mary’zine random redux: #24 October 2002

Life, death, guilt, redemption, the F word, etc.

Dear friends. Well, I had this issue pretty much worked out—in my carefully planned but intermittently spontaneous way—when events interrupted my carefully planned but intermittently spontaneous life and I had to fly back to the Midwest for a funeral.

My brother-in-law Skip died of a heart attack. This is the brother-in-law I wrote about in January, to whom I hadn’t spoken in years. I was painting him last year when a verse from The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d…,” started running through my head. After that, I felt better about him, but we never reconciled directly.

I had been dreading this trip back home, on a number of levels, ever since the last time I was there, 11 years ago. After my mother died, there seemed no more reason to go—I didn’t feel the same obligation toward my sisters. And I had no desire to see Skip, who had been emotionally intrusive to me when my mother was dying and then, in the following months, became even more possessive and demanding of my time and attention. When I tried to set boundaries (this was pre-J, when I barely knew what boundaries were, let alone how to enforce them), he withdrew, I got pissed, and it’s been a stalemate ever since. When I asked my sister if she wanted me to come for the funeral, she said it was up to me, but I knew she’d want me there. So I arranged for Pookie to be looked after, made my plane reservations, and called J to cancel our next appointment; when I told her I didn’t want to go but felt I had to, she said, “That’s what families do for each other.” And I whined, “Well, I guess they’re my family….”

I’m a little concerned about how I’m going to come across in this story, because I have certain expectations (and thus project them onto you) about what should have happened if I were truly a Good Person. First, I should have made up with Skip when he was alive—isn’t that some sort of Good Person rule, like never going to bed angry? Plus, funerals are supposed to be all about pain and regret. There’s supposed to be a lot of crying and not very much laughing. In extreme cases, there should be an attempt to throw oneself onto the funeral pyre.

I don’t know where I got those ideas, because my father’s family had classic Irish wakes. As adults, his 12 brothers and sisters only saw each other at weddings and funerals, and except for the bride and groom in the one and the casket in the other, you wouldn’t have known which was which. Maybe there was a bit more crying at the weddings. My mother and I always sat on the sidelines, dour-faced, uncomfortable, with an unwanted brandy and Coke in front of each of us. I wished I could be more like my partying aunts and uncles, but I knew implicitly that it would be a betrayal of my mother to trade her Scandinavian reserve for their Irish lack of inhibition.

Since the age of 14, when I rejected God, country, and motherhood (but not apple pie), I’ve sneered at the idea of family (Family is the F word), as if I were too smart for such a mundane commitment to people with whom I believed I had little in common but a few genes and a name—and not even a name anymore, since my sisters and their children are now K___’s and P___’s. The only McKenneys in our hometown are my father’s nephews and their wives, with whom I have no contact at all.

But on this visit home to my roots (rhymes with foots), for a variety of reasons, I was ready to embrace the clan, though I didn’t know it until I got there. When my mother was alive, I had to tiptoe around her moodiness and narcissism. Then Skip took up where she left off. Like her, he knew instinctively how to dominate by passive aggression and how to trip the guilt fantastic. Gee, maybe there’s a reason my sister married him.

I was a little concerned about flying—it was the 1st anniversary of 9/11—but the flights were uneventful and security was fairly minimal. I expected a long delay at SFO, but they only pawed through one of my carry-on bags and inspected my shoes; they didn’t touch the knapsack with the crucifix jackknife hanging from the zipper. In Chicago, where I had to transfer to a tiny DC-something to wing northward, they pulled me out of line, passed a wand over every square inch of my body, and pawed (it’s the only word for it) through both bags, still overlooking the potentially lethal crucifix. (I didn’t remember it was there until much later. I would have hated for it to be confiscated, since it’s a beautiful, quirky work of religious art and a gift from Tee.)

So I arrive in Green Bay, and my two sisters and my other brother-in-law are there to drive me the final 50 miles to Barb’s house. I’m hopped up on goofballs (3 Dramamine) and forget about my suitcase, but fortunately K asks how I managed to pack everything into two small carry-ons, so we traipse back into the terminal to get it. Finally, we’re headed out on the flat stretch of Highway 41 coming out of Green Bay.

