Fathers and Sons, Postcards

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

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

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

On the outside of the envelope, my handwriting:

To: Peter

From: Dad

Christmas 2001

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

Buried treasure.

I have no recollection of doing this.

Which is exactly why I did it.

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

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

And evidently, letters to my baby.

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

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

I got that one right.

December 23, 2001

Dear Peter,

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

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


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

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

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

….

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

….

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

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

….

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

Likes:

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

Dislikes:

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

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


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

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

We’re gonna have fun, you and me.

Love,

Dad

__

Our baby boy turns 19 today.

He’s home.

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

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

It’s OK.

I think I owe him a letter.

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Fathers and Sons

The Quest for the Creek….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But now we had a quest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This. 

This is my quest. 

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Rearview Mirror

Of bad Christmas presents, super smart ladies, and hiding the marshmallow ….

Dedicated to my cousin, Dr. Jennifer Wallace.

I love how my mother loved to write letters. She’d buy those long yellow notebooks by the packet and kept stacks of reserves on top of the kitchen fridge. She burnt through them almost as fast as the cigarettes she smoked when she curled up at the kitchen table to write, pen in one hand, lit Salem in the other, one foot on the chair, knee to her chest. 

From what I recall, she mostly wrote to her sisters: her older sisters Ruth and Doris, and her younger sister Janet. (Mom was the sixth of seven kids … though the oldest baby died at childbirth). 

____

As a kid I always held a special expectation at Christmas for the packages we’d get from my mom’s sisters Janet and Doris.

Their contents never had anything to do with whatever I’d petitioned Santa for. As a result, the annual postmarks from Coopersburg, PA (Janet), and Dayton, Ohio (Doris) always heralded a surprise or two. 

ESPECIALLY Aunt Janet’s. Her boxes always contained the quirkiest, goofiest, orneriest stuff, which was very much in keeping with her personality. You never knew what you were going to get, and were never disappointed. It was stuff that always left you asking where on earth did she find that? The stuff that made you smile long after the Christmas glow had died to embers. Having to wait until Christmas morning to open Janet’s gifts was always excruciating. 

By contrast, Aunt Doris’ stuff was usually a lot more austere, reflecting her personality. Doris was a business school graduate. I never saw her much, but I perceived her as pretty serious, worldly, super smart, professional (in the days when that was not what society necessarily expected of its women). Her holiday packages were always distinguished by a large can of Planter’s peanuts for Dad. Every now and then Dad would get a tall can of cashews. My childhood self registered this as lavish. Although Dad (and I) loved peanuts, we never splurged on them, never had them in the house. In my childhood memory I perceived cashews to be an extravagance beyond our means. It’s funny to think about now, but I always ascribed a special ‘fanciness’ to Aunt Doris’ annual cans of Planter’s. Overall, though, her gifts were practical, not spectacular. While always welcome, the arrival of her Christmas packages never registered the same high level of anticipation as Aunt Janet’s.

Until 1987 and the Christmas of my senior year of high school. In the annual package from Aunt Doris there was a surprise – a special gift for me. Last Christmas before college, I remember allowing myself high expectations for what was inside. It was big. Felt heavy in my lap. Too heavy for peanuts. I unwrapped it in earnest … to discover … a red, hardcover Webster’s College Dictionary, along with a note wishing me well in college. Really? A dictionary? I remember at the time putting it in the same category as getting a pair of socks. I considered it about the worst Christmas gift my 17-year-old self could imagine. She didn’t get me the way that Aunt Janet did, I remember thinking at the time.  

____

Fast forward to my first fall in college. I’m totally freaked out. Completely untethered. Other than a friend I graduated with who commuted, I knew no one. Had no idea what I wanted to study. Wasn’t sure if I was even cut out for college. Fear can be a powerful motivator, though. I paid the fuck attention to everything. 

Though I hadn’t declared a major, my advisor was in the English department, and taught my freshman Honors English class. An intimidating presence. A mythic figure. A poet, rumored to have hung around with some of the Beats.

Towering. Thin. Tan. Bald. Salt and pepper beard.  Always a brown leather jacket. Dark glasses that hid eyes that had seen some things, and could see straight through you. Unrepentantly smoked like a stack in class. Would stand his butts upright like spent bullet shells in a line on the desk next to the lectern he loomed behind, often balancing on one leg while he drew the other up and rested it on the desk. Wielded silence like an unregistered weapon. Kept his resonant, New York seasoned voice mostly in a slow simmer save for when he’d unleash thunder on the unsuspecting, inattentive, unprepared. His eviscerations of lazy students, and sometimes the entire class, were soul-searing. If you weren’t the target, you’d avert your gaze (suppressing the urge to crawl under your desk), and imagine a pile of smoldering ashes by the time he was through. Since I was a scared shitless clueless freshman, his expectations imprinted me like tattoos I still bear to this day. 

He believed unequivocally that readers of good literature and poetry had responsibilities. One was to invest in connecting with the writer’s work. As such, when you came across a word you didn’t know or understand, you were expected to look it up so you could connect your experience and beliefs with the author’s to make meaning. In class, he’d call out a student and ask them the definition of a word in the text. If the student didn’t have it, he called down thunder. My keen sense of self-preservation had me turning to the dictionary with regularity to fill margins in case of emergency. All of a sudden I clung to Aunt Doris’ shitty Christmas present like a life preserver.

