The advent of the warm and flowered days of Spring seems to somehow provide a sort of nexus for the remembering of acquaintances, especially the auld variety. Yesterday was the weekly meeting of the Breakfast Club, which is our somewhat tongue-in-cheek name for our tradition of having Sunday breakfast together with my Mom, who has less and less of a clue who these people are that are plying her with bacon and eggs and fried potatoes. Mom has just turned 94, which would be a wonderful thing if she were still aware of who we are – or indeed, who she is. Old age has damn few positives and a host of negatives.
A high school friend was in town and had arranged to come by at 10:30 to meet me and to go to lunch somewhere, so it was poor George who got stuck with the chore of returning Mom to Desolation Pines, even though it was my turn. Well, when he tried to leave with her, she refused to get into his truck and nothing that any of us could do prevailed upon her to do so. When my friend and I left, George and Mom were in adversarial positions on my deck. "There goes my day," muttered George, who is nothing if not passive aggressive.
My friend and I returned some hours later to find my deck empty, so I called George to see how he had fared. Apparently, 20 minutes after I left, Mom had said she needed to use the bathroom and promptly locked herself in it. This wasn't (I guess) an act of defiance so much as her usual modesty, but unfortunately she had no idea how to unlock the door when she was finished. George had the knob half removed when Mom finally managed to unlock the door. After that she was perfectly happy to return to Desolation Pines where folks don't have such fol de rol as locks on the bathroom doors.
It is clear to me and George that these breakfasts mean little or nothing more to Mom than a disturbance of her mysterious and highly individual existence and I am willing to discontinue them, although I do like having my brothers and such divers relatives as show up in town come to a weekly breakfast. But there will probably be no stopping of them so long as Luke has a say, because although he professes to know well that Mom is beyond our reach, he still is fiercely connected to her and celebrates birthday, Mother's Day and so forth with gifts and cakes and the like. I don't know if I have a hole in my heart or what - I adored my mother when she was my mother but I cannot dig up any feelings at all for this frail creature that I do not know and who does not know me, except deep pity. The ultimate cruelty about the afflictions of old age is that the lovely, vital, vivid creatures that we were are obscured by memories of trial, illness and querulousness. My Mom's eldest sister Esther lived with her during some of her last years, and she was a nightmare of demands and fractiousness to such an extent that Mom was forced to have her leave. Sequentially each sister took in Esther (who showed only the sweetest face to the casual visitor) believing that the situation was being exaggerated by the prior hostess, and sequentially each sister had to pass Esther on to save her own mental health or marriage. After Aunt Esther died at 83, her pack of cigarettes beside her hospital bed (not even a doctor could cross Aunt Esther in full battle mode), Mom put a framed picture of a young Esther in her living room in order to aid recollection of the loving, generous, favorite sister she had once been.
Because of my friend's visit yesterday, and the general brouhaha over Mom's failure to launch, I did not read the Sunday newspaper until yesterday. Then I was at loose ends and was sitting on my deck and I leafed through the various sections, and there in the obits was a notice that Arlie Lomax had died.
My clearest recollection of Arlie Lomax is of him bursting through our front screen door and crossing our living room to the telephone in what seemed like two giant steps to call the ambulance when my brother Rob was hit by a car at about the age of 8. The Lomaxes were our neighbors; they were a poor tenant farm family who lived and worked on the Brock farm which was the one west of ours, in the direction of the village portion of Reedville. They were a very hard-working family with five boys and two girls, all older than me, who had moved to Reedville from South Dakota sometime before my Dad took over the family farm.
It was the custom of the Shaughnessys - my Dad's brothers and sisters - to gather from time to time in the summer at the farm for family picnics. On the first of these occasions after we came to the farm, several of the Lomax kids came up the road to introduce themselves to us. They probably brought some food; it would have been customary; but I don't recall much except that my Dad and uncles insisted that they take with them when they left several watermelons we had planned for dessert. Watermelons were a rare and wondrous seasonal treat when I was a lad (I must have been about four at the time) and I was enraged and resentful that such largesse was being heaped upon these interlopers.
Nonetheless, after such an unpromising beginning, the Lomaxes became a big part of my life for as long as they lived next to us. In those days in the country, proximity trumped age or social stratum as a factor in a kid’s associations. The suggestion that Mom or Dad interrupt a busy day to drive a child to a play-date – or to anything else – was one that would have led to me being put to bed with a mustard plaster and an aspirin. Nellie Lomax, the youngest of the family, was about five years older than me, but she nonetheless became the most constant playmate to Gary, Lucy and me. There was no one else near her age in the neighborhood. We played various games or she would read to us – especially comic books; when she read those involving Porky Pig, she faithfully rendered his stuttering; it drove us mad. When later I learned to read, I slid over these stutterings so unconsciously that when I was older and hadn’t read comics for a while, I was startled to encounter a cartoon on TV where Porky was stuttering; I had completely forgotten he did so. But Nellie never left a "P-P-P-Petunia" unread, skipping nary a ‘P’ in the laborious process. (Faithfulness to the text seemed to be a Lomax motif; once when Pearl Lomax wanted to read The Little Tin Soldier to us, she asked Mom if it was OK if she said ‘marine’ for soldier because she couldn’t pronounce the latter.)
