I had assigned my students, who are writing analytical essays on art objects of their choice, four reviews of various kinds and styles. On impulse, I asked them to rank the four readings according to the writers’ effectiveness in both describing and assessing the quality of the item under review, then hand-picked students to share and justify their rankings. To wrap up each conversation, I posed a question to them based on some of their judgments. The strategy worked like a charm–I’m sure I stole it–and I’ll definitely use it again. Ranked first by every single student: Zadie Smith’s essay on Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Dana Schutz’s Open Casket. Recommended.
For the first time in 11 days (I think) I returned home. I found it hard to leave my mom, but she was ready to face her challenge; I was missing Nicole and our beasts. We ate a frozen Shakespeare’s Pizza, tried some blackberry moonshine, and got caught up. On the rare occasion when we’re apart for an extended time, she leaves out the CDs she played in my absence–I always like to know. George Jones’ My Favorites ofHank Williams was playing when I walked in the door.
Yesterday morning, my mom and I sprinkled my dad’s ashes on their asparagus and horseradish. The morning was still and cool, with a beautiful sun beaming down. I look forward to this harvest.
Jane has had a few rough mornings, of course. After the visiting of a cloud of grief, she told me, “It’s time to put on my big girl pants.” I replied, “You’ve had those on all along. Big girls aren’t made of steel.” Also, she cooked a pork loin, some more of those killer petite potatoes in olive oil and rosemary, and a salad of garden cukes, tomatoes, and avocados. She apologized for the lack of actual lettuce, but it was a perfect salad without.
Thank the stars this Stephens class is so hardworking and committed! Again, meeting them each morning is a welcome respite from personal sorrow and political despair.
I opened Dad’s safety deposit box and found a couple interesting items: a certificate for two $10 shares of Sigma Tau Gamma stock, bought in ’61, and two very early scribblings from Brian and me.
I spent most of the day on the phone with customer service specialists, which resulted in me looking up what other than Sprite or 7-Up mixes well with Canadian Mist (answer: Co-Cola with a couple maraschino cherries and a splash of cherry juice). I admit to having one in excess of my need.
Opened the day with a wonderful conversation with Mom’s neighbors Ronnie and Missy Williams. Ronnie was the first friend I made when I moved to Monett in 1980, occupied our new house until my family could join me, and started a summer factory job. For about a week, all I had was a mattress, a blanket, a pillow, some clothes and a diddy bag, a jam box, and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ Hearts of Stone 8-track (?). Ronnie quickly acted as a conduit between me and some Monettians around my age, and I’ve always been grateful. Ronnie’s going to keep Mom’s lawn mowed and Missy’s going to offer herself as a resource, since she checks in on other women in the neighborhood who’ve lost their husbands.
Afterwards, I cleaned out, vacuumed, washed and waxed Dad’s truck. Apparently no one in Monett installs car stereos, so I will be leaning on the ol’ FM wavelengths for a bit. Gotta have a CD player in any vehicle o’ mine.
Our friends in Monett have supported us with great grub in eye-popping fashion over the past week, but God almighty it has been great to return to Overeem/Volker home cooking! Jane has always been a sharp chef, and we enjoyed her Panko-and-Parmesan crusted chicken breasts and olive-oiled and rosemary’d lil’ taters Saturday night and garlic buttered shrimp last night. I may also have set a personal record by devouring three helpings of lettuce salad on the former eve.
I Zoomed in the afternoon with the Nicole – Heather – Jill Power Trio. At the moment of its convening, I really needed the connection; I haven’t been able to start processing past events with any regularity, and I was feeling a mite unsteady. The Zoomversation gave me a lift.
Closing out the day, Mom watched her Sunday PBS regular shows, and I read and listened to Bob Dylan and the band. Hoping for the best for both of us and my brother this week.
Streaming for Sustainers:
“Don’t believe what you’ve heard / ‘Faithful”s not a bad word.”
I had thought I might quit this enterprise on this day, but from the looks of things? NOPE.
