Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Eulogy For Mom

Geneva Frances Ray was born on October 23rd, 1938, in Eubank, Kentucky. (Actually, Eubank was the closest incorporated town to her house, which was in a remote area of Pulaski County, Kentucky.) The town of Eubank is just a short distance down the road from Somerset. But, in 1938, that distance probably seemed a lot longer.

People in Somerset had automobiles. Mom’s folks in Eubank still drove a horse and buggy to church and to visit friends and relatives. In 1938, much of Somerset had electricity; much of Eubank did not.  Somerset had running water; Eubank – or at least the house that Mom was born in – did not.

That meant, of course, that Mom had to use an outhouse when she went to the bathroom. And, while some houses had a pump in the yard to bring up well water, I remember Mom telling me that the house she lived in relied on spring water, so she would go every day down to the spring, fill up two buckets with water, and haul them back to the house.

Mom – and all of her family – helped out on the farm. Mom’s dad was a tenant farmer who raised tobacco. And one of Mom’s jobs, as a young girl, was to pull tobacco worms off the plants and put them in a jar. And for every jar of worms she filled up, her daddy would give her a whole penny.

Mom was one of five kids, and as I remember her telling it, much of the time, all of the kids slept in the same room. Which leads me to one of Mom’s favorite stories.

Mom and her brother, Clayton, and her sister, Fredessa, were sleeping one night, and Clayton – who was known as a sleep talker and a sleepwalker – got up and began walking around the room.

You should also know that Clayton had recently been on a camping trip with some older boys and men who had told him about all the bears that were known to roam in the woods around the house.  So he was apparently dreaming about those bears when he got up and started walking around. Well, Fredessa knew he was walking in his sleep, so she got up to go get him while Mom stayed in bed – as a spectator. 

Now, as it happens, there was a big, furry winter coat that hung on the back of the door of the room they slept in. And Clayton brushed against that furry coat – just as Fredessa reached out and touched him on the arm. Of course, he KNEW he was being attacked by a bear, so he yelled out and took off running around the room. And his yelling scared Fredessa, so she yelled and took off running around the room. So, here they are, chasing each other around – and Mom is sitting on the bed, laughing too hard to move. Their daddy eventually came in and calmed everybody down.

So the Ray house was a happy house. And it was to this happy house, in 1954 or so, that a young man named Herrin came calling.  A fellow named … Otis Herrin, Jr. … who invited Mom and her cousin to go riding around with him. And, luckily for Mom, Junior invited his little brother, Jimmy, to come along for the ride.

Jimmy and Geneva were married in 1956, just a few weeks before Mom’s 18th birthday.   It seems they couldn’t wait because Dad had joined the military and was about to ship out to France. Mom stayed in Kentucky for the first several months, but eventually got on a bus in Somerset and rode it up to New York City, where she promptly got lost looking for the base that military wives were supposed to report to. She told me that when she finally found the place and saw an MP, she dropped her bags and just started crying.

But the MP got her squared away and eventually she was on her way to Europe. And, in 1957, you got to Europe by spending about a week on a ship. At eighteen years old, Mom did something that I’ve never done. She crossed the ocean. She told me she spent most the trip below decks feeling seasick, but that everything got better when she saw her new husband waiting to pick her up.

Mom and Dad spent most of their marriage going from one duty station to the next. And whenever Dad couldn’t take his family with him, Mom always moved back to be close to her family. That’s why my sister Rita was born in France, while Patty was born in Stanford, Kentucky. I was born in Pennsylvania, and Debbie was born … in Stanford, Kentucky.

And now a word about, well, me.  As Mom tells it, when she got pregnant with me, Dad had decided that if they had a son, that son would be named Danny Dale. Mom said no, we’re going to name him after you. And Dad said, no, we’re going to name him Danny Dale. And then the day arrived, the nurse brought me out and asked, “What are you going to name him?” To which Dad said, homina, homina, homina. And Mom said, “His name is James Allen Herrin Jr.”

