Sunday, July 03, 2016

Too Many Mornings -- or, The 21 Places I have Lived

Too Many Mornings

By Fred Owens

Too many mornings -- I woke up in --

Lindsburg, Kansas
Evanston, Illinois
Long Beach, Mississippi
Venice California
LaConner, Washington, Centre St
LaConner, Washington, Maple St
Austin, Texas
Anahuac, Texas
Mount Vernon, Washington
Cambridge, Mass
Newton, Mass
Acton, Mass
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Pull and Be Damned Rd, LaConner
Caledonia St, LaConner
couch surfing -- 18 months
Floresville, Texas
Fir Island, near LaConner
5th Street in LaConner
Ventura, California
 -- where I am now

I'm good at moving and not so good at staying. I just don’t have this furniture thing.

I don't have a lot of stuff. I brought my car full of stuff down here from LaConner. I left 12 boxes -- my archives -- in storage in a barn on Beaver Marsh Road. That's everything I own.
The trouble with traveling for your life is that you never get to go on a vacation. But I would like to stay here in Ventura, and then go to France next summer -- not to move there, for God's sake -- but just for a vacation, like a real tourist.
Leaving Oklahoma

We left Oklahoma in the summer of 1976, heading north. The truck broke down in Lindsburg Kansas, just north of Wichita. So we camped out by the river at the edge of town -- and found jobs at a factory making aluminum windows, and then rented an apartment behind the Swedish bakery....... This was summer in Kansas, got over 100 degrees day after day -- hot in the factory -- but cool enough in the town swimming pool after work. We should have stayed there. It was a decent town and we could have found better work if we had been more patient.

We left Kansas after a few months. My wife was pregnant and she didn't like the local doctors. She wanted to go to this commune in Tennessee and have natural childbirth -- a bad idea, I thought..... I said we could get a midwife, yes, but near enough to a hospital just in case. So, for some reason, that entailed moving to Evanston, Illinois, where I myself was born and grew up.....I found a job as a shipping clerk at a large printing company.....We found an apartment on Clyde Street near the Howard Street boundary with Chicago.... I picked out that apartment because there were a lot of old ladies living in it. Chicago, as you know, gets bitterly cold in the winter, so I figured these old ladies lived in a building with really good steam heat.....That was a smart move....we stayed all warm winter, the baby was born in the spring.

The child was born in April 1977 in Evanston, Illinois. We left in September. We took the river road -- Highway 61 Revisited -- and camped out, heading down the river -- Dubuque, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Memphis, and then Vicksburg, in Mississippi. We stopped there and I got a job at a sawmill way out in the woods. Talk about rednecks! Geez, they closed the sawmill on the opening day of squirrel hunting season......I took wood scraps home from the sawmill to the house we rented and built some simple yard furniture, which we sold....Otherwise Vicksburg wasn't such a good place to live.
So we left Vicksburg and drove down to the Gulf Coast, renting a trailer in Pass Christian with a view of the Gulf. This was 60 miles east of New Orleans and a little bit west of Biloxi, but still in Mississippi.....I got a job on a construction project. By now it was December and cold working outside.... plus mosquitoes, alligators, rednecks, preachers, and lots of fat people ... I got into an argument with Pappy Crain, ,,our landlord, and he told us to leave -- that was a good idea -- I don't know why we lived there in the first place, probably just to be stubborn.

Suzie Wiley Racanello so fred.... how do you remember this in such detail??????

Carolyn Rios probably just to be stubborn, what YOU Fred?

If we proved a point by living in Mississippi, it was to make the whole country inhabitable. From Atlantic to Pacific, all the land needs love..........But enough was enough........ They said Pappy Crain was connected to the New Orleans mafia, and then he and I had this argument and he told me to clear out of his trailer court. So we did the sensible thing and left....... We had to sell the old Buick because it wouldn't run anymore and then get on the Greyhound, me and Susan and the baby, bound for the West Coast ...... the Promised Land, the Golden State, California..... and not just anyplace, but Venice Beach itself.

In Venice in 1978, the old beatniks were still around. They didn't just listen to Billy Holiday, they knew her -- it was a small world for hipsters in the 1950s and Venice was one of their locales -- still with a trace of it in 1978 -- the old beatniks were people I listened to and talked with. They found me to be amusing, sincere....and clueless.....But we arrived from Mississippi and we lived in a tricked out school bus in my sister's back yard....I took the city bus every day to my job in Culver City as a shipping clerk at a silk screen shop, where they made giant banners that said "Sale!" and "Grand Opening." ...... I liked taking the bus to work, it went past the Hare Krishna Temple and the old MGM studios with giant sound stages. I could sense the ghosts of old dramas -- images of Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy .... it was almost tangible....

