Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Old Clem

No commentary on marriage, as that seems to be the topic I'm fixated on at the moment, would be complete without an extended reminisce about my old Grandma McCallum.

Ah. How to describe this woman? Bear in mind the bearer of this tale was still himself en formatif , as the tale's details unfold. Caveat emptor.

My mom's dad died when she was eight. From what I can gather, her mom then went into extended hybernation, leaving mom, the eldest of three, to sort of raise the other two. Eight years old. No doubt the tales are a bit skewed. My grandma couldn't have been THAT out of it.

Well, by the time I got to know her--the third of four children and a little befuddled myself in my early years (no comment, you)--she was truly off the deep end. I remember driving, after church and Sunday dinner, off to the Reedsburg county home where they had a set of really mentally disturbed people. I am young--perhaps eight years old. We would hear the zoo sounds of your usual home for the disturbed of mind. I would occasionally unaccountably find myself holding hands with some strange old lady who would look at me with these googly eyes; I had nightmares about it for years. There we would visit Grandma, who had at some time in the past had a terrible accident, falling down a flight of stairs and hitting her head severely and therefore putting herself at the mercy of the latest and greatest in psychotropic drug treatment. The cure I think was the disease,, because after many years of this a wise and learned doctor took a long look at her, cut all her medications, and told her to enjoy a nice glass of port wine before retiring for the evening. That seemed to work. Grandma returned to the world.
Before departing, however, it seems my Grandma McCallum spent a lot of time with her nose in harlequin romances. She had a really strange romantic streak. During her illness, but when she lived for a time with us, our family got our very first television. Late fifties. While we watched Andy of Maybury, Grandma would stand next to the television with her hands behind her back and answer imaginary questions that she thought were coming from the set. Very personal and titillating questions. Very complete and detailed answers. I got a lot of what I'd call my early sex education listening to Grandma answer these unheard-by-us, imaginary questions . She believed she was being interviewed by some fella on the TV. Truly, another world. I will say however that it made television watching just that much more fascinating for me. So, see. Sickness runs in the family, I guess.

Jumping ahead a number of years: I'm in high school. By now grandma has been put in a nice retirement home in my home town. But that old romantic streak (call it what you will) isn't gone by a long shot. For one thing, she's 82 but is claiming she's 76. And soon enough she is kicked out of the retirement home for having an affair with her new guy, Clem Blanchett. They find lipstick on his pillowcase and trace it back to her. Clem doesn't get ejected; just my grandma. My lib mom seethes that it is retaliation for a recent public act of nonviolent dissent she's committed in our small town, but who knows? Grandma's out on the street.
My mom finds her a nice little apartment near downtown. Clem, who is 92 but still retains a great sense of humor, and a few other things as well, is brought over to granny's pad weekly by my mom for--I dunno--conjugal visits or something. Soon enough, it is announced that Clem and Emma McCallum are getting married!

I am appointed Best Man.

Look. I'm--what?--nineteen? What do I know about being a Best Man to a 92 year old French American? On the day of the wedding, I arrive late, and my grandmother is livid. "You're LATE! For my WEDDING! I had to dress him MYSELF!" I truly had no idea I was expected to help the groom dress. To this day I get the geebies.

Something rather funny happened on the way to the church. I was ushering Clem down the hallway of grandma's apartment to the long, wide staircase leading to the first floor. We got to the head of the stairs, and for some reason I tripped. In what I remember as a long, slow motion fall, I tumbled, rolled, gallooped, and flipped all the way to the bottom,where I lay in an ignominous, embarassed heap. At the top of the stairs, for the first time that day, Clem is cracking up into a coughing, wheezing, bent-over cackle that lasted until I dragged myself back up to him. Ah, so. I guess I did my essential service as Best Man to the Groom after all. He was completely relaxed for the first time that day.
At the wedding, a covey of uninvited old ladies from the community sat in the back, glowering. Jim Weis, the very sweet Methodist pastor who performed the ceremony, smiled and welcomed us in. Being 92, Clem (and I) sat in the front pew while Emma was escorted down the aisle by my sister Janet, the Bridesmaid. Other than my mom, there was no one else there in that big sanctuary. A serious problem developed when I produced the ring and Clem tried to deposit it onto Emma's ring finger. There was an inordinate amount of shaking going on. My sister Jan stifled a giggle. A chain reaction of stifling took place, Jan to me to Jim Weis; back again. I could have killed her. We came THIS CLOSE to just completely falling apart in laughter. I was in enough trouble with Grandma as it was. Finally, I did my second Good Deed of the day, helping to steady Clem's hand and guide the ring onto the steadied hand of his bride. Everyone smiled and Clem looked relieved. I now pronounce you man and wife.

