Christmas Eve Night, 2007
“You want any more, Dak?”, Elizabeth Lennon asked her grandson.
“No, Grandma,” Dakotah replied. “I’m stuffed, as always.”
“Good! Then you’ll have plenty of energy for Lennon Family 101!”, she said with a grin. Thirty years of teaching kids gave her plenty of insight on how to keep kids mentally involved in what she was teaching.
“Lennon Family 101?”, Dakotah said warily, as he was unsure if she was kidding him, or did she actually have a family history book?
“Well, maybe not exactly. I could show you the genealogical research that takes our family tree back to England in the 1480s, but this is not what I had in mind right now. What I’m going to talk about is how you specifically got to where you are now. I’m afraid that some of it is my fault.”, she said sadly.
“No way!”, Dakotah shouted in surprise. “You couldn’t hurt anyone!”
“Sweetie, I’d never hurt you willingly. I would give my life for you. But sometimes, you can hurt someone through kindness. I’ll explain.”
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “I’ll start this by asking a question. What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”
Once again, Dakotah was blindsided. “I-I-I don’t know.”, he stammered. “I mean, they have Career Day at school, but nothing there interests me.”
“Is there anything at all that interests you? What do you like doing? What would you want to do?” Elizabeth had never heard her grandson ever say anything that interested him as a career. Not even when he was very small, when asked, he never had an answer.
“Warcraft.”, he said, half-jokingly.
“What? What is Warcraft? You mean, join the military? Oh, Honey, I don’t know.“ She was immediately worried, as the current United States involvement in two wars could possibly put her only grandchild’s life in danger.
“No, Grandma,” Dakotah replied, sensing her dismay. “Warcraft is a video game. No way would I join the military. Well, I would if we were being invaded or something.”
Elizabeth was at once relieved and concerned. “Dak, you can’t spend your life playing video games. I know that seems to be your stepfather’s profession, but it’s not what I call a career choice. Haven’t you ever dreamed of doing something cool for a living?”
“Grandma said “cool”. Weird.”, he thought.
Suddenly, he had an inspiration. “I’d like to be a weather guy.”, he replied.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. “A meteorologist?”
“Yeah, that would be, ah, cool!”, he said with a small smile. “Nobody would want a freak like me on TV telling the weather, though.”
Elizabeth scowled. There were times she could go down to her ex daughter-in-law’s house, and take a baseball bat to both her and her husband. She leaned over, put her hands on his shoulders, and looked him in the eyes, her face only a foot from his. “I’m going to tell you this one time, young man. YOU…..ARE……NOT……A…..FREAK!”, she said, forcefully. “I’m not saying this because I’m your grandmother, either. I’ve had thousands of kids come through my classroom doors over the years, and as a retired professional, I can honestly say that you are not close to being a freak. Dak, for years, I’ve wished your mother would sign over custody of you over to me, if for no other reason than to give you a place to live away from that pig your mother married. She never would, and since she had a job, and you weren’t physically abused, I couldn’t take her to court.”
“But you were emotionally abused.”, she continued, straightening her back. Honey, you are a kind and loving person, who wouldn’t knowingly hurt anyone. You remind me in a lot of ways of your Papaw Harold, God rest his soul. However, you are also gullible, and believes whatever anyone that you trust says. Why you would trust him, anyway?”
Dakotah thought for a minute, unsure of what to say. “Well, I was always taught to respect my elders. You’ve even said that.”, he said, softly.
Her eyes softened. “Honey, this is true, to a point. If someone who truly loves you and wants what’s best for you gives you sage advice, that’s one thing. They only want you to be the best you can be. However, breaking your spirit by calling you names and belittling you is abuse, and they don’t care what’s best for you. All they want is to put you in your place.”
“And another thing.”, she continued. “Let me ask you this. Did your mother ever stop Frank from tearing you down? Did she ever say anything to you to set things straight?”
“N-no, I don’t think so.”, Dakotah said in a low voice.
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”, Elizabeth said, sadly. “If your mother let Frank abuse you like that without either her giving him what for, or setting the record straight afterward, then she’s no better than he is.”
“But Mom loves me!”, yelled Dakotah vociferously. “I know she does!”
“Of course she does, in her own way.”, Elizabeth said in an even tone. “Let me ask you a question. What does a mother bear do when her cubs are threatened?”
“She attacks whatever’s after her cubs.”, he replied.
“So why wasn’t Frank ripped to shreds?”, Elizabeth shot back. “Because her wanting him there overrode her need to take care of you properly.”
