30 January 2015

The sweetest

Julian Jasper Cowan
17 April 1922-25 January 2015
On my 27th birthday, which was several years ago now I have to say, I helped my grandpa move out of the house he had lived in for over 42 years.  Many of you probably know this warm and cozy house on Cherokee with the barber shop out front.  When my sisters and I were growing up, Grandpa Cowan’s house was a place of curiosities.  There was buttermilk in the fridge, masses of rubber bands on little nails hung at varying heights, chickens in a coop in the backyard, a bed in the guest room with a set of box springs so bouncy and unpredictable we nicknamed it the Bronco Bed.  Sometimes there would be a little bowl of food or milk on the back porch for neighborhood cats that he never claimed as his own but looked out for.  When the barber shop was in full swing, Grandpa kept a stash of Big Red gum in one of the drawers behind his chair and there was cold pop in an old-fashioned cooler in the narrow closet off the waiting area.  Back in the house, photographs of our family, some in frames, some taped or tacked up here and there, lined most available surfaces, from the top of the television to the front glass of the huge clock that always hung above it, all the way over to my grandpa’s old desk next to the wood stove. 

It was an overwhelming task to sort through and pack up 42 years of my grandpa’s history but we made a lot of progress that day, enough that he could sleep in his brand new house across town that night.  As I was packing one of the bookshelves in the living room, I came across this little wooden shoe.  It had been on that shelf for as long as I could remember and I said something to my grandpa about it.  He told me to take it home with me and keep it.  He said when I was a little girl I would put it on and clomp around his house.  There are pencil marks scrawled across the bottom of it, too, which I must have been responsible for.  He remembered me, he knew me, when my feet were tiny enough to fit into that shoe.  He knew me before I knew myself.  I felt lucky, and I put the shoe with my things and it’s been with me ever since, reminding me of my grandpa and a life so well-lived.


He brought the shoe home from Europe when he returned from the war.  My sweet and soft-spoken grandfather was once a young, brave soldier.  A medic.  I teach English at a large high school in Springfield, Missouri.  Every year, I ask my seniors to create a tribute to a hero in their lives using photos and music and text.  And every year I am so proud to show my students the tribute I created as an example about my Grandpa Jude.  There is a picture of him as a teenager that I’ve surrounded with images reflecting his background working on farms, one of him looking like a young Elvis Presley next to an image of a guitar and music notes.  There’s even one of my sweet grandpa standing in my living room in Springfield next to my dad and me and my little boy from a few summers ago, four generations of us.  There’s a picture of his Bronze Star and one of a medic’s helmet. 


My favorite photo, though, is front and center. He’s in his Army uniform standing in front of a building in Paris.  I can only imagine the horrors he must have gone through on those battlefields so far away from home, but despite that, despite having seen some of the worst this life has to offer, he remained, throughout his life, gentle and kind.  I never heard him speak a callous word about anyone or anything, and I love to tell my students about him.  His kind nature must have shone through even then, to his fellow soldiers, who nicknamed him Mother Cowan because he was the one who would turn the meager food they could scrounge up into some kind of meal when they were on foot and taking shelter wherever they could.  I don’t think I’ll ever be as brave or even as good as he was, but I like to think some of my quiet and calm demeanor and nurturing nature could be traits passed on to me from him.  He also never seemed to be in a hurry to do most things, and to the occasional frustration of my husband or others who have to wait for me, I am often the same way.  I like to take my time and take things slow the way he did. 

My grandpa told me he actually got this little shoe as a souvenir during his travels after the war had ended.  I guess he figured an Oklahoma boy like him might not ever make it to that part of the planet again and he wanted to see all he could while he was there.  I’ve always loved the thought of him as young and curious and traveling like that, and he might have seen more of the world than many of us ever will.    He loved to tell my sisters and me about where he’d been and hear about our visits to some of the same places.  He had such an excellent memory and could recall so many things from so long ago in vivid, specific detail. 