I am proud of my brother Brian and me. We have fallen naturally into a cooperative relationship working through our father’s after-effects, much of it instinctive. The division of labor’s even, and understandings are unspoken and keyed to eye contact. But we’d forgotten, really, to deal with Dad’s truck–I had barely thought about it–and since I’ve been driving the same vehicle for almost 30 years, it made sense for me to inherit it. I took it out on the highway, zig-zagged through my old hometown (Carthage, Missouri) and past some significant sights, and this morning gassed it up, cleaned out the console and glove compartment, washed, rinsed, and waxed it. Hey, Brian and Greg Carlin: he had four tape measures in there, a set of chains, very lovingly packaged jumper cables, and something else huge behind the passenger seat I forgot to unzip. Cartel materials?
On my drive, I truly enjoyed Gary St. James on 99.7 FM “The Bull” introducing some classic country by Waylon, Merle, Reba, The Possum, Willie, The Statlers, Keith Whitley, and Dwight. Some people think I’ve heard every piece of music recorded, but would you believe I’d never ever heard “The Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”? I’d heard OF it, but it had never slithered into my ear. Now it is a fave rave.
Among the sights I visited was the location of the old Carthage High School art annex where my art teacher Howard South taught me to think abstractly and believed in my intellectual potential, despite me being a frequent dipshit. Below, I stand in front of that location; it’s no longer an art annex.
Since my sweetie Nicole has returned to Columbia to tend to our own domicile, it’s just Jane and me hanging out right now. We kept binge-watching Truth Be Told (Octavia Spencer rules!) and had margaritas. I think I could hang with her on the regz.
It’s time for the 2nd “Sustenance and Succor Awards,” which I will give out every 50 days of the pandemic. These artifacts helped get us through
My brother and I have set ourselves to checking off at least a few important boxes per day in the wake of our dad’s death. We completed the week by getting Mom a new TV that requires but a single remote (instead of four), sharing some of our many flower arrangements with a local nursing home, setting up a savings account for her, and meeting the funeral home director one last time to collect cremains, the guest register, and donation lists and to write the check. Buchanan Funeral Home of Monett? Thumbs up.
I took two separate naps from which I awakened as if I had been in a sensory deprivation chamber, then I went to bed fairly early and slept deeply. I guess I needed it. Before retiring, I read an excellent poet who was new to me: Tishani Doshi. Her most recent collection is Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods.
Streaming for Strivers:
If you hang with me for very long, I will try to convert you. Yesterday, my brother Brian and sister-in-law Myra got the treatment as we ran errands in town.
Dad’s funeral. I’ve been wearing the same two dress coats for two decades, it seems, and my favorite of those was not perfectly appropriate. Turns out he and I wore the same jacket size, so I wore his classy, sober, grey one. I’m also one to get out of dress clothes faster than Houdini got out of chains, so when I got back I realized my Dead Moon t-shirt (the last clean one I had with me) wouldn’t quite work; I ended up wearing his Pitt State Gorillas t-shirt the rest of the day.
When we planned the service Monday, my mom was adamant it not be maudlin (her exact word), and that resonated exactly with my wishes. Talk turned to the music: no singing, please, but a pianist would be nice. Mom and the officiant had the same one in mind, as well as the tune: Englishman John Newton’s immortal 1779 hit “Amazing Grace.” They feared somewhat mildly, however, the pianist might exercise her apparently “jazzy” tendencies. That adjective means different things to different people. Turns out she stuck the landing: she coaxed the very familiar melody through, really, the multiple moods that always visit funeralgoers as they reflect on the life of the deceased. I, of course, had an ear carefully cocked to her shiftings, and my two favorites were “rollickingly sentimental” (which matched Dad’s feeling about being in the midst of big family gatherings) and “stunned and suspended,” which fit my own deepest feelings this week. For the latter effect, she gradually slowed down the melody until she was striking notes and letting them hang, as if they were transplanted from a Morton Feldman composition. Seriously, Charles!
All participants were masked, and in fact some very close friends of Dad’s who were at risk battled their wills and stayed home, with our full support. Nicole, however, captured the service on my phone, and after we stepped outside afterwards to meet folks, I used those absent friends’ need as an excuse to dip out of the post-funeral lunch (would have been my third round of fried chicken in 36 hours–I love the stuff, but…) and upload it for them.
Now for the tough stuff.
Note: I must add that I also discovered and binged the YouTube sensations twinsthenewtrend.
