Category Archives: Biographical

08212014 A Remembrance…

The picture above is of my mother’s tombstone. My sister designed it by herself, paid for it and had it placed at my mother’s grave. The grave is in the Upper Cemetery, in Rich, a small community near Brinkley in Monroe County, Arkansas.

As always, much of this blog is personal and perhaps I should spend more time perfecting my words. Once they are out there, they will be quoted out of context and stretched to include meanings I didn’t intend. I don’t write things to lash out and I don’t write them to demand a response. My opinion is no more meaningful than anyone else’s opinion, not in the real way that the world works.  (Previous Post About Writing ANYTHING  – click here…)  This post is not perfect but I fear the hesitation I have about “finishing” it enough to post it will never subside, so here it is, warts and all.

Before writing and forgetting to mention it, I don’t fully understand why some people need to raise a fuss about the tombstone. The person who stepped up to the plate chose a headstone that was meaningful to her. Her intention was to pay homage to her mother. Granted, it isn’t a traditional headstone. That’s a good thing. It would be very stupid of me to rant and rave about the tradition of expectations regarding tombstones when I favor creativity and originality everywhere else.

(I hate the idea of being buried, but love cemeteries. That’s just my contradictory life. I would not have chosen burial for my mother, nor a headstone, left to my own devices and beliefs. Again, though, that is my definitive opinion.)

When I first realized that this was the design chosen by my sister, I was surprised. I don’t know why I was surprised because craziness runs in my family! It certainly made for a great story to share. And I did share it. But I had to ask myself over and over: what exactly made it a great story? The answer lies in the fact that it was going to totally be in people’s faces about mom and how her daughter was going to remember her. It was the ultimate way of saying “There are no secrets.” Absent a major disaster, the stone is going to survive for generations and be spread on grave websites for decades. People are going to look it and probably be caught in surprise at its brashness. The cemetery where the headstone is located is comprised of mostly nondescript headstones. Creativity and style are not attributes that the family members buried there would seek out. Mom’s life is already lived, the pages of her moments already remembered, categorized and sorted in the minds of everyone who knew her. The stone isn’t going to change anyone’s perceptions of my mother.

A family member told me that she was “sickened” by the tombstone that was erected on my mother’s grave. What a horrible reaction! I can see her point about it not being traditional or what might be expected. But I don’t see it as offensive. In this scenario, the person voicing the opinion is choosing to be offended. For those who fail to make their wishes explicitly clear to those you leave behind, you should expect to not have your wishes followed. Do you really want someone like me stepping in after you’re gone? I would honor your wishes but you can be certain that if things are left up to me there is going to be some weirdness involved. In the case of the family member who was sickened, her opinion in the matter is going to be an unwritten footnote, confined to her circle in life. The longevity of the tombstone is going to drown out and render as forgotten all the negative commentary made about my sister’s choices. I see that my sister chose appropriately and in the way she saw fit. But if I did disagree, my words of reproach would be nothing more than crows screeching outside the window, while my sister’s effort will outlast any criticism. She gets the last word on mom’s tombstone.

(Although I’ve said this many times before, my dad did not want to be buried. Ever. But, he was buried and one of the many revisionist family members claims  to this day that he wanted it that way. He hated the idea of being put in the ground. In many ways, this could be construed to be much more of a problem than the content of someone’s tombstone.)

This headstone is  a true representation of my mom, and it was done with the sincerest intentions. It is an odd thing for me to be writing in defense of anything my sister does. Lord knows that the opposite is usually the case. She is crazier than I am – and that is quite a feat.

The person who steps up and takes responsibility for taking care of the things that other people won’t gets a lot of leeway. In this case, it was my sister. She chose to put a childhood nickname for my mom on the headstone, as well as having a Bud Light can etched in it. I’m convinced she did it for her own sincere reasons. It was an expression of her feelings. But even if she had chosen the stone and its content for no reason whatsoever, I still don’t see the problem.

Maybe that makes me the problem? I can certainly laugh about it. I do “get” that those who are compelled to follow a certain social set of norms might not appreciate it. It’s not what “most” people would choose. But the tombstone isn’t a summation of my mom’s life. That life has already been lived. It is a reminder to each of us that our legacy is being written every moment of every day. We can’t control how it is spun and told once we are gone, if we are remembered much at all. It would have been a valid reaction if at some point all of mom’s children turned their backs on her. One of her children decided to take charge and remember her.

Some of my family might say “That’s not how she should be remembered.” Again, this isn’t really a reasonable thing to say to my sister. Other family members are going to tell her how to remember her own mother? How does that sound in your head when you try to argue it silently? “Listen, I know she was your mom and you were very close to her, but you have no right to remember her in the way you choose.” Hmmm…. My sister had a very tumultuous relationship with with my mom. It was not a stable, consistent relationship, but it belonged to them, both anger and affection intertwined. 

Is a family going to object to mom’s nickname on the tombstone? Why? It was her nickname and not one used in anger or ridicule. Was it her picture? I don’t see why. It was a good picture of mom and it cost my sister a lot of extra money to have it made and applied to the tombstone. Eliminating those two elements leaves only the possibility of the etched Bud Light can on the bottom of the stone. I say it without malice and without the intention to further lessen the memory of my mother in my sister’s eyes, but one thing every living being on this planet must understand and know is that mom was a heavy, heavy drinker. It was a defining characteristic in her life and lead her down many of her darker roads in life. It’s no secret to anyone who knew her. All who knew her would nod their heads in agreement that drinking was one of those things that defined my mother. Denying that this is true doesn’t make it less true. It doesn’t hurt my mother and it doesn’t do any harm to anyone who knew her. Everyone who knew my mom knew her for who and what she was, for good or for ill. Each person related to her in their own way. This is true for me and it is certainly true for my sister. I don’t preach at people about some of the craziness I was put through as a child with the intention of changing the truth of my experience nor to harm anyone. It is my experience and I own it. The same is true for my sister. She was putting an iconic remembrance of her mother on the tombstone, one which to her vividly recognizes its impact in her life. I’m not quite sure how people can take that and make it something dishonorable or claim it be misleading about mom’s life. Please stop and think before lecturing or clucking to yourself about someone like my sister misrepresenting the path that she shared with my mother. We looked on them and their on-again, off-again relationship as outsiders. We didn’t understand them when they were alive and we won’t ever understand now that mom is gone. I don’t think my sister cares about most people’s opinions because we can never penetrate past our unfamiliarity about their relationship to one another. We are outsiders.

Since I’m on the soapbox ranting and preaching, I would argue that it is the tendency to suppress the truth or the things that might put people in a bad light that is the source of much of what made a great deal of our family life simply a tragedy. Kill someone drinking and driving? Don’t talk about it. Beat your wife and kids? Don’t talk about it. Go to prison? Don’t talk about it. Affairs? Shhhh….Not talking about it only led to more of the same stupid nonsense from some of the family. More light on the issues that were really true and harming people might have made people’s lives better. But that’s not how many people were raised. People collectively agreed that silence was the best method to deal with the things that make people’s lives both difficult and interesting. For mom, I’ve written before how completely transformed she was after I graduated high school, dad left her and she went to rehab in Fort Smith. She emerged from treatment as a vital, interesting person. I cannot adequately explain to you the Jekyll-Hyde transformation that took place unless you’ve experienced it firsthand yourself. Mom was a different person and the variable was the removal of the alcohol from her life, coupled with a new realization that there was something for her left in life. Maybe if people had been more open and forthcoming when she younger, maybe her road would have veered into a more vibrant way to live. The beer can etched into my mother’s tombstone isn’t an embarrassment or an accusation, it is an authentic acknowledgement of one of the most powerful things in her life. Her relationship to almost every person she knew was bloodied by her drinking. Having it on her tombstone isn’t a finger of blame pointed at her, but rather one of the truest things that could ever be said about her. It would be shocking to find anyone who knew her that didn’t have a lot of tales to share about the stuff she got into from drinking. Most people who would share those stories now wouldn’t sit and share out of spite. The truth isn’t diminished by sharing – it is only damaged when those who are left behind are pressed to change their memories to suit a better version of someone. With enough time passing, we all lose some luster off of our halos and even the horrible things we’ve said and done can be appreciated to be parts of our lives. Excising them from our stories about people can be a dishonest thing to do their memories.

For those of you with great mothers and fathers, you were given an unimaginable start in life. While I don’t intentionally paint my parents with accusatory brushstrokes of criticism, it is a truth to be echoed in my life that my parents were diminished in many ways. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to love them or to experience many of things that I witnessed other people in life get to cherish. But it did mean that I was ill-equipped to respond better to life as I met it. That violence in childhood tainted me and it lessened my chance to have an authentic way of interacting with my parents. It is my story to remember that I finally found my own voice to reject much of what my parents found normal and to not feel guilty about leaving them out of my life. My mom got the last laugh though, in her last year, by trumping my new confidence with her own approaching death. Our relationships with friends and family are reciprocal and defining to us.So, too, is the one I had with mom, even though it was ultimately characterized by our distance to one another at a fundamental level.

Please remember that my sister chose a way to honor her relationship with mom in her own way. She meant it in the most authentic way possible for her. Her choices do make for great story but she will indeed get the last laugh, as all the detractors pass away from the earth, taking their criticisms with them. Her remembrance of mom will stand alone, whispering its message to the nearby swamp around it – to surpass the ages and maybe even everyone who once lived to remember mom.

 (“It is no accident that those who scream the loudest for you to speak only when you have something positive to say are usually the ones with the most interest in keeping you quiet.” -x)

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Monroe, Arkansas Mercantile Store

(Update: the above picture is of my cousin Cheryl and my Aunt Betty. In the background is the Monroe Mercantile store. The house to their left is my grandma’s house in Monroe, the one that once was a cafe in that small farming town.)

Warning: this post might well have started out as a meandering recollection of comments about the old mercantile story but will manage to hit every corner of Monroe County, given my proclivity to jump off the beaten path.

