The Song Remains the Same
Through a small oval window I watch men in orange vests move as if part of a well-choreographed dance. Their bodies are a language that keeps this elaborate ballet in sync. Some wave lighted sticks. The red beams encourage the nose of a large airplane toward the gate. Others gesture wildly with their arms as the plane hesitates then inches forward. An accordion walkway is swung to meet the side of the aircraft. It stretches from the building to the plane like an umbilical cord. I imagine the dim final glow of the seat belt sign as it recesses into the overhead panel. The passengers stand and crowd into the aisles. The underbelly of the aircraft opens and luggage rolls down a conveyor belt, caught by hands that toss the square suitcases onto a drivable cart. They have arrived.
Inside my own aircraft men and women deposit luggage in the overhead bins then file into their seats, while I sit straighter than natural with my seatback firmly in its upright position. The stewardesses usher everyone into their places as if a grand performance is about to take place. With the passengers safely seated, the aircraft pulls away from the gate. The hum of the engines vibrates my toes, sending chills up my legs to meet the anxiety that has set butterflies to flight inside my stomach. The anticipation of take off preoccupies my mind while I strum my fingers on my knees, tapping out the urgency of my return. For days this feeling has been building to the point that it’s impossible to wait any longer. I have to get home.
I’ve been away for just eight days, though gone unexpectedly in a moment where the earth seemed to suffer an aggravated stall, its flat spin disturbing my center of balance, tumbling me into someone else. I had gone to be with Annabelle, the one person who knew the depth of this wounding. I wrote a note and left it propped against the sink so they would know I was okay. It was a short note, the kind written by someone whose mind might easily change, quick and pointed, signed with I love you in my abused cursive, the letters I could never get right in grade school. I hadn’t said when I’d be back, though I suspect they’ve been anticipating it each day for these eight days. I’ve been anticipating it as well. Waiting for something to urge me into motion, something to tell me, It’s time to return now. Each night as I lay awake in Annabelle’s guest room, tears running down the slopes of my cheekbones, pooling ticklish drops into my ears, I had spoken to them in my mind, trying to explain what I didn’t even understand myself, promising them I was coming home soon. Each morning when I forgot where I was, I rolled over expecting to feel Raymond there. The pain of loss was so great that I couldn’t figure out for which one of them I felt it. Was it for Parker, who I would never see again? For Raymond who trusted and loved me? Or for the little bundle of life, still nameless, whose feet had kicked at the blanket, already eager to get up and get life started.
This morning it occurred to me that it was about going back to the beginning, to returning to the warmth of the fireplace, the scent of bread baking, the tumbling thump of laundry folding over itself in the dryer. These things have woven into my senses so that the sight of sheets drying on a clothesline or the way butter melts on pancakes can instantly transport me to that three-bedroom farmhouse where my life began, when my future was still so far off, a thing I only imagined and waited for. As the morning sun made its way across the continent from them to me, it brought Parker’s voice, clear and distinct, the one I knew so well saying, It’s time to return now.
The airplane taxis through a maze of runways as the stewardesses busy themselves clicking overhead bins shut and asking us to follow along on the safety instructions. Their navy blue suits with gold embroidered collars remind me of my father’s war regalia. My eyes scan over the laminated cartoon passengers as the attendant demonstrates how to strap an oxygen mask around our heads. She does it carefully, smiling the entire time, while she pulls the elastic band wide to avoid messing her perfectly curled hair. Her lipstick is painted in a neat red bow and I imagine her blotting it with tissues and leaving heart-shaped stamps on a boyfriend’s cheek.
