*This essay was previously published in the Bear River Review 2015 issue.
My mother gazed at the six-foot tall Christmas tree. My father and I stood next to her and watched her focus on the decorations. I unwrapped an ornament from the small box I had carried into the nursing home. “Were you looking for this?” I placed an egg into the cup of her outstretched hands.
She examined the red and green velvet-covered egg as if she might find the key to her past. She traced the small gold angel on the front. She opened the tiny hinged door and peered inside. A small white angel holding a mandolin stood on a white cloud-like pedestal. My mother glanced up at me. Behind the mask of her illness, an unspoken question seemed to hide. I wondered if she recognized the egg as one she had decorated years ago. She was no longer verbal. She handed the egg back to me, her thin white fingers still smooth and beautiful at the age of eighty seven.
I unwrapped three more pieces of my mother’s artwork and placed them on a table next to her. As a child, I had watched her poke tiny holes into each end of the egg, blow out the yolks, and then carefully clean the eggs. She used goose, ostrich, and hen eggs for most of her work. She dyed some eggs with onion skins before scratch-carving intricate scenes on them: An owl in a tree. A farm in Kansas. A fish, Pisces, made for me when I was sixteen. On other eggs, she used scraps of material, jewels she picked up in antique stores, or fingernail-sized toys, angels, or skaters. She created miniature scenes inside each egg. It was her way of telling a story. One day, she no longer recognized her workroom as her own.
As I presented each egg to her, several of the staff members cooed and commented over each one. I said, “My mother decorated our Christmas tree with eggs every year. The local paper ran a story about her once with a picture of my son holding one of her eggs.” My mother looked at me as if I might be lying.
We continued examining the eggs, and I explained the history behind each one. My mother nodded her head as if she might be agreeing to my version of the events. My father leaned in to point at a miniature skater in one of the eggs and said, “You made that one for your grandson.” She frowned at him as if this statement could not possibly be true. My father’s eyes began to water, and he walked over to the one of the easy chairs in front of the television, sat down, and began talking to one of the other residents.
My mother’s eyes began looking past me towards something unseen, and I knew she was growing tired of my nonstop storytelling. I began wrapping up the eggs and returned each one to the small box. “When I get home, I will place these on my Christmas tree. You can see them again when you come to our house.” The hint of a smile crossed her face. A gift for me.
I approached my father and said it was time to go. He walked over to my mother and bent down to kiss her goodbye. She turned away from him. I reached for my father’s hands and reminded him to put his gloves on.
We passed through the double doors as the loud alarm went off signaling our departure. Snow had begun to cover the cars, sidewalk, and dead grass. My father said, “I’m sick and tired of this weather,” as he smacked his cane down on the sidewalk. I looked at his face filled with sadness mixed with anger, and I realized that the loss of my mother would forever be my father’s deepest sorrow. We made our way to the car as the wind swirled around us. As it increased in its volume, it was as if a thousand choir bells ringing.
I can’t believe September has reared its cool, crisp, leaf-changing face already. Where has the summer gone? I’ve participated in road races, had company, visited a friend in Colorado for a few days, taken photography classes, avoided cleaning my house, and spent four memorable days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with my cousins. During one of our numerous adventures, my cousins and I were so fabulous and beautiful that one young comedian performing in the Blue Whale Comedy Festival at the Inner Circle Vodka Bar referred to us as the Golden Girls during his set. As he pointed at us, clearly the oldest patrons in the bar, the young crowd managed a few laughs as they turned to look at us and make sure none of their mothers were in the bar. At least I think that is what they were doing. Well, Mr. Comedian, let me take the microphone now and tell you a bit about us. You should only be so lucky to sit at our table.
First of all, we are a force to be reckoned with. Among the group, we’ve battled breast cancer, a brain tumor, the loss of a child, and the deaths of our parents due to various types of cancer, MS, Alzheimer’s, and other serious illnesses. If the worst thing that some punk comedian can come up with is to refer to us as “golden” because of our age, well, there’s nothing worse than the scorn and ridicule from one of those very “golden” girls. I won’t hold Mr. Comedian’s young age and lack of experience against him. I know it’s his job to insult people, but it’s my job to write about an experience and figure out what the hell happened. I admit that when Mr. Comedian walked past me with a smug little smile on his face at the end of the evening, my initial instinct was to slap him upside the head. It did cross my mind that assaulting a comedian in a bar might be something he was hoping for! Since I don’t remember ever watching an episode of the Golden Girls in my life, I wasn’t sure if I might be playing into some episodic fantasy of his. I sure wasn’t going to provide ammunition for his next comedy shoot out. My cousins and I walked out of the bar with our heads held high, and our tongues razor sharp with insults about comedians who aren’t particularly funny.
My cousins and I are all over the age of fifty. Perhaps we do resemble the Golden Girls of television lore. I have never watched the show, and I refuse to watch it now. I do know that as a collective group of cousins, we rely on love, our family history, a sense of adventure, and a glass of wine or bottle of beer at the end of the day as we celebrate with each other. A little vodka might be called for now and then, and a comedian that might actually be funny. As cousins, taking a walk down memory lane and telling true stories about our own mothers can be a lot more fun and entertaining than any joke or story Mr. Comedian would ever imagine or invent.
Margaret Lyn (my mother), Barbara (LouAnn, Amy, Audrey, Julie, and Sybil’s mother), and Jean (Teena’s mother) all raised some very fabulous women. My cousins and I miss our mothers terribly. They put the spine in our backbone. They created the funny for our funny bones. They taught us to love from deep within our hearts, and insisted on kindness to others as a ruling principle. My mother had a wicked sense of humor, and I think she might have taken that microphone from Mr. Comedian and said something truly witty and funny as a rejoinder to his weak attempt at insulting us. I realize that the television show the Golden Girls was fiction. Hell, I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, and people still ask me if I knew Dorothy. Well, no.
