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Hey old man! No doubt you’re still kicking. Very happy 57th to you!

I’m traveling with Jace this week, but when I get home, in your honor I will have a cup of coffee in the State High coffee mug you gave me.

You won’t believe it . . . I actually had a dream with you in it, either last night or the night before. Seeing the reminder about your birthday pop up on my calendar must’ve got my brain going. It was pretty vague, but I remember you and I were both adults and just walking around talking. That sounds about right. The philosophers.

I am in Hays, Kansas with Jace this morning.

We flew into Kansas City yesterday, drove to visit Hesston College – one of several he has been accepted to in Kansas alone – then on to here to visit Fort Hays State University today.

rankin
You probably didn’t know, but our former leader of Indiana State University, Dr. Alan  Rankin, went to Fort Hays College. Turns out, he was a classmate and probably a student activities competitor with Kerri‘s uncle, John Willcoxon, Her dad’s older brother. He would’ve been 104 in July.

After college here, he went to work in Topeka then joined the war effort and became a B-24 pilot.

Before enlisting, he was a top performer in everything he did. He was president of the junior Jaycees, a Boy Scout volunteer, volunteer at the Methodist church, and had a great reputation in his job, moving up quickly getting established in the Topeka business and social communities. He also began taking flying lessons.

He wrote a beautiful and moving and confident letter to his parents when he decided to volunteer for the Army Air Corps. He eventually made it to Papua New Guinea with Col. Rogers and the 90th Bomb Group where he was made operations officer even as a young lieutenant; pretty impressive, and apparently a good pilot too. Eventually he volunteered for a mission he was not required to fly in that position, but they had not been able to destroy a bridge that had been on the target list for quite a long time.

He volunteered to take a shot at it and was successful. As they returned to base, he and his crew were attacked by perhaps a dozen Japanese fighters, shooting down several before his plane exploded. Only two survivors. John’s body and several others were not recovered. Sad but proud history in her family.

IMG_8372IMG_8370

Back to Rankin and Fort Hays, Newspaper accounts mention both in student government and seemed indicate they would’ve been two of the top guys in their class, high marks in academics, very involved and vying for leadership positions on campus.

I often think about how well Kerri’s dad did in his professional life and what Dr. Rankin achieved in his career becoming a university president, and I, like everyone in the family believe that John would’ve done even more beyond his contribution to the war effort as well. I suppose we all feel a sense of sadness about what might’ve been, but take great pride in his accomplishments and who he was as a person.

Almost 2 years ago, when Jace and I took a 4700 mile road trip, from Colorado to Indiana to Canada to West Yellowstone and back to Colorado, we made our first stop at Fort Hays State. We went to the student union where we found a memorial to students who have been lost in the various wars, John among them. It was a touching moment, two generations and life-times beyond, but very directly connected, not only to that spot at that school, but the family farm where John and his brother, Sam – Jace’s grandfather – grew up just a few hours away.

Now this nearly 2 years later, Jace and I are in that very spot again and he has been accepted in that very school, along with KU where his grandparents attended. We all feel a real sense of connection and pride, as you can imagine.

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So in just a couple of hours, Jace will tour the Fort Hays State University campus and will have more to add to his decisions! (Then on to KU and more decisions and pressures tomorrow!)

Anyway, happy birthday! That’s your birthday inspiration story for the day.

Do something special and different today.

Love to you, Brother.

Michael

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Back home again in Indiana

The true meaning of Back home again in Indiana. Sister-in-Law, Jill – a ND graduate – brought this to my attention. Thank you for sharing, Jill.
(And Go Irish!)

Merry Christmas, everyone.

nd-farrell-bros

Photo and video credits University of Notre Dame Athletics

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This is for my friends I graduated from high school with, celebrating our 35th reunion and with whom I cannot be on this occasion. If anything gets broken or if anything questionable happens in the next 24 hours, you can assign it to me. Have a great time tonight. I will be thinking of you and will truly miss you all.

As for me, it is remarkable that today, as you prepare to get together over Jeff’s pulled pork and some brews and very changed faces and lives, I am reminded that almost a year ago my father passed away, a moment I still feel today; and that in just two days, my son, Jace will begin his freshman year in high school.

Dad and Jace, Mowing, 2005

Instead of being at the West Vigo Class of ’80 Reunion, I am at the family farm in Kansas this weekend, one last excursion for Jace before school, and recalling that it was while sitting on the front porch of this house just a couple-few years ago that I called and spoke with Robby Cooper, whose father had just passed away. I never knew Rob’s and Roger’s dad, but I read the obituary in the paper and was powerfully compelled to call. We had a nice chat, and though it was entirely unexpected, Rob was gracious and I think we enjoyed our catching up.