He was able to travel after the war because he’d saved his modest pay rather than spending it on luxuries or cigarettes or things the other soldiers were buying.  He saved lots of things, not only money, and credited his inability to waste or discard things to living through the Depression when people had to make do and make the most of what they had.  Those rubber bands on the little nails all those years came off the newspaper each day and he kept them, wanting to hold on to something useful in case he needed it.  He was a hard worker—so smart and so frugal--and a humble success.  When I was in graduate school at Missouri State, a man in one of my classes mentioned he was from Muskogee.  I told him I was too and that I still had family there and come to find out, my grandpa had cut this man’s hair for years.  He knew my dad and had so many kind things to say about my grandpa, and I felt so proud and delighted to meet, quite by chance, one of Jude’s many loyal and satisfied customers. 


I wish I’d had more time with my sweet and gentle grandpa, but I don’t guess you could ask for much more from life than what he was able to accomplish—a successful career, distinguished military service, a good and honest reputation, a large and happy family who always felt so loved and cherished by him.  He always told me what a pretty girl I was, even when I wasn’t a girl anymore and I’d grown into a mother myself and he always told me how proud he was of what I did in school, that I had become a teacher, small things really compared to all that he had done in life.  When he visited the first house my husband and I lived in after we were first married, I was rinsing a dish at the kitchen sink and my grandpa smiled and said, “Well, Hayley is a homemaker,” and for some reason it made me feel so special--coming from a man who was taken care of by one of the best homemakers there probably ever was, my grandma Trula.  So I’ll keep this little shoe with me always, and I’ll look at it and remember who my grandpa was—a hardworking, kind, brave, accomplished, interesting and special person, someone so loved and so worth being proud of.  And I’ll look at it and remember how he always made me feel like I was those things, too.


****A few months ago my grandpa asked my dad if I would write a piece to read at his funeral.  So I did.  I also read a sweet letter my dad wrote for his father.  It was an honor and I hope I did the both of them proud...



"It's my father who looks diminished now.  As if when someone close to us dies, we momentarily trade places with them, in the moment right before.  And as we get over it, we're really living their life in reverse, from death to life, from sickness to health."

"Such a strange ritual, to send the body into the ground.  I am there as they lower him.  I am there as we say our prayers.  I take my place in line as the dirt is shoveled onto the coffin.  He will never again have this many people thinking of him at a single time...I wish he was here to see it."

Every Day by David Levithian p. 268

14 December 2014

So long, old girl


Our Allie cat left us early this morning.  She was 18 and a half years old.  Ryan pulled a batch of kittens out from under my parents' deck in Cassville the first summer we were dating in 1996.  We had just gotten back from a vacation in Minnesota with my parents, sisters, Nanny and Papaw.  A few weeks later we went back for the little girl who looked like a Russian blue and brought her to Springfield to live in Ryan's college apartment on Campbell. She was always his kitty, but she loved me too.  When she was a kitten, she'd sit on Ryan's shoulder while he played on the computer.  She'd lick his plate clean then sit down in the middle of it.  She'd gotten so small in her old age, but at one time this spoiled kitty weighed in at 18 pounds, earning Ryan and me quite a scolding from the vet.  

It's hard to imagine our life--hard to imagine us--without this funny kitty...she'd been with Ryan and me all but three months of our entire relationship.  She moved with us seven times, went through most all of our adventures, milestones, ups and downs and with us.  I think most people understand what it's like to lose a dog--they're so friendly and interactive and rely on their packs so much.  Sometimes cats seem less likely to get attached, to be attached to.  But for us, it's been really hard to let this girl go.  She went when she was ready though, and seemed to go peacefully while I held her last night in our bed and tried to sleep.

We buried her in Ryan's parents' backyard this morning. Macauley covered the soft patch of dirt with leaves  and we came back to a house that feels different now.  We know she lived a long, happy life and always felt safe and full and like she was truly one of us. We loved her so much, and we will miss her funny/grouchy chatter around the house, her cuddly nature here at the end, the way she'd pop out of the cat door as soon as the garage door went up to welcome Macauley and me home from school then roll around in the sunshine on the warm driveway.  She'd been by our sides for so long...


