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A Handkerchief Man


Circa 1972 - Hank - Weyerhaeuser

A few days ago, a brown Kleenex box triggered a flood of images – all of my father in his last year of life. He had shrunk by then so that we stood eye to eye, his broad shoulders rounded as if chipped away by a sculptor. All of his sharp edges were gone. Even his feet had lost their original conformation and spread like puddles (the same flat feet that nearly prevented his entry into the Reserve Officer’s Commissioning Corps but for an obstinate doctor who said he sure as hell was going to accept him).

As I wrote about the tissue box, I was thrown back forty years to a time when my father would never have carried tissues. He was a white handkerchief man.

Although my father was no longer on active duty, he still wore a uniform: neat pants, lightly starched white shirt, tie, belt and shoes (polished). Under protest, he capitulated to my mother’s demand, grew his hair longer and altered his grooming regimen in conformance to the “dry look.” Though a civilian, he remained prepared for inspection. Every Sunday, he assembled his gear to maintain his shoes: the brown terry cloth towel that would protect his trousers, the Kiwi shoe polish (brown and black), the mesh leg from a pair of pantyhose (successor to silk hosiery, back in the day), the long brush with natural bristles, and a bottle of Aqua Velva. Next to him, a row of sturdy Oxfords awaited at attention. In a process that seemed to take hours, he inspected a shoe, wiped off any dirt with a damp cloth, and applied a thin coat of shoe polish. Resting the shoe on his thigh, he buffed it to a sheen, rhythmically dashing the brush back and forth across the toe, along the side and around the heel. One-two, one-two, the same number of strokes each time. Then he paused to regard the result. Although any normal person would have stopped there, he was not done (he would say finished — he often corrected waiters who asked if he was “done” when they wanted to clear his plate). The process was not complete until the shoe had been dabbed with after-shave tonic to set the polish, and then buffed with nylon, see-sawing back and forth until the shoe was so shiny it reflected. Periodically my father would notice the sorry state of my shoes and suggest I polish them. What a waste of time, I thought.

My father looked out of place in the 70s. When he grew his hair longer to match the style, it flared out from his head in waves below his bald pate. I look like Guy Kibbee, he said, referring to the old actor known to play jovial buffoons. Shearing his hair in the style he preferred would expose him as the former Marine he was, an identity my mother was sure would limit his advancement, when protests against the Vietnam were at a crescendo.

My mother and I each had a part in maintaining my father’s standards of appearance. (The “boys,” my brothers, performed masculine chores like mowing the lawn.) My mother laundered Dad’s prodigious supply of white V-necked undershirts, white boxers and wool socks, ironed his shirts (permanent press though they were) and dropped and retrieved his light-weight wool trousers from the dry cleaner’s. But ironing my father’s handkerchiefs was my responsibility. One of few. I was hardly overburdened with chores like my best friend who seemed to be grounded every other week for failing to load or unload the dishwasher when it was her turn.

I am standing by the ironing board in the laundry room, setting the hot appliance on its heel while I lay a damp hankie across its surface. In this small utility room off the kitchen, crowded with the extra refrigerator at one end and the washing machine on the side opposite the wooden ironing board, I can barely turn around without collapsing the flimsy drying rack behind me. On the washing machine is the roll of handkerchiefs that I sprinkled with water the night before and then rolled in towel. It was the third time I’d prepared them for ironing — and then didn’t do it. My mother hollered at me, angry that my father was out of stock and exasperated that the hankies had been abandoned once again (they will get moldy, dammit).

I look out the laundry room window, half noticing the white spring sun as it lights on the hummingbird feeder sparkling with cherry-colored liquid. I’d rather bike over to my friend Ellen’s. Or go downstairs, where I get left alone. I’d rather be doing anything but ironing or be anywhere but home. In my reverie, I almost scorch the hankie.

