I recently realized, the first time I was ever complimented as a “writer” from someone I respected as a writer, was in fact, my mother in-law. She was reading a character study I pulled together for an assignment in a script writing class at Oregon State. Florence did not like to be called by her real name so somewhere, somehow, she ended up with the nickname of Fluffy. So “Fluffy” read through my assignment… with that “look” on her face, as I sat somewhat nervously nearby in her living room. I figure she was about halfway through when she looked up and said… “I didn’t know you could write!”. In those days there was a lot she didn’t know about me and I certainly did not know as much about her as I thought I did; I lacked the life experiences that would eventually, inform me just how tough and loving this woman really was.
When I first met my wife we were just kids struggling to adjust to life as teens; I just turned 17 and Suzanne was about to turn 16. We were both from broken families trying to make sense of the life lessons forced upon us from an adult world we did not remotely understand; but we were so desperately trying to. My mom Thelma, was a strong lady in her own right, who made tough decisions and brought her children to Lebanon Oregon and a new life; but my mom’s toughness was quiet, soft, and steady. Fluffy brought her family to Lebanon too –but there was nothing quiet about her, or her little family, and there was no doubt she was sincere; and she would have her way. There were many near disastrous dating events in our young lives that would have ended most fledgling relationships but as it turned out, Fluffy’s mission was not about ending our relationship inasmuch as it was about finding out how tough I was, and teaching her oldest daughter to be less sweet, and more demanding… Fluffy would often say “If you’re gonna dance you gotta pay the band”. This phrase was usually uttered in the context of “sex and pregnancy”. After raising two daughters, I most certainly get that now.
One such date, that could have ended with my body in a gunnysack bobbing down the Santiam River was the date we infamously call, Middle Ridge. Suzanne and I decided, as many teenage couples still do, that we were smarter than our parents. We set up a date that we presented to our parents as “Attending the high school basketball game followed by a quick stop at the A&W” for one particular evening. What we actually did was take my Mustang up to Middle Ridge and park, and we did what many, many, many, teen couples did there. We made out while listening to the game on the radio so we would know when to start back home; and know what the score was. There was a lot of talking and soul searching too but, well, I’ll spare the details. We were sure it was a solid plan and when the game ended I started the car and put it in gear to take Suzanne home. Little did I know, the particular spot I chose to park, combined with the particular type of car I was driving, and the very particular fact I burned off tread almost every day on the speedbumps at the high school parking lot; these things conspired to end my life that night. My rear tires just spun and the rear end of the car slid sideways into a small, but very muddy slick, ditch. We were stuck!
After spending a good deal of time trying to wedge sticks and rocks under the tire we decided we had to find a phone; It was dark! We started down a dark gravel road in search of a driveway. As we stumbled down the road there were several panicked glances back and forth between Suzanne and I but we kept the fear at bay by making very desperate, very marginal, alternate plans. She also kept asking me “…why don’t you have a flashlight?” Eventually we came to a mailbox at the end of a loosely graveled driveway; we looked down it to see the dark shadow of a home against a murky backdrop of storm clouds. As we slowly approached the home we heard a sound… the unmistakable sound of a very large dog… a very imposing dog with a menacing deep growl; it was approaching from within the darkness. We froze and waited for what seemed like hours. Finally, the dog came right up to us and began barking and growling… but he did not attack. Considering the predicament I was in there was a brief moment that I thought… “just offer the big dog your throat” After a moment or two of the dog not attacking, we decided it was OK to knock on the door. A moment later a light popped on and a nice old gentleman cautiously opened the door; seeing how young and frightened we were he kindly invited us in, to use the phone.
There were to be two phone calls… the first was my call to… Jeff… S**T; NOT! the first friend I would normally call but he was the only one who would come to Middle Ridge to pull me out of a ditch; and he had a pickup. Jeff also had a big mouth and I knew that within minutes of arriving at school the next day, he will have told the story so loudly, so many times, and with so much glee, that the only thing capable of spreading the word faster would be Principal Page including it in the morning announcements on the high school public address system.
After I asked him not to say anything to anyone one all I heard was laughter on the other end of the line.
