Archive for May, 2014


©1996, 2011 By Bob Litton

I don’t like cemeteries. It’s not that I’m supersti­tious or afraid of the dead; although I doubtless would be, were one of them to suddenly stand up before me in a con­frontational sort of way. No, I don’t like cemeteries because they remind me that we never cease being consumers.

Recently, however, I got a job at a warehouse about seven miles north of here, and the road to it runs by a cemetery. It’s a very extensive graveyard on the west side of the road; a sign on the east side announces that the fallow acreage there is reserved for “future development” — meaning more bodies, grave markers, and biblical statues. The older site is shaded by plenty of scrub oaks and cedars, with an occasional elm spanning a pathway. A mausoleum shaped like a late Roman era basilica backs up handsomely to the road I traverse each day in my beat-up old Ford pickup. That building and others not as apparent are of white brick. The low grillework fence which surrounds the cemetery is black.

My sister, I thought on my initial journey up the road, is buried there. I wasn’t sure, because I was only eight years old the last time — one Easter Sunday — my parents took me to her gravesite. Eight was also her age when she died of a brain tumor a year before I was born, although I didn’t know that the day we stood there in the tree-lined section where she lay. My parents had hoped I would be a reincarna­tion of her, I believe, and never really forgave me for being something else. On occasion — usually her birthday or her deathday — they would put one of her dresses on me and murmur things I can’t recall, or don’t want to recall. Maybe that Easter when we stood out there musing beside her grave was when they finally realized I wasn’t she, for we never went back again. Together.

Driving by the cemetery a few weeks ago, I wondered if it actually was the one that contained my sister’s plot. There was room for doubt, since at least half a dozen other graveyards are scattered about town. I also wondered if there was a clearly visible marker. Perhaps it was small and overrun with grass.

Thinking about her made me think about my father, who died five years ago at eighty-two. I never had called him “Father” or “Dad” or “Pop” while he was living.  He was for a time, when I was small and dependent, “Daddy”. That was how I thought of him when he lifted me up to his face and kissed me wetly and held my cheek against his own — a curved, bony plane covered with “stickers”, as I termed his over­night beard growth. Then, when I became a youth, and espe­cially when that emotional chasm yawned between us, he was “Pappy”. To my brothers, I always spoke of him as “Pappy”.

He was a philandering old fraud, Pappy was. His dark brown eyes gazed predatorily from each side an aquiline nose in a narrow face. One of the harsher products of the Great Depression, he looked upon everyone, including his own family, as prey designed for his survival. A business deal, even the simplest, wasn’t worth considering unless he could introduce a little chicanery into it. He also kept every­thing, from forty-year-old utility bill stubs to yesterday’s grocery store coupons, stashed away pack-rat fashion. When I was still a child, Mother divorced him after he came home once too often with lipstick on his neck. He left our apartment to go live in a small brick building he owned in a part of town aswarm with used car lots and pawn shops. A some-time sign painter, he worked, as well as slept, in that musty old building and collected things — old beer bottles, old magazines, chicken coop wire, lengths of nail-studded lumber. Someday, he apparently imagined, such items might be exceedingly scarce and therefore deliciously valuable. One thing, if nothing else, the Great Depression had taught him: dearth equals worth. A small, hand-written sign he tacked over his kitch­en door frame constituted his daily meditation: “Think a million!  Every day, think a million!” And who should gainsay him?  Just think of all those relics retrieved from the sands of Egypt one sees in museums: how priceless they are, even the bits and scraps of clay and papyrus! All one had to do is hold onto something — anything — and wait.

When the death sickness came upon him, I was living about four hundred miles west of home. My eldest brother, who housed Pappy in those final weeks, told me the old man had been difficult, always making loud, strange noises in the night, demanding attention, ranting occasionally. I could believe the claim about Pappy’s ranting, because he had always done that. However, number one brother is given to exaggerating his own virtues, so I doubted just how self-sacrificing had been the attentions he had lavished on the old man. As for myself, I had been estranged from Pappy for ten years, ever since he had bellowed out in a pub to a mutual acquaintance, “I wish that boy would go ahead and kill himself and get it over with instead of talking about it all the time to every therapist who hangs out a shingle!” My other brother, number two in nativity, hadn’t spoken to the old man for twenty years, not since Pappy had short­changed one of his friends in a hamburger joint Pappy had operated a few years. None of us, to say it all, grieved at the funeral.

But we all three appeared at the funeral parlor; as did Mother, although she spent the time sitting on a rear pew and chatting with some of her former in-laws. Pappy, I had to assume, was in that silver box up in front of the eulo­gist’s lectern. Organ music came in to us from somewhere: I couldn’t see any organ. I felt sorry for the hired minister as he stood in the aisle trying to condole with people who weren’t grieving. Brother number one had apparently warned him what to expect, however, for when he finally went up to the lectern he talked about the Prodigal Son. The burden of his talk was that there is some good in the worst of us and that it is never too late to turn one’s life toward virtue. I wondered if Pappy, in his last hour, had concluded that virtue might be its own reward, after all. The preacher earned his pay that day.

For five years after that, I never concerned myself with the fate of the silver box, which I assumed had actual­ly been aluminum or stainless steel. Brother number one, who had seen to the funeral arrangements, had accepted responsibility for the remains too, surely. He enjoyed being responsible for family affairs, I thought.

It wasn’t until I had moved back to town and got this job north of the cemetery, with the result that I had to drive by the graveyard twice every day, that I began to wonder about my brother’s attention to duty. A few months ago I turned fifty and became more melancholy than ever before. Beginning to compare myself with Pappy, I came to realize I hadn’t developed my potential much more than he had. Other than being a tad honester and a good deal better educated, I was just as much a drifter and failure in life as he. Moreover, Pappy had at least obeyed the biblical injunction of “be fruitful and multiply”, think what you will about the fruit. I felt an almost gravitational force pulling me toward that same nether world where Pappy had existed. I envied Pappy in his new state of Nothingness….In his box? I longed for an end to it all, but not in a box! And that’s how I came to wonder where the silver box was.

What had my brother done with Pappy’s ashes? I remem­bered what Mother had told me when she learned Pappy had left half his small estate to his girlfriend: “If it were up to me, I’d dump him in the trash can!” That was a harsh sentence, even for one who perhaps deserved it; but my brother had the silver box, so I kept my mouth shut. You have to put up with a lot from people who are eighty, espe­cially when they are your mother.

One Friday in October the spirit possessed me to call my brother and ask him what he had done with Pappy.  My sister-in-law answered the phone.

“He’s gone with a friend to pick up a horse,” she said. “Do you want me to have him call you?”

“I’m not sure. All I wanted to ask him was what he did with Pappy. Perhaps you know.”

“I think he gave him to your mother.”

“Oh no,” I said softly.

“Why don’t you try her and call us back if she doesn’t have him?”

Mother’s line was busy. I didn’t try again until the next day, and I didn’t want to call then. I had developed a severe case of obsessive anxiety about what effect her angry, crazy disposal of Pappy’s remains would have on our relationship. The bond between us had not been very strong since the end of my childhood. Then, shortly after I turned seven­teen, she remarried; and she and her new husband sold their home and moved to California, partly because he had family out there and partly to get away from me. With the fifty dollars she sent each month I rented a room from a kind, albeit eccentric, little old lady who had a fondness for anything in the shape of, or decorated with, ducks, models of which she had scattered all over her living room. And I managed to finish high school.

