Anne Deserano, Arth, Arthur Powell, Carl Powell, Eileen Powell, Elizabeth Bannister, Ford Model T, Iowa, Jean Powell, Jodi Flower, Joe Powell, John Powell, Las Vegas, Mathew Powell, Mementos, Memphis, Midwest, Muddleton- Tennessee, Nevada, Pablo DeSerano, Powell Family, San Francisco, Sentiment, Winchester Nevada
A nine hour drive gives one plenty of time for thought, thoughts that drift to things pleasant and unpleasant, and making the same trip in reverse two days later doubles the opportunity for pondering. When a solemn anniversary is the reason one is completing a solo drive to and from the Midwestern heartland to the heart of Dixie in a span of three days the likelihood is that said ponderings will turn to the morose.
We Powell children had all gathered together two years earlier when we had interred our father, Carl. My sojourn of February, 2013 had challenged us with ice and snow that covered both roads and countryside but that trip had provided the pleasure of my now deceased wife and our two children’s companionship. This trip, though void of traveling companions, exchanged wonderful and cherished company for very pleasant and gentle driving conditions. Fate must have decreed that if a solitary old man was to drive a long, lonely distance that he could at least do so in relative comfort and safety. On Friday the sixth, the anniversary date of Dad’s passing, I, the old man of the Powell litter, left the cold, windswept planes of Iowa and pilgrimaged to southern Tennessee for a rendezvous at my sister’s house, the house where Dad had died exactly two years prior. They had been brutal, these two years of orphan, especially the span of three months in which I had lost two of a handful of people who meant more to me than words could tell.
Mother had died seven years prior, and her passing had been mournful for she had been the Powell family’s moral compass. It had been she who had taught us right from wrong, compassion, caring for others, etiquette of both the mundane, Emily Post type that dealt with matters such as using the correct shrimp or salad fork at a dinner, how to hold a chair or door for a lady, how to write a proper thank you note or dinner invitation, and how to engage in small talk with someone one had never previously met. Jean also instructed us in that far more important and more subtle etiquette, the type that enabled one to tell someone ‘no’ in a fashion that damaged neither ego nor psyche nor caused loss of face to either the person who was being denied his request nor to self: Mother had emphasized early and often the importance of making people feel loved, cherished and welcomed.
It had been Father who had taught me how to propose toasts at weddings and roasts and how to write and deliver a proper eulogy, a skill that had quite ironically come in handy twice in a damned short span of time. In the winter of 2013 I had delivered first a eulogy for Father`s and then later that same miserable winter of discontent my wife’s funeral. It had been with great, unbelievable pain and suffering that I had met the loss of my 85 year old father and then my agony had morphed into a depression the power of which I had never guessed at, a deep, breath robbing sadness that deepened and become overwhelming when Eileen passed away two months later at the age of fifty one.
I had soldiered on and assumed a face of coping for the sake of my children but inside I had given up and was no longer living but rather simply existing and wondering why I even bothered to do that. I continued to continue because even in my dire and depressed state I did not wish to inflict upon my children an even greater amount of sorrow and despair by committing suicide of either the active ending of my own life style through violence or pills nor the slow death of personal neglect that would leave them equally orphaned and forever wounded. Having lost both my parents I knew too well that no matter hold old and independent we get each of us is still connected to our mommies and daddies and just how devastating and defeating their loss could be. If I couldn’t live my life for my own sake I at least continued it for those whom I loved and who loved me in return.
My brothers and our little sister and I were converging on our sister Elizabeth’s home, the one which she had shared with Father for three years prior to his passing. Elizabeth, the nurse, loving mother and occasional missionary had shared her home with Dad once he became enfeebled and infirmed and was no longer capable of caring for himself in faraway Washington DC.