Those were tough financial times for my family. So tough that my father convened a series of family meetings run according to Management By Objectives (complete with flip chart), a technique he used in his work as a human resources director. We play our roles according to type: Dad the planner, laying out the problem and situation; Mom the annoyed, noting that she had more house to manage than ever before, with less help; Bruce the eager, brimming with ideas about how he could help; and Dean the loyal, committing to find part-time work at a gas station (and doing so, within a week). Me the self-absorbed teenager. I did not see how I could possibly help, given how busy I was with homework and activities. I also contributed to the meeting evaluation by complaining that a family should not be run like a business. Duly noted by my mother in the typewritten minutes.

I finish my chore. I have ironed each square flat, folded it in half, then in halves and halves again. My father will fold it one more time when he places it in his pocket. I probably gave it to him. I never know what to get him, the man whose only interests are hunting and fishing. He knows exactly what he wants – another rod, another shotgun – or needs – another pair of Filson tin cloth pants, wool socks. Nothing in my budget, anyway, and nothing I’m interested in. So he gets handkerchiefs. I know he will open the gift ceremoniously, slicing the ribbon with his pocketknife (ever at the ready) and displaying the contents of the box with a flourish. (Handkerchiefs! Great, just what I needed, Betz!) I think, he is the most predictable human being ever.

I never predicted that he would become old, so old that we would stand eye to eye, so old that he would rely on Kleenex, wouldn’t even remember that he was once a handkerchief man. I feel ashamed by my teenage annoyance, my flickering embarrassment about my father, my glowering thoughts that I hid behind thickly mascaraed eyelashes. I remember the days when I still looked up at him, and he was a handkerchief man.


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Happy Birthday, Mom

Eileen D. Campbell and Henry S. Campbell, 1941

My mother would have been 97 today. I’m sitting at the laptop in my office in front of a wall cluttered with pictures, my son’s and daughter’s art projects, and Mary Oliver’s poem that ends, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” I’m here because I need to start working on my writing assignment to “follow the image”: see something or remember something and trace its association back to wherever memory takes me.

My mother’s clothes float into my mind. (Why my mother’s clothes?) She was partial to wool and crisp cotton, blouses paired with pleated skirts and sharp jackets. Her style was tailored, classic, unfussy. Chanel style without the Chanel. Her favorite color, red, was emblematic of her personality. Red, the color of berries and lipstick and blood.

In my parents’ courtship story, her attire is a factor in my father’s first impression, “Then this vision entered the room dressed to the nines.” She was never a woman to be taken lightly, and her clothes said as much. So did her shoes. Though she never talked about clothes (other than the trouble she got in for intentionally ruining a classmate’s leather coat by slipping Limburger cheese in its pocket), her selection as an I. Magnin shoe model in college was offered as evidence of her superior calves and ankles. When my grandfather met my mother, he reportedly said, “Son, a pretty face will fade away but a good pair of legs is a joy forever.”

Two “nevers” as I describe her. Funny that I find it easier to describe my mother in terms of what she wasn’t rather than what she was: not the slightest bit kittenish, not shy, not retiring, not patient, not passive.

I know a lot about what drove my mother: only child of older parents, self-described Tomboy, hero worshipper of her pugnacious attorney father whom she lost in her 20s, treasured lap child of a grandmother she adored (whose one-size-fits-all medical remedy was to “make up your mind and throw it off by morning”). I know what made her mad (almost everything I did). I know what she believed (in God but not virgin birth). I know what she thought (she told me). But I know almost nothing about her longings, fears, worries, hurts, regrets. Her vulnerabilities.

Why are my mother’s clothes on my mind, today? Clothes make the woman. Though she adapted to fashion trends throughout the years (hostess dresses being among the least attractive on a short full-figured woman), she knew what suited her hourglass shape. Having been told by her father that there would be no “female barrister” in the family, she focused on the domestic front, becoming the best officer’s wife and mother that she could imagine, performing her duties with ferocious commitment. Image came with the territory. She may not have stopped conversation when she arrived for P.E.O., the Altar Guild, or a bridge luncheon but her outfits always elicited appreciative murmurings.

