Thanksgivings

I’ve come full circle on sentimentality. It’s not that to some degree I haven’t always had the predisposition, I have, it’s just that it’s become something I embrace, even seek out now that I’ve got some road behind me.

Life is moving as fast as it ever has. Faster in many ways. But for some reason I’m less and less moved by it. I’m underwhelmed by momentous change. I’m not as easily energized by my own morphing and evolutions. I’m simply living it. I’m running full speed to keep up and I’m barely processing it’s going so fast. Who can make sense of this stage with the solid oak I grew from growing ever wiser and the seeds I’ve planted requiring constant tending. Not to mention the intentions I had for myself before the realities I never considered became the droning and pressing necessity of each day as I try to make a life I’ll be proud of.

I’m tired and busy and energetic and overwhelmed at all times. I’m looking at a life that is zooming past and trying to find any and all rest stops and exits that look like I can afford to take them. I’m trying to get as much of this finite life as I am able and it feels impossible to catch up to it.

So I find myself on days like today, Thanksgiving 2017, in a sentimental place where I can experience the benefits of compounding interest as I feel the past in the present. It’s easy to do as Thanksgiving has been a huge part of the magic of life for me.

The early ones were at home and had the tables, all that we could move, fold, setup and tear down, stretching against the grain and crossing transoms to stretch far enough to fit all the family who could be there. I was a kids table holdout who ventured rarely and always regretfully to the grown up table at least once before I was ready. As a result I was always more than happy to give up my seat with the big people to spend another year at the fun table. The food was warm, the air was steamy, small rooms filled with big people and warmed by a kitchen that never stopped.

Later, when we were a tad older, but still young it became Florida! We went every year to visit our grandparents in Vero Beach. It was there my dad pointed out the connection that it might not be pure coincidence that Nana and Papa moved to where his beloved (Brooklyn) Dodgers had there spring training facilities. There I saw the shuttle from the driveway and looked up with my dad who marvelled that his dad, staying warm on the enclosed deck had been around when horse drawn carriages and Model T’s were filling the streets and now we were here in his driveway watching the space shuttle. It was there where we snowy natives spent hours learning how to body surf and seeing my dad in shorts, something rarely seen, but always when there was an ocean to swim in. He liked to bob in the waves, floating with his toes popping out of the water, riding the tide in peace. It was there that I saw the dance between my mom and her husbands wonderful, but decidedly commanding mother play out with a remarkable amount of good humor, understanding and grace on all sides. It was there where the adults I’d know later were the kids I remember now. When we see each other I like to think they see that young vibrant me as well. Time has taken its toll and it always wins, but its nice to know their are cousins who’ve seen you all the way through and know you. The real you. And it was their that I learned I may be the funniest in a room now and again and that may be a very useful thing, but I should never forget that theres a family tree of funny that has deep roots and long and surprising branches. I come from funny stock. Thanksgivings with the Wershing/Medler’s were the funniest.

College came and the family tradition couldn’t last forever. We quickly redeployed and had the usual guests and local family holidays that are the norm. Soon I took to heading up to the mountains where some friends had established roots. Saranac Lake and environs. It might have been just three or four times, but those Thanksgivings were amazing. They were like a vast, tribal, artisanal, low culture-high culture blend you can really only achieve in your twenties. Full capacity, zero responsibility, unmatchable sociability and comraderie and a determination to be adult. To this day, no offense to anyone else ever those meals were the most succulent and delicious I’ve ever had. It was a 3 day party and there were late night shenanigans, beer fridges and high times indeed. It was a joy of being alive kind of feeling that I’ll always love.

Then we had the family gathering at my brother’s house in Poughkeepsie. It was like a perfect little blessing that for those years, with me in the city and my sister in the area as well. We would inevitably show up the night before, until there were kids. Mom and dad would show up at night, mom having cooked a meal for twenty and packed it all in the trunk and we would unload into the just gorgeous home he was always so generous with. We would each offer dish and be welcomed to bring it and make it. My mother always liked us to be involved, but it was her production for sure and it was perfect. Food on the piano for serving, table set to Rockwell like perfection and new family as funny as the rest in on the conversations and bringing new humosrs and smiles to our faces. I don’t know what was said, I may have even had a part in the sequence leading to the laughter, but a memory that sticks out for me is my mom removing her glasses and wiping tears, in full all out laughter, only at catch her breath to say, ‘I haven’t laughed this hard since last night.’, only to kick off another round of table wide guffaws. We were all a little grayer at these gatherings, but we still through the football around and stayed up late enough for our turkey sandwiches and movies. Resisting every urge we might feel to get going home if that was in our plans. This was our first real thanksgiving after the kids. The one where we could bring a baby and begin our families traditions in earnest.

Circumstance changed and kids continued to grow and we began to have our traditional Turkey days at Karen’s parents house. It was such a treat. They live on beautiful land outside Saratoga county. Youhonestly couldn’t paint a more beautiful picture of holiday land. The house was always full of all our favorite treats and every meal was a chance to sit and visit between indoor and outdoor adventures in a landscape carved carefully by nature and man over decades of tending and refining. There were sled rides in snow, treasure hunts, long adventures in the basement workshop and treats to fill the hearts of toddlers and middle aged men. These were magical visits that always started with Grandma and Koba greeting us at the car, as excited to see us as we were to be there. Travel is hard at that early stage, but they always understood and went so far out of their way to make sure the memories were of the wonderous variety.