Father and Mother had been industrious and thrifty byproducts of both the Great Depression and World War II and their extremely tenuous early circumstances had left indelible impressions on their psyches. Uncertain beginnings had produced a generation that was accustomed to thrift and Mom and Dad had scrimped and saved most of their lives and had subsequently amassed what was to me a small fortune. Their estate had been settled, monies distributed, and thankfully, there had been no bickering with and among my siblings concerning who got this or who was entitled to that. This was true partially because each of us had been reared to feel no sense of entitlement concerning that which we had not earned, and certainly each of we five understood that the wealth our parents had amassed had not been earned by any of we children, but rather by our parents.
Father had cautioned us concerning hard feelings and rifts that too often result when a person of means, or for that matter a person of no means, passes and those who are left behind quarrel over the deceased’s belongings. Carl and Jean had been determined that we children would not suffer and bicker among ourselves as was too often the case when an estate was bequeathed in a capricious and inequitable fashion. Our parents had determined that each of us would share equally of their labors and had made it clear that the most important thing for us to do was to love and honor one another and their memory. Each of us was determined to fulfill this desire and had, thus far, acted accordingly.
Their will had called for equal distribution of the properties among us five and had also held codicils with bequeathments that left smaller amounts to various charities and causes that had been near and dear to Carl and Jean’s hearts. The least of my siblings had been designated the will’s executor; that is to say the least in stature and age, but by no means the least in courage, brains nor heart. A ten year age gap existed between me, the eldest brother, and Anne, the youngest and for the vast majority of my adult life I, though the eldest child, had enjoyed the comfort and security of walking neither point nor sweep as the family unit, and particularly the siblings, negotiated difficult and dangerous paths. This tendency to leave the hard lifting to my sisters had continued through our parents’ declines and more recently with the details of finalizing his estate.
The least of the siblings, the youngest, the second daughter, the one who, though they resided in different States, lived a scant dozen miles from Elizabeth, she who had aided her in caring for our father in his last years, was executor of the will; a task of which she knew little but which she attacked with ferocity and thoroughness and which she pursued without financial remuneration, though we, her brothers and sister, had begged her to charge the estate a reasonable hourly rate for her efforts. Each of us had tried to convince Anne that she was most certainly entitled to be paid for her time but she had insisted that she would charge the estate only for her direct expenses while she gladly donated her time. So she, a woman who had never owned her own business, who had never helped run a business with her husband or her children, was given the task of collecting, deciphering, organizing, and then disseminating information about our father’s multiple, vast, chaotic financial holdings. This was the job of the least, of the youngest, of the second daughter, of my little sister Anne.
I understood Anne’s reluctance to take a well-earned but unauthorized portion of the Powell Estate, particularly in light of the financial hardships Elizabeth had faced while she cared for our tight fisted father who had clung so tenaciously to his hard earned shekels lest he need them in his old age and who had thereby unwittingly and unintentionally caused financial hardships to befall the older sister during her tenure as our father’s keeper. If only he had been a bit freer with his money that he so wanted to share equally among his children Elizabeth’s acts of loving care might have been apportioned with more smiles and fewer tight lipped grimaces.
And now, on this second anniversary of our father’s death, after the majority of assets had been distributed, we five Powell children were gathering at the elder daughter Elizabeth’s house to commemorate Carl’s passing. Joe and Michael, my two brothers and the second and fourth children, were flying from San Francisco to Memphis where they were to rent a car and then continue on their journey with a seventy five mile, hour and fifteen minute drive which would complete the final leg of their passage. Our troupe was set but our mission was still a bit amorphous. We would gather to mark the two year anniversary of Carl’s passing, commiserate, to review the half million in assets that had not yet been distributed from Carl’s estate and to help Elizabeth with the task of reclaiming the spare bedroom that Carl had lived in but that had lain untouched and unoccupied in the subsequent two years since his passing.