I have lived in Michigan now for almost forty years, but my Kansas roots and my family were the foundation for the person I have become. When I get together with my cousins, we laugh, cry, and honor our mothers and fathers. We all have a great sense of humor, and we will laugh if a joke or story is actually funny. If the best joke telling that Mr. Comedian can come up with is to toss a weak Golden Girls lob at us as an insult, well, he might want to think of another line of work to help him survive his golden years.
In the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch tells Sundance that he’s “got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Bifocals, or not, vision is critical to anyone’s success. Different activities require varying degrees of vision, and on April 23rd, my “vision” skills were put to the test.
Early that morning, I tapped into my “do not break anything” vision skills. At the start of the Houghton Lake 5K Trail Run, my son and I, along with about two hundred and thirteen other runners and walkers, listened carefully as the gentleman starting the race gave us some advice. He warned us that we would be running through mud, puddles, tree roots and rocks (marked by orange spray paint), and “you’ll see.” Since Matt and I had both run the race the previous year, I wasn’t too concerned about the mysterious “you’ll see.” Instead, I found myself preoccupied pondering the presence of bears in the woods and my mostly rehabbed iliotibial band. One of my neighbors had recently told me that her daughter had photos of a bear wreaking havoc in her daughter’s back yard at Higgins Lake. I had visions of bears wandering away from Higgins Lake, swimming across Houghton Lake, and hiding in these particular woods waiting to pounce on unsuspecting runners. I reminded myself to stay in a pack with other runners at all times. The whoop-whoop sound of a State Police Trooper’s siren signaled the beginning of the race.
I quickly lost sight of my speedy son as he surged ahead. I kept pace with a large group of runners for about the first mile, and then I hit a section of very deep ruts. A large pile of cut timber lined one side of the trail, so I assumed the ruts had been caused by trucks and equipment. I lost sight of people in front of me, and I could not hear anyone behind me. I felt the slip-slap-slop of my hips trying to realign themselves after each awkward lateral move. As soon as the ground smoothed out, I picked up the pace as I avoided orange rocks and tree roots, crossed over swampy areas, hip-hopped over hula-hoop-sized puddles, and somehow prevented myself from falling when I tripped over an unmarked tree root. I crossed the finish line mostly intact. My “do not break anything” vision skills had guided me along the trail. It was time to head home and prepare for the day’s next event. My vision for a poem the previous year had led to an opportunity to read it in public.
When I was young, I never imagined myself as a runner, even though I racked up some blue ribbons at track meets. I stopped running when I graduated from my small country school and started ninth grade at the junior high in Dodge City, Kansas. I did, however, start writing at a young age, and I had visions of being published as early as my teenage years even after I received my first rejection letter from Seventeen magazine for my heartfelt poem about being confused about boys.
My inspiration for the poem that the Dunes Review had recently accepted for publication stemmed from a vision I had while visiting my cousin Audrey in Kansas in 2015. One night the cicadas were so loud that the stars in the sky seemed to vibrate. Birds shimmied to the beat. Dogs in the neighborhood howled. I scribbled down lines in my journal. A writing prompt from writer Laura Kasischke’s workshop at the Bear River Writers’ Conference a few months earlier popped into my head. I imagined myself standing in front the house I grew up in out in the country east of Dodge City. I began working with the lines. Was I under the spell of poetic vision? I seemed to be breathing in images from the past, both real and imagined. The poem began to take shape, and after months and months of revision work, my vision paid off in the best of ways: publication and the chance to read it to an audience.
As my friend Julie and I began our journey to Traverse City, I told her that when she, friend Jeri, and I had been at Brilliant Books the previous fall, I had mentioned to them that the Dunes Review hadn’t accepted any of my work since 2010. Over the years, I had submitted a piece occasionally for the biannual lit magazine, only to have it rejected. I convinced myself that this vision during my previous visit to Brilliant Books had somehow led to the subsequent acceptance of the poem for the new edition of the journal. I was scheduled to read about midway through the list of writers, and when it was my turn to read, I stepped up to the podium. In a voice that only the ghosts of dead authors could hear, I said the title. Fellow writers and audience members quickly encouraged me to speak up. I stopped, placed my right hand on my sore right hip, and said, “Hello” in a weird sort of British accent, and started over. I have no idea why I used a British accent, since I grew up in Kansas and lived there for twenty-one years before moving to California for two years. For the past thirty-nine years, I have lived in Michigan. As Hoyt Axton once sang, “I’ve never been to England, but I kind of like the Beatles.” Apparently my vision skills had somehow been affected over the years by listening to the Fab Four, reading a gazillion books by British authors, and watching the movies Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility far too many times. Most likely my Michigan/Kansas accent worked its way into my reading, but I can’t seem to remember.
After the reading, Julie and I headed back to Higgins Lake via the backroads. We quickly realized that we would both have our “driving at dusk and then into total darkness” vision tested. Anyone who lives in Northern Michigan knows that if you are driving at night, you are destined to encounter deer making poor decisions. They will lurk silently around every corner. They will stand idly along every straightaway glaring at you with their cataract-like eyes. I turned on my “deer-vision” as I slowed the car down and prepared for the one hour plus drive.
Deer mocked us on each two-lane stretch of highway. At various locations along the backroads, we felt as if we were characters in a horror movie. Night of the Deer Zombies seemed like an appropriate title. At one hilly curve, nine deer nonchalantly watched us as I slammed on the brakes. I had a brief vision of MDOT renaming this part of the road “Dead Women’s Curve” in our honor. The vehicles that had been following us since Traverse City willingly played this game of hop-scotch with us as I alternated between complete stops and sixty miles per hour. Not once had the other drivers attempted to pass us. They somehow sensed my “deer-vision” while they were probably wearing their bifocals. I briefly considered stopping at Military Road, jumping out of my car and demanding a thank you for guiding them through deer hell, but, alas, I could not convince my hands to un-grip the wheel. Julie and I figured that we had avoided over forty deer.
