Not What We Got, But What We Shared.

On Saturday June 7, 2003, my four brothers and I were throwing a surprise 50th anniversary party for our parents.  For us, this was a great honor. We rented out the main banquet room at the Novi Hilton hotel and invited just enough people to fill it. At this milestone event we also presented them with gifts.  One of these gifts would become important to me for reasons I didn’t yet understand.     

Clapping ensued upon their arrival to the party.  The expressions of surprise and bewilderment on our parents faces were unforgettable as they entered the fully decorated room filled with family, friends, balloons, and streamers.  Dad had his suspicions about the whole “invitation to dinner” rouse we used to get them there. He later told me he “figured you boys had something planned”, but he “didn’t know it would be that big.”  He also told me he “didn’t let on to your Mother” because he “didn’t want to ruin the surprise for her.” It was clear though, they were both equally astounded in different ways.  

Mom didn’t know why the room was so lively at first, but she figured it out when she began to see all of her friends and family.  As the clapping from their entrance began to die down, slowly there came a tinkling of glasses, just a small amount at first and then the whole room sounded like silver and glass wind chimes.  Dad leaned over to Mom and said “We should kiss like when we were first married.” Mom replied, “Not in front of the kids!”, but he held Mom in his arms and they had a polite, yet mildly passionate kiss anyway.

50 years ago, in 1953, their wedding was much smaller than the gathering we were hosting on this day.  In 1953 it was mostly immediate family members, parents, and grandparents. My brothers and I figure probably 35 or so people.  Our understanding is weddings were smaller then. The gifts were also different than today for newly married couples.

Mom and Dad received many of the standard wedding gifts. A toaster, some towels, dishes, and other domestic items.  But my brothers and I are familiar with the gifts that were safeguarded throughout our entire lives. We tried to find out what significance, if any, our parents placed on the trinkets and objects they owned.  It turns out we couldn’t think of any item they ever put any extensive amount of value on.  

The items we are aware of, that stayed within the family, from their wedding are a set of 24 karat gold rimmed lead crystal drinking goblets and wine glasses, two lead crystal bowls, and a lead crystal serving platter.  Nothing of extreme interest to us but valuable to them. Several of these items were all handed down to me and now sit at my home collecting dust. Some on display and some not.

Our parents weren’t the type of people who would go out and purchase expensive items for themselves.  If it didn’t serve a purpose they didn’t buy it. Our dad was born in 1926 just before the Great Depression and Mom was born near the tail end six years later.  Their lives were reflective of the era they grew up in. We weren’t a wealthy family and there were many times my parents had to rely on credit cards to get us through, which would always equal Dad working harder to pay them off.

Dad worked outside the home and Mom worked in it, as one would anticipate from people of their generation.  Our dad worked for the Detroit Public School system as a Boiler Engineer. He went to work everyday to heat the school in the winter and cool it in the summer.  Based on when he worked for the DPS, I estimate his salary to have been between $35,000 and $40,000 per year.  

In my family there were seven mouths to feed, so Dad worked more than his share of overtime.  Obviously we didn’t grow up wealthy; however, we never needed anything we didn’t have or wanted something we thought we needed.  Buying the unessential things we “admired” or “lusted after” wasn’t something the Davis household was able to do. So we didn’t own any true valuables like gold, a microwave, or a color TV (until I turned 15 or 16 years old).

Most of my memories are from our house in Redford Township where I did the majority of my growing up.  Mom and Dad kept all of their precious items in a china cabinet and a buffet table. The thing is, none of the items were frivolous or had meaning other than to serve the family.  They were just the wedding gifts I already mentioned or dishes and silverware they had inherited over the years. Treasures? Yes. But nothing acquired because of desire.

The house in Redford was small and only had three bedrooms and a basement.  No second floor. The living and dining rooms were where the trinkets were kept and we, the children, were not allowed in those rooms without one of our parents being there.  Our dad wasn’t so concerned with their valuables but he appreciated the importance of them and shared that with our mom. Mom, on the other hand, loved her niceties and she would show them off to visitors.  My recollection throughout childhood is she seemed to want some other symbols of status.  You know, the types of things every woman deserves to have just for being alive.

When I was young I worked and bought two gold necklaces.  Mom would ask to borrow them. I always complied. The fact is, I knew she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, indulge in such luxuries.  Mainly because they had so many children. She would wear the necklaces and show them off in public. Both she and Dad enjoyed nice things but neither had any interest in mollycoddling themselves.  It always had to be thrust upon them in one way or another.

