Cousin Barbara

After a recent Facebook post of mine, my cousin Barbara commented I should write more. “It’s a gift”, she said. Not realizing what she has done, she has placed the biblical curse of “unused talents” on me. Like many curses, when uttered you are not even aware it is a curse.

What is this curse? According to the biblical story, we are each given talents and some measure of competency as regards these talents. Yes, we all (you too) have some talents that are unique in their manifestation, that is if we choose to manifest them at all. I know some of you don’t believe this and that’s okay, but you’re wrong. It’s like having red hair or blue eyes except you can’t see your talents in the mirror so you mostly don’t notice them. This is not true if you think your talent is physical beauty. But physical beauty is not a talent, it’s a flower.

I have been trying to find my talents for 71 years. I have been down a few dark allies, had some limited success in others, but I am still not exactly sure what my “real talent” is. I respectfully request that you do not suggest what YOU think my talents are should you be inclined to comment. They would be embarrassing at best and gross at the worst.

One thing is abundantly clear, continually asking what talents one possesses is a fool’s errand. You can walk down that road forever and you will not find anything. Talents are discovered by doing things, like writing little vignettes when your cousin makes an innocuous comment. Like digging out those letters that you wrote to “that” woman but never sent and reworking them so maybe someday you will actually send them to someone. Not that it matters, it’s the writing (and re-writing) of the letters that matters. It’s like zazen. There is no point to sitting, the point is to sit.

The terror associated with this curse is that if you don’t use the talents you are given, the “Big Guy” tells his henchmen to, and I quote, “cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. That does not sound like fun. I probably could deal with the gnashing of teeth as I ate dinner with seven siblings but I simply cannot and will not deal with the weeping. I have tried. Coping skills from early childhood have made this damn near impossible.

To dispel this curse, I am providing three short memories for Barbara’s edification. After that, I am going to (“going to” is always a curse) write little tales about people I know. People like you. One about my friend Hugh, who died alone in Binghamton, New York. The police called me and asked if I knew him as it was the only number on his phone that he called. Another snippet about Leo, Adolph, Billy, and Jonesy my co-workers on Norfolk & Western Railway. Billy and Adolph could neither read nor write but were hard workers. As for writing about past loves, I will tiptoe on that mine field with caution. But enough of what I “plan” on doing, let’s talk about “Blackie the Rat Dog”.

Blackie was one of the scariest sights I had ever seen in my young boy life. I was outside on a sunny summer day on the second story porch of the house where my Uncle Richard lived. He lived downstairs and my Grandma Timm lived upstairs.

I heard a bark and then a sound like someone had shot a dog out of a cannon. Blackie came ripping out of the side yard in hot pursuit of a rat running across the front lawn. The rat never had a chance. When you are young and you see an animal killed, it usually leaves a nasty impression. But this was different. It wasn’t like the time I saw Mike Fee throw a kitten against a train and kill it. That really bothered me and I stayed away from the Fee family after that. I was glad that Blackie killed the rat. I didn’t like rats then and I don’t like rats now.

I don’t like rats and it’s not because they were largely responsible for the death of an estimated 25 million people during the Black Plague. I admit that this is bad (nay horrendous). But events of almost 700 years ago have lost much of their ability to sting me. What bothered me about rats was that when I “misbehaved” as a young boy (even when I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I had done wrong) one of the punishments was to be locked in the basement. The light would be turned off and I would be told that the rats were going to get me. And I did know there were rats down there! It seems there were a lot more rats around when I was young.

When you are a very young boy and you are pretty sure you are going to be eaten by rats, you develop a certain coping style and a profound hated for rats. I won’t go into my coping skills such as they were (and are), but I hold “Blackie the Rat Dog” as a childhood hero. I wouldn’t go near him but I always cheered him on.

I was on the upstairs porch when I saw Blackie work his magic because I preferred being upstairs where my Grandma Timm lived as opposed to being downstairs in the noise and chaos of my Uncle Richard’s house. Downstairs was too much like home; upstairs was a refuge.

The first thing I saw when I entered my Grandma’s house was Grandma sitting in her rocker. I swear she never moved from that rocker. As you entered you were greeted with the sweetest smile and a hug. The hug brought you into the aroma of the powder “perfume” that she always wore. It was like being brushed with fairy dust. It is probably the most significant hug I remember from my childhood. The kind of hug that saves you.

This was in sharp contrast to my other grandma who also lived upstairs of the house owned by my Uncle Dooley and Aunt Katy. In Grandma Szucs’ house everything was neat and orderly. Most memorable was the glass dish of candy orange slices. The orange slices had come out of the same bag of orange slices found in the pyramids of Egypt. What was once soft chewable candy was now like rock candy. You could have one, if you were lucky and had good teeth. Unlike my Grandma Timm, I can not recall a single image of my Grandma Szucs smiling. I am sure she had her moments but it was probably after all of us kids left her house!

I keep a picture of my Grandma Timm on my hallway bookshelf. I say a cheerful “good morning” to her almost every day. I sometimes light incense and I always think that this bothers her but it reminds me of her smell and her hugs. She had a hard life from what I knew but my dad loved her deeply and she was the sort of kind, quiet, loving grandma that every kid should have.

Besides a loving grandma and we had a ‘cool’ babysitter in my cousin Barbara. As there were eight of us, babysitters were hard to come by. Barbara and her boyfriend, Dick, would babysit us and attempt to keep us in order. She amazed me with her skill at playing the boogie-woogie on the piano. She rocked before I knew what rocked meant. My mom would play “Beautiful Ohio” on the piano which was a melancholy tune with the refrain “in dreams again I see visons of what used to be”. Although a nice enough tune, it was sad. In sharp contrast, Barbara’s piano playing made my bones dance.

Barbara’s boyfriend Dick, soon to be husband, was the first man I met who actually talked in an “inside voice” before we called it an “inside voice”. He would actually look directly at you and speak softly. It was quite astonishing when heretofore every male figure seemed to always be yelling at me. I don’t recall much about him but he remains in my mind as the sort of fellow one should aspire to be. Soft, kind, and in love with my cousin.

Do any of these recollections matter? Why does this septuagenarian feel compelled to post stories on Facebook? Who cares? What’s the point? Don’t you have something better to do?

Georges Seurat is a famous painter who devised the painting technique known as pointillism. It is best known in his large-scale work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. This painting became the inspiration for the wonderful musical “Sunday in the Park with George”.

Pointillism is a technique of painting in which small, distinct dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image. That’s what my life is and what I think your life is. Small distinct dots, like Blackie, like Grandma Timm, like my cousin Barbara, like you, make up the secret story of my life.

My image, my story, my life would be incomplete without them. In fact, without each dot, there would be no story. Some, like my daughter Megan, have contributed a host of color dots that truly fill out who I am. Some contribute but a single dot, like Dick, but lend their color to other dots, like Barbara. Every single dot is crucial, even the dark ones.

It’s a Sunday morning and although “a day of rest” (going back to biblical admonitions), I am going out to plant trees (apple, peach, and pawpaw). I do have a talent for digging holes. I also have a talent for climbing out of them. I have learned it’s best to fill them with something that will, more than likely, outlive me.