RED LIGHT WARNING
The beginning of the crisis has begun only I’m still not aware how my life is beginning to slip slide away. October will be the last full month of work for me. Like seeing the red engine light come on the car dash board you are not immediately alarmed but concern is in the back of your mind. If you don’t hear unusual noises or see smoke you continue to drive and check it out later maybe on payday. That’s how I handled this approaching illness. I had no medical insurance but knew when I got to Phoenix a good job would provide it and I would get the stomach problem fixed for good. I could see the finish line and attempted to drag my body to it.
Journal entry – Early October 1988
The truck broke down last week and no money for the part it needs. I refuse to dig into my secret travel money so will have to take it out of tips. Since I now have to take a cab to and from work I try to work double shifts. The cab is $15 each way so it doesn’t make since to just make a little over cab fare. I should have enough by end of the week for the part to fix it. It’s been frustrating to get a cab every night then at least every other night have him wait at a grocery store so I can buy a few necessities to keep the kids fed. On those nights the meter runs me an additional $7 as he waits. My usual abundant energy is waning from the extra work and stress. I can’t finish a shift without eight to ten Excedrin and a pot of coffee anymore and my stomach remains a fire pit. I feel I’m running out of steam. I know I’ve worked my body way beyond its normal limits for a long time but it’s not too much longer now. I have $900 saved.
Journal entry – middle October 1988
Truck is fixed so no more taxi thank goodness. I bent over in stomach pain today at work. Seems I can’t keep anything down. The boss insisted I go to emergency room so I promised I would right after work. $75.00 later they said I probably have an ulcer and sent me home with a diet sheet and Maalox. The only time the pain is halfway tolerable is if I don’t eat. I don’t understand why I’m not getting better and every day it’s harder to push through this agony. Maybe it’s just a bug, maybe it will pass in a few more days. I’ve always been healthy surly I will overcome.
The stars are out tonight and there’s a soft breeze. It’s not like the night sky in Arizona where the stars seem so close and the brilliance takes your breath away but it is a different beauty. The pain is a constant reminder that I probably won’t be able to work double shifts or weeks with no day off and that slices through my ego like a paper cut. Only six more weeks and things will be very different.
Blood, Sweat & Tears
These are the last entries where I do not suspect anything is wrong with me. I’m in a race to be free and running my body into the ground. I’m so close to my goal but the condition of my over used body would be defensive against just about everything. I’m destroying my body to save me mentally.
Journal entry – End of September 1988
Fishing tournaments are in full swing this month so the restaurant stays packed way beyond closing time and the tips are rolling in. This is my first night off in seven days. Waitresses are dropping like flies from the brutal environment of carrying huge platters of steaming hot lobster, steaks and the weekend special red snapper from the overheated kitchen. Most of the customers are drunk by the time they dock and decide to eat and become belligerent about getting food and especially beer refills. These are huge parties of 15 to 20 people and my section alone has 18 tables. I had one group tonight with 31 adults and four children. This is what waitresses call “blood money” because it takes that and more to endure for your tips. But I do endure. I try not to think about the sweat running down between my painful shoulder blades as I heft another tray loaded to the hilt with burning hot plates then swing it gracefully down to a stand. How you do this and the courteous way you present depends on the amount of tip.
I have $550 saved for our traveling money so far. The rest pays bills and school lunches. I am determined to save at least $1200 by end of summer because winter is the extreme slow down for tourist towns. About 8 weeks or so it will be over for any good business until next spring. So although my headache never seems to go away, my stomach feels like I might have an ulcer and I live with leg cramps every night from over used muscles I will not give up. My dream and the kid’s stability in a real home is too important.
Arguments continue every night and day. He doesn’t know I’m planning to leave soon. He makes very little money as a maintenance man at the campground. I usually come home late exhausted from work to find him sitting around the fire pit in front of our trailer with three or four women who are tanked and think he’s wonderful because he fixes everything for them. It’s disgusting but it’s almost over. Little does he know very soon I will wave good by .
