I. Last Day of Work

(Eagle River, WI. April 13, 2013) On my last day of work, I felt like a prison camp hostage about to make a run for it. And I almost made it without incident. Late in the afternoon, two staff suddenly appeared at my door. With Cheshire cat smiles, making a few nondescript comments, they nervously handed over a small wrapped package and card.

I wanted to say what I was really thinking: chastise them for being part of the vast conspiracy, putting up a barrier to anything I’d tried to accomplish. Nearly everyone had made darn sure what, in a normal office, would have taken three steps to accomplish, took six or seven in this den of crazy dysfunction. Now a gift! I wanted to throw it out the window. But I was a good girl. For the last time.

The card was signed by several coworkers though the leaders of the plot against me hadn’t, of course. I unwrapped a blank book, a journal. Wasn’t this something I’d use in my writing, they asked. Oh, I thought, here’s where I can write all my poisonous thoughts about this dreadful job and the awful people I’ve had to deal with for the last eight years. What was most galling was that one of these two women standing before me now was one of the three I’d marked as architects of the most cruel thing anyone has ever done to me in the workplace.

My appointment book was taken off my desk. Only staff and clients with appointments could get into the office so it had to be an inside job. That day, I knew there were lots of jokes and laughter: there she goes again. Karin can’t keep track of anything.

Eight months later my appointment book was found by a woman taking a walk down a country road. She and her daughter saw the pages fluttering in the wind on that early spring day. She commented that the book “was never meant to be found,” since it’d been flung far off the road into the woods.

The book was a mess, tattered and smelly from being out in the elements for such a long time. At the next staff meetings, I brought out the book and told the story of its discovery. The response was interesting. Lots of eyes darting around, furtive staring and looking down.

In my mind, I’d narrowed it down to three people who I thought were capable of such a thing. Body language is so revealing. I then simply said I just wanted everyone to be reminded to keep their things safe because we have so many people who come in and out of our offices. End of discussion.

I took the high road with my staff that day and am satisfied I acted like a professional up to the end. And now on my last day, I just thanked those women for the gift and watched the clock until closing time.

My office was already cleaned out so all I had to do was put on my coat and walk out the door. I’d been clear with my boss that I didn’t want a retirement party. Those things only force people to be insincere, I’d said. Most of the office hadn’t even said goodbye. They were more than happy to be rid of me, the worst supervisor on the planet. At least that’s what they all thought, they who’d never before had a boss who had expectations of them.

I’d always been one who felt retirement was for someone else. But I’d already worked two years beyond full retirement age when, suddenly one day, I felt the time was right. A thought lurked that perhaps I was running away from this no-win situation. Was I doing the right thing? Would I regret this in a month or two? Only time would tell.

But lets’ really mix things up. To toast my retirement, I was meeting that night for a drink and dinner with my ex-husband who’d surfaced once again. He’d broken up with his woman, the one he’s been connecting with as my moving van was pulling out of our driveway. Now, he wanted to talk.

I’d been skeptical when he called, then thought what the heck. It’s not like I had plenty of options in this closed up community and it would be nice to go out for a change. So, following the rules of on-line dating, I drove myself to a local sports bar. There he was, right on time. We sat off on the veranda away from the TV sets and noise.

We’d divorced two and a half years earlier but I’d never been completely out of touch with him. You can’t really be out of touch in a small town where everyone knows the whereabouts and activities of everyone else. On top of that, over these two and a half years, he’d come around several times wanting to talk about his unhappiness, putting out feelers about getting back together. A smoker in my office (smokers had to stand out in the parking lot for their regular fixes), had reported he drove by the office a lot. I told her not to worry. I wasn’t being stalked but the whole thing was confusing.

I didn’t know what I wanted. Equally important, I wasn’t sure he knew what he wanted. I’d decided that I was going to sit back and see what would happen. After what I’d been through, I wasn’t sure I could ever trust him or if it was possible to forget and go back.

