Climb the Stairs

Climb the Stairs, oil/canvas, 4×2′

I’m nearly done working on a painting called, “Climb the Stairs”. An unpleasant event inspired the layered images. As I glaze, scumble and brush toward completion, uninvited emotions come up from behind, tap me on the shoulder and say “hi”. Pain and anxiety intrude most frequently. Anger, associated bad memories and bitterness pile on and compound my difficulties.

I thought that working through this subject would serve as an exorcism, that the sting would diminish as I came to terms with my history. I realize now that this memory is a channel to more trouble. I’ve also concluded that there’s not much chance of off-loading. This negative crud has been hard-wired into the core.

But better things have come to me over the years. They’ve too have made indelible impressions. I’ve had a fortunate life for the most part and am grateful. Perhaps I’ll focus on good memories in subsequent paintings. The ugliness will always be there, but I don’t have to encourage it to take over. It’s only one small part of the picture.


Perhaps I’ll find balance one day and come to a peaceful reconciliation with my life in its entirety. But the next painting will have to have at least one puppy. And some butterflies. Can’t rule out flowers.


Slog 2016

I drove from Orlando up I75 through Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and southwest Ohio.  I pulled into my parents’ driveway the afternoon of the second day, stepped inside and placed my bag on the worn, stained carpet near the TV.  Mom rose to greet me.  Dad stayed in his recliner.  His arthritis had chair-bound him more in recent years.  Getting to his feet required painful rocking back and forth to gain momentum to push upward.

On the second day of the visit, I decided to clean.  Grime clung in stubborn layers to the kitchen linoleum.  Yellow, brown and dull orange streaks stained the cabinets.  Counters near the stove grew a fuzzy skin of greasy dust.  I figured that a decade must have elapsed since the last thorough scrub.  The scum might have been left to accumulate due to bad knees and weak vision:  Mom and Dad couldn’t have seen the gunk much less bent down to sponge it away.  But Dad shuffled up to me as I shined the last tile and said, “Not much use mopping when all it’s going to do is get dirty again.”

Mom fussed at me for working while on a visit.  She said, “I thought you could come here for a break.”  I said, “I don’t look at it that way.”

We went out to eat supper at an old-fashioned diner in a down sliding neighborhood in east Dayton.  I took hold of Dad’s forearm to help him exit the driver’s seat and felt frail tendons and muscles shift under the paper-thin skin.  I remembered when he used to sledgehammer slabs of concrete gripping the handle one-handed.  Mom and Dad shuffled inside.  We sat at a booth with a chrome-edged table, stained menus and torn vinyl seats.  The limp vegetables swam in margarine, the gravy tasted like it had come from a can, and the meatloaf settled in my stomach in a sodden lump.

Dad asked me to trim his toenails the next afternoon.  The yellowish gray nails on his big toes had grown thick and long and acquired the tensile strength of braided steel wire.  His shoes no longer fit as the stubborn nails added unwanted length.  I tried a nail clipper but feared it would break under strain.  I used trimming scissors instead and gradually shaved a half inch off each toenail.

Dad mentioned that they had trouble seeing when they backed their sedan down the driveway.  Bushes on either side had grown high and wide.  I found an electric trimmer on a cluttered work bench in the garage and set to work.  I took pains to shape them into evenly rounded forms.  Dad stood at the front door to critique my labors and said, “I would’ve cut them shorter.”

Mom fussed again:  I should be resting on a visit instead of working.  She didn’t know that I had one more job planned.  The fir tree in the side yard had ragged brown lower branches and grown close to the driveway and over the line into the neighbor’s yard.  Dad pondered the need to clear the dead wood and cut the fir to a more manageable size.  I started hacking with an electric chainsaw.  The tree smelled of mold and rot.

I filled one large can after an hour’s work and still had another two hours of labor to finish the job.  I took a break and sat with Dad on the front porch.  He offered to get me a beer.  I said, “Not till I’m done.  I want to keep all my fingers attached.” 

I went back to work and cut toward the trunk near the bottom.  I looked up through a tangle of branches and saw Dad standing a few feet away.  He watched intently but didn’t offer advice or yell.  He hadn’t come to point out my shortcomings as a worker.  The look on his face told me instead that he’d give anything to be in my shoes.  He wanted to do something useful again.

