Hogs

Midterm, the second semester of my senior year at Augie, I still worked the night shift–50 cents per hour from 11 pm to 7 am–at West Truck Haven Cafe on the northwest side of the West 12st Street overpass for the newly built Interstate 29, which by the end of the summer before in 1964, was somewhat close to Watertown.  Once again, I was counter waitress, manning two big curved U’s that dipped towards the south, occasionally helping out the dining room waitress, who then was ten years younger than I am now.  At Augie I took  the remaining 11 hours to finish up my senior year.  My first class was in the morning, Education Tests and Measurements with Dr. Oscar Oksol, who chided me once or twice for falling asleep.  So boring that class was, but I learned about means and medians.

Classes, waitressing, and theatre activities exhausted me that semester, exhausted me more when blizzards swept the Interstate of cars and trucks and Greyhound busses; and some of the fearful, tired occupants slumped on stools at my counter while the rest crowded in the dining room.  That rush of costumers, I was used to, for West Truck Haven, like Kirk’s Drive-Inn on the other side of the Interstate on the south side, always a great place for breakfast at 2 am after the bars closed, after 4 am when the nightclubs closed, after evening shifts ended at Morrell’s Meat Packing Plant, manufacturers, night-security shifts, police.  But I was not used to working double shifts because other waitresses couldn’t make it.  On a night of a particular blizzard, I twisted my right ankle. We were so busy that I didn’t notice the pain and the increased swelling in my ankle until there was a lull.  After 18 hours or so when I was able to get back to my apartment on Summit Ave., my ankle was almost the size of a football, and black and blue.  Because of poverty, behaviors instilled by my parents who demanded chores be done morning and night with no excuses, for my next shift, I wrapped my ankle in Ace bandages and shuffled through evening shifts until I was able to walk normally.  I blame the sprain on cheap nurse’s shoes I wore, the only ones I could afford at Lewis Drug, the ankle unstable  from the 1″ rubber soles.

During second-semester midterms, required exams in all classes, work and studying for tests and directing and acting and building sets, costuming, props merged into marathons. In the summer of 1964,  I rented a basement apartment with another female student other than Edie, another student name I don’t remember now, nor really care to, for we really grew only to tolerate one another by the end of my senior year.  The landlords were on the main floor, the husband once in a while peeking in through the transom window into our living room.  I caught him one late spring night when I walked naked from the bedroom back to the bathroom for something.  I looked up at  that south window, the little light curtains open a foot a so, in time to hear rustling as someone ran away.  When the upstairs’ back door opened and closed, I knew it had to be her or him; more than likely him, for he always scurried away whenever one of us girls came within sight.

At the end of the midterms, three days awake with only catnaps of fifteen minutes or so, my head on the kitchen table or my body in a fetal position on the sofa, I called my mom and begged the folks to get me a loan so I could get through the rest of the semester and the summer.  $500 was all.  A day later they called and said the bank agreed. Sometime during my first teaching year, I paid them back.  It was only the second time I received money from the folks.  The first was during Christmas vacation my second or third year at college.  Mother took me into their bedroom and handed me an envelope containing $50, the largest amount of money I had ever seen at one time then. We both sat at the foot of the bed, Mom to my right.   She had me hold out my hand and pressed the envelope into mine.  I can still see her face, framed by the then shorn hair; her braids coiled like dun-colored snakes were placed in a covered wooden bowl, the bowl tucked on an end table placed next to the china cabinet.  She whispered to me, this money is hard-earned, so spend it wisely and carefully, for there will be no more like this for some time, if ever.

My father had a heart attack in my junior college year.  My older brother took over the farming, while Dad stayed bedridden for six weeks, that’s all. No insurance then or ever.  Mom was uninsurable I’m sure after all the surgeries when we were little, and my father distrusted hospitals, fearing the cost.  As my father said, we never had before or since a pot to piss in.  The hogs that paid the folks’ way on the O’Boyle place from my junior year in high school up until my first year in college was no more, the result of over-vaccination covered up by  a veterinarian who condemned the barn, saying that it was contaminated.  Years later after the vet died, another vet told my father what had happened.

