Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Friendships made

Sunday morning at church. First service and I was alone with my coffee, trying to stay awake when Pastor Laurie, sprightly as ever, gave her cell number and invited anyone who wanted to help with tornado clean-up in Oklahoma City to call her.

My wife, Maria, and son, Max, had gone with Laurie, her son, Nate, and others to deliver supplies to a church in Oklahoma two days earlier, and I felt I should go as well.

I attended both first and second service Sunday because I'd been there since 7:30 a.m., helping in the kitchen. I'd offered to volunteer there because I figured it would give me easy access to the biscuits and gravy and donuts. Also, it would give me a chance to know people better and make new friends.

Debbie, a fiftyish woman runs the kitchen, for example. She helped cook for people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She also volunteered in Greensburg, Kan. after that town was hit by a tornado two years later.

Her husband, Dave, was also helping in the kitchen. A blunt, tough guy with a husky build and thick Okie accent, Dave did whatever Debbie told him was needed in the kitchen. He was a pretty cool guy.

Making friendships

A little after 6:30 a.m. Monday, Memorial Day, I drove by Brenda's house. (Maria had sent me a text with the address.) She hopped in my car, carrying a backpack with a change of clothes if needed, a first aid kit and steel-toed boots. Oklahoma City wouldn't be Brenda's first disaster. She talked at length about her volunteer work and training with the county emergency preparedness department -- helping to direct traffic and learning how to spot guns and other weapons; classes in storm spotting, ham radio, hazmat and a slough of others.

"Sounds like the whole thing could be a career for you," I said.

"No, just a hobby," she replied.

We were the first ones to pull in to the church parking lot, arriving at roughly 10 minutes 'til 7 a.m. Next Paul arrived with his son Nate. Laurie stayed home to watch the two pre-school aged foster children she and Paul are caring for.

Dave drove up, followed by a woman and her look-alike teenage daughter. I had seen them around church, but didn't really know them. The woman introduced herself as Phyllis. The girl's name was Makena. She was 15-year-old gearing up for her sophomore year of high school -- and driving.

Our group of nine split into two vehicles. I rode in the SUV,
driven by Phyllis's boyfriend, Rory. Makena and I sat in back.

"What 'ya readin'?" she asked me after we'd gone a few miles past the toll booth. I pulled the front flap over to reveal the cover portrait of a fat Henry VIII. I told her it was a book about the Tudor Dynasty.

"Sounds like something I'd have to read for school," she said.

"It may sound boring and academic, but it's really pretty interesting," I said. "They had a lot of the same political manipulations and backstabbing we have today."

Her bold eyes got bigger, lips taking an intent form as her face revealed new interest.

"But The Church was really involved in government back then," I continued. "So you had a lot of corruption in both religion and politics. It wasn't uncommon for people to get burned at the stake."

Later I asked Makena what she was reading on her Kindle.

"Some vampire romance," she said, adding that she'd watched the Twilight movies. "They were dumb. I didn't really like them, but I watched anyway."

This girl would fly through my book on the Tudor Dynasty. She'll fly through high school with her consistent spot on the honor roll and receive scholarships, possibly for dance. She's on the Jett High School Dance Team, goes for private lessons at some studio in Wichita and her future is brighter than a row of halogen lights. I'm happy for her.

'I feel like a milionaire'

The neighborhood was destroyed. Not a house was left standing. Trees were cut off at the branches and trunks. Cars were twisted. Bricks and boards that once held houses in place were now lost in the rubble strewn about the ground.

We grabbed shovels and wheelbarrows and collected the debris into piles by the street, from where large dump trucks will haul them off later. My contribution to this enterprise seemed minimal.

Here I was, only there for a few hours of the day. Didn't know if I'd be back. Meanwhile the clean-up and rebuilding was going to take months, maybe over a year to complete. I felt guilty about checking my watch and wondering when we were going to leave. Working alongside us, shoveling out the remnants of their fallen house, there was a family that would be here for the long haul.

Ramon and Lara had lived in the house for around 20 years. Their three daughters -- who looked to be between late high school and early college age -- had grown up in the home. All of them were outside working. This was a family -- a close-knit group, held together by grace and dignity.