By all accounts his dad was a remarkable man, and a veteran as I recall. And most of all, it was clear how deeply he was loved and appreciated. He was a man who made a great difference in the world and would be missed immeasurably by his family and friends.

Enjoy each others company tonight, and stay in touch. It’s really all we have left, and we don’t really need anything else. It is everything, and it is enough.

– – –

Reign, Westside Bash, 1980

I think back, I remember how important, how central to our daily lives our music was to us. And now, of course, when we think of it or hear it, we are transported back in a way that nothing else can do.

How many of you recall the group Ten Years After? I got to know them as a sophomore. A new guy came to my school, then State High, from Frankfurt, Germany and we became friends. Chris von Slatow was into wind surfing, which I had never heard of until I met him; he was a runner and joined the track team; and he was into music I had never heard of, including Ten Years After. He lived with an elderly couple near Union Hospital who raised springer spaniels; my grandparents had bought their hunting dogs from them many years before.

– – –

Now we are all 35 years after high school, and while a lot has changed, our memories are fixed.

These are just two particular things I remember vividly, and they are memories – among hundreds, I suppose – so many of my classmates and good friends are a part of. In fact, these memories would be nothing without you.

I guess distance really does make the heart grow fonder.

– – –

Rare Earth In Concert

In my opinion, one of the best albums ever made; certainly one of the best live albums.

RareEarth_InConcert1_1971

My senior year in high school I sang in a band. Reign.

So on a Monday morning, second hour, my chemistry-zoology teacher was reading the week’s announcements. After Friday night’s homecoming football game, Reign was to play for the “Welcome Back Mixer.” Unfortunately, I sat in the front row.
So as he read, he came to us. “And at the Welcome Back Mixer West Vigo’s own Reign will play….”

Then he paused, looked over his half-lens reading glasses at me and said, “Does this mean you REIGN OVER your fellow students?” I was sick. I don’t remember what if anything I said in response, probably nothing. I am pretty sure the only appropriate response would have been, “No, Sir.”

We covered Foreigner, The Beatles, Ted Nugent, Journey, and a few others, including REO Speedwagon – aside of the Peter Gunn theme, Ridin’ The Storm Out was our theme song – whatever was popular in 1979 and ’80.

We also made some tragic efforts: Get Down, Boogie-Oogie, Oogie by Taste of Honey. Wow. Sorry. Enough said. And Just When I Needed You Most, by Randy Vanwarmer. Whaaa? I had never even heard nor heard of this song or the guy. Someone just showed up at practice one night with the sheet music. Whiniest song and guy I ever heard. Again, sorry everybody.

A couple of other efforts were not quite as tragic only because they were well intentioned. We tried (well, the guys did, and I tried) Aerosmith’s Walk This Way, which went way too fast for me to master. Embarrassing. Then finally, Clapton’s Cocaine, which is a great tune, but I couldn’t feel okay about using that word, so I changed it to Spokane

Anyway, it was fun, but I can’t believe either we as a whole or at least I, individually, didn’t get fired.

So this brings me to Rare Earth.

In retrospect, I am frustrated considering the lost opportunity to play their songs. We didn’t do one. Jeez – they had been one of my favorite bands since fifth grade, about 1971-’72.

My uncle John, the coolest guy on the planet (still, and co-subject of my post “Todd Rundgren and the Sacred Den of Cool” Nov, 2010) had given me his 8-track of Rare Earth In Concert – their 1971 live album – the “backpack album.”

Rare_Earth_-_Ma_-_Front

In fact, I was so crazy about them, in fifth grade art class I made a clay plaque with the band’s name in balloon-bubble letters and flowers on it. It was decorated in many-colored glaze, baked in the furnace. I put two holes at the top so I could lace a string through and hang it in my room. Cool.

– – –

I cannot believe it did not even occur to me that we should learn and play those songs. Makes me want to get back into a band just to sing a few of those. All those great songs – I mean really great – like Get Ready and Hey Big Brother and I Just Want To Celebrate. I knew intimately every song on In Concert and Ma. If I ever wished I could go back it would be to correct history and play Rare Earth in the gym or at the Banks of the Wabash Festival.

Ah, such is life.

– – –
The Internet is awesome.

– – –

So all these years later – about 2001 – I was able to find the CD at Amazon. It was expensive but worth it. I also sent a CD to John, sort of a “thank-you-payback.”

