Fathers and Sons, The Girls

Picture Day Redux – No Strings Attached

Mercifully (for me), this year, proceedings returned to their normal rhythms. Held at the respective studios. A two-day affair. Saturday = Waynesburg. Sunday = Washington. 

Last year quarantine forced the stay-at-home edition of Picture Day, whose gravity I was unable to escape. 

This year called for less desperate measures, leaving Karry and Emma to tag team this, their 12th edition of the annual amalgam of yelling, hair, make-up, costumes, and teenage angst. 

Preparations began weeks in advance. Came home one day to find Emma outside in the driveway with a pair of tap shoes and a can of neon pink spray paint. 

“Don’t ask,” was all she said. 

My Karry radar began ringing in my head. 

Me: You’re taking precautions, yes? 

She: I’m not making a mess if that’s what you’re asking. 

Emma has convinced herself that she rarely, if ever, makes messes. 

Her conviction is strong. She’d probably pass a lie detector. 

In truth — and I say this lovingly — she’s a disaster. 

Not nearly as much of a disaster as I am. Not even in the same disaster zip code. 

But, back to the driveway …. 

Many a time have I run afoul of Karry’s ‘exacting standards’ by unintentionally besmirching the driveway with various … effluvium (oil, grill drippings, etc.)

Me: Um-hmm. 

When I went out the following morning to fetch the paper, I saw neon pink paint stains where the driveway meets the edge of the grass. 

I gave Emma a heads up. 

To give her at least a head start on packing her bags, grabbing a couple cans of tuna and hiding out in the woods for a couple days until I can screw up bad enough to put Karry’s scent back on my trail. 

Kidding. 

Told her it was fine and that we’d pressure wash it away during spring cleaning in a couple weeks. 

“It’s not OK. Mom’s going to kill me.” 

I assured her such was not the case and that it was fine. 

Sometimes it’s acceptable to lie to your children.

However, I took preemptive measures. Texted Karry at work. “There’s some paint in the driveway from Emma spray-painting. I told her it was no big deal and that you wouldn’t get mad. So don’t freak out on her.” 

In short, I used up my small stores of investment capitol. 

“Thanks for letting me know.” 

DEFCON Level 1 – restored.

__

Preparations continued throughout the following weeks. Costumes steamed. Arranged. Racks assembled. Additional provisions procured. Multiple coats of spray paint added to the shoes and driveway, etc. 

The long runway left me ample time to fashion my personal escape plan for The Saturday. 

They didn’t have to leave until 1:15 p.m. 

Since I don’t sleep much, sleeping in until 1:16 p.m. was not an option. 

In the morning, Emma and I went for a drive. She has her permit and we’ve been using the weekends to log her requisite hours behind the wheel. Weeks into this, I give very few instructions. We chart our destination. She pulls us onto Main Street and drives out of town. 

She: Am I going the right way?
Me: I have no idea where you’re going. 

We then take a meandering route to 136, cutting through the Wal-Mart plaza. She peels off and starts to make a right, pausing at a merge point. 

She: What do I do here? 

Me: Well, there’s no yield sign or anything, so it’s a little ambiguous. As long as there aren’t any yo-hums making a left turn in front of you, you can go. 

My favorite part of being Emma’s passenger is that, with her hands at 10 and 2, she gets chatty (i.e. she can’t disappear into her ear buds, or her phone). I asked her about Karry’s mood heading into Picture Day. 

Emma reported Situation Normal. 

The conversation then turned to the many complexities that make our family’s matriarch a revered badass. 

Me: There’s no B.S. about your Mom whatsoever. She has clear expectations, and clearly communicates those expectations. She doesn’t have to yell. She doesn’t waste words. That gives her a natural gravity. People look to her for guidance and direction. 

Emma: Mom is not an ambiguous stop sign in the Wal-Mart parking lot. 

In our 30 years together, I’m not sure Karry’s essence has ever been more exquisitely distilled. 

My daughter. 

We’re home from our drive around 11. I knock on Peter’s door. 

He was in the midst of perfectly executing his Dance Picture Day strategy: sleeping until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. 

Me: Get up. Get dressed. We gotta go. 

He: Whaaaaaat?

Me: Gotta renew your license. Get your picture taken. 

He: (miscellaneous unintelligible grunting) 

Around 11:25 he’s staggering to the dining rom where I’ve summoned him. 

Me: Sign here and here. Your car? 

He: Nah. You drive. 

Made sure he had the registration form, his W-2, his social security card, and his passport.

Translation: Karry assembled everything. 

He gets in the passenger side and I follow the exact route we took four years ago when he first got his license. I pull us into the nearly empty lot. 

Me: You have your license? 

He: No. 

Me: What do you mean, you don’t have your license.

He: It’s in my car. 

Me: You are renewing your license. Why would you not bring your license?

(silence) 

He: I’m going to try anyway. 

Me: Let me know how that works out. 

He: You aren’t coming in? 

Me: No. 

He: Why are you even here? 

Me: (waiting for him to connect the obvious dots) Because your mom and Emma are getting ready for dance pictures. We’re going to lunch after this. If we eat like Vikings they should be gone by the time we return. 

He’s back five minutes later. 

He: I need my license. 

Me: Peeved. 

He: Sorry. 

I responded with the Head Shake/Exhale combo perfected over the 18 years we were officially responsible for my oldest’s day-to-day survival, during which variations of this exact scene played out hundreds of times. 

Now that he’s 20, I allowed myself a small smile that some things are forever. 

We retraced our steps, he retrieved his license, turned in the requisite forms, got his photo taken, returned to the car, picked our lunch spot, found a reasonably empty parking lot, grabbed a booth, and nourished ourselves over March Madness conversations. 

Sitting across a table sharing baskets of Cheddar Bay Biscuits with Peter affords the same rare and precious elastic conversational space as Emma’s hands on 10 and 2. He gets chatty. 

He mentioned that one of his favorite high school teachers recently left teaching for a job in his field of study. He was that special kind of teacher who lit fires in their students. Peter not only loved his classes, but respected him so much he sought his counsel when he was considering colleges and courses of study. 

He said he reached out to his old teacher when he heard the news he’d left the school. Peter told me his teacher had written him back …  and handed his phone across the table for me to read. 

In his note, Peter recounted the time he’d asked the teacher for a letter of recommendation for a college application. 

And his favorite teacher, the one he looked up to so much, the one whose classes he sought out … told him No. 

I never knew this. 

In his note, Peter recounted how crushed he was that his favorite teacher refused him. 

But he was writing to thank him for doing that. How it made him realize he needed to work harder. He wrote to let him know that he’s been applying himself in college and was doing well in his second semester of his sophomore year. He wrote to tell him that he made the Dean’s List last semester. 

The teacher wrote back to thank Peter. Confessed to him that him saying no was one of the two or three toughest decisions he’d ever made as a teacher. But he knew that if he had just written the letter, Peter would likely have kept himself in cruise control. He genuinely thanked Peter for his note, and for lifting a burden that he still carried. 

By the end, I was trying not to weep in my Cheddar Bay Biscuits. 

My son. 

We finished our main courses in a leisurely trot, and I had him back home by 2, more than enough time for him to get ready for his 2:30 shift. 

But as we pulled into the driveway, something was wrong.

Very, very wrong. 

Karry’s car was still there. 

An issue with The Shoes. The ones that Emma and Karry have been spray painting for a couple weeks now. 

