A Waterman with a Poet’s Soul

She drove towards Annapolis from Gaithersburg, a fine late summer morning. Always quiet, she was more silent than normal. As I would find out over the years, she has a penchant for dolling out information on a need to know basis. I’m firmly convinced that she doubles as a secret agent of some sort. How else can you explain her ability to vanish at will, in black socks?

I can tell something is up, but only a few months into our relationship, back in late August of 2004, I already know better than to press the matter. I relax, secure in the knowledge that she will let me know when I need to do something. I suspect that we are going somewhere nice, as she had me deviate from my usual goofy attire of camo shorts and t-shirts to khaki’s and a shirt with buttons. I had no idea.

We parked in downtown Annapolis, already in a bit of an argument. She is walking at her normal clip, which is to say just under a jog. I preferred to meander, take my time, amble along. She, on the other hand, has things to do. More specifically, we have her parents to meet. I’m irritated and feel foolish. How can we already be meeting her parents? We just met. She informs me that we met three months ago, and it is time to meet her parents.

I resign myself to the fact, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, that I was going to do as she said. My biggest question then was, “Where are we meeting?” I’m a redneck mountain boy from the hollers and hills of Southwestern Virginia, and unless my sense of direction was badly off, which it never was, we were headed in the direction of the waterfront. She looked at me, cutting me off in mid-sentence. We waited on the docks while a small dinghy puttered up, firing more or less on all cylinders.

A tall man, slightly stooped, in glasses, a hat and dark sweatshirt greeted us warmly, shook my hand, and welcomed me aboard. Whatever nervous aspirations I’d had about meeting my future wife’s parents evaporated in that moment. I have never, not once, been made to feel more welcome. He ferried us out to their sailboat, and his wife, my future mother-in-law, fussed over our boarding, set out a plate of Chacuterie, poured me a glass of wine, and made me feel as if I were part of the family.

I didn’t know I was going to marry Laura Friedel, daughter of Gerald Friedel, at that moment. I do think that she knew she was going to marry me. I didn’t know how the future would turn out. I do know that on that day in Annapolis, I met one of the greatest men who ever lived.

An engineer with a poet’s soul, a waterman to his core, I loved him with all I had. He became a father to me, someone with who I shared everything. He was the one who stepped in and helped me when I needed it as an engineer. He was the one who took me out for my very first bowl of she crab soup. He was the first to call when my own father was sick. He taught me how to plane doorways, how to properly tie off a boat at dock, how to toss a crab trap. He taught me how to eat muskrat stew and regaled me with stories of beach camping when he was young.

He took me skeet shooting and hunting. He taught me the finer points of upland waterfowl. Always keen to the wind, a waterman always, he took me goose hunting for the first time in my life. At night he and I sat and chortled over action movies, watching Bad Boys II while Mama Sue Friedel pretended to be horrified over the antics.

How proud he was of his daughter! How nervous I was when I asked him if I could marry her! I asked him in person, and he, always the romantic, cried with me and told me he would be honored. He told me the most important thing in a marriage was to always love, and always remember the little things.

Our wedding day was bright and clear, and I have never seen a man happier than Mr. Friedel. He danced with is daughter, a shimmering vision in white and I cried, knowing that no matter what, she would always be the light of his life. He placed her hand in mine and admonished me to take care of her, no matter what. I promised him I would.

Over the years, he was my closest friend, my surrogate father. When I stumbled and fell, which was often, he was always there for me, never judging, never admonishing. He stood up for me, stuck by me – a man’s man. Highly educated and prominent in the community, he was always the first in line with a shovel when “real work” needed to be done. The last thing we did together was load old carpet and a door out of a warehouse in Cambridge. I reminded him that he had already paid someone to do it – he just grinned and reminded me that we should get to share in the fun.

He cast a big shadow, and like any son-in-law, I sometimes chafed under his wisdom and guidance. I was often jealous of my wife’s affection for him and their bond, so deep between that communication was not necessary between them. His shadow, though, was deep and humble. Not once, not one time, in the twelve years that I knew him, despite the situation, did he offer a cross word or a heated exchange. Despite my bull-headed stubbornness and bewildering aptitude for doing all the wrong things at exactly the wrong time, he was patient and kind. Nor was any piece of advice he ever offered wrong.

I’ve never seen a prouder Grandfather. Nolan Gray Matney, named after Mr. Friedel and I, loved his Papa more than anything. The highlight of his day was when Papa was coming – Papa meant boat rides, fishing trips, car rides scrapple, and most importantly, ice cream. Sometimes, when the light was just right, I would look at the two of them and be eerily surprised by the similarities. Nolan possesses his Papa’s mechanical aptitude, passion for the Bay, and uncanny judge of character. Everything good in my young son is inherited from his Papa.