Not that they weren't sad about their house. "It was pretty awesome," one of the girls said, while clearing trash from what used to be her bedroom.

"It reminded me of the Foreman house from That '70s Show," one of the other girls said.

They were Hispanic, and while the parents struggled some with their English, their daughters were obviously Americanized. Wet, discolored prom pictures and college course syllabuses on the ground revealed the active, American, growing up lives these young women were living.

After three to four hours of work, we stood in a circle, holding hands while Paul said a prayer.

Lord, we thank you for this family and the way they have inspired us.

They must be Catholic. One of the girls, I noticed, made the sign of the cross after the prayer. I love that. Paul was raised Catholic back in New York where he grew up. He knows that culture well.

We all connected with one other. It feels like friendships were made.

I feel like a millionaire, Ramon said.

Pastor Laurie, Maria, Max and others before leaving for OKC.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A vote for equality

My son attends scout meetings in the basement of the Methodist Church, a stately 85-year-old building at the corner of 4th and Main streets in the bright little town of Rushing Waters, Kan. (pop. 900). Next week, he'll "cross over" from cub to Boy Scout.

I love watching my boy, Max, grow and have fun as he works on projects like building a tool box, carving his initials into a leather wallet, and of course, designing his Pinewood Derby car. I'm especially proud that my son belongs to an association that instills values in young boys.

Here is the Scout Law, quoted from Max's Cub Scout/Webelo handbook: "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."

I try to impress upon Max that those aren't just empty words. They mean something. For me, they especially ring true in light of the resolution recently voted in by Boy Scouts of America:

No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.

I expected the BSA would lift its ban on gay youth someday. I didn't expect it to come this soon, however. But with the Supreme Court deliberating over gay marriage, gay couples increasingly adopting children and news reports of gay teens being bullied and commiting suicide, the issue's time has come.

For the most part, I was confident that the council in Grapevine, Texas (a suburb of Dallas) would do the right thing in its voting. Still, I had some trepidation. How much sway did the conservative element have over BSA? I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard on my car radio that the BSA voted to end this antiquated 103-year-old ban.

It gives me better peace of mind, knowing that my son's personal enrichment and character are being shaped by an organization that's come out against discrimination and lives up to the values it espouses.

A friend from work is gay. I asked this man if he would buy some popcorn my son was selling for a cub scout fundraiser. This guy could've went on some bitter diatribe about how scouts are a prejudiced organization and all. Instead, he ordered popcorn and said, "Oh yeah, you get to go hiking, learn to tie knots and do a lot of neat things in scouts."

For years, this guy has been ordering boy scout stuff and girl scout cookies from people in the office. How could I ever look this guy in the face again and ask him to support an organization if it discriminates against people like him?

To some degree it still does. The BSA only voted on whether to admit gay youth, not on lifting its ban on gay scout leaders. But that's coming. Jennifer Tyrrell, an Ohio mother who was dismissed as a den leader in 2012 because she's lesbian, has expressed confidence that the ban on LGBT adults in leadership positions will be discontinued.

Of course what people like Tyrrell and myself consider to be a good thing, others view with sadness and great disappointment. They act like a funeral's taking place. Opposition groups have formed from within individual scout troops and disgruntled scout leaders and their children are talking about taking their money and support somewhere else and starting their own groups.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he is "very disappointed" with the BSA's vote. Naturally, he is. Perry would like for Texas to seccede from the United States, wave confederate flags and live under Christian sharia.

Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, has bemoaned this decision as the end of the scouts' "legacy of producing great leaders." You may have seen Perkins on Sunday morning news-talk shows, feigning some guise of legitimacy, but that ignores the charges that he launched his right-wing organization with help from former KKK grand wizard David Duke. Oh, and he's also spoken before the Louisiana Council of Concerned Citizens -- an organization that expresses in its mission statement, opposition to "all efforts to mix the races of mankind."