The deaths of the pigs happened within hours on the night before and early morning of my last day at home on a vacation.  I remember my father and older brother hauling one dead pig or hog or sow after another out of the barn by its hoof.  So distraught, his sadness so pervasive, one that results only in the heaving of a chest and silent tears, my father took a butcher knife and split open each pig from groin to sternum, as if butchering, and revealed lungs oozing blood, stomachs, abdomen.  Somehow or other earlier my mother arranged for me to  ride with the mailman to Denison to catch the bus back to Sioux Falls.  From the back seat of the mailman’s car, with dead pigs laid like huge white grotesque slugs in an arc some 30 feet of the south barn door, the last sight I saw was my father with a butcher knife bent over the last one he or my brother drug out. I know he was sobbing as was my mother who stood on the porch of the house holding the hand of my five-year-old brother.

Record

My first teaching position after college was at the newly built Lincoln High School.  Probably the reason that I was hired by principal T. C. Tollefson was due to my student teaching at Washington High under Barney Kremer, one of the best drama and speech coaches a high school could ever have, at least it seemed then; and he probably was for Sioux Falls at that time. As far as I observed, students adored him, clamored to be in his plays, respected him even when not cast.  Barney was epileptic, his condition progressing as he became older.  I remember him having a seizure once during those eight weeks of student teaching. Or was it a semester? During an afternoon speech class, it happened.

Barney’s room was set up with a small stage on a six-inch platform flush against the west side. The classroom had two main doors, one of either side of the west wall.  Student chairs, not desks I don’t think, were positioned around three sides towards the stage.  Even now I can see the room in all its beigeness, a chalkboard as a backdrop for the stage; another on the south wall between the two doors; however, in my memory most of  the seats were  empty, as most seats are during four to six weeks of rehearsals.  Doors to two small rooms were on either side of the south wall’s chalkboard: A room for props, costumes, etc., farthest away from door to the classroom; Barney’s office right as one entered the classroom.

During a semester many plays were performed for classes in that room: a teacher ushered in one class on the right while another teacher guided her or her class out the other door. During a run actors performed the same play continuously throughout the school day and then again on a night or two.  In front of the stage, and it remained that way for a speech class, was an open space that sometimes felt like an immense sand dune, especially  when I took over a rehearsal or taught an oral interpretation class.

I had seen someone have a seizure once before, in the middle of the afternoon at Kirk’s Cafe, downtown Sioux Falls,. I’m not sure if it was a Sunday or a Saturday, or even for sure if it really was in the middle of the afternoon.  I was tending  counter, my basic post at Kirk’s.  Normally I worked from 2 in the morning until sometime late forenoon.  I know that I started waitressing for Kirk’s in the summer of 1962,  right after my freshman year.  Earlier that summer I moved into Mrs. Rudd’s home, across the street, north of Augie’s Old Main.  A bunch of Augie girls, refugees from their own homes like me, lived there–I in the middle north bedroom on the second floor.  It had a little closet on the west wall, the bed facing the north wall most of the time.

That summer my younger sister stayed with me for a few weeks.  It must have taken my mother a great deal of courage to let Gloria ride the bus up from Denison, Iowa to Sioux Falls.  Maybe Gloria begged, or I did, or Gloria needed a job and there wasn’t anything for any female teenager then around Manilla and Vail.  I probably told her she could probably get one at the Arena.  But more than likely it was because we were so damn poor, and my father and mother probably thinking she has to start finding her way on her own.  When she came, we probably positioned the bed against the north wall, for I remember she coming home a little before the time I was to go to work with a chameleon somehow pinned to her shirt.  I remember her waking me up to show it to me.  I think I told her to get that damn thing away from me after I pointed my finger at her and asked if she wanted another cup of coffee.

I waited tables for the Kirk brothers from that summer up through my junior year: first for Ted, who ran the one downtown,and then for Larry, who managed Kirk’s Drive Inn, until I jumped shift to the truck stop across the overpass on the newly built Interstate 29.  I’m not sure what were my wages per hour, but it wasn’t much.  At the truck stop in 1965, fifty cents an hour plus tips,, so at Kirk’s probably the same.  Apparently  four Kirk brothers had their fingers in both places,

The seizure at Kirk’s I do remember occurred in bright light, more than likely streaming in from the corner south and west windows that the counter faced.   This couple always came in the middle of the afternoon, two cups of coffee, maybe a little pie or a donut.  The man looked like the lead in Dragnet, Jack Web, quiet, soft spoken, a little pasty, as characters in black and white appeared; the woman, always quiet, never saying much.  I know I was sitting on the other side of the counter, drinking my own coffee, for they were the only two in the place.  Maybe I was visiting with them, something that was a waitress’s obligation then–keep the customers happy, make them feel at home.  And the wife fell between the stools and the counter, wedged up under there; the bar on which customers put their feet probably caused a bruise on her back.

