October Memories

October is a symphony of permanence and change.” — Bonaro W. Overstreet

The following short essay began as a journal entry after my father died. I recently rediscovered the notebook in which I’d written it longhand. First published in the October 1998 edition of Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, it’s also included in my book, Writing Home.

October Memories

Lately I’ve been thinking of these lines from Anne Mary Lawler’s poem about the seasons: October dresses in flame and gold, Like a woman afraid of growing old.

This is a potent month for memories. Yesterday I watched while my son and the children next door tumbled like acrobats in the fallen leaves. (Is there a kid in the Midwest who hasn’t done this?) And later in the evening, I sniffed the familiar aroma of wood-burning fires, another indisputable sign that winter is on its way.

For me, the smoky scents of October always evoke a favorite memory of my father raking leaves in the small backyard of our first home. The memory is more than three decades old, but it glows as vividly as the logs crackling in the grate tonight.

When I was growing up — before environmental laws — everyone in my neighborhood raked leaves into neat brown piles, then burned them near the curb or in backyard bonfires. Dry and brittle as bones, the leaves and twigs snapped furiously when introduced to a match. Back then, October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdini’s Halloween.

Like most fathers, mine worked on weekdays, and often spent his weekends doing yard work. Long before the term “quality time” was coined by childcare experts, Dad would enlist my help raking leaves on Sunday after church. I offered very little assistance, preferring to toss his neatly piled leaves back into the air, or to roll in what remained of his handiwork. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy my reckless company — and I enjoyed the novelty of helping him. Unlike my mom, who would have seized the opportunity for “girl talk,” my dad didn’t always communicate with words. On those brisk autumn afternoons, with the sun glinting through bare branches of oak and maple, it was enough for us to be together. He raked, I rolled, and nothing of dire importance was ever said.

_______________

October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdini’s Halloween.

_________________________

Still, young as I was, I felt the ancient ache and pull of October.

By then, I understood the seasons were cyclical; that the easy days of summer would return as surely as apples had ripened every fall. But I’d also begun to grasp the concept that time trudges ahead in a straight line, like it or not, ruffling the smooth texture of our days as it marches forward. I couldn’t have explained it quite this way, but suddenly I knew I’d have to “yield with a grace,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “the end of a love or a season.”

I recall watching my handsome young father in his plaid flannel shirt while he whistled and tended his banks of smoldering leaves, their acrid smoke filling my nostrils and forcing tears. I remember wishing that everything could stay the same — that I wouldn’t have to grow up or grow old; that autumn afternoons wouldn’t bleed to winter.

It was as if I had glimpsed the distant future and seen my father’s empty chair at our Thanksgiving table.

Of course, Dad had no idea that I had stumbled on a vast, disturbing truth and was forever changed by it. He worked contentedly, pausing only to watch me or to loosen the dried leaves from the long teeth of his rake. And that is the way I like to remember him:  arrested in time on that October afternoon, living in the moment, always whistling. — Cindy La Ferle

— Top photo of a maple tree in my Vinsetta Park neighborhood. (copyright Cindy La Ferle) —

Showing up

A friend is the one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.” — Grace Pulpit

The grieving process has so much to teach us, aside from revealing how resilient we can be.  When someone close to us dies, we learn a lot about ourselves, our family, and our friendships. Some people will surprise us — and a few relationships will be tested. We might mend a few proverbial fences in need of serious repair, or strengthen family ties that threatened to unravel from benign neglect. Or we might discover that we can’t always depend on someone we counted among our closest friends.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since Doug’s father died last Friday.

After my father-in-law’s memorial service — and after we waved good-bye to the last of the out-of-town visitors — I thought about my own beloved dad and uncle, whose deaths shook my very foundation several years ago. I recalled how the smallest show of support from dear friends and family kept me on my feet, and how something as simple as a heartfelt note or phone message helped soothe the long, hollow ache of loss.

Grand gestures helped too. When my father died in 1992, my longtime college roomie, Margaret, flew from Chicago to Detroit to attend the funeral. Another college buddy, Donna, drove by herself from Alabama to hold my hand. The sight of those two women walking into the funeral home still shines in my memory, and I still struggle to contain my tears of gratitude and love. An only child like me, Donna understood that close friends are just as essential as blood relatives during a crisis. Margaret, who was maid of honor in my wedding, said she was simply making good on an old promise to “always be there” for me. (Without pause, I flew to Pittsburgh five months later to attend her father’s funeral.)

Here for you

Knowing how to help a grieving friend isn’t always easy — and grand gestures aren’t always appropriate or necessary. But through their example, Donna and Margaret taught me how important it is to be there for someone whose heart has been blown apart; how crucial it is to attend funeral visitations — or at least acknowledge a grieving person’s loss.

And I’ve appreciated every single person who has been there for my husband over the past few difficult days.

