Not comprehensive, or in any particular order … just what comes to one’s mind upon being gifted approximately 18,250 sunrises ….
That, when I was a desperate for a date to a fraternity party, she said yes. And the subsequent circles we danced to Meat Loaf (if I recall), and the subsequent goodnight kiss, and the Johnny Walker Red that may or may not have been responsible for the courage behind that kiss, and, indirectly, the subsequent 29 years.
That I got to be on the same stage with my Dad when he’d close his eyes and shred Harry James’ opening solo on Two O’Clock Jump. The numbers of all the good charts we used to play (#95, #39, #124, #20, #209, #93, #117).
Gathering with my best childhood friends every Christmas to decorate a tree, sip some Old Crow, and bear witness.
A big sister who let me pick out my first rock n’ roll record at the National Record Mart.
A daughter who still says yes when I ask her to read with me, and who savors a good turn of phrase as much as her old man.
A sister who sends me a card, cartoon, or clipping every week to let me know she’s thinking of me.
A son who asks me to hit golf balls with him even though I am beyond redemption. And on the grander scale, a gracious soul who forgives me for having tried way too hard.
Running under all those perfectly aimed and timed fly balls Dad launched just within the waffle-pocket reach of the oversized, Reggie Jackson model Rawlings he bought with the best $25 he ever spent.
Em’s Saturday morning omelets with toast (oh, and while I’m there, her home made mac-n-cheese doused with Red Hot in the manner of holy water).
An older brother who, like the good offensive lineman he was, wore down my parents’ resistances to allow me a clean running lane through my teenage years.
Roger Khan, Roger Angell, John Updike, Myron Cope, Gene Collier, David Halberstam, Roy Blount Jr. and all the others who taught me that good sports writers were just good writers who happened to write sports.
The small graces … squeezing toothpaste on her toothbrush in the morning … walking down the driveway together after taking out the garbage … standing at the sink doing dishes …. blowing kisses to the window while leaving for work in the morning.
My favorite Sunday night Oldie’s DJ.
A sister who raised two beautiful souls on her own and now gets to enjoy her grandchildren, and the occasional glass of wine with her baby brother.
A neighborhood that knew the best recipe for growing adults was to let kids be kids.
Preserving the capacity to be awed.
A mom who saved everything, including the before-and-after-orthodontic molds of my teeth, the BEFORE sample prompting my daughter to re-coil, “That looks like it’s from a North American primate,” which is pretty much exactly what the girls in middle school thought, too.
That holding hands still makes everything OK.
Parents who gave me time and space to figure stuff out.
Chicken wings from Drovers, two with everything and fries with gravy from Shorty’s, a Poorboy without tomato, small fries and a Pabst draft from Potter’s.
Charlie Watts proving that eighth notes and a bemused smile are all one needs to build a pocket big enough to fit an entire world (translation: more is not always better).
Gerard Manley Hopkins writing his arse off for an audience no bigger or smaller than God herself.
Laurel Highlands Class of ’88.
Jazz on a rainy day and blistering guitars ‘neath a starry sky.
Our only family vacation growing up … to Gettysburg and Valley Forge during the Bicentennial. The sound of pee hitting a coffee can in the backseat on our no-stop drive to the middle of the state.
The bewitching crackle of a campfire.
The 1-4-5 progression.
How the very specific scent and feel of crisp late summer Southwestern PA mornings always makes me think of high school band camp.
The old, tiny teacher’s desk from Areford that mom salvaged and refinished … that makes me think of where I came from every time I sit down to write at it.
The best days in my life, summed up in eight words. “I do / It’s a boy / It’s a girl”
Remembering to look up.
Making her laugh so hard she cries.
When they were small enough to carry.
Knowing it’s in as soon as it leaves your hand.
That little dip in our neighborhood that breezes you five degrees cooler like a kiss on the cheek when you’re running down its hill
Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful.
A dry Kettle One martini and/or listening to Paul Desmond (same thing)
Every letter I’ve received in the mail and kept.
Riding in Dad’s Sherwin Williams van on Sunday afternoons looking for a playground hoop with a good net.
Being Santa Claus. Until you’re not.
Winning the in-law lottery.
Peter’s brown-sugar, oven-baked, banana ‘recipe’ he fashioned when he was seven years old, that, when properly muddled with vanilla ice cream, is the key to the universe.
How the smell of second hand smoke always makes me think of Mom.
City Lights Bookstore.
The sound of rain on a metal awning.
Nieces and nephews who made great daughters and sons, better sisters and brothers, and even better mothers and fathers.
All the encouragers.
That I remembered to write most of the good stuff down, to remind me when I forget about the good stuff.
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:
Inside, a letter. From me to my baby boy. Days before our first Christmas together.
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
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:
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.
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.
Our baby boy turns 19 today.
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 will too soon miss the taste of Christmas cookies at 3 in the morning.
— Dec. 24, 2014
Pete: what’s that?
Peter (with his hand behind his back): Dad, I found something that I know you love.
Peter: Chicklets (placing two on the desk where I’m working).
Pete: (noticing that they were a little faded) Um, where did you find them?
Peter: In a drawer.
Pete (inspecting the Chicklets a little more closely): Um, how long do you think they’ve been there?
Peter: (thinking) Year, year and a half?
Pete: Thank you for thinking of me.
Peter: There’s still a yellow one up there.
Pete: Save that one for later.
–Oct. 20, 2012
Six words you don’t want to hear from a 10-year-old: “Boy, this carpet is super absorbent.”
–Oct. 18, 2012
My wife, to me, moments ago: “You have this … magnet of weirdness about you.”
–Aug 6, 2012
At the breakfast table this morning, my 10-year-old gives a complete weather forecast for the next five days, including temperature, and chance of rain. After a few seconds of me staring blankly at him, he says, “What? I’m crazy with the doppler.”
–July 24, 2012
My wife just came home and ordered my son to go grab the radio and join her on the patio to listen to the Pirate game outside. Savoring summer like a ripe plumb.
–June 9, 2011
Scientists researching hair growth should study our black lab, who has consistently shed 5-6 Luis Tiant mustaches a day for going on 12 years.
–May 20, 2011
So, passing by the living room, I hear my ten-year-old son say to his six-year-old sister over the TV, “Yes, I know you’ve been very patient … and for that I’m grateful.”
My first reaction was that my wife had laced dinner with LSD. I fought the urge to enter the living room for fear of seeing my son petting a rainbow-farting unicorn, which would’ve ruined the hallucination.