Luther, who was the youngest of the Lomax boys and who was probably in junior high at the time, occasionally joined in a game of cowboys or hide and seek with us, and Pearl, Nellie’s older sister, babysat for us at times, but otherwise the older Lomaxes were mostly much like adults to us – known, discussed, but a part of our young world only intermittently and briefly. Yet like any neighbor in those days, they were always there in our consciousness, and interesting to us. Except for Keith, they all had ‘country’ names Merle, Delmer, Arlie, Pearl, Luther (who was called ‘Leck’ for some reason by the neighbors: when he reached high school and became a big local sports star he was called ‘Luke’) and Nellie. I think all the boys were athletes, but the older boys had shone before we were old enough to be aware of high school sports, so I only know this of Leck for sure. Leck was such a fine basketball player that I heard he later landed quite a good job at a large corporation in the city solely to beef up their company team.
Nellie, however, we saw every day during the summer vacation from school. There was so little entertainment for children then that kids gathered daily even if they could do no more than complain of the lack of things to do. Actually though, we found plenty to do – games, and books and talking and exploring. In exploring, we were severely limited when with Nellie by the Lomax parents’ rigid strictures on their daughters’ movements. The Lomax girls were never allowed to enter a barn – theirs or anyone else’s. I do understand this now, but at the time it seemed strange and arbitrary. In contrast, we Shaughnessys – including Lucy – practically lived in our barn where there were ropes and rafters and hay and endless other fascinating structures and contents for forts and every other fantasy.
I recall the one time we were able to wheedle Nellie into coming into our barn to play ended in disaster. There was a long ladder propped up by which we would clamber onto the top of the granary – a story-high storage area for oats and wheat that was built into one corner of the much taller hay-storage area. This ladder extended considerably higher than the upper edge of the granary against which it rested and Nellie dared me to climb to the top beyond the point where it was supported by the granary. I, in turn, double dared her to do so, and this she attempted to do. However, once she had passed the point where the ladder was supported, her weight overbalanced the ladder whose bottom legs lifted from the barn floor. The ladder then slid backward off the granary and down with it went Nellie who had her breath knocked out. She lay on the barn floor gasping out that she was dying, and begged us to call our mother. Of course we took her at her word and ran to the house yelling, “Mom, Mom, come quick! Nellie’s dying!” It was the first time Mom had been summoned to a near death in the barn (but not the last) and she was understandably unsettled.
The Lomax parents were rigidly upright, and every one of the kids was scrupulously honest. In general, tenant farmers as a class were not terribly highly regarded, but the Lomaxes, who had been driven to New York by dreadful circumstances in the ‘30s, probably had come down in the social scale thereby. Roy Beck, the local grocer, once told Dad that he would trust any Lomax alone in his store alone anytime. This was no mean praise, and I doubt he could say the same of many, if any, other kids at all. In fact, I have never heard anything but high praise for the Lomaxes in my life – a few years ago, I met someone who still knew Leck Lomax and he could not say enough good things.
I think Mom was friendlier with Mrs. Lomax than she was with any of our other neighbors. Mrs. Lomax occasionally would walk up to our house to visit, and she also babysat for us at times (neither Mom nor Mrs. Lomax drove – few women did drive in our area in those days). The Lomaxes had no telephone; on the rare occasions they needed to call someone, they used our telephone, a privilege that was rarely used and never abused. People knew how to be neighbors back then, not too much and not too little socializing. One didn’t encounter the fear of getting involved; everyone was far too busy to be hard to get rid of. Mom told me much later in life that Mrs. Lomax had told her that her family was so distressed in South Dakota, that when they somehow got the opportunity to work in New York, they rode the train for days without a scrap of food to eat. Sadly, I was too young to realize how fascinating the stories of folks were – even our own – and thus I find that what I know of people who were so large in my life at one time consists of disjointed bits and pieces. Mrs. Lomax was a kindly, matter-of-fact woman in my recollection, very plain in appearance and dress. She ruled her brood with an iron hand. There was no whispering allowed in the Lomax house. I think this is an excellent idea, but their home was the only place I have ever encountered this rule. The Lomax boys worked very hard, and after my Dad gave up farming and rented out our farm to Mr. Kretchmaier, Keith Lomax often worked our farm as an employee of Mr. Kretchmaier. The Lomax home, like our house, had an upright piano, and as in our house, I am pretty sure no one played it. But it was bedecked with brightly painted, glitter-encrusted plaster statues that the boys had won at the local carnivals and fairs. These statues, with plastic kewpie dolls, were the common prizes at carnival games before they were replaced with stuffed animals. I was awed by the Lomax boys prowess demonstrated by the quantity of statues.