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I was worn out and wound up. My legs hurt from the morning’s trail run. My husband inquired about the reading, and I launched into a ten-minute soliloquy about reading my poem and the exhausting drive home. I grabbed a beer and sat down on the couch. I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined myself riding off into the sunset à la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I don’t plan on robbing any banks and going out in a barrage of bullets. My vision for a happy ending goes like this: I will be running a road race at the age of ninety (certain to win my age group), composing a poem in my head that the editor of the Dunes Review will love, waving at the deer hiding in the woods, and dreaming of a nice cold beer after I cross the finish line.
*This essay was previously published in the Bear River Review 2014.
I stood at the end of the dirt road and tried to breathe. Posted signs on an old gate suggested potential problems, but their warnings, obscured by weathered vines, failed to clearly state their objectives: “No Dump” and “vate erty.” The house I grew up in glowed in the sunlight as if taking on the importance of a museum or a church. I felt the strange collision of time moving me forward, and memories spinning me backwards. A centrifugal force seemed to define me in this space. I grabbed a handful of dirt, and tossed it upwards into the steady Kansas wind. Dust and pebbles covered my body, glitter and gold, an elixir returning me to my childhood. I imagined my mother at the kitchen table, scratch-carving an elegant owl on an ostrich egg that had been dyed with onion skin. My father sat in his chair smoking a large cigar and drinking a beer after a hard day’s work at his café. I wanted to walk through the front door of the house and hear their voices welcoming me home. The taste of dirt in my mouth was bittersweet.
When my parents were dying, they returned to this house at the end of the dirt road in their memories. My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 88. She would question me frequently to see if our stories meshed. Was the Chief, as she began to call my father, working in the field or at the livestock sale barn where our café was? She referred to my husband and son as “the boys.” She wondered what kind of pie my grandmother would be bringing for lunch after church on Sunday. Cherry? Apple? Rhubarb? Why hadn’t her sister come to visit her? How many dogs did we have now? And then one day, my mother could no longer speak. She would often wave at me upon my arrival at the memory care facility as if I might be someone she knew. Her wave reminded me of a homecoming queen in a parade. She had waved at me similarly from the platform at the train station when I left Dodge City at the age of 21.
My father’s body began to fail at the age of 92. Prostate cancer, or “prah-straight cancer” as he referred to it, became painful, unmanageable. His cocktail of cherry juice and water no longer seemed to help. Between the pain medication and dementia, the evil twins of illness and aging, he began to flicker in and out of reality. I imagined him walking in our fields, memories covering the buffalo grass and little bluestem in a silky glaze like morning dew. Although my mother had died four years earlier, she often came to see him at the nursing home he was in for the last three months of his life. He would tell me I had just missed her.
I began to tell my father stories like the one about the night we slept on the front porch: “We made beds out of sofa cushions and blankets. Mom slept inside. A small plane sliced through the stars overhead, and you told me you felt a breeze from that one.” My father smiled at me, remained silent for several minutes as if to let the story settle in the air, and then looked up at me. “I know the people in the kitchen. They used to work for me at the café.” He grinned as if this was the best day of his life. I had learned from my mother’s illness, so I did not correct him. The cooks to which he referred were once in Dodge City, and they had passed away many years ago. I wondered if he remembered selling the house at the end of the dirt road in 1992 and moving to Michigan. His world was spinning backwards, and he pulled me in, towards him, with each and every story we shared.
Before their illnesses, my parents shared stories of their hometowns as children. My mother lived in Council Grove, Kansas, and my father was raised in Bath, Illinois, before circumstances landed them both in Dodge City. They were in their thirties when they adopted me, and they moved to the small, circa-1940s farmhouse in Wilroads Gardens, five miles east of Dodge City. And yet as their memories began failing them, something brought them into a circular path of memories of which I seemed to be a part, yet from which I was always separate.
For a long time, I felt as if geography defined me, and, in some ways, I believe it does. When I tell people I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, the inference is that I am tough and could possibly outrun a tornado if necessary. For me, however, it is the place where a man and woman brought me into their home to raise. Born in the Salvation Army’s Booth Memorial Hospital in Wichita, Kansas, I was adopted at two months of age through the Kansas Children’s Service League. I have no memories of this place to which I can return. Instead, when my mind and body begin to fade into the gloaming, I imagine I will see this clearly: a long dirt road, a house, and me walking through the front door, waiting.
Recently I attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference at Walloon Lake in Michigan. I had attended this conference seven times over the last thirteen years, so I wasn’t a newbie. As a retired creative writing and literature teacher, I knew the dynamics of a writing workshop, and I also understood what it was like to be both teacher and student in a writing class. Since I had not been to a writing conference, taught, or read my work in front of other people since 2010, that little anxiety bug that resides in my head and utters nonsense in times of stress started yakking at me much like the voice little Danny hears in The Shining. Instead of “redrum,” I kept hearing “go-home” as if it were a single word. What was I afraid of?
After turning off of US-31, I sped up and down the roller coaster hills of Camp Daggett Road, before turning onto Camp Sherwood Road. Camp Michigania was one mile ahead. I had time to turn around or to “consciously uncouple” as Gwynneth Paltrow recently said of her split with her husband. But as with any tough relationship, or the prospect of one, I forged ahead, parked my pickup truck in the parking lot, and wobbly-walked up the steps of the Education Center. I had promised myself that I would absolutely not mention my SBT (stupid brain tumor) to anyone at the conference. I knew the writer whose workshop I was in because I had been in his writing workshop at Bear River in 2006. He had also come to SVSU several times to read his work and had come to one of my creative writing classes. A friend of mine who knew him had told him about my SBT at one of his book signings. On Thursday evening, he came over to where my friend and former SVSU colleague Chris and I were sitting and said hello. I started feeling a bit better about things at this point.
