I just finished reading the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Many times I’ve watched the ending of the movie made from the book. I liked Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of the author. The thrills and the sex and drugs. The pain at losing her mother, portrayed by Laura Dern. The lost feeling that followed. Her divorce that was more like two boats drifting apart.
And then the hike up the trail from California to Oregon. Recovering, what? She did not know going in how difficult it would be. The pain of hiking. The busted up feet. The callouses on her lower back that felt like leather.
I’ve read other “journey” books and really liked them. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson chronicled his hike up the Appalachian Trail. His journey was more about the doing than the catharsis. But it wound up being a catharsis just the same.
In every journey book there is a similar dynamic. Isolated from everyday life, the lead characters wonder, sometimes with guilt, sometimes not, what might be going on back where life is normal.
For Cheryl Strayed, it was getting away that mattered. It was everyday life that had trapped her with its sorrow and its temptations. She’d done heroin and slept with a bunch of men. Ached for her mother, but it did not bring her back.
The point here is that life itself is a trail. That’s what Strayed discovered in the end. That the trail is wild, and that life is wild too. We can’t see around the next bend. Sometimes can’t see the next step we take.
I recall a moment in church when our pastor spoke plainly about the fact that not every service or moment will seem sacred or religious. It’s like there are mountains or peak experiences in our lives, and sometimes we get to feel them. Be there. Raise our consciousness. Yet there are a lot of days putting one foot in front of the other.
The year gets marked that way at church. There are days when the Youth Group sets out geraniums to purchase in spring. Then here are long strands of pine boughs to buy and hang on my white fence out front of the house in November.
Holidays come along like that too. They add up too quickly. My late father used to joke every January that the year was almost done. “You’ve got Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day. Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day. Then Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yup, the year’s almost over.”
And of course, he was always right. But some of us add in a few more days than that. Mother’s Day just passed. That’s the day when all the mothers I know take quiet stock of their children and their own moms. They stand between these two worlds in hope that someone notices. Fortunately, many do. There are not many holidays as poignant as Mother’s Day. So what if it is a Hallmark occasion. Whether you spell Hallmark with a capital H or a small h does not matter. We need our hallmarks. Otherwise, the years go by and we do not know where we are.
There were several moments in the book Wild when Cheryl Strayed wandered off the Pacific Coast Trail. At other times, the path was covered with snow, or littered with the debris of forest clearcuts. She had to make decisions in those moments. Where to turn. How far to go even when you know you are lost.
Years ago I went out for what was supposed to be a short run during a stay in the north woods. I took off in just shorts and shoes and a thin tee shirt, like I always do. I ran a familiar trail and it turned into another familiar trail and then suddenly it was no longer familiar. I’d missed a turn somewhere. The sky was flat and gray. No sun to mark the direction south. And as I continued running I’m sure there were trails I missed that would have brought me back home. But I ran for nearly two hours that day, stopping to get some bearings and realizing it was somewhat hopeless.
Finally, I noticed my own footprints back the familiar path, and things shifted. The world was coming into focus as if seen through a projector. Then I ran the two miles back to the lakeside resort where we were staying.
I had been lost, and was found on my own. Not through any grand effort or intellect. Nor was there any discernibly divine intervention. I was not in desperate straits. Just a little tired.
Sitting by the lake that afternoon with my children playing in the water below my feet, I looked out at the water and up at the trees. An osprey flapped past carrying a big fat fish. It all seemed wild, yet tame at the same time. That’s sometimes all we want from life. That life be somewhat predictable. But a little wild, too.
It used to drive my wife and children nuts. My propensity for talking to people. Yet I’ve done it so long and learned so much by talking with people that I refuse to stop.
Just last week I talked with a guy that sat down across from me in an airport. His vest had an interesting logo on it. I struck up a conversation and learned that he represented an organization that protects wild lands out west. I’m scheduled to interview the Executive Director to do an article and pitch it to a magazine.
So I talk to people for networking reasons. But I also talk to people just because it makes life more interesting. I talk to people in elevators. I talk to people that are nothing like me on the surface. I talk to people of different races and genders.
I especially talk to people who are out walking their dogs. I will stop during a run and pet their dog, asking permission first. I’ve met a lot of nice people this way. And talked to a lot of dogs. Generally, they appreciate the butt scratch I give them. I do not try to scratch the butt of their owners.
I talk to people while I’m out shopping for groceries. Obviously, I talk with people at church too. One feeds the belly. The other feeds the soul.
We talk to each other in new ways these days. Facebook. Twitter. GMail. Linkedin. Met a lot of interesting people these ways too.
There are days I talk to friends out of need. But sometimes that applies to strangers too. It’s amazing how consoling a conversation with a stranger can be sometimes. Then they’re no longer a stranger. I’ve helped people get jobs this way. Referred them to people they might like to meet. And learned about interesting opportunities along the way.
