The Quest of Life

Innocence. Two white concrete statues covered by dust. Sebastian Voortman

My grandsons’ voices rose to fever pitch, but it wasn’t about the possession of a prized Lego piece. Each loudly defended his position in what appeared to be a battle royal, swiftly moving towards fisticuffs—the youngest yelling: “Christmas is about Jesus, the baby, coming. That’s it, nothing else.” His brother, just as passionately, “No, Christmas is about family. Jesus may have started it, but now it’s about family.”

Refreshing that boys under ten could engage in a lively discussion their elders have been debating in one form or another for centuries. Granted the elders may take this discussion further by disagreeing about WHO the redeemer is, WHAT his true mission might be, WHEN or if he might return, WHERE his preferred altar might be, and WHY 2,000 years or so after this birth we should care.

They touched upon a tender nerve—religion—that has over the centuries resulted in the death or injury of millions of people, forcing them away from their original homeland and against their natural family. Sometimes they argued over the “rightful” possession of land associated with their religion and whether God gave it to one group or another. Certainly it would have been easier and less bloody if God had taken a huge Sharpie and drawn lines on the earth, defining who “owned” what, making sure everyone had water and tillable land. Of course in the desert where much of this started out, there wasn’t much of either. The competitive nature, that God may or may not have instilled in certain humans, and a burning desire for MORE—the greed factor—set off these battles. But maybe God wanted us to figure it out for ourselves, since earth wasn’t expected to be perfect, but life would have its high and low points.

Taken to its common denominator, we have family, where hopefully we learn what we need to survive in the outer world. If we’re lucky, we find the love and nurturing there that will gird us like Gladiators to protect us from what the world will throw at us over a lifetime. More times than not we utilize whatever physical, mental, and emotional resources are available and we pull ourselves together, moving forward day by day , not just surviving, but eventually thriving with those we’ve drawn to us.

It’s refreshing that a youngster born in 2014 considers Jesus to be the center of Christmas. And it’s encouraging for a seven-year-old to believe in family as the focal point. I’d like to believe they both have a point, just as I’d like to believe there could be space for every organization or person who fiercely believes in their message but would “do no harm” to those with different or opposing beliefs.

This caveat might be the hardest of all–tolerance and physical protection for those “nonbelievers” who do not follow the tenants of another religion’s beliefs, providing they do no injury to others. And there’s the rub. Should we not make room for those believers who do not want to kill others in the name of their God or lack because they do not belong to the religion of choice? 

Maybe the world has grown too complicated with too many divergent interests. But could each of us reach out a hand to another to learn about them–working to achieve an open-ended discussion, to learn what we do have in common. What would it take to find the tolerance to examine the layers of the onion of each other’s beliefs to come to the bedrock of it?  If we did, could we find something in common?

Would there, could there be, a family tie or the basic elements of community somewhere near the center?

Finding Good Bones

Marion Lower and Tom Tuerff , Gary, Indiana 1940s. Tuerff Family Picture Album

Listening to “The Bones,” by Maren Morris in the car on an unsuccessful trip to research my blog, I realize “Bones” applies to much more than calcium deposits.

Like in the song, my mother weathered several moves with my father’s job, towing three children and usually a mutt, and believed if a house had “good bones,” the foundation would hold and so would the house.

Mom never told me, but I think she believed that applied to marriage too—if the bones of their relationship were solid, together they could weather whatever wolves or storm came to the door.

My parents grew up Catholic in Gary, Indiana, when his father worked as an accountant at U.S. Steel and hers painted and decorated the Cathedral, area businesses, and the homes of wealthy patrons. My dad was best friends with her oldest brother and later told stories about tripping Marion in her first pair of high heels. They didn’t date at Horace Mann High School, maybe Tom was “too old” or too much “in the family.” But back then many parents preferred someone they’d known for years.

While Tom served in the Air Force stateside as a plane mechanic during World War II (he’d wanted desperately to fly, but back then one attempt was all you got), Marion attended Indiana University, receiving a degree in elementary education as the war wound down. It wasn’t until Marion’s brother married her sorority sister from school that these two got together, becoming a couple soon after. Being close to Chicago, they rarely missed an opportunity to listen to Big Bands like Tommy Dorsey and Louie Armstrong and dance the night away.

They married before family and friends at Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary on December 29, 1948, vowing “to have and hold each other from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

After a short honeymoon to the Wisconsin Dells, a nearby location (though in December it could have been more convenience than choice), she began teaching public school in Milwaukee, where he attended Marquette University.

