Category Archives: family

When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 16

Canto Sixteen – Uncle Dash

Mom loved to cook.  She could do wondrous things with a casserole.  In fact, her Tater Tot casserole was such a hit that it had spread to households all over the county and people from as far away as Illinois were writing her letters to get the secret recipe.  It wasn’t such a secret.  Browned and loose ground beef, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, Tater Tots from Ore-Ida, and real cheddar cheese went into her magical casserole.  But friends of friends and family were practically rabid about wanting to get their hands on the special secret recipe.  They didn’t realize until she told them that the recipe came from the label of a Campbell’s soup can to begin with.

So the house smelled wonderful because Uncle Dash and Valerie’s cousin Stacey were coming to dinner.

Stacy was college age now, and Valerie looked up to her.  She was smart and independent, and she knew how to dress up like a fashion model whenever there was an excuse to do it.  As Val and Stacy set the table, the two had a brief moment or two to catch up on cousin stuff.

“I hear the Pirates are re-forming,” Stacy said.  “And they tell me you are going to be one of them?”

“Well, yeah… so?”

“Don’t bring it up tonight.  Daddy will get mad.  I mean, more mad than he already is.”

“Uncle Dash is mad?”  Valerie was slightly taken by surprise.  Uncle Dash was the kind of guy who was always laughing, always joking.  Valerie had relied on his sense of humor and mature wisdom her whole life long.  She believed he was even wiser than Daddy Kyle.  He was a farmer.  He had the wisdom of the Earth.

“Your Uncle Dash is mad at me,” said Stacey.

“Why would he be mad at you?”

“I told him a secret today.  One I have to tell everybody sooner or later.”

“Really?  Tell me.”

Stacey was obviously biting her own lower lip for some reason.  Why would she do that?  It didn’t really make sense to Val.  There were tears in her cousin’s eyes. 

“I mean it, Stacey.  I love you.  You can tell me.”

“Well, I…”  Before Stacey could spill it, the adults came into the room.

“Really,” Uncle Dash said with a frown on his face, “We could sell that sixty acres southwest of town and the big pasture along the Iowa River.  That would give us enough money to at least bargain for more time… maybe another growing season.”

“But, Dash, that’s all your land.  This is my debt.  I can’t let you sacrifice from your share.  It should be some of my land.”  Kyle sat down at the head of the table with a defeated-seeming kerplunk.  Valerie knew her dad’s basic onomatopoeias, the sound-words of his soul, and kerplunk was definitely not a good one.

“But it is some of the less-valuable land I am offering to sell.  All of your land is better, and we should be trying to keep all of it.”

“Yeah, well… I still don’t want you to make sacrifices to pay my debts.” 

Uncle Dash took the seat next to Daddy Kyle where Valerie would’ve sat if they didn’t have company.

Mom came in carrying a big casserole dish full of steaming-hot tater-tot casserole.  She proudly set her work of art down in the middle of the dining room table.  “Stacey, will you help me get the peas and the mashed potatoes?” Mom said.  Then she dashed back out to the kitchen.

“You’re my brother, Kyle.  You have to let me help you.  And it is all family land.  We have to work together, even though we divided the farms when Dad died.  It is all one large farm, really.”

“Well, yeah, but…”

That conversation died too as Mom and Stacey brought the rest of the supper to the table, and Mom insisted that everybody sit down and eat.  Valerie said Grace and food was passed all around.  Everybody at the table had a farmer’s healthy appetite, and soon mouths were too full to talk.  Conversation was suspended for the more important thing… at least until all were stuffed and satisfied.

“It’s a shame that Patricia couldn’t come with you this evening, Dash,” Mom said.

“She was sorry to miss it, but she really wasn’t feeling well.  She needed to take some medicine and go to bed.  Which reminds me…  Stacey has some new she needs to share with everyone in the family.”

Stacey looked at her father with a distinctly angry expression.

“Well, you may as well tell them.”