We got to Venice in January and left in June. I think we should have stayed. This is what happened -- I had finally saved enough for us to move out of the school bus and get into a decent apartment -- with first and last month's rent and a deposit. I found this nice place, a tiny one-bedroom bungalow. I had the money in hand but the landlord wouldn't rent to families with children, and by this time we were expecting another one -- what a bummer......As I said, we should have stuck it out in Venice and just gone looking for a better landlord ..... but I guess that baby wanted to be born in the Skagit Valley, because we went back up there -- in late June. We made a summer camp at Illabot Creek up by Marblemount -- a way back in the woods..... It was a pretty place, but we had no money and I had no work.

We camped for the summer on the creek, then found a cedar-shake cabin on the road and nearer to town -- town being a grocery store, gas station and post office. The cabin had electricity but no running water -- just a hand pump out the back door, plus an outhouse. We had a wood stove for heat, and wood cook stove in the kitchen......It was decent and the rent was $40 per month .... Lots of fresh air and beautiful scenery in the wild Cascade Mountains up the Skagit River, but not much work. I borrowed money from my folks and we got food stamps. I chopped wood and carried water. Susan was expecting our second child -- she liked it there living out in the woods...... but I found it somewhat isolating and my mood was sometimes sour -- time passed too slowly and it rained all winter.

Suzie Wiley Racanello fred.. you never answered my question.. how do you remember all this?????

I thought everyone remembered all this stuff about where they have I don't know how to remember anything, I just do.

Suzie Wiley Racanello but you recount it in such detail!

I could write this much, much longer, with much greater detail -- but I'm keeping it very short to fit on to Facebook.

Our daughter was born March 4, 1979 at the hospital, we brought her home to the cabin in Marblemount. She was beautiful..... I planted a garden that spring and I built a studio and did art and calligraphy. But I had very little paying work -- a few days at a shake mill, a couple of weeks at a local farm -- just scraping by ..... And by now we had two children in diapers -- but only a hand pump in back of the cabin for keeping clean ...... we stuck it out until November, but another raining winter with little work seemed like a bad idea...... I drove down to LaConner to check it out -- a bigger town -- more than 600 people! -- better housing, more work, and a bookstore and a good coffee shop for hanging out -- a good tavern too...... We moved down there and rented a house on Centre Street (British spelling for some reason) -- good plumbing, gas heat, no wood to split and water to haul -- it was easy street, and I soon found work making a few dollars at Tillinghast Nursery.

Cindy Nelson Fred, you really should write a book about your life! It would be amazing!

Living my life has been the hard part, writing about it is easy.

What prompted me to write this story was getting a letter from Paul Schulte, my college classmate, who has lived in the same address in Cinncinati since 1976, whereas I have kept moving all these years

We rented the house on Centre Street in LaConner. It was big and carpeted -- so nice after living in the cabin with a wood stove, a pump in the backyard and an outhouse... But now we had good plumbing, gas heat and all you gotta do is twist that dial on the thermostat and get as warm as you want. Twist the dial and pay the gas bill -- that was great. And a washer and dryer for the two babies. Clean and warm...... We lived there for a year and more, until the owner, a commercial fishermen, had some bad luck and sold the house at a loss and in a big hurry. Kirby Johnson, the realtor, came over to tell us the bad news – we had to moved out....I was concerned that my spouse would get too upset about this, so we went out and bought the first house we looked at and did not dicker over the price. It was a double-wide trailer on Maple Street in LaConner on a 100 by 100 foot lot..... Then we just moved over there and figured not to have trouble with landlords anymore.

We lived in the double-wide on Maple Street for five years. The kids -- toddlers by now -- had a sand box and a swing. We had a vegetable garden and several apple trees. I had a shop in the back where I collected and repaired used fishing tackle. Susan used a corner of our bedroom to make puppets and other craft items .... .... I took my kayak out on the river and spent a lot of time fishing .... We often trudged across the field to visit Keith Brown when he lived in Fishtown ..... I worked at several weekly newspapers as a reporter. I also worked part-time for my parents fishing magazine ... When my parents retired in 1984 and sold the magazine, I took my share of the proceeds and started a fishing newspaper that served the Pacific Northwest --- it was, editorially, an excellent publication. It was a complete expression of what I believed was the best possible description of the northwest fishing community..... Even today, so many years later, I can tell you how good it was .... but there was hardly twelve people who bothered to read it or subscribe to it or take out ads .... A disaster, a complete business failure, it really hurt.

