Sunday, August 24, 2008

Grandma (1921-2008)

My grandmother, Louise Evans, passed away on Thursday, after suffering a massive stroke this past Saturday. Below is the eulogy that I read at her funeral today.

Her whole life, I remember Grandma doting on us grandkids with food. Good food. Really good food. Grandma fried a chicken like no one’s business: crisp, lean, golden brown. She baked cakes and pies that dissolved into sugar and cream and buttery fat the moment they hit your tongue. She’d fill her glass candy dish with spice drops, we’d eat them all, she’d refill it several times over the course of our visits. My favorite was her potato salad. It took her hours to make. I remember driving up to St. Joe, and watching Grandma at the kitchen table, peeling potato after potato with her small paring knife, dicing them, folding in hard-boiled eggs, onion, salt, pepper, one last quick dash of paprika. Then the best part: miracle whip and mustard in a measuring cup, thinned with whole milk until the flavor was just right. She’d ask me to test-taste it and I’d eat three or four heaping tablespoons. Then she’d make some small adjustments—more salt or pepper—and put the dish in the fridge, chilling it before dinner, when it would quickly disappear.

Grandma was a hard worker. She worked methodically, systematically, obsessed with doing each part just right. Though I never saw her work as a nurse, I had an idea of how secure and taken care of her patients must have felt. She had a careful eye. That’s probably why it was so hard to sneak around Grandma, to get away with things. Not that Grandma didn’t enjoy gossip (especially about the Kennedys). I remember thinking how great it was, for a couple of years in high school, that we were both regular watchers of Melrose Place.

Being a grandson is easy. You receive the best parts of a person: their affection, generosity, optimism, and indulgence. Whatever I was studying, wherever I traveled, however long I grew my hair, Grandma only saw the best in me and I always appreciated that optimism. When Dad and I visited a couple of months ago, she gave us an earful for going out for a fancy dinner. At Schlotzky’s Deli. Didn’t we know that we could go to The Fountains and eat a full dinner for $6.75 including coffee and dessert? Dad tried to get her goat a little by agreeing that, indeed, we were spending money like it was going out of style. For example, could she believe that John had spent all that money buying a brand new Toyota Prius? In this economy? But Grandma just smiled, “Well, Mike, that’s a sensible car with gas prices the way they are today.”

When I was in the Peace Corps, Grandma and I got into the habit of writing each other news-y letters every couple of weeks. I sent her Bangladeshi towels, she sent me chunky peanut butter. In Miami, I would mail Grandma dark chocolate when we’d see a holiday special at the grocery store. Dove dark chocolate Valentine’s hearts. Hershey’s Santa bars. Godiva samplers. Grandma was eating a pretty limited diet, so some part of me know that the chocolates I sent her would just pile up. Still, she’d call to say thanks, and we would get into a good discussion about the differences between the various chocolates, and which ones she liked the best. If she was having a hard day, we’d talk medications, or movie stars, or—my absolute favorite—Presidential politics. It was great to talk politics across generations and find that our opinions were often so similar. I liked how she could get a rise out of Dad, every time, just by saying, “That President sure is a stupid man.”

Grandma had a tremendous capacity for sadness, which I think made her life difficult sometimes. The forms of genuine love are complicated and imperfect, maybe few more so than Grandma’s. Yet, in her own way, she made each of us feel important. One of my favorite memories of my grandmother is from an early birthday. I was turning eight or nine. She made a buttermilk cake from scratch (with butter-and-Crisco icing). She sneaked me extra pieces in the kitchen, while everyone else sat out on the back porch. I don’t remember exactly what that cake tasted like but I remember how good it felt to eat, forkful by forkful, slice after slice. It’s the same effect I shoot for now whenever I make cookies or stir-fries for friends and family, and I consider it Grandma’s legacy to me: the joy and peace that a good meal creates in this world, and the memories it preserves and sets in motion in the people you love.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Arch 21

The summer of 2006, Katie and I spent a lot of time with her Georgian colleague, Archil Iordanishvili. We’d meet Archil out for drinks, watch the World Cup, shoot pool, and eat chicken kebabs with late night/early morning crepes stuffed with Nutella, on Unirii Square, near the IOCC office, often over the course of the same night. Archil had a tremendous appetite for life and a healthy disregard for REM sleep, which contrasted nicely, refreshingly with our essential Midwestern tendencies toward constancy and moderation. I posted a photo of Katie and Archil on the blog last fall. I’ve been thinking about Archil this last week, as Russian and Georgian forces clashed in South Ossetia, and then as Russia invaded Georgia. Archil often spoke of his family’s vineyard outside of Tblisi, which Katie and I planned to visit after her job ended in August 2007. In March 2007, Katie made a 10-day business trip to Tblisi, where she helped to write a framework for undertaking IOCC Romania’s HIV/AIDS program in Georgia. In emails, phone calls, and chats, she described the work as exhausting and tedious, but she loved the city’s mix of new and old, its riverfront skyline lacking billboards and franchises, and I was eager to return to check it out with her.