In my memory, it’s a series of stills: first the heavy bang against the stool on her right, then another when she went twisting under the counter, her back arching, the body flopping in that small space.   Foam came out of her mouth, white like a bloated cow.  Her husband pulled her out over to center of the floor, near one of the tables on the west side. He took a tough depressor out of his shirt pocket.  I remember the embarrassment in his eyes when he asked me to hold her head while he put the depressor in her mouth.   It seemed forever she spasmed while her husband then held her head while I held the depressor in her mouth.

Barney’s seizure also was in the bright light of an afternoon, in the empty space in front of the stage.  He must have known it was coming on, for I think he got to his knees.   I thought it strange that he was doing so, but Barney, like Earl Mundt, Augies’s theatre director and me, sometimes enacted moves for those we directed.  He didn’t flop as much as the woman at Kirk’s.  Neither did foam come out of his mouth.  His back did arch, and he became stiff and stared at the ceiling; his eyes rolled back in his head.  I stood there, as I did at Kirk’s, not knowing what to do.  The students did, however.  They were calm, respectful,  as if they were witnessing a death.  One, I’m not sure who it was, left and brought back another teacher.

Barney eventually had to quit teaching, retiring to his home on west 18th Street.

My other stint at student teaching was in 7th & 8th grade math classes  under an old bitty of a woman who ran her classes as if they were prison lockdowns. I really don’t know what it was that irked her so about me, as I often don’t know what irks others about me, except that at this time at the end of her career, as she appeared then, I believe she feared innovation, wanted the classroom managed precisely the way she did.  I really don’t think my approach was all that much different from her’s–I had to follow lesson plans that my supervisor and she approved; but of course, I didn’t see myself as she did. And it was Patrick Henry Junior High; at that time, in the elite part of Sioux Falls–two Country Clubs nearby, Sioux Valley Hospital, V. A. Hospital,  Park Ridge, all those beautiful homes northwest of 18th Street and Western.  Later, with my children, even though they were toddlers, I would drive through the curved streets, pointing out to them the imposing door of one home, the graduated curved lane of another, the cupolas that dotted many of them, the immaculate lawns. I still dream about one of those houses–three-story gray stucco, narrow but deep, with a façade that seemed to curve into fantasy.

What I did learn from student teaching at Patrick Henry was that absolutely, unequivocally I was not meant for junior high teaching, the way that it was taught then.  It was more important in the 1960s, maybe also for junior highs now, that students sit still quietly, heads in obeisance, and perform according to the way that it was always done, instead of challenging them to learn advanced skills and concepts.  But boredom is as boredom does. It kills me still, every single night of the week.  But what did I know about my junior high math teaching ability?   I do know that at Augie I tutored male math students my own age and above,  who after college worked for companies who paid them well, like MIT.  My first take-home paycheck from teaching at Lincoln was $358. I was a female, only groomed for teaching or nursing; and expected as soon as possible, if not before graduation, to “hook-up” and marry, if not get pregnant and marry, or get pregnant and not get married.  But to be fair, during that student teaching experience, if I remember correctly, besides working at Kirk’s Truck Stove, which now doesn’t exist, and later waitressing at night West Truck Haven, I was also in a play.

At that time in Washington High,  no elevator swooned me to the top of that three-story structure, which is now Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science.  I don’t remember climbing those stairs then, as I do remember trudging up them 20 years later when I came back to teach and manage the English Resource library, after teaching at Garretson, a state of mind that suggests that during student teaching under Barney those stairs disappeared under my feet as those on a Vegas stage after showgirls swirled through the exits.