During the first workshop Friday morning, we worked our way around the table introducing ourselves. Everyone sounded so fabulous. I was last to speak, and suddenly I felt as if Pepto-Bismol vomit was spewing out of mouth: “I have a brain tumor! I couldn’t write or read for the longest time! I still have problems with words!” As I realized what I was doing, I prayed that the floor of the Nature Center where our workshop was located would swallow me up, and my body would be devoured by the masses of mosquitoes lurking in the shadows outside. “Go-home, go-home, go-home” reverberated in my head like the heartbeat of a dying woman.
As my fellow workshop participants headed out of the workshop to their chosen happy places to write, I stayed behind for a few minutes to apologize to the author at least fifty times. He was very kind and gracious. As I headed towards the gazebo to write and wait for Chris, I thought about all of the reasons I should leave. Immediately. With the vibrant blue water of Walloon Lake in front of me, birds singing in vibrant staccato-like trills, and bumblebees buzzing the nibs of flowers in the tall grasses, I decided I might as well work on my writing assignment even though I had no intention of returning to workshop the next day. I wrote as if mosquitoes were biting my fingertips.
Before long, Chris arrived, and it was time to head in for lunch. After asking about his workshop, I launched into a babbling rant about my inadequacies as a writer, and that I thought it was best if I headed home. The worst part, I confessed, was that I had blabbed about my SBT, and I was convinced that everyone in my workshop hated me. I’m surprised Chris didn’t dump his salad on top of my head or stab me with his fork. The acoustically awful cafeteria seemed to be morphing into a madhouse for my whininess. Before I could find something else to complain about, a woman named Shanna from my workshop walked towards our table. I prepared myself for a verbal smackdown. Instead, she asked if she could join us for lunch. Chris gave me the snake-eye look that seemed to suggest that not everyone hated me.
Saturday morning, I woke up with a word hangover. As I drove from Charlevoix to Camp Michigania, I cranked up some blues music and sipped on some tea. My head hurt from thinking about writing. After breakfast, I headed for my workshop. I hadn’t felt this whiny since I used to get my period.
In writing workshops, each person reads his or her work. Everyone then offers feedback on how to improve the piece. I awaited my fate: Fix this. Fix that. What? My piece wasn’t perfect? I had work to do! My meadowlark was out of place! My unfinished triangle was confusing. The dreaded “R” word raised its head: Revision. I felt like a student from my one of my teaching days. I wanted to shout, “But I worked so hard on this piece.” Weren’t they impressed with my metaphors? My structure? As part of the assignment, we had only been allowed 250 words. I had followed the assignment. Although I received positive feedback, I completely blocked it out. Everyone else’s stories were so much better, and they had all been told to expand their pieces. I was told to pick out one thing from my piece and write a new piece, and I had to keep it at 250 words. What fresh hell was this? Waa—Waa—Waa…I just wanted to go home and feel sorry for myself. Instead, I went to lunch. I needed some fresh chocolate chip cookies.
As Chris, Shanna, and I ate lunch together, I tried to focus on the conversation about writers, readings, observations, etc. While they spoke of positives, I just whined. I was a pain in the ass. Chris and Shanna told me to stay at Bear River and just write. What? Just write? Crazy advice. Shanna went to her cabin to write, and Chris and I walked over to the Education Center. We picked a room with comfy chairs and sat down to write. A rattling ceiling fan sounded like a washing machine. I complained, and Chris moved with me to another room with uncomfortable chairs. We sat down at a round table and began to write. A man showed up, parked himself at a table next to us, and began typing on his computer. I thought of the shower scene in Psycho with its screeching music. I searched my surroundings for a knife, but luckily for the stranger sitting next to us, none were available. As I tried to focus and write in my journal—by pen—I noticed people outside smiling. I could not imagine what they had to be happy about. People breathing fifty yards away bothered me. I had to leave. I munched on chocolate chip cookies from my bag as I drove away from camp towards US-31.
I drove back to Peggy’s and found two wet dogs and no sign of my hosts. They had left me a note: “Gone sailing.” I stomped to the basement and began writing on my computer. Revision! Delete! Word choice! Imagery! Sentence variety! Coherence! Grammar! Structure! Will I put my readers to sleep! I killed it at 251 (rebel!) words, changed my clothes, and headed back to BR for dinner and the evening’s “famous-writers’” readings. As soon as beer became available, I sucked down two and listened to the first two of the three authors. After listening to two poets, I had to get out of there. I couldn’t even stay for the big name author who had flown in for the conference. Chris followed me out, and we sat on the front porch and talked about his writing for his workshop. Eventually I headed towards Charlevoix and watched the sun slip down over Lake Michigan. Hypnotized by the pinks, blues, and purples surrounding the orange orb, I pulled into a scenic area and snapped some photos. The world suddenly seemed beautiful again. I slept soundly that night.
When my alarm went off at 6:30 a.m., I tossed all of my bags into my truck and headed to the last day of the conference. I met up with Chris, and we headed to the cafeteria. As I stood in line waiting for my omelet, one of the “famous writers” from the conference stood next to me waiting for her omelet. Once again, I had diarrhea of the mouth, as my mother used to refer to my incessant babbling. Even though I had never spoken to Ms. X in my life, had never actually read any of her work or knew much about her, I blabbed on and on about how fabulous she was. I couldn’t believe what I was saying. Who was I? As we parted, she smiled and said it had been nice meeting me. I thought, “Really?” We hadn’t exchanged names, and the entire conversation had been about how wonderful she was. Is that really meeting? I wondered if I was having some sort of hormonal meltdown. Tampons, anyone?