Meanwhile, Jace, my son whom I had introduced to Rare Earth when he was about two, was four in 2005 and now playing drums on a cheapo-set from some cheapo-store. I’d say to him, “Play some Rare Earth,” and he’d whack and bang away. At that age, all his Rare Earth sounded exactly like his U2 – which sounded pretty much like random whacking and banging.

I also found Peter Rivera, Rare Earth’s original lead singer and drummer. A little Google search, and Vwalla….he’s got a website. That voice and those drums. That has to be one of the best packages to ever come together in rock music.

So I wrote to him, telling him my Rare Earth history and about Jace now carrying on to the next generation. He wrote me back, thanked me for my years of loyalty, and thought the Jace story was pretty cool. He also said, “Make sure he learns to read music. I never did, but should have. It’s really not that hard.”

Rare Earth, along with co-founder Gil Bridges, still plays, though Peter is not with them. But when they were together in those early days, nobody put more energy into a concert. Check out this video of “…Celebrate” at California Jam in 1974.

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Promotional insert: Checkout Peter’s site. Pretty interesting and encouraging life. Reading through it, he comes off as the kind of guy you’d really like to know. You can find him on Facebook, too. In searching, you may want to include “Celebrate” along with his name.

– – –

I bought a set of signed sticks for Jace, which he still has, though one is broken; he drums with gusto. No matter. They are sacred and so remain on his bookshelf like religious icons.

So as old as Rare Earth’s music is, the songs are staples in my running-riding-lifting regimen.

To get your own copies, check them out on iTunes.

– – –

Rossington Collins Band
Don’t Misunderstand Me, Rossington Collins Band (Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, 1980)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rossington_Collins_Band

Summer 1979. We’ve just officially become seniors and Karl and I are driving all over West Terre Haute in his white 1969 Triumph TR6 convertible. We’re smoking Swisher Sweets and listening to this hard-hitting, top-down, post-Lynyrd Skynyrd near-rock anthem.

Man, we feel free and light. Our junior year is over. We’ve made it.

The sun is bright and the open cockpit is a swirl in the wind and it’s anywhere we want. So we want DQ on National Avenue, then we want to go to South Lake, which requires a cruise through Toad Hop to get there.

We park on the west side of the white cinderblock building and saunter into the open-air pavilion, across the cold concrete floor, shaded in the basement of the raised building; we’re in a breeze-way of a concession stand full of neatly aligned green wood picnic tables. We move to the counter to order a follow-up to our DQ visit of just ten minutes before.

We each get a huge Coke and keep glancing out, through the open lake-side of the room, to the beach, its coarse gravel pit-quality sand, same as it ever was, just as it was when we were kids. The tall, galvanized slide standing half in and half out of the water is still there, too, as it has always been. And the warm water in its color of weak coffee with a little cream; that too, just as it has always been.

We were searching for our friends – mainly girls; probably strictly girls, come to think of it – who have come to get a tan.

We are searching when we get there, and searching when we finally leave. Jeez, this is good. And summer has only started.

We continue to search through the summer and all the way through our last year of high school and beyond. And life has only started.

– – –

Find it at iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/rossington-collins-band/id64790

– – –

To read all this and a little bit more in the original, just go Top 5 page, scroll down to the original June and July Top Fives, and look for Rare Earth and Don’t Misunderstand Me.

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Sweet Joy: Grandmothers – Part 2

The second in my republished “Grandmothers” series.

Perhaps you will read this, relate to it in some way, and fondly remember your own Grandparents a bit. What incredible, special people they are.

Mama Joy and Daddy Don, circa 1992

She was 91 when she passed away, and she made it clear she was ready to go. She was happy, but she missed my Grandfather, Donald Watson Conner, “Daddy Don” very much, as he had gone a few years before and she was ready. She was a kind, gentle, and quiet spirit, and she was also plain-spoken and pragmatic, even tough, perhaps. My paternal Grandparents were married nearly 61 years.

My grandmother, Muriel Joy, or to us, “Mama Joy” loved birds and so, bird-watching. My memory tells me her favorite bird was the Black-capped Chickadee. Because of this, I see this small, fragile, yet super-active, energetic and happy little bird as the most perfect representation of my Grandmother. To me, they are one and the same. Even now, as I approach the age she was when I was born, when I see or think of a Black-capped Chickadee, I see her. Today, I have her field guide to birds – her bird book – on my bookshelf. As material possessions go, it is one of my most treasured.

I also have a set of seven wood clothes pins she sent me, with colorful paper strips glued to the smooth, flat sides, clipped to a note written on cardstock in green ballpoint pen, “Keep it Closed!” “Keep it Fresh!” These are more valuable to me than most things I own.

