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Joseph E Bird

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the good father

A couple of years ago Larry Ellis made a comment about his father and my father, two men of the same generation, quiet heroes, who without fanfare or drama worked to provide for their families. Larry’s father has since passed; I’m fortunate that my father will join us for a father’s day pizza later today. There will be the Father’s Day card and yes, yet another shirt (sorry to spoil the surprise, but after 90 years, I think the chance of surprise is pretty slim). I wrote the following tribute shortly after Larry’s comment. I’ve published it before, and probably will again.


Most are not leaders of nations.
Most are not creators of wealth.
Most are not icons of sports or entertainment.
Their names will not be written in the annals of history.

But without them, we would be nothing.

Their fathers worked with pride as pipe-fitters and welders and electricians.
Their fathers mined coal and dug ditches and toiled with dignity.
They did what was necessary to provide food and shelter and clothes.
They did what was necessary to provide hope for a better tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, and it was better,
and the sons and daughters of the fathers went to school
and became teachers and writers and lawyers and engineers.
They became fathers and mothers themselves
and likewise provided for their families.

They did all of this
without the need for attention,
without the need for adulation,
without the need for self-aggrandizement.

Fathers persevere and sacrifice.
They do what needs to be done.
They are good and honorable.

No, not all fathers.
Some abandon.
Some abuse.
Some give up.

It’s not about gender roles.
Sometimes the mother is the father.
Sometimes she is both.

It’s not about being the breadwinner.
It’s about being strong for the family.
It’s about providing direction to those who wander
and encouragement to those who strive.

Now they rest,
their work less strenuous,
their lives less demanding,
and they sit quietly,
content to let others lead.

They have lived simply.
They have lived nobly.
They have given their all.
They are fathers.


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

dreams of the past

The photo is a basement shoebox relic.  It’s old.  It’s bent and cracked. No Photoshop effects, here. Just a snapshot.

The subjects are familiar faces, but the photo was taken probably more than sixty years ago, before I really knew them. Maybe before I was born. Even in the older women there is youth I never saw in later years. From left to right, my Aunt Shirley; my grandmother Bettie Pearl, who I knew as Mom; my great-grandmother Tida, who we called Tidy; and my mother, Gloria, who looks to be with child.

The place, I believe, is my great-grandmother’s kitchen. If I had to guess, I would say it was breakfast.  There’s the coffee pot and toaster.  But I can’t imagine them gathering so early just for breakfast. Maybe lunch, which they called dinner.  Dinner would have included fried potatoes and tomatoes from the garden. Supper was the evening meal.  There would have been men in the picture by then.

There’s tension evident in the photograph.  Not a one could manage a smile, which is very unusual for my mother and Aunt Shirley, especially in front of a camera.  There’s a weariness, too.  Maybe they had been working.  Maybe canning tomatoes or beans.

They were all different.

My mother was the free spirit, enjoying every moment.

My aunt was sophistication personified, full of grace and elegance.

My grandmother, hardworking and kind, ready to share with everyone.

My great-grandmother, the strong, independent woman living by herself.

Maybe that was the source of the tension. Around the table love and respect, yet each one not quite understanding the other.  One dreams of this, another of that. And dreams, what are they for, anyway? another may think.  And Tidy, who has already seen enough heartbreak for all of them, keeps it to herself.

I’ll never know. They’re all gone now.  Not that any of them would give me a straight answer anyway.

I think that’ s the wonder of old photographs.  They tell a story, but never the entire story. A moment frozen in time that forces us to think about those who have gone on, to see if we can fill in the blanks. It forces us to remember them as they were, beyond the smiles and laughter. It forces us to remember who they really were.

altered reality

I’ve got a restraining order against me.

Ain’t that a hoot.

So I can’t go home.  But it’s not bad here.

There’s a bird feeder outside my window.  I’ve got a television that sets on my dresser.  I’ve got cable, so that’s good.  Not that there’s much to watch during the day.

There’s a little refrigerator in my room so I don’t have to walk down to the dining room room when I need a drink.  Non-alcoholic, of course.  It’s been years since I had that kind of drink.

