Tom Croley; Cleveland Heights, Ohio
I was seventeen or eighteen and I didn’t drink that much yet. I was having a beer, a social drink at Irv’s Deli. I wasn’t in there for the ambiance, though. I was sitting in there and this girl comes walking in and she had something I wanted, she had some of Irv’s French fries and gravy. I said, “You got French fries and gravy? You must be a regular here.”
She goes, “Nah, well, sometimes.’ And I go, “Can I have a couple of those French fries and gravy?” I said, “You can have a sip of my warm beer, but not in that glass, that glass hasn’t been washed in a thousand years.” That glass used to move by itself.
This girl is sitting there talking to me and she is pretty sparkly so I say, “What’s your name? “My name is Sarah,” she says. “No, No, No, what’s your last name?” She said, “My last name is Wisely.” and I think huh, that was my high school principle. Couldn’t be the same.
So, I said, “Wow that is an interesting name.” And I drank some more, some more and the next day she showed up there again with French fries and gravy. And I said, “Okay, you can sit here. Just sit on your coat.” And I just looked at her closely and I didn’t notice she was scratching or anything so I knew it was safe.
She said she was a waitress at Diamonds. And so, I don’t know, I must have been rich back then because I had this 1959 Ford. Well, I wasn’t rich, and it burned oil but it would make it from Irv’s to Diamonds at Severance Mall. I went up there to see her and I was sitting next to this cop. We are talking away and he says, “Have you been drinking?” and I say, “Last night.” He says, “You smell like booze.” This is nine thirty or ten in the morning “Nothing’s open yet is there?” He didn’t tell me Knotty Pine was open then.
So anyway, Sara started coming back to Irv’s and she said, “Do you want to meet my parents?” And I am like “Oh, God, I don’t want to meet your parents but I guess I could.” So, we went over there to her parent’s house which was a ranch style house over there in Leave It To Beaver Land. Across the street there were all those Rockefeller houses which were built like bomb shelters for the Big One. Those were beautiful houses. So, the people who bought their Rockefeller’s with all their money had to look at Wisely’s house and Wisely got to look at their fancy-schmancy houses.
Wisely comes out the door, and it was my f****** principal, Oh My God! I had a big old Harley-Davidson in high school and none of those straight A students had one of those things but I did. I used to scare the hell out of everybody until I went right through the court yard and down the steps like Steve McQueen. And I got suspended for three days, by Wisely! By that guy!
So Wisely goes, “ I remember you!” and I go, “I remember you! So he said, I spent years and all my money putting Sarah into private girls schools to keep her away from people like you! So Wisely looks at my “59 Ford with the mattress in the back and it is in his driveway and he is looking and he goes,”Do you collect old cars?” And I say, “Oh, yeah. Can I have a dollar for some gas?”
So years went by and Sarah kept going, “I want a commitment, I want a commitment.” What the f*** is a commitment? I want some more French fries and gravy. So she said, "At least get me a Ring!" So, I go to the bowling alley at Severance Mall. They had that coin operated machine where you could get a wedding ring for fifty cents. But they were sold out! I was down there going, “The wedding rings are sold out Sarah.” She says, “We have to go somewhere else." and I go, “Woolworths?”
So, we went up to Woolworths and we went up to the candy counter and I say to the lady, “Do you got any wedding rings? And she goes, “We got these.” And it was a big, huge diamond. And I go,” How much is that?” She said, “These are three dollars and fifty cents.” I go, “Sarah do you have three dollars and fifty cents?” And I got her this ring and I go, “She takes a size six.” The lady says, “All you do is squeeze them to make them fit.” Sarah put it in a bag and goes over to my Mom’s house to get my check that was mailed to her house and says, “Mrs. Croley, do you have Tom’s check?” As she was waving her hand around. And my Mom is like, “What the heck is that thing?” Sarah said, “Oh Tom and I are engaged.” “Really?” says my mom, “Then on Friday we are going to have to take you out to dinner for this festivity.” So, we went out to the Green House on Murray Hill and that was pretty fancy. Sarah’s mom said,” So what are you getting dressed up for?”
“Well, Tom’s parents are taking us out to dinner because……” and Sara’s mom says, “Let me guess, you are engaged to Tom!”
In a weeks’ time that ring went to glass, it turned white, it looked like a broken coke bottle on her hand. I am like, “Oh, shit. Sarah goes, do you have any money?” I had just cashed a check so I had three dollars and fifty cents and I went back to Severance and the same lady was there she said, “Mr. Croley you can’t put that ring in the air, it will turn to glass.” And I say, “What am I supposed to do put Sarah in a case?”
