Willie

85090595_72c7ef9795Something wasn’t right about Willie. Even as a five year old sitting around the kitchen table playing Parcheesi with my grandmother, I would feel a rush of trepidation when he’d creep past us into the living room. He had thinning brown hair that waved weakly in different directions and stubbled cheeks that perpetually sagged. He had one eye twice the size of the other, and they both looked in different directions. He never seemed to ever look at you and yet always seemed to be looking at you. During the decade he was in my life, he spoke maybe 500 words; I never understood a single one of them.

My grandmother’s rickety two-story house peeked out from behind a gas station in front of the railroad tracks. The Central Jersey Rail Road would rumble past every other hour. The house would groan and shake. Parcheesi pieces would skitter across the board.

Willie was my grandmother’s younger brother, we understood, and he lived in that rickety house with her. Everyone but my grandmother treated him like a weed that had sprouted in the family garden. The reasons for this were abundant. As a child, Willie would tattle on his slightly younger nephews and nieces, getting them in trouble for the slightest infractions. He was mean and mean-spirited. Yet, my grandmother and great-grandmother always took his side in disputes. They protected him. And, that only hardened the hatred the neighborhood kids felt toward him. Decades after Willie died, I showed a picture of him to my aunt. She took a long slow drag of her Marlboro, flipped the photo upside down on the kitchen table, and grunted, “Asshole.”

I can remember sitting uncomfortably alone on my grandmother’s lumpy sofa listening as he bellowed at her from an upstairs bedroom, seemingly a half step away from slapping her. As a child, I never understood their relationship, why she tolerated him, or why he wandered about the house perpetually confused and constantly angry.  Perhaps my worst childhood memory is of Willie crabbing at my grandmother to fix him dinner as she lay in bed ravaged by the cancer that would eventually suck the life out of her.

The first wake I ever attended was my grandmother’s. I was 10, and stood an extra foot away from the casket beside my older brother. I kept staring, waiting for the body to move. I hold a vague memory of Willie seated in a plastic chair in a dark corner of the funeral home as family and neighbors milled about. But I cannot say if he was present, an apparition, or the imaginings of a child. When the gravediggers at Holy Redeemer Cemetery buried my grandmother the following day, they might as well have dug a second hole for Willie. He didn’t last much longer.

My final memory of Willie plays out in slow motion. My Dad’s driving the maroon ’67 Dodge Dart past the factory where Willie worked. I’m sitting uncomfortably on the seat belt — because that’s what you did in the 1970s — staring out the window. Willie’s standing in the parking lot, looking everywhere and nowhere, as the cars speed past. He’s dressed in brown corduroy pants and his white undershirt flaps in the breeze like a flag waving surrender. By then he was coughing up blood.

Not until my mid-30s, did I think about Willie again and begin to understand his relationship with the family. And that he was developmentally disabled. Back in the 70s he would have been labeled “slow,” which I no doubt heard as a child and misunderstood. I’m sure I heard “retarded,” but that was back when people in wheelchairs were “cripples,” and we rode bicycles without helmets and watched violent cartoons. And sat on our seat belts.

I sometimes think of Willie when I’m driving past a seedy all-night laundromat and spot a lone, dark figure staring at a washing machine. Or during those rare instances when we’re traveling late at night, pull into a diner, and there’s a man seated at the counter slurping soup. Dead, unattached souls who float behind the scenes when alive, and are buried in unmarked graves in cemeteries with names like Holy Redeemer.

Lying beside the only soul who ever cared about him.

Wise Words on a Cardboard Box

131_9802_01_o+131_9802_february_1998_letters+envelopesA few months shy of the third anniversary of my Dad’s death, my sister, brother and I gathered in the house my Mom plans to sell. We met to clean out my Dad’s art room. Toward the end of World War II, my Dad illustrated cartoons for Stars & Stripes Magazine — he also served in an Artillery Brigade on Okinawa — and for decades he worked as a technical illustrator for a printing-press manufacturer.

In the years before the term “man cave” was invented, my Dad had one. This particular “cave” was filled with Marty Robbins cassettes, comic books, books about comic books, and bulky Dean Martin VHS tapes. He had files and files of art projects in various stages of completion and, cut out from magazines and newspapers, photographs he intended to draw. When you start following the paper trail of a loved one, you are bound to meander down a path of surprises, and my Dad’s was no exception. I learned that after retiring, he intended to learn how to cook. The only time I remember my Dad near a stove, he was clutching a fire extinguisher and dousing a grease fire he’d started while cooking hamburgers.  But here I stood leafing through a collection of recipes from a short stack of late 1980’s Somerset Press newspaper cooking inserts.

