, had not heard anything. Their grown son located her early the next day when he stopped in and found Harry still sleeping and his mother nowhere to be found inside. Harry had been a firearms instructor; there were guns in the house and she had made use of one.

Immediately, the irrational thoughts plagued us: How could we have not detected that something was wrong? She was eternally cheery in our presence and always ready for a night out or a visit with the baby. We even had tickets to a show together the following week–why didn’t she look forward to that as a remedy for whatever was plaguing her thoughts? We were naive.

Then came the clues. She was a human resources officer whose large facility was going through a reduction in force. Her job was to sit with each employee, explain that they were being laid off, and provide them with resources. She never mentioned this to us; it was something I found out by talking with her friends later. Worse still, Harry told us that her father had also committed suicide. At a family gathering, he had risen from his chair, excused himself, went down to the basement, and shot himself.

At the cemetery, his daughter clutched her mother’s sweater in her hands and wailed at her grave, shouting at times, “Why? Why? Whyyyy?” I’ve never been able to shake that scene from my mind.

The years went on. His son became a missionary worker and was out of the country most of the time. When he finally returned to the States, he settled in North Carolina and started a massage therapy business, rarely visiting his family. Harry was a regular visitor to our house, though, where he and my husband would talk after dinner about almost anything but his family.

Then, Harry lost one of his legs. An unrepentant smoker, the blood clot that led to the amputation was the thing that finally convinced him to stop. He was only in his early 70s at the time and insisted on staying in his home. At some point, his son bought him a King Charles Spaniel to keep him company and Harry rented out the basement. He spent all day sitting in one spot in the living room very close to a large TV that was tuned mainly to nature shows.

We moved over an hour away. When we visited, the clutter of his surroundings and the stench of the dog were overwhelming. He would indicate that the doorbell was still broken and chuckle under his breath. During one visit, he told us the telephone handset had been in need of a new battery for a while, so we went out and found a replacement.

The next crisis was a series of phone calls where Harry confided that he believed his son was stealing from him, forging his father’s name on stolen checks. He intimated that his son was in trouble, but provided no details. Where his son was at this time is unclear, but there was probably a lot Harry did not know or did not want us to know. Several times we urged him to call the police or at least get to the bank and open an investigation. He talked about doing this, but we are not sure that he ever followed through.

His son finally moved home around 2015, remorseful and unemployed. He asked forgiveness, and slept on the floor at the foot of Harry’s bed for months. Soon after, we received another tragic phone call: his son had arisen in the middle of the night, gone downstairs to the utility room, and hung himself. He was 48.

The funeral was packed with his son’s friends and their families. Harry sat in the front of the chapel in his wheelchair, looking straight ahead. I looked for his daughter and her family. They were sitting on the other side of the chapel. Harry’s son-in-law was dressed inappropriately for a funeral, in bright casual clothing, and he was loud and obnoxious. As the service started, the family made no move to sit closer to Harry. I thought, “What is going on here?”

The service was filled with fond remembrances of his son, eulogies given by a childhood minister and high school buddies. Many recalled how Harry’s son had been very giving of himself and his time and helped people with their problems. After the service, the chapel emptied out. We sat and watched as people exited until almost everyone was out in the parking lot. Not one person went to Harry to extend their condolences. We quietly approached him. He was dry-eyed and calm. He let us hug him and say a few words, and then we left.

It was only later that we reflected on the scene and came to the realization that probably no one knew how bad things had become for his son, or they knew and were in denial. It was clear that Harry’s daughter and her husband were angry at Harry (thus the obnoxious clothing and behavior) and blamed him, and that’s why they refused to sit with him or offer him any comfort. Somehow, it seemed that everyone in the chapel except us was in on this judgement of Harry.

We continued to check up on Harry every few months whenever business brought us to his town. The house decayed. The renter moved out. He seemed to be completely alone, but he told us Meals on Wheels brought him hot food. When we asked about his daughter, he was vague.

And then it was winter of this year. We pulled up to the house and tried the doorbell. Of course, it still wasn’t working so we knocked on the door. There was no answer, no dog barking, no loud television. The car sat in the driveway, but it was obvious that it had not been driven in a while. We decided to see if any neighbors were home and knew what was going on.

After a few tries, a woman three doors down appeared. We asked if she knew Harry. “Oh my,” she said, “you haven’t heard.” Harry had died just a few days before, and the funeral was in two days. He had been taken from his home by his daughter and placed in a nursing home closer to her about six months earlier.  She shook her head, “There were so many troubles in that family. Years ago, I would go outside in the evening. I’d see Harry in his car, drinking. I told him he needed help.” It turns out that this kind neighbor had been watching out for him over the years and checking up on him after he lost mobility, but we had no idea.

At his funeral, his remaining family sat quietly. There were no personal stories or fond recollections from anyone. The minister delivered a harsh eulogy about how Harry was not an easy person to live with, how he had caused pain to his loved ones, and then made reference to Bible passages that were meant to comfort us somehow.

I was shocked that a minister would refer to the deceased with such condemnation. Was the minister really talking about our friend? Were we in the wrong chapel, perhaps? We knew Harry as a troubled man; the scepter of death hung over him every day, but we could not imagine him being a purposefully cruel person as a result, ever.

