Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Two Weeks South of the Border: Part One"

Guess who not only has 50 research papers to grade in the next week but also has the honor of serving as a witness in a big ole lesbian wedding extravaganzapalooza this weekend? I even get to give a toast at the reception (something along the lines of "May you always wear the same size and, therefore, enjoy double the wardrobe from this day forth").

While I'm off grading and toasting, I leave you with the first installation of a travelogue written in 1990, when I was 22 and traveled to Belize to visit my sister, Kirsten, during her first tour as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. What you'll read here is my 22-year-old voice, typed directly from a letter I sent out upon my return.

By the way, although most of my weeks in Central America were spent in Belize, I actually flew into and out of Cancun, as plane fare was drastically cheaper to that tourist spot. So don't be confused: even though there should be, there's no Cancun, Belize.

Here ya go:

As I sit here wilting in a Cancun hotel, it seems as good a time as any to record my recent adventures. Actually, Kirsten asked me to compose some thoughts about my visit to Belize, thoughts that might supplement her less-objective observations. Seeing as she's the sister who used to sit on me and engage her unwilling sibling in "let's-see-who-can-slap-the-hardest" fights, I'll comply with her request. Childhood conditioning sticks.

I flew into Cancun on February 19 and was met by our favorite Peace Corps volunteer. I'd been told by Mom that Kirsten's hair was falling out due to the anti-malarial pills she had to take; my sigh of relief that she didn't resemble Don Rickles was audible. You'll be happy to know that our near 3-year absence from each other didn't keep us from settling down in front of the t.v. as soon as we hit the hotel. We spent two nights in a gorgeous tourist haven on the beach, swam in that unnaturally aqua and clear sea, wandered the markets, drank the two twelve-packs of pop I brought on the plane as a gift, and, uh, watched t.v. Kirsten speaks Spanish like a native--all the cab drivers told us--so don't let her beg off otherwise.

1990: The year when glasses frames and hoop earrings were literally interchangeable. Let's all congratulate my sister, at this juncture, for getting contact lenses and leaving those specs behind. The earrings, however? Totally Beyonce in 2008. I was ahead of my time.

We also spent a rather depressing hour and a half at Cancun's Hard Rock Cafe, stuck at the same table with a Canadian named Larry, a sorry and recently-separated 34-year-old chain smoker who wanted nothing more than to "party with some babes." Unfortunately, Kirsten and I had to go back to the hotel and, you know, watch t.v.

Bravely, I wore a long white skirt to the Hard Rock, a place where the nachos have been known to attack lesser womenswear. The gladiator sandals I'm wearing, though? Totally Lindsay Lohan in 2008. Seriously, these photos are convincing me that I was a fashion visionary.

On the third day, a college buddy of mine, John (Juan) flew down to escape the boredom of a post-B.A. pastry chef's position. We three hopped a taxi to Playa del Carmen, ate pizza, and then jumped on a boat to Cozumel, a little island town that, despite being overrun with gringos, feels like Mexico. We ate dinner at Carlos & Charlie's, the type of tourist restaurant where, if you don't seal your lips, you're apt to find a tap of wine shoved down your throat. Kirsten charmed yet another waiter with her accent; I hear the pitter-patter of little accents already. The tables at Carlos & Charlie's have butcher paper and chalk laid out for the customers' doodling pleasure, so, somewhere in Mexico is a piece of paper that proclaims "Mi hermana habla espanol muy bien." Look for it.

The next day, we taxied out to a resort/beach place for the day where Kirst and I snorkeled for the first time, shrieking with delight after we got over our initial fear of the big, bad fish right there, brushing up against us. We don't even eat 'em, much less submerge our faces where they, um, do, you know, their business. John disappeared with a book for several hours, reappearing with tawdry tales of flirtation not fit for mixed company. That night we took our su8nburns to Neptuno, "the" disco, and shook our booties while the waiters shook their heads. They played "The Lambada" a kazillion times (the natives are wild for it, but because that dance has some barkin' choreography, not a one can actually reproduce the moves they've seen in the video). I'm pretty sure if "The Twist" were spun at the disco, and Chubby Checker was yodeling away, yet everyone stood rock still, fingers snapping, agreeing "Muy groovy tune, Chubby."