She knew how to get her way.  But Dad was a bit of a prankster. As a little girl, Mom had been chased by boys carrying snakes – so she HATED snakes. Couldn’t look at pictures of them. Didn’t want to talk about them. Didn’t want to see them. So, naturally, when Dad saw an old piece of black rubber laying out in the driveway one day, he knew what to do.  Mom was in the kitchen, tossing a salad, when Dad tossed that piece of rubber into the salad bowl. Mom threw the bowl and the salad and the “snake” straight up in the air and went screaming out of the kitchen.  I’m not sure how long it took before she spoke to him again.

Then, of course, when Dad was in Vietnam, he bought two stuffed cobras, which were coiled as if they were ready to strike – and he shipped them back home.  He had learned his lesson, though. He told Mom they were coming.  So she knew what to expect when she opened the box. But the cobras were packed end to end, so that the head of one of them was touching the tail of the other.  And, as Mom worked up the courage and reached to take one of them out of the box, somebody touched the other one. And that made the one Mom was reaching for MOVE – just like it was alive. Well, that did it. She jumped back, wouldn’t touch them, wouldn’t unpack them, wouldn’t discuss it.(I should note here that my sister Debbie remembers that it wasn’t Mom reaching for the snakes; it was my sister Rita. Debbie’s memory is probably more accurate.)  Even after somebody else got them out of the package and set them up in the house, Mom wouldn’t touch ‘em. For years and years, when she cleaned, she scooted them out of the way with the vacuum and then scooted them back. She did not like snakes.

What she did like was learning. Mom had quit school in the 8th grade, but she was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.  When we were stationed in Panama, in the early 1960s, there was only one English language television station, and Mom didn’t usually like what they put on it. So she read books. To herself and to us. In fact, she checked out and read every single Perry Mason book that the library had. People sometimes ask me what grade I was in when I learned to read and I have to tell them that I didn’t learn to read in school. My memory is that I always knew how to read – because Mom read to me.

When we got to be teenagers, Mom got a job because she wanted to buy a second car. We’d always only had the one car.  And, in part because she only had an 8th grade education, the job she got was waiting tables – first at Weaver’s Cafeteria in Oliver Springs. Later at Omelet House. Waffle House. Ranch House. Lots of other places. And I have to tell you, I worked in the food service industry for about three months while I was in college. But Mom, who was in her late 40s at the time, ran circles around my 21-year-old carcass.  I was the one who spilled an entire pitcher of water on the diner who just wanted a refill.  Mom was the one who had your order waiting on you before your butt hit the seat.

For the past several years, Mom was disabled. Seems like she had a lot of things hit her one right after the other. But – even with all of her health issues – you hardly ever heard her complain.  She could be stubborn and ornery – just like her kids. But she also didn’t want to be a bother.  And so she probably suffered a bit more than she needed to.  But what made her happy – and I could tell – was hearing about her family.

When I would tell her about how incredible I thought my kids were, she would nod and smile and say, “Just like their Daddy.” And that’s probably true, Lord help them.

She got to see all of her kids, grandkids and great grandkids before she passed. And I think in the end that made her happy. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Better Deal