Now, today, the tradition turned again as we went to a new gathering place in Maplewood. We’ve been passive observers of Karen’s sister and brother in law as they’ve put in countless hours making a warm and welcoming home, a dream home really since moving in years ago. Now once again the tables were laid out against the grain, traveling through the home from back to front, seating and feeding generations of family with more than a delicious meal. It was a magical day. The kids sat at the big table and did mostly great, when they weren’t crawling underneath. Hectic moments when all arrived and too many hands went on instinct to the kitchen, chaos slowly turning to perfection as the food was pulled together by my brother in law, the magician, casual conversations happening everywhere you looked between people who loved being with each other and can so rarely be due to the simple and never ending logistics of life. Good laughs and good food, great stories and long and luxuriant pickingat desserts that fed and fueled the days journey into night. Hugs and goodbyes and smiles and warmth. The tradition is beginning for these guys, the little ones. For me it’s settling into the pace where, seeing it starting again for the kids and watching it evolve once more for all of us grown ups, I can finally catch up to the sentiment. I can feel the nostalgia and the beauty of it all in real time.

It all leaves me so grateful to be sharing this journey with these fellow travelers, every one of them from each iteration.

One Summer and Water Gun Dolphins

One particular summer arrival sticks out. We were in the Carolin Drive house so I couldn’t have been more than five. It was summer so I was definitely four. I could have been three, I suppose, but it would be odd to remember it at all. It was sunny and to my memory we were waiting for my dad to get home. Derrell would be with him. My memory always has it as after work for my dad but it could easily have been Saturday morning. Who’s to say. So it was a terrible realization that we were seeing what we were seeing. No one batted an eye that dad parked in the street. This was suburbia and we had a perfectly good and perfectly empty driveway. Regardless, the trauma blocked this oddity from notice. You see, there he was, dad, just strolling across the lawn practically overflowing with aloofness as we all thought how terrible it was. Derrell would be wandering the airport all alone! Looking for Dad! How could he have forgotten! It’s all the bigger boys talked about for days!

Of course, D was in the back seat, lying on the bench, cool as a fan. Dad and D, well, they got us good.

This would have been in the heart of the years when D spent summers with us as a kid. He’d get on a plane, or maybe a bus, I have no idea, somewhere in New York City. He lived in the South Bronx, but to us Western New Yorker’s, far more familiar with Toronto than NYC, it was a behemoth not at all disassembled to the boroughs. D was from New York City.

I think I like best the thought of my dad and Derrell, perhaps 12 years old at the time, rolling down the road and hatching this plan. Derrell was already a skilled clinician of holding a room with funny. My dad was his perfect comedy partner, a classic straight man. Dry humor and perfect for the role he was cast in in this sketch. Everything is in that conversation that got them there. It’s the late 70’s so they didn’t pull over. There were no seat belts restricting movement and I’m sure D popped over the passenger seat to the back bench to test it as a hiding spot while they soared out 531 to Union in Spencerport. It would be a long time until it extended all the way to Brockport. Just a skinny, bearded, cool Dad looking like a hipster Abe Lincoln and the lean, long limbed black kid with fabulous and fabulously big and round specs plotting a prank on the way home.

img_4883Derrell was almost certainly a curiosity the first time he arrived on Carolin. I mean, how could he avoid being one. But I am equally certain that would have lasted all of 2 mins. He is, was and will forever be touched with an undeniable charisma that shrinks distance, bridges difference and effortly seizes the attention of those in his light. I’m sure that by his first morning waking up and pouring sugar on his cereal he was the brother we’ve all known him as, as I’ve only known him as.

‘That’s not a water gun.’ D said.

‘Yeah it is. Watch.’ And if the 40 or so years between now and then have been in anyway instructive as to who would respond by shooting a stream of water in his face, running away and laughing, it was my older brother Mike. It’s a tiny moment, so neither would remember it. But I do. I don’t know why what sticks out sticks out. When you’re a kid you notice at weird times and implant memories for no reason at all. I remember this tiny exchange followed by screaming (the fun kind), chasing, laughing, a sprinkler.

‘It’s a dolphin. It can’t be a water gun if it’s a dolphin.’

 We had water ‘guns’ shaped like sea creatures and in hindsight I’m glad we did. A dolphin spitting at you is funny, the bazooka like shooters that mimicked real guns from my youth, they were not as fun. At the time I wanted the water gun. The real one.

It was a disappointment. Like the length of wear for my sneakers or the irregular stamps on the tags of the Levi’s we got at Marshall’s. Silly, stupid kid insecurities that are now mildly amusing memories of things I wish I hadn’t been so hard on my parents about. Like when they got me the one speaker ‘box’ because the salesman explained it was higher quality than the two speaker cool ‘box’ I really wanted. 12 year old boys can be hard to please.

But other things were not done for necessity or by simple misunderstanding. Like the assorted wildlife shaped squirter’s whose triggers we pulled and had just as much fun as any of the kids playing with handgun looking cousins of our spitting animals. It was subtly communicated, explained when asked and a lesson I took.

D took to the dolphin. In the end, chasing one another with squirting sea life was just as fun.

The Letter, The List and My Greatest Fear

Mansfield, Pa. I was there for the week for basketball camp. I don’t know how it became a thing in our town, hundreds of miles away, but for anyone serious about basketball, at least any of us between 10 and 14, you went to Mansfield for a week of basketball camp. I was the most serious about it and I was there. I was about 12 and it was great.

It was a great time for a 12 year old who was obsessed. I was the kid who had a basketball in my hand every minute. I was the kid in Western New York, where it can snow in 8 or 9 different months a year, who would shovel the court to play in January. Or October, if need be. I was the kid who played a level up always. I was obsessed and good as far as anyone could tell. This was the first big year away at camp and the first time I shined outside my own town. I was good against the good kids my age from other towns. I could run with the good kids older then me. It was a buzz.

My dad picked me up and my memory is that he told me we had to get going fast. Mom wasn’t home and we had to get moving.

‘Where’s mom?’ I asked.

‘She had to go to see Grammy.’ He said.

‘When?’

‘She’s there now.’

A lot of things happened in our house without advanced warning. There were six or seven kids at that time, including a toddler, so it’s possible these plans were always in the works and I was just never informed. Still, weird for her to travel alone, but to be honest, she’d gone to Israel on her own while 8 months pregnant with the little one so who’s to say if it was weird that she went on short notice to see her parents.