One of my failures as a researcher includes being unable to find pictures and histories of the mercantile store that once dominated the little Monroe County community of Monroe, Arkansas.  I know that I will discover some one future day and it will be a revelation. I cannot think of the old mercantile store in Monroe without thinking and even smelling the old places of Arkansas, hearing the voice of my Grandpa Willie, or forget the sight of a row of cackling older men sitting outside, all whittling on pieces of wood with their pocketknives, drinking Coke from a glass bottle, and spitting. It is impossible for me to imagine that someone doesn’t have a gallery of pictures and memories of this place. I’ve got many memories of it, with remnants of how wondrous it seemed to me as a small child. Much of the nostalgia probably results from the fact that many of my first memories were formed in this era, one dominated my being around my grandparents so much. Even when my grandparents lived in Rich, near the old White Church, “going to the store” meant the Monroe Mercantile rather than Clarendon or Brinkley.

(Sidenote: my first memory of a “real” supermarket was at a Piggly Wiggly. Grandpa told me I could have anything I wanted and I bought a brightly-colored yellow bag of Funyons, which my grandpa thought was very funny. To his surprise, I absolutely loved the taste. He did, too! I can’t see or eat Funyons without thinking of my grandpa.)

The shell of the mercantile building is located in Monroe, along Highway 38/Buckhorn Road. It still sits directly across the road from the Baptist Church building on the corner. A little down the road, going straight on Buckhorn, sits a horrific and ghastly tavern, if it can be called that. My mom worked there a couple of times as a barkeep or attendant. She also lived directly next to it for a time in a converted school bus, as unimaginable as that might be. That bar had been the nexus of many small-town dramas for decades. It’s insistence of still existing is a testament to both the lack of any real alternatives and to residents there clinging to the past with clenched fingers. I used to joke that a picture of the inside of the place would have been an ideal snapshot to indicate “Herpes.” Anyone who visited the place knows what I mean. But, I did have a couple of good visits in there, too, I must admit, but as an adult. Not to drink, but to talk to mom and Nolan and see people that I otherwise would not have visited with. The tavern served a role in the community. It was a place where one could not only have a drink, but compare notes and gossip about the comings and goings of the locals.

The above picture is one of my mom when she worked at the tavern, probably when she was married to her other husband, Buddy, in the 90s.

On the left side of the road near the old tavern are the remains of the Dr. Pardo’s old doctors office, which I have written about in another blog entry.

Monroe, Arkansas was once a bustling community, sitting at blacktop crossroads between Clarendon and Brinkley. The highways laced across it perfectly. When cotton was king in the area, no place better represented central Arkansas small towns better than Monroe. When I got older and looked at a map, I was surprised to find so many alternate roads connecting all the highways. It seemed like when I was young it was a place dropped from the sky, frozen in time. Also a surprise was to realize how inextricably linked all these small communities were, especially considering that the interstate opened to nearby Brinkley the year I was born. I didn’t know how different the two eras (pre- and post-interstate) were until I started learning history and economics.

My Aunt Betty lived much of her adult life around the corner from the church and store, her husband Wink worked at the mercantile store as a butcher. (They later had a dance club in the same mercantile building.) Along these dusty streets were where my cousin Micheal Wayne somehow managed to get me to learn to ride a bicycle, something that proved very difficult to me.

My grandmother Nellie Cook lived slightly west of the store, on the same side of the road as the Baptist church. The story is that the house she lived in was once a small cafe that served great food. I believe the story because the living room still had a square access window going into the kitchen.There are many other family connections to this place and era, much of them faded out of graspable memory. But it is a place of long, misty memories and shadows.

Among my most cherished memories as a young boy were those visits to the store. Everything about it evokes nostalgia and warmth. Even back in 1970, the store was well behind the times. Heck, everything about Monroe was behind the times, a trend that holds true even today. I fondly recall spinning the toy rack of cheap toys, each toy more interesting than the last. I could spend hours looking at the rows of 2-quart Cokes, boxes of candy and displays of nails. (As dumb as it sounds, one of my absolute favorite memories were when my grandpa would buy me a sack of nails. I would take these home and drive them into the porch or railroad steps like a boy possessed by demons. As an adult, I now know that sometimes all the incessant hammering I did probably drove my grandma crazy – but she never said anything cross to me about it.)

I recently drove down the once lively road in front of the old mercantile. The building still stands. It will resist the elements until one day, without much fanfare, it will fall in on itself. This is the fate of many buildings in this area of the state. (If not a metaphor for most of our lives!) No one is going to pay for demolition and removal. (A few hundred feet away once stood an old abandoned schoolhouse. It lingered, empty and derelict, for decades until it caved in. To my surprise, a few years ago it was cleaned out and a small playground was erected in the spot.) The mercantile still stands, awaiting its inevitable fate. One day I will visit and see the outline of where the building once stood. A few years after that, I won’t even be able to recognize exactly where the building once stood. This, too, is a common fate of most places in these small communities.

Eventually, all of us who have fond memories of the small county store will be gone and our descendants won’t recall that there ever was a place where so many people gathered not only to buy groceries but also to share news of each others lives.

I would give anything to have a picture of me and my grandpa at the mercantile, going about our business. I’m slowly forgetting what grandpa looked like, wearing his fedora-style hat and button-up shirts.I don’t really remember the conversations grandpa would have with some of the different older men at the store, but he would stop and “jaw” a while. Sometimes, they would tell stories about drinking or the war. I don’t remember any of them, unfortunately. When my grandpa and grandma were older, it was usually my Aunt Betty who would drive them to the store in Monroe. Being able to go with them was the highlight of my week. Grandma would always let me get a little bit of candy and a cheap toy. As cheap as it was, it was as good as any xmas present I would later get.

When I watch movies such as “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “Somewhere in Time,” I catch myself thinking of the old Monroe Mercantile and what it might be like to go back in time and just observe the people going about their lives. It was a vital place in a now-forgotten community. A lot of life happened there and I would love more than anything to discover that someone has made it immortal via pictures or a written history.

08042014 Abuse and Memories (Update)

I transferred this entry to this blog June 2012. I updated it a little in 2014. I’m never satisfied with this. This isn’t a “new” blog entry, just re-worked. I get a lot of feedback from it. I don’t have many posts that seem so overwhelmingly powerful or portray my childhood so explicitly. That’s not what my blog is all about. Think of this as the post that kept growing as I tried to express the anger and alcohol that are the hallmarks of my childhood memories. It’s very sloppy and disjointed.
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Years ago, a distant cousin in the family (who I will call Tom) asked me what right did I have to talk about another family member’s misbehavior, especially the things that “ought not to be talked about.” I asked him where he learned the difference between what should and could not be discussed. He laughed when he realized that he was about to say “from family.” I then pointed out that despite the idea that things shouldn’t be discussed, somehow, through some mysterious force, everyone seemed to know all the deep, dark secrets, just in differing amounts. While probably no one knew everything, everyone knew something. I then went on to say that the things that happened in my life or that were done to me were MY life, too and that perhaps people should stop and think about the things they say and do, or to make amends at the point in their lives when they realized that they might have went too far. Tom and I talked about dad’s legacy and how he and I had come to a point that dad would have been able to start a new relationship with me, given enough time – we just ran out of road before we could run the race, so to speak. Tom was surprised that I could talk openly about some of the meanness of my father and still laugh and want to hear stories about the hell-raising, fun-filled dad. I told him that I would have loved for dad to have had a carefree life or to have been able to come to terms with his own hateful way of drinking the world away. Mom and dad weren’t huggers and they didn’t express themselves in tender ways. Had they been merely distant instead of angry at times, that would have been at least a step toward normalcy. I told Tom that it seemed deceptive for the older generation to keep some of the secrets, because it kept us from knowing our parents and family fully, whether it be warts and all. I still feel that way.
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By way of preface, I don’t know what this story is supposed to be about. This is usually a sign of a bad or weak writer. I’m quite often contradictory in tone about my memories and never can adequately explain the way things were. As you know, I’ve written many times about how our memories can be convincingly deceptive. This tendency can be overwhelming if you have family who insist on distorting, erasing, mitigating, or rewriting one’s past. I have always called anyone who does this a “revisionist.”

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In my defense, I might get a detail wrong here or there, but the spirit of my writing is authentic. At times, I feel like I imagine the writer Pat Conroy might, using words to attempt an eloquent re-telling of how things were. Unlike Pat, though, the cauldron of mixed memories clogs up my writing ability. I can get the basic facts out there, but still fail to explain how you can still strive to love someone who had damaged you so badly. Life would have been focused much differently if someone compassionate had pulled me aside and insisted that the violence and abuse in my family wasn’t normal and that I could detach totally from it. And saying it over and over until even I believed it. Looking back at my life and at the lives of those who shared my childhood, I plainly see the footprint of the violence still at work in the things we do, how we interact with people – all the while hoping it’s a footprint rather than a road map.
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Another writer’s note: part of my instinct to write is to establish a baseline so that people can read my words and know that I had purposefully written them. There are so many revisionists loose in the world. As the generation before me ages and meets their maker, it is easier for me to understand why some people blossom later in life and start sharing. Not only have they seen enough of the world to know what passes for normal, but the heritage that once clouded their growth grows distant and stops clouding their identify so much. It is equally more comprehensible to me that so many people who didn’t have the home life they should have wait until later in life to expound on the details.The potential for backlash and misunderstanding is sometimes overwhelming. Time usually lets us start opening the curtain.

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It should also be noted that you shouldn’t take any one story or context as an indicator of everything about my life. Everyone has a story, usually a complex and detailed one. Individual stories tend to be more powerful than others, clouding the overall life being described.Just as it is not fair or accurate to describe my dad’s life as consisting of nothing except anger and alcohol, so too would it be unfair to excuse away my shortcomings by saying that I was a damaged kid with a terrible idea of what the world was supposed to be.

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If you disagree with anything I’m writing or question my motives, either forgive me or get your own soapbox. If you are being truthful, as I’m trying to be, no one should be harmed. Hopefully, you will be a better writer than me. Perfectionist is not a title that will ever be hoisted on me. One day, I will be at the mercy of future revisionists who will write whatever they wish, even if in disregard to the truth. It is the way of things. Someone once said that “all truths are born as heresies.”