Adrift in a salt-water scrub, Nature's Exfoliator

Finally, it was Friday, and we were ready to ease into Belize. To be honest, I don't really remember what happened that day--it's all a nightmarish jumble of hellish bush rides and bruised buttocks. What I do recall is surprise, surprise that there is a definite demarcation between Mexico and Belize (and, as I was later to find, Guatemala). Contrary to my expectations of "Central America as A Country," we had to stop on each side of the border, fill out forms, go through customs, and get our passports stamped. It was in marked contrast to traveling in Europe, where the countries all seem to mesh together. And there's a marked change in the look and feel of each country, althoug separated by only 10 feet. Many Belizian homes resemble the Clampetts' shack before Jed struck Texas Tea, so you can imagine my relief when Kirsten told the bus driver to pull over in front of a relatively-palatial house. Indeed, Kirsten's Belizian home is pretty nice, if you don't mind only one sink in the place (in the bathroom; a kitchen sink is overrated), no hot water, and minimal water pressure. Sometimes I'd hold the handle down for a flush for so long that I'd have to go again before the bowl had emptied or refilled. Bathing in her house is best accomplished by heating a pot of water on the stove and adding that to a big bucket of cold water; it is a process called "mixing." The next step is to take a little bowl, scoop it into the mix, and dump it over your head. I smelled of slightly-rancid yum on this trip.

Because my pal John reads this blog, I have carefully selected this photo of him for inclusion. He's still that damn cute, even when--especially when!--he washes his unmentionables in the shower, as we had to in Belize.

The day after we got to Kirsten's house in Corozal, we leapt joyfully back onto another thumpity bus and headed south to Cayo District where a couple other Peace Corps volunteers are stationed. We ate that night at an ex-British soldier's restaurant where I tried my first Belizian beer and, indirectly, my first extended coupling with the toilet. It soon passed, in a manner of speaking, but it put a damper on the reggae/soca dance we attended that night. All of the songs at the dance were at least half an hour long, which not only gave us an aerobic workout but also allowed me to go have a squat and then come back to twirl, all during the same tune.

In any country, in any decade, sisterhood is not the suck. Unless you're a Gabor.

Up next: we run out of gas.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Starring Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino, with a Special Appearance by Madonna"

I have a friend of a friend.


It could happen. I might have a friend, like from Cub Scouts, and this friend might talk to a bartender sometimes, and after about four vodka tonics, my Cubby Scouty friend suddenly has a new shot-pouring, swizzle-sticking "friend" blurrily weaving around there behind the expanse of oak. See?

Chant it with me: we are all part of a vast and thrumming--a harmonically converging--interconnectedness of spirits. We are all just friends who haven't met yet.

Especially when Cub Scouts and vodka are involved.

So Friend of Friend is single, sans kids, which means he actually has time to sit and stare and partake in self-exploration. Were he twelve, this would mean he enjoys many-a-private-diddle.

Oh, all right. Even though he's in his late thirties, I suspect it still often means that he's using his vast personal time to, em, wet a tube sock.

However, sometimes free time and self-exploration take another form, something woven into ancient cultures and traditions, something sprung from the very heartbeat of the earth. Sometimes Friend of Friend gets on a plane and flies to a place where he might find himself.

Sometimes Friend of Friend goes. on. a. Vision. Quest.

...and pays hecka lot of money to Vision Quest Company, Inc. for the chance to sit next to a fire, amongst the trees of Oregon, unmoving, fasting, pondering, awakening, for five days.

