Archive for the ‘Looking Back’ Category

A year ago today my father, Frank Joseph Breen, Sr., passed away from complications of a stroke. He’d been in either the hospital or a home since late April, with no sign of improvement and no real hope of recovery. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t move his left side, and didn’t speak well. He had no control of his bathroom functions, which was a source of great pain and embarrassment to him, yet he’d discuss it loudly and profanely with his family and with the medical staff. He became more disoriented as the weeks wore on and suffered dementia toward the end. He had just turned 77 years old on June 14.

My brother and his family had arrived from St. Louis on Thursday for what we knew would be a farewell visit with Dad, although we had no idea how long Dad might hang on. On Saturday morning, the home called to say Dad was being moved to the hospital because of problems with breathing. By 7 a.m., the ICU nurse contacted me about permission to perform some function that would help his respiration. Dad had told us for years never to prolong any suffering, and he had a “do not resuscitate” order. I confirmed that we didn’t want anything done beyond making Dad comfortable. The nurse suggested his family should come.

Every time my brother visited from St. Louis, Dad always tried to get all four of his children together, preferably with the grandkids as well. It was hard to accomplish. My brother who lives locally has an erratic work schedule, I usually wasn’t available for the big King’s Island hoopla that Dad wanted to throw every time, Diamondqueen had things with her own kids to schedule. It was one of those little gifts of life, and a minor miracle, that all four of Dad’s children were at his bedside when he died.  We entered his room in the ICU expecting to be there all of the day and possibly all night or longer; but Dad was gone before noon. I tried to tell him that we were there and rubbed his shoulder sometimes, the way he’d asked me to recently and even going back to childhood. I always had strong hands and a “feel” for giving massages. We watched the various numbers on the screen go up and down while he lay there silently. Finally the numbers plummeted and we couldn’t see his chest move at all. The nurse came in to confirm that he was gone.

It was a relief. He was so miserable from the effects of the stroke. The evening when the stroke had taken him down, he was supposed to have gone out to dinner with several neighbors who were his friends. He was extremely active over the years, even after he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and had a couple visits a year to the hospital to be checked out for abnormal bleeding.

I was glad he was free and out of misery. I was especially happy that his children had been there to see him off. I admit I was relieved that he’d died naturally and I’d never had to kill him, which had seemed a possibility many times during the years when he was violently intoxicated, especially during my teen years when the psychological abuse was so damaging. At the same time, I wasn’t sure until he’d lost all his capacity to move and get around that he wouldn’t kill someone himself, either out of anger or because of drunk driving, although he’d been dry since the late 1980s. There was always an electrical charge of danger about my father, christened The Mad Monk by his co-workers at the Cincinnati Water Works. That he died in such a peaceful fashion was a blessing for everyone–and for him most of all.


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I’ve grown to love the day after Thanksgiving almost as much as Thanksgiving itself – and NOT because of “Black Friday.” I hate the whole Black Friday mindset and stay away from the malls and big box stores until the mania simmers down.

On this Friday what I enjoy is a good Christmas walk. Today Mom, the Hooligans, and I went over to the nearby town of Milford, Ohio, for their celebration. We wound in and out of gift and antique shops, J.Hooligan sampled free cookies and candy everywhere we went, and we took a chilly horse-drawn tram ride around a couple blocks of the town.

About 20 years ago, within a range of three or four years either way, I often did house sitting over the Thanksgiving holidays, which was fun. On the day after Thanksgiving, my habit was to indulge in a huge meal of leftovers that Mom had sent home with me, then set out for the Milford Christmas walk. There were more little antique sh0ps then, I think, and I almost always found a trinket or two to put back as a Christmas or St. Nick gift.

At some point we added the Miamitown Christmas walk to our Thanksgiving holiday plans. Miamitown was close to where Mom, my stepdad, and Diamondqueen lived (in a community called Blue Jay, about halfway between Harrison and Miamitown). The Christmas walk ran from Friday evening through daytime and evening Saturday, but we tried to go either Friday or Saturday when it was dark and the streets were lit with milk jug luminaria.