And hand-made cards – again, colorful abstract designs or photographs of flowers, cut out of an issue of “Outdoor Indiana” – the cutouts carefully glued to the cover and trimmed with care and thoughtfulness. On the cover or inside there are notes written to accompany a newspaper clipping she knew would be of interest to me. She would write simply, “Be Chipper!”, or “Funny Article!”, or “What Was He Thinking?!”, or “Thought You Would Enjoy Reading This! Happy-Happy!”

Keep these things if you have them, whatever they may be. They do something for us – these things from our Grandparents, people we love. Keep them and treasure them. They do something to help us slow down a bit. They help to remind us, they regulate us, and they calm us. They do something to draw us back in and even for a moment, away from the busier, distracted life that we live, perhaps so far from where we started.

If you have a note from a Grandparent – or anyone you love – keep it, read it.

Then use it as a bookmark in a favorite book.

I keep all such “important papers” in my books. As the books we read often hold so much about life, love, relationships, challenges and trials, great mysteries and great learning – all the stuff life offers, they make a good place for such treasures.

So keep them. Then pass them on to your children and others you love – at the right time – and tell the stories that go with them.

Mama Joy also loved to rake leaves. She hired my brothers and me to rake leaves at their farm, where there are five acres of yard and trees. That’s a lot of leaves. Her love of this particular task I did not – and do not still – share. She had told me at one time all she needed in heaven was a rake.

When I read this at her funeral, I had one of her rakes with me, brought from the barn, and leaned it against her casket as I spoke. Quite unorthodox, I know, but it represented her well. At some point during the funeral, we, her grandchildren even discussed whether or not we should bury the rake with her. We decided not to, believing she would have said we need it at the farm. As I said, she was pragmatic.

Mama Joy, Wakomata Lake, 1976

Sweet Joy

Ours to remember in careful thought…lest we mourn a bit too much.

Her parting – it pains, though just for a while.
The Joy she hath brought floods our memories, our hearts.

Think of the sounds – her voice in that place.
And the work of her hands – became a family garden for us.
Think of her feet and her eyes moving across the expanse –
…her dwelling and thriving these many, many years.

The home they built now is known to us as forever theirs –
– inseparable from them, in spite of their going. …
And gone now only in ways that require our physical senses.
That fount of life, of love, and Joy remains.

Yes, our Joy, Sweet Joy remains – in heart and mind.
And in each other – look ‘round, now to see her.
Sweet Joy is cast in each kind face here – her life inseparable from ours.

Sweet Joy, my Sweet, Sweet Joy, your hand is upon my memory,
and your passions are upon our hearts.
Now – together – we see in our mind’s eye,
you with your groom and your children about.

Your Joy – our Joy is full and complete!

Michael / August 26, 2003

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Callie Dorothy Yeager, circa 1930

Callie Dorothy Yeager, circa 1930

Each of these pieces I wrote some time ago, about my grandmothers, each sometime prior to their respective passings. I knew, with each one, their time was drawing near. I’m sure they knew it, too.
As I had done at each of my Grandfather’s funerals years ago, I wanted to speak to – and on behalf of – our family and friends at my Grandmother’s funerals, and try to express how we all felt about them, how we remembered them, how we loved them.

This is the first piece, written for my mother and siblings about my maternal grandmother, Callie Dorothy Yeager, or simply, Mama Dot. She was just over 99 years young when she died. She and my Grandfather, Edwin Yeager, known to “us kids” as Papa Ed, were married for 63 years.

Perhaps you who read this can relate, and fondly daydream about your own Grandparents a bit as you read.

Right Now’n a Minute

The broom makes that distinct and familiar swish on the concrete. She has sprayed the walk and sweeps it clean. She moves along to observe the ivy bed – there is more to do, of course. He’s across the street, talking to Ralph.

When she’s done, she heads inside to make BLT’s and cottage cheese salad – a half of a canned pear lying on top of the creamy white mound – and iced tea. Then she moves the louvers on the window above the sink out of the way and opens the window.

“Papa Ed, lunch’ll be ready, right now’n a minute.”

Or we would ask, “Mama Dot, when’s supper gonna be ready?”

“Right now’n a minute” was her reply, without fail. And we knew – you might as well go sit down. It’s been done for a while. If we stall, she’ll just command, “You kids get in here and sit down. Dinner’ll be ready, right now’n a minute.” So you might as well go sit down.

Ty and I would sit on the dark front porch enclosed in glass jalousies on three sides, the perfect spot to watch the cars come and go in the night. We would name the brand – and model if we could – by the taillights. The sixties were easier. The dramatic lines of the late 50’s and early 60’s, like the rocket ship-inspired rear fender fins, made it easy.

