My Fortieth April

My fortieth April comes to an end with pink flowers and red shirts. Both images are equally beautiful and painful–fuchsia tinted with the blood, sweat, and tears we put on the line every day for a society that vilifies us and threatens us with jail time for shutting down schools for a singular day–when that same society has worked to shut down schools for decades.

My fortieth April is these nachos–too damn big to consume, too impossible to say no to–because sometimes life just feels like a challenge we must at least attempt to make a mockery of.

My fortieth April means my parents are in Paris, on their way to only four months in Europe because I begged them not to totally leave me, sell the house, and disappear from our lives when I’ve just lost my father-in-law and every remnant of parenthood on my husband’s side of the family.

My fortieth April brings the beginning of the end of my children’s childhoods–no more towing them in the bike trailer, no more feeding them from rubber spoons, no more shuttling them to elementary school–instead, the hard reality that they will ride their own paths, make their own decisions, and quite often, leave me behind.

My fortieth April means half of my life has been in the warmth of this man’s arms, this man who flew alone to Tennessee to bury his father while I made a mockery of life with nachos, this man who has never done a thing but work to please the people in his life, who speaks so little but whose actions speak volumes… volumes of loving and giving.

My fortieth April has been hell. Our school district has desks twenty years old and teacher salaries to match. My husband is in a union job that will likely screw him out of one because of seniority. My oldest daughter’s first words to me on my fortieth birthday were, “Can I have my phone back?” My beloved father-in-law died. My parents boarded a plane. My school district’s open enrollment healthcare plan is $1000 a month with a $3500 deductible and $12,700 out-of-pocket maximum. We have bought and paid for six weeks in Iberia and are beginning to wonder why.

My fortieth April is these blue skies. These smiling faces. This willingness to stand up to the truth behind teachers’ vilification. These parents eating French fries in France. This beautiful set of girls we have somehow managed to raise, healthy and unscathed. This fuchsia bleeding into red shirts at Casa Bonita, making a mockery of all that is pain, all that is life.

My fortieth April comes to an end with pink flowers and red shirts. Because we’re all a little bruised after forty years on this Earth. Because the blood, sweat, and tears that go into living this life are as beautiful as the laughter, mockery, and joy.

My fortieth April is the middle of spring. And just like all the other springs that have made up my life, it is time to spring forward, time to smile, time to move on.

Because it’s April–it snows and burns a crisp on our necks within the same week–and we must learn that even the red scars of sunburn will eventually fade into the soft petals of fuchsia.

Eulogy to My Father-In-Law

I was nineteen when I first visited Tennessee, and I felt simultaneously as if I were stepping back into my childhood small-town upbringing and into another world, fifty years past due. Bruce and I drove the twenty-four hours in one stretch under gray Kansas skies, down interstates with gas stations still boasting 99-cent gallons of gas, and through the winding hills of the Smokies east of Nashville.

We went the back way into town, and I remember how excited he was to show me, though it was a dark December night, the Four Corners mart where he’d ridden his bike to on every day of his childhood, the small elementary school, the tiny post office, the grandiose Baptist church, and the cotton rope mill where his father and his grandfather had spent their entire adult lives tirelessly working.

His parents lived in a modest home with the most spectacular view of a golf course and the Smokies, and just like everyone who had worked for the mill for nearly a century, they paid nearly nothing for rent and were allowed to stay there until the day they died.

That little house has rested upon its hill unoccupied for the past two years, its only residents the quilts, pie safes, furniture, photo albums, mementos, and memories of a marriage that lasted fifty-six years and produced four children and seven grandchildren. For the past two years, Don’s eldest, his beloved Donna, has tirelessly committed her life to his care as his mind slipped and his heart broke after losing his wife and the mother of his children.

When I first met Don, or Pappy as everyone was already calling him, he gave me a big hug and welcomed me to the family even though Bruce and I had only been dating for four months. The morning after we arrived, we drove to another town to have breakfast in a small diner. Nanny, Pappy, Aunt June, Bruce and I all piled into Nanny’s van and drove through rounds of curvy roads before settling ourselves into an oval table at the back of the restaurant. When the waitress came, people began ordering the typical southern delights: biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs, grits salted and buttered, pancakes stacked high.