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(“It is no accident that those who scream the loudest for you to speak only when you have something positive to say are usually the ones with the most interest in keeping you quiet.” -x)

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In the book “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” the entire planet Earth and all its history is described as “mostly harmless,” as if this would be an adequate recap of what we are. I would describe my youth around my parents as “frequently toxic.” They shouldn’t have been parents – not without a lot of help. Anyone who disagrees is either a revisionist toward the truth or unapologetic in their ignorance of what constitutes parenthood. Being able to state only that your kids survived your presence until adulthood is not a good definition of the expectations of having children. Like so many people, my parents brought with them their own individual demons and fed these demons a steady diet of alcohol, frustration and anger. Depending on the day, I think their upbringings had a varying degree of influence over how they were failing as adults.

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The top picture was taken after my family’s trailer burned at City View trailer park in Springdale. The fire supposedly was due to faulty wiring, which is definitely possible. (My mom had lived in many houses that have burned to the ground, for whatever reason.) The trailer, like most of our residences, would never have appeared on anyone’s list of desirable places to live. I would have been attending Southwest Junior High, 7th grade. We lived in Tontitown with my widowed “cousin” Leta. She would have actually been the widow of a paternal cousin, up the genetic chain a couple of notches. The area of Tontitown was between old 68 and the new 412. Back then, only old 68 existed. The “blue hole” swimming hole and dirt roads ruled the area back then.

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(Coincidentally, years later, Leta’s house burned to the ground, allegedly due to the wiring. Much of the wiring had been done by my dad when we worked on the house. Like so much of our lives, if you don’t know where the house once stood you would miss it. Almost all vestiges of it are gone, fenced closed, and graded up. Somehow this fact seems metaphorical to my childhood. Unless I go digging around in my memories, it is as if life has swallowed up and taken the events from the world.)

The above picture is Jimmy and a paternal uncle of ours learning the “Hambone” dance near the front porch. Note the lawn mower behind them, the fan in the window in lieu of central heat or air, firewood stacked on the end of the porch, as well as the expanses of forest all around the house.

This picture is of the same place, slightly to the left. Grandma Terry is one the right, the one not pretending to drink from the whiskey bottle. 
This is a picture of the house from the viewpoint of the dirt road; picture taken in 2006, long after it had been almost totally burned. It is hard to understand that I lived there 30+ years ago.

One of the reasons that I love pictures is that they can evoke a time long past, specifics half-forgotten. You can look at a picture as an outsider and notice people’s expressions. But pictures can also remind you where you’ve been and allow you to ignore the background shadows that should’ve taken over one’s life. Pictures don’t convey the malignancy often hidden in plain sight. As contradictory as it seems, I could be happy at times, or at least distracted. This place in Tontitown offered many distractions. I could roam the countryside without fear, shoot guns, chop down trees, explode a ton of fireworks, practice my french horn skills, or read in peace. My brother, cousin Jimmy and some of our friends at times had unbelievably great times out there in the middle of nowhere. It sometimes confuses people to believe that any fun could be had if abuse existed.(A comparison I would use is to imagine that you are at the dentist’s office, waiting. No one wants to be there, and the dread of the drill is always on your mind. But you can sit, waiting, and read a great book, have a great conversation, or watch a great video on your computer. The location is just a backdrop.)

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But this place also harbored a horrible little secret: it allowed privacy for some people in my family to behave viciously – to an extent otherwise not possible in closer neighborhoods. Even if your neighbors didn’t directly interfere in your business, in town you could expect that eventually someone would call the police or step in. In the countryside, all bets were off. You would think that your own family would be the safety valve to ensure things didn’t go too far – but you would be wrong.
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Not too far from where that picture was taken, in the same yard, I was hit so hard that I urinated blood for several days. No one knew how bad it actually was. I had been ordered to mow the lawn, using an old machine that was comprised mainly of old bolts and crossed fingers.Dad was an outstanding mechanic, yet hated to provide new machinery or work on the old stuff sufficiently to make it work properly. So we made do.
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I must have been mowing wrong. (Unlike my brother, I was not the most coordinated and strong kid.) “Wrong” to dad was anything that he decided, for whatever reason, was wrong. Being totally oblivious, I didn’t even know how angry he was. I was pushing the lawn mower, sweating and struggling. I heard an angry scream and from the corner of my eye I saw Dad holding something, something that was swinging toward me. A shocking, searing pain rain across my lower back, a few inches above my belt line. Dad had swung a wooden rake as if hitting a home run, hitting me without warning across the back. I immediately hit the ground in the dirt and grime, lawn mower still running. Breathing was almost impossible.
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I don’t know how long I writhed on the ground. I do know that dad spent part of that time giving me the distinct impression that I was going to get another dose of his medicine. After a while, I was able to get up, after dad had went back inside the house. Dad had threatened to kill me if I didn’t finish mowing the lawn. So, that’s what I did. About 30 minutes after getting hit across the kidneys with the rake, I felt like I was going to either urinate or throw up. I went over behind the shed and tried to pee. It was agony. I couldn’t do it. An hour later, I finally forced myself to pee. There was blood in it. I can’t describe how scared that made me, at that age, to see blood come out and to know that my dad was responsible. To get so angry that he could hit me, much less with a yard tool, and not worry about how he was doing it was proof that I might as well have been dead.(Many in my family would have told me “At least he didn’t hit you with the metal-tine part of the rake!” as if this somehow mitigated the brutality of it.)

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I peed red for a few days. It finally started to lessen. I didn’t know if that meant my kidneys were giving up, or if I was getting better. Moving around was agony, too.  I have always believed that my band director must have known what was going on at home. It is as if he was reluctant to say anything, lest action be required to be taken, which would in turn potentially result in more beatings. Other times, I’m certain that he didn’t have a clue. I do know that when our trailer burned at City View and brought us to live at Leta’s that he, the band director, worked hard to help us out. Thinking back on it now, I can’t believe that I didn’t confide in the band director. I knew that it would either ruin his career if he got involved or result in dad beating me to death.Now that mom is gone, I’d like to add that mom knew that dad had hit me as hard as he could with a rake. She was at work at the phone company when the rake incident happened. At first she didn’t believe me, or at least underestimate how hard dad had hit me with the rake. Afterwards she told me that it wasn’t any worse that anything else he’d ever done and that I should be more careful to not make him angry! She didn’t take me to the doctor. Despite being covered under great medical and dental insurance for most of my youth, mom didn’t take us to the doctor and dentist. I went 13 years without a dentist visit and only saw a doctor when something horrendous happened, such as when I died for a brief period as an infant, another time when I had 160+ stitches during an accident, had acid thrown in my eyes, etc. Again, it is not that mom didn’t have excellent insurance at SW Bell, but that mom and dad simply didn’t do those normal things that families do – including medical care.

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Take a look again at the picture. Look at me in the cutoff shorts, bare feet, cheap yellow sports jersey, uncut hair. Does it look like I deserved to be hit across the back with a rake? By a hung over adult male? Much less my father?  I do have to wonder how people can have kids after growing up in that type of hell. Many people question why it is so difficult to be able to whip one’s children: my dad is a partial explanation. Like most abusers, he always cast the justification onto the victim, even helpless, ignorant victims like I was. Even if I had been mowing “wrong” on purpose, no father should ever hit a child with such violence. Had my kidneys failed after he hit me so savagely or if I had died, he would have insisted that he hadn’t hit me very hard, or that I had made him so angry he couldn’t help it. This tendency to justify one’s anger using the unacceptable behavior of another family member as a justification is all too common in my family. It is as if some of us are so genetically damaged that we can’t see that violence is a stupid alternative to real living.As I got older, there were incidents such as this one where I fantasized about killing my dad. After you’ve seen a parent pistol-whip the other or be punched in the face until blood spray happens, it would be more surprising to think that the child would be able to avoid such fantasies.

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“When you get so demoralized that you have lost all hope of things being different, violence is often seen as the appropriate answer in the face of brutal violence.” -x

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Despite all the evidence, the wall of silence about abuse has to be maintained. The family (especially the paternal side) knew how bad Dad could be – but much of their belief in his capacity for violence was suspended, inexplicably. It is strange to look at dad’s history (violence, arrests, DWIs, alcoholism, prison) and wonder how people could argue that he was a good person. Several of the maternal family would have murdered my dad had they witnessed his meanness after a few incidents. Many of them, though, would have realized the danger to themselves if they tried to intervene. Some of them had grown up in the shadow of abuse, too. Likewise, “interfering” with family matters was a matter of much controversy, even if physical violence were involved.While trying to avoid being overly dramatic, it is total truth that on many occasions dad’s savagery well exceeded a point where someone should have been killed, whether it was one of his victims, him, or someone trying to intercede. Sometimes, I watch the family “revisionists” at work. Entire incidents are seemingly forgotten, circumstances changed so that we don’t all look like we were crazy, idiotic savages. A lot of details get expunged or modified. Sometimes I don’t trust my own memory, so powerful is the idea that I was somehow damaged beyond repair from having lived through it. But I take a hard eye toward revisionists. I can understand that each of them was living his or her life and might have even not known there was another way to live, or that they might have been torn with guilt at failing to intervene. There are a couple of people in particular who would respond very angrily to my words, as they paint an unflattering picture of at least some of my life with my parents. Some would attempt to shout me down, threaten me, or argue about how wrong I remember it. (What is that is often said in 12-step programs – denial is the first sign of illness?) As I’ve aged, I’ve learned over and over how people can compartmentalize their anger and aggression. Someone can be saintly at work or in public and yet be secretly beating their family like old rugs hung on a clothesline. It takes a lot of abuse for many people to “notice,” much less accurately gauge the damage being done in private.

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Sidenote: for any family member who would argue about any ONE incident in particular, I only ask this: Would it be fair to say that you remember and will admit to even one incident where dad almost killed someone? If the answer to my questions is “yes,” then it is logical to assume that my assertions of other similar incidents should be recognizable as truth.If you can recall one incident, can you then recall two? Dad was a violent man and it followed him to many places.

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Sidenote two: how many times can family members recall dad beating one of the kids, mom, or someone at a bar? How many times did he had a gun or other weapon in his hand, threatening actually or committing violence? Regardless of the excuse used to explain dad’s involvement, does it seem reasonable to expect this pattern of behavior in a normal person?

