Monday, September 5, 2011

Gumpy meets Ema, her version

For many years, my understanding of my grandparents relationship came through Gumpy's stories.  We spent many hours on the golf course and many more working around the farm together.  Since his passing, I've prodded Ema a bit more to get her version of things.

Gladys and I stopped by the farm a few days before our second wedding anniversary to spend some time with Ema.  It had been a few weeks and she wasn't feeling her best, so we were all hoping a little company would help revive her spirits.

We talked about a lot of things that night, like the vacation she took with her parents her first year of teaching in Waldron.  And the subject of Waldron took us to the subject of how my grandparents met.

Ema had been teaching in town for a few months.  She lived with Kate Fox, who was the owner of the Waldron Telephone Company.  Her house was a few blocks from the school, which convenient because everyone at Waldron High School had the same lunch hour so they could go home for a proper meal before the start of afternoon classes.

This particular day, it had been raining.  She started walking with an umbrella in hand when a car pulled up.  Inside the car were a few of her students including Mary Lou Farnham and her older cousin Elbert (Gumpy) Carpenter was behind the wheel.  Ema had been warned about him, he did have a reputation for enjoying barley pops and a good bar a bit too much.  Her students insisted she ride with them, so she got in the front seat.

As she walked into the house, she could feel Kate's look of disapproval.  Ema decided to leave a little early so she could avoid the inevitable ride back to school.  With a block to go, she hears a horn blaring.  The car that was approaching was Elbert's, and the girls insisted she get in to ride the last block to school.

A few weeks later, he asked her if she would go with him for a cup of coffee.  Reluctantly, she agreed.  When he arrived, Ema saw her four squealing students in the back seat, excited that Ms. Hallenbeck was going on a date with Elbert.  Unbenounced to Ema, Elbert had made it a routine to take Mary Lou and her friends to a teen dance in Fayetteville, OH every Saturday, where he would drink coffee in the back with several other chaperons.  They sat in a corner and talked for much of the evening.

And as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

It really did take a village

Someone reached out to me yesterday on this blog to ask if I could promote a new program the Knight Foundation is sponsoring in Detroit.  The new initiative is called BME (pronounced be me) and it is designed to amplify the good works of black men and boys in the city.  Philly residents can participate too.

What piqued my curiosity about was a post for the Knight Foundation by Trabian Shorters formally announcing the program.  Shorters' story sounded oddly similar to my own.  He describes his grandfather as the paragon of his family.  He had a number of men who made it their business to be involved in his life, a fact he did not recognize until he was at a conference in Philadelphia.  I didn't realize just how many men stepped up to help me until Gumpy passed away.

Shorters was particularly profound when he said, 
I had all these things. My grandfather, rest his soul, was the paragon of our family. My uncle Charles went off and fought in Vietnam, returned home and raised his family through whatever may come. My mother dated a man named Swoop who did right by us ‘til the day he died.
Yet I had stood here and dishonored all these men because I had become so used to focusing on what was missing that I neglected what was there.
Fact of the matter is, I would not be here now were it not for everyday men like these who do more than their part to lead others in the right way to go.  
For me, it was men like Cleo Prescott who gave me my first job and helped teach me patience.  Or Dennis Vanderhoef who taught me how to play the trombone, took me bow hunting and let me raise his raccoon hunting dog George Butch.  Or Bob Siple who taught me exactly what a hard day of work was really all about.  Or Darwin Foster who let me use a cell phone for the first time back when the phone was the size of a briefcase.  Or Gumpy, who taught me patience, golf, how to talk with people of all stripes, the value of understanding politics, how to love my family and many other invaluable life lessons.

In reality, this list is much longer.  It really did take the village of Vermontville to raise me.  And I am fortunate to have the opportunity to show my appreciation.  Not everyone is so fortunate.

BME is a way for black men and boys to stop the bravado that is normally associated with being a man, replacing the bravado with true appreciation for the men in their lives who are role models.  It gives them a chance to recognize the little things these men do to positively impact their community.  The challenge does specifically focus on black men, which is fine with my world view given how many men of color this country insists on imprisoning each year.  The boys that are left behind need to see examples of hope and service by people who look like them, or they risk believing that their fate is to live a life as a caged man.

But the challenge really should extend to all men.  A man accepting to share his emotions is often met with questions about our sexual orientation, jokes about losing our manhood or outright humiliation if he is not careful.  It generally causes us to shove those feelings aside, ignoring the need to give sincere thanks until it is too late.  Thank goodness I had a grandfather who wasn't afraid to express his emotions!