Crisis on the Horizon
Things were looking up as my work at Western Sizzlin continued to bring money in daily. The work is punishing but I have my goal of moving back home to Phoenix soon and it motivates and pushes me along through the fatigue. The relocation to a KOA camp site has relieved some stress. Only four months to go but I don’t know it will be the last four months of living in a non-disabled world. Just around the corner disaster waits.
Journal entry – late August 1988 –
Been too busy and too tired to write in this journal lately but today is finally a day off after eight straight days. They finally hired enough waitresses to cover. The tips have been consistent allowing me to save enough to upgrade to the nice KOA very near the ocean. We are moving before dark. Next Monday I will enroll the kids in school. The owner of the restaurant likes me a lot but that’s because I work 150%. Almost all the staff are just working their way through college or supplementing their husband’s income. They are not as hungry and desperate as me so where they lag I over compensate. I know my body at 42 can’t do this forever but I just need to endure until Christmas break. When we get to Phoenix I will use my brain instead of my brawn. I can put my Associates Degree to work and even go back for bachelors.
I was hoping to get rid of him now but the money is on the night shifts so I need someone home with the kids. We argue daily with a never ending struggle of control but I must endure four months then I can fly. I will never understand why weak men seek out strong women then try to control them, must be a death wish.
Monday morning –
Love the KOA campground. The kids and I just walk a block to the ocean. There are lots of things to do like a swimming pool, game room, little store, huge community fire pits and a big playground. The kids are all enrolled in school which starts in five days. A bus comes right into the campground. It took almost all my tip savings to relocate and buy school clothes and shoes so I need to get back to work this evening to replenish my cash. I’m so grateful for the little child support from the girl’s father every month as it helped to buy school supplies and some extra clothes. I count every blessing. The kids are healthy and happy and I have a strong body to accomplish my dream and an even stronger will power to stay on task.
Once again my hopes are dashed but as you read in the journal entries below I will not succumb to victimization. I am a fighter and survivor and I’m all my children have. I still had goals and dreams that would not come to fruition for two years after an unbelievable crisis for me and the children. Never say it can’t get any worse because life will show it can.
Journal Entry – August – Wednesday 1988
We drove in to Destin three days ago. It is everything he said it would be. It looks like the Caribbean. However, seems like he never confirmed he would come back and work for the company so they hired someone else. We ended up in a small RV park nowhere near any beauty because it was very reasonable.
With no phone and little money left for gas it was going to be difficult to job search but someone had to do it. One of us would need to watch the kids and one of us had to get a quick job. Because I knew I was more driven it was going to be me and because I needed a babysitter, and couldn’t pay one, he is still alive.
I struck out yesterday walking in the scorching heat to whatever business I could find and put in 10 applications. I am desperate find something and settle in a better campground before school starts in about three weeks. I left the phone number of the pay phone in the park hoping I could hear it ring from my camper. About 7:00 p.m. I got a call from the Winn-Dixie grocery store offering me a position in the deli department. So tomorrow I start a job I’ve never done in my life at minimum wage but it’s a start and I learn fast.
This work is so exhausting and nerve racking but I don’t mind that as much as the terrible attitude of the manager. Everyone is related to him that works in the deli but me. My hours keep getting cut and now are less than 10 per week then I found out I will not get a check for three weeks! We can’t last that long. I need fast cash so knew I would need to find a waitress job that would enable me to bring home some money every day. So when I got off today at 4:00 I walked another few blocks where I noticed a Western Sizzilin restaurant. They were really busy so I knew tips would be good if you were fast and efficient and I was. I weaved my way through the customers and asked for the manager. I explained to him I was desperate for work and would even just work for tips. He said they were not hiring but to fill out an application and he would pass it on to the owner. I did and started my walk back to the trailer park feeling way more exhausted than before. Thank goodness tomorrows my day off.