Rain Water

When I phoned my sister-in-law trying to find out who is the baby in a picture with Mom, I mentioned that Mom looked so old. She said that your mom looked old at 60, long before she should have.  Here I am, age 70.  My mother stares back at me in the mirror, the same jaw line, the same eyebrows, the same lines about the mouth, but not her coal black hair.  Mother was always proud of the fact that she had never dyed her hair; and for most of her life, my mom’s hair was coal black with at the most just faint streaks of gray.   In the last ten years of her life,  the black hair became lighter, and the gray more numerous.  When mine gets to where about a half-inch of white peeks through and I seem to have more scalp than hair, I dye my hair to  almost the color I had when younger, a once luscious brown with amber undertones that would shine in the sun as if hennaed.  Now a color 4 something or other that the hair dresser and I pick out.

For most of my childhood, my mother’s hair if down streamed down her back, so long that she could sit on it.   Only once in a while she would let it drape down her back or across her shoulders.   When she sat at the kitchen table, her  unbraided hair seemed as if it caressed the floor.    But then to let one’s hair display in such a manner was not seen then as proper.  Hair needed to be kept up, as mom would say, or hidden under a scarf, which she did occasionally.  When she put up her hair, four massive braids, two coils of hair on either side and a part down the middle; when down,  two braids with the sides of her hair swept up and away from her face with combs. I  often remember her asking me if her hair was fine in back, if a strand was loose to tuck it in.

Once a week, usually on a Friday or Saturday, like most farm women then, Mom washed her hair.  She would heat rain water on the stove, brought in from a barrel setting under one or another gutter, to  a temperature where an elbow could rest comfortably for a short time and then she would wash her hair, the basin full of rain water on  the drain of the sink; an empty basin in the sink to catch the water streaming from her hair.  Once her hair was shampooed thoroughly, which took a long time for thick hair such as Mom’s, then it was my turn to help, if I was around.  Both basins were rinsed clean.  One was filled with clean warm rain water to rinse; the other, placed in the sink again.    Then I would pour warm rain water onto her hair, and she would work it through, sometimes telling me to take some from the basin below.  Then we would rinse again and again until the water was clear in the basin. The final rise would be  of vinegar and water to make her hair squeak.  Then the absolutely final rinse in cold water.

Mom braids

Mom didn’t let her hair dry naturally before she braided, for it was easier to divide the hair when wet into three sections each for each braid and coil.  Sometimes she asked me to braid her hair or wrap rubber bands around the ends.  Then she would coil the braids counterclockwise, on each side one around the other.

I don’t know what doctor Mom consulted and really I don’t know when, but I do think we were still living at the Beh place when the doctor told Mom that her headaches was because of the weight of her hair.  She had them cut off, a hefty price to pay, for the headaches continued, her braids like locks of hair to remember someone by in a covered wooden bowl.  Mom’s headaches were sometimes conversation among us kids even as we grew older.  My younger brother still thinks that Mom wasn’t sick at all.   I don’t know why any of us doubted her. Ignorance more than likely, and a lack of empathy.

 

Stairs

My mother checked herself out of the Manor a month of so after she arrived  by ambulance from Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Omaha.  I’m not sure why, but I will fracture at least two reasons: that she wanted something to leave us kids, for living at the Manor would exhaust whatever savings was left after Dad died, and that she was worried about my brother.  There were probably many more.  Another reason will be the same reason that I will, if I’m able, not to resign myself to the inevitable, that lack of will, that lack of movement, the interminable wait, the descent into sleepiness from which one never wakes.

Early November 7, 1996, Manning Hospital called my sister’s house where I stayed almost every time I drove over from Blair to see Mom in the hospital.  I think we had gone the seven miles east to Manning Hospital the night before to see her. That road I have been on a couple of times since Mom’s  death, but I will still mark the progress from Manilla to Manning, first Aspinwall, then a farmstead on the right with silos that has always indicated abundance to me, the Manning Golf Course, and over the last hill,  a gas station that usually has only a customer or two.

I’m sure it was not that prior evening, but it was during one of the other times when both of us made what seemed like an arduous trek up the stairs to the second floor where Mom lay in a coma, I mentioned to my sister about the numerous times we have been in hospitals; and there have been many times: the white walls, the silence particular to some rural hospitals, such as Manning’s, the antiseptic smell that moves from one room to another, the putrid smell of illness, the blank stares of patients, televisions not really loud enough to hear what’s being said or too loud for the person in the next room.  On the landing between floors, with my sister on my left, I can still see her  reaction, the same resignation as I had at that time, the repetitious action that we both knew would end soon.