Mr. Friedel, I love you. You were my role model, my mentor, my father, my sounding board, my conscious. You were careful with your words, loving, and every bit the man that I wish I were. You are the father of my wife, the Grandfather of my son. You had a greater impact on my life than every other person I met before you put together. Most of all, all the way until the end, you were my friend. It was a true honor.

A waterman with a poet’s soul. Your memory will never dim.

Ronald N. Matney, II

Heritage

My Grandfather watched me from his wheelchair, his withered arm pulled beneath his blanket so that no one could see. Even then, ten years after the stroke that devastated his body, he held himself together with pride. Barely five feet tall in life, he was further shrunken into a shadow of his former self, laid low by the ravages and the pitiless passing of time.

I was his favorite grandson. I say that now with humility. I don’t know why he loved me so. Perhaps it was my bookishness as a child, my unwillingness to fight back, or defend myself from the bullies that ruled the nightmare that was school for me. I was small for my age, prone to inner ear infections and every passing flu or viral bacteria that spread like wildfire through our tiny isolated mountain mining towns. Only recently opened up to the outside world by the construction a major highway, we were, for the first time, susceptible to the disease and infectious spread of sickness that the rest of the world had to deal with. It wasn’t without consequence.

He held his blanket tight about him, and I could sense that he was about to cry. We were both emotional, another bond that we shared. Only a few days before, while watching a movie with my two baby sisters, I had cried over an animated lion cub’s father’s death. Embarrassing. I avoided eye contact and gave him as much respect as I could. I still saw the person in the chair, covered by blankets, with only one good eye. His tears came quickly as I laced my boots, his sobbing born not of despair or self-pity, but of pride for me, for the man he was watching me become.

My grandmother bustled about, her ample behind swishing along under her faded nightgown and housecoat. The smell of crisping pork fat and lard biscuits was heavy in the small kitchen, along with the sound of eggs sizzling in about an inch of rendered bacon fat in a cast iron skillet. Her coffee was legendary, baked more than brewed, as she pressed freshly ground beans into the percolator, layer upon layer, mixed with eggshells, until the resulting brew was nearly thick. Liberally sweetened with blackstrap molasses, it was enough in and of itself to fire the nervous system of a barely twentysomething man into orbit. As immune as even I was to the effects, more than one full cup of the stuff would give me nervous jitters for hours. Combined with the breakfast for which she was also famous for, and a chaw of Red Man tobacco, it was small wonder that I could work for sixteen hours straight, loading cinder blocks, splitting wood, slinging hay bales, beating ditches for water mains through the shallow topsoil into the shale and sandstone bedrock.

As my grandfather struggled to reign in his emotions, I finished my eggs, biscuits, pork renderings and coffee. My grandmother stared out at the early spring sun. “You got no business working underground like this.” It was an old conversation, one that we had started some twelve years earlier, when an ill-timed clot had lodged in my grandfather’s brain just long enough to cause irreversible paralysis. My grandmother thought me too intelligent, too gifted to enter the darkness of the mines as my family had, willingly, for generations.

I picked up my miner’s hat, self-consciously adjusting the band so that it sat on my head at a more rakish angle. Like all my family, I wore the low-vein hat, a testament to the shallow seams of coal that they crawled through in the drift, or punch-mouth mines that daylighted on the sides of the mountains, steaming their noxious fumes into the clean winter air. It was the first day that I would be descending into the shaft mines, great underground labyrinths, conceived of by greedy men pursuing personal wealth in the form of metallurgical grade coal, shiny and hard, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a carbon-rich prize capable of burning at temperatures high enough to smelt metal. As the reserves in Northern Pennsylvania slowly played out, mine operators followed the seams south, cutting deeper and deeper into the earth, until they found what they needed in Southwestern Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia.

My family had been some of the first to step foot into those shaft mines, swinging from iron buckets, laden with tools, dynamiting out platforms into solid rock from which millions of cubic feet of coal would later pour, out of the earth and from the blood of my relatives into the coffers of the rich. They profited from the blood and lives spilled in those mines, growing ever more rich as the land they pillaged became devastatingly poor.

Then, following in the footsteps of my father, who no longer swung over those caverns of space to earn a living for his family, and my cousin, who works in those mines still, I kissed my grandfather, who had gained control of his tears, grinned at my grandmother, and swung out the door into the dim light of an early morning. It was barely a five-mile drive, one that I could have done in my sleep, over the mountain to the mine entrance. The site itself was literally where the farmhouse my mother had grown up in had stood.  The mountain was where my Dad had once raced as a boy to gather the cow home for milking at the end of the day.

