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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Way Woody Tells It

by Peter Derk

Last spring at work, someone came into my office and said, “There's an old man with a cane here to see you.”
                I couldn't think who it might be.  I don't make a habit of hanging out with elderly men, and the only person I knew with a cane was my grandmother.    Canes are a point of interest for me, so if I had a friend with a cane, I’d know.  Some guys stop at scenic overlooks on the highway.  I skim the barrel of canes in the Walgreens’ pharmacy. 
I made sure my nametag was clipped straight and walked out to find Woody sitting on a bench, a dark brown cane leaning on the wall next to him.
He was fresh off a knee surgery, still tender.  He gave me a tight smile like he'd been borrowing my knee and was bringing it back busted up after hot-Roding it the last few years.
He’s never looked like a guy for whom injury is new.  He's still holding onto the thick, dorm room fridge of a body he's always had, but his beard was darker years ago when he hurt his arm at the gym, tearing his bicep away from what anchored it and clamping his other hand down to keep the muscle from escaping into his shoulder.  He had a little more hair when he broke his neck playing college football.  He was only a grade-schooler when a horse kicked him in the face, putting him out for the better part of an hour. 
He didn’t stand when I came out.  He sat next to his cane and said, “I'm done coaching.  Let's have a beer.”

The entire time I've known Woody Wilson, his story has been, “This is my last year coaching distance runners.”
Every year it's the same thing.  Then the spring rolls around and he's handing out photocopied calendars, workouts written in by hand.
                But this time he really quit.  The job posting is open.  He closed his little black book, the one filled with a career’s worth of names and race times, the one with tape goo on the front and the cover peeling away to show the cardboard bones underneath. 
We had that beer together.  A couple, maybe.  He told some of his great Woody stories.
Retelling some of Woody's stories feels a little like me picking up Degas' old brush to paint a cheap watercolor house without any sort of texture or depth, maybe not even a front door.  While I'm at it, I might as well wear Michael Jordan's jersey while throwing up bricks from a spot on the court he considers slam-dunk territory.
                Even though Woody's told them before, I like to goad him into telling them again, listening for how he does it.  He's a great coach and a generous man, but more than anything he can tell a story.

One of the best is from his childhood, when he lived near the rail yard.  If you've ever lived near a rail yard, dam, creek, quarry, an old mine, or just about anything that would interest a boy, you know that it's forbidden by parents with the same tone they use to warn about windowless vans and doing mushrooms.  If you grew up near any of those things, you also know that if you walked down there every day for a summer, every day you'd flush out a clump of boys who would run and scatter like dandelion seeds.
                So, of course, that's where Woody went.  Even though it wrinkles the skin around his eyes, you can still see the smile that pulled up his face as a boy, the one that took him and his brother down to the tracks.
                When Woody tells a story the details change.  It’s part of his style, the sort of storytelling that turns a lumberjack into a skyscraper and a dog into a bright blue ox.  In this story, the parts that are the same are the rail yard, his brother, and the ending.  The part that changes is the bridge.
                On one side of a set of tracks was a pole, like a telephone pole with rungs drilled into the sides.  On the other side of the tracks, same thing. And connecting these poles, maybe twenty, thirty, fifty feet over the ground, was a plank.
                The way Woody tells a story, wood is more like rubber, changing shape and contorting depending on the where he is, who's around him, and how many beers in you are.  Most times, the board bridging the two poles is something like a four-by-four.  For people not too acquainted with sizes, that's something like a fencepost, somewhere around the width of a kid's sneaker.  Maybe even a little thinner.
                After he tells the story far enough that the board takes shape, after his brother bets him a nickel that he won't, little Woody Wilson climbs one of the poles, sets a foot on the board, puts his arms out to his sides, and crosses. 
                The height keeps changing too, but it's never low enough that he could survive the fall.  Don’t worry.  He always makes it across.
                  The ending is always the same.  The story never ends with how dangerous it was, what his parents said, what Woody might have done to his own sons if they pulled something like that.  That same mischief smile comes back and Woody says, “My brother, he still never paid me the nickel he bet me.” 

