The One True Christmas Gift
December 24, 2014
“Welcome to Adult Life” is my glib saying whenever my daughter bemoans her situation. She works in IT. 50-60 hours a week. All hours of the day and night. A downed server 2,000 miles away means a myriad of progressively escalating phone calls and corrective actions often in the middle of the night. Often in really bad weather. In fact, the worse the weather, the more incidents she must manage. She’s tired. Really tired. She’s over worked. She’s under paid.
“Welcome to Adult Life”. I say.
She rolls her eyes so far back in her head, I’m pretty sure she can see her own brain.
I always follow with a Daddly bear hug, and then produce some old chestnut dug from deep in a pocket that belonged to my father, and his father, and his father’s father.
“The price of success, is hard work.”
“Hard work reveals you have character.”
And… the one I never got tired of :
“Hard work without ability is a shame, but ability without hard work is a tragedy.”
She smiles. She gets its. Deep inside she knows I care, but she also knows that one of my prime Dad jobs is to keep her prepared for some of life’s hard eventualities. Part of her understands it’s in her best interest to keep that instinct in tact.
Sometimes it’s a few days between the times she calls or texts. Sometimes a bit longer. I watch her struggle to manage all of the responsibilities of Adult Life. Her school. Her money. Her relationships. Her Life. Through it all there is always a strong parental reflex at work. Like those old Three Stooges bits, when the doctor would bonk Moe’s knee with a little hammer, and he’d reflexively let go a mighty mule kick. When I see her struggle, my reflex is to help. Sometimes it’s a fight to keep from intervening. Sometimes she reaches out herself. It all seems to work out in the end.
She called this morning, to say she’d be here for Christmas.
Somehow, she’s managed to carve out a few hours. I know how hard this was for her to achieve. She’s worked all night for the last few nights. She’s exhausted. She has a boyfriend. And a life she hasn’t seen in a couple of weeks. She also has a responsibility to be fair and carve out time for her mom’s side of the family as well. Every hour she gives to me, is an hour she owes to the other side, or she’ll be seen as playing favorites. Something she will not do. There’s that character thing again.
She comes. She eats. She socializes.
She wanders over to me, when an opportunity to speak to me alone presents itself.
“I’m sorry Dad.” she says sadly.
“For what, kid?” I say, genuinely concerned.
“With the car, and school and all the expenses, I didn’t have a lot left over for presents this year.” I can tell she’s very upset.
“Understand this, Little Mouse.” I say. “You’ve already given me the very best present I could have hoped for.”
“What’s that?” she says.
“You. Present in my life. Here. Today.”
She hugs me.
“I love you, Dad.”
And of all the gifts under all the trees, that – is the gift I treasure most.
Merry Christmas, All.
Moving And What We Leave Behind
November 29, 2013
This old house is so… alive.
It wasn’t always.
The house was 20 years old when the ex and I had first stood hand-in-hand as a couple and promised aloud to do all the things that would turn this humble house into a veritable mansion, worthy of Uptown People of Wealth. I had grown up in this neighborhood. On this block. She had grown up only a block or two over. We wanted all the children we had planned to grow up here, where we had grown.
The many children we planned had turned out to be only Mouse by the time the divorce detonated.
In a bizarre miracle of fate, I found that I had ended up with this house when the mushroom cloud began to dissipate.
There was that terrible moment when I came to the stark realization that, although I had married my high school sweetheart for love, and companionship and all the “right reasons”, I had, in fact, allowed my soul to be knitted to one who was… soulless.
There was also that terrible moment when I realized that the years and the plans and the promises and the memories were to about to coined into cold, hard, cash. The marriage was not now, nor ever was going to be remembered for the things we’d felt, or the memories we’d made, but for what it had ended up being worth on Missouri’s Form 14.
In the end, this old house had netted out to a negative on the balance sheet. At the moment of the divorce it represented more debt than profit. With no apparent value, it was cast aside, like those worn and stained old mattresses you see lying on the side of lonesome back roads. Furtively pushed off the back of a moving truck in the middle of the night, valueless and unwanted.
This house became the place where Mouse “grew up”. She spent the vast majority of time with me, and in this old house. She “latch keyed” there every day as this old house was only two blocks from her grade school, and only a couple more blocks from her eventual middle and high school. This put her in my care and in this house every school day of her life over the next 10 years.
As the years rolled by my status as a completely broke divorced Dad kept me from investing in the house as diligently as good home owners usually do. The money simply wasn’t there for extensive professional repairs or even basic remodeling from time to time as most responsible home owners do.
Repairs tended to be “homegrown” and basic, and upgrades… well… upgrades were non-existent.
The years before the divorce didn’t bring the promised attention. The years afterward were necessarily more Spartan still.
In the decade that followed the divorce it fell into disrepair. I was doing well to keep the basics together. The plumbing. The foundation. Basic structural integrity. There was no money for anything more.
As I struggled and scraped to keep my head above water with the millstone of confiscatory child support payments threatening weekly to drag me to a watery grave, I found myself still paying for Mouse’s every day needs. I never understood how I could pay 4 figure child support, and still be required to pay for every doctor visit. Every school book, activity pass, or fee. All of her clothes. Most of her meals. Virtually every aspect of her care, I paid for outright. Then paid again every month in “child support”.
Outrage aside, this necessarily meant that there was no money left over for anything but the basics.
This old house stopped living and breathing sometime during the years that followed.
Although I did my best to keep it a home for Mouse, it became a crusty bachelor’s pad.
Who needed a working stove? I had a microwave. Good enough for Mouse and me. The stovetop worked. Most of the time.
The multi-colored kitchen linoleum was 35 years old, and looked like Walt Disney himself had upchucked on it. The matted 70’s style fun-fur shag carpet in the living room was, I kid you not, Pepto Bismol Pink. While most of the neighbors had years ago transitioned to modern aluminum or vinyl siding, this old house wore her ancient asbestos shingles like a shabby housewife wore an old, loud, floral moo-moo. Where the rest of the neighbors had long ago installed the more efficient and attractive replacement windows, this old house wore her tinny old single pane abominations like the aforementioned housewife would wear her gigantic, 50’s style sequined cats-eye glasses. The basement went unfinished, of course. The garage as well. The oversized yard, once the envy of the entire neighborhood, went undercared for and began to sport weeds, and crabgrass, and was lucky to even be mowed from week to week.
Slowly… this old house… expired.
Along with all the hopes and dreams that had seemed so apparent the day we’d stood hand-in-hand and taken possession of it.
Once a man has experienced watching while his feelings and beliefs are callously sold into servitude to someone else’s greed, it’s not surprising that he’s not in a hurry to put his heart or his dreams in Harm’s Way again anytime soon.
For the longest time, I had kept the entrance to my old heart boarded up. Graffiti covered boards fastened to a rotting frame with rusty nails. It was as old, and dusty, and uncared for as this house had become.
Well… more precisely…
A “fix up” date, engineered by well-meaning friends would bring Jamie into my life. And Mouse’s.
Jamie took a look and decided to take the time to tentatively pry off those splintery old boards, and let the light shine into this old heart, and, by extension, this old house.
