Letters for Maggie

Such is 26 ….

I remember we were sitting around the kitchen table … Mom, my older brother, I think my sister Missy was there, too. I may have still been in high school. Seventeen, maybe? 

Mom was reading the local newspaper, and had flipped to the classifieds in the back where they parked the memorials. Where folks would send in pictures and tributes, often poems, always heartfelt, honoring the memory of loved ones in the wake, or on the anniversary, of their passing.

Mom found the idea of publishing these in the newspaper the funniest thing in the world.

“It’s not like the dead read the Herald-Standard,” she would say. “I doubt they keep up with their subscription.”

I forget which one of us came up with the idea, but somebody said, “You know, we’re totally going to put one in for you when you kick the bucket.” 

Mom: Don’t you dare. 

Then you can let us know if you get the message.

Mom: I will haunt you.  

It wasn’t long before we were suddenly brainstorming what we’d put in her tribute.

We began by thinking of the most syrupy things we could think of, as she tried in vain to change the subject. 

We may or may not have started rhyming next. 

The more pissed she got, the more fun we had at her expense. 

It was my brother, though, who hit the bullseye. He recalled how Grandma Johnson (Mom’s mom) always used to remind anyone who cared to listen, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

With that good kindling, he offered ….

“You always said we’d miss you when you were gone…”

“… but you were wrong.”

At this the entire table erupted in laughter … Mom most of all. My brother’s retort tick(l)ed all the boxes on Mom’s funny bone. Ornery. Skewering. A bit morbid … with just the right subversive seasoning. She always went out of her way to keep sacred subjects and people from being taken too seriously, most of all herself. She passed that wonderful trait down to all of us. To this day we can’t help ourselves sometimes.

How I can still hear the mingling of our howls, which went on for a long, good moment. My brother’s giggle going falsetto, his trademark when he gets going. Missy’s laugh going silent and breathless. Mom throwing her head back and staying in her lower range … a laugh every bit as ornery as she was. 

Music, all of it. 

For years after that kitchen table moment … we’d all find excuses to reference Mom’s tribute. Whenever she’d push our buttons, get under our skin, or absent-mindedly comment on how much we’d miss her when … you know. 

After a while we didn’t even have to deliver the punchline. Just the opener: “You said we’d miss you when you were gone …” We’d finish it in our heads. It never failed to coax the echoes of our kitchen table laughter.

___

On the evening of our 26th anniversary a couple Wednesday’s ago, Karry and I didn’t bring much to our table as far as celebrations go. 

Just before I left the office at six for my hour commute home, Karry called, in tears. Her multi-week, single-handed Herculean effort to deliver a kitty she’d rescued from our backyard woods to a foster service had collapsed cat-astrophically. The carrier fell apart seconds before she loaded “George” into the backseat of her Jeep. Instinctively, the cat made a beeline back to the woods.

My assurances that George would come back to the warmth of her kindness and food in due time did little to quell her tears. Twenty-six years into a marriage, our worn words for each other don’t always take root the way they used to.

After pulling in the driveway, I trudged up the steps towards our anniversary with expectations set low. 

Opening the door to the hallway, however, I caught a whiff from the kitchen. Walked around the corner to see Emma at the stove, as usual in full command of the situation.  

“Is that what I think it is?” 

You know it, said our youngest, now 17.

A smile broke across my face. I knew without needing visual confirmation. Fish sticks from the bag. Kraft Mac ’n’ Cheese from the box. Peas from the can. It’s our house’s humble equivalent of lighting a campfire. Never fails to warm, and when necessary, repair our souls.

Emma is by far the best cook in the house. Prides herself in trying (and slaying) new and complex recipes. That she knew that keeping her guns in her dinner holster was just what this weary Wednesday called for was the best kind of gift. The kind we wouldn’t have even known to ask for.

Turns out, she was saving the big guns for later.

“Make sure you leave room for dessert … I made you a peanut butter and chocolate layer cake. 