My students gave presentations yesterday, the first I’d assigned on Zoom. Actually, with everyone but the speaker fully muted, they weren’t wholly unenjoyable. One gave hers accompanied by her dog and standing outside a stable (she had to work but didn’t want to miss class), and neither augmentation was a distraction. Also, I’d assigned an excerpt from Lars Eighner’s Travels with Lizbeth that I’ve always loved as an expository writing model but students have always hated, and all of these humans chose it as their favorite from among three. I wish I could teach them this fall, too.
Though it was released Friday, I had not been able to get to Bob Dylan’s new album My Rough and Rowdy Ways until yesterday. My expectations were a little low, though he has long been a very important voice in my life. Hot take: his most nuanced singing in a long time (yes, he can squeeze nuance out of those destroyed cords), sly, funny, allusive, and wise writing–and some tuff blues ‘n’ roll. Like my friend Whitney, I’d like to think the finale might really be the finale: “Murder Most Foul.” It’s hard to know when exactly to wave bye-bye, but Bowie’s showed us. Not that Bob’s dying.
Nicole drove to Roaring River State Park to take a meditative hike and commune with nature. I’d liked to have accompanied her, but we plan to return together with our friend Candace.
Speaking of, my father’s service is today, and my aunts and uncles and members of their families arrived at Mom’s yesterday. Jane is one of nine; five of her siblings still walk the earth. My uncle Larry, a skilled craftsman, made two wooden urns for us to choose from for Dad’s cremains; the funeral director was rendered almost speechless examining them. We had fried chicken and mashed potatoes provided by Monett’s Cox Hospital Auxiliary volunteers and got caught up. A couple founding members of my brother Brian’s Monett Mafia dropped by to pay their respects. We closed the day by showing Mom an episode of Gavin & Stacey with English subtitles.
Traveled to Monett for an up-and-back visit with my parents, to limit our exposing them to virus risk. As we were leaving, my dad experienced a dizzy spell, fell to the driveway, hit his head, and briefly lost consciousness. We followed the ambulance that spirited him away to Cox South in Springfield, where he eventually landed in the neural trauma ICU after a CT scan: brain bleed. He had been on blood thinners for another health complication, which wasn’t a great situation. But the last doc we talked to before we headed home sounded cautiously optimistic. Dad had spoken to us: “I’m ok.” “Where am I?” “Oh, God.” “Jesus.” But also garbled syllables…
At 1:15 a.m. Cox called to inform us Dad had taken a turn for the worse and would likely not last beyond Monday. Stunned, we returned to the hospital to begin a vigil. He did not regain consciousness. Calling Dad’s friends to tell them was exquisitely painful. We rotated by twos to sit by his bedside, though a few times we cheated and snuck in by five. Many readers have experienced the gradual succumbing of the unconscious by dying-gasp phases, which is among the most excruciating witnessing one can do; it was my second time. My dad was a hard-headed man, and twice conjured laughter from us out of despair by seeming to be ready to depart, drawing us together in tears and embraces–then beating death back. Finally, his exhalations faded, then stopped at around 8:45 p.m., 3:15 short of Father’s Day. Following the chaplain’s visit, we trudged out as if shackled to ball and chain, and drove home. Through it all, my mom was wondrously strong.
We vowed this would be a buffer day: no business. Only decompressing and dealing with waves of sadness, happy memories, shock, grim humor, confusion, relief, and the agape, frightening state of being overwhelmed. We were fortunate also to enjoy waves of support, though we could not finish my cousin Jim’s made-to-order truckload of delicious biscuits and sausage gravy. We were all surprised that we were so drained we could go right to sleep: it was as if we’d been hurtling smoothly down life’s highway, the driver had stomped on the brakes, and we’d mass-exited via windshield and were airborne in a blur of forward motion, just feet above asphalt stretching out of sight.
I am a big believer in routine and ritual in times of stress, as I’ve demonstrated in earlier commentary entries. I chose to continue teaching (my peers at Stephens had offered to cover for me), and my brother and I agreed to deal with three-four post-death imperatives per day maximum, so we would also have time for self-care. I almost regretted the former choice when an NPR Tiny Desk Concert by Alicia Keys left me sobbing two minutes before class started.