BSA has given in to "moral compromise," Perkins says. I guess the separatists could bury their heads in cotton and play to their antebellum fantasies. If their oppostion to homosexuality is so great that they'll morally compromise their souls and join hands with a KKK sympathizer, that's their deal.

That's their mindset. When the Supreme Court ruled segregation based on race to be unacceptable and the federal government enforced the Constitution, many public schools in the South suffered from white flight. Several private "christian schools" opened up as a way of circumventing racial integration laws. I'm sure they felt their values were under attack. There were public schools in the South that actually closed their doors and denied an education to all children so they wouldn't have to offer equal rights to African-Americans.

Remember a few years ago when a Mississippi high school chose to cancel prom and deny a fun time for all its students, rather than admit a young woman and her girlfriend to the dance?

The prejudice of these people outweighs any concern they purport to have for children. By contrast, the BSA council's winning vote was cast with the best interest of children in mind. Wayne Perry, BSA president, said as much in an op-ed piece for USA Today,  urging the council to adopt the resolution allowing gay youth in the organization.

"Our vision is to serve every kid and give them a place where they grow up and feel protected," Perry told a news conference. No matter what one may think of homosexuality "our view is that kids are better off in scouting.

 "It was never our intent to prevent young people from being part of this organization."

I'm proud of my boy and all he's accomplished and has yet to accomplish in scouting. I'm proud to be a scout parent, and I'm happy that the enriching, eddifying opportunities offered through the Boy Scouts will be open to all boys.

This decision is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of homosexuality. It's about keeping the window of opportunity open for our youth. As for people who say they're worried about the next step, accepting gay scout leaders, I want to allay your fears.

First, being gay does not make one a pedophile. Second, Boy Scouts take great proactive steps to prevent even the appearance of impropriety. Take it from someone who has gone on scouting trips. No other child but my son is allowed to sleep in my tent, and I cannot allow another child inside my car unless the scout leaders have permission, written or verbal, from that child's parent.

Yes, scouting, like all other youth activities, has been hit by predators. Unfortunately, that's the world we live in. But the inclusion of gay scout leaders is no more a safety risk than having straight adults look after children. Gay is not synonymous with pedophile. But if you're a parent with concerns, I say volunteer and go with your child to scouting events.

I don't think the organization will suffer at all from this decision. It may even attract more recruits.  No, it's not caving in to "pop culture" as the right-wingers claim. Parents and youth within scouting largely promoted reform. The decision at the top level, favoring inclusion came from within the grassroots of the organization.

A world that respects people and diversity -- that's what I want for my kids. Some thirty years from now when they're around the age I am now, a person's sexuality will be a non-issue. I applaud the Boy Scouts of America for staying true to its values and preserving the ideal of equality that's been in the American bloodstream from the beginning.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Goodbye, my friend. Hope you're in deep conversation now with Jim.
To my fellow blogger, friend & amateur rock historian, I say Jason it's past time, Man. We gotta go out and have that beer together. Communion, you might say.

Prayers for Oklahoma

In the 3 p.m. hour Sunday, I picked up Mom at her house and took her to McDonald's for a late lunch. The clouds were rolling up and close, thick and dark in the sky. Mom was a bit antsy.

"Let's just order something and I'll take it home," she said.

"We have time," I told her. "We can eat inside. Look at all these other people out here."

I'm relieved to see it's Brandy behind the register when we walk up to order.

"Hi Vickie," she says to Mom.

There's a familiarity because Mom knows Brandy's mother, Jacycee, an assistant manager at the McDonald's. Known her since she was born. Ginger, the matriarch of the family, lived next door to young Vickie McElroy and her family on 15th Street in Jett, Kan. She and her former husband knew Mom as a little girl, long before Jacycee and her older sister was born.

As we stand around the lobby, Jaycee walks in. She comes into Mickey D's a lot. I'm glad to see her because Mom is steadily becoming more high-strung and I'm thinking -- hoping -- Jaycee can bring her down. I figure I'll probably be giving Mom an Ativan when I take her home.

We sit at a two-seat length table, just off from the standing area. Mom babbles on, mostly ignoring her chicken sandwich, as Jaycee listens intently.

