From six years ago:
A portion of a letter to my parents in Argentina, written in June 1997:
The letter was sent by email, then printed in Argentina by my parents. They used tractor-fed paper and a dot-matrix printer.
- I did have a hernia, and it required surgery a few months later.
- I continue to marvel that I get to do what I do, and get paid for it.
- I am not any younger now, and finding that even more aches and pains are real. And so is hearing loss.
Several years back, I wrote about autumn:
My love affair with autumn, though, dates back to Hannibal. I remember walking around HLG and kicking up leaves on the expansive lawn. I remember the smell of those leaves, and of burning them in big piles too. I remember the chill and crispness of that magical time on a college campus. And I think that HLG and Hannibal and 5004 College Avenue is when I fell in love with autumn.
This time of year always brings about a certain wistfulness. Days shorten. Green gives way to brown. Reminders of summer promises unfulfilled are all around. So too the reminder that another circle around the sun is nearly over . . . another year nearly gone . . . .
Autumn reminds me that I shall never pass this way again. Spring is hope; summer, joy; winter, promise. Autumn alone is both sublime and melancholy.
John Donne said “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.” The great man was right.
Hemingway wrote “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light.” The great writer was right too.
And therein is the paradox of this time of year. We revel in nature’s grand finale. In the promise of the holiday season. In the satisfaction of wrapping the sun-cycle. In the scent and sound of leaves underfoot. And we are saddened by the dying . . . of the leaves, of the flowers, of the light itself.
No matter, though. I quote the brilliant George Eliot:
Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.
The hummingbirds are gone. The leaves are falling. And all is autumn.
As I was searching for something last week, I ran across this blog entry from 2016.
It’s worth reading again. And again.
I don’t deny that being in the right place at the right time is a good deal. I’ve been the beneficiary of such luck.
Or is luck just another name for providence?
In my undergrad days, Dr. Gary Galeotti taught me that Providence is ‘the hand of God moving in the lives of His people for the purpose of redemption.’ Thirty-five years later, I can still quote that definition.
And that belief in Divine Providence (now more in a Jeffersonian sense, rather than my earnest late-teenage literalism) has been a guiding force in my journey.
For journey is the right term for life on this planet, and the road to or from success.
Hannibal. 1970. Mark Twain Elementary. Third grade. Mrs. Cary was the teacher.
And she was quite lovable, but seemed quite old to me at age 8. My first- and second-grade teachers had been my mother’s age, it seems to me, around 30 or so. Mrs. Cary must have been in her 50s. This was, of course, before the rule of 80 was adopted in 1977.
I liked Mrs. Cary. I remember that I pulled a giant leaf from a tree on the playground, and pressed it between paper. And wrote in crayon “Dedicated to Mrs. Cary.”
I know this because I discovered it, years later, still fairly intact.
Believe it or not, I have more specific recollections of my second-grade classroom and the classrooms in Lee’s Summit than I do of third grade in Hannibal.
Perhaps this is because I was bored?
Unknownst to me at the time, but revealed to me much later by my parents, Mrs. Cary called them in for a conference to discuss my difficulties with reading. Apparently she thought I was slow. As in what was then called “Special Education” slow.
My mother assured her I was not.
I would add that I am not.
And my mother assured her that I was bored. Seems I was reading at an eighth-grade level already.
There it is. Just a recollection to share . . . !
Dear Mrs. Simpkins,
I stopped by your grave the other day to thank you again for all you gave me. You probably heard me, but I want others to hear too, so I’ll write an open letter for all to read.
When I was a high school freshman and sophomore, I walked by your classroom every day on my way to the band room, where I had orchestra during the last half of fourth hour, and band during seventh hour. I didn’t know you, though, aside from sight.
Eleventh grade hit, and I had you as a teacher for half of the year. The course was English Literature. I was a bit of an Anglophile already, but you turned me into one for life. I can’t thank you enough.
All these years later, I can still recite the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the muddy older English that you suggested we memorize for extra points. I don’t remember many other specifics from that class, but I do remember my joy at being in your classroom every day.
Senior year hit, and you asked me to be your cadet teacher. That meant that I got second hour in the English office (now moved upstairs) where I drank coffee and graded vocabulary quizzes and ran the ditto machine.