So, we were never close toward the end, my parents and I, and when we did see one another it was more often than not through happenstance than purpose: Pappy had an uncanny knack for boarding the same bus I was already on, regardless of the route or the time of day. Nevertheless, ever since he died and I moved back to town, I have made a regular habit of visiting Mother every Sunday. The fact that I make the five-mile drive to her house apparently means more to her than my entry into her living room. There, she half sits, half reclines on her couch, watching “The Lone Ranger” or “Lassie” and working a crossword puzzle. She neither says much nor complains if I leave after perhaps only a quarter-hour. We never embrace or utter endearments. We are very subtly quite mutually exclusive.

Finally, on Saturday, she answered the phone; her tone hinted to me my sister-in-law had forewarned her. “Yes, I have the remains?  What do you want with them?”

“Well, I’m not sure, but I thought the proper thing to do would be to spread them over Sister’s grave.”

“I was going to have that done once, but the cemetery people wanted to charge eighty-five dollars. Then, when I found out how much your father had stolen from me, I could not bear to have him near my dear, sweet, precious little girl.”

“Well, I’ll talk to you about it later.”

“Yes. You can talk to me about it later.”

Now I had a new quandary. Mother hadn’t yet committed the unforgivable, but she had put a wrinkle in the only plan I had. After the way Pappy had treated her, I could sympa­thize with her distaste for having him intimately disposed near her only daughter. I mused about other possibilities: a local scenic lake? a creek that quietly meandered through the inner city? the site where his old building stood, now a school’s graveled parking lot? No, the only appropriate place was still his daughter’s grave.

On Sunday, I arrived at my Mother’s house at the usual time — in the middle of “Lassie” — but in an uncustomary mood of single-minded determination. I sat on the piano bench and tried to get interested in “Lassie”.

“She’s protecting that sick old man’s garden from gophers,” Mother explained. “I really like Lassie. She always does good deeds for people and she’s so smart.”

Mother arose suddenly and went into the bathroom. When she returned, she was squeezing drops into her left eye. “I almost forgot to take my medicine,” she said. She had had surgery for a cataract in one eye and suffered from glaucoma in the other. After administering the drops, she held a daub over the eye, half masking her face.

“Where’s Pappy?” I asked.

“I’ll have to find him. I think I remember where he is.”

She went into the guest bedroom, also her sewing room. The closet, I imagined. She returned with a grey cardboard box.

“It’s heavy,” I said.

“Yes. I was going to dig a hole in the back yard and bury it out there…. One of my friends told me I ought to dump it in the trash.”

“It’s none of their business.”

I took the box home to the apartment I share with my second brother and opened it.  Inside the box was another box, of maroon plastic. Taking it into my brother’s room, I showed it to him and remarked quizzically, “I thought it was a silver box we saw at the funeral.”

“That was probably the one they use for show,” he replied.

The next day was Monday and another day off for me. No work and nothing else to do either. Doing nothing depresses me. I lay across my bed, fully clothed and without anywhere to go. I dozed off a while. When I awoke, the mid-after­noon sun’s beams were filtering through the slats of the window blind. This is it, I thought.

I got up, grabbed Pappy’s box off my chest-of-drawers, and went downstairs. Outside, the early fall breeze still had a nip in it even so late in the day. I drove my old pickup north to the cemetery, trusting to instinct that it was the correct graveyard. Three men in dark suits stood outside the main office chatting with one another, apparent­ly there preparatory to a funeral yet talking about anything but the deceased. Inside, a receptionist — an old lady with jeweled glasses hanging on a strand of large colored beads — wrote Sister’s name on a card as I spelled it out for her. Then she telephoned a file clerk somewhere in another build­ing. After waiting ten minutes, I began to fear I had picked the wrong cemetery. Finally, the clerk called back, and the receptionist wrote the plot description in one corner of a courtesy map of the cemetery grounds and gave it to me. There was a multitude of sections on the acreage, each with a name intended to solace and each separated from the others by winding roads. The map reminded me of one of those children’s puzzles I had seen on place mats in fast food restaurants. One dark square surrounded by parking space marks had an arrow pointing at it with the subscript: “You are here.”

After about thirty minutes searching on my own, I stopped a Mexican groundskeeper who was driving a tractor-mower. With his help, I found Sister’s marker between a pair of over-arching elm trees. It was small, but not any smaller than most of the other markers in the area. Perhaps there was a cemetery proscription against upright grave markers, I mused — just as there was against plastic flowers — since none was in sight. Moreover, Sister’s marker was at least slightly distinguished by being decorat­ed with a bas-relief scene of Little Bo Peep and her flock, found.

I waited until the man with his mower had moved on to another section on the far side of some trees. When he was out of sight, I took Pappy’s box from the truck, opened it, and removed a clear plastic bag filled with chips of blue-grey and mauvish material. They looked more like shavings from a sculptor’s workbench than the sort of ashes I was accustomed to seeing. I poured the bag’s contents over Sister’s grave. Much of it rested too noticeably on the canopy of Bermuda grass: I knelt down and brushed the turf with the palm of my right hand, shaking the grass so the bits of Pappy would filter to the earth. Then I col­lected the box and the plastic bag, looked about to make sure none of the groundskeepers were watching, and returned to my truck.

All was accomplished.  I only wished I could have been more leisurely in those obsequies; I felt the whole action had been too furtive. But perhaps that would have pleased Pappy immensely. Nothing was done up right, he seemed to believe, unless a pinch of larceny was sprinkled in.

Two days later, as I was switching shoe pairs, insert­ing shoetrees into my brown loafers, a small white stone slid from the toe area of one shoe and bounced against the inner heel. Without pausing, I picked the stone up and tossed it into the wastebasket. Suddenly a horrifying thought struck me: That might have been Pappy. After all I had been through to prevent Mother from throwing him out with the trash, here was I committing that very act.

I took everything out of the wastebasket, item by item, shaking each carefully as I went. Old utility bills, false starts on a résumé, coupons for products I had no use for, a pair of socks with worn-out heels, a peach pit stuck to a report from our congressman, the photograph of a girlfriend who had bought an answering machine to screen out my calls, and, finally, there at the bottom lay the fragment…of what? Thigh bone?  Shoulder blade?  Aquiline nose? Whatever it was, it was too small simply to put into my pants pocket. I found an envelope and taped the rock/bone to the inside of the flap. On the envelope’s front I wrote “Pappy (?)”.

The next day was a workday, but, as I said, the ceme­tery was along the route to my job. On my return home, just as it was becoming dusk, I turned in through one of the cemetery’s entryways; its high grillework gate would be open nearly another hour, according to a sign on one of the brick pillars. This time, since I wasn’t carrying any suspicious-looking box nor preparing to fling handfuls of ashes all over the place, I had thought I would be more re­laxed, even meditative. The fact was, however, that I grappled anxiously with the clear tape which held Pappy’s ash tenaciously to the envelope. In the end, I tore at the flap’s other side. Finally freeing the fragment, I held it a moment between thumb and forefinger. Then I dropped it on Sister’s grave.

As I walked to my truck, an image of Pappy in his musty old building came over me.  A bright, naked light bulb dangled on a cord from the ceiling. Pappy stood in the doorway, the bulb blazing brightly behind him like the nimbus of a solar eclipse. I was just outside, in the night. All I could discern was the grey stubble of beard on his jaw and chin. He kissed me wetly.





Mother’s Christmas Present

©2011 By Bob Litton

The best gift Mother ever gave  to me and to herself was her dying. I don’t mean “becoming unalive” — although that in its own way was a gift, too — but rather the manner of her dying: the way she bore up under it. And the curious thing about her death, or rather one of the curious things, was that it was only a few days before Christmas.