The first high watermark came as he completed his degree in business and advertising and got his second disappointment. Tom had wanted to go into advertising. As he was graduating, Coca Cola offered him an entry job that could have opened into something more, but then was mainly driving a truck. He couldn’t make it on that salary with a bride and a baby on the way (me). He went into sales and spent his life selling everything from Kitchen Maid cabinets to Huntington Labs’ chemicals for school hallways and gym floors to basketball backstops for Indiana’s champion fieldhouses. He succeeded, but not overly so—he would not attempt to sell the wrong product to the wrong client just because he could—maybe a bit of the Marquette Jesuit’s philosophy stuck with him. He knew it was bad business.

Encouraging youngsters to find their essential passion, develop a personal framework and discover what they’d rather do than eat, sleep, or now-a-days play video games–was my mother’s enduring personal passion. But when she returned from summer break in 1949 the school administrator (no doubt male) noticed she’d gained weight in her belly but nowhere else. Marion was summarily fired, not for faulty educational principles or mistreatment of a child, no, she was having her own—then, married or not, being pregnant would get you fired. (At least that practice does not exist here today, far as I know.)

That didn’t rock the foundation. Nor after a flawless first birth did three subsequent miscarriages, one on the kitchen floor where he scooped her up in his arms and hurried her to a hospital, thinking he would lose her forever. After that the antics of three children were a blessing, not a curse, and were taken in stride along with countless moves across northern Indiana and into Ohio. They were still standing tall like the Blue Spruce at the top of the tall drive in Mansfield, Ohio, before their final move back to Lafayette, Indiana, when I was a high school junior.

Into the home stretch, their lives took a hard turn when she was 52. Experiencing a migraine, she fell on the elementary school playground and it took EMS eight minutes to bring her around. An aneurysm on the right side of her brain had burst—high blood pressure may have triggered the sleeping “Horrible What-If” that cast a shadow on the next twenty years’ of our lives. Fortunately many stroke patients today have the advantage of the trials and errors of the past forty-five years.

We didn’t understand, though she tried to explain, that half her bowels and her stomach and, yes, in some places, her brain, were asleep. After surgery, even with the drugs that were available then, her brain swelled, which created damage that could not then be repaired. Fortunately Marion could talk. And most blessedly she could read after we figured out she saw in stripes (something no doctor could tell us then), so she accommodated and swiftly picked up book after book, becoming a regular on the library’s drop-off route, and as she did one-handed crewel work of children at play and birth announcements for family.

Her stroke nearly became a “full stop,” the everlasting, relentless storm that strained the marriage as they struggled to find the eternal humor that can put a veneer over the most desperate situations. But who could abandon her then? My mother referred to her left arm as “wounded wing,” though she never came up with a title for her left leg, which never regained use for walking other than with a four-pronged-cane.  After occupational therapy to recall simple household tasks, we realized that cooking would be off the plate, she couldn’t do more than three things in sequence. Dad learned to put an evening meal on the table for a while, then passed it on to my brother, then fifteen, who took to it like a bit in the teeth, fortunately.

Visiting nurses came in to help with bathing and basic care, but dressing and meals were up to my father, though sometimes Meals on Wheels helped bridge gaps. Marion, who became proficient with a phone, eventually found a way to use her muscle memory for reading instruction. Her former school would recommend her as a tutor to the parents of mainly reluctant male readers experiencing difficulty in the classroom. She took the time to talk with them, in conversation, giving the one-on-one attention some had rejected earlier. Quietly her sincere interest came through and even the most dejected revealed they wanted to learn more about basketball, baseball, or Indy cars (this was Indiana), which she had no difficulty discussing, even reading the books in advance of their sessions. She gained a purpose.

Growing up I’d always thought it would be my dad whose health crisis would upend my life. He’d smoked as long as I could remember, at the breakfast and dinner table, in the car taking us to school. But I’ll be the first to admit he stopped a life-long habit of smoking at home when he realized Marion would not stop until he did—and it could kill her if she continued.

An empty case of Stroh’s beer rested in the closet off the kitchen, forming a table for the next one coming in each week to lay on top. He had a favorite bar, where he stopped at the end of the day on his way back into town after serving customers, but he often spent Saturday there too, watching the game and becoming “coach” for his knowledge of the stats and players, no matter the sport. Dad was a working alcoholic and had the Irish-German genes to support it. Mom’s stroke dynamited his secure life, where he was the ruler of the roost, but the action—the key decisions, family structure, the mundane details had been handled seamlessly by Marion. Now that was gone.