The second call was Suzanne’s call to home; Bud answered the phone. This was somewhat fortunate because Bud didn’t ask lots of questions. He had already raised a pack of kids in his first marriage and he was very familiar with these late night calls. “Do you need me to come get you?”… I clearly heard him ask, but Suzanne quickly came back with “We’re alright, we just got stuck and we’ve got help coming”… “Oh – Ok” said Bud… “I’ll tell your mother”.
Let me make something very clear. Bud was an imposing figure to a young man like me but by this time I was well aware that he was not the parent I should be most worried about. I realized I didn’t need to worry about Jeff and his big mouth; the words “I’ll tell your mother” clearly indicated that I would probably be dead before the next school day.
When Jeff finally showed up with his truck, we were already 2 hours late. He got out and started laughing so hard I thought he was going to fall into the very ditch my car was in. It only took about 10 minutes; the sad fact was that my car needed only a 6 inch nudge to break free of the little ditch I was in. But there was a much bigger ditch that I had dug, waiting in a dark kitchen now, just minutes away… it was nearly 2am and finally, I am taking Suzanne home.
When we pulled into the driveway, the light at the door was still on, but the rest of the house was dark; visions of an ambush came to me. As we opened the door we bumped a box of mason jars that were placed within the door swing; strategically. The rattle they made was distinct and loud. Still we couldn’t see anything as the jars continue their death toll chiming. Remember the big dog that approached us in the dark, with a big growl… and it was dark… and the growling approached… and it was dark. That was nothing compared to this. “What in the hell has been going on?”… Fluffy sneered. Suzanne said “we got stuck”… and Fluffy replied in a tone that nearly made me pee my pants… “Stuck, where the hell could you be stuck at a basketball game?”. Suzanne abruptly turned to me and said “You better go now”. She pushed me back out the door as I stuttered something like “but don’t you want me to?”… “No!” she snapped, and the door slammed shut; I turned around and hauled ass to my car. All the way home that night I thought about what might happen. Will Suzanne be grounded until she graduates?; and will I be threatened with bodily harm if I ever show my face within a half mile radius of Suzanne?; how will I protect Suzanne’s honor at school?. Will I be responsible for wrecking Suzanne’s super clean, super sweet reputation?… and for the love of God, how will we handle all that “pointing and laughing”. What was that saying again about dancing and bands?
As it turned out, Suzanne was grounded for about a month. I was not forbidden to see her but I did have to sit through a lecture about being responsible… and there was that phrase about dancing and the band tossed into it here and there. I was also told to tell my own mother what had happened. All in all it could have been a lot worse. Both mom’s called me a “dumb ass”… but used many, many more words to get that point across. As for school the next day I was mostly right about Jeff… and for a little while it was humiliating, and through it all, I felt particularly bad for Suzanne. But one thing about teenagers is that memory is short term. The hormone laden crowd at LUHS was ready for the next big scandal just a few short days later. Suzanne and Darrel on Middle Ridge became old news fast. Before too long it was relegated to a family legend that we still tell, very loudly and with much laughter from time to time.
Over the years I’ve learned that Fluffy was not really very scary at all. She was always loud and opinionated but if you held your ground with a good solid argument, she would come to respect you. For many years she was the epitome of the “Mother In-Law” stereotype. But that was in appearance only because when times got hard, I often would turn to see her in my corner barking out advice; whether I wanted it or not. But make no mistake, her feelings ran deeply and her advice was usually good. This became apparent to me just a few years ago when she came bursting through my front door in her own typical fashion. I was by myself at the house that day, so we sat in my kitchen and chatted. I offered her some coffee and turned to get the pot. As I turned back to her she was looking at me in a way I had never seen before. Her eyes started to tear up and she said “I have to talk to you about your mom”… Her voice was shaking as she reached out to me. “You need to go see your mom…” she said as tears now starting to flow… “I’m afraid she’s giving up”… I hugged her and we both cried for a moment.