I need to pick up the pace and get this story moving again.... We lived in the double wide for five years -- a perfectly nice home if you like living in a tin can. I never liked it very much. That was my mistake -- buying a house that my kids liked and my wife liked -- but I didn't like it or love it . You should hold on to your home with all your might, but you have to love it first, and I never loved it...... Then the fishing publication failed, and I had this immature urge to flee. And compound that with my wife's constant complaint about "life in LaConner." She thought it was a snobby, snotty, in-grown, cliquish little town -- too many stuck up people .....She wanted to go back home to Oklahoma, which I could not abide .... So we made what I think was a very bad decision -- to move to Austin, Texas, where Susan could feel more at home, and where an old hippie like me could feel welcome.

We should have never left LaConner. It was January, 1986. I got a menial job at a software company. We rented a nice apartment. The kids enrolled in a new school. We made friends. I began playing the piano again.....Austin was easy living......I got tired of the software company, so I got a job as a reporter at a weekly newspaper -- a really good paper too, but they decided not to keep me -- it's a long story -- basically they were just using me until their son finished journalism school -- I wish I has known that .... Anyway, I quickly got another job at another newspaper -- but it was in East Texas -- in the swamp! Back to redneck city -- alligators, mosquitoes, Cajuns, rice fields, water moccasins, high heat and even higher humidity, in a little town called Anahuac, just across the bay from Houston.

We moved again, from Austin to Anahuac. My wife -- it's hard for me to write this story without dragging her into it -- a woman I still respect and cherish even though we have been divorced for many years -- but I thought she would be the anchor in this partnership. I mean, most women, then and now, are good at keeping things -- they like furniture and curtains and other home-stuff. But not my wife, she would be happier living in a tent. If I ever said let's go, she would say, Okay, I can be packed in an hour --- we'll just grab the kids and get in the car..... So there was no one working the brakes....We just kept moving....That's what we were good at.

This story is getting repetitious. I just kept moving and changing jobs. We're only on town Number Nine and we have twelve more towns to get to. Are you all getting bored with this?..... There's a lot of bad parts that I'm leaving out -- a cycle of depression and anger that I kept going through. And all the marital conflict.....Let me summarize. I was not an angry man when I got married on February 14, at the City Hall in Chicago in the year 1976, but by ten years later when I was leaving in this mosquito-ridden swamp called Anahuac in east Texas --- by this time, in 1986, I wasn't just angry, I was almost nothing but angry, except when I was depressed.... There's no one to blame, except myself, and I just kept moving.

It was October of 1986. We were living in Anahuac, and I was driving ten miles every day to my job as a reporter at the Libertyville Vindicator, a weekly newspaper. The editor, Ernie Zieschang, cared about high school football and the Rotary Club. I don't know why he hired me -- we didn't get along, and after a short while, for the only time in my entire working career -- I was fired! Ernie just gave me two weeks pays and told me to clear out..... living in east Texas and being employed is a condition that can be endured -- but being unemployed in that miserable country? Not acceptable by any means.

We left. We decided to go back to the Skagit Valley. Susan refused to return to LaConner. I said would Mount Vernon be okay, and she said yes (Mount Vernon being a larger town some ten miles from LaConner). I went ahead, driving across country in our old Buick. Susan and the kids took the train to my sister's house in Los Angeles. She took the kids to Disneyland, and then they headed up north to the Skagit on another train -- to Cold Comfort Farm where we spent the next few miserable years. Talk about a dump .....

Carolyn Rios  I liked Cold Comfort, but then I didn't LIVE there
Katherine Owens Isn't this where mom and me and Rosie and Liza came to see you once. I have a very cute picture of Liza and Rosie holding a cat that I think we took at the farm house.
The trumpeter swans flew over our old farmhouse every evening about twilight. Honk-honk they talked, and they flew so low you could hear the wind going through their wing feathers. They would spend the day out in the Skagit flats, and then come home to their roosts on Barney Lake, just down the hill from our little farm .................. I would often be outside in the dimming light, chopping wood or fixing the fences, and then I would hear the swans calling --- the call of the Nookachamps -- for we lived in the watershed of that tributary. The Nookachamps River flowed out of the Cascade foothills and joined the mighty Skagit ......................................................................That was our home -- 3325 Martin Road on forty acres of brush and second growth timber, with a barn that once held a dozen dairy cows, back when you could run a dairy with a dozen cows, and some ten acres of badly overgrown pasture................................ There was a tender cedar grove out in the field, right where the old well used to be. A tender grove of young trees -- because the old behemoths -- the ancient cedars -- had been cut down by our fathers and grandfathers -- cut down to build the barns and the houses we lived in. So the new tender cedars were growing again...............................................New growth will become old growth, I said, and it only takes a thousand years or so if you just leave it be .............................. I used to walk down to that grove and it smelled so very, very good, all young and green................................. Yeah, there were some good parts about that farm ...................................................