During the “girlfriend” years she would fuss, and decorate, and insist on small upgrades that made this old house less like some horny old guy’s “Love Shack” and more and more like a home. A carefully selected lamp here. A nice little curtain there. A dab a paint over here. A dash of cloth over there.
A plant here. A plant there. Before I knew it there were plants everywhere.
Growing. Thriving. Prospering.
Like everything Jamie comes in contact with seems to do.
Plants. People. It didn’t seem to matter. Everything she touched was better for her having touched it.
And I was no exception. Nor was Mouse. Jamie’s pure faith, love and feminine energy was the warm sunshine in all of our lives that our souls had been withering without for years, and that we had never really known. In that warmth and sunshine we began to grow.
And when the day came that I could no longer deny I didn’t like thinking about what my life would be like if it was deprived of that warmth and light, she answered my quietly whispered prayer for a more important place in her life with an even more quietly whispered “Yes”.
The day she moved into this old house with me, she sat my crusty, old, previously bachelor’s ass down, and gave it to me straight between my eyes.
If she were to be my wife, she needed to make this old house HER home as well.
This would mean…. “change” for me.
Those who know me, know my life’s motto all too well : “Change… is BAD.”
A crusty creature of habit known for being cantankerous and disliking change immensely, she made it clear she didn’t want to live in a crusty, decrepit, boarded up old bachelor’s pad.
Her heart needed a Home.
A real, living, breathing, Home.
“Good luck with that.” I remember thinking quietly to myself. This old house assumed room temperature loooong ago.
Then, I made the smartest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I decided to get out of her way, and allow “change” to enter my life.
And… as if through some miracle… she slowly began go breath life back into this place.
In an amazingly short period of time, and for an amazingly small amount of carefully scrimped and saved for money, things in this old house began to change.
That old gaudy multicolored linoleum disappeared, and was replaced with a modern, attractive ceramic tile, complete with carefully selected matching grout. The ancient asbestos siding morphed into contemporary vinyl siding. The outrageously colorful (and outrageously filthy) Pepto-Carpet morphed into contemporary Berber carpet that just happened to be a color that actually was found in nature. The prehistoric old Roper stove disappeared and was replaced by a modern GE Silver Line appliance that was smarter than most high school graduates. It could turn itself on, bake a pie, then cool itself down and turn itself off apparently without human intervention. In place of the 50’s style crappy metal windows new, energy efficient “double hungs” appeared. The savings each month on our energy bill more than paid back the cost of those windows in less than a year. With the tax breaks from the upgrade – we actually came out ahead. I kid you not.
Strange, cloth-like things began to appear over the windows. These new-fangled apparitions were apparently known to others as “curtains”. Why someone would bother with such frivolous things was beyond me until I discovered that those long, thin metal strips across the windows actually weren’t dusty grey, they had… apparently… been WHITE all this time, and when you twirled the little stick thingy next to them… as if by some evil magic… they OPENED and allowed sunlight into your house. Plants apparently needed this to happen in order to survive.
There was also a suggestion that those big, dirt filled things in the back yard were actually oddly named “flower boxes” and were – much to my surprise – NOT a repository for cigarette ashes and sticks from the yard. One day I came outside to find… flowers… in the flower boxes. Like… real… living… flowers. Not the plastic kind mind you – but – REAL flowers. In my her our yard!
Suddenly, and without warning, this old house began to BREATH again.
Where once I couldn’t see anything but decay, and decomposing dreams, Jamie brought color, and light, and warmth, and life to this old house.
Just as she had done to this old heart.
Like a determined doctor that refuses to give up resuscitating a long dead patient, she kept pounding on this old houses ribcage and puffing into its mouth until… like a miracle… it choked, and gasped, and sat bolt upright, chest heaving and coughing as it tried to expel a decade of decay and cobwebs from its dusty lungs.
This old house is so… “Alive”.
This old heart is so… “Alive”.
Because of Jamie.
Today… our lives are taking us in a new direction. A new home, in a new neighborhood awaits us.
And as I stand looking around at this warm, living, breathing space I have this huge lump in my throat, and my emotions are threatening to overwhelm me.
Jamie swept into this house and poured herself into it, and into me, and brought both of those crusty old things back to life.
I look around and see her hard work and faith in us everywhere, and I see the color and light and happiness she put back into all of us, and it’s hard to let it go.
In a day or two, I’ll have to hand the keys to this old house to a new owner and I wonder if they will ever know this place as we have. So much living was done here. So many memories. So many summer days. So many Christmas mornings. So many storms weathered.
So much…. Life… lived here.
I fight the tears and I know, I know a new, bigger, fancier house awaits.
I know in my heart of hearts that Jamie will do for the new house what she did for this one.
And what she did for me.
And what she did for Mouse.
She will continue to breath life into it, and into us, and make us what we were always meant to be.
Good-Bye, Old Girl
October 1, 2013
My Old Guardian passed away this morning.
Ripley was a Good Girl – and I owe her a debt I cannot ever repay.
In the months after my divorce she chased so many ghosts out of this big empty house. In the evenings when I would come home from work, it was so comforting to be greeted at the door by someone who was so glad to see to me.
In the turmoil of the months that followed, my daughter Mouse often had trouble sleeping and became very, very afraid of the dark.
Nobel Ripley was drafted for service in the Little Girl Guardian Corps, and was posted at the foot of little Mouse’s bed. She performed her duty bravely – and chased the darkness from the room and the shadows from Mouse’s small and troubled face as she slept. Mouse slept soundly knowing that her big brave girl was watching over her from her post at the foot of the bed. I slept better knowing her sleep was less troubled.
When Mouse would go back to her mothers after our time together – Ripley would often mourn her, and pace endlessly in front of her empty room. If I’d close the door – she’d stubbornly sleep on the hard floor in front of Mouse’s door, as if to say “If you won’t let me in, then I’ll guard the door so nobody else can get in either.”
When my daughter would return from her mothers for our time together – stalwart Ripley would assume her place at Mouse’s side, and never wander far from it the entire time she was here. She took her service in the LGGC very seriously.
If I’d lose my temper with my daughter – and begin scolding her too seriously – Guardian Ripley would jump into service and interpose herself between me and Mouse as if to say “Chill Out Dad, anybody could have put Skittles candy in the VCR – it’s not that big of a deal.” It was hard to stay angry at my two favorite girls, especially when they ganged up on me.
As the years rolled on and my daughter began to grow – the two remained a unit, and when it became necessary for Mouse to start “latch-keying” at my house, it was a deep and abiding comfort to know that that absolutely gigantic tongue and happy snarffling would be there to greet her every day after school, and to keep her safe then too.
A couple of years ago Ripley got very sick. Cancer the vet said. A tumor on her insides. The operation would be expensive – and even if the doctor got all of it – it would be hard on her – and probably only a “temporary” fix. Once a Boxer starts with the cancerous growths – well – the prognosis isn’t good.
