Parents and siblings? Chances are you’ve already mentioned parents and siblings in your writing on another topic. How do you tell all your stories? How do you do them justice? You don’t tell them all. And you probably don’t do any of them justice, really. My inclination is always to think small. Start with the little things. So here, some little things. You tell a story of two, capture some moments. You’re getting some proper names in here–names of places, things, people.
I. Tell a story about one of your parents. Maybe this is a funny story, something small, even insignificant. You might save the big stuff for later. Think small. What place, what activity, what interactions come to mind when you think about this parent?
Lately, whenever I can, I try to park my car on a hill, a slight incline. I sense the battery is running low and may be going dead pretty soon. I ought to do something about that. Today we would say: “I should be proactive.”
This morning it’s a snowy, slushy day in the Detroit area. I drive to the local market to buy some supplies. When I start my car in the garage, the engine rolls over slower than usual. The battery… At the store lot, I park in my usual spot, not far from the door, then change my mind and move to a spot where there’s an incline. I might need a little hill. If the battery is dead when I come out of the store, I’ll put the car in neutral, give it a little shove so it starts to roll down the incline, hop in, and ease the car into first gear. Try to start it like that. Except it’s slushy. I probably couldn’t get traction in the snow to give the car a good push. And the incline probably isn’t long enough.
All this foolishness reminds me of my dad.
Don’t wait. Fix the hole in the roof before rainwater leaks in the house. That’s part of it.
But also, it’s neutral, the clutch, the cold start like that. I’m grateful I learned how to drive a car with a straight transmission. What one of my nephews called “a gear car.” Probably most kids I grew up with learned to drive a stick. Stick was still the common transmission in cars then. We had a pick-up with a stick. My dad drove a truck with a stick. My brother’s first car, a Ford Falcon, had a stick. My mother drove a car with an automatic transmission eventually.
Summers we spent weeks at a time in a trailer park on Lake Missaukee. Dad pulled the trailer up north, parked it, and got everything set. Mom followed him up in an old Black Mercury, our second hand car. That car had a stick. She did okay with the stick. (There’s always a place.) Driving the car out of the park, she had to stop at an intersection on a gentle hill. Gentle. But a hill nonetheless. That meant kick in the clutch, put your foot on the brake, and wait for traffic to clear. Then came the hard part: shift your foot from the brake in a split second to the accelerator and ease the clutch to keep the car from rolling backwards. A little more gas, a little more clutch. Come on, Mercury, get up this hill. Please. Often the engine revved or the car rolled back. It was touchy. She must have dreaded that hill. One time a bunch teenage boys stood there and watched her, which must have given her performance anxiety. She stalled it, they laughed. Truth be told, that car was a piece of crap. Mom made the best of the situation. It was a car, it started, it gave her some independence up there in Lake City. But, without a doubt, she must have hated that car.
II. Now the other parent. Tell a story that says something about this parent. Again, save the big stuff for later if you can. Make this kind of a small event, story, vignette.
In my dad’s office, on his desk, there were two small steel cases, each with a lid on top that swung open on a hinge. In these cases were the business accounts receivable. That’s what he called them. Accounts receivable. He sold heating oil and farm gas. He had customers. He delivered product to them, kept them warm in the winter, kept tractors and farm equipment running through the growing season. After deliveries, he went back to the home office in the front room of the house and entered amounts he had billed into ledgers. He extended credit to people. On a regular basis people came to the house and paid their bills. He wrote receipts and entered payments on the ledgers. Once a month he made a photocopy of each ledger and sent monthly bills to customers. They came to the house, many of them, and paid their bills. Some sent checks in by mail.
In the mid 60’s, he added a gas station to his business. This meant more accounts receivable, more credit he extended. Credit cost him money. For cash flow, he had a running line of credit at Michigan National Bank at a high interest rate that kept him awake at night.
There were people who didn’t pay. Some kept a running balance. When I started driving his truck and doing deliveries for him, Dad would say to me, “You can deliver $100 in gas at Security Septic Company. But go in the office and get the check before you make the delivery. If they don’t pay, don’t make the delivery.”
a guy who owed Dad money parked his car on our gas station drive and went into the coffee shop. Jim Ingraim was kind of a tough guy, a drinker, a welder, not the kind of guy my dad liked much. A few minutes after Jim went into the restaurant, Dad walked over the car and took the keys out of the switch. When Jim came out, he had to see my Dad. “Where’s the keys, John?” “You owe me money,” Dad said. “Gimme my keys back, John.” “You owe me money,” Dad said. It was a pretty tense standoff. Finally Jim reached in his pocket, pulled out a handful of bills, and paid. Dad went in the station, wrote a receipt, and gave it to him. I don’t think Jim ever came back. Dad went home and updated that ledger.
