I can’t remember when I found them, I just remember as soon as I saw them I had to get ’em.
That was us for a good 14 years, from my first gig as a 14-year-old until I gave up my spot on the bandstand a couple years after getting married.
I think I made them a Christmas present. And I was right. He treasured them.
For years afterwards, whenever I’d visit, he’d always point ’em out from their privileged perch on the mantle in the living room. “I smile every time I look at them,” he’d say. “They make me think of all the good times we had.”
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.
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.
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.