(88) deep breath

across the field

It’s a small house just a few hundred feet back from the highway, behind a line of big juniper trees. There’s a bird bath and a few bird houses mounted on tall stakes beneath one of the trees. A big pecan tree shades the garage and a rose hedge divides the back garden from the dusty open field where herds of “goat head” thorns wait to pierce unwary feet. We throw the trash all together into the big burn barrels, but Grandpa stopped burning the trash years ago, they tell us. Now someone comes by to pick it up. There’s an old paper box under the sink, lined with newsprint, and we send it out to the burn barrels a few times a day with one of the uncles or cousins. One of the grandkids swings up into the tree in the back grass and a cousin starts a pick-up basketball game, launching the ball toward the goal mounted over the storeroom door. An uncle makes sausage gravy and I make biscuits from a mix and we serve up a hearty breakfast around the counter in the kitchen where Grandma and Grandpa always used to eat and watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.

at breakfast

basketball goal

The house expands with an effortless deep breath and we all rush in to taste the memories together. We pull down a few old photo albums and relive the glory days of the house, when the grass was greener and the irrigation tank was surrounded with willows. It was like another world, their own forest right in the front yard. The tank was bulldozed years ago. Grandpa used to flood the yard to water the grass and there are pictures of all those little boys – especially the 6 older grandsons – splashing around in it. My husband is second-oldest and he remembers it all so well. This is one of his favorite places in the world, he tells me. “Your other favorite place is wherever I am, right?” I joke to make him smile.

back yard sunset

This house knows how to hold a big family. It doesn’t feel crowded, even when we’re all milling around, overflowing through the kitchen and onto the mauve recliners and flower-print sofas, great-grandkids rushing in and out through the front and back doors, just as happy to play here as their dads always were. They’ve taken my 23-year-old brother-in-law, the youngest cousin, captive and he seems happy enough to acquiesce to their wishes and play with them. We play cards and CatchPhrase, drink a lot of Coke and Dr. Pepper, and eat New Mexican-style Mexican food almost every day. And we muddle through the mess of family together too. Love covers a multitude of sins, it’s written, and we do our best to love over and through the hurtful words and hurt feelings, trying to hear all sides to the stories and judge not, lest we be judged.

living room sitting

catchphrase

The funeral is on Saturday afternoon. In the morning, we go and say goodbye to Grandpa’s body. Grandpa’s wearing a purple tie and so is my husband. I bring him a handful of tissue and hug him tightly, as if a hug could soothe the ache of grief. Six of the 8 grandsons are here this weekend and they’re enlisted to wear white gloves and carry the casket. It’s strange to think of all the times he swung them up onto his lap or carried them around as babies and now they carry him. After the graveside, we escape the bright sun and tumble back into the cool church gym where they’ve laid out a Southwestern potluck feast, fried chicken, potato casseroles, a spread of salads which include pasta and Jell-O, and a table heavy with red velvet and pink lemonade cakes.

coffin

That night, the house is fuller than it might be ever again and I know that Grandpa is loving every moment. I hope Grandma feels the joy too, but she’s at her new home, where it’s clean and cool and they look after her 24/7. Her daughters told her with heavy hearts that Daddy had died, but maybe it’s a blessing that she can’t remember anything for long. When we visit and she asks us if her sweetheart will come to visit later, we say maybe he will, but he’s busy now. “He’s a wonderful man,” she tells us and we agree.

with Zacks gma edited

And then the house breathes out and we disperse again. By Tuesday morning, all the extended family is gone. By Wednesday afternoon, it’s just my husband and I. A day or two later and we’re cleaning to leave it nice, just like Grandma and Grandpa would have liked. The spare key is hidden for when his aunt and uncle come by on the weekend. We leave the light on over the sink and in the hallway and say goodbye to every room. All the beds are made up and we’ve washed a couple loads of towels and washcloths, the last evidence of the big family visit last weekend. There are a few to-go containers filled with cake still on the kitchen counter and I feel bad throwing them away. My husband stops the grandfather clock and the finality of the goodbye sets in hard and heavy.

Grandpas shoes

The house is quiet and empty as we drive away that last time. When will we be here again? Sometime soon the daughters, his aunts, will divide out the furniture, the knick-knacks, and sell the house and the farm. This precious place won’t ever be the same, not without Grandma and Grandpa here. The memories are strong and sweet with gratitude, accompanied by that edge of grief burning our throats.

One last glance over our shoulders and we’re off. This is the life we are living, a life of loving and letting go.

looking back

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(74) a mosaic of victory

It’s Veteran’s Day again.

The one person who comes to mind out of the millions is Mr. Neil Carey, a charming regular guest at the hotel where I worked for a year and a half in Anacortes, Washington. He was in the Navy during World War II, attached to the only battleship (as I understand it) that was not at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. I never met his wife Betty, but I understand from Neil that she was quite the catch. When the news came about Pearl Harbor, Neil was allowed one day of leave before they shipped out. Betty came down to Seattle for the day and they were married, then he left for war and she took the bus to Mount Vernon and then hitch hiked to Anacortes. Neil told me he knew he had to snatch her up before someone else got to her!

Over the many interactions that we had, he would ask me how my husband was doing in the Navy and reminisce about how things had changed. He told me about how quickly he was promoted in wartime, described the different odd jobs he did along the way, like running the ship store for a while. He glossed over what it was like to see a lot of friends die, but you could still catch a glimpse sometimes that that experience also made him who he was. (Both Neil and Betty Carey wrote books about their life experiences, which you can find online).

The title of this post comes from the inscription on a headstone in a World War II era North African graveyard:  “Into the mosaic of victory I lay this priceless piece, my dearest son.”

I feel you could dive into the phrase a long way. The meaning in the context of lost lives during wartime is obvious. But maybe there is other, more subtle significance in it as well. I think what I loved most about Neil is his unquenchable spirit, his endless enthusiasm for life and stories. He seems perpetually selfless, bent on improving another’s day even when in the midst of a rough one of his own. It is as though his way of living is his ultimate priceless piece in the mosaic of victory.

Maybe we are the mosaic of victory. That regardless of the outcomes of the various circumstances we face, even with things as large as wars with munitions and wars with words, the way we are living through it becomes the mosaic of victory.

Please understand I do not wish to oversimplify or undervalue the immense sacrifices of our veterans in any degree.

I’m just thinking out loud. And I like the feel of that phrase:  Mosaic of victory. A cooperative, collaborative creation of something meaningful and beautiful. Perhaps in some ways this is why we pause to honor our veterans, with special recognition for their particular and highly-sacrificial collaboration in this massive mosaic.