III. A sibling. Write about a sibling. Begin with some general impressions. Then tell a story or two.
Somewhere in the family archives, there’s a picture of my brother lifting weights in the backyard. He’s holding barbells over his head, his legs bent at the knee, in a power stance. He bought the weight set with money he earned delivering papers. Another picture shows him with our two cousins Dean and Steve up at Houghton Lake. They’re holding a fish stringer stretched between them. It’s an iconic family photo we called “the forty fish.” I’m in the photo too, standing next to my brother. Forty lake perch, dinky little things our parents and aunts and uncles must have thought not worth keeping, but to us it was Pike’s Peak. To them it was, anyway. I’m in the picture, sort of at the edge, great by association. Two years and a few months older, my brother. He tested the thickness of the ice before I stepped out on it. He went to school. He joined the scouts. He delivered the Midland Daily News, he went to camp up a Bear Lake, he bought a three-speed bike, he wrestled, he smoked, he wrangled with our dad (continuously, it seemed) about blue jeans (he was pro, our dad against), about church, about the war in Vietnam. Tom drove, he rode a motorcycle (briefly), he went to college. He got married. I came up behind him. Because of him my coming of age was probably easier.
He was not reckless, but there was an air of impending low-level disaster about him. His first car, a navy blue Ford Falcon, plowed through a wall of our house one night when he came home late. He knew how to drive a stick. This would have been before alcohol, before substances. When he pulled into the garage, I guess he thought he had shut the engine off. Maybe he sat there listening to the radio. When he took his foot off the clutch and the brake, the vehicle surged jerked forward and collided with a wall. Before going to bed that night, he wrote a note apologizing for the accident. “My bank account is open to you. I’ll pay to fix the wall.”
The next car he drove was four-door Oldsmobile, a car big enough to taxi five other guys around on summer nights. Around the Fourth of July one night, he got his hands on a number of Silver Salutes, sizable firecrackers. We rode around town setting off these from the car. He drove. A pal, maybe Joe Davilla or Jimmy Schreiber, would light a fuse with the cigarette he was smoking and chuck the firecracker out the window into someone’s front yard. They were loud.
We had been warned about fireworks. Our dad told us stories of boys missing fingers, blown off when they weren’t careful.
Jimmy Schreiber said, “This is like a little piece of dynamite.”
“M-80’s,” Joe Davilla said, “are stronger.”
“Like a quarter stick,” Jimmy Schrieber said. “If we put a bunch of these together, we could blow something up.”
I wasn’t allowed to touch one. It was a big guy thing. I wanted to. And I didn’t want to. Finally I got a turn. I was sitting in the back seat, right next to the door, the window down. When I lit the Silver Salute off Joe Davilla’s cigarette, sparks started squirting from the fuse, landing in my lap. I couldn’t wait to get rid of it. I tossed in the firecracker in th direction of the window, and it bounced right back in the car and fell on the floor right in front of me. IT’S IN, I screamed, and dove into the front seat. The explosion was deafening. I was convinced there would be a hole in the floor and we would have some serious explaining to do when our dad found out. There was no hole.
IV. Recall family outings. Where did you go together? What was fun? What was not? Try to cite a number of examples. Then focus on one specific memory.
We went to church. That was not fun. We went to Campbells and skated on the ice rink Floyd built in the backyard. That was fun. We went out to dinner. That was not fun. We went to visit our paternal grandparents. Playing in the barn was fun. Lying in the grain bin was fun. Using the outhouse was not fun. Spending the night there was not fun. We visited our maternal grandparents, who lived in a house trailer next to a gravel pit. We played down by the water in the gravel pit. That was fun. We waited for the long Sunday afternoon visits to be over. That was not fun. We went to the lake. That was fun. Family reunions on our mother’s side of the family, so many cousins we saw only once a year, if that, not much fun. We went to the Saginaw County Fair..
One Sunday in March or April, when we were just getting started in the boating phase of our family life, dad decided we should put the boat in the water and have a boat ride. I think he had just bought the boat and was eager to try it out. I know it was Spring because it had been raining hard and the river was high. Yes, river. That would be a perfectly good place to take a boat ride. No one boated in our river, the Tittabawasee. It was too hideously polluted. The stretch of river we knew didn’t even have a boat launch. That Sunday we drove twenty minutes over to Bay City, pulling the 14 foot boat behind us, to the Bay City River, which was connected to the Saginaw River, which was connected to the Tittabawasee River, which mile and miles, hours and hours upstream, on a spot I associated with safety, was where our house was.
It was a cold, overcast day. The wide river seemed high. The dark water in the current moved fast. When we floated away from the dock, dad started the outboard motor and pointed the boat upstream, in the direction of Saginaw. My brother and I probably wanted to go fast. We didn’t go fast. We just fought the current. Even more, my brother and I probably just wanted to get out of the boat and go home. There were buoys in the water, markers for freighters that brought coal and iron to the foundry up river near Saginaw. That day a freighter was coming down stream, an encounter I don’t think our dad had reckoned with; an encounter that meant a huge freighter wake and turmoil in the current. We yielded, meaning we got the hell out of the way as best we could, but I recall our little boat being buffeted, tossed about in what felt like a total loss of control. Dad, I remember thinking, what are we doing here? This is not safe. I’m afraid.