A Life of Letters

Spring Break Tree Planting

Posted in 1981, Family, Michael by southpawcom on March 9, 2012

Michael sounds stressed in this letter. And why wouldn’t he be, with a wedding, a new home, and his father’s death waiting for him in the next six months?

Rebecca and I did join him on our Spring Break from Michigan State to go tree planting with him and his crew in southern Indiana. I don’t remember much about it, except that Rebecca was better than I at pulling those white pine seedlings out of the quiver and wedging them into the moist Hoosier earth with the specialized, iron tree-planting tool.

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Sans All That Fuzz

Posted in 1989, Family, Mom by southpawcom on March 9, 2012

Vaguely I seem to recall it bothering me that Mom’s message was flush right.

I didn’t know it, but Mom was only four or fewer years from showing indisputable signs of dementia. There isn’t a whole lot here, other than the flush right formatting, to foretell of any problems. She is fawning of her birthday presents, but just not as journalistic as usual of her doings.

She loved the sweatpants that Julie and I got her. She crocheted ankle warmers and sewed them onto the cuffs of the sweatpants.

Start Walkin’!

Posted in 1974 and before, Mom by southpawcom on March 9, 2012

Usually Mom picked me up after play practice at West Hills Junior High School in Bloomfield Hills. However, as she was by the fall of 1973 a working mom, she sometimes had to work late and it wasn’t always possible for her to pick me up.

Seems this day she called the principal’s office, and Mrs. Gwin, the trusty secretary, took this note. A note like this today would be a smoking gun of child neglect (I was 13) but you can view for yourself the Nancy Sinatra-like alacrity with which they kicked the children of Bloomfield Hills to the dusty trail in the early ’70s.

It wasn’t unusual for me to walk the three or so miles from middle school to home in those days. I recall doing so several times, happily…and safely. Occasionally I would stop on the way at Lisa Mc’s house, across from our school, for some companionship. Only companionship. Dang it. Because I wasn’t paying attention….

Lindsay Ann Became Unhinged

Posted in 1982, Family, Mom by southpawcom on March 6, 2012

Mom had some pretty close girlfriends among the ladies who lived on the dusty road of the new subdivision they made out of a farm in Goshen, Kentucky. Ann was a Kentucky blonde of the type that today we would confidently call a “milf.” Although I believe she and her husband, Clyde, were childless, Lindsay Ann was more of an “earth mother” type. I think that Mom liked her more, because she was more down to earth. She and mom would share books and frequently have coffee together in the airy kitchens of their designer-built homes.

I treasure these newsy updates she would send me frequently in the years after Dad died and she still maintained the homestead all by herself.

Hate Job Applications

Posted in 1979, Family, Michael by southpawcom on February 6, 2010

Not sure, but I think my brother, Michael, enclosed an admissions application to Michigan State with this letter.

After pretty much a lifetime of Michael and I not really being close (he’s more than six years’ my senior), it was around this period that I suppose I had grown up enough that he started to see me as someone he could relate to.

He provides a fairly succinct summary of his life and conditions in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the middle of February. Things remain thus: not much work, lots of snow, friends in abundance to play music with, a life lived about as you want it.

Liszt Requires Technique

Posted in 1998, Aunt Kaye, Family by southpawcom on February 3, 2010

A treasured letter from my Aunt Kaye, whom I introduced to you in this post. Here in this letter, which was written a good seven or eight months prior to the one in the earlier post, she waxes nostalgic not only about her musical youth, but also of her courtship with Uncle Ger, the Depression, some great historical observations of Rachmaninoff, Dad when he was well, and Mom when she was ill.

Like all good writers, she wrote exactly as she spoke, punctuated and emphatic. (That last word reminds me of one of her pet sayings…when someone would mispronounce a word, she would correct them by saying, “My dear, you have placed the em-PHASS-is on the wrong syl-LAH-ble…”) She was a joy, and I would miss her more if my memory of her and her blithe spirit weren’t still so alive.

Redhead Woody

Posted in 1982, Family, Mom by southpawcom on February 1, 2010

In the summer of 1982, I was by this point living alone at the brick duplex on Ann Street. Bec and Ann-Face had moved out and found sub-letters, two girls whose names if I thought long enough about, I could remember. A blonde and a redhead. Rhonda was one of them; can’t remember the other. They were small-town Midwestern girls, and they both lived in the room next to mine (what had been Ann and Joel’s room). I was friendly with them and would party up a little with them with the guys on the other side of the duplex on the hot sticky nights in the summer of ’82. I remember I would amuse them by walking to their bedroom at around 4 pm with my bong and my sinsemilla and tell them, “It’s time for your daily bong hit.” They didn’t refuse me.

It was kind of a lonely time. Kim had moved away, too, having graduated and already found work with a small newspaper in, I think Clio, Michigan. Mostly I think I realized I had blown it with Rebecca, and I missed her really badly.

I spent much of the summer alone, or with Tim G., the cartoonist at The State News, or Dave B., who was a big doper and fellow baseball nut. I took some summer classes, and I worked as the Editorial Editor at The State News. I smoked a lot of dope and spent a lot of nights at The Peanut Barrel. (Mom’s periodic infusion of cash into my checking account surely didn’t hurt my pursuits.) There were usually some good parties to go to on Friday nights, State News parties, and those cats loved to party, drink, smoke, and most of all, dance.

I would spend hours making what I thought were wicked mix tapes of the very coolest New Wave music and take them to the parties. I would remove whatever cassette was already in the tape player, with the Blasters on it, and replace it with my tape queued to Pete Shelley’s “Homosapien,” and just have the place sweaty in four minutes. A little embarrassing in retrospect, but the sound was fresh and pumpin’. I would go around the room and ask selected folks, “Do you want to go to Hawaii?” When they assented, I would take out a little black film vial filled with the most aromatic Kona bud and a small pipe. It only made the music sound better and everyone nicer looking.

I have a vivid memory of lying on my mattress in my room one morning that summer, and waking to hear the neighbor’s car radio play the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby,” which had busted through to the Top Ten. It had been on my mix tapes for a few months. The moment was vindicating, and it made me smile.

Actually, as I think back on the parties, I’m remembering that I had a pretty good time, and maybe I wasn’t so alone.

Interesting that Mom makes three allusions to redheads in her letter.

  • David was my manager at the Boston Shoe Company on Westport Road in Louisville. He was tall and had this wild red afro framing his very pale, Meat Loaf-like face. He scared the crap out of me, and I didn’t like him when I first knew him. But later he kind of befriended me, and I even remember having beers with him a few times.
  • Sandy, who instigated the divorce, was a dynamite Kentucky redhead. She was the wife of one of Dad’s sales associates, and she was just stunning. I remember her showing up at our house in New Jersey in this gorgeous fur-lined jacket, just red hair and the sexiest face and body, and Mike and I (and likely Dad) were just gaga. Talk about redhead woodies…mmm-mm-mm….
  • Mom was a nature nut, and she loved it when birds would nest near the home. She would watch them for hours and chart their movements day to day. I remember many times as a kid, when a robin would make a nest on top of the wall sconces on the front porch, peeking in with Mom while the mama bird was away looking for worms at all the tiny, dinosaur-like beaks stretched out hungry and squeaking.

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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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