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part one of lilian's wish
Trying To Make Sense of It All
- Editor's Note: This is the first part of a series. "Trying To Make Sense of It All." You may read part two by clicking here. "Trying To Make Sense of It All," part three will publish in a couple of days.
Retaining her sense of humor to the end, she asked to be buried in Montreal for several reasons. First, she had developed a keener sense of family, and her uncle and most of her aunts and cousins live in that beautiful city. Secondly, she said she wanted her husband and daughter to pay a proper pilgrimage to see her rather than just pop in occasionally at a more convenient local cemetery. Thirdly, she recognized that Montreal was a European city and after all she was at heart a European. And finally, to all who knew and loved her and would have enjoyed her reasoning, it added to her mystery.
Just when I mistakenly thought I had made peace with my long-deceased father, Brooks, I met Emmett. The two men shared so much in common that I sometimes think of them as the same man. They were complex individuals who left many good marks as they made their way; they were also guilty of a lot of pillage along their warpaths. The conflicted feelings I had for them when they were alive did not change after they died. I often wonder what they would make of my late wife Lilian, who came from a world vastly different from theirs. I find my memory is fickle and fragmented as I see her and these two old men talking to me today as though we were all in the same room.
I was named after my father but he always went by our middle name Brooks. He came of age during the Great Depression and then served during WWII as a welder of aircraft. As a young man, he was not able to take advantage of much formal education and was always a bit suspicious of “book-learned” people. He was a man of many contradictions, though, and he and my mother made sure that my sisters and I valued education and went to university. Despite his inferiority complexes, he pulled himself up by his proverbial bootstraps and became a stationary boiler engineer after many years of night school and mentoring.
Emmett had been a professional military man who served aboard a submarine in the South Pacific. When I first encountered him, he eyed my Isuzu Amigo and asked, “What’s the matter, an American car not good enough for you?” He had come close to sinking too many times from depth-charges exploding on his head to ever seek his own personal peace with Japan or the Japanese people. The war seemed never to have ended for him. Without a means of revenge, he clung to his hatred.
I had just moved into my home in a wooded rural area of eastern West Virginia when Emmett came into my life. It was February 1995 and I had come out of one of the urban suburbs of metropolitan Washington. Lilian had died in 1992 and I took early retirement from my federal government career the next year. There wasn’t a lot of fire left in my belly and I needed to retreat to a quiet place in the woods where Bobbie, my aging Old English Sheepdog, and I could find some distance from what ailed the two of us. The land I found was on what was originally the 165-acre private hunting preserve that Emmett owned.
When I first drove up the gravel road and across the small bridge to the development, I could see a large Swamp Oak towering up ahead. Foresters later told me they estimated that the tree was around three-hundred years old. My father would have enjoyed seeing that tree and the woods on both sides of the narrow road. After all my searching, this spot seemed to be the place I was looking for. I saw it as a sanctuary, a healing ground where I might put my life together again. The woods and rolling hills defined its boundaries. One of my father’s favorite passages from the Bible was from Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
Emmett wasn’t around the day a realtor showed me the contemporary, two-story cedar house with a full basement that was to become my new home. I found this spot almost entirely by accident. When I retired, I drew concentric circles around my northern Virginia residence since I didn’t want to venture that far away from what was familiar. I also didn’t have the courage to uproot myself and head for Seattle or Santa Fe in search of a totally new life. I got as far as Charlottesville in one direction and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia near Shepherdstown in the other. Despite all my searching, I never found the right place. There was always an issue of spending too much money for what was available or not being able to make up my mind about other places that almost met my needs. I certainly never thought of relocating to this part of West Virginia which didn’t seem to offer much that I thought I was interested in. It’s rural, a bit disheveled, lots of pot holes in the roads and plenty of small houses in need of new roofs or siding. Many properties are run down and give off a disjointed look of too many small sheds and storage barns scattered about. Like mushrooms, they appear as though they just sprouted out of the ground in some random pattern. If you are a deer hunter who doesn’t want to cut up your own game, you can easily spot signs in front yards of people willing to do it for you. The local combination grocery/hardware/gas station is a friendly place where you can find the right nut or bolt, a sliced sandwich to enjoy, and gas that you pay for in cash. You can also get your lottery tickets at the counter where they’re prominently displayed. I didn’t have any trouble finding people I liked, could service my car, tell me the best people to hire if I needed a dressing of gravel for my drive, some plumbing fixed or a tree that needed cutting. They were personable and curious about me, as I was about them. One pleasant surprise was my discovery that the county health care facilities are surprisingly good. For culture, the nearest university is about fifty miles away in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
It was only after reading about a round brick house that was advertised in a supermarket real estate ad did I allow my curiosity to draw me over the Great North Mountain to this part of the state. The mountain range forms the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley and marks the border between Virginia and West Virginia. It is more than just a physical boundary, though. Prices go down dramatically because of its remoteness. People in the D.C. area live a little over two hours away so many have built inexpensive cabins to enjoy a weekend away in a natural setting. While the affluent urban folk are moving in, many locals are moving out, primarily because employment is limited. More than a few young people celebrate their high school graduation with a full tank of gas to head off the next day to somewhere else. In my own reconnaissance, the round brick house turned out to be a bust, but I did hook up with a real estate agent who knew of a place I might like. Many of my friends warned me that it was a lot easier to sell my house in Arlington and move to the woods than it would be to sell my new home in the woods and move back to Arlington if I had made a terrible mistake. Fortunately, I made no mistake and never looked back.