When the weather was nice that first summer in Bucharest, we’d forego cabs and walk together to one of the nearby neighborhoods. One night in particular, Katie and I tried to explain the rules and strategies of blackjack to Archil, and in the process devised a kind of walking-blackjack game we called “Arch 21.” Basically, “Arch 21” involved throwing combinations of fingers, in two rounds of play, and trying to get as close to 21, in total, without busting. To make it interesting, we’d bet Romanian lei and bani against each other’s scores. That August, when Katie and I made a brief Stateside visit, we taught the game (sans betting) to Emma, Chase, and Chloe. While we were gone, Archil finished his work with IOCC and so returned to Georgia, where he continued to work part-time as a consultant to IOCC. We only saw him once more, that following spring, but Katie and Archil kept up from time to time by email and Yahoo IM, and he sent a thoughtful email to everyone at IOCC last summer when he heard about Katie.

I’ve been using this soap recently that smells like the soap we used to get in Bucharest. I bought it on discount at the grocery store. It has this hyper-masculine musky odor, and when I smell my hands I have this weird conflation of Romania and Indianapolis smells: fresh cheese and sprinklers, metro cars and blacktop, cut grass and pretzel stands. I’m leaving Indy this Thursday (8/14) to begin my trek west to San Francisco. I’ll pack the car tomorrow. I’ve been ticking down the list of pre-move arrangements: taking the cats for their pre-flight physical, changing addresses and subscriptions, tossing out trash bags full of accumulated crap. I’m packing what fits into the Prius, shipping several boxes of books, and planning to buy new furniture, etc., upon arrival to my new digs (Judy, Michelle, and Ed claimed most of what was left in the storage locker). The kids went back to school yesterday, so there’s a nice symmetry to leaving now, at least rationally. I know that I’ll keep up the Indy connection in my life—that the LaPlantes are and will always be important to me. Emotionally, though, it doesn’t make sense so clearly. I’m just trying to follow the Chicago doc’s advice: take small bites and chew thoroughly.

Here’s some of what I’ll miss about Indy. Chloe’s increasing prowess as a puncher and how happy it makes her to land a good shot. The care and attention that Chase devotes to maintaining and expanding his prodigious Webkinz collection. The ritual of sitting on the sofa and tossing all varieties of Nerf balls back and forth with Emma, talking about school. Walking with the LaPlante family to Blockbuster, Starbucks, and Baskin- Robbins. Walking with Ed, across the street, to the neighborhood bar as he quotes one of my poems to me and I don’t get the reference. Sitting with Beth at the kitchen table and debriefing books, music, the merits of various caffeinated beverages, blogging, and all things Nick Hornby. Watching Chloe learning to match me barb-for-barb, while Emma rolls her eyes. Watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog with Emma, then hearing Chloe sing the beginning to the laundry-day song on our bike ride the next day. Chase exclaiming, mid-way, “So, what’s so funny about this?” Chloe reminding me, time and again, not to forget to grow up. Hearing Emma explain that, for all of her academic and sports success, she still intends to become a writer.

While I’m sad to be leaving Indy, I’m incredibly excited to get to San Francisco and start this fellowship. From what I know of the teachers, and what I’ve been able to learn by google-ing the various current and incoming Fellows, the next two years will be an incredible opportunity to work with some amazing people, while pursuing my craft. The details, so far, are wonderful. The Stegner program sends you this heavy near-card-stock cream paper with news about funding, guides to living in the Bay Area, testimonials from Stegners past and present about what it’s like to adjust to the pace of life and the lifestyle of being a funded, full-time writer. Orientation begins mid-September and weekly workshops follow almost immediately. There’s a room with a passcode and when you enter it there are literary magazines on a table, Macs with printers along the wall, and a cozy central table with a skylight. A skylight! The date of my reading, as an incoming Stegner Fellow, has been set as December 3rd, which means that come that Wednesday, I’ll be somewhere on the Stanford campus reading my poems, publicly(!).

One of the strangest things about grief this last year is how I’ve adjusted my extremes of good and bad. Life can be unjust, terrible, unpredictable, and completely illogical. It is seemingly accountable to no system of beliefs or expectation of providence or mercy, and is much more fragile than I ever previously, even hypothetically, imagined. At the same time, life can also be irreverent, whimsical, full of amazing potential for love and hope, and all the while, deeply meaningful and enduring. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of consistency to either extreme, except that if you keep living, you get to experience a good mix of the two. It makes me think of these two quotes that I really like. The first is attributed often to a translation of a Chinese proverb and curse, although it seems to have its origins with a 1939 address by a Trustee of Columbia University, Frederic R. Coudert: “May you live in interesting times.” The second is from David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, in which a friend of the hero advises him, “Worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.”

Missing Katie, and being aware of her absence from my life and this world, doesn’t require as much effort as I imagined it would this time last year, when I thought that a loving widow needed to be constantly on the verge of some overwhelming expression of grief and dissembling. I haven’t had that moment, at least not yet, where my feelings about her death have crystallized into a neat package of nostalgic looking-back-and-smiling. I can still feel incredible anger and sadness about her death, and guilt about my role witnessing it and not preventing it. Maybe that’s a part of what my life will be. At the same time, I do know that, through a combination of regular writing, therapy, support from friends and family, and the occasional pharmaceutical assist, I have found meaningful ways to live with Katie’s death, and to legitimately, healthily, and honestly want new things and experiences. That seems significant. In addition to all of the other goodness, I’m grateful to have had this place, at this time in my life, to work things out initially. Watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog this evening, I kept thinking about Neil Patrick Harris (who plays Dr. Horrible) of yore, typing his end-of-episode Doogie Howser essential insight into whatever problem faced the precocious teenage doctor that week. Life may be episodic, but the lessons are rarely so tidy and immediately convenient. All the same, I do feel loved and fortunate, and that’s pretty great.