“Chevy.”

“Which one?”

“’62 Impala.”

“Pretty good.”

Then silence again. Until the next one.

“Some kinda Chrysler.”

“Yup.”

Silence.

“Cadillac, ’66 or ‘67”.

“Pretty good.”

Then Mama Dot pops her head through the doorway. “You boys come get ready for bed. It’ll be time, right now’n a minute.”

“OK.” Then we play this game for a few minutes more. But we know what it really means. So we finish and go.

This phrase of hers was almost always tied to a meal, though it was handily applied to most every situation in life. And while it might have sounded as if it were left open to interpretation, we really knew exactly. It meant now.

She was thrilled to see any one of us come through the door. “Why, land sakes! Is that Kathi? Where have you been?”

Kathi eggs her on. “Oh, I just came to get my mail.”

“You better not!” Mama Dot warns in jest.

Or Mariette is getting ready to leave after a long afternoon of visiting and doing laundry, which, of course culminates in supper, before heading back to the dorm to study. Mama Dot is folding her clothes in the basement. Mariette can hear the sound of her slippers on the steps, and as she comes up, she says, “I’ll be done with the folding, right now’n a minute. Run, give Papa Ed a kiss before you go.” Mariette’s already there.

Many weekends Ty would come in the back, straight from Bloomington, and say, “Well, hello there, Callie!”

“Why, Ty, where’d you come from?” Her smile never waivers, and neither does his. He has her family name – and her heart.

Many times she would wrap her arms around my neck, and clasping her hands together behind my head she would accuse me in a sly tone: “You don’t love me!”

“Oh, Mama Dot! You know you’re my best girlfriend.” And it was true. And she knew it.

The phone would ring, and it would be any one of their life-long friends, calling just to chat. They’d talk for a while, then she’d say, “Olive, I’ve got to go. The kids are gonna be here, right now’n a minute.”

She was filled with joy and contentment with the arrival of Jayne, as though this altered situation of having her one greatest prize in life before her finally made everything good and right. And I guess it did. That’s all it really took to make their world complete.

She lived these last some 13 years without Papa Ed, and though she missed him daily, she was generally content with her world – as much as we could tell, or as much as she would tell. She seemed to live in a state of patient waiting, as if in a final stage, just for a while longer. She was cheery and peaceful, always agreeable and pleasant. She was neighborly and interested in the people around her. We called and wrote and visited, and Mom kept her up to date with the latest pictures and news. She didn’t dwell on Papa Ed, but she waited patiently in devoted anticipation.

Right now’n a minute.
I’ll be there right now’n a minute.
The sun rises slowly in the east.
Through the kitchen window, and through the maples
it sends streams of golden white fingers
to warm a soft and happy face.

It’s early, and her ritual has begun at the window.
It’s early, and the cool morning air whisping through the trees.
The robin’s song and an occasional car going by
are the only sounds outside.
She’ll have breakfast ready, right now’n a minute.
Right now’n a minute, the day will awake.
And her hours will be filled with work and love.

Right now’n a minute, the rest of the world will join her,
though she’s far ahead.
She’s thinking now of the rest of her day,
her joys and tasks commingled.

She knows and loves her place in this world
It is in her husband, and daughter, and grandchildren.
They are her work and her love.

As I speak gently to her, “I’ll see you very soon. I love you. We all love you very much.”
I can almost hear her answer.
Your work is nearly finished.
You’ll be done, right now’n a minute.

The evening of her days has come.
The warming, glowing sun is setting.
She closes the windows and shutters;
the sound and light fade softly and ever so gently.

Her years have been filled, her life has been filled.
Her waiting is nearly done.

She stays for a while longer,
just a little while longer, to hold her daughter’s hand.
Words of love fill her ears.
Dear voices and faces fill her world.
She’ll be there, right now’n a minute.

Perhaps in her mind’s eye, she saw Papa Ed waiting,
and her new day beginning.

With a new morning sunlight streaming,
perhaps she spoke her familiar words once more.
“Right now’n a minute. I’ll be there right now’n a minute.”

Remembering Mama Dot For Mom, Kathi, Ty, and Mariette
– Michael / August 25, 2004

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I wrote this several years ago, and can’t seem to leave it in the past. Perhaps if just one more person is able to read it, it is worth putting it up again. Maybe someone will be a little happier, reminded of a good man, a wonderful relationship, maybe even be challenged to fix something, even forgive, maybe even try one more time.

