Personal, Stories Told

James W. Grey, Jr., 1941-2018

My father died last Wednesday, one day after his 77th birthday.

I’m sure I will have a lot to write about my father in the months to come. My relationship with my father is a key part of who I am — for better, and for worse. I’ve had to do considerable work as an adult sorting out my childhood and my adult relationship with him to find happiness and good emotional health. Writing about him and about that process will help me grieve this loss.

Today, I want to tell his life story. Settle in for a long read, because even treating his life in thumbnail I wrote more than 3,500 words.

JWG Sr Jr proc
James Grey, Sr., with James Grey, Jr.

James Wilson Grey, Jr., was born January 9, 1941 in Handley, West Virginia, a small railroad town just down the Kanawha River from Charleston. His father, James W. Grey, and his mother, Bertha (Legg) Grey, were from that little town’s two most prominent families.

Prominence is relative, of course. In the remote hills of West Virginia, what qualified those families as such was that Dad’s grandparents owned the town’s two most important businesses. His paternal grandmother owned a tavern and boardinghouse that served the rail workers, and his maternal grandmother owned a general store. Dad’s parents lived in an apartment above the general store.

“Everybody in town owed money to my grandmothers,” my father said many times. “It let me go anywhere and do anything in that little town. I was the prince of Handley.”

But there is no way to sugar coat it: Dad had a difficult childhood. He was born while his father was away in the Navy fighting World War II. He remembers clearly his father coming home from the war: this man he did not know walked into the apartment and embraced his mother. It angered my young father, who ran to this strange man and started pounding on his legs in a vain attempt to protect his mother.

His parents’ reunited marriage did not last long: late one night, Dad’s mom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Dad, his younger sister Karen, and his parents all slept in the apartment’s one bedroom, and the commotion woke everybody up. My father, at four years old, watched his mother die.

JWGJr - Bert Legg Grey - x - John Eugene Grey - Mom Grey maybe - x boy - Katie maybe proc
At left, my dad in the arms of Bertha (Legg) Grey, his mother. Next to her is Rae Grey, wife of Dad’s uncle Tom; Ethel Grey, Dad’s grandmother, and Katy Hall, Ethel Grey’s half sister. Dad’s grandfather, John Eugene Grey, stands behind all the women. The boy at bottom might be Rae’s son Tommy.

Dad entered school that fall and refused to speak to his teacher. I’m sure this was in part because of his shock over losing his mother. But Dad said it was also because his teacher was an unkind woman who took pleasure in pushing children down the side of the hill when their backs were turned. Dad had to repeat the first grade because of his recalcitrance, but fortunately a different woman taught first grade the next year and Dad participated.

Dad’s dad was a laborer who had quit school after the 8th grade, and was also a drinker and a fighter. He had no idea how to raise small children, and he had to work. So Dad and Karen went to live with their grandmother, Ethel Grey. The whole family called her Mom. She was a tough, ornery woman, busy with her tavern and, I believe, still raising the youngest of her many children. While I’m sure she loved her grandchildren, the last thing she needed was more children to raise.

Dad and Karen
Dad and Karen

The stories Dad told me about living in his grandmother’s tavern, in a room directly above the kitchen, make me think he felt like he was a burden to his grandmother. And he missed his dad, whose work took him away for long periods. Sometimes his dad drove a truck, and he would delight his young son by making his route run through Handley. I believe one summer Dad even got to ride with his dad on one trucking trip. Other times his dad took factory and construction work in South Bend, Indiana, where some of his brothers had relocated. Other of Dad’s uncles and his one aunt remained in West Virginia and were involved in raising my father and his sister.

All I have are Dad’s stories, which I heard over and over throughout my life, to have any idea what growing up in Handley was like. Through them my sense is that it was a scrappy place, one where you were expected to fight for your honor. You especially did not say unkind things about anybody’s mother. Casual words about Dad’s mother having passed on led to a few fights.

Dad as boy 1
Dad as probably a preteen

Handley was a place that the law could not easily reach. Mom Grey famously used to stand on her tavern’s front porch and kill squirrels with her shotgun so all would see she was a good shot and know not to mess with her. She locked the tavern door at 11 pm each night, and instructed all of her children that she guarded that door with her shotgun and that if they tried to enter that door after 11 pm, she would assume it was an intruder and would shoot them right through the door.

