A Life of Letters

We Have Ants

Posted in 1982, Loves, Rebecca by southpawcom on January 17, 2010

Dad was dying in Kentucky when Rebecca wrote to me from the brick duplex we had just moved into on Ann Street in East Lansing in July 1981. I was down in Kentucky saying goodbye to Dad, although we didn’t know exactly when he would go. He had a hospital bed set up in the family room and 24-hour nursing care by this point. He would go in and out of consciousness. I don’t remember really any meaningful conversations with him at this point of his illness. I remember of course being overwhelmingly sad and sorry for Mom. She was putting on the brave face. I also remember it was stiflingly hot in the Ohio River Valley.

I don’t remember the girl in the shoe store that Bec mentions not once, but twice. I guess she was a little unnerved about something I had said that I thought I might do while I was down there. I’m sure I was kidding the both of us, as having fun would have been the farthest idea from my mind with Dad dwindling down to nothing.

It’s interesting and a little sad that Bec said nothing about my Dad in her letter. She wasn’t an insensitive person by any means. I think she was maybe a little freaked out or perhaps I didn’t explain the graveness of his condition to her. It’s also likely that I myself was in denial about it, and so maybe I didn’t talk about it realistically or openly with her. She was very young, only 20.

Not too young to work a naughty picture in between the lines though…. 🙂

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How Divorces Start

Posted in 1998, Aunt Kaye, Family by southpawcom on January 16, 2010

If I were literary, someone who didn’t spend his leisure reading time with his laptop propped on his belly in bed reading old Life magazines and Baseball Digests on Google Books, I very likely would be able to point to a parallel in literature to my Aunt Kaye. Her voice, her laughter, her spirit filled any room she was in. It’s possible Joyce, Bellows, Tolstoy, or Frank McCourt had an Aunt Kaye in their works, but I wouldn’t know.

She wasn’t really my aunt, just a neighbor that Mom and Dad got to know, together with her stately husband, Uncle Gerry, at Lake Oakland near Detroit in the mid-1950s. Aunt Kaye was an extrovert, an intellectual, who loved to sip beer and smoke Tareytons, one after another. Her eyes sparkled and her red lipstick shone as she sat at our kitchen table and sang the melody to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, “Dee dee dee..de de de dee, duh dee, duh deeee….” in her raspy tenor. She and my Dad were avid crossword puzzler doers. It wasn’t unusual for Aunt Kaye to call on a Sunday afternoon, with the Sunday Detroit News crossword puzzle spread on the coffee table in her home in Detroit, and her beloved opera playing in the background, and ask my dad, “What did you get for 27 Down?”

She and Uncle Ger were without a doubt my Mom and Dad’s closest friends, and they had four daughters who roughly were equal in age to us Nowlin kids. We would vacation together and spend holidays and long, summer cocktail parties together. Even after Dad died in ’81, “The P’s” would usually stop and see Mom in Kentucky on their way to or back from Harlingen, Texas, where they wintered.

One of my first memories was of standing in my crib at our house on Sashabaw Road, peering down the hallway from the open door of my nursery at Auntie Kaye and just jumping up and down with delight in seeing her. I loved her, and the feeling was mutual.

My Mom had been dead for nearly three years when she wrote this letter in the fall of 1998. You can see her indomitable spirit still strong in what must have been her mid 80s. I must have written her a card to which she is responding. I don’t know why she would have been writing about my divorce from my first wife, Julie, as that was already more than four years in the past by that point. Although she had plenty of opinions, it was not like her to proselytize.

I’m nearly certain this was the last I heard from Aunt Kaye, as she died the following spring. I remember attending her funeral in Detroit with Evan, who was still 6 years old. It was a long Catholic mass, very traditional, and I was a pallbearer. I remember how still and beautiful she looked in her casket, but how utterly unlike herself. No Tareyton, no screwdriver (she switched to vodka from beer several years before), no smeary red lipstick. Evan and I even went to the gravesite and watched her get buried.

God bless Aunt Kaye and Uncle Ger, who outlived her by close to a decade, I think. God bless “the P’s,” wherever they are.

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Wish You Hadn’t Ripped Off Ma Bell, Son

Posted in 1980, Family, Mom by southpawcom on January 16, 2010

At the time my mom wrote this letter in November 1980, my life was about to take a dark turn. My dad, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer two years earlier, had been found to have bladder cancer just before I returned to East Lansing for my junior year at Michigan State. He was deteriorating rapidly, and the cancer was about to be found to have moved to his brain. Ronald Reagan, whom I despised, had just been elected president, to everyone’s horror. And John Lennon, an icon and our newly resurgent hero, had less than a month to live.

I was madly in love with Rebecca. We lived together at the Ulrey House Coop on M.A.C. Avenue in East Lansing.  We wore clothes from the Salvation Army and scrimped by, not necessarily because we were destitute, but because we were determined to live simply, “off the fat of the land,” at Rebecca would put it. We also rejected materialism, and I at least had been greatly influenced by my socialist professor of my Urban Sociology class, David Hill, and had learned to hate the multinational corporations that exploited us American consumers and workers while at the same time enslaving our brothers and sisters in far-off lands, such as El Salvador.