     My beautiful bride and I sometimes like to play a game in which we look at couples and try to determine who got the better deal. It’s a game that’s based strictly on our subjective and superficial assessment of the relative attractiveness of the two people involved.  We do not consider personality or income or anything else that may change our cursory, snap judgment of who’s better looking.
     With some couples, the outcome is a tie. Neither is noticeably better looking than the other. But most of the time, there’s a clear winner. And most of the time, that winner is the male in the coupling. For reasons I have yet to understand, good-looking men don’t often hang out with ugly women, but good-looking women are inevitably in the company of an ugly man.
     OK. Perhaps ugly is too strong a word here. While a few of the people you meet may fit that special category, most are simply unattractive, mainly because of the choices they make with their clothing, their hair or their personal hygiene.  So let’s rephrase and say that attractive women are more likely to be with unattractive men than attractive men are to be with unattractive women. That’s the case, at least, in our completely unscientific and random people-watching game.
     And we don’t restrict the game to strangers. We think about the couples we know and make the same determination. And we sometimes include celebrities. For example, my wife would say that Amal Clooney got the better deal when she married George.  Not that Amal is bad-looking, by any measure. But, according to my wife, George Clooney is better looking than she is. In fact, she says, George is better looking than most people on the planet.
     That may be one of the reasons she fell for me. Because she loves Clooney, and George and I have a LOT in common. 
     We were born 12 days apart in May of 1961. 
     We both lived in Kentucky during our early years.
     We’re both fans of the Cincinnati Reds. 
     He made his television debut in 1978. I made my stage debut in 1978 -- appearing in our church Christmas play. 
     He has a home in Italy; I can find Italy on a map.
     We both married stunning women.
     The similarities go on and on.
     One difference, though, is that George ended up married to someone who is not quite as attractive as he is. I ended up marrying someone who is way, way, way more attractive than I’ll ever be. And, as often happens when we play our silly game,  I wonder what such a beauty sees in a goof like me. 
     And she's not just amazingly attractive. The smartest person I know is my wife. The sweetest person I know is my wife. The most beautiful person I have ever known is my wife. I clearly got the better deal. Then again, what man didn’t?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On This Date In History

     I’ve been pondering for some time now what, if anything, is appropriate to give my spouse on the occasion of a landmark birthday she has coming up.  You’ll note in the above sentence that I don’t make mention of the specific landmark because I’m still not sure she wants the world to know her exact age.  I’ll give you a hint, though. On the day that she was born the angels got together and decided to create a dream come true. Also, Jimmy Page put out his first solo  single . It was called “She Just Satisfies,” and while it may not have been specifically about my beloved,  the title is an apt description.
     It’s also fair to say that she has always loved playing games with people who ask how old she is.  When our kids were younger, she would just lie to them whenever they asked, changing the specific age used in the lie to a different number each time. She had them convinced for a brief time that she was in her early twenties.  I ruined that charade by telling the kids the truth about how long we had been married.  Once they could do simple math, it occurred to them that most women don’t get married when they are eight years old. 
     I don’t think my beloved particular cares that the kids know her age, but she is coy when talking about the subject with others. My wife, you see, is blessed with beautiful, porcelain skin, which belies her true age. That perfection is most obvious when she’s standing next to her friends from high school and college. They look their age. She doesn’t. And she enjoys imagining that people think of me as a cradle robber because I, too, look my age.
     That may explain why I found it humorous when we were dining out with some younger friends one time and the waitress made the incorrect assumption that we were the parents of that young couple. And then there was the time at a school function with our actual children where a teacher started to instruct the parents about what to do, but paused momentarily as she looked at us and added … “or grandparents.”
     So, again, what, if anything, should I get to mark the special occasion birthday this year? I have considered some sort of, ahem, “golden” trinket, but that may hit too close to home.  I’ve also considered that the gift of my presence should be enough, but we all know that won’t fly. The most important thing, I suppose, is to keep my mouth shut. Because grumpy old women hold grudges. Or so I've heard.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Pet Peeves