The two-and-a-half-month-long marriage was stormy, if the stories can be believed. Grandma fussed and furied, furied and fussed. Clem pretty much just sat there. I'm not sure what brought it all on, but soon enough Clem Blanchett departed this sad veil of tears. I would have liked to report that the marriage was blissful, but that wasn't in the nature of my scotch Grandmother's personality. Something about being married again gave vent to something, some controlling emotion that had perhaps lain dormant since Bruce, her first husband, died when my mother was eight. All at the expense of poor, sweet, simple Clem. And that is the story of Grandmother McCallum's second wedding.


MY SISTERS WEIGH IN: The "caveat emptor" comment was indeed necessary. My memory does not flourish as it should. Some amendments, which in turn should be caveat-emptored, since heck, they're as old and feeble as I am. To wit:

:Mom may have been six years old when Robert Bruce (not simply "Bruce") died. He was. obviously, named after "Robert The Bruce" of Scots fame.
: Well, the institution was NEAR Reedsburg, but not in it. It may have been a county home, it may have been a state home. Versions differ. Rebecca, being the oldest, remembers the barred doors, the old lady eating dirt from a flower pot, the strait-jacketed souls lying prone on their beds. Very " One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" ish. As with me, the weekly experience of seeing all of this had a profound , disturbing effect.
: Clem may have been 94 not 92; he may have been married to my grandmother for all of seven months, not the 2.5 I've alleged. He had four previous wives. "I buried them all!", remembers a sis.
: Two sisters don't remember the post-wedding furies but do remember the bliss, which somehow I missed. Grandma was thrilled about the freedom to love each other "legally". As Rebecca put it: "She did have some proper notions." Sweet.
: Grandma supported her three children through the years selling Avon.
: All three sisters were present at the wedding, as was my dad. Rebecca, the oldest, even made grandma's wedding dress. Was there a reception afterward? I seem to remember a reception afterward.

Barth On Marriage

No, not THAT Barth. I'm reading John Barth again, after a twenty-five year hiatus. He of CHIMERA and THE FLOATING OPERA. He's gotten older, mellower, less flashy. He's more reflective, more given to thankfulness. Not really too bad for an atheist.

I'm reading ONCE UPON A TIME. No, I'm not necessarily recommending it. But I'm enjoying it a lot. Here is Barth going on about his marriage:

"...What do I know, having lived with the woman for only twenty-plus years and in the world for some forty before that?...

I know that now we're in love and trouble, is about all--the love abiding, the trouble not--and that in this couple's chemistry neither of those precludes the other. Given the closeness of their connection, the differences between them, the amount of time they spend in each other's company, and the very little time they spend apart, these domestic storms used to beset them once or twice per season, interstitched with passionate reconciliation and overarched with indubitable love. In latter years, the love and commitment have, if anything, grown; time, experience, fatigue, and reciprocal understanding have happily decreased the frequency, duration, and damage (if not the occasional intensity) of such in-house blowups. Perhaps for that reason, they have still a way of taking us by surprise: The emotional fuel-air mix builds almost imperceptibly in the house until some spark--typically a thoughtless word of mine, some small thing done or neglected, inconsequential in itself--blows the roof. Our adrenalines surge; each charges the other with initial provocation; we watch and listen appalled as the angry words scarify; we exhaust ourselves in the night (What home-brewed tempest ever didn't rage past bedtime?)...
Thanks be, then, that since this pair's early years together such full-blown storms have come to buffet them ever more rarely. Both of them are abler than once they were at containing and deflecting the inevitable frictions of conjugality. Weather the storm you cannot avoid, goes the old sailors' proverb, and avoid the storm you cannot weather. Every lasting marriage follows those advisements..."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Do People Stay Married?