I filled all his trash cans with branches but only reached the halfway point.  Someone else would have to trim the rest.  Dad got me a beer.  Mom yelled at Dad for “making Denny do all that work”.  She said, “You come here for a visit and a rest.  You shouldn’t have to do chores.  We can take care of that!”  I didn’t argue the obvious point that the disheveled house and yard presented contrary evidence.

Mom and Dad snored in their bedrooms as I tiptoed out the door the next morning.  Drivers tried to kill me a few times as I passed through Columbus, and I had the odd notion as I braked and swerved that I’d been suddenly transported to Interstate 4 in downtown Orlando.  There weren’t any palm trees lining the road in Columbus, but the motorists were just as crazy.

Victoria’s nephew, Jake, opened the door to a rental in Cleveland.  “Vicki’s out with Tony.  They’ll be back soon.”  I trundled my suitcase into a small living room where I’d be sleeping on the sofa for one night.  My brother and his wife returned a few minutes later but didn’t linger over greetings.  Victoria served as the captain of Team Ohio at the Transplant Games and had things to do.

We spent most of the day in an airless convention center room handing out t-shirts to the athletes and helping them register.  That evening we drove a few blocks to an auditorium for the opening ceremony.  Guys on BMX bikes careened and leapt up and down ramps and over obstacles.  Music blared.  A large screen flashed inspirational photos and slogans.  I slipped out to a food stand in a side hall and bought beers for myself and Jake. 

The show had changed gears during my absence.  After I returned, the screen no longer flashed, the riders had exited, and the emcee no longer sounded like a cheerleader at a pep rally.  He called a man out onto stage and handed him the mike.  The man spoke about receiving a heart transplant a few weeks (perhaps days) before he would have died.  He recalled feeling excited, overjoyed and guilty after the doctor told him an organ had become available.  He’d been given a chance to live, but someone had died to give him that chance.

A man and a woman were called to the stage.  The man introduced himself as a kidney recipient.  The woman said nothing, but the emcee revealed that she had donated her son’s organs.  A kidney had saved the man standing before her.  The recipient quietly thanked the woman as she wiped tears out of her eyes.  They hugged a long time and murmured a few words.  I drained my beer.

I sat down the following morning with Victoria at a dining table at the rental.  I could hear the hum of the refrigerator and songbirds chirruping.  I drank coffee, ate a doughnut, and told her about my parents.  She talked about her hectic schedule, her plans to visit a friend in Wisconsin, the politics and logistical nightmares of managing Team Ohio, and friends who had died after their transplants failed.  We were leading up to a topic we’d avoided yesterday.

She’d met my brother five years before at a bowling tournament for transplant recipients.  They’d both suffered long term kidney disease as children and received organs from their brothers.  Their first marriages had ended badly.  They had a lot in common.

Victoria asked, “So, how are you doing?”

I told her that Tony’s numbers worried me.  She nodded and said, “We’ve got this.”  A few friends had already lined up to donate a kidney if his transplant continued its slow decline.  Nephew Jake considered Tony his surrogate father and had volunteered.  Preliminary paper work had been filed at two medical centers, one in Cincinnati, one in Cleveland.  Tony’s condition didn’t merit putting his name on the donation list yet, but his urologist predicted failure within a year or two.  Victoria added, “I suspect that his last stent is the real problem.  I think that he’ll improve once they change it out.”

I felt some relief and thought that our session had ended.  But she looked intently at me and asked again, “So, how are you doing?”

“I feel a lot better now that I know what’s going on,” I answered.


“And kind of twisted up.  I feel like I’ve failed him somehow.  We’ve been lucky for so long I thought that the kidney would last forever.  I stopped worrying about him years ago, and now it’s all coming back.  I’m not sure that I can stand watching him go through it again…I can’t do anything for him this time.”

Victoria said, “I’ve seen other donors go through this, and your reactions are perfectly normal.  But you don’t have to worry about Tony.  We’ve got this.”