"21 places I have lived" or "Too Many Mornings" -- your choice of titles. You can find the whole story on my blog, but we're at ten years now and half way through.
It's 1986. The Red Sox lost the World Series to the New York Mets that year, and I turned 40. Thus began the Decade of Drudgery and Disappointment.

We moved on to the farm outside of Mount Vernon..... There was no electricity and no running water -- no rent to pay either. The owner just wanted occupation. Our first winter we had kerosene lamps. We cut a Christmas in the back yard and illuminated it with tiny candles -- it was a miraculous glow to see that warm light in our living room ..... But otherwise it was hard times. It wasn't rustic living to me anymore, it was just poverty, and I didn't care ......................... The fact is, our marriage was over ... we still had two years to go before a separation .... but I didn't care anymore ... She didn't want to live in LaConner, so I just found this dump of an old farmhouse and there we sat -- hoping without hope ........................... I worked here and there and made a little money .... We put in a waterline -- that involved me digging a ditch 250 feet from the house to the road, and then digging a much bigger, wider ditch in the back yard to serves as a septic system for the toilet ..... and for a few hundred dollars we got an electrician to scab together some wiring ..... but the place just looked run-down no matter what I did --- or maybe because of how I felt -- hoping without hope .... We had a nice dog, a black puppy named Sparky, and he was the happiest critter on the farm. He was a wonderful little dog and he just ran around all day -- 250 feet from the road, we never tied him up.
Suzie Wiley Racanello happy up fred!!!!!!!!!!!
How can I make this happy? It was a tough year on the farm -- 1988. That summer I moved out of the house, and that ended a 12 year argument...... a "friendly divorce" .... which is slightly less of a disaster .... After a bit of shifting around, I moved back into the farmhouse and she moved out ..... I became a single father, which, of all the ways devised by mankind, is the worst possible way to raise children ..... It reminded me of a story in the newspaper about the one-legged man who climbed Mt. Rainier... Sure, he made it to the top, but it would have been so much easier with two legs.....  I struggled on. I grew a very big garden the next summer and my triumph was a huge and wonderful patch of sweet corn  -- more than I could possible eat or give away ... I bought a new car  ... Mainly I did not like being un-married at all... What are you supposed to do? .... And people thought it was just fine -- or else they didn't know what to say, or else they didn't want to interfere ..... I guess it was up to me to work it out -- my behavior wasn't especially weird or self-destructive, so people let me work it out ..... However, there was a bit of concern when I decided to move to Boston .....
I'm skipping a lot of things from 1988. -- In January I played a central role in the Fishtown Woods Massacre.... In February, my mother-in-law died and we flew back to Oklahoma for the funeral. It was the first and only time I communed with my wife's deeply conservative Southern cousins....... In July I joined the Quaker Peace March and we walked, 12 miles a day from Portland to Vancouver -- all the way across the state -- for the cause of nuclear disarmement. A year later, 1989, the Iron Curtain fell, thanks in part to our effort....
I came back from the Peace March after six weeks and we started fighting again and I couldn't stand it anymore.... That's when I moved out .... The last straw was when we had an argument at dinner -- nothing new about that, we patched it up, and later we went to bed.... Okay, but for the first and last time, we started another argument in bed .... That was it ... I moved out of the house the next day.
I was lost..... That was a big reason why I wanted to take care of the kids -- because I knew how to do that and it was honest work.... I took good care of those children -- I never asked anyone's advice and no one interfered.
I'm gonna stop for today -- but I need to finish this part. In the autumn of 1988 I went to my 20th college reunion. I ran into my old girl friend and she lived in Boston. So I took my son out of school, packed up the car, and drove across the country with him in the middle of winter -- to Boston...... Why didn't someone stop me? ... Boston -- and we lived there for six years, and at least we were out of the Cold Comfort Farm – We might a had to move 3,000 miles just to shake off that demon.
I think you folks may have gotten comfortable hearing about my four-year stint at Cold Comfort Farm -- just settling in that pile of old boards in a blackberry bramble but we’re going to the East Coast now.
The title of this story should remind you that we're going to keep moving on -- we left the farm right after Christmas in 1990, heading for Boston. I brought my 13-year-old son with me, and he blames me to this day for yanking him out of school and taking him to New England.....But I reasoned it this way, that he was doing poorly in junior high-school both academically and socially and I thought a spin around the country might doing him well..... Anyway, we loaded up the car and never looked back at that damn farm....Susan and my daughter Eva were left behind -- this was the only time we ever separated as a family, but they came to join us on the East Coast some months later, so it wasn't really a hard ship ............ But I have to address the readers again -- the whole movement in America is westward bound. Every town in Washington and Oregon is full of refugees from the Midwest. California is full of immigrants from New Jersey and Pennsylvania ......... This is what everybody is used to -- like in the Grapes of Wrath -- they head out to the West Coast after the farm goes bust in Oklahoma -- or Jack Kerouac "On the Road" -- going west on Highway 66.