‘Why?’ I asked.

Here’s where my memory fails me. I don’t know if I asked that. Maybe I didn’t, though I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have come up. Maybe we were driving a friend of mine home or something and he couldn’t tell me. Whatever was said I didn’t know ‘why’ she was gone until I read it in a letter. Might have been in the car right when I was packed up and we were ready to go. I have a memory of it being a letter I read when I got it on the kitchen table when we got all the way home. In hindsight I can imagine a dad wanting to keep it from a kid as long as possible.

What is true is that I found out in a letter. My dad probably wrote it. Might have been mom, but I can’t imagine. It was one of them. My grandfather was dead and he’d killed himself. It was a suicide letter by proxy.

I haven’t been writing much lately. I have to start again. I’m nervous about losing writing. I fear it’s like basketball. I’m old and unable and all those years of pounding my knees on pavement have not left me very able with a hoop and a ball anymore. I can shoot, I’ll always be able to shoot, but the rest is rusty and the will and ability to fix that are gone.

I’ve been sharing the writing I’ve done in the past in different ways recently. It’s been good to reach some new people and find some new life in old stories about times gone by. It’s been interesting to mine my own work, produced largely without reflection. Or rather, to reflect on what I was compelled to write over time.

I recently shared a piece that was written as if it were a letter to my sons. It was a letter outlining the fact that what I want for them is to feel loved and to love. I want the person they love to love them and to inspire laughter and curiosity and energy and compassion and passion and all the things that love alone can fulfill, but I don’t care if the person they love is a man or a woman. I will very much care about who that person is, I just won’t care about that.

It’s in line with a lot of my work, really. Often I’m sending a message out through time and space hoping they will see it and know they were loved. Know that I’m aware of the things I got wrong. Sorry for the parts I’ll fail at. I want them to know that I was a failure. That I was a drunken mess for years. That I had false starts and self doubt and self loathing. That I was depressed. That I hated school. That I didn’t know what I was doing when they came along and all I wanted to do was do right by them. That love so amazing as the love they and their mom have brought to my life is worth slogging through painful times for. That even the hope of it is enough.

I remember having a conversation with my sister a number of years back where I told her that I have always kept a list in my head of who it is I think is most at risk of killing themselves. It’s not some list of sad celebrities or self destructive artists of one sort or another. It was a list of family and friends. Mostly family. A list I at times put myself on. A chronicle of my real time assessments of presumed depressive states that were potential life changing suicides. I did it subconsciously and without noticing I was doing it for years. It sounds like bullshit to me, but it was true. I was truly unaware of this constant drone in my psyche.

One of the recurring points I’ve made over the years was the startling and profound understanding of mortality that I had when I saw my kids the seconds after they were born. It’s more pronounced after the first, sure but that isn’t to say it wasn’t there with the second. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung, but it can certainly be rung again.

It was a rolling realization but the fact is that it was inevitable, being me, that sooner than later the fear of the worst thing I could ever imagine would occur to me. What if some day, too far out to imagine, but not so far out I can avoid ever thinking about, one of my kids, in a moment of pain and suffering and confusion and hopelessness and depression killed himself. It’s the worst thought I can imagine. It’s vomit inducing to say. It’s my biggest fear and I’ve never acknowledged it until now.

Because I got that letter. The one that I had no idea would ripple into the future not in weeks or months or even years, but in generations. In families that weren’t even imagined yet. In the darkest corners of my imagination and in the lists I’d construct mindlessly for hopes that somehow the preparation would perhaps soften a blow I couldn’t possibly see coming.

I’m not capable of having an objective view of my life. By definition it’s impossible, but at times my subjective experience of it can lead to insights that perhaps obvious to others are still profound for me. So saying that it would appear my grandfather killing himself may have effected me and my point of view may sound obvious to you, it wasn’t to me. It wasn’t at all.

I felt bad after reading the letter. I felt hurt even. There was no ‘good’ way to tell me and at a time when communication at a distance was not like it is today I understand why I’d learn about it this way. But it felt like I was left a few days behind. I came back to everyone being in the third or fourth day. I came back to a process that I was left out of. It wasn’t like it was anyone’s fault. I’m really only putting it together right here. At the time I just felt out of synch with the world. I didn’t know what else to do then keep doing what I did. I probably went and shot hoops. It’s literally how I spent an easy 50% of my waking hours at that time.

What I didn’t do was cry. I felt terrible about that. I wanted to so badly, but it just didn’t happen at that time. I didn’t really shed a tear. Maybe I would have had I been there for the group horror, but I wasn’t and I was a twelve year old boy. Emotions are hard always, but they’re a more confounding sort of hard, a less tethered kind at that age. It was 30 years later, when a young man I only knew through others and only enough to say hello to killed himself that I finally wrote about him, and my grandfather and read it to my mother that I really bawled about it.

The tears were not just sad tears. The tears I’ve shed for this event are sorrow filled to be sure, but they are rage informed as well. Confusion and fear are in tears for a suicide as well. There’s empathy and judgement and all of it just comes out. It doesn’t get processed or fixed with a good cry. That’s the thing about suicide. It doesn’t, as far as I can tell it can’t get resolved.

I write because I write. I have only this single keyhole through which to see the world and from where I’m looking the threat of finding out the worst news imaginable is possible because I’ve found it out before. And I’ve watched others find out what it all means, over time, others more directly related and I can’t ever lose the fear of it. So I write. I write about as many of the feelings and failings I can muster the courage or the perspective to find in my story. I write to the worries I have that can keep me up, about what if they don’t know how much I love them. What if they are disconnected at a time when I can’t reach them and they think an awful thought and I can’t hug them and hold them and assure them they are loved. What if they are afraid of me or think I will judge them harshly and I add weight to the burdens I can’t know that they will someday carry. And I write.