“I impress even myself sometimes.”

I looked towards our tiny dining room. Plates and silverware were set. A single card sat in the center, propped against the napkin holder. Addressed to us from our chef.

Our anniversary hearts caught empty, she filled them to overflowing. I never want to forget that. 

Karry entered from the hallway. 

And? I asked sheepishly. 

George is back in the garage. Neighbors probably thought I was crazy. At one point I was layin’ on my stomach in their yard trying to fish her out from under their gazebo. 

The heart my daughter has for the kitchen, my wife has for animals. 

Peter joined us at the table, and we fixed our plates. Peppered the mac. Ketchupped the fish sticks. Gave thanks.

We didn’t talk about our anniversary, or our wedding. We caught up on each other’s days. Emma and Karry shaking their heads about customers they encountered. Peter cracking us up with tales of his recent adventures with his buddies.

The music of laughter around the table. 

After we cleared the plates Emma brought out the cake. 

There were no candles. No singing. 

It occurred to me that you don’t get a wish on an anniversary.

So, in the place where the wish might have gone, I thought back exactly 26 years … and one day. 

To the night before we got married. 

After the rehearsal at the church we gathered at Firmani’s on Rt. 51 for dinner. As we were finishing the meal (I remember stuffed shells — Firmani’s never disappointed),  I signaled to our server, and she brought out the birthday cake we’d gotten for Mom. I got everyone’s attention and explained that since we’d be kinda’ busy the next day, we’d be commemorating tonight. 

The only thing my Mom hated more than surprises was any sort of fuss, especially at large gatherings. She wanted no parts of being the center of anyone’s attention. I remember her hating it for a moment as the room erupted in song, but then giving in to the happiness of it all … the wedding … being in the company of her kids as well as her sisters who had made the trip in from all over. She was far from alone. We were all so happy. We lit the candle and sang. I remember her taking her time with her wish. While I can only guess as to the specifics, I’m pretty sure she made it count.

__

Before Emma cut us each a slice from her heavenly creation and placed it on our plates, we took a picture for posterity. 

Last year at this time Karry and I took probably a hundred photos commemorating our 25th. On this weary, workday Wednesday, we took just this one. Though I do regret I wasn’t around to snap an action shot of Karry on her belly trying to coax the cat from under the neighbor’s gazebo.

It’s OK though. I’ll do my best to remember. All of it.  

Such is 26. 

And even though I wasn’t authorized, I made a wish anyway. Took my time, too. 

On what would have been her 91st, I wished Anna Margaret a happy birthday.

I’m confident she’ll let me know if she got the message. 

Standard
Letters for Maggie

The Return

So the day started with a trip to a doctor about this thing that has overstayed its welcome on my person, though I’ve given it several months to politely excuse itself (rude). When the doctor took a look at the thing, she pointed to these other things that were in the same general area code and asked me, “What about these?” In my head, I said something like, “Oh, those? Old friends of mine. Been around for a long time. Don’t worry about those. I’m here to talk about this relatively new thing.” She then broadly waved her hand. “These are all the same thing,” and then said the multi-syllable, multi-word medical term for the collective thing.

“Really?” I said, taken aback.

While I was still mentally working my way back from aback, she rattled off the three options for dealing with the thing (all-encompassing hand gesture goes here), discouraged two of them, and offered her rationale for the one that remained, which evidently involves an hour long application of something followed by a shorter interval of something else, followed by a period of seven to 10 days where you really don’t want to be out in public, for fear of frightening the children.

“I see this a hundred times a week,” she told me reassuringly yet dismissively, and informed me the office would call me in 7-10 days after checking on the “pre-auth” — an abbreviation I’d never heard before, but which I’ve been liberally using ever since, because it makes me sound like I possess an understanding of how “the system” works (though I’m not clear on precisely what “system” is being referred to). Then the person at the desk told me the pre-auth would take “3 to 4 weeks” … prompting me to ask how the pre-auth grew 18 days in the 18 steps from the exam room to the front desk (a question I’d probably know the answer to, if I knew more about “the system”).  In response, the front desk person said she’d bump me to the “top of the list,” which she probably says as often in a week as the doctor sees the thing, and which meant that, at minimum, I was at the bottom of that week’s hundred.