I talked with a woman in the swimming pool at the health club a couple months ago. She swam with her head above water and wore a modest suit. Her son was whaling away in the other lane, happy to be swimming hard. I learned that her husband was recently admitted to a facility where his health issues could be watched closely. They were making the best of things, but it was hard. After I got out of the pool, the mother and son showed up outside the locker room and we talked some more. I encouraged her son in his swimming. He was only in eighth grade, a bit soft in face and body. We all go through that phase. I told him that his swimming was really good. He smiled. In loco parentis. We do what we can. It’s a form of caregiving for the world.
I talk to people sometimes out of anxiety. It’s a release of sorts. Worry eats at you. So does fear. Talking to other people can keep those vexations at bay. Until you gain control.
I try to make people laugh if I can. Find something in common in line at Starbucks. Make a joke about the bananas getting too cozy. I take pride in trying to make people laugh. That’s the right kind of pride.
When people share concerns I try to listen rather than talk. And if they seek advice I try to relate, but not replace their worries with mine. But I’m not perfect. Sometimes flaws show through. Yet nothing makes me happier than when someone says, “Thanks for listening” or “Thanks for talking.”
I talk to people because I need to talk to people. For sure I’m a total loner at times and don’t want to talk with anyone. I can be happy out in the fields watching birds with no one around. Or riding my bike in windstorm. Don’t want to talk with anyone then.
I’ve talked with teammates during long runs and tried to figure out life along the way. It’s a fact: Every new day is a puzzle, and we only have this part of the puzzle to consider while we’re awake. That entire scenario is a puzzle to me. So I try to puzzle it out by talking with other people.
Sometimes you get rebuffed. People don’t want to talk. Think you’re an idiot. Don’t give a damn what you think. Disagree with your religion or politics. Hate you for being a man, or a woman, or some type of either. When you try to breach those barriers you become a problem in their life. Fuck off. Don’t try to change my thinking. You get the message. No more talking. You move on.
But still I keep talking to people. It’s worth it no matter what. It’s the only way I can hear myself think sometimes. Funny how that works. And why.
A close friend has been at the hospital the last few days tending to his mother. She injured herself severely in a household fall by tripping on a braided rug that her husband has long refused to throw out in their bedroom.
Such are the vagaries of old age, and sentiment. Her broken ribs and swollen brain are being treated at the hospital, but she’s not sure it’s a good idea to go on. There is fear, and there is pain.
Her son is also in pain, of the emotional kind. There has been no more faithful a son than he. For two decades he has tended their garden. Mowed their lawn. Taken them to church when necessary. His own life is intertwined with that of his parents. Because he cares.
And because he cares, he is suffering now at the thought of his mother’s passing. She is alive, but barely. Sooner or later most of us go through this experience with a parent. A spouse. Or a friend.
I know people that have even lost children. Such abrupt dissolutions.
As I entered the house today, I glanced down to notice that the crocus in the front garden are already starting to drop their petals. We wait all winter for the first signs of spring. Then spring comes and sheds these bright signs of life as if they did not matter at all.
I have watched my mother die. I was there when she passed away 10 years ago. Recently I watched my father die as well. We emptied their house this past week. Filled a three-yard dumpster with all their former belongings. Kept a few keepsakes and practical items for our own.
My brother said, “I’m going home to get rid of 25% of what I own. If this is what happens to us when we die, I don’t want that.”
Three years ago this March 26 my wife passed away after an eight year go-round with cancer. She lived fully right to the moment she passed away. I have always said that I am proud of her for that. But life itself sheds its hold on us like petals on a crocus.
We are reminded of all this come Easter time. According to Christian tradition, even the Son of God shed those petals of life here on earth. The faith holds that our souls are borne into heaven if we have accepted the grace, and shed the brand of pride that prevents it.
Instead, we should hold pride in the mercies we can show others. I told that to my friend, the selfless man that has cared for his parents all these years. “You are in pain because your love is wrapped together with her life. That is pain your have earned through caring. God knows that we feel that pain, and it’s the knowledge that we are loved that sustains us through it.”
Walking right into the pain
Three years ago on Good Friday, I walked into the church I attend with tears barely concealed behind my eyes. My brother asked me why I attended the service so soon after the death of my wife, and I told him, “I’m walking right into the pain.”
That’s really the only thing we can do. You can’t escape it by walking around. It follows you like a shadow. And when I walked up to meet the pastor for a blessing that Friday evening, he was the one shedding tears in my family’s name. “You are in the right place,” he told me.