I write because it brings me joy and relief and understanding and it can fill me with pride and drive me to dig deeper. In doing so I’ve come to understand that I don’t always see all the forces compelling creation. I don’t always understand why the topics come to the surface. When they do I can ignore them or indulge and some I’ve indulged should likely have been ignored and many I’ve ignored should probably have been explored. The process of creating over time though is starting to reveal reason’s to me and one of them is I don’t want to ever catch myself ever thinking I’ve ever failed to do everything in my power to keep these two names, these two magical and wonderful human beings as far away as possible from my tragic lists. Lists I can’t sop making.

Do You Believe In Miracles

‘Do you believe in miracles!’

 Al Michaels iconic cry as time expired in the semi-final game of the Olympic Hockey tournament in 1980 in tiny little Lake Placid, NY. The feelings this can stir in me are notable. They run the gamut from patriotism to belief to hope to astonishment. There was no way we were going to win. They were the best of the best of the Evil Empire, men driven by personal and professional and patriotic duty of their own against our upstart group of ragamuffins. A team of college stars in a sport, Division 1 Mens Hockey, that didn’t make stars. We didn’t even have all the stars. Get me on the topic for too long and I might start to tell you we even had some high schoolers getting valuable minutes. While not technically accurate, as far as narrative goes it would be true enough. We were a nation ready to believe, looking for a miracle and this team, this makeshift team did it. They gave us our miracle.

It’s a thrilling and stirring tale. One capable of inspiring tears and long bouts of sentimental nostalgia. Which is shocking and possibly troubling as I didn’t watch the game. I didn’t even know it was happening. I doubt I learned about it until perhaps 8-10 years later. As best I can tell, we didn’t have it on our radar at my house. I learned of the story by learning about it.

Still the story is worthy of everything it gets and at times I think it’s worth so much more.

I grew up in the height of the Cold War. Russian equaled bad. They were the big bad wolf out to get us, I guess. I mean I remember fearing the idea of that nuclear weapons were in the mix, but that was the extent of my analysis. I was a kid. I saw War Games and I cheered when Rocky beat Ivan Drago (the sonofabitch who killed Apollo Creed). I knew that they were the enemy. My mind and sights were clear, but really I was just a kid. As much as I’ve heard about the tensions of the time I have to say, they didn’t filter down to me.

I grew up in the heartland, really. It’s New York State, but it’s the Great Lakes part of the state. I loved and hated where I grew up. Had nothing to do with where I grew up, I’d have felt that way anywhere. But it was a GREAT place to be a kid. A stupid, oblivious kid. A great place to get your first real kiss while playing truth or dare. A place to get caught by kindly neighbors telling on you that they saw you buying cigarettes at the diner cigarette machine. A great place to fall in love for the first time and to lose your mind when you saw that girl making out with the cool guy who you could never compete with because he was two years older than you and he had not only a license but a car. It was a great place to play basketball, sun up to sundown in playgrounds where other kids were playing. It was a great place to ride your bikes uptown and get pizza or tacos or see a movie or just hang out with all the other kids that lived near, ‘uptown.’ It was a great place to walk to the neighborhood doctor who knew you since you were new. Or to catch crayfish walking barefoot through the crick. It was a great place. Still is.

It wasn’t a place for me to process the Cold War, despite all of it happening, apparently, the whole time I was doing all that other stuff. It wasn’t a place that was nervous or palpably anxious. It wasn’t a place that was out of step and it wasn’t a place that was in line. It was my American experience. I suppose the seeds of what has happened since were around. Factories closed. Our local economy had for generations been underpinned by Kodak and I did see that diminish a ton while I was growing up. Hard not to notice as it was kids parents you went to school with. Other things popped up, but nothing, no amount of things popping up could make up for losing jobs by the tens of thousands, seemingly every year for a couple decades there. Good jobs too. Union jobs for a labor force that often had only needed a high school degree. Just gone. I saw that. Didn’t know it would be such a harbinger of things to come for a pretty big stretch of the country. I imagine my elders did see it coming. Imagine those that stayed saw it coming and to some degree perhaps even got caught standing on the path.

I don’t know what my kids lives will be 30 years from now. My parents weren’t locals to where I’m from and their parents aren’t local to where they’re from. I suspect that trend will continue, but who’s to say. Perhaps my kids will love it here so much that they stay. I would be happy. I would be happy to know that they not only loved where we raised them and found a community of kind and caring friends and neighbors here, but also if they were inclined to stay because the opportunities look like staying was a good decision. I’d like them to have options.

I’m anxious. I’m scared about the direction of so many things. The economy. The hostility that seems to be so prevalent in so many. The rising social issues, some we considered if not resolved, heading inevitably in that direction in the America I grew up in. The role of America in a world in upheaval, without the terrifying order the Cold War provided. I’m hoping this anxiety that seems to be floating free in the world is resolved and my children grow up as I did. Happily oblivious to all that they will one day read about and wonder how they didn’t see it all. Nostalgic for that miracle that is awaiting us just around the corner.

Snowy Old Christmas Eve’s at Home

Brockport is a charming Victorian village that straddles the western Erie Canal and it is made only more beautiful for its near constant snow cover for much of the year. We are natives of the snow belt and there was endless pleasure to be derived from its copious bounty. As kids that first snow fall was something approaching magical. We would watch the weather reports, sometimes as early as the beginning of the school year, but usually just before Halloween or shortly thereafter, waiting to see those snowflakes. If it was going to come in the night we’d stay up as late as we could (we were and remain a family of night owls) in hopes of seeing those first flakes fall. If we didn’t make it we were rewarded with the fresh, bright, clean sheet of dazzling white when we woke and it really did make a kids heart skip a beat.