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There were several years where, in my own mind, a few family members were as guilty as dad for his savagery. I would like to think I wouldn’t be a coward like some of them were – but it probably is not true for me just as it wasn’t true for them.No one likes to realize that they have either condoned or ignored abuse that should have been stopped. Over many years, I have learned that the drive to rationalize looking the other way for abuse is a strong urge. Given enough time, many people and family members literally learn to forget their part in looking the other way. But I do know that I would never say something that I heard one of my aunts say after mom got a beating: “He doesn’t get violent that often.” (As if even a yearly beating was infrequent enough to ignore.) No matter how trivial my mention of something negative such as beatings or violence, sometimes family get very angry with me and launch a personal attack against me. Even if I were manufacturing stories for my own amusement, perhaps everyone should let the family’s collective legacy speak for itself? If I am the only one spouting nonsense, it should be apparent. Responding with angry denials about your opposing version of the truth tends of reinforce the things I’m bringing up.

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Even though it will seem as if this badly-written personal essay is attempting to be an indictment of my dad, it is not. Nothing I can write can change the truth. That the truth is ugly is not my responsibility. That I disclose it might be seen as an a attack, but exactly who am I attacking by writing from my viewpoint, telling stories, that most families would rather be forgotten? My dad was in prison in Indiana. He also was driving drunk when a cousin of mine was killed. He had multiple DWIs. He was arrested many times for, among other things, fighting and violence. He had affairs while married to mom.  (Even though it is a huge family secret, Dad also had an affair with the wife of the cousin who died while dad was driving drunk.) He spent money intended for food, clothing and shelter on cigarettes, whiskey or guns. He was an alcoholic. He beat me and he beat his wife. Those are not opinions – those are facts. Most of the time, I don’t look at them and get upset – after all, they are just facts. These facts don’t blacken my reputation or legacy – as I was an involuntary servant to them, not a willing participant.

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To tell someone that this abuse didn’t affect my ability to be normal is simply stupid. I was a messed-up kid. I wet the bed until I was almost 13. I started biting my fingernails and never stopped. I am  reluctant to drink and go outside, much less drive. It has taken every ounce of me to fight the horrible person that was planted in me when I was younger.And yes, I am placing part of the ugliness in my life directly at the feet of some of my family. Until I realized that there was another way to live, it was on them, not me. Once I got older, I stopped putting it off on them, as I knew I was infected with the anger of growing up that way and that it was up to me to get rid of it. I learned to own the abuse and not use it as a crutch. I’ve done some stupid, stupid things and I often ponder what I might have done better – or worse- had I emerged with a different sense of reality than had been beat into me.

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Had I to do it all over again, I would’ve ran to a counselor at school, to strangers, to the police. I should have went to my only version of “safe” in those days – to the Hignite trailer, and hidden myself until my family thought I was dead. I should have screamed until my dad either killed me or someone, somewhere made it stop. The code of silence for both alcoholism and abuse is very strong. There were times when one of us should have shot and killed my Dad. My story wasn’t special or even uncommon, as you probably know.In a great book or a well-executed movie, people describe the aura of violence. It is a real thing to me. Many times I entered the house, knowing that terrible violence was approaching.My grandpa Cook told me when I was young not to be afraid of the dark and that the only monsters loose at night were men. How true it turned out to be! Learning that one’s own family were themselves the monsters and that locks wouldn’t keep them at bay is a demoralizing lesson to learn.

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To be fair, my grandpa Cook was a legendary mean drinker when he was younger. I never knew that side of him. He was nothing except loving to me, albeit in a grouchy way common to men of that day. Even toward the end of Grandpa Cook’s drinking days, he always spent time with me and listened. He would talk to me as if I were someone who needed attention and someone worthy of his time. When dad was in prison in Indiana, I lived with my grandparents for a time. Those times and those couple of summers when I was a little older were the golden months and years of my youth. Nothing can touch or tarnish the feeling of belonging and being able to go to bed at night knowing that no violence was going to come into the house. My grandparents were poor but I didn’t know what poor meant. A trip to the store in Monroe might as well have been a trip to Disneyland for me. It is true that my world was small, but it was bigger than anything I could have hoped for. I had my first 500 cups of coffee with grandpa. It is what love felt like for me. All things that have happened since compare favorably or unfavorably to those years. Around my Grandpa Cook and Grandma Nellie, no one thought to scream at me or try to hit me. This was the case with all the Cook family. It is also part of the reason I never developed an affinity with the Terry side of the family like I did with the Cooks. The Terry side of the family was distant to me. They were also the ones who were responsible for my dad. At the Terrys, there was no concealment or protection. At the Cooks, violent stupidity was not welcomed or tolerated. While it might not have been welcomed at the Terrys, it certainly wasn’t talked about or condemned, at least not openly in front of me; it is a shame, too, because there were a couple of extraordinary family members on that side of the family. Maybe being young warped my sense of memory and compassion.

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By the time my Grandmother Terry died, it occurred to me that several members of my dad’s side of the family could have pulled me aside and talked to me about it. They never did. But a couple of people on the Cook side of the family did. It was a surprise revelation to look at it in that way.

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I don’t remember the details of how or when dad got out of prison. I do remember moving to a small house near downtown Brinkley, then to a place in Wheatley. It seemed to be a time of screaming and the mean presence of this man who was the opposite of my grandpa Cook. There was no relaxing around this person who had nothing good to say about anything or kind words or hugs for me.

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If my dad had lived longer, it is quite likely that his violence would have cooled and people could have known a different Bobby Dean. Unfortunately, that’s not how history played out. He didn’t have time to resurrect his chance for a more normal life, relationships with his wife and children or to acknowledge much of the carnage he created. That’s why I can love my grandpa Cook without reservation, even though I know he was a bastard when he was younger – it wasn’t part of my life. Had I known my dad from afar, I might have had the impression he was fun or a victim of his circumstances.But I didn’t know him from afar. I knew him, up close and personal. I am sure that given more time, dad would have become a different person and we would have had a tremendously different relationship. Life vetoed that chance, though.

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It is a challenge to look at older family members sometimes. They knew that abuse was going on. Mom routinely had bruises so dark that she looked purple and sometimes could barely walk upright. To know that family justified or explained it away in their minds is just exhausting to think about. To grow up having been beaten, threatened with a knife, been in the room while firearms were being shot in anger  – these are not typical childhood things. I can see that people with good lives find it hard to imagine. Relatives stood by while dad drove us from Northwest Arkansas all the way to Brinkley drunk, with us riding in the exposed bed of a pickup truck. I was in the back of dad’s truck on July 4th one year when he crashed it. Dad jumped out, drunk, taking the time to ask how his dog Duke was – not ask first about me. Family watched as dad beat me with a belt, the twisted remain of a piece of plywood, and even his boots. At least several dozen times, family members watched me being forced into vehicles with drunks.People can sugarcoat it, deny it, or insist on asking why it matters. History never matters if those who want to revise it get angry enough.
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Watching my family explain away my dad’s savagery with the excuse of alcohol taught me a lot about not only alcoholism, but the subtle way that abuse creeps into lives and hatches more abuse. The rake incident happened while dad wasn’t drinking. (He was very hungover.) I was hit many times by my dad when alcohol wasn’t a factor. When we lived by 4K farms in Tontitown, dad punched me without warning on the chin, which threw me backwards into the chimney. My offense? I had read one of his Louis Lamour book and left it out. But even if he had been drinking, drinking doesn’t suddenly make or allow you to decide to beat on your defenseless children or wife. It’s stupid beyond belief to even make the comparison. There were more than a few times when I know that family members knew just how bad it had been after beatings. Sometimes they were actually present and intervention was rare. They knew – and did mostly did nothing. That’s not the rational behavior of caring people. When we lived in Brinkley in 1976, dad beat me with a deflated inner tube in front of a lot of family members, during a fish fry directly in front of the highway. An uncle dropped by the next day. It was all he could do to not go find my dad and kill him when he saw the bloody welts in at least a dozen different places on my body.
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I wet the bed until I was almost 13. Wetting the bed sometimes resulted in another beating. The cycle self-perpetuated. I wasn’t a normal kid to begin with and all the hitting and bed-wetting made it worse. Once, when I lived in Springdale at City View, dad discovered that I had wet the bed. He hit me so hard on the top of the head 3-4 times that I couldn’t see from my right eye. I threw up several times from nausea. I didn’t know at the time how serious he had probably hurt me. I knew at an early age that the beatings would have not stopped regardless of the behavior. I came to realize that mom was as broken as dad. Dad had an abusive personality – one that didn’t allow for the victim to have any say in the perceived repercussions of his wrath. It was a terrible secret to go to school and not only smell like urine quite often, but to label yourself as “gross,” or “messed up” because you can’t stop wetting the bed and were ashamed of it.My embarrassment for bed-wetting also allowed me to later identify those who honestly cared about me. As I look back now, I don’t recall the people I would label as “good” in my life as having been punitive toward me for wetting the bed. There are no exceptions. My Grandma Cook should have been the most cruel about it, as it was a lot of work for her to clean up my mess, but she never was cross with me. Her back, legs, and arms had rough use in life and she shouldn’t have been in the position to wash after me. The people who I would define as malicious all whipped me for it – or shamed me. People who blame the child for long-term bed wetting are usually not good people.This is a belief I’ve carried into adulthood. I have one relative in particular who would cluck at me and admonish me when she would hear about me wetting the bed. She would use that passive-aggressive language and attitude toward me, basically accusing me of choosing to wet the bed. After a close relative died and we were in my hometown area, she was furious that I had wet the bed, even though it wasn’t at her house. She and mom were openly ridiculing me – until I told her that I had done it on purpose because I obviously needed to be almost killed by my dad for doing so. (Keep in mind that this wasn’t typical back talk from me.) Mom was furious and embarrassed, as I had broken the silence and talked about dad beating me in front of another relative. Mom’s solution? She beat me in the back, butt, face, and legs with a fly swatter. The other relative said nothing. When I told Grandma Cook, she went ballistic on mom. How did mom get her revenge? She waited until we were back home and told dad that I had back-talked her and told one of his relatives that dad beat me. Before I neglect to mention it, she also waited until he was in a mean-drunk kind of mood. Result? Another beating.