Stacey’s glare at Uncle Dash made Valerie suddenly worried for her cousin.  What could be wrong?

“I’m… not going to college anymore.”

“Oh, Stacey!” Mom said.  “Why not?”

“Well, I’m…”

The pause was unbearable.

“I’m pregnant.”

Stunned silence followed.  Uncle Dash’s face was so sad it almost made Valerie burst into tears.  Stacey did cry, and that was almost worse.

“How, I mean… who?”  Daddy didn’t know what to say.  He was kinda tongue-tied, right up until the answer hit him square in the memory.  “Not the Toad!  Oh, Stacey!”

“His name is Brom, not Toad.  I don’t know why everyone needs to call him that.”  Stacey’s tears were replaced almost instantly with fury.

“It’s the way he drives.  He reminds everyone of Toad in the Disney movie Wind in the Willows.  You know how recklessly he roars about in that yellow Ford Mustang of his.”  Uncle Dash was very direct and soft-spoken.  It was an argument Valerie had overheard before.

“He also has a big mouth like a frog,” said Valerie timidly.

“Oh, Val…”  Stacey shot her a wounded look.  Whose side was she supposed to be on, anyway?

“Well, I have to say, it isn’t such a big surprise.  You have been in love with that boy for a while now, haven’t you, Stacey?” Daddy Kyle said.

“Yes, I love him with all of my heart.”

“Is he going to do the right thing by you?”  Mom asked.

“He’s willing to marry me… if Daddy doesn’t forbid it.”

“Dash, you can’t forbid it,” said Daddy Kyle.  “That’s no way to start off a life… for Stacey or Brom either one.”

“You would take their side, wouldn’t you,” Uncle Dash said harshly.  “You know, as my little brother, it wouldn’t kill you to take my side once in a while.”

Daddy stared straight at his plate.  His mouth was a tense and very straight line.  “Stacey would be good for Brom.  As Mrs. Brown, she’s bound to settle him down at least a little bit.  Like the way Julie settled me down.  You remember what a wild kid I was, right?”

“We haven’t decided how it’s going to be, yet,” Dash said calmly.  “There is a lot to be decided yet.”

“You really can’t decide for her, you know,” Daddy Kyle said.

Uncle Dash got angry at that.  “How would you feel if it were Valerie in this situation?  Maybe with somebody like that Murphy kid… or Richard Martin’s little rag boy?”

“It’s not the same.  Valerie is still too young to be a mother.”

“And Stacey isn’t?”

“Kyle, Dash, please!” said Mom, “don’t discuss this in front of the girls.  They can hear everything, and I don’t think it helps anybody to hear you two argue about this.”

It was quiet for a few moments, but a very tense quiet.

“Julie is right, Dash,” Daddy said.  “Why don’t you and I go for a drive in your pickup, and the girls can spend some time together here.”

“We have a lot to talk about, Kyle.  But it won’t do a lick of good if you don’t listen more than you talk.”

The two brothers glared at each other.  But they were family, and too much alike not to smash heads together like a couple of rams in springtime.  So they both went out and got in Uncle Dash’s Chevy pickup and drove on into town.

“Headed for Martin’s Bar and Grill,” said Stacey, blowing a stray hair out of her eyes to show disgust.

Valerie wordlessly snaked her thin young arms around her beloved cousin and gave her a distressed and tearful squeeze.

“It will all get worked out for the best,” said Mom in her most comforting voice.

“I hope so,” Stacey said.  Then after a long pause she repeated, “I hope so.”

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Rebuilding

The retaining wall that keeps the yard from flowing downhill into the park and down to the creek, is now growing back upwards, visibly straighter and better grounded than it was before.

In his poem “Mending Wall”, Robert Frost suggested that the wall dividing his property and the neighbor’s property is constantly falling down and requiring mending. He gets together with his neighbor and they replace the fallen stones, mending the wall between them. And then the neighbor says the oft-quoted line, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Ironically, the neighbor is not saying that having a wall between them makes them better neighbors. He is saying that their friendship is built on mending the wall together.

