Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chewing the Cud

She would seem to simply lay there, hour after hour, eating. To my young six-year old mind, it didn’t really seem to make any sense.

“Daddy”, I asked. “Where does Beaulah get all of her food to eat? I didn’t see her get up and get some hay, but she’s still eating. And nobody brought her any new stuff.”

“Oh, she’s just chewing her cud. All cows do that,” he replied.

I walked away, still perplexed. “What was a cud…and why did she keep chewing it,” I asked myself.

It wasn’t for quite a few years before I really gained a clear understanding of what the “cud” was and why the cows on our dairy farm always seemed to be chewing on it. The short story is that cows eat grass and hay that contain materials that they can’t easily digest. As a result, they will swallow the food and then regurgitate the material back up and in the process be able to slowly digest the food.

I’ve thought about this process of “chewing the cud” lately as I’ve been working to write my book. It isn’t coming easily…and part of the reason is that I don’t yet have everything processed in my mind. And it seems that if I try to force it, I’m not discovering the richness of everything that needs to be in the story.

There are some who believe that it is foolish to keep bringing up my past memories. They say that it is better to either simply forget or to only focus on the positive. But I want more than that. I want to know the richness of my entire life…of all of my life experiences. I want to know why I am who I’ve become. I want to be able to share the impact of my life with others who face the same struggles and difficulties that I have…and do. Like the cows of my childhood chewing their cuds to receive the maximum nutrient from their food, I need to wait patiently chewing on my memories…allowing them to be regurgitated. And then chew on them some more...discovering my whole story.

Photos from Flickr

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I was somewhere in that magical place between deep sleep and actually awaking…my favorite time of slumber. I could sense that it was nearing time to wake up when I heard the sound. Barking and yapping. The “kids” were awake. As I glanced at the alarm next to the bed I realized that I was planning to get up in a few moments and realized that I wasn’t going to get any more sleep on this Sunday morning. The magical moment was lost…not to be retrieved for at least another day.

I pulled a t-shirt on and went down stairs to find the three of my temporary babies wagging their tails and barking their “we’re so happy you’re up now” greetings looking at me through the gate that keeps them from the run of the house. I reached down, giving each of them a quick love and opened the door so they could go out and do their morning “ritual” in the fenced back yard. As they took off romping and barking across the backyard, I walked to the laundry room for the watering can and went outside to take care of the watering needs of some of the plants I had been left to care for during the week.

As I emptied the last of water into the hanging tomato planters, I noticed that the back yard had grown quiet of both sound and movement. Perhaps the pups had finished their business and gone back inside. After all, it was kind of cool and damp with a light fog still hanging in the early summer morning air. I took a quick look inside and saw that their beds were still empty. I took a quick walk around the side of the house where I knew they liked to occasionally explore and found it empty. As I walked back around the corner of the house, I looked to the back of the yard…and suddenly it felt as if my heart stopped beating!

It wasn’t possible! I had been out here last evening watering plants and letting the dogs out and it wasn’t like this. But there it was…the back gate was open. While the gap between fence and gate was only about 8 inches, it may as well have been the entire fence knocked down. I jogged across the yard in my bare feet, successfully avoiding the “deposits” left by the dogs over the past week. I stepped through the gate entrance and looked both directions. To my dismay, the small park area behind the house was empty.

I made a quick decision and headed to the west…following along the fence line. My head turned to the right and the left as I scanned the park area for signs of the dogs. Suddenly my heart started racing as I saw an opening in the fence along the southern border of the park. I walked over and looked through. I was greeted with the sight of an overgrown field with dried grass and weeds at least waist high. Along the edge of the fence a trail was visible that had been used by some kind of animal. Was it possible that Babe, Buddy and Missy had taken this route only moments before?

Looking down at my bare feet…growing cold and wet in the morning dew-stained grass, I realized that I was not prepared to venture down that path. I turned away from the fence with its missing boards and continued to the far end of the park. Suddenly, I heard the sound of barking dogs! It was the familiar sound of the “yap” that small dogs make. As I turned the corner, across the yard I could barely make out a small black dog and a second small dog with light brown fur.

“Come on Buddy!” I called out.

I was greeted with even louder barking as I started to step into the yard. Without my glasses on it was difficult to see much more than the dark blur of the barking dog. Then I realized that the dog was on a chain…and my heart fell. These weren’t the canine charges left in my care for a week. I turned and started to walk in the opposite direction, calling out for the dogs. As I approached the still open gate, I walked back through the house and out the front door. I walked to the street and scanned in both directions. Still nothing. I hardly noticed the cold and rough pavement on my bare feet as I started walking up the street to the nearest intersection. Once again I called out for Buddy. Then Missy. No barking...and no dogs.