She sighed, and took a deep breath. “Look, Dak, I’m really sorry I had to dump all this on you now. I wish I could’ve been there more when you were younger, and put a stop to all this nonsense. However, your father didn’t get along with your grandfather, so you all stayed away most of the time, except for Christmas. After your father left your mother, and Frank came in to the picture, I almost never saw you. Unfortunately, that was about the time your grandpa was diagnosed with cancer, so all of my time was used between taking care of him, and work, since I was still teaching. “
She gave him a hug, patting him on the back. He resisted for a split second, but hugged her back. This was out of his comfort zone, as he almost never received any affection or closeness at home. Frank would always chide his wife for “babying” her son.
Tearfully, she looked into her grandson’s eyes. “Dakotah, even though I haven’t been there for you in person, there has never been a day where I haven’t been on my knees, and prayed for you.”
Dakotah began to tear up, as well. “I love you, grandma.” Grabbing a tissue, he said, “Grandma, do you think I could have another piece of pie?”
“Absolutely.”, she said, smiling.
“Grandma?”, Dakotah said, about to take his last bite, “What about this Lennon 101 thing? Weren’t you going to tell me about that?”
Elizabeth looked at her grandson, and smiled. “We did get sidetracked there, didn’t we? You have to forgive us old folk sometimes, we change the subject without even knowing it!”, she laughed.
She reached into a bookshelf, and took a photo album out of it. Dakotah could tell it was very old, as it was well worn. “Someday, I need to transfer all these photos in a new album.”, said Elizabeth. “This one here has about lived out its usefulness. Don’t want to lose any photographs!”
She flipped a few pages, and smiled, wistfully. She carefully peeled back the clear plastic page cover, and gently pulled off a photograph that was stuck slightly to the page. The black and white photograph was of a young man in an Army dress uniform. His eyes showed a person of seriousness, and a sense of purpose.
“This”, she continued, “is your grandpa Harold after he made it through boot camp. When I first met him, he was every bit as skinny as you are, but the Army put some meat on his bones! I almost didn’t recognize him!”
“Did he fight in any wars?”, asked Dakotah.
“Oh, no, we were lucky in that regard.”, Elizabeth replied. “He went in during that “sweet spot” between Korea, and Vietnam. The most action he saw was when their car got stuck in a ditch in France! He worked as a mechanic, and did maintenance on tanks.”
Dakotah spotted another black and white photo of a young lady. She wore her hair in a poodle cut, and had a long strand of pearls around her neck. The gown she wore was of pink taffeta, and very elegant. “Is this you, grandma?”, he asked.
Yes, that’s me.”, she replied. “I remember that night well. That was the night he proposed to me. I was a sophomore in college that year, and he was about to be shipped out to France. At the time, it was the longest year of my life! We were married when he returned, and used his G.I. Bill to get this very house. Those were good times.”, her voice softening in remembrance.
“To continue, life was good for the two of us. He used his skills to get a job at the old Dodge plant up the road. You wouldn’t remember it, as it’s no longer there. I earned my teaching certificate, and accepted a position teaching second graders. We wanted three or four kids, but we decided I should work a couple of years so we could save up some money to pay the house down, and buy a new car for me.”
“Right on schedule, I became pregnant. Of course, it was to be your father. We had everything ready; all we needed was to know whether it was going to be a boy or a girl, and back then, you didn’t find out until the baby was born!”, she laughed.
Suddenly, her face changed to a frown. “Unfortunately, we could’ve used modern medicine to treat the complications of the pregnancy. I started having a lot of pain, and I also began to spot blood. We were afraid that I was going to lose the baby, so the doctor told me to stay in bed for the last four months before your father was born. Waiting on your father to come home from France was a walk in the park compared to this!”
“Finally, it was time for the baby to be born, and the doctor decided to go with a c-section. It was still three weeks early, but we couldn’t wait any longer. Fortunately, the only thing wrong with your father was that his birth weight was a little low, about five pounds. As for me, the doctor found issues with my reproductive organs, so he did a complete hysterectomy on me. Needless to say, I was heartbroken.”
“However, I still had your father, and he was healthy! Here’s his newborn picture.” She pointed to a small baby lying in a bassinet. The color photograph had faded some, and had a yellowish tint. “I thanked the Lord for blessing me with a healthy baby, and stopped feeling sorry for myself. I had a baby to raise! And so I did! It wasn’t very long before he was a little butterball!”, she said, smiling. She pointed to a cherubic baby boy in a sailor outfit. “Your grandfather hated this outfit on him. He wanted him in an Army outfit, but I told him they didn’t make Army clothes for babies, and besides, the blue in the sailor uniform matched his eyes!” Dakotah squinted. Everything in the photo was faded to the point that he couldn’t tell the color of his father’s eyes, or the striping in his outfit.
