Wednesday, November 2, 2011
This is a eulogy for my mother and a small tribute to the family she left behind…
Like my brothers who are here today, I grew up on the north side of poor and didn’t realize it until there was nothing to be done but work hard, listen well, mind yourself, respect others and—if you were able--share.
Sharing is a kind of bravery when you don’t have much. It’s Biblical in the purest sense.
My dad is, and always was, a genius with his hands, a mechanical artiste hardly matched by anyone in the entire state. Time and time again he tried to share his knowledge of mechanics with me, but I preferred poetry to Peterbuilts, books instead of bolts. Lovingly, he called me “Sally” and “Flower Child” because I had long hair and wore puka shells like David Cassidy, my idol, from “The Partridge Family.” So, whether or not he meant to, my dad taught me that it was okay to be different, to be a nonconformist, so long as you were true to yourself.
From my brothers I didn’t get a lot of advice, but I did get mounds and mounds of Hand Me Downs. I’d get ornate western shirts with pearl snap buttons, yoke-stitched shoulder seams, and silver-tipped collars. They were fine shirts, something a countrified Elvis might wear—but they were usually four sizes too big for me and typically most had an unbleachable rust-stained patch of Ring Around Collar.
I also got their coats and gloves and hats and ratty old sweaters that resembled boneless cats. It was always an honest thrill to receive a new article of clothing because I figured if the item had once been good enough for them, it was doubly adequate for me—as if by sweating on the garments, my brother’s had somehow doused and blessed them with Holy water..
For many years, I owned exactly one pair of jeans. Once, during baseball practice, a fellow player slid in high and cleated me in the knee so rough and hard and deep that it splayed my tendons open like lasagna, and you could even see bone. When I got back from being stitched up, Mom washed those jeans and sewed the flap and I continued to wear those pants until I outgrew them (Ironically, the pattern formed a huge L, as if I was wealthy and had started monogramming all my clothes, even work-play apparel.
Because I was shy and essentially friendless, I spent a lot of time in our kitchen. I would read at the table or practice my penmanship by copying the first fifty pages of the dictionary. Every day Mom was there cooking. She used oversized kettles and pans, gigantic, steroid-infused cutlery, hardcore cookware you’d expect to see in the military.
There were a lot of us kids, many hungry boys with insatiable appetites, and she meant to take care of us.
So she’d toil for hours on end, Mother would, dropping bags of potatoes into a cloud of steam, using a rolling pin to flatten a blanket of bread dough, slathering glaze over a tin of caramel rolls.
It was all very workman-like yet fascinating. Watching her cook, or bake, was akin to witnessing Michelangelo paint, Rodin sculpt or Lawrence Welk smarmily conducting his Champagne Orchestra.
Mother made homemade donuts and bread and cream puffs and Aunt Anne’s cake and Glorified Rice and dumplings, German dishes with strange names like Fleisch Keeklah that really amounted to nothing more thanfried dough and hamburger. I thought she must be a chemist, a magician, or at the very least, the best cook on the planet.
When I’d run out of things to tell her, I’d make them up. I don’t know if she knew I was lying or if she was even that interested in my outlandish stories, but Mom let me ramble on and on. I was really just trying to impress her. Back then, a huge goal of mine had been to make my Mother love me without condition.
One Spring when I got really bored and complained about having nothing to do, Mother handed me a plate of rolls and said, “Here, take this to the Lemelys. They live a mile and half over that hill. Tell them I said you needed to be put to work.”
I had no idea who the Lemelys were or if there was even a house a mile and half over the craggy landscape that was our back yard, but Mom’s instructions were always meant to be carried out, and to veer from them was a very unwise decision—like cheating on your taxes or spouse, like relying on the rhythm method for your birth control.
And so I did. I grabbed the rolls and ran. And just as she’d predicted, there was a house and a kind old man named Homer Lemely who took the caramel rolls with a big grin, handed me a rake, and after watching me work like a fiend for two hours, hired me on the spot.
Work was an important element of our lives—in the lives of being a Kuntz, a Volk, or a Hauff. When you don’t have much, what you do have are two clear-cut choices: to whine about not having anything, or to get busy.