We met with the funeral director and knocked out details for the service, but totally preoccupied by tragedy might not have wrestled with the coronavirus factor thoroughly enough. I knew I would be writing Dad’s obituary after the Saturday early morning phone call, but I dreaded it. I found an isolated corner in which to write, poured some Canadian courage, plunged into the task, struggled, cried, had to pee, walked down the hall to the bathroom, and happened to notice the framed commendations of my dad’s service that have been hanging on the wall for almost 20 years. I took them all off the wall and back to my cubbyhole, where they fed me the linchpin segment of the obit. By the time I was finished, I needed a cup of Twining’s Extra Bold Breakfast Tea just to relax. After dinner we had a great religious discussion that drained us enough to go to sleep immediately again.
Mom awakened to the impact of sudden loss. She let it all out, then recovered after embraces and shared tears. She is tough–even tougher than I thought–and though this road will be long and full of potholes (it IS Missouri), I know she’s equal to it. I awakened and realized I had neither shaved or applied deodorant since Thursday–I addressed the latter. At the funeral home, we viewed Dad’s body one last time prior to its cremation–not easy, but we were together. I tried to grade papers through the masked and unmasked friends who streamed through Mom’s door, and succeeded, though I couldn’t (as usual) go full-medieval with editing commentary. Our dear friend Hiedi continued to look after our culinary needs and offer beaming smiles, laughter, and hugs, and the highlight of my day was wandering around Dad’s fascinating and slightly insane workshop with my brother, Hiedi’s husband and our honorary brother Greg, and his son-in-law Logan. I am the opposite of a craftsman, but as I watched them wander from skillsaw to lathe to air compressor to sander, remarking on their qualities and vintage, I told them, “Dad’s lucky to have three people who know exactly how special and how unique these machines are, and how special this spot is. Some folks leave things behind only to have survivors complain, ‘What do we do with this junk?'”
I’m trying like hell to keep this commentary going. I’m nervous about the crowd coming to Thursday’s service. Dad had many friends, but these times are threatening. Folks need to be cool.
Streaming for Survivors:
For my brother Brian, who I watched the Netflix ZZ Top documentary with, but who hadn’t heard of this band, which was mentioned as a kind of influence.
My Thursday classes are open Zooms: they serve as opportunities for one-on-one tutoring, clarification on coming assignments and grades, testing out fresh writing on me–basically anything related to comp. Three of my students hail from California, all of them are thriving, and one of them always takes advantage of Thursdays. She’s a delight, she always asks the best questions, and despite taking FOUR classes this summer, she is always full of cheer. My favorite quote from her yesterday? “Mr. Overeem, I LOVE writing!” She’s an equine studies major, too!
I have too many books on my stack, but that didn’t stop me from picking up National Book Award winner James McBride’s new one, Deacon King Kong, and, with Nicole, starting the audiobook of Marjorie J. Spruill’s Divided We Stand, one of the guides for the creators of Hulu’s Mrs. America. I know you were hoping I wouldn’t mention that again. It’s that good.
Amazingly, I handled a power drill and didn’t affix myself to the deck’s latticework, upon the posts of which I installed some doo-dads so Nicole could string some colored lights (we call ’em “joy lights”). I earned two fingers of Four Roses to back my cold beer.
Have a great Juneteenth tomorrow, and if you’re not sure about it, look it up!
Streaming for Strivers:
Pre-U.S. release Wailers with Scratch on the sliders and knobs.
My Stephens virtual summer school students continue to shine. Their first set of final drafts were very good, and I shared two of them in which the writers tore down their rough drafts and rebuilt them into, well, models I could read out loud. On a lesser but fun note, I figured out how to perfectly screen-share YouTube videos, so from now on, students will join (and perhaps exit) to a soundtrack. The first featured artist was South African MC Yugen Blakrok, who it seems sparked some interest.
In the late afternoon, I listened to the underrated Willie Nelson album Me and Paul, which is chock-full of great tunes by the artist and ol’ Billy Joe Shaver, and on which Willie really exerts himself on those cat-gut strings. I was reading, when it occurred to me the world won’t have that forever. This cloister-stretch has me thinking about impermanence more than usual, and, to be honest, I’ve thought about it a lot for a long time. It’s not a bad thing, because it intensifies the moments you’re in.
Nicole and I shut down each day by sharing our favorite things about it, but first–the things we do for love!–I have to go sit with Louis in the living room until he’s snoring (or he will bark indefatigably), then tip-toe back to the bedroom. Trouble was, I fell asleep before Louis did. Sweetheart, my favorite thing was just hearing about the foxes!
Streaming for Strivers:
Sample for yourselves the musical highlights of my day.