I recently read a review of a book about the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, a catastrophe that, according to the New York Times, “remains somewhat obscure, due partly to its remote location [my emphasis] just west of the Green Bay, near Michigan’s Upper Peninsula….” That’s my home ground, folks, Remote is our middle name.

I could never live back there again [2009 update: Oh, how little I knew about myself], but as we drove north, I avidly watched the landscape for familiar sights and reminders of my childhood. (Traumatic childhood becomes wistful nostalgia; must be a survival mechanism.)

In Oconto, we pass our late uncle Al’s Riverside Tavern, still looking exactly the way it did 40-50-60 years ago. Throughout the area, I noticed that, while factories and businesses have closed and churches have been torn down, all the old bars are there—the Ogden Club, Dino’s Pine Knot, the Green Light Tavern. There’s always money for booze (she said, sounding exactly like her mother). But unlike my mother, I have a preternatural interest in those places. I don’t drink beer, but I collect Silver Cream (“The Cream of Beers”) bottles from the long-defunct Menominee-Marinette Brewing Company—probably because my father used to take me with him to bars when I was a preschooler. (That sounds worse than it was; he was mostly just socializing when I was along.) I still love eating in those old taverns. Proust can have his madeleines; I’ve got the aroma of deep-fried lake perch and stale beer to trigger fond memories.

In Peshtigo, we pass by another tavern that has a sign outside advertising a certain Milwaukee beer. I haven’t seen the name in years, so I blurt out, “BLATZ!” After a pause in which everyone else in the car probably thinks I’ve gone off the deep end, we all crack up.

I had thought that if I ever went back there after my mother was gone, I’d have to stay in a motel so I’d have my “space.” This is an unknown concept in the Midwest, apparently. When I used to tell Skip I needed my space, he’d call and say, “I’m going to take some of your space now.” But it was obvious that Barb didn’t want to be alone, so my niece fixed up a spare room for me, and I was able to have my space and eat it too (as it were).

Dramatis personae

Before I go any further, I’d better introduce the family:

Barb: Youngest sister, 48. Middle school teacher (math and science) in the town where we grew up. The new widow. Has heart of pure gold.

Skip: The deceased, 57. Estranged brother-in-law. Retired career Air Force/Vietnam vet/cross-dresser/tranny-wannabe. (This last used to be a closely guarded secret, but it seems everybody in town has known about it for years. A local store for plus-size women’s clothing sent flowers for the funeral. One of the unintentionally funny things the minister said during the eulogy was that Skip was “a man’s man.”)

Lorraine: Skip’s daughter, 31, from his first marriage, but Barb raised her from the age of 7. (Her mother died.) Funny, smart as a whip, lives on a farm. She takes care of three donkeys, a horse, at least one pig, lots of cats, and her two kids—A.J., 7, who wants to be a paleontologist, and Cody, 2, who has no career plans yet that I know of.

Aaron: Lorraine’s husband, who works on the “melting deck” of a foundry—a hot, dirty, exhausting job (same thing my father did). He’s quiet, very sweet, and is still Lorraine’s best friend after 10 years of marriage.

Brian: Skip’s son, 29, former n’er-do-well who finally responded to parental tough love and turned his life around. Unfortunately, fathered six children before doing so. Works two jobs as an appliance repairman. He and second wife Deb have a daughter, Sarina, and Deb has another daughter, Summer, who is half Thai. Summer, like A.J., is 7 and very smart. Sarina, age 2, is an unknown quantity. (I can’t relate to kids until they can form complete sentences.) Brian and his family live in a mobile home in a trailer park and so, in the minds of many Americans, are “trailer trash.” I saw a documentary on PBS about middle school kids. One snotty girl, surrounded by her fashionable friends, referred to a certain classmate with disdain: “We wear Abercrombie—he wears, like, WAL-MART.” If I were in charge, I would require two ongoing classes beginning in elementary school: (1) critical thinking and (2) socioeconomic class awareness.