"I've been independent all my life," Mom says. "I've lived through floods."

I help myself to one, then another, then two or three of her fries, in between sipping a strawberry shake, the only menu item I ordered for myself. Storm talk travels thick through the room and I get into a conversation with the fellow at the next table. Pretty good guy, says his name is Nate.

He motions to the window and his 2011 GMC Sierra 1500 XFE Crew Cab Pickup parked next to the building. Not a hail dent on that baby. Nate, although he doesn't know me from Adam, talks with me as if we've hung out forever. Young, and a single guy -- I can tell -- Nate talks about barely missing a tornado one dark evening on his way home from a Bible study. Says he has a friend who's a professional storm chaser and how rocking that is. He plans on taking the highway south and bypassing the approaching storm on his way home.

"That wind can get out of here. Let it all go to Oklahoma," I say.

Words I'll later lament, having said.

Reaching the driveway to Mom's house, I see my brother, Jimmy, and his 10-year-old daughter, Tori. No doubt, Tori's softball games have been cancelled. Jimmy communicates some bit of information to me about watching Mom, unable to resist trying to run my life. He's one of the banes of my existence.

Driving home, I see the other one.

"Well look whose fat ass is on my porch," I say to myself as I park the car at the curb.

"Hi Jeff," my father-in-law calls out to me as I walk up to the house. He's sitting there with my daughter Gabby. No doubt, he and my mother-in-law have come over to take shelter at our house if need be. We have a sturdy basement.

My in-laws really are consummate professionals at this grandparent thing. Deep down, good people. I guess I could feel guilty about being standoffish toward the old man if I let myself be. But no, I've been burned too many times.

We get an inch of rain, but by and large, the worst of the storm misses us. My friend Al is in town and I invite him over to see me, the wife and kids before he heads back home to Texas the next day.

The next day I'm communicating with Al's sister-in-law Doxie up in Iowa. She said she texted Al because she was worried. He'd made his skin-of-the-teeth escape. Only 30 minutes earlier he'd driven through Moore, Okla. Now I-35 was littered with cars that had been picked up, hurtled through the air and smashed to the ground.

Doxie wouldn't be letting Al's 91-year-old mother in the nursing home know her son was that close to death and destruction. Just like they don't let on to her about all the fires he has to put out at the refinery where he's operations manager. It's best this way. There are things we do in life that we NEVER want our parents to know about.

'It looked like Hiroshima'

Late Monday afternoon. I sit at the dining room table where I always hang out after work, joking around with my daughter, while my son plays xbox in the living room with the kid from next door. My mother-in-law is there, faithfully watching the kids as she usually does when they get out of school. Her cell phone rings for the third time.

Her husband -- who gets more worked up, the older he gets -- has been watching CNN and MSNBC.

"That old man won't leave you alone, will he?" I say to "Mom."

The tornado is worse than we were expecting. He said there was rubble strewn all over. It looked like Europe and Japan during World War II.

"He said 'it looked like Hiroshima'" "Mom" said. He also said something about kids being trapped in a school. But they have tornado shelters in schools. This is what they have tornado drills for.

That evening, while sitting on the porch, we'd catch our friends Brent and Diane off on their nightly fitness walk.

I say something about the kids trapped inside two destroyed buildings, babies unaccounted for...and Diane, a fifth-grade teacher comes within an inch of crying. We look at my kids' school, Longfellow Elementary, across the street and literally -- not figuratively, literally -- thank God that the bond issue passed.

A debris-carrying wind one-to-two miles wide leveled the town of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City. Over 240 people have been hospitalized, 51 people confirmed dead and that number is expected to rise, awaiting the medical examiners final reports.

I sit on the wicker love seat with my daughter Gabby. I'm thinking of those school children.

"I don't know what I'd do..." (long pause, suck it in J. Guy, keep composure)

"If that happened to me," my little girl finishes my sentence.

"Those kids are just like you," I say.

"But they're in a better place."

A few long seconds. I look in my girl's face. Her tongue's stuck out, mouth wound out.

I chuckle a little. "What are you doing, Goofy?" I ask her.