Sieze the day men.  Start small if necessary.  But start thanking the men in your life who have made a positive difference.  Make BME an inspiration for appreciation.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Saying goodbye to another good man

Last Saturday (July 23, 2011) was the memorial service for Cleo Prescott, although he passed away in January at the age of 85.  He was a volunteer firefighter in Vermontville, eventually serving as their fire chief for 20 years.  He was a mail carrier, serving Vermontville's rural route one for many years.  He sold tractors in the family business, he cooked in the Army during the Korean war and he was one half of C and P Ceramics.

Most importantly for me, he was another man who decided to step up to help me when my dad left.

Cleo and his wife Pat (who is also a cousin of Ema's) gave me my first job.  I poured greenware in their ceramics shop the summer I was 14.  I think they paid me five percent of the value from everything I helped pour.  We always started by making sure the molds were clean, then strap the pieces together and use the gasoline pump Cleo repurposed for pour slip to fill the molds.  We would set a timer for each mold so we knew when to pour the excess slip out of the mold and take the straps off.

One day we hopped into his old Jeep Cherokee that he used when he was still a mail carrier and went off to Sebewa Township.  There was nothing to note about the trip, other than Cleo really didn't need to have me make the trip with him.  I think I might have helped move a few new molds into his car, but it was certainly work he could have accomplished himself.

That is really how my relationship with Cleo was, he had me help him with work he could have done by himself.  I have no big, flashy memories of incredible adventures with Cleo or sordid tales to share.  To me, Cleo was a man of incredible constancy.  We always listened to Tiger baseball games when they were on while we worked.  He was always interested in what I had to say.  He never yelled or scolded me.

He was consistent in my inconsistent, tumultuous existence.  

Tears welled in my eyes when Cleo's memorial service was closed by the Eaton County (MI) dispatcher read his obituary over the emergency channel for every person listening that day to hear.  He was humble, honest, kind, trustworthy and loyal.  He served willingly served his country, his community and his family without complaint.  He was a good friend to a young man who was angry at the world and I am eternally grateful for his kindness.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Golfing with Gumpy on Father's Day

My favorite memory of Gumpy on Father's Day was the year my grandparents took us to Idaho to visit my Uncle Jim and his family.  It had been only a few weeks since my dad declared that he wasn't going to be living with us any longer, which was the beginning of my tumultuous teenage existence.  I was angry, confused, hurt and generally unpleasant at best to deal with.

We arrived in Lewiston a few days before Father's Day with the fifth-wheel in tow, which gave us plenty of room for two sets of golf clubs, mine and Gumpy's.  I am not sure of the exact sequence of events, but somehow we decided to play in a father-son golf tournament at Bryden Canyon Golf Course.  The course was on top of a bluff overlooking the subdivision Jim lived in, which was the most remarkable thing about the course.  It played fairly easily with little water to contend with, which was well suited to my game.

It was overcast and occasionally drizzly the day of the tournament, which I suppose is a rarity given that the course still boasts it only receives nine inches of rain each year.  Jim teamed up with his step-son Reid and Gumpy teamed up with me.  Since Gumpy nor I knew our handicap, that was determined by the score of our first two holes.  Luckily, those happened to be my worst two holes of the day.  

The format of the tournament had the "father-son" combination rotate shots, so I would take every other shot regardless of how well I was playing.  I remember stroking a few worm-burners (the term Gumpy preferred for shots that never made it off the ground) and missing a few easy putts those first two holes.  Gumpy played his steady, straight as a string game.  He never hit the ball hard but usually struck the ball pretty straight which helped him keep his scores reasonably low.  We ended up having a pretty decent score, good enough to avoid humiliation.

We usually walked the golf course, so this tournament was a bit of a treat for me because we rented a cart to ride in.  This was also the first time I was allowed to drive a golf cart, so Gumpy spent the entire day coaching me on how to accelerate and stop properly.  We avoided mud puddles and he was very adamant about me not spinning the wheels in the mud.  The only reason I remember that is he watched Reid do it and knew I probably wanted to follow his path, so he put the kibosh on me pretty quickly. 

On the surface, this memory seems pretty unremarkable and I really do not want to give it weight than it deserves.  Gumpy and I played hundreds of rounds of golf together, this certainly was not our first nor our last.  We had already signed the best buddy contract and I was just beginning to understand that my dad wasn't coming home.  

