Ellie Searl Stories


Ghosts in the Dust

Ellie Searl

I don’t like to go into the basement and look at all my old, grimy stuff. I have intended to phone 1-800-GOT-JUNK for months now. But there are some items in the basement that hold stories and are ripe with nostalgia. I can’t part with these bits and pieces of history. I’d be throwing away the stories they hold.

Old-fashioned cross-country skis and boots, long ignored and covered in layers of soot, reminders of frosty afternoons in the Adirondacks, ski-skating over snow-covered pine needles and moss.

Two by fours haphazardly leaning against Ed’s idle worktable where he fashioned our futon bed frame and Katie’s bench with birds painted on the side. Rusted nails, bolts, varnish can tops, and a hammer head lay scattered in sawdust shavings and wood chips.

Mildewed board games with ripped cardboard tops stacked on make-shift shelves: Scrabble. Parcheesi. Monopoly. A French edition of Chutes and Ladders from when we operated the group home in Montreal, all covered in twenty-five years of cellar grunge, laundry lint, furnace ash, mouse turds, and dead flies.

Everything smells musty. It’s too dirty to touch. But it’s all too evocative to give away.

The boxes in the far corner are filled with crinkled age-old, yellowed newspapers protecting a set of dishes I thought I’d want way back at an estate auction when I was in my mid-thirties. Katie was a just little tot and played with her Dakin stuffed dog on the grass behind my chair under the auction tent. The house was full of things that used to be part of the family that once breathed life into the walls and furniture. Item upon item taken from the house and delivered to the auctioneer. Items left over from lives with the same set of hopes and dreams that probably abounded among the people under the auction tent bidding on the personal treasures and mundane, everyday paraphernalia that eased or confused or complicated the lives of WVS and his family. Picture frames, an oak sideboard, a grease-stained kitchen table, with matching ladder-back, rush bottomed chairs, a set of silver spoons with WVS engraved along the length of the handle. I could hear people wondering – what nationality was this family? German? Irish? Did the father rule with an iron fist? Did he terrorize his wife and children into conciliatory behavior? Or was there laughter and lamplight and love around that oak kitchen table as the children knocked over glasses of milk and dropped buttered bread upside down, letting grease soak into the wood grain?

Out came a set of hand-painted, rose patterned dishes, probably wedding dishes, probably the good china. I wondered what special meals were prepared to honor these, their company dishes. Did their family argue over who would carve the turkey? Did they have rare roast beef with Yorkshire pudding at Christmas? Did they serve family style? Or did Father dole out the food and pass the plates politely to his right? Did they serve lighter than air sponge cake and home-churned peach ice cream on chipped dessert dishes? Was there a baby crying somewhere in the house during dinner? Did Grandma insist, “Let me go, Verna, you just sit there and finish your dinner. Put some meat on those bones.” Did Grandma bring the baby back into the dining room and sit between Aunt Jewel and Cousin Agnes as they oohed and aahed over the sweet, precious thing - the spitting image of Grandpa, and say in rotation - “Why, just look at those eyes.” and “It’s the darndest thing!” and “My, my!” and “Mark my words !” ? Is that baby now a great-grandmother rocking aimlessly in some nursing home common room gazing at, but not hearing, “Wheel of Fortune” re-runs, waiting for a night-shift aide to come and take off her sticky supper bib?

I never used that set of dishes. Perhaps I just couldn’t layer new stories of my life over those of this family. It would be like casting their life into oblivion. As long as these dishes remain packed in the very newspapers that were folded so carefully and gently around the fragile cups and dinner plates, then maybe their stories will stay alive somewhere in the minds of the long-ago children turned grandparent and great-grandparent.

And perhaps if I don’t give anything of mine away and I let my basement possessions wait for some garage sale or estate auction, a young mother will wonder about me, making my life significant and real in her imagination while her little girl plays with dolls in the grass.

EVS 11/08


Pass the Psycho-Babble, Please

Ellie Searl

Early in our marriage, whenever my husband and I disagreed, we’d argue to the point of verbal warfare. There’d be name-calling, accusations, recriminations. Issues became cosmic. It took days to get beyond the bitterness and resentment.