Evidently, after the multiple coats of neon, the holes for the laces were painted shut.  They’d spent the last hour trying in vain to lace the shoes. And the harder they tried to muscle it, the more the paint cracked and chipped. 

DEFCON 5.

Also known as EFFBOMBCON.    

To paint the neon pink picture driveway here, mother and daughter an hour late dealing with chipped paint and un-laceble shoes is like that scene in the original Avengers where Black Widow is trying to keep Bruce Banner from hulking out while Loki is simultaneously stealing the Tesseract. 

This only ends one way. 

Hulk’s gonna Hulk. 

Except in this instance, there are two Hulks. 

I made the obligatory, sacrificial offer to help, which I knew could have just as easily been received as Flame Thrower Target  Practice.

“No,” they both said in a huff. 

Colossal exhale. 

So I grabbed the nearest parachute. 

Went to retrieve the grocery order. 

Grocery order = seamless. Remembering to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy so as to extend my trip by a few extra moments = seamless. 

Pulled back into the driveway. 

Still there.  

I equated my odds at surviving a second re-entry to running back into a burning building to retrieve my favorite box of matches. 

Carrying in the groceries, I enacted security protocol Eggshell Swaddling Baby Blanket Minefield Tiptoe Alpha.  

They were working in the laundry room, which is where the downstairs fridge is. Before entering I listened for any rustling around the corner before stealthily darting in, ninja-style. I gingerly placed the ½ gallon of 2% on its shelf and two-handed the silent closing of the fridge like I was diffusing a bomb on countdown. 

I was safely upstairs when I heard the car doors slam and Karry pull out of the driveway with an impatient engine rev. 

My wife. 

I sympathy stress ate the two Cheddar Bays Peter intended for later.

Another one in the books.

Say Cheese. 

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Fathers and Sons

Angels and the Outfield

He just brought it home one day after work and presented it to me. No set up. Not born of a previous request or conversation.

The Glove. 

Reggie Jackson model, waffle-pocket Rawlings. The Finest In the Field. 

Said he’d bought it from an acquaintance. Some guy he knew from the store. Paid $25 for it, used.  I remember him feeling shrewd about the deal.

It was huge. The finger holes were like catacombs. My 10-year-old digits barely reached.

And, oh, it was really used. The traditional method of breaking in a glove is to place a baseball in the pocket and tightly tie the glove closed with string so that you preserve a sweet spot for the ball. The Glove must’ve been given a Swedish Massage and then placed, empty, under the tire of a dump truck. Its pocket folded over its fingers like pages in a book. Its leather soft and pliant. It was so broken in I could clap with it. What padding it had was massaged into sweet surrender (presumably by the Swedes). But given that my fingers barely filled 25% of its real estate, padding wasn’t really relevant to the equation. 

Dad’s timing was impeccable. The summer after sixth grade our township was admitted into the recreational baseball league across town, and all the neighborhood dads couldn’t resist signing us up. 

Not to over-romanticize, but it was the 10-year-old-boy equivalent of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Up until then kids in the neighborhood had spent summers on the asphalt of Areford playground — just kids, no adults (and therefore – blissfully – no coaches). Self-procured rubber-coated baseballs, shared bats, slow-pitch. Every afternoon. Every day of the week. If we were short players, we’d improvise – opposite field automatic outs, pitcher’s hand, ghost runners, all-time catchers (mostly reserved for little brothers). The biggest argument always over which of the two teams got to be the Pirates, the other usually picking the Reds (who were great) or the Mets (who were awful, but whose lineup we’d memorized courtesy of WWOR Channel 12).  We’d play all afternoon either until dinner time, or — as was more often the case — we’d run out of baseballs. Balls usually met one of two fates – either they carried over or rolled under the barbed-wire fence of the football field in deep right, or, if they were the cheap, $.99 K-Mart specials, they were beaten into unplayable, lopsided submission.

However, in the summer of 1981 we traded all that for grass fields, uniforms, coaches, organized practices and pitchers who tried to get you out themselves, and helmets, for when their attempts missed high and tight. My friend Andy and I got drafted by the Angels (sponsored by Parks Moving and Storage). After a couple of practices, I remember the head coach instructing his son, one of the stars on the team, to show me the basics of playing first base: how to reach for a throw while keeping a foot on the bag, where to stand with a runner on first and when no one’s on base, and how to hop into position once the pitcher goes into his windup.

Pretty sure I earned the audition for one reason only: The Glove. 

I was a scrawny 10-year-old, which made my Rawlings seem even bigger. When I stood straight The Glove comically hung below my knee, almost to my calf. But it shortened my learning curve at first base, compensating for my lack of stature by extending my reach for errant tosses by several inches. And it swallowed – absolutely swallowed – the invariable short hops from third or deep in the hole from short.

I fell in love with scoops. Secretly hoped throws would bounce in front of me so I could stretch and rescue them from the dirt. My favorite moment was between innings, throwing grounders to the infielders while the pitcher warmed up. I especially liked when Bobby Madison played shortstop. He’d throw big looping curve balls back to me, and I loved tracing their glorious arcs into short hops that I’d sweep up in a plume of infield dirt. 

In full disclosure, fielding was pretty much my only appreciable skill. I had a rag arm, and owing to my stature, zero pop at the plate. Without The Glove, I was pretty much Bruce Wayne. 

The Glove, though? A veritable vacuum cleaner. I held on to everything

At Hutchison Park, first base was close to a set of bleachers where all the dads would sit. They got a kick out of the skinny kid with the big glove. I remember one of them yelling, “Hold on to your cigarettes, or that glove’ll suck ‘em right outta your hand.” 

Ah, the days when bleacher dads sat and smoked under summer suns, watching their sons re-enact the Greek Tragedies of their own youths.

___

My Dad’s investment in my Little League career didn’t end with forking over $25. 

Unquestionably, my best times with The Glove were shared with him, after work during the week. We’d drive up to the junior high so he could arch fly balls over my head, and far to my right and left for me to chase down. I’d catch my breath from the last one and yell for another. “Make me run, Dad.” He had this knack for perfectly timing and aiming his launches to allow me just enough time in full sprint to snatch ’em from the air or just before they’d hit the ground. I can still hear his voice pitching up into an exuberant, “HeyyyyyYYY!” when I’d pluck one from my shoetops or snow-cone one destined for beyond. 

He got as much joy as I did from what The Glove held on to. 

We’d always outlast the sun – “Last one….” — and then celebrate with ice-cold, glass-bottled Pepsis in the darkened Dairy Mart parking lot off Dixon Boulevard.

___

As far as Little League went, the Angels were a pretty decent team. We had two bona fide stars — Doug and Mike — who took turns pitching and playing shortstop, and a bunch of really solid players. Our head coach was fair and a pretty nice man. If I remember correctly, we finished in first place during the regular season. We beat the only undefeated team — the hated Red Sox — in dramatic fashion when the coach’s son launched a game-winning homer into the pond behind the outfield in the last inning. That set up a rematch between our two teams in the playoffs for the league championship. 

The Red Sox were like the Yankees of Little League. They were stacked, and they took things very seriously I remember. My 10-year-old-self recalls their coaches yelling a lot, and their players mostly sneering (except for my friend Jerry, who, like me was a stature-challenged Areford asphalt alum), where I remember a lot more smiles and laughs coming from our dugout. In retrospect, I’m sure the Red Sox had as much fun as we did, but that’s how 10-year-olds see the world.