–April 6, 2011
So, midway through Valentine’s Day dinner last night (which the kids helped set the table for and prepare), my 9-year-old son rises from his chair, cups his hand over my ear and whispers, “Bust a move.” I pull back, and we stare at each other for about 4 seconds in silence … until he nods in Karry’s direction. The sad part is that I think he had a better sense of what he was talking about than I did.
–Feb 15, 2011
(Super Bowl) So, as the Packers lined up for the extra point, my six year old daughter asks, “So, how does a baby get inside a girl’s belly?”
I can’t handle this.
–Feb 6, 2011
Just watched my 5 year old conduct one of her “experiments.”
Step 1: unwrap 5 tootsie rolls
Step 2: put on plate & microwave on high while you go into the living room & watch a few minutes of iCarly.
Step 3: (my favorite) put on a rubber glove (right hand only)
Step 4: with glove hand, spoon the microwaved tootsie roll onto a piece of bread.
Step 5: place bread in plastic bag
Step 6: finish watching iCarly.
–Nov. 16, 2010
Over lunch ….
Dad: I’m a good dancer.
Peter: Let’s just say no one dances quite like you.
–Sept 6, 2010
Yard sale dialogue:
Pete: You really need to work on your positivity.
Karry: It’s difficult when you say dumb things.
–June 12, 2010
So, my son (9), home from school, fires up the Guitar Hero. I walk in, he’s just finished shredding Iron Maiden, and he’s sipping Mellow Yellow from a martini glass.
That’s more rock n’ roll than I’ve ever been in my life.
–June 3, 2010
After polishing off her mac n’ cheese, my daughter lets out a less-than-dainty burp at the dinner table. Seizing the opportunity, her older brother admonishes, “Emma! Do you see anyone laughing … other than me?”
–May 15, 2010
Five-year-old telling me about her visit to the park.
She: “Dad, I cut my foot,” holding it out for me to see.
Me: “How’d you do that?”
She: “I’m not sure … I wasn’t there when it happened.”
–April 6, 2010
My wife’s last words, before she left for the airport for her four day girl’s weekend? “Don’t even think about putting anything in the washing machine.” Then she did that thing where she kept her eyes fixed on me for several seconds without saying anything, to allow me to imagine the potential consequences.
–Nov. 6, 2009
This morning, I put on School House Rock when the kids got up. When “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here” came on, my son actually said, “I gotta put down the PSP for this.”
So it arrived, like clockwork, as it always does, the Friday after Thanksgiving, humble and nestled amidst the mailbox-clogging catalogs and circulars who are under the complete misapprehension that the responsibility of heralding the season to come belongs to them.
And the smile broke across my face, as it always does, before I even made it back to the front door.
I sat down at the table, and opened it expectantly (think kid at Christmas), and read Patty’s annual hand-written Christmas card, which for (gosh, I guess) over 20 years now, has served as the Official Harbinger of the Holiday Season (TM) of the Riddell household.
I met Patty through her husband John, whom I met when we were both invited to join a new (at that time) 10-piece group, the Brass Knuckles Band (‘Our Sound Will Knock You Out’ – still wince-worthy after lo these many years … ha.). John was the trumpet player in the group’s four-piece horn section (think Wilson Pickett, Temps, etc. We also played a lot of cheesy wedding music, which is why I would prefer you think Wilson Pickett, Temps, etc.).
As perhaps THE most inconsequential-at-the-time footnote to the experience, I added each band member’s address to my Christmas card list. It was probably around 1993 or 1994 that I first received a holiday card from Patty, which immediately distinguished itself by (1.) arriving the day after Thanksgiving, (2.) being the only lonely Christmas card among an otherwise unread pile of capitalism, and (3.) her accompanying hand-written note.
And every day after Thanksgiving since, I’ve enjoyed a smiling walk back to the front door.
Over the past 20+ years, the cards have beautifully traced, at the 20,000-foot level afforded by the confining margins of a Christmas card, the noble arc of small-town American family — Patty’s proud update on another year serving as leader in her Weight Watcher’s group, her kids’ high school experience, college decisions, choices of major (music, both of ‘em), graduations, first teaching jobs, marriages, John’s work, retirement, his bout with cancer (which he’s beating), before closing with a band update. ALWAYS a band update.
I quit the band after a few years when we started our family (who I knew would someday need me to teach them about Wilson Pickett, the Temps, etc.), so I always treasured hearing that the band was still going, and John still blowing his horn. I have a soft spot for horn players, as some of you know.
This year’s card was distinguished by all the usual updates: Weight Watcher’s (check), John’s health (check and Amen), the band ….
Patty wrote that the band broke up earlier this year.
Made my heart sink and swell mere beats apart. I’m sure that it was a long time coming, but to learn of it in one sentence as if it was a thing that just suddenly went poof … rocked me. The evaporation of a thing that I felt such a fond connection to … that represented a former lifetime for me. Good, simpler times. Sweet, soul music.
It’s a monumental credit to Rich (the leader and arranger) that he held a sprawling, sweaty 10-piece band together through the noble arc of the small-town American family lives of its members, on the fringes of Pittsburgh for 20+ years — a span in which it only got easier, cheaper and more logical to digitally provide on-demand music to suit any tastes for any event.
In her update Patty made a point to say that John was still playing his horn in the VFW concert band, swing band and a community German band.
Can’t keep a good horn player down.
That wasn’t the only plot twist in Patty’s note. She also let me know that the card I was holding would likely be the last one I’d be receiving from her hand. She went into no great detail, but she didn’t need to.
Part of it might have to do with just the natural simplifying of lives who’ve more than earned the right to be choosy with precious time. Part of it might have to do with the yielding to society’s gravitational pulls … its impolite push-brooming to the curb the inefficient, wasteful notion of sending cards, let alone ones inclusive of thoughtful hand-written notes. Like everyone we receive fewer and fewer cards. Life everyone we send fewer, too.
But I think the ending of the band ultimately signaled the end of the connective card-writing thread that she had so faithfully tended.
I got up this morning, feeling the effects of what’s been another hectic holiday season, worn by work, responsibility, and feeling shamed by all the important things and even more important people I’ve not tended to. And for whatever reason, I found myself thinking of Patty’s card. Found myself reminded of the impact of such a simple, soulful act. Found myself thinking how we’ve just begun to trace the arc of our lives in Christmases the same way her annual cards have done. One kid in high school. The other, at 11, already on the other side of Christmas magic. How’d that happen?
Found myself appreciating the bookending of things.
So today, before work, I scribbled a hand-written note of appreciation to Patty and John … my horrible penmanship testifying to rust from disuse. Slipped it in the mail just under the wire at the end of this season of preparation. Shamefully, it was the first card I took the time to write this year.