I then headed home to work remotely for the day.

Within 20 minutes of plugging in, my house lost all internet and phone service.

I unplugged and plugged the stuff back in. Pressed the re-start buttons. Nada.

Instantly Amish, I threw work stuff into my backpack, hopped in the car and parked outside the coffee shop down the road so I could place a distress call to the demon Comcast.

Took me a good 30 minutes to ‘navigate’ their automated answering machine, the last 25 of which I spent alternating between screaming, “Representative!” into the phone and “F*ck!” into the crook of my arm.

When I finally got to a human, she was the kindest, most understanding, most compassionate, most helpful person, and should immediately be put in charge of everything in the world rather than having to troubleshoot with distressed individuals made into deranged a**holes by Comcast’s dehumanizingly inhuman automated system. She quickly diagnosed that my problems were not self-fixable and scheduled a technician to come to my house “between 12 and 2.”

So I went inside the coffee shop for a shot of caffeinated wifi and re-started my work day. I had a call at 11, by which time the shop was filling up for lunch … so I returned to my car to field the meeting in quiet. I put the call through to my bluetooth so I could take notes on my laptop. The call wrapped at noon, so I had to hustle back home to meet the Comcast tech. When I went to start my car, nothing happened. Evidently, in my haste to field the call from my car, I’d twisted my key in the ignition a half turn too far … and completely drained the battery (‘natch).

At this point I drew liberally from my surprisingly deep Bucket of F*cks left over from yelling at the automated Comcast system. By the time I was done, I’d completely fogged my front window with expletives.

A big, deep breath later, I snatched my backpack, abandoned my car and began the approximately 25-minute walk home in hopes of catching the Comcast technician in time. I’d made it to the really big hill that fronts our neighborhood when I spied the Comcast van turning onto the street. I waved my arms wildly to flag down the driver, who slowed and rolled down his window. I explained that I was his appointment, and asked for a ride up the big hill. He said he’d meet me at the house. “I’d give you a ride, but I’d get in trouble.”

I rolled up my sleeve, reached to the bottom of my Bucket of F*cks for a final fistful.

The walk up the hill is so steep that it commandeered my meager stores of energy, resulting in a detoxifying effect … which is exactly the medicine (both) I (and the Comcast technician) needed. By the time I got to the top, I came to appreciate the logic of Comcast’s ‘anti-hitchhiker’ policy. If one assumes that the majority of tech support customers are distressed individuals made into deranged a**holes by Comcast’s dehumanizingly inhuman automated system, I wouldn’t have scooped me up, either.

Arriving home, I let the tech into the house, showed him the router and the splitter, and turned him loose. He was a flurry of purpose … zooming up and down steps inside, climbing up and down a ladder outside at the pole, hopping in and out of his van. In about 15 minutes he returned to inform me … of my second completely incomprehensible diagnosis of the day. I so wish I could’ve recorded his explanation, which ran a good 3-4 minutes. It was glorious. You could tell he loved his job, and appreciated the rare opportunity to share passionately with an interested party. He said something to the effect of how “that’s a 23 value tap up there,” and I was “pulling 51” at my router, so I was “almost 10 db off,” … and “by the time, length and split, well ….” he let it hang in the air, as if to imply, “Do I even need to finish the sentence?”

Yes, yes, he did. 

“You’re right on the edge.” The problem, he kept saying, was “the return,” and, as evidence, he shared with me another category of numbers he recorded at the pole. “I’ve run all the math,” he said and then spewed the full sequence of data he had meticulously captured and logged, looking for affirmation and understanding in my face, apparently not at all distracted by the thing that has evidently been grazing, free-range-style, across my countenance for years. “So, you see … you’re right on the edge.”

