“Fly away through the midnight air / as we head across the sea / and at last we will be free. You’re a bluebird.” –Paul and Linda McCartney
Oh, to be that bluebird. Or an eagle flying overhead, alone in its solitude of majestic beauty. Or a tiny hummingbird, wings propelling it forward towards nectar from a pot of flowering calibrachoa. Via migration, birds return to their homes, year after year, sometimes wintering thousands of miles away. The older I get and especially now that my parents are deceased, the more I have the desire to return to the place I grew up in order to breathe in the air, soak in the glorious Kansas sunshine, and wade deeply into the river of memories. Right now, my body is going through some intense physical healing after surgery on my right leg, and this has made me appreciate even more those moments in my life when my family and friends have joined me in another one of my migrations towards the house I grew up in.
About a year and a half ago, I took an awkward step off of a friend’s porch. Since then, I’ve put my body through every kind of treatment available to try and fix my injury. I repeatedly told physical therapists and doctors that something still wasn’t right even after all of the treatments. I was not healing. I would walk or run one day and be completely unable to walk the next day. I certainly did not help myself by attempting to run or power walk road races when my leg felt strong. Once I cycled into the insurance-driven loop of procedures (x-rays, physical therapy, steroid shots, waiting for appointments, etc.), it would take over a year before I finally received approval for an MRI.
Even then, the initial doctor who read my MRI said that he didn’t see a problem; plus the hospital where I had the MRI done could not figure out how to send the results to my doctor in Traverse City and into the Munson system. I ended up taking a copy of the CD I had received on the day of my MRI with my results to Traverse City. Luckily for me, my new orthopedic surgeon, Dr. O’Hagen, disagreed with the initial findings, and he agreed that something needed to be done. As someone who had been getting up every morning for the past thirty years to run before I did anything else for the day, and then falling into this routine of barely being able to go outside and take photographs of my beloved eagles, loons, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, sunrises, well, anything to do with Higgins Lake, I was going stir crazy. My daily pain level hovered between an eight and nine (out of ten). I was one pissed-off chick.
On April 7th, I had arthroscopic surgery in Traverse City, and the “no problem” that one doctor found was fixed by Dr. O’Hagen. He repaired my acetabular labral tear, cleaned up all of the surfaces of my hip joint, stretched the socket out to make sure it went back in right, and he used two anchors and sutures to repair the tear. He cut my illiotibial band in three places, removed all of the painful bursitis, and stitched me back up. The bruise on my right leg and hip is the size of Texas, but it is a most lovely shade of purple.
I have a long road to recovery, and my goal now is to walk and hike without pain. Running, something I love like dark chocolate, is in the distant future. I do believe that my age played a part in some of the comments I received in my treatment last year at a different facility. “You are older, so you are going to have pain” is the clear favorite, told to me by a male PT and runner. This is despite the fact that my x-rays, and eventually my MRI, showed great bones and very little arthritis. No, the reason I had pain was because I had an acetabular labral tear. When I told my new PT (Josh) in Traverse City what I had been told last year, he laughed and said that “It would make [his] job easy if [he] could say things like that.” Physically, I will continue to heal and will end up doing the things I want to do again. If the body can heal itself over time with proper care, how do we heal emotionally when our mind and bodies ache from missing someone? I think of my daughter and my parents every day, and I miss them beyond words.
It was for this reason, in part, that I flew to Denver, Colorado, to spend time with my cousins, their families, and some friends for a few days in late January. While in the Denver area, my cousin Julie took us to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where we saw eagles, bison, deer, and hawks among many species roaming the area. Do not miss going to this beautiful wildlife area. My cousins also took me to the Coors plant in Golden, Colorado, and, on another day, I took a trip up into Poudre Canyon with my friend Susan, and we saw bighorn sheep, birds, and slackliners. We stopped to watch one particular slackliner as he found his inner strength, walking across a tightrope high above the ground. I can’t imagine what kind of endorphin rush he was hypnotized by, but I think I understood his desire to be a part of the air we breathe.
Before leaving Denver on a Sunday, Audrey and I viewed the expanse of the Rocky Mountains from the roof of her daughter Lauren’s apartment building. Once we hit the road, we began the slow descent out of the mountains towards Kansas. With about 70 miles to go before we hit the Kansas state line, we stopped at the Queens State Wildlife Area near Eads, Colorado. On a cool and windy day, we parked at the end of a road and stared in amazement at the reservoir exploding with snow geese. There were so many birds that I could not capture them all in a single frame. The water seemed like an endless beach of white sand, only this sand was on the move and making noise. Audrey and I were spellbound. It was difficult to leave such a beautiful area.