After mom came home from the hospital, I took her to therapy and helped her learn to manage herself in new surroundings. Her library book routine became well established and she knew how to put peanut butter on bread situated on a small board with edges, so it wouldn’t slip. Not ideal, but she would not starve for lunch, and we had fruit. Squeezy applesauce and one-handed juice boxes weren’t available, but it might have been a caregiver who invented them.

My parents knew that life in Lafayette held no prize for me. I’d already lived in Manhattan. They sat together at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning six months in and invited me to go: “Your work is done here and you need to find your bliss out in the world.” (That was my mother talking, the word “bliss” would not have come from my father—he would have said a “paying job.”)

After that my brothers and I would drive in or fly in to help, but one finished law school and eventually landed in Washington, another went to work marketing food commodities in Oregon, then Chicago. My next job, writing a magazine for the Hospital Center in DC, wasn’t bliss as the doctors weren’t eager then to share their stories with a female, rookie reporter who “isn’t even a nurse.” I moved on and landed on the Hill.  Every year after my daughter turned seven, she and I would drive to Lafayette from Virginia to spend the Christmas holiday with her grandparents. As she got older, the trip lost its charm, but it was family tradition.

My parents learned how to practice “in sickness and health” up close and in living color. Both got frustrated and angry with circumstances that would test the patience of Job, but they stuck with it and held on to their spot in St. Mary’s far right pew nearly every Sunday. Tom would help Marion dress, then get her in the Oldsmobile and wrestle the wheelchair into trunk for the trip to church. They’d listen to a sermon that sounded somewhat like the Sunday before. After church, Tom would mix himself a Bloody Mary before whipping up the eggs for one of his famous omelets. Marion would start the conversation about the ball game the night before or nibble on the sermon.

Overtime they became eager for news of their grandchildren. They lived a life much different from their friends who had double paychecks for years longer and were able to travel to Europe and the American West. But they persevered to prove, “If the bones are good, the rest don’t matter.”

Years earlier Tom purchased a burial plot in a funeral wall in Lafayette. He knew that his far-flung children would not be planning their vacations to tend to their parents’ plot in the Midwest. After Marion died December 21, 1998, he told his son, “I had no idea how much I would miss that woman.” Less than a month before 9-11, this former member of the U.S. Air Force died, spared the knowledge that an American airplane could be used to attack his country. Now on a hill where the eastern and western sides of Lafayette come together, there is a drawer where the bones of Marion and Tom can be found resting together, but we hope their spirits are in Big Band heaven dancing like never before.

What “The Crown” Teaches about “Horrible What-Ifs”

Aberfam,Wales, after a massive pool of coal waste sped down from the mountain directly above the town to cover the junior high, killing 116 children and 28 adults on October 21, 1966. The tragedy, while unexpected in the rest of Britain, was no surprise to the townsfolk who’d been pleading with the National Coal Board to remove it for three years. Dover Forum. files.

Is there something more important than politics?

A Dover police officer carries a survivor from the ruins of the Aberfam tragedy. For her part, the queen initially sent multiple members of the Royal family, saying she “didn’t ‘do tragedy,’ ” before going herself on the ninth day.

I learned early while attempting to communicate with the public about transportation safety that the work you do before an actual “crisis” is more critical than the barrage of words and images that comes after. But life isn’t usually lived proactively. Before it’s addressed, the “squeaky wheel” falls off, goes flat, bankrupts the company, crashes the 737, or derails the train.

So we have crises at work, in or personal lives, and in our government because we’re flawed human beings and we whirl around attending to whatever we deem most important on the surface. Instead of addressing these issues while they’re manageable, before people die or carry painful physical and/or emotional scars, we scurry around taking care of the simple immediate problems and leave the rest for the door marked, “The Future.” We think those problems will rest on simmer until we get back. They don’t. They grow into monsters behind that door, as a Louisiana transportation safety manager friend once called them: “The Horrible What Ifs.”

In the third season of The Crown on Netflix there’s an incredible example of crisis named for the event that occurred in Aberfam, Wales, on October 21, 1966. The squeaky wheel was a vast deposit of coal waste called a “tip” collected outside the mine directly above the town. For three years Aberfam residents wrote letters to Britain’s National Coal Board (NCB), pleading for the tip’s removal, which sat directly above the town’s Pantglas Junior High School.

That fall downpours mixed with the coal waste to form a thick coal slurry 50-foot wide that rushed down the hill at 30 to 40 miles per hour. Adding to the misery, the lack of a working phone line at the top of the mine prevented any advance warning for the town or the school below. In the end, the lifeless bodies of 116 children and 28 adults were dug from the hardening slurry that flooded the junior high and 20 Aberfam homes.