Third hour was spent in your classroom for Expository Writing, the college-bound senior composition class. You gave me the only F I’ve ever received — for the mechanics of my first paper that year. You liked the content, but the comma faults and other grammatical issues caused me to fail that portion of the paper. I learned quickly how to use commas, thanks to you, and how to write better.
You would signal something was important by saying “Prick up your ears.” I’ve picked that phrase up a few times in my own teaching career.
I can still spot a preposition at fifty paces.
My big research paper was on characterizations in Beethoven’s Fidelio. I researched copiously, typed beautifully on my father’s manual Royal typewriter, footnoted heavily, wrote decently, and presented what you later called the most perfect, and most boring, term paper you ever read.
When I graduated high school, you gave me a leather bookmark from Stratford-upon-Avon, England. It was a precious gift then, and a precious gift now. I still have the bookmark, and I use it.
You requested that students write you on a date certain in October of their first year of college. I did. And over the years, I came back to visit you at school, annually spending an autumn day talking to your senior classes about college admissions and interviewing and the like. Apparently, my college admissions work made you think I might be able to prep these students a little bit. Those visits back to Lee’s Summit High School and your classroom were bright spots each year; I remember them with extreme fondness.
You see, I adored you.
You opened a world of literature and travel to me in English Lit, and you worked me over and helped me emerge a better scholar in Expository Writing. You taught me how to write. (The only comparable influence on my writing style is Simon Carrington.)
You truly helped me become who I am today.
Several years later, when I came out to you, you didn’t blink an eye, but said “Well of course you are. Now let’s get a cup of coffee.” Your unconditional love was something I needed at that time in my life.
And then you fell ill. Cancer. And your son David, a trombone-playing classmate of mine, fell ill with cancer too. You took a leave, and then quit teaching. I called you a few times, as I recall, and we talked easily. I was a teacher myself by then, and we had plenty to discuss.
David died first. How awful this must have been for you, as it is for any parent to bury a child, but especially when that child is in his prime.
1995. I called you and spoke to you after my first trip to the UK. I was so excited to tell you about all the places I’d been. You rejoiced with me, even though you couldn’t speak for long. Cancer was robbing you of breath and strength and that melodious voice.
I called again around Christmas that year. Your husband told me he’d give you my greeting, but that you couldn’t talk on the phone any more.
And then, right around Thanksgiving 1996, you died. I was gobsmacked by your obituary as I read the paper at breakfast in my loft apartment. I cried most of the morning. My parents were home from Argentina at the time; I called Mom to tell her the news, not knowing that just a few days later would be the last time I’d ever see her as well.
In the midst of a busy Holiday Vespers week at the University of Kansas, I made a quick trip to Lee’s Summit to stop by the funeral home. Your husband and daughter were there, and we spoke kindnesses. That same week, the Lee’s Summit Journal published a letter to the editor that I wrote . . . about you. Your husband, Arthur, in turn wrote a very kind note to me not long afterward. I don’t have a copy of that letter to the editor, but I remember I said that Lee’s Summit had lost a bright light who had enlightened hundreds of minds and hearts. (I’m going to find, somehow, a copy of that letter. This year, I’ll find it.)
I think of you often. I’ll hear myself say something to a student, and realize that you are in my voice. I read Wordsworth, and suddenly feel a ping of remembrance that you led me to this poet. I geek out over something British, and you are there in my joy and my discovery and my enthusiasm.
Yours was a happy classroom. You were a wise teacher. And such a good one too.
I’m a better writer today because of you. I’m a better teacher today because of you. I’m a better person today because of you.
You influenced me deeply and profoundly.
How I wish I could tell you so, one more time.
Your student ever and always,
I was talking with colleagues the other night about night-time rituals as a youngster.
We were sweltering in the heat at Carondelet Park, and we were watching the children (two aged 6 years, one 4 years) run and play and overheat and not worry about it.
Then came the stories of our own childhoods.
Hannibal, Missouri. I was 7 or 8 years old. After supper, we’d go back outside to play; our house had no air-conditioning, so outdoors was at least as cool as indoors. Sometime around dusk the mosquito control truck, belching fog to kill the varmints, would be spotted down College Avenue, heading our direction. We pack up and go indoors quickly.
