Before I went to bed, I wanted to share the poem I wrote for my father's funeral this morning. Tomorrow, after I've had a chance to sleep and recover a little bit, I will write something a little more coherent.
Saint Marty didn't realize how much he was going to miss his dad. Until today.
The Quiet Man
by: Martin Achatz
Last night, I dreamed my dad and John Wayne
were sitting around a campfire, eating
peaches out of a can. Stars thick as cattle herds
milled above them, and the prairie grass
hummed some sweet old song like "Red River Valley"
or "Shenandoah." I'm not sure if was heaven,
but my father was young and perfect, the hook
of his back as straight as a railroad spike.
Duke was young, too, the retired prizefighter
who chased Maureen O'Hara through the green
Galway countryside. There weren't any Nazis
crawling along the ground in ambush, no
Richard Boone-faced kidnappers, skin
leathery as buffalo jerky, trying to steal
their sleeping horses. I'm not sure
if you can smell in dreams, but I remember
smelling manure and smoke and something else.
Maybe the coming of rain. My dad and Duke
didn't talk, just forked golden crescents
into their mouths, looking as if they were eating
solar eclipse after solar eclipse. Their forks
made hollow cowbell noises in the dark.
When they were done, they tipped the cans
to their lips, drank the syrup inside
until it ran down their chins. I kept
waiting for something more to happen,
a runaway stagecoach to crash through
or a baby elephant nosing for hay.
Instead, my dad took a deck of cards
from his pocket, started dealing.
They played gin rummy, hand after hand.
My dad let John Wayne win, because he was
John Wayne and because that's what
my dad did every morning with my mother
for years and years. He did it because
it was a habit of love. Maybe that's the name
of this movie: Habit of Love. It starts out
simply enough. Two cards. Dealt face up.
The king and queen of hearts.
Saturday, February 17, 2018
It is Saturday night. My father's funeral Mass was this morning. It started with a military ceremony, because my dad was a Korean War vet. Taps played. When they handed my mother the flag and said, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service,” I started crying. I pretty much kept crying for the rest of the service.
It's strange. I haven't cried a whole lot over this past week. Probably because I have kept myself so busy with work and teaching and readings. Until this morning, I hadn't had a chance to process things. Grief had to take a back seat. Not today, I guess. By the time the funeral lunch was over, I was completely done. Exhausted. Pushing through mud. I went home and slept.
I am probably going to sleep a lot more tonight. I've been running on adrenaline since last Thursday. I think my store of that particular hormone has been depleted. However, my wife's cousin gave me two little bottles of Rum Chata at the funeral. I plan on cracking them open tonight.
That's about all I have for tonight. I'm weary and sad.
Saint Marty promises to try to talk about something besides death and sadness tomorrow.
Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Melville's description of the clam and cod chowder at the Try Pots inn almost makes me hungry. I've never been much for seafood chowder of any sort, but Ishmael tempts me to try a bowl of it today. It is Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday, which seems like some kind of liturgical practical joke. In the Christian calendar, today marks the first day of Lent, which means a whole lot of fasting and sacrifice. Contemplation of faults and sins. A time to abstain, not indulge. The menu of the Try Pots is perfect for this day.
Yet, it is also Valentine's Day--a time to celebrate love and romance. Cardboard hearts filled with chocolates. Romantic dinners, usually involving steak and lobster, not clam chowder. This day is supposed to celebrate indulgence, in food and dessert and sex and love. It seems like the polar opposite of Ash Wednesday.
So, how do you reconcile these two celebrations?
I bought my wife a Valentine's Day card. Before I left for work, I put it on her purse. Today, I have tried to fast between meals--no cheese popcorn or Hershey nuggets or bagels. Instead of my normal chicken sandwich, I had crackers and cheese for lunch. (In the Catholic tradition, you are not allowed to eat meat on Ash Wednesday.) Now, I am fasting again. I don't know if or when I will eat dinner.
