A House In the Country

Where might this mess-about best begin?  There are threads I want to weave into a fabric.  Maybe with Twain’s “Aunt Rachel,” which deepened his own insight:


There is a recent story of my own, which can’t approach in its gravity Aunt Rachel’s, but resembles it.

Not long ago I was secretary to the Friends’ board at our local library, and also their used bookstore manager.  I had surgery that ended my career as manager.  Acute deafness made it too difficult to continue as secretary.  Now I only preside when needed over the bookstore – which I like best anyhow!

When I was manager I did what I’ve done my whole adult life:  I relied on my instinct for knowing whom to trust.  In this case it was used book resellers – ones I came to know.  I would say to one, “Here’s the key to the storeroom.  Go on in.  You know books.  If you find one that’s worth more than most, you have to charge yourself extra for it.  Take all the books you select and put them in your van.  Then just bring me the money.”

This was a scary idea to others who felt some responsibility for the operation.  I’m sure they thought I was careless about the money because it wasn’t my own; but I had honed this talent as both a corporate manager and as a pet supply store owner – when it was my money!  The library people tolerated my aberrant behavior simply because it’s hard to find a sap who has both the book knowledge and the willingness to commit the time to, believe me, a “thankless task.”

But on the very day I stopped being the manager, the key to the storeroom disappeared from the bookstore!  It is now so tightly controlled that I can’t get it myself.  It’s deplorable, but I understand.  People who are unable to do what I did are also unable to imagine how it could be done effectively by another.  But we make less money.  I am  philosophical about it.  You can only do this if you have a sense of people.  I have a long track record, and I no longer have reason to doubt it.

I repeated this story once to another volunteer.  She told me she thought it had been a silly thing to do, and that I was naïve.  I decided to let it go.  I imagine Aunt Rachel:  “OK, Buster.  If you say so.”  And I continued to ruminate.


 In “Turtles,” I said that “my mind runs in the track laid by Voltaire, Swift, Twain, Mencken, and George Carlin, my patron saints:  satirical and sarcastic.  As with each of them, at bottom I am howling against my wounds.”  I believe that the satirical among us are formed by the pain of those wounds.  In our hearts we are deeply disappointed idealists (paraphrasing Carlin) – every single one of us – like Goethe’s Faust.

In my earth-bound ethics I believe that if we are to be “saved,” it will be through increasing our sensitivity to the empathy and compassion that come naturally to us when we are calm enough to attend to Lincoln’s “better angels of our natures.”  He had The Knowledge.

This empathy thing – marching a mile in another’s moccasins – is only imperfectly achievable, for me at least.  This truth was socked home to me indelibly when my mother was being evicted from her house in unincorporated Wheaton, Illinois, which must have happened about 1970.  I was employed then in Oak Brook as a first-line computer programming manager, and would have appeared to anyone unaware of my past as somewhat normal, although I had clearly decided to subscribe only to the few rules I thought worth attention; and I was also getting to be known as a bright bulb.

My past was not hidden, at all.  I had already become proud of my escape, and had begun to tell stories about my history, and to try to make them funny; to mock everyone in them, including myself.  Kotter before Kotter.  (“Tell us a story, Uncle Mac.”)   It never occurred to me that my stories might seem fantastic, until the day Barb Melton confessed sheepishly to me that for two years, she had believed me to be a compulsive liar.  (She had just met someone who knew my family!)  I laughed, and understood, although I was surprised.

It was lucky I had become forthright, because that year me mommy landed in the Chicago papers as that era’s Cat Lady.  The stories about her were filled with blatant lies for the sake of sensationalism:  the “late model station wagon” was an ancient Rambler with rust holes in it big enough to put your fist through.  So when a reporter said there were 140 cats, the “fact” had to be taken with a fist-sized lump of salt.  There were, though, undeniably, a great many of them.

Here, my imagination is probably also not up to picturing the intense shame I would have felt if I had assumed myself responsible for my parents’ mess, as children so often sadly do, and had tried to pretend in my new life that my mother did not exist.  (And it was a new life:  no shamming to it.  I had become, in my behavior, a different person.)

She had acquired the house several years earlier by persuading my younger brother Paul to co-sign for it with her.  He had stuck it for a while, and then took off again to pursue his calling as an alcoholic itinerant sign and mural painter in Colorado.  She surrounded the house with bags of leaves for insulation.  They slowly deteriorate and burst, the leaves finally rotting.