For a moment I worried because… money comes hard for a divorced dad, but as I watched my Good Old Girl sleeping peacefully beside my Little Mouse – it was only for a moment. I knew what I had to do.
She was okay for a little while. We had a couple of good summers after that – although she never fully recovered. Our long walks in the evenings and our endless play sessions with that damned old squeaky porcupine were over. Where once she’d prance the entire neighborhood with her head held up like she was somebody – now she confined herself to her overstuffed bed near the couch. Where once I had to be careful or I’d get a well-slobbered squeaky porcupine stuffed in my lap and then a head-cocked look as if to say “Yo! Food-guy! Time to play.” – now she contented herself just sort of mothering that matted old toy as if it was the puppy she never had.
She was a recalcitrant counter surfer, and an unapologetic toilet water connoisseur, and one of her favorite shenanigans was to wait until the evening for me to be in my study writing, then she’d softly get up from her bed in the other room and pad into my study nonchalantly and come over and stand next to me as I wrote – and then – like some old man in a locker room – she’d lift her hind leg and let loose a fart that can only be described as one her famous “face-melters”.
Then she’d quietly pad back to her bed in the other room where the air was fresh – and leave me choking in the great green fog.
I swear to G-d that dog snickered at me every time she did it. If I’d yell or make a fuss – Mouse would try to stifle her amusement and scold me for not appreciating the fact that Ripley just wanted to share with me. Then she’d giggle herself silly and give the wise-ass a jerky-treat.
A few weeks ago her back legs began to get shaky, and I told myself that she might just be sick. My nosey neighbor fancies herself a “dog-lover” and although I’ve exchanged angry words with her about it – she’d still often sneak Ripley table-food treats, something you just can’t do with a Boxer. She’d get horrible diarrhea and her back legs would wobble a bit until she felt better.
But… that turned out to be wishful thinking.
A trip to the vet confirmed that her cancer had returned, this time in her kidneys and liver, and her lower spine. I asked about an operation. The vet explained that my Good Old Girl was, in practicality, over 100 years old, and even if the doctor could get all the cancer (and she couldn’t) Ripley was much too old to survive the operation.
I spent the next few weeks giving her antibiotics, anti-inflammatory pills and steroids, and cortisone injections and a metric ton of pills trying to save her – even though the vet was very clear that there was very little chance that any of it would do any good at all.
Friday evening she didn’t sleep at all, and whined most of the night. Even though I put extra blankets out for her, she whimpered and shook most of the evening. Saturday morning when I woke to let her out, I knew it was time. She couldn’t move anymore at all. Her back legs were useless, and her breathing was ragged and labored. I carried her out to the yard to pee, and as I set her down, she gave me a long and serious look that told me that it was time. She asked me not to hold on to her any more.
I fought back the tears, and made the hard phone call, and arranged to meet the vet Sunday morning.
When the time came, I sat beside her and gave her favorite ear-rubbing, the kind that always made the magic legs beat on the floor, and I patted her face gently as she turned and gave me a look, the look said “Tell Mouse that I’ll be waiting for her when she gets to heaven, and that she can count on me to keep all the rabbits out of her yard until she gets there.” And then she went to sleep for the last time.
She chased so much darkness from of our lives, and I grieved because I couldn’t chase this darkness from hers.
I’ll be waiting for Mouse tomorrow afternoon when she opens that front door, and that gigantic tongue and happy snarffling isn’t there to greet her for the first time ever, and I’ll hold her and assure her that she didn’t go in pain, and that she didn’t go alone, and to help her remember the Gentle Soldier that stood guard over both of us for so many years.
Good-Bye, Old Girl.
Memories of My Father : The Limerick
September 16, 2013
Memories of My Father : The Limerick
Circa Fall, 1976
My father was an authoritarian.
He ruled his castle with an iron fist, but he had a velvet touch. One of his most strictly enforced rules was that suppertimes were mandatory. I ate supper at home virtually every night of my life until I left home at seventeen. Dad worked hard for us, and my Mom is an old-school girl, who can not only storm-clean a house like a Navy Seal on Black-Ops, knit an entire afghan from memory with no written pattern, and sew whole formal evening gowns out of remnant scraps of cloth, but man can she cook.
I ain’t talkin’ Hamburger Helper either. I mean… she can cook.
We were, more or less, lower-middle-class from an income standpoint, but my parents were the children of the Depression Era generation, and Mom took shopping, budgeting, and saving to heights that will probably never again be equaled by any woman of my generation.
And suppertimes were the times when it all came together. Dad’s ability to bring home the bacon. Mom’s ability to serve it as a four course banquet. And our sworn duty to make sure we were all present and accounted for at evening roll call.
Back then, there were many nights I had other things to do, and I groused much about the rule. As did my younger brother as he grew older, and more social. But looking back now, I realize how important that time was to us all, and I’m glad my parents didn’t waver. Many of my most precious memories of growing up were made at that dinner table. Not surprisingly, my Dad is at the center of many of those memories.
I watch television today, and see the father figures of nuclear families portrayed (when they’re portrayed at all) as gruff, grunting, nonverbal bears who hold their children and wives in contempt. Dinner times in those mythical television families are tense, dangerous moments.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth in my house.
My Dad, being the man he was, made those evening hours magical. You just never knew what shenanigan he might get up to, or who the target might be. Most evenings it was me, being the oldest son, and more able to digest his brand of humor. Sometimes it was my little brother. And just every once in a great while, it was Mom herself. Although scamming Mom was dangerous territory indeed. Thus the rarity.
As I said before, my Dad was not some out of touch, old-fashioned fuddy-duddy. He was, more or less, pretty hip. And watched contemporary news and entertainment events pretty closely. Although he didn’t like our music when we hit our teenage years in the 70’s and 80’s, he could certainly identify the artists.
His being as politically and socially savvy as he was really worked against us. It was easy to underestimate him, or buy into the 60’s garbage credo that young people shouldn’t trust anyone over 30.
As a teenager, I worked odd jobs in fast food restaurants, and got used to being perpetually broke. When a big name rock star would come to town, I could usually, but not always, afford a ticket or two. Dad had taught us to be industrious, and to save, and when they would come to town, we almost always had the money to buy tickets to their concerts, but often the concerts were sold out in a few hours, and tickets became difficult if not impossible to come by.
Dad was shrewd, and man did he know how to pick his moments.
He’d wait carefully, usually when supper was winding down. Mom was up clearing dishes, and we were relaxed, and at our most vulnerable. That’s when he’d strike. Like a cobra.
“You know,” he’d start. “Some fool at work came around today at lunch with some tickets to some concert he was trying to give away.” And then he’d shake is head, in that wise Dad way he had. “Said they were front row seats, and he was just giving them away. Said he won ‘em in some contest or something. Said he’d never use ‘em.” Then followed a long, pregnant pause as he waited for his fish to look over the bait.
I was too green back then not to bite. “Who for?” I’d ask, wide-eyed and unaware.
“Uhm,” he’d say, seemingly searching his memory hard, “Some country music guy. Sammy Haggard? Something like that I think.” Just far enough off the mark to lend him credibility.