So, we are finally getting married in this church and I am walking into the church and I hear “Hey Tom, Hey Tom,” and it was the minister and he was in the bushes with a flask of whiskey. And I was like, "Wow this is great! I am going to start believing in God and Jesus and everybody now!” So, we go into the church and the place was packed. Sarah had invited way too many people. Everybody was amazed that I had showed up. “Nice, Tom,” they say, “but you forgot to comb your hair and you forgot to get a haircut.” But my mom had rented me a tux.
The preacher goes on and on and I am just standing there with Sarah and her dad is right there with my parents. And the minister goes, “Now I pronounce you man and wife. You can kiss the bride.” So I kiss Sarah and I turn around to Sarah’s father and I say ”Hi Dad, we are even!” Wisely has been drinking heavily ever since.
I finished college late, well into my thirty’s and when Debbie and I were pregnant with a baby I learned about constructs in a logic class. A construct is something that people agree what a thing is going to be. We agree that a dollar bill is going to have some value but by itself the paper doesn’t so it is an agreed upon construct.
So, when Debbie was pregnant with Abie I said, let’s do this kind of fun construct experiment. Whenever we make mashed potatoes we are going to dye them blue so Abie will grow up eating blue mashed potatoes at home. Then when he goes to grandma’s house or his friends and they happen to serve mashed potatoes he will say, “What’s this?” And they will say, “Mashed potatoes.” And he will say….well, we won’t know what he will say. But Debbie said, “Why do you want to screw up our baby?” I said, “Debbie parents screw up their babies so many different ways, this is one way we can screw him up and we will know where the source of the screw up was.” She said, “We are not doing that.” I said, “Okay, it was just an experiment.”
We wind up having two boys, Abie and Zack, and one day we are in our pickup truck to go to Alesci’s Italian grocery store to buy pizza dough, peperoni and cheese and once in a very long while I would also buy a package of cigars. These are little, short, hard Italian cigars called Parodi cigars. My grandfather smoked them, he would keep a whole box of them on the top shelf of the dining room closet. When we were kids we would steal his cigars and try and smoke them. I would also buy the boys a Slurpee at the 7-11 around the corner.
So, I lite up a cigar and the kids are slurping their Slurpees and I say, you know these Parodi cigars are the finest cigars in the whole world. And the kids are like just listening, they are nine and ten and they listen attentively to their Dad. “My grandfather smoked these but you know what makes these special? They are called Parodi’s and they are named after the Parodi geese. Now, you remember when we go hiking in the park in the spring and there would be goose shit all over the grass and paths?”
And the kids are “Uh-Huh, slurp, Yeah, slurp. ”Well, they grow the tobacco in Virginia because that is where the finest tobacco is grown, they ship the leaves over to Italy, they feed the tobacco leaves to the Parodi geese, not just any geese….Parodi geese. The Parodi geese eat the tobacco but they can’t digest it so they poop it out. It looks just like the goose poop that we see in the park. Then these little old ladies come in their aprons and they pick up the dried goose shit, which is really just masticated, that means chewed, undigested tobacco. Then they take a tobacco leaf and roll it up. Then they cut the ends and that’s how the Parodi cigars are made.”
And the kids are like “Slurp, Slurp, Oh, okay Dad smokes these stinky goose shit cigars like twice a year. “
Fast forward, the kids are now like 21 and 22 years old. We are going to close up my mother’s house. She is leaving her home for the last time. My dad had passed away and it is the last hurrah before the house is sold and mom leaves. We are reminiscing about things and my brothers bring up the memory of Parodi cigars since Grandpa used to smoke them. At the mention of Parodi cigars Abie blurts out, “I know how Parodi cigars are made, they are made from goose shit!” My brothers start looking at him like, “What the f*** are you talking about?” Startled, Abie turns to me and gives me this look like I betrayed him.
It is total betrayal and I humiliated him and I got all red in the face because this was like the blue mashed potatoes time bomb but it happened there in my mother’s kitchen. And only this wasn’t a construct, rather, it was an out and out fiction that only I knew not to be true. Abie was so angry at me and anytime I tried to explain it to him, he got so frustrated. We never talked about it until about two weeks later.
We were together and I said, “Abie, have you ever heard of Kopi Luwak coffee? He said no,” Well,” I said “Kopi Luwak coffee is a very special coffee because of certain kind of cats that lives in Madagascar. The people grow coffee there and the cats will eat the coffee berry and then they shit out the beans and then people pick up the beans and the beans have been transformed by the acids in the cat’s stomach…….” and before I can finish Abie is like, “F*** you dad, “F*** You F*** You F*** You. You are not doing this again to me.”