Indeed, for a substantial fee, Friend of Friend bought himself an experience that can be had in my backyard, for free. I have trees. I have a fire pit. I am always happy to strap people to a bench, as well, and refuse them food. Even better, I toothpick their eyes open and make them watch me eat a steak-dangling-from-a-string right there in front of them. I wear ear plugs as I do this, to block out their intestinal growls and pleading mewls. In fact, I have replicated the entire "Vision Quest Enriched By External Torture" experience on several occasions, for well beyond that pansy "five day" stretch. If the wind is blowing the right direction, and the yard's squirrels are otherwise occupied giving each other Mary Kay facials, I can make a steak-on-a-string last for a full week.

But okay. Friend of Friend needed to pay the money to make the experience "authentic." So there he was, in Oregon, staring at the fire, letting his mind drift, getting hungrier and hungrier, and whaddya know? 'Round about Day 3, the hallucinations began; as it turns out, hunger is the new peyote.

Most Vision Quest participants welcome the hallucinations, for it is through them that life direction is revealed when their Animal Guardian decloaks. Modern Man will pay big bucks for an Animal Guardian. Look at what that sod Alec Wildenstein put up with in a wife, just to keep a cat nearby.

Curiously, for Friend of Friend, no Animal Guardian revealed itself. Could it be that his Vision Quest fee would have been better spent on the purchase of a really gnarly home theatre system?

Fortunately, just as despair--and the dream of an Arby's Beef 'N Cheddar--threatened the success of the quest, Friend of Friend began to channel,



The surreal images wafting through his brain started to align into some kind of sense. For some time, he had been seeing a queen. Then the king. Then their son. The entire family sent messages of jubilation; they were flush with victory. They were Friend of Friend's Guardians-- not animals. Nay. Royals.

At the end of the five days, Friend of Friend emerged from the wilderness, greeted the civilized world by gulping down a dozen Krispy Kremes, and then, simultaneously cleansed and sugar-buzzed, analyzed his hallucinatory revelations.

It was easy, really.

Clearly, he was meant

--had always been destined--

to play in the World Series of Professional Poker.

His vision complete, and with $1500 still burning a hole in his wallet, Friend of Friend promptly entered the first qualifying tournament. With his Guardian Queen, King, and Jack (Daniels) by his side while he plays the circuit, he is a shoe-in for the finals.

As Celine, Penn, Sigfried, Carrot Top, Blue Man, Wayne Newton, and thousands of gals teetering around in pasties and enormous head dresses well know, all the best quests end in Vegas, the city where bruised hope staggers back to the hotel at dawn in search of a cheap buffet.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Random Headlines from the Newspaper Printed Only in My Brain, Where Circulation Is Down"

Thornless Rose Discovered; Members of Poison Devastated

There's Nothing Dumber Than Owning a Small Horse

Bindi Irwin's Tamagotchi Experiences Painful, Lingering Death

Jury Decides: Tony Danza Was the Boss

Members of Rock Group America Ride Into Desert on Horse Named "Monty"; Unrelenting Rain Follows

Dolly Parton Skydives Naked, Manages Blind Landing

Sorry for the "filler" post; it's been a particularly packed week, with softball games, kids at camp, friend visiting, gardening, and crazed online students. At this very minute, my ass is doing a weird locked 'n screaming thing--I've been on it so long this morning in front of the computer, grading discussion postings and "reading logs."

Later today, though, I have an ass-ectomy scheduled, so that should alleviate my woe.