I left Cleveland late that morning and got lost after missing a crucial exit on the outskirts of Akron.  I bushwhacked through farm country in southeast Ohio on back roads, found Interstate 83, and reached Charlotte, North Carolina around 9 p.m.  The bypass loop confused me, and I did a half circuit around the city twice before figuring out how to take the correct exit to a road leading southwest to Athens, Georgia.

I pulled over outside a village north of Athens at twelve.  I had no idea how to reach my son’s place from there and considered parking for the night.  I called Alan, explained my dilemma, and said, “I’m so damn tired.”  He figured out my location, and his fiancée guided me to their condo on Barnett Shoals.  They set a plate of chicken, green beans and rice in front of me and kindly let me eat and collapse.

Alan sat down with me the next morning as I ate breakfast.  He waited until I’d finished my coffee before pushing his laptop in front of me.  I saw a news item about a mass shooting in Orlando: The Pulse Night Club massacre.  The gunman had started his killing spree about the same time I’d been driving through north Georgia.  Alan and Amy spared me the night before but knew that I’d find out as soon as I turned on a television or booted my laptop.  None of the victims would have been within my circle of friends and acquaintances, but my son knew that I’d be upset that another such incident had happened and had happened ten miles away from my home in Winter Park.

They took me out for dinner that night, and I bought them ice cream from a shop in downtown Athens.  We strolled the grounds of the University of Georgia and saw an impromptu memorial for the shooting victims near an arched gate.

I drove back roads through south central Georgia the following day and passed through Milledgeville, Flannery O’Connor’s home town.  I cruised by a museum dedicated to her memory and considered a visit.  She had once been the inspiration for my narrative paintings, and I still considered her a giant among American writers.

One of Flannery’s best-known stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, told the tale of a family driving on a country road.  The mother tortured her son, his wife, and her grandkids with her nonstop chatter and whining.  A band of outlaws waylaid them and shot them one by one.  The mother received a spiritual revelation and cried out in compassion for her assassin just before her execution.  The killer stood over her body and said that she “would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”.

I decided against stopping to visit Flannery’s shrine. At the climaxes of her stories, self-deluded characters suffer sudden moments of painful revelation that irrevocably change their lives.

I didn’t want any of that business. I just wanted to see my wife and daughter as soon as possible. 

Hold Your Tongue

I know folks who say horrible things that catch victims at their most raw and tender moments. The assailants blurt and hurt but remain unapologetic. They feel they have the right to say their truth no matter the situation.

Sometimes I say too much, too little, not enough. Sometimes I say what’s lurking in the back of my mind before the front becomes aware and issues a warning. Sometimes I surprise myself and say the right thing at the right time. Things tend to go more smoothly when I say very little.

My grandfather said very little on most occasions. When faced with conflicts in the family, he didn’t engage. I used to think he should have stepped in when strife became flagrant and acute, but now I see Grandpa knew that interfering and smoothing things over would not improve the situation for the long run. Patterns repeat themselves, habits of thought spin on their well worn gears, and the engine of contention roars down the track. An attempt to redirect an argument onto a side spur might have derailed our dysfunctional family train.

He couldn’t drain fifty years of ill will between two members of his family. Attempts to soothe, calm, defend reason, and nurture love had failed long ago. Arguments and complaints from one to another had hardened into a family tradition.

Grandpa endured the pain of continuing strife and let the two act out their chosen roles in a pointless drama. In the end, he may have discovered that their years of contention had very little to do with him. He loved both and wished they would drop their animosity, but had no hope they ever would.

One of the contestants still lives on, and the argument continues in her mind. She shows no signs of letting the ill tempered, unforgiving side of our family history fade away, and her emotional distress cuts as sharply today as it did decades ago.

I no longer encourage her to let things go. I tried that on a few occasions, and she turned her focus to our points of contention…The practice of feuding develops a talent for finding targets of opportunity.

Now I bow to the inevitable and hold my tongue.

Stormy Weather

Tornado Watch December 20

Our local TV station aired “The Wizard of Oz” every April in the 1960s. We’d watch in dread and fascination as Dorothy fled the oncoming twister, and shrunk down when the Wicked Witch cackled as she flew by Dorothy’s window on a broom stick.