“SAMMY HAGAR?” I’d practically scream. He just happened to be the hottest concert of that summer. And one of my favorite rock artists, even to this day. And he had sold out in record time in my area. Tickets were being scalped in the over $50 dollar range, even for the nosebleed seats. In 1977 “kid” dollars – that was outrageously expensive.
“Yeah,” he’d say, “that’s the group.” He knew that didn’t sound right. It wasn’t supposed to. It was supposed to sound just like an older guy getting it wrong.
I was practically hemorrhaging. He had held free front row seats to the hottest concert ticket of the summer in his hand, and had just let them slip by! As the veins in my temples began popping, I’d look across the table to see that telltale smirk spreading across his face, and realize I’d been had.
Mom just looked at me as if to say “Bit down on that one, didn’t you putz.” My younger brother had seen it coming, and hooked his finger into his cheek mimicking a fish hooked on a line. My humiliation was complete.
They’d get theirs. Sooner or later. Dad’s graphic illustration of life’s “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is” lesson would be just as indelibly imprinted on them as it was me. Tonight was just my turn in the barrel.
Then, there was The Joke.
The Joke was where our Dad’s not-so-subtle brand of humor really glowed. Sometimes he’d tell The Joke, every single night for weeks. Sometimes he wouldn’t tell The Joke for months at a time. And sometimes, just sometimes, he would tell another joke, as opposed to The Joke. You just never could tell. That was the beauty of it. As they say in comedy, “Timing is everything.” They got that right.
Suppertime would be rolling along. Mom would tell about her day. Problems would be discussed, and solved if possible, or put off until they had “private” time if necessary. My younger brother and I would tell about our day, or talk of current events. The conversation was almost always pleasant, and interesting. Then there would be a lull in the conversation. The family members would be talked-out, or just busy stuffing their faces. That’s when he’d strike.
“I heard a good joke today.” He’d say. We weren’t allowed to groan. We knew exactly what was coming. It was incumbent on us to play along, or face who knows what. Everyone at the table would look at each other, trying to determine who would be the one to throw themselves on this evenings joke grenade. As the butt of many of my father’s antics, I felt it was only fair that the job fall to my little brother. He would lower his head, and try as hard as he could to muster interest into his voice.
“Really Dad? Tell it to us.”
Dad would get that silly grin all over his face. “Well,” he’d say, “being as you insist.” Like I said, we weren’t allowed to groan.
“This termite walks into this tavern, and says ‘Hey! Where’s the bar-tender?’” And then he would chuckle loudly to himself, as if he’d just told the funniest joke in the entire world.
Now, some people consider this joke a “way-homer”. Meaning you don’t get it when it’s told, you get it later, on the way home. Others think it’s just plain stupid. Very few I’ve told it to actually think its funny. And it may sound odd, but, when you’re hearing it from the same guy, for the 5,197th time, being told as if it’s the worlds funniest, and most original joke, it’s not just funny, it’s hilarious. Side-splittingly so. At least it was to us. We never let on though. We never groaned. We never complained. We always acted like it was the first time we’d ever heard it, and that it was really funny.
But sometimes… sometimes… he’d throw in a ringer. He’d start with his patented “I heard a good joke today.” And when we’d bite, he’d throw out some equally inane, but totally different joke. His favorite was the one about the duck that walked into a drugstore, and asked for some ChapStick. When the clerk asked how he was going to pay for it, the duck told him to “put it on his bill.” This was the level of joke that he’d throw out. Always, always a “groaner”. You just never knew when he’d strike.
Once, when we were older, he pulled the granddaddy of all stunners. I was sixteen I think, which would make my younger brother in the eleven or twelve year old range. Old enough certainly to hear an “adult” joke. On this night nobody was talking much. Dad came home in his typical, upbeat mood. Glad to be home and surrounded by the ones he loved. We, on the other hand, weren’t in such a good mood. We had done something to anger Mom, and had been taking and emotional beating for our sins.
Dad kept glancing from us, to Mom and back, wondering when the conversation would start, if at all, and wondering what we had done to upset our Mother. My brother and I kept glancing at each other, and then at Mom, wondering when she’d drop the hammer on us to Dad. The classic “You guys are gonna get it when you’re Father gets home…” carried a lot of weight in our house.
You must understand though, that my Dad was truly one of the greatest role models a kid could ever had. He didn’t cuss. Not seriously anyway. The occasional “Damn,” Or “Hell” would slip out if he was really angry, but never anything more risqué than that. I was a grown man, well into my 20’s before I ever heard him say a significantly more offensive word, or saw him drink a beer. He wasn’t a tee-totaller, or a bible-thumper. He just had class.
And tons of it.
So, after about 20 minutes of almost total silence, Dad decided to break the tension. He sat his knife and fork down, finished chewing what was in his mouth, and stood reverently, clearing his throat to get our attention. This was different, we thought to ourselves. We hadn’t seen this before.
When all eyes were on him, he cleared his throat once again, and launched into one of the funniest, and, Dear Lord forgive the man, one of the purely filthiest limericks anyone at that table had ever heard in their lives. At the top of his lungs. I mean, this from a guy who didn’t even break wind in front of his kids.
“Skaggy Mag… ” he began. In most sincere earnest.
“That scaly slut! Between her thighs the fungus lies, and worms crawl outta her butt!
Before I climb those scaly legs, and suck those festered tits…
I’ll drink a quart of buzzard puke, and DIE of the DRIZZLIN’ SHITS!”
My Mom almost fainted.
I did a spit take, having just taken in a giant mouthful of milk.
My younger brother’s eyes grew to the size of the big, flowery china dinner plates we were eating off of, and just sat with his mouth hanging open, mashed potatoes dribbling down his chin.
We all sat in stunned silence for a good 30 seconds.
Then, we all looked at Mom.
Good old Mom. Good old raised in the church and don’t take God’s name in vain Mom. Good old you can go to hell for cussing Mom. Would she blow a blood vessel and stroke out? Would she saw his head off with a butter knife? Perhaps she’d hold him down and choke him to death with a dinner roll. We waited to see which.
When she finally came out of her trance, her face began to twist up, but not with anger. It was laughter. The tension was officially broke. We all laughed and laughed. Except Dad. He just sat there with a big, silly grin on his face. Which made us laugh even harder. Having not one, but two hormonal, moody, teenage boys stomping around the house brings lots of anxiety on a family. It had been a very long time since we’d laughed together that much, and that hard.
At one point Mom was belly-laughing so hard that she forgot about the high oil-soap shine she kept on those hardwood chairs, and she slid right off and onto the kitchen floor with a very un-ladylike plop.
When mom hit the floor, you might say she got “the wind” knocked out of her. The moment of impact bumped a small but very audible toot from her.
That was the coup-de-grace.
We were already laughing so hard our sides hurt, but when Mom hit the floor and cut the cheese, we laughed even harder. Mom just sat there, too weak from laughing fits to get up. We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe.
Dad had once again proven that you just never knew what life was going to throw at you.
He had never done anything so outrageous before. And to my knowledge, he’s never done anything like it since.
But I’ll never forget that dinner.