It’s just the one room. Not counting the bathroom, complete with all the grab bars.  Like I’m set up to do gymnastics or something.  Not at my age.  And the cord to pull in case I can’t get off the can.  I don’t need that, but they have this place set up for old people who can’t get around.

I’ve been here a couple of weeks.  I think.  Maybe longer.  I have it written down in a notebook I keep.  Let me look.

No.  That can’t be right.  That would be almost a year.  I must have written the date down wrong.  Couple of weeks.  Three, at the most.

My wife never comes around.  She’s the one who got the restraining order.  Says I came home a couple of weeks ago and tore up the house.  Maybe I did.  After I caught her running around, you wouldn’t blame me, would you?  She’s been doing that for years.  Even before she got sick.  Then she was laid up in the hospital and she started in with one of the doctors.  I tried not to say anything until she got better.

The food’s pretty good here.  Sometimes I sleep in past breakfast.  They don’t like you to eat in your room unless you’re bad off.  If you do that too much, they’ll move you over to the other building, so I get out as much as I can.

I used to carry on myself, if I’m being honest.  I was in sales.  I’d go to these out-of-town conventions and there wasn’t much to do when the day was over so we’d go down to the honky-tonks. Well, you know what happens there.  Everybody did it.  Doesn’t make it right, but everybody did it.

But I felt bad about it.  I tried to keep it from Bea, but after a while the guilt just felt like an anchor pulling me under water, deeper and deeper.  So I told her all about it. I figured she’d throw me out and I know she thought about it, but I started going to church with her and after a while, things just kind of smoothed out.  Truth is, I don’t think she ever got over it.

Everything’s upside down now. Out anniversary is next week. Fifty some years. Not that it matters.  She won’t care.  I want to try to talk some sense into her.  We’re both wrong,  All kinds of wrong.  Wish we could get it worked out.

She hasn’t been here in a few weeks.  I’ve got it here written down.  Somewhere.  Can’t find it right off.  It’s somewhere.

No.  Wait.  Yeah.  That’s right.  She’s never been here.  Never will be.

She’s been gone four years now.

I wish we could have got things straight.


copyright 2020, joseph e bird

fathers

Most are not leaders of nations.
Most are not creators of wealth.
Most are not icons of sports or entertainment.
Their names will not be written in the annals of history.

But without them, we would be nothing.

Their fathers worked with pride as pipe-fitters and welders and electricians.
Their fathers mined coal and dug ditches and toiled with dignity.
They did what was necessary to provide food and shelter and clothes.
They did what was necessary to provide hope for a better tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, and it was better,
and the sons and daughters of the fathers went to school
and became teachers and writers and lawyers and engineers.
They became fathers and mothers themselves
and likewise provided for their families.

They did all of this
without the need for attention,
without the need for adulation,
without the need for self-aggrandizement.

Fathers persevere and sacrifice.
They do what needs to be done.
They are good and honorable.

No, not all fathers.
Some abandon.
Some abuse.
Some give up.

It’s not about gender roles.
Sometimes the mother is the father.
Sometimes she is both.

It’s not about being the breadwinner.
It’s about being strong for the family.
It’s about providing direction to those who wander
and encouragement to those who strive.

Now they rest,
their work less strenuous,
their lives less demanding,
and they sit quietly,
content to let others lead.

They have lived simply.
They have lived nobly.
They have given their all.
They are fathers.


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

gone

IN THE LATE 1860s, a tradition of decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers began. In 1868, General John Logan formalized the tradition by declaring May 30 as Decoration Day.  Decoration Day gradually become known as Memorial Day, and after World War I, Memorial Day began to commemorate soldiers who had died in any war. In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, and in 1971, Memorial Day was established as the last Monday in May. 

Although the emphasis of Memorial Day is still to honor those who died in service to their country, graves of all loved ones are now traditionally decorated on Memorial Day.

It’s an old man’s game. You seldom see anyone under 50 in the cemetery cleaning the headstones, replacing old, faded flowers with fresh ones. Our loved ones aren’t there anyway. We know that. But we’ll honor them as long as we can, until strangers come along and take photographs and wonder who they were.