My Dad’s presence was everywhere in the art room. I wasn’t all that surprised when the woman hired to paint the interior of the house rolled through the rooms quickly until she started working in this one. There she felt slightly unnerved, and shared her concerns with my sister. Later, the painter re-entered the room and said softly, “I’m not here to do any harm. I just want to pretty the room up a bit.” Then she finished the job.

I was cleaning out the art closet when I found a cardboard box on a shelf. I read the brief note written in my father’s strong, neat script — written before Parkinson’s Disease would strip him of his ability to draw and paint — and held it up for my sister to read. “Hmmm, oh boy,” she said.

We carried the box out to the living room coffee table, and I opened it. Inside were three thick bundles secured in thick rubber bands. I handed a packet to my brother and sister, and kept the third for myself. I carefully removed the rubber band without poking my own eye out. I balanced the pile on my lap and started to slowly leaf through the contents: Dozens of birthday, anniversary and Christmas cards my Dad had saved from Mom, us kids and the grandchildren. Notes written in loopy child-like scribbles — we must have been about Penelope’s age when we gave him some of these cards.

I glanced over at my brother sitting next to me on the couch. He was sorting through a batch of amusing notes and cards from friends and relatives that must have tickled Dad’s funny bone. Uncle Archie sent him a photo of a pumpkin-headed scarecrow sitting on a lawn chair in his front yard with a long note that began, “I’ve been sitting out here waiting for you to come visit…”

My sister had a pile of thank-you notes my father received for favors that, for the most part, I never even knew about. Teachers’ bulletin boards he decorated, a sick nun/teacher he visited in the hospital, cartoons he drew for picnics or parties: People whose lives he touched in some small way who remembered his kindness. I even found notes from the five exchange students I befriended in college who stayed at my home one spring break. Also in the package were two identical notes written in pencil on small white pieces of paper: “Be in front of Grants at 8 p.m. I’ll be there at 8:01 p.m.” The night my parents first dated, we suspect.

When Penelope gives me a drawing, or a note, or a scribble, I can’t seem to throw it out. At times, I curse my sentimentality. I’ll feel flickering moments of melancholy brush past that fill me with happiness and sadness at the same time. I may struggle with understanding why I feel that way, but I know from where it comes.

I looked again at the note Dad wrote across the top of the cardboard box: “More important than money.”

The Night Andy Williams Did It My Way

Andy Williams and the Lennon Sisters

Andy Williams crooning with the Lennon Sisters.

As parents, we all experience moments when our little ones do things that are total head scratchers. Maybe they’ll color on a wall or drop a balloon in the toaster. On those rare occasions when Penelope does one of those colossally incomprehensible things that only a small curious child will do, I pause and take a deep breath.

And I think about Andy Williams.

I suspect most parents don’t do this, but I have a good reason.

I was a wee lad when my parents decided to take a big trip to the west coast that included two nights in Las Vegas. I don’t recall where we stayed, but I remember we saw shows both nights. My parents weren’t exactly the hippest duo out there so the first night we sat at a big round table and saw Vikki Carr with The New Seekers. (I had to look up The New Seekers: They are a British-based pop group, formed in 1969 by Keith Potger after the break-up of his group, The Seekers. They’re best known for the Coca-Cola anthem, “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing.”) All I recall about that evening is knocking a pitcher of water onto my Dad’s lap during the opening act.

Unfortunately, that was also my opening act. The next evening we headed to Caesar’s Palace to see Lennon. Of course, I’m talking not about John but the Lennon sisters (I warned you my parents weren’t hip!) who were opening for Andy Williams. We sat in the very back of the cavernous auditorium. Lots of crushed red velvet and high-backed booths. When you sat in one of these booths, you sunk deep into the cushions. As a little kid, this meant I had a lovely view of the water glasses, a basket of bread and the crumbs on the table.

I nagged incessantly about my horrible view. Finally, my Mom grew exasperated with my complaints, and suggested I sit up on the top of the booth with my legs dangling down so I could see the show better. I sat perched on this spot for about 10 minutes, gazing out at the auditorium, Andy Williams on stage singing The Impossible Dream, while sneaking peeks at the waitresses scurrying into the serving room behind me.