Fluffy and my mom had become very good friends; she collected friends much the same way as she collected things at garage sales. She loved the colorful, the rugged, the reliable and the odd balls. My mom was all of these, even long into her illness with Parkinson’s. Fluffy would ride her little motorcycle out to my mom’s often to check on her and chat. But mom was finally into the final stages of Parkinson’s and was transitioning from her relentless drive for activity, to wheelchairs and beds. This broke my mother’s heart; which in turn broke Fluffy’s heart… and so we stood there and we cried in each other’s arms, in my kitchen. This is significant because in all of the nearly 40 years I had known Fluffy; all the weddings, family tragedies, and funerals… I had never once saw Fluffy break down and cry. Until now, I never told anyone about this except Suzanne… I suspect, if Fluffy were alive today she would point out that there were no other witnesses.
On Saint Patrick’s Day, 2015 this tough lady of Irish, Italian descent suddenly became very ill and tried to drive herself to the hospital. We don’t know if she knew she was having a heart attack. All we know is that she never made it. Her car smashed through a power pole and came to rest against a tree in someone’s front yard. The owner of the home came out and held her hand as she took her final breaths. We are glad that she was not alone and so thankful that no one else was hurt in the accident. The suddenness of all of this has been very hard.
As of this writing I am hauling limbs she helped to prune, from my orchard down to the burn pile; she loved the burn pile. Fluffy was going strong right up to the end, which is most likely the way she wanted it; she wouldn’t have liked to linger. She leaves the legacy of a strong family, and friends who will miss her “straight forward” approach to life. I for one, will miss the way she barged through my front door for a “Boyd Breakfast” (she always requested my omelettes) and the way my grandchildren would yell out “GG”. I will miss how she engaged my son Chris and my daughter Tracey in conversation; she was always interested and always encouraging. I will miss the messages for Suzanne on the answering machine “this is your mother… call me… why aren’t you home?”. I will miss her enthusiasm over the Halloween party and how much she loved to hear my band, and my daughter Jessica sing. And I will miss the matriarch and Master Gardener of our orchard and garden co-op; no one worked harder than Fluffy. If I devoted pages to it, I can only make a small scratch in the significant surface of things I will miss about her.
There is a manuscript about the family that she worked on for years; I was only able to read glimpses of it when she would forget and leave it sitting out. What little I have read seems very good. My understanding is she tried to submit it but, it was never published. So it rests somewhere in a secure place within her home. Having now re-discovered the rewards of writing myself, I now understand the legacy writing one’s thoughts can leave behind. I now understand the value it will have for my family. I would love to read it someday… I am sure some of the passages will have me looking up and shaking my head in disbelief but I would like to read it anyway.
As I hauled the last load of limbs to the burn pile today that phrase came back to me; “if you’re gonna dance, you gotta pay the band”. When I first heard it I thought it was merely about about sex and pregnancy; and at the time it was. But now that I look back on her life I realized the phrase applies to much more. That is why her straightforward approach worked so well for her. Too often, apologies are a thin veal used to minimize the consequences of one’s actions. In Fluffy’s book, if you’re not willing to “pay the band”, she didn’t have much use for you. Apologies without atonement are empty payments that rang hollow in her book. And her expectations were not limited to those on earth. Fluffy believed in God and went to church nearly every Sunday; but she was never one to shirk from criticizing the length or quality of mass; she never hesitated to indicate when she was “mad” at God. If something didn’t make sense to her she fully expected an explanation… That being said I think heaven is a very interesting place now.
If Fluffy’s life can be likened to a dance it would be tempting to describe it as the proverbial “bull in a china shop”, complete with all the random crashing and chaos the phrase implies. But, that would be way too simple. Fluffy’s dance was purposeful, direct and efficient. The beauty of her steps were revealed in the wake of her sudden departure. The hours of volunteer work, her devotion to church, the great number of friends she impacted, the “no nonsense” joy and comfort she inspired with family, and the way she would just go about taking care of anyone she thought needed it… At the end of her dance, the band slowly put down their instruments with that final note singing softly into the infinite halls of the heavens… Everyone looked up with recollections as Fluffy flipped a coin into the band’s can; the ring it made as it struck the inside was solid, full and authentic. There is no question in our minds as she stepped away, leaving us laughing and weeping on the dance floor.
© 2015,2016 Darrel Boyd