"The best way to stop someone from crying is to make them laugh."

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Shameful stowin' away life

I'm sitting at a back table near the billiards board and stage at RockinD's with my pal Noah. He's a moderate and normal guy except for the way he orders his steak rare like a sick, murderin' sonovabitch. I emphatically tell the waitress I want mine "extra, extra well done." Noah, possibly like his zoologist collecting namesake, ain't satisfied unless he can hear the moos and read its thoughts.

But why go on with sick humor?

The point is that at such times, over a big mug of beer and heart attack-inducing food, I like to pick Noah's brain. Hell, he's a fellow writer. He must have insight, which if I don't use for maximum exploitation, I'll surely steal at some juncture.

Been playing this game for years like some scratched-up record, dusty and forgotten except for its revolutions on one guy's sad-looking turntable. I've known the guy for too long. Noah was a sports writer for the St. Joseph News-Press and later the Kansas City Star before they laid him off. We were both in Mrs. Gibbs's journalism and creative writing classes at the same time in Jett High School in the '80s.

"You ever listen to Frank DeFord?" I ask.

"I've read quite a bit of his work," Noah answers. "His sports commentary is phenomenol. Didn't know he had a broadcast platorm."

"Dude, it's on KMUW after Garrison's 'Writer's Almanac,' somewhere between 7:40 and 8 a.m. Ya know, unlike some in this backwater, I listen to public radio."

I probe elsewhere.

"Ever watch Louis C.K.'s show?"

"Every chance I get. He's the hottest comic out there. Hosted SNL for cryin' out loud."

"Bald, divorced guy with kids," I say, looking up from my beer glass. "Reminds me of you."

"Ha, ha," he said, that same normal guy smile. "Wish I had his money."

"Yeah, no shit. Here you've got his pathetic life, but without his moolah."

"Oh you're rich, J. Guy," he says. "So what about Louis C.K. reflects your life, most? The world's saddest handjob?"

"Oh, you go low, my friend," I exclaim. "You stoop low, indeed.

"Actually, the part that reflects my life -- remember where he's talking about taking his daughters to school in the morning? They're all ready, almost out the door, then all of a sudden -- 'Hold on, I gotta shit. Take off your coats girls.' Then he talks about how he could shit at the school 'but child molesters have ruined that for everybody.' So he's gonna be at least half an hour late gettin' the kids to school.

"Oh, I've been there, done that. Like that Sunday morning. I can't stop shitting and having to wipe my ass, the wife and kids are just standing there. 'Hurry up, Dad.' 'You make us late for everything,' Maria says. I tell 'em, just go to church without me, I'll catch up. You know, I gave up on locking the bathroom door years ago. It's no use."

The mention of church transitions to a show I recently watched on netflicks -- Christian comedians on a thing called Thou Shalt Laugh. It was hosted by Patricia Heaton. Remember? The bitch wife from Everybody Loves Raymond. She is Christian, I recently read a first-person story she wrote for Guideposts, while lounging on the couch of the clubhouse in my in-laws' retirement village.

Noah and I are non-discriminatory in our tastes. Christian. Secular. Clean jokes. Sick. Left. Right. Muslim. Secular humanists. Whatever? If it's good material, it's good material. Period.

And we'll pick it apart line by line like English majors dissecting iambic pentameter in the most pretentious section of the university.

"So this guy's (comedian Jeff Allen) talkin' about his son," I say. "He says, 'Trust me, I believe teenagers are God's revenge on mankind. It's as if God looked down and said 'Hey, let's see how they like it when they create someone in their own image who denies their existence.'"

We're both in accord on that one. It's a great line.

"Hope I'm not perpetuating stereotypes, but honestly, the black comedian was the funniest," I say. (Actually, his name is Michael Jr. and he's quite a talented comic.)

Naturally, the conversation turns around over the rich, textured history of African-American comedy. We philosophize over Pryor convictions as the talk turns sick, dark like the room. We're in Dante territory now. Past purgatory and into the boughs of hell.