At 11:00 a.m. the pay phone rang as I was coming out of the shower house. As I stumbled trying to get to it and breathlessly said hello, a voice asked for me. I acknowledged it was me and the female voice said “Do you still want a job at Western Sizzlin”? I said of course I did. The voice said, “Well I’m the owner and I need someone by 3:00 today to work until close.” I’ll be there I said. I am so elated, so relieved and so grateful. I called Winn-Dixie and quit.
It never occurred to me that I didn’t have any waitress clothes. I put on a pair of kakis and a cream colored blouse, my cleanest tennis shoes and hoped they would give me a break until I got paid. The boss was a former Virginia Slims model about 6 feet tall with white spiked hair. She looked me over and said I would have to get black pants, white blouse and black shoes soon as I could. She said she was two waitresses short so I would need to take both their tables which would be 22 tables. I said fine as I was not about to let this job slip away. Friday night was packed but I never missed a table. I stumbled home a little before 1:00 A.M. My back aches, my feet are on fire, my head is throbbing but I have $176.00 in my apron. And, tomorrow is their busiest night.
My plans are going to come together. On my day off I’ll start looking for a nice campground near the ocean with facilities the kids can enjoy and schools nearby. By Christmas break the kids and I will have the money to finally go home to Phoenix and lease a home never to roam again.
This is the next journal entry after “Being Homeless” from August 1988. We are still in the KOA campground on the gulf coast of Mississippi. An opportunity has appeared that calls for some serious consideration. We have lived at the KOA for the last few years and it is the only place we found any semblance of stability. But, I do not fool myself into thinking we are not still homeless. I do not even suspect the life altering fate that awaits me.
Journal Entry – Aug 1988
Apprehension nags at the corner of my mind today. He has come back to visit the kids with news he has an opportunity to make some great money hauling tons of ice to the fish houses all along the coast. The main headquarters is in Destin, Florida and he describes beautiful beaches with white sands and emerald green water clear as a swimming pool. He says things will be different and so much fun to be had by the kids. Of course, I’ve heard the job promise before which is how we became sojourners hopping around following the next great offer.
Even though the apprehension won’t shut up I am considering because I am so desperate to leave this depressing place I am trapped in. I feel like a contained animal that just spotted a hole in the fence. I have no attachment to this place and won’t miss the stink from the slimy bayou that lingers under the dock, the green velvet mold that covers anything standing still more than an hour or the sweltering humidity that enters your body and lies there like an old heavy wet rug.
The kids are now excited and want to go and heaven knows they deserve some happiness. If the job falls through I’m pretty flexible and can work anywhere from secretarial to restaurant. So, although leery, I make the decision. But, I wonder what lies ahead? Will he come through this time? I guess if I get stuck at least it’s in a healthier environment. In two days we will be pulling into Destin, Florida with new hopes and dreams which have become dog eared from dragging them around.
It is so easy to judge the homeless and so easy to become one. I was there once and it was an almost impossible climb back up. I sit now in an in a nice little mobile home I bought myself to make sure fate doesn’t leave me homeless ever again. Retired after over 26 years of Disability Advocate work, I am reading an old journal of mine from 1988. It is astonishing where the journey takes you and the strength you find along the way. I’ve decided to share these musings in my life in hopes of empowering someone else to never give up. A year after this entry my life would change, becoming even more devastating, before I could start my uphill climb to a normal life.
Journal entry from 1988 –
Another summer almost gone. The seventh one actually and no permanent home before school starts. Another year in the 30-foot travel trailer, the box of tin on wheels as our friends call it.
There is never enough money saved to pay the deposit and first month’s rent on a house let alone utilities. We always come close to this dream but then a child needs shoes, the truck breaks down, someone gets an ear infection and the pot gives reluctantly until it looks more like gas money than homestead money.
So, we sit again in a campground on the southern coast of Mississippi where the heat and humidity turn you into one big sticky fly attraction while pretending to be just another snowbird vacationing for the winter. The job of managing the KOA campground pays slightly more than the lot rent but it’s better than nothing.