I leaned back and rested my arm on what I thought was a long black rectangular table. When the table seemed to move a little, I didn’t think much about it. Andy launched into his renedition of “My Way,” really pouring a lot of 1970s-style lounge act into it. Kind of like maple syrup getting poured onto kitchen tiles.

I’m swaying slightly, rocking back and forth to the music in my head and the buzz of the place. Andy is roaring toward the big finish, the dramatic pause just before the closing words of this anthem . . .

. . . And I swayed just a little too much. That rectangular table I thought I was leaning on was actually a very long row of trays. Like dominos they began toppling. The crash and clatter echoed through the vast auditorium, loud enough to wake up Caesar from the dead. People everywhere started looking around to see where the noise was coming from.

I wouldn’t say I totally screwed up Andy’s song. He faltered a bit, lost his rythym for a second, but plowed on through. The last clear memory I have of that evening is my Dad’s big hand grabbing my shirt front and yanking me back into the booth, where I stayed hidden for the rest of the night.

No doubt I got in some kind of trouble, but I don’t remember exactly what. I suspect my parents just dropped a note in my bulging colossaly incomprehensible file and let it slide.

We never did go back to Las Vegas.

So, when Penelope fills up her battery-operated toy blender with colored water and hits the “on” button, I try to maintain a little perspective as I wipe off the bathroom ceiling: Well, at least she’s not interrupting Vegas night-club acts.

The Games People Play

Picture of "Operation" game.

Looks Painful! The 1980s edition of the Milton Bradley game “Operation.”

My sister gave Penelope the game “Operation” for Christmas this year. I think I was more excited than my daughter because it’s something I recognize from my childhood. So, yesterday when Penelope pulled her Barbie fairy doll out of the box and asked me to snap on the wings, I said, “Gee Pop Tart, I’m having trouble getting these wings on. Let’s play Operation!”

Instead, she slid across the living room floor and opened a box of make-your-own Friendship Bracelets. “Papa, can you help me with this?” I looked at her, smiled, and said, “Sure, but don’t you want to play Operation first?”

Eventually, the kid caught one of my subtle-as-a-flying-mallet hints, and we opened the game at the dining room table. The whole time we were playing I had this gnawing feeling that the game had changed. I seemed to recall playing cards and money, none of which were in this version. Sure enough, I found this, which may me feel better about my memory. I’m not sure whose idea it was to create a game that involves children poking a naked man with a pair of tweezers, but it’s rather fun if you overlook that.

I realized later that I am a phenomenally bad board game player. It’s almost a talent: Stay Alive? No, I can’t. Clue? Haven’t got one. Skittle Bowl? Umm, let’s just rename it “Try not to take out my cousin’s eye with a wooden ball swinging from a chain.”

I don’t know if I’m the only person who remembers these, but I loved “Landslide” and “Why?” Both games are no longer produced. “Landslide,” a Parker Brothers game from the early 1970s that challenged players to get elected president, gave me a splendid opportunity to impersonate Alton B. Parker and Adlai Stevenson. This game shouldn’t be confused with “Lie, Cheat and Steal.” (Feel free to insert your own joke here.) “Why?” was an Alfred Hitchcock mystery game where “detectives” with names like Sherlock Bones and Charlie Clam roamed a haunted house collecting ghost cards. The biggest mystery to me is how I managed to lose the darn game. Looking back 40 years, it still bugs me!

Electric football game.

Electric football game. Notice the running back in this photo appears to be heading in the proper direction.

Without doubt, my favorite game as a kid was Electric Football. Whenever I played it, “NFL Films” music would rumble through my head. My parents bought it for my brother and I around the time I learned the truth about Santa Claus. (A friend’s Dad spilled hot cocoa on himself, which set off a very unSanta-like fit of cursing, which in turn sent his kids scurrying down the stairs to discover the unfortunate truth. I remember sitting with my friend behind my garage as he relayed these events. When he finished telling me this story, he added….”And if you believe in the Easter Bunny….boy, are you dumb!” Yea, he sort of killed two birds with one stone that day!)

This was the Superbowl V version of Electric Football with the Baltimore Colts and the Dallas Cowboys. The version we played featured plastic players that slid into plastic bases. The bases had prongs underneath that a player was supposed to manipulate to enable the football men to move around the vibrating field the way you wanted. I never quite mastered Electric Football. Running backs would spin around in circles, wide receivers would run out of bounds, offensive linemen would attack their own quarterback. There was a foam football the size of a Bayer aspirin, and a left-footed kicker who could never seem to get the ball over the goalpost.

