Sunday, September 30, 2012


That whole "youth is wasted on the young" adage is true for more than just the reason it is generally used. Most people have grandparents for at least a while and when you do you're probably young and when you ask your simple questions you get answers--or maybe you don't ask any at all, but you're too unobservant to notice. Because you're stupid about the brevity of life you fail to realize that these people who keep the Dr. Peppers extra cold in a special garage refrigerator just for you are the keepers of your DNA in story form. And their visas for life on the planet have a limit. It's not that youth should be used for only one thing but that the patience and foresight you need about the swiftly passing years don't come until later.

Still-- you do hear about the twin sisters with rhyming names that your maternal grandfather tells you about, but only because you ask him while he's having his coffee in that maroon melamine cup he always drank it from. He probably wouldn't have told you otherwise because he's a quiet man. They were jumping from the hayloft and later one of the twin girls died and they carried her casket in the wagon past her old schoolyard one last time and played her favorite hymn which your grandfather could still sing. And he does in a low soft voice that raises the chill bumps on your arms almost as much as the unlooked for news that children die sometimes. What the hell?

There's the story your grandmother tells about a tornado that blew away her childhood home while they were hiding in the storm cellar and maybe a fire where someone risks his neck in order to duck back inside the burning structure to rescue the newly purchased suit of clothes. 

Your other grandfather with the spooky laugh and kind eyes teaches you words from his native Germany, but you scarcely get to know him before he dies of a heart problem which leaves you with the grandmother who taught you to knit and play cards but who shows disapproval more easily than affection. And who never wants to talk about where she came from.

One day it's as if every tale they've ever told you gets an instant replay in your head until you remember a detail or two that doesn't quite make sense and when you start to question it all because now you're actually interested and you have the time? The people you need to ask are out of time. Everyone's gone. You could have spent at least a few more hours with your mom's mother, but her last years of bad health coincided with the beginning of your teenage dating career and you couldn't possibly have known how important those old people were going to be until they weren't there anymore. Those who would have told you the most--had you bothered to ask-- exited the planet first-- leaving you with the grandmother with all the secrets and half truths. Ironically, strokes later relieved her of the need to continue whitewashing the exposed parts of her sad early life that couldn't be hidden--the part that took place before you even got here. 

There was that new start in America after leaving either Poland or one's really certain because the story changed depending upon who was telling it. Her father who drank. Her mother who lost one baby after falling down the cellar stairs. The mysterious sister whose children were taken from her and whose ultimate end no one wants to talk about...even fifty years after her death. The great-uncle you never knew about who died when he was two. The institutionalized nephew. Her handsome baby brother, killed in a jeep accident in Puerto Rico. Her marriage to a man --my grandfather--which was never all that happy. The fact that a month before she gave birth to my father, her own father shot and killed his wife--her mother-- in their home on Olive Street before turning the gun on himself.  And the years of family members self-medicating with alcohol which make me more than convinced that if there was ever a family crest to discover, it would probably feature a bottle of gin and a bowl of peanuts. If these are the details we do know, imagine what there must be that she and her other siblings were keeping to themselves?

I remember my youngest sister's foray into geneology, which my other sister and I later followed.  One afternoon she called me and said, "Well...the good news is we've got some really artistic people on Dad's side of the family. Painters and people who write or create. The bad news? Lots of c-r-a-z-y and alcoholics everywhere." Awesome.

The grandmother who loved risque' jokes, and long neighborhood walks where she picked up spare change off the street,  talk show host Jack Paar and later--inexplicably-- a nurtured fixation for an actress named Della Reese; the grandmother who loved hearing your true stories but who was less anxious to tell you anything even remotely unvarnished, left behind a lot of objects which were physical talismans of the time I spent in her house. A commemorative John F. Kennedy spoon. Her telephone table. The best platform rocking chair ever made. Some mixing bowls. Her method for salting homemade french fries. Those are--every one of them-- treasures and they remind me of her every time I see or think about them.

However, I'd trade all of it for a copy of her missing salad dressing recipe and the truth about everything else-- no matter how shameful she probably thought it was. It's all just story and one of the last things we learn in life is that the best ones are those that no one wants to tell.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


You know those things that always bugged you about your parents which suddenly make more sense than you ever though possible? I'm having one of those moments. Actually, it's not a's a day. In my family, Sunday was always the day that made my mother sad and that had a lot to do with it also being the day we went back to college after a rare weekend in town and that--for her-- signaled the beginning of the the slow drift away from the old homestead. Roger that, Captain. It's already happened.

It's been a really full day. I made the most of the rain and the solitude. The Hubs was gone on a campout and I grocery shopped and made stew and a flotilla of cookies to mail to the boys. I graded papers and did laundry and made lists. I listened to music and read the NYTimes. I fed the animals and talked on the phone. I saw and bought candy corn at the store and that got me to thinking about this being the first Halloween (I's only September) without any kids living here. After that, the day was shot through with amber tones of both serene contentment and nostalgic melancholy.