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Not drinking before bed didn’t help. Nothing helped. When I got older and discovered that 3 out of 4 kids who wet the bed inherited the tendency from a parent, it set off a series of insights into stupidity. Since it’s something that many people suffer from but rarely discuss, it feels like you are the only one wetting the bed. One thing that people forget in my case is that after I would get a beating for urinating in bed, I would suffer a night or two wherein I was terrified of sleeping. I would lie there, listening, afraid to sleep. It’s not something I talked about with people but I’m sure that my fogginess from lack of sleep had to be apparent. All the strategies that a family can try to help the person who is bed-wetting were ignored. My parents were insistent that fear and threats were the only options to try. Those were their tried-and-true weapons, which they used unceasingly. It sickens me when I recall the stories. There are dozens that I could share, some so bizarre that they border on unbelievable. My affliction was one my siblings didn’t share.

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Having moved away from City View trailer park also meant that I was away from my favorite friend in the entire world. Were it not for my friend  and his mom, there is a good chance things would have went a different direction. Despite my friend seeing a lot of the craziness, I was constantly glad that he had still missed a great deal of the evil that happened when he wasn’t around. I had secretly hoped many times that something would happen to both my parents so that I could live with my friend. I should not have shielded my friend from most of the abuse. I sometimes think of how life could have been had I told him or his mom even about 1/10th of the craziness. The Hignites were great people and I like to think they would have helped me. Moving away from them in the middle of Springdale isolated me to the point where I gave up on surviving my childhood a few times. I was convinced of my demise, certain that it would be at the hands of my parents, either through violence or drunk driving. More than once, I reached a point of absolute demoralization.Other than the Hignites, it was my involvement with band that gave me the only real access to the outside world, with normal people.

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I would have sacrificed anything to have never left my grandparents house to live with my mom and dad after he exited prison. Likewise, I would have given both my legs to have lived with the Hignites. More than once I had wished that Uncle Melvin and Aunt Wilma would have raised me. Aunt Marylou would have been a great mother and I have told her so, although she might have thought I was just ‘talking.’ Uncle Harold would have had to learn to line me out, but he would have been an excellent parent to me. Sometimes, I am convinced my early-life atheism is rooted in the vicious reality of life that served as my foundation when I was young. One aunt who liked giving away bibles more than once made it a point to tell me to not be telling tales on the family! Being ignorant and afraid, there were many times when I begged someone above to make the violence stop or to spring me away from the malignancy of hate and alcoholism that had my parents in a vise.
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The other picture is my dad, after what should have been a fatal accident. He rolled his truck into a deep gulley, totaling it, after driving home drunk.  This is while we were living at Leta’s, sometime around the rake incident. Dad had many, many drinking-and-driving accidents. His survival was statistically surprising.

As for why we moved from that place in Tontitown… (See picture below this paragraph. This was my “cousin” Leta, the person who owned the house in Tontitown.) Without all the details, Leta and Dad were having an affair. I caught them one night when I was the only one at home with them both, even though I had seem some suspicious behavior before, such as both of them going to the bathroom at the same time and things like that. I would like to say that Dad didn’t know that I knew and witnessed the affair. That would be untrue, as mom constantly threw it in his face and dad made me pay for it several times with beatings. After we had all lived at our next place over on the east side of Springdale a few nights, dad grabbed me and told me I had better learn to keep my “f-ing” mouth shut. Even though my french horn was school-owned, he took it and threw it outside, luckily still in  the case. I don’t remember whether he whipped me with a belt or a stick. It wasn’t my fault that Dad and Leta didn’t conceal their affair, nor was it my fault that mom enjoyed getting cruelly drunk and then throw the evidence in dad’s face. As for the place we lived after Leta’s house, it was a painfully small trailer over by Butterfield Coach Road. It is near where the new Don Tyson Parkway intersects. now. Although there were several times that the brutality was crazy there, the worst might have been the night my sibling was staying at a friend’s house down the road. Mom and dad came home drunk, after fighting at Uncle Buck’s. Mom pulled one of dad’s pistols on him and was threatening to kill him. Dad eventually grabbed the gun and hit mom in the face with it. He then threw her into the small bedroom near the living room and hit her repeatedly with the gun. After that, he was punching her in the back and the head, mom screaming and crying. I couldn’t believe that no one had called the police. The trailers there were all very small, badly constructed, and in close proximity. Everyone heard what had happened. For about an hour, I was on the fine edge between being totally frightened and losing all connection with reality.

 

Before my dad died, I mostly came to terms with all the things that had happened. Amazingly, he was sober when I did. I hadn’t forgotten any of it – just not giving hate the space to fester inside me. I had went to visit Brinkley in October of the year of his death. He died in late November that year. When I catalog the evil things he did I could easily let myself fall into the old habit of hate. He was just a violent man who lived wrong. Why carry his legacy around in my head? It is one of the most contradictory things to try love someone who was capable of so much anger and violence. Sometimes, I begin to hate myself for ever feeling anything for dad. It’s easy to judge other people  for putting up with the same type of abuse, isn’t it? The difference is that I wasn’t an adult and didn’t get to vote on my involvement.
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As a concession, it is VERY true that my dad sometimes did totally selfless acts to help people. Sometimes, these were extraordinary things that made major impacts on other lives. Each thing that dad did to help other people, sometimes strangers, gave me a little push toward believing that anyone was capable of redemption. But in admitting this, it doesn’t detract from the very real and long-term consequences of his violence and alcoholism. You can’t be both the assassin and the minister at a funeral. I would love to embellish my story and list dozens of great things my dad did. And there certainly are many, many acts of selflessness on his part, many of which I’ve probably never heard a hint of. I guess I’m trying to emphasize to anyone who would think otherwise that the stain of dad’s violent anger toward me was something that I learned how to get out of by nothing less than a miracle. I don’t know how much saintliness it would take to balance the scales of life for dad in my regard. I do know that for anyone who believes that we are the sum total of our acts weighed in the balance that my dad would have needed to live a couple of lifetimes in an attempt to negate the sheer hatred he pushed my life into.

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Writing this story, unlike just talking about it, adds an air of reality to it again.

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Other family members unfortunately are caught up in the cycle of violence. I have lost several family members to intense alcoholism. Many who are still living survive on a steady diet of anger and resentment. Most maintain the thick veil of silence except in the abstract, where they mistakenly believe it does not touch them personally. It is a powerful rationalization that allows you to do the same as was done to you without decomposing mentally. It is sad to think that I take solace in the fact that I didn’t pass along the hidden gene of murderous rage that possessed my dad. I know that both of my grandfathers were angry people, too. I’ve mentioned, too, that my maternal grandfather Willie Cook turned into a selfless, loving person – one against whom I measure many, many people. His earlier life was brutal as well. But I didn’t live any of that with him.

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The next picture is of “happy-drunk” dad. This version of dad could be the very fun, with unexpected zaniness and laughter. Had this been the only version of dad, his alcoholism would have been almost irrelevant, as crazy as it is to write those words. I have many crazy stories of his pranks and of his ability to have a good time. This version of my dad was the best of all possible worlds. For people who witnessed only this version, I am jealous of their ignorance.

 

The next 2 pictures are of my dad and Uncle Buck.

 

The following picture of my dad makes me sad if I look at it and consider what life must have been like in his own head. Either he was psychopathic or he was unable to control himself – he knew no other way to live. He could be one of the hardest workers on the planet. Had he worked half as hard at a normal life, his legacy, at least for me, wouldn’t be a life of violence. I do not have the words to express how wasteful much of his energy, anger and focus were. Dad knew how to do many, many jobs, some very well. Unfortunately for him, one of his lasting legacies is one of anger and alcohol. My mom recently looked at this picture and said “He looked like a hoodlum.” I can’t remember much about this picture other than dad was very drunk when it was taken and that it was generally a very violent period in my parents lives.

 

Dad and mom finally separated in 1985, after my brother joined the military. That time before their separation was an epic battle of alcohol and alcoholism. We had moved to Elm Springs, from Cottonwood Street on the south side of Springdale. By then, though, I was older and knew that I could escape. There were countless nights when I was certain that one of them was going to kill the other; my certainty was much greater at 18 than it ever had been. I came home, looking around the house at piles of broken furniture, televisions, and shattered glass more than once, expecting to see a leg or an arm poking out from underneath. One that thing that tempered dad’s violence during that time was his back pain. He was getting medication to help his back stop hurting. It didn’t mix well with alcohol – not that anything did. His back problems were almost crippling for a time. It is unimaginable to think back at the level of anger and violence that happened at that house, next to the Willis Shaw employee parking lot. As crazy as some of the earlier years had been, between May, 1985 and until he left Northwest Arkansas were an ongoing series of incredible fight scenes. Mom and dad both pointed guns at one another more than once. Then, without much real warning, dad was gone, returning to Brinkley. It seemed like very little time passed before mom decided to go to rehab in Fort Smith. I don’t think she would have went had the last year not been so brutal and inhuman. It was her best time, those months after rehab when she got a glimpse of what normal life might be like.But she again spiraled toward drinking and destructive behavior and moved to Brinkley, to be closer to dad. They both married other people after they divorced, but neither marriage satisfied them.

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Since I continue to forget to mention the theme of mom’s dual nature: when she wasn’t drinking and distracted by her own destructive nonsense, mom could be an interesting person. The longer she went without drinking, the more amiable and less hostile her personality would become. It is a rare memory for me to remember mom and having a good time when drinking was involved. Drinking altered her personality or perhaps unleashed the turmoil of her how she really viewed the world. I know that if I were to have to attempt a new life surrounded by people like mom when they drank that I would opt to run off a bridge with a concrete brick tied to my neck. To further worsen the situation, it was exceedingly rare for both mom and dad to be drinking and in a good mood. So long was their list of mutual angers and disappointments that one or the other seemed hellbent on worsening the situation with insults or stupid behavior.

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My family didn’t go on vacations, or do the expected family things. There weren’t Sunday drives, going to eat at restaurants, going to church, going to the movies, having family talks, walking or biking. None of that was a part of our life. Ever. The few exceptions that happened were always the result of being around my cousin Jimmy and his parents, Ardith and Buck. Mom and Dad would have excused this away, using their jobs as justification. The reality is, though, that they weren’t wired for family activity and discourse. A lot of their adult lives were punctuated by drinking and working.

