Hey Fella

Dad in the middle.

You put yourself through college playing gigs and working odd shifts at the local hospital.

Were you buddies with the other guys in the picture?

Is one of them actually Al Anderson?

In my head I hear you say, “They were all nice fellas.” That was one of your words.

Years later, when I was about eight, you said to six of my boy friends who were playing a bit too rough for your liking, “Hey fellas, take it easy.”

To this day I’m not sure if they stopped because of the inherent authority of your presence, or because they were so startled by the word “fellas.”

You called Steve, my brother, “Ace.”

Even me, once in a while too.

Neither of us knows from where that came.

I imagine you taking a break at that gig in the picture. Outside the back door of this school auditorium? Dance hall? It’s freezing cold, and you’re all hunched over in stiff tuxedos with smoky breaths rising, cigarettes cupped in your hands. You talk about what song to play next, which girl is the prettiest, how much snow will fall.

Isn’t it funny, this life you had? I’ve spent countless years trying to understand the Dad you were. These days I wonder about the younger you…before you were a Dad, a husband, a businessman, a coach. When you were just a horn player. Just a fella.

A portrait of the loud laugher as a young child

My Dad was a sensitive guy.

Sometimes it seemed like the whole world was too much for him.

Too loud. Too odiferous. Too crowded. Too bright. Too fast.

When overwhelmed by his senses, he raised one eyebrow in disapproval, lowered his newspaper, looked over at whoever was nearby, shook his head, muttered something inaudible, raised the paper again.

Mom called him, “The Nose,” because he could sniff out even a hint of spice or seasoning the second he walked in the door.

“Is that garlic?” he’d bellow, nose wrinkled in disgust.


Due to his sensitivity, we were raised on the blandest food, only ever-so-slightly salted.

Which might explain my lifelong longing for flavorful food.

Please, pass the garlic!

One night at home many years ago, I laughed hard at something and saw him out of the corner of my eye, fake-wincing in pain at the decibel level of my guffaw.

Which made me laugh even harder.

I said, “Sorry, Daddy,” not really meaning it.

He smiled broadly, shook his head in disbelief and said tiredly, but with love, “You’ve had that laugh since you were a little, little girl.”

Young loud laugher
Young loud laugher


Last week, I went out to see friends and hear a great band play. I saw lots of folks I knew and met some new ones, all of our voices growing louder to hear one another over the amazing music. Before long, it was too loud to talk and that suited me fine. Sometimes you just need to soak in sound, let harmony and melody mix in your brain, feel the drum reverberate through your chest.

I left the bar late and found myself stunned by the sudden silence into which I’d tumbled. My ears rang as I walked to my car. It was an exquisite night: finally, actually cool, dry, the merest sliver of moon, like the edge of a plate perched high above the world. Fall in South Carolina.

As I got close to my car, I said aloud, “Hi, Daddy.”

I’m not sure why.

Maybe I was overcome by the beauty of the night all around me.

Maybe I was happy and wanted him to know it.

Maybe I was calling out because I wished he was there.

Maybe the reason doesn’t matter.

From the darkness, from a tree near my car, a songbird sang out.

Then, just as suddenly, a chorus of birds further away answered back.

Then, the songbird sang out once more.

And then, quiet.


Hi, Daddy.

Late summer love letter

Dear Daddy,

I took a walk near my hotel tonight through an older neighborhood of wide sidewalks, tall, old growth trees, and beautiful homes in varying states of being: from immaculately manicured lawns and fresh paint to ramshackle and almost obscured from view by vines and wild growth.

I walk fast and take in the smells – the headiness of freshly cut grass, the deep, dank of wet earth and slowly rotting wood, the striking, sudden sweetness of August’s last gardenias, the familiar smell of my own body, my thoughts, soul, organs heated through.

I try to walk as fast as the memories come: my small hand in yours walking around the block of my childhood neighborhood. During the summer, we walked at dusk, in the gloaming, where dark silhouettes of trees gave birth to tiny bats that soared, then dove into the blue night, seemingly mad with excitement.