I ordered one of my favorites, French toast, and Pappy lifted his gray, bushy eyebrows over his metal-framed glasses, his blue eyes twinkling. “I was hoping somebody was gonna order that,” he grinned.

As Bruce suppressed a chuckle, I wondered if there was something special about the French toast at that place. When the food came and Pappy began to dig into his grits, he held up his fork and said, “Gimme one of them pieces of French toast,” in a jovial, but adamant, tone.

“Well I guess you’re part of the family now for sure,” Aunt June joked. “Once Pappy wants something off your plate, he considers you one of his own.”

The next morning, on Christmas Eve, Bruce proposed to me to make it official. We spent that evening in Pappy’s childhood church for the candlelight Christmas Eve ceremony, where everyone from the small town of Rockford seemed to know Pappy, who proudly introduced his airmen youngest, “here all the way from Colorado,” and his new fiancee. I think it must have been half an hour before we even sat down because Pappy knew and loved everyone, and he was so damn proud of his baby joining the military and coming home for Christmas. The congregation flocked around the deacon and his family, cooing over his young granddaughters, praising Pappy for raising such a beautiful family, and he beamed, offering hugs and handshakes and goodwill.

Over the twenty years of our marriage, in every interaction I had with my father-in-law, I never heard a cruel word come out of his mouth. He had a quiet humor, a loving heart, and an unmatched generosity. He and Nanny helped the people in their town, the people at their church, and their children and grandchildren, any time any of us ever needed anything.

“You were going to have a baby at home and you had to go to the hospital and are suddenly faced with a bill you can’t afford?” The check was in the mail before we even brought our youngest home. Whether they had the means or not, with their simple existence and Pappy’s tireless work, they found a way to help others.

Pappy worked at that cotton mill for over forty years. He came home every night and had to “use the bathroom” with his magazines and chewing tobacco. He then settled in to watch whatever sport was playing that season, running the television on mute while he listened to the small wireless radio that he claimed had “much more accurate sportscasters.” He read the whole set of newspapers from all the localities through and through. He played bluegrass music, George Strait, and Alan Jackson when he tired of the sports. And just as he always had, he went to work for all but the weeks of Christmas and Fourth of July, the two weeks out of the year that the mill would shut down to give their employees a break.

That is, until Isabella was born. His fourth granddaughter, all the way in Colorado, inspired him to take a week off of work in May so he and Nanny could fly out and cover the gap between the end of my maternity leave and the end of the school year.

“You know this grandbaby is awful special if she got Pappy to take off work,” Nanny cooed as she held her. “I don’t believe there’s ever been a time he’s done that.”

Pappy LOVED babies. He loved coddling them, feeding them, gurgling over their tiny fat faces. He and Nanny spent a week traveling around Colorado with Bruce and Isabella, just three months old at the time, visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, the Garden of the Gods, the city of Denver. Pappy sat in the back comforting Isabella if she ever got fussy, only commenting with, “She lost her fooler, where’s her fooler?” teaching me another southern colloquialism I’d never heard before that first trip to Tennessee.

“It takes an awful good baby to do all this driving without so much as a fuss,” Pappy pointed out. “You got you a good little girl in this one.”

The years went by, and we continued to make our twenty-four-hour treks to Tennessee, where Pappy and Nanny would spoil us with dinners out, endless toys and clothes for our children, hugs and love.

One Christmas, we discovered surprising news just before we made our trip. I couldn’t quite think of how to share the news with Bruce’s family who gathered at the Vittetoe home for their annual Christmas Eve celebration, where we played dirty bingo and then opened all the family gifts before Santa would come and leave unwrapped presents under the tree for the next morning.

Finally, when all the gifts had been opened and we were running out of time before Bruce’s siblings, nieces and nephew were to leave, I told Bruce to find a bun and put it inside the oven. Bruce searched the whole kitchen snack area that was filled with all kinds of cookies, chips, and breads that Pappy loved to munch on, but he could only find a roll. He put it in the oven and told everyone to go into the kitchen.

“OK, I have one last gift to give you all this Christmas,” I announced as they curiously gawked at me, wondering why on earth we were standing in the kitchen. “Pappy, will you open the oven?”

