Thursday, February 12, 2015

Warp And Weft

One of the things that I like best about living in a little town is the layers of connection that I have to places and people and things, some here now and some gone, some connections known and others unknown. This is a story about those layers of connection, and a valentine of sorts.

In the mid-1960s my mother owned a knit shop in downtown Lexington.She rented a little space on the first floor of a three-story brick commercial building constructed shortly before the Civil War. That building still stands, across a side street from the 1847 Lafayette County Courthouse, affectionately known as the Cannonball Courthouse for the Civil War cannonball still in one of its columns.  In 1966 my mother and father had been married for almost 20 years and had no living children, having lost their son Keith to premature birth some 18 years earlier.  They desperately wanted children and at 38 and 39 had almost given up hope. In December of 1966 they heard back from a social worker they thought had forgotten about them:  a woman was due to give birth soon and wanted to give up her child for adoption. My mother hurriedly sold her knit shop to her friend Beryl and threw herself joyously into being a stay-at-home mom, first to me (in the third week of January, 1967) and later to my brother Jim (in October of that same year).  My parents, at almost 40, suddenly found themselves with not one, but two babies only ten months apart in age. My mother's friend Beryl was delighted to find herself the owner of the little shop chock full of skeins of colorful yarn. She often told me as I was growing up, "If not for you, I wouldn't have my little shop!" 

***

In the summer of 1998 my son, Dylan Keith (named after the brother I never knew) was ten years old and I was dating Marion. Mare had bought a three-story commercial building downtown that he was rehabbing and we were laboriously chipping off what we thought was stucco from the interior brick walls. My son and one of his friends ran in with Super Soaker water guns and drenched Mare, me, and the wall behind us, leading to the discovery that the walls were in fact coated with popcorn ceiling texture which slides right off when wet. My mother came by later that day to see the progress of the rehab and stopped in the side doorway of the building, eyebrows raised and a widening smile on her face. "This was my knit shop!" she declared. Mare and I hadn't known that until that moment.

***

Eight years ago I bought my house, and a couple of years thereafter set out to discover who had built the house and how old it was. After spending most of a winter week in the Courthouse going from deed to prior deed to prior deed, I had my answer: James Crawford Kelly, in the fall of 1887. Further digging into old records yielded a Kelly family history in the library, where I learned Mr. Kelly was 57 years old and his wife 53 when they decided to move to town and build a house just down the street from their church. A short walk through Machpelah Cemetery with White Trash Bob, and we'd found their gravestones and those of several family members, and all had flowers on them. We wondered who'd put those flowers there.

***

Last summer I was painting the east side of my house when I heard a reedy little voice say, "Yoohoo!" I turned, and there in the front yard was Miz Beryl, who didn't mind the dust and paint chips one bit when I gave her a big hug.  "Do you live here?" she asked. "I just live around the corner and I didn't know this was your house." Miz Beryl is now 93 years old and in fine weather she makes a circuit from her house around the corner, down the sidewalk past the funeral home two blocks away, up the side street, and back to her house. Once she discovered this was in fact my house, she paused almost every day on her walk to chat with me and give me encouragement. The day that Marion and I put up the first porch posts on the new porch, Miz Beryl stopped, clasped her tiny hands together, and said, "Ohh, I hope you make it look like it did when I was little. You know, my great-grandpa built this place." Mare and I nearly fell off the porch. Gently, afraid she'd misremembered, I asked, "Miz, Beryl, who was your great-grandpa?" Without hesitation she replied, "James Kelly." Mare and I were astonished. "You never told me this before! How is he your great-grandpa?" She paused.  "I can't remember all the names. Willa Curtis was my grandfather. You look it up, honey, fill in the blanks." My copy of the Kelly family history contained only the two pages about James Kelly, his wife, and their children.  A trip to the library and I had the thread:  James Crawford Kelly and Maria Louisa Duncan Kelly had a daughter Alice, born in 1859. She married Willa Curtis and they had a son named James Boyd Curtis, born in 1882.  James Curtis married Elizabeth Noever and they had a daughter in 1921 named Beryl. There was the proof; Miz Beryl is indeed the great-granddaughter of the man who built my house. James Kelly's son Aubrey (who Miz Beryl called A.O. or Aub) owned the house until 1952, so Miz Beryl would certainly have known it as a family house.