A British government inquiry and subsequent survivor’s fund, the first of many to come with future tragedies like 911, blamed the NCB for failure to address the town’s concerns with the coal waste. They pointed to natural springs and the city’s repeated attempts to have the coal waste removed long before the event, which overruled the NCB’s excuse that the rains triggered the event.

The remaining coal tips were eventually removed but only after a payment of 150,000-pounds Sterling was extracted from funds collected internationally for the relief of the townspeople, not in a payment from the NCB. Initially the price put on the head of each child was 500-pounds Sterling. Nearly all remaining Aberfam residents suffered from their own form of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder after the loss and received psychological counseling. Eventually the families received 5,000 pounds for their loss, but it was not offered immediately. Overtime, oil replaced coal to heat British homes and the community branched into lines of work other than mining.

Does the “Stiff Upper Lip” still work?

I think I heard some of you mumble something about “the stiff upper lip” when I mentioned the Crown’s response to the incident. For eight days the Queen back in Buckingham Palace threw everything she had at the crisis, including her husband, but not herself. Prince Phillip reported back about his amazement at the grieving town’s response at the funeral in their anger and rage. “You’d think they’d rebel,” he told her on The Crown segment issued in November 2019. “Did they?” she queried. “No, it was the most amazing thing—they sang—all of them.” (The song: “The Song of Farewell” by Earnest Sands: “May the choirs of angels enfold you and come to meet you. May they speed you to eternal life.”)

On the ninth day, the Queen went to lay a wreath at the newly dug cemetery and speak with survivors. Her fear, that she would not be able to summon the tears required by the Welsh to meet the depth of Aberfam’s suffering.  Later in the program she told Prime Minister Wilson of her shame that she applied a white handkerchief to a dry eye for the camera as she exited a bereaved family’s home.

The Queen explained when she was young during World War II, she toured the sites of death and destruction with her parents and struggled to remain stoic for her brave countrymen. Then Wilson, who had visited Aberfan days earlier, told her privately that the British people did not want a hysterical monarch. “It is our job to calm more crises than we create,” he said. After he left, according to The Crown recreation, she played a recording of “The Song of Farewell” and silently wept.

Modern Crisis: Emote or Not?

My dilemma when faced with the death of many, many fewer children in the 1995 Fox River Grove school bus-train crash was to keep that stiff upper lip while managing media calls. When it comes to the death of children, one is one too many. Seven children from a small community outside Chicago died in the crash. One was the same age as my daughter at the time, fourteen.

I kept my decorum when a USA Today reporter called repeatedly throughout the day to ask, “How do you feel about this?” seeking an emotional response. I might respond differently today, as hundreds of tragedies in subsequent years have pushed the need for true emotion to the forefront. But in that moment I played the Queen. Then I could not open myself to human emotion because crossing the line for a single moment, might have opened the floodgates, and it could have gotten me fired. As a single parent that was not an option. So I answered every time she called, “It’s my job to try to help prevent these incidents.” Each time I stopped there, saying nothing more.

It really wasn’t my job to prevent incidents,  and even then I knew it, but I responded with unquotable words—her story would have to come from another source. I could have repeated something about safety, but I knew that would not cut it right then. I stopped, saying nothing more to that reporter.

I don’t remember the twenty-minute drive home to Arlington, Virginia, from the office that night. My vision clouded by the tears I could not summon earlier. I enjoyed what was left of a mundane evening with my daughter, saying nothing to her about the incident, but squeezed her a little tighter at bedtime. I watched her sleep a moment longer the next morning to gain composure before I awakened her, knowing there were other parents who could no longer awaken their own.  

Kymbaya or not, how do we come together?

Obviously the nation’s crises demands more than sitting and singing. I can’t carry a tune and would be just as happy not to. But if we can’t sit together listening, patiently, and reasonably begin to discuss the things in life that just might be more important than politics, where does that leave us?

There are things in life above politics. Time may be long past for Americans to have their own Kumbaya (Come By Here) moment. The African folk song’s original intent was an appeal to God to come and help those in need. Politicians on both sides of the American divide, including Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who in 2012 voiced dissatisfaction with “sitting around a campfire toasting marshmallows, singing Kumbaya and giving the nod to one of their competitors,” and Barack Obama, as President, who said the substantive disagreements in the Israelis and Palestinians mcould not be reduced to “a matter of let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya.”

America’s Kumbaya moments may be long over, but if we can’t find a way to sit down and patiently begin to address the things that are more important than politics, what future do we have? What happened to that bright future our forefathers imagined more than two decade ago?