Pappy bent over and stared at the small roll in the center of the rack. “Is this a preview of the dinner you’re fixing tomorrow?” Nanny wondered as he pulled it out, perplexed.

“Well, it was supposed to be a bun,” Bruce chimed in.

Pappy didn’t waste one second. His blue eyes lit up with joy as he walked across the kitchen and wrapped me in a bear hug. “Another baby! Well, what wonderful news… Now that you’re having three, you know how babies are made, right? So this is the last one, right?” He joked.

He always knew just what to say. He always knew just how far he could go with a joke, with a comment, with a piece of advice. He never thought of himself; he always thought of everyone else in his life first.

Even with his name. After fathering two boys, each of which Ann had wanted to name after him, he insisted that his name wouldn’t be carried on because he didn’t want anyone to ever have to go by Junior or Donny.

It wasn’t until many years later, when the baby, the last baby, made his entrance into the world, that Pappy lost his name battle. Ann went to the hospital and pushed out a nine-pound, blue-eyed, perfect little boy who looked just like his father, just before his father could arrive at the hospital.

When Don entered the room to meet his newest son, Ann looked up at him and said, “His name is Donald Bruce Vittetoe the II, not junior, and we’re calling him Bruce.”

And so my husband, the eighteen-years-after-the-firstborn baby, became his father’s namesake. My husband, the kindest, most caring, quietest human I have ever met, was named after the father who shared those same traits. Named after the hardworking man whose joy was found in the simple pleasures of spoiling his pets and grandchildren, of giving himself to others, of living to please.

When I first visited Tennessee, I entered a bygone era–one of chivalry, simplicity, and a lifetime commitment to a home, a job, a church, a family. This was the world of my father-in-law, Donald Bruce Vittetoe. A world I came to love as we moved from flatlands to green hills, as we barbecued in Cades Cove and on the back patio, as the twangy steel guitars and banjos peppered his southern drawl, as he shared his love with me from the moment we first met.

This was Pappy’s world. The Smoky Mountains, the cotton mill, the steadfastness of working, loving, giving.

When I first visited Tennessee, Pappy shared a piece of French toast from my breakfast plate and gave me one of many small, sweet memories of a man who knew how to take just a tiny bite out of this beautiful life that he spent eighty-four years sharing with everyone he loved.

And I am so lucky to be one of the people he loved. As everyone who was ever blessed to know him can attest to.

Goodbye, Don. May you rest in peace with the angels you surrounded yourself with in life.

Pappy with his granddaughters, Sarah and Rachel, 1996.

Pappy, Nanny, Bruce, Karen, Donna, David, Rachel, and Sarah. 8 August 1998.

Danny, Ann, Bruce, Don, Teddy, and Lisa. May 1999.

Nanny and Pappy with baby Isabella. Rocky Mountain National Park, May 2003.

Pappy with his youngest granddaughter, Riona. October 2006.

Ann and Don’s 50th Wedding Anniversary, 2008.

The Vittetoe Clan in Ann and Don’s yard in Rockford, July 4, 2010.

2014.

Pappy with his grandchildren Bailey, Isabella, Sarah, Rachel, Riona, and Mythili. 2015.

Pappy with his grandchildren, 2016.

Donna, Mythili, Isabella, Don, and Riona. January 2018.

Is This Real?

I write a blog instead of fictionalizing life. I put it here, for “the world” to see, and I am often admonished for it. I just can’t possibly understand, I’ve heard, why you would want to publish your private thoughts.

My students read “The Moths” this week, Helena Maria Viramontes’ coming-of-age short story of a narrator (never named) who is the black sheep of the family, minus the loving care of her grandmother, Abuelita, whom she, at age fourteen, cares for as Abuelita succumbs to death. Reading the graphic description of stepping into the tub with her grandmother’s frail and lifeless body, my students were sure it was a true story. “What, this isn’t real?”

“Well… all writers take their tales from pieces of their lives… but this is fiction.”

They couldn’t believe it. The blurred lines between truth and fiction, the harsh sentiment that went into the words, the pain that emanated out of her soul as the moths escaped, the sickening description of the cancerous vomit and diarrhea. “I thought for sure this happened to her.”