Anyway, I distinctly remember an added gravitas to our pre-championship practices. We knew who the Red Sox were going to pitch – their ace. He was that kid from central casting who was literally a head taller than the rest of us, and whose early-maturing frame could launch puberty-grade home runs. On the mound, he fired fastballs that popped like thunder when they hit the catcher’s mitt, missing often enough to put the foot in the bucket of, and fear of God into, lower-in-the order hitters like me. 

As a result, our coaches came with their middle-age velocity during batting practice. Discussed where and how to play in the field when certain Red Sox came to the plate. Went over the signs again and again. I was told to keep an eye out for the bunt sign, since (a.) it was assumed that base runners would be precious, (b.) I was left-handed, and (c.) otherwise unlikely to do much damage against The Puberty Express. The coaches even discussed some situational strategy with some of us, me included. 

The game itself played out as expected, tight and low-scoring. We were tied going into the top of the seventh and last inning. The Red Sox managed to get a guy on third with the potential go-ahead run and only one out.

As fate would have it, the kid from central casting strode to the plate.

Our coach called time out and huddled the infield at the mound. He made a defensive switch. 

He ordered me to centerfield. 

This was one of the situational strategies that came up during our pre-game practices. I was ready for this moment. I had The Glove. I’d logged countless hours under fading suns chasing balls in every direction and rescuing them before they found the ground. 

Game on. 

Our star pitcher went into his windup. Central Casting swung with all his might and made good contact.

A roar swelled up from the Red Sox fans as the ball rocketed into the sky…. 

__

For literally decades after that, Dad would delight in bringing up the story, with David and Goliath relish, of Central Casting launching that ball — Central Casting, the team who thought they were so great, who treated Little League with such Major League fervor – and me tracking it down and silencing the Red Sox faithful in a heartbeat. The Glove — the best $25 he ever spent in his life – coming through when it mattered the most. 

He got that part right. 

I held onto the ball.

But, in truth, I held onto it a couple heartbeats too long. 

In the ensuing micro-moment, I registered the right-to-left soundtrack swell of the Red Sox faithful going silent and the Angels’ smoking Greek Chorus section erupting in euphoria when The Glove swallowed the ball in its waffle pocket. I’d never been responsible for a cheering crowd like that before, and it promptly filled my 10-year-old heart full. For a moment I basked in it …  just long enough for the opportunistic Red Sox third base coach to send his runner home. When I finally broke from my reverie and launched the ball with my rag arm to the plate, it was too late. The runner scored standing up with the go-ahead run. 

We failed to score in the bottom of the inning and ended up losing the game and thus, the league championship.

The winning run scored because I held on to the ball too long. 

In his re-tellings over the years, Dad never remembered how the story actually ended.

I cringed every time he brought it up. 

Never had the heart to correct him. 

____

What you find has an awful lot to do with what you’re looking for. 

That was my Dad, though. Without fail he always looked for the best part of the story.  He raised his son to do the same. 

I just wish it hadn’t taken me all these years to realize that I had it all wrong. 

Me holding on to the ball was how the game ended. How the season ended.

Not the story. 

The best part of the story is a Dad who remembered that I caught the ball. 

In the end, he got as much joy from what The Glove held on to as I did.

 

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Fathers and Sons, Postcards

The world just went away there for a few minutes ….

April 3, 2020, 11:07 p.m.

A couple weeks ago Karry was violently cleaning out out the dining room, rooting through old drawers, filling garbage bags with stuff she didn’t want to think twice about. Of the two of us, she is, by far, the most qualified for the task. My wife is not the sentimental type. I, on the other hand, ensure that my wife will always have drawers to clean out. But in the midst of her editing, something gave her enough pause to seek me out downstairs. She tossed an envelope on my desk. “Yeah, you probably forgot about that one.”

On the outside of the envelope, my handwriting:

To: Peter

From: Dad

Christmas 2001

Inside, a letter. From me to my baby boy. Days before our first Christmas together.

Buried treasure.

I have no recollection of doing this.

Which is exactly why I did it.

I learned quickly during those eight months that time was no longer to be fucked with. From the moment Dr. Bulseco announced, “It’s a Boy,” we became unwitting passengers on a turbo steamroller, and would spend as much time under it as in the cab.

So, early on I made a point to mark time whenever I could steal a moment. Scribbles in a journal. Postcards from the road. Notes on a computer.

And evidently, letters to my baby.

I did this knowing that whatever I captured would be at best a fractional approximate to the real deal — a few grains of sand brought back from an infinite beach.

I just had a hunch that someday down the road, we might like to be reminded how beautiful things were.

I got that one right.

December 23, 2001

Dear Peter,

A couple days ago, it occurred to me that, when you’re older, you will have no recollection of how much joy you have brought to the lives of your mom (after eight months, still weird to write that) and me. You’ll have no idea how excited we are to be spending Christmas – your first – with you in our house. If anything, you’ll get sick and tired of hearing your old, un-hip parents remind you how cute you were, how anyone who saw you couldn’t stop from smiling. (I hope at least we’ll have the common sense not to show your naked bath time pictures to your teenage friends.) From personal experience, I know that these memories will forever be a part of your parent’s lives. Realizing this, I find the repetitive stories my father tells and re-tells at every family gathering (“I remember the first time Pete saw the Monongahela River …” “Pete could identify every car when he was two….” etc.) more tolerable. I smile, knowing now that the joy a child can bring is irrepressible, undaunted by time. Like me, you’ll just have to get used to it.

But to give you a more refined glimpse into Christmases (and memories) past, I’d like to start a tradition here today, two days before your first Christmas. Drafting a quick letter to record some of my thoughts while they are freshest, to at least help you distinguish between myth and reality when those embarrassing anecdotes come calling in the (hopefully) many holidays to come. Right now, you’re too busy trying out the newest consonant sounds (finally, “mamamamaama,” which Karry has been not-so-patiently waiting eight months for) to be bothered with taking stock of life as an eight month old. Hope this helps.


Last Saturday, your mom and I picked up some pictures at Giant Eagle before hitting the malls. We parked the car in the fire lane outside the entrance to the video store. When your mom returned to the car, we tore into the pictures like you’ll soon be tearing into your Christmas presents. There were pictures from your baptism (a Riddell family photo, us holding you, you with fingers full of icing), from Halloween (you sleeping on the couch in the pumpkin outfit Granny made you), you after returning from the Washington Christmas parade (totally sacked out in your crib dressed in your Santa suit), you totally enamored with the ornament boxes piled around you while your mom and dad decorated the Christmas tree.

After we reviewed the last one, your mom looked at me and said, “The world just went away there for a few minutes.” It’s hard to describe what we both felt at that moment any better than she did. Each picture we flipped through took us right back to that moment in time. For those few seconds, we weren’t in the parking lot at the Giant Eagle. We weren’t 30-year-olds trying to figure out life (and struggling mightily). We weren’t Christmas shoppers. We had no other care than marveling at the incredible gift you are to us. The power of those pictures will never wane, either. Twenty years from now, we will still completely lose ourselves in looking at you at your baptism, your first Halloween, your first Christmas.