That does not cure it all. There is still the absence and the loss. The profound depression knowing that someone is gone, for good. That is grief. It must be reckoned with as well. But first we must acknowledge the pain. All else is folly. That can take time. It cannot be rushed. Yet neither can we dwell in the past, lest we forget there is life to be lived.
Preaching to the choir
I understand that church is not for everyone. I get that more deeply than you might think. My own father relinquished his churchgoing ways. He loved the camaraderie of the choir, but the words ultimately didn’t mean that much. It doesn’t mean he did not have a soul. And I do not worry for it. That is not the brand of faith to which I ascribe.
We are all flawed people, who need forgiveness for the things we do. And, we should do all the forgiving we can muster. Because the real purpose of those falling petals should be to let go the lies, and the hurts, the harsh words and the lost opportunities to say that we love someone.
That is the faith to which I ascribe. It is ultimately transcendent, even in all its fallen glory. It is not keeping the crocus past its time, but knowing that its coming and going is the real sign of hope, and of caring, and of things planted for the right purposes.
Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8“Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”9And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” –Mark 4:8
The inner dialogue of a person engaged in weeding a garden can go in a number of directions. There is the associative focus of separating good plants from bad, and yanking the weeds by the roots. There is also the dissociative tendency to let your mind wander and weigh your life along with everything in it.
A little of both is likely required to do a good job weeding. One must pay attention to identify weeds amongst the plants we choose for ornament and beauty. But sometimes weeds are so thick it does not take much thought to do the job. You stick your hands in there and yank for all you’re worth. Little thought is required, only muscle.
Over the years, one learns the best way to weed through practice. There is no other substitute for experience. One learns which plants are easy to pull up by the roots and which break off in your hands four to six inches from the soil. That makes for bigger problems. A trowel needs to come into play. There is not enough leverage left on the slimy stem of the weed to get a grip and yank up the roots.
Otherwise the weeds come back. Well, they come back no matter the method of removal. They’re weeds. That’s what they do. There’s always a supply of new weeds to fill in for the old ones.
One learns this lesson in your own yard and garden easy enough. Weeding is a required activity if you attempt to grow anything at all.
Of course, weeds are also at times a matter of perspective. Gardeners grow some varieties of plants that can escape and propagate places where they are not welcome. Purple loosestrife is one such beautiful pest. In a garden they are quite beautiful. But unleashed in a wetland they can take over an entire ecosystem. At that point, they must be yanked or otherwise killed off.
There are entire woodlands that need to be managed for the influx of plant colonies such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Natural area restoration crews descend on these colonies and yank, burn and poison them to death. But the weeds almost always come back. It’s what they do.
That makes it all the more triumphant when the results of weeding actually do work. Perhaps there is no more profound example than that of a managed prairie. It can take years of propagation and burning to kill off the weed colonies and invasive species. But when prairie plants are given a chance, their competition strategies are smart and strong. The roots grow deep and the soul of the plant lies below the surface. That means burning takes off the dried up stems but does not affect the rich underground root system that also taps deep into the soil to gain moisture. Hot summer days do not kill these plants.
So nature invented weeding, on its own. But humans love to create environments with the appearance of natural balance that are, in fact, a stripped down version of nature that can be hard to sustain. Golf courses are one such example, and for years their strategy was to bathe the fairways and greens in dangerous chemicals as weed control. The monoculture necessary to allow the game of golf to be played requires intensive weed strategies that for decades contributed to ground pollution and other problems.
Our lawns at home often depend on such chemicals. Some are relatively benign and go away quickly. Others persist, and it would be much better for the world if these strategies were weeded out of our eco-strategies.
One of my neighbors does not believe in lawn chemicals. That meant her yard become overgrown several summers in a row. She could not tell the weeds from her plantings. Finally I offered to help weed her lawn. She is a good Christian woman and had been praying about what to do for her lawn. Money was tight for her at the time and a full-on landscaping company was out of the question.
So I offered to weed. My late wife was glad that I did this. The Creeping Charlie from her yard had grown all the way through her lawn to reach the edge of our garden. When I dug into the mats of Creeping Charlie it could be hauled up like sheets of laundry. That work revealed an entire system of hostas and small groundcover plants that thrived once the weeds were removed. There were giant, towering thistles as well, and old, dried-up cedar trees in need of removal.
The process took several days, and my wife grew impatient with my dedication to the task. I quietly told her it was a duty that somehow called me. Nothing else. There was no husband or helper available to our neighbor at the time. So I lent my services in that department. I knew how to weed.
Since that time a man has come into her life, and a bit of money too. First he tore into the landscaping and removed many of the weeds, mulched the gardens and tore up funky trees. Then a landscape service began to show up and a beautiful new fence was installed. I love her new fence. It’s a wonderful backdrop for my own garden.