I am confident that next year, and for many to come, I will still think fondly of Patty and John the day after Thanksgiving. Am confident that a smile will still break across my face as I walk back towards the front door. Such is the groove 20+years has worn in my heart.
And the takeaway for me is that there remains a power in the simple act of pen to paper to let another know that you are on their mind that cannot be touched by the immediacy of what passes for connectivity today.
So my note to Patty, though my first this year, will not be my last. A few good souls with whom I’m well overdue will find themselves walking back from the mailbox (probably several) days after the holiday. If I can muster just enough legibility, maybe I’ll coax a smile across their face.
If you are so inclined, I would beg two favors of you as you seek joy and peace in the days ahead.
Raise a glass to 20+ years of encores, and a rotating roster of keepers of the flame who never quit their day jobs and, when the spirit moved, blew from their shoes.
And raise a pen to 20+ years of simple gifts received the day after Thanksgiving. If the spirit moves you, press a little of your heart into paper and let someone know you are on their mind.
I know from personal experience that the reminder would mean an awful lot.
So, we got married on a Saturday. I started grad school on a Monday. In the space where the honeymoon was supposed to go, we instead went on a cruise through Pittsburgh rush hour traffic, Karry riding shotgun to make sure I didn’t get lost.
We launched our new life from the world’s tiniest apartment. Four rooms atop a two-car garage. Bathroom so tight that you couldn’t use the toilet without bumping your knees against the tub.
If we’d consciously based our career choices on trying to make the least amount of money possible, it wouldn’t have looked much different than the English (his) and Social Work (hers) majors whose accompanying student loans kept our hearts and home humble.
With her working full-time and me going to school full time and balancing a research assistantship and a part-time job working nights at the paper, we were often two ships passing in the night. On the rare occasions our schedules intersected, we kept things simple. We put our own spin on dinner and a movie.
Finding ourselves spent and spat out after a long week, we quickly settled on our go to meal: frozen fish sticks drenched in Heinz ketchup accompanied by heaping piles of Kraft Mac n’ Cheese. Washed down with Cokes over ice. When we were feeling fancy, we’d crack open a can of Bush’s Baked Beans for a three-course meal. I took care in evenly distributing the sticks. She’d always insist I take extra. We’d pass the dining room table en route to the living room so we could sit on the floor and watch re-runs of the Six Million Dollar Man (because it was on, and, um, it was awesome).
We’d go for seconds during the commercials.
Last Friday night, rains washed out the creek that floods just about every option to our house. I was on my commute home, oblivious, when Karry called to navigate me home. Take the Jessop Exit, hop on Chestnut by The Tower …. Come up behind Hill House….
Twenty-two years in, my co-pilot still makes sure I don’t get lost.
Pulled the car in the driveway, came up the stairs, and spied her in our tiny kitchen, spent and spat out by a long week.
Neither she nor the breath of a warm oven able to keep a secret.
I plucked the scent from the air, quickly stole a glance at the stove … a boiling pot and the empty blue box of next to it. Behind the boiling pot, a smaller one warming a fresh can of baked beans.
She was feelin’ fancy.
An involuntary smile broke wide across my cheeks.
“Emma doesn’t believe you’re going to eat it, but I set her straight.”
We’ve graduated from a tiny apartment to a tiny house. A kitchen too small for a dishwasher; the nightly sinkfull still keeping our hearts and home humble.
When the timer of our old Brady Bunch oven buzzed, I took care to evenly distribute the fish sticks onto our paper plates. She insisted I take extra. We made room for heaping piles of Kraft and a couple spoonfulls of Bush’s. Poured Cokes over ice.
“Go find us some Six Million Dollar Man,” Karry said as a joke, forgetting that she’d bought me a DVD collection a couple years ago for Christmas.
I fished it out (pun regretted), unopened, from the shelves in the living room.
“No way,” she said.
I dialed up the epic two-part episode from Season 3: The Secret of Bigfoot (starring Andre the Giant as Sasquatch). We sat on the living room floor.
It was as cheesy as the Kraft … and every bit as awesome.
We paused the DVD when we needed to go back for seconds.
For years, we’d always both smile and blush at the remembrance of our “signature” meal.
Last Friday it was only smiles, no blush.
After years of searching in vain for the recipe for a long relationship, I think I’ve finally realized that the secret has nothing to do with any recipe.
Because when one has fish sticks in the freezer, and Kraft in the cupboard, one does not need a recipe.
The secret is in remembering to occasionally pause the DVD to go back for seconds.
Met my sisters at the old house last Saturday to officially start The Process.
Of rummaging, assessing, divvying, donating, and discarding the material and emotional accumulations of two lives intertwined for over 60 years as husband and wife, and nearly as many as Mom and Dad.
I didn’t really have or take the time to think about what to expect.
As odd as it may sound, I was just kinda’ looking forward to experiencing the initiation of The Process through my big sisters’ eyes.
Being the youngest by 10 years, I’ve developed a fairly insatiable curiosity about the early chapters of my parents’ … parenting, and my older siblings’ sibling-ness.
So Saturday I found myself in good company for the bittersweet sorting of and through treasures.
That’s ‘treasure’ in the true sense … of artifacts whose worth transcends and mocks any monetary connotation.
I wasn’t but 30 seconds into my arrival, when my oldest sister Kim unfurled a near life-size version of her seven-year-old self. The likeness produced the same smile it elicited 53 years ago, when Aunt Janet hand-painted it for the rounds of “Pin the Tail on the Kim” that must’ve set a pretty high bar for seven-year-old birthday celebrations in the neighborhood. It’s worth noting that the only artifact that survived my sister’s 7th birthday party was the hand-painted, personalized decoration made by my aunt.
The true gifts aren’t always disguised as gifts.
My sister Laurie ushered me upstairs to my old room. In so many words warned me to brace myself.
That my mom was a packrat was no surprise to me.
But the stacks of lovingly and meticulously—packed tubs that my sisters had extracted from my old bedroom’s closets were not merely the product of someone incapable of throwing things away. They were time capsules whose future value to the one who would open them was well-known by the one who packed them.
I was stopped cold by the first lid I pried off.
Staring back at me was a card from one of the times Billy Karwatske’s Dad took us to the Civic Arena to see professional wrestling, a memory I had had no reason to recall in literally decades. Scanning the names took me back to some BIG moments, like the first time my impressionable 10-year-old ears experienced the truly indescribable reverberation of an arena-full of blood lusty and thirst-quenched Yinzers chanting, “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!” as the larger-than-life Sammartino throttled the overmatched evil in front of him.