– – –

2014-09-23 21.42.43September 23, 2014 Dad finished his good fight. We are all so very, very much better for having had him as our father, our friend, our brother, cousin, uncle, grandfather and husband. Donald Watson Conner, Jr.

November 3rd, is my father’s birthday. I am so proud that it is also mine. To share his birthday has always been one of the most personal and unique joys in my life. I enjoy it as much now as I ever did, and I can say I appreciate it more and more as the years go by.

 

 

Turquoise Lake, outside Leadville, CO – Labor Day, 09. We’re at the “tip of the finger” – the far end of the lake. We were there to skip rocks. This of course, made me a hero. Thanks to my dad for teaching me. That makes him a hero.

– – –

I think of my father every day.

We’re a thousand miles apart, and he still influences me constantly.

I can even sense now, each telephone conversation we have is more important to me than the last. Simply, I am glad to hear his voice. But more importantly, something fulfilling, in part something emotional, happens when I know he wants to hear what I am saying, and I sense that I am anxious to hear what he says.

Dad, Canada, 1979

There is a distinct feeling that goes with it – a sense of relief and connection in some way, perhaps security. I think it is a sense of grounding, reconnecting with home, family – my roots. My dad does that for me. It is clear to me this is largely a function of time (age) and distance. I think also, perhaps – finally – understanding. I think wisdom, too.

Distance really does make the heart grow fonder. There is only one worry in this: I worry he may not know it. I mean to tell him.

My father is a very educated, very well-read, well-rounded man. He’s a doctor, trained in and – being the reluctant retirer, like his father – still occasionally practicing the profession of optometry. Although not literally required of an eye doctor, he has the bedside manner of the finest physician. I have the strongest impression of this nature recur in me every time I sit with him for my own eye exam. The sense of fascination and even security when receiving his care – this care for me, from my own dad – as if I were a “real” patient, has never left me. It’s as strong now as it was when I was a small boy.

It has always made a strong impression on me that while he is a doctor, he has always had “working” hands. Not necessarily rough or hard, but used, bearing the signs – even marks – of constant hard physical work. He’s got woodworking hands, building hands, farmer’s hands, and in recent years, hands put to use raising alpacas and chickens. (You’ll enjoy a visit to their alpaca farm Website, http://www.lookoutfarmalpacas.com) Does that sound like the typical doctor? No, but it sounds like Dr. Conner.

Mother and Dad, Alpacas

I have often joked that I don’t think I have ever seen my dad’s hands without a purple finger or thumbnail. He works. His hands are not what you would think of as doctor’s hands. As a boy I thought, “There isn’t another doctor who does real work like my dad.”

The ready exception to this was my grandfather, Dr. Conner, Sr., who taught my father all this. He was the other doctor with “working hands” that I knew. They shared their optometry practice for more than 30 years. My father described him as his partner and best friend. That’s where he got his working hands. Through companionship, they came to him by way of example, and in the form of a strong work ethic.

My father has passed to me values that I hold dear now, as a husband and father. One is simply to be home. While all of his children would agree he is known throughout our home state and beyond as one of the finest optometrists, even a celebrated figure in his profession, he is much more than that to us. Actually, he is much simpler to us. His professional work is largely peripheral to what we think of on a daily basis and how we see him. We see him as a deeply dedicated father and husband, with all of his interests and energies focused on home and family. In short, we see him as a guy at home. And he has rubbed off – because I feel that constant pull to get home for supper, to be home. Like him, I find my deepest satisfaction there. That is a simple but vital inheritance I value and thank him for.

Not only did my dad teach my brothers and sisters and me to shoot and hunt, but he taught us the joy of and how to appreciate and respect nature. To love and care for the outdoors. To hunt morel mushrooms, to dig sassafras roots and make tea, to recognize the birds on the feeder.

I wrote this several years ago, and can’t seem to leave it in the past. Perhaps if just one more person is able to read it, it is worth putting it up again. Maybe someone will be a little happier, reminded of a good man, a wonderful relationship, maybe even be challenged to fix something, even forgive, maybe even try one more time.

– – –

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The Whoozit Chain hanging between the birches

To believe in the Whoozit and the Four-legged chicken. The strongest realization I have whenever I am in the wood or the field is that “my dad taught me this”. I have told people innumerable times, “I got it from my dad.” So many things I hold as important – being home with my family, and so many of my interests – our place in Canada, woodworking, photography, hard physical work, being outside, picking blackberries, recognizing poison ivy, identifying a redwing blackbird or a coot, knowing how to work on a car, having a love of history, of the arts (and music in particular), being sentimental – I got these from my dad.