Alfred J. Snyder. He was 90.
Lundy Harless Widner. Served in three wars. Died at 54, three years after the war in Vietnam ended.
You can imagine the heartbreak.
To boldly go…
“Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.”
Helen Keller

choices

1950s movie starlet at home for the Christmas holidays.

Could have been. She had those classic movie-star looks. She always wanted to be “discovered.” But her choice was her family. She was a stay-at-home mom. That’s what most mothers did back then. So maybe life in the limelight was not her destiny. In some ways it was a sacrifice. Still, it was her choice. Her calling was hard, sometimes wearisome, and largely unglamorous. But it was also noble and virtuous and rewarding in immeasurable ways.

She was my mother.

“Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.”


photo credit: Eugene A. Bird

the year was 1968

A little more than 50 years ago, the USS Pueblo was commandeered by North Korea. One man died. The remaining crew of 82 was held captive for 11 months. The ship’s skipper, Commander Lloyd Bucher, was tortured, both physically and mentally, and threatened with death. When the crew was finally released, Bucher faced a military trial for giving up the ship without a fight. To this day, the Pueblo is held by North Korea.

The trial of Bucher captivated the nation, and as we do today, people took sides, for or against. It was 1968. The modern feminist movement was just beginning. My mother was 38 years old and dedicated to raising her three kids. Her sensibilities were typical of those of her generation. She was never going to be on the cover of Life magazine with Gloria Steinem. Yet she was moved by the story of Bucher, moved by his humanity. So much so that she felt compelled to write about it, to come to the defense of the so-called stronger man. Some of her thoughts may not resonate with the 21st century woman, but there is a truth that she expresses that is timeless. It is this:

The world is a better place when we’re not afraid to show compassion.


Commander Bucher, commander of the Pueblo, has finished his testimony about the capture of his ill-fated ship and I, for one, am glad. If ever a man had strong convictions that he had performed his duty to the best of his ability, it is him. When the Court of Inquiry first began putting him on the witness stand, I was so outraged that I wanted to wire the President to stop this seemingly inhuman treatment of Bucher. I was stopped by the announcement from the Commander’s lawyer that he knew this was military procedure and he did not feel that the court was being unduly cruel.

The point of relating this story is that once again my emotions had to be stifled. My compassion had to remain bottled up because I had, in effect, been asked to believe that a man can “take it”, no matter what, just because he is a man.

Women are supposed to be the weaker sex and I am glad that there are a few of us who glory in this title.

The men of the court are to be pitied as much as Commander Bucher because surely every one of them has had some misgivings about some of the questions put to the Commander. They had to do their job. They had to follow the rules, no matter how much their hearts were touched. They had to listen objectively as this man related in public how much he loved his wife and called her name when he thought he was going to die.

I’m glad to be a woman. I can cry without being called weak. I can make mistakes and know that people can excuse some of them because, after all, I’m a woman.

I do not understand the laws of the sea. I do not pretend to know many things. But there’s one thing I do know. I saw a real man in the form of Commander Bucher.

Men, as a rule, pretend that they cannot understand why a woman cries when the Star Spangled Banner is played. Or why she cries when she receives an unexpected gift. But I suspect they really know and have the same feelings, but because they are men, they are supposed to shrug their shoulders at any show of emotion.

The best Christmas I ever had was when I was twelve years old. My mother took me and my brother to the photographer’s studio and all three of us had our pictures made for our father. Christmas morning, when he opened the pictures he was so overcome with the simplicity of the gifts, so overcome with the love he knew we had for him, that he shed tears of joy and love. He offered no apologies for his show of emotion and I was proud of my daddy.

I am certain that most men are sympathetic to Commander Bucher because he has shown that it is not a crime to give vent to emotions through tears.

I do not advocate a nation of hysterical men, but I do say that a mark of a true man is his ability to show compassion for his fellow man.

Yes, I am glad to be a woman.


copyright 1968, gloria clatworthy bird

Our Fathers

scan0004

Most are not leaders of nations.
Most are not creators of wealth.
Most are not icons of art.
Their names will not be written in the annals of history.