Assuming he meant something other than The Edge of Comcast Hell, I asked, sheepishly … “The edge … of what?”

His face deflated. I could tell I’d let him down. A moment earlier he’d been thinking, “Finally, someone who gets me.” At my philistine question, he proceeded to cut his losses. Let me know that the problem’s outside, not inside, and that he’d already called in a line technician.

Me: How ….

Him: Within the hour.

Me: (letting it all sink in). Oh … so you called in the pre-auth?

Him: What?

Me: Never mind.

Evidently, it’s a different system.

Two hours later (‘natch) the line technician showed up.

I’d bore you with the complete technical explanation of the fix, but suffice it to say, he addressed The Return, and, you know, um, yanked me back from The Edge.

When Karry got home from work, she drove me back down to my car so we could jump the battery. When we arrived another car was parked in front of mine, preventing us from getting close enough for the cables.

“We’ll have to come back tonight,” she concluded and started to pull away.

Wait, I said. Let me see if it’ll turn over. I got out of hers, hopped into mine, pressed the brake and winced as I twisted the key. It gave a Heimlich-like cough before sluggishly returning to life.

I bowed my head on the steering wheel, humbled by the day’s turn of events. Told Karry I’d swing by McDonald’s for a couple drive-thru Cokes to give my battery (batteries?) a chance to recharge.

That night, while draining my bucket of McDonald’s Coke to a dry slurp and savoring the two grilled cheese sandwiches that I’d gratuitously buttered, perfectly griddled and then generously topped with layers (layers, I say) of sweet pickles and BBQ kettle chips (judge me at your own peril), I was mindlessly scrolling through the day’s news, when a byline by the wife of a friend of mine caught my eye. A local high school student with Ukrainian roots put together a website of a bunch of organizations providing humanitarian services in and to Ukraine. She knew a lot of people who were looking for ways to show support and wanted to honor the memory of her great-great grandfather who immigrated to the U.S. a century ago.

Struck between bites of a good grilled cheese sandwich, I finally grasped the concept of The Return.

By receiving a signal strong enough to overcome the noise of one hundred years and 4,858 miles to connect a great-great grandfather who fled his homeland and a great-great granddaughter re-connecting him from hers. A teenager cupping her hands and exhaling the name Dimetro Buriak … so the embers glow again … inviting others around their campfire. An undiminished signal between those we never met, will never meet. The signal still connected. Still connecting. A signal strong enough to connect me … us … in each other’s stories.

We receive. We respond. We return. 

I took stock of all the microscopic graces over the past 12 hours responsible for pulling me back from the edge. A straight-shooting doctor. The compassionate phone support person. The unplanned walk up the hill under the gift of a blue sky. The competent technician who loves running the math. Karry giving me a ride back down the hill to retrieve my car. Drive-thru McDonald’s Cokes. Grilled cheese sandwiches that always make me think of Mom. A local journalist, and a teenager whose heart is exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Humbled once again, I bowed my head on my metaphorical steering wheel.

Was reminded that, despite the eff bombs I may occasionally scream into the crook of my arm … my bad days are not bad days at all … and precious little of it is self-fixable. 

And we all possess the capacity to make someone else’s bad day a little bit better.

We receive. We respond. We return. 

As the good doctor might say, we are all part of the same thing.

(all-encompassing hand gesture goes here)

Standard
Letters for Maggie

The Picture of Kindness ….

Got to chat with my oldest sister yesterday morning … something we’ve been making more time for on our Saturdays the past few months. We’re not religious about it, but it’s something I think we’ve both grown to appreciate a lot (I know I have). We catch up on each other’s worlds and weeks, compare notes on what we’re both reading or watching, stuff that’s caught our attention, recent updates on our other siblings, our occasional health dust-ups, our erratic sleep habits, etc. Yesterday she mentioned looking into a volunteer program (she’s done a ton of volunteering over the past several years) that visits with veterans, just to listen and chat, and, if they’re up for it, to have them share their stories. I told her she’d be perfect for that program. She’s a veteran herself, having joined the marines out of high school, which to this day makes me so proud and in awe of her. And she’s always had a heart for spending time with older people. This past week she visited with the mom of one of her oldest friends to help with eye drops for cataracts. As has become part of our conversational ritual, I had a smile on my face by the time we said our good byes and I Love Yous. 