The Wall Street Journal had an article back on Feb. 9 entitled HAPPY COUPLES KISS AND TELL.

The journalist, Elizabeth Bernstein, asked the very sensible question, "Why do some couples thrive, while others fizzle or flame out, despite their best intentions?"

The article goes into most of the common, practical reasons for these life-long marriages, which seem so archaic, so unusual today. I remember years ago a couple joking with us that we were the only other couple they knew who hadn't gotten a divorce. They are, of course, now divorced.

I say "of course." Interesting.

The article gives a series of tips on how to stay married for a lifetime, including:
Find the middle ground.
Be funny.
Keep (some) secrets.
Never, ever give up.
Stay alive (More on that one in a sec).
The "keep some secrets" one is fascinating. What do you think? The example given is a Las Vegas couple. The husband is a professional gambler. He has never discussed his business with his wife, but is willing to tell the journalist that he's won and lost millions of dollars. The wife has her own bank account. Actually, I think that's the secret there.

My wife and I are closing in on (I'd better get this right...) 32 years of marriage. We were married on Easter Sunday in a Methodist church on South Hill Drive in Madison by a pastor who is now divorced. He gave us pre-marital counselling. He might have taken some of his own advice. I forget his name. Both Deb and I agreed that being married was a lot better than getting married. That was a lot of nervous work.

STAY ALIVE: The article ends with an anecdote about the writer's sister: "...a doctor,
told me about one of her patients, a 92-year-old woman who showed up for her appointment with her husband, who is 94. They said they have been married for almost 70 years.
"My sister, highly impressed, asked the couple the secret of their union's longevity. And they looked at each other for a long moment. Then the wife spoke: "Eh, neither of us died."

That's right, the secret of a long marriage, in the final analysis, is for neither partner to die. As my wife has confessed (for us both) on more than one occasion : "We're just stuck with each other. That's all."

Photos from Life Magazine

Monday, February 15, 2010

Higher Things Youth Retreat

Trinity Lutheran Church, Sheboygan, WI

Ah, Sheboygan. Brats and Lutherans, and the question is: are they interchangeable?
Haha, just kidding. My daughter and I, along with the interminably zesty Zeke Bartlett of Mental Llama blog fame, spent the weekend at a theological retreat sponsored by the Higher Things Lutheran youth organization. This isn't your ordinary happy-clappy Christian youth get together. The topics are decidedly doctrinal and challenging, and the kids,--generally confirmed youth through high school-- carefully listen. The pastors who lead these sessions are engaging and entertaining, but they definitely don't hold back when it comes to going deeply into the chosen topic of the retreat.

The location of the retreat was Trinity Lutheran (one of them, anyway) in Sheboygan,with its beautiful, restored sanctuary. The people of Trinity are to be congratulated for taking such good care of this church they have inherited. Pastors Mech and Berg can be my pastors, any day.

The chosen topic of the retreat was itself a deep one: the doctrine of Confession and Absolution. Try luring 175 teenagers to something like this. Yeah, just try it!
Yet come they did, and the topic was fascinating. While there was ample time for the kids to hang out together--as well as to watch a Hitchcock movie and to see Comedy Sportz at a nearby restored movie house--the bulk of the time was taken up with worship, breakout sessions on various topics, and longer plenary sessions with two pastors. The highlight of the plenary sessions was a great video of Johnny Cash, late in his life, singing an old Nine Inch Nails tune, HURT. It is worth a look, and was a great setup for the topic of the need for confession, the greater need for absolution--and while we're at it for a nice chat about the lost but returning practice of Private Confession and Absolution.

I found myself often sitting at the back of the auditorium, just looking around at these kids. Yes, there was chatting and joking around, but by and large they listened carefully to what the presenters were saying. It helped a lot that the presenters were both interesting, funny, , and also interspersed really great videos into their talks.

Scattered around the auditorium and hallways were quotes from the good Doctor Luther himself, some of them pretty funny; some of them more funny because of where they were placed. And of course, the main speakers were called upon to judge the chocolate chip cookie bakeoff. It sounds like a good gig, but they were pretty sick of cookies by the time the judging ended.

Le Mssrs. Peperkorn and Kuhlmann, Pastors, sitting in Judgment

"Here I stand. I can do no other."