The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.

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A Tale of Two Grannies (Part One)

1. Gert

My mother’s mother, Gertrude Reger, was the eldest daughter in a large German American, Catholic family. She was born in 1906. Her father, Joseph Kramer, was a harsh dictator who was feared by his wife, Florentina, and his children. Each child had a job to do, and woe to the child who failed to do it perfectly. The first thing that Joseph did when he got home from work was to put on a white glove and run a finger over the surface of a coffee table, a picture frame, a window sill. If the glove picked up any dirt he would point at the child who was responsible for the slipshod job, and he or she would run to get a cleaning rag. Years later when Florentina was dying she suffered from frequent pangs of intense pain. Her grown children were attending her and saw that she wanted to cry out, but did not. When they asked her why she kept silent she gasped that she didn’t want to disturb their father. My great uncle Bernie told her to yell bloody hell if she felt like it. She finally overcame her fear of offending her husband and screamed and moaned when she felt the need.

Gertrude’s daily job as a child was to fill the lamps in the house with coal oil each morning before she went to school. She spilled some down the front of her dress one day, wiped up the mess as best she could and went to school without changing her clothes. She was afraid that if she did her father might find out that she had wasted fuel. She began to feel a burning sensation in her chest–coal oil is corrosive–and a nun noticed that she was grimacing with pain. She came over and smelled the oil on Gertrude’s dress and sent her home. She was terrified and went straight to her mother and confessed. Florentina put salve on her burns, washed out the dress and promised to never tell her husband about the spilled coal oil.

When Gertrude was 16 her father pulled her out of high school against her will. Joseph believed that education was wasted on women and that it was time for her to help support the family. Gertrude was more intelligent and performed better in school than many of her brothers who were allowed to complete high school. She deeply resented her treatment but obeyed when her father ordered her to become an apprentice seamstress. Gertrude worked full time from September to June, and handed over all of her wages. She was laid off during the summer when business was slow. Joseph made her sew underclothes for the family during the down time.

Gertrude dated many boys. Her work in the fashion industry exposed her to the latest trends and she began to dress like a flapper. She ran around with a guy who drove a motorcycle and came close to accepting a marriage proposal from him. He had the decency to take her home to meet his family before demanding a reply, and Gertrude discovered that half of his family appeared to be insane. She reluctantly ended their relationship.

She married Joseph Reger, an intelligent, sensitive man who came from a happier family. He was serious but knew how to have a good time. They lost half of their savings in the1929 crash, and my grandfather had great difficulty trying to find work. He borrowed money from one of his sisters and bought into a shade shop business that was struggling to stay afloat. His good sense and hard work helped to turn the company around, and my grandparents began to gradually get out of debt.

My mother, Marilyn, was born in 1934. Gertrude was not always a loving mother. Sometimes she punished her daughter severely and arbitrarily for minor offenses. Gertrude had hardened into a grudge holding woman who looked for bad intentions in the people around her. She thought that the world was a harsh place and that a wise person always prepared first for the worst outcomes. One of the sayings that she repeated to her children was, “If you’re laughing in the morning, you’ll be crying by noon.” On days when Gertrude was beset by one anxious agitation or another, Joseph would come home and discover that my mother had been sitting in a chair facing a corner for a couple hours, and when he found out the triviality of his daughter’s transgression he would sometimes exclaim, “Oh for God’s sake!”

Joseph Reger attempted to give my mother some love and attention, but often had to fight his wife’s opposition when he bought Marilyn a gift of a book or a record. Gertrude viewed an expenditure on any form of entertainment as a waste of money. She would say, “She’ll read that book once, and then she’ll be done with it!”

When my Uncle Bill was born something softened in Gertrude’s heart. She adored her little boy and treated him much better than she had my mother. Her peculiar attitude toward Marilyn continued, and it sometimes appeared that she held her daughter in contempt. As the two children grew up Gertrude did little to hide the fact that her son was her favorite child. Bill was more easily forgiven when he got in trouble and did poorly in school, and was given gifts and privileges that were denied to my mother. Marilyn reached adulthood feeling that she was a lesser person. She worshipped her father for his kind and gentle nature, and respected, feared and resented her mother.

Gertrude continued her habit of picking favorites when her grandchildren were born. My older sister, Carla, was the chosen one in our family. She was allowed to hug and kiss her grandmother, while my brother and I were frowned at if we made the attempt to come close to her. Carla was given advice and loving attention as she grew up and became a young adult, while Tony and I were tolerated for a short time if we dropped by for a visit.