I love you, Dad.
And So It Begins…
September 13, 2013
11:30 PM, November 26, 1991.
The hospital delivery room is nothing short of organized chaos.
People moving rapidly from place to place. Doctors in. Doctors out. Nurses here. Equipment there. Everything is oscillating madly, yet, with a purpose. All of the activity seems… directed. Like a virtuoso musician with a finely tuned instrument, the movement is unbelievably furious, but each individual movement is directed at a finely crafted purpose. No energy is wasted.
Somewhere in all of this directed confusion is my the woman who was my wife. She’s buried under layers of sterile sheets and fussy nurses.
I’ve slipped into a sort of walking unconsciousness. The world has gone to an otherworldly white color, and I’ve disconnected. My heart is threatening to hammer its way out of my chest. I’m certain I’m going to have a heart attack at any second. I can actually hear the blood running through me in my ears.
Somewhere, a disembodied voice from somewhere far away is prompting me to “Look! Look Mr. Athair!”
I’m completely frozen up.
Kind hands on my shoulder direct me to a station in front of a raised blanket, under which is the woman who was my wife’s lower body. As if she’s been cut in half in some bizarre nudists magic trick, and I’m being asked to watch her feet wiggle as proof she’s still alive.
But it’s not her feet exactly that’s wiggling.
There seems to be blood everywhere. There’s something coming out of her, and like those funny “guess what this is” pictures of everyday items at extreme close-ups, at first I can’t place it. Then it hits me that it’s a tiny head. A tiny living head. Coming out of my wife.
The world starts to swim away, and I can feel my legs starting to give out.
More kind hands grab me, and hold me up. They were prepared for this, apparently. I hear an amused voice say “Called that one.” They had a pool going on whether or not I was a “fader”. Someone had just won it. They were ready.
Time lapse memories. Not just a head anymore. Shoulders, arms, then legs.
“It’s a beautiful baby girl!” another disembodied voice says.
Still more kind hands. Grabbing me. Turning me around.
Someone is stuffing a pair of surgical scissors in my hand.
Someone shoves something that looks like a bloody eel in my face and says simply “Cut!”. My leg’s buckle again. Kind hands again. Someone takes my hand, and works the scissors for me like I’m a three year old. The umbilical cord snaps in two.
More disembodied voices.
“ Six pounds!”
“Twenty Two Inches!”
“All ten toes!”
“All ten fingers!”
“Wrap her up!”
A very young doctor grabs my hand like I’m an invalid. Shakes it profusely. I don’t remember seeing him here before. I’m sure he’s been here the whole time.
“Congratulations! What a pretty little peanut baby you have!”
The young doctor had unknowingly just supplied a nickname for this little girl that she is still referred to today.
A small, wriggling bundle is laid on my wife’s stomach. Peanut is crying. My wife is crying. I’m crying.
It’s been a long, wrenching trip.
This was not easy.
We had been trying for many years to achieve this moment.
There had been a lot of pain, and heartache on the way.
Years of work, and worry. The vague fear that one or both of us were infertile. Years of agonizing and “why?”. Medical tests. More medical tests.
Then a series of heartbreaks.
Miscarriages. Three of them. One late term.
More years of worry.
Finally, this one, perfect, shining moment.
The years of work and worry were over now.
This little girl was no “oops”, or “surprise”.
This little girl was the answer to years of prayers and effort.
I went home that night, and prayed some more. Grateful prayers of thanks.
We had wanted nothing more than to be parents. God had granted us that wish.
As I drifted off to sleep that night, I felt one great weight lift from me, and another great weight settle on me.
We were parents now. We had, somehow, miraculously, actually created another human being. And now… we were responsible for her. Completely, entirely, wholly, responsible for every aspect of her. Feeding her. Protecting. Nurturing her. Teaching her.
We had been granted our wish.
It was all up to us now.
And So It Begins.
ATHAIR’S NOTE :
This piece was written many years ago. The “wife” in this piece is, of course, my ex wife. Framed against the backdrop of a “high conflict” divorce, it seems particularly poignant that when all was said and done, all the years of “work and worry” would end in a way that would cause heartache and drama between several families for decades.
Memories of My Father : The Shed
September 8, 2013
I’m from a long and prestigious line of aggravators. I say that with more than a little pride. Our family doctors have identified a gene that is carried, almost without exception, throughout the branches of my entire family tree. Teasers, practical jokers, creepers all.
My father is the undisputed ringleader of them all.
As a child I suffered much at his hands. And as ridiculous as it sounds, I have very fond memories of that suffering. I think I’m a much better (or at least a more careful) person as a result of some of the indignities he visited upon me. I sure can move quickly for a guy with short, chubby legs. That’s for damned sure.
My fleetness of foot is result of the many frightenings I endured as a youngster. I’m sure of it.
I grew up in a small, three-bedroom home in the Midwestern suburbs. It was small even by the standards of those days. But my mother kept that house spotlessly clean. She kept my brother and I clean and well fed too.
Out in our backyard my father had built a small metal shed where all of our lawn equipment, swimming pools, bicycles, and related gear were stowed, because we didn’t have a garage. (Back then most of the houses in the neighborhood had “car-ports” instead). And invariably, my younger brother and I would forget to lock our bikes up in the shed in the evenings when we were called home to supper.
After supper, we’d get sidetracked with homework, playing, and generalized family activities. Just before bed-time (and always after dark), Dad would always ask “Have you boys put your bikes away, and locked the shed?” Our hearts would sink into our toes. It may seem like a small thing to ask, but when your 11 and you lived with a guy like my father, he might as well have been sending us to the chair.
We would beg. We would plead. We would wheedle and weasel with every conceivable excuse. But on this issue my father would not budge. “You guys know the rules,” he would scold, “now go lock them up.” And with these words we were doomed.
I’ve often driven by that old house, and I’m amazed at how tiny that back yard looks to my adult eyes. When I was young, it seemed like acres and acres. The trip from the back door to the shed in the dark seemed like a miles long walk. In pitch-blackness no less. My brother and I could barely make out the dark shape of the small metal shed from where we stood on the porch. Like doomed men on the way to the gallows, we would collect our bikes, and begin the miles long walk through the backyard to the shed. In the dark.
As we approached, the shed doors would be pushed wide open. The darkness inside that shed was the most amazing, impenetrable black one could ever imagine.
My brother and I would take a deep breath, and try, as quickly as a human being could possibly move, to get our bikes into the shed, get the shed-doors shut (saying little prayers, begging Jesus the whole time not to let those rickety doors slip their guide tracks, which would force us to take the long minutes necessary to get them back on the rollers) and get those doors locked before whatever nefarious demons that were probably lurking in the darkness of that shed woke up, and came leaping out of the darkness to tear us apart.
My younger brother’s job was to stand with the pad-lock ready. The key, hanging from an old lanyard that I had made at some summer camp, was already inserted in the lock, enabling the fastest possible snap and twist. My job was to get the doors closed as quickly as possible without de-railing them. As the doors met, my brother would slam the lock through the handles, snap it shut, and twist the key out with a deft, practiced move. He was only 5, but man could he move when it counted. We’d practiced this maneuver more times than we could count, and considered ourselves Olympic Class shed shutters.