1988 and the pot we do have to piss in has a leaky holding tank again. It’s not that it’s all been bad. We finally upgraded this month to a fifth-wheel trailer that is only six years old and close quarters have forced us to bond in ways reminiscent of earlier American life.
But, on those sweltering, muggy nights when trying to sleep is the most oppressive thing you can do, I sit on the picnic table top under the awning and dream my dream of a home I once had. As tears crawl ever so slowly down my hot cheeks I realize how easy it was to become homeless and how hard it is to try and climb back up
Hell, I thought, what do I need a house for anyway as I pop the top off my Miller Lite. “Buck up, there are people worse off than you” I hear my Mothers voice echo in my ears as I light up my last cigarette in the pack. My heart opens momentary to store another sorrow. Maybe I’ll just sleep outside on the lounge chair tonight.
Anger days and sorrow nights — that is my life. If I just had lyrics I would be a great country song.
Where Did The Rest Stops Go?
My Dad loved and I mean loved to travel and explore the states especially the lower coast-to-coast ones. Every school vacation off we would go. But don’t misunderstand this wasn’t a typical road trip. We moved. There was our 1953 light green Ford sedan, my dad’s 1949 Chevy pickup that pulled a 30 foot trailer with plywood sides and an army green canvas tarp pulled taught over everything we owned. Toward the end of school break we would settle in a house in one of the states from Florida to California.
My mom, sister, and two brothers and I traveled that route for many summers stopping at each attraction along the way and never missing the welcome rest stops in each state. We would read everything about the state’s history and all the attractions offered. My dad was a house painter so jobs were picked up everywhere along the journey. This was not a rich man’s vacation, not even close. But we survived and even had fun because of the roadside rest stops all along the highway. These were places you would finally get to go to the bathroom, run and play and eat your picnic lunch and ice cold cool-aide held in the big metal Coleman cooler. Dad more often than not took a little nap on the cool concrete picnic table bench covering his face with his hat or a newspaper and wake refreshed and ready to roll. My little brother and I would run, play checkers, jacks or anything else we found to entertain ourselves.
There was no worry that someone would rob you or you would get accosted in the restrooms or there would be drug deals in the parking lots. We were all travelers on a journey to different destinations. It was the place to get free water if your vehicle overheated or a helping hand from another traveler if you were broke down. You made friends for an hour or two knowing you would probably never see them again but you remember them in your stories along with the experiences and the sites that you encountered.
Now the rest stops are quietly disappearing. Budget cuts and people’s preference for fast food in place of picnics are causing these wonderful scenic places to fade away. Nowadays it’s about getting there fast as possible. Destination is the only goal. As the highway system expanded the off-ramps take you off the speeding interstate leading you directly to fast food and huge service stations. For years I did not notice that the road side rest stops were almost gone. Much like the phone booth and big blue neighborhood mailbox they just slid out of sight in the name of progress. But I have memories that weave into stories that come alive as I tell them to my grandchildren of the sights and sounds and smells and feel of the places we experienced that no book can match.
Saving the Environment to Save Ourselves
There are so many changes communities could do to be more pro-active in protecting their ecosystems. Some communities have started this process slowly. Everyone understands it should be a priority but getting the money to peruse it is always difficult. I began to do some research on what some options are and things a few cities are doing now. In examining large and mid-size urban cities I have located environmental areas that are at risk of becoming damaged beyond repair. These risk areas are biological habitats, clean air and water pollution. A city’s rapid growth and continuing urban sprawl is currently endangering indigenous plants and animals. However I feel with implementation of the recommendations I have found any city will see a substantial improvement on their ecosystem and a lighter footprint on the environment as a whole.
Regarding air quality – City buses and large construction equipment owned by the Department of Transportation need upgrading to newer engines or equipped with emission control devices such as idle reduction technology. Cross country locomotives going through communities can also be retrofitted to cut down on the mission pollution. This is a big concern since a major train yard often sits right in the middle of a highly populated area. Idling diesel engines not only omit harmful pollutants but waste fuel and cause engines to wear.