You'd have to live here to know, but it's nearly impossible not to think about the past while in our home. We live in a house that is pushing seventy...with creaky hardwoods and cabinets which--when chipped--reveal a lovely stratigraphy of paint colors. Apparently our kitchen used to be Robin's-egg blue. The Hubs was at one time an archaeologist. One of my college minors is History. Both of us are blessed and cursed with the ability/need to look backward even as we seek what awaits us ahead. There's too much here that speaks to what has been as well as what is to come. Kids' art framed on the walls. Photos from beach vacations. Our sons' childhood handprints pressed into the plaster of their bathroom walls. Mail that still comes here addressed to them. The fireplace front I tiled in a mosaic fashion along with pennies pressed into the grout...each one bearing a son's birth year and one for the year I married my best friend.

There's no doubt that this is a tough transition. In the real world it might seem to others as though I'm completely fine with my newfound independence and in many ways.....I am.  We are. But it is clear to me that---because of the times I seem to return to this theme in writing---I'm grieving too. Every corner of this house is a museum to our family's happiness and an inescapable reminder of all that will never come to pass again. Did I just write that? Jesus! Someone tell me a joke.

Today I found a paper that the youngest son wrote when he was in the 1st grade. It was one of those Daily Oral Language things where the teacher calls out simple sentences and the students write them down. Probably one of many I glanced at--smiled briefly at the effusive 100 scrawled in red ink--and then placed it in a memory box with so many others. Today I actually looked at it (Thank you, Jimmy the cat, for dragging it out from under the bed) and read the words our son had so laboriously lettered: Can Sam skip? Will Roy jump?(Should Mother have some wine and just shut up already?) I trace with my eyes the curving penciled lines and stems he made on the 17th of October. Twelve years and one month ago as of tomorrow.  On any other day I might look at it, smile and then put it back in the box. Not today. Today I keep it out for a bit. A souvenir of a sweet time that was way shorter than I ever knew it would be.

Who knew that Monday would be so welcomed?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Canada: Still Not a State

You'll forgive me if I reduce this post to a mere grocery list of thoughts, but lists are pretty much the only complete sentences I can guarantee these days since I have to reserve all my strength for children who alternately delight, frustrate, bewilder, and anger me most every day of the week--none of whom did I bring into this world. It's like riding in that last car on the roller coaster. You might survive, but it will probably require showing up the next day in a neck brace and high on Tylenol 14. Or something like that.

1) When rebooting one's iPhone it is always important to be able to distinguish between the terms "reset" and "restore". The difference being that one is a bustling Costco jammed with all manner of things that make life enjoyable while the other is a sad and very suddenly empty warehouse.

2) I'm going to need a ton of cheap wine compasses if I'm ever going to be expected to teach these children about the world they live in. Namely, that Canada is not a state and that children who live in Texas should actually know where San Antonio is, given that a very important battle was fought there. They need to know that it is Kennedy's assassin who is buried in a nearby cemetery and not the guy who shot Lincoln--for the love of God! Or that the sun does not really rise or sink. I think when I told them that NORTH was not "UP" I may have caused a couple of spontaneous brain implosions. Today I asked one class if they knew which country (The choices were Mexico or Brazil) was further north and one child raised his hand and said with great confidence...."CHINA!" I think it was my father who used the term "Couldn't find his butt with a lantern in both hands". These precious children? Precisely that.

3) After two heart attacks, a blood infection and pneumonia, my tough-as-shit father-in-law was released from the hospital today. Two arteries are currently still completely stopped up with what is surely a  78-year old paste of cheese, pork, cigar smoke, more cheese and Glenlivet, but he stands a better chance of healing at home in order to survive his future bypass than he does in the ICU with people coughing their phlegmy, staph-coated body fluids in his general direction. I wish him luck. He doesn't have my own father's sheer Teutonic will power, but he's got whatever it is that occasionally makes you want to grab a crowbar and sneak up behind his stubborn Scotch/Irish ass. Either way, my money's on him.

4) If I'm not meeting with a parent--or attempting to hang myself in the elevator shaft after a particularly trying day, I enjoy closing the door to my classroom, turning off the overhead lights and listening to music by lamplight and what little sun that comes in through the very tiny windows the school's architect saw fit to throw our way.  Typically, I grade papers while doing so.  Today's selection was Leon Russell's "Back to the Island". Maybe you're too young to know who this guy is and if you looked him up you might think he was just some homeless man wearing a jaunty hat. You'd be right about the hat. But I've learned to keep my eyes closed and listen only to the music. His is the voice of the very last years I lived at my parents' home. Seeing what time has done to those who created the background music for my youth and young adulthood only shines an unforgiving spotlight on how many years have actually passed, but closing your eyes leaves you with just the music and THAT remains mostly unchanged. I did it when I saw the Doobie Brothers, and again in July when I saw Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Skaggs. I did it when we saw Paul McCartney.  I wish I could do the same for myself. Looking in the mirror can be really feel like a mean thing to do to some days.

