Winter Solstice

Mother freshly coifed with Rik who did the coifing.

One Christmas when I was home I attended a holiday party with Steve and Rik. It was a fun, raucous group of gay men, lots of alcohol on a Sunday afternoon.

When it was time to leave we went through the kitchen and our hosts called out a hearty “thanks for coming!” as we reached the door. I turned and gave them a blaise “you’re welcome” then walked out. Rik thought it was the rudest thing he’d ever seen. He and Steve laughed about it all the way back to Mother’s.

When Steve visited San Francisco in the 70’s we were in a cab circling Twin Peaks looking for his friend’s house. As the driver searched for the obscure address, Steve told me he’d picked up a souvenir that day in an Adult Book Store, a dildo that played “When You Wish Upon a Star.”  It explained how Jimminy Cricket could hit those higher octaves.

I don’t remember any other occasions when it was just Steve and I alone. He was such a highlight in Mother’s life, we got together so infrequently, it felt cruel not to include her.

Millennial Still Life: The Corner House Brain Trust (Bob, Steve, Olivia and Mother)

Our last outing together as a threesome was in October 2008 when we went to the Roanoke Tavern. I hadn’t seen him in a year. We were talking about a friend from college when he asked if the guy still lived back there. I answered, “oh god no. He hasn’t lived here since Indiana became a state.”

Steve laughed, “I like that.”

Mother enjoyed the evening too. In retrospect, however, she was masking the effects of her final, rather rapid decline.

The previous January I found some oversized, overpriced Christmas cards deeply discounted. She liked to send unique cards and these were that. The sentiment was simple, Happy Holidays, but the cover was trimmed in white marabou. It had a pocket for a large photo to be inserted. Mother’s project was to go through hundreds of pictures to find one appropriate for each recipient on her list.

She finished by July. By December she could barely hold a pen. When it came time to mail the cards she signed them then I took care of the rest. Each day she signed a few more.

One day she stopped and said, “are you sure this is a good idea? Considering the circumstances it could upset people.”

I assured her it was okay, people enjoyed seeing pictures of themselves. I’ve always regretted I may have forced her to do something she didn’t want to do. She was not a fan of cheap sentiment.

The card Mother sent to my brothers and me.

The day of her last doctor’s appointment we went to see if she qualified for a new experimental treatment. She did not and nothing else could be done.

It was freezing outside but felt even colder in the car on the silent ride home. When we got there Mother decided she wanted her hair washed. I asked if she needed an appointment, she said no.

Mother had stopped washing her own hair years ago. The Corner House had moved from Broadway to Covington Plaza, then when she moved to her condo it was just a quarter of a mile away. Although Rik’s time was hard to book to cut it, anyone in the shop could wash it and blow it out. So once or twice a week she’d call to see who was available.

When I dropped her off I got out to help her. She said it wasn’t necessary, just come back in half an hour.

When I returned I found her seated in the lobby. I helped her out and asked the receptionist if I needed to settle the bill. She said no, another client had taken care of it. It was such a Steel Magnolias moment. But not nearly as sappy.

Steve was not in the shop that day but heard Mother had been in. He called the next morning and asked if he could stop by with Richard who now lived in Palm Springs. They brought roses and I served them double chocolate cookies made that morning. Steve was flabbergasted I knew how to bake. It was an upbeat, unforced half hour that Mother enjoyed.

Ten days later I was sitting in the funeral home talking to my niece. My back was to the door when she flashed a confused look then asked “who’s that?” I turned to see a solitary figure in a gray jacket with a gray cane slowly walking in. I jumped up and went over to greet Billy. All he said was “I can’t believe it, she was one of my best friends.”

I introduced him to my niece and he turned on the charm. Within seconds she was eating out of his hand.

The remains had been cremated so there was no hideous viewing ritual. A montage played of her through the years. Billy was especialy pleased with the photo in a tiger stripe bathing suit, not an image often seen in Indiana funeral parlors. When he left he said, “now call me.”

In the customs of the country the wives still called the shots. A husbands failure to comply resulted in a living hell at home. When it came time to make funeral arrangements I was dealing with brother/surrogates who had to check back with the decision makers. Things were not done the way Mother would have wanted.

Mother was not religious and did not care for prayers. But somehow a Bible College dropout who was the only thing a failing rural congregation could get to shepard their dwindling flock appeared.

It made no sense that someone with such limited knowledge was allowed to summarize a life as complex as the one Mother lived. When she spoke of her interests, this minister-with-training-wheels referred to her index cards then said Mother enjoyed collecting Art DEE-co. I did a silent eye roll in my head.

On the evening we got together to send acknowledgement cards, I produced the ones I had engraved. They included her name and a simple sentence thanking people. That’s the way Mother did things.

The funeral home had included these tacky autumnal scened, meaningfully inspirational and profoundly Hallmark styled cards. It was part of the package deal. They reminded me of the schlocky poems Jim Jordan wrote for the mortuary. We took the money he earned from that to print our magazine and go drinking.

I said Mother would have preferred the engraved ones. The sister-in-law said that’s not the way things were done around there.  I snapped. “When did Mother ever do things the way they’re done around here?” It seemed so insensitive and ungracious. I gave up.

Mother always advised me not to engage in these feuds. I might prevail on principles but would lose access to my brothers and their kids. So I did it her way. When the grandchildren became adults both she and I had established excellent relationships with them independent of their parents

The one detail that was beyond internecine squabbling was the burial site, the country graveyard a mile from my Grandparents’ farm. As a child I peppered Grandmother here as she decorated the graves, “Are we related to this one? To this one? This one?” When I was older and able to contain my curiosity I would study the dates. There were some in the back row born in the 1700’s.

The women from the nearby church had tried for years to give the graveyard a more religious name. Whether it was officially changed was not clear, everyone continued to refer to it as Spider Hill Cemetary.

It snowed the night before her burial so the empty farmland vistas were blanketed in white. Even the air was a veil of whiteness. There was a steady mist of flurries that was either a remnant from the previous storm or a prelude to the next one coming. Millions of snowflakes set the scene, tiny little things that made everything seem wonderful. An apt metaphor for my Mother.

The family dispersed the day of the internment and I was alone in the condo. There was plenty to do so I kept busy until the day after New Years when I knew Billy would be back from visiting his family. I called him and we made dinner plans for the following day.

I held on to the condo for the next seven years and spent a third of my time in Indiana. From dinner that January evening until he died in  October, I either saw or spoke to Billy every day I was in Fort Wayne. Unlike us, hanging out together never got old.


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