Most times he'll steer things back around to running, runners, or races.  Over decades, he's collected a number of coaching disasters.
He'll talk about the time he had a runner, a girl, who couldn't finish a 3.1- mile race without puking all over herself. 
The way Woody tells the story, the mystery builds.  They try everything.  Eating less, eating earlier, eating different stuff, less water, more water, pink liquids, and just about everything that shares a pharmacy shelf with the pink liquids.   Nothing works. 
                He'll tell that part of the story first because he knows the order of things.  It's only after he's told you about this girl, has you convinced that this puking mystery is the entire story, that the real story starts.
                He says, “I hired a professional photographer to take pictures of all the kids.  Big, professional, 8-by-10's.  This was back in the days of film, so it's a big deal, but I thought it would be a nice thing for the parents to have at the end of the season.”
                The way he puts the story together, you see where it's going. 
                Of course, the photographer set up his equipment in the perfect spot at the regional meet.  Of course, he got a picture of every one of the kids coming around the bend.  Perfect light, perfect strides, perfect framing.  Of course.  And, of course, because this is Woody's story, a perfect shot series of the girl, the puker, captured at the moment when a rush of vomit was leaving her mouth. 
                Woody looked over her pictures.  They were like a flipbook.  Thumbing through them fast enough was like watching her vomit in real time.
                When he tells the story, he mimics the faces.
                The pictures were so bad that he had to scrap the whole idea.  He couldn't give pictures to every other kid and not to her.
                The way he tells the story, he's not mad at the girl.  He's not mad about the wasted money, or that the photographer managed to click the shutter at such a terrible moment.  With the patience he has for his runners, he laughs, the pictures tossed away a small price for the story.

There might be another beer, and if Woody has another beer, so will you. 
                Depending on which way things go, or what you ask, or if someone is putting up the chairs to start sweeping, he might tell a sad story.  He might tell you about how he's been afraid of lightning since he was a boy and a bolt from blue sky crushed a tree near the road he was walking, knocking him down and filling the air with a taste like clean rain and campfire.
                Depending on how that story goes, he might tell his other lightning story.  It has less detail than most of his stories.  It's short. He doesn't spend time filling in the names or the places.  It's a story about a kid, a runner, speared by lightning on the track.  Woody got to the kid and started CPR, pushing and breathing.
                He doesn't talk about the paramedics getting there, when he switched from pushing to watching, what happened in the next couple minutes and the next couple days. 
                He'll tell you enough to know that the kid didn't make it.  He won't say anything else about the parents.  He doesn't say he went to the funeral or if he wore a tie.
                His storytelling is merciful, minimalist in form when that’s what’s needed. 

This last time we talked, enough empty glasses on the table that we were figuring who might wake up and give us a ride home, Woody told me a new story.  It was from only a little while ago, just before he finished coaching.  It was still a little raw, not sanded down and smoothed out the way most of his stories are.
                He takes runners on a trip every year.  He's got a lifetime of stories that start this way.  Kids who've never been on a plane before and sit clutching the airsickness bag in both hands, listening studiously to the safety procedures.  Kids who learned all about the ocean in geography but didn’t know how salty it really was until they dove in open-mouthed.  Kids, like the one from this story, who were just damn slow.
                Woody has coached a lot of slow runners.  He has the patience, the kindness.  This runner, though, was especially slow, not to mention a little bit of a social outcast.
                The way Woody told the story, even in its unfinished form, was kinder.  He sprinkled in details about her way of dressing, about her ears parting the hair on either side like Bette Midler throwing apart curtains when she hits the stage.  He had a better way of saying she doesn't have friends.
                Her mom thought it would be good for her to go, so she asked.  Woody said okay.  Then he went straight home to figure out not whether the girl would come in dead last, but how long after the second-to-last place finisher they would have to keep the clock running for her.
                The way Woody tells it, the transitions aren’t silky yet, and this version cuts to Arizona, to a breakfast Woody and the slow runner eat while the other runners sleep.  The way Woody tells it, it's natural that a coach would set an early alarm to have breakfast with his absolute worst runner.  The way he tells it, it's normal that he smiles to her and starts his motivational speech by saying, “Life is pain.” 
                This is the part where the listener has to fill in the story a little, the part he hasn’t fit together all the way.
                He tells the runner that life is pain, that getting old is pain.  He doesn't mention to her that he'd gone in for a follow-up from his knee surgery that meant a flush and a catheter.  He mentions that growing old is pain, but he doesn't mention the particular pain of spending a week with teenagers in good health while you are pulled aside by airport security, taken to a separate room to show them papers for your metallic knee and to take down your pants.
Woody Wilson
                He says that going through school is pain.  He doesn't mention the time he broke his neck playing football.  He doesn't talk about going to school the after that horse kicked him in the face.
                He says that childbirth is pain, and the runner laughs.  He says to her, “When you're out there today, try running in pain.  It will get you ready for life.  I'm not going to tell you how fast or how slow or how much time you've been running.  I'm just going to shout Childbirth at you, and you'll know what I'm talking about.”

