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.

Hardly.

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

Giving Thanks

The Thanksgivings of my childhood had much tradition tied to them. The origins of some remain a mystery; others are burned into my brain as “the way” to do things. I’ve collected a few scenes from the turkey days of my youth.

Here’s to the people, food, rituals and familial idiosyncrasies that make each Thanksgiving so wonderfully perfect, flawed, complicated and simple. Happy Thanksgiving.

The night before Thanksgiving:

Mom thaws the semi-frozen turkey in bit of tepid water in the kitchen sink, which is scoured to surgical-level sterility. I periodically walk into the kitchen and poke at the thawing turkey’s naked self, presumably contaminating the otherwise sterile environment.

A scene from Home For The Holidays

Thanksgiving morning:

Mom wakes us early to help with the polishing of the silver, setting of the table (good tablecloth, pressed cloth napkins, china, water and wine glasses), and the washing of cooking utensils, pots and pans (Mom is a “clean-as-you-go” cook).

We watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (whilst dusting, vacuuming and fetching).

We de-vein shrimp. I don’t know who started the shrimp cocktail Thanksgiving appetizer tradition, but my Mom insisted on it. Related: I could eat shrimp cocktail all day long, as could my brother. Reality: Everyone got five. Lesson: Shrimp is expensive; Get a good job!

We never light the politically incorrect but TOTALLY CUTE Pilgrim and Native American candles. Why? Because then we couldn’t use them every single year, silly! We handle those candles with the same care and reverence as we handle the family china. Do. Not. Break. Do. Not. Drop. White bread Hallmark heirloom? You decide. Mom still has them.

Thanksgiving afternoon:

The family, now faint with hunger and overwhelmed by the heady smells emanating from the oven and stove, is warned against eating anything that might “spoil your appetite” for the eating extravaganza that awaits.

Dad sneaks a butter and peanut butter sandwich. We are all jealous.

Time for the feast:

Dad is beckoned to carve the turkey. His brow furrows in deep concentration at this mighty task. Also, his tongue sticks out ever so slightly: evidence that this feat requires the precision of an expert marksman.

We fill water glasses. (Hand blown red glasses that my parents received as a wedding present. Reserved for holiday use only.)

We fetch serving dishes and utensils for Mom who is frantically moving from one burner to the next to the stove to the refrigerator. She barks orders and physically moves us where she wants us to be.

We WASH OUR HANDS FOR CHRIST’S SAKE! Thanks, Dad.

We usher grandparents, aunts, uncles and other guests to the table like royalty.

We help Mom serve the shrimp cocktail. Did I mention that everyone gets five? Savor ’em, people, because that’s it until next year!

We eat:

Lots of “please,” “thank you,” “this is delicious,”and “are you sure you want that last shrimp?”

We kids have a moment of quiet dread when we realize that we have to hand wash, dry and put away every single plate, glass, salad fork and hand blown water glass that sit before us. We die a little.

Mom rises to clear the dinner plates and gives us the eye to help her.

Coffee is brewed and served; dessert plates are carried to the table.

The pies are presented. There are always several. The most popular response to the question, “Pie?” is “I’ll try a sliver of each!”

Homemade whipped cream, people.

Post feast:

There is a massive clearing of the table that enlists the help of all females present. The men retire to watch football. I realize how antiquated this seems, but that’s how it was in my house when I was very young. Years later, there was much more male participation. And by participation, I mean dish washing.

Tupperware madness. Mom has the uncanny ability to size up the leftover food in a bowl and find the corresponding Tupperware into which it will snugly fit. It’s a gift.

There is endless dish washing, dish drying, dish putting away. We go through at least eight dish towels and steam up the kitchen windows from the hot dish water and ceaseless activity.

Finally satisfied, Mom releases us from our servitude, and we collapse onto the floor of the family room where Dad and all the males are watching football/slipping into turkey comas.

And for every bit, I am grateful.

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 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.

Better get a bucket

Better get a bucket.

There are things you come to accept as “the way” to do things, because that’s how they were done by your parents. It necessarily follows these “things” subscribe to their own irrefutable logic. This is a story about one such “way.”