The property of life
Recently a family I know also needed some weeding around their yard. The husband has been dealing with the progressive effects of ALS for years now. His devoted wife keeps up with everything the best she can, but the duties and commitments of things like yard upkeep are not possible, yet are relentless. The family now also has grandchildren to enjoy. This is the property of life, which is so often counterbalanced by the weeds of existence. It takes a strategy of caregiving to manage these priorities.
So it was with some joy that we organized a small community of workers from our church to do some weeding around their yard. The resultant piles of thick weeds piled five feet high. Along the north side of their property the landscaping was obscured by groundcover gone out of control. In fact some of it had died for lack of light. The daylilies competed with thistles and mulberry trees shot up through the arms of the spruce trees. All the weeds and overgrowth had to be inspected, sorted and removed. The tall mulberries were sawed up and heaped on the curb. The weeds were stubborn and thick, but the loose mulch gave up the roots easily enough. It was hot, and it was thirsty work. But it was worth it.
All the time I was out weeding I thought of my friend Steve inside the house. This was his garden, and his love. It exhibited his character. I could see the organization of the plants and the landscaping at every turn. His wife told me how much he loved to garden. There were beautiful plants; butterfly weed (how ironic?) and many more.
As the shape of the garden emerged again I thought of how Steve and I first met. Our children were in high school music and drama together and something between us clicked after we met. He’d join me for lunch over at the Country House restaurant where they served nice fat burgers and cold beer. There were several meetings where he talked me through issues of depression related to some of life’s changes and work issues. Then my wife had cancer and Steve was there for that too.
Meanwhile his own health issues began to emerge. It became difficult for him to open the huge wooden door at Country House. There was a growing weakness in his system that could not be identified. It progressed and was finally diagnosed as ALS.
He has never let it stop him from living life, thinking through his writing and enjoying the company of all those who love him and his family. And there are many.
Steve and I helped each other weed through those depressive instincts years ago. We weeded out the negative thoughts to make room for positivity and hope to grow. That is a garden worth tending every day. Every year. Every life.
For some people a class reunion is a joyous occasion and an opportunity to connect with long time friends. For others, class reunions are bring on the worst kind of trepidation. Dread of encountering people you don’t like, or who don’t like you. Being nervous about your popularity, present or past. Worries over looks, weight or success in life can bring about anxiety, even depression of fear. Justifying yourself in the eyes of others is not too pleasing to some.
It need not be that way of course. Most people come through reunions relieved and unscathed, because somewhere between the fear and joy lies reality.
Yes, there are almost always people who arrive at reunions prepared to judge the relative success and youth of others. Perhaps the most amusing movie of all about this process is the chick flick Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. The two slightly daft gals discover their true talents by the end of the movie, but not without some grievous pain in the process. One even finds true love.
Reunions for both high school and college are designed to bring people back together. This long tradition is changing with the advent of social media where people now connect without benefit of a reunion of any sort. Every day of the week can be a reunion if you want it to be.
Even so, as the years go by perspectives about what it means to reunite typically tend to change. The vagaries of life almost demand it. My brother once offered this advice to me before the occasion of my 20th-year high school reunion. “You might actually like this one,” he observed. “By now everyone’s had their ass kicked at least once.”
Interestingly, that year I attended not just one but three separate 20th-year high school reunions. One was for my actual graduating class. The second was for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved away from a high school out in cornfields of Illinois. And the last was a reunion for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois in the 7th grade.
Guess which reunion felt the most tangible? Perhaps you know. That reunion back home in Pennsylvania put me back in touch with kids that had shared grade school and middle school together. We all know those connections are earthy and real.
Yet the two actual high school reunions delivered on promises of old friendships as well. I actually served as emcee at the first reunion I attended. Frankly that was not much fun. Gaining the attention of people deep into discover of old friendships means you’re basically a distraction. It was pretty much an evening that felt like consistent rejection. I promised myself not to take it personally. Anyone else in charge could have had the same experience. But I’ll confess that it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I missed the 25-year reunion because my late wife was sick with cancer. The milestones of life and death do not pay attention at times to our own plans and schedules. Missing that reunion served to instruct me how many years had actually passed.
It’s a strange feeling to so many people when the years come crashing down on you. As a high school product of the 1970s, it’s pretty easy to find song lyrics predicting the passage of time. Pink Floyd does both a service and a disservice to this topic of time passing with these lyrics:
“But you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking…
And racing around to come up behind you again…
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older…
And shorter of breath, and one day…closer to death.”
It’s a humbling reality that none of us lives forever. We laugh and play through our 20s even into our 30s. We come to grips with financial and family realities in our 40s. By our 50s we either stay marriage or lose a spouse to divorce or death. The kids grow up and you feel exposed to the winds of life, and one more reunion can feel like the wind knows all your secrets.