What makes it remarkable to me is that this is the first Father's Day I didn't spend with my dad and Gumpy just stepped in.  There were no grand speeches, no proclamations, just his calming presence that I came to rely on.  This is my second Father's Day without him, I have no idea how I would have gotten here without his presence.  Thanks Gump, I miss you.  

Monday, June 13, 2011

Skinny the Baby

When I was 14, my grandparents took my sister and I on a wild adventure to Washington, D.C.  Okay, wild is a bit much.  The closest thing we got to wild was watching our first drug bust in a parking lot inside the Great Smokey Mountain National Forest.

The trip was fun, even for an angst filled teenager.  We went to the Lincoln Memorial, took a tour of the White House, wandered around the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and walked through the Vietnam Memorial.  When we left D.C., Gumpy pointed our little fliver (his affectionate term for a car) west to take us down the Shenandoah Parkway and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which were filled with gorgeous vistas that I still appreciate today.

One thing that is burned into my memory of that trip is the little song he liked to sing.  He started teaching us the words to Skinny the Baby until Ema told him to stop.  We only learned the first verse and by the time he thought I was old enough to be taught the second verse, he could no longer remember the words.  

The first verse:
Went downtown to see my lady,
Nobody's home but Skinny the Baby.
I was drunk and he was sober, 
He blew his nose and he knocked me over.

If you know the rest of the words to this song, please share them with me.  It's been 23 years since I learned the first part, I still want to know what Ema wouldn't let him tell me!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

My watch

I don't wear the watch Gumpy gave me for my college graduation very often.  I usually save it for special occasions or big meetings where I think I need just a little edge.  I wore it last night again, this time for the graduation ceremony at Maple Valley High School, which I attended to help hand out the awards for the Maple Valley Memorial Scholarship Foundation.

My high school graduation was not much of a milestone for me.  Sure it was important but we had moved to Traverse City in my Sophomore year of high school, so I had little emotional connection to my school and going to college was already a forgone conclusion in my mind.  That high school diploma was more of my ticket into college than a piece of paper to celebrate.  Family came out to visit and I had a graduation party with my best friend at the time, but it is not the graduation I am most proud of.

That day came six years later when I graduated from Oakland University with my Bachelors in Political Science.  Walking across stage at the Meadowbrook Music Theater, shaking Dr. Nesbary's hand first then having Dr. Klemanski hand me my diploma was an incredibly memorable experience.  I had worked hard, paying for school myself and I felt like I had earned every drop of ink on that certificate.

Afterward, we had a party at my Aunt and Uncle's house with family and close friends.  Gumpy gave me my watch that day, telling me just how proud he was of me.  My watch was just like his watch that I had admired for many years.  It symbolized that Gumpy was proud of me and my accomplishment.  It is a gift that I will always cherish.

Twelve years later, after aggressively fighting cancer for years, he began to really worry about me having something to remember him by.  He came back to the watch as the one accessory that a man needed to complete a professional look, and he wanted to give me a watch like his.  Whenever he was worried that I didn't have a watch, I would remind him that he gave me one just like his for graduation.  He would usually seem shocked, then pleased when Ema reminded him that I was correct.  And I would always be a little bit heartbroken, knowing that he could no longer remember one of my favorite days with him.  He desperately wanted to win his fight to the death with cancer, so he did everything he could to win.  The aggressive chemotherapy treatments that were meant to extend his life did just that, they extended his physical time with us.  Those same treatments robbed us all of the best of Gumpy.

When I wear the watch now, I always pause for a minute.  The green and red leaves that surround the 12 and 6 positions are a bit understated.  Citizens watches are not spectacular timepieces, they are functional.  I pause not for the beauty of the watch, although I find it to be a nice looking timepiece.  I pause with a twinge of pain, knowing that my proud, strong grandfather could no longer remember the moments in our relationship we both cherished.  That pain quickly fades to a smile, because putting the watch on gives me another reason to think about why Gumpy gave it to me and the college graduation tradition I hope to continue.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hallenbeck Farm

Written May 12, 2011 

It’s been a while since I spent the night at the farm.  One year, 11 months and 18 days to be exact.  The night of Gumpy’s memorial service was the last time I spent the night here.  There are a few more things in the Shrine (otherwise known as Uncle Jim’s bedroom) because Ema is sorting through things again.  The crickets and frogs are bellowing as I’m typing.  Sure I’m tired, but I don’t feel like sleep is coming.

This room seemed a lot bigger when I was a kid.  The walls seemed straighter, the floor seemed more level, the stairs seemed wider.  I guess after 148 years, the old home needed a break from active Hallenbecks, save one.  It still has Ema, and I’m grateful for that.