And so it is with me and number two son as we labor together to straighten the foundation stones and replace all the heavy stone bricks that we had to remove to get to them. It is hard work, slowed by heavy bricks, one arthritic back, multiple rainy days, cold weather, and fatigue. But slowly we have problem-solved together, discussed the state of the world, and mended the wall. We have also mended our working relationship as father and son. A good wall makes a stronger family in the Frostian sense.

And so, I have come to see how life imitates art, and work begets poetry. A little sunshine creeps back into the picture when you engage in a little rebuilding.

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 6

Canto Six – Bacon and Eggs

Mom had breakfast ready and on the table.  Eggs and bacon on stoneware plates, one for Val and one for Daddy Kyle.  She was a great cook and loved to stuff her small family with what she made.   That was probably the reason she was watching over a second pan-full of sizzling bacon.

“Your father isn’t ready yet?” asked Mom, left eyebrow raised.

“Oh, he had to change his pants again for some reason.”

“That man can find more excuses for dragging his feet than…”

“Mom?  Is something the matter with Daddy?”

“What do you mean?”

“Last night I thought he was crying in the machine shed.”

“Well, you know your Daddy Kyle.  He loves his machinery, and that big old combine is broken down again.”

“It shouldn’t be.  It’s only two years old.”

Mom looked at her with unreadable eyes.  Was she mad?  Sad?  What?

“He says he can fix it.  He says the problem is just mechanical and you know how handy he is with tools.”

“Sure.”  He did love that combine.  Maybe that was what made him sad.   He loved Valerie and he was always sad when she was sick too.

Valerie gobbled eggs and bacon.  It was good, but even better eaten fast so you could enjoy those bacon burps for the next half hour.

“You eat like you’re starving.  I wish I could eat like that, Val, and stay as thin as you do.”

“Mom, I’m only eleven.   I’m not supposed to be a fatty at my age.”

“I thought you were ten, dear.   Where does the time go?”

Valerie was still thinking about yesterday, the holiday Monday… and why did so many people have to feel sad?

“Do you know what makes Ray Zeffer so sad, Mom?”

“Ray Zeffer?  What brings that up?”

“He and Danny Murphy walked me all the way home last night from town.  He’s such a gentleman.  But he always seems sad.”

“Well, I would guess that losing your father the way he did, such a short time ago… well, it might have something to do with it.  I know his mother, Donna Zeffer, is sad a lot too.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“And there was a brother that died… older brother…  Bobby, I think.  His family has been through a lot.”

Valerie buttered a piece of toast and then sipped her milk from the mug that Grandpa Larry had given her years ago.  The mug had a big red heart on the side of it.

“I didn’t know about the brother.  Younger or older?”

“Definitely older.  More than ten years ago.”

“What was more than ten years ago?” asked Daddy Kyle as he came in to breakfast.

“Valerie was wondering about Ray Zeffer because he and the Murphy boy walked her home from town last night.  How long ago did Bobby Zeffer die, Kyle?”

“Oh, at least sixteen years ago.  But what’s this about boys walking Valerie home last night?”

Uh-oh.  Dad radar had picked up a boy-alert… a potential boyfriend/trouble/rock salt alert.

“Danny and Ray were just being gentlemen,” said Valerie.  “They wanted to make sure I got home safe.”

“And they didn’t have anything but your safety on their little minds?” Kyle asked with a skeptical smirk.

“I suppose now you want to shoot Ray?” asked Valerie.

“Who said anything about shooting Ray?” asked Mom.

“Dad did.  He wanted to shoot Pidney and Danny last night, and now he wants to shoot Ray!”

“Kyle!”  Mom’s scolding stare could wither flowers that were otherwise in full bloom.

“I was just kidding around!” said Daddy in a defensive voice that sounded a lot like a little boy who’d been caught pulling his sister’s hair.  “I wouldn’t really shoot anybody…  It’s a dad thing.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Mom.  “But let’s not joke about that anymore.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  He was thoroughly chastised, and Valerie marveled at how Mom could make him so instantly repentant, like a Baptist preacher preaching Hellfire or something.