My Mom became unfortunately ill while visiting my brother and sister-in-law over Mother’s Day weekend…dizzy, nauseous, feeling ever-so-close to vomiting.

As Steve was taught to do, as Mom had done for all of us, he helped Mom to her bed, a bucket in hand.

As he passed his wife in the hallway, she asked, “What’s the bucket for?” He stopped for a moment and said, “Oh, it’s a thing from my childhood. I’ll tell you about it later.”

As he tucked Mom into bed and set the bucket on the floor beside her, (You know the function of the bucket now, right? Wait, it gets better.) Mom said, in a weak, sickly voice, “You did remember to put about an inch of water in the bucket, didn’t you?”

He didn’t.

Steve relayed this story to me over the phone as we were both driving home from work the other night. I immediately began laughing.

Me: “You forgot the inch of water?!”

Steve: “Yes!”

Me: “How could you?”

Steve: “Do you remember what it’s for?”

Me: (Cackling with laughter) “Yes!”

In unison: “To make the bucket easier to clean!”

As I struggled to catch my breath from laughter, Steve pointed out how incredible it is that Mom not only perfected a “way” to protect and nurture the sick and pukey, (Who has the energy to run to the toilet to puke when you’re that sick, anyway?) BUT ALSO had the foresight to be clean about the whole situation. (Hey, you can still be tidy; yes, even when there’s vomit involved.)

The good news is that Mom actually never needed the bucket and is, in fact, feeling much better, thank you.

Should you have any “this-is-the-way-we…” stories to share, I’d love to read them. Mostly so I can feel a smidge less weird. Thanks for sharing.

The process

I’ve written a number of posts about my Father. His life and death have served as my lens since that day in July, 2009. I talk and write about my Dad because it helps, because honestly I think I might go crazy if I didn’t. It’s also a way to keep him part of my life.

I worry sometimes about talking about him “too much.” Worry that friends and family will grow weary of me and my occasional tears. The other part of me thinks, why do we ever stop talking about those we’ve lost?

I’ve negotiated and endured grief the past year and eight months since he died. I’ve read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and you should too, by the way. I’ve had long conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances about people they’ve lost. I’ve even asked friends to write about their grief. Maybe there’s a book in here somewhere for all of us.

I’m always fascinated with each person’s grief, as unique as their fingerprint and just as beautifully complicated.

Here again, is some of mine, from a journal I keep. Thank you for reading, and please feel free to share your thoughts.

March 22, 2011
Grief is not orderly – it follows a path only it knows. Talking to a friend the other day about her Dad’s dementia, I told her about the day we left Dad at Birchhaven. I use the word “left,” because that’s what it felt like to me. I felt as if we abandoned him. I felt as if we did what he said as my Dad he would never do – leave. I wish I could forget the way he hung his head when Steve so calmly explained things. I wish he hadn’t seemed so lucid that day – that it didn’t seem like the world’s biggest mistake to leave him in someone else’s care. There’s nothing natural about leaving your Father behind like that. It was the worst day of my life. Worse than laying my head on his still-warm chest after he died. Worse than imagining him in the frozen ground. Worse because I feel like we broke him. Worse because we have to find a better way to care for each other than this.

March 29, 2011
Dad’s birthday. He would have been 82 today. A terrible night’s sleep. Up at 5 am and cried over coffee. Huge spider in the bathroom that I caught with a glass and plate and put outside. I sang my heart out to Adele on the way to work. Korean for lunch with the boys. Ate bee bim bop – rice, five kinds of veggies, spicy pork. Delicious. Tried a taste of red bean ice cream. Lovely with a slight chocolate flavor. Will tells hilarious (though alarmingly awful) story of a centipede he encountered while living in Hawaii. They are large and move as if on ball bearings. Listened to Purple Rain on the drive home. Called my brother to talk about Dad and asked him for a story.

When Steve was 13, we spent a few weeks on North Lake. One day, Steve, Dad and Grandpa Ray took out the neighbor’s aluminum fishing boat. Three quiet men; lines in the water. Grandpa Ray suddenly passes gas, and the sound reverberates so much in the aluminum boat that Dad looks up and says, “Did you say something, Ray?” Without missing a beat, Grandpa says, “I said, ppfffffftttt!” mimicking the sound of his own gas. Steve cracks up with laughter and our Puritan father who never felt comfortable acknowledging bodily functions, blushes red with embarrassment.