5) The empty nest continues to alter the way I think about our house. Our three sons are doing so well where they are and I love getting reports about every new thing that they're seeing and doing. Mostly, they're learning live to without us. I keep a lamp on in their old rooms at night...just so that their end of the house isn't dark. Lately doing so feels a little like hanging on to the wrapping paper after you've taken the wonderful gift out of it. What's left in there that needs a light anyway? The books they don't have room for and clothes that mostly didn't make the cut. Winter coats they don't need just yet. Awards from school, old yearbooks, and a folded note from a friend that gathers dust under a bed. The Hubs and I are fine and we are enjoying the extra time we have together. However, those boys changed us in a big way and daily life that doesn't somehow involve finding a pair of pants in the living room that someone just stepped out of and then totally forgot about is strange indeed.

6) I like walking along our city's river trails on the weekends. I plug in "This American Life" and let Ira Glass gently speak to how many different human stories there are out there in our world. And it reminds me that my story--even though three very important parts of it have moved away--is far from over. Some days are harder than others to remember this.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Things To Do in the Cardiac ICU Family Waiting Room


1) Use ear buds and iTunes to block out disturbingly funereal Celestial Kingdom -style music that is being piped in for the benefit of those in various stages of fear or grief.  I'm not sure how we should be expected to think positively with the auditory assault of "Nearer My God to Thee" drifting through the air. It would seem we're only minutes away from an alter call at a tent revival and an old woman playing beseeching spirituals on a Hammond organ.

2) Lacking as one might (in an emergency situation) an available sleep mask or even a burlap sack to pull over your head, you'll need to bring polarized sunglasses on the off chance that you will wind up bunking down for the night on one of the sofas provided since the lack of a dimmer or off-switch makes it nearly impossible to sleep due to the visual sting of florescent lighting. I've never been to the "Land of the Midnight Sun", but it's probably a lot like this. You have been warned.

3) Destroy all healthy eating habits dictated by the "Lose It!" app on my phone and--instead--eat  greasy cafeteria pizza, white powdered doughnuts and Twizzlers from the vending machine. As a bonus, inexplicably rack up a $20 credit with your bank card on those same vending machines which--when you need it most--refuses to cough up a lousy package of Cheetos.

4) Bring a sweater and a blanket. Possibly a light parka. It's like "Ice Station Zebra" in that waiting room... all day every day.  I've watched enough ER and Grey's Anatomy to know that sometimes heart patients are put on ice to keep them alive. I didn't think it was supposed to happen to those of us who aren't queued up on the surgical tarmac awaiting the knife.

5) Finish Stephen King's "11/22/63" (849 pages). Did it. On to the next thing.

6) Have roundtable discussions as to reasons why the largest art installation in the waiting room depicts an enormous painted Jesus presiding over similar smaller renderings of an EKG readout,  people having surgery, families waiting on ill loved ones and a person in recovery. Also?  A picture of a man bowling.

7) Finish grading three sets of tragically lettered spelling tests without forgetting how many letters are in my own name. It's harder than you'd think.  Join me for a victory dance, won't you?

8) Listen to stories about how your critically ailing father-in-law--an imposing local attorney who had just arrived by ambulance-- was describing his symptoms to the doctor in the "cath lab" and cutting up about that BBQ-ed pork sandwich he'd had earlier when his heart stopped beating. Just like that.  I'm thinking it's a rule of thumb not to crack wise about your impending multiple "code blue"(s) unless you want God to smite you with something that requires the doctor to shout "CLEAR!" before applying cold gel and some paddles.

9) Give your youngest brother-in-law a temporary "pass" for behaving like one of the biggest assholes in the entire hospital, including any you could stumble over on the proctology floor. And it's not just because his father is ill. He elected to castigate me for referring to our 10 and 12 year old niece and nephew as young kids. SRSLY, dude?  He wanted to go to the mat with me over those two words. I'm not even sure what his real issue was, but he spent the rest of the afternoon passive-aggressively saying and doing crappy spoiled baby things (including forcing me to step over his unmoving feet and legs when they were in the way and everyone else was moving theirs so that I could go use the bathroom). Trust me when I tell you that it has taken everything in me not to grab him by the lapels and "schrisper" (scream/whisper) "I know way too much about you for you to think you can get the upper hand here and now, Mayor McCheese. Don't make your personal life failures all about me." In the words of Will Smith, "Don't start somethin' and it won't BE nothin'". Also? Take off those sad bastard/sagging emo skater pants, busted Teva sandals and start dressing like a MAN for a change.

10) Realize anew that outside this building we're all moms and dads, lawyers and shop owners, gardeners, and baseball players, musicians and writers. Inside this building? We're bones and blood and flesh and terribly, terribly vulnerable. I remain profoundly grateful for the fact that there are people here who know how to attend to our physical human frailties. The man 20 feet away from me has a hideously annoying ringtone and his voice is far too loud. His assembled family includes young children who are too young to go into the ICU and serve no real purpose in the waiting area (just my opinion) but to create havoc and get bored. But I'm going to give him a pass too. He's waiting on the same kind of news that we are. Still hoping God gives my father-in-law the same consideration.