In our family, we were always some sort of busy.
But being busy—for us anyway--often meant getting over yourself, steeping yourself in survival, ignoring embarrassment that others might equate with shame.
We raised milk cows—Kathy and Irene, Go Go and Thunder--that we milked each morning before school. We had chickens that Mom butchered. We had a makeshift garden and after harvesting, Mom would drive me down to Two Schwabbies. Working out a deal with the store manager, I’d be allowed to sell vegetables in front of the store. “Cucumbers, cucumbers, ten cents each!” I’d shout. Invariably I’d see a schoolmate who would gawk then stiffen like an erection, as if I were some diseased horror. Or often times there’d be some lady who would see me, stop and ask, “My God, aren’t you Joe and Alice’s son?” in a horrified voice that might as well have asked, “Aren’t you Michelle and Barrack Obama’s son?” On a good day, I might make four or five bucks, which Mom would collect, note on a ledger, and save for me inside a stained envelope labeled with my name.
During summers, Mom took us to the fruit fields where we picked strawberries, pie cherries, raspberries, and sometimes corn. We were the only white family among groups of Hispanic migrant workers. Mother was a Checker. Her job was to make sure no one loaded the bottom lug or flat with rocks and leaves instead of fruit. Her task was to sign off on each carton, tell workers where to pick, and generally, just run the show. It was a man’s job, but my mother could be as tough and mean as any male when she wanted to, and I think she was--by all accounts--a pretty damn good Checker.
Before The World’s Fair in 1974, Mom would drive a school bus down to the river, to a very sketchy area known as “Skid Row.” Always we arrived before dusk, usually at 4 am. When she’d honk the horn, the bums and winos would saunter out of the foggy dark like constipated zombies. They’d trundle up on the bus, and then mom would drive them to the cherry orchards where they’d pick fruit, get cash money on the spot, sing old Buck Owens songs with their bottles dangling from branches, drunk as one-legged dogs, burping and farting in key. I was 12 and 13 at the time, but I still recall the friendly, rank stench of those bus rides to and from the fields—it was a kind of cat pee-meets-lighter fluid-meets-embalming fluid odor, and to get through the journeys, I plugged my nose and breathed through my mouth. I remember Mom driving, smoking, wearing cat-eye glasses, tapping her fingernail on the steering wheel, looking tough as steel. I think the men on board both feared and respected her. They certainly didn’t give her any guff.
There are a lot of quirky but true stories, similar to those, that I could tell, but time is short and no one likes a story that never ends.
So, lastly, I just like to say that whether she knew it or not, Mom shared a way of living with me, with us.
She taught us how to love and she taught us how not to love.
She was hardly perfect. None of us are. The examples she set were sometimes unorthodox, often far from textbook, never Dr. Spock-approved, but if you looked and listened you could gain a sense of how to survive, even if history was a disloyal friend, even if the brightest odds looked bleak.
Mom taught the value of dollar, the importance of hard work, the value of service to one’s country, exemplified through the examples of my brothers here today.
She taught me that life can in fact be both simple and full at the same time.
She taught me that it’s better to be surrounded by a gaggle of noisy kids than to be sequestered alone in an empty room.
She showed me the importance of family and the necessity of a loyal, loving spouse, and how in the end those things are what’s true, how they become a kind of living legacy.
We don’t pick our parents—none of us do—but we do get to pick what we remember of our parents, or at least how to use what our parents taught us to better inform and shape our life.
My mother, my brothers’ mother, my father’s spouse—she was a complicated and paradoxical woman.
She was many things.
She was a young girl, someone’s daughter, a farmer’s daughter, a farmer, cook, chef, model, lover, spouse, bible salesman, truck driver, field hand, foreman and Mariner’s fan.
She was a tiny stick of dynamite that could take out an entire building or someone’s self-esteem.
She was a lot of things, but in the end, she was my mother. She me—gave us, her children—life.
So it seems only fitting that at a moment like this, on a day like today, that we fill our hearts with kind remembrance, that we give our mother a full measure of gratitude, that we wish her all of the grace and God’s love we would humbly wish for ourselves.
Thank you, and thank you for being here.