K: Middle sister, 50, works in a factory. She makes couplings for tractors and such. Works a 10-hour shift 4 days a week and is an avid gardener and home decorator. She’s another one with a heart of gold. I guess our parents did something right.

MP: K’s husband, avowed (and proud) asshole. Fourth of 12 children and estranged from his entire family. Is a customer service rep, of all things, at a Ford dealership. Yells at the customers and dares his boss to fire him. Uses words like “nigger” and “faggot” around me, but I’ve learned not to rise to the bait. He loves my sister—they’ve been married 30 years—so I have to give him that.

“Little Mike”: K and MP’s older son, 25, with whom I bonded big-time when he was 14, the last time I saw him. Very sensitive and funny. (K said she didn’t know where he got his humor and brains; Barb said, “From his aunt.” [That would be me.]) He’s now an enormously large person, hence the irony of “little.” Works in Madison as a “fire equipment designer” (?), has two kids I’ve never met. He couldn’t get off work to come up for the funeral, so I didn’t get to see him.

Joshua: K and MP’s younger son, 21. Last time I saw him, when he was 10, we couldn’t relate at all. He was quiet, lost in little Mike’s shadow, but lo and behold he has come out of his shell, is almost as big as little Mike, wears several earrings and has a shaved head. We bonded on sight. He said I was a worthy replacement for his witty brother. Works at Marinette Marine, making parts for ships. Would rather be a long-distance trucker, but wife Jana is opposed.

The grand tour

On the morning after I arrived, we went out with K and MP to their favorite breakfast spot. K had called it a “dive,” but I didn’t see anything wrong with it, so I started to say, “Why do you think this place is a dive?” Fortunately, I noticed that the owner was talking to MP a few feet away. Whew! Open mouth, stop from inserting foot just in time. Afterward, we dropped MP off at home, and the three of us took a tour of our old homesteads. I had dreaded seeing the old neighborhood on Bay de Noc Road—I knew it had changed a lot, and I thought I couldn’t bear seeing strangers living in MY HOUSE and in my aunt and uncle’s house next door. (They sat with me at Mom’s funeral, and now they’re both dead, too.) But when I saw the man-made lake and the expensive houses that have replaced the woods where I spent hours in serene solitude, picking buttercups and violets, it was no big deal. It didn’t feel like mine anymore, but it was as if I’d already let go of it without noticing. It was just strange to consider that “rich people” (lawyers and doctors) now saw our old neighborhood as desirable. When we lived there, it was anything but. Our only neighbors—besides our aunt and uncle and their molester sons—were the Salewskys (on the land where my mother grew up), the Calcarys (house gutted by fire years ago, finally being remodeled), old Mr. Bael (in a little green shack), and Wallenders’ dairy farm.

I know this isn’t an original thought, but it’s too bad you can’t appreciate your environment more when you’re young. I loved the outdoors back then—the woods, the cedar grove, the sand hill, the sand road, the creek running through the cow pasture—but I only appreciate now how much freedom I had to wander and be alone.

We also drove over to North Shore Drive to see our first house, though I was the only one old enough to remember it. I wanted to stop and knock on the door and ask if we could come in and look around, but my sisters wouldn’t do it. It’s a nice two-story house at the corner of Highway 35 and a one-block street that ends in a tree-shrouded enclave called Northwood Cove. We drove back into the “cove” to check it out. The names of the three families who live there in luxurious seclusion are carved on a wooden sign at the entrance. How quaint. They have private beaches (on Green Bay off Lake Michigan), right next to Henes Park beach, where the hoi polloi go swimming. When I was a kid, I would cut through the cove to get to the public beach, and walking by the huge house where the Mars family lived, I was hardly able to conceive of having such riches. One of their kids, also named Mary, seemed as exotic to me as a character in a fairy tale. I thought she must have a perfect life.