Midway through my first semester, some pranksters on our dormitory floor boarded up the entrance to the bathroom and turned on the showers. Returning on Sunday after a weekend home, I found that the dam had burst, flooding the entire floor. Our room was spared major damage, but everything on the floor got soaked. Among the casualties was my red Webster’s. I had to throw away the paper cover, but gave the book itself a chance to dry out, leaving some stiff, wrinkly pages. Otherwise, it was none the worse for wear. 

That dictionary served me well through my college years, and made it home with me when I graduated. 

As did Dr. Bower’s influence. 

When my daughter and I started reading books together, and stumbled across a word she (or we) didn’t know, I’d force us to stop. Tell her she owed it both to herself and the author, and make her look it up. The first book we ever read together was a paperback of the first Harry Potter installment. We read in my room on school nights, and whenever we’d hit an unfamiliar word, I made Em pull out my old red Webster’s with the crinkly pages from my nightstand. We’ve preserved the practice through the dozen or so books we’ve read since. 

____

Last night, while cooking some chicken on the grill (for Emma’s legendary oven-baked mac n’ cheese, which, when doused with Red Hot, I consider a religious experience), I pulled an old New Yorker from a laundry basket filled to overflowing with “to be thrown away” material that Karry is forcing me to deal with. I inherited from my mother a bad habit of keeping, you know, everything.  I stumbled upon a really neat review (which you owe it to yourself to read) of a book on how to form / break habits. In the article, they cite an old research study that evaluated will power in children by placing a marshmallow in front of a child and timing how long it took before she/he would reach for it. In one variation of the experiment, the marshmallow would be visible in front of the child; in another, the marshmallow would be placed in front of the child, but covered so it could not be seen. The study determined that ‘hiding the marshmallow’ had an impact on how long it took the child to cave to temptation. The article (and the book) posited that good and bad habits have more to do with environment than will power. Actually, the key to habit forming/breaking is to remove will power from the equation as much as possible. 

So, this morning, inspired by that, I found myself reading at the dining room table. Intentionally, I left my phone downstairs, to ‘hide the marshmallow’ – i.e. keep me from its distraction. While easy to Google a definition, I too often end up checking ESPN, or social media, or … or… or …..

I quickly found myself piling up a bunch of words whose meaning I didn’t know or couldn’t remember (protean, cozen, impresa, etc.). 

Rather than retrieving my phone from downstairs, I kept the marshmallow hidden. 

Instead, I went to my bedroom, and plucked the old red Webster’s from my night stand, looked up each word and wrote their definitions in the back of my journal. 

And thought of Aunt Doris.

I never took the opportunity to share with her how grateful I am that she sent me the worst Christmas present my 17-year-old self could have imagined. In that moment I wanted to write her a letter … maybe sitting at my kitchen table, a ceremonial cigarette in one hand, pen in the other, filling pages of one of those big yellow notebooks.

Aunt Doris passed last December from a version of the same dementia that took my Mom’s life in 2015. Aunt Janet passed away a year ago from a variation of the same. 

So, this morning, I did the next best thing I could think of — I wrote a long note to my cousin Jenny, just like our mothers used to do (the bones of which you are now reading). She wrote back immediately to tell me that no one made her mother laugh as hard as my mom. And that my note made her cry.

In retrospect … I think my childhood perceptions of my Aunt Doris were pretty spot on. She was definitely a super smart lady. She instinctively knew what it took the author and researchers cited in the New Yorker piece years and experiments to discover. 

Good habits have much more to do with environment than will power.

For 32 years (and counting), that old red Webster’s has never left my bed side or bookshelf. For 32 years (and counting) I’ve thought of Aunt Doris (and Dr. Bower) every time I’ve cracked open its crinkly pages. 

It has literally opened up worlds to me.

A dictionary was The Last Thing I ever wanted for Christmas. 

But it’s made every new word I’ve ever met feel like a gift. 

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Fathers and Sons

The Things We Remember ….

February 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it great having everybody together?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wasn’t it great having everybody together.

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Fathers and Sons, The Girls

In a Sentimental Mood….

(For Auld Lang Syne)

Jan 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I find myself In a Sentimental Mood. 

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

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

For Auld Lang Syne. 

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Fathers and Sons

Ode to Joy….

June 4, 2016 

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

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

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

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

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

Best laid plans. 

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

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

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

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

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

He’d never heard her play before. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Postcards

“All is Not Lost.” — Scribbles in the margins (2009-14)

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.”

All is not lost.

–August 21, 2009
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Postcards

Right on time ….

Dec 23, 2015

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.

Truth, that.

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.

I also know it will be perfectly timed.

Even if it’s not the day after Thanksgiving.

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Fathers and Sons

Boys and Their Dogs ….

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

When my phone dings an incoming text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I float a life preserver out ahead of us.

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

He: “I’ll count on it.”

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

… and totally looking forward to Two with Everything.

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

I do a double-take.

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Counter?

He: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… you gotta get it when it’s fresh.”

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

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

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

He: Exactly. You never know.

This is at once essential and completely useless information.

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

We return to our comestibles.

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

Guy: You can’t mix gravy with ketchup.

Me: I know. Separation of Church and State.

Guy: You know where that comes from?

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

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

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

I find this delicious.

This is why you sit at The Counter.

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

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

The waitress in every conversation breaks our moment of silence.

“You ever try ‘em with Red Hot?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fathers and Sons, The Road Ahead

One Mow Time …

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy was all business back then, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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