We continued our drive, telling family stories to each other, marveling at all of the hawks we were seeing, and the murmurations of starlings popping up into the brilliant blue sky. It was as if birds were guiding us to our destination wherever we went. After a long day, we arrived in Dodge City and checked into our hotel. After dinner and a few adult beverages, available in the casino next to our hotel, we went to our separate rooms for the night.
While in Dodge City, we visited old friends, and made new ones as we learned more about the town we grew up in. I hadn’t seen Dena, a friend I grew up with, in over 40 years. Sam, the reference librarian at the Dodge City Library, was extremely helpful with information as it pertained to Wilroads Gardens, a community east of Dodge City along the Arkansas River, where I grew up. Audrey and I had lunch with friends of my parents one day, and it felt so good to talk about my parents and hear stories of the past. We drove past houses and places that had meant something to us when we were younger. We went to Wilroads Gardens and drove to the house I grew up in. Liz, a friend who had grown up two doors east of me, had forewarned the new owner. We met Don, and he was kind and gracious. He allowed us to cut through his field so I could go stand down by the dam near what used to be the Arkansas River, a place that was extremely important to me growing up. As I worked my way past tangled vines and tumbleweeds towards the now abandoned dam, I heard a meadowlark somewhere near me, welcoming me home.
That night, I slept well in my hotel room, but in the morning, I was awakened by someone whispering: “Melissa.” I sat up in my bed, expecting that Audrey had somehow found her way into my room. Although my room was empty, I could not shake the feeling that someone had been there. Despite an initial feeling of eeriness, I felt calm and peaceful. Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds, says that birds have the “ability to do something we can’t do: modulate their deep sleep by opening one eye” (51). If only I had been able to do this, I might have seen who was responsible for the voice bringing me comfort and healing. It was as if the spirits of my parents and grandparents were telling me that I would always find peace in the town I grew up in, and I could return to Michigan, now soothed with some emotional healing, through the sharing of memories, landscape, and stories.
Back in in Michigan, I watch eagles, hawks, pileated woodpeckers, loons, and chickadees on almost a daily basis. Since I am hobbling around on crutches for a while, I am limited as far as taking pictures. I am frustrated, but I can also sit back and imagine the life of these birds. Where have they been? What can I learn from them? They can travel places I cannot. If only I could fly and soar at a moment’s notice to the place where I grew up, breathe in the air, and find the younger version of me. I would explain to her that she would one day return again and again to this spot to understand how it held her steady for all of those years, but also gave her wings to fly.
*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.
*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.
If a runner falls in the road and no one is around to hear her, does she make a sound? Does swearing count as sound? Ear porn for anyone listening? Recently, as I cruised along at my slow ten-minute-per-mile pace, I tripped on road debris and fell hard. I have a photograph of my right knee to prove it. My left hamstring and adjoining gluteus maximus are now speaking in tongues every time I sit down, stand up, squat, or stretch. I am tired of straddling the white throne as if it is a temperamental old horse just so I can do my business. Despite the ugly knee, the pain in the butt (and elsewhere), all I can think about is running, which is obviously something I should not do until I heal. I am a very impatient person.
I was out for a short 3.5 miler, and I needed to work off my massively sore car butt. After five days on the road that included stops in Peoria, Illinois, to visit my uncle in the hospital, stopping in Olathe, Kansas, to visit friends, and continuing on to Eureka, Kansas, to visit another uncle before turning the old car around and heading for home, I needed to stretch my legs and clear my head. The only real exercise I had within that time frame was a walk in Kansas with my friend Gretchen where the wind blew so hard that I wondered if we might actually be blown into Missouri.
Back home, I headed out on one of my usual routes around Higgins Lake. Sunny skies, 20 degree temps, and my “Summer Run” playlist on my iPod® provided me a sense of calm and relief. I glanced to my right towards a hill I had run up during the summer, but decided I needed to get my hill-legs back before tackling it again. As my head swiveled back towards the road, my left pink running shoe found a groove in the rough pavement and stuck. My upper body propelled itself forwards. My left hamstring pulled itself into an unnatural braking system that failed miserably. My upper body kept going. My arms became turbine-like, speeding up as if an out-of-control windmill. I was “Freefalling” as Tom Petty famously sings, but my landing would not be similar to the one depicted by the skateboarder in the music video. I reached out with my gloved hands and fell onto my right knee before the rest of my body slammed into the road.