Of course we had to check out the park, so we drove in and made the familiar loop that gives you a stunning view of the bay after you round the first curve. (No picture, unfortunately. Peggy, you have to come back and take one.) The beach, which was my favorite place on earth when I was a child, now looks impossibly small.


Another view of the bay


(All photos by P. DuPont.)

A few nights before I got the call about Skip’s death, I dreamed that I was trying to go into Henes Park but there was a huge concrete wall blocking the entrance, and I could only see the tops of trees beyond it. There was a big sign on the wall that said, “DEAD.” I’m not saying it was a premonition, or at least not a premonition about Skip. I think it had more to do with transformation —the death of the past that I had constructed out of selected memories.

One of the great things about having siblings is retelling all the stories you remember from your semi-shared past. Since K and Barb are 6 and 8 years younger than me, we were always at different stages of development, so we often have different memories of the same event. K remembered when I babysat them and made homemade French fries and pulled them down the linoleum hallway on a rug. (“What a great older sister I was!,” I exclaimed.) Barb remembered me and K repeatedly tossing her Raggedy Andy doll up on the roof (rhymes with hoof). Mom had to keep climbing up there to get it down, until she finally said it could stay up there and rot for all she cared. And it did. Barb said she would stand there looking up at it and cry. I had to take it back about being a great older sister, even though I don’t remember doing such a thing and she could have been making it up.

I was surprised to learn that Mom always bought Barb and K the same items of clothing, except K would get it in pink and Barb would get it in blue. Funny, I always had to wear brown. Also, Barb got the Raggedy Andy doll whereas K got Raggedy Ann. I have no idea why K was dubbed the “feminine” one. She turned out to be a broad-shouldered hard worker who built her kids’ bunk beds. Barb is now the girlier-girl, with a house full of dainty, pretty things, but a lot of that was Skip’s doing. Maybe Mom was attempting to do some gender retraining, having completely failed with me.

After driving around for a couple hours, I suggested we stop at the local drive-in for a hamburger. Barb and K were incredulous. “When we eat breakfast, we usually don’t eat lunch.” I protested that I had to eat three times a day, which they thought was strange. From then on, whenever I heard Barb mention my name to people who stopped by the house or called on the phone, she’d be saying. “My sister Mary is here from California. She has to eat three times a day.” It became my freakin’ identity. I did convince them to stop for lunch, though all they had were malts and deep-fried cauliflower (!).

Later, Barb drove me over to the high school to meet the woman I’ve been corresponding with about the $1,000 scholarship I donated. I realized that it was that sudden brainstorm to send the money back there instead of donating to any number of worthy causes in the Bay Area that laid the groundwork for this very visit.

Barb and I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning most nights I was there, sitting in the computer room (the only cool room in the house) and talking about everything under the sun, from family gossip to probability theory. One of my fears had been that I wouldn’t know how to be with her, considering how much she loved Skip and… I want to say “how much I didn’t,” but that would make me look like a real jerk, so I won’t. But she didn’t have to be treated like a fragile doll. Skip had already survived four or five heart attacks and had been living on borrowed time for years. In fact, every morning when she woke up, she’d check to see if he was still breathing. So she was obviously grieving but not self-pitying or in shock. She cried and laughed as the spirit moved her, and we all just went with the flow.

One night we talked about the molestation K and I had suffered at the hands of our cousins. Barb hadn’t known about it, and said it hadn’t happened to her. She told me that one of the cousins was convicted of molesting his girlfriend’s daughter and is reputed to be in prison now. Later, I had an epiphany about the abuse thing: K and I, as adults, have pretty good lives. (I turned gay, and she married an asshole, but other than that….) We were obviously deeply affected by what happened to us, but our cousins are much worse off—between them, they’ve had several bad marriages, debilitating migraines, multiple sclerosis (like my father), bad employment histories, and at least that one putative prison sentence. This really messes with my assumption that the molestee is the only victim, that the molester gets off scot-free. This is huge, and I’m still processing it.