I am certain there are some things he’ll do that I am still more than reluctant to do: Catch a snake for one. My father is brave. I am eight years old. We are in the woods behind our house. He grabs a long stick from the ground, jabs it firmly, though not injuriously at the head of a black snake or water snake I didn’t see, and with lightening speed, his hand is down there, the snake’s head firmly between Dad’s thumb and index finger. He confidently lifts it to eye level, cocks his head slightly, and with a mixture of curiosity and admiration, says, “You wanna feel him?” Well, sure I do, and I do. But I don’t wanna hold him, and I don’t. And I sure wouldn’t catch him. But my dad did.

One evening just last summer my wife yelled to me in a near panic, “Michael, there’s a snake in the backyard! Will you get rid of him?” I went immediately. It was a small garter snake. I immediately – without any hesitation, and without really thinking – picked him up, calmly, slowly – deliberately – by the tail, and looked at him, and said, “He’s just a garter snake. I’ll take him down to the Open Space.” Unlike my father, this was, candidly, the first time I had ever done this.

The snake and I walked the hundred yards down the hill and there, in the tall grass, I let him slip silently away. As I had done the moment I heard my wife’s request, I thought of my dad. I thought of him through the entire episode. I know I didn’t feel the natural comfort, the confidence I knew he did. But what I did, finally, I had learned from him. Ultimately, I believe what I had learned from him was the willingness to do it.

It’s 1970. I am eight years old. I am sitting on the spillway at Van Horn’s lake fishing with my dad and brother, Ty. Dad is helping me gently get the hook out of a Bluegill’s mouth, and get a fresh worm on my hook.

It’s 1967. I can see my dad standing in the kitchen, wearing khaki jeans, a trim white t-shirt tucked in, and Wayfarer sun glasses. He is sporting a crew cut and has a sly but friendly smile on his face. He is 30, and the epitome of cool.

The Eye Exam, Dad and Jace, Dec 2007

Today I see my dad in light blue “dress” jeans and a plaid work shirt, leather gloves on, headed out to the barn to feed the animals with Mother. I see him in a dark green wool sport coat, tie and tan slacks at St. Stephens on Sunday. I see him in his white, short-sleeved Van Huesen permanent press dress shirt and tie, sitting on a small stool next to his exam chair gently questioning a patient, including his seven year old grandson, my son, Jace. “Is it better with 1 or 2?” “1 or 2?” “Better now?” “How ‘bout now? Is it better or worse?” Then finally, “Now this will make it much better, you’ll be able to see it clearly now.” And that’s how I think of him. I expect ultimately, that’s how we’d all like to think of our fathers.

I don’t know everything about my dad, of course. I know much about him though, such as his love for his family, his absolute enjoyment of his home and farm, the things he is involved in the community, the pleasure he draws and responsibility he assumes for our place in Canada, the pride he has in his profession and the dedication he shows to his patients and practice, and the simple pleasure he derives from constantly having a book from the library – World War II novels are a favorite. (What would they do without him?)

I think I have years of questions to ask him. Our Conner history that he knows, questions about his parents, his growing up years as a young boy, his time as an amateur artist, as a photographer (he even developed his own film early on), a high school runner, what he went through before, during, and after divorce, his first dates with Mother.

What was it like in Canada when the cabin was being built? What was really going through his mind as he bravely navigated our small motorboat across the lake in the dark during that incredible, scary storm? Rain pounding down so hard we couldn’t see more than a dozen yards ahead of the boat, the four of us kids huddled – really, crammed – in the bow, wind raging so loud we couldn’t hear, scared nearly to death we’d capsize and drown, except that we could see him there in the stern, his strong hand on the tiller, his face up and forward, looking straight ahead into the storm and across the lake, watching for the first glimpse of the boathouse. The stinging assault of hard rain on his face was of no concern; he would not be deterred nor shaken. As if he were saying to the storm, “Bring it on!” He was brave, and on those occasions, he was quite the hero.

Too, I wonder now about his worries and stresses in life, and the happiest moments. And the hardest ones. We haven’t had these talks. Maybe we have – barely – in small bits and pieces. The more I think of my father in these terms, more fascinated I am.

There really is so much I don’t know. But maybe the here-and-now of each rare visit we have now is enough. But I’d like more. I suspect we all would.

Dad, Canada, 1970

Some few years ago, I arrived home from work, and had a package waiting for me – pictures from my folks after their annual two weeks at the cabin in Canada. Let me interject a bit of clarifying context here: I was not emotionally “spun up” at this moment. I was in “neutral” from an emotional perspective, having had a rather normal, uneventful day at work, and no outstanding issues facing me at home. Nothing was “going on”. The waters were calm, you could say.