I remember you asking if we wanted to go for ice cream, as if there was a chance we’d say no? We climbed into the car, sister in front, me in back, my head sunk into the car seat watching the streetlights as they flickered on, windows rolled down, squinting into the evening breeze.

At the ice cream parlor, we stood outside in a crooked line of parents and kids that led up to a window where frazzled, sticky teenagers dolled out double dips, sundaes and sprinkles. Antsy for my turn but ever obedient, I leaned my body against you, my head at your hip. Until your warm hand found its way to the top of my head, then to my shoulder, patting now, and your soft, certain voice urging your shy baby girl to step up to the window and ask politely for a scoop of raspberry with chocolate sprinkles in a cup.

On our Dads

Dad and me: 1974

Annie Dillard on her Dad, Frank Doak, from An American Childhood:

“I looked up from my book and saw him outside; he had wandered out to the lawn and was standing in the wind between the buckeye trees and looking up at what must have been a small patch of wild sky. Old Low-Pockets. He was six feet four, all lanky and leggy; he had thick brown hair and shaggy brows, and a mild and dreamy expression in his blue eyes.”

Anne Lamott, on her Dad, Kenneth Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Mary-Louise Parker on her Dad, John Morgan Parker, from Esquire magazine:

“You just wanted to make sure all of us on the sidelines watching you run were taken care of and felt good about ourselves. Maybe that sounds like you got a bum deal? No, sir. You’ve had tough breaks, but I never met anyone better at enjoying what was put in front of him. At hearing new things, testing the unknown, conjuring the miraculous.”

Me on my Dad, John Paines Badman:

“Once in a while after dinner, you’d walk into the study and take your trumpet down from the top shelf of the closet, pop the latches of its crinkled leather case and lift the purplish-red satin that revealed the horn in red velvet repose, patiently waiting for its cue. Putting the mouthpiece in place, you’d exhale your warm breath into the horn, giving it life. You’d walk aimlessly through the house, playing whatever floated through your mind. Bits of jazz standards, songs whose origins I wonder about now. I never knew what prompted you to pick up your horn on any given evening. I never asked you to play. It seemed sacred, mysterious, and magical, far beyond what clumsy words could ever convey.”

Mary-Louise Parker to her Dad:

“We all miss you something fierce…to convey in any existing language how I miss you isn’t possible. It would be like blue trying to describe the ocean.”

Store-bought baked goods & lukewarm coffee

Today would have been my Dad’s 83rd birthday. Early this morning, my sister called to tell me that she dreamed of Dad, our aunt, and grandparents. She dreams of them all often. I began to cry while she was telling me the dream, overcome by a wave of missing, not yet awake enough to try and stave off the sob. The suddenness of the moment reminded me of Holly Hunter in that scene in Broadcast News, when she sits on her bed, holds the phone off the hook, and cries…hard, for a minute or two…daily. Hard cry. Done.

A little later, I spoke to my Mom who was heading to yoga (I love this), then to the cemetery to visit Dad’s grave, and finally to a one-year-old cousin’s birthday party, which somehow all seems appropriate.

On my way to work, I phoned my brother, also at work. We made small talk, and I eventually told him that I called because it was Dad’s birthday. I guess I just needed to talk to everyone that I knew loved him as much as I do. I asked my brother if he remembered Dad eating Entenmann’s Hot Cross Buns, a seasonal item only available around Easter…and Dad’s birthday. He remembered, and laughed, and I did too. “Those were AWFUL,” I said. (I love you Entenmann’s, just not your hot cross buns.)

As was standard with any bread product or baked good my father devoured, he generously buttered each piece before eating it, and washed it down with lukewarm coffee.

I can see him in my mind, sitting at the kitchen table, sunlight streaming through the windows, the Sunday paper spread out everywhere, eating those hot cross buns, sipping coffee. Content.