The stewardesses are seated at the pilot’s request and we begin to pick up speed. We turn two corners and line up for the take off. As the airplane rushes off the tarmac, I have the sensation of being held lightly against the seat. For a moment I marvel at the way we separate from the earth. The plane banks to the right, turning eyes toward the windows where trees and cars grow smaller and smaller as they become bric-a-brac in the expanding landscape. As I watch Portland shrink away, I think about something Parker said to me the day he left. He held me close with his head tucked into my neck and whispered, I will always be with you. There was something in his tone, something of defeat that made me think I should memorize every angle of the scene. So I did. When I close my eyes I can still see Parker swinging the duffel bag over his shoulder, a wisp of blond hair falling across his brow, hair that would be shaved away days later. He stood by the muddy brown leather chair our dad spent every evening in, its seat cushion permanently concave. A Detroit Free Press folded on the flowery couch said Green Bay Packers take the Bowl. Our mom wore a blue dress. She patted at its pleats with her fidgety hands, while Dad removed his glasses, cleaned them with the end of his tie and returned them to his nose.
The captain announces himself on the intercom, describes what’s in store for our cross-country flight, which admittedly is not much, and makes a joke at the expense of the stewardesses. Across the aisle, what seem to be a brother and sister light up a shared cigarette. She inhales deeply and lets the smoke float out of her nostrils as she passes it to him. His billows lazily from the side of his mouth. They seem young and cool, like posed photos of movie stars, like Faye Dunaway and Peter Fonda.
My tears build quickly and I hold my breath, willing them away. This is a new thing for me, this instant transgression into weariness. When it comes, it comes quick, taking me by surprise, making me that person crying in public, the one you wonder about. And when it comes, it comes with memories in tow. This time it’s a road trip Parker and I made to Mackinaw. We had a carton of Luckies tucked in the console and Johnny Cash on the radio. Already so many of our friends, neighbors and schoolmates, the boys of the community, had been yanked up and shipped out. The request had been issued with an official seal, stamped into a silver circle saying, E Pluribus Unum. So we drove off for one last adventure together in our parent’s old Ford Torino Squire that sputtered oil as we cut an arc through Michigan, slicing it in half vertically. That was seven years ago.
As poorly traveled teens, we marveled at the landscape. The trees burst with reds, yellows and oranges. Their color draining for the winter ahead held the beautiful visage of loss. The flatness of Detroit opened into plains with a lush green lining that slowly bulged, building into rolling hills that our imaginations tumbled over as our tires climbed up and down them. And then the magnificent straits at the end of our journey that, when stoned, seemed like the parting of the Red Sea. We laughed and sang to the fuzzy radio. We stopped at one-pump gas stations, where attendants tipped their hats to me as they tapped cigarettes out of soft packs. Parker bought bottles of Coke and bags of potato chips that littered the backseat once we were finished. In the evenings we camped, sitting Indian style around fires that roasted marshmallows and hot dogs and kept our bundled limbs warm in the autumn chill. Those nights were so clear that the stars drew constellations all over them above us. I sang off-key melodies and Parker played guitar, accompanying me on the harmony. We told ghost stories and secrets, made promises and plans. We met others camping too, some with long hair and love beads who rolled up grass, passed joints to us and swayed in the moonlight to the music we played. Mile after mile, town to town, while we followed a crinkled map Parker and I made a strategy for surviving.
I push the tears across my temples where they retreat into my hairline. Seven years is long enough to turn someone into a memory. When Parker left he became a phantom; I’d turn to say something to him before remembering he was no longer there. He was always present because he encompassed all of my past. For me there was never a time before him. I was born just outside of Detroit in the late 1940s soon after the Depression had devastated most of the rural Midwest. Farms sectioned vast plots into squared acres where families grew what they could, praying for good temperatures so they could afford to pay their mortgages. Many had been foreclosed upon and For Sale signs littered the landscape like tickertape after a parade. My parents had taken the opportunity to buy the old Gardner farm, where they had once bounced around on hayrides and picked out pumpkins for carving. They got two goats, four chickens and a rooster—a poor man’s Noah’s Ark, my dad would say—and set about making a business. Farming was in their genes, they had tilled land and planted crops since they could walk. Soon after their move, the war industry stimulated the job market again, and most farmers set down their hoes and either went to war or set about work in the factories. The women found positions on the assembly line and took carpools into the city, marveling at the size of the buildings and the number of people milling about.