***

This is what keeps me living here in this town when sometimes I think it would be easier to live elsewhere: the warp and weft of history and, I dare say, love, running through my family, this house, my friends, the people who came before me and the people who will be here after I am gone. Extraordinary. 




Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Swiss Army Knife

Last week I went to the doctor with Marion.  His appointment was at 1:30 p.m. in Kansas City, which is about an hour's drive from my house.  He knocked on my back door at 9:05 a.m.  Ordinarily, I'd be really cranky about that, but given the circumstances I thought it best to remain positive.  After all, Marion is going through life with 30% less fingers and he's still happy.

"Wanna see it?" he asked brightly, and whipped off his glove.

I tried to keep my expression neutral, and failed.  "Oh, shit!" I said.  "I mean, gosh, that doesn't look as bad as I thought it would."

He laughed.  "Looks worse, doesn't it?"  I was trying to think of a diplomatic answer to that question (yes, it really does look even worse than I expected) when he said, "Honestly, I'm kinda disappointed that you didn't faint at the sight of it and end up on the kitchen floor in your Hello Kitty pajamas again."  (That's a reference to the accident in which I broke my collarbone, and I really was wearing HK jammies.  I suspect I will never live that down.)

Then I put on some decent clothes and we walked all around my house, inside and out, and planned out everything we hope to accomplish on it this year.  After that we tromped around an abandoned house that sits on the river bluff and pretended we had enough money to buy it and fix it up, then we ate lunch, and then we went to the doctor.

"Wanna go in with me?" Marion asked when we got there.  I opted to sit in the waiting room instead, which turned out to be an excellent decision when fifteen minutes or so later he returned with a pained expression on his face and his right hand swathed in bandages.

"Remember when you were a little kid and your mom told you not to pick at scabs or it'd never heal?  Well, she lied!" he said, standing there with his hand tucked inside his coat like Napoleon.  "The doctor pulled every one of the scabs off my fingers and cleaned 'em all out."

All together now:  ewwwww....

Marion has to go back to the doctor in a month.  In the meantime, he's supposed to take antibiotics, flex his fingers, and do anything which doesn't cause him pain.  On the way home, he told me that he thought we could sheetrock my bedroom ceiling in a couple of weeks.  When I told him that I thought he might be pushing it and that he really ought to stop and think about that, he replied, "Between now and then I thought I'd work on making some tools that fit on the ends of my fingers.  One of them could be a flat-head screwdriver, a Phillips-head, a magnet for nails and screws.  When I get done, I'll have the Swiss Army knife of hands!"

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Stubby

Marion called me yesterday.  Without preamble or greeting, as is his usual phone manner, as soon as I answered the phone he said, "It's gonna be more like March before we can finish the front porch."

I assumed he meant because it's about 12 degrees outside and the porch floor's covered in a thin sheet of ice, and I said as much.

"Oh yeah, that too, but the big reason is that I had a little accident with the planer."

I've known Marion for 17 years.  Marion is the King of Understatement.  I had a very bad feeling about his definition of "little accident" and I sat down suddenly, my heart racing, afraid to ask him what he meant.

"Are you still there?" he asked.

"I am," I said.

"I caught my right hand in the planer.  I still have all of my thumb and index finger, my middle finger's missing the first knuckle, and my ring finger and pinky finger are about an inch long now."

Holy hell. 

"The doctor says I'm still gonna be able to use my hand, once it heals up, but I've got about eight weeks before I'll be able to do any work on your house or anybody else's," Marion said.

"I don't give a damn about the work on my house," I said.  "I just want to know that you're okay."

"Oh, I'm fine," he said, more cheerfully than I think the situation warrants.

There is some good news in this.  Marion's left-handed, mostly, in that he writes with his left hand, but like most people who work with their hands he's actually ambidextrous.  His thumb and index finger are intact, so he can still pick things up, and the doctor thinks he'll regain some limited ability to grip.  This is winter, when there's a lull in the work anyway, so what jobs he was working on for his friend Tim (who's rehabbing a three-story commercial building in downtown Lexington) can wait until he heals up and won't be bid out to another contractor.  And lastly, he has a positive attitude about his injury.  "Maybe," he said, "I'll get a cool nickname out of this, like Stubby or something."