I guess everything seems a little surreal tonight.  Some of it is guilt, Gumpy wanted me to help take care of Ema and the best I could do the past two years is stay away from the farm.  I was tired, Mom and I practically lived here weekends the last few years of Gumpy’s life.  My life got in the way, with my new wife, grad school and a business that I didn’t see myself starting.  I’ve always looked up to Ema and the times in life that I have fallen down, she’s always been the one I’ve hated disappointing most.  And I really do feel like I've let both of my grandparents down. 

Some of it is a growing realization that I am an adult now and that I’m probably at the end of the line of family that truly loves the farm.  My earliest memories of the farm are chasing Shep, Gumpy’s Australian Shepard, around the outside of the house.  The farm has always been a place of peace and comfort for me, even in my darkest hour.  And I hope to always be able to call it home.

And frankly, some of it is because I still miss Gumpy terribly.  There have been so many things I wish I could share with him, good and bad.  I could always count on him to tell me he was happy to hear from me or that he was proud of me.  While I do mimic some of his behavior when I’m here, like patting my arms at the dinner table or clapping three times when it’s time to leave, I will always be uncomfortable sitting at his place at the dinner table. 

While I am a bit melancholy tonight, I am also reminded just how fortunate I am to still have Ema in my life.  She’s healthy, active and more mentally sharp than most people I know.  Most importantly for my sanity, I can still call and hear her voice at the other end of the phone when I’ve hit a rough patch or need a reality check.

The past two years have ushered in a completely different aspect of our relationship.  Ema’s taken to tell me more stories about her childhood and her parents.  Her parents were a bit older when she was born than Gladys and I are now, so Ema’s stories have given me a good measure of confidence that Gladys and I can raise a happy, healthy child. 

Ema doesn’t stop in mid-sentence to apologize for blathering on anymore (her words, not mine).  She always felt she needed to when she was telling me family stories, which she never did.  Maybe she’s more comfortable telling me the stories now or maybe she wants to make sure they are heard before she loses the ability to tell them anymore.  Regardless of reason, I’m glad Ema is sharing her stories.

That’s only one aspect of our changed relationship.  Ema has always felt she needed to be the disciplinarian, and I suppose she was right on some level.  After 37 years of this, I’m use to her expectations of me and her questions when I am not meeting those expectations.  The change has been when I’ve needed to cry, she lets me cry on her shoulder without question.  It was never her role before, but she does it with ease and grace.  It’s a side I didn’t expect and a side of my grandmother I am truly grateful for. 

Admittedly, I am really attached to the farm but none of it matters as much as the memories my grandparents helped create for me there.  I am among the fortunate in life for having so many years to enjoy Ema and Gumpy.  My tears tonight are a mix of sadness, guilt and gratefulness.  The tears of gratefulness are winning. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

The glue that held our family together

Saturday's visit with the old boy
This post will be a bit of a hodge-podge.  Classes are over for the semester, my mother in law is back home in Tampa and I finally feel like posting again.  Thoughts of Gumpy are never far away from the front of my mind.  I still cry occasionally and yearn for his counsel.  It's been almost two years, and while I know that his suffering ended the day he died, it sometimes feels like my pain is just beginning.

A colleague forwarded a great blog post to me yesterday, I read Cranking on my phone in the garage because there was something in Jer's message that compelled me to read the post immediately.  I couldn't help but relate to much of Merlin Mann's story.  Sure, I wasn't a kid when Gumpy died, but I can relate to the feeling of drifting away from the things that I truly find important in life.  While I am fortunate to be writing about the city I love and pursuing a degree that fascinates me, I still need reminders to be take a few minutes out to appreciate my family.  Gladys was a little surprised when I walked upstairs and hugged her. I always give her a peck on the cheek and a hug when I get home, but today I needed that hug to last just a little longer.

Saturday it dawned on me that Gumpy truly was the glue that held our little family together.  Instinctively I guess I knew that but the events of a normally happy mini-reunion at the Syrup Festival really made me take notice.  None of us would have dreamed of behaving the way we did if he were still alive.  We all let our pettiness and bitterness of arguments new and old taint the day.

There is always tension in any family, ours is no exception.  Where we were once very different was in the way Gumpy would handle it.  His laugh was infectious and it was hard to stay sore at someone when he could get you to join in on the laughter.  If that didn't work, outrageous statements like, "that will make you a man before your mother" would be leveled at the offending party, which always made us chuckle.