Monday, June 09, 2008

"My Mama Pimped Me Out Well Before Misty's Meth-Addicted Baby Daddy Dropped Her on the Corner of Hollywood & Vine"

In my youth, a popular comic strip drawn by Stan Lynde called Rick O'Shay ran in the Billings Gazette. Oh, didn't we chuckle at the exploits of that sheriff and the ragbag crew that staggered across the panels of his life. Lawsy, but we chortled at the antics of O'Shay's preciously-monikered friends and colleagues in the Western town of Conniption: "Hipshot Percussion," "Basil Metabolism," "Quyat Burp," and, of course, the Native-American "Crazy Quilt. "

We could hardly wait for the 4:00 a.m. thump on the front porch that signaled the paper boy had delivered our daily dose of cowboy cartooning. Up we shot from our waterbeds, hurtling the Etch-A-Sketch, leaping the Clue gameboard, somersaulting the Lincoln Logs in our quest to be the first to scan that day's strip. Would Crazy Quilt win the affections Chief Crazy Neck's daughter Moonglow? Would Stan Lynde have managed to showcase the word "howsomever" in an entirely new way?

This was big stuff for us small fry.

Thus, you can imagine our excitement when a local Rick O'Shay contest was announced. Children from across our arid burg were invited to dress up as their favorite characters from the strip and submit to judging. The winner would win a plaque-ish thing and an interview on the local news. Because Sheriff Rick O'Shay admired nothing more than plaques and news, we knew our participation would please him.

Of course, when one is four years old, as I was at the time, one's "favorite character" often amounts to "what Mom wants to dress her kid in." Turns out, Mom had a feather and swimsuit that were itching for an outing, and in this fashion, my character was chosen.

Clearly, my heroic brother, who once held up both hands to stop oncoming traffic on a busy street so that I might cross safely, would be

Rick O'Shay

My five-year-old sister, with her love of shimmying to the tunes of Donny Osmond and organizing girls into teams for popsicle-eating contests, was a natural for the owner of the town's dancehall:

Gaye Abandon, or, more precisely,
"Madame" Gaye Abandon

For me? Well, Mom had the swimsuit. She had the feather. She understood there was a strip involved. Somehow sensing my future love of pouring shots and sitting on laps, she decked me out as

Sally Forth, prostitute

Baby's First Mug Shot

Despite my innate sense of modesty, I'll have you know, friends, that the town of Billings had a Conniption over me. They melted at the sight of a four-year-old streetwalker, so full of promise, with her whole career in front of her. Particularly when my convincing whoreishness was contextualized during the judging, I was a standout: so fresh compared to those hardened Brooke Shields in Pretty able to rock the look of garter and heels and locket, the look of a girl who means to communicate "You can have me for ten minutes for twenty dollars; the back seat's fine. And do you have any Barbies or an Easy-Bake oven?"

Sweet Heidi Fleiss, but you better believe I ended up on the news that night.

"Above the Horizon: Postcript"

Stop running away at the sight of this title, ya scaredy-blogger.

Really. I'm done exhausting and exhuming the story of my grandma and dad. But at this point, before I move back to the usual programming of posts that detail how Jessica Alba is somehow like a Shamrock Shake--and other random pop culturized profundities that are, in truth, what actually occupy my brain--I thought I'd squeeze one more drop out of this family tale.

By now, it's not much more than a vanity project. Interestingly, the vanity has come about because--and hold your mullet here, Wayne!--I've actually learned how to use our scanner, and therefore I am veddy, veddy proud of my small, delicate, "copy-button"-pushing finger, the one what has bravely helped a host of old family photos to become computer friendly. Honest to Edison, before these past weeks, when I'd use pre-2004 photos on my blog, I'd just prop them up on the counter out on the back porch and take pictures of them that way. Good, old-fashioned digitization and all.

So as long as I'm feeling flush with pride over my techno-smarts, and so long as I'm struggling to grade the work of 90 online summer students and therefore have smallish writing time, and so long as we're pondering family and how its members resonate through the generations, I thought I'd provide this mini-album of photos.

My dad? Was talented and pragmatic and gentle and awesome. My eight-year-old girl, who is talented in her own fashion but not necessarily musically, is doing her best to occasionally hit the right note and sporadically find the dominant beat. But she LOVES her music, as did my dad. And she's definitely pragmatic and gentle and awesome.

Look at these two Beethovens, in photos taken decades apart. Legacy, indeed.