Then I owned a small motel in Blair, Nebraska, a business for which I signed a purchase agreement  before April 1995, thinking that after I take over, I can be closer to the folks.    I closed on the motel November 1, 1995; but by that time my father had been dead for not quite two months.  Part of the  reason for my purchase then was moot.   I wish in so many ways that I had let the woman keep the earnest money, and walk away from the deal.  But I didn’t.  At that time I didn’t know what else I was going to do with my life.  I stayed, and from that time until Mom was taken ill, sometime in July, 1996, my mother came to visit me and I,  her.  The last time she came to visit, my older sister Betty and her husband Juan brought her.  They had returned to Iowa for a visit.  All throughout the time  they were in Manilla, Mom was sick, but she never told anyone.  It wasn’t until after they left, that Mom called me and said that she was going to the hospital for she was bleeding.  There the doctors discovered that Mom had ulcerative colitis, tough for anyone to deal with, much less a women in her early 80s.

The ambulance took Mom to Manning Hospital that day.  Solid foods were impossible for her to eat.  There she began to sleep more and more.  I don’t remember how long she was there before we moved her to Saint Joseph’s.  At Saint Joseph’s her brothers and sisters came to visit.  I think her twin even came from Washington, although I’m not sure.   What I don’t remember about that time speaks volumes of all that was happening.  I do remember one of her brothers who has now since passed being very upset that we didn’t take her there sooner.  But Mom insisted that the doctor in Manning would help her, as he always had. But this time, he couldn’t. I don’t think initially Mom wanted to go to Saint Joseph’s because of the expense, the cost, in addition to the loyalty that she had for the Manning doctor. But the doctors at Saint Joseph’s  got the bleeding stopped and released her to the Manor.

I don’t think it was me who took her home from the Manor, but I do remember one of the times that we talked while she was there.  She was dressed, with her shoes on, laying down on the bed when I came in.  I remember her saying that she’s going home.  I do remember trying to convince her not to, to stay and heal, but it wasn’t long that she was home. In a short time, however, the ambulance was called again and Mom was taken to Manning once more, where she died after being in a semi-comatose state for almost two months.

Do not preach

Do not preach 

 

Do not preach to me about death.

I saw him solid by my mother’s bed

take her breaths one at a time,

while I smoothed her hair.

 

I beheld him through thick tears

that clotted my throat.

 

He clutched his hat in his hand,

ready to exit with his bag of tricks—

blood that turns blue,

a heart that beats a second too long. 

 

I know; I counted them:

the times her chest rose and fell,

the faint pulse in the hollow of her throat,

the miniscule movement in the temple—

too much sound for me.

 

The kidneys that hardened,

swelled her body like voile in the wind

until her rings cut her fingers.

 

I soaked her hands in lotion to remove them.

A ruby one for my sister; a worn gold band for me.

by Karen Foster

 

July 30

I think Dad was in Manilla Manor  for close to a year.  His  bed was positioned  in  the corner of the northeast wall, so he couldn’t see out the window that opened onto the Manor’s east green. All he could see, if he was awake, was the hallway through which the nurses moved, the wall on his left, and the television, often on, hanging in the  center of the south wall.  To sleep, he would face the blank wall on his right, grab the guard rail, and use it to pull himself towards it and adjust his body so that he wouldn’t feel the pull to fall back on his back.  Dad often slept even at home with one leg out of the covers; a leg, he joked, was his thermometer, and maybe it was.  As he grew older, he would often complain that his shins burned.  But his inability to walk, to exercise, at his old age, when that was all that he was used to all his life, was the cause.  Dad often had his eyes closed, even when awake.  Not sure why; maybe something to do with what all that he had seen and didn’t want to see anymore.  When he napped, when he was younger, he snored so loud at times that I thought anyone standing on the porch could hear.  On the Beh place, naps for dad was always right after the noonday meal, on the sofa in the winter time, or on the cruddy, home-for-mice soft in the brooder house, which had been made over into sort of summer palace for us kids.  Hot, yes, but there is nothing so tantalizing like heat and a little breeze to take the edge  for an Iowa farmer in those days, one reason that I believe Dad enjoyed the heat in the south porch in the middle of summer rather than the air-conditioned cool inside.

