Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Remembering Bob

The fall of the year is always nostalgic for me. There are so many family memories, especially on my dad's side.

Fall means harvest -- the last glorious products from grandma's garden. It means gathering together scattered relatives for the last visits before cold weather grounded everyone.

Fall also marked the start of the school year. When I was little, school didn't start until Tuesday after Labor Day, unlike today when my teacher friends are back in their classrooms when August has barely started. I think that was a much more civilized approach to education -- who can concentrate in the blistering heat?

Most of all, the changing of the leaves and the crunching of dying grass reminds me of my brother Bob. Each October my soul is flooded with memories from October 1962.

We had a ritual of raking the leaves together, and the sounds and smells are forever imprinted in my memory. There's a photograph of him next to a pile of leaves, wearing a scarf and beret for his part as a Frenchman in a school play.

That same fall, our grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Grandma was 15 when they got married; Grandpa was 16.

Even though the grownups were all busy getting ready for the celebration, Grandpa made the time to play his banjo for us and then gave us a pumpkin from his garden to make a jack-o'lantern.

Days before Halloween we were home, playing tag and telling ghost stories. Bob picked up the pumpkin as he chased me around the house, making up a tale of some headless monster.

About the third time around the living room, he tripped, and our cherished pumpkin went flying, landing in a shattered mess on the floor. It was like losing a member of the family.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Pumpkin!" Bob exclaimed.

That bittersweet phrase has been repeated nearly every fall since. I miss hearing it as much as I miss Bob and Mr. Pumpkin.

Despite that sad Halloween episode, many autumnal events brought joy to Bob's life: pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, followed by our ritual of decorating the Christmas tree on his birthday on Dec. 12. He loved flowers, too, and managed to grow amaryllises so he nearly always had a bloom open on his birthday.

Bob died in his sleep on Nov. 17, 1997. He was 43.

I last saw him the day after Halloween that year, and remembered that particular autumn in our childhood, now more than four decades ago.

He loved Paul Harvey, Lawrence Welk, public television and listening to country gospel records. He filled his days listening to the police scanner for the town gossip, figuring out how things work and playing with his beagle, Tippy.

Bob never worked; his job in life simply was to be who he was, and he did it well. These days the politically correct term is "special needs;" in our childhood, less kind terms were applied to his condition. It's best that those words stay in the past.

We were blessed to have grown up in a small Oklahoma town. Bob had the chance to be at home there, which wouldn't have been possible in a larger city. People knew Bob, and were patient with him. They listened to him even when it was hard to understand him. And that's all that really mattered to him, because he liked to talk.

But the blessing also had another side. Education and training opportunities for Bob and his peers were severely limited in our hometown in the 1960s. Bob attended special school until he was 12; from that age on, he was at home, under our mother's care. There was no need for assisted living, or group homes, or institutionalization in our family. We were lucky that it was possible for Bob and Mom to live together and take care of each other.

He was fascinated with power tools and electricity, and his week was not complete without several hours of how-to programs on public television. Employees in all the hardware stores in town knew Bob and his latest project.

He finished few, but finishing was never the point to any of Bob's projects. One work he did complete has a permanent home in my kitchen - a simple wooden stepstool he made so I could reach my cabinets. I use it every day.

Yes, Bob's main job was simply to be who he was. He needed no day planner; scheduling wasn't important. There was no rat race, no corporate ladder that needed climbing. He lived on God's timetable.

His needs were simple - eating a grilled cheese sandwich, visiting with his bingo buddies, studying the displays at the hardware store, playing the piano by ear.

But he had goals, and worked toward those until he achieved them. Most of them were goals he had for helping someone else, including me. I learned how to rewire lamps by watching him.

Christmas was the big day of the year for him, because that was when he could give his presents. It was impossible for him to keep a secret, though, so we always knew what was under the tree before we unwrapped our packages.

Bob didn't understand much about religion or theology, but he knew the Christmas story, and he believed in angels and heaven. Before it became physically difficult for him to attend, he enjoyed going to church, especially to hear the music and to visit with his friends.

He prayed for people instinctively. I think that's why he loved gospel music so much; the messages in the music were already rooted in who he was.

The day Bob died, Mom tried to wake him so he wouldn't miss hearing Paul Harvey on the radio, but the angels had already visited in the night to tell him "the rest of the story".

It seemed right, somehow, that many of his bingo buddies heard the news on the police scanner.

I miss you, Bob, and there will be a special pumpkin on the porch for you this Halloween.


Erudite Redneck said...

What a nice tribute! :-) I can name just about every "special person" in my school growing up, and I remember the older ones in town, who everyone knew; good people looked out for them and bad people abused them. We all benefited from their presence, whether we realized it then or not.

Anonymous said...

This was a lovely story about your brother and it brought a tear, because my neice is also "special". She is going to be 7 this year. She loves going to church with my mom. Once, when she was sick, her mother told her she couldn't go to church one Sunday morning. She got her clothes out and insisted she was "goin to chush". She never misses Sunday school. I think God puts special people on earth to teach us lessons about love and life. Thanks, susan2

Dr. ER said...

Thank you for giving me perspective on my own issues today! Thank you for loving fall. And thank you for making me think of my second cousin Larry -- he was a child, albeit grown, when I was a child and he remains a child today. Larry has always loved cameras; when I was little, I didn't know that Larry was special, I thought he was the coolest adult in the family -- he played with us, you see. I think we'll have to name one of our pumpkins Bob this year :-)

Trixie said...

How sweet!! I'll get one named Larry so they can both have fun visiting with new people! Won't that be good? Thank you for telling me about your Larry.

I am hoping to get up to see relatives who live near Weston, Mo. It's a scenic little place, a lot like Guthrie, but with tall hills. In the fall, they still burn piles of leaves. I was caught without a camera the last time I visited, but when I return I will be prepared. Just thinking about it, I can smell the smoke and see the apple orchards.

FrenziedFeline said...

If DS and DH choose to do pumpkins this year, I'll name them both Bob and Larry, that way they can enjoy the California sunshine. :)

Come fall, I look forward to smelling everyone else's fireplaces. Alas, our house seems to be one of the few that doesn't have one, but I love the smell!

I tell DH that I need to get one of those videos (complete with crackling sound) of a burning fireplace to play on his big-screen TV, since the TV is sitting where I'd put a zero-clearance or free-standing fireplace if I could. But what to do about missing the smell...

Thanks for telling us about Bob. :)