I remember surreptitiously inspecting her closet during the later years of her life, looking for signs of stains.

I first noticed that something was wrong with her in 1991, when my daughter was four and I was pregnant. We had gathered my husband’s family and my parents for Thanksgiving. I had planned to have Maddie sit by my mother at the makeshift long table, but Maddie refused. Maddie was adamant about sitting next to me. My mother was so hurt by the rejection that she cried. She cried. A snit, a retort, or a cold shoulder: these were reactions I would have recognized. For my mother to feel snubbed by a child was inconceivable as she approached her fiftieth year of marriage and nearly as many years of child-rearing. By that spring, when I came home from the hospital less than twenty-four hours after childbirth, I knew something was seriously amiss. Mom had arrived at my home and promised to take care of the house and me so that I could take care of my newborn. As her mother had done for her. When I entered the house around 6 p.m. and laid down on the couch, Tommy sleeping on my chest, she appeared over the couch and asked, “What did you have planned for dinner?” I was stunned.

I hurt for my mother, my proud mother, when her clothes fell short of her meticulous standard. This was the woman my father found crying, trying to sew a button back on, aware that she had forgotten how, she, the woman who knew not only how to sew but to tailor. So I took to sneaking into her room while she stood at the kitchen counter smoking and staring into space. “I’ll just throw a few of your things in with mine,” I told her.

If she was surprised, she didn’t show it. She invented stories to explain the new routines in the household. “Your father seems to have developed an interest in cooking,” she told me. Dad, like me, had slipped in.

That was awful, Mom, worse than the lung cancer I feared would kill you, did kill you. You saved the letter I wrote in third grade imploring you to quit smoking. It read, “If you die my spirit and soul will die.” Watching you slip away – proud, funny, bold, hot-tempered, outspoken, opinionated, organized, independent, competitive, dedicated, passionate you – was torture. You, the real you, the you before dementia stole your mind, did not just visit this world. You made of your life “something particular, and real.”

For the complete text of Mary Oliver’s poem, click here:


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The Brown Box

brown kleenex box

To the casual observer, the tissue box looks worn, two out of four corners ripped, one side caved in, another mangled. Some Kleenex executive must have returned from Italy enthused about marbleized paper and decided that a little European flair was just what the product line needed. Some minion then dutifully produced a facsimile in a repeating pattern to decorate the cardboard before it was cut, scored, folded and glued into the shape of a box. The result is the brown box before me.

The design of the packaging is not important here. The brown is. Brown was my father’s favorite color, so I bought brown Kleenex boxes.

After dressing and emerging from his room at precisely 8 a.m. each morning (the hour he determined he would be less underfoot), my father pushed his walker to the side of my kitchen table and pressed firmly down on the handles that secured the brakes. He then crab-walked his hands along the edge of the table, moving carefully so as not to fall, and lowered himself into place on the far side. I rose from my chair nearby and surrendered the New York Times, reassembling it for him so that it appeared fresh from the porch. He offered to pour his own coffee, as he did every day. By then I was walking to the coffee maker, as I did every day. It was our little dance of manners; he would offer and I would decline. Coffee with room for milk, doctored with two blue packets of sweetener.

It was time for Kleenex. Every morning, while I prepared his coffee, my father prepared Kleenex with the precision of a Marine Corps drill detail. “Snap and pop” they call it. Dad had the snap but had lost the pop. In slow motion, he carefully withdrew one double-ply sheet of Kleenex (he insisted on double-ply) and laid it on the table, aligning it with the table seam that bisected the oval surface. A second sheet was pulled out. He then delicately lowered the second sheet onto the first, taking a moment to make sure the lower corners matched before allowing the top sheet to drift onto its mate. With impressive dexterity, he picked up the entire construction by pinching the top two corners between his index fingers and thumbs, this despite the loss of one top digit to a lawn mower years before. He raised the two double-ply sheets to eye level and inspected them to make sure that the creases lined up exactly. Then he folded the top half over the bottom, and reduced it to pocket size by doubling it again. When he blew his nose (damn post nasal drip, he would say), this improved Kleenex would provide a reassuring eight sturdy layers of absorbency. He supplied his left breast pocket with two such packets, and his left trouser pocket with two more.