I had seen a little of my brother Joe just the month before when he had cajoled me into flying from Iowa to Las Vegas, Nevada with the promise of a fun filled brothers’ reunion fueled by a debauchery that he’d hoped would revitalize both his and my flagging spirits. That trip had not gone as planned and though I had had a wonderful time in Sin City most of my pleasure had been derived from meeting a lovely young woman named Jodi who had been successful in making me have fun for the first time since my wife’s death two years prior and with whom I corresponded via phone and email and hoped to see again later that year. I had seen little of Joe in Vegas as he had been intent on seeking pleasures of the flesh while I had simply reveled in the rush of a budding new romance with the magnificent and vivacious Jodi.
I arrived in Muddleton, Tennessee mid-afternoon, was the first to converge on Elizabeth’s house, and was surprised to find it contained only her. Five of her seven children had grown to the point where they no longer lived at home and her husband Billy Banister and their penultimate child had fled the scene of what promised to be loud, Powell fueled chaos. The youngest child had not fled the home with her padre and hermana but was currently at a 4-H meeting.
Elizabeth and I talked about her husband Billy’s latest literary endeavor, a story that showed the abject world of sex trafficked children portrayed in gritty, nauseating realism coupled with a fantasy element where the abused might be saved via a man who had an olfactory sense a bloodhound would envy. In the story this man used his sense of smell to track down and rescue at least a few of the desperate hordes of girls and boys who are being treated as less than animals. Human trafficking was the latest social ill that Elizabeth and Billy were battling. They had passionately fought to restrict elective abortion, had and were supporting half a dozen children through organizations such as Save the Children or Christian Children’s Foundation, had been foster parents prior to Carl becoming a surrogate foster child, and now were spending time and money fighting human trafficking. I wished Billy great success with both the financial and social aspects of his latest literary masterpiece.
I talked about some scribbling that I was in the midst of concerning a love story between a spiritually broken young man and his equally broken love interest which I was hoping to pursue until a novel suitable for publication might be produced. Elizabeth listened to me wax on about my tale even though I have started many novels and have to date finished none.
Our brothers arrived a few hours later and we greeted one another enthusiastically. Joe and I said nothing of last month’s highly inadequate trip to Las Vegas where we both saw more of women than we did one another, though technically I saw ‘woman,’ while he entertained himself with the company of more women on our trip than there had been days together. I was looking for a new lease on love and hoped Jodi might at least help get me going in the right direction while Joe was out to prove to his second ex-wife, Sofia, that she had made a terrible choice when she had cast him out and divorced him. He was intent on proving to himself and the world that he still had “game” while I had been astonished to find even that I still had hope.
The youngest brother, Michael, was Joe’s sidekick and had been so his entire life. There is an eight year age gap between Mike and me and we have always gotten along but never really known one another. I had been surprised when Mike had uprooted his family and left Michigan to join Joe in San Francisco, but not terribly so. Joe completed Mikey and recently when I talked to Mike on the phone most of his conversations flowed around Joe and were filled with concern that Joe was losing a grip on his values as a result of his divorce. Michael had told me that Joe had managed to fritter away most of his share of our inheritance on luxury items and this saddened me. Joe was a good man who had taken the death by cancer of his first wife, Jeannie, far better than he had the rejection of his second and far younger second wife.
Anne arrived a bit later and after another enthusiastic welcome we five plus Elizabeth’s youngest child sat down to dinner and conversation. Stories, reminiscence, retellings of tales that had been shared many, many times before flowed and a genial and upbeat atmosphere prevailed, tempered only by conciliatory and palliative words in remembrance of Eileen. After dinner we six went into the living room and were regaled with some piano playing by my niece and I proceeded to fall in and out of sleep on the comfortable, over-stuffed couch. It had been a long day and even though the weather had been delightful for driving and the traffic light I still found myself fatigued and done in.
As I did frequently when visiting The South my mind wandered to thoughts of God and religion and my semiconscious mind flowed with little obvious connection from one subject to another. Dad and Mom had been staunch Catholics and they had made sure that we received training and indoctrination into the One True Church, the religion that Jesus himself had started when he instructed Peter to go forth in His name. Of we five the two girls, the ones who live in The Bible Belt, the part of The United State Of America that is the bastion of all things protestant and evangelical, had thoroughly embraced Jesus but rejected the Pope, “his” church and Catholicism. I retained a veneer of Catholicism with none of the mooring anchors or supports, Joe had rejected even this façade while Michael did as his wife or brother instructed.