In hindsight I have a great deal of love and respect for how my parents dealt with it. We moved to Brockport, well, Hamlin initially, but to the area when I was a month or two from arriving in the world. Myself and my brothers and sisters are natives and we saw endless delight in skating the ice and digging tunnels in the snow, making a web of undersnow crawl spaces that were so much fun to explore and play in. We couldn’t wait to go sledding down the hill next to the high bridge at the back of the park across the street. We’d be there for hours on end when the snow was good. All day. For my parents winters were a challenge. I see that now as a parent myself. But I’ve moved away from those winters. Sure, New Jersey has winter and the cold can be even worse down here, but the snow, there’s no getting around that.

Having the fairly safe assumption that we would have a White Christmas was pretty great. Our family traveled on Thanksgiving, but Christmas always was at home. When we were lucky it wasn’t just the sitting snow, it was the big fluffy fluttering of a beautiful snow dancing in the floodlights out the front window as we headed out on Christmas eve. We were going to the barn mass usually around 7pm the night before at Martin Farms. It was so cool to see all the folks and more from our weekly mass out and standing, excited and cold. Styrofoam cups of coffee steaming in hand. The kids in the Nativity scene dressed in period and regionally appropriate clothing for Jerusalem, draped over the heavy coats and winter hats. There was livestock present and lights dim.

After mass we got pizza. That was our tradition. We’d all mill around, wondering what the small gifts around the tree in the smolderingly hot living room were. We had a cast iron stove that kept the far reaches of the house warm enough to be sure but made the living room, the secondary hub of our home (kitchen is always primary, no?) at a resting temp of roughly 90 degrees. You think that I’m exaggerating. You do. You have to. The reality is I’m being conservative. I can still feel it and not in some sentimental way. I mean my core temp is still cooling. It was geologically hot.

1017044_10202956744025782_526539434_nSometime between the pizza and the wondering and the heat of the fire and the lights around everything dad would disappear. You wouldn’t notice. He’s like that. As central a figure as he is in all his life, he’s remarkably subtle and he can slip away without notice at any time. Some time after he was gone a strange rollicking would be heard from upstairs. It wasn’t quite from the roof and he didn’t enter through the chimney. Rather, Santa himself would come down the stairs. We would come to discover that he had made his way into the house through the drains. Why else would we catch him emerging from the upstairs bathroom. It started as a joke and was always received that way, but still, in our house the tradition is a tad askew, as we all prefer it. Sounds like something my older brother Mike would have come up with. It was already orthodoxy by the time I became aware.

Besides his penchant for coming in through the pipes there were other signs that our Santa was different. He wore the traditional red with white trim. His beard, though a bit cottony, was never the less white and long. The hat was a match. But there was something about that belly. It didn’t quite fit what you imagined was holding him up in those baggy pant legs. Nor was it really a belly that fit the spindly, long arms. One time I distinctly remember making out the points of a square, roughly the size of that throw pillow from the couch that seemed to have gone missing just then. Regardless, Santa was here and my extraordinarily tall, lean, and incredibly subtle dad was missing it. Again! Oh well…

Santa made it every year I remember while growing up. He would come and sit in Dad’s chair and read us all Twas the Night Before Christmas. We would all sit rapt with attention, trying to suss out how exactly we might be able to catch him this year. We all wanted to see him. We had been told quite early that he was just a story, not real, but we weren’t dummies. We knew better. We’d spend weeks planning our middle of the night espionage in hopes of capturing sight of the midnight, more ‘jolly’ version of this tall Santa with the familiar voice and lap. We never caught him, but we kept planning and trying and we always thought we might get a better chance if we could figure out from this story how he operated in the wee hours. It never happened and slowly the kids that sat at his foot transitioned to younger kids as older kids began to take in the story with mom, a bit behind the younger ones who didn’t want any distractions.

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I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus. Seriously.

Santa then took time out of his busiest of nights to let everyone sit on his lap. Even Mom! We even have picture evidence of her kissing Santa. He would tell us all how we were on the nice list and that we should expect some presents in the morning. He would let us choose one gift from under the tree to open that night. At that point the only gifts were from siblings and Aunt’s and Uncle’s and Grandparent’s. It was agony choosing and you started days in advance. Picking up, shaking, maybe even peeling tape slowly and peeking. I mean, I’ve heard that some people did that. I didn’t, but I’m pretty sure some of the others did.

Before long Pop would return from wherever he had disappeared to so mom could get ready for the midnight mass. We would all be wound up on candy canes and hot chocolate and native excitement for getting gifts that was so close you could taste it. It was all too much and eventually we would go to bed. One by one, falling off and forgetting all our plans to catch the Ho Ho Ho man in the act as the snow flied outside our windows, dreaming of Christmas in our own perfect snow globe.

Picture Day on Mamalode

Today I’m looking back and projecting forward as I look at my son on Picture Day. Click the link to see my story on Mamalode.

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I Am Dad

I’m feeling kinda done with writing about parenthood. It was a massive transformation and now I’m transformed.

img_3451Parenthood is a sequence of workaday realities that once awed and floored me in a way that when not paralyzing, was heartbreakingly beautiful and expansive. Well, its still those things, really, I just can’t throw as much emotional energy behind it all anymore. I am still transported on a daily basis to a place of awe and wonder, but it’s often fleeting. It has to be. Any moment of daydreaming and self reflection is necessarily interrupted by the mundanity of daily life with a 5 and freshly minted 4 year old.

Gone is the exhaustion fueled deluge of emotional frailty and excruciatingly earnest expressions of fawning and perspectiveless love. It is not as sad as it sounds. These feelings are still there, behind all the work. Gone however is the constant feeling of being overmatched by the task at hand. It’s been replaced by a security you only have when you have a steady hand and a clear eyed confidence that you are up to the task.

img_3402Sure, we could feed them better food, we could replace TV shows and movies with family activities, we could certainly stand to reduce screen time and increase story time. We could even take better care of ourselves come to think of it. We could sleep more. We could drink more water and less wine (okay, I’m the wine drinker). We could be more physical and less sedentary. We could stand to spend less time on our screens and could be more patient and less prone to yelling. Where was I going with this… ?