She tore the bathroom’s walls down, intending to move it.  But follow-through, for her, never happened.  The walls were not rebuilt, but it didn’t matter because piled junk obscured the view from the windows.  We had never owned a lawnmower, and anyhow the yard was strewn with rusting artifacts from neighbors’ curbsides.  This was all reminiscent of the house we had briefly owned when I was in junior high school.  (Either we burned that one down accidentally, or our neighbors  did it to help us decide to move on.)

Do you begin to understand why Barb Melton thought I told lies?

We had many terrible arguments, me trying to get her on the straight-and-narrow, while she was both unwilling and mentally unable to comply.  She drove me nuts too, until Lenore and I finally resigned ourselves to the fact that she was beyond any hope for voluntary reform.

Even in the chaos of her eviction, there was a funny story:  The long arm of the law only reached some of the cats.  Some were burrowed into the trash that filled her house; some were in the attic; some escaped out the doors.  These were largely the younger, more agile ones.  But her favorites were older, and had got caught.  So after the dust had settled, she went to the pound and offered a two-for-one exchange, which they accepted!  (As with many of my stories, imagining the actuality behind the humor reveals a terrible sadness.)

She was not stupid, nor was she lacking in fortitude or guile.  There’s a joke about a guy who had a flat tire outside of a funny farm.  He put all the nuts from the flat tire in the hubcap; accidentally kicked it; and knocked all the nuts down a sewer drain.  He was looking perplexed when a man inside the fence said, “why don’t you take one nut from each of the other wheels, and use them ‘til you can get to a gas station?”  The driver said, “Wow, what a great idea!  What are you doing in there?”  Says the cuckoo:  “I’m crazy, I’m not stupid!

And that was me mommy.  She was a formidable opponent on the frequent occasions when she was dragged before a magistrate.  She became the sweet little old lady being victimized by the mean ol’ sheriff.  Imagine the poor, spluttering sheriff.  “She… You…  God damn it!  Why me?”

Well, I thought I was telling about the ultimate failure of my imagination, so I’ll see if I can work my way back to it.

Lenore and I were regrettably naïve.  (My uncle later told me I was a fool; that if I’d only talked to him, he could have told me how he’d been through it all long before, and found the old woman totally incorrigible.  What we did was spend $10,000 we did not have for a house trailer on a farm in the country, far, far from the nearest neighbor.  (The money was the queen’s ransom.  We had already spent the prince’s ransom at a spay-and-neuter clinic, but my mother would procrastinate…  It was the immortal Dan Quail who testified, from first-hand experience, and even screwing up the expression he was grasping at, that a mind is a terrible thing to lose.  Indeed.)

Later, when the king’s ransom itself seemed required, we balked.  We put our foot down.  (As usual, it landed in some more icky brown stuff, which I used to call shit before I achieved my present level of refinement.)  But that’s another story.  (Why would that stop you, you ask?  I dunno.  Temporary exhaustion, maybe.)

My oldest brother Bill modeled for us the practice of calling her “the mother”; and I call her “me mommy.”  I think we shared the problem of not wanting to acknowledge our affection.  It was a love-hate relationship in spades.  Anyhow, she (the mother) asked, after long argument, only that I rescue four of her most cherished pieces of furniture from her Wheaton house.  The first was a cherry wood dresser just inside the front door.  I asked my three friends from the church, who had known me most of my life, to help me.  I rented a U-Haul trailer, and we went to the house.

Now, I had every reason to know what we would find.  I had looked many times through the begrimed windows and seen the critters leaping.  Besides, when I was a kid, we had always lived amidst filth; and we had always had too many cats about.  But when I went through the front door I was met with a moist wall of stench totally beyond what I had imagined.  I feel it and smell it again forty years later, writing about it.

(Some people’s mothers may favor the Lilies of the Valley scent, or perhaps just lavender.  My mum’s scent, to which she was herself forever desensitized, was Cat Droppings.)

I went to the cherry wood dresser and tugged at it at different corners.  I removed a drawer to get a better grip on it.  It was firmly stuck in a kind of papier-mâché formed by the cats’ peeing on the trash, saturating it, and leaving it to dry.  It was not a case of visual surrealism alone, but of several senses’ assault at once by the unimaginable – just a devastating experience for me.  I was defeated.  I went back out the door.

[Time out.  Gizmo, my ancient raggedy lion, has croaked impetuously at me, and must be fondled affectionately.  A mitzvah for me, his aging soul mate, just now amid the inevitable, ever-returning regret as I recount this story.]

As one does when one must, I made another plan.  It was Saturday.  Garage sales were under way.  We rode around, and bought whatever seemed useful.  We drove it all downstate and put it in the trailer.  My mother was very angry.  She hadn’t asked for much, yet I had let her down.