But there's a smaller trend of young men from the rural West going East to learn in the halls of higher education and join the citadels of power. Think of William O. Douglas, who grew up in Yakima, Washington, and headed east to become a Wall Street Lawyer and then a Supreme Court Justice....... That's what I did. And you may have heard about the Liberal Establishment -- yes it is there -- I found it there in Boston .... We rented an apartment in Cambridge, not six blocks from Harvard University, within touching distance of some Very Important People ..... I never saw so much importance in all my life, the old buildings seemed encrusted with prestige like barnacles on a pier piling.
Love in New England
Helen lived in Newton, a Boston suburb. I've changed her name. She was the romantic interest. Believe me, you should never go back to an old girl friend. Never.....And why didn't someone tell me that? ... We resumed a relationship after a 25-year-absence. It started out well , but it ended in the same train wreck ...... I'm going to blame her for most of this, strictly as a literary device -- you and God and everybody else can form your own judgment ..... We were lovers when we were 18, but I was a cad back then -- I wanted to fool around, and I left her in tears ...... But she kept a piece of my heart, that small piece I had given her -- and she kept that small piece for 25 years -- had a husband, several children, a home and a good suburban life -- but kept that small piece of my heart all this time, and I could never wholly love another woman -- couldn't be whole because of that missing piece.... She never let go of it .... and I came back to her.

What about the Bush? So, I could drive up to Newton to see Helen and play the Steinway piano in her living room -- it was such a vivid contrast to farm work and crude dinners back in the Skagit Valley. But first, I must talk about the Pyrocanthus.
I rented the apartment at 42 Blakeslee Street -- three bedrooms furnished, in the best part of Cambridge. I even had off-street parking for me car. Except I had to duck around the fiery prycanthus every time I got out of my car. It was big and beautiful, but it was thorny and it was in my way. So I cut it down ........... Down to the ground ... You know, it wasn't my bush..... Mr. Magestrelli was my landlord -- a perfectly nice man. When he came by a few weeks later and saw that the pyrocanthus was gone, he was very upset ..... And me, a supposedly mature man of 44 years, took a smart aleck attitude toward this kind senior citizen, like I had done him a favor by cutting down the bush ..... "And it will grow back again," I said, as a feeble defense ...... I was not a good tenant. I was careless with his property. I abused the furniture and the curtains .... Well, for an excuse, I had been living too rough.

Living too rough, so I sought refinement and took a course in good manners. To wit, I read four of Jane Austen's novels -- that was my first winter in Cambridge. I think it was "Emma" that was the first one I read ..... Somehow, I recalled my mother's urgings at the dinner table -- to sit straight and take small bites and ask to be excused ..... I wasn't raised to be a farm hand --- but it was like a war inside of me .... because I had rebelled against the sterile suburban lawns of my youth .... I had found the soil as a young man, had slept on the ground and dug gardens and made trails in the woods and the soil was everything.

But that first winter in Cambridge, Helen found two tickets to the Boston Symphony -- orchestra seats, front row and center. We went together and heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Cello Suites. He was magnificent and yet so humble, a great artist. I squirmed in my seat like an unkempt canine, and yet I was so happy and Helen was beaming with pleasure, that she had done this for me ..... I was still lost, but now it didn't feel so bad ....

Lois Wauson
We used to have a pyracantha bush in the 50's at our first home on Trudell Dr. in San Antonio. I loved that bush. I cut branches off with the red berries to make a centerpiece for Christmas every year. I know how your landlord felt. I would have been heartbroken if someone cut it down. And my husband did that many years later up in N. Texas, when he cut down my favorite honeysuckle bushes. saying 'they will grow back'"(they didn't). I was devastated and mad for weeks.