Promote transportation choices – Cars as transportation options are slow, dangerous and frustrating especially when you’re in the middle of a big city gridlock. They are also a huge user of oil. Taxpayers cover the load of road maintenance and constructions of new roads. Moving people by bus, train, bicycles or on foot is more efficient and kinder to the environment. These options are under used because communities are not actively diverting funds like the gas tax from road construction to Greenway construction. If it’s inconvenient most people will not use it. Working with your local park board to design and maintain a bicycle pedestrian trails that crisscrosses the city will encourage people to use them. It is also recommended that City Council consider a fund or pursue grants as a way to keep these trails and public transit terminals safe such as well lighted crosswalks and patrols coordinated by local police. City buses can be fitted with bike racks on the front so riders can take their bike in inclement weather. Employers could offer to pay for bus rides to work and create a more flexible schedule coinciding with the bus schedules. In Manila the Philippines, the Asian Bank is providing $300 million toward a ground breaking project that gives its people a lease to own E – trike. This kind of concept would be a great solution on a smaller scale for the various universities in your city. Parking is always an issue and with 1000+ students using cars it would make a huge difference in greenhouse gases.
Establishing green spaces and urban forestry – Urban forestry and green spaces should be developed and maintained wherever possible to promote a diverse and healthy environment. You could start a committee of interested residents to create an action plan for potential land preservation. They could also develop partnerships with local nonprofits who are engaged in land conservation like the local Park Board or conservation department. Green spaces are important to our health, mentally and ecologically. These green spaces could be intermingled with the Greenway bicycle and pedestrian trails to encourage people to use this as a form of transport.
Fuel-efficient cars – Everyone knows fuel-efficient cars get much better gas mileage but there are also other important environmental advantages such as releasing fewer emissions and carbon dioxide is cut in half. Electric cars are the most fuel-efficient. There are no tailpipes so no omissions can escape. Their motors convert 75% of the chemical energy from the batteries to power the wheels. You can compare that to conventional gasoline powered engines which produce only 20% of the energy stored in gasoline. Carpooling Promoting carpooling is another recommendation that could move your city toward a more eco-friendly community. Studies have shown that the average American car emits 23,600 pounds of CO2 a year. If four people shared rides in one car the emission savings would be three times that amount. The riders are also saving on gas, wear and tear on their car as well as maintenance. Encouraging large manufacturing companies to promote carpooling with their employees could help implement this system. They could offer incentives such as prime parking spaces.
These recommendations are good in theory but difficult to implement. Retrofitting and upgrading the city’s public transportation and heavy machinery will take additional funds or diverting funds from other necessary projects. Urban forestry and green spaces like creating bicycle pedestrian trails also take funds to complete and a lot a promotion to get community buy-in so they will be used. Carpooling has to work on many levels like similar work schedules, riders need to be compatible, the sacrifice of independence of doing errands on the way home and the number of riders needs to stay consistent. And promoting fuel-efficient cars would need funds for marketing plan to justify the initial cost which is more than traditional gas engines. In addition electric cars have no infrastructure built in to refuel electricity across the country yet. Nothing worth having is usually easy but in this case well worth the effort.
It will be a slow progress to turn the environment back to a safe and sustainable world but in the process we are saving ourselves. A look into 50 years from now could see big urban cities decaying from the inside out if a pro-active stance to save their ecosystems were never taken. We need to keep that in mind when voting for and supporting these positive changes. It’s our own humanity we are saving.
For My Mother
My sister and I told our Mother we would never put her in a nursing home. That’s what we told her, my sister and me, without a thought about our own job commitments and physical limitations or the fact that Mom might eventually need 24-hour care with her Parkinson diagnosis advancing. Although our intentions were courageous there finally came a day that we had to break that promise even though we fought hard for every option we could scrape up.
So what were we so afraid of that a nursing home would be the very last option? The fears were many and unfortunately all too common. The primary ones were lack of quality care and compassion, neglect, bad food, loss of autonomy and deterioration of her mental health. Like almost all grown children faced with this decision we were somewhat optimistic at first, thinking if we looked hard enough we would be able to find that one nursing home that really cared, and, they would take Medicaid.
