Archive for December, 2008

Sisters, Illinois Prairie Winter, and Return of the Prodigal Son

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

     Peering out the window of the modest old family home, in the comfort of much too expensive heat pouring from the registers of the gas furnace, the morning scene in my native Decatur Illinois filled my head with dread-frigid cold and winter images in shades of black-and-white.  The overcast skies were dusty-grey, just like the industrial polluted soot staining the white snow that hid the ground.  Black tree trunks sprouting black barren branches formed abstract images to break the monotony of the landscape with its flat ‘as a pancake’ horizon.  It was my ‘native home’ that I had abandoned so many years ago for sun, sea and mountains of balmy San Diego in California, ‘the land of fruits and nuts’.  The chilled-to-the-bone landscape was a reminder of why I migrated so many years ago.

     Yet, I could never forget my beloved ‘native home’ of contrasting seasons that compelled my frequent pilgrimages to Decatur; I was the prodigal son of a combination pioneer-and-immigrant Decatur family.

     Yes and by virtue of gender and longevity, I am the patriarch of the family.  And, because of age, toughness, gender, and still-breathing, my three sisters are the matriarchal heads of the family and they out-number me three to one and take great advantage of me.  Being78 years of age, I am still the baby of the family and am living proof that the female of the species is not the weaker of the sexes.  We four are all that is left of the original family of Walter and Hazel.  The progeny of the four of us is scattered like autumn leaves over the USA, literally from coast to coast.

     My oldest sister Dottie, 90, lives in Quincy Illinois on the Mississippi River, 150 miles west of Decatur and just north of Tom Sawyer’s cave; but she gravitates to our family reunion in Decatur every time that I make one of my frequent pilgrimages ‘home’.  Dorothy definitely has an opinion about everything!

     The next eldest sister is Kay, 87, my late brother’s wife, who has set at the family table since she was fifteen-years-old and is a ‘biological sister’ by osmosis; she lives in Sullivan a short twenty-six miles away from Decatur.  Kathleen possesses a magic freezer that produces multiple course gourmet meals and coconut pie upon demand. 

     My shortest sister is Meg, who is my youngest sister though she is seven years older than me; she carries the entire supply of the short genes of the family and abides in the old family house that is full of memories, nostalgia, and creaks and groans.  She has never forgiven me for taking away her title, ‘baby of the family’, when she was seven years old.

     At our age, about the only thing that all of us can be counted on to remember is that we are all related; none of us knows where we left our glasses.  And, Kay is the only one that doesn’t have hearing aids (the rest of us buzz) and she is responsible for telling us when we have a buzz on.  When we are all together, we eat, laugh, eat, play games, eat, pee, eat, go shopping, and eat.  We all enjoy being together immensely and when I leave Decatur, I usually weigh about seven to ten pounds more than when I arrived; I do not allow myself to return until I have lost the weight I gained last time I was in Decatur.

     The four of us do talk a lot when we are together, sometimes all at the same time.  We have intellectual discussions about religion, politics, and why our children do not visit us more often.  Almost everything we say is funny, to us, and we laugh at each other and ourselves.  Conversations tend to sound like this:

     “Did you read about that actor, what’s-his-name that died; his name sounded like Chandler, or Chambliss, or something?

     “Do you mean Paul Newman?”

     “Yes, that’s him!”

     “Whose four of Hearts is that?”

     “Well, I know that I didn’t”

     “Paul Newman was married to an actress, I think her name was something like Tierney or Tallmadge, or something and she played in ‘Splendor in the Grass’”

     “Yes, you’re right!  It was Joan Woodward who played in the movie Three Faces of Eve”

     “I didn’t hear you.”

     “Did you go to church Sunday?”

     “Whose turn to deal is it?”

     “Didn’t I deal last time?”

     “Did you see the interview on TV of Obama and his wife, on Barbara Walters?”

     “I think I dealt last.”

     “They make a good couple.”

     “Do you think her mother will live in the White House?”

     “My kids used to have a white mouse and it gave me the shivers.”

     “Barack and Michelle?”

     “No, Newman and Woodward.”

     “I was awake all night.”

     At some point, we usually drive around Decatur looking at nostalgic places that have a special meaning for us and we also look to see how the city has changed.  This is where we were born and grew up; it is our place.  The city still feels familiar to us: the parks; the smell of Staley’s (now called Tate and Lyle, but we can’t bring ourselves to say that name); the Transfer House; Lake Decatur; other houses the family lived; places we worked; where friends lived; where the tamale man stood on Wood and Twenty-Second Streets, next to his wagon of hot tamales, yelling, “HOT TAMALES, get ‘em while they’re hot!” 

     So many familiar places and people are gone, erased.  Part of us has gone!

     Each time I return to San Diego, I think that I had more fun and enjoyed my stay in Decatur more than the last time; then I wonder how much longer it can keep on getting better.  We all four look forward to ‘next time’ that we will be together but we don’t really talk seriously about the future.  We’re concerned only bout tomorrow’s weather report.  We buy things in the small package.