At their 50th anniversary party my brothers and I provided a choice of dinner for the guests and an open bar.  We treated this event just like it was a wedding reception. One exception was we had a presentation in which my brothers and I staged for everyone the gifts we bought for Mom and Dad.  My middle brother chose to MC the event. He prefaced the gifts with a request for Dad to speak. He handed Dad a microphone. Dad stood up in front of everyone and said:

I just wanted to say to each and every one of you…thank you very much for being here for us.  There are many here that we have not seen in 20 or 30 years. So, it’s been quite an occasion for us.  A very happy occasion. For our sons to do this for us is something we will never forget and we were very pleased that they were able to do it and make it such a nice time for us.  Thank you all for being here. God bless you all.

His voice had cracked a little but I could tell he was already very happy with what had transpired today.  Dad handed the microphone back to Eric, who started the presentation.

The gifts we chose were as multifarious as we brothers are.  All were for different reasons and purposes. My middle brother brought a gift of meaning.  He spoke about how Mom and Dad’s “two small worlds” came together and he presented them with two small handheld globes propped up from small individual bases that contained clocks.  Each was made from lapis gemstones. They were polished, black in color, and contained very shiny multicolored rocks formed to shape the different nations within the ultimate shape of each continent.  He continued on, stating, “as you can see 50 years later the world’s changed…the lives encompassed around Mom and Dad have gotten a whole lot bigger.” He then presented them with a similar, yet very large, globe made from black onyx gemstone and held in a nice solid brass tripod base with a compass centered at the bottom.

My third oldest brother is the shy brother.  Not a public speaker by any means.  When he got up to speak he wasn’t as clear, or loud, as our middle brother had been.  The shy brother presented a practical, yet very necessary, gift. He explained that his gift was a washing machine since theirs had just broken down two days before the party.  It had been in its last days as of a few weeks before, which is where he came up with the idea. He stood up and presented it to them via a nice card and let them know “It’s not [physically] here.”  He then, very quietly, thanked everyone for coming. The only thing that came through the speakers clearly was when he said “I love you Mom and Dad.” in his choked up voice, so I guess that was enough.

My eldest brother and I went last.  The gifts we gave to our parents were more of the frivolous type.  Depictive of the items they would never buy for themselves. Something that neither needed, but possibly wanted, and just wouldn’t indulge in.  My oldest brother took the microphone first and began his speech:

Both my brother, [DJ] and I got together to give my mom and dad separate gifts.  Individual gifts. After 50 years they have quite a few things. It’s hard to give them things.  For myself, I was given the chore of giving Dad something, [my youngest brother] was going to give Mom something.  Dad likes to watch movies. [He] likes to watch Westerns [and] older movies. They do have a couple of TV’s right now, but they’re not exactly what you would call visual quality.  So, with that in mind I got you a 27” Sony, flat screen TV.

In 2003 a 27” flat screen TV was fairly large and it was a very nice gift.  The clapping drowned out part of his speech, but it turns out the TV was still at his house “being broken in.”  He had also purchased a bunch of movies on DVD for Dad to watch as well. Those would be delivered later in the week.  

My oldest brother handed me the microphone and I repeated part of what he stated about the split between us for our parents.  I prefaced my gift to Mom with a small gift for both of them. I bought them a bottle of ‘93 Dom Perignon champagne.  It was the second bottle I had purchased for them in the last few years, yet oddly enough I was never over at their house when they opened either of them so I have, to this day, never tasted Dom.  It is one of those things I wouldn’t buy for myself to indulge in without a very good reason.  

I continued with my presentation: “Now my gift for Mom was a lot easier than figuring out what to get for Dad because Mom actually said, for my anniversary this year…buy me jewelry.”  I presented her with a 1⁄4 carat Very Slight Inclusion (VS1) radiant cut diamond pendant gently held in place by four prongs and a 14 carat, diamond cut, solid gold chain to wear it on. I also gave her a set of 1⁄4 carat Slight Inclusion (SI1) standard round cut diamond earrings encased and held in place by six prongs on 14 carat gold studs.  

Outside of her wedding and engagement ring set, our mom didn’t own any other real jewelry.  I felt this gift was perfect for her.  I knew she was only kidding when she said “buy me jewelry”, but how could I not given the history of her borrowing mine.  I knew she would appreciate it, but I didn’t fathom how much.  

As Mom unwrapped the boxes I gave her she had a look that said, to me, ‘Oh this can’t be.’  But her smile was, for me, totally worth it. She would later thank me, continually, for the earrings.  Although Mom always borrowed the gold necklace I bought for myself I didn’t see her wearing the gold chain and pendant as much as I thought she would, or ever for that matter.  But she wore the diamond earrings emphatically. I joked with my second oldest brother that maybe it was because my visits were always announced that I always saw her wearing the earrings.  Either way, I knew she loved them because she always told me so at every gathering and that made me very happy.   

Three years later on August 22, 2006 Dad called me to their house in South Lyon.  He needed my help to get Mom into the car so he could take her to the hospital. He couldn’t lift her and she wasn’t able to walk on her own anymore.  It was a 20 minute drive to their house, which was one of the things I liked about where I worked juxtaposed to where they lived. Quick and easy access to them.  

