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.

Requiem for R.E.M.

When I heard R.E.M. was calling it quits after 30 years, I immediately received a flood of memories about where I was in my life when I discovered my favorite R.E.M. songs. It’s always interesting to me how a song can become the soundtrack to a particular emotion or moment in time. A song can be all encompassing for a period of time and then, for whatever reason, you move away from it. Time passes, and then a song reemerges: on the radio or a forgotten album or CD, and you are transported to that moment or emotion. And though you may be far from that emotion or moment now, the song is forever its wonderful self, asking nothing of us, except to be heard.

Here then, are my most memorable R.E.M. songs and their accompanying moments. Thanks, boys.

Perfect Circle, Murmur. I’m in my friend Jan’s bedroom, listening to Murmur in its entirety. It’s 1984 or 1985, which means we’re 12 or 13. Jan’s room is making the transition (as were we) from the pink of early girlhood to the darker, more pensive posters of rock bands and antiheroes. In that room, Jan introduces me to R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs. We listen to Murmur until we knew every word to every song.

 

It’s The End of the World As We Know It, Document. I hesitate to include this song, because it’s now almost a caricature of its original self. However, you almost can’t be part of my generation without having a memory of it. It’s my senior year of high school, and I’m driving around after soccer practice with a car full of my teammates. This song makes me feel hyper, free and loud, and that’s how we sing it: in unison, as loud as we can muster. The video is also amazing to me, because the boy in it was so in his moment: relentless in his pursuit to master his skateboard, on the brink of becoming a man.

 

Nightswimming, Automatic For The People. “Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse.” I’m in London for a semester during college when I first heard it. My friends Vita, Dana, Maria and I sat in our shared flat drinking beer and singing our hearts out. My semester in London was my first international experience, and everything I saw, heard, touched, smelled and tasted during that time seemed somehow more intense. In many ways, it was as if I was waking up.

 

Don’t Go Back To Rockville, Reckoning. I’m starting graduate school for creative writing in Washington D.C., and my heart is broken. Like, heaving sobs and quiet desperation broken hearted. I’m sure you can relate. In addition to a great deal of Sarah Maclachlan, I listened to this song on a nearly constant loop. There’s something in it that’s both mournful and hopeful

July 18, 2011

Dear Dad,

Two years to the day that we sat in a room that smelled of newsprint and coffee as you silently slipped out the door, just as you did when I was a child falling off to sleep. I am still sometimes surprised and amazed by your absence. I am still sometimes surprised that it’s possible for me to exist as flesh and bone when you don’t.

Lately, you’ve taken form as Ella Fitzgerald crooning for the crowd at the bar where I wait for a friend. You’re the tiny end table with the hand-painted cherry design in the antique store – the same table that served as home to your ashtray, corncob pipe and lowball glass of Budweiser that I’ve never seen since. You’re the smell of Skin Bracer aftershave in a crowd, though I can never find its source. You’re the shared eccentricities infused into each of us: the lone eyebrow that raises on its own whim. You’re the harmony of the hymn sung in a rare visit to church. You’re the “do you remember” moments we share like a secret language. You’re the bend in my path that I cannot see past. You were and will always be, the moon.

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.