Playing Electric Football should have prepared me for years of frustration as a Cleveland Browns fan.

I’ve been discovering — or rediscovering — that one of the many cool things about being a parent is the chance to re-live your own childhood memories. As we grow older, there are certain chapters in our lives that we close, forget about and move on. We do this not because we need to forget, but because so many other things crowd our lives. I’m glad to have a Christmas where the magic and memory of being a child again can fill an afternoon.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my little five year old kicked my tail playing “Operation.”

Reconnecting with Our Past

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The 1971 World Horsehoe Pitching Championships.

I grew up in a neighborhood where rectangular patches of black clay blotted the green grass of everyone’s backyards. With the center of my six-year-old universe being a suburban neighborhood that sprouted from a meadow in 1952, I thought all yards rang with the sounds of men tossing horseshoes, tossing insults at their partners and tossing back cans of Rheingold and Schaefer beer.

I suspect my Dad had the best horseshoe pits in the neighborhood because most summer evenings the men flocked there. He’d come home after eight hours of designing brochures for a printing-press manufacturer and after a quick dinner — something like pork chops, baked potatoes and Delmonte canned green beans — would change out of his work clothes. A set of horseshoes hung from a rack off a slate gray Sears Craftsman band saw in the garage. He’d grab a pair and would bang them together. The neighborhood men would come outside, sit on their front steps to tie their shoes. Soon they’d be climbing over the waist-high white picket fence that surrounded the yard.

About the time I hit the first grade, my hometown was hosting the World Horseshoe Pitching Championships. With horseshoe fever gripping the community, the town fathers scrambled to construct a large fenced-in horseshoe court in the park across from the high school, while the fathers in my neighborhood scrambled to hone their horseshoe pitching skills. I don’t believe any of them actually competed in the tournament, but the commotion undoubtedly stirred their competitive juices.

I remember watching the backyard hum with activity those summer nights in 1971. Sometimes I’d watch from my Dad’s second-floor art room, which offered a bird’s eye view of both pits. I’d watch the metal shoes float effortlessly in a lazy arc across the soft lawn falling with a dull thump into the clay.

An art room was another feature I thought could be found in all homes. On certain winter nights my Mom might be lounging in an arm chair after work, Baretta flashing colored shadows across the living room floor, while my Dad worked upstairs.  I would hear from his stereo turntable the smaltzy pop of Englebert Humperdinck, or the bleating country songs of Marty Robbins. I’d climb the stairs to watch him, hunched over his drawing board, glasses dangling from the tip of his nose as he worked with pen and ink or pastels. On the table behind the swivel chair would be an array of rubber erasers, razor-sharp exacto knives, colored pencils and his Leroy lettering set.

Over time the men stopped playing horseshoes. Some died, some moved away. Upstairs in the art room, the colored pencils and Leroy lettering set got packed away in cardboard boxes and shipped south when my parents sold their home.

And I learned that most homes do not have art rooms, most back yards do not have horseshoe pits. I would think about that once in a while. And then I got older and didn’t think about it at all.

I was walking the dogs in the park recently when I saw two guys throwing horseshoes in sand pits just beyond the trail, and for a moment the winter’s sun warmed to a June evening. The clang of horseshoes rang in the air, mixed with the popping hiss of freshly cracked Rheingold cans.

The next day, a Tuesday, I was walking across the creaky wide plank floors of the art museum where I work on site two days a week. Walking through the contemporary collage exhibition, my mind began to float back to Leroy lettering sets and exacto knives. I could almost hear the once-familiar strains of gunfighter ballads and trail songs.

When I got home that evening I looked around our house, at the history books and the William Jennings Bryan walking stick in the library. I thought about my wife and I writing in our office, putting together words and editing each other’s copy as we work to grow a home business. I wondered what Penelope makes of all this. Of the things that are unique in our household. I hope she appreciates it, and appreciates those things that are unique in the people she meets.

Lost on the Island of Misfit Toys

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There’s something singularly depressing about listening to Gene Autry croon “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from a tinny overhead speaker in a thrift store. A sequined wedding dress hangs limply from a baby-blue plastic coat hanger, and I’m wondering if the petite woman who donated it ever walked down the aisle.