But for all her pluck and drive, raising two children may have become too much for Mom Grey as Dad and Karen got older. The story as Dad tells it was that the family liked to pick on Karen at the dinner table. Dad kept silent, but never liked it. His anger grew until one day he had quite an outburst over it. This upset and frightened Mom Grey enough that she immediately sent Dad and Karen to South Bend to live with their father. Dad was 11.

Dad learned quickly that while he might have been the Prince of Handley, he was considered just a dumb hillbilly in South Bend. His dad reinforced this thought, telling him point blank that he was going to have to fight the boys who dared call him that. But my father was anything but dumb. The schools in South Bend assumed they’d have to put this kid from West Virginia’s hills back a year, but Mom Grey insisted to school officials that he be tested for placement. He tested well and was able to stay in his grade.

Dad was tall and athletic, so he was recruited to the basketball team, his first time ever playing the game. He also played a lot of baseball and, at least by his stories, developed a pitching arm good enough that he was being scouted. His father valued work over baseball dreams, however, and insisted that his son quit baseball and get a paper route. By the time Dad reached high school, he had been recruited to the swim team.

Dad at 18
Dad in 1958, a senior in high school

But as he moved through high school, he no idea what he’d do with his life. He felt sure college was out of the question. Even if it wasn’t, what would he study? Nothing really interested him. I think he was angry, feeling shortchanged in his life: having lost his mother, not having felt wanted by his family, not seeing a future for himself. And so his senior year he simply didn’t attend several of his classes for the first 23 days of the first semester. It earned him automatic Fs in those classes, cost him his place on the swim team, and earned his father’s anger. “You blew it, kid,” Dad told me his father said to him. The manufacturing plant where he worked was offering scholarships to employee children to attend Purdue University, and those Fs scuttled Dad’s chances.

Upon graduating, unsure what was next for himself, Dad disappeared for a couple days. Knowing he’d have hell to pay when he got home, he stopped by the U.S. Navy recruiter’s office and enlisted. Dad walked into his father’s apartment and, without a word, laid the enlistment papers before him. “It’s about damn time,” was all his father would say.

Dad home from boot camp 1960ish
Dad home from boot camp, probably 1959

Dad said many times that while he was in the Navy, he was drunk as often as he could be. Yet he also expected to make a career out of the Navy. He became a radarman. He served during the Bay of Pigs Invasion; his ship raced toward Cuba as fast as it could but it was all over before they arrived. Dad’s ship also participated heavily in building US goodwill, possibly as part of Dwight Eisenhower’s People to People program. Dad’s ship visited many ports all over the East with the purpose of allowing sailors to meet and mingle with local people. Dad told stories of a state dinner in one obscure country where he got the governor’s son in trouble, of eating sushi in a dark Japanese pub where when he got to the bottom of the plate he found two fish eyeballs staring up at him, and of singing his best Elvis impersonation on stage in a small Philippine town.

Dad’s sister Karen was found to have ovarian cancer while Dad was in the Navy, and she died. He was granted leave to attend her funeral. The timeline is not entirely clear to me, but it was during this time that he lost his zeal for a Navy career and let his enlistment end, and that he met my mother.

Mom1963
Carole Ann Frederick, 1963

Carole Ann Frederick grew up in an upper-middle-class South Bend neighborhood, the daughter of an engineer who worked for the Bendix Corporation, a prestigious South Bend employer. There was no end to the men from her family’s social circles who were interested in her, but none of them drew her in. Then she met my father. She knew he was a drinker, that he was always out at bars hustling pool, and that other women hung loosely around him all the time. But she fell, and fell hard. And so did Dad.

Mom expected she would live a party lifestyle with my father. Her parents didn’t approve, and it wasn’t how she was raised, but she was head over heels for my dad and was going to live whatever life he made for them. But when they married, Dad turned his life around. He learned to weld and got a decent factory job, ending up at the Oliver Corporation, which made farm implements. He stopped drinking and insisted that they be asleep by 10 pm each night so he could be ready to work each day. Dad built his life around his work and his wife.

