A Strong Foundation
February 17, 2017
By Michael A. Calvert
Dad’s younger brother, my Uncle Bill Calvert, poured the unpainted, wooden cylinders onto the living room floor from a large laundry bag. Once the core for adding machine tapes in Grandmother’s office at the university, our blocks cascaded into a pile, in front of my sister Kathy and me, sitting crosslegged. Some of them escaped by rolling under Grandmother’s divan and hiding in the shadows. Kathy and I scrambled across the carpet to retrieve the renegades. Uncle Bill squatted and said, ”Remember, children, you need a strong foundation to build a high tower with these blocks.”
We nodded at this familiar advice without looking up as he returned to the dining room table beyond the arch. Grandmother, Dad, and Mom gingerly lifted Grandmother’s delicate china tea cups to their lips between murmured comments. Occasionally Grandmother topped off their coffee from the elegant silver pot and passed the matching cream pitcher and bowl with small sugar cubes and tiny tongs.
Kathy and I grouped sixteen blocks on end to form a square. We built our foundation on the smooth hardwood floor beside the staircase rather than on the gray carpet with its treacherous raised swirls. Next were levels with twelve, eight, and four blocks stacked like a wedding cake. Kathy called for Uncle Bill’s approval. “Excellent!” he responded in an aside from the table conversation.
Our tower rose on the tiered foundation with a cylindrical tower in place of the bride and groom. Soon we had to stand and stretch to add blocks. Then we reached through the spindles on the staircase to continue our tower’s upward progress. We called to the adults to witness our feat. I reached over the banister to gently put another in place not far from the ceiling. Grandmother led the applause as I slowly withdrew my hand, but the column wobbled slightly. I frowned deeply and sternly ordered the blocks, ”Stay steady. Steady.” Gravity was stronger than my willful determination. The blocks crashed to the floor. Undeterred, I scurried to collect the blocks for another attempt to reach the ceiling. We were just a few blocks away last time. So close. The adults gave us condolences, urged us to try again, and returned to their conversation. Kathy began assembling the foundation. Maybe this time…
Uncle Bill, an undergraduate at Ohio State lived with Grandmother across High Street from the campus. Dad’s other brother, Uncle Edward, lived in New Mexico. My family was together with Grandmother and Uncle Bill on most Sundays and sometimes during the week. Grandmother was intensely interested in Dad’s jobs, his prospects for promotion, and opportunities for attaining a respectable position in the community. She was free and firm with her advice. Uncle Bill always affirmed her. Dad discussed alternatives at length, but always accepted Grandmother’s guidance in the end. Mom saved her opinions about job changes until later when she’d say curtly, “We’re doing just fine.”
Grandmother and Bill doted on Kathy and me as the only grandchildren in Columbus, but they also appointed themselves as guides in preparing us for roles in society. They were determined to give us a strong foundation for proper behavior. Every time we were together, Grandmother said more than once, “Children, mind your posture.” Sometimes she marched us around the dining room table in with a book balanced on our heads. Manners were closely monitored and infractions were sternly noted. Deportment was fundamental to success in life.
Uncle Bill showed me to how to make a triangular Windsor knot with one of his ties. “Excellent knot, Michael, but it’s a little long,” he laughed. I looked down and the tie reached almost to my knees.
“So handsome and good looking,” Grandmother said as she combed my hair despite my protest. Then she brushed Kathy’s hair, and said, “You have beautiful hair, Kathy, but one hundred strokes every day is required to make it shine.”
When Kathy and I spent the night at Grandmother’s in our early grade school years, Uncle Bill took me to the Ohio Historical Museum for short visits and prompted me with questions about dusty dioramas featuring villages of Shoshone Indians and encampments of Union soldiers in the Civil War. He took me to the State Theater to see the documentary Kon-tiki, Thor Hyerdal’s re-enactment of Pacific islanders’ migration to South America on balsa log rafts.