But some of us ignore that wind and stick new seeds of self into the ground. We weed away concerns and learn what faith really means in the context of a full life. We forgive ourselves and others, if we’re lucky and smart. Women tend to choose close friends and confirm their sanity. Men learn to forsake their concerns over athletic prowess and begin to take pride in the facility of their negotiations over self and ego.
Humility is a grace in two forms. It takes grace to jump those hurdles of worry and distrust that trip us up in life. As the Bible says, the world is full of stumbling blocks to enlightenment.
Then there is the grace it takes to handle intentional and unintentional affronts to your character. Sometimes people can’t help themselves with their words. They say things that echo old habits of insecurity or arrogance. The words come out of their mouths as if they had not grown away from that long-ago character or situation lurking around in their sub conscience. Be it a class clown or a brilliant student, we all absorb character aspects that are not always easy to manage. Even as years pile up it only takes a word or two at times to bring bad associations to the surface.
That’s what makes it so difficult to know what to expect from a class reunion. Will people be nice or not? Will they accept the person you’ve become or impose some assumption of character upon you in awkward, even vicious ways?
Sometimes the opposite happens. While attending that reunion back in Pennsylvania I was taking a breather from encounters with long lost friends by nursing a drink in a far flung corner of the VFW hall where we gathered. Just then a quiet man walked up to me and said, “Chris Cudworth?”
“Yes,” I smiled. “It’s great to be back.”
We talked a bit and slowly we recalled details of our association together. I remembered sharing gym class and a few other experiences with the guy. He was not one of the so-called popular but we spent a lot of time together. “The thing I liked about you is that you treated everyone as equals,” he told me.
Values and insecurities
That’s a value that I’ve held from the earliest phases of my life. With insecurities of my own boiling around inside, it made sense in not to push others about their flaws. All people deserve respect. I have indeed forgotten that value at times and shamed myself and others in the process. That is my confession.
But a reunion is a great opportunity to make good on any of those transgressions in life. It’s amazing at times that people who have crossed us, or whom we have crossed on our own accord, can become friends when false pride and fear is relinquished. The right kind of pride enables us to look for these opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness. It can also protect us when we try to make good and find people unaware or unwilling to find paths to healthy, mature relationships.
You can probably expect a little of both from most reunions. We all travel the same path in life, but every person has to actualize at their own pace in life.
The best thing you can do, and the best thing you can expect from any reunion is a forgiveness for any wrongs in the past and a joy at someone acknowledging the person you are in the present.
My father Stewart Cudworth was always a great writer. Typically this ability was funneled more into his job as a sales engineer in a career working for electronic and fiber optic companies. Yet early in his life he wrote fiction and sometimes teased my mother, an avid writer of poetry, that he was the better writer.
What follows is an essay written during wartime in 1943. This piece won the Literary Contest in the Bainbridge News and Bainbridge Republican newspaper in Upstate New York where he and my mother lived on farms a mere 200 yards apart. At the top of the newspaper clipping in my mother’s writing there is an inscription written in fountain pen. “By Stewart Cudworth. He won it. Fooey.”
My father was 19 at the time he wrote this. He did not serve in the air force as this story might have suggested, but instead enlisted in the United States Navy and served in the Pacific theater.
The story begins:
“Johnny Gordon saluted in reply to the C.O. and turned and walked to his Spitfire. He climbed in, all the time turning his orders over in his mind. He gunned the motor and took off just as the sun rose above the distant hills. It was his first operational flight and he thought about all his fighter instruction which had been drilled into his head, the best flying altitude, the tricks of Jerry and all the other little things that enter into a fighter pilot’s life. This flight Johnny was making was a “rhubarb,” so called because it consisted of flying low over the coastal territory of Europe, so low that the propellor sometimes chopped leaves off that sour plant, the main home crop of little northern France towns.
As he gained altitude to set his course, Johnny noticed the darkness emptying out of the hollows. There was a little knot in the pit of his stomach, but as soon as he saw the shimmering Channel, he forgot his worries to enjoy the short trip over the water.
Johnny picked a large wave and lowered the Spit into the trough and sped for France. He came over land and started looking for any Nazi activity to strafe. Apparently taking the Germans by surprise, he attacked a train, a supply depot and gun emplacements without opposition. Then he headed for the Channel and home, skimming the treetops.
As he cleared a small knoll he saw a group of German infantryman raise their rifles and fire at him. Johnny gave them the rest of his ammunition, which he had been saving for any Jerries he might encounter. Over his should he saw three of the soldiers fall; the rest scattered over the fields wth terror written on their faces.