Bern became a loyal customer here ever since she stumbled upon a pair of brand new tweed pants from Soft Surroundings for $8. I’m told that’s a phenomenal deal; in fact, she tells me it’s a phenomenal deal every time we come here. One evening, she even found a photograph of the pants in the Soft Surroundings catalog, and stuck it under my nose to prove the enormity of her coup. Perhaps she thought I doubted her, but I never did. The thing is I’ve done better: I once paid $2.99 sent for a tuxedo jacket. Now granted, wearing it made me look like Cesar Romero from the old Batman TV show, but a bargain’s a bargain.

Before scampering off in search of, say, a Boden dress for $4.87, she suggests I wander about the store in case there’s anything I wish to add to my Christmas list. Walking around, I’m amazed at the unusual selection. Plates shaped like pizza slices (because, you know, it’s so hard to keep a slice of pizza on a round plate). A small plastic case with a gold label that reads “1930 Cadillac.” The Cadillac is missing, but then again, this is a dodgy neighborhood, and it’s possible the car was boosted for the parts. There’s a batless Placido Polanco bobble head poised in a batter’s box with a “Sugar House Casino” logo sitting about where home plate should be. I feel like I’ve just parachuted onto The Island of Misfit Toys.

Some items are rather curious. There’s a beer pitcher that reads “Cannstatter Volk Fest Verein, Philadelphia USA” which I later learn is one of the oldest German/American cultural organizations in Philadelphia whose founders include brewer Christian Schmidt and elfin-magic biscuit-guy Geoffrey Keebler.

But not until I wander to the back of the store do I hit the motherlode: racks of vinyl records that are so bad they’re good. Or, to paraphrase a line from the film “Ghost World,” they’re so bad, they go past good and back to bad again.” I flip past “Organ Omnibus — Accordian Boogie” and “Jimmy Nelson’s Instant Ventriloquism,” and stop at The Fireballs, a 1960s quartet I vaguely recall. This appears to be one of their last albums and with lyrics like “You’ve got your bag, and I’ve got mine/Maybe we can get together sometime and/think it over,” it’s not hard to understand why. Naturally, later that day, I’ll find the song on Youtube, and walk around the house singing “You’ve got your bag, and I’ve got mine” every time my wife asks for my opinion. Not surprisingly, it gets really old really fast.

liberaceI flip through albums until I find “Liberace — Songs My Mother Taught Me” with the pianist in a red tuxedo with a framed photograph of his Mom perched atop the piano. I close my eyes and just imagine young Wladzui Valentino Liberace banging away on “O Solo Mio” with a beaming Mrs. Liberace standing behind his shoulder. I think about how this and several other album covers would look on the family-room wall. Then I see Bern a few aisles over and slide the record in front of “TV Favorites As Played on the Lawrence Welk Show Featuring Jo-Ann Castle” and secretly wish I could hear her 1960s rendition of the Spanish-American War favorite “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”

As we’re exiting the store, I spy with my little eye an “Elvis Presley 35th Anniversary” coffee mug. Elvis is pictured in full Vegas jumpsuit and cape, arms spread wide like a Crucifixion victim. I think: Damn, that would look sweet on my desk at the art museum. (I work on site there twice a week.) People will think I’m either an eclectic genius or the white man’s Fred G. Sanford. Either way, I can live with the comparison.

Unfortunately, it’s a package deal wrapped with a “Snuffy Hollow 20th Anniversary Mug” with a logo of a hillbilly clutching a shotgun. The hillbilly looks like he hates rock ‘n roll and is about to blow a hole through The King so I balk.

Still, as I’m exiting the store I consider how the cliche “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” holds a kernel of truth. After all, even the toys on The Island of Misfit Toys found a home.

Growing Pains

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Penelope hurried over to me, eyes brimming with tears, her thumb and index finger wiggling one of her bottom teeth. She told me her tooth was loose and started to cry.

I asked her if she was bleeding or did something that loosened the tooth, but she shook her head. “Does it hurt?” I asked, and again she shook her head.

“My tooth is coming out!” She looked confused. “What if all my tooths come out? I won’t be able to eat my cereal?”

Here’s the part where I kick myself a little, and wish I had said something truly helpful. The wife walks into the room moments later, and when she heard the news, grew excited. “Wow! Look at you? You’re becoming a big girl! How exciting! You’re losing your baby teeth, and new big-girl teeth will grow in their place.”

Hearing this not only eased Penelope’s fears, but she became enthused at the prospect of becoming a big girl and about all the interesting things that would happen to her.

So, what did I say when Penelope told me her fears of losing all her teeth and not being able to eat cereal?

“Well, your Grandma lost all her teeth, and she has no problem eating. You’ll be fine.”

God I hope her mother is home when she gets her first period!