Mom hadn’t eaten in several days from what I recall and her body looked incredibly frail.  Her skin hung from her in the way old people’s skin does where you could see she had muscle and fat that used to hold it in place.  Her stomach was bloated, which didn’t appear right. How could her stomach appear full when the rest of her body contained hardly any mass at all?   

Mom and Dad took off to the hospital and I headed back to work.  I called all of my brothers to let each of them know what the situation was.  A few hours later, one of them called me back. Mom had passed away. Apparently she was suffering from heart failure. 

I would love to be able to say that the last words I had with my mom were enlightening, encouraging, or even life altering. Unfortunately, I don’t have that memory.  The less than fortunate memory I do have, is that of my mother crying because she didn’t want to go. She pleaded with me not to put her in the car but Dad and I thought it was best to take her.  She needed to go where someone could help her. We were afraid she would die if she didn’t go but never thought she would if she did.

Some time after Mom passed away Dad said he needed me to come out to his house on a day I didn’t normally visit him.  Because I displayed an interest in the ‘shiny’ things Mom liked Dad wanted me to have all of her jewelry. It was primarily costume jewelry but he thought maybe I could save it for the daughter I didn’t have yet.  I don’t know why, but I didn’t really want him to know that I wanted the earrings back. I thought about the earrings quite a bit after Mom’s passing. They meant so much to her. I know they were a gift from me, but I wanted them back now.  Of all the things they kept on display, wedding gifts, family heirlooms…I wanted something of hers that I could actually keep with me. Something of hers I could keep on me. Something of hers that I knew meant something to her

The earrings didn’t only have a physical value.  They were something that my Mother always wanted.  I was able to give them to her which made me feel connected on a different level.  I was only 37 years old when she passed away. I didn’t get to spend that much time with her.  Not as much as I should have been able to. Obviously my mother wasn’t physically with me, but with the earrings I felt as if she were.  I recall her boasting about them and telling me how much she loved them. With the earrings I could take her with me.

I used to wear the earrings everywhere.  Over the years I have calmed to taking her only to special memorable moments.  When I got married in 2009 I wasn’t able to have the Mother/Son dance. But she was there with me.  She was there when Dad performed the wedding ceremony for us earlier that day. She was there on every vacation we took. She was there for every holiday.  She was there at every birthday. She was there when we fostered our baby girl. And she will continue to be there with me until the day of my daughter’s wedding when I plan to pass her this part of my mother and I along to her.

You Never Stop Learning How To Write

If you peruse my blog, you will know that I just finished attending undergraduate school. During my final semester I took a class on writing. It was a very beneficial class and it helped me out quite a bit.

Before I attended JASS 436, Memoir and Travel Writing, I wasn’t sure what benefits it would have for me.  I was a tri-major student with a focus on Business Management.  Where would a course like that fit in? What memories do I have that I could write about?  Do I even want to write? Who would even want to hear my stories? I don’t do a whole lot of traveling.  I hardly ever write anything down. And I read even less.

Those questions and issues were all posed by me before the class opened my mind giving me ideas on how to improve myself as a writer, a thinker, and (dare I say) as a person.  This class proved to be different than other composition classes I previously attended. The class also helped my writing by teaching me how to overcome obstacles, identify areas I (still) need to work on, and it has given me the tools to do all of this with.

I am currently attempting to improve my writing technique.  I recognized several areas requiring my immediate attention though.  One being, to get to the point. I need to shorten my sentences and remove unnecessary words.  Overall, my thought process wasn’t that good. I tried to write too much, without creating some version of a timeline and before figuring out what parts of my stories to tell and when.  This tended to make my first drafts wordy. From the first day of class until now, based on knowledge obtained from activities and discussions in class, as well as instructions given in the book The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, I have been attempting to adjust my thinking regarding what I write about.  I found a need to concentrate on how it develops in my head and how I will process that on paper.

My hope is that the stories within my blog will be interesting, concise, and provide some level of entertainment or knowledge to those who read them. – The additional information below this paragraph is about the class. Feel free to continue reading if you would like to know more about writing and what I went through in the class.

A typical paper, for me, was purely academic.  Here’s what I’m going to tell you, here’s me telling you, and here’s what I told you.  I have been taught this method of essay writing in every other class I’ve ever taken. I still fight with that concept of thinking because it comes naturally.  Much of what I’ve written for this class has started out in this same fashion. Often I have written from the perspective that what’s in my head is relayed in my writing.  Unfortunately, I’ve noticed in my reviews for papers I’ve written, I interjected outside information from my mind to fill blank spots. These experiences were never written into my work.  Obviously I haven’t mastered this yet, but at least I recognize this fault and was taught something that will help me in the future.   