Whatever. All of it is to say we got this. We get a ton wrong, but we’re doing it. Not everything is a trauma and drama. We’ve left the bubble where reflection and exploration were how we retained a sense of self as we changed to who we needed to become.

Being a parent, a dad, is now a fully ingrained part of me. It’s who I am and I’m no longer struggling to fit into this new uniform. Its on and worn in at this point. My mistakes are not as often the learning and growing experiences they once were. Now they are just human. Just what it’s like being this guy.

img_3373What hasn’t changed is the love. The fascination. The endless desire to be connected to these people. My tiny tribe. Karen and I have rediscovered each other and it’s never been better. We’ve never been closer or more in love. The kids are still orbiting us, tied to our motions and our decisions and our schedule but they are drifting. They have interests beyond us and it’s amazing to us what is so natural to anyone else. It amazes us simply because we have all of the wonder and awe of the first time they opened there eyes stored in our hearts and to see them venture and wander, well, it can make you swallow hard and hold back a tear now and again. Just as fast the moment passes and we are swept up into the day to day grind of running a house, a car service, a grocery and a restaurant (specializing in nuggeted nutrition of dubious value), a recreation department, an education system, social services organization, a health and safety inspection unit, a counseling service and cleaning service (which is a failing venture if ever there was one) and to a degree we never could have before, we love doing it. It’s our life’s work. For now the emphasis is on work but down the road, and not too far, it’ll be understood much more so as our life.

 

Picture Day 

Today is picture day. You are wearing a new blue button down shirt and we packed a more durable, comfortable shirt in your bag for you to wear at after school. I have my suspicions as to whether you’ll change, though. You are so proud of yourself today and you know you are handsome. It doesn’t occur to you to be bashful, to quell your pride. You smiled this morning and you were excited. Today is picture day.

Picture day is a day for us too. It’s a day to get a snapshot of you in Kindergarten. A chance for us to attempt earnestly to do the impossible. To capture you as you are now, to freeze you in this moment. We do it so we can share this moment with the wide world of people that love you. To capture and disseminate your joyful boyishness so that even a tiny bit can be transported across space and your Grandma and Koba and Nana and Papa can hold this part of you from hundreds of miles away. So they can put you on the fridge and look at you whenever they wish. So they can show their friends and your relatives, ones you don’t even know yet, how well you are doing. So they can feel pride. Not only in you, but in us.

We also take these pictures so that we, your mommy and daddy, can travel through time to right now. It’s important. We dress you in your finest and we do your hair especially carefully. I think you may have even had your first encounter with hairspray this morning. We do it as it is our wont. We want you to look your finest and be happy. So we can find this picture a few years from now when you are perhaps a bit self conscious and less open to us combing your hair. When you try to comply and smile, but when that smile is put on, something to think about and not so much your default facial expression. We will come back in time to this picture and the others like it to remember who you are inside, at least the part of who you are that we first met. We’ll always see that part, even after you’re convinced it’s not there anymore. We’ll know it’s just dormant. You will never look like you do now and that’s important to memorialize, but you will feel this way again, but it will be tempered by life and what it teaches you.

Innocence is highly overrated. But it is also a real and wonderful part of being five and while you are a more mature boy everyday and while we love that you can be quiet and contemplative from time to time, there is something we will miss about this time you are rapidly graduating from where you are earnest and honest with us and yourself by default. You haven’t gotten too caught up in fitting in. Too caught up in trying on identities you conjure. Instead you look at the camera proud because you are handsome, funny, smart and loved and you know it. And so do we.

We’ll know it when you are away at college and going on adventures to find yourself. When you are busy developing and defining your purpose.  We will look at this picture and the others, the ones from every step on the way and we will be recognizing ours. We will see all that went in to getting you to picture day and take pride in us, all of us, for doing what we did together. We will still be doing it, but it will look a lot different than it does now, all of us smooshed together, experiencing it as one and interpreting it individually. There might be times when these interpretations are deceptive and we struggle to stay positive. You may need to distance yourself and we may reactively hold tighter. You’ll surely have to push us away someday, just like we will surely have to nudge you along from time to time. It will all be from love, but it might not always feel that way. When it doesn’t these pictures will help.

They’ll help you too. You’ll look back and remember vividly some things. I remember my mother wetting the comb and working with my cowlick. Trying over and over to supress my hairs natural desires in an attempt to look my best. Licking her thumb and cleaning the smudges from my cheek. I remember the brown bags we used for lunches that my father would sit at the table at night and decorate. I’ll remember the joyful pink elephant sitting under the lone palm tree on the tiny island on a lunch bag that I used repeatedly that I loved so much that he made for me. It’s another framed talisman from a time gone by that I cling to, though after my many adult moves I can’t say I know exactly where it is. I’ll find it someday, probably too late, and when I do I’ll cry tears of love and joy.

Hopefully when you look back, from a great distance and see your picture you’ll see love. The love and time and unabashed joy we took in giving you what we had. In doing our best to make sure you were taken care of, that you knew you were loved. Because when we look at them, when we travel through time and space to see the you you are now it will be with joy. It will be with love. It will be with longing for the time we had with you and the many journey’s you are surely going to take.

The Golden Age of Pre-Facebook Parenthood on The Good Men Project

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Don’t get me wrong. I love all the connections I’ve maintained via Facebook. Not to mention those that were born there. Still, I can’t help but think that something has been lost…

The Golden Age of Pre-Facebook Parenthood is on The Good Men Project. Please head over and give it a look and let me know what you think!

 

 

Deliberate Diversity: A Family Story

My mother’s birthday was last week. I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. I’ve been remembering a story she once told me. I’m fuzzy on the details but I’ll do my best. 

