Michiana Chronicles: How Every Empire Falls

Apr 29, 2021

Credit Photo provided by Sid Shroyer

I’m writing my new grandson a letter. 

My son’s son has the name of my father and around 5:00, on the December morning the day after Vern-point-two was born, I decided he should know something about the man who shares his name. One thing leads to another. This is another.  Big sister Linda asked me to tell Mom that she could no longer drive. “Okay,” I said. Big brother Stan’s in Texas. Linda’s done more than her share already. I can come down and do that. I like the drives home.  “Linda says you shouldn’t be driving any more.”  Mom had topped out at 4-foot-10 64 years ago. She’s shrinking though, now, melting away, and the cushion that gives her the height to see through the steering wheel just above the dashboard is making it hard for her to reach the accelerator and the brake. Vision and focus are also issues.  “Did you hear me?” Either she ignores me or she doesn’t hear me. Does it matter? I have to yell. “Linda says you shouldn’t be driving any more.” It’s a mid-morning, sunny June day, traffic is light on 13, I have grown children, and I’m being brave.  “Let’s go,”  I said, and for the first time since I passed my driving test, “You drive.” Mom drove the highway pretty well, we didn’t die, but she did miss the driveway coming in and she pulled into the garage so close to the wall that she couldn’t open the door to get out of the car. “Mom, you can’t drive anymore.” I liked the drives home, but I could never wait to get out of there. There you go, sister, how hard was that?  I drove back to South Bend. And Linda?  I left her with the ramifications of Mom, 15 miles from town, unable to drive. I did my part. Linda will take care of it. She always does.  Not that very much later, Mom asked me for a third time to help her clean out the barn. “See if there’s anything in there you want,” she said. “You can have it,” she said. “Take it,” she said. There was no life in her voice when she said, “John’s going to haul everything that’s left out of there and set it on fire.” With that, I drove down again, to the house that Dad built, the house I left to go to college, and the orange and white, now rusting pole barn he put up when I was in high school. It looked like a lot of junk, like the stuff Dad would have taken to the dump in the little red two-wheel trailer he built to haul behind our 1964 Pontiac Catalina. Magazines, newspapers, broken bookcases, lamps, shovels and hoes, and the remnants of plastic toys. There’s the extension cord I put together for 4H. Trips home typically made me sad when I was newly grown-up, but less so after Matt and Lily were born. That life became less of my life, then, but the trip into the barn, was a trip back into that sadness. That was why I didn’t want to go.  I recognized all of it. A checkers set. The game of Life. My chest of drawers. There’s Dad’s welding helmet. There’s the little red two-wheel trailer he built to haul trash to the dump.  It was a good sized barn, and it was full of stuff, but when I returned to South Bend, I only had a small cardboard box in the back seat, a small cardboard box that was not close to full. I took a Life magazine with the oddly leaning Lee Harvey Oswald on the cover holding the rifle that killed President Kennedy, the revolver that killed Officer J.D. Tippit and a commie newspaper.  I took report card samples from all the schools I went to. I took a Polaroid picture of the 1963 Milwaukee Braves warming up for a game against the Cardinals and a group shot of everybody else in my second grade class taken on a day when I was home sick. All of it evidence of something. Ideas in things.   Song: John Prine, “That’s How Every Empire Falls,” Fair and Square