The funeral

The funeral was on Tuesday. Barb and Skip weren’t church-goers, so she asked the minister of some good friends of theirs to conduct the service at the funeral home. First, there was a 3-hour visitation period. Barb was busy talking to people, most of whom we didn’t know, so K and MP and I tried to stay out of the way. We sat together in a foyer to be less conspicuous, but Mike (being an asshole) and K (being a giggler) and I (being I) kept having to shush each other when we got too rowdy. Maybe it’s the McKenney influence, but I think it’s perfectly natural to go giggly after someone has died, even when you loved them. After my mother’s funeral, Barb and Skip drove me to the airport, and as we walked into the terminal, laughing hysterically about something or other, I realized that I had to present my “bereavement certificate” at the ticket counter to get the discounted fare. It was all I could do to keep a straight face as I said, “Um, my mother died….” Death punches all the emotional buttons, not just the socially acceptable ones.

At one point, K was saying how much she admired Barb for handling everything so well. She said to MP, “If it were me, and this was your funeral, I’d be afraid… [short pause]… that no one would come.” This was so true that we all started laughing, even MP. Then, of course, we had to sober up fast.

There wasn’t much to the funeral service except a long sermon masquerading as a eulogy. The borrowed preacher turned out to be a born-again. The bulk of his peroration was about Our Lord Jesus Christ and how we have to accept Him as our personal savior or go to hell. Naturally, he blamed Eve for everything. I wished he’d hurry up and finish, but he had an Agenda. He got most of the crowd to recite “The Sinner’s Prayer” with him. (I AM A SINNER….) I had never heard of it, and, strangely, he didn’t seem to know it by heart either. He said, “I don’t know the exact words, but it goes something… like… this…..” And I had this immediate, vivid fantasy of him taking a top hat and cane out from behind the lectern and dancing sideways past the casket, “Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gaaaal….”

The whole service was surreal, and it wasn’t all my imagination. Skip’s elderly aunt Dell was there, and she was the first to speak up and tell the minister he was speaking too softly. So he raised his voice but not enough, apparently, because every few minutes, she’d loudly announce, CAN’T HEAR ANYWAY. Instead of 100 people droning I AM A SINNER, I would have preferred that we all chant CAN’T HEAR ANYWAY. The cadence and repetition were quite pleasing, as long as you weren’t related to her and trying to keep her quiet. One of Skip’s cousins was sitting between Aunt Dell and Aunt #2, whose name I don’t know. This aunt kind of slumped down in her seat at one point, and Cousin whispers, “Are you OK?” Aunt #2 bellows WHAT’D YOU SAY? and Aunt Dell chimes in, WHAT’D SHE SAY? Cousin gets a piece of paper out of her purse and writes “Are you OK?” and shows it to Aunt #2. Aunt #2, naturally, wants to know, WHAT’S THAT SAY? followed closely by Aunt Dell, WHAT’S THAT SAY?

Finally, it was over. We had to hang around so everyone could go up and pay their respects to Barb again, and at one point the preacher came over to me and began a who’s-on-first sort of conversation. He wanted to know “who was the oldest.” I said I was. He said, “I thought Skip was the oldest.” I could see where this was going, but I said noncommittally, “Skip was one year older than me.” So of course he said, “How can you be the oldest if Skip was one year older than you,” and I had to point out that I was, in fact, Barb’s sister, not Skip’s. I wanted to add, “I have to eat three times a day.” He was embarrassed, but it was only the beginning of his humiliation, because I purposely drew him into a conversation about religion. I asked him all the hard questions, to which he had all the easy answers.

Me: What about the Jews?

Preacher: The whole Jewish Nation will have to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior or they will all go to hell.

Me: What about homosexuals?

Preacher: Sinners. They will go to hell also. Marriage is a holy union between a man and a woman.

That was basically his whole message: “Everyone but me and my fellow fanatics is going to hell.”

The surprise for me in all this, and the reason I kept the conversation going, is that I’ve always had a hard time having an “agreeable disagreement” with anyone whose beliefs are wildly different from mine—especially when their wildly different belief is that I’m doomed to burn for eternity. But I felt calm, contained, and fearless.