I reveled in it. It was crowded and spirited. You had to fight your way through the various shops – sometimes it was better to do “serious” shopping another time – but there was lots to see, and people were in a holiday mood. There were free fire engine rides, carriage rides, an arts and craft show, a live nativity at one of the churches, and entertainment at various spots up and down the main street.

When Mom and my stepfather moved from the Miamitown area to Loveland in 2001,  it became a lot harder to attend the Miamitown Christmas walk. Mom and I did make the 45-minute drive a couple of times this decade, but it didn’t feel the same. Part of it was simply not being “of” the community any more, but the town was changing as well as shops had begun to disappear.

About a month ago, Mom and I drove through Miamitown on our way to an antique mall in a nearby community. It was sad to see how few of the old shops were still open, favorite haunts we visited often throughout the year ten to twenty years ago. We wondered what the Christmas walk was like now, with fewer businesses to visit, and whether the event still has its old hubbub and good nature.

I hope so. But there was no question of trying to visit this year to see for ourselves. It would have been too sad and empty-feeling compared to the old years, what with all the “for rent” signs in front of empty storefronts, or buildings now housing other kinds of businesses rather than antiques and gifts, and my stepdad long dead, not to mention his friend and neighbor at the old house, who sold some of his handmade wood figures and ornaments at a bazaar in the basement of the little brick church by the cemetery.

Often it’s better to enjoy memories of what was and not pursue the past in the present. My memories of the Miamitown, Ohio, Christmas walk are vivid and treasured. I’d just as soon keep them that way.


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This evening I watched a repeat of an “American Experience” program called Oswald’s Ghost. I didn’t read or hear much about the anniversary of JFK’s assassination today, but it’s not one of the big anniversary years. I wonder sometimes if every baby boomer who is old enough to remember the events thinks of that day on November 22. It’s becoming longer and longer ago for me – quite a span from nine years old to 55. It’s very strange to hear media experts or historians or professors of popular culture explain the assassination, how it was covered by the media, how the American people reacted, etc., in such an objectified manner, as if everyone who lived through it is already dead and gone. I suppose everyone from every generation has felt that way hearing those who weren’t there “explain” their history, whether it was the Civil War or the Great Depression or World War II.

I recounted my recollections of the day here two years ago, so I won’t go into all that again. Watching Oswald’s Ghost, I thought about all the theories and wondered if it’s to be a perennial mystery that will never be solved, like who the real Jack the Ripper was. I’m also amazed at how openly clinical everything is now about the assassination, with videos of the Zapruder film on YouTube and the Internet full of the autopsy photos from a couple of angles. All of that was shielded from the public in 1963. At that time, I don’t know how people would have handled it, even the adults. Now, everyone watches the CSI shows and similar programs, including real life series on cable, and we’re all less naive about what happens to the human form during trauma – and during autopsy.

I also kept seeing ghosts of the recent dead through those video clips,  particularly Ted Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, and Walter Cronkite. As I tally up all of the dead from those old clips, I have to remind myself that the assassination was 46 years ago. Maybe because they were so young at the time, Jackie and JohnJohn and the surviving brothers and even some of the media, it feels as though everyone died way before their time. In some cases, obviously, they did. But others enjoyed long, eventful lives. Time simply pushes you off the stage eventually.

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Tombstone of John Alonzo Applegate

My maternal grandfather, John Alonzo Applegate, died on June 20, 1978. He was a harness horse driver and had just finished second in back-to-back races at the old Latonia racetrack, now Turfway Park. Although the racetrack is thoroughbred-only now, for a long time Latonia Trots had a summer standardbred meet. (Funny they don’t mention that in their online history.)

Grandpa was turning the horse around to come back and “salute the judge” when he fell off the sulky. Medical people said he was dead of a massive heart attack before he hit the racetrack. We know a lot of eye-witness details because my father happened to be at the racetrack that night and saw everything.

My grandparents were divorced at the time, and Grandpa’s common-law wife made the funeral arrangements, choosing to have Grandpa buried in Hamilton, Ohio, where they were living, in the Greenwood Cemetery. I was there the day they laid Grandpa to rest, and visited again over the Memorial Day weekend in 1980. I hadn’t been back to the site since then, although of course I’ve been to Hamilton many times over ensuing years.