Now, in the other room, your mom is changing your dirty diaper. I now thank you for holding off when I changed and fed you when you awoke earlier this morning. You had us cracking up at the crack of dawn, talking incessantly in your crib. Gurgling, ba-bahs, ga-gahs, and what sounded like a purring kitten, complementing the aforementioned mamamas. I tried giving you your binky and turning on your lullaby, in a vain attempt to coax another half-hour’s worth of sleep from you. To no avail.

….

The unquestioned highlight of every day is when I return from work. Your mom almost always has you propped up in the hallway to be the first thing I see when I come up the stairs. And, without fail, you greet me with the biggest smile, so happy to see me (almost as happy as Sadie, who manages to sit perfectly still for the only time all day while I pet her upon entering the garage). Your are 20 pounds of instant stress relief. In the time it takes for that smile to break across your chubby cheeks, all of my problems disappear. And the amazing thing is that you have no idea the power you have. You just like to play … to chew … and to slobber. And it’s more than enough to get us through the day. I hope as you read this, you can appreciate that. If not, wait until you become a dad.

….

So, what’s it like to be a new parent? Not easy. Your mom and me have less time to do more. It’s been a tough adjustment at times. For me, I’m learning to become less selfish. When you are not the center of your own universe anymore, it’s an adjustment.

Make no mistake, though, your mom keeps this house together. She keeps things (including you and me) in order. It’s amazing to watch how she’s become a mother. It’s not something you can really prepare for. To say it’s instinct doesn’t do justice to all the hard work and love she puts into it. But she’s good. She’s a natural at all the things that I have to think through, and usually screw up. Like bathing you (once I sat you in the tub with your diaper on), picking out your clothes (the last time I dressed you unsupervised was also the last time your socks haven’t matched), your breakfast (I fed you the two jars of food she set out, not knowing you were only to have half of each). She has put you at the center of her life. And you are lucky. Try and remember that when she gets on your nerves, or when you tells you no. There’s no one in this world who loves you more.

….

Okay, so what are you like at eight months? What are your likes and dislikes? A quick summary:

Likes:

  • food — which you define in broader terms than the average adult. Food to you is anything that will fit inside your mouth. We always crack up when you see us eating in front of you. You completely lose interest in everything except following the food from our plate to our mouth. And the look on your face of complete concentration … expressionless captivation …, which, believe me, is hilarious coming from an eight month old.
  • Granny — you beam every time you see Grandma Fordyce, and vice versa. She’s been a true Godsend for us. She’s come in and watched you while we’ve worked around the house. She’s watched you to allow us those precious but much needed dinners for two. She keeps us sane and keeps you happy. We are as lucky as you are.
  • having your teeth brushed — you get so excited when you see your mom or me brushing our teeth. Lately, we’ve been taking a wet tooth brush and asking if you want your two brushed as well. You immediately open your mouth and smile as we run it across your bottom lip. Such a big boy.
  • lights, fans (and anything you can get your hands on, really) — I love the way you marvel at the world around you. Your mouth gets as round as a snowball, and you gasp in wonder, “Oh” or “Ah” … as you take it all in. You have reminded us what it means to be awed.

Dislikes:

  • The Boogie Patrol — your mother is vigilant in making sure you don’t leave the house with visible boogers. So she is forever sticking Q-Tips in your nostrils to ensure an unobstructed air passage. This always pisses you off.
  • being on your belly — don’t know if it’s the struggle to elevate your beautiful head, but your patience always wears thin when flopped on your gut. My hypothesis is that you’ll eventually become so angry you’ll start rolling, but your mother usually intervenes to stop your impressively intense crying.

As you can see your likes outnumber your dislikes. But, with parents like us, what’s not to like?


Well, I apologize for the length of this letter. I only kept writing because I had time to do so (your mom has not asked me for anything the past hour). And I know that my bouts of inspiration are usually fleeting. This may be the last letter you ever get from me. But I hope it’s the first of many.

As you get older, and the real parenting kicks in, know that I’ll do my best. I’ll probably screw up, but you will, too. And at the end of the day, you’ll still be the most incredible gift I’ve ever been given.

We’re gonna have fun, you and me.

Love,

Dad

__

Our baby boy turns 19 today.

He’s home.

At the moment, Karry’s hanging Disney decorations in the dining room she worked hard to clean out … and Emma’s in beast mode preparing a by-big-brother-request dinner of fettuccini Alfredo. She made him a double-layer chocolate chip cookie cake for dessert. The presents will be humble, but enough.

I didn’t have the chance to get him a card.

It’s OK.

I think I owe him a letter.

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Fathers and Sons

The Quest for the Creek….

Note: found the below in an old journal, and it struck me as it did then … one of those moments that melts the world around you for a good, long moment … before it, itself melts. When we were kids we’d hold a snowball back and put it in the fridge to save it for summer time. Honoring that feeling by putting this old snowball right here ….

Saturday afternoon, after Peter snowblew the driveway, I shoveled the deck, and Em indulged neighbor kids who came for snow angels and “wheeeeeees” down the humble grade of our yard, the three of us donned our snowsuits, grabbed sleds and tube, and trudged through the woods behind our backyard.  Destination: the big hill that technically belongs to the American Legion but which we unofficially commandeer when there’s enough snow to test the wondrous law of gravity. 

We assessed the snow’s vintage —soft and puffy, in need of some packing. So, following Peter’s lead, we made investments with each run down the hill —and trudging walk back up —  kneading the snow like dough, a little longer, a little wider.

The tube, by far, was the conveyance of choice, offering the pure enchantment of spinning, friction-free descent. 

We spent a glorious hour outside, indulging in a good foot of soft powder and mid-20’s temperatures. There were tumbles, wipe outs, and even an inspired attempt to see if the blue sled would hold the three of us at once (um, it didn’t). 

But it was all mere prelude to the gifts of Sunday afternoon, when Peter and I returned for seconds. The intervening 24 hours had smoothed away the powder and added a thin crust of ice to the previous day’s paths. With our first couple runs, we glided farther, carving fresh prints into the untouched white. With each foray we pushed our ruts out a little farther still. 

After about 20 minutes I looked down from the top of the hill to where Peter had just tubed a new distance record and called out, “We should try for the creek”–pointing to the stream that separates the Legion’s field from the hill of houses on the other side. Even with his last run, we were probably a good 50-60 feet of untouched snow from the water.  

But now we had a quest.

And, where Sunday snow days are concerned, life goes much better with a quest. 

We took turns with the tube, while the other would run the light blue plastic H-2. Each time, a bit farther. We found ourselves feasting on the rarest and most fleeting of experiences —the kind that only get better the next time. Down I went, the gathering speed perfectly pairing with the tube’s gentle rotation. I broke the plane of brush and weeds that rimmed the creek. I lingered for a good moment, transfixed by the simple, timeless sermon all creeks whisper if you bend your ear close enough. 

While I considered this victory, the 14-year-old deemed it ersatz. A purist, he would not be satisfied with anything short of sled touching water. Such are the lessons all children whisper if you bend your ear close enough. 

So he made one more run, hugging the path we had carved into the hill over the past 24 hours …gliding …gliding, pushing through the brush and dumping himself —unceremoniously, or quite ceremoniously, depending on your perspective—into the water, his water-proofed steel-toes earning their keep. We hi-fived our chubby, waterlogged gloves (and promised to not mention the splashing in the creek part to Mom). 

We paused before beginning our final trudge. The waning Sunday sun peeked through the trees in a reverent bow….