“No!” I am like, “Google it! It is true, honest, God’s truth.”
“F*** you!” says Avie.
But it is true, ………coffee is made by these cats, they eat the berries, they shit out the beans, the beans are collected off the ground and the coffee is very expensive.
I never fully understood how profound an act of betrayal my Parodi cigar story was until most recently. It always felt to me like a harmless fiction. I have come to realize that this cigar story breached a kind of trust, a bond broken, between my sons and I.
I had always been honest and forthcoming with my sons yet this one fiction may have placed doubt on the whole history of my interactions with them.
Last April I saw that there was a group of Sioux women who were concerned about a pipe line coming through their ancestral land. I feel a connection to land and spirit and earth and water. At twenty-four I found out that my biological dad is an indigenous person from upstate New York. When the Sioux people put out a call for help to save their river from Energy Transfer Partners for the Dakota Access Pipeline I knew I had to do something.
I wanted to go right away. I tend to run toward things. I was ready to go but I had poor health and I couldn’t just leave. So, I started collecting things that they would need out there and advocating on their behalf. I have an amazing friend who said, “Well if you do go, I will rent you a truck and you can fill it and go.” That was great. She committed to a sixteen-foot truck.
By golly, it took me until September to say, “Okay I am going!” and then I was finally able to leave the beginning of November. I collected all the donations and realized I had more room to fill the truck. A friend suggested that I talk to her aunt out at The Mission of Love. She told me that she has a warehouse and she, “Will help you fill your truck.” So, I called her and she said, “I have all sorts of things.” That was awesome and I went down to pick them up and we loaded up the truck. To include a kitchen for the Standing Rock community, warm clothes, food, water and toys. The Mission of Love filled up every possible inch.
So, my friend Terrence and I drove out to South Dakota together. About Wisconsin I decided that long term trucking was not for me so Terrence drove most of the way. When we finally got to Standing Rock, we ended up setting up in the dark and we were invited to join people at the camp where we dropped off the kitchen. We were sitting there at a submerged fire pit that had been dug to use for ceremony at the beginning of the Standing Rock encampment. We were a little nervous because we didn’t know anyone. I looked across the fire and a young person’s face lit up with such joy when meeting my eyes. I had not seen this person since we had done hurricane relief together. There she was excited to see me and I knew that everything was going to be okay.
We warmed up and we set up camp. It was freezing. It was the first week in November and it was very cold. I woke up in the morning and looked out of our tent. There was the most mystical mist. Imagine if you were to take a picture of, like, God in heaven and added Van Gogh’s swirls in Starry Night well, the whole plains looked like that. It was like cotton candy, surreal, ethereal swirls of light and color. I could hear the sounds of geese and coyotes. It was the most beautiful thing.
I returned to bed because of the cold and was awakened by a guy on a microphone that echoed through camp. He was like, “Get up! Get up! Standing Rock! Everybody get up! It is a good day to die. Get up! Get up and go pray with your Grandmothers.” This was not a vacation and every morning he would give a call to rise.
Directly in front of my tent was a circle of seven teepees and I didn’t know anything about these teepees and their relationship to the camp. I discovered that these were the seven tepees of the seven nations of the Sioux people and there was a sacred fire burning in front. There was a prophecy that when the seven nations would come together that seven arrows could not be broken.
Because of the swirls of mist in the early morning I had not seen this vision. I looked to my right and the pipeline was a hundred fifty feet up the hill. And it was spotlighted, rather like a ski resort, if you can imagine. A line of spot lights on a hill and a bald eagle was coming at me when I stepped out of the tent that first morning. It flew from where the pipeline was, right next to the machine gun turret. It came right over the tepees through what they called the Horn. It was the Horn of the Buffalo, the strong hold of all the Seven Nations. And there is my little tent, right next to the Horn.
The bald eagle flew right at me and flew right over the sacred fire through the middle of these tepees and kept going to the river we were trying to protect. My friend Terrence, who had driven the truck, was down at the river already, praying with the grandmothers. And that just began my experience at Standing Rock.