She had had a slight stroke almost a year before. I can’t recall what spur impelled me to go to her little house that winter’s day. It was cold — just below freezing. The distant, bare trees were almost black against a puffy gray sky. Looked like snow might fall, but it didn’t. I considered it another broken promise, for I love fresh fallen snow.

I opened the front door slowly and felt a gush of warm air wrap around my face. Mother, like many old, small people, liked a house to be what I consider overly warm. Something else was wrong: I couldn’t open the door all the way; something hard was blocking it. I looked in and saw Mother’s spindly bookcase on the floor. I pushed harder, and the bookcase moved enough for me to squeeze inside the room.

Mother was on the couch with her head lying against one arm of the divan and her left forearm dangling over her eyes.  I stepped over the books and bric-a-brac that had fallen off the bookcase.

“Oh, Elbert!” Mother exclaimed, as in pleasant surprise. She was always calling me by my brother’s name — one of my brothers that is, for I have two older siblings. This one is the middle one. It always annoyed me when Mother called me Elbert, for he was her favorite, and I wasn’t sure what the reason was for her using his name when she could clearly see who I was. Was it wishful thinking on her part? Did I remind her so much of him that she used that term as a manner of odd compliment? Was she trying to conjure me into another being — like she and Pappy did when I was little and they dressed me in my deceased sister’s clothes? I couldn’t tell, and I didn’t ask. I didn’t think she would know; and, if she did know, she wouldn’t admit as much. I would just bite my lip and keep on doing whatever I was doing.

“I must have had a stroke,” she said now. “I don’t know how long ago it was, but I was about to open the door to check the mail when I felt faint. I grabbed hold of the bookcase to steady myself and brought it down. I don’t think anything broke. Did it?”

I glanced down at the stuff on the carpet, at the tiny china collie, the tiny leprechaun with a pipe in his mouth, the tiny Dutch boy with a pail. Scattered about, also, were a few books, mostly biographies of dead entertainers like Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen. And there was Elbert’s 8×10 portrait, which mother kept close to the front door and at eye level so it would be the last thing she saw each time she left the house. I gazed at them and said, “No, they seem to be okay.”

Then my other brother, Vernon, arrived with his wife.  At any rate, I thought Loretta was his wife. They had been together many years, but I had never heard the words “married” or “wedding” or “wife” or “husband” come out of their mouths. It was an odd situation, but such ambiguity was common in our family, and I never felt sufficient interest to inquire. I just pondered that relationship, like so many other things in my life, in my later years. Pondering was safer — and more fun — than simply asking. I pulled the bookcase back upright so they could get in easier than I had.

Almost immediately, Vernon started picking up the fallen figurines and the books and the portrait of Elbert. I wondered, Why didn’t I think of doing that? Frankly, I quit thinking about Mother’s belongings long ago, when I realized none of them appealed to me enough to pay attention to. It’s not that I would have preferred they be adorned with gold and precious jewels; it’s just that Mother’s and my tastes seldom dovetailed. In fact, come to think of it, the last thing I can remember us enjoying together was Tuesday night wrestling on television when I was a preteen. We especially got a kick out of the commentator’s interviews with the wrestlers, because sometimes he would make one of them mad, and the wrestler would knock him out of his chair. Yeah, we both liked that…and “I Love Lucy”.

Vernon started flipping through some old family photographs in one of two ream-size boxes on Mother’s coffee table. She apparently had been looking at them immediately before going to the door to check her mail. “I want these,” he said, as though she were already dead and we were divvying up her stuff.

All the while Vernon was busying himself with the bric-a-brac and the photos, I sat in Mother’s tight rocking chair and stared at him. And Loretta talked with Mother about their trip the previous weekend to a local flea market. They were both pack rats.

“I don’t understand why you didn’t get that couch pillow with the Persian cat stitched in it,” said Loretta.  “It was reasonably priced and was bound to have some antique value and it was so cute.”

“I don’t like cats,” said Mother, rather grumpily. I couldn’t read Mother’s mind, but I imagined she was thinking, Here I’ve had a stroke and nearly broke my neck and all they can do is rummage through my pictures and chide me for not buying a damn pillow.  And that Bobby, he just sits there staring like a vulture waiting for me to die.

I probably was. I don’t usually know what to do in such situations. I’m too sincere to simply go through the conventional comments and actions and solicitations that are appropriate at a time like that. Sometimes, being conventional can be the healthiest thing to do. Certainly can’t be any worse than just sitting there staring.

I was probably thinking,  Here’s a new stage in my relationship with my mother. We had gotten along pretty well until I was in high school.  She had been a so-so mother and I a so-so son, but we had mostly gotten along okay. Then I was in high school, developing the adolescent attitude, dating, listening to rock-‘n’-roll music, and not holding onto any job. And Mother was middle-aged and beginning to date again herself. She wondered why I stuck around. She didn’t care whether I finished high school or not.  Why should I be any different than my two brothers, who hadn’t finished school but had moved out and learned to hustle on the streets? I was in her way, a hobble. So, when the man came along that made her feel better, she kicked me out of the nest.

I managed to finish high school anyway. After graduating, I joined the Air Force and then went to college with the help of several loans. During all those years, I seldom contacted Mother, and we grew really far apart.

When her second husband was dying, of stomach cancer, I went to visit them at the hospital. I can’t remember why, since I didn’t have any regard for him one way or the other. Mother had apparently grown away from him. Once, I recall, when I was working in a dining hall at the university, Mother came to visit.  While I was wiping off the tables, she sat and talked to the dietitian, a woman to whom I had introduced her so Mother could alter some of her clothes. After Mother had left, the dietitian looked at me with an amused, quizzical smile and said, “Your mother just told me about your stepfather and said, ‘I just wish that old man would hurry up and die.’” Mother made similar comments to other people I introduced her to. One of my university friends told me he had had a conversation with her over the phone. “Now I think I understand your problem,” he said to me. I could multiply examples of Mother’s lack of tact a dozen times, but that’s not the main point of this story. I’m just noting that diplomacy was not one of her virtues. Why I kept on introducing her to people, I don’t know. I’m just a slow learner, I guess.

Somehow, I don’t remember Mother being tactless when I was a child. Maybe I just didn’t understand what she was saying all the time. I wish I could have known her when she was a teenager. I knew enough about her from the family stories she told me to think she must have been a “live wire”.

Mother, in fact, was a good raconteur. I would have liked to have some of the experiences she did and have the ability to relate them as succinctly and excitingly, especially of her and grandfather driving a small herd of cattle through the main street of Harlingen, which was just a small town then.

Once she told me a couple of stories from her high school days in the Rio Grande Valley. She had a close friend named Eula Lee, and they were pranksters. One girl they picked on had beautiful long brown hair of which her father was really proud, as proud as though it were his own hair. Well, Mother went to high school during the flapper era. One day, she and Eula Lee cornered this lovely girl and told her she was not being up-to-date style-wise. They talked her into letting them bob her hair. When her father saw it, he was furious and came to complain to my grandfather. There was also a popular athlete in the school whose mother made him large tasty lunches. Mother’s and Eula Lee’s lunches were just average, nothing in comparison to this boy’s. One day, the two girls got into this boy’s locker and switched lunch sacks.

I wanted Mother to write these stories and others down in a blank book that I gave her, but she never did.