In some ways, it didn’t take much to make him happy. In other ways, I’m sure it was the hardest thing in the world to do.

That’s who we all are, I guess. Simple. Complicated. Content. Wanting. Ever so beautifully flawed and flawless.

Happy birthday, Daddy.

Day 30: Like Milk in the Fridge

If you’ve been following along, this post is part of a (nearly) once-a-day-month-long-blogging-brouhaha with my pals Amanda Hollinger, Monica Wyche, and Ami Worthen.

Yes, my 30 days (and then some) are complete. But I’m not stopping. (Special thanks to the Accidental Cootchie Mama.)

As stressful as it’s been at times, it feels good to stick with something that in the end, always gives me pleasure and peace of mind.

Like Milk in the Fridge

Like milk in the fridge
That’s what she said
In response to my description
Of you sitting in your avocado chair
In a direct line with the front door

What I said exactly was
That image of you
Sitting there, watching the Yankees
Repacking your corn cob pipe
Reading the paper
Was certainty
Was safety
Was comfort itself

No matter that scores of times
I ran in and out of the house
Right by you in that chair
With little more than a “see ya”
Over my shoulder

The image of you in your chair remains
Even now
Walking into my house
After days spent away
I’m greeted by
The smell of still air
The vague chill of empty
A pile of mail in hand

I open curtains, turn on lights
Walk room to room
I am not searching for you
Any more than I would search
The fridge for milk I know is not there

Instead I imagine you hear me
Prattling on about my everyday
Asking your usual question
“Are you working hard?”

I want to lay my answer at your feet
Crawl into your lap
Lean every part of me into you
So I know one thing for sure

Day 28: Golf Lessons

If you’ve been following along, this post is part of a (nearly) once-a-day-month-long-blogging-brouhaha with my pals Amanda Hollinger, Monica Wyche, and Ami Worthen.

Golfer at four years old.

When I was about six, my Dad cut down one of his golf clubs to my size, covering its “new” handle carefully with grip tape. For the next few years, on any random spring or summer evening, he’d find me and say, “Come on, let’s head down to the field.” And off we’d go to Memorial Field: Dad, a bucket of golf balls, a few tees, my club, and me.

Though incredibly impatient when trying to help me with math homework, my Dad had never-ending patience when teaching me to hit a golf ball. I, on the other hand, grew impatient quickly, when the ball skittered off my club’s heel or when I skyrocketed a large clump of grassy earth, but not the ball.

I remember that I often wanted to give up and go home.

And I remember that he never let me.

Instead, he’d talk quietly to me, reminding me how to hold my hands, reminding me to keep my head down, to swing in one continuous motion.

Every once in a while, I’d hit that damn ball on its sweet spot and off it would sail. A white dot disappearing into summer grass.

He’d call out, “Attagirl! That’s a good one!”

And just like that, I’d feel like I could swing all day.


Day 22: Before

If you’ve been following along, this post is part of a (nearly) once-a-day-month-long-blogging-brouhaha with my pals Amanda Hollinger, Monica Wyche, and Ami Worthen.

May, 1959. Houston, Texas.

Before they were married. Before they moved to Chicago, then back to Houston, then to New Jersey. Before he switched from cigarettes to a pipe. Before she told him she wanted children someday. Before any of us were thoughts, dust, molecules.

They were just two people sitting on a couch wondering what might come next.

Day 18: Team

If you’ve been following along, this post is part of a (nearly) once-a-day-month-long-blogging-brouhaha with my pals Amanda Hollinger, Monica Wyche, and Ami Worthen.

This is the Thanksgiving my brother spent with friends. The one where my Mom and sister were too sick to do anything, except eat the feast Dad and I made together.

The truth is, there is another photo of my Mom and sister at the table, pale-faced, grim, wanting to be back in bed. Dad and I were oblivious, lost in the exhaustion, accomplishment, and disbelief that we made the entire Thanksgiving dinner ourselves.