At home with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage of Concord...... Helen and I had our season. I was heart broken when it ended .... We left Cambridge and moved to Newton for two years. Newton is a suburb of Boston and largely Jewish. It is also where the Fig Newton was invented -- true! ..... Then we moved to Concord, close to Walden Pond.
I came to Boston with literary ambitions, which were soon dashed. I did get an interview at the Boston Globe, but my strength as a writer was a kind of quirky humor -- which is simply not done at the Boston Globe ..... In fact, Boston is the least funny town in America. Jokes die in that city, and my pen ran dry, except for a few short stories, all about Helen and our sad romance..... So it was back to the land and the soil .....
I started a landscaping business and found plenty of work. Boston and environs is heavily forested. Many residential streets are fully shaded by glorious elms, oaks, ashes, and maples ..... And all the leaves fall down in October -- and someone gets paid to rake all those leaves ..... That would be me .... Raking Leaves for Liberals -- they were too good and too snotty to rake their own leaves, but they would hire me. I loved the work, but I resented their superiority .... "we'll do the thinking and you can do the chores." ....... I dated Irish women and joined the Yeats Society -- we read poetry aloud and drank wine by the Charles River .... I assumed a rugged pose, being of the earth, with cracked and callused hands ....
I'm skipping the Jewish episode in Newton -- that is a book-length story, seriously .... I spent two years full absorbed in that culture, and studied with great devotion at the shul and earned some respect as a Jewish scholar, of all things -- I don't know how to summarize what I learned. I'll try to say one thing -- the Jews are very strong people, although they may not seem so. They are stronger than anyone I have ever met.
We moved to Concord in 1995. Eugene finished high school and went to an art college in San Francisco. Eva took home-schooling because, as she said, most accurately, "high school is stupid." How could I argue with that? I taught her at home and she thrived .... I tended the gardens at beautiful New England mansions, old homes with slate roofs, copper gutters, and granite walkways. I trimmed ancient wisterias, big around the trunk as a man .... I learned about stones .... New England has more stone than soil and I spent hundreds of hours on my hands and knees uprooting weeds and pulling stones from the earth. I re-built the old walls .... Some days I did volunteer work gardening at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson.... On hot summer times, I would knock off early and go to Walden Pond, the best swimming hole in New England .... I began working for a highly-respected landscape designer who paid me very well... Then I had some bad luck ....
Bad Luck
1995 was a good year. I worked in Concord, amid the hallowed stonewalls of history. I was hired by Neil Jorgensen, the best landscape designer in New England. Neil was in such demand as a designer that you had to book him months in advance, if he was even willing to do your garden. We worked on $100,000 projects and did award-winning work -- and Neil was such a great guy to work for...... It was unbelievable -- having fun, making lots of fun, and being real proud of the work too ..... I thought I had it made .. We worked every day, clear into November, when the ground started to freeze and our last day it was snowing -- but what a season we had.
I took a temporary job that winter driving a Buick regal -- driving executives to and from the airport. I was often stuck in Boston's horrible traffic, but I was getting paid by the hour, so what did I care -- the Buick was a nice ride.
When spring came, that's when my bad luck came with the melting snow. Neil's marriage broke up, and he became terribly depressed. He stopped working. Customers kept calling him and begging him to get started on their gardens, but Neil stayed in seclusion. He went up to his cabin in Maine, where there was no telephone .... Like a real Scandinavian he brooded and sulked and drank ..... Worse for me, I was out of work .. I begged him, when I finally got him on the phone..... Neil, don't just think of yourself, you're putting me out of work .... It was awful -- after getting so close to a really good deal, and it was the first time in my working life that ever happened -- working with the very best people and the best plants and the best equipment, making and building the most beautiful garden -- and then nothing.
I call that bad luck, which has been rare in my life. Most of my problems have been self-inflicted, but this one time it was bad luck -- fate, and the gods went against me ..... Later that spring, I got a call from Chicago that my mother was dying.
Smiling babies make everyone happy. Mom dying of cancer back in Chicago is quite a bit different -- but it's not really sad. The sad parts of "Too Many Mornings" are the defeats and failures -- that's where the pain lies -- but Mother leaving us -- that was just awesome.
We all came home that summer, Tom and Carolyn came in from Los Angeles, Katy came in from Denver. We took turns looking after Mom. She bore it well , but she didn't like being sick -- I don't mean that lightly. Mom was a strong-willed woman who never got sick because she did not like being sick and would not waste her time lying in bed...... And she did not like being looked after by her kids or by anyone else. She was not going to become some sweet old lady who needed help to get into the car ...... She was scared of dying, but not that scared -- she just didn't care to linger and draw it out.
Toward the end, she went back to the hospital and she sent me away. She only wanted my sisters with her at that point -- because of her hair. She could not get her hair fixed and combed right in the hospital, and she did not care for her sons to see her disheveled.... That's not silly, that was important to her.