Alice "Allie" Cooper
17 August 1996-14 December 2014

27 August 2014

The books of summer 2014




The One and Only by Emily Giffin
Every Day by David Levithian
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Just One Day by Gayle Forman
Just One Year by Gayle Forman
Breaking Beautiful by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
One Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams
The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
In the Blood by Lisa Unger
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Cline
It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Where We Belong by Emily Giffin

I was able to read quite a few books during my summer hiatus from school, only a few of which, highlighted above, I really liked.  I'm working on Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement right now, and then I'll read Somerset by Leila Meacham, a prequel to her Roses, which I read a few years ago.  On my want-to-read list are Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, Paris: The Novel by Edward Rutherford, Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and Lisa See's China Dolls.

crazy/good



We are settled back into the routine of school (summer passed by in a blink without me ever getting back into a blogging groove) and starting the day before 6...Ryan turns the TV on when I get up and we listen to the local news and then the Today show most mornings as we race around in the early morning darkness putting together outfits and packing lunches and preparing to go our separate ways when it's home together we'd all like to be...Sometimes the headlines are more than I can stomach any time of the day, much less first thing when I wake up.  The world goes crazy--both far from us and just a three hour drive up the interstate--but still we get up, get dressed, head out into our little part of it and try to focus on the good to be done, the good to take in.

Then yesterday in my classroom I flip through the copy of Alice Walker's The Color Purple I've had since college--it's my favorite book of all time and I've read it over and over--and see my unfocused feelings spelled out in black and white:

"Then Shug and me go fall out in her room to listen to music till all that food have a chance to settle.  It cool and dark in her room.  Her bed soft and nice.  Us lay with our arms round each other.  Sometimes Shug read the paper out loud.  The news always sound crazy.  People fussing and fighting and pointing fingers at other people, and never even looking for no peace.

"People insane, say Shug.  Crazy as betsy bugs.  Nothing built this crazy can last.  Listen, she say.  Here they building a dam so they can flood out a Indian tribe that been there since time.  And look at this, they making a picture bout that man that kilt all them women.  The same man that play the killer is playing the priest.  And look at these shoes they making now, she say.  Try to walk a mile in a pair of them, she say.  You be limping all the way home.  And you see what they trying to do with that man that beat the Chinese couple to death. Nothing whatsoever.

"Yeah, I say, but some things pleasant."

18 June 2014

Z is for Zelda (Zelda is for me)

                          

I finished a really great book last night.  Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler reminded me of the spirit or intent of The Paris Wife in that it told a fictionalized first-person version of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald's life based on deep and meticulous historical research (Fowler included her own rewriting of many of the couple's letters, which I liked) similar to the way TPW told one for Hadley Hemingway.  I am 100% Team Zelda after reading the novel and felt sad to have reached the last page late last night. She had style and talent--as a writer, a dancer, a conversationalist--with a once fiery marriage that ended up draining her and an adventurous, decadent lifestyle that took its toll.  The book transported me to a time (and many places--Paris, NYC, among others) I have always been interested in and I enjoyed it very much, especially Chapter 39:

"Beyond our royal lawn, the river flows past, broad and brown and silent, unconcerned with the little party gathered at its bank this afternoon, the twenty-first of May.  It's 1927, but it could be a hundred years earlier or a thousand or three; the river doesn't know or care.  It doesn't care, either, about the dramas playing out among the people at this picnic, or about the one taking place in the sky far to the northeast, where Charles Lindberg is attempting to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Paris with a single engine in a single flight.

"If the river has a soul, it's a peaceful one.  If it has a lesson to impart, that lesson is patience.  There will be drought, it says; there will be floods; the ice will form, the ice will melt; the water will flow and blend into the river's brackish mouth, then join the ocean between Lewes and Cape May, endlessly, forever, amen...