The tool that will help is one of the most amazing activities for writing I have ever been taught.  This activity helps me adjust how I tackle a project; although, it comes after the initial idea is on the page.  The activity is called side-shadowing and has been most useful to me. It is this method of defining, questioning, and suggesting that works really well to help further define, expand, or contract my writing.  I had never heard of this method of revision before and when I first read through the process I wasn’t on board. It appeared quite extensive and time consuming; however, after using this exercise on my first article I found it to be extremely useful.  Someday I hope to write a book, or a slew of articles or blogs, about my life experiences and side-shadowing will help. I have heard people say “you are your best critic”, so I hope there’s truth in that statement.

I enjoyed the writing exercise we performed in class on being descriptive.  Unfortunately, this exercise made me realize I need to use more of my imagination.  Not to make things up, but to describe situations, surroundings, people, places, and everything I write about much clearer than I do.  This, in and of itself, will take a lot of practice for me. In the exercise I wrote about my garage. A place I go into everyday. I gutted the building and rebuilt it inch by inch.  I know how many screws are in each shelving unit, exactly how the units are secured to the walls, where each stud is located behind the OSB and how much insulation is contained within each wall and between each stud.  The problem was, I couldn’t provide a better description than it was dark and smelled like gasoline and oil. I need to take a few lessons from Haruki Murakami and his methods of describing scenes. He described an event in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running where on a run in Greece he encountered a mass of dead animals on the road while he ran.  His descriptions of the road, the animals, and the countryside were very well done, not too graphic, and they helped to bring me into his story.

 I also believe that getting a better handle on describing my stories to people will allow for a little more interest in the story itself, which might make me seem more interesting as a person too.  Haruki Murakami’s book was well written but I feel the most helpful reading from this class was Mary Karr’s book, The Art of Memoir.  

Karr’s book reads as a story and it contains a plethora of viable information.  Her methods will help me on my path to becoming a better writer.  Murakami’s book will help with the display of my words and ideas if I review his examples and consider how he uses his words to describe events and places.  Karr’s book contains an intense amount of valuable information. Karr provides several lists to remember and think about when writing such as: expressing your voice, setting emotional stakes, not using exaggeration, express the inner enemies, verbalizing one’s outer conflict, and more.  To write well one should use her examples and incorporate them into their writing. Her book also mades me realize I have much to overcome on my path to becoming a better writer.

In reviewing other writings of mine, I noted that starting my articles and essays has been difficult for me.  I have found it hard to get the reader on board initially by giving enough cause for investment without revealing too much at the same time.  I recognize the need to write a much better opening as well as the need for bread-crumbing. My trouble is figuring out what people don’t know, and what they need to know, to keep them interested.  I also don’t want it to be too boring or the polar opposite causing an information overload. Working on these challenges has been a good place to start, pun intended.  

Another challenge I face is grammar logistics.  I need to improve this as well as sentence punctuation.  In speaking with the Professor, a good method for me to use came up.  Reading out loud. When I vocalize the article or essay it should flow based on the writing, not on the reading of it.  If I insert a comma or forget one and don’t pause at a certain point the sentence may read incorrectly. A good example of this comes from a journalism class I took in a previous semester where the professor used the sentence, “Stop clubbing, baby seals.”  He indicated that it should have read “Stop clubbing baby seals.” Overall, this class has uncovered viable areas for me to focus on and I hope future students will gain insight as I have.

Along that same line, the most important advice I can give to any future students of this class, is to not feel overwhelmed.  The syllabus indicates quite a few written assignments and a fair amount of reading but it is all manageable. Karr’s book reads like a story and the other two books are good reads as well.  Most importantly, don’t get too caught up with your own personal interests, or even the story itself, when reading the articles or books. Each lesson is just that – a lesson. There is knowledge to be acquired.  Future students should use the knowledge in Karr’s writings to be more analytical with the other assigned books.

The second bit of advice I can give about this class is to read the materials and take notes for discussions.  Simply put, do the work! While in class, I noticed if a student doesn’t do their work, and we form into groups for discussion, they have nothing to offer and are often a hindrance on the group.  Personally I want to remember what I’m being taught and take something away from this. I anticipate mental value from all of the classes I have taken at this University. If someone isn’t doing his part then he can’t expect there to be any value from these lessons for him to take away.

Will I ever be a great writer?  I don’t know. With the challenges I have discovered I realize I have much work to do.  This class is far from over – in the universal sense of that word – over. Joe Bunting, a British television presenter, producer, and writer once said: “No one is born a writer.  You must become a writer. In fact, you never cease to becoming [one], because you never stop learning how to write.” In my case, in order to truly learn, I need to continue practicing what I have been taught long after I complete this class.  But, I will continue to improve – because I won’t stop trying.