My mother had never been back at all. When we were discussing with Diamondqueen and the Hooligans what to do outside on such a gorgeous, warm day, Mom asked if we could go up to visit Grandpa’s grave. “Maybe for the last time,” she told us. “It took me 31 years to get up here again.”

Mom had directions, but it still took us a while to track down Grandpa’s grave. I snapped the photo below of Mom and the two Hooligans – great-grandchildren he never knew, and to them he’s just a vague story and a man in a photo riding a horse-driven sulky. (Diamondqueen herself was only eight years old when Grandpa died.)

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S.Hooligan, Mom, and J.Hooligan at Grave

It’s hard to tell in the photo at left, but the Butler County Fairgrounds is in the background. In fact, over Mom’s right shoulder is one of the barns and the roof of the old grandstand. One thing I remember about Grandpa’s burial is looking over there and seeing the fairgrounds, and thinking how appropriate it was that horse barns and a racetrack were within view of his grave. It also made me sad – I’d spent many years as a child watching Grandpa race at that track. I have memories going back to when I was five years old playing down in the well of an old dry fountain on the fairgrounds while Mom sat above on a lawn chair; and of gathering thrown-down betting tickets along the fence during the long waits for Grandpa’s races. I once shouted at him during the pre-race parade from that grandstand; Mom and Grandma shushed me, but they laughed when we saw Grandpa grin. He’d heard me!

I wish Grandpa wasn’t up there by himself in that cemetery; there are no other family members buried there. Then again, the situation was awkward and relations were strained by that time. And when he was absorbed in his horses, he always seemed kind of isolated from the rest of us anyhow.

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See that photo at the top of my blog? I’m so desperate for something to write about, I’m now going to embark on a series of posts in which I explain everything about each object in the picture.

The first one’s going to be a little hard to see. Look at the far left of the photo. There’s something behind the orange salt shaker. Even if you look really close, you may not be able to tell that it’s a tiny, very primitive kachina doll.

Not a real one, of course. This is one I made out of a stick from our backyard when I was 10 or 11 – which makes it circa 1964 or 1965. I was very interested in Native American crafts at the time, and I continually got books out of the library by W. Ben Hunt. He explained such fascinating things as how to carve a totem pole, how to fire pottery, how to make cornhusk dolls, and how to make a simulated bearclaw necklace from wooden claws.

I made miserable attempts at all kinds of little things. Why the kachina doll survives is beyond me. It’s about 4″ tall, and I carved a few details with a dull pocketknife (probably cutting myself in the process). I then painted it with whatever poster paints I found lying around. The stick already had a hole in the end, which made a perfect place to glue a dyed feather. I think the feather was green. I haven’t seen that feather in decades.

Somewhere along the way I decided to give the kachina a coat of varnish to preserve it, and I’m sorry I did. It’s very glossy now; I miss the original matte finish of the poster paint (the stick absorbed it pretty fast, so it was never very bright).

Sometimes some weird little thing finds a spot on a shelf and you wind up carrying it with you forever. That’s how it is with my terrible little kachina doll.  When I see it, though, I remember exactly what the day was like on the back porch of our Maple Street house in Oakley. And I remember how I felt at that age, and how much I enjoyed making things. I still do.

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This past Sunday I finally made it to Boomerang Bay, the water park at King’s Island, with Diamondqueen and J.Hooligan. I’ve been waiting since last Labor Day weekend to float along Crocodile Run, the “lazy river” attraction in which you plop yourself into a large inner tube and glide along a twisting stream dotted with “obstacles” such as a water spout, a falls of overflow from one of the huge slides that churns the Run into supposed rapids, and similar surprise opportunities to get wet. The most impressive is a high waterfall with two grinning crocodile statues as sentinels. The falls give you a good, hard dowsing if you go under. J.Hooligan is quite disappointed if I don’t happen to drift into that peril.