I opened the envelope and began perusing the photographs. All the scenes were typical and I knew them well, but never tired of seeing anew: fishing here and there on the lake, poses with the catch. Shots in and about the cabin. Shots of sites visited around the lake, during travels to and from the cabin, and so on. Then, the next picture did it. It was an image of my father sitting on the smooth rock surface at the far tip of the island at the lake. He was turning around, looking at the camera, no doubt responding to Mother: “Don, turn around and look at the camera.” He had a gentle, almost serene smile on his face; a knowing look that said he belonged there. He was obviously happy and content.

The picture really was fine… but in that image, in that pose, with that salt-and-pepper hair that I had not seen for almost two years, I think I saw my grandfather. I was struck with an emotion that I had never experienced before. Crying I had done, to be sure. But the feeling that overwhelmed me – the flood of sensation – I still, even after several years cannot describe and cannot articulate well. I suppose it was a mixture of love and shock, of fear and compassion, of desire to see him or at least talk to him; a feeling of missing and longing. I am still not sure, but it was powerful, and it affected me deeply. It was at that moment I realized a great, but very simple – and I suppose, in retrospect – obvious truth of life. Life moves on and does not stop. It does not wait.

Dad and Jace, Mowing, 2005

My grandfather is gone now, as is my father. I wrote at one time he had taken his father’s place, and I had taken his, and so we have. Though he is gone, he has rejoined his father, my Daddy Don, and is still grandfather to my son; and I have taken his place as the father. And my son has taken my place. We have taken our places in life and death. Someday, of course, I will take my father’s place, my son will take my place, and perhaps someday he will have a son who will take his place. And so it goes.

This is as predictable and as powerful as the sun and the change of the seasons. It is the changing of the seasons of life. It can neither be stopped nor altered, nor would we really want it to be. It is an amazing and wondrous thing. It is also terrifying and ominous. It’s good – it’s the way it is supposed to be, as it is inevitable. It is good – full of love and joy, but it is also a bit frightening. It’s all those things, but mostly good. And, at least in our case, this amazing phenomenon of life is laced with love.

I hope it is for you, too.

– – Originally published Father’s Day, 2009

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Jace is 17 now, headed into his senior year of high school. He continues to become quite the guy, amazing to us, really. Still, as he has become so much and is yet to be so much more, we tend to look back sometimes to remember earlier times. But truly we know that ours is a forward-looking life.

– – –

 

 

 

 

– – –

 

Here area few things from earlier days.

Close Enough

Jace Face

Jace and my wife attended a local high school football game this last weekend.

At the conclusion of a play, the announcer came over the PA system: “Jace LaMunyon, the ball carrier…”

At this our Little Man leaned over to Mom and said, “Hey Mom, that’s exactly what they’ll say when I play football, except they’ll say ‘Jace Conner.'”

– – –

Jace and I took our first “guy trip” to the cabin in Canada a few years ago. I told him we might see bears.

Me: “So what if a bear comes after you?”

Jace: “I’ll stop, drop, and roll.”

– – –

Mom, to Jace: “Do you know who you belong to?”

Jace: “My family and Gramma and Pop.”

Mom: “Yes, but think bigger.”

Jace: “…And God.”

Mom: “Yes, and did you know that God planned you and knew you even before we did?”

Brave Men - Ernie Pyle

Jace: “So, I’m a rental Jace!”

– – –

In line at the airport, Jace was speaking with a couple of ladies. He said, “You know, the thing about chicken is… if it’s hot, don’t touch it.”

– – –

As often as I can, I read to Jace at bedtime, even now that he is nearly finished with sixth grade. But the time for these treasured moments is all too quickly fading. In the fall, he gently told me he was too old for that, but I could tell him a story. So we do stories on many nights. As the school year has progressed however, I have occasionally slipped a book in once in a while, though quite different from the Hardy Boys books and Magic Treehouse series of those earlier years.

Now Ernie Pyle’s Brave Men, Louis Warren’s Lincoln’s Youth and Robert Frost’s poems are on his nightstand.

Lincoln's Youth

“I’m going to read one of our favorites. It’s on page 117. You help me finish it.”

Jace is lying on his side, with heavy eyes now and his blanket pulled up close under his chin. This poem we have read together and talked about afterward many times now. It has become “our” poem.

“Ok.”

I begin.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by…”
The Poems of Robert Frost

I pause for just a few seconds, then hear Jace’s sleepy voice.

“…And that has made all the difference.”

The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

 

 

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