She began renting a truck and returning to the condemned house to retrieve stuff, and staying overnight at our house.  “Get the most important stuff first,” I said, and she replied that everything was equally important — a key indication of how badly scrambled her mind was.  I began to realize that there would be no natural end point to this activity, and it gnawed at me,  making me constantly angry.  I  was never able to reason with myself that I shouldn’t be angry because she was nuts.  I knew that, but it didn’t make any difference — which surprised me!  I believed I could have at least some control over my emotions, but  I was wrong. This defect still plagues me today.

I stood outside her door in the middle of one night having very dark thoughts, and eventually went to work because I knew I wouldn’t sleep.  I didn’t know that Lenore was aware of that episode,  but she had a heart-to-heart with my mother the next day and persuaded her not to return.  I was greatly relieved that the trauma was over — yet it was not over.

She kept returning, but sleeping in the truck, which led to a severe case of frostbite, and the amputation of most of her toes.  She was given prosthetic shoes and told she’d never be able to walk again without a walker.  She threw out the shoes and abandoned the walker. Among all the other things she was, she was tough.  And willful.

For good or ill, I am like that, and so is our daughter Lisa, who in addition grew up with a brother four years older; so she is herself no timorous mouse.  When she was five, we were arguing.  I said “Nyah, yer mudder wears Army boots.”  Her reply:  “O yeah, well, my mother doesn’t really wear Army boots, but your mother doesn’t really have any toes.”  Hrmph. “And my mother really does wear Army boots,” I added helpfully.


It would widely miss the mark to think that my years of feeling abandoned in the orphanage, my parents’ terrible plight and early exit, and knowing that we were commonly regarded as scum – that these things did not cause me shame and agony; or that I do not feel the pain still, periodically.  (I have described the negative message as my little voice:  “You’re no good.”  Sometimes the volume is negligible; and sometimes very high.  I have other voices, developed later, which I call upon now to deploy against it.)

Some stuff can be cast off; but some you just have to find a place for.  It becomes a defective chink in your foundation.  Your bottom-most drawer is empty.  Most people have these self-doubts.  Some are deadly.  Our best skill at compensating is called upon.  (Son Jim at 9:  “Trust me, Lisa, self-doubt is deadly.”  Lisa:  “I know.”)

Here’s a snippet I will call “Meeting Shirley In the Lane”:  Often when I was telling my stories I made jokes about everyone, including my mother and myself; and said my mother was nuts.  Once a woman named Shirley straightened me out:  “You shouldn’t talk like that about your mother!”  I guess she was into that game called “Let’s Pretend All Mothers Are Saints.”  (Irish Catholic, ya think?  Madonna complex?)  What might I do?  Tell her my life’s story?  She would dismiss it.   Instead I said, “Let me explain something to you, Shirley.  Shut up.”

We were never friends.

I have learned about the lives of others from the books I’ve absorbed.  Without this vicarious experience, though, I suspect one’s values must be shallow (current example materialism, which we’ve apparently been obsessed with at least since Tocqueville); and one’s life must be trivial.

Even with great empathy there are other places I cannot go:  My friend’s 8-year-old son died years ago.  The only way I could have fully participated in his grief was if I had lost a child.  Even then, it would have had to be recently.  Our minds have a way of isolating the unbearable, forming a shell around it, and shoving it away as time passes.  It’s an instinct that allows us to survive, I think.  (The pain never goes away.  With luck, it becomes bearable.)

When all of this gets under your belt, regardless of how it gets under there, you can’t avoid catching the philosophical perspective I mentioned.  You will have a longer view, and stuff that seems momentous to others will appear in a truer light.  For me, in my age, my mind seems to have the habit of automatically backing off to a distant perspective whenever I encounter trouble – just to check the view.

In my company, where I seemed more  or less normal, we did deliver a good digital product, praised by Dow Jones analysts in that fledgling realm of online commerce as the Cadillac of the industry; but later, Robert Maxwell – “the bouncing Czech” – bought our company.  Not long after that, he fell, jumped, or was pushed off his yacht in the Canary Islands, literally the day before his massive fraud was to be revealed, and he eventually took our company, many others, and his own family down with him to Davy Jones’s Locker.  (The short version of a very long story!)

And my mother continued to act in her Otherwise ways, that encouraged me to take the long view, as she slowly, begrudgingly, came to ground.  But now I have both her and Flora in cans in my back closet, in peace.  When I die, I’ve proposed a three-fer scattering on the ridge behind our house.  It’s a beautiful, quiet place, itself wild and apart.  I won’t mind.


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