The hair on my arms may or may not have still been standing as I literally bounded down the steps to show my sisters, not pausing to consider how little interest they might have in my reminiscing about the first time I saw Andre the Giant in six-man-tag action live. Although we lacked the means for such clinical diagnoses back in a day, I’m pretty sure that the experience was my first time completely LOSING MY SHIT.
Yeah. One item in to the first box I was.
It heralded an afternoon (and afternoons to come) where progress was to be measured in ways other than assessing and editing.
What moved me about all the containers stacked and strewn about my old room had only so much to do with presents from my youth, but much more to do with the presence of my mother, which I felt as strongly on Saturday as I have since her passing last March.
As I lingered in my old bedroom, Mom and I communed over artifacts whose significance had become even greater in their retirement. I’m confident that she took her time (oh, that woman could take her time) recalling each sweet memory before she sealed the lid on another full tub. My memories were of the very same kindred spirit as I began unpacking them.
I eventually sobered (slightly) to the task at hand, appreciating each container as its own chaptered snapshot … of my childhood, teenage years, college, my first jobs, my old newspaper clippings. I managed to stuff my heart, and my old Subaru, with as much as each could accommodate, and, once home, stacked the first row of tubs in a corner of our already over-stuffed garage.
I’ve found myself spending some quality time visiting my past over the past several months. Though I’ve made fresh tracks along familiar and forgotten roads, I have no intentions of dwelling there.
But the sacred act of blowing dust from such beautiful remembrances has opened my eyes …
…to the preciousness of the present
…to the opportunities we all have to make of the moments memories worthy of someday finding their way into tubs sealed like time capsules
… for loved ones to crack open like buried treasure
…and realize anew, like the generation before them, that the true gifts are not always disguised as gifts.
It was a typical divide and conquer evening, only made atypical by the milestone.
Our oldest turned 17 Wednesday.
Karry was on dance duty, which earned her a pilgrimage to Waynesburg to scoop up Emma and her friends, and put me, by default, in charge of wrapping presents and dinner prep.
I would not be Karry’s first-round pick for either chore. Under normal circumstances I’d be lucky to participate in these spring drills as a non-roster invitee.
Admittedly, neither task plays to my strengths (which, generally speaking, fall under a loose category that, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just call “Intangibles.”). Family gift openers have described my wrapping as “primitive,” though I prefer “possessing of a charming, child-like quality.” Regardless, as with most things I’m not particularly skilled at, I compensate with enthusiasm.
So, I flung myself into the task of paper-cladding the humble pile of middle-of-the-week birthday gifts, most of which were feverishly procured slash Amazon-ed within the previous 48 hours (as per family, um, tradition). I fished my emergency stash of Sunday Comics from the drawer of my old Areford Elementary teacher’s desk (that my Mom fished from the ruins of our old neighborhood school about 40 years ago). Snatched the tape from the top drawer of the overstuffed chest where we keep the bills and The Neglected Stacks. In desperation I went digging through The Neglected Stacks for a couple extra blank birthday cards, since we had procured a couple more gift cards than birthday cards, and it somehow felt slightly less lame if we didn’t stuff multiple gift cards into a single envelope.
While digging deep into one of the far left stacks, I slammed the breaks on my feverish search when I happened upon … buried treasure.
From … Toronto. Vancouver. San Antonio. Utah. San Francisco. Las Vegas.
Addressed to … Peter.
All from about 15 years ago. When he was 1-2 years old.
I was both taken aback, and taken back.
I totally forgot that the young parent version of myself used to write him postcards when I went on business trips. Forgot how much I hated leaving him and Karry in the days when miracles were more than a daily occurrence.
I just called home a few minutes ago and heard you saying, “Humpty Dumpty” – Mee Maw taught you that yesterday. And Mom told me that you walked 8 steps on your own. I am soooooo proud of you! Going three days without seeing you smile or hearing you chit-chat is too long.
It was a time machine to when the world was so much smaller … when we harvested simple moments of transcendence by the bushel.
I should be home tomorrow by 9:15 or so … hopefully you are still up. If not, I’ll put a kiss in my hand and put it on your head, unless you are sleeping with your butt in the air!
Yeah, he used to sleep sometimes with his knees under him, which made his butt stick up in the air. Whenever Karry or I would pass by his room and catch a glimpse, we’d call the other and just stand there, smiling in silence at the gift of him just … being. Reading my old words to the young him made me smile anew. And yeah, I remember putting kisses in my hand so I wouldn’t wake him. Sleep was a precious commodity for all involved back then.
Greetings from Vancouver. This is that place that mom showed you on the globe. I saw something today you would have found very cool. Out in the water in the bay I saw an airplane “driving on the water.” And it started driving fast and took off and flew up into the sky.
First time I’d ever seen a seaplane. And I experienced it through the awed eyes of my two year old who wasn’t there. As a wise person once wrote, you can only taste it for the first time once.
Greetings from Las Vegas! You would find lots here to draw your attention. At night you can hear lots of ‘woo woos.’
Woo woos = police cars. I’m not sure Vegas has been described so innocently before or since.
As I carry you with me wherever I go, I see these sites through your eyes.
In the stack were about 10 or so cards I sent over maybe a two-year-period.
At some point, I stopped writing them.
I’m not sure when. And I’m confident it wasn’t any sort of conscious act.
I remember reading a great essay that talked about The Last Time, and how we are seldom aware of The Last Time we’re experiencing something.
The last time you rock your child to sleep in your arms. The last time you read Goodnight Moon. The last time you play catch with your Dad.
The last time your Mom calls to wish you a happy birthday.
I don’t give myself credit for much, but I can honestly say that I think I’ve always possessed a keen sense of the passage of time. I used to journal a lot in those early days of parenthood. I knew that my future self would want to be reminded of all the daily amazings that drew ahs like fireworks and evaporated just as quickly. When I find myself feeling a little untethered, I’ll pluck an old journal from the shelf, and see what the life of the younger Us used to be like.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the people in my pages.
The miracles of the present age are of, um, a different vintage. When he wears pants at the dinner table? Minor miracle.
It’s tempting to believe that your children have always been the same person since birth. The cold fact is they are completely different people today than they once were. And they don’t care about those kids whose smaller clothes used to hang in their closets. The junior in high school doesn’t care that his two-year-old self used to run into my arms every time I came upstairs from work, or that his three-year-old self just had to pull his plastic lawn mower out of the garage and ‘mow’ beside me every time I cut grass, or the great pains he and I took to memorize the choreography to our favorite Wiggles routines. (Gooooo, Captain Go….). Those were gifts from someone other than the young man who now does donuts in the snow in the Wild Things parking lot.