What better image than a glistening hill and an afternoon spent carving it with our initials to serve as a reminder to treasure good moments that too soon melt?

We huffed up the hill and through the woods back home, spent but spurred on by the promise of Karry’s killer hot chocolate. 

As I add years, I treasure those experiences that equally captivate the young and those in need of being reminded of their youth. 

This. 

This is my quest. 

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Fathers and Sons

Ode to Joy….

June 4, 2016 

I have this indelible image in my head every time I think of the years (high school and through college) I was privileged to share a bandstand with my Dad when we were but two pieces (drums, first trumpet) of a 10-piece, big-band-style orchestra. Whenever Dad would take a ride solo, I’d steal a glance to my right, see him stand up from his chair a couple measures before, tip the mic up, draw the horn to his lips, bend his knees ever so slightly as he leaned back, close his eyes, and blow.

He always solo’d with his eyes closed, the music taking him somewhere else.

Unconsciously, I’d often close my eyes as well, and try to follow his horn like a compass to wherever it took him. He took great pride in never playing the same solo twice. Though they would rarely last more than a couple choruses, those solos were some of the best trips (of many) we ever took together.

Music has always had that bewitching effect on him (and me) … although it occasionally got him into trouble. He recalled one such instance for my sister Laurie and me when we visited with him on Christmas.

On their second date, Dad thought he would impress Maggie Johnson by taking her to see Les Brown (and his “Band of Renown”).

Best laid plans.

“She got so mad at me because she thought I was ignoring her,” he recalled. Technically speaking, he was totally ignoring her, such a slave his attention was to good music. Fortunately, she forgave him enough to entertain a third date, and the 60+ years of marriage that ensued.

With Dad confined mostly to his bed these days, it’s become more of a challenge to bring the kids with me for my weekly visits. Knowing how crazy the back-to-school schedule will be, Karry and I seized the opportunity Saturday to bring Emma with us to Uniontown.

I asked Em if she’d be up for taking her alto sax with her. I figured it would give her something to do (practice), and thought that Pap might appreciate it.

She’s only in her second year with the horn … but, much to our surprise, we don’t have to twist her arm to practice. She enjoys playing. Enjoys getting better. Seems to take a pride in it.

Dad was resting when we arrived, but a smile broke across his face when he saw Karry and Emma, two of his favorite faces. We weren’t but a few minutes into our visit when he asked Em, “Did you bring your sax?”

He’d never heard her play before.

I went downstairs to the basement and dug out his old music stand (it’s been only a few months since the 88-year-old put it away … for probably the last time), and Em pulled her horn from her case and set up in the next room since we didn’t know if she’d be too loud for him.

She started into some scales, and then some songs she’s been learning for her lessons.

Dad remarked what a good tone she had for a beginner (the brother knows from tone). We sat without speaking and just listened. She had played maybe a half dozen tunes … before she broke into Ode To Joy.

By the fifth note, Dad had closed his eyes, and another smile broke across his face. The music was again taking him someplace else. I closed my eyes too, and met him once again in that place.

After her last note, he opened his eyes, the smile still going strong, and said to the heavens … “This makes me feel good.”

His words were as much a gift to me as Emma’s notes were to him, and the lump in my throat I feel at the mere recollection of that moment bears testimony to those truths.

I find myself grateful for the lessons that still abound from the labored breaths of an 88-year-old sideman, who, though bedridden in failing health with a failing heart and a laundry list of maladies much too long to capture … still sifts the precious moments for joy yet and still.

Find myself grateful for music that can transcend the moment, the physical, the generations, and bring us that much closer together, and to the divine.

And find myself grateful that the old house on Mullen Street still has a few beautiful notes left in it.

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Fathers and Sons

The Things We Remember ….

February 8, 2016

I had the privilege of sharing a few words at Dad’s service on Saturday.

Told those who came that I knew exactly what Dad would say if he were physically able to be with us. 

I was pretty sure he’d have said exactly what he said to me about 8 or 9 years ago, under very different circumstances. 

(Some of you may have heard this story before. But, as some of you may also know, our Dad was not above getting great mileage from a good story – ha). 

He was scheduled for surgery … no, make that surgeries (plural) … on an aneurism in his stomach, and another one in his leg. It was scheduled for first thing in the morning in Pittsburgh, which, when you live in Uniontown, means that you have to get up in the middle of the night. And my sisters Missy and Kim, as they often did, shouldered the burden of getting Mom and Dad out the door and shuttling them to the hospital (no small task, given that Dad had to be early for everything, while our Mom, um, was not as meticulous about her punctuality). Laurie, as she always did, met them at the hospital and made sure they got checked in. 

By the time I got there, Dad was prepped, and was in a room waiting on the surgeon (who was delayed by some other emergency). Mom and the sisters were keeping him good company. After a while, Mom needed to go out for a cigarette (Gram always needed her smoke), and the sisters accompanied her, leaving the boys by themselves for a couple minutes. 

Think about what might be going through your mind if you were the 80-year-old lying in the hospital bed, after having to get up in the middle of the night, suffering that long drive down Route 51 thinking about your pending surgeries, forced into that hospital gown that barely covers your dignity, only to be asked to wait for goodness knows how long on the surgeon? What would be going through your mind? 

Barely seconds after my sisters and Mom left the room, Dad looks up at me, with the biggest smile on his face, and says, “Isn’t it great having everybody together?” 

As naturally as if we were on the front porch on the 4th of July. 

As if he considered the prospect of invasive surgeries a pretty reasonable trade for spending time with his family. 

“Isn’t it great having everybody together?” 

That’s exactly what he would have said on Saturday. 

And that’s pretty much all you need to know about Kenneth Neal Riddell. 

But some of the best parts of Saturday were some folks who wanted us to know some other things about Kenneth Neal Riddell. 

There was Jim, a trumpet player who shared a section and a bandstand with my Dad for a handful of years. He saw me when he entered the church, and, after offering his condolences, told me how Dad was a hero to him who taught him so much about playing trumpet. Said he still can conjure the image of Dad standing up to take his solos. I told him that Dad often said that the trumpet section never blended better than when Jim played. 

There was (another) Jim … a nurse who made weekly home visits to Dad for a while. Jim was a guitar player, which instantly made him my Dad’s favorite nurse. They hit it off so well that Jim re-arranged his schedule so Dad would be his last appointment of the day … allowing him to stick around and B.S. (mostly about music) after he finished his evaluation. Dad came to see those visits as a highlight of his week. Jim actually brought his guitar with him a couple times, and coaxed Dad to break out his horn. Those jam sessions with Jim were the last times Dad ever played with another musician. Jim stopped Saturday to tell the family how much he genuinely loved those visits. 

There was Harry, one of the fixtures of the old Presbyterian church where we held the service. He was one of the army of good souls who helped with the reception after the service. Harry told me how much he admired Dad’s service to the church over the years. Said that they actually named their son after Dad, a fact that I never knew.  

And there were many other sweet remembrances (some of which I hope to share some day) … representing the fabric of a full life, well-lived. That’s what I saw when I looked out from the pulpit as I spoke. There were the grandkids. The great-grandkids. Neighbors. Musician friends. Customers and colleagues from Dad’s years at Sherwin Williams. The amazing souls from the Honor Guard. Church friends. Friends of my big brother and sisters. Friends I grew up with. Friends I made in college. Friends I work with. I knew the day would be over in a blur, and I knew I’d only be able to connect with a fraction of those who came to pay their final respects. I wanted the memory of that beautiful congregation to last me a lifetime.