Later, I kill an enormous bug, obliterating it to pieces. Which reminds me of how I relied on Dad, because he was the killer of bugs. The righter of wrongs. That evening, friends send me text messages telling me they just toasted Dad with a bit of whiskey. Little by little, I find ways to celebrate him.

April 6, 2011
Yesterday, I spoke with two friends at work about the moment he died.  I talked about how surprised I was at how quickly after he died that he no longer “looked” like himself, how it has assured me all the more that our bodies are vessels for the energy, spirit or soul within.

I say that, though it’s nearly impossible to parse, because it’s their flesh and blood, hair, skin, laughter, smell that we miss. In the thick of life, body and soul are hopelessly, undeniably tangled. We forget where one begins and the other ends.

As I finished the story, one of my friends began to cry – and immediately began apologizing. Then, I apologized for upsetting her. And we all struggled for a moment: she embarrassed; me apologetic; the other friend nervous. It’s easy to forget how very close to the surface we carry our pain and losses. They exist like a first sub-layer of skin, so incredibly resilient you ignore them almost entirely. And then, like finding a massive, deep bruise on your skin that you have no recall of how you obtained, there too is that flash of pain, the sub-layer penetrated, bleeding now, tear ducts springing into action, your body reacting in turn.

A Note About Dad

While drying between my toes after a bath the other night, I remembered how the four-year-old me used to stand on the closed toilet lid and hang onto the towel bar as you dried me off after my bath. “Left leg,” you’d say and I’d hold it out for you to dry. Each limb in turn.

You dried toes vigorously, and it’s that moment that strikes me. The thought of my own small toes in your large, towel-covered hand, how you meticulously dried each one, your brow slightly furrowed in concentration, how I could still feel the strength of your hand.

And I, standing tall on the toilet seat, obediently following your instructions, waiting for you to look up, pleased with yourself and me.

List of love

One of the most thought-provoking moments of my college career was when my Anthropology professor hit us with the notion that we are all taught to love. That love is learned. Like walking, talking, learning to tie your shoes, or algebra. I think of that every so often, especially when love confounds me.

What is very clear is the love I have for the items below:

The commercial that defined my childhood vision of a romantic Valentine’s getaway. Which probably explains a LOT.

Love and only love will endure. -Neil Young

Just finished reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It was so good that I simply opened it back up to the first page to begin reading again.

My niece, Callie, and me in 2001.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table. – Billy Collins, Litany


9 or so minutes in Passaic, New Jersey, 1978.

Modigliani

All Will Be Well. Because it will.

The hardest battles of all within ourselves. Thanks, Katie.

Annie Dillard. Her memoir, An American Childhood, is one of my long-time creative wells.

“Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, because it makes me think of the world’s best Valentine, my Dad, who never let a Valentine’s Day pass without giving me the gift of chocolate. Oh, and unconditional love. Thanks, Dad!

Now, go throw your arms around the neck of someone you love. As in a hug. Or a good-natured headlock. Your choice. Happy Valentine’s Day!

A Funeral Story

My brother and I spent the better part of a day traveling to and from our Uncle Bob’s funeral on Monday. We began in the pre-dawn winter darkness of Wooster, Ohio, traveled to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Michigan and found our way back to Wooster as the pale sun fell into its pink then blue place below the snow.

Along the way, dressed in funeral attire, we talked about family (memories of Uncle Bob, of our own Dad who died in 2009, growing up and its accompanying angst and adventure), politics (the economy, the 2012 election, John “tan” Boehner, Barack Obama and the tragedy in Tucson), music (John Lennon, The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, Gerry Rafferty to name a few) and movies (Monty Python and The Holy Grail, The Big Lebowski, High Fidelity and Elf). It was an eight-hour ride.

While The Beatles were playing, I asked my brother where he was when John Lennon was shot. My brother is a huge Beatles fan. In fact, the first album he ever gave me was The Magical Mystery Tour. His answer, “at college,” reminded me of our 12-year age difference, which nowadays seems a much smaller expanse of time. He told me that he came home just days after Lennon was killed, and the news coverage was exhaustive, much like it’s been since the Tucson tragedy. My brother said that Dad, tired of the constant coverage, said in frustration, “He’s just a man.”