Maybe it did. Maybe some version of this story had been sitting at the back of her mind for months, just as I sometimes spend the day carrying around words that I think I might shape into a blog post. Sometimes I’ll write for over an hour, zealously anxious to share with the world the pain that went into making it past 5:30 p.m. Sometimes I have only enough energy to write a haiku, throw in a picture, and wish I had the courage to say more. Sometimes I feel trapped between the words in my head, so brutally truthful, and the fear of what “the world” would think if I put them down on paper.

Sometimes the world bears down on dreams, on marriage, on the day-to-day struggle of life.

Just like Viramontes, we all have our coming-of-age stories. The burden of being fourteen, the challenge of facing an adult life that seems too cruel to accept while hind-sightedly looking back at our childhoods and wishing we could straddle both worlds.

But this isn’t a coming-of-age story, unless we can have a second coming at age forty, just around the corner for me.┬áThis is an adulting story. And not one about finally learning to streamline my bills from paper to online or managing to make it to happy hour after surviving yet another children’s birthday party.

This is about the constant struggle of being an adult. A wife. A parent. A teacher. About the bombardment of horror stories I hear from my students–running the gamut from childhood rape, childhood obesity, childhood anxiety, broken bones, broken dreams, impossible expectations–to the bombardment of stories (perhaps slightly lacking horror) from my own life.

Isn’t it enough, I want to scream, that I spent twenty years trying to convince my husband to try skiing, and he tore his ACL on the second day?

Isn’t it enough that I freely spoke to my eldest daughter about her relationship with her boyfriend, checking in with her, allowing her to see him frequently, trusting her to tell me when important decisions were being made, only for her to lie to me and do what I know she would rather not do?

Isn’t it enough that his mother is already gone, and now his father is facing his last days?

Isn’t it enough that we waited fifteen years to finally feel like we could have enough money to fulfill our dreams, only to have the threat of financial security stripped away after less than three years?

I write a blog instead of fictionalizing life. Sometimes fiction is the perfect reflection of what we must face when we’re young, when we’re trying to make the decisions between wrong and right, giving or taking, and the lines become blurred. But sometimes life seems like it reflects the stories we read, the inundation of too many events that fill seven or 300 pages, that seem unfeasible and completely valid in the same moment. Because the truth is out there, buried in my adolescent’s lies, in the stories we devour, in the words I carry in my head throughout the day, in the kindness of colleagues, in the arms of the man who would try anything, even tearing a ligament, to please me.

The truth waits behind those cancerous moments that try to steal us from our lives, from our happiness. The truth can be fictionalized, fabricated, feared… but it will find us. Whether we share it with the world or not, the truth will find us.

The truth, the brutal truth, is that I feel I have failed my daughter. Have I not loved her enough? Have I not taught her to cherish her body? Have I been too harsh, too lenient, too never-quite-right?

The truth is that I put our marriage on the line for that ski weekend. That it is a struggle to keep the fire lit after twenty years of watching Friends and going out to dinner, and I wanted him to capture my Rocky Mountain High, to experience the freezing flakes on his face, to feel like riding a cloud on a powder day, to love something as much as I loved it, love it so we could love it together, long after the kids were gone and Friends was taken off of Netflix.

The truth is that the family healthcare plan for my school district has an annual out-of-pocket maximum of $12,750 after paying over $700 a month into a fake insurance, and one little ACL surgery or broken bone or broken heart would break us if my husband loses his job, and we already spent ten years, half of our fucking marriage, living on a goddamn teacher’s salary and its SHIT BENEFITS, and I’m. Fucking. Done. With being poor.

The truth is that his mother was the center of his life, and his sister has sacrificed everything for the past two years to take care of his grieving, dying father, only for the last remnant of the Vittetoe line to fall away without bearer of his name, and I don’t know how he’ll face another burden right now.

The truth is that life is filled with black sheep, vomiting, cancerous moments, and we sometimes need to overcome our fears, take our bodies into the tub, and let the moths flitter into the parched sunlight of a perfect day, blue skies, mountain views, and spring promising more than what it offers.

This isn’t fiction. All the same, it’s a story. My story. And I have to share my truth, because this is how I fit into the world.

And if my students asked, I would tell them: “Yes. This is real.” And if you read this? You would know how hard it was for me to share it with the world.