Like any Woody story, you think it's going to wrap up after his locker room speech, after he's standing on the sides, yelling Childbirth! at a young runner.  Then, you think it's over for sure when he says she ran the distance five minutes faster than her previous best. You think it ends when the other kids surround the girl, congratulating her.
                Woody always has a little more story.
                It ends that night, after the kids go to the mall to unwind, after they decide to give that slowest runner a makeover, after they go back to the hotel and announce "The Unveiling of Emily."
                It ends after one of the kids introduces Emily, who’s too nervous to come out of the bathroom.  It ends after a second announcement where Emily is pulled out of the bathroom for everyone to see.
                Where the story ends, Woody doesn't tell what she looked like.  Of course he doesn't.  That's where an amateur storyteller would go.  All he talks about is how good it felt that this kid, the one he had better ways of describing, could spend an evening at the center, not the slowest anything.  Just Emily.
The story isn't formed yet.  He never remembers the part about himself, where he gets a little credit.
Woody could teach anyone a little bit about telling stories.  He tells other peoples' stories better than they do, something never clearer than it was at his retirement when people were asked to share their favorite Woody memories.
One runner talked about the time Woody coached a state championship team.  She talked about winning, but she forgot all the Woody detail-warping, forgot to mention that he hurt his foot kicking a tree after he mistakenly thought a runner had dropped out.
                Another runner mentioned a couple favorite moments.  She got a little bit of the pacing Woody uses, telling a long race story that ended with a short, "Also, dancing with Woody at my wedding."

                Nobody came to pick us up after we went out for that beer, and by this time neither of us could drive.  Just like any other Woody story in the making, it didn’t end where we thought it would, which is how we ended up at a dance club trying to sweat out enough of the night to drive.
                I have a favorite Woody story.  It's about the first time I ran a ten-miler.  It's a good story, I think, and one that he would like.  I could tell it, but the way he tells it is much better.

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works as a librarian in Northern Colorado.  By his estimate, he’s doing a passable job on two out of those three things.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Reflections of My Mother

by Wilmer Frey
I wish I could say straightaway that my mother was an original, that she had remarkable insight into the issues of her day, that she served in the Peace Corps and loved to snowshoe, that she once toured the country as a green-eyed ballerina.
But I can’t. My mother was not an original. She was born and she grew up. She married, loved her husband, had children, loved her children, grew ill, grew old, died. There is a story in this sequence of events, a worthy and beautiful story, to be sure, but in large part it’s the old and often-told story of reflection. For to see my mother was to see who or what she stood next to. Invisibility was my mother’s gift. She was a natural. She disappeared as her personality and life journey dictated almost every day of her life.
Janet was my mother’s name. She was the second-oldest daughter of Irvin and Mary Martin, late of Pinola, Pennsylvania. Irvin, who died old, was a haphazard Mennonite farmer. He mostly wanted to go fishing. Mary, who died young, walked with a wooden leg. Ruth, the incoming step-mother, made the best of life with Irvin and his kids, and my mother came to respect her for that fact.
My mother had a handful of stories from her childhood that she told over and over. Anecdotes would be a better word for them. Quick snippets about being poor. Like how she and her brother Lester walked to the store for a single piece of gum, which they shared, one chewing for awhile, then the other; how her mother sewed burlap feed sacks into school dresses for her and her sisters; or how dreadful it was to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the loose town girls at the dress factory where she went to work at fifteen.

