Saturday, August 20, 2011
By Steven B. Fuson
Wednesday, as the rain began, I stowed my upper Midwestern – think Fargo – accent and hung up the phone with my Aunt Carol. She is in the hospital and it is possible that I will never see her again. This was my mother’s closest sister. Her children were the same ages, within days, of me and my little brother and we spent all of our free time together, with their family taking advantage of all the leisure activities that were available to those lacking any disposable income. Nearly all of my positive memories from childhood include Aunt Carol.
My primary memory of my mother, on the other hand, is that she ceaselessly cleaned the house to the spirit recorded on vinyl; apparently, my mother was a fan of Ray Conniff, as she had his arrangement of nearly every popular song of the '50s, '60s, and '70s in her collection. I was too young to know the difference between the originals and the covers and never thought to ask her why she collected the way she did.
My little brother and I were pressed into full service only on the weekends and holidays. My assigned duties, outside of kitchen functions dictated by meals, included: 1) cleaning baseboards, walls and registers using Formula 409; 2) dusting all furniture, bookshelves, and each and every knick knack using either a clean dry cloth or one infused with Lemon Pledge, depending upon the medium of the item to be dusted; and 3) raking the algae-green speckled shag carpet with a specialty carpet rake (a rigid hunter-green plastic affair evocative of the rakes used to create Zen gardens).
That day, clad in a T-shirt and my royal blue Sears Toughskins, which mother had ordered from the catalog and picked up at the outlet 14 miles distant in Barron, I was to dust the entire house. After sternly rebuffing my protestations regarding the unfair nature of my having to perform tedious housework while all other boys ran the woods in keeping with their primordial birthright, my mother started the album and, to the tune of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” as covered by the Ray Conniff Singers, I set my jaw, retrieved the Pledge and started with the wood furniture
The TV smelled of plastic electricity and the furniture polish (which I was not supposed to use on the device) mixed with anger as I smeared the sides of the plastic cabinet and I started to construct a world in which I would never have to carry out such a menial task again. As I have always had an affinity for the gray day, this place would be cool but not cold with a leaden sky that would not force my robin’s egg eyes to squint against the annoying metallic sunlight which causes the world to run on time and makes my clothing cling to me as though I were thinly coated with syrup extracted from something citrus.
The cloth took on a moldy hue as a snarl of dust rolled thin and ever longer before it, like clay rings in a seventh grade pottery class. The clouds over Wisconsin’s north woods moved in to the tempo of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” as I stared out the bay window that was my mother’s pride. Promising, I thought, cheering for the storm. The storm could force the hazy, humid summer day to match my ideal.
As the Conniff Singers continued to cover the most popular songs of 1970, my mother chastised me for daydreaming, stating that we had to hurry up because someone was coming over, her tone revealing that the guest was not just any someone. Sensing an urgency that went beyond mother’s usual Germanic nagging, I doubled down my efforts while continuing to build my ideal and, dare I say, sacred space in my mind’s eye. Finishing just as Mrs. Wathke rang the bell, I retreated to the basement to escape the sweltering heat of the day. Down there, I sat against the concrete block wall in the cement floor just under the hospital bed that I was told my father had lived in for a year (before I was adopted) due to a bad back. There, I continued to live in my gray world, picking at the delaminating soles of my high-top Converse All-Stars, until my father called for me from the top of the steps. I had not even heard him come home from work. My endocrine system perceived his noontime presence as a threat to my survival and I flushed head to toe with a full-blown panic reaction. As I mounted the stairs, the three adults were standing in the hallway. I stared at the mustard and olive paisley patterned linoleum, ready for the ass-chewing for whatever it was that they had discovered that I had done, when my father reached out and took me into an embrace.
The next thing I remember is realizing that I was sitting at the kitchen table alone, enveloped in the grayness of the high and distant clouds. I understood that my parents had introduced me to Mrs. Wathke and told me that she would be taking care of me while my mother recovered from surgery – I didn’t know it at the time but she was to undergo a radical mastectomy on the 'morrow – but that reality was profane. Hence, I preferred to slip into my cool gray world where time was suspended. There, I felt safety and comfort. There, no matter what came, I was strong. I was prepared.
As I walked back into the house thinking about Carol, I realized that I was singing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” – the Ray Conniff arrangement.