Moving Back to Ithaca, Smoking, and My Dad

8 Jul

In December of 2008 I moved back to Ithaca from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I left behind my tenant, Jenna, and my two black and white cats, Harley and Caspar, along with my blue stucco house that I loved like a person. More importantly, I also left behind my good friend, Scott, a waiter at a high end dining spot in Eden Prairie, and another close friend, Denise, who worked at the same UW school, Stout, that I did, teaching English composition and literature to the earnest and the lackadaisical. I had spent two nights a week with her and her husband, Richard, and sometimes their daughter, Rosy, so that I wouldn‘t have to drive back to Minneapolis every night.

Right away I moved into Kendal, the grey Quaker institution on Savage Farm Road, on land that originally belonged to the Savage family and then to Cornell. It houses many older ex-Cornell employees and other people who can afford its high $200,000 down payment and exorbitant rent. It was hardly the place I expected to find myself at fifty-six, eating cafeteria food and walking around the circle over and over again in order to get my weight down. Still, I was used to more severe winters in Minnesota and could hardly complain about the weather and the fact that I had a place to stay.

The problem was that my father’s health had declined precipitously, the combined result of an operation on an aortic aneurism and one or more strokes. When he first came to Kendal, he was still walking, a condition of acceptance into the institution, but his problems with falling that had appeared on the farm continued, until my mother found herself pushing him in a wheel chair up the concrete slope to the dining room and losing 14 pounds. By the time I arrived, his disappearance into dementia was fairly rapid, but there were still those moments. One day I came to see him at breakfast and we discussed a heavy winter storm that had caused the family on his father’s dairy farm to dump all their milk, since no one could get in to pick it up. Another time he talked about keeping secrets with his mother and said that once he had confided in her that he had broken the family plow and asked that she keep the confidence. These moments occurred less often as the days progressed. Where he initially was kind, he became cutting sometimes. He had never liked people to be overweight and my extra weight seemed to annoy him.

He had wanted me to come back to Ithaca, and to build a house on the farm, but now he was no longer at the farm and that dream was so much smoke–cigarette smoke it is safe to say, since that was what had probably had caused the blockage in his arteries. There was one year in my life where I was able to connect with that addiction. I was working desperately on my dissertation on yellow legal pads. I wrote in long cursive at my decaying, cedar picnic table and then I would take a break to smoke. Unfortunately, I was having arguments with the man on my committee who was my age and supposedly in charge. One of the other men on my committee told me that my writing on Byron resonated too much. The older men on my committee were supportive but they were often away. From the time I was in sixth grade, I have wanted my writing to “resonate” and I found myself at a terrible juncture. If I couldn’t finish properly, I would have wasted years of late night papers and endless research. My friends Scott and Robert smoked and it seemed to help them so maybe it would help me.

It bothered my lungs, but it was a wonderful high and it kept me going. In a strange way it connected me to my father. I understood why all those years he had woken up at 6:30 to read and smoke and why when we were at the lake he would retreat outside for an evening cigarette. The stuff was obviously a quick way to bronchitis and further lung damage, but it also gave you a fantastic buzz and it helped me make it through each dissertation-pumping day. I thought of his smoking when I went to see him in the nursing section of Kendal and I thought of it with some regret, but also understanding of his motivation in continuing it all those years.

2 Responses to “Moving Back to Ithaca, Smoking, and My Dad”

  1. claireaperez July 9, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

    Katherine, I really enjoyed this story…can’t wait to hear (read) others. I like the name of this blog and you will probably get a great number of hits. Congratulations on starting it!
    Sorry for all you left behind…not an easy thing to do. Any pictures of the house that was like a person. Looking forward to your next post!

  2. dh July 15, 2011 at 12:16 am #

    I’ve always enjoyed the sensation of inhaling smoking products- the fresh smoke feels nice and aromatic and warm in your nose and lungs. Unfortunately the pleasantries stop once you exhale! The stale smoke smells terrible and it’s unhealthy to boot. Smoking was invented to be done outside always!

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