"My dress for this picnic is as brown as the river.  As much as I'm succeeding in imitating the river's appearance, I haven't been able to assimilate its wisdom--and won't, not until years later...

"The sight of one of the maids standing on the porch and waving a dish towel gets our attention.  'It was on the radio!' she calls.  'Mr. Lindberg just landed his plane in Paris!'

"We foolishly look up at the sky past the treetops, as if we can see the plane, see it descending lower, lower, then disappearing from our sight.  It is the end of an astonishing journey, I think.  All done now, nothing more to see."

09 June 2014

Farewell, sweet girl


We said a sad but peaceful goodbye to an old friend this weekend.  Our timid little Averie, the blonde kitty Ryan and I had for over 17 years, left us early Sunday morning.  She had been acting different on Friday and then retreated to the master bathroom and stayed very still for the entire day on Saturday.  She was always too skittish to be held, but when I got in bed Saturday night, I cradled her in a towel and laid her on my chest.  She was limp but breathing softly.  I dozed off but was awake when I felt her take a final soft gasp about 2 a.m.  We buried her Sunday morning in Ryan's parents' backyard in Bolivar with our little kitty Emma Jean and a host of Ryan's beloved childhood pets. The house feels different today without her in her usual spot on the floor at the end of the couch in the living room.  Ryan and I sat on the bathroom floor this weekend and cried, not only for her loss, but also in the nostaglic remembering of all the events of almost our entire relationship big and small she's been around for.  He adopted her from a cage at PetSmart and gave her to me for Christmas in 1997, when we were living in our townhouse on Guinevere, and she has moved with us to five other houses since. She and our gray girl Allie had been constant companions for almost two decades.  I hope she felt loved until the end.  Goodbye, little Ave.

13 May 2014

springing

It's been a ridiculously long time since I have blogged, but I'm hoping to change that once school is out for the summer on 28 May.  I'd have an awful lot of backtracking to do if I tried to cover all that we've been up to, but I have to tell myself it's okay to let some of it go and just jump back in.  We were afraid that spring had skipped us entirely when we transitioned so quickly into 80+ degree temps, but this week it's gray and colder and I kind of hope the rain sticks around.  The yard is green and I put some plants out in my containers (nicotania in the flower boxes on the back patio) this past weekend and mulched the front beds.  I've got a mental list of clean up/clean out/redo projects to start checking off once my days are free and I've been thinking about what I want to read.  We might do a cruise this summer, just the three of us, and my sisters and I plan to take a girls trip to Lindsay's new condo in Marco Island, Florida in July.  Macauley is taking a break from swim team this summer, and I have to say I am relieved without that obligation hanging over us, especially because he was getting burned out and I hate to think I've ruined him on the one thing he really, really enjoys.  He's been funneling much of his energy lately into trying to learn Swedish via an app on his ipod in hopes of one day being a foreign exchange student there.  My mind has been full these last few weeks with all sorts of responsibilities and loose ends and finishing up at school.  I've been enjoying my work there this semester (last semester, not as much) but I, of course, am ready to come up for breath this summer and leave it all behind.  9 and 2/3 days until then...

05 January 2014

{s}no school





We've already gotten the call that there is no school tomorrow due to the 6-8 inches of snow that fell last night and this morning, as well as the low temps and negative windchill in Monday's forecast.  So we are nestled in here at 5380 South Woodfield.  I got the Christmas decor put away before our holiday break was over and the house feels a little plain without it.  I've been doing the quintessential organizing and cleaning out that comes with this time of year and have a few projects on deck.  












Ryan is really sick, so I made chocolate chip cookies for him even though he might not have the appetite for them.  I'll have to wake him up in a bit for the 49ers playoff game, so I've got a fire going in the living room and Booker is warming up the couch for him.  The snow has stopped, I think--at least for a couple of days--but I don't see us leaving the cozy confines of home any time soon.

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