Dad at the wheel

Girl in her first recital, last weekend

Dad, as I remember him best

Girl, feelin' groovy

Dad, in tails, directing his college choir

Girl, taking direction and managing to use her hands and voice simultaneously

And then.

There's Wee Niblet Paco Dinko, the five-year-old here in the house. As resident goofa$$, he is clearly mine. But how, exactly, can he be traced back to my dad and that serious branch of the family?

This might be our only evidence of a relationship.

Friday, June 06, 2008

"Above the Horizon: Part the Last"

My great-aunt Ethel and Grandma Dorothy as girls in Montan

The Saturday after his mother's memorial service, my Finnish father, who would regularly answer the direct question of "What are you thinking right now?" with "I don't know," talked to me about his life. As it turns out, he was more than just my parent, the guy who mowed the lawn and directed choirs and churned out homemade pear walnut ice cream (using Thomas Jefferson's recipe); he was a fully-historied human being with a holster of experiences I'd not known about.

Francis and Dorothy as a young couple, holding new baby Larry; my dad is the three-year-old in the front.

On that Saturday night, as Dad and I sat at the dining room table alone, I learned that my grandfather--reputed as gentle and taciturn in family lore--had, through wordless reproach, made my father feel stupid, even worthless, for my dad had the ill luck to be born with a beautiful tenor voice into a world where handwork was valued. On the ranch, that this boy, my young father, would someday sing Die Fledermaus was secondary to his inability to fix a broken combine.

My dad (looking a bit uncomfortable), my grandma Dorothy, my grandpa Francis, and my uncle Larry

Because of family expectations, my elegant, artistic dad spent his teen years on the back of a tractor, circling in the fields; it was then and there that he began to shout songs to the clouds, angling for any activity that would make the time pass and draw his attention from the worry of a mechanical breakdown--which would require he seek help from big men in dirt-covered overalls, men who would squint with quiet scorn at his "useless," tapered pianist's fingers.

That night, as words poured forth from my father, he admitted to me, "My father and I never had conflict. We always got along. But we were never close. In fact, Dad would never assign me chores or tell me what to do on the farm--I could have stayed in the house all day, as far as he was concerned. It was Mom who, to keep peace, would notice what needed doing and then send me out to work. I've noticed that Finnish families, maybe all Scandinavian families, are matriarchies in which the women take the initiative. And the men like it that way. They're comfortable with letting someone else take the lead and make sure things get done; that's one of the things I like best about your mother and what my dad liked best about my mom."

Awash in my dad's reflections, I also learned that after high school, Dad was going to attend the University of Montana-Missoula but first won a scholarship for the summer to Billings Business School for being the 3rd-fastest typist in the state. So he took shorthand there and a vocabulary-building class in the mornings. He lived that summer just outside of Billings on his Aunt Louise's farm (she who sang "How Great Thou Art" at the memorial), where he slept in the bunkhouse with his cousin Stanley. Everyday, Louise made my dad a lunch to take to school: a baloney sandwich. Part of the agreement about his living in Billings that summer and being released from ranch chores was that he would have to work, so he got a job with Service Candy and spent his afternoons filling vending machines with candy and cigarettes.

Then, one day, Phillip Turner, the conductor of the choir at the private liberal arts college in Billings, Rocky Mountain College, came into Service Candy and said he'd heard about my dad's voice (from whom, no one knows) and asked that he consider attending Rocky that fall. When Dad said that he already had a scholarship to attend the university in Missoula, and he needed that money, Mr. Turner pointed out that Rocky had a "valedictorian scholarship" for $300, and my dad would qualify for that. Thus, in the July before he started college, my dad changed his plans. Grandma liked the idea of Rocky, as it was a church-affiliated college. With her approval, his course was reoriented.