Another learning opportunity arose from western movies when the spokes on wagon wheels appeared to be spinning backwards as the stage coaches were moving forward; Uncle Bill explained the strobe effect with sketches of movie frames showing how the wheels revolved at a different speed than the intermittent images captured by the camera. My curiosity was rewarded by a chocolate milkshake. I also tasted the addictive sweet smugness of special knowledge about how the world works.
Meanwhile Grandmother took Kathy to downtown department stores. She showed her the brands associated with fine china and taught her to discern quality stemware by the tone produced by a flick of the finger. Such knowledge would be the basis for Kathy’s future responsibilities in maintaining a fine home. Kathy was usually rewarded with new clothes. Grandmother reminded her that she never had a daughter to dress.
“Grand, just grand, children,” Grandmother affirmed as we were compelled to listen in hushed silence to records of Gounod’s “Ave Maria” and Verdi’s “March from Aida.” Henry Higgins attempts to teach proper English to Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” were also played on the Victrola as a lesson that Kathy and I only dimly understood. Later we realized that the point: proper speech is the basis for making favorable impressions on people we would meet in life.
One week, Uncle Bill surprised me by taking me to Mass at St. Patrick’s on Saturday morning as well as Sundays. Religion was the bedrock of his life. Afterwards we made our way to the sacristy where I met his friend Father Costello folding his vestments and locking the wine cabinet. The jolly priest feigned great interest in finally meeting me as if I had been visiting royalty. He led us on a tour of the grand gothic church. We ascended the steps to the elevated pulpit, peeked inside the confessional booth, and walked up the spiral stairs to the choir loft overlooking the pews and the altar. The morning sun slanted through the stained glass windows illuminating the massive pillars that rose from the stone floor and converged in pointed arches above us. As we parted, Father Costello confirmed that Uncle Bill would serve at Mass on Wednesday of the following week. I learned that he often served in the role of an altar boy at St. Pat’s.
Uncle Bill majored in Speech, formerly called rhetoric. Rather than explain rhetoric to us, he intoned Julius Caesar’s plea, “Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears…” and President Roosevelt’s radio address, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Grandmother, an ardent admirer of FDR, applauded.
“A strong speaking is based on the diaphragm,” said Uncle Bill in his deepest register. With our hands on our lower stomachs, Kathy and I attempted to flex our diaphragms, project our voices, and articulate our words according to Uncle Bill’s instruction. He had us say “articulation” repeatedly until we made every syllable distinct. He related the story of Demosthenes, the Greek orator, who overcame a speech impediment by shouting above roaring surf at the seashore with pebbles in his mouth. Even in the fourth grade, I couldn’t swallow that story.
Making puns was a dubious lesson from both Uncle Bill and Dad. At a Christmas dinner, Uncle Bill responded to Dad’s compliment about his new checked sport coat by saying, “I wish it had a check in the pocket.”
“Better check,” Dad shot back. Once afflicted, this disease becomes a chronic condition and persists for a lifetime.
My visits to Grandmother’s apartment became less frequent when I played on grade-school sports teams, carried newspapers, and spent more time with my friends. Uncle Bill graduated and began teaching high school speech and drama in Marion, Ohio where he met his future wife, my Aunt Marcella. She was a Presbyterian, but promised to raise their children as Catholic and respect her husband’s religion. Bill was more than comfortable with her commitment, but Grandmother was skeptical of mixed marriages. Uncle Bill and Aunt Marcella came to our house, and we enjoyed our cousins, Mary Margaret and Bill. Uncle Bill came to some of my football games and attended our eighth grade debate, but I saw him less often.
When Grandmother retired from the university, Uncle Bill, Uncle Edward, and Dad promised to supplement her pension monthly so she could remain in her apartment with the antiques and art work she treasured from better days.