I walked back to the house to put on my shoes and grab my glasses thinking about what was happening. What was I going to tell Paul and Mary? How long should I wait? Was I going to miss church this morning in order to scour every street in this secluded development…knowing that the dogs could be just one street over constantly moving away from me? Or even worse, somewhere in the vacant, overgrown field that I had discovered on the south side of the park.

Grabbing my phone and glasses from the bedside table, I turned and started back down the stairs. As I turned to open the gate back into the kitchen, Babe and Buddy trotted into the kitchen through the sliding glass door that I had left open into the back yard. As each one looked at me, for a moment I could see in their eyes a slight “oops, sorry Mark” look as they walked around the kitchen. Buddy went directly to his bed and laid down. In her normal hyperactive prancing, Babe jumped up against my leg seeking some form of attention.

“Where have you guys been?” I asked, trying to keep any hint of anger out of my voice. “And where is your sister?”

I don’t know if was expecting a “Lassie” moment with one of them running out the door to lead me to Missy or not. If I was, I was gravely disappointed. Instead, the only response I got was Babe running to the far end of the kitchen and Buddy sniffing at his favorite stuffed rabbit toy.

I walked into the backyard looking for signs of the last of the missing dogs. Nothing. I went back out through the still open gate and walked to the fence with the missing boards. It didn’t appear as if anything had been disturbed since I was here a few minutes earlier, so I turned and decided to look up on the east end of the park in the area that was open to the street.

Suddenly, the familiar sight of the gray terrier turned the corner. Her head down following the familiar scent of her siblings, she moved slowly along the edge of the fence.

“Missy!” I called out. As she lifted her head, the small stub of her docked tail began to move back and forth as she began to run toward me. I walked toward the open gate and as she approached she looked up at me as she ran into the backyard. Content that all were accounted for, I reached up and secured the latch on the top of the gate…double checking to be sure it was completely locked.

I opened the door into the house and after a quick stop at the water dish, Missy went in and joined the other two pups. The three looked at me as if it had just been a "normal" morning. I looked at the clock and realized that I still had plenty of time to get ready for church. Looking back at the three little dogs that have found a place in my heart as I care for them every few months, I went to the laundry room and broke off a piece of their favorite treats and brought them back out. Leaning down to give each of the tail-wagging dogs their treat, all I could say was “I’m glad you’re home.”

Photos by Mark
Buddy, Babe (back) and Missy waiting for their treat)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Treasure!

The muscles in my forearms were beginning to ache and knot occasionally as walked the final few aisles of the Expo Center. Hanging from each of my hands were recycled department store sacks and plastic grocery store bags containing the “treasures” and “deals” that we had come across during the course of the antique show. The cord handles cut into my fingers as I occasionally switched hands to the ease the discomfort. The day that had begun nearly eight hours earlier was coming to a close. Our only pause during the day had been to grab a coffee as we explored the 1000+ booths to add to our collections. Most of the items that we had on our mental check-list had been handled and examined…and in many cases, purchased and carefully wrapped and packed in our recycled shopping bags.

As we came around a corner, my sister Deb immediately made a bee-line for a booth. Sitting on the back shelf, tucked away with other memorabilia from the last century was a yellow, McCoy vase. She had started her collection a few months earlier, and one of her goals for the day was to add to the expanding assemblage of yellow pottery on her wooden sideboard at home. Earlier, she had come across a bargain, finding a beautiful pitcher in exquisite condition. But this item was special…it had birds on it, and birds are one of her favorite things.

She gently picked the vase up, checking the bottom for a “mark” and then carefully examined it for cracks, chips or other blemishes. It seemed perfect. And then she saw the price…$45. Our eyes met as I could see the wheels in her mind turning. Forty-five dollars was a lot of money for the item, even in the condition that she found it.

A moment later, a woman who appeared to be in her early fifties walked over and asked if we needed any help. Deb had learned well from me throughout the day as I haggled with the different vendors to get the best price possible for an item. I had been an antiquer long enough to know that it was usually expected.

“What’s your best price?” Deb asked, holding the yellow treasure lovingly in her hands.

“I’ve already marked all of my pieces down as far as I can go,” the owner responded. “That’s a beautiful piece. I had it in my home for years and the way it’s tapered really allows for a perfect arrangement of flowers.” In my mind, I thought "of course it's beautiful, lady. That's why my sister wants it", but the I kept my thoughts to myself.

I could see the disappointment on my sister’s face as she looked at the vase one last time, setting it back on the shelf. She thanked the woman and we continued on our way down the bustling aisles.