When the final workshop began at 9:00 a.m., I was thankful I was up third in the rotation of readers. I felt like a bloody leg in the middle of a shark-filled ocean. Despite my intense desire to jump out of my chair and leave the room, I listened to my fellow workshop writers and realized they were giving me some sound advice. After my moment in the hot seat, I thanked my fellow workshop comrades for their comments and settled back into my chair for the remaining workshop stories. I gave feedback when I felt as if I had something worthwhile to say, and I marveled at some of the stories people in my workshop were sharing.
After lunch with several people from my workshop, I located some cookies for the ride home and stuffed them in my bag. Chris was busy with his own workshop group, so I slipped out of the cafeteria and headed for my truck. As I headed out of Camp Michigania for the last time, I sipped on some tea and reached for a cookie. In less than two hours I would be home. I thought about the pieces I had worked on for my workshop, and I realized they each had some good things going for them. I had written about growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, subject matter I had written about often, but I had not explored in depth yet. I thought about the advice writer Natalie Goldberg gives in Old Friend from Far Away: “What you fear, if you turn toward it, will give your writing teeth” (13). I guess that could be sage advice for just about anything. It was time for me to go home and get to work.
In 1973, I graduated from Dodge City Senior High, home of the Red Demons. My hometown, viewed through a skewed lens of Hollywood-based thematic structures, was much more than a town filled with Matt Dillon wannabes, girls named Dorothy, and tornadoes. If you haven’t heard, read, or said “get outta Dodge” in your life, well, you aren’t paying attention. Some of us did leave Dodge City when we were younger, but many of us returned for weddings, funerals, and reunions. Since I had never been to a reunion, I recently decided it was time I got outta Michigan, where I have lived since 1977, and join the party. Although I had mixed emotions about returning to Dodge City, I looked forward to spending time with friends and reconnecting. As it turned out, music would play a pivotal role in my reaction to the weekend’s events.
Our reunion, billed as “40 Years of Peace and Love,” promised to be a spectacular party with the main events held at the Dodge House. The reunion committee, Jon Jambor, Jeanne Beilke, Micki Holladay, Rachael Livingston, and Cindy Day, worked tirelessly for over a year to create our three-day event. Along with all of the seventies-style memorabilia as table decorations, the seventies were also artistically represented by classmate Tara Hufford Walker’s 48″ x 48″ acrylic on Masonite reproductions of album covers adorning the walls.
Each piece, part of a silent auction during the evening’s festivities, would find a new home before the night’s end. On Friday night, we had a meet-and-greet, and on Saturday, the day started off with a golf outing, followed by a wine-tasting event. Saturday night began with dinner and conversation before Birth, our band from junior high and high school days, hit the stage. What better way for the class of 1973, a product of the seventies and its strong musical influence, to celebrate.
As Birth took the stage and began playing the unmistakable chord progression from “Smoke on the Water,” it seemed as if we had travelled back in time to those angst-filled teenage years. By the end of the first verse, I could hear the crowd singing along: “Smoke on the water…fire in the sky.” People started dancing, but I stayed in my seat near the stage and listened. I had this overwhelming sense of nostalgia and sadness, but I couldn’t figure out why.
To quote Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “there’s no place like home.” But what was home for me? Was it the house I grew up in, the neighborhood now run-down and a place that would break my father’s heart if he were alive to see it? Or was my house in Michigan where I now lived, with its display of photographs and memorabilia of growing up in Dodge City, my real home? What exemplifies the concept of home? What role does the town itself play in one’s sense of belonging? Why was a song like “Smoke on the Water,” creating such angst in my rock-n-roll state of mind? My geographical markers seemed as if they had been hit with a flare gun. I felt as if I were returning to family, albeit a symbolic family, but nevertheless, a small part of a larger group of people I hadn’t seen in forty years.
As I began to make this connection, Birth walked off the stage after their first set, and classmate Linda Schnitzler Hungerford stepped up to the microphone. She read a poem dedicated to our deceased classmates. As she said their names, family members of friends stepped up to the microphone and said a few words to honor his or her loved one. Although the memorial, somber and funereal, created an awareness of our own immortality that perhaps had not been felt until that moment, it would be another classmate who would help us move from our sense of loss back towards our celebration.
Judy Neves David had heard Linda discussing the memorial on Friday. Judy, now a resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, suggested a “New Orleans tradition,” using a bit of “poetic license” as a way to segue back into Birth’s music as they began their second set. After Judy’s brief introduction, the song “Second Line” erupted from the sound system. Judy, taking the lead with a purple umbrella that would become our talisman for the rest of the evening, led a group of us through the crowd, dancing and tossing Mardi-Gras style beads to classmates seated at their tables. Other classmates jumped up and joined in. By the time the music ended, our “Second Line” had shifted our sadness into joy as we remembered the friends we had lost. And with that, Birth climbed back upon the stage and broke into an old familiar tune: The James Gang’s “Funk 49.” We moved from funk to funky in a short amount of time.
The night went by far too quickly. As the band started its final set, Birth’s guitarist and vocalist, Lewis Mock, strummed his acoustic guitar as he led us into Don McLean’s “American Pie.” According to McLean’s biographer, Alan Howard, “’American Pie’ is partly biographical and partly the story of America during the idealized 1950s and the bleaker 1960s.” Additionally, Howard says that “by 1971, America was deeply troubled. The Vietnam War was out of control.” In 1955, when I and most of my classmates were born into this idealized version of America, we could not have foreseen the changes in America that would take place before our 18th birthday and our graduation from high school. We had to rely on our parents, the nightly news, and, most importantly, our local radio stations to give us a perspective of the world we could only imagine. And it was through these radio stations and local bands that we began to make sense of our lives as we either stayed in Dodge City or left town in search of something else.
