12 May, 2014

Learning Along The Dirty, Sacred River: Mothers, Teachers, Elders, Part 1

I was cooking dinner for my daughter and her boyfriend last night*, trying to explain why I clean up after myself as I cook. I was telling The Kid about her Grandpa Parsons (my Old Man) and how it was that he became  a not too terrible cook in spite of always managing to dirty every single dish in the kitchen. He started to learn how to cook because my Mom was often in class and unable to cook; it didn't help that other than chili, the only other things he could cook with any proficiency were hamburgers and hot dogs. And, if there was an egg cup** that did not have some smattering of slop in it, he would find a need for said egg cup just to have his record of dirtying every dish uncontested.

Stella (The Kid) informed me that she was the same way. Then she laughed a little and said that her Grandma Dixie (My Dear Sweet Ma) once said of the tendency that "it must run in the family."

In order to explain why my dad cooked at all -- other than to make chili or to cook out on the grill -- I talked about how My Dear Sweet Ma, when I was 10, decided to go to college.  in 1983, it was neither common nor encouraged for middle-aged married women to go back to school. The prevailing wisdom was twofold: 1) people ought to be working towards   retirement, not working on homework, and 2) that a married woman with two young boys ought to be at home.

This last view point was most vociferiously supported by some people in my extended family among the Dunns, her people, who felt that if she did anything other than fold laundry, watch soap operas, and sculpt her hair into a fine, fine beehive, she was not being a proper woman. The Old Man was intolerant of that view, and showed his intolerance in the manner he is most remembered for: he simply told them all to go to hell after putting on the mantle of Ol' Sarge^ ... against which there was no real or imagined defense.

As I was telling the story of why I try and clean up after myself, I was once again struck by the unusual progressiveness of a man who I had, for my entire childhood, attributed with an almost caveman-like  sense of right and wrong.*** And I was also struck again by just how strong an individual my My Dear Sweet Ma is. 

You wouldn't necessarily know it by just looking at her. She is not one to loudly make her way through the world... certainly not in the heavy-footed manner by which her youngest son (that would be me, Dear Readers) makes his way through the world... but she has made her way nonetheless, and except for my father's death, she has pretty much made her way on her own terms. She graduated after earning her bachelor's degree, and went on to complete her Masters. She taught public school for 26 years -- first as a Special Education teacher and then as a 5th grade English and Social Studies teacher.

I love my mother's story -- the parts of it I know. There's more to it,  but it's not all mine to tell here and now. I love my mother's story as it happened. I love it as it is still unfolding. She is embracing her post work life with the same quiet and relentless reserve ... a reserve she might attribute to her faith... that she has used to embrace all the important things and people and circumstances in her life. I love my mother's story because it helps me place my own story, and the stories of other family members into some appropriate context. And I am glad that I noticed it while it is still in the process of unfolding.

The Kid will turn 20 in September. This July, she is planning on getting married to the boyfriend, Will, who I have at times called  Plus 1. As she grows into an adult it occurs to me that there are things she needs to know.  (Shhh. There's no need to tell here that 20 isn't an adult age, simply an age that the legal system has arbitrarily decided is old enough to vote (18),old enough to get shot at defending corporate profits (18), but not old enough to by beer (21). ^^ ) She needs to know how to fix a leaky toilet. She needs to know how to diagnose simple mechanical issues. She needs to know how to change a tire, change the oil, change a battery. She needs to know the things I've learned, and the things I was taught. I've let loose of some of that over the years; but there are things she needs to know that transcend my life.


This is my Grandma Dunn, Lonnabelle. She was also, in her own way, a quiet but strong woman. I used to spend a lot of time with her when I was not allowed outside. After Grandpa died, almost all of his extended family deserted her. Her own family was scattered. Her maiden name was Ackerman,and she grew up around Crystal Lake, Wisconsin. Her own mother died when she was young and her father remarried a woman named Lucille, who I wish I had a picture of because she remains in my mind one of the sharpest, funniest, most blunt^^^ people I have ever known.  Grandma Dunn made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, knitted quilts until her hands wouldn't let her, and loved crossword puzzles, word searches, Reader's Digest, Alec Trabek, and Pat Sajek. She also liked playing Gin. She once told me she enjoyed playing cards because as a child in Crystal Lake, her father -- who was a religious man -- would not allow any card games into his house that used face cards. 

Why, you might ask? He associated face cards with gambling.

Later in life, one of the things she did was tell stories about her life to elementary school children. She enjoyed this deeply, as it gave her a chance to talk about the happiest times in her life, and about times she had come to remember as less complicated. Being the snot-nosed shit was, I was far less interested in her stories than I should have been... a mistake that, when I think about it now, physically pains me.

When I was younger and in my extremely religous phase (Please note the ontological difference between "religious" and "spiritual".) and was seriously pondering a life in the pulpit, she would talk to me about religious and biblical matters. She would ask me my interpretations of biblical text, and ask me what I thought it meant in a modern world. We talked about the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. We talked about the Golden Rule and the Great Commission. We talked about The Song of Songs and the Book of The Revelation. She was the one who pointed out to me that church wasn't just a building... that church could be anywhere, because Grandpa didn't need to put on a tie and sit in a pew to worship; he just took a walk in the back 40 and talked to God himself, mano y mano.


This is my Grandma Parsons, named Minnie. She died before I was born, so what little I know of her I know second and third hand. She was a small woman, with bright red hair. Even when he was a child (and, by his own admission, a snot-nosed shit) Dad teased her and called her Pinky.  Her maiden name was Blackburn, and she was, I believe born in Clermont County. She endured the largeness of my Grandpa Parsons' personality, raised three sons and a daughter, and died almost 10 years before her husband, who was actually actually a decade older than her. She was a prohibitionist in spite of my Grandpa's fondness for whiskey, and though she sometimes confided in her youngest son (my Uncle Bill) she never once faltered in her own beliefs. 

I didn't get to know her... but given that I know me, my father, and some of the stories about Daniel Boone Parsons... I'd say that she was one tough woman. Parsons men require more patience than most women have ... and I say that as a man who respects the deep and abiding capacity of women to shape the world.

The day before yesterday was Mother's Day. And while I wasn't in Losantiville to spend it with My Dear Sweet Ma, I did call and wish her a Happy Mother's Day.  I may be the son that gives her the most  trouble; but I hope she knows that, at least, I've finally learned to pay attention. 


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*She requested that I make this sausage rice pilaf dish she likes during my visit. And since she is a culinary school student,and knows more about what good food is than I do, I took it as a compliment and happily complied.
** There was no egg cup. Ours was not a high falutin' family. But if there HAD been... lawdy, lawdy, lawdy. 
*** Sorry, Dad. I should have been paying more attention.
^He was a retired Air Force Master Sgt. Standing in the face his full fury was like trying to stand up against a hurricane with a one string mop and a bucket with a hole in it.
^^ All lines are arbitrary ones, whether they are legal distinctions of adulthood or lines on a map.
^^^ Blunt was not an adjective I would apply to Grandma, or most anyone in the Dunn family. And other than Lucille, I have never met another Ackerman. Lucille died fairly recently, outliving Grandma by well over a decade. I understand that up to the day she died, Lucille still read the stock market pages everyday.
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