“Things mean more. Time matters more” John Cullen
Brother John home schools his four children. This is a man whose vocation is to create beauty. He designs gardens as sacred space. He is “all that “. He has won best in show at the Philadelphia Garden Show and has represented the US in Singapore at the International Garden Show.
John is the youngest of eight children. He is the son of a plumber and a church going homemaker momma. As a kid John was irascible. When he was a sophomore in high school he was ejected from his role as one of the Knights of the Round Table in the schools annual musical, Camelot. The reason was his math grade did not meet the required “B”.
Perhaps he was never knight material. Perhaps he was not landed gentry with the required silver spoon. Perhaps he was a serf, or the last born of a blue-collar factory rat.
Our father quit school at 16. Quit is a euphemism. No one quits school. Schools quit kids. While his dad was succumbing to the ravages of Lou Gherig’s disease, World War II was brewing on the horizon.
Dad was needed, to be the man. First to carry his dad up and down the maple stairs. He was never good at school but he excelled at being a good son. In the war he was the ever-obedient soldier as he carried the body bags of deceased soldiers in the intense heat of India to be flown home to the grieving families.
An orphan boy, dad thrived and cherished belonging. So when he was working at the Ford Motor Company or fueling the furnaces at Zug Island in Rouge, he belonged. He was in the company of men, in the community of workers.
Dad was grimy. He was a plumber. He smelled of soot and sewage.
But our dad, like brother John with his brood of four, our dad home schooled us. (Oh we left out to regular class every day for five hours but the crical curriculum took place under dad’s tutelage.) Dad played Enrico Caruso and Ella Fitzgerald. He played some obscure Russian bass and had us listening to the lowest note ever recorded. He read Crime and Punishment. He wrote letters to the editors and poems for president’s wives. We did family reading of Edgar Allen Poe poems.
He took us to the circus three times in one weekend splurging on county candy and waning poetically about the aerial artist. He showed us the Belle Isle Bridge that Houdini had leapt from on the occasion where he got trapped below the icy waters of the frozen Detroit River.
Dad would just drop us curbside at the Detroit Institute of the Arts and leave us city urchins on our own to discover art. Looking at masterpieces the way a child looks for pennies on the sidewalk. For spending money we were dads crew on an blacktopping company he called “ Cullen and Son’s” Dad our teacher drove us around the city looking for cracked asphalt telling us stories of Paradise Alley and Mystical saints who had been martyred for some great cause.
Once I dated a handsome engineer. “ I work for the Ford Motor Company, drive a Ford and live on Ford Lake” This college educated Ford fellow though lost points with me when he spoke of the rank and file with disdain. He was the white-collar sort; he gave his soul to the “man”
Dad got that one could work with heart, yet save your soul for higher purpose.
Dad loved workers. He could have been a Marxist or a social justice Catholic. He could have been anyone of the faceless drones in the Diego Rivera court at the art institute.
Dad schooled me in an intensive curriculum. He is my muse in my own work.
One night as he was fetching me from his mothers where I lived while attending Wayne State we were traveling over the I75/Rouge river overpass. As he watched the smoky industrial smog embrace the city in a pink glaze, the incense like cloud smudging the city he spoke. He was an apostle with an epistle. He spoke of what looked to me an industrial wasteland” “Look he says, as if he is the scarecrow leading Dorothy to the Emerald City…Look at all that out there.” He spoke of the men whose sweat sustained the dreams and hopes of their sons and daughters. He looked out at the twinkle of the grimy industrial beast and understood and taught me how a man will bleed for the future. How a man may cash in their violin for a pair of work boots, callous up their fingers not by the guitars frets but on the rough shovels of while filling the bowels of the coal furnace. They fed their child, paid their house note and worked side by side with men whom they might not sit together with on the trolley home. They belly upped to the bar in camaraderie on payday Friday. Not serving the muse but having sated the beast, in communion with their fellow workers.
So who is schooled in what? I am a teacher taught by a man whose benchmarks were: 1. All men matter. 2. Our souls are our own. 3. It is our purpose that really matters in the end.
So as a mom of a son and a teacher of students who I suspect may one day work at the quick lube or perhaps with the shitty life deck they were dealt may even end up
“With the state”(incarcerated) likes so many of our mentally stressed citizens. Well I just pray and hope I have shown them a peek at beauty. Every now and then I let dad teach the class. I read them lyrics from a Joyce Kilmer poem or play calliope music. Or we just stop and gaze at the cloud formations.
I want to infuse my students with the “teachings” of my blue-collar dad. I want them to know what it was that helped him to navigate through the real world of “Everyman’s” life. If you can keep your soul and take it on this journey of life with you… well that is the great mystery that may infuse us all with that great ideal of “purpose”