But there were nights when things didn’t go so smoothly. There were nights, especially in the summer, when things went very badly indeed.
My brother and I would be sitting inside, usually watching television or playing a game and always, always, always after dark. Our Dad would come in, and the minute we saw him we’d realize that we had forgotten to stow our bikes, and lock the shed. We’d curse ourselves for not remembering earlier. When it was light outside.
So off we’d go, shuffling our feet in our patented gallows walk. We’d pause at the back door, steeling ourselves for the run to the shed in the dark. Each of us silently praying for Jesus to watch over us, and, if he had the time, to please not let those rickety doors slip their rails. I look at my brother. He’s ready. I’m ready. And out the back door we go at a run.
Across the yard. Through the damp grass. Down to the shed, which stands gaping at us in the darkness as it always did. My brother snatches the padlock and jams in the key, his hands trembling a bit. “Hurry!”, he says, breathlessly. “Don’t worry.” I reply as always. I slide my bike into the darkness, between the ancient lawn mower, and the even more ancient wooden ladder. My little brother’s bike is smaller and slips in beside it with ease. He stands ready with the lock, practically on his tiptoes with nervousness while I grabbed the door handles and began sliding them together as fast as possible. 3 feet apart. 2 feet. 1 foot. Down to inches now. 6 more of them and the handles will meet. My brother hands slide under mine, ready to slip the lock into the holes, and slam it shut.
And then… the doors stop moving.
My brother goes to slip the lock in, but something is wrong. The doors aren’t shut all the way. The doors won’t shut all the way. It’s stuck open with the handles still an inch or so apart. I’ve been careful, the doors are still on their rails. Something must have fallen inside the shed, and is stopping the doors from closing all the way. Maybe a rake handle. Maybe an errant garden hose. Maybe a werewolve’s bloody claw.
Our hearts stop beating for a second. The doors will now have to be opened. The problem will have to be found, corrected, and the process will have to be started all over again, as precious seconds tick away. Precious seconds and a lot of noise rooting around in the darkness. We’re almost certain to awaken whatever monsters lurk in there now.
I slide the doors back open about a foot, and try to shut them again quickly, hoping that will dislodge whatever obstacle is keeping them from shutting. No such luck.
They stop dead on their tracks, still about an inch from being closed. I slip my hands inside the inch wide crack, and start feeling from the ground to the roof, looking for the obstacle, and hoping nothing bites my fingers off. I get near the top of the doors when my fingers find the obstruction. It’s soft, and hairy, and it takes a minute for my mind to register that it is also moving. I go to snatch my hand away in horror, but it’s too late. A claw-like hand has shot from the inside of the dark shed with inhuman speed, and wrapped itself around my wrist in a vise-tight grip, and is trying to drag me into the shed.
I try to scream to my brother to run, run for his life, but I’m so scared nothing comes out of my mouth. He hears me gasping, and in a shaky, 5-year-old voice asks “Wha.. wha.. whaaat’s wrong??”
That’s when whatever has grabbed me starts a long, low, growling noise, and pushes the shed doors open from the inside. I look for my brother, but that little fart is already in the house, screaming for Mom in a high pitched squealing voice. My insides turn into cold, white lead.
And that’s when I hear the laughter. The thing in the shed is cracking up, and its iron grip on my wrist lets go amid the gales and gales of laughter.
Out steps my father.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been victimized by this man. Or the second, or the third for that matter. But, unfortunately we never see it coming.
To this day my brother and I wander aloud to each other about how Dad could have gotten out the front door, over the back fence, and into the shed before we had time to walk to the back door. The only theory that we can come up with is that he was driven. By the gene. The urge to aggravate must be so ingrained into his DNA that it gave him superhuman strength and speed.
As my brother and I became fathers ourselves in later years, this gene would manifest itself in our lives, and we would realize – in horror – that we were carriers too. My brother and I actually had entire conversations detailing how we were going to top The Old Man with our own kids. And did. We look at our children – ALL of our children – and know without any doubt, this gene lives in them as well.
No DNA tests necessary.
And those are stories that you can look forward to seeing here… soon.
Burn… I Surely Will
September 5, 2013
ATHAIR’S NOTE :
I am a remarried divorced dad, and recently, had occasion to be at an unusual function that required the ex and my current spouse of many years to be in the same room, as well as be introduced to others. Now, my wife is a kind, and unassuming person, who is typically not catty, but, she’s watched for many years as my ex has endeavored to take the term “high conflict divorce” to new heights. It’s true that my ex has been the architect of a great deal of unnecessary conflict in my life and in Mouse’s, and by extension, hers as well. So… when there came a moment that I needed to introduce people to one another, I started the introduction with “This is my ex wife _____” then I saw a devilish grin cross my wife’s face, and before I had time to introduce her myself she chimed in with “and I’m The Upgrade!”.
I… am an aggravator.
I… am from a long and prestigious line of aggravators.
My father was a master, and his father before him.
There is no body and no thing that we will not aggravate if we get the chance. From small children (who aren’t ours) in grocery stores, to old people, to our coworkers, friends, family, neighbors, etc. Nobody is exempt – not even our pets.
I also dislike old people. A lot.
The Upgrade surely knew this when she married me.
But I’m pretty sure this won’t be enough to save me.
I’m pretty sure, in fact, that I will turn on a spit in the fires of Hell for All of Eternity.
And it will be mostly because of The Upgrade.
You see… The Upgrade was one of God’s perfect Creatures.
A Presbyterian Sunday School teacher, devout in her faith, she rocks crack babies, manages her church’s youth group (has for years), and hosts a program for the homeless and displaced. She’s active in transitional housing, helping people who had once struggled transition to being productive homeowners. She’s active in her community and gives of herself tirelessly in all things. She embodied forgiveness and grace, and I’m certain that the Lord smiled to himself whenever he thought about her, and I’m certain that he heard her quietly whispered, selfless prayers.
You’ll notice I said “was” one of God’s perfect Creatures.
Because of me mostly.
As I said… I’m an unapologetic aggravator. One of the more infamous tools in my repertoire is the “Toe in the Butt”. If anyone, for any reason, bends over at in my house at anytime, they will be subject to “Toe in the Butt.” This consists of me rapidly poking the individual foolish enough to present their derriere to me with my big toe while simultaneously making a disgusting farty noise. When the shocked victim recovers their composure I almost always follow with the comment “I NEVER get tired of ‘Toe in the Butt’”! Then I laugh derisively to let them know that it’s always a bad idea to bend over around someone who finds humor in things like this.
The unspoken rule in my house is that if you drop your keys… you should probably kick them all the way to the car. Because it’s very foolish to bend over in my house.
Aside from being a recalcitrant aggravator. I have a very low tolerance for stupidity, and can be pretty unforgiving in that area. There are people on this earth who make a profession out of being inconsiderate, and pushy, and I’ve asked God to make me His Sword in these matters. I don’t want to help them learn to be more considerate, I want to remove them from the gene pool, so that they cannot contaminate the world with their inconsiderate genes. As the Cohen brothers would say, “He’s especially hard on the little things.” (insert video of a furry little woodland animal being nuked).