Ours was a mixed bag of faith, jaded cynicism, hope, longing and exhaustion with the two girls living lives that embraced faith and family while my two bothers seemed to revolve around commerce and I was simply glad to finally be rising from the ocean floor and the deep sense of despair that had inundated and drowned me for the last two years.
Because our outlooks on life differed so wildly talking to my amassed siblings frequently reminded me of the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy, who speaks only English, gets arrested in Paris and has to tell her bilingual husband Ricky her story in English so he can translate to Spanish, where another man who speaks Spanish and German tells an officer who speaks German and French the story and who can then tell the final cop the story in French. It’s not that we don’t communicate, simply that we don’t do it very well, quickly or quietly and that we seem to lack certain basic underpinnings that are requisite for effective communication.
Interestingly, though we differed wildly in our religious beliefs, all five of us led lives, with the recent and I hoped short lived exception of Joe’s departure from conservative reality that had accompanied his marriage’s termination smack dab in the middle of that vulnerable time of life, the “mid-life crisis,” that were far more similar in action than dissimilar, with the greatest difference being the amount of time and effort my sisters put into volunteer work promoting the conservative social justice issues that they believed in while my brothers and I did far less to shine a light on the world, whether in the name of Jesus or that more secular slant of ‘making a better world for our children’s generation.’ I was worried about Joe. Worried that he might do himself real harm in his efforts to prove that he was actually less than half the age his birth certificate implied and in my worry I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would live to the same age our parents had?
I was fading in and out of sleep, half listening to my siblings agree on the evil that is Socialism and how our president was leading America down the wrong path and further agreeing that hard working Americans should be allowed to keep more of their hard earned dollars while acknowledging that it was our duty to give people of all races and religions opportunities to experience financial independence without coddling able bodied slackers. I felt an urge to talk of things politic coming over me, an urge I immediately squelched. I had decided long ago that most political “conversations” consisted of one person speaking and then waiting impatiently for another in order to disagree with him while not listening with an open mind nor heart. Rather than add to the conversation with agreement or dissent I roused myself enough to take my leave for the evening and headed upstairs where I promptly fell asleep lying on top of the bedclothes while still fully dressed. I mumbled an apology to my dead wife who had hated when I did either of those two things and promptly passed into a deep sleep.
I was up early the next morning and didn’t figure anybody else would be awake before five, especially my two brothers who lived two time zones west of us. My mouth tasted terrible from me having gone to bed without brushing my teeth the night before and I brushed my pearly whites extra thoroughly while I ran hot water with which to shave. I slipped out of the pants and pink oxford that I had spent the last 24 hours in and slipped into a pair of slim-fit, black sweats and a blue Marion Rotary Run for the Shoes half marathon long sleeve tee shirt that I had received when Eileen and I had completed one of our last races together. I turned on my tablet to check emails in general and to see if Jodi in particular had answered the message I’d sent her Friday morning before heading south but found she hadn’t. I did see that the weather in nearby Bolivar, Tennessee was a balmy 57 degrees Fahrenheit and looking out the window I saw stars in a clear sky accompanied by a nearly full moon and decided that I would venture out into the rural environs that surrounded my sister’s home in tiny Muddleton, Tennessee.
I’d visited my sisters prior to our father coming south to spend his final days in Elizabeth’s and Anne’s care and was fairly familiar with the surroundings. I was familiar enough to know that coyotes, black bear and farm yard dogs walked the neighborhood regularly so I grabbed a sturdy walking stick to take with me on my little trek. I doubted I would have any trouble with wild animals and knew that the stick was as likely to get me in trouble with any dogs I might meet as it was to save me but it gave me a sense of security. Because it was dark and the road gravel I was only going for a walk rather than a jog and I figured carrying the stick was a good choice.