A year later, having completed his freshman year at Rocky, Dad was ready to get away from Billings--more accurately, to get away from the ranch that was a mere 40 miles from Billings, a place he was still dutybound to each weekend, a place with an endless expectation of willing work. Plotting his escape, my dad applied to three Minnesota schools (liking the fact that his dad had grown up there): Hamline, Macalester, and Carleton. Ultimately, he decided on Hamline...but his folks told him he couldn't go--they'd not help him.

He said he was going anyway. And he did.

For the next three years, every semester, just when Dad didn't know how he would pay the tuition, a check for $500, the exact amount of tuition, would come in the mail from his mother, my grandma Dorothy. Even thirty-five years later, both of Dorothy's sons remembered fondly, "If it weren't for Mom's egg money, we never would have gone to college."

My dad during the Hamline
years and then in a professional picture a few years later

If it weren't for my father's talking that night in the wake of his mother's death, I never would have known that my grandma, the woman who, at the end of her life, needed an elevating chair to help her stand up, had loved to dance. My grandfather would not dance, being too shy, but while he leaned against the wall, she would circle 'round the floor at the dances held in the local schoolhouse, turning, swirling with other fellows in the community, a fact that made her two sons elbow each other and snigger that another man was touching their mother, and she was having fun at it, too.

Because of the words her death inspired in my father that night, I don't picture Grandma Dorothy in heaven as I remember her on earth--sitting in a purple recliner with an oxygen tank next to her, complaining of dizziness, elevated blood sugar, shortness of breath.

Instead, I see her younger,

more vital,

kicking up her heels

against the backdrop of a broad Montana horizon

as she waits for her cows to come Home.

Monday, June 02, 2008

"Above the Horizon: Part Three"

In the hour before the church service that would publicly memorialize my grandmother, we immediate family members left the windy cemetery and headed back to her bungalow, where she had lived since moving off the ranch more than thirty years earlier. As we all rattled around in her house, eating bars and leaning against her kitchen counters just as we had in adolescence, I had a few minutes to consider my cousins and who they'd become.

Strangely, although I grew up close to these cousins, geographically, they always felt distant, perhaps because their father's life had diverged so dramatically from my own father's. These two sons of Dorothy always got along, always remained companions to each other, yet one, my uncle Larry, followed the life of ranching and eventually long-haul trucking. On the other hand, my dad became a choral conductor and opera singer. At best, their common ground was yodeling.

As well, my dad had one wife in his lifetime, while Larry had several, eventually ending up with three children of varying parentage and, for awhile, a fourth--a step-daughter who remained in his life as long as his marriage to her mother did. Ultimately, I was left with three cousins: Shelley, Mary, and Luke. They weren't given every opportunity, and none of them had a constant mother. In fact, Shelley and Mary's mother left them when they were toddlers to return to her "career" tending bar in a casino. At that point, it was my grandma Dorothy who stepped in and essentially raised those girls.

Thus, it made sense, on a day of memorial for Dorothy, that I would look to Shelley and Mary's lives as evidence of Grandma's impact. Mary, who lived with Grandma even through the rebellious years of high school, had attended cosmetology school before marrying. Her husband's job took them to Nevada for some years, to a place Mary hated so much that she finally looked up one day and said, "God, if you get me out of Nevada, I'm yours forever." Damned if God and his minions didn't get her husband transferred to Washington, causing Mary and the Lord to strike up a little thing on the side. Luckily, Mary found a way to merge her two passions in life: she shaves "PTL" (as in "Praise the Lord") into the hair on the back of her sons' heads--or, in more spartan months, just a cross. You have no idea how much it pained me to type that previous sentence, incidentally.