The day could begin.

The prospect of running short on Kleenex was a constant source of anxiety for my father. He not only stocked his pockets, but tucked folded tissues under his bed pillows and stuffed them along the seam of his recliner. Every room that he entered was supplied with a large box. When a box in the bedroom, bathroom or kitchen reached the half-way mark, he asked me to buy more.

“How could we possibly need Kleenex again,” my husband asked as he prepared for a Costco run at one point. “I just bought it two weeks ago.”

My husband didn’t realize that, every night, Dad unloaded his pockets into his dresser drawer. Along with his glasses (kept in a plastic sleeve with his Col., USMC Ret., business card taped to the top), my father’s pockets disgorged his hoard: the small vial of nitroglycerin, travel sized dental floss, his wallet. But mostly, his pockets were a storehouse for wads of crumpled up tissue that would cover more than a square foot space with a two-inch high pile.

When I saw the brown Kleenex box with the tattered corners shoved in the back of a bathroom cupboard, I recognized it. It’s the last of the supply we laid in for my father.

These days, I buy tissue rarely, and when I do, I gravitate toward boxes with delicate patterns in light colors – peach, blush pink, pale yellow. But when I turn them over, I see that the saccharine message, written by some copywriter, remains the same: “With the perfect balance of softness and strength, each tissue soothes your sniffles, sneezes and tears and leaves your spirits uplifted.”

It’s hard to feel moved by tissues. They’re just absorbent paper in tasteless boxes. But this box, this ugly brown box, is a relic of everyday mornings in a sunny chair with coffee, the paper and Dad.

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Truth or Fiction

This startled me: a writing program faculty member stating that she writes nonfiction because it allows her to control how much truth she shares.

In fiction, she feels, she has to expose the deep feelings that drive the character. In nonfiction, she can choose what to include.

That certainly puts an idea on its head, and it’s got me thinking, I’ll say that.

I have always read that you must write your Truth when writing nonfiction. My Truth will most likely not be seen the same way by friends or family. And my Truth may offend. (So Phillip Lopate tells us to have friends to spare, and better to come from a large family.)

But my teacher is right that in nonfiction we choose what to include, what to leave out. Not only the Truth that might offend, but the ugly, distasteful, unflattering, and even unsavory voices in our heads, the little demons we carry with us, that make us flawed, but also human.

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Writing In My Sleep

Bennington College

Where to begin writing. I awakened with the feeling of having dreamt this writing problem all night long. When I rose at a quarter past six, the driving refrain of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal lyrics looped in my inner ear, “Annie are you okay, are you okay Annie.”

In my dream, I began, “He died, finally. Finally. He died.”

On Friday, my first attempt at a twenty page manuscript was discussed — “workshopped” —  as part of Bennington’s graduate writing seminar. Someone asked for confirmation that my father had died. You see, I had begun my story in the middle, at the point when I had reached the limits of multi-tasking and decided to retire to care for my father. In the manuscript, I never came right out and said he died, though I had implied it.

Yes, he died. On January 12, 2013.

They tell you, in writing seminars, to begin with the end in mind. To write with a sense of the feeling that drives your compulsion to write. To understand the fundamental question you are trying to answer. Note the singular: “question.”

Why do I write? Am I really writing about my father, or about me? Why did I decide to devote seven years to caring for my father? During those seven years, how did my relationship with my father change? How did I change? What does it mean to be a father, to have a father, to lose a father? What does it mean to be a daughter? What have I lost by no longer being a daughter? Why did Dad become nicer? Would I have cared for my mother in the way I cared for Dad? Why did I take notes when my mother and father were dying?