 

 

Below are 2 pictures of mom and dad when they married for the second time the same year he died. (They married both times on Feb 12, 29 years apart.) Dad re-opened the same gas station he had owned in 1976 and was making a go of it. It was well-known and across from the Lutheran Church on highway 49. Granted, he was still a terrible, unpredictable alcoholic, but he was adapting. Had he not died, it would have been interesting to see what type of person dad would have morphed into. It was in October that same year that I visited dad, to see him running the gas station, to see how he was trying to live.

Mom and dad not too long before dad’s sudden death, living down the road from his sister, off Highway 49.
In this picture, mom and I are in Uncle Buck’s backyard. Mom had been drinking a lot, as you can probably tell.
In this picture, mom and I were at Grandma Nellie’s house in Brinkley. Mom hadn’t been drinking and it was in relatively calm and quiet part of her life.

These last 2 pictures were taken at my Uncle Buck’s, dad’s brother. Dad is holding a whiskey and coke in one. In the other, dad and mom are sitting in front of an “investment.” It is a commemorative whiskey bottle featuring Elvis. So many of the pictures we have of dad involve him drinking because my immediate family didn’t use cameras, so almost all the pictures were taken somewhere else. I can’t remember a time when mom had a camera and took our pictures. The record of our lives almost exclusively happened when we were at other family’s homes. This is doubly true for Uncle Buck’s. When we did go somewhere, alcohol was the social glue and activity for the occasion.

 

“The Picture” Updated

Enough time has passed since Jimmy died for me to remember the goofiness more than the anguish of cancer that he endured. It’s natural that death works that way, as he was alive and kicking for much longer than he was suffering. There are still those days when I catch myself wondering what Jimmy might make of something or I half-expect him to drive up to the house after getting more stuff for his hoard from a local garage sale.

Fair or not, a lot of Jimmy’s energy was siphoned away by his one family member’s obsession with money and getting what she thought was hers. It was a travesty and I learned a lot from it, whether I wanted to or not. It angered Jimmy that he was being punished with cancer. Had he survived and not relapsed, I think he might have begun to feel pity for his family member again, as she was at the whim of her own addictions and demons – and he could see it.

The above picture is one which my cousin Jimmy insisted I take of him. It was immediately after his first cancer surgery. We were at his mom’s house. (My Aunt Ardith.) As you can see, Jimmy was still smiling and laughing. His mom wasn’t too thrilled with our brand of humor. Our custom was to make the most outrageous, tasteless and macabre statements that we could imagine. Between the two of us, we used to come up with some epic craziness. Aunt Ardith would sit in her perch on the couch next to the sliding glass doors, drinking her whiskey and coke, smoking, and feigning surprise and mirth at some of our goofiness. We had the ability to literally say anything to each other or about each other, directly, without fear of anger.

Jimmy was very confident that he was going to beat cancer. When this picture was taken, I was very hopeful. Realistically hopeful, I thought. Jimmy joked that this picture would make an ideal christmas card. His mom specifically told me that I had better not make cards with the picture on it. (My reputation for doing that sort of thing was quite well known…) Jimmy then chimed in that it would make an ideal “All I got was this lousy bout of cancer” t-shirt. It’s still funny, although with a slightly different twist to it now.

The plan was going to be to post this picture on Facebook after-the-fact. Jimmy was interested in being able to talk to people about his experiences. As a well-liked employee of Budweiser, he knew a lot of people and would have a lot of opportunities to talk to people. Unfortunately, his cancer came back to take him down.

This picture might as well have been taken in another century. It both seems like both yesterday and ten years ago simultaneously. His mom became ill and died a few short months before him, after he relapsed. His mom’s house is sold to strangers and Jimmy’s life is fading in everyone’s collective consciousness.When Jimmy died, I had tried to get people to write anecdotes and stories to share with me. I had made a commitment to share them out in the world in such a way as to attempt to keep those memories alive. I did my best to disseminate his pictures to friends and family, sharing them on public drives and makings disks, printed copies and any other method I could think of. We all have our stories and moments to remember with Jimmy. Some of us have a strong collection of memories, many of which were times that weren’t fun while we were living them but are as much a part of his life as the “good” times. As time slides past us, our stories will slide into the fog with us.

Whether it is wrong to say so or not, Jimmy’s death affected me in countless more ways than my own mother’s death did. I was with Jimmy for much of his final time and was with him when he finally had nothing left with which to fight. He weighed so little that it seemed only his soul remained in him.

Not only were we contemporaries, but we shared a common bond of ridiculous attitude toward many of life’s idiocies. We were both forged in a family where laughter could be replaced by drunken rage without notice. My youth was fuller thanks to Jimmy and his parents, even when the times weren’t so good.

Jimmy’s life was one of potential. His younger years were full of missteps and mistakes. (Isn’t that true of all of us, though?)  It would have been interesting to see what he would have made of his promotion at Budweiser, of his relationship with his girlfriend (and then wife) before his passing, or of his new appreciation for the scarcity of life. Had cancer not kicked him, I think he would have been one of those people who would have flourished with another lease on life. His laugh would have been a beacon to people and his youthful impatience would have dissipated.

(Jimmy is on the far right. Picture from Dogpatch, USA, 1970s.)

From Alissa’s FB: “… Jimmy … still in his hospital gown following surgery due to the drain tube he had; it took me two days to convince him to wear t-shirts with pockets to hide the tube. He finally agreed if I could find the “right” shirt he would indeed wear them. I finally found the perfect T where I cut the pocket out from the inside. He was tickled that I found a way to hide that drain tube….P.S. I still wear that perfect T to sleep in.”

 

08032014 A Funny Cancer Story (Updated)

(This is a picture of me and Jimmy horsing around during one of his son’s birthday celebrations.)

One day toward the end of my cousin Jimmy’s cancer struggle, I stayed with Jimmy during the day. Jimmy’s girlfriend had to leave town for the day to suffer through her state licensing exam for either cosmology or cosmetology (just kidding), so I offered to wander around and spend the day with Jimmy. The day was broken into long periods where Jimmy would pace and smoke, followed by more smoking. I was accustomed to seeing him smoke but on that day, he smoked as if he had to get them all smoked, forever. He wanted me to run him to a convenience store and drive around. (While looking back at the dates, somehow I had forgotten completely that Jimmy insisted on driving over to the new house he was to move into with Alissa.) We stopped at EZ Mart before going over to check on the new house, chiefly to get Jimmy more cigarettes. We couldn’t go inside the house, but we walked around and traded terrible commentary about the house. Jimmy wondered if there was room in the backyard for “muffin-fetchin” dogs, a long-running joke we shared. After leaving the house, we went back to the same EZ Mart we had visited before seeing the house. I honestly can’t believe I forgot that part of this story as I wrote it. The mind is a strange thing!

Coming back, the traffic around Joyce Street was unimaginably terrible. Jimmy had lit another cigarette as I drove, joking and carrying on. As I reached the intersection to turn right into the side road leading to Jimmy’s apartment, Jimmy fumbled the lit cigarette.

Jimmy looked at me and said, “Dude, I think I am on fire!” He said it as if someone had just handed him a roll of $100 dollar bills and a fresh pizza, except he uttered it in quiet amazement.

Since he was wearing baggy shorts, he couldn’t tell whether the cigarette was on him or had fallen to the carpeted floor. By the time I realized he had dropped the cigarette, there was already smoke in the air. Traffic was piled up front and behind. The look of surprise and bewilderment on Jimmy’s face both made me laugh and terrorized me simultaneously. “Hold on,” I hollered and hit the gas, going to the left hard. (Joyce Street, even on great days, is already akin to a Vehicular Roulette in that area.) Incredibly, some idiot behind me did the same, darting into oncoming traffic behind me. My goal had been to get turned onto the side road, slam on the brakes, then jump out to run around the car, fling open Jimmy’s door and find the cigarette before he burst into flames. The car behind me threw a wrench into my plan, making it very dangerous. I floored it for a second, then hit the brakes. The car behind me screeched to a halt as I started to get out of the car.  He then swerved around me, giving me the one-finger salute as well as some interesting curse words to brighten my day. I had wanted to throw my door open but had to wait to see what the car behind was going to do. It was one thing to potentially let Jimmy catch fire, but on the other hand, I didn’t want my driver car door ripped off the hinges by an angry driver as he sped past.

Smoke was coming from near the door. I couldn’t figure out if it was him smoldering or the carpet. Jimmy was under the influence of a lot of medication, so it was possible that he was, in fact, ablaze without really knowing it. I ran around the car, opening the door as if I were the Incredible Hulk and with enough force to have flung it to three miles into the air. It turned out the cigarette had smoldered on the carpet, burning it, producing smoke. I handed Jimmy the cigarette back an couldn’t help but start to laugh at him as he put the cigarette back in his mouth. And then he laughed and laughed and laughed.

As I got back in the car, he said “I’m so sorry for catching your car on fire, X.” I laughed again and said “At least we’ve got a good story to tell.” (I say this a lot no matter how bad something is that happens.) Despite knowing how I am about stuff, he seemed to be genuinely alarmed about the carpet. At the time, he probably didn’t know how close we had been to having someone drive over the top of us while we were sitting in my Honda, trying to get out of the crazy Joyce Street traffic.

“Promise me you won’t tell Alissa. She won’t think this is funny.” The way he said it made me laugh even harder. I think it would have been MUCH more complicated trying to explain to Alissa how I had gotten us killed than explaining a funny story about Jimmy torching my car. I reassured Jimmy that it was no big deal which led him to worry that maybe Dawn would be upset. I told Jimmy that she would only be upset if I drove the car home while it was on fire – and ran it inside the house. Over the next hour, Jimmy continued to be worried about the car but as I told crazier and more outrageous jokes about it, even he started to realize it was a great story.

(Sidenote: this story happened on either March 12th or 13th, 2013.)

 

Jimmy – The Unfinished Blog Post

I wrote this blog post quite a while ago. It looks nothing like it once did. Neither does my mind, for that matter. As tightly as I cling to the idea of how cancer punished Jimmy, as much as I want to remember the lesson of how fleeting our chances can be, I still find myself incredulously shaking my head at disbelief at how life doles out its reward and pains.