Jim Grey Jr. 1968ish
Dad was proud to work at Oliver. Here he is in one of the company’s tractors, in about 1968.

They first rented an apartment in South Bend above a real-estate office. Mom worked downstairs while Dad went off to Oliver’s.

But then in July of 1964, one month to the day after their wedding, Dad’s father fell to his death in a construction accident. It was an awful blow to Dad, who adored and idolized his father. Dad withdrew deeply into himself. It was a terrible strain on my parents’ young marriage.

Everyone to whom my father would have been closest in childhood, his parents and his sister, were gone. But Mom Grey was still alive and had retired to South Bend. Three of Mom Grey’s children, Dad’s uncle William and uncle Tom, and his aunt Betty, all lived and worked in town, too. And, in time, Dad remembered that he had his wife and was building his future with her.

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927 Lancaster Drive, South Bend, our first family home

I came along in August of 1967. I was named for my grandfather, a man I never had the fortune to know. My parents moved from their apartment into a tiny ranch house. Dad made little money then; were they not able to assume a mortgage from a family desperate to get out, they could not have afforded even that basic house. We lived there, in a neighborhood we called Rabbit Hill, until 1976.

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Mom Grey, my brother, and me, 1969

My brother Rick came in July of 1968 and then our family was complete. Dad kept on at Oliver’s, which became White Farm Equipment, and moved from the factory floor to be the plant’s quality control man. With increasing fortune we were able to buy a larger home in a nicer South Bend neighborhood. Our lives were typical for the time: a nuclear family with Dad working, Mom staying home, and the kids walking to school.

dad&son 5x7
Dad and me, about 1970

We lived a quiet life. We weren’t joiners. We didn’t go to church. We were home a lot. It was by Dad’s design. His young life had been so chaotic that he absolutely insisted upon stability for his family. It was stability almost to the point of stagnation — yet there was real comfort in knowing that Dad would be home by 4, dinner would be on the table by 5, and we would spend our evenings quietly, with the newspaper, the TV on low, and our homework.

In the early 1980s, as manufacturing began its downturn in northern Indiana, White was sold and its pension fund liquidated. Soon the plant closed. Dad had nothing to show for 18 years of service. Dad spent a lot of time in bed. It wasn’t spoken of, but I assume now that he was deeply depressed.

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Our family with Aunt Betty, Dad’s father’s sister, in about 1980

But back on Rabbit Hill, a couple had moved in next door in about 1966 who became my parents’ best friends. Dean Porter moved from New York state to South Bend with his wife Carol to join the faculty at Notre Dame and curate the school’s art gallery. My parents played Canasta with them almost every Saturday night for more than 40 years. Dean achieved his Ph.D. during those early years, and worked to fulfill the university’s goal of building a large, new art museum. He raised the funds and oversaw the construction, and when it completed he became its first Director.

DeanPorter1984
Dad’s best friend, Dean, in our home at Christmas, 1984

This was about the time Dad lost his job. Dad had dabbled in woodworking as a hobby and had made a small wooden keepsake box for Dean as a birthday gift. Dean called Dad: “I need someone to design and build benches for patrons to sit on, and pedestals for art to rest on, throughout my new museum. I want you to do the work.” Dad said, “But Dean, all I’ve ever made are little boxes like yours! What makes you think I can make these benches and pedestals?” Dean’s reply was simple: “I know you can do it.” And with that, Dad went into the cabinetmaking business. It was a family affair: Dad designed and built the pieces, my brother and I did grunt work like moving lumber and sanding, and Mom managed the books. Mom also got a job as an aide at the nearby elementary school. It kept our family going. If you visit Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art today and sit down in a gallery, you will be sitting on one of Dad’s benches.

Dad alternated between cabinetmaking, including building furniture for private clients, and working in various manufacturing management jobs. These were the years my brother and I were in college. My father’s entire goal of parenthood was to see that his sons went to college. He always felt that his lack of education limited him. There was evidence for that: at one company where he rose to Plant Manager, when it came time to build a larger plant (because my father had increased productivity so much) they replaced him with a fellow with a master’s degree. But more than that, I think he was ashamed to have only a high-school education. A college education would prove to all that he wasn’t a dumb hillbilly.