Me: There are many major religions in the world that see things differently. Who are you to say that this book, written by men [and I should have said, translated by other men, from ancient languages about which there is much dispute as to the meanings of certain important words], is the one true word of God?

Preacher (opening his Bible, itching to read me some scripture): Because the Bible tells me it is!

Me (noting the tautology of his argument: the Bible is God’s word because the Bible says so): I have my own experiences, my own understanding, and my own beliefs. But I don’t go around trying to scare people by telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t agree with me.

Preacher: I know it sounds narrow-minded…. [changing the subject] Evolution is a fairytale!

Me: I think what you’re telling me is a fairytale.

Despite our restrained and polite manner, this conversation really had nowhere to go. We would either devolve into a chorus of “Is not!” “Is too!” Or perhaps, on his part, “You’ll go to hell!” and on my part, “CAN’T HEAR ANYWAY.” I noticed Barb was gathering her things and getting ready to leave, and I was tired of playing cat with this clueless mouse anyway, so I said, “Well, I’m going to have to….”

But he was getting feverish, determined to save me from the inferno. He hit on a new argument.

Preacher: It MUST be a young earth, because in 1830 [somebody] measured the sun and discovered it’s shrinking by 5 feet per year!

Me: ????? I really have to go now.

Preacher: Can we continue this back at the house?

Me (in thought bubble over head: Shit! I forgot about the de rigueur post-funeral snacks!) No, sorry.

I stand up to make my exit, but he wants to sum up:

Preacher: Let me just say this: God loves you, and He has a plan for your life.

Me (thinking this through to say exactly what I believe): I know I am loved… and that there’s a plan for my life—can we agree on that?

Preacher (sly bugger): Yes—God loves you, and He has a plan for your life.

Back at the house, he left me alone and I sat out on the back deck with the (adult) kids who were smoking up a storm. We ate ham and cheese on buns and lemon bars and drank Cokes. I told Joshua my vision of the preacher with the top hat and cane, and he cracked up and said what a “cool aunt” I was. God, I love that kid.

Family—no longer the F word

On Wednesday, my last day there, we took Joshua and Jana out to Joswiak’s tavern for hamburgers and pizza (me happily inhaling the smell of stale beer). Later there was an impromptu grand finale just before dark when we all ended up down the road from Barb’s where Aaron was chain-sawing some tree trunks. A few years ago, Barb and Skip had been feeding the deer in a large vacant lot across the road until the city came and shot the deer. So they bought the land and created a park Skip called “Barbaraland.” They put in a huge lawn, picnic tables, a fire pit, and stacks and stacks of firewood. It’s mostly for their own family’s use, but now and then they host “A Day in the Park” for anyone to come and eat hotdogs and play games.

I hadn’t been down there yet, so we walked over to see it. K and MP, who live a couple miles away, rode by on their bikes and joined us. Skip’s cousin Bruce roared up on his motorcycle. Summer, the 7-year-old, and a whole passel of other kids came along. (Summer had finally started opening up to me. When Brian introduced me to her as “Aunt Mary,” she said, “I already have an aunt Mary” and ostentatiously ignored me. But then she and A.J. and the little kids kept ending up in the computer room with me, and we had a good time riffing about silly things and looking up Pokemon-related websites, and it was all of a sudden jolly good fun to be an aunt—a GREAT-aunt, no less.)

So we were all standing in the road, watching for the occasional car, as Aaron cut up the wood and threw it in the back of his truck, and except for the unbearable noise of the chainsaw and the multitude of mosquitoes, I felt this warm glow, like I was one of the freakin’ Waltons. Even better than that, I felt as if I had suddenly (after only 10 years of therapy!) crossed an invisible line and become an adult. Several years ago I told J that I didn’t see the appeal of being an adult. I wanted to be taken care of, wanted someone to look up to (wanted a mother, let’s face it). I saw adulthood as nothing but an energy drain, a vast wasteland of duty and obligation. But now it was a pleasure and a privilege to have this incipient relationship with 4 new little kids and a reconnection with my grown-up nephews and niece. I promised everyone I’d come back for a visit next June. And I can hardly wait!