 

This blog post was longer by a factor of 5, if you can believe it. I’m tired of seeing it in my draft file, challenging me, reminding me that I’m not supposed to be a perfectionist or concern myself so much with presentation. Jimmy would tell me to “fire that thing off” and light up a cigarette, laughing at me. I deleted about ten minutes of reading; I regret doing it now, but like life, it serves no purpose to focus exclusively on what we lost. I can hit “save” on this blog post and get up to have a cup of coffee. It would be a joy to be able to go have a cup with Jimmy, watching him pace the concrete outside, smoking, chatting, and wondering out loud what might happen next week.

A couple of years ago, I Jimmy was dying of cancer. His journey with the disease was like so many other people’s. He initially was defiant, suffered through the uncertainty and treatments, remission, followed by the punch of a relapse and of the reality of it coming back to get him. I wish he had followed through on his initial plan to write about his experiences, even if all he used was Facebook. Those words would be comforting to me now, even if writing carelessly or negligently. They would be his words, allowing me to hear his voice in my head, walking me through his choices in life. He told me differing reasons as to why he stopped doing it after just a couple of entries. Fear and fatigue were definitely factors in his reluctance to share. When his cancer recurred, I think he knew he might have to admit defeat; defeat as he saw it, anyway. Jimmy didn’t want to write a story of defeat, even if no one else would have read his story in that light. Someone once said that life is inevitable defeat but the game can still be enjoyed.

When Jimmy’s cancer came back, he went through intense denial about the likelihood of dying. I don’t blame him. Jimmy’s faith was supposed to insulate him from further abuse from the disease. In many ways, the cancer returning stunned Jimmy, as he had worked out promises to god in his head about using his new opportunity in life and take advantage of it, more so than he had done before when he had lost focus on the frailty of our lives. I do believe that his intention was to figure out a way to parcel out his experience with cancer and share it in the best way he could – had he survived.

Jimmy was also especially at odds with the idea that smoking, dipping or drinking could have had any effect on his cancer’s development. He continued to smoke during his remission and when the cancer came back to attack him. Jimmy loved to smoke. It defined the personal moments in his life, shaped his day into increments of being alive. It is a habit he learned from his mother, a million cigarettes into her lifetime. To be clear, I don’t fault Jimmy for continuing to smoke after his diagnosis. It would be easy for me to jump on it and preach about it – but smoking isn’t something that is easily set aside. When you are facing your demise, anything that can ease the pain of dealing with it is twice as hard to kick off one’s back. Each of us gets to decide how we would handle the slow death spiral that comes with cancer. No matter what I would write about it now, the truth is that I can’t say definitively what I  might actually say or do if I were in his shoes. I know that if smoking is what kept Jimmy saner while dealing with cancer, I will not judge.I always knew that when his urge to smoke waned, he was ready to let life slip past him.

We couldn’t get my cousin to make choices about the rest of his life, as he was so focused on his self-affirmation of survival. Trying to get him directed toward further treatment or hospice was an admission of defeat for him. His stubbornness interfered with the quality of his life in the last few months. He was lucky to have his girlfriend during this – and  my cousin misbehaved enough that it was a constant surprise that he kept her around. Jimmy had the infamous Terry attitude and the anger that gave him rein to lash out when he didn’t feel well. The medication he was on liberated his temptation toward anger.  For a time, he did his best to drive away his girlfriend. But she stuck with him through it all. Jimmy threw her off her orbit sometimes, but she was still circling, connected to him. Despite Jimmy’s issues before with his girlfriend, I kept reminding him of the urgency of being alive and respecting those who had been steadfast in their support and helping him.

When I went over after work to see Jimmy and discuss hospice and options with him, he knew that I was there to be honest with him. One thing Jimmy could always expect from me was honesty, even if it was the type of truth that made him say “Ouch!” and even when I thought he was being dumb. Jimmy had been missing the doctor’s guidance toward hospice and focus on quality of life for as long as he might continue to survive, and insisted that the decision to discontinue all his chemo and radiation treatments again was a positive sign and that he was going to live through it. After considerable setbacks with another round of chemo and a few hospitalizations, Jimmy’s doctor ended treatments and prescribed hospice, with the expectation that Jimmy follow-up accordingly. When we left the treatment center, Jimmy was already talking about how good of a sign it was that his treatment was ending – that it meant that he was going to get better. It was a terrible moment, one with fangs at my throat. Even for me, it was a minute of two of suffocating desire to run away from it.I aged a year or two in those moments; my normal confidence had fled and I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes.

(In an attempt to be clearer, the objective of me talking to Jimmy wasn’t to dishearten him or to in any way ‘preach’ at him. The objective was to get him to change his focus toward a better understanding of his choices and options for the remainder of his life. His denial of some things was directly hurting his medical situation and those around him.That being said, it was his right to do what he wanted.)

Finding the words to get Jimmy to listen to me was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. I made an impassioned and heart-felt attempt to get through to Jimmy to take the first step toward accepting hospice treatment and shifting his focus toward making decisions while he still could. Jimmy had already witnessed and suffered the effects of his mom recently becoming ill and dying fairly quickly. She died without much of her wishes, medical or material, known – this in turn, caused Jimmy a LOT of horrible issues with some family, all of which could have been sidestepped with minimal preparation. I never could get Jimmy’s mom to follow through with a living will, a regular will, or any of the other necessary decisions and planning. She was a very smart woman but for whatever reason, didn’t follow through, leaving Jimmy to suffer the consequences with another family member whose motivations were less-than-reputable, in my opinion.

Jimmy felt that admitting he needed hospice was the first step toward acceptance of his death. Jimmy had all the hospice information there at the apartment with him. I walked him through what had happened, what his doctors had been trying to tell him, as well as all his options, where he could live and how he could continue to expect his family and friends to help him.

“You think I’m going to die, don’t you?” was Jimmy’s response. It broke my heart for a while to hear him ask in such a plaintive, accusatory tone. “Yes,” I told him. “Your cancer is going to win, sooner rather than later.” I reassured him that in reality, little had changed – that the only difference between the present and five years ago was that he could be assured his death was to be sooner rather than later. We talked about his renewed faith and how he could use that to focus himself on living the rest of his life the way he needed to.After talking to Jimmy at length, I told him that a pastor was coming over to talk to him and to ask him any questions he might have, and that we could figure out how to help him get as much choice out of his life as was feasible. Praying and offers of comfort were supposed to be part of the equation, too. Jimmy’s outlook was immensely more optimistic and informed. We talked about how beautiful the Hospice Lodge was and Jimmy kept saying he needed to go spend at least one night there. He also spoke of understanding how his medication and frustration were making him lash out at Alissa and the girls and how having Noah see him that way wasn’t what he wanted in his memory. Then, the pastor arrived. The comforting acceptance vanished…

The pastor came over to get my cousin to listen to the necessity of making plans for how to spend the rest of his life in comfort, as well as making all the decisions to take care of his girlfriend and son, as well as all his things, before leaving us. When the pastor arrived, instead of talking to Jimmy as both a comforter and counselor to help him make plans, he used the opportunity to pray with Jimmy, insisting to God that his cancer would be taken from him and to focus only on surviving the disease. No mention was made of hospice, what course of treatments were left, or any discussion of the decisions Jimmy should focus on. The literature regarding hospice was ignored and after the pastor left, no further mention was really made of it. I had hoped, too, that the pastor could make a personal connection with Jimmy about not letting his disease continue to anger him and affect his bond with his girlfriend and her two children. I was very frustrated that the pastor missed his chance to address all the other needs and things Jimmy needed to hear.

His method was full of vocal holy spirit and not focused on counseling. I don’t understand it. Maybe I’m not supposed to.

(Sidenote: If Jimmy could come back for a day and listen and see what the consequences are to his not having made certain decisions back when he could have…To this day, over 18 months later, people he wanted to protect are still dealing with the aftermath of it. Jimmy would not be happy about it. I would look him in the eye and call him a goofball for not taking the lesson of his mother’s death and how his half-sister behaved and using it to make better decisions.  I tried and tried from the outset to get him to use his mom’s example to motivate himself to make the decisions he wanted, to disclose them to everyone who would need to know, and to face the mortality. He wanted Noah to have things, but he also wanted Alissa to not have to stress. That’s why he chose to marry her so late into his life. Not out of fear and not out of regret or obligation; rather, as an affirmation of life and the realization that he was going to go ahead of his time, even though he had so much more to live for. I’m both surprised and amused by how a couple of people behaved, even after his passing. Jimmy made his declaration loud and clear when he married Alissa. It would embarrass me to step up and fight against his wishes in this instance, were I not observant enough to look at his life and see that his marriage signaled his priorities and his wishes.)

Until right up before Jimmy died, he would look at me and say “I’m not dead yet,” or more likely, “I ain’t dead yet.” The last few times he was half-joking, just to get a rise out of me. He even asked me the day he got married. When Alissa, Jimmy and Alissa’s dad and step-mom dropped by the house one afternoon, as tired as Jimmy was, he looked me dead in the eyes and said “I ain’t dead yet” and came into the house.

About a week before Jimmy died, I was certain that he was going to be gone that Saturday. He stopped breathing for what seemed like a minute, his skin grew discolored and his condition could not have been worse. When oxygen arrived, he showed vast improvement. Alissa had to make the decision to give him oxygen or not. Had she not, Jimmy would have left us that Saturday afternoon. It would have been a good day to die. The next day, he was outside, smoking, talking about how close to death he had been. It was his Indian Summer, one that afforded him mental acuity and the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it all. “That’s the way to go,” he said. But he wanted to smoke when he work up that next day – a sure sign that he wasn’t ready to dive into death just yet. He had the twinkle in his eye that day.

Someone very close to Jimmy joked that maybe he should have been smoking during his viewing. No disrespect was meant by the comment and it has a harsh truth to it. When I mentioned his mom having smoked over a million cigarettes before her death, it was no exaggeration. Even at 3 packs a day, 365 days a year, over 50 years, it surpasses a million cigarettes.