About 10 miles from the coast without warning his motor suddenly quit cold. Johnny zoomed as high as his momentum would allow and picked his spot to land. Before the plane hit, he looked at the gauge and saw there was plenty of gasoline. Must be the Germans had hit is ignition. The Spit hit the rough ground and came abruptly to a stop. Although Johnny’s safety belt saved him from injury other than bruises, the plane was a complete washout. Fearing the arrival of a German patrol, Johnny headed for the weeds. Ass soon as he was out of sight he plopped down to rest and regain his strength, stretched out in the bushes for a short nap, hidden from hostile eyes.
When he awoke, the sun had climbed high in the sky and it shone directly from above. Johnny felt a slight gnawing in his stomach, so he arose and carefully made his way through the woods, keeping his eyes open in order toduck at the first sign of danger. If he were captured, there was no telling what might happen to him. Suddenly, as he passed a large tree, a voice said, “Arretez!” Johnny stopped as the voice commanded and slowly turned around. From behind the tree stepped a man with a mustache and dressed in the style of a French peasant. He said one word, “Yank?” and then motioned to Johnny to follow him. Johnny nodded and fell in behind. He marveled at the way the man picked his way through to a little thatched cottage with woods on one side and fields on the other. Across the fields he saw the smoke rising from the chimneys of a town. The peacefulness of the scene belied the cruel servitude these homeloving people were under.
After scanning the area, Johnny and the peasant sneaked to the house. Inside, the man turned and said quickly with an accent, “In there,” pointing to the small attic. Johnny climbed up and laid down on the straw that was there. “Wonder how long I gotta stay here,” he thought. It seemed like hours before the peasant reappeared. He brought some black bread and some porridge. “here,” he said, “eet is the best I have.” Johnny muttered “Merci” remembering that fragment of his high school French. The food tasted good to this empty stomach, although ti was far different from the scientifically prepared diet of the A.A.C. The rest of the day dragged by and Johnny napped fitfully, being awakened frequently by the sound of distant airplane motors. He crawled to the knotholes to look out, but he couldn’t see any of the planes.
Dusk fell and Johnny again crept to the knothole, and looked out into the night. There was a bright moon shining through broken clouds.
Good night to hit Berlin with some blockbusters,” he thought. Then his mind turned for the firs time to home, his family, his girl and the gang back home in the drug store. He said a little prayer that he might see them all again.
About two hours after sunset, Johnny’s benefactor put his head through the door. “C’mon, M’sieu Yank,” he said in a low voice. “It is time to go.” Puzzled, Johnny slid down to the room below. There the peasant swiftly coated Johnny’s face with lampblack. Then they set out into the woods with only brief patches of moonlight for a guide. It was eternity before they stopped, thought Johnny. The man said nothing but pointed to the North. They were on a slight rise and in the distance was the sparkling Channel. They pressed on to a small cover in which there was a small fishing boat with another man in it. The peasant led Johnny to the beach and whistled softly to the man in the boat. “Au revoir, M’sieu Yank,” and vanished into the night.
The man in the boat beckoned to Johnny to get in and then cast off. There was a brisk southern breeze and they soo passed into the open seas. For the first time the boatman spoke. He surprised Johnny with his fluence in English. “You are flier, ”est-ce pas,” he asked. Johnny replied. “Yes, I was forced down this morning and was hidden by the peasant who brought me here. He said very little, but I trusted him completely.”
“Yes, Georges Dandot he is one of our best men,” said the Frenchman. “He speaks little English, but he does good work anyway. I am Pierre Robert. I used to be a university professor before the fall of France. We are both members of the Underground which fights the Nazis under the cover of dark. You are the 13th flier we have returned to fight another day.”
“But aren’t you caught returning by the Germans?” asked Johnny. “Wouldn’t they kill you?”
“Yes, I am sometimes caught, but I shrug my shoulders and say that the wind blew me off my course. The Boches don’t dare kill me, because for every dead Frenchman they find a strangled Stormtrooper by the road. Some day, when the Allies invade Europe, all of France will rise and fight the enemy. Then France will regain her glory.”
As the white cliffs of England rose in the moonlight, a flight of four-motored bombers passed over on their way to Germany. Pierre, who had been calm in his conversation with Johnny, rose and addressing them said in a tremulous voice, “Hit the enemy in its vitals ––for la belle France.” His voice died to a whisper and he said no more until the boat scraped on the beach. Then he said simply, “We shall meet again I hope.” With that he headed to France.
Johnny watched the small bot until it vanished from sight. Then he turned and walked up the beach to the barricade where he would find some Home Guards. When he returned to his station, he would have something to tell people––that la belle France still fights.
The story predicts the future:
At the time this piece was written, France was obviously under the rule of Germany. That next year on D-Day, June 6 of 1944, the American move into Europe that defeated Hitler and his troops began. In some small way, even fiction written during wartime contributes to the hope of defeating a dangerous enemy. And that’s the right kind of pride.