She was a young girl of about 17 when one of the nuns scheduled a meeting with her in her office. This was at my mother’s school, Notre Dame Academy. It was a new world and there were new conversations that needed having. I’m sure for my mother, young and brave and unafraid, it was no big deal. I’m not sure how prepared these nuns were to advise these young women, however, about entering a world that was evidently and obviously changing while they were largely committed to persevering in their calling.

Regardless, it was the good sister’s job to have a counseling session with the young ladies in her charge to discuss each girls future plans. It was right around the landing of the Beatles at Idlewild and performing on Ed Sullivan and what changes were coming could hardly be predicted. What was evident however was that young women had options. So the meetings were designed as an opportunity to ask these girls what it was they intended to do upon graduating. They were discussions that perhaps were designed to elicit answers of no real variation from the choices that were laid out for young women prior to this time, asked by folks who expected girls to hew to the norm, to lean in to ‘safe’ and to impose on themselves the restrictive, narrow set of options that had been thrust upon their moms and grandmothers. Surely they assumed this exercise would teach these girls that any ideas of rebellion were silly and not to be bothered with. Well, as is often the case when asking what one thinks to people who haven’t been solicited before, surprise abounds.

So few would answer in ways that the nuns expected. I can’t imagine what they thought when the plans included anything beyond teaching of small children, secretary school, nursing or looking to marry and have children. Surely many would still want some of these things, but many didn’t. My mom was somewhere in between.

‘Barbara. It’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ve known you for years now and I know who you are and whatever you are thinking will surely be less alarming to me than you can possibly imagine. Allow me to assure you, your answer will not be the most shocking one I’ve received. Now please, tell me what you imagine your life will be. What do you intend to do after leaving school?’, asked the good sister.

My mother, a decidedly ‘good’ kid, wasn’t afraid at all that she would shock her interviewer. She might surprise her, sure. Her concern was that she would tell her it was impossible. She would tell her she was silly for having such a dream, such a vision for a life.

‘I’m sure I’ll go to secretary school. The one in the city.’ She replied, avoiding eye contact.

‘Yes, Barbara, you’ve said. What do you intend to do with your life. You can’t be a secretary forever.’

To be fair to my mom, these questions weren’t really answerable. She was seventeen(ish) and her plans for what she’d do ten steps down the road were as unknowable as they were unlikely to turn out true. Still, she had an answer and at this point it was a power struggle. After fighting her way through the interviews with the girls who dreamed of marrying floppy haired British musicians and others that thought they could run entire companies or fly airplanes or do whatever it was they had gotten into their heads, well, Sister was not going to let Barbie Monohan skate by without engaging.

‘Tell me, Barbara. What is their to be afraid of.’ She asked.

‘You’ll think me silly.’

‘I will not.’

‘You will. And you’ll tell me it’s a fantasy and not a plan.’

‘We’ll see if you are right only when you tell me.’

So my mother, having developed a touch of the courage, answered the good sister.

‘I’m going to have a family. A huge family, with 12 children. They will be of every color and from all over the world. I want to be a mother to a rainbow of god’s children.’ She said.

Well. She was right, thought the good sister. That is silly.

‘Barbara, I don’t think you understood the question. Are you even dating someone?’

‘I did understand your question and no, I’m not dating anyone. You want to know what I intend to do. My answer is that I plan to have a big family filled with children of all colors, I want to be a mother to a rainbow of God’s children.’

After some serious scowling, a few more attempts to knock her back on course, the sister dismissed my determined mother. From the room and from her head. She dismissed her as a silly girl who didn’t know anything and still imagined fairy tales were real. She dismissed her as someone who had a lot to learn.

She dismissed her wrongly.

My mother ended up with a big, diverse, multicultural, multiracial house full of children. She stayed open to her hope coming true and woke years later exhausted, exuberant and with the life she could see that no one around her could have fathomed.

We were an odd lot in the pew. Six tall kids with complexions that reflected our (very) Northern European heritage, two black boys (if it was summer and D was up) and a teenage girl from Vietnam. We rolled nine deep, with at least 4 differnt heritages and at minimum 4, if not more, color’s on the rainbow of god’s children. Perhaps it wasn’t an honest to goodness Roy G. Biv rainbow, but it was a pretty damned great approximation of a youthful dream.

I don’t know what’s happening in our world. I’ve been writing a lot about race relations for the past year or two. Sadly a great many reasons have kept it at the top of my mind. The most recent tragedies come in the midst of a public conversation that no longer seems to adhere to the rules of decency that at least kept the truly ugly stuff behind closed doors. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand allowing the truly awful, secret hatred to be spewed out allows us to have the conversation. Compels us to acknowledge realities many of us have been able to ignore for far too long and in the end perhaps these conversations being had in the light of day instead of behind millions of closed doors will ultimately help us evolve and truly change. On the other hand hate has never had such cache in our communal discourse and it’s getting to where you can hardly avoid it. How can this be good. How can we ever hope to change when the truly ignorant are empowered by the truly powerful indulging in hateful, small minded, shameless racism and brazen sexism.

My children live in a diverse world, to some degree. There are kids at their daycare of many shades and backgrounds. That said, it’s not as diverse as my house was growing up. We have family over for birthday parties, uniformly white family. The kids on our block are largely white as are the kids we saw at the kindergarten orientation that Charlie went to a few months back. I worry about how we got here. The schools were literally ranked first in the state when we found the house and that’s the main point of conversation we had around whether the town was a good place to grow up. Diversity didn’t come up in any real way. It wasn’t a part of the calculus.

I don’t know how my mom did it. I should note clearly at this point that she did not do it alone. My dad was of course steering the ship as well, but to some degree, just based on how everyone arrived at our house, it was a function of my mom. She’s a much more social being than either my father or I. Or really most people you’ll come across. It was her relationships as far as I can tell that diversified our world. Many of her friends were different looking than her. If their was an organizing principle it was faith, but even that was diverse. 