John Lennon and his son Sean.

My brother said nothing back – but that moment was one of alienation and misunderstanding. My brother grieving his hero, a musical, social and political voice of his generation, unable to share any of it with Dad. And Dad, viewing Lennon as an aimless artist, hippie, troublemaker – who he didn’t even respect as a musician.

I sat with that for a moment when my brother finished. And I told him that I recently read an interview with Yoko Ono in which she spoke with pride about John being “the first man to push a baby carriage…no one did it before John.” I told Steve that whether or not that was true, it was amazing to think the effect one man could have had on a generation of fathers – a collective unconscious agreement to perhaps take a more hands-on role than their fathers had.

Interestingly, our own Dad was very hands-on with us when were babies. Not surprisingly, when we were old enough to voice our own opinions on the world, our relationships got more complicated.

I wonder if my Dad ever came around to John Lennon – understanding what a tragedy his death was, not just for his fans, but for his wife, his sons. And our culture. Did Dad respond that way because of his own fear of death? You’re walking through your life and suddenly, you’re gunned down in front of your home? Or one day, your mind simply stops working the way it once did. Was his quick anger simply his confirmation that we are all, always, vulnerable?

Now, at Uncle Bob’s funeral. A chance to honor the last of 11 children, a man full of life, a storyteller who often spoke of himself in the third person, a devoted husband, dad, grandpa, uncle, friend. A doer of good – in his church, in soup kitchens, with children less fortunate, with friends and family. A stubborn, funny, crystal blue-eyed character.

Aunt Georgia & Uncle Bob

The minister said it out loud: “We are perishable. What has happened here will happen to us all.”

I looked out the window to the churchyard, where Uncle Bob spent hours cleaning up, tending the lawn and flowers. It was snow-covered now: a large birdfeeder hanging from a leafless branch.

The minister continued, “The pain is over for Bob…and he will live on forever through God.”

I didn’t feel convinced.

But a covey of doves flew into the churchyard and began eating from the feeder. That was something.

A mutual friend of Uncle Bob and Aunt Georgia’s delivered the eulogy. It was laugh out loud funny at times; poignant in others, as all good tributes should be.

Afterward, we gathered with cousins and church folk for a luncheon. I joked with my brother, taking bets on whether or not ham would be served. (It is the Midwest, after all.)

There was ham. And chicken. Pasta. Potatoes.

And literally, a table of desserts.

Everyone wins with that kind of grief buffet.

When I hugged Aunt Georgia goodbye, I felt her physical strength through her heavy wool coat, though I knew her heart was aching. She had spent 62 years with Uncle Bob and today, for the first time in 62 years, she would go home alone.

What she has, what we all have, is memory, the way in which her life is different and richer because of the moments contained within it.

Josh, Becca & Grandpa/Uncle Bob

It’s not for me to say if Uncle Bob is somewhere laughing now with his 10 siblings, parents, even with my Dad.


I have an armload of memories. I have every present moment. I have a snowy car ride with my brother. And it is more than enough.

Uncle Bob

 

Uncle Bob & Aunt Georgia

 

My Uncle Bob passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer.

Dear Uncle Bob,

Thank you for always being an example to me of a life well lived. My memories of you and Aunt Georgia are filled with love…of warm, homemade cookies…long swims in your pool until my fingers and toes were wrinkled…vivid summer flowers Aunt Georgia tended…the kaleidoscope of colors of the jukebox in the basement…watching with wonder as you talked about your job…the heat of the sun-warmed cement lulling me to sleep by the pool…the way you always both talked to me like I was a person, not just a kid, even when I was a kid…the comfort of knowing I was safe and loved…safe enough to fall asleep in your car on the trip from Findlay…loved enough to strive to live fully as you both do…

The moments I spent with you are precious beyond measure. You taught me so much with your honesty, humor and compassion. I hope what I’m writing now is something you already knew, already and always felt from me. But I wanted to write this so that it’s clear. I love you and am so very grateful for all have brought to my life.

We will miss you.

All my love,

Jenny