After WWII, That Moment

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One of my favorite men will be turning 101 years old in July. He lives at a nearby residence for the elderly and disabled and I see him every month when I help out at the food pantry there. I’ll call him James.

James, at 100, is still almost 6’2. He remains a handsome man with fine features, but he doesn’t smile readily or put up with fools or fake comments like, “Hello, young man!” . He’s lived too long to waste time.

James’ parents immigrated from Belgium to Canada and then to Wisconsin, where they worked as sugar beet farmers. James worked in the fields and one of his earliest memories is of his mother wrapping rags around his bleeding knees as he thinned the beet roots in the late spring. He kept working with the rags on his knees. He was five years old at the time.

At the beginning of World War II, James was married and his wife was expecting their first child. He was drafted and went to Europe, where he fought until the war was over. He was among the troops that landed on Normandy the day after D-Day. All they were told was that they wouldn’t face “the resistance the boys had the day before”.

James was one of the first American soldiers to liberate Dachau. He said that when he was later on a boat on the Rhine, he stared at the perfect symmetry of the German vineyards. All he could think about was how it echoed the symmetry of the bodies at Dachau, stacked like firewood.

Once the war ended, James came home to the family farm where he’d lived most of his life. His wife and child were living with his parents there and they had a huge dinner to welcome him home. After dinner, he asked if he could go for a walk by himself.

As James walked down the paths he knew like the back of his hand, the sun set and the house was out of sight. He stopped for a moment and looked up at the moon. And, suddenly, he had no idea where he was. He didn’t know what continent he was on nor which direction to walk. It lasted about thirty seconds and then the disorientation went away. As James told me the story, he paused and said, “Just thinking about that moment puts me right back there. You know, I’m a hundred years old and that’s the only time in my life I’ve been disorientated.”

I looked at James, but there was nothing to say. I can’t fathom what he’s experienced, what he’s seen. I don’t understand fully what that particular moment meant to him. But from the expression on his face, a combination of puzzlement and joy, I know it never left him. And I’m honored he shared it with me.

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Bob Dylan. At Last.

1966, USA --- Musician Bob Dylan posing for the cover of his album . --- Image by © Jerry Schatzberg/Corbis

Image by © Jerry Schatzberg/Corbis

I’m not sure when Bob Dylan entered my consciousness, but it had to be by 1965. It was the year he released “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, and “Positively 4th Street”, among other singles. It was also the year that my older sister and I spent our evenings playing her new board game, “Mystery Date”.

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The concept of the game was simple. You took turns moving your piece around the board until you reached the magical moment when you could turn the doorknob on the plastic door in the middle of the board and see who your date was going to be for the night. I believe there was a Buddy Holly-like bowler, a bland Prom Date holding a corsage, a surfer…I wasn’t interested in them. Much to my sister’s annoyance, I crossed my fingers to get the open collared guy with tousled hair. Referred to by the game rules as the “Dud” or the “Bum”. Every time my sister would point this out, I’d reply, “No, it’s Bob Dylan!” I was five years old. A fair mistake.

I was never a rabid fan, collecting every bootleg and alternate version of his songs. But, as the years went by, along with most other living people, I could sing along with “Lay Lady Lay”, “If Not For You”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, and the brilliant “Hurricane Part 1”. As my path towards becoming a writer grew more focused, I was pulled into Bob Dylan’s songs not for their music, but for their lyrics. He’s written some of the best lines I’ve heard in songs to this day…from “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind”:

“Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat
An’ cov’rin’ the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But mama, you been on my mind…”

To “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”:

“Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue…”

To “Like a Rolling Stone”:

“You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?”

Okay. You get the idea. I can easily fall down the rabbit hole of Bob Dylan’s words.

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It’s interesting how songs can form soundtracks in our lives. I remember a particular moment. I was having dinner with an ex-boyfriend who had flown out to Philadelphia to see me. As we spoke and got caught up, I felt completely confused about which direction the relationship was going to go. I remember thinking–and, yes, knowing how completely irrational it was–that the next song that played would give me my answer. And almost immediately, the opening bars to “It Ain’t Me Babe” began. It’s not that it made my decision for me, but that song at that moment confirmed what I’d known all along.