Even though I worked in the disability field at the time with experience to the contrary, my hopes were high. We carefully screened three or four skilled nursing facilities and included Mother in all the decision-making. By the time two months had passed we were transferring her into a third one. The nursing homes changed but the problems remained.
This process was wearing on Mother’s normally strong, courageous and happy attitude. I can tell you from experience that even the most aware and extrovert personalities will succumb to the daily chipping away of their self esteem until all that remains is the defeated complaining, and most important, complacent, victim. That is what happened to our Mother and in the end fear resided within her and she begged us not to “stir up” trouble as they make her pay for it later with neglect.
There are circumstances that I feel give way to a propensity for corruption of nursing home services. I have listed these below.
- A lot of registered nurses, because of inexperience or just plain “burn-out”, are unable to see past the documents they are required to complete to the true priorities in caring for their floor – safety, hydration, and attention to serious medical problems, adequate nutrition and cleanliness. Mainly for cost savings, nurse’s aides fill these important roles while the nurse does the exhausting paperwork. My Mother and many others on her floor seldom saw a nurse even though C-Diff infection continually ran rampant throughout the nursing home.
- Lack of supervisory staff especially on evening and all night shifts allows thievery and neglect and even abuse.
- Nursing aides and C.N.A.’s are hired and kept on minimum wages. They are not honored or valued for the compassionate work they do. This leaves an employee pool of mostly inexperienced, undereducated employees that are more often than not in desperate financial crisis. And, as anyone knows desperate people do desperate things.
- Lack of sensitivity training and communication skills leaves patients and their loved one frustrated and angry.
- Social Workers for the Nursing Homes are responsible for the entire population of residents. Almost always they have the education but no hands-on experience as well as no idea how to apply the social work “theories” so neatly addressed in text books to the overwhelming reality of old age. Once again, social workers directly out of school with no experience are less costly for the establishment.
- A kind of desensitizing effect happens as patients become room numbers and bed numbers. Being kind or socializing means you might become “attached” and then lose them.
I have been in a few decent nursing homes; however, they did not take Medicaid. And, in the nurse’s defense I think they probably started out caring and ended up in such a governmental paperwork cave-in that they just gave up trying. I really see the focus of the problem being how the money is allocated through reimbursements from both Medicaid and Medicare. Below I have included some ideas that I think would go a long way to solve at least some of the problems.
- Wage Pass-Through – I was reading about this on the Internet as a way to get the money directly to the people who do most of the work. A certain portion of public Medicaid monies can be passed on directly to nursing assistants. States could look at this policy instead of Medicaid monies going for overhead, misuse and profit first.
- Minimum staffing laws that are strictly enforced. Training and testing that a new employee must complete before starting. Review testing during six-month reviews.
- Allow residents to spend time with the facility’s dog or cat for emotional therapy of unconditional love. Non-Medicaid expensive nursing homes do this and it is very therapeutic. It’s a shame that the no-pet restriction is usually only for poor people.
- Nursing Home Workers Unions – this is done in some states and the quality of staff and treatment of patients has shown a rise in quality.
- Put in severe consequences when prosecuting corrupt nursing home corporations that defraud elderly Americans of huge amounts of money that should go to their care. Let this country take a stand – if you steal money intended for the care of our mothers and fathers, you will go to prison for a long time.
- All managers and supervisors read the study, “Quality in Long Term Care-What We Can Learn from Nursing Assistants”
- Take residents for walks or get a tandem bike for those who are able to ride one. But, most of all get them outside.
- Put their pictures on their doors (Younger ones too) and who they were, what they did. Some nursing homes are doing this now.
- Give nursing assistants a break. Congress should consider changing the Federal Tax Code to include, for example, something like, “If an individual is employed as a direct caregiver and earns fewer than 30K a year, one thousand dollar tax credit is available.