Men are like buses. I can’t remember where I first heard this phrase. I also can’t imagine where the additional verses came from. Possibly from my own imagination. But they make such sense: Men are like buses…..If you miss one, another one will come along…….If you wait long enough, the same one comes around again…….Just because the same one comes around, doesn’t mean you have to board.

Following my divorce in 2010, I wasn’t waiting exactly. I was just trying to adjust to my new life. I’d decided I needed time to myself and the worst thing would be to jump in with someone new. The total opposite of his way of coping. Now this uncertainty was bunched together with my anticipation of adjusting to retirement and the indecision about staying here or moving from this area. He’d been the reason I’d moved here. So, now what? Build a new life. Find out who I am. Those were my goals.

That night he was his usual polite and respectful self. He knew how to make a good first impression. I recalled that from our initial meeting, oh so many years ago. But I reminded myself how things had changed during the seventeen years of our marriage. And he’d thrown it all away in a rather haphazard manner. Not sure if I wanted to get back on that bus again.

When we’d finished, he walked me to my car and kissed me on the cheek. He always was a gentleman. He’s be calling again. Of that I was sure. When I got home, I settled in for the night and watched my usual TV programs knowing I didn’t have to set an alarm or go back to the job from hell. I felt a sense of peace but in the back of my head knew important choices and decisions were lining up. I’d savor the serenity of this night and worry later.

Block Party

Returning to my hometown for my fifty year class reunion primed me for a talk with Mom the next time I visited her. Her recollections of the pain of neighborhood politics, gossip and our outsider status fused uncomfortably with my mostly happy memories of the time we’d lived on Eleventh Street in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. My foggy and innocent recollections were in for an awakening.

“I drove by our old house on Eleventh Street,” I said. “It looks the same but so much smaller. Do you remember anything about that time?”

“I remember it all,” she replied ruefully.

“I loved it there,” I broke in. “From our back door, you could see everything. The whole square block. Neighbors sitting in lawn chairs, mowing the grass or working in their gardens. All the backyards, so nicely kept up, right up to that grassy middle section that was like an empty field in the center. Remember that field? We’d go out there all the time and play with the other kids. And how the grown-ups would sit out there and visit. You and Dad did that, didn’t you, Mom?”

“No,” she shook her head slowly. “We never felt welcome. We really didn’t fit in. I think it had something to do with Dad being a policeman. Remember Sandy who lived around the corner? She always had beer parties in the afternoon on her back porch. I was never invited.”

“Well, you were the wife of a policeman, Mom. Maybe that’s why. You were never the afternoon beer party type anyway.” This seemed to ease her a bit.

Before moving to Eleventh Street, we’d lived in several different towns and rental homes because Dad was transferred each time he was promoted. I’d just begin to fit in and we’d be moving. After becoming a sergeant, he figured this was his last upgrade so we finally bought a house. A place where we’d be staying forever. For me, that was from elementary school through my high school graduation in 1963.

Fond du Lac was a blue collar factory town; back then most people worked at Giddings and Lewis Machine Tool, Mercury Marine and John Deere. In the nearby villages of Rosendale and Lomira, the jolly Green Giant provided seasonal employment during harvesting and canning season. In high school, city kids would ride a bus out to work in the fields or the factory. I wanted to but Dad wouldn’t let me work there. He said my baby sitting jobs gave me enough spending money.

It’d been fifty years since we lived on Eleventh Street but Mom’s memories were clear and precise. Most often she’d be sitting without her hearing aid, staring at the TV blasting a program she couldn’t understand. But, I’d soon see, there was nothing wrong with her long-term memory.  That day, she filled in the details of her life on Eleventh Street.

For instance, Mr. and Mrs. Gill, who lived next door, presented a challenge for my people-pleasing mom. There was no getting on the good side of Mr. and Mrs. Gill. They seemed proud to announce they’d had no children and held me and my five siblings in absolute disdain. We didn’t dare step a foot, not even a big toe, over the imaginary line they insisted defined their property. Robert Frost’s wisdom about fences and neighbors surely applied here.

So, it was surprising the day Mrs. Gill knocked on our door. Her problem with her husband was unique. “Can’t get him off the toilet” she anxiously reported. Could Mother come over and help? Which, of course, she did.