But I’m wandering off my track. I was telling you about my going to see my dying stepfather. I’m not sure why I went. He wasn’t really any relation of mine, and he had never done anything for me. I guess I just thought he was another of God’s children, and somehow I had the feeling that his hospital room wouldn’t be overflowing with consolers. Mother, in fact, was sitting in the hallway just outside his door. I didn’t bother to look for a clock she might be watching. She said they had been there a few hours.

I went inside the room, a two-bedder. A nurse was attending to his roommate. Mother’s heavy-set husband lay on his back, an unconscious lump on the bed — I supposed asleep – with a tube in his nose; he was breathing in a loud wheezing way. I came back out and asked Mother why he was gasping like that.

“That’s what people do when they’re dying,” she replied with a smile, as though amused by my college-educated ignorance. I supposed she had seen at least several people die in her lifetime. This was a first for me, although during my journalistic career I had seen several people who were already dead,  and I had hoped I would react more specifically, that the dying process would affect me in a particular way so that I would know whether I was afraid of death or not. But I felt nothing except a brief period of curiosity.

I left after a short time of fruitless mental sorting out. While I was driving away, I thought, Well, one thing you know about death now is that sometimes it’s a very tedious experience.

For the year after her stroke, Mother seemed to go through a late-life blossoming. Her skin tone seemed rosier and she smiled more. Yet, shortly after her stroke one of her sisters, Aunt Mary, took her in for tests at a hospital. A week later, Vernon and Loretta took her in for follow-up testing. When I finally managed to reach her on the phone I asked her, “Did the doctor tell you anything?”

“Yes,” she said, “We got the x-rays back. My esophagus is dead, and I have a hiatal hernia. I’m dying piece by piece, I guess.” Then she chuckled.

Now she was a lump on her hospital bed.

When Vernon came to the bookstore where I was working my cash register shift, he said, “Mother is in the hospital dying…if you care.”

I summoned relief and followed him to the hospital. When we arrived, Elbert was already there in the room. It was a private room in the ICU ward. I looked about and thought, Well, I bet this cost a pretty penny! Then I felt guilty about thinking that.

Shortly thereafter some of Mother’s neighbors arrived. One of them — a dumpy little old lady — didn’t like me, I suppose because Mother had repeatedly told her what a neglectful son I was. I don’t dispute that. I just thought it was none of the neighbor’s business, and I resented Mother’s talking to her about me.

My sister-in-law Loretta said to Mother, “Maurine, your sons are all here.”

My brothers and I squeezed ourselves a little closer to the foot of the bed. She had an oxygen mask over her nose, and she didn’t like it. She took it off and just smiled at us. Mother was a raconteur, all right, but she usually was speechless during sentimental episodes. I inherited that from her.

Soon I looked up at the clock on the wall above the nurses’ station in the hallway. It said five minutes past nine. I had seen a sign at the door to the ICU ward that said “Visiting Hours: 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m..” I had seen enough for now and didn’t have anything to say, especially with all those people in the room, so I turned toward the door.  But the dumpy neighbor blocked my way and looked menacingly at me as though to say, “No you don’t!  You have to stay here and pay proper respects to your mother!”

I didn’t have strong feelings about leaving, so I turned around. It wasn’t but a few minutes later, though, that the others also decided it was time to leave and give Mother some rest, as though she had been doing anything else but lie in that hospital bed all day. “She doesn’t want all that stuff attached to her!” said Dumpy, in disgust, as she passed by me.

I took off work the next day and went to see Mother in the morning. She looked a little pale and her hair was a mess, but she also looked like she might be reviving. She had taken the oxygen mask off her nose again, but there was a tube in her left arm. I was alone with her, and I felt more comfortable.

“Bobby, why are they doing this to me?” she said, indicating the oxygen machine and the cardiograph machine. “They’re going against nature.” She’d told me a couple of years earlier — right out of the blue, apropos of nothing — she wanted to die.  “I had no idea I’d live this long,” she had said. I never mentioned her comments to my brothers. Now, I stood there in the ICU room at the foot of her bed wondering how I was going to respond without sounding cold-blooded, just how aware she was of what was going on.

“Well, Mother, if they take that tube out, you’re a goner, and they don’t want to

be responsible for that.”

She looked at me with a slight hint of shock. I thought,  A minute ago she asked a question that indicated she knew she was dying and the machines were impeding the natural process, and now she looks at me with a shocked expression?

Mother said, “I want to go home.”  I certainly could understand that sentiment and wondered why she had to spend her last days in ICU of all places, but I had no authority, either with the hospital or with my family.

“I want to see a preacher,” she said, in a querulous tone as if she felt nobody would bother to fetch one unless she insisted.

“I’ll get you one,” I told her. I sat in the only chair in the room — one of those plastic stacking chairs — and looked at the cardiograph machine and then out the window at the city five stories below.

Then Elbert came in. He said good morning and sat on the edge of the bed furthest from me. He didn’t say anything else, just held her hand. She didn’t speak either, but lay there staring at him as though she were trying to memorize his face for all eternity. Maybe they’ll talk if I leave, I thought, and got up and went out.

I knew three ministers I could call, so I thought my errand would be simple, but it wasn’t. One of the ministers, a long-time friend from my university days, was in another hospital himself for a gall stone removal. The second was my present pastor. He agreed to come see Mother and did so, but very briefly and he felt obliged to mention that I was in his congregation. That irked me, bringing me into it. He didn’t ask Mother how she felt or what she wanted to say to him but simply said a brief dutiful prayer and then left. The third minister had been my spiritual adviser during my mystical period. When he walked into the room, he looked at me with a look that seemed to say, “Why can’t you do this yourself?” — as though I were a cleric.  However, he stayed with Mother a reasonable period of time, gave her a chance to say something, and then said a fairly decent prayer.  Still, I wasn’t satisfied myself, and the next day I stood at Mother’s bedside while we were alone, up close to her head, held her hand and tried to think of a soothing yet substantive prayer. I didn’t feel it coming, so I dove in with “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….” And Mother almost frantically grasped my hand, raised her head an inch or so off her pillow, and said, “Oh yes! Oh yes!”

Then she grew calm and released my hand. I felt better, too. After a short while she spoke to me, “Oh, Bobby, I saw the most awful thing yesterday. I was in this little square room and I saw Ruth R…. and Sue B.… torturing Frank R….  It was terrible.”  All three were Mother’s friends, and Ruth was Frank’s wife; Fank had been dead I don’t know how long and Ruth, one of the best-natured people I’ve ever known, was an invalid. Sue was Mother’s next door neighbor, the dumpy one who had blocked me from exiting the night before; I doubt that Sue had ever met either of the R’s….  I told the doctor about Mother’s “vision,” and he explained it as a temporary hallucination caused by being cooped up in an unfamiliar room a long while.

Mother got to a point where she couldn’t talk. I can’t recall why: either because she had to have the oxygen mask on continuously or because her vocal cords were out of commission. Elbert and I were in the room with her. I gave her a writing tablet I had noticed lying at the foot of her bed, and she wrote on it, but her usual peerless style was gone. She wrote in large sloping and jagged swoops. After a few tries, I was finally able to decipher it: “Get that Mexican out of here!” She was referring to the hospital aide, a small woman busy tidying up the room. Mother had always been pretty much a bigot, but this was extreme, even for her. I was embarrassed; but I didn’t do anything, and shortly I didn’t have to, because the aide left the room on her own accord, hopefully because her business there was done.

Later, as I was sitting by the window with the tablet on my lap, looking at it, Elbert glanced over at me and said, “Are you going to write about this, too?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, “probably. Anyway, I intend to keep this…as it is the last thing Mother ever wrote.”