A few nights after I got back to California, I was chopping broccoli for my favorite pasta dish; it was after dark, but I had the back door open so Pookie could go in and out; I was listening to “Fresh Air” on the radio, feeling at peace; and I realized that I HAVE EVERYTHING. I meant “everything” in the sense of, well, everything. Most of the things I have could be taken away—material things, relationships, health, life—but this was different. It was like having no boundaries, but with a core that was the “me” I know day to day. I felt BIG, and I remembered someone seeing a vision of Dot after she died in which she filled the whole sky. It struck me that I must be feeling something like the expansion that happens after what we call death, when it turns out (as I imagine it) that the universe you thought you were such a tiny part of is actually inside you. This may sound far-fetched, but it felt totally real, familiar, and deeply reassuring. It was a sense of being infinitely large and yet competent to navigate the small self with the proper boundaries, like with the preacher. Everything felt exactly right and in proportion—as if I could hold the world in my hands but also thread the smallest needle.

When I told this story to J, she immediately understood it as being an experience of “enlightenment,” however fleeting. When I told my psychiatrist, she immediately thought: bipolar. Such are the limits of the medical model.

Barb and I have been e-mailing almost every day since I got back. When she wrote me about her and K and MP celebrating MP’s birthday at Schussler’s and everyone in the restaurant singing “Happy Birthday” to him, I wrote back that I wished I had been there. And I meant it. Strangely, I felt the same way when she wrote me about her recent roofing project.

Yesterday Aaron, Lorraine, Brian, Bruce, and Brian’s friend Aaron H. worked on stripping the roof down to the bare wood. They managed to get the tar paper on as it was supposed to rain today. Today, Aaron showed up at 7:30 a.m. and was surprised when I said good morning to him. I was outside painting an oil base primer on the barn. The weather forecasters predicted rain by late afternoon and snow tomorrow so it had to get done. Bruce came over about 8:00 with the intention of helping me with the painting, but I suggested he help Aaron instead as that was the more difficult and important job…. He helped him until Brian and his friend showed up to pitch in and then Bruce helped me with the barn. The rain came once and we stopped, put the paint away, and only had half the barn painted. The rain was short-lived and so we opened the can and started up again. Lorraine came in and helped with the painting. The roof was on and the barn was painted before the rains came again. We cleaned up the mess in the rain while 6 grandkids played in the dirt pile and were muddy messes from head to toe. It cost about $500 in roofing supplies, pizza, subs, donuts, and pop so I have a roof that should last 20 years for a lot less than it could have cost. Aaron was so tired this morning that he told Lorraine his eyebrows hurt.

[2009 update: It wasn’t a barn-barn, it was a storage shed. No idea where she got the word “barn.”]

That was probably really boring to read. Sorry, but I’m making a point here. As recently as 2 months ago, I would have shuddered to think of such a gathering—not just the discomfort, the rain, and the threat of SNOW, but the enforced socializing, the “boring” conversation and concerns of people who aren’t highly educated, the bonds of family obligation. Home may be the place where (as Robert Frost put it), when you have to go there, they have to take you in, but I always thought of it more as where, when you violate parole, they make you go back in.

But now I’m something of a matriarch—or at least a sistriarch—and I’ve found that I can be seen and accepted there for who I am. They don’t see all of me, but they see what’s important. Anyone you can laugh with until you’re both in danger of peeing your paints is kin—or might as well be. And if I absolutely need to talk about my painting-related insights or, I don’t know, the use of the subjunctive among my scientist authors, I have plenty of friends who can hold up their end of those conversations. I felt like a fish that had been out of water for a long time and was finally back in the pond—and it felt good. The thing is, Thomas Wolfe was only half right: You can’t go home again to the place and time you remember, but if you’re lucky, “home” has metamorphosed into a living, breathing thing that will surprise you and make you want to go back for a visit as soon as the #@?!!#% snow goes away.

Rest in peace, Skip.

[Mary McKenney]

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