November at Higgins Lake is a quiet and peaceful time. Spring, summer, and fall vacationers are nowhere to be found. Locals are at work or inside their homes keeping snug by the fire. Ducks outnumber people. Deer, always facing you with that startled look, turn and run back into the woods upon your approach, but turkeys give you the evil eye before forcing you to turn and run into the woods. On this day, the only witness to my folly was a pileated woodpecker who continued to amuse himself about thirty feet up in a dead birch tree. I yanked out my ear buds, and I listened to him laugh at me.
I sat on the pavement for a few minutes wondering if I could even get up. I was mad. There were no cars on the road in either direction. I finally figured out that if I rolled towards my left side, I could perhaps pull myself up. This painful move involved a lot more swearing. I noticed that my favorite running pants were torn where my knee had hit the asphalt. My gloves had tiny bits of gravel buried in them. I reached for my cell phone in my Armpocket® and thought about calling my husband to rescue me. I realized I was only a mile from home. Damn it! I would walk if it killed me. I tapped the icon for MapMyRun® and switched the app from running to walking. I did not want to miss out on the rest of my workout.
I started hobbling along the road, and about an eighth of a mile from where I had tripped the light fantastic, or something like that, a man walked out of his driveway and headed down the road away from me. I eventually caught up with him. He looked surprised as I passed him. “You came up fast,” he said. Was he being ironic? Sarcastic? An asshole? Or was he just some old guy who had not seen my tumbling routine in the middle of the road. I wondered if it was too early for a beer.
After an excruciating mile of limping home, I opened the door and walked into my house. I must have looked worse than I felt. As my husband looked at me, the concern on his face obvious, I said, “I’m hurt,” as I pointed at my ass. I then pulled up my torn pant leg to discover I was bleeding. I had wondered why my knee felt so warm. As I pulled the torn material off of my injured knee, I felt the material rip the skin off of my leg. I almost passed out, as I began swearing in an even louder voice than I had used on the road. After counting the imaginary stars in the ceiling, I grabbed my cell phone, turned off my mileage app, poked the camera app, and snapped a selfie of my knee. It was time to update my Facebook status.
I walked around for a while and tried to avoid the inevitable: I knew I was going to have to clean my bloody knee. I stripped down and entered the shower. Later, Jim said he could hear me in the other room as I swore and moaned when the water hit the wound. I managed to clean out the gunk, apply an antibiotic ointment, and wrap it all in some pretty gauze. Something oozed through the gauze in a pale-ale color. Even though it was twenty degrees outside, I put on a pair of shorts. I could not find a chair to sit in that my ass didn’t hurt and my hamstring didn’t screech like some sad violinist on Quaaludes. Freefalling…not.
Two days later, I told the nurse I was a bit sore as I climbed up onto the bed that would soon be slid into the open MRI for my two-year checkup. It was hard to believe that it had been two years since my Grand Mal Seizure during a road race and a freefall I have no memory of. I do remember surreal voices whispering “brain tumor” as friends and family circled my hospital bed. Weeks later, I had Gamma Knife surgery and imagined the radiation killing off the ugly thing that affects language, memory, and emotion. Months passed. My dog died. My father died. Other people I knew and cared about died, and I began to feel caught inside a spiral of death and despair, and yet my family and friends were there to catch me, forcing me to stand up, to get over myself. Deal with it. I began freefalling into a world of unconditional love and support. Faith. Mercy.
One week after my two-year MRI, I watched a bald eagle soar high above me before it started its graceful and pure freefall towards the lake as it swooped down to catch a fish. I ran inside to grab my camera. The eagle was too fast for me, and I missed the shot of it flying almost straight towards me before veering off and landing softly on a branch of a barren maple tree some two-hundred feet away. The eagle began the work of eating the fish. I watched through a kaleidoscope of trees, seemingly hundreds of arms and legs protecting the eagle from voyeurs or predators. After the freefall comes sustenance. Patience brings its greatest rewards.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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!”