“If she would have come down five dollars, I would have bought it”, she said. “Why would she mark items down before the show?” I didn’t have a good response for her.

The last several aisles of booths held no more treasures for us, and as we began to walk toward the exit, we once again passed the booth holding the McCoy. My sister slowed and once again walked over and picked up the vase. No, the price hadn’t miraculously gone down in the past 45 minutes. The rest rooms were nearby and I silently hoped that Deb would excuse herself to use them. My plan was to secretly buy her the vase while she was gone. But she was “fine” and we decided to call it a day.

As we walked out into the hot afternoon sun, there were a few rows of outside booths that we hadn’t checked out on our way in.

“Do you want walk through before we leave?" I asked.

“We might as well. You never know what we might find.”

We hadn’t passed more than a half a dozen vendors when Deb’s pace quickened and she veered to the right to one of the many, white-tented booths that lined the hot asphalt. There, on the top shelf was a yellow vase that looked the same as the one she had so carefully examined inside the exhibition hall. Checking the bottom she saw the familiar “McCoy” stamp. Her hands nearly trembled as she turned to me.

“It’s identical to the one inside,” she said, her voice quaking just a little bit.

She turned the vase gently in her hands, checking once again for cracks or chips…and for a price tag. The item was perfect, but there was no tag in sight. She carried the beautiful, yellow vase to the man sitting casually in the corner engaged in conversation with another gentleman.

“I’m sure you’re probably not giving this away today,” Deb said with a laughter in her voice. “This one doesn’t have a price on it.” The man gently took the vase from my sister’s hands and quickly looked it over.

“How does $20 sound?” he asked.

Forgetting all about the “haggling” nature of buying antiques, Deb quickly blurted out, “you don’t know how good that sounds! I’ll take it.”

The man took the vase and began to wrap it carefully in paper as my sister fumbled in her purse looking for the money. As she handed it over and we walked from the booth, we both realized what an incredible treasure we had been given this day. The treasure wasn’t only this “God-gift” of a $25 savings on a vase my sister wanted. The greater treasure was the day we had spent together…enjoying each other’s company. Discovering new antique pieces and learning new things about items we had seen before. And most of all…the treasure of the love between a brother and his sister.

Collection photo by Mark

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Going Home...2

I wasn’t sure what I expected as I retreated from mom’s tobacco tainted kiss…the stench of stale cigarette smoke imprisoned in the fabric of the thin, brown sweater she wore. The eyes weren’t red and puffy from crying. No make-up smeared from tears that had leaked from her moderately bulging eyes induced by a thyroid condition. I’m sure that she had shed the last of her tears for dad a long time ago.

She offered me a cup of coffee from the half empty carafe in the Mr. Coffee that sat on the counter-top. I politely declined, telling her that I was fine and walked across to the couch. She poured herself some of the pale, three-time filtered coffee and came over and sat at the other end of the couch. The empty hospital bed with the head-end inclined sat as a silent reminder as the reason why I was here.

“How are you doing, mom?” I asked.

She sat quietly for a moment and then responded that she was doing fine, her gaze out the east-facing window. I didn’t know if she was looking at the now-empty bed, or if she was just lost in her thoughts. I was uncertain what to say at this point. Mom and I have never been ones to have “deep” conversation. Whenever Paula and I would visit, it was usually mom and Paula who would do the talking while I simply sat and enjoyed the stories. For the next several minutes, we just sat there quietly in a silent peace.

I finally asked how it had happened.

“He just stopped breathing. I’m sure he wasn’t in any pain at all”, she replied. “The paramedics said they think that it was probably pneumonia. I guess there will be an autopsy since he died here instead of at the nursing home. The Medical Examiner said they always do that.”

I nodded a few times as she spoke… as my mind wandered. I was still trying to understand how I felt and if my own feelings were a mirror image of my mom’s indifferent description of dad’s death. It seemed more like she was talking about a neighbor or a friend than a man she called “daddy”…her husband for nearly 40 years. I had to assume that the past several years of watching him decline in health and mental capacity had leached the last of her emotions from her being.

“He wanted to be cremated, you know?” she continued. “I’m sure you’ll want to see him first…to say your good-byes. Tomorrow would be a good day for that, if you’d like. They took him to the Moon Funeral Home and I’ll call them to make sure when a good time will be”, she added.

She absently lit another cigarette and took a sip from her now-cold cup of coffee.

“Would you like me to fill that for you…heat it up a little bit?” I asked.