I was running errands when she called me, and as we wrapped our conversation I pulled into a parking spot outside the tiny little coffee shop off North Main Street. I’ve been dropping in Saturday mornings for a here’s-to-the-weekend espresso, and the accompanying smile and kind word from whoever’s working behind the counter. When I walked in, an older gentleman with a Hemmingway beard was warming himself by the fire with a tall to-go cup of coffee. A shopping cart with his belongs sat next to him. After placing my order I sat down at the table across from where he was, taking the chair near the wall, putting the table and its other chair between us. 

He let me know I could move his cart if it was in my way. 

“Totally fine,” I said. 

“I refer to it as my portable RV,” he said, with a soft laugh. 

After a couple seconds, he added, “Sometimes in life it’s important to know how to improvise,” and, after a few more seconds, “One thing I’ve always believed is that you never stop learning, no matter how old you get.” 

For the record I am awkward and awful at small talk in all its forms, and generally avoid it at all costs. So much so that in my prior visits to the coffee shop I’ve carried a book with me to fill the few minutes it takes for the barista to make my to go order. Yet ….

Continue reading
Standard
Letters for Maggie, The Girls

Speed Dating 25 ….

I figured we had about an hour’s drive to make our 7:15 reservations. 

I had the car out of the garage and air-condition-cooling by 6 p.m. 

Married twenty-five years, she knows how much I hate to be late. 

I hold the car door and she lowers herself into her seat … at promptly 6:35 p.m. 

Married twenty-five years, I know she’s never ready on time. 

She: Wait a minute. Forgot my cheaters. Can’t read the menu without ‘em. 

I get back out to hold the door a second time, and give the bridge of my nose a deep tissue massage until she returns and floats once again into her seat. 

As we pull out of the driveway, we Google Map our drive to check traffic. 

ETA: 7:37 p.m. 

My chest tightens. 

“Don’t drive like a maniac or you’ll make me sick.” 

Ah, the sweet nothings of anniversary date night. 

Continue reading
Standard
Letters for Maggie

Remembrance: Mom in relief ….

(Mother’s Day, 2021)

Ever since Mom’s passing, whenever I find myself missing her, I walk my memory back to being nine years old and standing in our kitchen.

I was sad as hell. 

The way you get when you’re nine and you have no one to play with on a school’s out, full summer sun, Mullen Street morning. The kind that, when you’re a kid, is just too good to let go to waste.

No Danny. No Jeff. No Jerry. No Amy. No Billy. 

Not a single soul to pass ball with. 

If you were nine in our neighborhood, this was a crime against humanity. 

Standing in the kitchen, I made no secret of my discontent, moping around in all my misery. 

Mom finally asked what was wrong, and I told her. She ran down the full roster of my friends. I shot down each one with a “Not home … not answering the phone … car’s not there ….”

Moved by equal parts not wanting to see me sad and finding me annoying AF, she disappeared into the dining room, opened the closet, and reappeared wearing a ball cap and holding Dad’s baseball glove. 

“I’ll pass with you.” 

This was not a solution to my problem. 

For starters, she looked absurd. 

This is the lamest idea ever, I remember thinking. I’d never seen Mom throw anything other than fits at my Dad. 

That’s all right, I said. 

“Come on, let’s go,” she persisted, popping the ball from her right hand into her gloved left. 

No, really, I deflected. 

This went on for a good couple minutes. 

In recorded history, though, no one ever won a test of will against Maggie Riddell. 

Continue reading
Standard