Which brought me back to the small pile of gifts waiting impatiently.
I aborted my search for empty birthday cards.
Re-arranged the treasures in front of me back into a neat pile.
But instead of returning them to The Neglected Stacks, I wrapped the Sunday comics around them (with a charming, childlike quality.). Sealed them with Scotch tape. Tossed ‘em into the small mound.
Moved on to kitchen stadium, where I proceeded to slice a ½ dozen tiny bowls full of veggies, set off two smoke alarms and set one paper plate aflame while Wok-ing the hell out of Peter’s made-to-order-stir-fry-birthday dinner, whose deliciousness almost-but-not-quite made up for the fact that I didn’t put it in front of an impatient, famished table until 8:30 because I kinda’ forgot to slice the beef until the girls returned home from dance.
However, grace (i.e. rescue) came in the form of Emma’s from-scratch Oreo cupcakes, thoughtfully and lovingly made for a sibling whose legacy of giving her nothing but big-brother crap is now in its 13th season.
Karry placed a candle atop a cupcake, Emma turned out the lights, and I nearly ruined everything by going for harmony on the final Happy Birthday To You (a sweet, but ill-executed homage to my Dad’s birthday serenades of yore).
Then the room fell quiet, and the world stopped long enough for the guest of honor to take his sweet time in considering his birthday wish.
And in the silence, I wondered what the Dad who used to send postcards promising to put kisses in his hand for his sleeping baby boy might say to the one now sitting around a cluttered Tuesday night table staring, bewildered, at a newly-minted 17-year-old whose heart’s set on a Ford Mustang.
I recently found myself feeling very thankful … for, of all things, a summer Sunday thunderstorm.
That happened about 32 years ago.
I remember it as one of those glorious, near-Biblical downpours – the kind that mid-summer, Southwestern PA humidity teases and taunts until it comes down full-throated and angry. The kind whose sound used to mesmerize me as it drumrolled, fortissimo, the aluminum awning on our tiny front porch, pouring in a sheet over its edge.
I remember that particular afternoon storm being accompanied by lightning that flashed with such frequency and bad intent it made you involuntarily wince as you waited the couple beats to learn from the companion thunder crack if any trees or transformers had born the brunt.
It was mid-afternoon and Mom was getting an early dinner ready. We were to eat early because Dad was playing music that night.
On the surface, an every-third-Sunday-night gig at a Moose Club in Perryopolis may sound more like punishment than anything, but Dad loved that particular job. It had absolutely nothing to do with the money, as once each of the nine pieces of the orchestra had been paid, the cut was a measly $25 for three hours. Nah, for Dad, the payoff was in the freedom the band had on those Sunday nights. Things were looser at the Moose than the typical gigs — the opposite of the structured, 14-setters that dictated what kind of song had to be played when. On those Sundays, Sam, the bandleader, would even let the musicians request a chart that they wanted to play, or hadn’t played in a long time … or a jazzier chart that was more fun to jam on than to dance to. And playing from 8:30-11:30 a short drive down Route 51 was a breeze compared to the four-hour jobs they’d drive an hour or more to.
As Mom got things ready in the kitchen, I remember the phone ringing in the dining room, and me getting up to answer it (days before caller ID when a surprise always waited on the other end). It was Sam, calling to let Dad know that the Moose had lost power due to the storm, so the gig was cancelled.
I relayed the message, and remember Dad being bummed, but also being OK with not having to rush the rest of the afternoon, and getting his evening back.
Though there was no longer any reason to eat early, Mom finished what she’d started, and the three of us sat down to eat at the kitchen table.
That’s when the phone rang a second time, about 45 minutes after the first call.
This time Dad answered. It was Sam again, calling to let him know that the Moose got power back, so the dance was back on.
So, Dad resumed his gig-prep ritual, getting a shower, doing his teeth (which took a good 30-45 minutes. I’m not sure there was ever a trumpet player more meticulous about his teeth), laying out his suit, his mute bag, etc.
No big deal.
Until the phone rang for a third time. Sam again.
He’d been able to reach everyone in the band … except the drummer, Bob, who also happened to be my drum teacher. In the age before cel phones, when answering machines were still a novelty, you either got ahold of someone, or you didn’t. Sam figured that Bob must’ve gone out to eat or something after learning that the gig was off.
“Tell Pete to get ready, just in case Bob doesn’t call me back,” Sam told my Dad.
Now, this was suddenly a big deal.
So, I was 15 years old. I’d been taking drum lessons for about a year and a half at my father’s, um, insistence. I literally came home from school one day to learn that he’d signed me up for lessons. I had never previously expressed an interest in the drums. And there was no precedent for my father signing me up for anything that we hadn’t previously discussed. But I was an agreeable kid, and, hey, drums were cool, so I just rolled with it.
I didn’t pay much attention to the not-so-subtle clues as to my Dad’s intentions. When he signed me up for lessons he informed me that he’d already pre-arranged with the instructor (Bob) that I was to learn all styles of music, not just rock. He wanted me versed in the bossanova, the rhumba, the cha-cha, and of course, jazz and swing.
I humored my Dad by going along with this, though my heart beat more in time to big, fat backbeats.
My Dad had started having me tag along on gigs with him, just to listen. I remember at first feeling awkward riding to gigs with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, and then sipping Pepsis for four hours while listening to old music and watching old people dance. He’d also asked Sam to make me some tapes of the band for me (which he recorded ‘live’ on an old Radio Shack Realistic recorder), so I could play along at home, applying the beats I was learning in my lessons. Full disclosure: I’d always skip past the boring slow ones, and just played along to the passable jump tunes … In the Mood, Kansas City, etc.
But I always assumed that the tapes and the ride-alongs were just for exposure, and really, to humor my Dad.
The prospect of playing an actual gig was not even close to being on my radar when Sam called that Sunday afternoon. For one thing, my drums had never left my practice room in the back. I didn’t even have cases for them. And since Dad-slash-Santa had delivered them already set up a couple Christmases back, I didn’t know how to tear them down.
I remember taking them apart that afternoon for the first time afraid I wouldn’t remember how they went back together. When I wasn’t freaking out, I was praying hard that Sam would call back saying he’d gotten ahold of Bob. Alas, a fourth call never came.
The rain had long since stopped by the time Mac came to pick us up. I remember carrying my cymbal stands out one by one, gingerly laying them down in the back of his Chevy Suburban, and covering them with a blanket so they wouldn’t be tempted to roll.