It was as gift. She was our mother and we were everything to her. She died in September after only three months of illness. I remember this awesome feeling. I told myself, "This only happens once in your life, so do it right and give it all your attention." ...... I never felt so special and so blessed. Mom had arranged everything to make it easy for us. Katy and I went to the funeral home to pick out a cheap casket -- what Mom wanted. Instead we spent money on white flowers -- but not lillies...... It was like the whole world stopped for our benefit .... Neighbors brought food over. Relatives sat in the living room..... It was like floating on a cloud.
Frank Munaretto was over at the house and in close contact with my brother Tom. Frank was Mom’s accountant.  Mom always said there’s no such thing as security but she sure watched her money carefully.
And dying was a problem for Mom, because, seriously, what was the point of going to heaven if you can’t take it with you?
I know she would have preferred to keep her money herself, but her second choice was to give it to us kids, and Frank was all ready and prepared to divide everything into four equal piles. Kids will fight over $5 and a bread basket, so the amount doesn’t matter, what matters is the process and the passing on of goods  -- done rightly, it is a blessing. That was Mom’s gift, she kept us together as a family after she was gone, because that’s what she wanted.
Now, to catch up with the story. It was the autumn of 1996, the year my mother passed away back in Chicago -- but this is the short version of the story and I am leaving a lot of stuff out.
I have been leaving stuff out -- like the bus trip I took that summer. I took the Greyhound Bus from Boston to Seattle and back -- three days and three nights each way. I brought a paperback edition of the Brothers Karamazov, which was the perfect novel to bring on such a grinding journey --- some 800 pages of incredible psychological depth and unrelenting intensity .... If I had not taken the cross country bus ride, I would never have read the book......Otherwise the Greyhound is a depressing accumulation of desperate people -- a homeless shelter on wheels -- it's probably gotten worse in recent years.
Nevertheless --- I have written 7,000 words into this story without using such a fancy word as "nevertheless" -- but nevertheless, I needed to take that bus ride in order to see the land. If you drive, you have to watch the rode, which was not my purpose...................................... This may sound grandiose or sentimental, but America is my home and I claim it -- every single acre. I am the co-owner along with some 300 million other people. Being co-owner, I need to take a look around from time to time -- to see the farms and the trees, and the big cities and small towns................................ So while I was reading Dostoyevsky, I was looking out the window...... I am a wise traveler -- long bus rides across wheated plains blend perfectly with long Russian novels.
I need to have patience. I wish to write freelance farming stories for the local newspaper, but I think they will not respond to my email. I have the urge to throw a rock through their window -- "What do you mean, you don't like my stuff?" .... Instead I will continue the story.
We laid mother to rest in a cemetery out by Des Plaines, a long drive from the house. My folks had a plot in the parish cemetery right down the street, but when my oldest sister died in an accident in 1974 that space was used, so mother was taken out to Des Plaines .... In our family we never cared about graves and tombstones very much -- not much for visiting the dear departed ones and the old bones. Our old folks did not teach us reverence for the past ... It was more about the future .... When they came to America they left their old lives behind and rarely looked back ...... My mother herself had no sense of nostalgia - she more enjoyed setting us up for the adventures of life.
And that newer life began after the funeral. I did feel a little scared and unprotected -- like being an orphan. It was mother and father who stood between me and death -- but now the cold breath was on my shoulder ..... Carolyn and Tom flew back to Los Angeles. Katy and I stayed in the house that autumn. I got a job as clerk at the Crate and Barrel. I took karate lessons and piano lessons..... It was very pleasant at our old home......In my mind, I could not separate mother from the home in which we were reared. And it was if she was still there.
But I made one significant change to the landscape. My folks bought the house on Forest Avenue in 1946, the year I was born. They planted a double row of yews -- the low spreading yews by the driveway, and the taller, arching yews next to the house ...... It was a wise decision to plant the yews, for they are the strongest protectors of a good house. A dark green in foliage and sometimes with little red berries, the yews were always there, my whole life. But they had gone decades without being trimmed and they were far over grown, starting to block the driveway and crowd the house. They looked very old. ---- a good pruning might have been in order, but this was too significant ..... We were going to sell the house and whatever family moved into deserved a fresh start ..... I used my chain saw and cut all the yews flush to the ground -- I planted a new double of yews, young and vital, for the future, for the new people who are to come....Mom would have liked that.
I flew to Cape Town, South Africa in early February, 1997. It was a fateful year, Princess Diana died. She was beloved all over Africa. You see her photo on the wall in simple homes, next an image of Bob Marley.