So, after I told the hospital story Saturday, I rambled on for a few more minutes. But before I sat down I couldn’t resist pulling out a camera and asking those gathered for the biggest smile they could muster. 

Because when I think back on Feb. 6 2016 in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, I know exactly what I will want to remember. 

Wasn’t it great having everybody together.

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Fathers and Sons, The Girls

In a Sentimental Mood….

(For Auld Lang Syne)

Jan 2, 2017

Found myself at Starbucks with Em yesterday afternoon, warming my hands around a small Dark Roast, and my ears around her delightful ersatz British accent as we advanced a few pages deeper into the Half-Blood Prince. 

Though the establishment’s jazz soundtrack was narratively incongruent to the scenes Em read to life … temporally speaking, it was completely in sync. 

I paused Em’s recitation to Shazam the interpreters of In a Sentimental Mood, which had momentarily thieved my attention (Duke and ‘Trane, um, for the record). 

The familiar melody caught my ear. Used to play it — also as an instrumental, though admittedly more ersatz than even Em’s accent — when Dad and I shared the stage as part of Sammy Bill’s band. All those nights playing Sam’s big book has left me a lot of musical bread crumbs that lead me back to those good times. 

New Year’s Eve, in particular, was always special. It was the best gigging night of the year. “The only night you make a little money,” Dad would say. From the time I was 14 ‘til I was almost 30, I never saw a single ball drop on New Year’s Eve. For many of those years, Karry didn’t either, though, admittedly, she had exponentially less fun listening to me play music than I had playing it. 

On New Year’s Eve, there was a sense of expectation that started in the early afternoon when I’d start getting ready, packing my drums in their cases, carrying them outside and setting them on the wall in our front yard, donning my tux. Around 5:30 or so Mac would swing by and we’d load my drums in his van, always in the same order and placement, and climb aboard. My Dad and the older guys would spend the better parts of those rides to the gigs telling stories and reminiscing about all the musicians they played with in high school, in the Army, in other combos and big bands. They’d laugh remembering the characters. Speak in reverent tones about the Players (capitol ‘P’). Lament the passing of colleagues with whom they once shared a stage. Since I was anywhere between 20 and 40-plus years younger than most of the guys in the band, I said very little on those long rides. Was more than content soaking up every word.  

When we’d arrive at whatever hall we were playing at, we’d unload Mac’s and Sam’s vans. I deemed it my honor to try and haul as much as I could up and down the steps to spare the legs of the older guys. Once everything was hauled in, everyone wordlessly knew their roles in the un-packing and set-up … the speakers, the books, the sound board, etc. Dad helped set up the music stands and their accompanying lights before I’d hear the clasps on his trumpet case spring open (one of my favorite-est sounds of all time). After tuning and warming up to his satisfaction, he’d fetch us both a can of Pepsi, always placing mine on the riser next to my bass drum.  

I never played for more appreciative audiences than the older crowds who came to hear the Great American Songbook, whether we were at Linden Hall near Perryopolis, the Palisades in McKeesport, or the Palace Inn in Monroeville. I can still summon at will the inimitable sound — the shuffle-y swoosh — of a dance floor full of fox-trotters tracing ballroom circles back to their youth, our humble renditions their sonic roadmap.

Owing to everyone’s good mood, the playing seemed more relaxed on New Year’s Eve. As we’d near midnight, the sense of expectation in whatever hall we were playing grew more palpable. Sam would do an unscientific countdown close to midnight and we’d break into Auld Lang Syne. One of my most vivid memories is when we’d finish, and I’d stand up from my drums to exchange hand shakes and Happy New Years with the rest of the guys. To be a teenager shaking hands with my Dad and his peers atop a bandstand on New Year’s Eve signified my membership in a larger, sacred fraternity. 

After Auld Lang Syne came the best part of the evening for me. Before the applause and cheering for the New Year died down, Sam would pick out and count off a couple of our better jump tunes, the ones that swung just a little harder. Maybe Woodchopper’s Ball or Two O’Clock Jump (Dad had solos on both). Sometimes, when the spirit moved, he’d pay respects to his idol, Harry James, with a note-for-note rendition of James’ famous trumpet intro over the piano solo in our arrangement of Two O’Clock.  

New Year’s Eve was also one of the rare nights where we might also get fed. Though it was sometimes nothing fancier than hot dogs and sauerkraut, it made us feel part of the celebration in addition to supplying the evening’s entertainment. 

When the actual two o-clock came (which came a lot earlier to my younger self than my present remembering self) and we’d close the night, as we always did, with “C’est Si Bon,” and then Sam’s theme, “I Still Get a Thrill,” part of me always (always) wished we could play some more. Dad often said that playing music made time stand still. I remain grateful that he passed that gene on to his son. 

While we were tearing down (incidentally, you can tell the professional grade of a band by the speed and efficiency with which they tear down), Sam would come around and pay us. I still remember how giddy I felt my first New Year’s Eve when Sam put $75 in my 14-year-old hands. Over the years, we’d sometimes break triple digits, which, when considering we were a 10-piece orchestra, was nothing to sneeze at back in a day. Truth is, Dad and I would have played for free. 

Even after I quit Sam’s band and Dad continued on … and even after the grind of the travel finally forced him, in his early 80’s, to give up playing out, I’d always call Dad on New Year’s Eve, and we’d spend a few minutes recalling those days when we shared stages, and what great times we had. We didn’t have to be in the same room to hear the smiles on each other’s faces.  

This was our first New Year’s Eve since Dad’s passing. I consider it fitting that New Year’s Eve marks the last of “The Firsts.” Can’t believe it’ll already be a year January 29. 

I find myself In a Sentimental Mood. 

Thinking about those good times the past couple days has been like taking a last van ride to one of those old gigs, where I find myself the one reminiscing about all the guys I played with. Laughing at the characters. Reverently remembering the Players (capital “P”). Lamenting those who’ve passed. 

So here’s to Dad. And to Diz. Roger. Joe and Joe. Shifty. Pete. John. Wally. Jess. And all those who piled into vans on New Year’s Eves to make time stand still for themselves, and to give the people a reason to come out and dance. 

For Auld Lang Syne. 

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Fathers and Sons

Boys and Their Dogs ….

Tuesday morning, I’m on no sleep, somewhere in Minnesota, being led by an affable procurement person through casino-resort sized corridors of a corporate HQ of a healthcare company employing 300,000 people globally, running foggy content through my groggy head for the 90 minutes we have to convince a longshot audience we’re worthy of their business.

When my phone dings an incoming text.

This close to Showtime, my cardinal rule is to never check texts or email for fear of distraction, but I see it’s from … our college freshman.

“I’m on deck for presentation 2 this week.” (fingers crossed emoji)

The fog clears. A smile breaks, right before I break my cardinal rule and text back.

Me: “So I’m walking into a presentation, too. Testing the new suit. Do your best. Be yourself. Kick ass.”

He: “Ha. I’ve got my shirt and tie on.”

In the dying light of his last high school summer, we made a pilgrimage to pick him out a new suit for college. In a weak moment, I ended up getting one for myself. Actually, I bought the same exact suit (my wife was not with us, at the risk of stating the obvious). Figured it’ll make for an epic boys pic down the road.

On the morning we break out a few of the pieces for the first time, we’re texting each other encouragement.