Earlier this week, we got a phone call from Pam, a former neighbor and longtime friend. We didn’t expect to hear from her, since Pam had just returned from her own father’s funeral in Cincinnati. Still, she wanted to know what arrangements had been made for Doug’s father. “I know what you’re going through, Doug,” she said in her phone message. We certainly didn’t expect it, but Pam needed to tell us, in so many words, that she wanted to “show up” for us.

Shortly after hearing the sad news, our neighbor Matilda delivered a banquet of food to my mother-in-law’s home, knowing that Mom was hosting out-of-town family at her place. The whole family was touched.  That same day, our friends John and Deb left a plant and a fruit salad on the porch while we were out. But it was the attached note that really spoke to us: “We love you guys.”

And that’s what it boils down to, really. Showing up.

You can “show up” for grieving loved ones even if you live miles away. You can make a heartfelt phone call to express your sympathy. Or you can mail your love and support in a card or letter. Sending flowers might be a cliche, but flowers work too. Or, like my friend Shirley, you can bake a kick-ass batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies and leave them on your friend’s doorstep.

And don’t think twice about finding “the right thing to say.” There is no such thing. Say what you feel, say what you mean. Life is short and sometimes it hurts. It’s all about finding your own way to show up. — Cindy La Ferle

— Garden photo by Cindy La Ferle —

Father’s Day

Old as she was, she still missed her daddy sometimes.”  ~Gloria Naylor

This short essay first appeared in the Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI) on Father’s Day, 1994, and is included in my story collection, Writing Home. If you’re lucky enough to have your dad around this Father’s Day, please give him a big hug from me. –CL

Dad’s last photograph

It’s my favorite photograph of Dad and me — one of those priceless family icons I’d rescue if the house caught fire. Taken on Father’s Day in 1992, it reveals the totally uncomplicated relationship we’d enjoyed right up to the moment the shutter clicked.

I use the word uncomplicated because I can’t think of a more lyrical way to describe my father or the way he lived. Even when pop psychologists urged us to scrutinize our parents and find them suspect, I saw my dad as a patient man whose agenda was rarely hidden. He was the kind of guy who appreciated most people just as they were, and I think that’s what we all loved best about him.

But let me explain the photograph.

Dad and I were standing on my back porch, having just finished the surprise Father’s Day dinner I’d hosted for him and my father-in-law.

Dad wore a pale blue windbreaker and an outdated pair of glasses that somehow looked right on him. My hair was orange, thanks to a failed experiment with a drugstore highlighting kit. The late afternoon sun shimmered through the maples in our yard, and my mother was anxious to finish the film left in her camera.

Dad and I hugged tightly for the shot.

He was sixty-five and grinning — despite the grim diagnosis of degenerative heart disease he’d been given a few months earlier. At thirty-seven, I was newly unemployed and unsure of my career path. The travel magazine I edited for nearly six years had folded abruptly, dropping me off at midlife without a new map. Still, summer had arrived and we were optimistic. Dad’s diabetes was under control, or as he put it, he’d been “feeling pretty darned good lately.”

Better yet, the ball games were in full swing. It wasn’t shaping up to be a stellar season for the Tigers, but Cecil Fielder and Lou Whitaker were giving it their best. (While I never shared my dad’s religious devotion to baseball, I still can’t hear the crack of a bat against a ball without remembering the old transistor radio he kept tuned to his games.)

But there’s something else about the photo. Looking at it today, you’d never imagine the two of us had a major-league concern beyond what we’d be eating for dessert that evening. Nor would you guess that this 35mm print chronicled one of our last days together.

The inevitable phone call came two weeks later on a Monday morning: “Your dad collapsed in the driveway. The ambulance is coming.”

So this week I’m very grateful for that luminous Father’s Day afternoon ten years ago — grateful I hadn’t waited another day to throw my dad a surprise party. I usually postpone my good intentions, adding them to a long list of things I plan to do later.  Later, when there’s more time…

“Today is the only time we can possibly live,” wrote Dale Carnegie, whose work my father read often and admired. I see now that Carnegie’s philosophy is gleefully captured in my father’s grin, which my mother wisely captured on film. — Cindy La Ferle

“What Came to Me”

Poetry is a packsack of invisible keepsakes.” ~Carl Sandburg

Amazing, isn’t it — how small things can hold so much? With the precision of a haiku poet, Jane Kenyon delivers a heart-load of emotion in this short but powerful poem. Anyone who loves the domestic arts will fall in love with Kenyon’s poetry. She had a gift for revealing the sacred in the mundane, reminding us that even the most ordinary objects we own can represent a wealth of memories, stories, and lessons. –CL

What Came to Me
By Jane Kenyon

I took the last
dusty piece of china
out of the barrel.
It was your gravy boat,
with a hard, brown
drop of gravy still
on the porcelain lip.
I grieved for you then
as I never had before.

-Reprinted from Jane Kenyon Collected Poems; Graywolf Press; 2005–

— Kitchen photo by Cindy La Ferle —

This post is part of a weekly poetry appreciation series. Want more? Check out Poems to Inspire in the CATEGORIES column at right.