I would take a bath in the upstairs bathroom. My sisters shared a bath in the downstairs bathroom. We’d crawl into pajamas. And then we’d bundle into the car for a trip to Dairy Queen, almost every night.
Imagine — freshly bathed children, in pajamas, just waiting to get sticky Dairy Queen goodness all over us.
My order was a Mr. Misty, cherry flavored. Brain cramps would ensue. Karen would order a Dilly Bar. And youngest sister Beth, not yet fluent in English, would order “a ‘poon with a dish.” (Translation: a dish of ice cream with a spoon.) And we’d sit there at Dairy Queen and have our treats, or sometimes drive up the main road to the riverfront and watch the Mississippi go by.
We followed the same tradition in Lee’s Summit, as I recall. Living in a subdivision with constant construction made for ample opportunities for me to get dirty. And of course a ten-year-old on a bike can always get sweaty too, especially in summer-in-Missouri heat. The Lee’s Summit house only had one bathtub, though, so I have no idea how we all got cleaned up and ready to hop in the car, clad in pajamas, for the trip across Langsford Road and then 3rd Street to the Dairy Queen on Douglas.
I’ve not had a Mr. Misty in years. I think I shall have one this week.
With today’s blog entry, I’m starting a series of reminiscences, based on some prompts I’ve bene reading.
I grew up singing in church. That much I know for certain.
My mother couldn’t carry a tune if she tried. My father sang in key, but when notes got too high, he’d plop down an octave. His singing range was limited. His rhythm, however, was flawless, as befits someone who played drums growing up.
I remember going to the organ console after church services, and watching the organist. This would have been at Calvary Baptist in Columbia, and then at Fifth Street Baptist in Hannibal. At some point in Hannibal, I got to push the cancel button after the postlude was complete, and watch all those pistons return to their off position.
In Hannibal, my music teacher was a Mrs. Froman. Music classes at Mark Twain Elementary were held in the homeroom classroom, rather than a separate music classroom.
We moved to Hannibal as I started first grade. At some subsequent point, my parents gifted me with a Magnus chord organ. I was probably in second grade. I taught myself how to play “Long, long ago.” This was my first keyboard experience that I can remember.
But G-ma Blocher owned a massive old upright grand piano, and I probably banged on that at some point.
There was also most likely children’s choir at church, but I have no clear memory.
We moved to Lee’s Summit as I started the last quarter of fourth grade. There I found
- Mrs. Verna Boten (now Dr. Verna Brummett), the music teacher at Pleasant Lea Elementary School. She had her own classroom! And she noticed my musical ability right away.
- Vance Riffie, who was not only the high school choral teacher, but also Minister of Music at First Baptist Church, who also led the 4th/5th/6th-grade children’s choir. And I learned from him how to read music on the staff, and how pitches relate to one another.
- And beginning a few months later in fifth grade, the initial ability to play a brass instrument, initially cornet, and then French horn. Russ Berlin was the instrumental band director at Pleasant Lea.
These are my earliest musical memories.
Piano lessons came later, starting in 6th or 7th grade.
I grew up singing. And I grew up staring at keyboard instruments until I was old enough to play them, and my parents had enough money to provide for lessons.
This precious note was in my father’s files:
JoAnne Howard had lost her husband just a few months before my mother died. JoAnne sang at my mother’s funeral, as she had at countless funerals before.
The funeral home paid her, of course, but JoAnne returned the money to my father with this note.
Jo’s family had been intertwined with ours from our first days in Lee’s Summit. Her youngest son, Greg, was my best friend growing up.
Flash forward: 18 months after Mom’s death, my father returned to the USA from Argentina on a terminal furlough.
And a few months later this lonely man was courting JoAnne Howard.
They were married — this widow and widower — in May 2000, barely nine months after my father began his final furlough, and just a week after he officially retired as a missionary.
That marriage lasted more than 17 years until his death last December.
Found in my father’s belongings: this postcard, addressed to my grandmother, giving my new address in Kansas when I moved there on January 2, 1997.
The “choking back tears” reference proved false. My three years at KU, and most of that also living in Lawrence, were the single best three years of my life to date.