I float a life preserver out ahead of us.

Me: “Maybe a Shorty’s run for lunch on Saturday?”

He: “I’ll count on it.”

Separated by 884.1 miles on a cold and gray November morning, father and son turn off their phones, say their customary prayers, don their game faces, and walk into their respective arenas, focused on the task at hand …

… and totally looking forward to Two with Everything.

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Saturday morning, I’m running errands and get a text shortly after 11. “What U up to?”

I do a double-take.

The last time I remember my son being up this early on a Saturday morning he had a full diaper.

I tell him I’ll be home by noon to help Mom with the groceries and then we can go.

West Chestnut is one of the few car-lined streets in downtown Washington on a Saturday morning. We find a parking spot past the shop and walk back down the hill. The Guy In The Window is there, tending a couple dozen dogs on the grill.

Full disclosure: I’d pay a fee to live stream The Guy In The Window — mesmerizingly speed-forking dogs from the grill into buns lining the length of his forearm, followed by one-fluid-motion fulfillment of the yelled-by-the-waitress commands of customers’ Go-Tos, executed in Jedi-like-spoon-snatching and dolloping combos of finely diced onions, slathered ketchup, mustard, chili, and relish in perfect measure and placement on top of Shorty’s-specially-commissioned-secret-recipe-Albert’s dogs and placement one-two-three-at-a-time on the diner’s signature small plates.

We reverently pause at the window before crossing the threshold to behold a scene unchanged and perfected by time. The old wooden booths that ring the wall to the left and north were full. Fine by us.

Me: Counter?

He: Absolutely.

We grab a couple stools at the far end, leaving one open to my left.

The waitress, descendant of the original owner, welcomes us, grabs our drink order. The menu behind the counter at Shorty’s is as essential as the watch pocket in Levi’s jeans – pure decoration. The only change in decades was when they switched from Coke to Pepsi a few years back – a decision for which my wife has never forgiven them.

Speaking of decisions, my son and I are faced with the biggest one we’ll make this Saturday: whether to split a Large Fry with Gravy or get our own smalls. We agree to share, and shake on ordering a second plate if one of us commands more than his fair share. The rest is a foregone conclusion: Two with Everything for me. For him: One with Everything, and one just ketchup and onions.

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Without making the covenant aloud, we’d been holding conversation all morning until our orders were placed.

We catch up on our presentations from earlier in the week (arse was kicked), Kentucky basketball (his lower case ‘r’ religion these days), NBA (LeBron’s Lakers are rollin’), and just stuff.

As we’re waiting for our order, a guy grabs the open stool to my left. A little rumpled. Gray scraggly beard. I pick up a beer scent. Not fresh, maybe night before. Initiates a familiar patter with the waitress, and the behind-the-scenes fry guy in the back. The reciprocal requisite chop-busting of a Regular. Asks about the Wash High score … they were down 14 at the half. I mention they’ve been slow-starting all season, and before I know it, the guy’s joining our lunch conversation, much to my delight, and my son’s chagrin.

Waitress sets down a hot roast beef in front of our neighbor. I tell him he’s the first person I’ve ever sat next to who’s ordered anything other than a hot dog. Unbeknownst to me, I invite a long soliloquy on the subject.

It’s fantastic, he says. The waitress passing by who’s not in the conversation but is unofficially in EVERY conversation, joins the conversation. “It’s really good. You should try it.”

“But,” the guy tells me, waiting for the waitress to pass before executing a perfect Lean In.

Full Disclosure: I’m an unapologetic sucker for a well-executed Lean In – when, in order to signal the presumptive sharing of a Key to the Universe – one checks one’s surroundings, leans one’s head towards one’s subject, and lowers one’s voice to beg his subject’s full attention before confiding. When one is sitting next to The Leaner at a lunch counter, it somehow carries exponentially more gravitas.

“… you gotta get it when it’s fresh.”

In the movie version of this scene, The Guy would grab my arm for emphasis and hold my gaze for a couple extra beats, before eating the rest of his meal in total silence. The IRL version goes on about 45 seconds too long.

See, the guy tells me, if it’s a slow week, and it sits for few days, the, um, ‘quality,’ suffers (in so many words). His cousin works in The Back (the behind-the-scenes Fry Guy), and lets him know when it’s fresh. “I text him before I come in – hot dog or beef? If he tells me ‘hot dog,’ I know the beef’s been in circulation for a few days.”

Me: So the day rotates is what you’re saying.

He: Exactly. You never know.

This is at once essential and completely useless information.

And why this One will never deviate from Two with Everything.

We return to our comestibles.

When our Large Fry with Gravy comes, Peter squirts a little ketchup on the rim. This is an affront to the guy to our left.

Guy: You can’t mix gravy with ketchup.

Me: I know. Separation of Church and State.

Guy: You know where that comes from?

I’m thinking we’re still talking about gravy and ketchup.

Me: I have no idea (since neither Karry nor I ketchup our gravy).

Guy goes on to elucidate, in meticulous Wikipedia-grade detail, Thomas Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter to the Danbury Baptist Church from 1802, in between bites of his (very fresh) roast beef sandwich.

I find this delicious.

This is why you sit at The Counter.

We polish off our LFWG, and I coax Peter into another round.

And this one comes out PERFECT … the fries a crisp golden brown. For the record, they are always good (the gravy forgives all sins), but sometimes during a lunch rush the Fry Guy plucks them from the fryer a little too soon to get them on the plate, which was the case with our first batch.  But this time … we just stare at the plate for a hot minute.

The waitress in every conversation breaks our moment of silence.

“You ever try ‘em with Red Hot?”

I’m rendered speechless by the suggestion, though my face involuntarily reacts as if she’s just proposed a mustache for the Mona Lisa.

“I know, right?” she says in response to my recoil. “That’s what I thought. But it’s really, really good.”

The second waitress Amens her colleague. “Do you like Red Hot? You should try it.”

Yes is the answer, but that’s not the point. Just like I love Sinatra and Tom Petty, I have no desire to experience them together.

Before I can raise shields, the first waitress gives me a tiny plate so I can separate church from state.

I oblige. They wait, expectant, for me to sample and affirm.

It’s fine. I try not to disappoint them, but a perfect plate of fries with gravy needs nothing but the blessing of some pepper.

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We nonetheless clean the plate, using the final few fries as gravy Zambonis. He drains his Orange Crush down to a dry slurp.

We drop our offering at the register, the tip back at the counter. He and I exchange a silent fist bump.

In this cold, gray, Saturday-morning-November moment, 884.1 miles in the making, summoned to the heart of a down downtown to sit as, and with, Regulars atop old stools to talk basketball and stuff over perfect plates of our Usuals, it’s hard not to count ourselves … Two with Everything.

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Fathers and Sons, The Road Ahead

One Mow Time …

 

I was preparing for The Big Day. Bracing myself for The Goodbye Hug. Steeling myself for The Turn and Go.

Turns out, it was the effing lawn equipment that hit me like a haymaker.

Pulled into the driveway after work on the Tuesday night, and there, arrayed in the back yard …  his motley collection of rescues, resurrections, and acquisitions … all fired up and running full throttle to drain their gas before he left for college the next morning.

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What may look to the untrained eye like a few weed whackers, mowers, trimmers and an air compressor,  registered to my emotional Jell-O as Summer’s F*cking Death Scene.