Billie Holiday and Glenn Miller were on the radio and PM Deluxe was consumed in large quantities. Machines had revolutionized the concept of production, and up sprung Poletown, Chaldean Town, Greek Town and Mexican Town. Everyone had come for the same purpose—to make some money. President Roosevelt died, Mussolini was murdered, Hitler committed suicide. The Atom bomb was detonated. The threat of war was a constant reminder to support the government, build air-raid shelters, keep an eye on your neighbor. The world was in rapid transition and in that crux was born my generation, bred of despair.
I was born after many failed attempts and sad semi starts. Parker had come first, two years before me, testing the world as he always had before escorting me in. Born on a rural farm, we were starved of other children to play with. The closest neighbors were found four turns and two miles away on cratered dirt road. They had three boys, the youngest of whom was Parker’s age and had a proclivity toward bullying that ruled him out as a candidate for playtime. And so it was that Parker was not only my brother, but for many years also my best friend.
Our parents were stern and humorless those days. Mom conserved by making watery stews and soap from castor oil that left itchy patches on our skin during winter. When Parker’s ankles began to show, the stitches were pulled on his trousers and the legs were reassembled into dresses for me. Every month our height was marked on the back of the pantry door and Mom sighed at the added increments, telling us that we grew like weeds. Dad sawed out sections of an encyclopedia series and every so often pulled one of the ancient volumes off the bookshelf and stuffed it with neatly rolled bills. Jars overflowed with coins in the pantry. As children of such parents, we were taught that the world was always on the verge of collapse. It meant that we were eating too much, growing too much, incapable of sustaining our needs. Parker and I had nothing else to compare our life to and though it seemed we had enough of what we needed, the frugality of our upbringing was evident when we staged large lectures aimed at the goats and chickens, explaining to them why they should eat smaller portions and not be wasteful with the hay and grains. Mom would look on while she worked the musky teats, a smirk sealing her lips tight.
After the war, Dad traded farm life for long days in an automotive factory in Detroit where he put three metal pieces into a mass of parts that, under the watchful gaze of thirty workers and one critical foreman, slowly evolved into a motor. Mom continued to tend the farm, collecting eggs, milking goats and plucking chicken feathers. She sold her baked goods and brown eggs at the weekly market in the church’s parking lot and sometimes from a stand at the head of our driveway. Eventually Dad would make the union, the farm would be sold and we would move into a two-bedroom bungalow in Hamtramck where Parker and I cramped into twin beds separated by a tiny nightstand. But before then, Parker and I spent our days climbing haystacks in the barn, playing hide and seek, and pretending to be soldiers, shooting at one another with sticks foraged from the woods that bordered our property. The yard was our world, the farm our fantasyland and we zipped around with the ferocity of little cyclones. When we got to be too much and our parents needed some time alone, they sent us to our Uncle Theo who lived three towns away where his small house overlooked the St. Clair River.
Uncle Theo was a self-made man, as Dad would say, who went to work on the boat docks, first dangling from a wooden swing anchored on board, washing the barnacled steel hulls of large cargo ships, then scrubbing the boot-trampled, water-damaged decks, and finally manning the large steering wheel, piloting through small straits and rough ocean waters. As a sea merchant, Uncle Theo had traveled to Europe and Asia and was full of stories of beautiful scenery, lusty women and vicious bar fights. He had handsome green eyes, a scarred up face, and was of no blood relation to us, but had met Dad during the war and forged a lifelong friendship worthy of the title Uncle. He smoked Le Hoyos, which stained his fingers a dingy yellow. A sizzling butt constantly dangled in his lips or pinched between his thumb and finger as he bellowed with laughter or emptied a bottle of beer with his head tipped far back. Sometimes he would give Parker and me sips of whiskey and feed us pink steaks, making us promise not to tell our mom. His home was crowded with objects, each easily able to ignite our imaginations. Our favorite was a large globe that stood slightly tilted on a metalwork of arabesques. Uncle Theo would whirl it under his large palms, his callused fingers skimming over continents and oceans. There he showed us the far reaches of his travels as Parker and I crowded up against one another, a captivated audience of oohs and ahhhhs.
