“Memories of that summer were like bad movie montages - young lovers tossing a Frisbee in the park, sharing a melting ice-cream cone, bicycling along the river, laughing, talking, kissing, a sappy score drowning out the dialogue because the screenwriter had no idea what these two people might say to each other.” Richard Russo, “That Old Cape Magic”
In California, driving back from a Riverside crematorium with an urn containing my mother’s ashes, I thought of 57 year-old Professor Jack Griffin, the protagonist in “That Old Cape Magic,” tasked with disposing both his parents’ ashes. “Late middle age,” Griffin declares, “was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.” At age 73 I am aware the grim reaper is coming – but when? And will I go suddenly like Vic or slowly fade away like Midge? Rich and I will take the urn to our dad Vic’s gravesite next spring and have it buried beside him. On the way to the crematorium, I inadvertently turned off the sound on my trusty Garmin GPS and missed the recommended freeway exit, but the next one miraculously took me within six blocks of my destination.
My three days in California were emotional but went smoothly once I got there. At the Phoenix airport lightning and heavy rain delayed my flight to Palm Springs but only for an hour, much to my relief. About 30 Mirage Inn residents, many familiar from previous visits, attended Midge’s memorial service, which my brother strategically scheduled between bingo and Happy Hour. The theme was family. Several appreciated my reference to the Johnny Mercer song “Dream,” mouthing the chorus as I recited lines. I emphasized two life lessons Midge passed on to me, how to age gracefully and not to hold grudges. Seven year-old Addie Lane read from “Riotous Rhymes,” a children’s book that Midge had illustrated, while little brother Crosby walked around showing folks the book. The microphone fascinated Cosby, who, when new-age minister Debra Savitt from Serenity Hospice asked if anyone would like to say a few words, said, “I liked my Nana, and she died.” Reverend Debra added that her spirit had gone to a better place. Kathy and Karen from Serenity Hospice also had nice things to say about Midge’s serene aura during her final days.
Kathy and Reverend Debra
After the service nine of us, including nephew Bob’s family and my brother’s wife Catherine and friends Eddie, Linda, and Awanda, dined at Yard House sports bar and raised our glasses in tribute to Midge’s long eventful life. All of us had been with Midge on her last birthday, June 27, when Addie and Corey helped her blow out candles and, her sweet tooth still functioning, Midge enjoyed a large piece of cake. The following evening Eddie treated us to the Daily Grill’s Wednesday special, lobster pot pie.
My final day in California was spent mostly going through Midge’s possessions. At lunch time, while I was eating a BLT on toast at Mirage Inn, a man wandered in looking for the Memory Care Unit, the euphemism for the Alzheimer’s ward.
That evening multiple TVs at Applebee’s were tuned to the Kansas City-Denver NFL game, and I let out a whoop when my Fantasy running back Jamaal Charles ran for a 30-yard TD. In week one I had been certain that I’d lost to Anthony, but my other running back, 49er Carlos Hyde, scored three TDs in the late Monday night contest. Natasha, Applebee’s bartender extraordinaire, whom I’ve known for seven years, greeted me warmly, asked about my mother, and offered condolences upon learning the reason for my visit. It had rained hard the day before in Rancho Mirage, first time in memory, and the temperature, predicted to reach triple digits, stayed in the mid-eighties. Natasha’s two-year old daughter Sunshine frolicked in the rain at a playground, first time in months the weather was cool enough for kids to play outside during the day. Sensing that she might not see me again, Natasha shook my hand and said she’d miss me. I blurted out, “Luv you,” and she replied, “I love you, too.” Establishing a relationship with regular customers must be akin to the bond teachers sometimes develop with former students. One of my first, Jim Dauberheyer, recently sent me a photo of him standing in front of a sphinx in the Libyan Desert, where he coached a summer basketball camp.
Arriving at Palm Springs International Airport around five a.m., I noticed that a Salt Lake City flight was over-booked and that Delta Airlines was offering $400 to passengers who agreed to be bumped. There was only one taker, so the offer escalated to $600, then $700, and finally $800. The person who accepted $400 must have been pissed. I arrived at O’Hare seven hours later, just ahead of a thunderstorm that closed the airport. My carry-on bag, loaded with books I’d authored and given to Midge, weighed a ton, so I accepted an offer to ship it free. Baggage claim went smoothly, allowing time for a Chicago-style hot dog before the airport bus arrived.
It was back to a weekend routine that included observing grandson James bowl (a 179, his highest score ever), gaming with Dave and Tom Wade (winning both Acquire and St. Petersburg), watching pro football (Bears and Eagles sucked), and enjoying a sumptuous ham dinner with Dave’s family, Angie’s dad John, and a surprise drop-in by Alissa, who’d spent the weekend in La Porte with her mom, grandparents Donna and Bob, and her Uncle Jimmy and his family, in from San Luis Obispo, CA. I gave Alissa and Becca jewelry, scarves, purses, and sweaters, loot I brought home for the grandkids to remember Nana Midge by. Alissa showed photos of Tori and Anthony dressed up for Homecoming.
In the mail were condolence cards from cousin Sue Stone, the History and Philosophy Department, Chris Young and the CISTL staff, Steve and Cindy McShane, Fred and Diane Chary, and Chancellor Bill Lowe, who wrote this touching note:
On behalf of us all at IU Northwest, please accept our sympathy for the loss of someone who, from her obituary, had an active and full life. And, as a historian, [you realize that] your mother lived to a good age, through remarkable times, during the last century.
above, George Van Til in 2012; NWI Times photo by John J. Watkins; below, Archbishop Tobin
George Van Til, unjustly incarcerated in federal prison despite poor health, sent me a visitor information form and a flyer indicating that he was the pianist at a Roman Catholic mass celebrated by Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph William Tobin. Van Til wrote:
Can you believe this? Me, the life long Protestant being asked to do the music. This is a big deal here. I’m honored. Archbishop Tobin came out on the little stage of our chapel and said to the 40 or so guys, “My name is Joseph, and I’m your brother.” Wow. That caught me!
In my youth summer vacations usually meant going either to the Poconos or the Jersey shore. My parents had old friends, the Zilkers, whose cabin we’d sometimes stay at. Blond Judy Zilker was my age, and when pre-schoolers, we had played doctor and exposed our private parts, my first education into the female anatomy. Neither of us subsequently brought up the subject. Then we shared a cabin two summers with the Jenkins family. On a hike Terry and I met a girl named Cookie who promised to write us. A couple weeks later a letter addressed to Jimmy and terry (no last name), Fort Washington, PA (no street address) materialized. Midge’s second husband, Howard Roberts, had a place at Ocean City a couple blocks from the boardwalk where I taught Phil and Dave how to body surf.
Vivid summer memories include meeting Toni in 1962 at a Philadelphia law firm, Dechert, Price, and Rhoads,” where I worked as a mailroom delivery boy and she was a legal secretary fresh out of Little Flower High School. It took me a month to work up the nerve to ask her out. She lived in north Philly Polish neighborhood, about an hour’s drive from Fort Washington. I picked her up in Vic’s 1959 Corvette and took her dancing on our first date. Two summers before, off to college, I broke up with my first serious girlfriend. In contrast, at summer’s end, I began a long correspondence with Toni that increased my love for her. Two and a half years later we drove to California, my first visit to the “Golden State,” on our way to Hawaii.
A $2,000 “Double Jeopardy” question in the category “They’re Playing Our Song” asked who recorded “Island in the Sun” – one od my favorite songs. Answer: Weezer.