My brother and I were both intelligent and did well in public school. Thanks to need-based federal financial aid and a large grant from the Lilly Foundation, which was then helping first-generation college students attend private colleges, I was able to attend Rose-Hulman, a top engineering school, and Rick was able to attend Notre Dame. Still, the portion of tuition, room, and board that Mom and Dad had to bear left them with next to nothing during our college years. But my brother and I both graduated, Rick with honors. My father wept openly when I graduated.

Dad kept making furniture and running various manufacturing operations after his sons had transitioned into their adult lives. Mom continued to work in the school system. They settled into empty-nested lives.

1995
The Greys, in my home in 1995

But then Dad and Mom decided to make a go at building furniture full time. It turned out Dad was better at building than he was at sales. Moreover, he insisted on making only the finest furniture, bespoke, and there wasn’t enough of a market within reasonable range of South Bend. Cash flow became a serious problem. It drove Dad to look again for a manufacturing leadership job. He found one, helping build operations at a startup company. But it did not work out and he was fired.

These two failures flattened him. He never sought a regular job again. Mom found a job as a clerk in the county probate court to make ends meet. Dad took cabinetmaking work when it found him, mostly through word of mouth around Notre Dame. He also bought a mat cutter, and matted and framed art for the museum at Notre Dame.

Mom Dad Damion Garrett
Mom and dad with my sons in about 2005

Dad turned his energy to service. He became involved in the Republican Party in his county, serving as Treasurer of his local party office. He also sought to advance social concerns that would improve conditions on the impoverished west side of South Bend, where he lived as a teen with his father. He hoped to build entrepreneurship and encourage higher education in those neighborhoods. He worked hard to turn a vacant west-side K-Mart into a community market where locals could produce and sell wares, as a way of helping people find their way to brighter economic realities. His dream never came true, unfortunately, as he was never able to build a sufficient coalition of backers. He also joined the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senior Men’s Club, a group of men who promoted social concerns in South Bend.

And my father began to actively practice Stoicism. He declared that he was a natural born Stoic, that the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus resonated so deeply with him that he felt they were kindred spirits.

Dad in 2012
Dad at my home in 2012

Dad had smoked for 50 years in 2007 when lung cancer struck. In the eleven years since he had his left lung surgically removed and underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

We have all felt like most of these last eleven years with him have been bonus time. And he has been in reasonable health, all things considered; he was able to do most things he did before. His reduced lung capacity limited his activity a little. And we believe the chemotherapy affected his cognition; he struggled to make connections and once in a while even to form coherent sentences. It also made him grumpier, to the point where it was sometimes challenging to be around him. And macular degeneration was robbing him of his eyesight. Rick and I kept buying him vision-assistance gear so that he could see well enough to argue with people in Internet forums, which had become his second favorite pastime after he and Mom retired to Indianapolis in 2014. His favorite pastime was telling stories from his life. While I readily admit to being frustrated to hear the same story for the hundredth time, it was this repetition that made Dad’s life story stick so that I could write it.

Last summer Dad decided to drive Mom to South Bend for a family reunion. He had been keeping to himself that his eyesight had recently and suddenly gotten much worse. While on that trip he crashed his car into a median he simply could not see. Fortunately, neither he nor Mom was injured.

His rapid vision loss seemed suspicious to my brother and I, and we pressured him until he agreed to see his doctor. It turns out that not only was his lung cancer back, but it had spread to his liver and his brain. By this time, he was functionally blind. A scan showed a tumor pressing on the part of his brain that controlled vision. Radiation at that site restored enough of his vision that he could see to walk around, but his Internet-trolling days were over and he never drove again.

Christmas 2017
Me, Damion, Garrett, Rick, and Dad, Christmas Eve 2017

Dad’s doctors warned us that this would be the end of him, that he had weeks, maybe months, left. He received good care that kept him in the family game and in pretty good spirits through autumn and the holidays. He told his old stories to anyone who would listen at our Christmas Eve family gathering. But in the new year he took a sudden and rapid downturn. He lived to see his 77th birthday last Tuesday with his family around him, but on Wednesday he slipped away, quietly and peacefully.