Some people experienced some horrendous things at the hands of law enforcement, pipe line security. I did not experience anything like that personally. Instead there was a tremendous sense of place and I knew I was in the right place. It was a Spirit rich place. The smoke of the fire, the smell of the sage connected me to something visceral that I had been disconnected from my whole life. Regardless of whether I have the privilege of connecting with who my father’s people are, my time there is all I ever really will need to make that connection with my indigenous ancestors. I was so welcomed everywhere I went and I was invited to something that I think the world needs more of. It was called a forgiveness ceremony.
There was a Sioux veteran in line for lunch one day and he invited me to this ceremony for a Sioux young man who was wrongfully accused of raping someone in camp. It was a lie and they were having a forgiveness ceremony for him. It was to be held at the sacred fire in the main part of the camp. I felt really honored and I went without any expectations. Instead I went with the understanding that I would do whatever was asked of me.
After the ceremony all his friends decided to take a knee to honor him and apologize for actions that they had taken against him. And all the elders were involved in the circle, from his tribe and all the tribes there at Standing Rock. His family all came in from Washington. I was standing next to his friends and I had met a couple of them. I felt comfortable and I don’t know what possessed me. I went down on my knee to the young man too.
It was a long time kneeling there and I was wondering what I had done, not wanting to give any offence. We were all shaking from the strain of being on one knee. We closed the circle with a handshake as an acknowledgement of participation and a thank you. I followed the young men around as my turn came and people would not let go of my hand. And there was an energy we shared and we were present with each other in our eyes. I felt like I was holding up the line but there was an energy there that was really uplifting.
I came to a medicine woman and she thanked me for taking a knee and explained that by my doing that it gave him a chance to forgive all women. Then I came to a man around my age and he would not let go of my hand. I felt that his grasp gave me a chance to forgive all the men in my life who had wronged me. I let go of so much anger in that moment.
After I had been single for a while I knew I wanted to date. I really think that part of my learning process in this lifetime is to establish a working relationship with a male. I had not been successful with this up to that point in my life. I have no brothers and no male friends, so men were a great mystery to me.
I decided I would answer personal ads which were then in magazines and newspapers. When you place your own ad, I discovered you could establish some perimeters such as, I like ethnic restaurants and living in urban Cleveland Heights. Then you got the plus of a written response from someone. You could tell quite a bit about a person from that response. For example, there was the penciled letter that came on three sheets of spiral notebook paper from a man who lived off the grid with no running water who was sure that I would love sharing his lifestyle.
There was another man who had seven or eight children, many adopted, many with special needs. He was now on his own with six or seven of them because his wife had run off with the oldest adopted son. He was nice enough looking and pleasant enough that I convinced myself I would be quite happy to be in charge of his brood. Thank goodness, he didn’t have the slightest interest in me.
I could also find out a great deal about people the first time we went out to eat. My ad said that I liked ethnic food. One fellow offered to take me to a Chinese restaurant and when we got there waited until I had ordered and then ordered the exact same thing because he had never eaten Chinese before and didn’t know what else to order. Then another, who had come to take me to dinner, ate nothing because he had already taken his mother out to dinner so that she wouldn’t be jealous. None of the men I met this way were bad people. They were just not people with whom I wanted to have a long term relationship.
Then along came a response letter from a David which was a self-portrait surrounded with little comments about himself. It was so refreshing. I looked forward to meeting him. He arrived at my door and although he was a bit eccentric in the way he was dressed, we went to sit in my back yard and talked for three hours. At the end of this time I knew he was a really excellent human being. He confided in me the next day when he called that he was hoarse and he had never spoken that long or shared so deeply with anyone in his life before. He could hardly believe it.
So, we continued to go out together and do simple things. Unlike most men that I had met up to then he didn’t make any physical moves and didn’t pressure me for a physical relationship to the point I said to my friends, “Do you think he’s gay?” They said, “No.” I didn’t think so either, but this was really unusual.
When quizzed about this later David told me, “I wanted that to wait because I knew once you get started on that line you don’t go back and I wanted us to be friends first without distractions.” So he was wiser than I.
About six weeks into our relationship I was meeting with an interior design client on a Saturday afternoon prior to going to a potluck with some other friends. She was single and mentioned she was excited because she had a coffee date on Monday with a guy who had answered her personal ad.
I said, “Oh neat, tell me more about it.” She described the guy and the letter she had gotten from him with a self-portrait.
“Hmmm” I said, “I think I know this man.”
She said, “Really?” and I said, “Yeah, I think it the guy I have been dating for the last six weeks. Get your letter. Yep, same guy. Do you mind if I give him a call?”
“No,” she said, “that’s okay.”
So I called him up and said, “I am at Gail’s house and you are meeting her for coffee?”