Mostly, though. Crocodile Run is a chance to relax in the deepest sense. As season pass holders to KI who live only a few minutes away, we’re able to arrive early and take a couple of turns down the river before it gets crowded. I lie back on the inner tube, my face skyward, and I try to drift without any concern about where I’m heading. If the sun’s too bright, I shut my eyes. Under the trees, though, I deliberately stare above me, mindlessly enjoying a quiet kaleidoscope of sky, leaves, sunlight, shadows, crisscrossed branches. None of the obstacles on Crocodile Run are worth worrying about. I’m already wet, and I don’t mind being jostled by the noisy but ultimately tame rapids.

If only life was like Crocodile Run. I’ve always been one to look back and contemplate. Naturally, on this first Sunday taking my hydrotherapy at Boomerang Bay, I thought back to my last time on the river and what’s happened since. The past ten months have been crowded with crocodiles with ferocious teeth, lots of thrashing in furious, boiling water just trying to stay afloat. Two weeks ago we buried my father. And it just stretches back from there, following an exhausting course all the to September.

I believe the weekend after Labor Day was the big windstorm when Hurrican Ike moved through. Then Mom went into the hospital for over a week; at the same time, my younger brother had a heart attack. We’d hardly started to breathe normally after that when we learned that my brother-in-law, That Poor Man, had something wrong with his heart, a valve had been damaged by bacteria. The doctors’ visits and tests, and the worry and uncertainty, dragged on through the Christmas season, with That Poor Man admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Eve because one of those tests had shown too much of the bacteria in his system and he needed IV antibiotics immediately.

TPM finally had his surgery in mid-March. He came through the surgery to repair the valve well, he was recovering nicely. Then in April my father had the stroke, and life in the weeks that followed fell apart for everyone.

And through it all, the sheer stress of my job has just about been killing me.

Thank God for Crocodile Run, a pleasant Sunday morning, the privilege of being able to lie back and float. And not have to worry, even a little bit, about the rapids and the crocodiles, both metaphoric and real.

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There have always been sounds that I associate with my mother — and treasure. My all-time favorite from childhood to now is her banging pans early on Thanksgiving morning as she gets an early start on the big feast. I think what I probably heard was her getting the big roasting pan out to cook the bird. She was always in the kitchen, and certainly on weekdays she was there early. But regular cooking sounds never woke me like the banging of enameled steel, a kind of gong that signaled the start of the holiday. It was a fantastic feeling unlike any other, knowing Mom was down there beginning to work her culinary magic.

There were other sounds of course, the everyday kind that had a more subliminal comforting effect: the radio on school mornings tuned to WKRC and Stan Matlock. Often I couldn’t tell what was actually being said or the specific song on the air. Consciously it wasn’t necessarily even a happy sound: If Mom was working in the kitchen with the radio on, it wouldn’t be all that long until I had to get up for school. Subconsciously, though, I know the radio coupled with distant clinking of dishes and rushes of water from the sink faucet signified many precious things: security, dependability, care and continuity. If Mom hadn’t been down there, the silence would have awakened me with more, negative force.

Now, on my weekend stays at Mom’s house, I hear her sounds and embrace them as precious and irreplaceable — which they are. Sometimes it’s kitchen noises as Mom bakes biscuits or scones for breakfast. Sometimes it’s the tapping of her fingers on her computer keyboard, which I hear after I’ve lazily gone back to bed for a few more winks. She could be engaged in any of several activities: answering e-mails, typing up recipes, working with her quilting software, or writing up a post for her blog. Sometimes it’s the whirring of her Bernina as she sews busily on her current sewing or quilting project.

There’s a radio soundtrack to these activities as well, usually bluegrass from one of the volunteer public radio stations. I drift in and out of consciousness to strains of fiddle and banjo with the music of Mom’s activity layered underneath.

Yes, I feel lazy lying there when she’s up and around. I always was a night person, staying up till 2 a.m. on weekends, just doing needlework and watching TV, while Mom has always been an early riser, so we’re each being true to our natures. And I know she values her time to herself in the mornings, so there’s not really any guilt poking at me through the sounds I hear from my bed. I pull them up around my shoulders like her quilt that I sleep under, swathing myself in the comfort they bring.

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