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Personal, Preservation

On Erskine Boulevard

Last week I shared a photograph that included the block I grew up on, before any houses were built on it. That made me want to rerun this 2010 post in which I took a photo walk along my childhood street, and remembered how life was when I lived there in the 1970s and 1980s.

Take a walk with me along the street where I grew up.

In 1976, my family moved from the cookie-cutter prefab neighborhood that we called Rabbit Hill to a larger, nicer home on Erskine Boulevard, about a mile away on the southeast side of South Bend, Indiana.

Erskine Boulevard

My friends on the Hill were all sad to see us go, of course. But adults had a different reaction. Most of them looked momentarily wistful as they sighed, “Ohhhhhh, Erskine Boulevard.

I didn’t get then that Erskine Boulevard carried some prestige. It was named after a past president of South Bend’s bankrupt and shuttered Studebaker Corporation. Many of its homes carried distinctive design touches not found in the surrounding blocks. None of the homes was breathtaking by any means, as this was a middle-class neighborhood. But they had collective appeal that lent distinction to the boulevard. Coupled with the boulevard’s distinctive and unusual curve, Erskine Boulevard exuded class.

Erskine Boulevard
Anchoring the boulevard’s north end

Today, neighborhoods are built by developers. When Erskine Boulevard was built, each homeowner-to-be bought a lot, hired an architect or bought existing blueprints, bought the materials, and hired an independent contractor to build their home. The neighborhood expanded in phases over 40 years with the first homes built on the north end in the 1920s and the last on the south end by 1960. This makes the boulevard a microcosm of middle-class residential styles that unfolds as you walk or drive it from north to south, with small two-story frame homes on narrow lots giving way to larger brick or limestone homes giving way to sprawling ranch homes set back more deeply and packed in less densely. Alleys hide behind the homes in the first six blocks; garages front the street in the last two. Power lines are buried in the first seven blocks, where ornamental street lights line the road; the last block got utility poles and exposed lines with plain industrial-grade street lights.

Erskine Boulevard
The house in which I lived

Our home was on the last block, and upon its 1951 completion was among the last built. The elementary school was one block away to the southwest; the high school seven blocks north. Each school morning and afternoon the boulevard was filled with kids walking to and from. My neighbors included my kindergarten teacher’s widower, my third grade teacher, my fourth grade teacher, and my high-school homeroom teacher. We moved in when I was in the fourth grade, and it was very exciting when Mrs. Brown, my teacher, walked over to welcome us to the neighborhood with a homemade cherry pie in her hands. It all made for the kind of neighborhood I have wished for since, but have never found – one in which people were brought together not just because of proximity, but because their lives made them interdependent on each other.

Erskine Boulevard
One of my favorite homes on the Boulevard

It was possible to do quite a bit without a car. A small grocery store and two pharmacies lay within a half mile, all easy walks. A dry cleaner, a dairy store, a library branch, and a five and dime with a stainless steel soda fountain were a bit farther away; I preferred to reach them on my bike. My dad used to drive his car to a service station six or seven blocks away and walk home while a mechanic fixed it. A two minute car ride took us to appliance and furniture dealers. And if Dad had been less of the home-cooked meal sort, we might have made more use of the three or four restaurants on the perimeter of our neighborhood. If Dad had been a drinker, he could have lubricated himself just fine at the bar a few blocks away and then crawled home. All but the appliance store are gone now, although two well-regarded city golf courses remain, both within walking distance.

Erskine Boulevard
Another favorite

It’s typical of cities for decay to slowly radiate from the center. When I was small, challenged neighborhoods ended a mile or so north of us; today, decline will soon reach the blocks near my parents’ house. Somehow, Erskine Blvd. has escaped that decay, as these photographs show. Yet the boulevard’s prestige has faded as the neighborhood has become inner-city with all the attendant problems. It’s common to see the streets that cross Erskine Blvd. on the police blotter. Something like 80 percent of the children at the elementary school receive a free or reduced-cost lunch. The high school was recently on probation with the state because too few of its students passed the ISTEP standardized test.