The first owner Don had gotten off to a bad start living here. The story went that his wife tapped him on the shoulder the day the ’dozers first started to break ground and told him, “I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you that I don’t want to be married to you any longer.” Don continued to honor his contract with the builder, though, and camped out for about a year in the house after it was completed. He held on to his inflated asking price for a short time, but he no longer wanted to live here so he agreed to a deal without too much haggling.
The lot was originally part of Emmett’s private hunting estate before he decided to incorporate himself and create his own development which he formally named Highland Ponds Estates. He seldom used that name, though. The place was always “Emmettsburg” to him. He sold the original lots directly and would not let a parcel go to anyone who did not meet his personal standards. I found out later that those standards meant no blacks, gays, or democrats. When I showed up on the scene, Emmett had no say in whether I was to be one of his new shipmates, as he called everyone, since he no longer had any control over who could buy any of the lots he had already sold. Don just wanted a buyer and didn’t care if I was a bisexual Ethiopian Arab and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. All I had to have was enough money to get a loan.
A short while after I had moved in, Emmett showed up with Richard, his “man Friday,” in tow. It was winter and slushy when all of a sudden the two of them walked into my kitchen unannounced. They had ignored the doorbell and just opened the side door of the garage, walked past my car and probably frowned, and then up a couple of steps to the kitchen entryway. Both wore boots covered in snow. Richard was a slight man without much color. He was gaunt and had tobacco in his mouth which had left a stain on his chin which had a shadow of stubble. I discovered later that Emmett paid him for the odd jobs he did by keeping him well stocked with cheap booze. When they opened the door, Richard held back a bit on the weather strip, but Emmett just came in with a smile, leaving a wet trail on the hardwood floor. He stuck out his hand and announced he was there to welcome me. My old sheepdog Bobbie woke from her dreams and rose slowly to see what was happening. And then she growled. Emmett said he didn’t much care for dogs in the house and that he knew how to protect himself if Bobbie meant to bite him. Richard just smiled but said nothing. So began our relationship.
I was puzzled and upset by this rude intrusion which I chewed on for some time. My father had Emmett’s bad habit of just showing up on people’s doorsteps as though he thought they had been expecting him all day. He was restless like Emmett and just liked to get out and drive back to the countryside where he had grown up. The trips to Brooks’ home place were over an hour from where we lived and would consume the entire day. He would nag my mother to go with him, but she usually made up some excuse that she “had things to do.” He had mortified her once too often by knocking on some old acquaintance’s door only to be greeted coldly and not invited in.
My father and Emmett had much in common and would probably have enjoyed one another’s company. They were both big talkers and bad listeners. Their stories often made little sense. The middle of one story usually got attached to the beginning of another. All the tales floated through time so you never knew when the events were happening. The characters jumped back and forth in the narratives and were never fully identified or developed into real people. It was just a stream of descriptions and names. They both often punctuated their stories by referring to types neither of them could abide. Game wardens were just a notch up from blacks who were higher up the ladder from Jews who they claimed were the cause of most of the world’s problems. Most gays were not out of the closet when my dad was ranting about all those “deviants” he despised. He didn’t like foreigners either and made a point of pronouncing a long “i” when pronouncing Italian. He would never let us have pizza in the house. After he died, my mother would often have the local pizza house deliver one covered with the works.
He died just before I married Lilian in 1984 so was never forced to think about his cosmopolitan Jewish daughter-in-law who had been born in Romania and had emigrated to Israel as an adolescent. She was a professional translator who had come from a world so different from his. Fluent in Romanian, Hebrew, German, French, Italian and Moldovan, not to mention English, she was frequently mistaken as Venezuelan for her looks and sweet accent. Brooks, in contrast, had an especially narrow view of the world and often found comfort in looking for scapegoats to explain history or politics or any slights he might have suffered or imagined. If it hadn’t been for one son of a bitch or another, he thought he would have been celestial commander. He saw nothing unusual with Archie Bunker’s character and would scratch his head when told that Archie was a stereotypical bigot. But my dad wasn’t alone. Most of the boys in my neighborhood had similar fathers. I had to smile imagining how Lilian the charmer would have swept my father and Emmett off their feet had any of them materialized at the same time in my living room. Such musings led me to wonder how I had ended up in the woods of West Virginia with such a rich imagination.
I was at the bedside of both Lilian and my father when they died. What most intrigues me now is making sense of my lost opportunities to ask better questions, to learn more at those moments when these people might have opened up and talked freely. So many pains and fears they kept to themselves at the end, either unable or unwilling to share or burden me with. Perhaps they knew I had my own grief to come. Earlier in my life, I was too angry with my father or just too young to form my words. Now I have so many questions and these individuals who were so important to me are gone. I am tugged a little by nostalgia and troubled by persistent failures of precise memory as I try to make my tale into a narrative I can live in. It’s exasperating to think I might have learned the wrong lessons and missed the right ones. I continue to see a certain messiness in a personal history of this kind, where a stream of emotions colors my recollections.
(To be continued.)