As a bedtime story, Uncle Theo once told us that during the Depression Detroit was suffering from such an awful food shortage that the mayor ordered a slaughter of all the animals in the zoo and rationed them as food for the people. ‘Desperation,’ he said, ‘makes people do things they never imagined.’ With that he mussed our hair, one hand on each head, and left the room. Parker and I lay on our backs staring at the dark ceiling, our eyes wide open. The story terrified us. The giraffes bothered Parker the most, while I was particularly upset about the tigers. We never questioned the legitimacy of the story, the source after all had traveled to places we would never set foot, touched fabrics and smelled spices that our imaginations, shaped by the flat plains of poverty and farmland, couldn’t even comprehend.
While Uncle Theo was a special treat, Dad was like a visitor to the house who arrived every weekday afternoon at exactly four o’clock filthy and metallic, the stench of factory a constant reminder of how hard he worked to put food on the table. Though he washed up for dinner, his hands and fingernails remained forever blackened. Most nights, we begged him to tell us stories about the war. Sometimes he conceded and his blue eyes would grow glassy with each tale. His stories centered around the times in-between battle, the things that made it seem nostalgic and American, like busty blondes crooning softly to troops and love letters written to lonely girlfriends at home. Many years later, Parker would be forced to join troops in Vietnam, but no one forced our dad to go to war. He readily signed up for service, along with the other young men in his town, and off he went.
‘It’s the duty of an American,’ he would often tell us. ‘Every man worth his salt serves his country.’
And his support never waned. After we moved to the city, our family became notorious for throwing the largest annual Fourth of July party on the block; Dad festooning the yard with red, white and blue crepe paper garlands as Mom, a skimmer hat upon her blond curls, made her special Patriotic Potato Salad, the key to which, she once told me, was to use red skins.
Dad’s service in the war had been brief compared to other young men. During a routine drill, he was the victim of friendly fire by a soldier from Kentucky named Robert Dicky, or The Duck as Dad sometimes called him. Dad was sent home one month later with a Purple Heart pinned to his lapel and a limp that he would keep forever. Parker and I were never allowed to ask about Robert Dicky. It was only when our dad was drinking bourbon with Uncle Theo that the name ever came up in conversation, accompanied by slaps on the shoulder and words that would have resulted in our mouths being soaped. And though Robert Dicky had expedited Dad’s military career, The Duck’s was also short-lived when the platoon came under fire and all but Uncle Theo were killed.
Such nights of reminiscence were frequent back then, during the Korean War, when nearly all talk among the men was about their war experiences. On those nights, Parker and I were sent to bed early, but we would sneak down the steps, our long johns drooping at the crotch and pushed up at the elbows. We’d silently pass Mom in the kitchen, her back to us as she scrubbed pots and pans, swiping the side of one slender wrist across her forehead. At the closed den door, we pressed our ears to the grainy wood and listened. There Parker and I learned the real stories, those that involved wounds and blood and words like kraut and charlie. After our eavesdropping, we’d lie in bed trying to decipher the military slang. Often we tested it out in our daily talk until one day Mom overheard and smacked our behinds bright red.
While Dad hated the krauts and the charlie, he was even more heated about the commies. From behind newspapers he grumbled things like, ‘We’re all going to be growing potatoes and waiting in line for food.’ He’d peer over the top of the paper, his thick-framed glasses bordered by bushy eyebrows, and say, ‘How’d you like that? No more coloring books or playtime, you’ll be growing potatoes!’ I’d stare at him and nod, then return to my coloring book, eyeing him curiously and wondering how to grow a potato.