Elizabeth turned a couple of more pages in the album. The colors in the photos were still a little off, but they were mostly clear, if a little out of focus. She pointed to a boy wearing plaid bell-bottoms, and a canary yellow shirt. “Man, I’m glad I didn’t have to wear THAT!”, thought Dakotah, shuddering internally. The boy was holding a trophy. “This was when he was chosen the best student of 5th grade. He made a perfect score in every test he took that year.”
“He was really smart, wasn’t he, Grandma?”, asked Dakotah, a little curious.
“Today, he would be classified as gifted.” , she replied. Of course, there weren’t any programs for exceptional students while he was in school. In a way, those high grades worked against him, because over time, he became lazy, as his accomplishments were achieved with very little effort. I could’ve given him extra work myself, but at the time, I didn’t think it was necessary. Maybe I should’ve, but it’s too late, now.” She stared at the floor.
Seeing his grandmother this way saddened Dakotah, too. “I don’t think it’s your fault things turned out the way they did.”
“Of course it is.”, she said, wiping away a tear. Let me explain. Your grandfather and I grew up during the end of the Depression, and two wars. We didn’t go hungry, but both our parents had to pinch every penny to make ends meet. As kids, we took odd jobs for literally dimes and quarters. When your father was born, we decided that he was never going to have to go through all that. He was only going to get the best we could give him, thinking that a life without worry would free his mind to excel.”
“We sent him to one of the best private schools in the state, where he learned French, and took piano lessons. Every time he earned an “A”, we bought him a reward. It seemed that it was working, because he excelled in every class he took. We were thrilled. Christmas brought a dozen presents under the tree, and his birthday parties were the talk of the neighborhood. Harold worked a lot of overtime, and I took a couple of extra cleaning jobs a week, in addition to my teacher’s salary, to pay for it all, but it was worth it, or so we thought.”
Dakotah was stunned. “Not even the so-called rich kids in the neighborhood are treated this well.”, he thought to himself.
“Of course, we didn’t know it at the time, but we were building a house of cards.”, Elizabeth continued. “All of our plans for your father were financed through our labor. Unfortunately, in the late 1970s, the country, and especially this region, was hard hit by recession. The Dodge plant started laying off people, and although Harold wasn’t laid off, the people I cleaned for were, so I lost those jobs. The school I worked at started cutting back, and I was reduced to part-time work.”
“We didn’t have very much money in savings, so that dried up quickly. We had bought your father a new car earlier in the year, so that had to go, too.”
“You bought dad a new car when he was in high school?”, Dakotah exclaimed. Not only did he not have a car, he only had a permit, and only because Elizabeth had taken him down to the DMV to take his written test.
“Oh, it was nice, too. A 1978 Dodge Aspen. It had bucket seats and a V8 engine in it. Your grandfather even helped install the headliner on it, since it came off the same assembly line that he worked. Good thing the judge we had at the time was friendly with Harold at the local AMVETS, because your father accumulated quite a few speeding tickets! They got him for doing 112 once, I think. They should’ve taken his license, but all they gave him was three points, and a trip to traffic school. We sold it soon after that, though.”
“Finally, Chrysler announced they were going to shut the Dodge plant down. We had to cash out the savings we had for your father’s college fund, in order to pay off the house. With my meager income, plus his unemployment, we were able to squeak out a living.”
“What did grandpa do for a living after that?”, asked Dakota, with concern.
“He got a job at a gas station, fixing cars, and doing service on them.”, his grandmother replied. He didn’t make the money he had when he was at Dodge, but we were able to put food on the table, and keep the lights on.”
“I bet dad didn’t like having his car sold, and stuff!”, said Dakotah.
“What hurt him terribly was when we had to stop his private schooling, Dak.”, replied Elizabeth. “Nowadays, we probably would’ve home schooled him, but that wasn’t an option back then. He didn’t adjust to public school life very well; he thought he was better than anyone there, including the faculty.”
“But didn’t he realize that you were also a public school teacher?”, Dakotah asked, puzzled. The irony of the situation was not lost on him. “He should’ve given them more respect.”
“I’m glad you feel that way, Dak.”, Elizabeth said, smiling. “You have a sensitive heart. Reminds me of your grandpa Harold. I’m positive he would’ve loved you very much.”
Dakotah felt warm inside.
Elizabeth continued. “Soon, your father started getting into fights, usually getting whipped. He was prideful and stubborn, and didn’t want to make any friends. It seemed that we had inadvertently created a monster.”