This story is very condensed. The Facebook format forces this writer to get right to the point. Why did I go to Africa? So many have people have asked me that -- but no, upon reflection, I have to say that's kind of a dumb question. A lot of times you learn more just by listening -- so listen to my tale..........Going back to Africa wasn't the beginning of time, it was before that, when there was no time..... in the dream time .....
I flew from Chicago to Miami on Delta. Then got on the big 747 --South African Airways -- such a big plane and only a few passengers, we flew all night over the ocean, nothing but stars and glimmering water far below, going south, south, south across the water .... I had never been so far away in my life.
From the Cape Town airport to a B & B in Kalk Bay. I could see the ocean from my room. They were an Indian couple who ran it, Mia and Fatima Laher..... Michael Pam was the old poet of Kalk Bay --- we drank tea together at the Cafe Matisse. The Coloured woman who served us was beautiful, but Michael gave me a warning glance -- I wasn't aware of distinctions he had lived with all his life.
I swam in the surf. I walked the hills. I drank beer. I met members of Parliament at the State House. I saw Nelson Mandela in a parade....I called my daughter long distance. I told her of my reverie, she said, "Dad, when are you going into Africa? You can't just hang around like it was a resort." ...... I wish I had not acted on her advice, but I soon took off for the country.
But you would rather hear about the kittens. As you wish. It's 7:30 a.m. They have just gotten up, eyes wide open. The one who likes me came over and scratched my pant leg to say Good Morning.
Writing Stories for Jesus
I heard the voice of Jesus last night, talking to me. He sounded a lot like Denzel Washington .....
But it was Jesus himself. You see what happened that day is I wrote a story on my laptop -- about growing strawberries and the farmworkers who pick berries in Ventura County. I worked with a single-minded focus for 2 hours and whipped up a really nice 750 word column for my Farm News newsletter -- Good work, Fred, I thought.
Then I reached for the Save button, but I hit the wrong key and erased the whole story -- gone, vanished into cyberspace .... There was a stunning and very hurt silence. I took four or five deep breathes and slowly backed away from the laptop ..... I decided to take a drive -- went up to Ojai and past Ojai in to the Los Padres Forest, a way up high, by a waterfall.
I walked a little trail, I wasn't mad or anything -- but I wrote such a good story and nobody read it .... That's when I heard the voice.....
"I read it." What, who's there? "I read it. It was a good story."
It sounded like Denzel Washington, but it had to be Jesus. I just knew it. I poured out my heart to him. I said I hate it when I write a story and nobody wants to read it, it gets too frustrating. He said, "I read everything you write." You do? "Sure. Everything. It's pretty good too." That just blew me away. I was writing stories for Jesus all this time, but I didn't know it.
Why are You Walking Alone?
I should have stayed in Kalk Bay. I could have written a book of poetry and romanced the waitress at the Cafe Matisse -- gone swimming in the warm salt water, but no ......
Fatima Laher was my hostess at Chartfield House. I mentioned an interest in seeing Africa. "Then you must go to Nyanga," she said.
But why? What is so special about Nyanga? "You must go there," she said. I guess she was trying to tell me something. So, a thousand miles and two weeks later, with an interesting diversion to the Karoo, where the Bushmen dwell, I arrived in Nyanga......Nyanga is in the eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. The name means "moon" or "witch doctor" in the Shona language. Being at high elevation, Nyanga has pine forests, apple orchards, and rushing mountain streams. Small farm plots yield abundantly because there is ample rain....... I took many solitary walks around the countryside. I visited homes..... One day a young woman, really a girl, about 12, said, "Why are you walking alone?" ...... Such a good question, and I had no answer.
Who cooks for you?
I left Nyanga, walking alone, and traveled to Matopos, where the most ancient granite stones form fantastic shapes. The African woman emerged from the very earth -- or maybe it was that I met her at the Palace Hotel in nearby Bulawayo over a beer -- but I like the version where she emerges from the earth better.
We talked about her life and her family. I told her I was single -- divorced. She asked, not innocently, "Who cooks for you?" What little resistance I had disappeared.............I began courting her. I rented a car to take her to fountains and night clubs. She brought Her Aunt Janet and her Aunt Winnie on these dates. The aunties rode in the back seat.... I bought them plenty of beer and chicken and won their approval ....... We were properly and legally married some months later -- renting a house in suburban Bulawayo.
It was a good home, very strong and solid. The cement walls and tile roof kept us cool even on the hottest days. The front yard had an enormous pepper tree blessing us with shade. I built an herb garden in the back yard. I worked as a volunteer at a nearby nature preserve..
My wife's relatives constantly besieged us. They would sit for hours in our living room, waiting for food, leaving when they were fed and given bus fare home .... I learned the African word for "son-in-law" is Umkunyani, meaning "he who pays for everything.”
Mr. and Mr. Jones were coloured people who lived next door and fairly prosperous. They said we must move away or the relatives would consume everything..... And I was getting too homesick, so I asked Zodwa, my wife, "Do you want to go to America?" -- I had never mentioned this possibility before, but I think all the time her answer would have been yes.


zangoid said...

Hi Fred
I didn't know you had moved around that much. I just moved from the house in Seattle I was there 29 years except the year that I sublet it while I was in Zimbabwe

Unknown said...

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