Janet Frey

There are two photos in our family photo collection of my mother as a teenager. In each she appears rigid and unhappy: her shoulders are thrust back, her back is unnaturally straight, and her arms push down through to the ends of her fingers as if forced. And because she was a Mennonite girl, her hair is pulled back and gathered under her prayer veiling, and she is wearing a traditional dark-colored Mennonite dress with cape. She wears glasses. She stares at the camera, but not entirely. Something separates her from the viewer.
As a boy I sometimes went looking for these two photos knowing that they would make me uncomfortable. They seemed invalid, untrue. They made my mother look cold, and I never knew her to be cold. Never once. She was warm and soft, something I knew on account of the countless times I slept on her shoulder during our drives home from church.  The heat from the heater would warm my legs, and the soft of her forearm would warm my head. When she softly hummed the hymns we had earlier sung from the pews, I would follow along in the dark and quiet. When I woke, we were home.
 My father’s name was Adin, and he and my mother were married in 1944. He was 19, a farm boy, she was 18. Their first home was on a farm they rented not far from the farms they grew up on. It took my father two years to buy his own farm, a few more years to buy a bigger one. This second farm featured a tall concrete silo, the tallest of any such silo in the state. My father was proud of his silo. He talked of it his entire life.
My mother, however, never mentioned the silo. But I believe she, too, was proud of it, if in a different way.  Because she was proud of my father. She was proud of everything he did and everything he said. My father, who was as short as his silo was tall, had the energy of the sun. And he put his energy into pursuing tall silos, literally and metaphorically, his entire life. My father’s energy was the main reason my mother was never seen. She was lost in its glare. The fact that she was two inches taller than he was did little to help her show through.
Life on Adin Frey’s second farm through the 1950’s was good. The template of Frey/American progress was established and consistently followed. Old barns were pulled down and new ones built, tractors were bought and sold, a straight, white, rail fence ran the length of the farm’s lane. There was much procreation—on the farm, turkeys and cows; in the home, children: Eugene, Robert, Linda, Fern, Miriam, Wilmer. And a still-born child never spoken of.
There were many Mennonite farm families in the surrounding area, and on Sunday afternoons directly after church, two or three of these families would often show up at our home for dinner. With the exception of deciding on who exactly to invite (my father weighed in heavily on this decision and also on who would be asked to give the blessing), my mother managed the entire operation. She and my sisters added additional boards to the table the night before, arranged the fancy plates and silverware, and unfolded my mother’s good Sunday apron and hung it from a hook.
As conservative Mennonite farmers eat mostly meat and potatoes, my mother’s Sunday dinners featured just that—roast beef and mashed potatoes, with maybe creamed corn or shelled peas as sides. For dessert, she served rice pudding, or molded Jello, or something called “Dirt Dessert.” It was humble fare by a humble woman for humble people. But then my mother’s only real interest in food was that it never be wasted.  Food as a means of self-expression was not something she would have understood or appreciated.
When the Sunday meal was almost ready, my mother would call in my father to cut the roast, and, the roast cut, he would call in the men from the living room. And for the length of the meal, my mother refused to sit down. Only in the minutes before dessert was started would she lean over the table and take a bit of roast beef without gravy and sit uncomfortably in her chair.
After dinner, the men gathered again in the living room, and the ladies, having cleaned the kitchen, made their circle there. In good weather, the men and women moved outside to sit separately on the porch. One of my favorite memories of my mother is hearing her Sunday-afternoon laughter coming from the ladies’ circle. My mother was always pleased to laugh, and she was good at it. Her contribution rose naturally out from her good-natured disposition like pure tap water. While it never rose significantly above the ladies’ collective laughter like Vera Eby’s or Ethal Strite’s did, it was present. It added. My mother’s quick laugh helped our community find and appreciate our home.
The above-mentioned still-born—that child, a girl, was not the only topic that went unmentioned in our home. There were quite a few unmentioned topics. And not surprisingly, the most telling of them was the most disconcerting: The fact of my mother’s regular and lifelong seizures. In the kitchen, in the turkey barn, in the church pew, in the shoe section of Newberry’s Five and Dime—we Freys would be living our Mennonite lives and suddenly out from my mother’s mouth—her tongue. Flat, pink, slowly, slipping out and back like a snake’s.
When my mother’s tongue appeared, time stopped. My father stopped it. He did this by instinctively reaching for her arm, leading her aside, and then staring dumbly at the floor. He did not move, comment, comfort, request assistance, or look elsewhere. He appeared not to breathe.
But somehow he knew when they were over. My mother’s seizures could last sometimes as long as several minutes, yet my father always knew.  And when they were over, it was over. My father had erased it. That’s why we never talked about my mother’s seizures. My father’s method of response made it such that there was nothing whatsoever to talk about. 
Sometime in the late 1960’s, my mother lost control of our car as she was exiting off Pennsylvania Interstate 81. It was mid-afternoon, she was alone, and she was driving 60 mph. As a result of the accident, she was hospitalized for several weeks.
