Thursday, April 7, 2011

WOTD 29 - DON

Don, Dave’s dad, was a warm and brilliant man. Dave is much like him. What was good in Don is also good in Dave. He taught his son how to use every tool in his tool box. He dissected every moving part on an automobile out there in the garage on Rolling Green drive, the sound of his voice bouncing off the inside of the hood while their heads hung over the engine. Don even shared the table in the dining room at night, where the kids did their homework. While Dave was learning the basics of Algebra and Geometry, Don was taking night classes to earn his Juris Doctorate degree from Duquesne University. He had already earned a doctoral degree in Nuclear Physics at Notre Dame, but thought it might be interesting to see what it was like to be a lawyer, too.

I first met Don on a snowy night in mid December. Dave had left for BYU Law School the previous August; an unattached single student. By Thanksgiving we had fallen in love and become engaged. I flew home that Christmas to meet the parents.

Dave drove over to my mom’s place to pick me up that evening. I dressed in my grey pant suit, spent extra time on my hair and make-up. The whole way over to their house in Bethel from my apartment in Pleasant Hills I sat with my knees tense, my hands nervously twisting in my lap. Dave reassured me they would love me. I had my doubts. I already knew I was in the painful position of being a faithful Mormon girl marrying a beloved son in a devoted Catholic family. Bad start, I thought.

I have a photograph in my head of me standing in the doorway of the kitchen, all eyes on me, comforted beyond words by the presence of ten year old Chelle who was…well, ten years old. She wasn’t weighed down with adult worries. Dave’s mom, Helen, was cautiously friendly. Rightfully so. I remember seeing Don from the corner of my eye, looking over at me as Dave slipped his arm around my waist. He smiled his irresistible smile, his eyes reflecting the light from the kitchen window. Looking back I realize I should not have worried so, but that friendly compassionate look from Dad Connors was so meaningful to me. I don’t think I ever told him that.

Helen and Don could be pretty funny together. Subtly humorous is probably more accurate. For instance, when the cottage in Michigan was finally completed and Mom and Dad Connors were arranging and furnishing, Mom brought home a kit for a wooden end table from the shop in Iosco. It was packed in a tight rectangular brick, wrapped and stapled with cardboard. ASSEMBLY REQUIRED, it said. So Helen handed it off to Don. She sat in the red gingham rocker in the family room while Dad unpacked the thing, laying the pieces out like it was the living room on Christmas Eve. He methodically stacked each screw and nut and bolt, washer and Made-in-China Allen wrench in specific order. Helen worked on various projects through the afternoon, occasionally returning to the rocker. Each time she listened as Don cursed under his breath.

“Who wrote these instructions? These things do not fit where they are supposed to!”

She returned to her tasks; unloading glasses into the kitchen cupboards; washing new sheets and pillowcases and stretching them onto new mattresses.

And again she returned to the family room, checking on the progress of the end table.

“Can’t they count in China?” Don pulled his tool box over toward his knees, searching for a screw in his own collection, none of which matched the size he needed.

After a few hours Helen walked through the family room.

“Aren’t you done yet? She asked, her arms full of folded towels.

Don was exasperated!

“Who in the world could understand these instructions! They’re beyond me!”
Helen put the towels in the linen closet, shut the door, and returned to the rocker.

“Gee, Don,” she said as she sank into the soft cushioned rocker, “I wonder what people who do NOT have their doctorates in nuclear physics do.”

Not two years later Helen was killed in a car accident down the road from the cottage. She had dropped us at the airport in Saginaw and was headed home to that place she loved. We feel her when we sit in those rockers. For the next decade our time at the cottage in Michigan and Pittsburgh was spent with Don. His warmth and kindness, his gentle nature and generosity underlined all he did. Parkinson’s Disease eventually robbed him of some of his independence, but his good nature remained.

Dave’s sister Jill called finally, beckoning Dave home to Pennsylvania. He was able to be with his dad as he walked to the valley of death, reassuring him that we knew he would be ok, that he would still have us, that we would still have him in the end. Dave stood at the head of his father’s hospital bed and laid his worthy hands on the silken head of the man who taught him just about everything, bowing his own head and whispering a prayer of gratitude and comfort. He eased the journey with a blessing, his brother and sisters encircling their father in that small space.

That following year we returned to Pittsburgh to help prepare the house on Rolling Green Drive for sale. We stripped the old blue carpet from the living room, exposing beautiful hardwood floors that were so “not cool” in the 1960’s. Took the mural wallpaper off the wall in the study. Painted the walls with fresh neutral paint. I remember taping off the trim in the dining room one afternoon, looking out the window into South Park, down over the grassy space where the pool used to be. The awning over the porch by the pool was attached to the house.  You looked over the top of it when you looked out the dining room window. In the winter Helen used to toss birdseed out the windows onto that awning, feeding the winter worn cardinals that harbored in the woods.  She loved seeing the flash of their scarlet feathers against the white snow and green pine trees out in the yard.

When we moved to Utah from Pittsburgh, I was conscious of the fact that we were taking the only grandchildren away from Helen and Don. I was saddened that the winter scenes of my kid’s childhoods would look markedly different from the scenes of my childhood, and David’s, too. So I wrote a little song to remind them… to remind me. It’s called Is it Snowing Tonight Where You Are. There’s a line in that song that tickles my funny bone every time I sing it:

Do the red birds still come for the food
You toss from the window at dawn…

The song takes me to the scenes of their home at Christmas time. I think of Dave’s dad. And I think of Helen. And though I didn't originally write a double entendre' into the song, I discovered one in a light moment once. I imagined that the word “dawn” was replaced with the word “Don.” I imagined Helen being a little irritated at Don about something. And I imagined that humorous delivery of sustenance. You won’t see it necessarily on my face when I sing it on stage, but I am thinking it you can be sure: Helen tossing food from the window at Don. It's dry Connors wit, probably not funny to anyone else and way too irreverent. But I find it helps take away some of the sting of loss. And I also find the lightness of that image takes me back to that beautiful, warm smile of the man who gratefully let me also call him Dad.





3 comments:

  1. i just recounted that story about don to george yesterday in the hospital. george was trying to figure something out and it made me think of don, and helen. don was kind to us all. i must admit i was envious that you got to call him "dad".

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  2. What a sweet story and tribute. Expected nothing less. Thank you for your gift of writing.

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  3. You might as well beat me with a wet sponge, Cori. The things you make me think. My mother was- is- beaten by dementia. What kind, we don't really know. I don't remember her. I remember photographs of her, some from long before I was born. And I remember her laugh. But all of us feel that we never really knew her, even my dad. She just made everything work. Talk about warp. The extra odd sadness is that we moved to texas not nine months before I left for college. And I never really went back. The odd month in the summer for a while. But I never really lived there. Not even in the months I lived there. A stranger in a strange land. So the last thirty years, I took my children there maybe three times. Too far to drive when you own your own tiny business and have to be there to answer the phones so you can buy food later. I never really lived in that house. Didn't love it. The windows didn't even open - too hot in Texas. I didn't even know that back yard at all. So I can't remember things like my mom throwing seed out for the red birds. I'm not sure I even ever saw any, though I knew they were there. My senior year. No real friends. Couldn't even drive. Just marking time till something I could understand happened. And that didn't come for another ten years. Elsewhere.

    Maybe I shouldn't read you when it snows.

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