He looked like he wanted to say, “Don’t write about it!”, but couldn’t because I had written a story about disposing of Pappy’s ashes which he had liked. I still have Mother’s last scribbles.

One evening, one of the doctors summoned my brothers and my sister-in-law and me into a circle in the hall just outside Mother’s room. He said it was time to decide whether to pull the plug on Mother. When asked about other options, he said we could try a pacemaker but that was not a very hopeful choice. We said we’d think about it.

As soon as I got home, I called Elbert and told him, “You’re Mother’s favorite. I’m certainly not. I want to leave the decision up to you and let you know that, whatever you decide, I’ll back you all the way.”

“Vernon told me the same thing,” Elbert replied.

The next day, I was in Mother’s room, near the door, and I saw Elbert standing at the nurse’s station talking to one of the doctors — a surgeon — on the phone.  “Just give me the game plan!  What’s the game plan?” he said, obviously uptight.  (My brother is a habitual gambler, especially on sports games.) I thought to myself, If I had known it was going to be this hard for him, I would have demanded we pull the plug.

That night I came back up to Mother’s room, but she was asleep — a restless sleep, her legs spread out as though she had been thrashing with them. More bad visions, I thought.  I didn’t like it.  Mother’s hospital gown was bunched up above her knees and the door was open, but I didn’t want to touch her gown. I felt a kind of shame.

I asked a nurse about Mother’s condition, if she would wake up again.

“It’s not likely she will come out of this,” the nurse said commiseratingly. She was a young nurse and pretty and looked at me as though I badly needed her encouraging attention.

Elbert had spent the entire previous night sitting up with Mother. I felt the heavy hand of duty to spend the night there this day. I went into the room and sat in the plastic chair and watched, alternately, Mother — sleeping but with a heavy breathing and yet not the wheezing kind her dead second husband had exhibited — and the cardiograph machine, with the pulse line now making high jagged spikes and then settling into a calmer, slopey line. It did that for two hours. Each time I would think, This is it. This is the end. And then the rhythm would start all over again.

I’m too rational. I freely admit it. Duty be hanged, I thought, I’m going home to get some sleep and come back in the morning. There’s no sense in my sitting up all night. That won’t make it all better, won’t ease her passing.

When I arrived at the ICU ward the next morning I saw a big sign, red letters over white, in front of Mother’s door: “STOP.” I felt a semi-awareness of its meaning but was confused by its purpose and the wording. Is a death incident supposed to leave a residue of dangerous germs or toxic gases?

Apparently, the pacemaker hadn’t made “a hill’s beans worth of difference,” as Pappy might have said. When Loretta showed me the Medicare statement later indicating that the pacemaker had cost about a hundred thousand dollars, I became angry with myself for leaving the decision up to Elbert.

The young nurse I had spoken to before was there. She left her station and came over to me and said, “You can go in.” She looked at me with a judgment in her eyes that I interpreted as meant to sting, but it didn’t. She apparently thought that normal sons sat in hospital rooms all night with their dying mothers, and I wasn’t a normal son.

Mother died seven days before Christmas. As she had requested, we cremated her body. A memorial service was held the following month, the soonest time all her remaining family could be brought together. As I said, it was the best Christmas present Mother ever gave me. She died about as well as could be expected under the circumstances: her enforced absence from her own bed at home, the annoying tubes and mask, the hallucinatory visions caused by the lack of customary visual stimuli, the alien hospital aides. She was, simply, more distressed by her environment than by her oncoming death. I just hoped that when my time came I wouldn’t do any worse.








Heroes and Morals

By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  This essay originally appeared in one of our local newspapers while I was on the staff there. One can discern from the persons and events related that it is dated in a sense; yet, like other of my old commentaries, the message is still relevant. Otherwise I would not be republishing it here.
— BL

Do we really need heroes? That question flickered across my mind several times over the past decade as I read news accounts of major sports, entertainment and political figures toppling off their pedestals. Of course, they’re just humans with the same frailties as the rest of us. The magnitude of their collapses perhaps is greater, but that they collapse should not be surprising.

The more bothersome aspect of this situation is not what the idols are doing; it’s what the general population is doing. Take Elvis Presley, for instance. I was a teenager when he started making the hit parade. I liked his songs, and I thought he was hilarious on the Ed Sullivan show. The movies he made were a bit shallow, and I never intentionally watched any more after Love Me Tender. But during those early years, he seemed to me to be just a likable country boy with a unique voice.

Then he went to Las Vegas, started dressing outrageously through the tutelage of Liberace, and reputedly got heavily into drugs. He got fat. His songs and singing became boring in style and content, too larded with vocal and orchestral backup. He seemed to me to be relying on the laurels of his past and the blindness of his massive group of uncritical fans.

Elvis may not have been immortal, but his fan club apparently is. He became something of a UFO — sightings of the immortal one kept being reported hither and yon. Then he became an image on a postage stamp, with a silly nationwide survey performed to find out if the people preferred the early Elvis or the later on their envelopes. Like Marilyn Monroe, another victim of her external self and the adulation of the masses and who also was emblazoned on a postage stamp, he became an icon of our era. Now I see on television that Elvis has become the focus of a new American religion, replete with temples and priests.

The fallen sports idols are just as numerous as the entertainment ones. Baseball players Babe Ruth and Pete Rose come immediately to mind, boxer Mike Tyson, and football players O. J. Simpson and Mike Irwin. But of course that’s not a complete list. I worry about another athlete who’s right up there at the top and a hero to many young people.  Cynic that I am, I wonder: What is his Achilles heel? What would a collapse of his —such a magnitude! — do to the psyches of American youth?

Several years ago some football players on one of the best high school teams in North Texas were caught after committing several armed robberies of fast food restaurants. At their trial, coaches appeared, urging the judge to put the boys on probation and let them return to the football field, where they would be taught values and responsibility. The judge, in wonderment, looked up at the ceiling. The youths were already juniors and seniors who had presumably been in athletics since at least the ninth grade; if athletics hadn’t taught them values and responsibility by that point, it was highly unlikely to do so in the next year or two. All they would learn from such leniency would be that athletes can expect special treatment.

Perhaps we should teach our children to find values that don’t have to reside in models — in heroes — to give up the hunger for heroes. Hero-worship is basically idolatry — the enticing fruit in the Garden of Eden. But is that too hard? Is it even feasible to inculcate values that don’t have to be exemplified in some way? Can anyone stomach the medicine that “virtue can be its own reward” and doesn’t have to be a potion that will make them resemble their hero? To suggest it seems futilely to ignore the lust for the “larger-than-life” that has become a part of our cultural marrow.

It’s not Elvis’ fault that he became the subject of a cult nor Marilyn’s that she became the supreme sex symbol, although they must bear the responsibility for allowing their “talents” to destroy their personhoods. It’s not entirely the fault of those athletes that they developed the delusion that the general moral code is not binding on them; their fans cheered them right into the track of that delusion.

Former President Jimmy Carter was castigated for averring that America is suffering from a “malaise”. Yet that criticism was true; Carter was one of the prophets repudiated by his people. Presidential nominee Bob Dole blamed President Bill Clinton for the increased use of drugs by American youth. Clinton was just as silly as Dole, saying it was Congress’ fault because they had cut the anti-drug abuse program funding. Yet a poll by ABC-Newsweek revealed that the public doesn’t blame either party for the drug abuse problem. As usual, the people could see more clearly than their leaders. We can’t expect a personality — whether politician or entertainer or sports figure — to establish our goals and values for us. We, the people, must do that for ourselves.