I started many of the arguments masking my agenda in a cunningly intoned, “I have a question,” which set Ed’s teeth on edge and put his guilt reflexes into high alert. He had learned that this was a loaded opener - the precursor to a kick-in-the-gut combat question: “Why do you always . . . ?” or “How come you never . . . ?”

I admit it was weasely to start trouble by announcing an accusatory question. I reasoned that hinting at a transgression gave Ed just enough lead time to marshal a generic defense, eliminating any need for a fight - “Oh, I’m sorry for (fill in the blank). Did that cause a problem for you?” Aside from this blame-eating reply, there were few responses I’d accept. He was wrong. I was right. Ed resorted to sarcasm, and I’d admonish him, tossing in belligerence and scorn for good measure. We became trapped in cyclical point–counterpoint condemnation.

These lose-lose fights left us exasperated and confused. Once we stuck pins into each other’s balloons, we didn’t know how to fix the holes. I’d develop a headache. Ed grew silent, very silent. It wasn’t good. We needed a change.

It was during the late 70’s – that period reeling from the aftermath of the Vietnam War - when Ed and I discovered improved ways of communicating. Our country was beginning to heal its civic wounds in the wake of national unrest. Conflict resolution and sensitivity training promoted by peace-not-war Flower Children trickled into the households of mainstream America. Haight-Ashbury hippies roused from their stupors, studied win-win communication, and sought employment with family health plans and retirement benefits. The Civil Rights and Women’s Movements gained momentum, causing society to rethink the consequences of inequality, stereotyping, and sexist language. I-messages became popular. And we discovered the benefits of Carl Rogers’ Client-Centered Therapy.

This non-directive approach to counseling entered our lives through a series of classes we took for our graduate degrees. Client-centered therapists aren’t manipulative. They ask very few questions, and they don’t tell their clients what to do, what to think, what to change, or what to believe. We appreciated that people in client-centered therapy could retain their dignity while focusing on uncomfortable issues such as hating their fathers or feeling inferior to their children. It was bad enough that people had to admit they were nuts. They shouldn’t also be subjected to the intimidating strategies of an aloof psychoanalyst, writing interpretations on a notepad, making diagnoses, and offering condescending treatment plans based upon coerced answers to embarrassing questions. “Hmm, mm. And how spastic are your bowels during these times of stress?”

Ed and I realized we were pseudo-psychologists in our day-to-day relationship, scrutinizing each other, as though studying rat behavior in a lab maze. We interpreted and diagnosed. We bullied each other into acknowledging transgressions, and I connived my way into heart-to-heart, I’m right - you’re wrong squabbles. But within client-centered therapy and a compilation of win-win, conflict resolution, sensitivity training, non-stereotyping language, and I-messages, we found a bag load of resources to help us devise a new approach to everyday conversation.

We created a home-based, spouse-centered system of communicating. We’d respect each other’s points-of-view. We’d keep our emotions stable, our feelings balanced. Our differences of opinion would be settled through negotiation, compromise, and productive decision-making. We’d be in Talk Heaven.

There were ground rules. No angry outbursts, no recriminations. No telling the other what to think or how to behave. No guilt trips. No accusatory questions. Keep it win-win.

So it began. We expressed ourselves through courteous I-messages and acknowledged each other’s feelings.

“I feel a little annoyed when the driver’s seat isn’t pushed back after you drive the car.”

“I hear you, Ed. It sounds like your legs might get all scrunched up. I don’t mean to cause you discomfort. I’ll be sure to remember next time.”

“Thanks, Sweets. I’m glad you understand.”

We engaged in positive discourse through mutual respect and understanding.

“I feel somewhat neglected when you watch football all night.”

“I hear you, El. It’s good to know how you feel about my sports channel. When this game is over, let’s pick a show to watch together.”

“Okay, Hon. I’ll read for awhile.”

We implemented reflective listening strategies.