Erskine Boulevard
In one of the northernmost blocks

Some southsiders are working to stem the decline and renew hope. Neighborhood associations have formed, and local businesses have made some attempts to come together for the good of the area. Some individuals are doing their part; my father, for example, has become involved in politics and with a few key grassroots social programs, encouraging both economic growth and individual growth to overcome the creeping malaise. And the church that anchors the boulevard’s south end, Living Stones Church, has made the surrounding neighborhoods its mission field. They have done a splendid job of showing simple, no-strings-attached love in the neighborhood. They give the elementary school a lot of their time and energy; for example, a few years ago they gave new shoes to every student who wanted them. And nobody on Erskine Blvd. has forgotten how, after a terrible storm toppled many dozens of trees, church members came through the neighborhood with their chain saws to help clean up.

Erskine Boulevard
Not as wooded as it once was

Belying the challenges, and excepting the missing trees, Erskine Blvd. looks much as it always has, and life goes on there much as it always did. People still go to work in the morning and come home in the evening, and care for their homes and yards on the weekends. Children still walk to school and still ride their bikes and play.

Erskine Boulevard
Notice the milk delivery door

The newspaper is still delivered, of course, although it’s a morning paper now, and teenagers shouldering canvas sacks full of papers have given way to adults in cars who dash out to place papers on porches. I delivered the South Bend Tribune every afternoon for many years. Several of the houses on my route had a little passthrough into which milk was once delivered. By the time I came along, milk delivery was long gone, but my customers always wanted their newspaper left there. I imagine they still do.

Erskine Boulevard
I mowed this lawn for $4 a week

Elderly homeowners, I’m sure, still hire neighborhood kids to mow their lawns. I made good pocket money every summer doing that. I also raked leaves in the fall and shoveled driveways and sidewalks in the winter. One neighbor erected a wooden privacy fence around his back yard and hired my brother and I to stain it. Another neighbor took his wife to Europe for two weeks every summer and paid me to bring in their mail and look after the place.

Erskine Boulevard
The boulevard’s curve

An annual Christmastime tradition was the candlelight walk, which had its 25th anniversary in 2009. One evening about a week before Christmas, neighbors lined both edges of the sidewalk in front of their homes with little white paper sacks weighed down with sand, and placed a lighted candle in each. That’s 2,500 candles along the boulevard’s eight blocks! People came from all over town to see; the event always made the news. In the early years, enthusiastic neighbors hired a horse-drawn wagon to give rides up and down the boulevard. In later years, Living Stones Church hosted a nativity scene with live animals and served everyone hot chocolate and cookies. In later years interest flagged – longtime residents were getting older, and newer residents weren’t as interested in participating. The event’s future is uncertain.

I left South Bend in 1985. My parents remained until 2014, when they retired to Indianapolis, where their grandchildren all live. But I was fortunate to be able to go back home for so many years. I liked to take a walk up and down the boulevard while I was there, or at least drive it, to enjoy my old neighborhood. What I wouldn’t give to live in a neighborhood like it today.

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Personal, Stories Told

Everybody wants to know where Jimmy has gone

My brief radio career ended just before Labor Day 23 years ago.

MeOnWZZQ
On the air at WZZQ, Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1994

I’ve written about my broadcasting days many times because it remains a proud, fond memory. As a boy, I wanted to be the voice coming out of the radio speaker. I got my chance in college, and parlayed that experience into two part-time gigs on commercial stations.

After I moved to Indianapolis I sent an audition tape to every station in town. None of them bit. Only one station bothered to send me a rejection letter, which kindly said that I might have been fine for Terre Haute but I wasn’t ready for the big time. I took the hint and moved on from radio forever.

But I still remember the fun I had. And I have lots of aircheck tapes, all of which I digitized a few years ago so I can enjoy those memories anytime.

For my last show, I asked the program director to schedule a certain song coming out of my last break, a song new that year from The Allman Brothers Band. Its first two lines were spot on:

Everybody wants to know where Jimmy has gone
He left town, I doubt if he’s coming back home

Here’s the audio I recorded of that last break. You’ll hear me talk after a song and start the first commercial. Then you’ll hear the end of the last commercial in that break – and then you’ll hear me sign off for good.