The place famed sports commentator Bob Costas -- looking down from his NBC platform called -- called, "The Dumper." Down in the dumper. The garbage disposal. Commode. The throne. A Graceland Golden shitter. A Rodin'-like paradise. The toilet.

Chris Rock. Zach Galifianakis. Louis C.K. They're all heirs of this boundary-pushing tradition.

I laugh about the episode of Louis that faded morosely with C.K. alone, jerking off and farting over the ending credits. Rich, pathetic, lonely life.

"Like Jeff Guy, the highschool years," Noah says.

"Or Noah now?" I retort.

(Singing) Are you reelin' in the years
Stowin' away the time

"You're one sick, sadistic sonovabitch, J. Guy," he says to me, his hail-fellow-well-met face betrayed by a flush of humor meshed with dejection. "You're killin' me man. True story, you're the most shameful shitter I know."

My turn to be sad. That guy's known a lot of shitters.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Winning kid

I was in the staff lounge of the elementary school where I work, pouring myself a cup of coffee when I glanced at a fresh copy of the latest Longfellow Elementary newsletter. My eyes were stopped at the top left portion of the page and the picture of that young fellow.

"Student of the Month," the headline read.

This kid, let's call him Jack, isn't the brainest kid in the fifth grade -- or the school. You won't find his name on the honor roll, but he gives more than most kids born with so much more in their reserves. The text of the newsletter said it perfectly:

Jack has a heart of gold and a lot of integrity. He enjoys school and always arrives with a smile for everyone he sees. I love to hear him read because he brings such expression to the words. He perseveres through many frustrations and never complains -- a true inspiration to staff and students alike.

I worked with Jack so much last year, trying to help him focus and remember what he'd read only seconds ago. How I wished that things would come easier for him, that someday everything would click. The lights on and bright. But the times when he would arrive at an answer and I could slap him a high five in acknowledgment of his accomplishments -- that was everything.

My friend, Dawn, his teacher, nominated Jack for the honor, in part to boost his confidence. "I see naturally talented kids who squander what they have," I told her during lunch later that day. "Where would this kid be if he had more to start with?"

"He'd be on the honor roll," she said.

Usually, the "student of the month" is an honor roll student, a boy or girl who gets a lot of A's. That's good because those students work hard for what they get and they deserve the recognition they receive. But it's nice to see the Jacks of this world receive an accolade too once in awhile.

A slight salty drop descended, dampening the paper. The kind of the thing likely to happen if I read certain things for too long. I shifted gears to look as if I were strictly cleaning my glasses and I clasped that newsletter into my hand, removing all evidence, and taking it up as if it were any number of papers and books I can be seen carting around in the day.

As far as anyone in this institution is concerned, Mr. Guy is a tough taskmaster, the type who will cut to the quick any nonsense spotted from little sweathogs-in-training.

The truth, though, is that I've always harbored a soft spot for the Jacks of this world. When I saw he'd received that "student of the month" honor, I felt a happiness rush through like I hadn't experienced since my son Max received a citizenship award at his own school two years ago. For the kid out there who doesn't make it every time, yet keeps pressing forward, never losing that genuine goodness so much a part of his character -- well, I'm pulling for him. Or her.

For Jack.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Disco line

Do I know this guy? Maybe I do and maybe I don't. I've known a lot of fat guys in my time. They all wore their fatness like a badge of pride. The fool in this picture --- do I call him that? He might come back with, "The Bible says you're not supposed to call people fools." Does your Good Book say anything about dancing with cows? Or dancing disco with a line of cows framing you as if they're a stillife? I don't pretend to know the answers to deep questions circling the disco ball of the earth and accompanying cosmos. But it's like this. Years ago, my friend Steve and I saw Chris Farley, his fat gut bobbing, as he auditioned for Chippendales, cheered on by a muscular Patrick Swayze, on Saturday Night Live. "What'd'ya think of the fat guy?" I asked my buddy.

"I love him," he said.

It's kind of like listening to a Muddy Waters tune about getting a hook on with some big, smokin', up-to-here, dusky thing. You gotta love it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day 2013

It's here again, Mother's Day -- a holiday originally proposed by Ann Jarvis in 1858 to improve the lives of impoverished women and their babies in the Appalacian region of America. The day has grown and let's hope -- to God -- that there is never ever a paucity in the love we show our mothers.