“I feel just a tad frustrated that we’re moving so slowly down each aisle. I’m kind of anxious to get home.”

“Thanks for expressing your feelings. I gather you’d like me to stop looking for so many labels. I’ll try to speed up.”

“Great, and to be honest, I kind of already know how much sugar I’m ingesting.”

Feelings became clear.

“I feel really disappointed that you didn’t come into the store with me. I could have used your help.”

“Got it! I see it disturbs you that I might find it more enjoyable to listen to the radio in the quiet of the car instead of traipsing through the store with you again.”

“You seem to understand. I hope you listened to something really interesting while I did all the shopping.”

Feelings became very clear.

“It aggravates me that we came for a dinner party and now we’re listening to some pitch to give money. I must have missed something in the invitation.”

“I hear you. Apparently this charitable event upsets you.”

“I should have stayed home.”

“Good idea. Go home.”

Feelings became crystal clear.

“Look, it pisses me off when I choose a god-damned station and then you go and switch the god-damned station to some other god-damned station that I don’t want to listen to. I’m doing all the god-damned driving.”

“I hear you, Ed.

“Of course you hear me, unless you’ve got shit in your ears.”

There are times when abject failure tickles the soul. If I remember correctly, a giggle rose from my gut and burst through the grin I couldn’t suppress. Ed snickered. In recognition of the ridiculous, we collapsed into fits of cleansing laughter.

We had been trying to enlighten our marriage by solving problems of the heart with intellectual gibberish and text book terminology. Our spirits had become lost in a quagmire of artificial I-messages and contrived reflective listening exchanges. Attempts to follow the rules had made us automatons reading from a stoic script written for witless actors.

We missed our intimate relationship with all its foibles and emotional turmoil. It was time to revisit good old arguing - with some modifications. We separated the pitfalls from the benefits of our new-fangled strategies. Dump insipid collaboration. Keep negotiation and cooperation. Dump the gravity. Keep the humor. Dump the pretense. Keep the truth.

Now, when Ed and I have a concern, we get right to the point. I don’t start arguments with a sneaky “I have a question,” and we don’t pretend everything is hunky-dory when we’d rather wring each other’s neck. It’s almost Talk Heaven.

EVS 10/08


Meatballs on Bitterbrush

Ellie Searl

It’s remarkable what an aroma can do. Just a whiff of Italian cooking takes my thoughts across the country to a little spot of heaven and a life-changing adventure in the Pacific Northwest. My journey started at the curb of Seattle’s United Departures where Dick and Carol handed me the keys.

"Call us if you have trouble. Don’t forget - you’ll be out of cell range and radio reception once you start up the pass. The instructions for Sirrus are in the glove compartment. Have fun on your adventure, Kiddo. The kerosene lamp is always full. Help yourself to the rum in the freezer. Do you remember where the generator is? . . . Watch out for the deer . . .and the hunters. Wear red.”

The groceries purchased at a little IGA rattled around as I drove toward the mountains. I should have packed better, but I was in a hurry to catch the last sharp images of the waning October afternoon. Bottles collided with each other and against my suitcases. The pungent odor of deli peppers and dill pickles filled the SUV; I hoped sloshed drippings weren’t saturating the carpet.

I meandered up the winding roads on the west side of North Cascades Highway toward Washington Pass. Autumn splendor dotted the landscape with copper and rust. Shafts of sunlight streamed through splits in the valleys. I stopped at look-out points to photograph breathtaking golden panoramas. The intense clarity of the late October afternoon made this one-woman-adventure-into-the-wilderness exciting and celebratory.