“The bus is here, Princess,” said Daddy Kyle while peering out the window. And it really was.  Valerie had to hustle.  The old yellow bus driven by Milo Volker was waiting at the end of the Clarkes’ lane, and he wouldn’t linger if she didn’t show up fast.  Still, it made her grin to see the look of relief on her Daddy’s face as he realized the dangerous conversation was at an end.

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 4

Canto Four – Machine Shed Blues

Valerie was thinking about chores when she wandered out to the machine shed.  She hadn’t gone into the house yet for a reason.  Feed the chickens and check for eggs.  Put fresh water in the water bottles.  God, she hated Mr. Boofoo chickens!  …Err… un-cool chickens.  The ones that were going to peck at her for checking their nests were all Mrs.  But the other part fit.   Lingering outside meant she didn’t have to march out to the chicken house immediately.  She’d get it done… just not yet.

As she wandered into the machine shed, she saw her Daddy there, leaning up against the combine.  The engine housing was up and various parts were laid out on the white concrete floor in a very careful rainbow of different size pieces, bolts, and screws.  Kyle was leaning up against the combine with a paper in his hands.  He stared at it with red eyes.  Had he been crying or something?  It looked like a bill, this paper that seemed to be making him sad.  Then, he suddenly wadded the thing up into a ball and pitched it across the shed.   It plinked off the corrugated tin wall and banked directly into the empty barrel there.  Two points!  But it did not make him happy.  Then he noticed Val was watching him.

“Oh, hi, Princess.   You are looking lovely tonight.”  His face was happier by a mile and a quarter, but the redness of his eyes still showed.

“Is something wrong, Daddy?”

“Of course not.  You haven’t done your chicken chores, though, huh?”

“Well, not yet…   I will go in a minute.  I wanted to talk to you first.”

“Oh?  What about?”

That was the thing.  What about?  She didn’t really have a what about.  She just sensed that she needed to talk to him.

“You know how everyone thinks Pidney Breslow is going to be a great football player this year?”

“Yeah.  The big goof is just a freshman and he’s already made the varsity team.  What about him?”

She had to say something fast… but that usually meant saying something stupid because she couldn’t think fast.

“Do you think he would make a good boyfriend for me?”

“You are ten, Princess.  He’s fifteen or sixteen, isn’t he?”

“I’m eleven.  Mom is younger than you are.”

“Only by two years.  Not as big a deal.”

“You don’t like Pidney?”

“I like him fine.   But you are ten.   Any boy who thinks he’s going to be your boyfriend will have to get past two bear traps, some electric fencing, and my shotgun loaded with rock salt.”

“Why rock salt?”

“It won’t kill him, but it will sting like hell.”

“Oh.”

“Besides, don’t Pidney and that girl Mary Phillips already have a thing going on?  They are always together.”

“They are best friends.  They live next door to each other.  More like brother and sister.”

Kyle laughed.  “Pid’s a red-blooded American boy.  They may say friends to each other, but when they are alone together, well…  Dagwood Phillips needs to have some rock salt in his shotgun for that.”

“Nobody’s gonna shoot Pidney are they?  I mean, I think I am in love with him.”  There may have been a look of terror on Valerie’s face at that point.   She really wasn’t sure.

“No, Princess.   No one is really going to shoot him.  It’s just a joke that fathers say whenever they are thinking about their daughters and young men.  Besides, I never figured I’d have to shoot Pid anyway.  I always reckoned it was more likely to be somebody like that Murphy brat.”

“You’d shoot Danny?”  She wasn’t sure how she felt about that one.

Kyle laughed.  He walked over to his daughter, put his big greasy hand on her neck and gently pulled her face up next to his heart.