The morning that my son Evan was born was both a great joy and a tremendous relief. My wife had gone through fifteen hours of labor contractions every three minutes. He came into this world around 7:00 a.m. on October 30, 1986.
The thrill of having your first child is complemented by the arrival of the second. Our daughter Emily arrived around 9:00 p.m. on a warm April 26, 1990. That delivery rushed along so fast that we needed to call friends and family to watch our son when we rushed off to the hospital on the heels of a spicy Mexican meal a few hours earlier.
The pain and humor of fatherhood is never-ending. Your children grow up so fast that it is the small moments you accumulate in your mind that constitute being a father or mother.
I remember one late afternoon when the sun was falling through the front window of our tiny Geneva home. My daughter was crawling around on the bare floor chewing on a flexible teething ring. The sun was bouncing off the floor and struck her blue eyes. I raced for my film camera and snapped off a few photos before the sun went down. Later when I showed those photos to a friend she quietly murmured. “Her eyes look like cracked glass.”
I also recall the first word of my son. He was sitting on the back porch with my wife who often held him in her lap and pointed to flowers and other natural items around the yard. A small sparrow landed beneath their feet and my wife said to Evan, “Bird.” And he repeated the word, “Bird.” He was six months old.
In fact word games became a big part of all our lives. On our way home from grandma’s house one December, we drove through Geneva where the Christmas lights were blazing and Evan had a question for us both. “What’s the word, ‘wreath?”
He was always asking questions about language. We laughed years later when he admitted that he never knew what we were talking about when referring to Forced Preserves. That would be ‘forest preserves.” As Emily Latella might say, “Never mind.”
With Emily it was always the purpose of language and song that mattered. We have a wonderful video of her in a pink ballerina dress practicing a Disney song. If the words did not come out just right she would stop and huff in frustration. Then she’d begin again. But you dared not interrupt her either. This was her challenge to complete and she did not want help recalling or repeating the words. That was her job, and hers alone.
It is true that the character of your children emerges early and lives in their core their whole lives. Through creative means we learn how they think and believe and play. But it is through their character that we really know them.
Sometimes as a father of adult children I want desperately to know what they are really thinking. It is of course easy to dwell on our personal failings as a parent. When a child calls and the phone call ends, you wonder to yourself, “Did I give them what they need? Was I enthusiastic to their purpose? Am I being a good father to them?”
Those questions surface more frequently in absence of the mother that raised them. I know they miss their mother because she was superb at saying the right things when they called. I listened to hundreds of conversations over the years. Her attention to their needs was superb.
But these questions exist whether someone is alive or gone to another place. All it takes is a missed phone call in this life to get behind in our relationships. While modern technology is great, and we see each other on Facebook and catch up by phone when we can, there is a strange back-pressure that comes from so much attenuation to communication. If you’re not careful, the pressures of communication can become an undertow. That’s true for all of us, and with everyone.
It’s important as a father to remember that your family needs their own space as well. So much of my own children’s upbringing was done by other adults and friends in life that I cannot claim all the facets of their character as my own. Those summers that my son spent over at a friend’s house building forts and beating each other up with floats in a tiny pool were critical in the formation of his personality. A father simply cannot provide all that input. That friendship. That love. It has to come from other sources too. The same goes for my daughter and those concert trips with her friends. It’s not the same if your father’s standing around at a concert. That has to be experienced on your own, and with your own community.
I do know that many parents struggle to know their full roles. When I encouraged my daughter as a teenager to invite the bands she’d met at concerts to crash at our house overnight during a tour, it was not always with permission of my wife.
Yet I knew the importance and resonance of that connection because where else in the world would you encounter such amazing people in a close circumstance?
The morning she woke up to find a fantastic group of musicians sitting around her bedroom singing and playing guitar could never be replicated again. Later she leveraged her musical connections to recruit the group Goldhouse to play at her graduation party. The band was about to embark on a concert series called Warped Tour. Their set was polished and when the first notes of the first song rocked through our oversized basement with 60+ people crammed into that space, people shrieked in amazement. My son turned to me in wonder and joy, shouting, “Ohhhh Myyyy Godddddd!” It was fantastic. And it was ours to share with our friends and the world.
It is our job as parents and especially fathers to support our families any way we can. Yet it was the morning after a long drive down to Illinois State University that made me realize the ultimate role of a father. We had left late the night before because my son was involved in a school play. Leaving at 10 p.m., we made it to the Interstate just as a deep fog settled over central Illinois. As the fog thickened, my son nodded off in the seat beside me. I focused on the tail light ahead of me for a couple hours until we pulled into the hotel parking lot. I turned to him and asked, “Were you at all nervous about the fog?”