I walked out of the building and out of radio forever. I listened to the rest of the song in my car as I drove home.

Eagle-eyed readers will remember this post from the first time I published it, about this time of year in 2012.

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It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke

Bonus Garrett story #2, from four years ago, a moment that in retrospect was a turning point in our relationship.

I have a complicated relationship with the futon in my family room. My wife and I bought it while we were still married. The day we brought it home, I regretted the bright blue mattress cover that we chose. Later, as my marriage splintered apart, I spent a year exiled to it at night. I couldn’t resent the situation, for it would acknowledge that our marriage was over, so I resented the futon instead. And then it was the one major piece of furniture I got in the divorce, the only thing I owned on which I could sit. I made myself feel glad to have it. Then bouts of mournful insomnia expelled me from my new bed back to the futon, as there I could always eventually find sleep. Now I start my nights on the futon, but wake later and stagger off to bed. More than a dozen years in, I’m no longer happy with its style, springs are starting to poke out on the sides of the mattress, and I still hate its cover. But I fall asleep on it so reliably that I’m reluctant to replace it. A new couch might not carry that nocturnal magic.

Futon1

My relationship with my futon is not as complex as the relationships with those I love, of course. I’m thinking specifically of my youngest son, a teenager. He broke the futon the other day.

My boy lives fully in the moment. He makes no plan and weighs no consequences. Once at motion, he tends to stay there; Newton would be proud. If you spent a day with him you might call him absentminded, but that would be an injustice. He becomes consumed by his activity and the world falls away. His inner world is his best friend. He lives there.

In that state, he has damaged or broken many things. I used to think he was careless or, worse, deliberate, and so I meted out consequences of loud and harsh words, limitations of his freedom, or both. But slowly, thankfully, I’ve come to see the truth: The boy means no harm. He is usually very surprised when he damages or breaks something.

Even though these things are just things, they do belong to somebody, usually me. They have an important purpose or some sentimental or emotional value, and I feel the loss.

My son matters more than these things, and so I absorb those losses. But it’s also my job to help shape the child. Trying to help him to be more self-aware was a losing game that frustrated both of us, and so I gave up. Perhaps time and life will bring this growth naturally. Meanwhile, I intend to teach him to repair the things he’s damaged – both physical objects and relationships. All of us sometimes damage our relationships through our quirks and limitations. All of us need to know how to make amends.

He was deep inside a video game when he leaped exuberantly backward and landed on the futon. I am sure he’s done this many times. But he was much smaller and lighter before a major growth spurt this summer, and the poor futon could no longer bear him. The main beam supporting the mattress split wide, and the futon collapsed.

I called my dad, who made custom furniture for a living for many years, and described the damage. “Easy,” he said. “Get some wood glue and some long wood screws. Glue the board together along the break and then drive the screws in every inch or two. It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.”

I assembled the materials and the tools and called my son. I showed him what to do and had him do it. As he worked, I spoke gently about repairing damaged relationships. He is my son, and I love him, and he will always receive grace from me. He should accept no less from those who are in his life. But when he causes damage, he needs to try his best to fix it, if he can. I hope my words connected with him.

Futon2

The repair is ugly; we couldn’t quite get the halves of the board to line up on one side of the break. My son didn’t have enough strength to drive the screws all the way into the hard wood, so I finished them all. As we put the frame back together, I could feel our relationship coming back together, too. I hope he felt the same way. After we finished the repair we turned the futon back over and sat down on it. It supported us as before the break, and I could see the satisfaction of accomplishment in him. Here’s hoping this creates a connection in him that he can mend things broken, including relationships. That he should. That it’s satisfying to do it.

“It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.” Was Dad really talking about my relationship with my son?

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Personal, Stories Told

Adjusting to the changes as court-ordered parenting time ends

Meet my youngest son, Garrett, who turned 18 yesterday. It’s a big milestone for any kid. But it’s also a different milestone, a sad one, for me.

Garrett

It’s the end of “parenting time.” That’s what they call it here in Indiana, the court-ordered time a noncustodial parent spends with his children. It ends at 18.