When Mom found out our family and the Gill’s had the same doctor, she called Dr. Huebner’s office and he made a house call. They got Mr. Gill into bed and Dr. Huebner left with no 911call or ambulance. After that day, friendly relations between my family and the Gills’ returned to pre-crisis mode. But Mother was undeterred. She continued to occasionally take home-baked goods over to the Gills’ with no better results.

A little less serious was the milk delivery clash between my mother and the neighbor who lived next door on the other side. We’d moved to Eleventh Street from a rental and arranged for Borden to transfer milk delivery to the new house. Seeing Frenchy, the Borden milkman, was one of our weekly delights.

We’d hear the rumble of Frenchy’s white panel truck with Elsie the cow painted on the side as it turned the corner. Then as it stopped, out jumped Frenchy in his white uniform with monogrammed name tag; his crinkled white hat with the Borden insignia covered the few wisps of hair that still remained under the visor. The jokes and questions were unending. When he asked how my time at camp had been the week before, I felt pretty special. How, I wondered, did he get his route done if he spent so much time talking to kids all along the way?

According to Hazel, the woman next door, we’d committed a great faux pas. Borden was not the right milk company. Everybody knew that. Borden, a national company, probably was squeezing out a local mom and pop dairy operation. But Mother stood strong, bore the scorn of Hazel and we continued to look forward to seeing and talking to Frenchy twice a week.

Hazel’s husband, Francis, often cornered my dad for a driveway conversation. Dad wasn’t outgoing like my mom; he mostly listened. Francis worked at a local factory and wasn’t too happy about that. He’d been raised on a farm, still went out there to help his parents but seemed to think farm work was demeaning. Once he told my dad that he could have become a policeman himself if he’d wanted to, since “there wasn’t that much to it.” According to Mom, Dad cleared his throat as he was accustomed to doing, puffed on his pipe and just listened.

Mom chuckled as she recalled the Millard’s. One day, Mrs. Millard began insisting that the family name was MillARD with emphasis on the last syllable. She thought it was classier to be called MillARD than Millard. Maybe she’s the inspiration for British television’s Mrs. Bucket. But any special refinement she thought this gave her was dashed when their son ran into some juvenile delinquency problems. How fortunate for my family that Dad was on the Wisconsin State Patrol and not a city or county officer. For quite some time the shades were all drawn at the Millard house and no one seemed to be around.

Because this was an era where mothers said “go outside and play,” all the kids on the block became close, forming alliances and special play activities. My younger sister enjoyed playing football with the boys. Quite a crowd showed up the day we had a funeral and burial for a dead bird we’d found. The brick and mortar outdoor grill on the edge of our backyard served as a house for our paper doll scenarios.

When I was old enough to hire out as a baby-sitter, these children of all ages became my economic windfall. Entering homes as an employee gave me insider information on the dynamics of family life other than my own. Sandy, of back-porch-beer-party fame, was not the best housekeeper. And behind the closed doors of her home, she screamed unrelentingly at her husband and children. The high school English teacher down the block left a clearly written encyclopedia of instructions that covered every possible emergency. The everything-in-its-place sterility of this home left me wondering if these children ever had any fun. Out of control partiers. Marital challenges. Struggles with rambunctious children. The block’s openness left little to the imagination and I sometimes wished I’d known less.

Inevitably, my feelings about the neighborhood evolved in my later teenage years as my awareness came clear of how stifling a small town could be. Fondy was a place where you either got married and started having children or you got out of town. I was happy to leave for college and a new life and look back now with mixed emotions.

Talking with Mom that day helped me balance my childlike perception with her adult realism. What I’d experienced was fairly typical. Fond du Lac was an average and usual small town filled with the undercurrents of personal conflicts, unspoken rules and agendas and small town politics. But it was also where neighbors could call on neighbors when in need. Maybe too, it was the beginning of my understanding and acceptance of the microcosm of humanity that can be found anywhere. I’ve decided to cherish the great time I had growing up on Eleventh Street. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything!

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