The movie meant a lot to us: springtime in Ohio coincided with tornado season. A siren blared if a storm threatened to spin or had already begun spinning, and we’d head to the basement with flashlights and a transistor radio to huddle and wait.

Sometimes the storm brewed gradually and swept through at its leisure. Other times, the sky darkened suddenly, the rain fell hard in sheets, and day turned to a deep gloom. Udder-shaped clouds in rows of dirty yellow trailed behind a deadly storm in 1971.

I discovered that no tornado season exists in Florida. The local stations never play “Wizard of Oz”, and no sirens to warn us to find a safe retreat. And basements are rare in Florida. The weathercasters advise us to shelter in windowless interior rooms on ground floors.

We’re under a watch today, December 20th, as a band of storms sweeps in from the Gulf of Mexico. A cold front is colliding with warm, hot air streaming north from the Caribbean. The rain has been falling steadily since last night, and bursts of heavy downpours occasionally overwhelm my gutters. I’ve yet to hear the “big train” sound I heard in 1971 when a twister passed through 70 yards from my parents’ home. The trees wave occasionally, but the branches do not bend sideways and violently whip.

The rain will peter out tomorrow, and temperatures will dip down into the 40s and 50s. Sun will filter through the green leaves on the trees in our yard. Images of twisters, flying monkeys, green-faced witches and ruby slippers will be replaced in a few days by Florida memories of little kids in shorts and t-shirts opening presents. I’ll see Alan riding his new bike in the driveway, and Annie sitting on the front porch playing with a doll.

I just might click my heels together and say, “There’s no place like home.”

The Kindly Sinner: Great Aunt Mary

Wayne Avenue runs downhill from Belmont to downtown Dayton.  Great Aunt Mary lived in a building halfway down the slope in a neighborhood that had once been pleasant.  We three kids climbed vinyl treaded stairs to her second floor apartment, knocked gingerly and waited.  She opened the door with a big smile and invited us in.  She had snow white hair, laugh lines, and a hoarse, rasping voice.  She returned to a large oak table in her dining room, picked up a kitchen knife and cut dough into thin strips.  I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “Making egg noodles”.  She finished quickly, wiped the table and washed her hands.

Time for a tour.  I saw a painting hanging in her living room, a winter scene of a snowy lane, a haloed moon, and frost covered trees.  Beside it hung a still life of roses in a vase.  Aunt Mary saw me looking at them and said, “Those were painted by a nun who used to teach at St. Mary’s parochial school.  She came from Germany and spoke with a thick accent.”

Aunt Mary sat us down on a sofa and asked us questions:  how do you like school?  what do you like to watch on TV? what position do you play on your baseball team? She smiled and listened as we answered and never glanced sideways as if hoping we’d stop talking.  (My grandmother, Aunt Mary’s older sister, had limited patience for me and my brother.  We learned to keep our thoughts to ourselves in Grandma’s presence.)

Aunt Mary fed us supper, and we sat down in front of her black and white television after we finished.  She asked for suggestions and turned the dial to Channel 7.  The Sonny and Cher Show came on.  Aunt Mary seemed bewildered by the odd commotion of the program, but she beamed at us as we pointed at the screen and laughed.  She pretended to like it too.

We knew that Grandma carried a grudge against her sister, but no one explained how it started and why it was so one sided.  Aunt Mary shrugged off Grandma’s snubs and pointed remarks and never struck back.  I asked Aunt Mary one day if she felt hurt by that treatment.  I had been on the receiving end of my grandmother’s spite on a few occasions and feared doing anything that would make her wrath permanent.  But Aunt Mary said, “Oh, your grandmother doesn’t bother me.  She’s always been that way.”

Mom and Dad took us to our grandparents on Sunday nights to visit.  Talk inevitably turned to family history and gossip.  Aunt Mary became the main topic one night.  I heard that she had had an affair with a married man for years and years.  My great aunt and the man were Catholics, and the man refused to get a divorce even though his marriage had long grown cold.  Aunt Mary never made any demands.  She understood that she and “Bill” would get married if the estranged wife died.

Bill suffered a heart attack and exited this world well before his wife.  Aunt Mary never took up with another man, and years later remarked, “To hell with the Church.  I should have married him while I could.”