The parenting time guidelines grant every Wednesday evening and every other weekend during the school year, plus holidays on alternating years, half of winter break, all of every other spring break, and half of every summer. We were fortunate: our judge also ordered parenting time every Monday night and an overnight stay every Wednesday when school was in session.

I have not needed to be compelled by court order to spend time with my sons. I always wanted to live with them every day of their childhoods. Parenting time limited me, constrained me, bound me. I always ached to be present with my sons more often.

Obviously, I could have had every day with my sons had their mom and I worked out a healthy, happy marriage. We were not capable of it. Our destructive relationship was ruining us all. We are all healthier and happier since it ended.

I reminded myself of this each time I pushed through the worst rush-hour traffic in Indiana en route to my sons. Each time we left for their suburb at 5:30 am so they wouldn’t miss their school bus. Each time my sons went home at the end of our time together, leaving me alone in my empty house. Each time they had an especially good, or an especially bad, day and if we could talk about it at all it was over the phone or via text. Each time I did alone a thing that would normally be done as a family.

Yet this yin met its yang when I put to good use the time I wasn’t actively being my sons’ dad. Half of my days I could behave like a childless man, directing my energy to my own interests. Photography and blogging. Deep involvement at church. Founding and running a nonprofit. Doubling down on my career, which really took off.

I’ve felt guilty that I did these things rather than being home with my sons. Yet I’ve also reveled in these things. Fortunately, I processed those conflicting feelings years ago and have found contentment in this life.

What I have not processed yet, what I have experienced as looming for months, what is now irrevocably here, is loss. The loss of my decade-long routine with my sons, a routine to which I clung, around which I organized my life. And anew, the loss of what I never could have but desperately wanted for me and my sons: the ability to be a present parent every day. It was never going to happen,

Now it’s up to my sons and I to figure out how and when to see each other. My older son, Damion, has been very good about making time for his old dad. Will Garrett do likewise? I hope so.

There are no state guidelines for mapping adult relationships with your children. No court can compel it. And I have no personal experience to use as a guide. My parents are still married, more than 50 years now. When I was college-aged their home was always open to me. It was where I returned on break, and our normal family life largely resumed as if never interrupted.

That’s what I wanted for my sons. More than that, it’s what I wanted for me. But it’s not what we got.

We will make the best of this, too.

I’m sharing two bonus posts later today, reruns of stories that involved Garrett. If you’ve read my blog for a long time, perhaps you will enjoy now seeing Garrett’s face as you revisit those stories.

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Light sculpture

I start a new job today.

I make my living in software development (and blog about it occasionally over here). This is all I’ve wanted to do since I taught myself to code in the early 1980s. I’ve written a little code, written a lot of user instructions, and tested a lot of broken software. But mostly I’ve led teams and projects. I’ve done that for the last 20 years and I love it.

If you’ve read this blog for a while you might remember that my employer couldn’t afford to pay me anymore in 2015 and I spent the summer looking for work. I had been Director of Quality Assurance, and pretty quickly I found a position with the same title and was back to work. I was enormously fortunate.

The new company was a good place to work, and I liked the people there. I’ll miss being there every day! But to my surprise, I wasn’t finding great satisfaction in the role. Slowly it dawned on me that after 16 years in QA I’d done everything I could do in the field. It was time for a new adventure.

I’m not leaving the software world. I’m just shifting to a new role: Director of Engineering, leading the coders. Long story short, I decided that to do what I still want to do in my career, I would need to shift to engineering leadership.

My new company isn’t entirely new to me — they hired me as a consultant the summer I looked for permanent work. Since then, they hired my brother to be their Director of QA. When they needed a new Director of Engineering, they easily recruited me to the role. The company is a startup, with all the risk that implies: iterating on a product idea and trying to find market fit, all the while trying not to run out of investment capital.

But in my career I’ve been driven by adventure, and this is just the kind of adventure I like. So off I go!

I shot this photograph inside the company’s building while there for one of my interviews. I used my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 on Kodak Tri-X 400 film. I’ll get to see this light sculpture every weekday now!

Personal, Photography

Beginning a new adventure

Thoughts on starting a new job, as Director of Engineering at a software startup.

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