- Let residents vote on a different “employee of the month” and give that staff a small bonus or gift certificate or time off with pay
These are just some of the ideas I had. I am sure there are many more by frustrated loved ones like me. There has to be a better way than the current “waiting rooms” for death approach. At least now there is an option for aging in place with home care assistants like the programs from Independent Living Centers but still no funding for 24hr care.
My Mother did not have a dignified ending like my sister and I had longed for. She suffered for almost a year with C-Diff infection that half the nursing home had. It causes fever, diarrhea, vomiting and weakness. Mother had lost nearly half her weight from hardly eating and vomiting what she did get down. She sat in her recliner one evening ringing and calling for a staff that never came to help her to the bathroom. Sitting in her own urine all night was more than she could endure. She pushed herself up but before she could safely reach her bed just a foot away, she slipped in her own urine and broke her hip. A day later we were told about it when they decided to take her to the hospital. She had successful hip surgery but chose death anyway and refused food and water rather than life at the nursing home. Three days later she died. They called it “failure to thrive”.
My earliest memory of Daddy is watching him plow furrows in our field with an old gray mule named Jack. Jack was not fond of his work and was soon replaced with a little red tractor with huge wheels on the back and a tall metal pipe that puffed smoke as it meandered its way up and down the pasture. I would play happily with my animals while watching his huge tall frame bounce up and down on the metal seat in rhythm with the rumble of the motor.Then the day would come to plant. Everyone in the family helped. I loved this part even though I was always getting scolded for putting too many seeds in one place. It amazed me when the little seedlings began to sprout above the ground. I could always tell exactly which ones were mine.
The afternoons were another favorite time for me. That was when Daddy fed all the animals. As I heard the old wooden screen door squeak, I knew he would be coming down the steps to find me. “Come on Sugar, let’s feed the chickens,”He would say. He would grab the heavy burlap sack like it was a bag of feathers and pour cracked corn into the old gray pail. I would run to open the wooden gate that led to the chicken house and we would holler, “here chick, chick.” The chickens would come running at break neck speed tumbling over each other in order to get there ahead of the rest. Next were the rabbits with their little brown pellet food, then the cats, dogs and finally the pigs. They took longer because he would first cook the pig slop in a huge galvanized wash tub over an open fire. I was never sure what all he put in that big tub except some ingredients I recognized from suppers we had eaten and a lot of corncobs. It smelled pretty good to me so I could understand why the pigs shoved and squealed as he poured the mixture into the long wooden trough.
Daddy and I had a love of animals in common and he let me have all sorts of orphans he would find on the road including five dogs, a dozen or so rabbits and more than a few cats that had kittens faster than the rabbits had bunnies. He taught me how to love them and to honor them as gifts of wonder.
When I was six we left the farm and moved to California. Daddy was one of the union painters that painted Disneyland castle as it was being built. When the job was finished we returned to Mississippi where Daddy worked at what he loved best, hunting and fishing. I would squat down beside him to discuss all kinds of puzzlement’s in my world, which were many, and he would answer each one as he shucked oysters, throwing the meat in a large white bucket and the shells in a pile that looked like a mountain. The fish odor was pungent in the humid air but I didn’t care as long as I got to ask my questions. When he finished he would ice down the buckets and take them to the fish market.
Sometimes I would get to go to the ocean with him to go “floundering”, as he called it. I would walk slowly beside him in the tide pools carrying the old green kerosene lantern barely above the water as he spotted the flounder and stabbed them with the razor sharp gig. “Don’t kick the sand now Sugar,” he would remind me. I learned the relationship of the moon and tides and what nights were best for fishing. There were always wonders to behold on these “flounder nights” like jellyfish, man-o-war, alligator gars washed up on shore, crabs with their beautiful orange and blue colors and all sizes of starfish. We would fish until almost midnight or until Daddy had enough to take to market the next day.
