Thursday, November 3, 2016
above us only sky
My mom and I are at the house at the lake where she still lives with my dad, sitting at her kitchen table after lunch. My mom is looking at the Ely Echo, when a story catches her attention that she starts to read aloud to me: "Man Arrested for Killing a Baby Deer in the Quetico". The Quetico-Superior is the forest and lakes between northern Minnesota and Canada, the Boundary Waters, where my parents have lived for 36 years. They have decided to stay in their house by the lake for another winter.
The Quetico was closed to visitors in the late summer, after a strong storm blew down a lot of trees, and closed portages between the lakes. The newspaper story is about a man seen out in the woods, near Tin Can Mike Lake, without a canoe or a pack. Because no one was allowed out into the woods, the sheriff was called. The man had been seen holding a live fawn deer he said he had caught to eat, but he wasn't hungry, and decided to keep as a pet. The fawn deer was never found. The man was homeless, and had been staying out in the woods through the storm. He'd covered himself in mud, against mosquitoes.
My mother looked up from the paper. "Poor man," she said.
"Like Uncle Mikey,"I said.
One of my mother's older brothers, Mikey, was mentally disabled since he was a child. My mother said he had a terrible adenoid infection, and a very high fever, when he was an infant." What's an adenoid? " we always wanted to know. " It's something here," she pointed at her neck, under her ear. The family always thought that had made him slow. As an adult, Mike had lived on the edges of town, not homeless, but in a rented room, over the Town Tap, or the Jolly Roger.
His social security check went to the owner of the bar he lived above, who took out his rent, and gave him the small amount leftover, which he'd spend on beer. He sometimes had jobs shoveling for the County. But, he couldn't read, and was often a victim of bullies, in school when he was young, and when he was older, mean spirited adults. He was shy, and quiet. He also had friends, and protectors, including the bar owner, and a woman who worked there. She paid him a little to walk her dog when she was working. She was kind to him, and looked out for him. He always talked about Patty, and the little dog.
My mom always worried about him. We lived in Michigan, then. Mike had always lived in Minnesota, and after the old man died, he'd lived by himself. In the summer, when our family went back to Minnesota, we'd try to find him. Often, he'd disappear if he heard my mom was looking for him. But usually we found him, after my mother, my sisters and I hiked up long, dark staircases, to a corridor and rooms that smelled like dill pickles, over the Town Tap. When she found him, all of his clothes, sheets and blankets went into a wash load. We stopped at the laundromat, on the way out of town, with Mike, who came along with us, out to the lake, where my mother would put him into a hot sauna. After that, he stayed with us for a few days. We showed him our comic books, and were curious and asked him once, at the cemetery, if he could read. He said he could, a little, and then sounded out a few names on headstones.
"Mikey had a hard time at school," my mom said now. "The boys were mean to him. Marion and I tried to stand up for him, but we couldn't always be there."
She never told me about Mikey in school before.
"He was in a special education class," she said. "The girls went to the home ec. room, but the two boys went downstairs to the janitors' rooms. The janitors and the boiler man took care of them, and let them help."
"Sometimes I'd see Mike coming down the hallway, in a big hurry. He wouldn't even talk to me. He was in such a hurry to get down to the basement. He loved that," she said. "They were so good to him, those men."
"And there was a woman on our block, who was the first woman to own a boarding house in town. She was very successful. She liked Mike, and felt sorry for him when she saw how the kids teased him. She felt so bad for him that she bought him a...," she looked out the window, at the far shore of the lake, "a-- you put your knee on it, and push it along with your other foot? "
"A scooter?" I said.
"No, not that."
"A wagon?" I said.
"Yes. She bought him a brand new, bright yellow wagon. He never had anything brand new, all his own before that."
"I think she knew our mother had died, and there wasn't anyone around but us kids. Pa was working in the mines, and over his head with the work of keeping the family together. Mike loved it! He pushed that yellow wagon up and down the block all summer. He wouldn't even let anyone touch it. It made him feel so good about himself, too."
"You never told me about the wagon," I said.
"No? Well, she did that. Then somebody wanted to take a picture of us kids, to send to Finland. Walfred was already gone away from home, but it was Marion and me, and Mike. They wanted us girls to sit in the wagon, and Mike to hold the handle, like he was pulling it. He had a fit. He didn't even want us to sit in it. Finally, they talked him into it. We could sit there, but just for the picture. Mike held the handle, but he said he didn't have to smile."
I like all the stories my mother has told me about growing up on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota. She has told me so many stories about the people in her neighborhood, the Finnish immigrants, the miners, the women who owned boarding houses, where she worked as a teenager, after school, making miners' lunches, egg salad out of hardboiled eggs and butter. She wasn't paid, but helped out, and took food home.
She told us stories about the people she liked, and people she didn't like. People who were deaf, or drunk, or kind to animals. Two teenage girls who lived downstairs, who came up to help when my mother was born at home, the last of four children. Her Pa, blacklisted as a Finnish communist because he joined with workers who struck the mining company because of the low $2 per day wage. Her oldest brother Walfred who rode the trains out to Oregon one summer, coming home into the kitchen, so blackened with dirt and soot, her aunt, who was cooking, didn't even recognize him. Walfred, who was an Air Force pilot in WW2, shot down and vanished in the Pacific ocean, with just a few hundred more miles to log before he could come back home. How for years they dreamed he'd survived, and was still alive, and would come back in the kitchen door.
The lake water, outside her kitchen window, glimmers across the ceiling above us. My mom looks back down and smooths the newspaper on the table in front of her, "Man Arrested for Killing a Baby Deer in the Quetico," she reads the headline again, then starts to read the story she's already forgotten. It's been a half hour since lunch, and I'd forgotten my mom has dementia.
"Happy Birthday, Mom!" I call her when I'm back home, in October.
"Oh, is it my birthday? I guess it is. Thank you!"
"This year is an especially good year for you."
"It is? Why?"
"You get your birthday wish this year."
"You finally get to vote for Hillary for President. You never thought you'd live so long!
And she's going to win. She's going to be the first woman President of the United States."
My mom has always been political, and realized she was a feminist in the 70's. Hillary has always been her favorite. For thirty years, at least, my Mom has had Hillary fever. She's always done so much for women and children, was how she explained it. She has had a Hillary bumper sticker on the refrigerator door in her weaving workshop for many years. Though she has a hard time remembering who the president is now ( A Black Man? ), she still plans to vote.
"OK, Mom. Don't forget to do it."
"I'll call and remind you!"
"OK! " she says, and I can hear her smile.
"Hillary. I was right on the mark, wasn't I?"