And now, decades after all of this, I have tickets in hand for my husband and me to see Bob Dylan in concert this Wednesday night. If I had a bucket list, this would be on it. If there’s any performer I want to experience live, it’s him. When I think about it, really, it’s about time. It’s been a long wait.

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About My Mother on Mother’s Day: Both Here and Gone

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I love this out of focus photo of my mother, taken perhaps fifteen years before I was born. A life-long Chicago Girl who cherished her summers at the family’s cottage up north in Eagle River, Wisconsin. A classical music concert pianist who liked pranks and egg salad sandwiches, not necessarily together, at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. She died in a car accident in 1983 and what’s interesting is that even though there are moments when I have to struggle to remember her voice, her laughter comes back to me as if I just heard her moments ago. Maybe that’s why the photo pulls me in. It looks like she’s laughing.

It would take a series of flow charts to detail my mother’s life. In brief, she was adopted with her twin brother in Chicago in 1925 by Louis and Ada Kane, who were attentive, loving parents to them. From an early age, my mother had exceptional talent as a pianist and eventually performed in concerts along with Arthur Rubenstein and Van Cliburn. In her late twenties, she was named Dean of Women at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Then life took a twist.

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Looking back, she entered into what we’d call an arranged marriage with the son of neighbors. The union was a disaster and as she was filing to end the marriage, she discovered she was pregnant. This was the 1950’s and the word “scandal” was used more freely. My grandparents were already retired and living at their expanded home in northern Wisconsin. Somehow, it was decided that Mom would quit her position at the Music Conservatory, move in with her parents, give birth to my older sister, and then work as a music teacher at the local grade school. Which she did.

It was there that she met my father, who had his first teaching assignment after college at Eagle River Union High School. They fell in love and married less than six months after meeting. And then Mom moved again as Dad’s career evolved…first to Madison, where I was born, then to Buffalo, New York for eight years, and then to Washington, D.C. It was there that everything changed on a deeper level.

The marriage between my parents ended. There’s never blame on only one side, but my mother seemed to fall apart before my eyes. She let herself go physically. I’m sure she was suffering from depression and found small decisions impossibly difficult. Eventually, she moved my sister and me to our grandparents home in Eagle River. It had always been her safe haven, her place to heal and restore herself.

After about a year, my sister left for college and it was Mom and me. What happened is that we became the best of friends. She was my daily confidante, she encouraged me, she supported me in every way she could. But, what I most remember is how much we could make each other laugh. When I wasn’t working there, we’d stop by Colonial House for an ice cream sundae, usually wiping our eyes from laughing about some incident we’d just told the other. We’d see matinees and insist that the popcorn wasn’t being shared fairly. I’d try to teach her how to cook…she only seemed to catch on to that after I’d moved away. And, looking back, she had to endure so much teen drama I don’t know where she found the patience.

And then, it seemed to all happen so fast. I was beginning my adult life in Philadelphia when I received a phone call at work on a sunny November morning, telling me my mother had died hours earlier in a car accident. An unexpected, horrifically violent death.The night before, we’d had a long conversation, laughing as usual. We’d ended the call by telling each other, “I love you.” And I never heard her voice again.

Thirty-two years have passed. Mom never got to meet the man I would marry. She never saw or held my son, her grandson. She doesn’t know that I uncovered half of her birth family and that I’ve actually met those wonderful people she would have loved. Yet, every now and then, I have a feeling she’s beside me…that if I turned my head quickly enough, I might catch a glimpse of her.

I just finished my third father-daughter road trip, a very special time that’s invaluable to me. It was funny, though. At one point as we walked through the woods, with Mother’s Day coming up, Mom crossed my mind. I was wondering what her opinion would be on several things as I walked through the region that she’d loved so much. And then I saw this beside me:

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I have no idea, obviously, who had carved that, when, or what its original purpose was. But it served a new purpose at that moment. In that second, I felt I actually did catch one of those elusive glimpses I’ve hoped for. That Mom is closer than I can possibly realize. She’s right there, even when I can’t see her.