My mother wanted to see a different kind of church and in doing so met a mentor and friend, Algerene. Algerene was a foster mother to dozens over the years, a committed and hard working, and an incredibly gifted servant of her faith, not to mention a gourmet Chef.  My mother met her when she had the opportunity to cross lines and go to the church where she stuck out as the ‘other’.

On a very sad day, the day we buried Algerene’s son, my brother, John, another brother, D, was at the house as we celebrated his life after a service where so many tears were shed. Well, John had an older brother, I believe he lived in Chicago and he wasn’t a huge part of John’s adult or even teen life, but he was of course there for this. Well, when D introduced himself he did so by saying, ‘Yeah, you ever get pictures from John. Yeah, well, I’m the other ink spot in the milk bowl.’ Funny and true. Well, in the church where she met Algerene my mother would have been the milk spot in the ink bowl. She did that. She was curious so she went. Didn’t think twice about it. Didn’t think it particularly notable. She was curious so she went. In the end she made a dear, life long friend. For a number of reasons that friend had a son that moved in with us and stayed.

D is another story. Without going into all the details, from what I know D came up for the summers through a program that paired city kids with non-city families. We were that non-city family. The program ran for years. Maybe 5 or six. We’d always schedule our vacations around when he was gonna be there. Turns out the first couple years he was nervous around my mom. When she finally asked him why he said it was because every time he showed up the baby had a black eye. I was that baby and I liked to fall on things at a very early age apparently. The story is good for a laugh now that it’s long ago as my mother is gentler than anyone you’ve ever known. In the end My parents kept bringing D up for Summer’s on their own accord after the program expired. When D was looking to finish his studies he came back to live with us.  He’s been up there ever since.

Our vacations were always in the camper. My dad drove the wagon and we all loaded into it and drove and drove until we got to where we were going. We went to campgrounds, amusement parks, Baseballs Hall of Fame… We got everywhere with that thing in those early years. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that one of those trips when we had the adventure of staying in the trailer it was because those folks we were visiting weren’t comfortable with the make up of our family. My mom and dad could have chosen to take vacation at a different time. We could have been more ‘acceptable’. They didn’t do that. We stayed in the driveway and had our wonderful visit and some ideas might even have gotten changed in the time we were there. No big deal was made about it. Only figured it out as an adult.

My sister, who is Vietnamese, let’s call her May, came to live with us when I was five and not ready to have another person to compete for attention with. I’m afraid I may not have been that nice to her when I was very little. But all that was behind us when I was 16. That was when we all loaded up in the minivan and made our way to King of Prussia in Pa. That was where May was marrying a young Vietnamese man she met at school.

May is amongst the strongest people I can imagine. Her story is hers and I would never relay it, but it speaks to a person who had to be stronger than I ever imagine I’ll ever have to be. When we were asked to be in her wedding, well, snot nose that I was, I said no. I feel terrible about that. I said I didn’t want to wear a tux. I don’t know what that was about. Thankfully my brothers are loving and kind and caring and were happy to be ushers. The plan was for my dad to walk May down the aisle and give her away. It was going to be beautiful. Well, as it turns out, May’s family of origin, who she hadn’t seen on over a decade, were granted visa’s and were going to make it to the States in time for the wedding.

I remember it being a late afternoon wedding and my parents taking us all, dressed up, to a McDonald’s on the way. It was going to be a while until dinner and it was going to be all Vietnamese food and we were a family of at least 6 at that time, 6 kids that is. They had to do something to ensure we didn’t starve. Then we went to the wedding. I felt terrible for my silly stance and wished I was there next to my big brother helping guests to their seats. I might have even asked if I could, but I probably didn’t.

What happened in that wedding was beautiful to me and still is to this day. My dad, May’s American dad, walked her down the aisle, stopped at the front pew, and released her where her dad who hadn’t seen her grow up from a young girl to the young woman she was now, but who moved heaven and earth to get back to her, took her the rest of the way to ‘give her away’.  Like watching the movie Glory, or speaking in public about acts of selflessness or my family, whenever I tell this part of the story it makes me well up and brings me close to crying.

I don’t think my parents would ever say they were intentional about being inclusive. They would never think to. If you asked them they might say yes, but it wouldn’t cross their minds to think about it.  But they were. They were intentional. Right from the time my mother told that Nun that she wished it, there was intent to be inclusive. To integrate their lives.

I want to give my kids the same experience. A life soaked in differing perspectives unified by the common thread of shared experience. I want them to know that differences are to be celebrated. That seeing someone that may appear slightly differently, who might speak another language or have different traditions is nothing to be threatened by, but rather is something to feel excited about.

I can’t say that I’m without bias. I can fully say that I want to be. I can say that if I’m ever to catch myself I immediately, consciously work to alleviate bias. I fear that the events that have transpired are the result of segregation. I worry that we as Americans, as white Americans have come too easily to accept that this separation of large parts of us is due to organically occurring circumstances and that we shouldn’t think about it. That if people wanted to move in next door and go to the same schools as our kids and live in the same town as us all they’d have to do is choose to do so. We have well maintained roads, good schools, ample security and we assume it is the same for those in areas we choose not to live in. 

It’s not true. No less than Newt Gingrich, scion of the Republican revolution said as much. He said that after long conversations, ones where he acknowledged he was not informed and in which he had, for a long time denied the reality that he now was sharing. That white Americans, many of us, can’t possibly know what it’s like to be black in America.

It’s hard to see what you aren’t exposed to. It would be nice if the default that we all fell to was empathy. It would be nice if we all reverted to a position of identifying with the despair of others. We’ve all felt despair. But it’s starting to be made clear that is not where we default to. Not all of us. When confronted with these humans, these people who have different pigmentation, some of us see first with minds that are fueled by fear. Fear of the different. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the other.

I don’t want this for my children. I don’t want this for their friends. I don’t want this for children and freinds having a different experience than ours. I want so badly to be intentional about diversity. But I am failing. 

Of all people, I should know better.