At home during the day,  if not lying down in the middle bedroom where he and Mom slept towards the end of his life instead of the far room, probably because it was close to the bathroom, less distance for the walker, Dad would be sitting on the back porch, even in the cool evenings  of fall and early spring.  In the afternoon, a can of Bud would be next to him; empties in a wastebasket lined with some sort of plastic.  A small tv sat on a shelf some distance up in a corner.  Even with the volume turned off, the picture would always be there.  Windows all the way around the porch, if sitting down, windows through which one could only see the tops of buildings and trees, a summer storm that would roll in from the southwest, maybe the top  of a neighbor who would come over or my brother coming around  the side of garage after parking his truck in the back.  When the cold weather started to chill everyone’s bones, plastic sheeting held with lathes nailed to the outside of the house kept those scenes opaque.  The sounds of birds we all could hear if the television  was off. Squirrels that moved from wire to wire and down the bark of a tree.  But then I was never certain Dad saw much as he aged.  His eyes seemed at time to be looking far away, cloudy on some days more than others, and he seldom wore his glasses except to read the paper or some letter from someone, who responded to one my mother sent,

My youngest brother, Gail, sent me a copy of a letter Dad wrote while in the service, stationed at Camp Pickett, Virginia, almost three  weeks before I was born.  “My Dearest Darling Wife,” the letter begins. In that short letter of three handwritten pages, each page the size of a card envelope, my father addressed my mother Darling five times. The last line, “Sending load \ load of love  \ kisses.”  And he signed it, “From your only one.” That kind of love makes me sad today, for it’s a love that I’ve never had, never witnessed in my own life, nor will, for reasons beyond me still to this day.  He doesn’t mention me, the baby to come, which was natural then I think, not to mention pregnancy, almost as if speaking about it would place a pall on the birth. He does ask about Betty May, my older sister, that he was going to write to her too soon.  Mom and Dad had been married since July 30, 1942.  I married my second husband on July 30, hoping in the back of my mind that this time round I would have a marriage like my folks.  But that never happened. Going through old boxes recently, whenever I came across a note written by my second ex, notes written while he was trying to make peace, I read them once more and then threw them in the trash.  There are some things that one must never keep for long, and I kept those many years longer than I should have.

I know my father wrote other letters to my mom, juicy ones that I came across one day while searching for something else in the attic of their house, ones that said that “the bed’s going to get a workout.”    I do remember my mother becoming so upset when I found them.  I also found poems that Mom had copied  in a register, poems it seems  that her first husband had written to her.  She told me when I asked about them later that she had burned them.  But I know now that after she died, my older sister Betty has them.

I don’t remember the folks ever celebrating their anniversary.  But we seldom celebrated anything back then, except perhaps little kids’ birthdays.  When I was away from home, college or married or left to my own devices, on my birthday, Mom would send usually a five-dollar bill; maybe a little more, never much though.  Grandma Snyder usually sent a five-dollar bill too, so I was rich, especially in college when my share of the rent was half of $75 dollars and I earned 50 cents an hour plus tips waiting tables.

One day while separating or divorcing my second husband, I drove home to Manilla.  I don’t remember which, for during times like these, all memory fuses together, comes in snippets,  When they come back, I’m not even sure if before or after any other event, I see them and I wonder why now, as if to make meaning of all that has happened.   The folks had long since left the county farm, a year or two before I divorced my first husband.  Dad worked then I think off and on, keeping an eye at night on the grain dryers; Mom worked cooking for the Depot or for an  other restaurant–not sure of its name then.  It was in the afternoon, more than likely a Saturday, for early Sunday, I would have to take the long trip back to Sioux Falls.   We were talking at the kitchen table.  Sitting in a chair to her left, I was confiding some things to her.  I knew my folks  liked my second husband, and I knew that they thought me wrong divorcing him; but I wasn’t.  Dad wasn’t around.  Perhaps on the back porch, but if I remember, it felt as if he was uptown or napping.  Mom said something to the effect that she didn’t understand.  She said, “You know, your father has always been my best friend.” I remember that sense of amazement with that simple statement; my father was her best friend. I know that I never can say that of anybody, much less a man. And I wonder where that lack of trust began. It must be a fungus that clogs off the airways, the means of enjoyment.