When you’ve moved house (and state, and country) as many times as I have, you learn to make friends easily. John and I have had 15 homes in 22 years of marriage, and in every single one I’ve managed to gather enough good people to make life worthwhile, shareable, warm and worth living. I’ve been very lucky.
Then I go “home.” Back home again, in Indiana. And I remember how wonderfully comfortable, easy and FUN it is to be with friends and family who’ve known me since I wore a size six measured in YEARS, kids who played in my sandbox, knew the names of my most important stuffed animals, learned to drive with me, whose brothers were my teen crushes, people who worked till midnight on the school paper with me and sat next to me while I learned to speak French and NOT to do algebra.
As I get older and take my parents less for granted, worry about them and miss them, it is simply wonderful to be with people who grew up under my mom and dad’s watchful eyes alongside me, who admired them and counted on them as part of the happy Midwestern childhood we all shared. Sitting on my mother’s beautiful Indiana porch, in her perfect brown and white living room, surrounded by the furniture and objects and garden I grew up with, it’s easy to convince myself I’m still young, a cherished child under my parents’ roof. At “home” in London, there’s no doubt that I’m the grownup, with my husband, in charge of my own household, responsible for my family, making sure we are all taken care of. But at “home” in Indiana, I can relax completely and bask in the illusion that nothing has changed.
Of course, everything has changed.
First upon my arrival in my childhood town, I went to the lovely, impersonal nursing home to visit Dad. I’ve come to realize that part of the new life — with Dad in some remote place we can only imagine — is that we must expect the unexpected. Two years ago, when he was still living at home, he was visibly tense, nervous, unsure of himself and the world around him. It was the elephant in the room, knowing that the situation could only get worse, that in a very short time something serious would have to be done for him.
Then last summer when I went to see him, he had spent five months safely in the care of the nurses at the home, a quiet, dignified member of his new community. He was resigned, quietly pleased to spend time with me, although for the most part it was unclear whether he knew me.
Last week, when I arrived unannounced as always, I was shocked to see how he had aged in the last year, but reassured to see that he was in the company of the nurses who refer to him as “Doctor Paul.” I approached him with the present I had brought — a coffee mug with a crown and “What a Great Dad” on it — and took his hand in mine. We sat down on a sofa by the window and he clutched with all his strength at my hand, listening intently as I told him I was glad to see him, about the family reunion I had come to attend, that Avery was well, John was well.
He said, “I wish, I wish,” and I stroked his arm and asked, “What do you wish, Dada-one?” “Dada-one,” he repeated, my childhood name for him, shaking his head slowly back and forth. “I’m so glad to be here with you,” I said, tears spilling over although I tried not to seem upset. Tiny tears welled in his eyes too, and we sat like that, holding each other’s hands tightly. “I’m a volunteer social worker now, Dad,” I said, “spreading mental health just like you used to do. Do you remember how you’d laugh when you said ‘spreading mental health’? I wish I could talk to you about it all.” He stared into my eyes and said, “I wish…”
Several times he leaned toward me and I hugged him around his bony shoulders, still holding his hand, thinking of all the things those hands had done for me, the shoes tied, back held when I rode my bike, picking tomatoes for me, carrying suitcases through airports. How diminished he is now, the child to my grownup.
Finally I led him to his room and sat down on the bed, finding the iPhoto book of last summer at Red Gate Farm, which I had given him for Christmas. “I’ll be at Red Gate Farm soon,” I said. “Let’s look at the pictures. Here’s Avery, and Jane, and Molly…” He stroked the photos, saying, “Unbelievable,” and “Ohhh,” several times. Then, about halfway through the book, he shut it gently and said quite clearly, “I can’t go back there.” I did cry then, saying, “No, I know you can’t, and I am so, so sorry.” We hugged again, then I took him to the dining room for his supper. As I left him there, thanking the nurses for all they have done for him, he called me by his nickname for my mother, several times. “Lovely, lovely,” he said as I gave him one last hug.
And then, because life goes on and those of us still out in the wide world must enjoy it, we hosted the Big Porch Party of 2012, at my mother’s house. Lots — but by no means all — of my dearest high school friends. And husbands! And boyfriends!