I realized at an early age that Grandma was a tricky person to be around. She had a mean streak and was best avoided at certain, unpredictable times when she appeared to be in a bad tempered mood. She once tattooed the back of my calves with a yardstick when I didn’t exit her kitchen fast enough. She was cooking a meal and wanted me out of the way. When I was five she came over to see me while I was recovering from the chicken pox. I whined briefly about the scabs itching, and she looked me sternly in the eye and scolded, “If that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you, count yourself a lucky little boy.”

My worst moment with her came when I was about six. My parents dropped me off at my grandparents on Sunday mornings when I was too young to sit through Mass. I was mostly left alone to play in the back rooms and on the stairs leading to the half story above. Gertrude made Sunday dinner, and my Grandpa read the newspaper and smoked unfiltered Camels in his leather armchair in the living room. I remember looking through children’s books from the 1940s on a shelf in Grandma’s sewing room, and playing with a black metal, toy gun that looked like a Colt 45. It was heavy enough to feel real.

One Sunday my grandfather went out on an errand, and I was left alone with Grandma. She let me play by myself for a while, and then came and said that she had a surprise for me in the basement. I already knew that I was getting a hand me down bike from my second cousin Albert, and I was excited to see it for the first time. Grandma led me down to the basement, and there was a low black bike with a banana seat that was just the right size for a six year old. My grandma stood between me and the bike as if guarding it, and I asked if I could touch it and perhaps get on it to see how it felt. She told me, “No.” She could be very strict with me, but I blurted out a question without considering the consequences: “Why not?” Why make a point of showing me something I couldn’t really have yet? It didn’t make sense to me.

She glared in her most intimidating manner and said, “You may fool your grandpa and everyone else, but I know what kind of little boy you really are!” She seemed very certain of herself and absolutely believed her accusation that I was up to no good.

She was angry at me because she thought I was being insolent, but I could see a little hint of pleasure in her eyes as she told me off. She may have enjoyed denying me something I wanted badly. Or perhaps she enjoyed the confusion on my face as I tried to figure out if I was a devious child. I hadn’t been aware up to that point that people intentionally carried on campaigns of deception. And no one had ever questioned my basic goodness before. I was left wondering whether I knew my true nature, and that doubt persisted for years.

Her attitude toward my mother never really softened over the next fifteen years, even when she grew ill and my mother came every day to her nursing home. Marilyn faithfully helped her father tend to Gertrude’s needs. I replaced Mom one day when she went out of town on vacation, and listened in uncomfortable silence while my grandparents debated the course of her care. She wanted to go home and perhaps die there, but my grandfather held out the hope that she would recover if she kept receiving treatment at the home. I came up to the side of her bed and said a few inconsequential things after their debate ended, and she rolled away from me with a scornful look on her face and stared at the wall. I believe that she felt like she had lost control of her life, and that she exerted what power she had left by refusing to tolerate my company. My grandfather looked upset by her behavior, and I left soon after. It was a long walk to the elevator, and an attendant in the hall gave me a sympathetic nod when he saw the look on my face. I felt guilty that my visit had gone so badly and that I had provided little comfort to either of my grandparents. I never went back again.

Gertrude died from the after effects of a series of strokes at the age of 74. She appeared to my uncle and sister in dreams on a few occasions. They reported that she spoke to them in her familiar manner and had the same personality she had in life. They were comforted by her visits.

My mother has never told me about any communication from the great beyond from her mother. Grandma Reger hasn’t disturbed my slumber either, and I’m grateful for that. If she did I’d expect her to look me sternly in the eye and tell me that I might fool my friends, wife and children into thinking that I am a good man, but that I could never fool her. And I’d half believe that she would be right.

Trouble in Paradise

Many remember the good times in a relationship, the wonderful moments when two people make a connection and feel less lonely, the intoxication when love and desire begin to undermine reason, the comradeship of finding someone with whom you can share thoughts, feelings and ideas. I remember many of the these initial rush-of-love moments, but since they occurred more than thirty years ago they’ve lost some of their vibrancy.

But I can clearly recall those moments when a relationship suddenly and unexpectedly imploded, and I’ve never been able to forget the slow burn-outs when a love affair took much too long to turn to ash and blow away. A sudden rejection turned out to be a more merciful way of ending things, much more preferable to a prolonged period of being bound to someone whom you no longer really love and who you know doesn’t love you.

I ended two or three relationships, usually in an indirect manner. I would call less frequently or propose fewer dates when I began to feel the energy and good will between me and a lover begin to die. At other times I was on the receiving end of an abrupt dismissal, or was left dangling for a long time until the obvious conclusion occurred to me that I had been dumped. What went around came around, but I recall feeling devastated and unfairly treated when I was the one who was cast away. I suffered from the doubt that I was unworthy of being loved, and sometimes took three or four months to patch my tattered ego back together after a rejection. I seldom took into account that my actions might affect others in the same way.