There's so much to do for my mother right now, but thankfully I get help here and there. My mom was far from the model of preparing for the end of the tunnel, but she did well in one area that's paying off with interest. She was adept at making friends -- through church, the neighborhood, civic clubs, work...One of those friends, a woman who knew mom through an organization they both belonged to around 20 years ago, offered to drive her to and from church.

"I really thank you, Nancy," I told her. "Are you going to take her to Sunday school, too?" Yes, Nancy told me she planned to do the Sunday school thing as well.

"She may not understand everything you're talking about, but she'll enjoy the social connection," I told her.

Everything went beautifully, Nancy told me later. Mom thouroughly enjoyed Sunday school as well as the preacher's sermon afterward.

"She answered this question about a parable of Jesus," Nancy told me. "She expressed herself so articulately. I couldn't repeat exactly what she said. She understood the parable in a way I hadn't thought of."

People like Nancy are a blessing, not only for their helping hands, but for the way they raise your spirits. Aren't we in need of hope today? A revival?

"Your mother never talked bad about anybody else" in the organization they belonged to, Nancy told me. "She was always ready to help other people, always positive. Other women there gossiped like crazy, but Vickie never got into that."

Hmmm. That's not exactly how I've always known Mom to be. I could tell some other stories. But isn't it interesting how a family member might present herself among others, how others might have perceptions of her that broaden your own?

                                                           Mom and my son Max

Anyhow, my mother was born Sept. 24, 1945 in Larned, Kan., a Western Kansas town that has been unfairly stigmatized over the years for being home to a state hospital for the mentally ill.

"Oh, that's why you're like you are," a bunch of nimrods would say when they learned of her birth place.

Her parents named her Victoria Lou after her paternal and maternal grandmothers, respectively. She goes by Vickie. Her last name was McElroy, and when she was in elementary school, the little imbeciles called her "macaroni."

Mom never wanted to be here, going to school with the little boneheads anyway. She held a grudge against her parents well into adulthood for leaving the beloved mountains of Colorado where she lived as a small child and began school.

Her dad ran a sawmill out there. A fellow in a company truck got killed in a wreck. There was some kind of lawsuit, it cleaned my grandfather out financially, but I don't know the particulars. Neither does Mom. She was, but a little girl at the time. Some say Grandpa could've rebounded and made a go of it in Colorado, but he was too emotionally tied to the land where his mother had lived out her last years and died 20 years earlier. So it was back to Kansas.

The family lived in a shack in the town of Jett, Kan., population 3,500 at that time. Her girlfriends from school were surprised when they came over and found out she had to share a room with her brother. In those middle childhood years, she didn't know the family was poor because her mother did everything she could to make it a happy home. As she got older and entered junior high, she became self-concious.

There were only two houses in Jett, still without indoor plumbing, and Mom's was one of them. Sure it was fancier than some. A concrete floor. Two-holer. But it was still an outdoor shitter.

Her dad worked in construction where the work was seasonal. Her mom worked as a waitress in several restaurants before she hired on at Ben Franklin, the dime store where she would work for the next 23 years.

"So where'd you get your clothes, the salvation army?" some girls at school would ask her, hotsy-totsy types who thought their shit didn't stink. "Your mom still work at the DIME store?"

Screw 'em. Mom had her pocket of friends she was comfortable with and that was her circle, exactly the worldview her son would take some 20 years later. She did want to join Pep Club at the highschool, though. With envy, she looked on those girls with their pretty, pleated skirts, the kind she wanted so bad. But her parents didn't have the money to buy her a pep club outfit.

Her dad had a hot temper, but he had good moments too. When Mom's black cat, Nosey, ran away, she cried for three days, but one morning her dad opened the door to a shed at a construction site he was working at and..."Look, what I found," he told the girl, holding the cat in his calloused, carpenter's hands, that evening. He didn't even like cats.