Commentary in the Alpine (TX) Avalanche
Aug. 29, 1996                                  



Steeping My Mind In Chinese

By  Bob Litton

Any of my regular readers who ever bothered to read my “About” page might recall how I related briefly therein the fact that I studied Mandarin Chinese at Yale University’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages (IFEL) for eight months. Well, that was fifty-six years ago, and my grasp of the language has loosened. I doubt that I would starve in China or lose my way, but that is about the most I can say for my fluency. Just ask the lady over at our local Oriental Express restaurant, if you want some verification.

I still have most of the books that were distributed to me and to the other students during that fascinating period at IFEL. Over the succeeding years I have taken them up a few of times with the intention of reviving at least the basic level of fluency that I once boasted. I especially wanted to learn more of the calligraphic characters, most of which bear, for me, much aesthetic and even mystical qualities.

A more mundane purpose in resuming that study was that I wanted to read a small book — written in only 300 characters (with a few new characters translated in footnotes) — which was given to us: a book which I had never read all the way through. The story, titled “Hwar-shang-de / Mei-ren” (”The Lady in the Painting”), relates an old Chinese folk tale about a middle-aged farmer who falls in love with the image of a woman a friend has painted and given him to alleviate his loneliness.

Resuming again my study of Chinese, I also reflected with minor irritation on the Chinese name with which I had been dubbed by one of our native Chinese instructors. She already knew my surname, so she asked me if I had any brothers. I told her I had two older brothers. Somehow we had a miscommunication there: for the first part of my new given name she wrote 仲 (“Middle Son”). I did not question her about that at the time; don’t know why. On rare occasions subsequently, when the whimsy directed me, I made brief attempts to find the character for “Third Son” in my huge Chinese dictionary.

Just recently, however, an oddly serendipitous event led me to the character I needed. Here was the situation: I had not written my Chinese name in years and held some doubt as to the proper strokes for the surname character. Should there be a slanting stroke across its top or not? I looked it up in my dictionary, and there was no slanting stroke. Aha!!! Then I noticed a brief message beneath the character which warned the reader not to confuse the character with another one on a certain page; I checked that other one and, lo and behold, all the strokes were like the first…except for a slanting stroke at the top!! But more importantly, the character — pronounced “Ji” — meant “youngest son”. Eureka!! Or, as Confucius might exclaim, Jen hau!! Not the “Third Son” I had hoped to find, but even better, since the original choice might have allowed for a “Fourth Son” and even a “Fifth Son””; this closed the door on that notion. For my readers’ possible amusement, I have printed the two versions of my Chinese name below. These characters are printed in what is the “newspaper” style, not as aesthetically pleasing as the “brush” style, but it was the only mode I could reproduce from my source on the web.  Pay particular attention to the similarity in the characters for “Li” and “Ji’. In order to assure better visibility, I had to enlarge the font size:

     李  Li      Li(tton)

     仲  Jung     Middle Son

     權  Chywan    Power; Authority



       Ji     Youngest Son

     權  Chywan

I realize that this subject probably will not be of interest to many readers who venture onto this blog site, at least not as interesting as it is to me. However, above and beyond the relatively superficial interest in mastering a difficult language is the aesthetic enjoyment I receive in studying and writing the characters. I will not bother my readers with any lengthy detailed account of what is involved in Chinese calligraphy…or any other calligraphy, for that matter. I will just point out that, besides communicating terse thoughts in figurative form, many Chinese characters are aesthetically beautiful. Not all of them strike me that way; some even turn me off; but the majority of them are fun to contemplate and to write. Part of what makes the beauty apparent is observing the stroke order; for, yes, each character has a prescribed order by which it is to be written, similar, I suppose, to our spelling rules. Once the writer exercises these strokes, he or she will begin to note the rhythm in his/her hand movement; it is comparable to the movement of an orchestra or choral conductor’s baton waving.* Then, of course, there is the additional advantage of mental exercise as a way to ward off senility…at least for a while. There are other elements involved in calligraphic study, elements too technical for this essay’s purpose. Come to think of it, I do not know what this essay’s purpose is!! I guess it is to share my little hobby with anybody who might be curious. Also, it gives me a chance to relate the delightful moment I enjoyed in the serendipitous event above.


*For those readers who would like to watch the brush stroke order in action, I am including here the URL to a Chinese instruction website where they can click on any of many characters and watch it being written in the beautiful manner I mentioned above:

Once there, click on the sub-topicLearn 4000 traditional Chinese characters“, and rows of characters will pop up. Then click on any character you wish and a larger image of it, along with the word’s pronunciation and definition(s), will appear. In a couple of seconds the faint image will be followed over with the proper sequence of animated brush strokes. And in another few seconds, the strokes will be repeated. Great site!


Social Clucking

By Bob Litton

I was astonished to discover that chickens are neither sending messages nor involuntarily clearing their throats when they cluck.  Their noises at once say nothing but mean something.

What chickens share when they cluck is a feeling of reassurance.  They are saying, “I am here and you are there.”  This feeling of togetherness is very important to them.  A young chicken kept alone will die.

Thus, although purposeful, the clucking of chickens has no meaning; although constant, it is not autonomic.

Of all places, I garnered this bit of information out of a chapter about the origin of human language in a book titled The Treasure of Our Tongue by Lincoln Barnett.  Drawing the obvious parallel between the noises of the chicken coop and the living room, Barnett quotes linguists C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards: “‘Throughout the Western world it is agreed that people must meet frequently, and that it is not only agreeable to talk, but that it is a matter of common courtesy to say something even when there is hardly anything to say.’”  (Shades of Bre’r Rabbit and the Tar Baby!)

Accepting the premise of that quote, I must not be as much a westerner as I had thought.  Social clucking — or “small talk”, as we frequently describe it — comes hard for me.  Let me relate an anecdote to illustrate how extensive the clash can be between a clucker and a non-clucker.

In a hardware store where I once worked the employees ate their lunch in the break room because only thirty minutes was allowed for lunch and the distance was too great to the nearest restaurant.  Usually, I would go to a supermarket delicatessen nearby and pick up a plate filled with whatever looked good that day.  The delicatessen clerk wrapped the plate in very adhesive cellophane.

Upon returning to the store, I would often find a very garrulous lady in the break room munching the salad she had brought from home.  Never were two lunch companions more incompatible — she extraordinarily talkative, I extremely taciturn.  Each time I began my daily struggle to remove the cellophane, this lady would chirp, “Whadja get?”

Her question irked me for several reasons.  First, I have a one-track mind, and when it is intently engaged in some exasperating effort — such as removing adhesive cellophane from a lunch container — my mind doesn’t appreciate other demands on its concentration.  Secondly, by the time I came into the break room I had usually forgotten what I had ordered anyway; and the “politeness” of sitting there recalling what it was seemed out of proportion to the validity of the request that I do just that.  Moreover, my opinion was that if the woman would just wait two minutes she could see what I was about to devour, and by waiting for that vision she would save us both wasted words.

The first three times this scene was enacted, I played the nice guy, stopped what I was doing, scratched my head, and informed her of the contents of the box.  On the fourth occasion, however, I was sufficiently exasperated to cut the whole conversation short by exclaiming, “Food!”

She looked taken aback for a moment and then commented, “Well, I guess a stupid question deserves a stupid answer.”  She didn’t speak to me again for three weeks.