A few years ago, as we were going over homework, my daughter grabbed a piece of paper out of my hand to explain what was on it.  I told her that someone grabbing something out of my hand was one of my pet peeves. She hadn't heard the term before, so I told her that peeve was a word for something that annoys you, and a pet peeve was something that annoys you but not necessarily anyone else. She then decided that little sisters were her pet peeve. Or, more particularly, her little sister. I told her I wasn't sure she understood the concept. 
Meanwhile, my wife has recently been reading a book about sounds that aggravate some people to the point of rage. Not just nails on a blackboard, but something as innocuous as a person turning the pages of a magazine. Or the sound of a clock ticking. She is truly bothered, for example, by the sound of people eating too loudly. I’m just not sure how she measures that volume.
The sound of water dripping bothers her way more than it has ever bothered me. The sound of my alarm clock also sets her off. It’s one of those that loudly goes "BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP" until I hit the snooze button. It sounds as much like a fire alarm as it does a clock, but it does the job of waking me up.  Her alarm -- so called -- is a pleasant melody that emanates from her cell phone, and that I would sleep right through.
               The sound that inevitably bothers me is that unique note that squealing little girls can hit when they are gathered together for a sleepover.  You might as well be drilling an icepick into my brain.  And, because I was born predisposed to be a grumpy old man, the sound of kids being just generally loud (as kids are) gets on my nerves more easily than it should.  We had a house full the other day, and my wife was calmly going about her business, oblivious to the racket that was engulfing us. I don't know how she does it. This is, after all, the same woman who once yelled at a kid to get out of our yard -- just like the crazy old ladies do in the movies. 
And it’s not just sounds. She cannot, she claims, remove food from a strainer in the kitchen sink because it grosses her out, and she is unable to plunge a backed up toilet. And she's freaked out by the idea of water draining out of a bathtub.
For my part, I can't deal with vomit. I've tried to convince my wife that if I see vomit, I also vomit. So, instead of cleaning up the mess, I add to it.  She thinks it's a ruse, but it’s not. It’s the smell. The smell of regurgitate (if that’s a word) is unbearable. And while I’m at it, the smell of rubbing alcohol makes me light-headed, even when a shot is not imminent. I also get sick at the smell of liver frying in a pan. 
Other than that, I'm in good shape. How about you?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

What I Think Of On Veterans Day

     One of my childhood memories is the image of my mother standing at an ironing board, applying lots and lots of Faultless Spray-On Starch to my dad's Army uniform. When she was done starching and ironing, it seemed to me that I would risk cutting my finger if I touched the razor-sharp crease that ran down the front of those uniform pants.
     Not that I was ever allowed to touch them. The point of all that ironing and starching was to make sure that there were absolutely no wrinkles in the clothes my dad wore to work. I'm not sure how comfortable he was in starched khaki shirts, Army-issue solid, black ties, and perfectly-creased pants, but he looked really good.  His hair was Brylcreemed, and parted on the left, in a way that mimicked the straight-line crease of his pants.
     I understood that my dad was a soldier and that we had to move at least every three years, and sometimes more often than that. That's what soldiers did. In addition to his stateside assignments, my dad was sent to military bases in Germany, France, and Panama. The family went along for the posting in the Canal Zone, and we stayed together for the hitch at Fort Knox.
     But when I was ten years old, my dad was sent to Vietnam for a tour of duty. Of course, we couldn't go to a war zone and there was no Internet, so we relied on airmail letters and, a couple of times, a really hard to hear overseas phone call that had to be patched through several operators.
     In one of those letters home, my dad sent a picture in which the uniform he wore was decidedly different.  No starched shirts. No ties. No khaki.  He was dressed in camouflage pants and an olive-drab undershirt. And his hair was uncombed. In fact, he seemed more unkempt than I had ever remembered him.
     What I came to realize later is that it was a lot hotter and more humid in Vietnam than it had been on base in the U.S. But, more than that, when you're in danger of being shot at or blown up every day, you start to worry less about the outer trappings of a freshly-starched uniform.
     Don't get me wrong. Dad wasn't in a combat unit. He was one of thousands of personnel who shuffled the necessary paperwork (in triplicate) to see that men and supplies got from one place to another. But, even in that relatively innocuous job, he had some close calls from random sniper fire and unexpected mine fields.
     He returned from Vietnam and continued his military career, ironically at the induction center in Knoxville, Tennessee, where 18-year-old draftees were being prepped for their own trip to 'Nam. He was back in starched khaki uniforms with crisp collars and on his way to retirement and to status as a veteran.
    He's buried today in the Mill Springs National Cemetery, eight miles west of the town where he grew up.  And with all due respect to everyone else who served, when I think of Veterans Day, I think of Dad.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Life As We Know It