Chicken meatballs with sour cream brandy sauce, shrimp with wasabi mayo, roasted beets with balsamic vinegar, beanand pepper and sweetcorn salad, devilled eggs, butter beans with rosemary and Parmesan, a whole salmon side, roasted with homemade teriyaki sauce (chauffeured to me from the North side of town by my lovely friend Amy!), and tomato mozzarella salad.
What a relief it was to talk about Dad with people who knew him as I did. “His wit was so sharp it was scary!” “You know, he taught me hypnosis one summer…” “I was always scared that he was analyzing me!” And he probably was. How wonderful to be able to share stories with the people of my childhood. Some friends are even closer to me now than they were in the old days. I treasure every one.
My mother was gently happy to see everyone, especially her best friend Janet, my Second Mother while I was a little girl. It gives me heart’s ease to know she is still at my mother’s side, through all the changes that have taken place. And doesn’t this yellow dress and sweater suit my mother down to the ground? I want her to wear it every day!
We were up bright and early in the morning to head to Evansville for the long-awaited family reunion! How the Wedeking family — my mother’s side — like to gather. We all thought Mamoo would have been proud that we got together, even after her death this winter. Some things never change, namely cousins in the pool.
Of course “we” aren’t the kids anymore! We’re the grownups. It felt very funny to be there without Avery, to have no one for whom I was responsible — to provide a towel, tow around the pool with a noodle, take to the bathroom. I can’t even remember little Avery in the pool anymore. But everyone else had kids for me to borrow. How heavenly to see dear Joel and Molly…
We cleaned up to have dinner at the delicious Bonefish Grill - crispy shrimp in a creamy, spicy, Nobu-like sauce — my goodness, American portions are HUGE! Mom and I both brought lots of food back to the hotel fridge. I spent a blissful fifteen minutes or so carrying little Katie Jane around the restaurant, treasuring the feel of holding a baby! What a joy to have gained a new cousin in Sarah, and her lovely baby, born on Mamoo’s birthday.
The entire family took over the tiny lobby of the motel that evening, shouting with laughter at old, repeated family jokes until finally the desk clerk shamefacedly asked us to “keep it down.” It’s hard to keep our family down. Molly is so small that she couldn’t even make the automatic lobby doors open, but that didn’t stop her running around like a crazy person, joining in the bigger cousins’ time-honored tradition of hide and seek.
Mom and I shared a room and stayed up until all hours, gossiping, reminiscing, our mystery novels open on our stomachs, our places saved, but not a word got read! It was much more fun to chat, chat, chat.
Up in the morning to make a pilgrimage to the cemetery where our ancestors are buried: the Wedeking great-grandparents (from my generation’s perspective) who gave birth to all the generations of family gathering this weekend. I tried to convince my cousin Calla to pass up on the kids’ visit to the water park to join us at the cemetery. Here she is, weighing her options. “Let’s see… cemetery… water park…” Guess which she chose.
The dappled light from between the giant Civil War-era cypresses flickered over the family graves, steaming under the Southern Indiana summer sun.
Uncle Kenny, the family historian and expert on Civil War lore, told of the Depression-era traditions observed by my great-grandmother and my great Aunt Elma. “They would appear every Decoration Day — you know, every May 30 — to remember the soldiers buried here. Your great-grandmother would recite the Gettysburg Address and your Aunt Elma General Logan’s address, declaring May 30 to be Memorial Day, from 1868 onward. Your Aunt Elma carried a giant American flag with the pole in her navel. ‘That’s because you have an “innie,” Grandma would say. ‘Well, it is NOW!’” was Elma’s reply.”
We passed the ancestral home — hardly a compound, but a sweet little house designed by my great-grandfather.
Uncle Kenny drove us to the top of the hill where he used to park with Aunt Mary Wayne as boyfriend and girlfriend. “I told her we were up here to watch the submarine races on the river, and she never could understand why she couldn’t see anything happening,” he said, shaking with laughter.