And here we were, a group of us on the dance floor singing and dancing to the music of Birth and Don McLean as if 40 years had not gone by. Although it seemed as if no one could remember all of the words to “American Pie,” we filled in the blanks for each other. The song turned into a giant sing along with some dancing thrown in. Many people spread their arms wide at the refrain “this will be the day that I die” as if it just might happen. It was as if this symbolic family had come to pay its respects to the past, the present, and the future. Not only had classmates joined in during other songs as the band played, but we engaged in what Daniel J. Levitin refers to in his book The World in Six Songs as “individuals who could bond into groups for the purpose of collective action” (183). Levitin further suggests that “something special happens when a group starts to sing together—something extraordinary” (182). Birth may have been the vehicle for our “collective action,” but friendship and our love of music seemed to take on a life of its own.
Later, I told a friend that our reunion, billed as “40 years of peace and love,” was so much fun that it should have been illegal. I’m not sure what I really meant by that statement, but I know that when my roommates for the weekend, Gretchen Leonard Steffen and Susan T., and I drove by my old house on our way out of Dodge City, I remembered one warm and windy Kansas day when I was inside that house and used music as way to argue with my mother without actually speaking to each other.
Our war of the stereos consisted of Tom Jones “What’s New Pussycat?” on her stereo in the living room, and in my room, a mere thirty feet away, I dropped the needle down on Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days.” As Jones’s and Robert Plant’s voices clashed in midair somewhere in the kitchen, I smiled when my dog, Charlie Brown, barked as if in recognition of the collision of sounds. I turned off my stereo and went outside with Charlie, and as I glanced up at the kitchen window, my mother waved at me. We both knew it would not be long before I would head out of that door one last time and into my future. Indeed, several years later, my mother would watch me pack my most important possessions, some clothing and all of my albums, into a black army trunk as I prepared to move to California. The Kansas wind, relentless as always, blew through my bedroom window that afternoon, creating an almost elegiac symphony for the last day I would ever live in the house I grew up in.
As Gretchen, Susan, and I drove down the dirt road I grew up on and headed out of Dodge City, I realized I was not ready to leave. I felt as if there was something I had left behind or as if I had forgotten to do something essential while I was in Kansas. Perhaps that is why we stopped at my grade school. As I stood in the doorway that led into the gym, I felt as if ghosts were lining the hallways waiting to remind me of the stories that took place in this building where I spent my days from first grade until 8th grade. But I heard nothing, so I stepped back outside where my friends waited patiently for me. I felt the Kansas wind against my skin, and I swear there was music in it if only I would listen.
Birth, comprised of keyboardist Chris Cave, bass player and vocalist Jon Jambor, guitar player and vocalist Lewis Mock, and drummer Bill Warshaw, formed around 1966/1967. According to Lewis, Birth’s name grew out of artwork he had been working on, and “it was more about something being created than the actual birth of a baby. The bloody logo (which [their] mothers hated) symbolized the blood and sweat involved in the creation of something.” Their first posters, based on “artwork and lettering from the Fillmore concert posters,” included the logo along with a ‘drip’ of blood coming down from the bottom of the word ‘Birth.’” Their mothers were charged with the task of taking their posters to the printer and had the drip of blood removed. When Mock confronted his mother, she said, “‘you’ll never understand until you have given birth.” As it turns out, mothers would influence more decisions regarding the band.
In their original formation, Robin Spencer, now deceased, had played guitar with the band. According to Jon, Robin’s mother was responsible for the band getting together, and she even lined up gigs for them. Birth performed at talent shows, birthday parties, and the Elks club, and eventually the band started renting venues. For a birthday party held at the Spencers’ home, the band “borrowed all of the equipment from Friar Tuck and the Monks,” a well-known band in Dodge City.
The dynamics of the band shifted after an event at the VFW. According to Lewis, the “VFW was the end for Robin. Banned from Birth by his mom.” Robin, Jon, and Bill’s older brother Eric, decided to visit Goddard’s Billiards after the band played at the VFW. Jon said that Goddard’s was about to be “razed for ‘urban renewal,’” and it seemed as if “it would be a pretty good idea to empty out its cabinets of the chewing gum and tobacco…since it was unlocked and going to be torn down anyway.” Unfortunately, the police caught on to this, and were waiting outside to greet the young men. According to Bill, Eric’s punishment was to get a job. Eric found a job as a disc jockey at KEDD and eventually moved to KGNO. Eric passed away in 1994.
As Birth forged ahead with its new configuration in the late sixties and early seventies, they played gigs at teen dances held at Fort Dodge, various churches, the Elks Club, Kitty’s Kitchen, the Demon’s Den, the Warehouse, the Bandshell at Wright Park, and the VFW. As Birth’s popularity grew, they continued improving their musical skills although as Jon says, “[they] made three times as much at the concessions stand than they made at the door.” Since they also lacked transportation most of the time, classmate Micki Holladay became their “transportation captain.” The band had a lot of heavy equipment, and Cave remembers when they had to “cut his Hammond CV organ in half, leaving the bass pedals intact” so that it could be loaded into a truck with the use of “a refrigerator dolly.” Whatever it took to get to a gig, the members of Birth did it.