My notebook is full of self-interrogation.

When I awakened, I had that feeling that if I went straight to my computer to write, it would be there: the perfect beginning. I had formulated the first paragraph in my sleep. And it had worked.

A half hour later, the sentences have floated apart, smoky tendrils I cannot grasp and put back where they belong.

So I’ll begin, doing the hard work of following images back to elusive memories that await me. And I’ll begin again. Somewhere.



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Trying to See

Bookmark by Tommy StoneAs I finished my last blog post, my daughter was quietly singing Billie Holiday’s hit, “I’ll be seeing you.” She sang the last line as I put the coda on my post.

After my father’s death, my mentor Jim suggested that I focus less on DO-ing and more on BE-ing. Other friends have passed along their systems for appreciating the blessings in our everyday lives including the 21-Day Gratitude Challenge. But I feel like I have to take a step even further back, back to seeing.

My third grade teacher observed that I could read quickly, but didn’t retain what I read. I was too impatient. My bedside table at home looks like a mini-library because I tend to start one book only to become distracted by another. I flit between categories: travel literature, memoir, nonfiction about death and dying, novels and what I like to call “Cheetos” literature for its complete lack of nutritional value and dependence on artificial coloring. Such escapist reading leaves nothing behind except the tell-tale orange ring around one’s lips.

I have to write a critical essay about a book that changed my life. That’s a tall order, one I don’t think I can fulfill. But the first book that came to mind was one I never finished. At the time, I found it beautiful but tedious. The book was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Since we moved from Davis to Sacramento, I have maintained a discipline about how many books I can keep. I have room for about 150 books, and it’s survival of the fittest. If I add a book that I want to keep, I force myself get rid of others. Otherwise the whole house will start looking like a giant version of my bedside table. I know I am at risk of book hoarding.

Why did Dillard’s book come first to mind when I didn’t even like it?

A handmade bookmark with a scalloped edge and yarn tie extended out of the book. The outlined letters were colored in with crayon, reading, “Happy Mother’s Day! Love Tommy.” On the reverse, Tommy had colored a tulip red and a vase robin’s egg blue.

It marked page 33, where I read this:

“Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, ‘not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.’ My eyes alone can’t solve analogy tests using figures, the ones which show, with increasing elaborations, a big square, then a small square, then a small square in a big square, then a big triangle, and expect me to find a small triangle in a big triangle. I have to say the words, describe what I’m seeing…. I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present. It’s not that I’m observant; it’s just that I talk too much. Otherwise, especially in a strange place, I’ll never know what’s happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

When I see this way I analyze and pry…. But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without my camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way, I am an unscrupulous observer.”

When did Tommy make that bookmark for me, I wondered? He might have been five, six or seven — young, anyway. If he was seven, Maddie was 12. And my mother was dying.

I worked for an international public relations firm where I led the firm’s West Coast health care practice. I was at a meeting of the practice in New York City when I got the call that my mother was in the hospital with lungs full of fluid. They confirmed advanced lung cancer, and expected that she had only weeks to live.

My boss told me to take all the time I needed. With the help of hospice, Mom stabilized when we were finally able to get her home. We watched her fade before our eyes for three and a half months.

When I returned to work, my functional boss had to deliver the ultimatum that came down from on-high. Get business up, fast. Mom, he acknowledged, had taken too long to die for the taste of our overseers.

Somewhere during that period, I was trying to read Dillard.

My impatience has caused me to miss a lot, but I find that the images are still there, and I am slowly making my way backward, making sense of my experiences. I am reconnecting with people who have been important to me, but with whom I had lost touch. I am visiting places and imagining them through the eyes of my father, as I did when I visited Marine Barracks last spring and summer. I am retracing my own steps and remembering how I felt when I walked the same path a year ago.

I am trying to see.

I’ll find you in the morning sun/ And when the night is new/ I’ll be looking at the moon/ But I’ll be seeing you.

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