“Right,” he said. “Well,” I said, “I am a little surprised.”
He didn’t know why. He said, “We didn’t have any kind of formal agreement. I was married for so many years and got to meet so few people that now I want to socialize and make new friends.”
And I said, “Okay, I understand that, but I hope you will keep me on that list of friends and still come by to see me periodically because I like you and I think you are special.” He said, “Okay.” I thought, “That is that not the way I had seen it going, but oh well.”
The next day about ten thirty in the morning I got a phone call from David and he said, “Never mind. I have canceled the meeting with Gail because I realize I’m madly in love with you.”
My immediate thought was, “Woo, what I have gotten myself into here?”
Now we have been happily not- married longer than either of us were married to our original partners. And when my ex-spouse (who is nearing the end of his years) called to talk to me not long ago and apologized for things in our life together. I said in response, “We both owe each other some apologies. We were young and not easy on each other, but I now believe and tell people that ours was a starter marriage. We both learned enough so that in our next relationships we would have the skills needed to make them long term.” And so we have.
The title of this is Language and Languages because I have loved languages for as long as I can remember, in fact even further back from when I can remember. I was born in France and my first language was French. I did not speak a word of English until we arrived in England when I was just past three years old. I didn’t understand English so I got dropped into the local nursery school, with Nanny Snell, and no French was spoken there. I remember her as being very scary. That is where I learned English and never another word of French was spoken in our house.
When I was seven years old and in elementary school we started learning French and I was completely in heaven. The things that I loved then and that I have always loved when learning a new language were learning the conjugations and vocabulary. Everything sorting itself out like a jigsaw puzzle which I also love. French lessons just flowed for me – I had a feeling of this is right and this is not right. So, I studied French for ten years, all the way through finishing high school. I did Latin for ten years at school too. I could only do two languages at a time but somehow at some point when I was in high school I also got to do some German and some classical Greek and a bit of Italian. Whenever anyone offered me a chance to learn another language I was always, “Yes, I will do it.’
After majoring in Russian studies in University I spent time working in France and became fluent once again. Then when I was close to forty I picked up a bible for the first time in ages and the first thing I think is, ”HMMM, I wonder what it says in the original?” That is what came to me. So, a few years go by and I eventually end up in seminary when I was forty-five. I was going to do two years of a master’s degree, I didn’t even really know what a master’s degree was, but it seemed like a good idea. I would get to learn Greek and Hebrew and sort out a bit of theology and then I thought I would go back to work.
As it happened I spent ten years in seminary and grad school. I was completely hooked. In seminary, I did Greek. They would cram the whole of your first year of language into six weeks. So, you were completely immersed in it. I did biblical Greek. It was great, it was a blast. I hadn’t studied a language for over twenty years and I was completely overjoyed with it. But I will say that learning Greek didn’t make a large difference in the way I saw the New Testament.
Then came the second summer and Hebrew studies. The first day of Hebrew we came to class having learned the alphabet. That was a pre-requirement. The teacher flashes up on the board a photo copy of the Hebrew bible and had us read it. And we read it and he had us sound out the part of the story of the binding of Isaac. We sounded it out, “Take your son. Your only son. The one you love. Isaac.” It took us about ten minutes to sound this out and by the end of it I was crying. I mean, you can read that and people do all the time and you just gloss over it. But when you read it that slow – I saw the enormity of it and that God said it in four different ways so that there could be no doubt in Abraham’s mind who God was talking about. That was day one. By day two the entire seminary knew that Liz Gilson was studying Hebrew. I was just so excited that I was sharing with everyone I met. Because I was completely, completely in love with it and every single day in class the teacher would have us translate something or show us something or talk about a particular word that had been mistranslated over the centuries and it just blew me out of the water. From that time to this I have never seen the Old Testament the same way.
So, here is a copy of a page of my Hebrew bible. It is Psalm 121 and it happens – I have just been reading it again this week – there is one word that appears six times in that psalm. But only in the Hebrew. In English, it doesn’t. The word in Hebrew is “shamar” it means to protect, to care for, to guard, to keep in safety. I had always been told that the reason the Old Testament was so boring was because those old Hebrews just didn’t have a large vocabulary. What I discovered was that Hebrew is an incredibly rich language and that the Old Testament is full of plays on words and fun things with language and the juxtaposition of chapters and verses and passages and even books is completely intentional. I had never seen it before. And to this day, if they want someone to read at church, I always say, “Please let me read the Old Testament.” Because I can hear and be reminded what is happening in the Hebrew.
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.