It was a good time when the radio would play, what forawhile, was her favorite song. It was -- even for then -- an old, outdated radio, a 1940s wooden Philco floor radio, the size of a bookcase. Mom could be at one end of the house, but when she heard that song, she'd sprint forward and turn up one of the bakelite knobs that adjusted the volume.

Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away

Her favorite teacher at Jett Highschool was her English teacher, Mr. Ralston. I looked him up in an old yearbook. His first name was Melvin, but he went by Duke.

"Nobody wanted Duke Ralston for English," she said. "He was tough. You were gonna learn something in his class or else."

Mom wound up learning more in his class than any other in high school. She never accumulated more than, maybe nine hours of community college. My dad was just out of the Army when they started dating and she married him, mostly to get out of her parents' house. They divorced, she married a second time, and divorced a second time. Never married again.

But that's life. I have friends, some married, some who've been divorced two, three times. People struggling to bring up their kids, people who have lived through job losses and other indignities of life. That's been Mom's life, and no, I haven't always seen her positive as her friend Nancy has. But she's always loved gardening and Mom has planted a few good seeds in life.

In the early '90s, thirty years after she'd had him for a teacher, Duke Ralston was back in town, selling real estate or something like that. When someone suggested to him that he hire Vickie McElroy as an administrative assistant, he remembered her fondly.

"Oh, she struggled in my class, but she worked really hard," he said. "She made out pretty well."                                                                                             
                                                       Melvin "Duke" Ralston, Mom's
                                                       favorite highschool teacher.

All those years later and he remembered her.

I take her walking around the city lake, frequently. She loves the breeze, watching the bicyclists and joggers along the path, the geese babbling along the water.

"You're in good shape, Mom," I tell her. "I know 30-year-old lardasses who wouldn't make this as well as you."

I ask her about her about things like working with her mother at the dime store. She remembers with clarion recall.

"My mom was assistant manager," she said, adding that her mother didn't want any appearance of nepotism. "She always made sure I worked in a different department than her. If I came to her with a question, she always said, 'Go ask so and so.' She wanted me to fend for myself."

I change conversational topics as if they were waves shifting in the wind.

"So what do you think of Texas, Mom?" I asked her.

"Well, I don't like it," she said, then gets some of her information correct, some half-correct and some completely incorrect. "Jeff had some job there at a newspaper after highschool, but some bad people came along and wouldn't let him write. I don't know the whole story."

"That's me, Mom," I said. "I'm Jeff.

"You're Jeff?" she said.

"You betcha," I answered and she laughed into the halcyon breeze.

Her dad had Alzheimer's and died at age 78. I knew there was a possibility she would catch it some day, but I didn't expect her to show signs of dementia in her '60s. What can I say, you play with the deck you're dealt. Not that I say that with any sense of bravado. I think the whole damn thing sucks. That phrase, "It is what it is" -- I hate that. Hate it almost as much as that freakin' serenity prayer: God grant me wisdom to accept the things I can't change.

Later, we took a walk to the library. I took her to where the old Jett High School yearbooks were shelved and grabbed the one dated 1963. "I haven't seen that in years," she said. (Her yearbooks were destroyed in a flood.) I turned to a page full of senior photographs, she pointed to a picture of young girl in a black dress cut low to the shoulders and said, "That's me."

                                                            Mom's senior picture

Extracurricular activities were listed next to Mom's picture. She was in glee club, worked as a student librarian, belonged to a Christian organization called Y-Teen, maybe one or two other things. Interestingly, pep club was listed as one of her activities. Did she get one of those skirts after all?

These days, Mom loves eating at the senior center, dining out with her friends and God forbid if she misses church. She laughs more than ever, loves to rave over my kids (her grandkids) and how they're growing up even if she doesn't always remember their names. Sure, she could have hatred and bitterness toward people, but she chooses to think positively. There's still time to learn things.

still time

Your mother has a story. If she's around today, and even if she's not, it would do you well to find it out. It's your story too.

"Catch a Falling Star" -- Perry Como

The American Way of Dying

                                              "Vehicle" -- The Ides of March My Nissan sitting in the parking lot of Fairview...