Independence Day

04 July 2003

[photo of Dad's last Independence Day]

This photo seems like a run-of-the mill snapshot, doesn’t it?

Not to me.

To me, this photograph is loaded with meaning, so much meaning I don’t even know where to begin (though I know where to end).

This is a photograph, taken late in the afternoon of Independence Day 1995, showing Jeff and me playing croquet. Dad is walking over to sit on the porch. He has only seventeen more days to live.

Notable elements in this photograph:

The house
This is the house in which my father was raised (and Aunt Virginia, too). It is Grandma’s House (or, less often, Grandpa’s House). My grandparents moved here in the late 1940s, and every picture I have of my father as a child shows him someplace on this property. The house is just a quarter mile from Custom Box Service, which itself is housed in the trailer house where I was raised. This is the house where we’d meet all our cousins, ride on Grandpa’s tractor, tromp back to the woods, pick corn and blueberries and flowers. This is the house where I learned to play Scrabble, where I used Bible tracts to learn to read. This is the house with the big chest freezer on the back porch, stocked with Popsicles. This is the house where the pantry was filled with canned fruit, the pantry which smelled rich and thick and musty. This is the house where we gathered and sang as Grandma died. This is Grandma’s House. I grew up here.
The tree
Between the house and the croquet players stands a flowering plum. When I was a child, this was my favorite tree. Every other tree I knew had green leaves, but this tree’s leaves were red. It was also a relatively young tree, and though its branches were tightly bunched at the trunk, it was easy for me to climb. It’s the first tree I ever climbed. Later, when I was a bit taller, the oak tree in the back yard became my tree of choice. It was stouter, with more room to maneuver. In the uncropped version of this photo, the oak peers over the rooftop in the upper left corner.
The barn (and outbuildings)
Also in the ucropped version of this photo, one can see the barn looming in the upper right corner. In the photo as shown, only the woodshed is visible, behind me (and my lovely plaid Costco shirt), to the right of the house. I don’t know if Grandpa built these outbuildings (Virginia, do you know?). Regardless, they were the playhouses of my youth. In the barn, we’d torment the cows, play with the tools, or climb to the hay loft where we’d burrow in the bales or walk across the strange slatted floor. We’d help Grandpa split firewood from the woodshed or, across the wall, we’d watch the indicator for the electric fence buzz on and off. Bzzzt. Bzzzt. One of the outbuildings we actually called a playhouse, and it was furnished with a little table and chairs and plates and glasses, etc. (Only recently did I learn that it was a good thing we didn’t play with everything in the playhouse — Grandpa stored his blasting equipment there!)
The Geo Storm
Just to Jeff’s right my Geo Storm is visible. I had a love-hate relationship with that vehicle. It drove well, it’s true, and it took a tremendous amount of abuse. But the seat made my back sore, and the car was always dirty, no matter how hard I tried to clean it. The back seat was uncomfortable for passengers. When the Storm was totaled in December 2000, I wasn’t sad for long; the joy of my new Ford Focus masked any sorrow. Now, though, I miss the blue beast, especially its manual transmission. Oh, how I hate automatics…
Jeff and J.D.
There we are: playing croquet. I’m kicking Jeff’s ass! We both look rather chunky; we each weigh over two hundred pounds. Three years later I will have dropped forty pounds. Five years later, Jeff will have done the same. Today, in 2003, we’re both back up over two hundred pounds.
Snickers
Behind us, stretched on the lawn, is an orange and white cat named Snickers. Snickers and my cat, Toto, are littermates, though Snickers is possessed of a much sweeter temperament. Snickers is just over a year old in this photograph, and not yet Mom’s devoted baby. They’d bond later…
Dad
This was Dad’s last Independence Day. The last year of his life. The last month. This was one of his bad days. He didn’t feel well. He couldn’t eat much. The cancer inside of him had won the battle and was now overwhelming his last defenses. He’d once weighed 240, but when this photograph was taken he probably weighed 180. Maybe 160. (His weight-loss is due both to the cancer and to the macrobiotic diet.) Here he’s walked from the back of the house to sit on the front steps and watch us play croquet. He won’t say much. He’ll simply spend twenty minutes watching his sons hit balls with mallets. It’s the last time in his life he’ll do anything of that sort. Over the next seventeen days, he’ll spend a lot of time in the hospital, undergoing various cancer treatments. He’ll also sleep a lot. Two weeks from this day, on the eighteenth, he’ll sit with me in his office and without a hint of hope for the future he’ll outline those things that he absolutely wants me to know above all others about the business (he’s especially worried about collecting on past-due accounts, doesn’t think any of us are ready to do that). All animosity between us is gone. We’re free of it. Three days after that meeting, seventeen days after this photograph was taken, he’ll be dead. I’ll be making sales calls in Salem and Tash will call and tell me to come back to the shop immediately: Dad’s in trouble. I drive fast, but when I get to the office, things seem better. Mom and Dad are at the hospital and he’s under observation. Jeff and I get together with Joel and Sabino and Roger to play games, the first of a planned series of game nights. I make fajitas for dinner. The fajitas are sizzling on the stove when Mom calls, crying, and tells me that we’d better get to the hospital right now. It’s rush hour. Jeff drives from Canby to North Portland as quicky as possible, but when we get there, he’s gone. It’s 6:00 p.m. on 21 July 1995, just ten days before his fiftieth birthday.

This is the last photograph I have of Dad before his death. It may not look like much, but it’s packed with meaning.

Comments

On 03 July 2003 (01:02 PM),
Dana said:

The back seat was uncomfortable for passengers

That’s an understatement. But hey, if Harlan Ellison will pitch for a car company, they can’t be all bad, right? :)

On 03 July 2003 (03:56 PM),
Nikchick said:

Maybe it’s just the stress of the last couple of weeks catching up with me, but this entry made me cry.