“I decided to go to sleep,” he said matter-of-factly. “I figured if I woke up dead it didn’t matter.”
We chuckled about that and piled into the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep. He was excited to rise early and join his friends for the student state government convention he’d been invited to attend. We exchanged quick greetings and a partial hug. Then he walked confidently down the hall without turning back. I watched him go and realized that I’d helped raise a reasonably confident son. That made me proud. Yet is also made me feel alone. That’s fatherhood in a nutshell.
It hasn’t been easy for our family in a number of ways over the years. Yet my children have told me that they appreciated the stability and love found in our home. As parents perhaps we were sometimes a little too lenient in making them do chores. Yet our children were involved in positive things that occupied their time. There was plenty of time in life to learn chores it seemed. Many times they’d come home to tell of us some onerous task they’d just done for someone else’s parents. We’d laugh and confess, “Well, at least they’re learning responsibility somewhere.”
In the wake of my wife’s death I elected to begin dating and have been in a relationship now for two years with a woman named Sue that appreciates the legacy of my wife and respects my children. I try to do the same for her. Now her daughter is an intern with the magazine where my daughter is managing editor. We are an evolving family. Our lives have converged and convened in positive ways. We spend time together with my mother-in-law and other relatives. My wife’s best friend confided to me last year that my wife said she knew that I would date after she was gone. I thanked that friend for sharing that insight. This is not about forgetting my late wife. It is about companionship and love and supporting each other and our families.
It troubles me sometimes that so many people fail to grasp the value of loving relationships wherever they occur. This obsessive absorption with the idea of a “traditional family” is so lame and disaffecting it should be trampled underfoot by the crowd of people truly seeking love in this world. Aren’t we all sick and tired of the loss of love in this world? Can’t we dispense with the angry ideology that emanates from this selective reading of the Bible and its ugly byproducts.
After all, it was the literalistic approach to scripture that was used to justify slavery for years, and racial discrimination for the century after that. Long ago it generated crusades over faith and then helped lead to the death of millions of Jews through anti-Semitism. The rigid practice of patriarchal faith still foments a disturbingly immature view of women as property. Biblical literalism fuels an ignorant brand of politics that denies science and the educational process that goes with it. In the face of so much ignorant history why do we still even listen to people whining about “traditional marriage” based on a religious view that is clearly anachronistic and damaging to society?
Parenting skills and simple tools
Into this social void we wade… while wondering what the next generation will bring. Some people seem to worry that this generation of children is irresponsible and somehow lacking in important social skills. As a father that has met dozens of my children’s Millennial friends, I do not share that worry. I know their character because they helped raise my own children. I see great hope in a generation that cares not what race a person is. I see love in the fact that they don’t care if someone is gay or not. I (somewhat radically it appears) think this generation of so-called Millennials has an etiquette and a respect for self and others that older generations are simply failing to grasp.
For example, I know now to occasionally text my son or daughter if I’m going to call them. Why? Because it’s not always appropriate to answer you cell phone, but you can handle a quiet text to call later. If they’re occupied I don’t get voice mail. And quite often they’re occupied with other tasks and cannot take a call. There’s no imposition there.
That might seem like an affront to some. But as a father I look at it from a completely different perspective. I respect my children as well as love them. It simply makes sense to try to understand their social constructs and not impose mine on them. As a society we seem to have migrated toward this world where holding people at a disadvantage is considered something of a power chip and a point of pride. But it’s the wrong kind of pride. Barking about how millennials are poorly trained and communicate differently is not a sign of maturity. It is a sign of emotional immaturity and selfishness.
The right kind of pride is taking the time to examine why people react the way they do to the demands of social pressure, communications and opportunity. I think Millennials have evolved a patent way to accord each other respect. It’s the blunderbuss of a generation that complains about entitlement and then acts like they’re entitled to have everyone do things their way or the Old-Fashioned Way that is hopelessly out of touch. But that’s no surprise in a society where Winner-Take-All is now the social style of both politicians and the religious. It’s no wonder Millennials are running from politics and the church. Would you stick around to listen if people were sending their message in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME?
Father’s Day lessons
It seems the real lesson we need to learn on something so familiar as Father’s Day is this: parenting is not a one-way street. It’s a partnership and a revelation as well as a responsibility.
The ultimate vision of a Father is that of God. And if we’re wise we also recognize that God doesn’t just want obedience and contrition from the human race. There’s a relationship there as well. God the Father, if that’s how you prefer to visualize the ultimate form of love, is basically wondering how we’re doing. He wants to know. Sometimes it’s the smallest moments and the smallest things that matter. If you cease paying attention and miss those, then life is not so abundant as you might like.
And that’s the real message of Father’s Day.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community, which chronicles the journey of his family through cancer survivorship. It is available on Amazon.com.