Two days prior I had marveled at the beauty of the full moon as it shone down over snow covered Iowa but while at home my appreciation of the moon and the snow interacting with one another to produce such a magnificent and breath taking night scape had been tempered by the bone chilling cold that had to be endured if one wanted to walk about in the lovely moonlight. The moon shining down on temperate Tennessee’s gravel roads, nude, winter woodlands and grassy lawns that were just starting to show green was not as visually spectacular as that of the moonlight on Iowa’s snow scape but it surely was more pleasurable temperature wise. I had a lovely hour long walk and returned to Elizabeth’s home unmolested save for the barking of some distant dogs.
Six o’clock is quite a bit later than five and it wasn’t long before Elizabeth was awake, followed by Anne and then just before seven Joe and Mike appeared blurry eyed and reticent. I wished them a good morning and pointed out that it was going on eight o’clock, a reference to our father’s odd habit of cajoling us in this way whenever he felt that we had stayed abed too long.
Elizabeth cooked us a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and eggs from the chickens that she kept on her property, and when we were done eating I gathered up the dishes and washed them. I thought about the old cliché of all the parents of my children’s friends telling me how helpful my children were when they visited there and how I had always wondered why this phenomenon of doing extra chores while away from home as compared to at one’s own home seemed so widespread. After breakfast we retired to Carl’s room and got down to the business at hand.
Said business was the examination and equitable distribution of treasures that held either sentimental or fiduciary value. Carl’s room was lined with shelves and the shelves were full of Carl’s past. Over three hundred and fifty linear feet of shelves lined the fourteen foot by twenty foot bedroom that Carl had claimed as his own for the three years he had been ensconced in Billy and Elizabeth’s home. The shelves held items known and unknown and getting started with the process was a bit intimidating. We discussed various options for going through Dad’s things together and finally decided to begin with his collection of two dozen, die-cast, large-scale model cars which he had started collecting around the turn of the century.
Cars had always fascinated our father and when my uncle Matt had died in August of 2000 someone had made him a gift of a Ford Model T which had reminded Dad of cars from his youth as well as the lovely restored one his older brother had maintained for years prior to his passing. The cars held little interest for us but I gladly took the first one from his collection as a reminder of both Dad and his favorite brother.
The selection process was tedious, slow, dull, monotonous and important. We each had items of sentiment that interested us and Joe had suggested we start at one end of the shelves and work our way to the other. We used this strategy for a while and each of us took some small china teacups that our mother had cherished and which happened to number the same as her granddaughters so distribution was easy. After a few hours of this I stopped the process and declared that there had to be a better procedure than simply filling from left to right and top to bottom and suggested that we look at items of high interest to all of us. This was met with some resistance, mostly because of a desire to ruffle as few feelings as possible but I began to pull items off the shelves that I knew we all cherished and quietly set them aside. After another half hour of sorting through items that mostly would be donated to charity or sold on-line and the proceeds donated to charity I spoke up again.
Among the treasures that Dad had amassed was a dozen hand crafted carvings his brother Arth had created before joining the Army Air Corps in September of 1939. Carl cherished these mementos of the beloved brother whom Dad had never again seen after Arth shipped off to the Philippines at the end of 1940. He revered the carvings both because of their relationship to the brother who had left the gangly ten year old boy with a promise that he would return and also because many of them were simply and truly magnificent. Unlike MacArthur the Japanese had succeeded in preventing Uncle Arthur from fulfilling his promise to return and all that was left of him were memories, mementos and stories of those who had served and suffered with him during his time in the Far East.
I knew each of us children wanted a carving and decided to cut to the chase and recommended that we start with Elizabeth, then Anne, Mike, Joe and finally me getting a turn to select our favorite and then reverse the order with me, Mike, Joe, Anne and finish with Elizabeth which left the two sisters dividing the last two carvings amongst themselves. This was agreed to and each of us set about the task of selecting in turn a small item that had held a huge place in our father’s heart ever since he had been a very young boy as we temporarily placed in Limbo the distribution of sundry items which littered his shelves that held merely financial value.