News of the accident spread quickly, of course, and for those who knew of my mother’s affliction, the news prompted an immediate question about cause, an either/or question that went as follows:
a)      Had Janet fallen asleep?
b)      Had Janet had a …? 
After time proved that my mother was not only living, but that she was living without any trace of her former seizures, a new either/or question emerged, one that centered on the miraculous. This second question went like this:
Which miracle best exemplifies God’s wondrous kindness as manifested in the life of Janet Frey?
a)      The fact of her survival.
b)      The fact of her seizure-free life.
After the miracle of my mother’s survival and healing, it was okay to talk quietly about her seizures. But still, I have no memory of hearing my mother using the word.
The Mennonite tradition into which my mother was born dates to the Reformation. Her family’s Mennonite tradition dates to the late 1700’s, which is the beginning point of their genealogical record. The Martins were of the conservative branch of the Mennonite Church, as were the Freys, and when my mother and father married, they continued the tradition as they had inherited it.
Conservative Mennonites are preoccupied with dress. They hold that believers (male and female) should dress in a way that clearly separates them from the world, and that female believers should dress in a way that clearly shows their willful subordination to males and/or their husbands and that eliminates the influence of the female body.
So it was that my mother wore every day and night a white-gauze pray veiling or bonnet with two attending, narrow, ribbon-like strings that fell across her breast; plain, dark-colored dresses (with cape) that dropped to below her knees; dark woolen or nylon hose; and plain dark shoes. A black variation on this theme was worn on Sundays.
My mother never wore socks, pants, jewelry, or make-up. When it was exceedingly cold, she would sometimes wear a pair of my father’s pants under her dress.
In the mid-1960’s, the Mennonite church that my family attended underwent a congregational split. More liberal-thinking members went one way, more conservative-thinking members another. My parents sided with the liberals (my father served as their leader), a fact that gradually lessened the severity of my mother’s dress. The Mennonite look that she presented at the end of her life was quite different from that which she presented when I was a boy.
Years later my mother would say that she and my father had not always been correct about church doctrine. She hinted that they had said words and felt thoughts that they regretted. The experience, the painful experience, of the church’s conflict and eventual separation had taught her this, she said. 
And in the context of her revelation, she would sometimes quote a verse that my father often quoted: Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
In 1960, my father added an adjoining 150 acre farm to the one he owned, moved my mother and my five siblings into the new farm’s old farmhouse, built a few barns, a retail store building, and erected a sign by the road to explain it all. The sign’s two lines read: Frey’s Farm Dairy. From The Cow To You. Under the text was a large black and white illustration of a Holstein cow.
Frey’s Farm Dairy was a jugging dairy, which means my father pasteurized, bottled, and retailed his cows’ milk directly on and from his farm. Neighbors were his first customers, then people from our town, and in a year or so, people from many surrounding towns. My mother helped in the store early on, but fronting the business as clerk or otherwise was something she never understood.
As the dairy grew and expanded, my father grew noticeably proud. He was pleased to see his picture in the local paper. He was pleased to be seen driving a new-model, dark-green Oldsmobile every year. But again, my mother was prouder of her husband then she was of his possessions. When I grew older and often said unpleasant things about him and his dairy, she would always remind me that he was a good manager.
My father was for my mother everything her father was not.
My mother lived the last twenty years of her life with a gradually worsening case of Alzheimer’s. Her last twelve years were spent in complete dementia. My father tended to her until he died, as did my sisters and various in-home nurses. Year after year after year she lay in her bed and fidgeted with a corner of her blanket. She lost her mind, her voice, her mobility, her teeth, her hair. 
During the early stages of her illness, visitors would regularly call, friends and neighbors from the days when she served Sunday dinners in the farmhouse just across the fields. But as my mother slowly disappeared, so, too, did her visitors. In the end, few people stopped by the house.
My mother, who died at 83, outlived my father by three years, something that secretly pleases me. She could smile at the end, almost chuckle.  My daughter, Quetzal, who was three when my mother died, enjoyed helping when my wife and I changed my mother’s diaper. Sometimes when we were tending to her, my mother would fix a far-away stare on Quetzal and giggle. When this happened, Quetzal would take the palm of my mother’s crooked hand into her own perfect one and massage it with her thumb.  Leaning in from the little stool she stood on, she whispered into my mother’s ear. She said that everything would be okay.
When Quetzal was two, my wife and I traveled to Pennsylvania for a two-week stay with my mother over Christmas. We wanted the chance to help care for her, and we wanted Quetzal to have the opportunity to know her as her grandmother.
One morning soon after we had fed and changed my mother, Quetzal came into the kitchen with an old rag doll she had found, one I remembered from my childhood. Showing us first the doll and then glancing into the living room where her grandmother lay sleeping, she said:
I can’t wait until grandma is old enough to talk.

Wilmer Frey lives on a small farm in New Hampshire. He edits an online publication called Earthstorys.