But without them, we would be nothing.

Their fathers worked with pride as pipe-fitters and welders and electricians.
Their fathers mined coal and dug ditches and toiled with dignity.
They did what was necessary to provide food and shelter and clothes.
They did what was necessary to provide hope for a better tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, and it was better,
and the sons and daughters of the fathers went to school
and became teachers and writers and lawyers and engineers.
They became fathers and mothers themselves
and likewise provided for their families.

They did all of this without the need for attention,
without the need for adulation,
without the need for self-aggrandizement.

Fathers persevere and sacrifice.
They do what needs to be done.
They are good and honorable.

No, not all fathers.
Some abandon.
Some abuse.
Some give up.

It’s not about gender roles.
Sometimes the mother is the father.
Sometimes she is both.

It’s not about being the breadwinner.
It’s about being strong for the family.
It’s about providing direction to those who wander
and encouragement to those who strive.

Now they rest,
their work less strenuous,
their lives less demanding,
and they sit quietly,
content to let others lead.

They have lived simply.
They have lived nobly.
They have given their all.
They are our fathers.


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

 

black as night and twice as scary

He took another drink of coffee.

“I think a lot about that guy I hit upside the head with the shovel. Think about how I ruined his life. Destroyed his family. I feel bad. And you don’t know the depth of how bad. Cause there’s nothing I can do. I did it. It’s done.”

“Look, Darnell.”

He ignored her.

“When they sent me to prison, I just wanted to survive, like I told you before. That’s why I was lucky to find Pops. Do my time under his wing. Yes, ma’am, I was real lucky.”

She didn’t even try to stop him.

“But prison turns you into yourself. By that I mean, you have so much time to yourself, you can’t help but to think about things. Now the old guys, guys like Pops, they just live moment to moment. They know their time has come and gone and all they care about is their next cup of joe. But everyone else thinks about themselves. Why they did what they did. Whether they meant to or not. And how bad they think themselves is. They look inside and see that dark speck on their soul. And generally, it goes one of two ways. A lot of guys see that dark speck and think that’s who they really are. And they accept it. And that dark speck grows until it eventually just takes over. Black, Miss Heather. Black as night and twice as scary.”

“And you went the other way.”

“I know I did wrong and I can’t do nothing to change it.”

“What am I supposed to do, just pretend none of this ever happened? Forgive and forget? I’ll forget when he’s gone.”

“No you won’t.”

“It’ll be a step in the right direction.”

“There’s two kinds of forgiveness. The one where you suck it up and forgive the one that done you wrong.  That can’t happen unless he comes to you and tells you he’s sorry.  Even then, it’s a hard thing to do.  But your daddy can’t do that.  I mean, he can’t even remember what he did.  Before he went all loose in the head, he had that dark speck, and it was growing.  It was slow, but it was getting worse. By and by it gave way to mindlessness. But that ain’t what I’m talking about, anyways.”

“Good.  Because that’s not going to happen.”

“See, that first kind of forgiveness is for the benefit of the one that done the wrong.  So that he can move on.  The other kind is for the one that was done wrong to. God says to let it go and let him be the judge.”

“Really? You’re preaching to me now, Booger?”

“I ain’t preaching. Just telling you truth.”

“Well, thank you for that. I’ll take it under advisement.”

“You’ll be dead soon, too.”

“What the hell, Darnell?”

He shrugged. “We all will be. You have Huntington. I might drop dead of a heart attack sitting here at this table. Then again, we might have twenty years ahead of us. Maybe more. That’s a lot of time for that dark speck to grow. Best to let that bitterness go.”

“You think I’m bitter?”

“Best to let it go.”

“That’s easy to say when you have a future.”

He didn’t have an answer for that. As much as he screwed up his life, and in spite of his dire predictions of death at the kitchen table, it was very likely that Booger had another thirty or forty years to do something with his life. So, yeah, choosing a positive outlook made sense.

But his sermon had nothing to do with her situation. She was dying. In so many ways.


copyright 2018, joseph e bird, from the novel Heather Girl

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