I’m so sorry about your dad, J.D. We were out of touch for the entirety of his illness and he died years before we got back in contact. I’ve always been sentimental about your dad, I was star-struck as a kid: he was an *inventor* (which in my mind was a cool as if someone told me they’d taken the game Mouse Trap and made it their job for real).

I guess I’m not entirely used to the idea of him not being out there somewhere.

On 03 July 2003 (03:57 PM),
jeremyw said:

jd, thanks for explaining all the hidden meaning and memories. makes me want to dig out some of my old photos and explore the past.

On 03 July 2003 (04:12 PM),
Tiffany said:

Hi Jd,
That was wonderful.
I often wish that Kris and I had one house to grow up in so that we felt that connection to a place. I used to feel that way about my Grandparents� houses.
I made the mistake of driving past me Grandpa�s house (Mom�s Dad) when I learned to drive, some 4 years after his death. It ruined some of the memories, the house was no longer yellow and the morning glories had been removed from the front fence. Some of my best memories are watching Road Runner cartoon on Saturdays before anyone else woke up while smelling those flowers.
My dad and aunts are in the processes of cleaning out me Grandma�s house (Dad�s Mom). If I can avoid it I will never go back to her house, I do not want to see the changes. The giant cactus has been removed from the front because it was to close to the driveway. The downstairs bathroom has been repainted. This is the bathroom that had huge flowered wallpaper with gold foil my whole life. The front bedroom that was a bright Kelly green has also been repainted. I always thought both were ugly, but do not want to see it any other way.
If you or brothers can help it, never let go of that house.

On 03 July 2003 (09:24 PM),
Virginia said:

Sometime either the 2nd or 3rd of July, Stan and I were at Steve’s place for a back yard BBQ. I can still see him out under the oak tree in the back yard fixing sliced onions on the grill. AT dark we also watched a coon come out and eat dog food out of the wood shed. When we first got to his place that night there was a note on the door. He had gone to the hospital to get a IV of platelets. He would be home in a little while. I marvel at how brave he was.

The oak tree in the back yard was one mom had planted. She found it in a clump of flowers she had bought at a nursery. It was only about 3″ high. She planted it and watered it with loving care but us kids always new the secret of its fast and hardy growth. She planted it right on the spot where the out house had stood. The tree is about 43 years old.

The old play house and other buildings were on the place when Dad bought it. Dad bought 2 places together. The Riecer place and the Gates place.
Custom Box Service is on the Gates Place and Grandpa’s house is on the Riecer place. There used to be a house and barn where CBS is now but we burnt the house down a few years later, and years later the barn. It was years because Stan and I used to park in front of that barn.

I remember the night we burned the house Norm would have been about 11 or 12, old enough that he thought it was big stuff to be able to help light the house on fire and he wouldn’t get out of the house right away. He finally stepped out the front door and off the porch and just a few minutes later the porch roof collapsed.

I remember a little room off of the dinning room of the Gates house. There was an old man living there and he would sit at a writting desk in that little room. I often wished I had little room with a writting desk, I would sit and write lots of stories. (But I guess I’ll let Tammy be the story writer)

My brothers and I were close. I remember going with Norman on his first date with Janice. She was my very good friend and he was nervous, so he wanted me with him. He took her home from churh (Sweet Home) and we stopped at the Dairy Queen. She must have been nervous too, because she hung onto my hand very tightly on the way home.

I had the greatest brothers!!!!!!

On 03 July 2003 (10:46 PM),
Tammy said:

Oh my goodness JD. It’s enough to make one weep! I remember sitting in the hospital roon after your dad died but thats really all I remember. I remeber Nick being there but for some reason I don’t remember you boys.

And that smell in Grandmas fruit room. Who can forget it. Every once in a while I will get a smell of it in my shed in the fall when all the apples are ripe. And many times my front hall smells like the Zion church. I think it’s all the wood in there. It has to be because theres nothing else in there; wood closet doors, outside door, and pocket door.

And those Bible tracts grandma always had. How scarey were they? Everybody ended up going to hell in them, until you turned the last page and then someone had listened to the preachers revival sermon and made it to heaven. Maybe this helped foster your love of cartoons too. Remember how they were all written like cartoons?

And the zapping of those lights in Grandpas shop! how fascinating was that? I can’t tell you the times I got shocked on grandpas fences! You’d think I’d have learned from one time to the next!

But try as I will I do not remember pop cycles in the chest freezer. She must have saved all those for when you boys came to visit! I do remember the eclair cookies! Every time I spent the night she stocked up on those! I could eat the entire pack without blinking an eye. To this day I love htose cookies but you can hardly find them. The nearestthing to them are pinwheels and they’re not nearly as soft a marshmellow as the eclair ones were.

Your entry reminds me of part of a poem I memorized as a girl. It comes from a very old book calledThe Rosary. It goes like this:

“Oh memories that bless and burn; Oh barren gain and bitter loss! I count each bead until the end, and there – a cross!

On 04 July 2003 (12:30 PM),
tony said:

as sad as some of it was, that was really great. thanks for sharing all of that with us, because youre right, at first glance the average guy doesnt see anything in that picture but just a lush backyard.

On 04 July 2003 (06:51 PM),
Tammy said:

Actually thats the front yard. :) (Not that it matters)

On 05 July 2003 (12:31 PM),
Aimee said:

Perhaps it’s already been said: Beautiful, JD. Thank you.

On 06 July 2003 (07:18 PM),
Scott said:

I have always been a fan of your writing, from “California” (I still like the rooftop scene) to the poem about a sawbuck, ionesco and hemingway, and then today’s entry. I’d really like to see you create “your” novel. The one hidden deep. But then again, maybe your weblog is your novel.

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