When we were done loading the truck, Mac commented, “They look like dead bodies.”
Not the encouragement I was looking for.
When we got to the Moose, Dad helped me set things back up, bought me a Pepsi to calm my nerves. Sam loaned me an oversized tux jacket, and a gratuitously large, velvet, clip-on black bow tie that wore crooked.
A veteran professional band leader who had logged decades as a successful high school band instructor, Sam was his usual picture of calm. I’ll never forget his only instruction to me, which he delivered with a wry smile: “As long as you begin and end with the rest of the band, you’ll be fine.”
By the time everybody tuned up and gathered on the bandstand, I was in full panic. I gave my full attention to Sam’s every word and gesture, locking into the tempos as he counted off the tunes. From there, I focused on Ralph, the keyboard player (and Sam’s son). Specifically, I hyper-focused on Ralph’s left hand, which he used to play the bass line. After a couple verses, I’d turn my attention back to Sam and wait for him to signal whether the song ended in tempo, if things slowed down, or if everyone was to play the last notes together.
To compensate for all the tunes I didn’t know (which were legion), I’d exhaust my humble bag of tricks on the few that I did, “In the Mood,” “Kansas City,” etc. Imagine a nervous, 15-year-old rock-and-roller turned loose on Glenn Miller. Yeah.
For the others, it was a lot of ‘boom-chicka-boom’ until a tune came to a merciful conclusion. I found myself regretting skipping over all of those boring, slow tunes in the practice room.
I remember little else other than surviving the longest three hours of my life … thanks to a constant stream of advice and encouragement from Alice (our singer) and the guys in the band.
When it was over, I gratefully collected their smiles and handshakes, and then collected myself before turning my full attention to trying to remember how the heck to tear my drums back down.
Then Sam came over to me. Asked me to put out my hand.
Into which he put $25 … my share of the evening’s take.
I still can vividly recall my 15-year-old self’s feeling of surprise and exhilaration as I stared at the money in my hand. It felt like a million bucks to me.
In that humble transaction, I went from being a scared-shi*tless 15-year-old to being a professional musician.
But that paled in comparison to what he did next.
He asked me if I’d consider being his regular drummer.
He said he was looking for someone who could make all the gigs. Bob sometimes played with other groups, forcing Sam to find subs. He wanted someone steady.
I can tell you with 100% certainty that there was nothing in my performance that evening that earned me the invitation.
But I never gave him a chance to reconsider his offer.
And, for the next 13 years, I rode along in vans with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, playing old music for old people.
And loving every single minute of it.
The long drives to the gigs, listening to my Dad and his musician friends talk music and tell tales of guys they played with and places they played.
Seeing it as my honor, as one of the younger guys, to help carry the equipment up and down the steps of whatever hall we happened to be playing in.
Over time, learning every chart inside and out … not just beginning and ending with the band, but catching every kick and squeezing the juice out of every chart. Laying down a mean rhumba, cha-cha and bossanova for the dancers to indulge themselves.
Delighting in the ritual and routine of it all. The rhythm of the set up and tear down. The meticulous way everything perfectly loaded and packed into Mac and Sam’s vans. The way each musician would warm up (I can still hear Mac playing the Theme from the Godfather every time he pulled his alto from his case). Which halls had the best food. Losing myself in Dad’s trumpet solos.
And, to this day, you could quiz me on the #s of the charts in Sam’s book. “Love” by Nat King Cole? #252. “Two-o’ Clock Jump” by Harry James? #320. Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”? #143. “Cherry Pink”? #125. “Begin the Beguine?” 95.
All of it.
And I hope that, somewhere over the course of the 13 years that followed, that I became deserving of the faith and investment Sam placed in a nervous 15-year-old who didn’t know his Artie Shaw from his Cole Porter.
And for the record, I still have the $20 bill that Sam put in my hand after that first gig. (I recall allowing myself to spend the fiver at the county fair a couple days after the gig.)
A couple weeks ago I heard the news that Sammy Bill passed away at age 89.
My deepest condolences to his son Ralph, with whom I also had the (absolute) pleasure of sharing a bandstand with for many of those years.
Sam was never anything but good to me the entire time I held down his drum chair. Thanks to him, I got to fulfill my Dad’s dream of sharing a bandstand with his son. To this day, it remains one of my greatest joys in life.
I’m just one of probably over a thousand young musicians whose lives Sam enriched through his love and gift of music.
So, for that summer Sunday thunderstorm from 32 years ago …
Facebook reminded me of the post below from two years ago, and it brought the requisite smile (it’s one of my favorite scribbles).
Sept. 13, 2015
A RANDOM ACT OF MAGIC — Was kinda’ a rough school/work week for my daughter and me. So we made plans after we finished our Friday to go for tea in the morning at our favorite place down the road.
Got up to a beautifully gray, autumn-crisp, drizzly, no-hurry Saturday (the BEST kind). She changed her mind about eating breakfast at home (so we could leave earlier) and was dressed and ready by 8:45. She had her Harry Potter shirt on, and after seeing me grab my Star Trek tee off the floor, informed me that that just would not do. She walked over to my closet and handed me my Potter shirt, the one she bought for me a few months back.
I’ve learned not to argue with any woman bent on dressing me.
Me: I need a hat.
She: Yes. Yes you do.
Earlier in the week the teenager decided to appropriate the purple hand chair from the game room to his pending-manhood cave. The purple fingers had served as the downstairs hat rack. Fumbling, I couldn’t find where he’d parked the displaced hats.
Not wanting to keep my girl waiting, I was forced to leave the house with my ‘fro unkempt.
I’ve also learned not to keep the lady waiting.
Me: Got the book?
Halfway there …
Me: Didn’t bring the cups?
She: (nonchalantly): Not this time.
The full ritual consists of her bringing the truly awesome set of Alice in Wonderland tea cups and saucers that her former baby sitter gave us in the spring, into which we pour the hot tea the young baristas serve us.
As an aside, I always wanted to be the guy who brought his own pool cue into the bar.
I turn as many heads, though, being the Dad who brings his own teacups into the coffee shop.
There were a couple people in line when we got there, giving us ample time to peruse the case displaying the rows of fresh cookies and muffins.
Iced green tea for Em. Toasted bagel. She laid claim to their last two pumpkin cookies (one each to bring back for her mom and brother. She’s the family’s thoughtful one.). Small coffee for me, and a breakfast sandwich that they panini press with love.
She asked me to read while she sipped and snacked.