I was on my way to house-sit Dick and Carol’s isolated cabin in the mountains while they sailed in the Caribbean. Their Golden Retriever, River, had been placed in a kennel, so I wouldn’t be required to dog-sit as well. One time I dog-sat for my other brother's two dogs, and after that, dog-sitting was about as agreeable to me as swimming in oatmeal. Even though there would be one dog, not two, and even though River wasn’t deaf and blind, didn’t ooze puss from his eyes, didn’t need eye drops, didn’t take four varieties of pills wrapped in bread - or stuck in peanut butter - or mushed into soggy dog food, and didn’t chase around the pool yelping at swimmers, I still refused. I did, however, agree to take care of the cat, Cricket, despite the fact that she was deteriorating from old age and a weak kidney. I knew that Cricket was afraid of people and wouldn’t show her face until I had moved around the cabin for at least four days. And cats, sick or not, take care of themselves – as long as they can locate their food, water, and litter box. She was my kind of companion.

I took too much time admiring the changing colors of fading daylight. When the sun finally slid behind the stillness of Lake Diablo, dusk, combined with looming mountain shadows, made driving menacing. The lack of guardrails at outcroppings floating over vertical drop-offs swept away the casual security I had felt just a few hours earlier. I was nervous. The smell of onions, garlic, and pickle juice was strong and nauseating. By the time I crested Washington Pass and started down the steep-graded s-curves, it was pitch dark. The SUV veered around twists in the highway just a few feet from precipitous ledges that hovered over sharp drops to the valley floor.

I rounded the bend where, according to my brother, some kids careened to their death because they weren’t paying attention. As excited as I had been by the exquisite views a few hours before, I couldn’t look. I clutched the wheel and kept my eyes on the road. Headlights beamed on red and brown where evergreen should have been. The dull colors were out of sync with postcard prettiness. A sense of doom magnified my already waning excitement, and I worried that global warming and infectious diseases were destroying the pine forests of the Pacific Northwest. I began thinking that my venture into the unknown was not such a bright idea. Perhaps I shouldn’t have left the company and comfort of my husband and home in Chicago to sail out on my own to this god-forsaken, desolate place. Not even the trees knew how to stay alive.

After convincing myself that those unfortunate dead kids were brainless blockheads on a drunken binge, I navigated the curves with invented courage - easing and braking, easing and braking - down the east side of the mountain, along the river, and then finally, up a steep rise to the safety of the cabin on Bitterbrush Road.

The night was eerily quiet, except for the stones crunching under my feet and a slight swish of branches high over head. Ebony stillness surrounded me. A symphony of stars in sparkling constellations I couldn’t name shone on me with mysterious silent glory from an inky sky. Gentle breezes nudged pine needles and oak leaves into singing their tree-songs. Cool air carried the scents of spruce and cedar.

I entered the warmth of the cabin and the joy of my brother’s life with Carol. I found a welcome note and house instructions beside a red and white striped bowl filled with Bombay Sapphire Gin, Martini and Rossi Dry Vermouth, a jar of olives, and a cut-crystal cocktail glass. The greeting was sweet and gracious. I placed the martini makings on the painted pine hutch next to the already-flowering Christmas cactus. Night magnificence, forest calm, and cabin lamplight revitalized me after that long, unnerving drive over Washington Pass in the dark. I opened a bottle of Champagne, drank a toast to my journey, and with glass in hand, searched for Cricket among the nooks, crannies, and quilts of her home.
In the next three weeks I would go to the farmers market in Twisp and buy sunflowers and home-made, orchard-fresh peach pie from the 85-year-old woman who baked it, pastries from the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery, and double-churned ice cream from Sheri's Sweet Shoppe. I would visit the Winthrop Art Gallery and watch glass being sculpted into vases and bowls. I would drive along the Columbia River and marvel at the immensity and grandeur of our world, and with a packed lunch, take a four-hour sight-seeing boat trip up glacial Lake Chelan to Stehekin outpost. I would sit on the back porch in the rain and work on the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, and watch humming birds quiver around the feeders when the sun came out. I would find a Washington Mutual Bank in Omak, 40 miles away, and get my nails done on the same trip. I would congratulate myself on not reaching a state of panic when I woke up at 2:00 am and thought I was blind because it was so dark that it didn’t matter if my eyes were open or closed. And then I would scramble for a flashlight in pitch black terror and phone the electric company to ask if there had been a power outage.