According to Chris, the band members were “the best of friends,” and he says that they were “fans of the Beatles and started a Beatles club.” Jon says that Bill was a “member of the CBS Record Club and got all of the good albums. So many great songs, and [they] wanted to play them all.” Bill remembers “being asked to bring [his] drums over to the Cave’s house to fill in for Rod Mitchell. ‘Midnight Confession’ was the first song” that he learned. Jon says they played “Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally” because “they were the tunes that the big kids (e.g. Skip Cave) played and since they needed songs to fill their sets, they went with what they knew. According to Lewis, “Kick out the jams mutha@#%%^^^&&**(*!!!!!” became one of their songs, and Jon says “it was a song [he] sang with an obscene intro, and quite a bit of fun to yell out at dances [they] held at church facilities.” Not only was the band having fun, but Birth’s fans were also enamored of the guys in the band. Jon shares the following perspective from one of the band’s groupies who chooses to remain anonymous.
She states: “From the perspective of the small town girl…Birth was our local, home grown rock stars. All the other community dances had records to play, but there was nothing like having [the] guys up in front playing live. Just thinking about how everything was changing around us as a generation…all we are saying is give peace a chance…if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with…and then there was Woodstock and Viet Nam, and we all changed except for men like my father. They were the Archie Bunker models that were afraid of the changes. Birth was our glimpse of the world beyond 50 highway. We loved [them] because [they] represented something beyond Boot Hill and wheat fields. I really enjoyed the practice sessions and all the teenage angst. All the girls loved [the members of Birth] and I liked being one of those girls. It made me feel special.”
Anonymous has it right. We loved the music played by our local bands, and Eric Warshaw’s voice on the radio as he played requests from giggly girls calling in from the Kwik Shop. Yes, I was one of those giggly girls. Music fed our souls in a way that parents, teachers, and preachers could not come close to fulfilling. For our 40th high school reunion, it seemed as if we had taken a step back in time, and Birth played songs that mattered to us during our younger years but seemed to matter even more forty years later.
Q and A with the members of Birth:
What is your current job?
Lewis Mock (Colorado Springs, Colorado): I am a full-time musician. I am the bandleader at the Tavern at the Broadmoor. For twenty-two years I was also in private practice as a Doctor of Chiropractic, and for ten years was a professor at the Colorado Springs Conservatory where I taught musicianship to young people of all ages. Throughout all of these years of teaching and practicing Chiropractic, I always was playing music. (Please see the attached Mock Bio.)
Bill Warshaw (Dodge City, Kansas): Right now, I am newly retired. I still haven’t gotten used to it. I sold liquor, beer, and wine for a distributor for the last eleven years.
Chris Cave (Dallas, Texas): I work for myself. (Please see http://www.ccave.tv/ for a full description.)
Jon Jambor (Lawrence, Kansas): President, Kennedy Technology Group. (Contact info: email@example.com.)
Are you in a band now?
Mock: As I said above, I’m the leader of the “World Famous Tavern Orchestra” at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs and have been there for almost 22 years. I have also performed as a sideman to Grammy Award Winner, Suzy Bogguss, and recording and Broadway star, Maureen McGovern, as well as Emmy winner, singer/songwriter, Jim Salestrom, and recording artist Nelson Rangell.
Warshaw: No, just Birth.
Cave: Yes. http://www.jumpbilly.com/
What musical moment at the reunion meant the most to you?
Mock: My favorite memory of the reunion was playing again with Birth.
Warshaw: I think it was watching people get up and dance with big smiles on their faces. Also, “American Pie,” even though we had never played it before.
Cave: When it was over. Pressure!
Jambor: Bill’s drum solo on “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
Will you be playing at our next reunion?
Mock: I don’t know for sure about the next reunion.
Warshaw: Sure thing. Looks like we will be playing next summer at the class of 1974’s reunion. The whole thing was such a blast, and it is just easy for me to play the drums when surrounded by such great musicians.
Cave: I don’t think anyone has committed yet.
Jambor: “You better believe it, baby!”
In the song, “Don’t Want Lies” by The Rides (Stephen Stills, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Barry Goldberg),” Stills’ sings, “What’s the shape of my future / as my life goes whistling by?” The song, reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash from an earlier era, has a bluesy feel as it poses thought-provoking questions about someone examining his or her life. Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time with family and friends in the past few years, travelling places or simply sitting around a campfire on the beach, I have felt the slippage of time, especially after I learned I had a brain tumor. I embrace solitude, but to appreciate the silence, I need my family and friends to create an infusion of laughter, love, and mercy into my life. I have discovered that road trips are the key to my future.
Warm summer days and cool nights transform winter-weary wanderers into road-warrior travelers. My husband and I drove from Michigan to Florida in February to escape brittle winter winds and the stratified layers of snow and ice surrounding our home. Earlier this summer, my husband, son, and I hit the road again and spent a few days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When my son asked if I wanted to take a road trip to Colorado so that he could attend the wedding of a friend in mid-July, I jumped at the opportunity to spend time with him, visit friends in Colorado, and put a few more notches on my “have-driven-through-these-states” belt. At six a.m. on July 18th, we quietly slipped out of Matt’s neighborhood as we began our road trip.
Matt drove the bulk of the way, and I took a few turns behind the wheel. After a fairly easy day of driving despite the extreme heat and the steady hum and grind of the semis on the roads through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, we sought a break from our travel and spent the night in a motel in Kearney, Nebraska. The next morning, we ate our complimentary breakfast and prepared to check out. I pointed out an ironing board in the closet, and Matt said: “Do you even know how to iron?” As someone who eked out a “C” in Home Economics in ninth grade, and no memories of my mother forcing me to iron anything other than a wrinkled hem, I had refused to iron as a grown up woman, and I laughed as we headed out of the motel. Colorado awaited us.