We’re just past halfway into the fourth book in the H.P. series (The Goblet of Fire). A good number of the pages have been joyously read aloud Saturday mornings (and perhaps more than a few with our ever-improving British accents) at the tea shop’s tall table. It’s a common enough occurrence that when I recently popped into the shop solo, Emily, one of the regular baristas, asked me where the “little muggle” was.
As far as the book goes, the 44-year-old and 10-year-old unanimously agree it’s the best entry so far.
It’s the one where the main characters start to notice that they are boys and girls, and Rowling does a really nice job of re-creating the first awakenings of all those awkward and exhilarating moments (for which I unapologetically remain a complete sucker).
Em and I are so into it that when Hermione appears at the ball for the Tri-Wizard tournament, revealing the date that she had so suspense-fully kept a secret from Ron and Harry, I turn from the book to say the name directly to Em. “No way!” she says. And we gossip for a good minute before returning to the pages.
We finish the chapter and Em decides it’s time for us to sample the pumpkin gelato. We share a taste off the tiny plastic white spoon and Em decrees that, while good, it can’t hold a candle to the salted caramel.
I’ve learned not to get in the way of the lady when it comes to sweet things.
We resume reading, and are so sucked back in to the story that we barely notice Emily (the barista) leaving the counter and crossing in front of us to climb on top of the shelf behind the more comfy recliners in the back of the shop to adjust the sound system.
I’ve been at the shop in the past where the satellite radio craps out and the girl or woman at the counter has to literally scale the wall to adjust the receiver, which is a good 12-14 feet of the ground. Just adds to the local shop’s character as far as I’m concerned.
It’s a regular enough occurrence that Em and I didn’t think twice about it.
Until a couple pages later, when Emma looks up from her pages, her eyes wide as our ceremonial saucers. She turns to me with just the biggest grin on her face.
“Listen!” pointing into the air.
“You know what that is?”
I’m my typical two steps behind her.
“That’s the music that they play at the beginning of every Harry Potter movie!”
Sure enough, my ears register the epic score.
We about fell off our broomsticks.
I’m not sure I can conceive of a more thoughtful gesture than Emily climbing the wall to add to what I had been convinced was an already perfect ritual.
I walked up to the counter, and exchanged knuckle touches with our new favorite barista.
Emma was still over the moon. “How did you do that?”
Emily: “It’s a playlist on Pandora. I went with Chamber of Secrets. A little more upbeat than the Deathly Hollows.”
To have a waiter or waitress know your order when you walk in is one thing. To have one curate a soundtrack for you?
Returning to our chairs, the music made the next couple chapters pass by in cinematic fashion. We lost ourselves in the pages.
In a word, it was magical.
One of those moments that I knew on the spot that I will never forget.
Just to be safe, though, I napkin-sketched it for posterity.
It’ll make for a pretty decent bookmark.
But I didn’t need the reminder, because two years hence, the hasty Pen-Sketch spell I cast that day that transformed a napkin into our bookmark is holding strong.
Each and every time we’ve cracked open the sacred text since, we’ve been reminded of ‘Emily’s Righteous Move’ marking our place. As an aside my daughter and I are proudly pursuing the Guinness World Record for the slowest progression ever through the Harry Potter series. We are presently savoring our way through the final installment, The Deathly Hallows. Knowing the end is approaching, we are treating it (in advance) like a victory lap. We read aloud to each other mostly in small doses these days. A few pages here. A chapter there. On rare occasions, she’ll beg for a stretch beyond a chapter when we catch a groove. She doesn’t have to twist my arm.
I’ve grown to love scarcity. Finite amounts. Beginnings and endings. As a counterweight to my deep desire for things I love to last forever, I’m learning to look forward to things, to appreciate things in the moment, to enjoy them as long as possible, and to kindle and cherish their memories.
There is only beauty because of death, the poet wrote.
Knowing the clock is (always) ticking intensifies and focuses our emotions, ensuring we invest them preciously, intentionally.
That’s why I love the seasons. Even though I lament their passing from one into another.
So, on the occasion of my birthday, I find myself thinking about bookmarks.
I love the work of a bookmark … marking the place where you left off … so you’ll know where to pick up and move forward.
But I’ve also been known to use a bookmark to mark a place I know I’ll want to return to. I recently violently edited my bookshelf downstairs, during which I came across the various journals I’ve kept from different points in my life. Looking back, I see those journals as bookmarks … places where I’ve left off along the journey.
So, it is in that spirit that I hereby bookmark 47 … with 47 things that I find myself in love with on Sept. 17, 2017, in no particular order.
The little nook in the back yard where we never find enough time to build a fire and just listen to the night and what the world has to say to us.
Making Karry laugh spontaneously.
The friends I’ve had since elementary and middle school that I don’t see often enough, but, when I do, instantly close the gap of the years and distance between us. The folks who love you both because of, and in spite of, where you came from.
Speaking of, I found myself (out of nowhere) yesterday, thinking of one of the best mix tapes a friend ever gave me, and downloaded the tunes to a playlist that I made the official soundtrack of my weekend.
My oldest sister Kim, who just called and sang Happy Birthday to me, like my Mom and Dad used to. We both could hear Dad’s harmony in her rendition.
Sending and receiving hand-written cards or notes in the mail (hint).
A Poorboy without tomato with a side of fries washed down with a Pabst draft at Potter’s.
Meloni’s bleu cheese dressing drenching a salad with unapologetic beets and anchovies while Sinatra and Dean croon in a crackle overhead.
Drover’s fried-to-perfection hot wings enjoyed at one of their outdoor picnic tables in the cool sundown cricket-crisp of late summer.
Two with everything at Shorty’s, and a large shared large fry with gravy while sitting at the table in the back where the floor slants under the dripping air conditioner.
Falling under the spell of Emma’s killer British accent when we read at the coffee shop or before bed.
Holding hands with Karry down the driveway after we put the garbage cans out on Thursday nights.
The poetry rendered in calligraphy by my friend Jim Little.
When I stumble across a word whose meaning I don’t know, and, out of respect for Dr. Bower, my old college professor, I write it down in the margin or a journal and look up its meaning.
When my neighbor up the street, Mr. Engel greets me with a wave, an encouragement, or an appropriately snarky comment when he sees me huffing my way around the block.
Knowing I can ask Karry anything and that she will shoot straight, regardless of whether it’s what I want to hear.
Being my son’s passenger in the old Subaru. Without headphones on his ears or a screen in front of his face, it’s about the only place where we just talk. And it’s awesome. I will miss the heck out of this when he gets his license.
Any time and every moment I get to spend with my brother.
The motley crew of sweet souls I’ve met over coffee and our love for good writing at the coffee shop.
Friends and co-workers who inspire me towards my better self.