I myself had helped build the road over the mountain as a shortcut to the mine from the new four lane highway when I was a teenager. My family had owned the land around for generations. My uncle had helped sink the shaft into the earth, my father had designed, built and placed the methane removal equipment, now infamously known as fracking, so that mining operations could begin. The school that I was attending, Virginia Tech, had supplied the mining engineers who had designed the mining operations, so perhaps it was fate itself that led me out the door that day and into my future.

As most expected, I did not remain long in the depths of the earth. A few years later, with a Master’s Degree, I returned, briefly, if only to remind myself once more who I was. My Grandfather had passed on, along with my Grandmother. The family farm was sold, the land given up, along with the mineral rights and all that had been ours. A new shaft had been sunk, the old one relegated to age and disrepair. It was a brief stay, the mine now more deadly than ever as technology and system engineering replaced common sense and human judgement. The entire place had become a death trap.

The house I had left that morning so many years before had been sold, partially demolished and turned into an office for a mobile home park. The green gardens had been paved over, the old railroad tie bridge replaced and the smokehouse where hams had once cured was gone, pushed over into a heap of untidy rubbish.

It seems sometimes that my heritage passed with that place, that who I am, where I am from is some distant and fleeting memory, carried on only in the hazy remnants of my own recollection. I fear that my blue collar heritage is doomed to die with me, that all the muscle memory of a lifetime of working with my hands, of wresting life and pride from the earth is all for naught. I feel alone in these moments, the last of my kind, a relic of sorts, misunderstood and mocked slightly.

Then I see my son, his blonde hair mussed and curly, dirt on his mother’s gift of features, cunningly swinging a hammer, instinctively beating apart the rust on a chain so that it may lay straight against the concrete floor of our garage. I watch him carefully, amazed that he knows how to do this, just so.

I don’t feel quite so alone.

Daddyhood: Children and Expectations

Nolan concerned over the Sourdough Starter's "Death"

Nolan concerned over the Sourdough Starter’s “Death”

I’m watching my son while he watches T.V. These moments of observation will become rare as he gets older and begins to demand his own privacy, mostly likely in his room, then the inevitable abandonment of dependence as he moves throughout his early and later teen years.

At the moment, I’m content to think of none of those troubling thoughts. The future is murky, and best not studied too closely. I live more in the present than most people, I think. It is a result of many years of uncertainty, of poverty as a child and again in my twenties, although the latter was self-imposed and provided me with a sense of invulnerability and confidence in my ability to survive.

Now, I am just grateful for every day. I’m overwhelmed by the responsibility placed upon my shoulders by this gift of a son. I’ve learned to adapt, even in two short years. At first, I swore he would never watch television. I conceded my point and found an alliance: Internet television provided me with the ability to filter movies and shows and disable advertisement, which is mostly aimed at providing empty calories exploited by the remnants of arms manufactures held over past their prime after WWII and the Cold War no longer needed their services to render standing objects into their atomic states.

I am mostly uneasy that these same government sponsored entities are now entrusted with the nutrition of our children through subsidized global farming and the proliferation of cheap food ingredients. So far, I have held fast to my goal of never serving my child processed or “fast” food. Will this last? As long as I can make it my decision, it will. When it is his decision? Of course he will eat McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King. Hopefully, these institutions will have attempted to clean up their act by then, but that is only hope.

Of course, these foodstuffs won’t kill him. Not immediately. But what about painkillers? Or mutating strains of virus? What about the legalization of marijuana? I have long been of the opinion that it doesn’t matter – how do I feel now?

What about alcohol? What are my expectations for him? To never drink, not anything, not ever? That is most likely irrational. But, my own battles with addiction make it hard to think of the substance and my son in the same cogitation. The parallels are too great.

My sister says that expectations destroy free thinking and self-discovery. I agree. If my expectations, like my parents were, are for my son to somehow “better” himself in the American dream of increased wealth and disposable income, will that blind him to other paths? Will he simply revolt, as I did? My parents’ expectations of me were finally rendered null and void in a fury of disobedience and wanton self-destruction as I shrugged off the mantel of religion and short-term success. I chose a lifestyle far different than they had hoped, and even today they are somewhat confused by me, as all parents are by their children.