Less shackled to her faith and her razor, Shelley, too, married well and is raising successful children. Luke, like the girls, was largely brought up by my grandma; he entered the service and likes nothing more than restoring old cars and, speculation has it, growing marijuana. While I have hardly any relationship with these cousins today, due to our lack of anything in common (blank looks greeted me the one time I ventured a "So, read any good books lately?"), I took a minute, leaning against the counter, to marvel at these cousins, and I credit my grandma with giving them the wherewithal to resist taking up knives in their adulthood and randomly stabbing people who might be loitering outside the Rockvale Cafe, waiting for a booth for five. Indeed, I had a little moment, there by the frying pan in Grandma's kitchen, watching a box elder bug crawl along the linoleum, one in which my bar-fueled brain had a flash: with family in the midst of grief, it doesn't necessarily matter if people have a lot in common--just one commonality can carry the day.

After an hour of kitchen chat and gnosh, we wiped the crumbs off our chins and went to the memorial service at the Lutheran church. At the front of the church, an 8" x 10" photo of my grandma presided up front, which struck the worst part of me as a little hokey, but it ended up being quite affecting--it felt very personal to be confronted with Grandma's steady gaze as the pastor spoke of her life on the plains, about her always knowing if even one of the cows was missing at the end of the day--not because she knew how many cows there were but because she recognized each of their faces--and about her being a helpmate to my grandpa.

Even more, the pastor talked of my grandma's last days, as her health faded. When she entered the hospital, she just wanted to "go home." Later, when she was moved to an assisted-care facility, she was sure it was just a matter of time before she would go home. But my dad knew her stay there would be until the end, which turned out to be only two days. He felt guilty about that. Thus, when the pastor finally said, "Now Dorothy has gone Home," fluttering shudders of sobbing passed through my dad. Sitting next to him, pressed against him, with no gusts of wind to distract me, I eyed the hymnals and hoped my left thigh felt warm.

Most moving was when the soloist sang "How Great Thou Art." My grandma's older sister, Louise, had been suffering from Alzheimer's for seven years and was living in a memory-care home. By the time of Dorothy's death, Louise did not recognize any family members, except sometimes my mom (not a blood relation...but occasionally she would pull my mom to her and ask, "Who are all these people?" when her sisters were visiting). We had not thought Louise would be at the service that day and, in fact, were unaware that one of her daughters had brought her--until that song. The soloist's notes rang through the church, but after the first measure, he had a partner in Louise. Her voice, little used, croaked out the song along with him from her pew; she warbled a final duet. Strikingly, she'd forgotten everything else, from her own children to how to tie her shoes, but she remembered her hymns. For everyone in the room, it was humbling. After the service, greeting us over coffee in the basement of the church, Louise's daughter announced proudly, "Mom never did need a songbook."

As we made the rounds during the post-service reception, I grasped how important it was that I had made the trip to Montana, despite my initial reservations. With my sister in the Peace Corps in Moldova at that time, and my Air Forcean brother stationed overseas, too, I was Dad's only kid that day. My father was not terribly touchy, but he kept me firmly by his side throughout the coffee hour, introducing me to every passing soul. At one point, my dad's 8th grade teacher, Miss Huddleston, came up with her twin, Velma. I asked Miss Huddleston if my dad had been a good student for her. "Oh, yes, he played the piano for our class so nicely!" I pressed her further: "You mean he never misbehaved?" She assured me, "Oh, not Donnie! He was always very well behaved. But that Larry was another story..."

After the memorial service, we went back to Grandma's house, where Mary and Shelley's families were staying. We ate deli meats. We watched the kids play Nintendo. We sneaked glances at interesting bits of inheritance. We marveled at how much Stuff a person can fit into closets (Grandma never threw away a letter or card; she kept every aluminum top off of every yogurt she ate; she didn't throw away milk containers; she had underwear in her dresser that was nothing more than shreds of fabric woven together with safety pins). We leafed through photographs, wondering who some of those faces belonged to, wondering why our mothers had let us wear such hideous orange-striped pants in the '70s,

and we wondered if the presence of these pictures in her house had kept Grandma firm on the earth,

even when she'd left them in drawers for years,

even when her eyesight had failed.

Grandpa, Grandma, Larry, and my dad (looking rather fey)