Because of that and similar experiences, I have spent a considerable part of my time among people observing the mechanics of social clucking and trying to understand it.  Social clucking, as inane as it appears when looked at directly, nevertheless is as important as the size of this year’s wheat crop, the search for energy sources, or the survival of the postal service.  It is important because it has been sanctified by mass participation.  Whether reasonable or not, most people are obviously convinced that the recognition of their existence can be communicated and validated only by saying silly things.



Meditation For Mother’s Day

Maurine Emily (Tanberg) Litton b. Feb. 23, 1910, Eau Claire, WI d. Dec. 19, 1994, Dallas, TX

Maurine Emily (Tanberg) Litton
b. Feb. 23, 1910, Eau Claire, WI
d. Dec. 19, 1994, Dallas, TX

By Bob Litton 

Well, it is “Mother’s Day” here in the U.S., and I wonder how many celebrate it. Most of us love or loved our mothers, some of us had difficult relations with our mothers, and others of us either abused our mothers or they abused us, maybe even murdered some of their children. And almost every year in the past, some columnists criticized “Mother’s Day” as being too inclusive, often reminding their readers that Adolph Hitler had a mother, too.

As for me, I wish I could get my mother out of my head, Actually, I wish I could get my whole family out of my head, including my father and my two brothers. Should I include my only sister in that, even though she died nearly two years before I was born and so I never knew her? Yet, she still hovers there almost as palpable as the others because I was supposed to be a reincarnation of her, and part of my craziness is derived from the realization that my not being her was a disappointment to my parents.

“Out of my head,” I say to them. “Shoo!” But they remain, ghostly, like some giant unsolvable puzzle which I spend too much time and emotional energy trying to figure out. For, you see, they each and every one (excluding my sister) did good things for me and bad things to me. Superficially, I suppose, I attribute the impulse to write a few of my stories and poems to the ongoing, subliminal effort to seek reasonable causations in these memories or, failing that, to cast them into the nether world, never to return. But they do.

One such literary piece, a poem titled “The Widow’s Pique”, which I never published, despite some admirable lines, is in fact marred by Part I in which I painted my father too light and by Part II in which I painted my mother too dark.

But I am supposed to be concentrating on Mother here. Let me get back to her now.

The truth, as I concluded a few years ago, is that Mother was a so-so mother, and I was a so-so son. She only slapped me once, after I had accidently locked the bathroom door. (I wonder now how that can be done from the outside.) I do not recall her every spanking me, although my memory of childhood is not at all complete. She raised me practically single-handedly into my teen years, since she and Father divorced while I was still a child. Although I mostly did not trouble her, I realized only recently that my being under her wing all those years hindered any romancing she might have desired. She did find one man, however, when I was a junior in high school; and, since he and I could not get along, she decided I should leave. “Here’s twenty dollars,” she said, as she was shutting the door behind me. “Get some shoes.”

Oh, but the years of my childhood were much brighter. During my grade school years, Mother worked as a silk finisher in a dress factory called Lorch’s in downtown Dallas. I would go there sometimes after school, and we would eat supper at a nearby cafeteria. Afterwards, we would stop in a hole-in-the-wall book and magazine store. One could trade comics there — two of yours for one of theirs — or buy them outright. Mother might also buy me a book suitable for my age level. The place was full of real treats. Then, if Christmas was soon, we would stand in front of the Sanger Brothers department store and look at the mechanized Santa and his elves making their hammering motions amid the cotton snow.

Speaking of Santa, I played that role in our school’s second grade class play. Mother was a seamstress as well as a presser, so she made my red costume and pieced together a cotton beard for me. Since she had to work, however, she could not attend the play.

As for cooking, Mother did not have time to do much of that. Before she left for work, though, she would leave in the ice box an “egg nog” — just a mixture of milk and egg with perhaps some sugar or spice in it — for me to drink as breakfast. On Sundays, she always fried chicken and mashed potatoes that were tasty. She also made a mean peach or apricot fried pie. And one special treat was an ice box pie dish made with sweetened condensed milk and I don’t know what else; she placed small vanilla cookies around the edge. Neither of us could get enough of that.

Mother made most of my clothes during those years. Moreover, knowing what a fan I was of Gene Autry, either she or “Pappy” (as I called my father) bought me a leather chap and vest set. Another, related, gift was a guitar with Gene Autry’s signature printed on its body.

Once, when I had contracted measles and our apartment was quarantined, Mother brought me some children’s record albums: Erroll Flynn’s The Three Musketeers, Walt Disney’s Mickey and the Bean Stalk, a Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd story, and a Bozo the Clown record (which I could not stand, although I never told Mother that, because I have clown phobia). My playmate from across the street stuck his face up against our screen window one day and, when Mother warned him to stand further away or he might get measles, he said, “I want to get measles! I want some records, too!”

I cannot recall ever having any desire to help Mother in her struggle to make a living. I do remember one time when I saw her lying, fully clothed across her bed, counting a bunch of paper stubs. I asked her what she was doing. “Counting up my piece work earnings,” she said.

But, I did find some employment, first as an underage sacker in the local supermarket. One day soon after I got that job, I ran a basket into a poor lady’s heel and she yelped with pain. That same day I returned home with excruciating pain in my own feet because I had worn my Indian moccasins. I quit that job.

Next, I took up delivering the Dallas Times Herald to homes in our neighborhood. Those were the days when a boy could stretch his canvas bag, filled with rolled newspapers, over the front fender of his bicycle and then toss them into yards or onto porches as he rode down the street. The only bad aspects of such a job were trying to catch people at home so payment could be collected, and the size of the Sunday paper — about twice the size of the daily issues. Also, the Herald’s home delivery on Sunday was early in the morning: I needed Mother to get up about 4 a.m. and drive me around so I could throw the heavy papers. Naturally, that was a high price to pay on Mother’s part.

Still, although I was employed in those ways and in couple of others during my early teen years, I do not recall ever thinking, “I need to do this to help Mother.”

Mother had a bit of wanderlust in her…which I believe I have inherited. I am not sure why she was that way. I know she had a healthy family life during her own childhood in the Rio Grande Valley, even though she eloped with my father. During my fifteenth year, however, she took off by herself for Colorado. I do not know what she expected would become of me: that Pappy and my brothers would look after me, I suppose. She did retain ownership of her small house in Dallas, and I stayed there and in one brother’s apartment at different times.

Either at Mother’s urging or my own (again faulty memory here) I joined her in Colorado, where she was working as a cook in a Grand Lake café, up in the mountains. I worked as a dishwasher in the same café, but after a month or so I grew tired of it and wanted to return to Dallas. Mother, likewise, wanted to leave. However, she did not want to return to Dallas. “Here, Bobby,” she said at the bus station, handing me a ticket and some money, “I don’t want to go to Dallas. I’m going to Arizona.” Mother worked at a dude ranch near Phoenix for about a year, then she returned home.

That brings me back to where I started this reminiscence, where she met the new man in her life and kicked me out. She and her husband moved to California for a short while, then they returned to Dallas. Although I was largely out of Mother’s life by this time, we nevertheless stayed connected; during the last year of my high school career she sent me $50 a month from California, which I used to pay rent for a room.

I and my brothers all had our different problems with Mother, but we also recognized her many years of struggle to survive and the fact that she succeeded in doing so, if only on a very modest scale. We attended to her during the few days she was in the ICU unit at a hospital near her home. She died there in 1994, age 84. As she had requested, she was cremated just as Pappy and my two brothers have been…and as I wish to be. Now she and the others of my immediate family float around in my brain like gossamer that breaks when you try to grab it; all of them, ghosts.