The most devastating dump happened to me when I was a freshman at the University of Dayton. I met a girl named Madonna at a mixer for incoming scholarship recipients. She had short, blond hair, brown eyes, and was very intelligent. I noticed her when I walked into the room, but she made the initial approach and she peppered me with questions. We didn’t exchange telephone numbers, but I assumed we would meet again as we were both enrolled in chemistry and biology classes. I saw her a few days later. She was wandering around erratically on the lawn of the Roesch Library while squinting down at the ground. I was intrigued by her eccentric behavior, and when I asked her what she was doing she told me that she was studying grasshoppers. We began talking once more, and I eventually asked her out. She told me in a vague, offhand way that she had a boyfriend named Bob at Kent State, but didn’t hesitate to accept my offer.

We both were commuter students and lived at home with our parents. When I arrived at her address off of North Main for our first date she served me a beer in a frosted mug and asked if I smoked. I thought she meant tobacco (I was very green), but was brought up to speed when she pulled a joint out of a small, tin box. We smoked it and then drove to a theater showing avant garde animated movies. The weed, the surreal cartoons and the intoxication of her company made the evening float by like an odd but enjoyable dream.

I remained in a state of enchantment for about two months. I fell madly in love with her and forgot that Kent State Bob existed. Madonna was a playful lover, a good companion and a person who appeared to have a strong sense of morality. She had attended Chaminade-Julienne, a Catholic high school in downtown Dayton, took her Catholicism much more seriously than I did, and was concerned about my lack of faith. Of course spiritual matters weren’t a matter of pressing concern when we were rolling around on a sofa in her parents’ rec room, or steaming up the windows of her car.

We decided to go to the homecoming dance, and I made reservations at an Italian restaurant near her home. I could tell that something was wrong when I arrived to pick her up. She wasn’t hostile, but she didn’t smile at me or look me in the eye. She and her Mom fussed with her dress for several minutes, and then we drove in silence to Antonio’s. She spent the meal pushing her meatballs around her plate and spoke to me with difficulty. The easy flow of conversation that we usually shared had dried up, and I wondered what I had done. She waited until I paid the bill and we were sitting in my car in the restaurant parking lot to unburden herself.

She told me that her conscience was bothering her about cheating on Kent State Bob, and that she would have to find some way to choose between him and me. I understood, though nothing was said directly to me, that Bob was unaware that I was his rival. She then suggested that I take her home as she had ruined the evening. I felt sorry for her when she began to cry and tried to jolly her into a better mood. I talked her into going to the dance.

Madonna began to drink heavily almost as soon as we arrived. She mixed beer, wine and booze, and started to look ill after we had been there for about an hour. I drove her home. She told me as we sat parked in her parents’ driveway that she was going to be sick, but wanted me to come inside anyway. I held her hair back as she vomited into her bathroom sink, and then helped her get into bed. I believe that I lovingly tucked her in.

The next two months gradually became more and more hellish for me. I could tell that her affections were washing away from me, but nothing I did stemmed the outflow of the tide. As I grew more desperate to hold onto her my jumpy and sometimes irritable behavior did nothing to support my cause. I couldn’t stand the feeling that everything I did and said had a bearing on her decision, and felt angry that Kent State Bob wasn’t suffering through similar trials. The contest was unfair.

One day she told me out of the blue that I was like a pretty dress. That sounded insulting and I asked her what she meant. She explained that I was like a pretty dress in store window that she wanted to buy, but found the price too costly. She thought that one day the rough spots in my character would smooth out, but she couldn’t be sure. I was an attractive bet, but too risky. When she told me this she acted as if she were doing me a kindness.

I should have gathered up what was left of my dignity and walked away at that moment. She was telling me in her oblique way that it was over. It didn’t occur to me that I could have told her that she was like a fickle princess in a fairy tale who dangled her affection before her suitors like a prize that had to be won. Instead I hung on.

I dreaded the break up call that I knew was coming, and wasn’t surprised when she finally got up her nerve and dialed my number. But I was devastated nonetheless. Nothing prepared me for the hollow feeling in my chest that suddenly appeared when she hung up. My heart was gone and was replaced by an amorphous blob of numbness. At times the numbness gave way to a strange, throbbing sensation that was quite painful. I’ve experienced worse moments since then, of course, but at the age of 18 it was impossible for me to know that the loss I felt was not all that great. I had to learn to judge the scale of events by going through much harsher times.

No other break up ever affected me as strongly, and I guess I could thank her for that. She toughened me up. I could also thank her for teaching me to stick up for myself in a relationship, and that mutual respect is the ground of anything worthwhile that can be shared by two people. And I could thank her for teaching me to never test the love of those closest to me. But I don’t really want to.