It was his way of making sure we all stayed together.  His biggest worry when he died was that we all stay talking, that we all remember we are family and that we all stuck together.  My grandparents purposefully paid for our immediate family to spend the weekend in St. Ignace, MI with them ostensibly for their 50th anniversary.  Gumpy's real reason was to make sure that we knew his nephew Frank and that we had time with my Uncle Jim and his family.  His family was his proudest accomplishment and his greatest torment.

This isn't a post to air the family's dirty laundry, rather I am lamenting Gumpy's ability to make us all laugh, to come together and to stop the games that pull us apart.  He was our carpenter's glue if you will. After reading Mann's post and reflecting on the events of our family time at the farm together, I couldn't get my mind off the void I still feel every time I think about my grandfather.  

Ironically, when I was a teenager, he was afraid I would never be able to laugh again.  I was always so dour.  His patience with me showed me how to laugh again.  He had a great sense of humor and timing. I miss the nicknames.  I miss the jokes.  I miss the outrageous statements.  I miss going up town for a crappy tasting cup of coffee at Ken's Standard Station with him.  I miss the pancake breakfasts at the fire barn during the Syrup Festival with him.  I miss the way he would clap his hands when he was ready to leave.  I miss his smile.  I miss hearing him admonish me not to strain my milk.

Most of all, I miss his ability to bring us all together.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Growing out of the stories Gumpy left me with

I've really missed Gumpy a lot the past few weeks.  He wasn't one for telling me how to handle something or to tell me what I should do.  He was big on telling me about his experience and letting me learn from him.  Now that I'm at a point in life that he would have been very familiar with, I really miss the wisdom of his stories.

Gladys' mom decided she wanted to stay with us for a few months.  Most people who can head from Michigan to Florida around Thanksgiving but Rosa really missed Gladys, so she rode back to Detroit with us after our last visit to Tampa.  She has a ton of health challenges that have allowed us to become very familiar with Henry Ford Hospital and their staff.  Now she's understandably homesick, yet her health will not yet allow us to take her home.

This is where I could use Gumpy's help.  It was different when he was ill.  Ema was his full-time caregiver, I merely filled in during emergencies and weekends.  I worried, I would race to the hospital whenever I could and I tried to do as much as I could, but Ema handled the heavy lifting.

We are now the full-time caregivers.  Gladys is use to this, I'm not as much.  I am not afraid of the responsibility, in fact I am glad that I am trusted enough to fill the role.  Where I need Gumpy's insight is on softening my hard edges, how to balance my role as a man and a caregiver.  Both Ema and Gumpy had considerable experience in this, and Ema does provide a little insight.  But no one will be able to replace Gumpy.

When my grandparents were first married, Gumpy was a boomer for the railroad.  As he explained, a boomer was someone who hopped from railroad to railroad, each time moving up the pay scale while infuriating the previous boss.  Boomers were always good at their jobs and never had trouble finding employment.  Once the kids came, Gumpy decided to settle down and work for one railroad.

As I recall, his choice was the Florida Southern Railroad.  They moved their little family to Florida with no family and the promise of a new job.  (I still can't imagine how those conversations went, Ema ended up in a new town with three toddlers.)  As they were approaching their first year in Florida, Ema's dad Byron called.  He had cancer and needed Ema (his only child) to move home.  So, they packed their little family and headed back to Vermontville to take care of Byron.

Byron was about 50 when Ema was born, so he would have been approaching 80 when this was all taking place.  He was already a tiny man, especially by today's standards.  While being shipped to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War, he contracted malaria, which significantly limited his vitality.  He was unable to farm on his own, so there were always hired men helping work the 60 or so tillable acres.  Yet, he was still a loving father and grandfather.  Even after his diagnosis, he lived for several years in the small farm house with his daughter, son-in-law and three rambunctious kids.

And that's what I want to hear Gumpy talk about.  Sure, the circumstances are different.  Rosa is staying in our house and Gumpy was living at Byron's farm.  My grandparents had kids, Gladys and I are still working on that.  The move to the farm was permanent for Gumpy, Rosa's visit with us will last until she is healthy enough to safely travel back to Tampa.  But there is enough similarity to have me wondering what Gumpy would do, how he would handle things and what advice he would have for me.

In a way, this post is just about me reaching another milestone in life as it is a rant about me missing my grandfather.  My life is growing out of the stories he left me.  I wasn't ready for stories about this when he could tell them to me.  Now that I am ready, I don't have him to turn to.

I really could use a cup of coffee with the old boy right about now.