I’m pretty much the “anti-Upgrade”.
But the other day… we were on our way to Trader Joe’s to do our Sunday grocery shopping, when an older gentleman in a pickup truck began to swerve into our lane. I morphed into my “Sword of God” self, and opened my mouth to berate the moron… when I was brought up short. Before I could utter a syllable, The Upgrade had the window half rolled down and was in the process of barking: ”Jeezus H. Tapdancin’ Christ! You friggin’ GEEZER! Why don’t you take TWO lanes… they’re FREE afterall!” and then shot him a rude finger gesture. “Sorry, Athair.” she said unapologetically. “That Bird just HAD to fly!”.
I realized… in absolute horror… that those were my words coming out of The Upgrade’s mouth. That was my finger gesture. Almost a decade of “me”, has rubbed off. Maybe a little.
Worriedly, I tried to play this off for a bit. After all… the consequences for corrupting one of God’s perfect Creatures could be severe. It would appear that I was Whistling Through the Graveyard.
Later that night… as I was passing the living room on the way to my study… I caught a glimpse of The Upgrade. My Boxer puppy, Roscoe was wandering by her, and as he saw me – he paused for a moment and turned to wag his
tail stub at me. I saw The Upgrade’s foot shoot out and goose the poor boy. He shot about two feet in the air. Straight up. When he landed he shot The Upgrade an astonished look… as if to say “What the HELL was THAT about?”. I heard her chuckle to herself “I NEVER get tired of ‘Toe in the Butt’”. Then she sniggered derisively.
I hung my head in shame.
I now know that when my moment comes to stand before the Father… I’m going to have to answer for this corruption. I always imagine that things will be going along pretty well during my time of judgment… I have… by the mass… been a fairly decent fellow (more or less). Nothing too nasty down on the books for me. If you don’t count a little harmless aggravating. I’ll be sitting there while the Father judges me thinking “I might just make this.” when He will clear his throat and say… “Now… about my girl.” He’ll look at me and point to the video playback of scenes like the above, and then give me that “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?” Look. And I know… it will be over then. I will be doomed to roast on a spit and endure all the Torments of Hell for having corrupted one of His most Perfect Creations.
Of course… there is a small ray of hope for me.
I have always suspected that God himself might just be an aggravator at heart.
I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like old people either.
Pictures From the Bottom of a Drawer
September 3, 2013
My dad was rummaging around in the bottom of an old desk the other day. He found this picture stuck in the corner of a drawer, waaaaay in the back, where you would never see if it you didn’t remove the drawer completely.
It set me back on my heels a little bit. Every once in a while you bump into and old memory that really tugs at you. I remember this afternoon well. It was summer, 1997. One Saturday morning I surprised Mouse with a trip to the Magic House. They have one of those big high voltage Tesla balls that make your hair stand on end. Well… presuming you actually have any hair (cough). This picture cost me $15.00. I can remember grousing a little about it at the time. $15.00 for a Polaroid instamatic was… outrageous. Especially for a struggling divorced dad that had already popped for the tickets at the gate, and as those that live in the area know – Magic House ticket’s are far from free.
But… I got on my hip, and I paid their vig, and took the picture home, and put it in a drawer, and forgot about it.
Until my Dad slid it quietly into my in-box, with the lyrics from a Harry Belafonte , about how you turn around and she’s two, then you turn around and she’s four, then you turn around and she’s a young girl walking out your door.
Funny how the time slips away.
A Darker Kind of Dad…
September 2, 2013
Circa Summer, 1989
Her name was Sarah.
She was 11… perhaps 12.
She was bright, and intelligent, and had a smile that could make a halogen bulb hide itself in shame.
Her parents were good people. They had married very young, and had Sarah right off.
And while they were good to Sarah, and were in all ways good parents, they had never really put their partying days behind them.
As my wife at the time and I struggled to have children and become parents, we would often “kidnap” her for a Saturday afternoon. This afforded her parents the time to get their party on, and hang with their single friends who still liked to cut loose. It afforded us the opportunity to play at being parents while we waited for the magic to happen to us.
On this summer day we were bound for the big amusement park.
Sarah had an adventurer’s heart, and bore the lines and the heat with her usual bright smile. At one point she hauled me over to the bumper cars. The line was unusually long. As we waded through the twisting maze of velvet ropes, we questioned Sarah relentlessly about her school, and her teachers, and her friends, and her life. We were parenting vicariously through her. At one point a shadow crossed her usually happy face, and she confided in us that her dad had been drinking more than usual lately. We knew that her father probably had a problem with alcohol, but, we would never presume on the relationship to the point of actually saying something. We never wanted to do anything that would cause a riff that might mean we couldn’t steal Sarah from time to time. I remember quickly changing the subject, and steering the conversation toward happier themes.
Finally, our time came at the bumper cars, and Sarah and I climbed in. We spent the rest of the afternoon slamming around that amusement park. No ride was too scary. No coaster too high. When the temperature got crazy-hot we headed over to the water world side of the park, and hit the wave pool and the water slides.
In between we stuffed our face with hot dogs and French fries, and a crappy ice cream called “Dippin’ Dots” that looked a lot cooler than it tasted.
We stayed until they were closing the park. Sarah was in no hurry to get home, and we where in no hurry to return to our childless life.
Eventually our tanks were empty, and we headed home, exhausted from the heat and the fun.
As we turned down Sarah’s street… we were a little alarmed. There were police cars and EMS vehicles everywhere.
At first… we thought there had been an automobile accident of some sort, but as we drew nearer to Sarah’s house, our hearts began to pound when we realized that all the emergency vehicles were at Sarah’s address.
Before we had a chance to fully comprehend what was going on, a St. Ann police officer tapped on our window, and asked for our names. When we supplied them the officer’s eyes narrowed and he turned and spoke into the microphone attached to his collar. Within a few seconds another officer appeared, and ushered Sarah out of the car, and took her somewhere out of our line of sight.
At first, we had a hard time getting any answers. We couldn’t see Sarah, or her parents, and we were very concerned.
Eventually, a Sergeant wandered over, and told us what had happened.
In a sad voice he informed us that Sarah’s father had passed away while we were at the amusement park. Shocked, we pressed for more information. Her father was barely 30 years old and was in perfect health when we left that morning. Reluctantly, he gave us the details:
He’d been drinking. A lot. He’d drank an enormous amount of vodka, and then made the fatal decision to mow the yard in the mid afternoon heat. Sarah’s mom had found him lying behind the lawnmower, dead from an alcohol induced heat stroke.
We had a million more questions. Was Sarah’s mother okay? What would become of Sarah? Did the family need any help? But… because we weren’t family… the police didn’t want to say too much more. We were ushered on our way, shocked, and very, very sad.
Some months later, we’d get a chance to see Sarah again.