He died on a March Monday afternoon, in his relatively new home, married, and had not survived long enough to see his son Noah graduate, and without the chance to use the knowledge that cancer had cruelly given him: that all these plans we make, things we hold in esteem are nothing without happiness, health, and people we enjoy in our lives.

Jimmy died months ahead of my mom. For whatever reason, his absence has so far made a much bigger impact on my life than my mom’s passing. I don’t hide this fact or sugarcoat it. I feel like Jimmy could have done a few things so much differently had he lived a few more years. When the cancer came back he was certainly mad and resistant to the idea of dying. But I wonder what might have become of his new marriage and his better job at the Budweiser. It feels like he and might have had a much different appreciation of one another and been around to suffer and appreciate middle age together. Cancer is a scary infection, one which challenges everything you are hoping for and all too easily takes your optimism and burns it in front of you.

I use Jimmy’s suffering to compare how I might react to the same challenges. I know I would not do well.

I work to remember the good and bad times with Jimmy before cancer defined him. His life was a long bookshelf, with cancer being but a blip on one end. It sometimes is so hard to look back and see past the long interlude when cancer start its dance.

We Are All Unreliable Witnesses (and memories can’t be trusted)

Since I’ve started genealogy, I’ve discovered that almost everything we do, think, say, and recall is riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Not that I didn’t know that before. One look at my idea of fashion proves that point.

An example: I’ve heard the story repeatedly that my maternal grandfather William A. Cook lied about his age to gain entry into the U.S. Army during WWII. Turns out, it’s completely untrue. My favorite cousin sent me a discharge paper from his personal wallet. His original birth date is on the document. He used his original DOB on everything that’s come up so far.

Among other things, I’m waiting to see when and if he and my maternal grandmother Nellie Cook were ever married. Family says that a marriage license had been seen but that grandma had scratched over the dates repeatedly. While I haven’t visited any of the likely 6 county courthouses yet, no one has any source verification, other than “they were married.”
This picture of my grandparents was taken in Rich, when they lived relatively close to White Church and cemetery there.

 Start with NOTHING as a precondition.

One of my earliest blog posts dealt with the errors and inconsistencies of our family stories.

Now, more than ever, I am convinced that much of what we “know” from memory is a large Swiss cheese.(And the more motivated we are to be revisionists, the easier it is to convince ourselves…)

As I learn more about cognitive function and memory, I wonder what percentage of my collective memories might be wrong.

Since having my DNA tested, I can now say that I have NO detectable American Indian bloodline. For some reason, another close family member had still believed that we were at least a small part Indian.Where the stories originated, I’m not sure. As with most issues, the family member kept insisting that “so and so” told him/her that we had Indian ancestry. When I mentioned that I had asked several of the elder generation and told them I was getting DNA-tested for confirmation, all stated that they had no idea where the mistaken idea of Indian ancestry originated. Still, the family member persisted – no amount of facts would sway him/her.

But as it was repeated, it became a truth, probably forever. That’s how family myths get passed down erroneously. 

Perhaps a future genetic marker will contradict the genetic information I’ve discovered, but I doubt it. One of the great values of new technology is that it wipes the slate clean, truth or otherwise, whether we like it or not.

09022011 Spanish As a Way of Life

Sometimes I forget that I was once fluent in Spanish. Not the “fluency” generated by even 3 years in high school at college; rather the fluency from spending entire days speaking almost exclusively another language, reading avidly in that language and hearing so much Latin music that my own language began to sound unwieldy in my own mouth.

There is something about hearing Ricardo Arjona preaching in his lyrical way in Spanish that simply disengages the cynical part of my personality. Reading Wayne Dyer in Spanish always made the truth in his words more evident and reachable.

Spanish didn’t come easily for me. I filled several books with words to remember, jokes, phrases, etc. When I heard music that I didn’t understand, I would search out the lyrics and study them until they had penetrated my thick head. I learned that I had actually do have a propensity for languages – just not in the way that traditional school tries to teach it.

Don’t get me started with my preference for Spanish grammar and its spelling system.  As beautiful as English is, we could learn much from the overall simplicity of Spanish.

Spanish became less stressful for me the day I realized that I would never perfect it – never. And that didn’t bother me. If native Spanish speakers mocked me, instead of worrying about their opinion, I would listen to their attempt to speak MY language. The comparison evened out the mockery. Pick up any verb conjugation book in either Spanish or English and you will quickly see that mastery is a rare thing. You should also note that it doesn’t matter. When I had to learn an entire quality system and then teach it to native Spanish speakers, my attitude changed to “do the best I can” and assume that this would be good enough.

I look back on my “fluent” days in the same way a marathoner would on his best race. I worked hard and hit a point where I knew I had succeeded. I’ve backslid tremendously since then. It’s one of my biggest regrets.

In an average day, we don’t use even a 1,000 different words. That’s it, even if it sounds low to you. Years ago, I started recommending that people wanting to learn Spanish try to learn just one word a day. For anyone truly interested in learning, they soon found themselves learning much more than 1 word a day, without any extra effort. Committing to just 1 word a day made the likelihood of failure less likely.

It is odd seeing my region coming to terms with the Hispanic population. Years ago, I was one of the few people stressing that simple economics would require that the prejudice against foreign languages be lessened. Seeing it so strongly now, everywhere, is refreshing.

08022014 Macaroni Afternoons With Grandma

As I was finishing off a delicious can of V-8 this morning, I had one of those surprising memory associations assail me: one of the many reasons that I love V-8s might be that the overall taste is evocative of summers at my grandma Nellie’s house. I’ve consumed a few thousand V-8s in my life; I can say that without fear of exaggeration. To have just now made the connection between the tomato aftertaste of V-8 and being at my grandma’s house was a nice surprise for me.

One thing grandma loved to fatten me up with was plain macaroni. After cooking it, she would add tomato sauce and/or paste to the water and let the macaroni continue to soak up more water. The heated concoction would pass the aroma around the kitchen and house. Even if I had recently eaten, I would tell myself I could eat a big bowl of macaroni and tomato sauce as “just a snack,” as if an entire box of any kind of pasta is anything less than a ridiculous challenge to most people. The legend that I could consume a dozen adult portions at one sitting was no exaggeration. It was an easy, cheap food to make for me. It just so happened that I LOVED macaroni cooked this way. There were many afternoons were I would eat the entire pot of macaroni by myself, usually washing it down with Coke from a 2-liter bottle.

I drank a second V-8 later today, this time deliberately thinking about how much it reminded me of grandma’s macaroni, sitting on a rough wood floor, watching a very poor tv signal, enjoying myself as if I were a king.

It is hard to imagine anything simpler than those moments.  No amount of complexity and choice would have made those bits of macaroni any more delicious.

Were it possible, I sometimes would choose to be able to go back to one of those summer afternoons, with nothing except a bowl of macaroni, a glass of coke, and a small house on a small rise in the road, looking out toward the big world with my grandma and granddad. I never noticed how scarce my tv options were and I never felt poor at their house. And I would never have thought I wasn’t well-fed.

08152013 First Time I Was Read My Rights

Another amusing hallmark in my distinguished life involves the first time I was read my rights.

I attended junior high school. Southwest, to be specific. Life was a mess. Another trailer had burned and so my family moved to Tontitown to live with a paternal cousin, Leta. I had left behind my best friend and his mom, who had saved me from my family more than once. I was still infrequently wetting the bed, mom and dad’s alcoholism was at a seeming crescendo, and my dad and his cousin Leta were having an affair, which they thought was secret. I was getting one horrible beating a week, minimum. (I think maybe my dad had a quota that only he knew about!)

I don’t remember which class it was but I was facing South, looking out the window and doodling. The classroom was on the outside of the building, on the front near those horrible holly bushes with thorns. (I was thrown into those horrible bushes more than once by bullies.) I was chewing grape Bubble Yum gum, which I had just bought on a payment plan from Bobby. Honestly, I was in a funk and not paying attention to anything. The teacher interrupted my thoughts by saying my name, evidently more than once. I was expecting to be in trouble for not paying attention and doodling. Instead, someone had knocked on the class door and asked to see me in the principal’s office.

I was confused. I didn’t know if meant I had done something bad. As I got close to the office, I could see a couple of police in the office. Due to my parents, my idea about the police up to that point was mostly distrust and anger. But what flashed through my mind was the hope that my dad was dead. I can’t help how that sounds -it is true. The image of the police officer almost convinced me that he had finally gotten so drunk that he had died driving. I knew that if dad were dead, I could get away from my mom, too. (Dad had been in several terrible drinking and driving incidents. He was driving the car in 1970 when my cousin was killed. He totaled a truck while we were living in Tontitown with Leta. Etc.)

When I was escorted into the office, they started asking me weird questions about my name, where I lived. They probably assumed I was an idiot at first because I didn’t want to answer questions without knowing where it was headed. I jumped to the erroneous hope that maybe someone had reported abuse at home. Instead, they started reading me my rights, one line at a time.”Do understand these rights?” No, I didn’t, but I said yes. I wondered where my brother was or where another adult might be. It seemed odd that no one on my behalf was present.

They began asking a lot of strange questions about checks, mailing addresses, alcohol, whether I had ever smoked cigarettes or anything else. There were a lot of questions. I could see that they were changing from aggressive to a little perplexed. They could clearly see that I was confused and way out of my element.

As they could see I was very confused, they finally told me that someone had stolen a stack of checks from my cousin Leta and had written several hot checks on the account. One of the police asked me, “Do you know who stole them or could have stolen them?” I looked right at him and said, “Probably (insert name here), she usually is at the bottom of everything like that. But it could be my mom and dad – they are always in trouble for drinking.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what I got out of it. The two police looked at each other in what I thought was surprise.

They then asked me at least 25 more questions about (insert name here), who her friends were, did she smoke, do drugs, etc. I was as honest as I could be. As the interview was about to end, one of the policemen asked me if there was anything else I wanted to tell them. I almost cried but instead of saying anything, I just said “no.”

I remember later mom and Leta have a screaming fight about the checks but I went out into the woods across the fence to get away from the nonsense. 

I felt dirty, like I had been accused of something horrendous. I doubt whether they thought I was really involved. I think it was more of a fishing expedition. But it was strange being questioned by the police without someone else present while I was still in junior high school.