The summer before I turned 13, Dad revealed to me that he was “nervous from the service,” a term less alarming than “battle fatigue” or “shell shock” for the affliction now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. I knew he had missed work, spent whole days in the darkened bedroom, wore pajamas and a robe all day, and eventually quit his office job. He assured me that the Veterans Administration doctors were helping him and he would get over his illness.
And he did improve for a time. Within weeks, he was bustling about the house, talking incessantly to Mom about potential sales jobs, and overflowing with optimism. He emerged from the bedroom shaven and groomed for job interviews every morning.
Early one September morning, Dad’s car was not in the driveway. Maybe it broke down or Dad ran out of gas, I told myself, but I suspected Dad was not in the house. “He just didn’t come home,” Mom said and turned away. He didn’t come home the next night either. He returned the next evening with Mom at the usual time. Kathy and I were subdued around the supper table. Even Steve and Margy, our little brother and sister, were less boisterous than usual. No explanations were offered and no questions asked. Our normal routine returned… until the pattern repeated, which it did on several occasions.
Then Mom told me he was drinking with his high-school friend Jim Connor and stayed with him those nights. He had spent his entire monthly VA Disability check. Mom said bill collectors were calling, and she was putting them off. I muttered about how he could do this to her. She said he had no money left for drinking. Yet, in the morning, the driveway was empty. Mom asked Grandmother to help get Dad into the VA Hospital and discovered that Grandmother had given him money. Grandmother simpered to Mom and said she couldn’t refuse him when he said he needed a haircut and gas to go to job interviews. She was just barely able to pay her rent. She promised Mom she would stop giving Dad money.
In early December, Dad did not emerge from the bedroom and stayed there most of the time. He did not even join us for supper. We only saw him on his furtive trips to the bathroom and kitchen. His ghostly presence settled on the house like a cold, heavy fog. I was alternately sad and angry. Mom and I worked together to pay the mortgage, gas and electric bills, and a little to the neighborhood grocery where Dad had passed a bad check. Christmas would be bleak.
Grandmother called before Mom arrived home from work and told me she was unpacking the red ribbons, silver reindeer, and other decorations for the Christmas dinner on the Sunday before Christmas. “Silent Night” played in the background. When I relayed this to Mom, she said, “We need to get your Dad there. Grandmother’s already upset that Uncle Bill and Aunt Marcella won’t be coming this year.”
“What? Uncle Bill has been at Grandmother’s Christmas dinner every year I can remember,” I said with my mouth open and my face scrunched.
“You may as well know. Uncle Bill and Grandmother are not speaking. When he found out Grandmother was giving money to your Dad when he was drinking, Uncle Bill refused to continue his monthly support checks to her. He saw it as contributing to your dad’s mental illness. She’s not spoken to him since. Uncle Edward’s tried to make peace, but Grandmother blames Aunt Marcella and Bill said he wouldn’t contribute indirectly to Dad’s drinking. It will be a sad Christmas for Grandmother.”
The week before the dinner, Mom called Uncle Bill and explained that Dad would be going into the VA Hospital in January and would not be pestering Grandmother for money again. She also spoke with Marcella, and they agreed to come to Grandmother’s for dinner.
On Sunday, we arrived early so Mom could help Grandmother with the gravy and mashed potatoes. Kathy set the table under Grandmother’s supervision. I kept an eye on little Steve and Margy in the living room where Grandmother displayed her many breakable treasures, alluring to young children.
When Grandmother heard Uncle Bill’s deep-voiced Merry Christmas greetings, she rushed into the living room in her apron and hugged him for a long time. Marcella got a shorter hug. After all the greetings, little Steve and Margy, sat primly on a love seat with their hands in their laps.
“You children need blocks,” said Uncle Bill. He opened a door to a storage space under the stairs, and announced, “Yes! They’re still here.” He poured them out near the staircase, “Michael and Kathy can show you how to build a tower. You’ll need a strong foundation,” he said as he looked at me. I nodded solemnly.