Something had nudged at us to check up on Harry on that cold February day, otherwise we would never have found out that he had left us. I have a feeling that we and his neighbor were his only real friends, but that he subconsciously shared with us only what he thought we needed to know. He was more private than we ever realized, not because he was manipulative, but because he just couldn’t cope with his losses. He didn’t get the doorbell fixed because he didn’t know how to deal with whatever walked in the door with a visitor. You think you know a person, until you don’t.

 

Room 801: A Place Where Hope Resides

I’ve been a contract worker for a few years and recently took on some freelance clients, but I have always wanted my own business identity.  I started attending some workshops offered by the Maryland Women’s Business Center and began to feel more empowered. Last week, after chasing my tail a few times, I finally felt possessed of enough energy and motivation to get my writing and editing company off the ground.

I began with establishing a limited liability company, Koozmin Enterprises LLC,  that would cover both my and my husband’s businesses. I drew up a standard operating agreement and filed it away.

Next, I filed Articles of Organization for the LLC with the State of Maryland obtained an Employer Tax Identification.  Both steps were simple and done completely online.

Then I got a bad case of schpilkes. Having received instant gratification for the preceding steps, I was not willing to sit patiently for approval of my individual business name. So, I jumped in the car and drove to 301 West Preston Street in Baltimore.

Room 801 reminded me a little of the Motor Vehicles Administration office, except it was a bit smaller and the atmosphere was quite different. There was one long counter divided into eight sections, behind which were clerks who worked for the Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Nervous excitement filled the air. People came in, their arms loaded with briefcases and stacks of files. They filled out forms, joked with the clerks, and talked with each other about their businesses while they waited. Yes–people were talking with each other instead of staring sullenly at the floor or fidgeting with their cell phones. No one was complaining, at least on the day I went.

Many were people like me. They had an idea, they’d laid the groundwork for making that idea become a reality, and now they were ready to hit the streets and they were unstoppable. Nothing was going to ruin their day or their future–not politics, not their status in life, not anything, it seemed. They were so filled with hope and the vibe was contagious. I gladly paid my fees and received approval to do business as Catoctin Editorial Services.

The last steps were anticlimactic compared with that day. I filed for a home-based business permit, started building a web site, and ordered business cards. I know there will be many ho-hum days ahead or days when I am glued to my computer in order to make a deadline. However, I am committed to remembering the great energy I discovered in Room 801 whenever I feel mine sagging.

Memorial Day, 2018

Today, some of my Facebook friends have filled their pages with images of American flags and quotes from former leaders. They all mean well, of course, but I can’t abide; I am not proud of my country right now. Our current leader has made the day all about him (no surprise there), or as CNN’s Chris Cillizza so aptly put it, “Donald Trump just put the ‘Me’ in his Memorial Day tweet.” (https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/28/politics/donald-trump-memorial-day-tweet/index.html).

Those in the current administration or Congress sit quietly and do nothing when such statements are made by the president. I question their allegiance to this country’s principles and feel they make a mockery of the deaths of our soldiers by remaining silent. They are corrupted by their power. Corruption is a common characteristic in tyrannical governments, and our soldiers have died freeing other countries’ citizens from these types of regimes. Do they not see how culpable they are in the erosion of democracy?

I suspect that many who gave their lives to save our democracy and to free others from a life of tyranny elsewhere would not recognize the United States of America today. I’m thinking mainly of soldiers who died in World War II, who were both protecting us from invasion and trying to free Europe, Asia, and northern Africa from tyrannical rule, but these thoughts could apply to those who died in the numerous conflicts elsewhere since then. Don’t get me wrong, I honor the complete sacrifice of our fallen soldiers. I mourn the lives cut short and the promises of who they could have become had they survived. That hurts to think about.

No one in my large extended family lost their lives while serving. I cannot begin to imagine the heartbreak of families who lost soldiers, whose last embraces on the airstrip tarmac were the very last ones, who yearn for the presence of lost loved ones year after lonely year as they are left to cope with their absence. I can feel that pain in the pit of my stomach, or the lump in my throat, but it will never be as severely felt as for those families.

Flash forward to our world in a few years. Imagine the conflicts we could be involved in. Imagine future Memorial Days–that is, if we are lucky enough to survive future wars. Will we honor the soldiers who die while invading Iran or North Korea for regime change, or who die once again in the deserts of the Middle East to protect oil wealth?  Will we have become so desensitized or numb to global conflict by then that we won’t care? Will we be so suppressed by authoritarian rule in a dystopian society that we will not feel free to speak out against conflict? Will the dead soldiers of past conflicts have died in vain?

“I tell you, war is Hell.”–William Tecumseh Sherman (1870)

The Sun Casts Long Shadows

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It’s actually March right now–a gray, rainy day of which we’ve had many this winter. Like everyone else, I’m ready for spring. But in my mind, it’s already the end of August. The late summer light’s warm and earthy tones are almost as beautiful as the early spring brightness seen in clear blue skies, purple hyacinths, and new leaves. The brightness is past, the heat is dissipating. For some, late summer brings new energy as school children head back to school, adults head back to work, and routines return to normal. For others, it is a time of reflection and the hollow feeling that time is getting short.

I’m walking through late summer, cognizant that the leaves will be falling sometime soon (but not that soon); sometime in the very far future, winter will settle into my bones and I want to be ready for that. For now, I am going to savor the summer light and the near perfect warmth. I’m going to walk in the early evening and delight in the long shadows. I’m going to harvest what was planted and put food up, but I’m also going to reach back into those bare fields where seeds were planted and root out some memories.