I began borrowing from the stacks of emotional resolve I’d stockpiled for the next morning.

Didn’t see him at first, until I looked over and there he was, one yard over, having pulled out our old Cub Cadet for his last Official Neighborhood Mow. Boy was all business. I met his gaze and nodded, and he returned the gesture, so solemn I had to turn away for the tear rolling down my cheek.

Hadn’t even made it into the house and I’m reaching for the total meltdown hotline, which put me in touch with its flashback division.

It connected me to a memory 15 years ago, the signal crisp as yesterday. Practically the same scene, ‘cept this time I’m mowing. It was the first time I looked over and there he was, a stout little three-year-old, a couple rows beside me. He’d pulled out the self-growling mower he’d gotten on his birthday and was putting all he had into matching my pace, his two steps to my one.

Boy was all business back then, too.

I looked over and nodded, and he returned the gesture, so solemn I had to turn away to hide my smile.

When we were done, I thanked him for his ‘help,’ and joked to Karry that I hoped he maintained his enthusiasm long enough to eventually relieve me of my duties.

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As soon as he grew tall enough for his upstretched hands to reach the top of the old Club Cadet, he began lobbying hard to take a turn. I remember Karry and I debating whether it was a good parenting decision or not, compromising on letting him tackle the flat rectangle where the flower bed starts in the back.

He put every thing he had into it – muscling a running start, locking his arms, and digging his feet into the ground until he willed it forward. When the boy sets his mind to something, he doesn’t let it go. From the first, he mowed straighter rows than me, which as Karry will tell you, isn’t saying very much.

By his second year in high school, he was handling a rotation of 3-4 neighborhood lawns, which earned him an invitation to help his aunt at her cattle farm. For his pre-driving self, that was the equivalent of making The Show. Once a teenage boy sees the world from atop a tractor, the world never looks the same.

He became as fascinated with the equipment as with the work. He soon started poking around barns and sheds, discovering discards and broke-downs from summers past – an old mower here, an old weed whacker there. Took a shine to a years-abandoned riding mower. Drove his aunt nuts for about two weeks as he futzed with it, before reluctantly admitting what she’d known from the start: that it wasn’t worth saving. But with other stuff, he negotiated a deal with her that he could borrow whatever he could get running. We began noticing our two-car garage getting a bit crowded for the strays he’d bring home. The heart his Mom has for animals, he has for lawn gear.

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He stuffed this last high school summer full with work, fun, and yard work (a summer-work-fun trifecta). He and his buddies took on some landscaping gigs for relatives and neighbors. It gave him an excuse to root around his friends’ garages and sheds, salvaging equipment that had given up the ghost. He pulled a busted mower that had sat idle for years and brought it home to work on. Like the first time his tiny hands wrapped around the bar, he put everything he had into it. Every day that week, whenever I’d ask Karry where the boy was, the answer was, “The garage.” ‘Til I came home from work one night, and he was in the driveway blaring his music.  He skipped “Hello,” for “Watch this,” and with one pull, and a little smoke, the sonofabitch roared alive. He beamed the biggest smile walking me through what he’d found wrong and how he fixed it. I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so proud of an accomplishment. He couldn’t wait to return it to his friend and re-create the moment. When he did, they whooped and hollered so loud, the neighbors came over to make sure everything was all right.

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Eventually, I pulled myself together and made it into the house. After he finished at the neighbor’s and got cleaned up, we enjoyed a humble meal of his choosing — grilled hot dogs and onions, accompanied by foil-packed buttered potatoes, a respectful nod to scout camps’ past. We ate quietly, contentedly, on the back porch.

And much too soon for our tastes, the late summer sun dipped behind the houses across the street, calling us inside for cleanup and the final preparations for The Big Day.

As we carried dishes to the sink, the last of his weed whackers gave a final cough and ran dry in the dark back yard, yielding the evening’s soundtrack to the crickets … silencing a season 18 glorious summers in the making.

 

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Fathers and Sons, The Road Ahead

Ties That Bind ….

I don’t remember much from the dwindling days of my last high school summer, aside from not wanting to think about whatever was coming next. I dreaded the prospect of college, dreaded the thought that all my friends were going to other schools, dreaded the possibility that I wasn’t enough, and dreaded the closing of a chapter whose familiar pages I could recite from memory for all my re-reading.

But I do remember this.

A couple weeks before move-in day, Mom informed me that she was taking me downtown to Morris’s, the men’s store in my hometown, so I could pick out a suit. I remember she brought it up out of nowhere, but the way she said it gave me the sense that there was some gravitas associated with the exercise.

It was just her and me. I remember driving us downtown (my mother was a reluctant, and, by all accounts, bad driver).

When we arrived Mom informed the sales clerk, an older gentleman, of our mission, and he took over from there. When he asked me for my thought or reaction, I’d look to her for guidance. She put it back on me, since I was going to be the one who lived with the decision. The one that stuck was a dark blue navy with a subtle purple pinstripe. I remember breaking into a grin when he pointed out the purple in the stripe. It felt like an adult decision. Maybe my first.

I remember him marking the cuffs and the sides of the jacket with chalk for alterations. That’s when I began to appreciate the gravitas of the occasion for myself, since every piece of clothing I’d acquired in my first 17 years was plucked off a rack close enough for jazz. I remember the clerk auditioning ties, and the three of us unanimously electing a floral print of deeps that winked knowingly at the purple in the pinstripe. The old clerk said it was a very young look. Mom approved.

tie

When it was time for checkout, he rang us up, and I remember getting a lump in my throat when he announced the total. It was a big amount, well beyond an extravagance for us. I asked Mom if we wanted to maybe look at other options, but she didn’t flinch. “You need a good suit,” she said, closing the case.

When I got home, Dad gave me a crash course in handling my own Windsor. I wore a tie so infrequently I just let them hang tied and lonely in my closet up to that point. Within days, I was off to begin my next chapter.

I put that suit to good use through over the next four years … and beyond. Unfailingly, I always caught a compliment or two on my tie. Whenever I wore it I remember it feeling like armor. It wasn’t a small feeling in those years when doubt and dread always seemed to have the upper hand on me. Mom was right, I needed that suit for college.

For the record, it still hangs in my closet, though the armor doesn’t quite fit the way it used to.

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This past Thursday I accompanied Peter to Duquesne to cross a few things off his list before this week’s move-in. Picked up his parking pass, a laptop at the computer store, and his first bushel of books at the bookstore.

Before grabbing some dinner we made another stop.

“You guys look like you’re on a mission,” the woman behind the counter said.

“Dad says I need a suit for college,” he told her.

Peter put himself in Sara’s capable hands. She brought out options and colors.

the legend

After trying on a couple, he gravitated to a bright blue number with a paisley for the interior. “That’s pretty sweet,” he confessed. He asked me for my opinion. Told him it was totally his call, but nodded my approval.

When it came to ties, he singled out a flowered print that winked at the blue in the suit, and we reversed engineered the shirt selections to match.

When it was time to check out, I was reminded that the price of a good suit can still tempt one to a double-take. But I was taught many years ago that certain college equations call for a higher math, and didn’t flinch.

I am confident the suit will serve him well, and in different ways than mine served me. He doesn’t need it for armor. For 18 he has a pretty good sense of who he is. I’m grateful for that.

So here’s to next chapters.

And to old chapters worthy of an occasional re-read to find your place.

 

 

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