The exhale of eating weekday dinner at the dining room table with the family.
The view from my seat at the dining room table of one of my framed favorite photographs, which sits over Karry’s left shoulder when we’re having dinner. It’s a photo I took years ago of the windowsill of Karry’s mom’s dining room, where Mam used to place a new Hot Wheels car for Peter every time he’d visit. Once he finished the top of the steps, he’d run over to the window expectantly to see what she had left for him. The picture captures a blast of sunshine pouring through the window. It symbolizes everything I want to remember about Betty’s house.
When a member of the family seizes a moment to quote one of my Mom’s old sayings. Like when we’re enjoying a meal and one of the kids describes it as “luscious.” Or, when someone explains a mistake they made by saying, “I thought ….” which triggers, in response, my favorite all-time saying of my Mom’s. “You know what ‘thought’ did? ‘Thought’ shit his pants.”
Listening to Pirates games on the radio outside, regardless of the score, for the sheer pleasure of listening to Bob Walk or Steve Blass (Greg Brown, too).
Drives out to Amity or along old Route 40.
The back-and-forth conversations I have with our cat Victor, who I am confident is thinking to himself during the exchanges: “He thinks I’m really communicating with him right now, when in fact, I’m plotting your ultimate conquest, and really the only thing left to decide is whether there will be room for you in the new world order as a servant or not.”
How cute Karry is when she brushes her teeth, and how much it pisses her off when I remind her of this.
Reading what my daughter writes.
Listening to the Pittsburgh Symphony on WQED-FM Sunday nights as a balm to the prospects of Monday.
The t-shirts hanging in my closet that are older than my kids.
The humbling and appreciated proactive phone calls and letters from each of my three sisters, who make time in their busy lives to let me know they are thinking of me.
Waking up in the middle of the night thinking it’s 5:30 when it’s only really 3.
Sitting in the driveway with the car running, or driving an extra lap around the block, so the song can finish.
When Karry puts on a color that is her color and it just stops me in my tracks.
The empty journals that I’ve collected over the years patiently waiting for me on the bookshelf.
My son doing better and going farther than I did.
The Podcast portion of my current commuting-survival-guide, featuring The Moth, This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Rolling Stone Now and Revisionist History.
Hard guitars paired with a sloshy hi-hat. Currently in love with “Monster” by Soraia from their soon-to-be-released album.
Walks around the block with my daughter when she wants to tell me about a book she’s reading or just finished. She gushes. I listen. Sometimes when she’s really fired up, we take an extra lap.
When Karry and I divide and conquer a Sunday and go to bed exhausted, but ready to face the next week.
My Vitamix blender.
All the songs that make me think of my Dad.
Pie. (Karry got me an Apple one for my birthday). I love pie.
Dating different books until I find one that keeps me looking forward to our next date. Currently in a relationship with The Great American Novel by Phillip Roth. His wielding of the vocabulary and ear for dialogue is delicious and absolutely unfair.
The fearless and undaunted among us who remind that This too shall pass.
Whenever folks remind me how awesome it is when you reserve a kind thought in the day for someone else.
Felt like sitting down and writing a postcard from 21 years down the road to the two 20-somethings in the enclosed pic, on the anniversary of their exchanging I Dos inside beautiful Trinity Church on a sweltering hot August Saturday afternoon ….
I don’t want to freak you out, but you’re betting yourselves against a big world, and, at the risk of stating the obvious, you don’t have many chips in your pocket.
I also don’t want to spoil it for you, but it will only get better.
Not easier. Just better.
Pete … Karry will do everything in her power to make sure you don’t get lost. She’ll even ride with you to make sure of it. I’m speaking literally and metaphorically, here. She’ll make sure you survive grad school. She will give you confidence when your supplies run dry. And, she’ll make a mean fish stick and mac-and-cheese dinner, and sit with you on the floor of the world’s tiniest apartment and watch the Six Million Dollar Man with you. Trust me, it will be awesome.
Karry … marrying a guy without a full-time job is a big leap of faith … but your patience will pay off in ways you could never predict. In the meantime, you’ll be great at what you do, and you’ll do just fine for the both of you.
Pete … don’t worry that you don’t quite know what you want to be when you grow up. Don’t worry that you may never know that answer. You’ll do OK in the searching.
Though you may think that right now, in each other, you have everything you will ever need in the world, you are totally wrong.
Kids will change everything.
Moments after a screaming baby boy enters the picture, you will realize that you haven’t a clue, have no idea what you’re doing, and could not be more unprepared for what’s about to come.
But you won’t be alone. Your parents have been waiting for this moment all their lives. Karry, your Mom will reveal her true superhero identity. She will blow your mind. She will paint your living room when you are not home. You’ll grow more close than you ever thought possible. You’ll survive the sleepless nights. You’ll survive going back to work.
And your son will bring you so much joy you won’t be able to resist giving him a sibling, though it will take him a good 16 years (minimum) to warm up to that idea.
You will learn early and often that your hearts have the capacity and resiliency to both explode and break with love.
You’ll have front row seats to the two most beautiful babies you have ever seen. Then you’ll blink and they’ll be young adults.
You’ll read them The Kissing Hand on the first day of elementary school. And every first day of school after that. You’ll make them pose against their will in the driveway, then you will cry when the yellow bus takes them away to kill summer after summer.
You’ll get to be Santa Claus. Then you won’t.
Karry, Pete will consistently drive you speechless by doing the same damn things over and over. He will also pioneer new and surprising ways. On the other hand, he’ll occasionally make you laugh until tears stream down your face. And, Pete, you will never grow tired of being responsible for making Karry smile.
You’ll get on each other’s nerves like you can’t imagine. Then you’ll wake to a new day and realize that, whatever it was, it wasn’t such a big deal.
Karry, you will learn that there are far more important things in life than work. And that it will still be there whenever you decide to return. Pete, you’ll have a chance to reward Karry’s patience and sacrifices.
Your parents will stay with you only for as long as you need them, though you will wish it was so much longer.
You’ll see the years start to take their toll.
You’ll give thanks every day, and curse time with the same breath.
You will remain each other’s biggest fans.
And when everything else fails, you’ll bang on God’s door in the middle of the night demanding him to open up, that you know he’s in there.
Twenty one years later, you’ll find yourselves still betting against a big world without many chips in your pocket.
And you will realize that you still haven’t a clue, have no idea what you’re doing, and could not be more unprepared for what’s to come.
And though you’ll long for the days when you didn’t know what you didn’t know, if you knew all of the above while you were standing at the altar of Trinity Church on a sweltering summer Saturday afternoon ….