I would stroke Cricket, who found me sooner than four days after my arrival, and who sat on my lap and purred despite her fear of humans. I would tend Cricket as her health declined and sadly caress her on her final days and feel her soak up all the love I could give her in her last home under the majesty of the Cascade Mountains. I would take her to the vet and stand beside her and hold her as the difficult but necessary decisions were made to relieve her of her pain and misery. Then I would drive back to the cabin with an empty cat crate knowing that Carol’s buddy of 17 years would not be there when she returned home to sneak up on her and snuggle again.

I would read books, write in my journal, walk along the river, drink champagne, sleep when I felt like it, and wear red. I would create savory meals while sipping martinis or white wine bottled in Wenatchee. I’d make fresh vegetable soup and seared ahi tuna with asparagus and BLT’s with fake bacon, and an abundance of scrumptious baked Italian meatballs, so many meatballs that I’d eat them again and again with spaghetti or as hot sandwiches or just plain cold, straight out of the refrigerator.

I would stand on the mountainside and look down along the green and orange vastness of the Methow River Valley and thank my lucky stars that I had this opportunity to live here by myself for a short, beautiful time. And I would forever treasure these moments of my journey into self-hood, self-discovery, self-sufficiency, and self-appreciation.

When my senses detect even a hint of oregano or basil, this memory wafts over me and takes me to that little cabin on Bitterbrush where I rejuvenated my soul.

EVS 09/08


Doesn't Make Cents

Ellie Searl

There is something about asking for money that makes my stomach go into knots. Just thinking about it makes me nervous and sweaty. I’d never make it as a prostitute. I wouldn’t earn enough money to pay for the outfit, accessories, and overhead necessary for success when cavorting with scum: slinky clothes, stiletto heels, cigarettes, whiskey, crack cocaine, rat-infested tenement. Not only would I charge too little for the humiliation of performing demeaning acts with creeps, I’d have to give more than half of my meager take to some pimp, who would most likely beat me up for being a useless earner.

It disturbs me that I’m too shy, or more likely, too insecure to charge for my services. Am I not “good enough”? Is my product not up to the standards of the general public? What am I afraid will happen if I charge too much? Or too little?

I’m a self-taught graphic designer. I design brochures, booklets, all-occasion greeting cards, posters, photograph collages, and other projects. But I’m a terrible judge of my own work. Others have said, “Ellie, this is so creative. It’s so beautiful. It must have taken a pile of time! How do you come up with such clever ideas?”

“I don’t know; it just happens.” Fortunately I have enough self-respect to keep the ah-shucks reply completely unassuming, not accompanied by batting eyelashes and a receding body slump.
This is not to say I don’t like to get paid for my services. I like to get paid - a lot! I just don’t like to charge. Like most insecure people, I want my product to be loved and wanted so much by my clients they will set the price higher than I would ever set for myself.

I want an exchange like this:

Ellie: “Oh, this is way too much; please, just give me half of that!”
Response: “Oh, no, Ellie, I’ll give you even more! You’re so worth it!”

That’s how to get paid in a perfect world.

When Kathy flipped through the pages of my most recent creation, “A Year of Celebration,” a calendar gift book she had commissioned me to make for her friend’s birthday, she exclaimed about its beauty, its creativity, and the obvious pile of time it took.

“So, how much do I owe you?” Kathy took out her checkbook.

This is when the ‘what-am-I-worth?’ ache grabs me in the gut.

It’s underhanded, I know, but blatant manipulation is a good way to monitor someone’s appraisal barometer. I maneuver opinions out of people in order to discover what they really think of my work. If they say “ok” to giving me a free-will offering, that means they’re not crazy about the product, and the initial excited flattery was really just ‘hide-the-disappointment-in-niceties to make her feel good.’ That tells me to back off. But if they insist on a giving me more money than a paltry contribution, well, then maybe, just maybe, I actually made a product they like . . and want to buy.

“Just give me what you want to. I had fun making it.” I wait for Kathy to respond.