“We had filled his head with so many notions of him being this ultimate kid that he believed that everyone was beneath his contempt. We, unfortunately, didn’t tell him to how to be humble, or give people respect. We ourselves did, of course, but we assumed incorrectly that leading by example would work in this case. Our emphasis on raising him was making sure he was happy, and that he was going to succeed. However, he felt that society in general, and us in particular, had failed him, so he lashed out at everyone, me and your grandfather included.”
Dakotah felt unsure. Disappointment was a way of life with him. His father had life kick him in the teeth, but at least he should’ve realized his parents loved him. “I guess I don’t understand why he would be mad at everybody. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that he had to go to public school, or that he lost his car or his college fund.”
“Remember what I said earlier and pain and suffering building character?”, Elizabeth replied, patiently. “Your father never had to suffer at anything, and your grandfather and I made sure of that. When things got rough, he didn’t know how to cope, so he lashed out, like a three year old that had his favorite ball taken from him.”
“So, what happened next? He graduated high school, didn’t he?”
“Yes, Dak, but he didn’t make it easy. At the first school, he was first suspended, then expelled, for fighting and truancy. I went to the school board, pulled a few strings, and enrolled him in the high school next to the middle school where I taught, so I was able to keep better tabs on him.”
“Before Harold’s layoff, we had planned on visiting Northwestern, Purdue, and Notre Dame. They all were very interested in him, even talking about offering him scholarships, as he had the qualities they were looking for. However, the subsequent expulsion changed all that, and the offers stopped. An old Army buddy of Harold learned of our situation, and offered your father a co-op spot at General Motors Institute, if he graduated high school.”
“What’s General Motors Institute?”, asked Dakotah, his interest piqued.
“Now, it’s called Kettering University, but back then it was called General Motors Institute.”‘ replied Elizabeth. “Back then, it served as a training ground for engineers with General Motors. You would study for twelve weeks, and then work on the assembly line for twelve weeks. When you earned your degree in five years, you worked for G.M. as an engineer for a set time.”
“Sounded like a good deal to me. What happened next?”
Well, for the first three months, he did well, as his group started off in the classroom. He ultimately wanted to be an architect, but the classes he took at the Institute were pretty close to what he would’ve taken at one of the more prestigious universities, so he was in good spirits. Unfortunately, he was unprepared emotionally for his turn on the assembly line. The foremen there treated him like they would treat any man on the line; if he didn’t do the job to their specifications, they let him know it! Needless to say, he didn’t handle it very well, and dropped out of the program in less than a month.”
“Your grandfather and I were exasperated, and didn’t know what to do with him, or for him. For about a year, he didn’t do a whole lot; he ran around with his buddies, or stayed in his room, and listened to music. We decided to just support him the best we could, and let him figure it out. Harold got him a part time job pumping gas, and although he didn’t care for it, he had some cash in his pocket every week, and that lifted his spirits a little.”
“Eventually, the economy improved, and General Motors announced they were building a new plant where the old Dodge plant stood. Your father took a test, and was hired on the spot. Harold could’ve been hired, too, but he enjoyed working on cars, and the camaraderie with customers, so he stayed at the gas station until he was diagnosed with cancer.”
“Funny how he turned his nose up at working at an assembly line, only to do the same thing a few years later.”, noted Dakotah.
“Your grandfather and I wished your father’s future would’ve involved college, a white collar career, and all the benefits that come with it, but we were unable to impose our wishes on him. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Elizabeth looked into her grandson’s eyes. “Dakotah, what have you learned tonight?”
Grinning, he said, “That you can cuss?”
Elizabeth lightly smacked him on the back of the head. “Seriously, Dak. Did you learn anything, or did you let it go in one ear, and out the other?”
“I guess, if you want to get what you want out of life, you will probably have to work hard, and fight for it.”
“Not bad. There may be hope for you, yet!”, Elizabeth said with a smile. “Now, I ask of you again. What do you want to do with your life?”
“I don’t really know. The weatherman thing was just something off of the top of my head.”, he said with a shrug.
“Well, I’m going to help you find out. I can’t put you through college, but I can help you figure out what you want to do, and give you all the moral support necessary in order for you to succeed. However, YOU are the one that has to do the heavy lifting, so to speak.”
“How did mom and dad meet?”
“That my boy,”, she said, laughing, “is a story for another day!” It’s late, and it’s time for bed! If Santa catches you up, he won’t leave you any presents!”
Dakotah headed off to the spare bedroom. “Grandma?”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too. More than you could ever imagine.” She walked over to him, and kissed him on the cheek. “Now get some sleep. Tomorrow is a big day!.”