My father says that without expectations, the child will spiral in an endless void, with no goals to lead them or concerns to shape their personality. I agree. Without my parents’ expectations, I would have nothing to strive for non against as a young person. I would have had no direction, no meaning, just adrift in a current not of my own making, riding it through life, obeying the immediate whims of my conscious, as opposed to making my own way. I chose the dark paths at times, just for the experience of choice and the journey more difficult.

Will this impact my son? What will I do for him?

I will just be there, every day I can, teach him what little I know, and pray for wisdom. He is growing and changing every day – I can barely keep up.

I’m going to keep previewing what he watches on T.V. I will give him a tablet device, as it is part of his world, no matter how much I dislike it. I would not raise him to be wantonly ignorant, wallowing in the pride and self-righteousness of religious cults and hierarchy. My great hope if for him to be experienced and wise beyond his years, following his parents in a careful journey of this world.

I want him to be computer savvy. I also hope that he will have the ability to shoulder a small pack, vanish into the world and be o.k., better than o.k. I hope he will be able to tango and split wood. I hope he can speak multiple languages and be at ease in any environment. I want him to be well traveled, yet grateful for home. I want him to be able to grow his own food, harvest his own protein, yet appreciate the sacrifices the earth makes to provide for him.

Is all this too much to ask? I don’t know. I’m just a Dad.

Obituary

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sourdough_0001(Easton, MD) RIP. Gwynevere Sourdough, (August 6, 2014 – January 10, 2015) was laid to rest today in a small tomb in a compost tumbler today. She is followed in life by her three sisters, Mulan Kimchi, Ariel Pho and Belle Kombucha. Her colors were orange and earth, and her grave adorned with Paradise Tea and Christmas Holly, who joined her in the everlasting ebb and flow of the circle of life.

Gwynny, as she was so fondly known by her friends and family, was responsible for many loaves of sourdough bread in her time here with us. Her Father and Benefactor, Hank Sourdough, age 47, offered a eulogy. “She was a hungry and often petulant child, who was meant for the warmth of the sun. It is with great poignancy to know she suffered from cold, but never from neglect. She sorely missed her mountains and the torridity of her beloved hickory stove.”

Her caretaker, Chef Ron, was not available for comment.

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Boots and Baby

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Dearest Son:

I’m proud of how well you behaved today. You drove your end of the shopping cart all over the store and didn’t hit a thing. When the pretty lady behind the counter offered you a cookie, you took it, graciously, even though you really didn’t want it that much. You even ate part of it while she was watching. That is called grace. Sometimes, I have that.

You sat up straight in the restaurant, talked on your phone to some Very Important People. You still made time to recognize the small folk, like your Dad, and the waitress. You chattered away to her and let her know you liked here, though her shoes were pretty and I think you complimented her on her hair. She was blown away by how well you handled your hot pizza and blew on it before offering her a bite. That is called charm. Most of the time, I have that.

You rode your bike, a new one, even though you are barely two. You managed to make me so proud when you coasted a few feet all by yourself. I was also astonished by your ability to jump into our bed, even though it’s low, by just placing your hands on the mattress. You caught a football in the sporting goods store after you threw it into the air all by yourself. I’ve never seen a child do that before. Not age two. That is called natural athleticism. That is from your mother. I don’t have that.

After catching the ball, you played hide and seek with me all over the store. Most of the time, you let me find you. You were also content to wander about the store on your own, not knowing exactly where I was, but not looking for me either. You are already expressing your independence, even at this early age. That is called confidence. I used to have a lot of that.

You were quick to straddle a new bicycle in the store, taking off before anyone could get into position to help you, not thinking of the consequences of falling, or getting hurt, or what other people thought. That is called fearlessness. I used to have a lot of that.

You carefully read your book at dinner, engrossed in all the new pictures, and looked over each page carefully while drinking your milk and finishing your pizza. I was so proud at how you have developed so far. That is called intellect. I have been accused of having that, too.

When you fell off your bike later, you almost caught yourself, but not quite. You managed to turn yourself around, almost impossibly, to break your fall. Your head was too heavy. You still almost managed to stop your journey to the concrete floor but I was there, and I caught you. That is called agility. I still have that, thanks to you.

Just now, you would not stop trying the buttons on my thermos until you discovered for yourself what they did. That is called curiosity. Keep that trait. I have.

You have big feet. The doctor said so. You are tall and thin, as I was at your age. Being naturally thin is a good thing, it means you’ll be healthy later on, if you take care of yourself. I didn’t do that.

You make good decisions, already. You can differentiate between what is right and wrong, what is scary and not, what will burn you and what will taste good to you. You also try to never hurt anyone’s feelings, demonstrating a natural ability to read into a situation and do the right thing. I have not always done this.