Keith Lomax was an object of awe to us. He was strong and handsome and we treated him much as a kid today would treat a rock star. His every word was discussed, and anything he said was sure to be true and wise, in our opinion. I would do anything to be noticed by him, but the area in which I could most attract his attention – sports – was the area in which I was least proficient. How to let him know that I was in Little League without simultaneously disclosing that my batting \average for the whole season was a resounding zero, was an issue I could not resolve. I would sit and watch him, as he plowed and dragged and disked the fields behind our house, almost sick with my unnoticed love and admiration. My brother Gary, being actually willing – even anxious – to do farm work himself, was far more in Keith’s company. Ultimately Gary worked for Mr. Kretchmaier too (so did I one summer, years later; a hiring decision Mr. K. had much reason to rue – for starters I drove one of his tractors into a barn and not via the doorway, wide though that was, crushing a ninety-dollar grease gun in the process). Once, not long after Keith left high school, he went on a walk with us along the creek and through our ‘woods’ – a not very impressive grove of maples and other trees at the northeast end of our farm – and he stopped and carved his initials and those of his soon-to-be wife on a silver-barked tree that loomed over the creek. In years to follow my brothers and cousins and their friends added their initials to the tree. About three years ago, a cousin who likes to canoe at least once each Spring down the creek, which now serves as the southern border of my current property, came by to tell me in great distress, “The Initial Tree fell down!” I canoed upstream and sure enough, the tree lay in the creek, where it may still be found slowly shedding its history in the moving water.
Merle, the oldest Lomax brother was someone I never saw more than once or twice. I recall him as a harsh-featured dark man. He was in the army and at some point was stationed in Italy. One day he sent word that he had married an Italian woman and would be bringing her home to visit. The Lomaxes were all in a doo-dah. From the scraps of talk that I overheard, he may as well have been bringing a performing bear. The Lomaxes seemed unable to decide how such a personage should be received. I don’t believe it was so much hostility as strangeness that caused anxiety. I never saw the woman and I don’t recall anything that was said later as to how the whole visit went. When you are a kid as young as I was, I think you pick up more on the pre-event anxiety in such cases, more than the calm retelling of what happened, afterward. Or so it was with me, at least. I gather though, thinking it over now, that Merle was the ‘different’ one – much as I myself probably am in my own family. Maybe it has to do with being the oldest – remember John-Boy in The Waltons?
I was still fairly young when old Jess Brock sold his farm and the Lomaxes thereby lost their job and home simultaneously. They remained in the area, although I don’t recall where exactly, but they were pretty much gone from our lives. The last time I saw any of them was when my youngest brother Frankie was killed. Arlie and his Mom and a couple of the others paid a condolence visit at the funeral home – the Lomaxes were good people in every way.
While I was still living in Alabama and working at National Upsy-Daisy, I received an e-mail from a girl who had been a cheerleader in high school and who had married a friend and classmate of mine and moved to California. We corresponded for a while; she told me that her husband’s older brother had married Nellie Lomax. Through her, I was put into contact with Nellie, whom the girl told me was in a long struggle with cancer. I wrote Nellie a longish e-mail (the only kind I tend to write, as you may have guessed), and I mentioned the ladder incident. Nellie was pleased to hear from me and relayed greetings from her siblings all of whom were doing well (she seemed unsure of where Merle was, exactly), except for Arlie who had Parkinson’s Disease. She told me she had really been hurt by the fall in the barn, and that she had a great deal of pain for weeks. She told her parents she had fallen down running, since the edict forbidding entry to any barn was so strict, but the pain lasted so long and was so bad that her parents finally forced a full confession. Then, she told me, her parents told her no matter how severe the damage, she must live with it since she had not only doisobeyed, but had lied about it afterward. She told me it was the single lie she had ever told her parents. The Lomaxes, Senior were not given to time-outs; “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was closer to their model. And that was the last I heard of them until yesterday.
The obit stated that Arlie had been predeceased by Nellie and Keith. It was kind of a sad shock. So many of my happiest summer days were spent with Nellie. And Keith: that golden man, that hero, that idol that I watched with such longing as he drove his tractor up and down, up and down the fields of our farm, hour after hour, day after day.
More and more I am seeing endings where I once knew beginnings.