She nodded an affirmation and I took the cup to the kitchen. As I reached for the coffee carafe, I could feel the thin coating of dust and cooking grease on the counter top and coffee maker. On the bar opposite the stove, the counter was nearly invisible under old mail, unread newspapers and other “stuff” that was haphazardly left there. The dish strainer was piled high with dishes that had been washed sometime during the previous days, but never put away. To the left of the sink, the "mulch dish" sat empty and stained...waiting for the next batch of coffee grounds or potatoe peels to fill it. On the stove-top, the ever present cast iron skillet sat on a grate with a layer of congealed bacon grease resting in the bottom. The sight of the skillet caused me to smile inwardly as I remembered the time my aunt Bea had nearly had a heart attack when she went to the kitchen one morning to find a mouse...still alive, in the skillet covered by a lid. Apparently mom or dad had awakened during the night, saw the mouse and figuring they could take care of it in the morning.

I took the cup back across to mom and handed it to her. She thanked me and set it on the “hour-glass” stand that stood at the end of the couch…a gift to dad many years before. The “Viking Ship” wall hanging tilted slightly to one side above her behind the couch, a victim of neglect. A thin veil of dust covered the hardwood floors and small bits of firewood and old newspapers cluttered the corner in front of the fireplace. Dad’s sabre, an artifact collected at some point in his early life, hung unceremoniously above the mantle...tarnished and blackened with soot.

As I looked around this house…this place where I had been raised, I felt a sudden need to get out and get some fresh air. I looked across at mom and asked if she needed anything. She shook her head “no” and I told her that I wanted to just go outside and walk around…that I would be back in a little while. She looked up at me and asked if I was alright? I quickly responded that everything was fine, I just wanted to walk around the place for a little bit.

I turned and grabbed my coat and as I walked out the front door, I had to ask myself… “Was I alright?”

Photo from Flickr

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The "Gibb's Slap"!

When it dawned on me, it felt like a legendary “Gibb’s Slap”…that upward slap on the back of the head that the fictional character Jethro Gibbs on NCIS gives to Agent DeNozo whenever he says, or does, something stupid. It was so obvious…yet I have been so utterly blind to it for years. Maybe blind to it my entire life.

A lot has been revealed to me over these past several years as I search for healing and truth is my life. Some of the lessons have been discovered simply in my times of self-reflection and writing. This one, however, has become evident in the life of others…the lives of several people who are very important to me.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk and visit a lot with my sister over the past 35 months, and during our discussions over morning coffee or leisurely visits to antique shops, we’ve both discovered that we can be vulnerable with each other. But even though I’d heard the words a number of time, they just hadn’t penetrated my understanding. A couple of incidents that have occurred in the past several months have taken care of that.

A little over a week ago, I had the pleasure of getting to spend a day with my family…my sister and two brothers. And while that doesn’t sound like an extraordinary event, in the case of my siblings it was. It had been nearly a decade since we had been together for anything other than a funeral. We were brought together to play in a golf tournament. At least, that’s why my brothers and I were there, along with my brother-in-law. My sister, however, was there for a much more important reason.


It wasn’t because she probably wanted (or needed) to walk the three and a half miles through soggy grass. And she probably wasn’t all that impressed with the wayward shots or the knuckle-bumping on the good ones. Even though she loves nature and the view of Mr. Rainier walking up the seventh fairway is spectacular, she was there because…well, she was invited. She belonged with us!!


Last Friday, as I drove the 55 miles up to my younger brother’s home for the fourth of July holiday, I called my sister-in-law. Again, not a special thing by itself…but Clare’s birthday was the next day and I wanted to wish her a Happy Birthday. When my brother answered the phone, I asked for his wife and then sang her my best rendition of “Happy Birthday” in my “not-so” Frank Sinatra voice. I could hear the joy in her voice as she thanked me for calling and serenading her for her birthday. I hadn’t called to talk to my brother…just her. In my own little way I had helped to feel like she is a part of our family. She belonged! It had only been a few months earlier when I discovered that she (or at least Frank) didn't believe that we had accepted Clare as being a part of our family.



I finally got it! The need of belonging and how important it is to us…even to me. I had “learned” all about it during my education coursework. Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”. I’d seen how important it was as it played out in the lives of the young people that I had taught and coached over the years. But I had never put my finger on it in my own life…or in the lives of those that I love. I guess I just took it for granted that they always knew they were loved and that they belonged as a part of my life. I was like the man on his wedding night who told his new bride, “I told you during the ceremony that I love you. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”

We need more than that. I need more than that. And I need to make sure that those who are important to me know that I want them in my life…that they are important, and that they are loved. And I hope that in the future, I don’t need Agent Gibb’s slapping me in the back of the head to remember.

Head Slap photo from MotivatedPhotos
Maslow photo from Wikipedia