“I love you, Princess.   I would never intentionally do something to break your heart.  But I will do everything I can to protect your heart from being broken.  Just try not to like the boys I might have to shoot for something, okay?”

He said that last with a laugh that told her he loved her and was only playing with her.  Daddy was her real handsome Prince.                                                                                                

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The Gingerbread Train

I had been promising my daughter for a while that we would build the gingerbread train. I was looking forward to it as an art project. She was impatient to eat it. So, on December 27th, I was finally feeling well enough to do the deed.

So, we prepared the work space on the kitchen table. We laid out the items that we could use for assembly. I made my daughter promise to stop eating elements of the train before we could actually put it together.

I started decorating the Christmas trees that go into the baggage car. My daughter ate several of the sugar-ball decorations.

The baggage car was assembled first. I call it the baggage car because even though it is in the tender position for a steam train if we called it that, that would mean that the engine burned Christmas trees instead of coal. My daughter snuck a few more decorations as we argued about that.

It was encouraging that the first part came together without looking too incredibly terrible.

My daughter decorated a majority of the engine and only ate a few more of the decorations while doing it. This was no small thing given how much she loves to eat gumdrops.

It ended up looking vaguely like the picture on the box. We had a great deal of fun making it. And the last time I checked, portions of it still were uneaten… something I am confident won’t be the case for much longer.

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Gingerbread Plans

The last couple of years we have started a new Christmas tradition, making a gingerbread house together. Of course, any Christmas tradition for my kids is a new one. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses up until recent years when the Brotherhood left us behind. You probably know already that it is against their religion to celebrate traditional holidays like Christmas. And I bear them no ill will for anything, but their ways are really not my ways anymore. So, since we are having our fourth Christmas mini-tradition, I prepared by finding gingerbread kits on sale at Walmart. I am not Scrooge anymore, but I still need to cut costs for poverty reasons.

Nothing says “Christmas Time is Here” like Charlie Brown and gingerbread.

I scored this one for only $5 because the Christmas rush is ending and they are trying to sell out the goodies that are growing old on the shelf. My daughter the Princess saw this and immediately declared she was looking forward to biting the head off Charlie Brown.

I responded to her somewhat-unexpectedly hostile comment against a cartoon character I love and identify with by showing her the back of the box.

The Charlie Brown figure will be the cardboard cut-out from the back of the box. The only candy figure is Snoopy. Of course, she then promised to decapitate and then cannibalize Snoopy. The girl ordinarily likes cartoons, so I don’t fully understand the double meaning behind her ravenousness.

As an added challenge to our artistical gustatory creativeness I also scored this gingerbread train, seen here pulling across the tracks at the Toonerville train station. All aboard! That won’t last long if we get it made this year. Of course it will fossilize if we try to save it for next year.

That, then, is the evil plan for Christmas that we are probably not supposed to be celebrating. But we will not roast in Hell for executing this evil plan. Jehovah’s people don’t believe in Hell.

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Painting on the Rocks

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The Rowan Public Library has a storm sewer drain near the parking area on the west side of the building.   How do you prevent cars from parking on top of it and risking significant damage to two different things?  The librarian’s solution?  Make a rock garden around it so that only extremely stupid people would still consider parking there.  And what better summer activity than to invite kids and senior citizens to come in and paint the rocks for decoration’s sake.

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The goofy spotted frog and the Star Wars rebel flying goose are the rocks that I chose to paint.  You can see that I had more fun than I did artistic epiphanies.  But that is the thing about art.  Bob Ross says that it can bring good things to your heart.  And it does even more so when you share it with kids and other people.

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So I had a relatively good time just painting rocks for fun and cracking simple, stupid jokes to make little kids laugh.

Mom had fun painting flowers and smiling suns on a rock next to her good friend Annie and Annie’s great grandson.  You see them in this picture taken by the little boy’s grandmother.

And my daughter really got invested in the zen experience of putting paint on rocks.  She took the longest of anybody to finish her second rock.  And, of course, her little dragon-obsessed creation was easily the best one of the day.

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