Since Mother’s death, I have often chided myself for not having asked her some basic questions about our family history and psyches. It is strange how those questions can fail to appear until it is too late to get answers.


O, Here Comes Teacher, Wagging His Finger

By Bob Litton

As a “man of letters” I read as much as my drowsy eyelids allow me. However, I do not progress very rapidly in my perusal of a book, regardless of whether the subject is deep or light, improving or escapist. One reason for my slowness, of course, is my inherent turtle’s metabolism in all its manifestations, mental or physical; another is, of course, my ancient age: my mind wanders.

A more laudable cause, though, is that I read as much — perhaps more — for detection of style and grammatical quirks in the author. This attribute has contributed plenty to the development of my own style. That is the positive side of the attribute; the negative is that I become annoyed, sometimes even angry, when I note faults in the diction or grammar in other writers. Just this week, for instance, I started reading Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, his last novel. In Part First, Episode III (or “Section III”— I cannot quite comprehend Hardy’s division style), I came upon this paragraph:

The boy (Jude Fawley, the protagonist) had never strayed so far north as this from the hamlet in which he had been deposited by the carrier from a railway station southward, one dark evening some few months earlier, and till now he had had no suspicion that such a wide, flat, low-lying country lay so near at hand, under the very verge of his upland world. The whole northern semicircle between east and west, to a distance of forty or fifty miles, spread itself before him; a bluer, moister atmosphere, evidently, than that he had breathed up here.

It might be a small matter to my readers, but it seems to be that an omniscient author should be more exact in his measurements. The word “some”, in particular, irritates me when it is used by either an indifferent or a lazy writer. What does “some” mean here? It could be four months or fourteen months: the word “few” would have been quite adequate if allowed to stand alone, but instead Hardy wants to make us guess. ( The word “somewhat” is often used by other writers in much the same way: I think “somewhat” should be banned from the English dictionary.) The same criticism is pertinent to the other phrase I have emphasized in bold type. If two characters were discussing the area described here, I could accept such a remark from them; but Hardy, the novelist, is supposed to be the omniscient observer, and I expect a bit more decisiveness from him even if, as a real human being, he does not know the precise radius of the semicircle: just let him lie and let us get on with the story.

Now, do not take me wrong and believe that I am judging Hardy harshly or that I do not appreciate his writing; I like his style generally and I especially like his irony. I am just using a sample of his writing to prove a point about the value of clarity (even if it is a fabrication) in getting the pace of a story moving. I see this kind of vagueness almost every day in newspaper reports. It is both funny and aggravating to read a news account in which the reporter has written something like this: There were only about two or three people in the room. My God! Cannot the knucklehead count to three?

* * * * * *

I had a brief but engrossing debate with a friend of mine this morning over how a married woman should be titled. I am as much…well, almost as much…a feminism supporter as he, but I am definitely more conservative in maintaining the conventional standards of our language than he. During our conversation I mentioned that I would like to keep as much of our language conventions as possible, but I realize that language is a live thing in that it evolves just as animals and plants do.

“There just isn’t much that can be done about it,” I said. “Take ‘want to’, for instance. The new form — ‘wanna’ — is already practically standard; and I can’t really argue against it, ugly though I view it, because that basically is what we pronounce. In my youth there was a hue and cry over the contraction ‘ain’t’, but have you ever tried to pronounce the logical contraction ‘amn’t’?”

Then we started in on my objection to the frequent introduction of some woman as “Mrs. Mary Jones”.

“It should be ‘Mrs. John Jones’!” I declared.

That is when my friend sat bolt upright in his chair.

“And I most strongly disagree with that!” he said. “The woman is not ‘John Jones’! That is her husband’s name.”

“True, but ‘Mrs.’ denotes a marital connection. Her husband’s name is not ‘Mary’. And, even if you dispense with the husband’s entire name, she still is saddled with a male’s last name: her father’s.”

Our conversation drifted off into a discussion of patriarchal and matriarchal societies — at least to the small degree we were acquainted with them. We never really settled on an answer to the marital name question, although we did agree that it will probably end up in a lengthy title involving several hyphens.

* * * * * *

A more dramatic — and therefore more fascinating to me — bump in the road to good, clear written communication is our use of the word “only”. Ponder these sentences for a few minutes:

Only Miss Muffet sat on the tuffet.
Miss Muffet only sat on the tuffet.
Miss Muffet sat only on the tuffet.
Miss Muffet sat on the only tuffet.

Now, Gentle Reader, surely you will agree that each of those sentences says something different from the others, even though the same words, and only those words, are used in each. The example above illustrates how our language is virtually totally dependent upon word order. Such has not always been the case. English has evolved from a state in which each word had several forms, each form indicating how it was to be understood in the sentence. Students of ancient Greek and Latin will immediately grasp my point, for those languages (being dead) retain their various forms. In other words, they are highly inflected. Other readers should grasp some degree of my import when I suggest they consider the few remnants of our older language as apparent in our pronouns: I, me, he, him, she, her, they, them, who, whom, they, theirs, etc. In Standard English those terms still require their unique meanings; but, sadly, one can witness every day the decline in observance of those distinctions. Even in movies and TV shows, one will hear the characters say things like “Him and I went to the ball game” or “Who are you talking to?” I was startled — almost shocked — one day a couple of years ago when I first viewed “The Thin Man” film (1931) and heard Nora Charles’ old aunt, discerning a knock at the door, say, “That must be they now!” It was a shocking utterance because it was grammatically correct, something you would not hear in a modern remake of the film.

But I have digressed from the main point I want to make about the four brief sentences above. That is, I constantly see instances in the papers where either a speaker or the reporter places the word “only” in a position which detracts from the clarity of a sentence or may even totally misrepresent it. Sorry, I do not have any real-life examples at hand, but you can find one if you keep a lookout for it. When you notice it, just try mentally relocating that word to a spot closer to the word it is meant to modify.

* * * * * *

Another of my pet peeves is the “feminine so”. The word “so” has multiple uses, but the use with which I am concerned here is that of an intensive. The word can logically be used that way, but only if it has an apparent referent or consequent. The problem is that sometimes it is employed as what we might call an “absolute intensive”, without any referent. This often occurs in conversations among high-strung teenage girls, as when they exclaim something like “I am soooo depressed!” So what? If the girl had said, “I am so depressed that I am going to get drunk!” then we would have something by which to gauge the intensity of her condition. An alternative intensive is available: “very”. The word “very” does not call out for a referent or consequent; we can simply accept its simple measure of degree above normal. I used to teach that a “that clause” should follow the “so” intensive; but I had been overstating the situation. Further study led me to conclude that the referent might be included in part of the paragraph preceding the sentence using “so” and no “that clause” be needed. For instance, somebody might say, “The earth is cracking around here and our cattle are dying from thirst. I’m going to have to give up this farm. This drought is so devastating.”

* * * * * *

Finally, I would like to reiterate the perennially pointed to problem of confusing the meanings of “effect” and “affect”. Both words can be used as nouns and both can be used as verbs. However, the meanings are different in every instance. I will not bother to take up space explaining those differences here. I will only suggest that those of my readers who wish to render their own writings grammatically logical should go to a large dictionary and compare/contrast “effect” and “affect”. (I saw one term used where the other should have been used in The New York Times either yesterday or the day before, so even the masters can goof occasionally.)

I have a similar issue with the terms “attain” and “obtain”. I see them as having entirely different meanings, but the Internet dictionary I use allows for some degree of crossover. What can I say? I am a purist!










%d bloggers like this: