Karry catches the rising sun spotlighting the frost on the trees, says I’d appreciate, implying more than her, she hates all of winter … but as the sun continues to rise, she thaws, and is broken by its beauty, how the backlit frost glows, how the trees just glisten, like the sun has cast the morning in moonlight, and for an unspoiled moment we just stand awed in our old kitchen and stare at an older sun we’ve never seen before kissing the backs of the bare trees good morning.
In my imagination, this is where we are tonight ….
Walking into Potter’s, glancing left and finding enough open, old, red stools at the bar to accommodate us (whoever’s available, whoever wants to come), their acquisition by our keisters a confirmation, the most formal, capital “A” Arrival I can think of right now, the granting of official permission to leave everything else outside for Here … Now … the simple This.
In my imagination Robert, the forever bartender, towel over his shoulder, who spent contented decades pouring and washing, fills our glasses full of Pabst — all that our thirst has required here since 21.
Yes, we make a point to clink each other’s glasses. There may be toasts, but everything that has ever needed said is whispered in full measure by just our being together.
There is no clock on the wall.
If we’re lucky an old regular may shuffle in on cue to check the daily number off the TV, letting us know it’s seven. In the right company, in the right place, such a sun dial is sufficient.
We don’t bother with the menu, remembering it like we recall the Gettysburg Address Mr. Landman made us memorize in 8th grade history.
Everyone orders their regulars … there may be a cheeseburger, maybe wings, maybe a Greek Western, maybe a Double Giant Whammy Doodle.
For me, it’s a Poor Boy (what Potter’s calls their grilled ham and cheese topped with lettuce and mayo) without tomato on a hoagie roll. Unostentatious and perfect, the sandwich and the setting. Small salad (with beets, because, you know, Uniontown) tossed in their homemade Italian whose taste is worth any indigestion later, and their legendary fries sprinkled with seasoned salt, to share.
But the nourishment I come for is not on the menu.
It’s to hear everyone’s laughter again. Bill throwing his head back in full cackle. Tom’s revving up and going silent in high gear. Matt’s high-pitched giggle. Homer, ready with his quick squirrel chuckle. Andy’s shoulders heaving when he gets going. Chris, fighting through his laugh to throw more logs on the fire. Wolfie just shaking his head.
We go a little quieter when the food comes, order seconds of Pabsts, and are in no great hurry once the bill comes, carrying on the conversation we started here as teenagers.
Cheers, boys ….
Tuesday, November 13, 2020
I plant the black camp chair firm
in the back yard grass just
as the sun and I tip
our hats good evening to this,
the season’s last warm day.
From 70s, 60s now and falling fast,
fall’s full fragrances mingling with the mix tape of neighbors’ bustling,
whispering to me that this is indeed a great, shared secret.
A lawn mower over yonder pushed from front to back,
growling louder and receding,
like the wave of a season’s coming and going….
Neighbor kids squealing just beyond the reach of each other’s tag,
the barking dog so wanting to break free from its leash to join this,
its favorite game in the world ….
The pork chop dinner through the kitchen’s open screened window wafting,
soon summoning the congregation ….
The wrist-revving motorcycle, racing up the street
chasing the last of the jacketless daylight.
50s now, and falling fast,
I rise from my chair and lay down,
surrendering so the grass can pillow my head,
and draw in the deep breath of …
the neighbor’s finished mow,
pork chops on the table,
the fallen leaves scenting the air and promising
a Last. Satisfying. Crackle. Crunch.
When I recluctantly stand back up,
fold the black camp chair, plant it ‘neath the porch,
and shut the back door behind me, turning the lock.
The leashed dog still barking, wanting to play.
So, THIS would have been the day
When we would stretch after-school Nerf football
On the perfect patch of Connor Street between the power lines
Until the very last drop of daylight … and then some.
You could smell dinner on the table from each of the houses
along your deep post pattern.
our moms would yell us inside,
and we’d beg or ignore for five more minutes.
we could run under just one more tight spiral
on that perfect patch between the power lines.
(Season 3, Episode 6)
On Friday nights, we’ve taken to watching old episodes of Murder, She Wrote.
As one does.
As an aside … happy belated 95th birthday to Dame Angela Lansbury. As an aside to the aside, I found Em the most awesome t-shirt in the universe to honor the occasion.
To give you just a taste of our recent bliss, last week we dialed up Season 3 Episode 5, and watched the sublime “Corned Beef and Carnage,” [how there isn’t a statue built to the person who came up with that title is a crime that should have merited its own two-part episode ending with a part-one cliffhanger, but I digress…]
… featuring a cast that would rival any Love Boat episode … Charles from MASH, Larry from Three’s Company, “The Man” from Chico and the Man, Kenickie from Grease, and the lovely Susan Anton (insert purring cat sound here).
After last week’s carnage, our expectations were highest-level-before-infinity as we curled into our comfy living room chairs to fire up episode 6 last night. It guest-starred Leslie Nielsen, playing David, an old-high school crush of Jessica’s, who was returning to Cabot Cove as a four-time-divorced smooth-talking debonair shyster, having hired a quartet of young scuba divers to plumb the depths of Cabot Cove in search of forgotten, sunken Pirate treasure.
As one does.
Oh, how high the piles of cocaine must have been in their weekly writer’s room?
Anyway, here’s where I need you to pay attention and weigh in …
… the episode opens with Angela chatting with Amos (Tom Bosley’s dim-witted sheriff character who Bosley inflects with the absolute worst Maine accent ever attempted) and good ole’ Seth (the town doctor whose relationship with Jessica always almost-but-never-quite teeters beyond the platonic), when David (Leslie Neilsen’s character) spies Angela, taps her on the shoulder, and …
… gives her an impossibly-hard-to-watch full-mouth excruciatingly long kiss.
Out of nowhere. With no context.
For context (as if it even matters to the scene) … Jessica is a widower, who turned to mystery writing only after the sudden, unexpected death of her dear husband, Frank.
Needless to say Em and I were as taken aback as Seth and Amos.
In full disclosure, one of us may or may not have blurted out: “What the EFFFFFF is happening right now?”
No lie, we exchanged at least two rounds of astonished rejoinders by the time those suddenly carnal 50-somethings pulled away from each other.
It was then that we realized that, evidently, we care more about the character (not to mention Frank, her widower, who is probably still spinning in his fictitious grave) NOW than the writers did THEN. This is where we welcome your perspective to balance ours.
Knowing what you now know about the scene (also, if you want to appreciate the following question in its full context, we wholeheartedly encourage you to dial up Season 3, Episode 6, watch it beginning to end, and then return to the polling question. Better yet, start at Season 1, Episode 1, and work your way through the massive pile of dead bodies that Jessica amasses leading up to her randy street encounter with Lt. Frank Drebin.) …
… please weigh in the following. Thanks (as always) for the gift of your time and attention.
It was significant, though it was nothing fancy.
Actually, she made just about every detail significant, though none of it was fancy.
She let me take her to lunch today, just the two of us (since we went out to dinner as a family on Sunday). She got dressed up just a little bit. Wore the brown blouse that she knows I have always loved her in. Was ready a couple minutes early. She let me drive. Let me hold the door for her as she got in, and also as she got out. Took my arm as we negotiated the parking lot slush. Let me pick from the menu, even though she wasn’t interested in anything other than breadsticks and tea.
Truth be told, she hates Pizza Hut. Has ever since she got the most violently ill after a visit years ago. As has been her custom consistently across the 26 years I’ve known her, she gives you one shot, and that’s pretty much it.
But she has been known to make the occasional annual exception on or around February 14. When she lets me coax her into a victory lap over some breadsticks and tea.
That was the precise fare on Feb. 14, 1991, when we spent our first ever Valentine’s Day together gazing out at some fat snowflakes from a booth at the Waynesburg Pizza Hut.
She’d forgotten about the snow then, she confessed as I recalled the weather report from 26 years ago.
We both fought the urge to take the full measure of this annual pencil-tick-on-the-doorjamb moment.
But I made myself vulnerable before her … with the same ease that convinced me 26 years ago that she was The One and Only. I could always tell her anything.
Confessed to her how embarrassed I was about forgetting how to surprise her. I’ve lost it … from lack of practice. Couldn’t come up with anything for Valentine’s Day for her. Not that we’re big V-Day people. We’re beyond the hype you might say. Still, though … I used to have game. Used to knock her socks off. When I couldn’t afford roses, I once made her a bouquet of roses I drew, told her they were better than the real thing because they would never wither. She kept them for years. Once saved up for a diamond necklace, though the biggest one I could afford was the tiniest one they had.
She wore it to lunch today.
The waiter brought us our breadsticks and iced teas.
We said Grace. Clinked our breadsticks.
The ceremony reminded us of not just who we were, but who we still are, underneath the responsibilities and have-to’s of the 40-something versions of us that are still struggling to Figure It All Out.
When we pulled back in to the garage so I could resume my work day and she could share the leftovers with the kids, she paused before getting out. Leaned over and gave me a kiss.
It was nothing fancy. But it was significant.
She’s still very much capable of surprising me.
I can’t remember when I found them, I just remember as soon as I saw them I had to get ’em.
That was us for a good 14 years, from my first gig as a 14-year-old until I gave up my spot on the bandstand a couple years after getting married.
I think I made them a Christmas present. And I was right. He treasured them.
For years afterwards, whenever I’d visit, he’d always point ’em out from their privileged perch on the mantle in the living room. “I smile every time I look at them,” he’d say. “They make me think of all the good times we had.”
And then we’d reminisce about those good times.
I know exactly what he means.
I took them back when we cleaned out the old house four years ago. Gave them a privileged perch on the shelves leading upstairs, so I’d see them every time I came home.
I smile every time I look at them. They make me think of all the good times we had.
That’s what I’d tell him if I could call to wish him a happy birthday today.
I can hear the sound of his voice pitching up the second he recognized it was me, as pure as the tone of his horn.
He was always genuinely glad to hear from me every time I’d call. What a gift that was.
That’s what I’m missing today.
I’d call him to wish him a happy birthday, and he’d be the one making me feel good.
The girls are out for errands after going to church. Peter’s still sleeping. I’m alone at the dining room table, looking out through the screen door on a rainy Sunday morning. The poblano plant is finally starting to sprout. “Look at them … they are mutants!” Emma gushed when she went out to inspect earlier this morning. Until she said it, I hadn’t noticed. But they’re now the size of chubby toes, and have finally caught up to the jalapenos we’ve been enjoying the past couple weeks.
The porch garden was foremost among Emma and Karry’s experiments this summer. My wife suppressed her pessimism born of past failed backyard garden attempts sabotaged by the gluttonous cemetery deer who, for years, have roamed and ravaged our neighborhood as expectant as tourists with lobster bibs. Her youth nourished by lush family gardens in the country, Karry fully indulged Emma’s initiative. As my wife is a resigned realist, I found her sanguine act significant.
So they rimmed the perimeter of our porch with seeded planters of tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, jalapenos, poblanos and onions. Neighbored them with basil, oregano, spearmint, and cilantro. For months, Emma dutifully tended her little green village daily. The monitoring of progress has elicited from the girls consistent spasms of giddiness. I know this not from direct participation, but through the evening glee that wafts through the screen door back into the house. Admittedly, some subjects have fared better than others. But even the humblest of harvests have brought small joys.
Before succumbing to the pounding, parching sun, Em’s lettuce planter yielded just enough for one fleeting dinner table appearance, spread amongst three tiny ramekins, fishes-and-loaves style. I can’t remember what the main course was that evening. I just remember that the smaller-than-side-salad portion coaxed from everyone an unspoken, careful curating of their favorite salad garnishes to honor the humble, 15-feet, porch-to-table provision. Em, a purist, added but a few croutons without dressing, as is her custom. Peter — decidedly anti-vegetable, but onion-tolerant – went Vidalia, sprinkle cheese and crouton dressed with Olive Garden Italian. Me, onion, cucumber, carrot, green pepper, crouton and a little bleu cheese dressing. We chewed slowly, savored. For maybe the first time in my life, my taste buds listened for what the lettuce had to say. Our eyes widened involuntarily the way they sometimes do when you experience something surprising and singular.
While the pluck-able portions have been consistently small in size and amount, they have been consistent. We’ve regularly dressed and seasoned dishes with tiny onions and tomatoes, basil and oregano. Minted tea. And Em has dried and jarred herbs for the fall.
If one evaluated Emma’s investment of time against the output, profits would be deemed meager by the objective measure.
But there are many subjective lenses to such measures.
Family was prepping dinner the other night. Emma, as she’s been for the past few months, was in complete command. She suggested I make guacamole, and offered to coach. Not that I don’t know how to make guacamole, but Emma has so elevated our eating the past few months, I readily accepted the internship. She ordered me to go pluck a jalapeno from the porch. My eyes got wide. I had not previously been issued security clearance for porch harvesting, though I’d been tantalized on many occasions through the screen door. Sliding the screen open I found vines full of jalapenos. So Pete picked a pepper, and went about crushing the garlic, squeezing the lime, chopping the onion, mashing the avocados. “Lumps are OK,” Em counseled. Ceremonially, I saved the jalapeno for last.
In doing so I learned that, what our tiny porch jalapenos may lack in size, they more than made up for with absurdly violent heat. After putting the finishing touches on the guac, and setting it down on the table to enjoy with the sublime buffalo chicken taquitos that Emma and Karry prepared, I noticed that, of all things, my eyebrows were burning. I’m not sure how, when or why, but at some point in the proceedings, apparently I used my jalapeno hands to deep tissue massage my entire forehead. Given that my brother has long pointed out that Riddell men don’t have foreheads – we have fiveheads – that’s a lot of real estate.
I eat guacamole like I eat popcorn, with a constant — what some in my family refer to as a “primal” — shoveling motion. In the process, the jalapeno that was laying waste to the countryside north of my nose and south of my hairline was now fully carpet bombing the inside of my mouth.
My family’s unanimous affection for my guacamole was also intense, but not as intense as the pleasure they took from my suffering.
Peter: Padre, you OK over there?
Karry: Look! His forehead is beading sweat.
Emma: Why is Dad making those sounds?
So, evidently, I was making involuntary grunting sounds as an autonomic response to the pepper’s spice. This happened to me only once before, when I did the Philly Cheesesteak tour and over-served myself from the drums of cherry peppers adorning the condiment bars at Pat’s and Geno’s. My companions at that time also found my guttural sounds unsettling. To get you in the ballpark, imagine the early stages of one transforming into a werewolf … if the werewolf had also accidentally set himself on fire.
My impromptu, one-man dinner-theater performance aside, my pain wasn’t the price of the jalapeno. It was its payoff.
The purpose of the entire experiment … of Em’s daily tending, pruning, watering, plucking, preparing.
That’s been the most precious and elusive commodity for me over these past five months. Pummeled, numbed, distracted by the weight of all the chaos, uncertainty and insanity of the present moment at work, at home and in the world.
In my search for medicine for this moment, which has taken me to destinations both darker and lighter, I’ve been finding light in the Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green’s incandescent, exquisitely crafted podcast (where he dryly and wryly reviews elements of the human-centered world on a five-star scale). On the recent episode where he announced he’s placing the project on temporary hiatus, he shared what the podcast has meant to him over the past few months. “Maybe the most important thing (the podcast) has given me is quiet,” he wrote. “My life has become so unbearably loud, and so oriented around being loud.” The exercise of the podcast has “helped me pay attention to what I pay attention to.”
That’s what I feel I have lost these past five months … the ability or capacity or inclination to ‘pay attention to what I pay attention to.’
So, in looking out my window on a quiet, small rainy Sunday morning at a poblano plant with toe-sized peppers persistently, insistently, waving gently in the rain, I discovered … a harvest.
In the act of carving out a small space, putting a stake in the ground, planting seeds, and tending it to see what might grow.
Planting a garden where no soil exists is an act of optimism. An act of persistence. An act of defiance.
A reminder that these days, real truth often exists in inverse proportion to volume…
… in the whispers of small things blooming beautiful in small spaces.
In the reminder to pay attention to the things you pay attention to.
To listen to what the lettuce has to say.
Not comprehensive, or in any particular order … just what comes to one’s mind upon being gifted approximately 18,250 sunrises ….
- That, when I was a desperate for a date to a fraternity party, she said yes. And the subsequent circles we danced to Meat Loaf (if I recall), and the subsequent goodnight kiss, and the Johnny Walker Red that may or may not have been responsible for the courage behind that kiss, and, indirectly, the subsequent 29 years.
- That I got to be on the same stage with my Dad when he’d close his eyes and shred Harry James’ opening solo on Two O’Clock Jump. The numbers of all the good charts we used to play (#95, #39, #124, #20, #209, #93, #117).
- Gathering with my best childhood friends every Christmas to decorate a tree, sip some Old Crow, and bear witness.
- A big sister who let me pick out my first rock n’ roll record at the National Record Mart.
- A daughter who still says yes when I ask her to read with me, and who savors a good turn of phrase as much as her old man.
- A sister who sends me a card, cartoon, or clipping every week to let me know she’s thinking of me.
- A son who asks me to hit golf balls with him even though I am beyond redemption. And on the grander scale, a gracious soul who forgives me for having tried way too hard.
- Running under all those perfectly aimed and timed fly balls Dad launched just within the waffle-pocket reach of the oversized, Reggie Jackson model Rawlings he bought with the best $25 he ever spent.
- Em’s Saturday morning omelets with toast (oh, and while I’m there, her home made mac-n-cheese doused with Red Hot in the manner of holy water).
- An older brother who, like the good offensive lineman he was, wore down my parents’ resistances to allow me a clean running lane through my teenage years.
- Roger Khan, Roger Angell, John Updike, Myron Cope, Gene Collier, David Halberstam, Roy Blount Jr. and all the others who taught me that good sports writers were just good writers who happened to write sports.
- The small graces … squeezing toothpaste on her toothbrush in the morning … walking down the driveway together after taking out the garbage … standing at the sink doing dishes …. blowing kisses to the window while leaving for work in the morning.
- My favorite Sunday night Oldie’s DJ.
- A sister who raised two beautiful souls on her own and now gets to enjoy her grandchildren, and the occasional glass of wine with her baby brother.
- A neighborhood that knew the best recipe for growing adults was to let kids be kids.
- Preserving the capacity to be awed.
- A mom who saved everything, including the before-and-after-orthodontic molds of my teeth, the BEFORE sample prompting my daughter to re-coil, “That looks like it’s from a North American primate,” which is pretty much exactly what the girls in middle school thought, too.
- That holding hands still makes everything OK.
- Parents who gave me time and space to figure stuff out.
- Chicken wings from Drovers, two with everything and fries with gravy from Shorty’s, a Poorboy without tomato, small fries and a Pabst draft from Potter’s.
- Charlie Watts proving that eighth notes and a bemused smile are all one needs to build a pocket big enough to fit an entire world (translation: more is not always better).
- Gerard Manley Hopkins writing his arse off for an audience no bigger or smaller than God herself.
- Laurel Highlands Class of ’88.
- Jazz on a rainy day and blistering guitars ‘neath a starry sky.
- Our only family vacation growing up … to Gettysburg and Valley Forge during the Bicentennial. The sound of pee hitting a coffee can in the backseat on our no-stop drive to the middle of the state.
- The bewitching crackle of a campfire.
- The 1-4-5 progression.
- How the very specific scent and feel of crisp late summer Southwestern PA mornings always makes me think of high school band camp.
- The old, tiny teacher’s desk from Areford that mom salvaged and refinished … that makes me think of where I came from every time I sit down to write at it.
- The best days in my life, summed up in eight words. “I do / It’s a boy / It’s a girl”
- Remembering to look up.
- Making her laugh so hard she cries.
- When they were small enough to carry.
- Knowing it’s in as soon as it leaves your hand.
- That little dip in our neighborhood that breezes you five degrees cooler like a kiss on the cheek when you’re running down its hill
- Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful.
- A dry Kettle One martini and/or listening to Paul Desmond (same thing)
- Every letter I’ve received in the mail and kept.
- Riding in Dad’s Sherwin Williams van on Sunday afternoons looking for a playground hoop with a good net.
- Being Santa Claus. Until you’re not.
- Winning the in-law lottery.
- Peter’s brown-sugar, oven-baked, banana ‘recipe’ he fashioned when he was seven years old, that, when properly muddled with vanilla ice cream, is the key to the universe.
- How the smell of second hand smoke always makes me think of Mom.
- City Lights Bookstore.
- The sound of rain on a metal awning.
- Nieces and nephews who made great daughters and sons, better sisters and brothers, and even better mothers and fathers.
- All the encouragers.
- That I remembered to write most of the good stuff down, to remind me when I forget about the good stuff.
- Chapters left to write.
So normally at this time of year, my wife and daughter spend a long, excruciating Saturday at the dance studio for Picture Day. Typically — and gratefully — I orbit beyond the gravity of this black hole. From a distance I appreciate it to be a 10-hour, concentrated amalgam of hair, make-up, costume changes, drama, yelling, teen angst, pasted smiles, and despair.
Saturday morning, my wife made a vague reference to “Picture Day,” and “Dad helping,” which I took in stride as my wife, the kidder, exercising her playful side.
Had I thought deeply in the moment, I would’ve remembered that my wife (a.) is not a kidder, and (b.) has no appreciable playful side.
Since the studio is shut down due to the pandemic, all photos have to be DIY.
So around noon, Karry informs me of the executional guardrails: all white background, no visible wall outlets, good lighting.
Our house is old, tiny, and meets NONE of the aforementioned criteria. As such, it offers few places for me to hide. So, before I know it, I’m push-pinning a sheet to the wall, moving the dining room table, and gazing through my son’s I-phone (best camera in the house) to see if we can frame a scene that approximates the guardrails while excluding the ‘tender clutter’ of our dining room.
Full disclosure: I am in no way qualified for the task. The only reason I’m holding the camera is that (a.) Karry has to iron and steam 12 costumes, (b.) it’s the early afternoon, therefore my son is still in bed, and (c.) Emma has to be in the pictures.
My daughter has been dancing for 11 years, during which I’ve watched from afar, apart. I’m a seat in a theater, participating only in a support role, loading bags and luggage, occasionally dropping off, picking up. I’ve watched every single one of her dances with a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach … wanting her to kill it, recognizing I have no bearing on the outcome. It is she, alone, on stage, buoyed only by her genuine love for the craft, her discipline, countless hours of practice, a full heart, and her desire to simply do her very best. While I would love to believe that she’s My Girl on that stage, she is not. It’s hard for me to admit that, when I see the game face, the make-up, the costumes. She is herself. Strong. Confident. Prepared. And while I’m sure fear is somewhere in the equation, she’s never afraid. With hundreds of hours of practice under her belt, it’s merely a question of execution.
Awes me every time.
So, with the camera in my hand I establish three goals for myself, two obvious, one surreptitious.
- Try not to displease my wife (the goal I roll out of bed every day with, and usually blow before exiting the breakfast table).
- Keep a steady hand.
My third goal is humble, and, admittedly, purely selfish. I just want to crack her game face. I want to see through the make-up, the costumes, the stage smile and catch a glimpse of … My Girl, the one I never get to see from my seat in the theater.
As with most things I am not good at, I compensate with enthusiasm. I ask myself, ‘How would a professional photographer, with no studio, shitty lighting, and a postage stamp for a scene, approach the challenge?’
I have no idea, but am confident it wasn’t the path I chose.
“Show me the feisty kitty cat.”
Within minutes, I had her nearly peeing her pants, while I fell completely afoul of Goal #1.
But I got my shot.
From there I operated for the next six hours more or less within acceptable tolerances. I waited patiently between costume changes, and, where possible, tried to coax a smile beyond the practiced, painted on variety. Emma was a trooper. We both were working from a severely limited repertoire – she, restricted by the parameters of our dining room; me, restricted by my meager skills.
And while it was still an all-day, concentrated amalgam of hair, make-up, and costume changes … the circumstances left little room (figuratively and literally) for the drama, yelling, teen angst and despair that normally mark the proceedings. Aside from the quality of the pictures, I didn’t make things worse. And I got to participate in a ritual that, for 11 years, has been exclusively a mother-daughter affair.
I have no idea if what we were able to capture will meet the studio’s executional guardrails. The brown paneled floor peeked through the white runner, casting it a different shade than the sheet hanging on the wall. Our lighting was slipshod, casting shadows. We could only take so many poses, given the cozy confines.
But there were a few shots, that, even if they don’t make it into the program, I will treasure. A few that maybe didn’t show off the costume or the make-up, but did justice to the beautiful smile that I’ve watched from the best seat — not in the theater, but in our house — for 15 years and counting… watching it grow from gracing the most adorable chubby cheeks in the universe to gracing the most beautiful soul this side of her mother.
That’s My Girl.