     My kids are always asking me about what my life was like growing up, and I think I've figured out why. It is impossible for them to envision my life as a child. To them, it's like a storybook tale, as it would be for anyone trying to envision how things really were before they were born.
     I remember pestering my own parents to talk about their childhoods. My dad, for example, would go to the movies every Saturday and pay a dime to watch B-grade westerns all day. I couldn't imagine paying just ten cents for a movie.
     My mother was raised in a rural home without access to electricity or running water.  She took a bath in a tub that was hand-filled with water hauled from a nearby spring. She used an outhouse, and when her family went to church, they did so using a horse and buggy. It all sounded very pioneering to me. To her, it was just her life.
     My dad's family, meanwhile, had a car. And, while my dad enjoyed the conveniences of living "in town," his house was heated by a coal-burning stove. The sewage from the indoor plumbing went into a cesspool in the back yard. He could read by electric light, but he didn't have a television because those appliances did not come into common use until he was an adult.
     So, even though I get mildly annoyed when my children ask whether cars were invented when I was a kid, I understand their curiosity. The fact is most of things they use daily were not around when I was their age.
     The cars I rode in did not have seat belts, much less car seats. The TV I watched (the only one in the house) was in a big brown box that showed two or three fuzzy black and white channels. I didn't realize then that there would come a day when my perfectly serviceable square TV screen would seem antiquated next to all the cool, high-definition, rectangular displays.
     And I'm pretty sure my kids find it difficult to imagine a world without streaming media or big screen televisions. They have never experienced a situation where they had to look things up in an encyclopedia rather than looking them up on a phone.  They also never knew a time when people didn't carry their phones with them everywhere they went.
     Soon, my kids may not be able to remember broadcast or cable television. We have cut the cord in our house and now watch TV almost exclusively over the Internet.  In that sense, life, as we know it, has changed in a fairly dramatic way. But I don't think the kids even noticed.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Curse

     To my knowledge, my wife's family never crossed paths with an evil Gypsy fortune teller. They don't have a history of witch burning or whatever else it is that causes people to fall victims to a curse. But, logic aside, my in-laws certainly appear to be affected by what the family calls (cue the spooky music) ... The Curse.
    Granted, it's a mild curse. It doesn't involve warts and boils appearing in strange places or true loves being kept apart. No, this particular curse manifests itself as a variation of Murphy's law: If anything can go wrong, it will. Except, in this case, it applies mostly to decision-making.
     Say, for example, you're trying to decide which grocery check-out line to queue up in. One of them has just a couple of people waiting, while the other line is much longer. The Curse mandates that if you choose the shorter line, there will be an issue that causes you more of a delay than you would have had if you had chosen the longer line.
     Conversely, if you acknowledge The Curse and choose the longer line, there will be absolutely no problem in the short line. In fact, that line will begin to move so fast that shoppers who weren't even in the store when you got in the longer line will be checked out ahead of you.
     Apparently, once upon a time, someone (maybe a leprechaun) said to one of my wife's ancestors, "I curse thee, so that whatever decision thee and all thine progeny shall make, it shall be the WRONG decision."
     Piffle, you say? Superstition? I would have said the same thing until I saw The Curse in action.
     Just last week, my wife had a doctor's appointment where she was scheduled to get a shot. The medicine in the shot was being delivered specifically to her doctor's office on that specific day, specifically for her. She was there on time. The doctor was ready. The medicine got delivered to the right building - but the wrong office. It was turned away by that office and went back on the truck. My wife then cursed The Curse and spent the bulk of her day tracking down the package to get it re-delivered.
    Our kids became aware of The Curse earlier this month when they had a choice of going on a river cruise or seeing an IMAX movie.  They chose the dinner cruise, and thereby suffered the consequences of The Curse. The food was awful, the entertainment was worse and they spent two hours trying not to throw up from motion sickness.
     One said, "We should've just seen the movie." But that's because she didn't realize the power of The Curse. Had we decided to watch the movie, something would have gone awry anyway. That's how it works. If your choice is either A or B, whichever one you choose will be the wrong choice.
     So if you decide to hang out with my wife, or more to the point, if she chooses to hang out with you, be aware that The Curse will follow.