There was a seemingly endless supply of personal treasures lining the wall but I limited my selection of keepsake mementos to one fairly large box that measured roughly four cubic feet in size. One of my favorites was a birthday card and note that my grandmother had given to Mom on her sixteenth birthday in 1936. The items that I selected would be placed in glass fronted wooden Lawyer’s Bookcases that had once held Arth’s treasured carvings at his parents’, my other grandparents, house. Items of great worth that were to be liquidated would be sold and the money that was generated either sent to each of us or distributed in our name to charities as we saw fit.
At the end of the long day Anne’s husband Pablo brought over three of the five DeSerano children along with a delicious dinner that he had cooked and we eleven sat down to a meal of fellowship and sharing. Joe and Mikey had an early flight to catch Sunday morning and I a nine hour drive that I wanted to complete before the sun went down so we wrapped the festivities up early and said goodnight with hugs all around; I even succeeded in brushing my teeth and slipping out of the sweats and tee shirt that I had worn all day before I lay down to sleep.
The next morning I was up early to shave, shower, dress and again brush my teeth, after which I made coffee for us three boys who thanked and embraced Elizabeth before we left the house slightly after five o’clock and well in anticipation of the sun’s rising. Along the route of my return trip I regurgitated and for the umpteenth time chewed over the happenings, stories and memories of my Saturday with the Powell clan and managed to pull into my garage well before the sun’s rays had even a hint of pink.
I walked down to the curb and checked my mailbox and in it was what appeared to be an old fashioned, honest to goodness letter. I did not recognize the handwriting but the return address label affixed to the upper left corner read Jodi Fowler, 1920 Golden Arrow Dr., Winchester, NV and I certainly recognized that name, though I had assumed Jodi’s little cinder block bungalow was in Las Vegas proper, rather than in one of the suburbs that touched it.
I threw the bills and advertising come-ons onto the kitchen counter and read Jodi’s letter. It was sweet and to the point and the gist of it was that she had decided a trip back home to Indianapolis was in order and was considering driving rather than flying and did I know anyone along the route whom she might stay with for a night or two? I checked my watch, realized that the time difference meant that it was only a bit after three in the afternoon in Nevada, grabbed my phone and called her.
“Hello?” came her sweet and welcome voice.
“Jodi? Hey, it’s John. I just got your letter and wanted to call you right away. Are you still thinking of driving out to Indy in May?”
“Well hi, John! How sweet of you to call so soon. Did you see my email?”
“No, no. I just walked in the door. I was visiting my sisters down in Memphis; I haven’t checked emails at all in over 24 hours. Everything okay?”
“Well,” I heard her smile through the line, “that depends. Do you know somebody that can put up with me for a day or two on say May sixteenth or so? If you do I’ll drive, otherwise I’ll fly,” she said, her voice teasing.
“I am sure that can be arranged. How long will you stay?” I asked.
“Not sure, maybe just one day, two at the most, but I have to make the return trip and be home by the 26th. I might stop by twice, if that’s okay.”
“That would be great! I’d love to have you both ways,” I said, realizing my double entendre only after I had said it.
Jodi giggled. “I’m sure you would, sweetie, but we’ll have to see. Hey, can I call you back? I’ve got a client here?”
“Oh, sure, sure! Call me back. I look forward to hearing from you. We’ll work out the details.”
“Sounds great, John. I’ll call in a few hours. Bye!”
“Bye,” I answered as I hung up. I realized that I still didn’t know what Jodi did to support herself and thought back to a conversation I’d had with my sister concerning trafficked children and the sex industry in Nevada and then laughed out loud. It had been a long day, and sometimes the strangest ideas enter my head at the end of a long, hard drive.