The heavens opened while we had our precious lunch at Steak ‘n Shake, one of my treats when I go home. And the air was even thicker, more heavily humid than before! The long-suffering hotel management had relegated us to some sort of awful faux-leather-chaired board room, so we all gathered there with our various laptops and iPads, and passed them around, showing family photos to dear Aunt Kay who had her first experience swiping her hand across a computer screen!
Dinner that night at Biaggi’s, a lovely Italian place where we feasted — all 38 of us at one long, raucous table! — on lobster/mascarpone/portobello pizza, roasted salmon salad, you name it. Jane generously donated a meatball from her spaghetti! How wonderful it was to cradle her on my lap and chat, catching up on months’ worth of experiences and stories. How she has grown, changed, matured since Christmas! Seven and a half, hard to believe.
Repairing to the boardroom again with wine and brandy, the family stories were aired yet again. To think next year will be the 30th anniversary of our reunion tradition! And we tell all the same stories every time. “Remember the old one Mamoo used to tell, trying to get great-Grandma Wedeking to laugh? That woman had no sense of humor,” Uncle Kenny reminded us. ‘Mamoo would say, ‘Have you heard the one about the cannibal who passed his friend in the woods?’ And great-Grandma would say, ‘No, what about him?’ And Mamoo would say, desperately, ‘But that’s it. The cannibal who PASSED HIS FRIEND in the woods. Get it?’ Finally great-Grandma would frown and say, ‘Well, he had no business eating his friend in the first place. This party is getting a little ROUGH.” And Mama Jessie, Mamoo’s mother, would shake her head and say, “That’s it, I give up!”
That evening, Jill joined Mom and me for our sleepover chat, trading stories about our daughters. Family. There is nothing like being together.
In the morning there was one more pool adventure. Molly’s cartoon-voice flowed over the party. “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to a splashy show with the amazing… Molly Grove!” “Get out of the way, Mommy!” she pleaded. “I can’t!” Jill protested, “You’re holding my hands!”
Finally it was time to line up the little cousins for the ritual stairstep photo, missing only Avery and the second-eldest cousin, Anderson. Perhaps next summer.
My brother drove us back to Indianapolis (passing fields of watermelons being harvested and loaded into big yellow schoolbuses, modified for their new job! I wish I got a photo of them), finding a farmstand with perfect Indiana tomatoes on the way home.
One more evening of gossiping with Mom, cooking Mama Nel’s chicken (so savoury and hot) for a final dinner together. Andy prepared tomatoes Dad’s way — blanched, peeled and chilled. I got to pick up Maisie, amazing! I think she’ll miss me.
Finally after six days in Indiana, I hugged and kissed everyone and headed back to Red Gate Farm for an amazing day of thunderstorms and a 25-degree drop in temperatures.
The thunder, the lightning! So cozy to spend the afternoon indoors, watching the storm, preparing the best chilli ever. I can’t tell you how messy it was to eat, wrapped up in a lettuce leaf!
(serves LOTS, at least eight)
2 lbs chicken breast fillets
3 tbsps olive oil
1 package chilli seasoning of your choice, doctored up (I used Carrol Shelby’s and added extra cumin, paprika, onion powder and cayenne)
handful mushrooms, cut in bite-size pieces
1 jar Mexican sofrito base
1 large can plum tomatoes, squeezed into pieces
1 soup-size can each: black beans, little pink beans, red beans (really, any beans)
Trim chicken completely and grind in food processor until the consistency of ground beef. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and brown chicken until cooked through. Add chilli seasoning and stir well until chicken is coated. Add the mushrooms and soften slightly, then add sofrito, tomatoes and beans. Simmer for at least two hours, covered. Serve with sour cream, shredded cheese and cilantro. In a leaf or with tortilla chips, or both!
The meadow shimmered in the pouring summer rain, as I cooked.
On Saturday, we will get Avery back from photography camp, where she has been blissfully happy! And then we will meander into our summer routine, the three of us, my own little family. I feel so lucky to have been raised with generations of family, all of them teaching me how to be a mother, a cousin, a niece, a daughter, a granddaughter. I can bring it all to Red Gate Farm and create my own traditions. Summer. Sigh.Print This Post