With Matt at the wheel, he drove past the endless fields of corn, cattle, and hay along I-80 as we headed west. One of Matt’s favorite radio stations is Lithium on Sirius. At one point, I turned to him and said: “Is this the Alice in Chains station?” I quickly followed up my question by stating: “It’s not a criticism, a witticism, or dipshit-ism.” Matt looked at me briefly before turning his attention back to the road. Instead of commenting on his music selections, I started mooing when we went past fields straddled with cattle. If we passed a field dotted with crescent-roll shaped bales of hay, I simply said: “Hay.” I am fairly certain I annoyed the hell out of Matt, but his tempered response of a quick eye roll and subsequent search for a different radio station seemed to be all he needed to put up with me.
We eventually cut south towards Windsor, Colorado. When Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” came on one of the stations, I said I would rather hurt myself than hear that song one more time. In my “mom-entary” moment of madness, and perhaps hearing that song one too many times over the years, I actually wanted to hear another Alice in Chains song or something by Nirvana. Perhaps I, the intrepid road warrior, had turned into the song police. Thankfully, Matt would be free of my endless babbling after he dropped me off at Susan and Dick’s house. As I watched Matt head off to Boulder, I wondered if he would remember to pick me up on his trip back to Michigan. As he waved goodbye, Susan and I began to talk. And talk. And talk.
I met Susan the summer before ninth grade, and we became friends. Although time and geography have kept us apart, we have managed to stay in touch. We had seen each other during a Pretzel Tour trip (my yearly adventures with Micki, Rachael, and Jeanne) four years earlier, and I met Susan and Micki for lunch in Denver two years ago when I was in town for a wedding. For this visit, I had invited myself to stay at Susan’s house, and she kindly agreed. Of course, this was before she rediscovered my endless enthusiasm for telling stories, particularly ones from our years as smoking-hot-high-school chicks. Well, that’s how I remember it, and I am the one telling this story.
The next day, we went to Micki’s house in Greeley, ate lunch with her husband, and then with Micki behind the wheel, me riding shotgun, and Susan in the backseat, we headed to Estes Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. As Micki steered us up highway 34 through the Big Thompson Canyon, I marveled at the beautiful scenery. There is something singularly breathtaking about the beauty of the mountains where sheer rock walls and hardy pine trees merge with cool rushing streams of water as gravity shape-shifts the land. Micki turned onto Glen Haven road, and we worked our way to Estes Park; an elevation of 7,522 feet. My home at Higgins Lake, Michigan, has an elevation of 1,150 feet, so as my brain and body adjusted to the continuous upwards motion, I realized that I was certainly in “Freebird’s” terrain.
While in Estes Park, we visited the Stanley Hotel, an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, complete with a Jack Nicholson doppelgänger holding an axe while seated on the front porch. Although typically a photo-op poser, I refrained from forcing my friends to snap a picture. After a quick tour of the hotel, we decided it was time to head back down the mountain. We made a quick stop roadside and stared off into the distance towards Long’s Peak, standing tall at 14,259 feet. Perhaps on my next trip to Colorado, I can figure out a way to “get much higher” as Joe Walsh famously sang in “Rocky Mountain Way.”
Micki headed down the mountain via highway 7 south of Estes Park where serious cyclists going up and down the mountain seemed as if they were enjoying the rise and fall of elevation. We eventually joined up with highway 66 in Lyons where we drove past a hippie van parked in front of a bar/restaurant. I wondered if I had slipped back in time somehow. As if to add to my musical reverie of the past, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” came on the radio. The three of us began to sing along, although I seemed to draw a blank on many of the lyrics, something I now blame on oxygen deprivation caused by the ever-changing altitude. Growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, with an elevation of 2,550 feet, I had probably listened to Denver’s classic song at least a thousand times, but I had never heard the song while sliding a few thousand feet down a mountain road made up of hairpin turns and the tops of trees indicating where the road ended and a Thelma and Louise moment might begin.
We returned to civilization, and we spent the evening at Susan’s house reminiscing. Micki and Susan’s husbands wandered off as we took yet another trip down memory lane and examined our high school yearbooks. When I started reading aloud what I had written in Susan’s yearbook when we were mere sophomores, the three of us laughed so hard I thought we might spontaneously combust. I had filled up a page and a half with my deep-introspective-full-of-myself musings. I had been full of dipshit-isms even then. I hesitated as to whether or not I should read Susan’s yearbook from her junior year. I noticed a half page of writing and a very long poem taking up a full page in her yearbook. Smartly, during our senior year, Susan did not allow anyone to sign her yearbook, most likely because she was afraid I would find it and write yet another lengthy soliloquy about life, love, and angst as a teenager in Dodge City, Kansas. Since our 40th high school reunion loomed ahead of us in a few weeks, I decided it was best if I stayed far away from yearbooks or reams of paper in case I felt compelled to pontificate, or worse, share some “mom-entary-isms” or “dipshit-isms” with anyone still speaking to me. With that thought in mind, I headed to bed early. Matt planned to pick me up at six a.m.
As I knew he would, Matt arrived a bit early, and I was ready. We drove through Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and into Michigan without much of a problem. We had been constantly checking our various weather apps as we watched an ominous-looking line of thunderstorms crossing Lake Michigan aiming, as if guided by Google Maps, exactly towards us. By the time we rolled into Matt’s driveway around three in the morning, my body seemed to misunderstand what it felt like to be stationary. After a few hours of sleep, I headed home. I don’t really remember driving, but the car seemed to know the way.
There’s something to be said for spending time with family and friends, but for me, I think it boils down to feeling damn lucky. I feel blessed that I have a son who actually wants to spend time with me, especially side-by-side in a car driving through six states. I am also grateful for great friends who still put up with me even though they have known me since ninth grade and have heard some of my stories at least forty times. I am starting to think this brain tumor thing I have isn’t so bad, since I am finally catching on to what really matters in life. Our homes, wherever we end up living, exist in the physical world, but memories allow us the ability to time travel between the multiple relationships and elevations that shape us into who we are.