“No way! Look what you’ve done here. There are 26 color pages, you’ve included each month of the year, you’ve cloned our faces into just about every picture, and you’ve used tons of ink. It’s wonderful, and I’m going to pay you royally for this fabulous book.”

The most I’ve ever set as an actual fee for any project was for the cost of the paper. I never charged for the price of ink, the time spent working, wear and tear on my computer and printer, the electricity, any traveling involved, not to mention the wine, cheese, gin martinis with olives, coffee, and Alka Seltzer that kept me sustained at the computer until 2:00 am while numbing my butt or freezing my fingers because the heat was turned down to 55 degrees five hours earlier.

Once, I didn’t charge anything. I brought a friend into my home, helped her design thank you cards using my computer, and then printed all 60 cards with my card stock paper on my color printer while we drank a nice merlot. She wanted to pay me, but I lied and told her I do this all the time . . . for the love of it. I know; I’m an idiot. Did I mention it was my merlot?

I tell Kathy, “Ok, How about $50.00?”

“How about I triple that. You can’t do work like this and not get paid what it’s worth! You’re cheating yourself!” Kathy was adamant.

The manipulation paid off this time, probably because she was a friend of mine. The next person will have to be just as good exploitation material if I am to make any kind of living selling my free-lance graphic design projects - or anything else, for that matter.

If I do decide to try the oldest profession, I’d at least have the basic inventory readily available.

EVS / 8/08


Brave Runner

Ellie Searl

I lined up beside the others. I crouched, positioned my skates, and waited for the whistle. The others came from out of town. They looked cold and uncomfortable in tight stretch nylon suits with matching gloves and hoods. I knew they’d trip on those impractical skates: black lace-ups with extended, smooth-tipped blades. They’d never grip the ice.

I’d been figure skating on Lake Champlain in upstate New York since I was a toddler, and by the time I was twelve, I was a marvel on ice. I could skate both forward and backward. I could make almost perfect, though wide, figure eights. I could even skate on one leg without falling down. And I liked speed. I skated faster and farther than all of my friends, so I entered the Winter Carnival Speed Skating Competition.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was way out of my league.

The whistle blew. I shoved off. The others sailed past me. Elongated blades swooshed and clinked, spewing sprays of shaved ice. Lithe, slender bodies swayed in hypnotic rhythm. I was stunned.

So calm, so fluid, competing with each other at a pace I didn’t expect. The heat of shame stung my cheeks and ears. Long legs drifted effortlessly ahead of me in seamless, congruent strides. Arms swung left, then right, then left again, in parallel formations. Wiry torsos leaned forward and a bit to the side as they banked around the track.

Hindered by thick wool snow pants, I chugged along with as much oomph as I could muster, my chunky legs trying to gain speed and make headway. I was desperate to prove I was good.

Chin leading, arms akimbo, I pushed my metal blades in an acceleration of flying frenzy. My short legs lunged faster and faster, faster and faster, bouncing on ice patches, tripping on the tips of my skates.

For each one of the racers’ smooth, effortless glides, my feet made three, maybe four, awkward thrusts. The muscles in my thighs stung. My throat ached from shallow, rapid breaths of raw, frigid air. Ice shavings pitted my face and stung my eyes.

Arms flailing, heart pounding, I hurtled forward, the pain in my legs growing almost unbearable. Frost clung to my eyelashes; my fingers felt sticky with sweat inside my mittens. The others elegantly and effortlessly sliced through space with confident complacency - in no particular hurry, expending no particular energy.

I began sprinting wildly on the serrated tips of my blades. Dagger points formed mini-craters as the metal teeth dug into the ice. Chunks of frozen shards flew every which way.

I bounced and bolted in a state of hysterical panic. I was the Carnival Clown entertaining the crowd with idiotic gyrations and wild, toe-dancing jigs while the real race glided along in regal splendor.

Embarrassed tears clouded my vision. I wanted it over. Just don’t fall! Finally, in a desperate lurch, I pitched headlong across the finish line and collapsed into a snow pile.

There I sprawled, limp and exhausted. I began to sob. How would I face my friends? I’d forever and always be known as Stumble-Bum-on-Ice.

