RAMBLINGS • Feelin' Lower 'N A Snake's Belly

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Judy's roommate at Warren Wilson College, back in the better days when co-ed dorms were at least a decade away, had a folksy saying, made more charming by her Southern accent–which Judy unconsciously copied within two weeks of living in the hills of North Carolina–that I relate to more and more as my aging process continues. (Karen was from Franklin, NC; she and I both went from WWC to Berea College in Kentucky. She graduated from there, but I left after a semester because of my father's lung cancer diagnosis).

Karen had many distinctive similes adopted from the mountain culture in which she was raised, but the one I most remember was the "I feel lower than a snake's belly" bromide she'd utter when she was having a bad day. My roommate was from Jackson, TN; he too had a strong accent. "Well, Golleeee," was his signature statement when he was astonished–and he was astonished at least twice a day. He had other mountain sayings to match different circumstances of life. We were close for a semester while we shared a room on the ground floor of Sunderland, a dorm still standing on campus, but I haven't had any contact with him since 1964.

I remember a fascination with the accents of the students at WWC. I had a Western PA sound of my own, but I didn't realize it at the time. I'd seldom been out of Indiana County, PA, until I went to WWC (near Asheville), so every voice I'd heard before sounded like my own. I also didn't realize until much later in life that I really like language–the construction of it (syntax is the academic word), the sounds of words, the hidden meanings, the nuances, that can be conveyed. The sounds I heard in the Swannanoa Valley excited my intellect. It wasn't till Judy and I moved to Illinois that I could hear the Western PA twang when we'd return home to visit.

Either I've lost my ear for accents or the voices of trained broadcasters so prevalent on national television have eliminated many regional differences–yes, I'm old enough to remember days when television wasn't prevalent in local cultures; we didn't have a television in our own home until I was 11 or 12. Now everyone hears the same voice inflections from birth until death.

That isn't why I reached a snake's belly crisis level a month ago, though. Usually (or at least I  think so) I'm an up person, ready to go, ready to keep busy, ready to meet whatever challenges the world brings. Perhaps I'm less that way now than I was even ten years ago because I've found coping mechanisms become less effective as physical powers diminish; I know that's not a discovery unique to me, but as always realizing something intellectually precedes grasping it emotionally.

My crisis didn't occur in a vacuum. All fall I've had a feeling of gloom surrounding me. However, it took some specifics to push me closer to a panic attack than I've ever been.

This late summer, early fall I realized that age had caught me. I can no longer climb ladders, for example, because I don't trust my sense of balance. Until I was 50 or thereabouts I pictured myself as self-reliant, attempting to do minor repairs around my house myself, though that often didn't work. (I'll never forget plumber Bill Callahan laughing when I called him once, asking, "What did you screw up now?")

For the first time this summer grandson Kyle had mowed my yard each time a cut was needed. Mowing, trimming bushes, general landscaping work had been one of my escapes–a time away from other jobs–that I treasured. I found, though, that once I stopped those types of jobs, I lost interest in them. To have Kyle do them became natural, but at the same time it marked a loss of independence for me, and that ate at my soul.

The latest near panic attack was triggered by three events, two involving the house I own next door to mine. I'd tried the landlord role once before, with the big apartment house at the corner of West Wood and Oak. Judy and I looked at it as an investment which would help pay Dawn and Jenni's college costs. It wasn't a problem (thanks at times to the help of a handyman/teacher friend who was a better handyman than I–I won't name him because others would call him even now, and I'm sure he doesn't want that) until cancer struck my Judy.

Then I was so busy teaching and caregiving that my control over the apartment lessened. When I purchased it (from Dave White), it was full of good tenants–defined as older people with secure retirements who believed in paying their rents on time and taking care of their apartments. Those desirable tenants aged even more, though. When the Hamilton Street Apartments were built, they wanted the same type of clientele. In my haste, I rented to some unsavory characters, and once they were in, they were hard to dislodge.

When I sold the place, I vowed not to ever be a landlord again. I was too tolerant of late rent and other tenant indiscretions to make much money. Fate intervened, though. Hank and Bessye Noyes were dear neighbors of ours (Hank and I could argue about baseball–he was a Cub fan–without becoming angry). I helped there when I could, and after Judy died, they'd have me in for supper whenever Bessye prepared salmon cakes. Then Hank died and Bessye moved to Morrisonville. Daughter Dawn, Todd, and their young family needed a place to live in the 'Boro, so I helped them buy the Noyes' property. Having the grandkids next door helped keep me young and active.

Time passed and Dawn remarried. She and Steve found a place in the country they liked between Gillespie and Carlinville; it made sense because Steve worked at St. Francis Hospital in Litchfield, and Dawn was the financial controller at Blackburn. To purchase that property, however, they needed to sell their house here. Partially so I'd have control over who lived next to me, I (with help of the Bank of Hillsboro) bought it. Thus I became a landlord again.

Oldest granddaughter Kaylyn was my first tenant. She had graduated from Blackburn and was anxious to be on her own. Dawn liked the idea that Kaylyn would look after me while I supervised her. Neither one of us wanted those roles, though. We mostly ignored each other.

Eventually Kaylyn had a sweetie and they co-habited. Dawn, Steve, and Kamryn came back to town, buying the John and Sarah Ernst property on East Street; Kaylyn and Chuck moved to the Macoupin County property, and Kyle moved in next door, bringing two friends with him so they could split the rent and other expenses three ways.

Near the end of the just-passed October, as the weather turned nippy, Kyle called to say the furnace had stopped working. Then it rained two inches overnight, and a flat roof over their kitchen leaked. My once stand-by handyman, Bruce Holcomb, is older than I and no longer works. I had no idea as to who to call about the roof, and the heating/air conditioning man was swamped with the change of seasons. I feel responsible for the wellbeing of the people next door, but I was stumped as to an action plan at the moment.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt near panic. Then Kaylyn's pregnancy took a nasty turn involving high blood pressure, so she, her husband, and her mom headed to St. John's in Springfield for a possibly difficult pre-mature birth. Because Judy had given birth to a premie, Jana, who lived for 11 days in the premie unit at St. John's before dying of lung failure, Kaylyn's plight was almost the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

I had suppressed the emotions associated with that part of our past for 45 years because Judy and the girls needed me to be strong, but I couldn't imagine going through it again. I didn't want any of my loved ones to experience that pain either. I felt so vulnerable that I couldn't even visit the proud parents and Emma in St. John's even after all danger was past.

Contemporary country-western-pop singer Miranda Lambert has a song entitled "It'll All Come Out in the Wash" on current airways. Fortunately for me and mine, that Oklahoma-based folk saying held true for me this time. The kids' furnace has been replaced and their house is warm, and I've signed a contract to have the rubber roof replaced as soon as the weather permits. Both repairs should last longer than I'll live.

I've met Emma at her grandmother's house; hopefully she'll eventually accompany me around town as the three grandchildren did when they were younger. I realize everyone who lives long enough to be a great-grandparent is fortunate, but I also realize the transition from living as a dependable person to a dependent one will be more painful than I ever imagined.

With God's help I'll make that change. I wasn't that confident a month ago.

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