But… the light in her eyes had gone out. Where once she’d chatted endlessly about her favorite school subject, or the boys in her class, or the MTV videos she loved, now she talked only about her dad. And his funeral. And where he was buried. And how many times she’d been to see him. And talk to him. We told ourselves that it would take some time for her to overcome the emotions she was feeling, but it hurt us a great deal to see such a little girl carrying such a huge burden.
Years later, I would finally be a father, and looking back I still can’t get my head around what would make a man who was as lucky as Sarah’s father was prefer the inside of a bottle to the gift that he had held in his hand.
Never having battled with addiction I suppose it’s easy for me to be glib, and say that he should have been able to look at the wonderful life and family he had, and that it should have been easier for him to turn away from the addiction and turn toward those that love him, but… I also know addiction to be a powerful thing.
I look at my own father, and remember in wonder that I until I was 23, I never saw him drink so much as a beer. He wasn’t a tee-totaller. Or a bible-thumper. And I’m quite sure he enjoyed a beer from time to time. He just didn’t do it in front of his kids.
One part of me is very sad, that this small life was impacted so deeply by this tragedy.
But one part of me is very angry too.
Too often today fathers are portrait as either drunks, or abusers, or both.
Divorced Dad’s too often fight these stereotypes. I get angry when I see men reinforcing these stereotypes.
Sarah would be… dear G-d, 35 this year.
I’m left to wonder what lessons her father’s death has taught her, and how it may have impacted the way she’s raised the children of her own she surely has by now.
And I wonder… if she remembers me.
Memories of My Father : The Bug
August 29, 2013
Circa Summer, 1976
The Aggravator’s Gene I surmise, must be responsible for heightened levels of creativity.
Our Dad was never a very artistic kind of guy. But when the aggravation gene kicked in, he was a veritable Picasso.
Dad had many hobbies. All were of the healthy, stay at home variety. He built models. He built radio kits. He learned to cut gemstones. I look back now and realize that some of my friends had fathers who hung out in bars. Some had Dads that were gonzo sports fanatics. My Dad made things. Some were unique. Some were meaningful. Some were even useful. But all were made with a careful hand, and a steady eye.
One afternoon in the summer of my 15th year, I walked by his workbench, and saw him carefully sculpting something out of the odd black clay he used to hold his gemstones in place while cutting. It wasn’t modeling clay, and I’d never known my Dad to sculpt anything before, so I leaned over for a better look. When I did, he sort of slid the whole sculpture under some other work, and gave me a “What’s up?” smile. He wasn’t telling me to go away. Dad would never do that. But… he didn’t necessarily want me in on what he was up to either.
“Whatcha makin’?” I asked innocently. “Ah… nothing.” He said, dismissing me. It was obvious that he wanted to keep his private project private. I didn’t take offense. I had only got a brief glimpse at it, and it looked like some sort of bug or something. I just figured that he was goofing off, and didn’t feel like anyone making fun of his little attempt at sculpting something. That was cool with me.
But two hours later, I walked by again, and he was still working on it. I didn’t pry further, but I thought it unusual that he was investing that much time in his little sculpting project. Little peeks here and there confirmed my assessment. He was making a bug. This was tres strange on the one hand, and clearly none of my business on the other hand. Later, after he was finished, I saw no trace of the finished work. I figured maybe just once in his life my Dad had gotten bored, and done something silly. Like sculpt a bug, and then smoosh the sculpture back up into a blob when he was done.
Now, it’s important to know that in our small suburban house, there were two bathrooms. Our bathroom, meaning mine, my brothers, and my Dad’s. And mom’s bathroom. Mom’s bathroom was inviolate. No male human had ever stepped foot in that room and come out alive, and none ever would. Under pain of death. Horrible, agonizing, excruciating, painful death. It simply wasn’t done. No matter how bad we had to go.
So I thought it unusual when I watched my Dad disappear into Mom’s bathroom, and re-appear a minute later. Surely he hadn’t actually used Mom’s bathroom? The Mysteries of the Mom/Dad relationship were still totally beyond my young years, so I let it pass. If he was dumb enough to risk the wrath of Mom, then he deserved what he got. I pretended not to notice, and vowed silently to myself to deny all knowledge if questioned on the matter.
Time passed. Maybe it was an hour or two. Maybe longer. But eventually I saw my mother disappear into her bathroom, and shut the door. I had forgotten that Dad had been in there a bit earlier, but when she gave a loud, startled scream, and came tumbling through the door, her side-zipper polyester pants undone, but held together at the waist by hand, I suddenly remembered Dad’s furtive moves of earlier. And then I remembered the sculpture.
You know, the one that looked like a bug…
Suddenly a mental image flashed across my mind. I knew my father well. He had placed it under the seat. Where maybe one hairy little bug-leg protruded. Maybe protruded just enough to be felt by a bare bottom. The owner of which would almost certainly have to lift the seat a tad to investigate what might be causing the foreign sensation. Where her eyes would fall upon… a big, hairy, black bug.
I totally lost it. So did my Father. My younger brother Chris didn’t have any idea what was going on, but Mom was screaming, and his older brother and father were laughing their butts off. That’s funny to an 8 year-old. He fell down on the floor with us, and began to howl.
Now, my mother has a sense of humor. About most things anyway. But that sense of humor tends to only stretch one way. When she’s doing the dishing. Being dished on was another matter entirely. My father and I continued trying to catch our breath through the gales of laughter, while Mom gave us a look that could wither an oak tree. She turned on her heels, zipped up her polyester slacks, and slammed into the master bedroom in a huff. I heard her rattling around, and I buried my face in the cushions of the couch to stifle the laughing fits.
Suddenly, I realized that my Dad’s laughter had stopped abruptly. I looked up to see my mother standing in the doorway holding a 3-foot long strip of wood. It was a yardstick. It was the yardstick. The one she used from time to time to discipline her unruly children. Dad was still lying on the floor, but he wasn’t laughing anymore. He was checking his exits, and then he made a truly Herculean effort to push off the floor and make it through the door to the kitchen, and down the steps into the basement. To safety. But it was way too late for that. Mom was on him in an instant with that yardstick.
Now, my brother and I pulled some shenanigans that truly merited the whippings we got with that yardstick. But we never saw the like of the beating that she threw my father that afternoon. My father is built like a fireplug. Short, broad, and not an ounce of fat on the man. I’ve seen him dead-lift the railroad ties we used for landscaping in the yard, the ones that weighed maybe 175 pounds each, without even turning red in the face. And here he was, his arms slung over his face for protection, getting the Holy BeJeezus smacked out of him by this tiny, angry woman, trying desperately not to let her see the giant smirk on his face, which would undoubtedly make the whipping harder and longer. And it was truly the most hilarious thing I think I’d ever seen.
More hilarious were the implications. It never once crossed her mind that perhaps my brother or me may have crafted the evil sculpture. She had gone straight for my Dad. It did our hearts good. We’d suffered much over the course of our lives as a result of The Aggravator’s Gene and we fairly howled with laughter while he took his beating. With every whap of the stick across his scalp, and arms, and back, and butt, we howled.
Paybacks were sweet.