You like to brush your teeth, take baths, get plenty of sleep and eat good food. You avoid things that are bad for you. I didn’t do that.

There are lots of things I didn’t do, but that is not what life is about. You already know this, even though you are two. I wasn’t even supposed to be your Dad, but I am. I wasn’t supposed to live long enough to be at your first birthday party, and we just celebrated your second. That is called stubbornness and luck. You have that too. You are my son.

With you at my side, I went through a lot of things these past two years. I had fluid drained from my abdomen twelve times. I had a really hard time with addiction and recovery, which I should not have had to go through, had I been smarter and wiser, like you. I was operated on several times, once by mistake, but I pulled through, knowing that you would be there with your sense of humor, loving smile and with your Mom in tow, even when she didn’t want to be, sometimes. I wasn’t the best Dad, and I’m still not, but I try. That is called being tough. You are tough. You are my son.

Now, as you are safely in bed, I look at your boots and mine, as you placed them side by side before you took your bath. It makes me cry, a little. But I am happy. I am your Dad. You are the best son I could have ever wished for.

I love you, son.

Daddyhood: Frozen and Preschool

I am one of those lucky Dads, through virtue of some creative financial juggling, a terminal illness, some creative talent and an independent and driven wife who happens to be the number one wedding photographer in Virginia, gets to stay home with his son. In a society that still, despite all of our predictions of the contrary, sets an unfair paradigm on couples for the male to be the primary financial provider, it can sometimes be difficult and even embarrassing to be a stay at home Dad. It’s also very edifying intellectually to observe my son’s behaviorisms compared to other children his age, who have been placed in day care in other more orthodox alternative environments.

This is not to say that raising a child outside of day care, in the absence of nannies (except when Mom & Dad really, really need some time alone) and with both parents usually present or more or less equally involved in a child’s development is the right thing. I don’t know that it is. None of us will really know. Children are resilient, no matter what. Toddlers have survived in hunter gatherer societies for thousands upon thousands of years. If not for their survival, we would not be here, right?

But day care can be a very touchy subject. Parents who choose Daycare or Preschool over alternative, stay at home options are often defensive of their decisions. Men who choose, either by virtue of their disposition or financial analysis to stay at home are even more defensive. As one of those men, I feel much the same way.

I’m not accepted, for example, on playgrounds where the majority of caregivers present are women. It doesn’t matter the ethnic or societal of the populace: I get strange looks either way. Most mothers ignore me, with a few notable exceptions who are simply thrilled to find a man occupying their world. In the environment of adolescents, I am either a suspected creeper, a lazy father who can’t or won’t work, or someone for mothers to pour out their hearts to in scenes eerily reminiscent of absolvent repentance.

I’ve learned to mostly nod and listen in those situations, which happen more than you would think. I’m southern, educated and I was raised by some very strong women. The women in my life as a child ruled the house with an iron fist. The man may bring in some money, but the women? They planted the gardens, raised the children, slaughtered the animals, stored all the food, prepared all the nourishment and paid all the bills. I have a lot of respect for women in general and mothers in particular.

There were two events that have really jumped out at me lately. Soon after moving to a new location, I visited a local bakery. It was upscale, and appropriately priced. Coffee was around three bucks, and cookies were about two dollars. Each. That is a bit pricey, but they were really good cookies and cookies are what my son lives for right now. that and Bubbles. both words elicit a very excited state of behavior for him.

We dropped the cookies on the floor. We were both at fault, as I didn’t have him properly secured when I picked up our plate of treats, and he over-reached in a lunging attempt to seize the prize. We stared at one another, my son and I, as we grappled for a decision together. We arrived at the same conclusion: We would pick up the cookies, continue to our targeted seat by the window, and eat them.

So we did. the mothers present, in their full regalia of ultra tight running pants, extremely bright running shoes that had only been to coffee shops and Whole Foods, matching socks with a water and wind proof top, completed by a conservative yet bouncy blonde ponytail, were very disapproving. One mother even dared so far as to raise her voice so that all could hear. “Where is his Mother??

then there was the “Frozen” moment. I released him into the wilds of a very high end toy store. Every single child in the store was planted firmly in front of a large screen T.V., which was relentlessly bombarding them with Disney’s latest financial marvel. Nolan sailed into the room, glanced at the screen, paused for a moment and my heart stopped. What would he do> He shook his head a moment, talked to himself, and proceeded to the trainset and engineers blocks, kitchen set and carpenters bench, where he pretended to build, cook, and destroy lots of things while happily rewinding the train over and over.

For some insane reason, I was so proud of him I nearly cried. Maybe I am doing something right. Maybe.