Over the summer I had read in a newspaper called the Flint Voice, written and published in part by Michael Moore, who later would become a famed political documentary film maker, about a method whereby one could make long-distance phone calls for free by dialing in a pay phone a phony credit card number with a certain code. It was irresistible — I could talk for hours with my beloved while at the same time sock it to AT&T, who of course had the blood on their hands of assassinated president Salvador Allende of copper-rich Chile. I remember making quite a number of free phone calls from pay booths around Louisville to Rebecca’s house in Detroit and believing it was perfectly all right.

All it took for me to stop ripping off the phone company, however, was Mom’s plaintive story of her bewildering involvement in Ma Bell’s investigation of my deception. It also stung a little bit that Rebecca’s mom also got involved…and perhaps even ratted me out. In any case, I hated to disappoint Mom like that.

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Do You Still Want Me to Play, Or Should We Call It a Day?

Posted in 1977, Loves, Nancy by southpawcom on January 12, 2010

Nancy was my girlfriend in the first semester of 11th grade in the fall of 1975. She had a pixieish face framed with a layered blond ’70s hairstyle. Over her blue eyes was a pair of gold aviator frame glasses. She wore a musk perfume.

Nancy played the piano better than I. She also sang in the exclusive girls’ vocal and handbell ensemble at Bloomfield Hills Andover High School, the Jills. I remember, too, that she played in the marching band, and I can remember some crisp evenings in the stands watching her play at half-time that fall and how she looked in her band uniform and hat (pleasing in a fetishist sort of way), but I don’t remember what band instrument she played.

As time went by, she ended up going out with Ted, my best friend. I don’t remember all of the circumstances, but I seem to recall that she broke up with me and soon was seen hand-in-hand in the hallways with Ted. I don’t remember being heartbroken about it, and I sure didn’t resent my pal for that.

In spite of it, though, I wrote a pretty decent song for her, titled simply enough, “Nancy.” I could probably still play most of the ballad on the piano, or at least fake it, and I’m pretty sure I could sing it entirely. I was asked a lot in high school to play the song at parties or when people were gathered around the piano before choir class. The chorus:

What can you be thinking, Nancy

When you throw it all away?

What are you feeling, Nancy?

Do you still want me to play?

Or should we call it a day, girl?

Oh, Nancy. Oh, Nancy.

By the time she wrote me this letter, she was in her freshman year at Michigan State, obviously enjoying all of the fruits of being young, upper-middle class, and unchaperoned. She had fallen back squarely into the realm of “friend” by this point and was eager to share her new experiences with me.

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Brewer’s Droop

Posted in 1984, Friends, Ted by southpawcom on January 12, 2010

In the late ’70s and ’80s, my best friend, Ted, pulled together a band consisting mostly of a handful of his college buddies. The Brothers Bohemian were the raunchiest, most beer-fueled pub band this side of Essex. They could be counted on for a few sets of crowdpleasers, such as The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” and The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment,” but their best songs were their high-spirited originals, such as “Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing,” “Brewer’s Droop,” and “You Fill My Basic Needs.” On occasion, I would sit in with them, most usually taking lead vocals on Larry Williams’ “Bad Boy.”

They played a lot in the dorms and around campus when they were attending Eastern Michigan University, but after college ended, it became more difficult to stage shows. One challenge, of course, was getting the band together and away from competing interests, such as fledgling careers and girlfriends and wives. Another was finding a venue to play. But perhaps the biggest challenge was pulling their loyal fans together again, because without them the Bros Boho probably figured they would come off as just another bar band (a quite unlikely circumstance in the estimation of their followers but a risk nonetheless we weren’t willing to expose them to).

By 1984 they were encouraged to go the DIY route and send home-formatted handbills, hastily Xeroxed, and mailed to their  friends. I was fortunate enough to get one, but as you can see I cared just enough to smut it up a bit but then never mailed it back. I am pretty sure I attended anyway.

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She Showed Me How to Fly, But I Could Never Fly as High as She

Posted in 1999, Elaine, Loves by southpawcom on January 11, 2010

She loved Dunhills, Bass Ale, Irma Thomas, and Chipper Jones.

She was my Wild Bird. In the spring and summer of 1996, she was my favorite waste of time.

Her name was Elaine, and she came to Marquette, Michigan, by way of Jacksonville, Florida, by way of Kensington, England. She was there for the summer art festival season with her much-older photographer/companion, Edward. I met her at 10 O’Clock Charlies on Third Street in Marquette one besotted night, while I was a-tomcattin’ with my brother, Michael, and trying to reclaim my sanity after my mom died the previous December and my live-in girlfriend, Mandy, dumped me in January. She was 23, with an athletic physique softened with just the slightest baby fat, long dark brown hair, and smoldering hazel eyes. She shared her last name with a famous English seafarer, purportedly a pirate, but when asked about it, she would demur, “Not a pirate — a privateer, luv.”

We had our spring and our summer, and it was at times torrid. We drank, and rambled about, and smoked a lot of dope, but at the end of the summer, I had to let her fly away.

After I finished grad school in January 1999, I reached out to her again. We would spend hours on the phone, getting drunk together and reciting Rilke and Shakespeare to each other, and planning to meet again.

We never did.

PS: Moe was a rose. Elaine placed Moe’s petals in the envelope for me.

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