As the evenings grew cool and the leaves starting falling and tumbling down the roads, fishing season was over. The hunting and trapping season would begin. That was the time we would discuss the squirrels preparing for the winter and watch the summer birds fly in formations heading further south or west. Daddy had a sack of wild birdseed for those who braved the winter and a sack of waste corn for the squirrels that he affectionately called “tree rats”. The over-hang on the back porch would be full of hanging mink pelts on little surf boards made of wood, drying out in preparation to sell to Sears and Roebuck. Every evening he would oil the traps and check them out using a stick to see if they closed correctly. They would snap together with a loud clank that never failed to make me jump. He only trapped what he could sell. It was a balance of man and nature that he honored.
Within a year the onslaught of commercial fishermen and large mink farms forced Daddy out of business forever. He decided it was time to work at house painting full time. He was a perfectionist in anything he created and painting was no different. It made him very respected among customers allowing him to work steady from referrals. The next few summers we traveled back and forth from Florida to California finally settling in Phoenix, Arizona.
Arizona took some getting used to for all of us but soon Daddy had found the best places to enjoy his loves, fishing and hunting. He taught me how to shoot a rifle by the time I was twelve and started allowing me to go on the deer and turkey hunts if Mom went. But, I loved animals too much by then and killing them for any reason just wasn’t in me so I stopped going. However, I did enjoy the fishing trips even though I didn’t fish. It was a time I could be near him. He would always teach me something new just when I thought I knew it all. He would get in his little 17-foot fishing boat at dawn and return with his catch before the rest of us were even up.
When it got too hot to fish he took us for a ride around the lake and pointed out the animals and reptiles that inhabited the sheer canyon walls. He taught me the different varieties of cactus, mesquite trees and river oaks. It was with him that I saw my first cactus wren hovering over a lone cactus bloom. As the day closed he would make a big campfire and marvel at the wonders in the crystal clear night sky. He would point to the big and little dippers, the Milky Way and find falling stars. Right before turning in we would locate the moon and try to be the first to name the correct phase then find the North Star. Then it was off to sleep listening to the music of locust humming and the echo of coyotes howling. Nature was familiar to me; I had no fear of it. Daddy had taught me that.
As my teenage years crested on the horizon, nature began to change our relationship just as surely as it had brought us together. The Goddess started to sing its ancient melody in my Soul and I began to set different priorities like finding a life mate, which included all the prissiness and domestic skills that went with it. I was securely under my Mother’s wing now preparing to become a woman. Even though I loved Daddy dearly, we had different destines to follow.
When Daddy was 78 years old, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and soon a Nursing Home became necessary to keep him safe. My heart broke for him and anger at the injustice of it all swelled up in my throat. When I visited him he saw me as the child I once was. I ached for him to see me as a woman and to play with his grandchildren. Then one day as I was sitting there watching him, something happened to me. My Ego got out of the way of my Soul and saw clearly that this was actually a gift, an encore, to a beautiful time we had shared. I began to appreciate this travel back in time and enjoyed many hours of conversation on nature and animals, fishing and hunting. We would walk outside by the tiny flower garden and watch the catbirds swoop down on an unaware cat or admire a flock of birds flying toward Mexico.
During the fall of 1981, the children and I moved to Illinois for a job opportunity for my husband. Although it hurt me deeply to leave Daddy, I told myself he would always be there and my Mom and brothers and sister would take good care of him. I promised myself that I would fly back next summer to spend time with him. By March I was back, not to watch the birds fly in from their winter homes but to hold his huge weather beaten hand while he lay in the stroke induced coma he had been in for days. I could barely withstand the deep sorrow I felt for this once strong and gentle man. When I was young I didn’t know he never had the opportunity to go past eighth grade, only that his wisdom was beyond compare and that he alone built the bridge that connected me forever to Mother Nature herself.
As I bent down to touch his cheek with a kiss, his eyes opened ever so slightly. Those familiar dark brown eyes gazed into mine and I heard him say, “Hello Sugar”, then he drifted back into his peaceful slumber never to awake again.
He is gone now but the afterglow of his light shines in me as I see the beauty of animals through his eyes and feel the mystical heartbeat of nature through his touch.