A distant voice startled me. “And Third Place goes to Ellie Volckmann!”

With reclaimed dignity I stood proudly to receive my Bronze Medal at the Annual Westport Winter Carnival Ice Skating Championship.

The sheer force of my determined twelve-year-old spirit and grit had plummeted me across the finish line ahead of four out-of-town, trained racers who looked abashed and bewildered in their skinny nylon suits and silly skates.

I wore that ribbon around my neck all day long and into the next week.

EVS 07/08


What about Me?

Ellie Searl

Leaning against the center column of the kitchen porch, he looked at me with that forlorn, Eeyore pout. His glass eye roved off to the left while the other one welled up with tears. “What about me? What’s going to happen to me?” He shuffled to his barcalounger and slumped into the sanctuary of sculpted dents. Years of lethargy had molded creases into the grey vinyl upholstery, shaping the dirt-encrusted plastic into the exact contours of his body. The solace of familiarity didn’t ease his distress. He slowly leaned his head back into the depression of the top cushion and moaned.

I never quite understood why Dad wanted his recliner on the kitchen porch. We owned elegant, though aged, white ladder-back rockers and wicker chairs, which graced the wide covered veranda on the side of the house overlooking the lake. But Dad wanted to sit with his Scotch on the rocks and watch traffic in comfort, even though there wasn’t much traffic to watch. An occasional car tumbled out of the mountain road beyond our house and sailed down the hill to the little village below. Farmers in rusty pick-ups tipped their hats, and truckers hauling silage honked. If Dad were in a good mood, he’d lift his drink, spilling his cheap Scotch on his pants. Otherwise Dad complained that they should “Slow down!” or “Quit kicking up our gravel!”

One summer evening, while the family attempted small talk over before-dinner drinks, an out-of-towner stopped just beyond our property line to admire the orange and purple sunset, the colors shifting and slicing through the mountain tops past our meadows. “What’s he doing? His tires are on the edge of our grass. He’s trying to make me mad.” And then the excruciatingly familiar suffering sigh: a belabored intake of breath through clenched teeth, followed by a slow, heavily grunted exhale. An exaggerated swig of his drink exhibited finality to the event, like an exclamation point giving authority to his pronouncement

A ‘Fred testimonial’ was meant for us to take notice, and it demanded a response. If none came, there was a ‘Fred coda,’ which took the shape of a loud “Hmmm?” as in “Don’t you agree?” Nobody did. Eventually someone broke the silence and tried to show reason, which was actually appeasement: conciliatory comments to mollify Dad until his Scotch could kick in and he’d fall asleep in front of TV after dinner. But in our heads, the small talk became big thoughts - big with stress, big with anger, big with resentment - thoughts that each of us had and shared in private but never dared say out loud in front of our father, or mother, for that matter. At moments like these Mom had her own excruciatingly familiar sigh, only hers was shallow and slightly sing-songy, as though she had just seen a baby bird fall out of its nest – a helpless, pervasive sigh. But true to form, she’d fake a laugh and say something witty to lift the melancholy that hung over us like a sunset gone to seed.

Dad had a college degree in civil engineering; he was a skilled land surveyor; he showed artistic ability in oil painting, sketching, map-making, and embroidery. He cultivated beautiful gardens with lush string beans, sweet beefsteak tomatoes, and exceedingly huge zucchini. He enjoyed baking bread and making German spaetzle noodles with sauerbraten, and in the summer, he’d husk corn. So what happened?

Dad was a personal contradiction wrapped in a heavy-set, six-foot, three-inch bulk of a man, whose central belief of life and how it should treat him stopped developing when he was in those self-centered teenage years of supreme narcissism. At sixteen, the Me First syndrome is expected and humored. At any age beyond twenty-five, exhibiting childish, self-absorbed behaviors is an embarrassment. Dad was stuck in the expectations of teenage-ness, looking toward others to fill his bottomless happiness glass. That’s it. Mostly he just liked to be waited on.