At lunch time, I did eat some chocolate. Tonight, I may eat some more chocolate. I honestly think that fasting from meat or between meals can be a strong reminder of the importance of sacrifice. Hunger is a huge problem in the world. However, to feel deprived because I can't eat a Milky Way between breakfast and lunch is kind of stupid. Likewise, feeling somehow closer to God by eating fish instead of hamburger seems ridiculous.
This Lent, I have a project that I'm going to be working on. I'm not going to share the details here. When I do broadcast what my Lenten sacrifice/project is going to be, I set myself up for failure. This time, I am going to keep it private, and, at the end of these 47 days, hopefully I will have something to show for it. Something that I can be proud of. Something for my dad.
I will be going to the Ash Wednesday service at my wife's church this evening. My forehead will be smudged black with ashes. I will listen to the pastor's message on sacrifice and preparation, and I will be duly grateful and humbled. I really don't deserve any of the blessings in my life.
But that's what God's grace is all about. You don't earn it. He just gives it to you.
Saint Marty is thankful for new projects.
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Really, this entire chapter from Moby-Dick is a love letter to Nantucket, full of legend and poetry. Look at that last image: ". . . the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales." I probably didn't need to repeat those lines, but I love them so much that I couldn't resist. It really paints a picture of the place and people who live there.
In a lot of ways, the description of Nantucketers sort of reminds me of the residents of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We are rugged folk who don't really slow down for bad weather. Sure, schools get shut down because of snow and ice. Yes, the Mackinac Bridge is closed in due to high winds (mostly to protect non-Yoopers from being blown over the railing into the Straits of Mackinac). I can remember one sub-zero Saturday afternoon when I saw an older woman fall on the sidewalk outside of church. I rushed over to see if she was injured. "No," the woman said, "but if you could just help me up." I lifted her to her feet. She limped into church and stayed for the whole Mass. Two months later, I found out that she had fractured four vertebrae when she fell. That is a true Yooper story.
Most of my relatives live downstate or in Wisconsin. They are all very leery about travelling through the U. P. in February to attend my father's funeral. In fact, several people who were very close to my father have begged off, citing weather and ice and cold as the reasons. I'm not judging them. I understand their reluctance to travel several hundred Upper Peninsula miles. If you are not used to the weather in this rocky, shark-shaped piece of land, you probably should stay home.
My dad loved this place. When he was living in Detroit, he always drove to the U. P. for deer hunting season. He told me stories of waiting at the Straits to take a ferry from Mackinaw City to Saint Ignace before the Bridge was built. (If you're a Yooper, you don't have to say "Mackinac Bridge.") The cars and trucks would be lined up for hours, he said, and people would walk up and down, selling sandwiches and coffee to the waiting hunters. In the summer, my dad and mom would pack all us kids into the family van and drive from Detroit to the far end of the U. P. We would stay in a camp in Gay, Michigan, not too far from Lake Superior, for two weeks, taking saunas and fishing and making bonfires.
Even though my father was born in Detroit, in his heart, he was always a Yooper. He moved us to the U. P. when I was seven or eight. I have very little memory of living in Detroit. My childhood was in Ishpeming. The Upper Peninsula is my home. It's where I'm rooted. When I write poems or essays or stories or blog posts, I can hear the waves of Lake Superior lapping in my ears. I carve my images from snow and ice.
Once he moved to the Upper Peninsula, my dad didn't leave it very often. Maybe for a funeral or wedding, but that's about it. I think he enjoyed the isolation of this land. Enjoyed being surrounded by water. It was the closest he could come to living on a deserted island. I think that's why I like the U. P., as well. I like the idea that, if somebody wants to visit me, they're really going to have to work at it.
Over these last few days, I've been trying to find my father in myself. We were very different people, with different beliefs and values. Yet, we were exactly the same in our love for this place. He made sacrifices to move his family here. I made sacrifices to keep my family here. Yet, I wouldn't change a thing about my life. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens a little, one must have a mind of winter to live in the Upper Peninsula.
My dad had a mind of winter. So do I.
Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for his Yooper father.