By the time Parker started grade school the anti-Communist crusade had people pointing fingers and Parker’s elementary-level reading materials were carefully scrutinized by Dad for any anti-American agendas. The simplest combinations of the alphabet could set his temper aflame and have him threatening to march into the Principal’s office. Mom would promise to bring up the issue at the next parents’ meeting though I’m sure she never really did so.
Mom had spent her very early childhood in northern Wisconsin, growing up with the wishful ambiance of those who read Little House on the Prairie books, pining for a Ma and Pa Ingalls, while the real dust of the plains settled deep into her soul. Children in the Branson family were born for their contributions as farmhands, and laziness was a wide cast net that was not tolerated. Her stratospheric ambitions were grounded under thick boots, the kinds whose soles were scraped and left at the front door. ‘A woman can handle many things,’ she would tell me. The scars on her back sketched illustrations.
Mom had two older brothers, one whose life ended drastically at age ten under the thrashing blade of a wheat plow, another who ran off at age fifteen, never to be heard from again. The Branson’s relocated to Michigan in the late twenties for the promise of better agricultural conditions and cheap land purchase. My grandparents settled easily into the community, a village of sorts with a mere forty-three inhabitants. They raised the census by three and transformed the bucolic town of Casco into the second largest in the township, a remarkable turn of events that earned them instant celebrity among their few neighbors.
Theirs was a time of prohibition, a secret sneaking time of blind pigs and middle of the night port landings. A time of calico and lace; burlap sacks of coffee and grain; high collars and pleated trousers held up with suspenders. After long days on the farm, once the land was tilled and the plow’s curved metal blades were at rest, the young William and Margaret Branson tucked my mom into bed then hopped in the REO Speed Wagon and joined their neighbors in the basement of the local church where ceramic cups were filled with grain alcohol. The men and women danced to Cotton Eye Joe as crackly records spun round and round on an old Brunswick, the young couples taking new partners when the caller yelled, ‘Ace of Diamonds, Jack of Spades, meet your partner and all promenade!’
Mom attended lessons in the local one-room schoolhouse where children seven through twelve received a collective education. Dad sat behind her in that same tiny room, two years her senior and eight inches taller. After seven long months, Marvin Basel finally worked up the courage to ask Adelaide Branson for a dance at the annual Farm Days, his twelve-year-old palms sweaty as they Shoo-Flyed their way around the decorated barn.
And so my family history begins.
Mom got along very well with the Basels. Their farm was a mere twenty-minute walk across corn to wheat boundaries, and she made the trek nearly daily that summer, the stiff stalks chalking up her dry-skinned legs as she passed through them. Dad would meet her at the property line, sometimes sticking a sprig of barley behind her ear, other times presenting her with a bouquet of dandelions. Her tiny legs folded under her on the thick grass as they held hands. Sometimes he would read to her from the poetry primer he had nabbed from school. Other times they would lie on their backs with their eyes directed to the sky, making shapes out of the clouds. They spent year after year in this manner, growing up together, growing toward one another like two plants in the sun. Hand holding became cheek kissing became embraces, and at age seventeen, in a dusty barn decorated with wild flowers and sunlight tendrils through the loosely slatted roof, she took a ring and became his wife.
It was Rose Endelman who stood at the front of the bridal party then later caught Mom’s bouquet of Tiger lilies. Rose had once sat in that small classroom too; her round, freckled cheeks deeply indented with dimples when she smiled. Rose was a plump redhead who was quick to blush and shy as a mouse, but she turned into every boy’s fantasy girl once puberty hit. Three months after catching Mom’s bouquet she married her high school sweetheart, Don Vande Kamp. Soon after, she gave birth to five girls and then one son who, as it turns out, would change my life forever.
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