For Dad, being waited on meant guessing what he wanted and getting it for him before he knew he wanted it. His adolescent self reared its head during these gimme gimme episodes. There was hell to pay if Dad saw someone with a treat and his TV tray was empty. “Is that ice cream?” He’d ask in his half-sleep, half-sober whine. Then came the follow-up grievance call. “Can’t a guy get a dish of ice cream around here?” Not a proper request that showed a touch of respect, but a command designed to corral the nearest family member into action. When it was my turn, I addressed the situation in silence: stomach in knots, head pounding, face twisted, and hands scooping ice cream into a bowl for the head of the family lazing torpidly in the beige, tufted den recliner while he watched TV with one glazed eye and yelled “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” if the music got too loud.

When the world behaved properly for Dad, life for the rest of us paced along smoothly. So, to the extent that we could, my two older brothers and I provided opportunities to orchestrate good cheer and lighthearted humor, no matter how emotionally counterfeit the efforts. Pretense was a matter of course. “Make him laugh, and keep us happy.” That’s how we functioned. We complimented his freshly grown vegetables. We oohed and aahed over his homemade bread, spaetzles, and sauerbraten. We made dinner table jokes that corresponded with something he liked. The jokes became traditions. Dinner was calm if we had rice. “Rice is nice.” Dad was particularly partial to that one. It matched a rice commercial that made him laugh, and referring to it meant we cared about him. So simple, yet so therapeutic.

Peace at the dinner table took an ugly turn when the phone rang, or the meat was tough, or my brother’s best friend, Tim, came to the kitchen door. “Why the hell does he always have to show up at supper time?” Then, stomach in knots, head pounding, face twisted, and hand clenched onto my fork, I’d finish my meal in agitated silence. Dad sighed his insufferable big sighs, Mom sighed her pathetic little sighs, and my brothers and Tim ate dinner in the den.

Children aren’t equipped to understand or analyze their parents’ behaviors. I knew Dad had a terrible accident during a wood chopping incident in his early thirties when an errant piece of tree bark flew into his left eye, blinding it instantly. Dad used to complain about his lack of depth perception, but other than that, I never gave his eye much thought. I was used to it. I also knew that Dad was an only child who had been doted upon by his mother and bullied by his father.

Perhaps Dad’s disgruntled behavior was due to his ill-fated, debilitating experience. Or perhaps he lingered in those coddled, only-child stages of youth, waiting for a mother figure to lift all stress and anxiety from his world, and still seeking approval from some non-existent supportive father figure.

Whatever the reason, he was rendered helpless. Dad couldn’t meet the ordinary challenges of finding fulfillment or gratification in everyday occurrences. He couldn’t overcome the all-encompassing hopelessness that continued throughout his lifetime - a lifetime spent drinking Scotch, earlier and earlier each day, letting his garden wither and his artwork dwindle. Did he ever notice that he had three beautiful children, a generous, although submissive wife, and a great deal of talent? Did he know he became an unlovable man?

When I still lived at home, I never confronted him – ever. I was too afraid – afraid of his intermittent love-hate affair with the world he built around him and us. Afraid of his unpredictability. Afraid of his ambiguous, yet omnipresent disapproval that interrupted the equilibrium I tried to grasp and manage in his presence. Whose responsibility was it to build our relationship? If it was mine, I failed. If it was his, he failed.

And so at his worn-out age of seventy-two he wanted to know what would become of him. How would he manage? There he sat in that hideous lounge chair, swirling his Scotch, spilling it on his pants, looking pitifully at the porch floor boards wondering who would take care of him now that Mom had her arm in a sling because she ripped her rotator cuff playing golf. What a sad sight. He’d never change.

But I had. I had found courage. No stomach knots. No head poundings. Nothing clenched. Just a few words forming along with a twisted smile. I couldn’t resist.

“Lighten up, Dad. You still know how to pour your own Scotch.”

I turned and walked into the kitchen, letting the screen door slam behind me. I have no idea if he sighed or what he said, if anything. It didn’t matter.

EVS 06/26/08