Trytophan Triptych (Part 2)

November 22, 2009

On Sunday morning, I’m sitting in my parents’ kitchen sipping coffee. I’m staring down into a chipped white mug. There’s a bald eagle on the front emblazoned in red, white and blue. Beneath the eagle it reads, “Ray Henry — The Vernon Company.”

I watch the steam swirl upwards from the mug. My eyes wander to the living room where my father sleeps in his worn blue recliner. He just turned 84 years old.

Ray Henry is long since dead and buried. The mug is about 35 years old, and it’s the same mug I sipped tea from on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. Saturday mornings were special when I was young. My father would wake me at 7 a.m. We’d hop in his 1967 cranberry-colored Dodge Dart and drive to Al’s Delicatessen, then Stanson’s Bakery.

First stop was Al’s corner deli. My father would park in front of the store and hand me a dollar. I’d bound up the steps into Al’s. Green-and-black floor tiles, dark wooden shelves — it felt like entering a cave. I’d grab a New York Daily News from the shelf to my right, then turn left where the comic books were displayed. I’d root around those shelves, searching for the latest offerings from Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Avengers or the Green Lantern. I’d run to the counter where silver-haired Al would croak some kind words about my reading material, take my dollar and hand me change. I’d charge out of the store, dive into the car, show my father my loot and off we’d go to the bakery.

We’d pull into an adjacent parking lot and run inside. I can still hear the tinkling bell slap against the glass door as we’d enter. The smell of fresh baked rolls — comforting, inviting — a smell so intoxicating you could bite the air and taste the warm bread.

The memories are vivid: A white paper bag bulging with rolls. A snow-white box wrapped with skinny red-and-white twine and filled with pastries. Dashing through a chilly spring rain back to the Dodge clutching the rolls against my chest. A faint wisp of steam escaping from the bag.

Homeward bound. Crinkle; thud — the sound of a bag of rolls dropped on a kitchen counter. The clatter of a silverware drawer. A spray of crumbs into a kitchen sink as a roll is sliced, then buttered. The whistle of a brown kettle on a brown stove: Tea for me; Sanka for my Dad.

We sit at our usual places at the dining room table. I’d dunk my buttered roll into my tea, watching the poppy seeds swirl in the “Ray Henry” mug. The roll is followed by a Boston-creme doughnut; I’d always save the end with the creme for last. My father’s eyes widen as he’d lift the lid of the box, deciding what pastry with which to wash down his Sanka. He’d savor an apple turnover, flipping through the Daily News with thick arms that could manhandle a saber-tooth saw or carry a five-year-old boy from his bed to the living-room couch when measles left him too weak to walk. . . .

What remains today are warm, distant memories and a chipped mug. I sip quietly from that mug. My father lies brittle like a leaf in December; his stocking feet propped on the walker that helps him stumble from the living room to the bathroom. His leg muscles are too atrophied to make the trip without help. He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t eat much. My mother gives him a piece of toast for breakfast or a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. That’s all he ever asks for now. For decades my Mom decreed that eating candy before noon was forbidden in our home. That rule no longer applies — at least for my Dad. (I still won’t dare to eat candy before 12, even in my own home 12 hours away from my Mom.) My Dad earned the right to have chocolate before noon. Or maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Everything changes — it’s life’s only constant.

I gaze into the nearly empty coffee mug and think of the approaching winter. A slight chill permeates the air, a dampness festers under the skin, sinks into the bones. Stiffening them. I hear a creaking noise when I raise the mug to my lips. The last swallow from a now empty mug.

Penelope’s laughter echoes from a back bedroom. I suddenly ache for a ritual to share with her. A tradition that needs to be continued. Hours that need to be shared. A chipped white mug that needs to overflow with warm, sweet moments.


Tryptophan Triptych (Part 1)

November 20, 2009

Bernadette and I are two hours into a 12-hour road trip to visit my family in North Carolina and we’ve finally crossed the border into Pennsylvania. The trip slowed to a crawl from the start because Penelope is fascinated with fluorescent lighting, chrome and porcelain.

Outside the restroom at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center, Bern and I are snapping at each other. We’re frustrated, tired and know we have a grueling trip ahead. I’m not sure what specifically we’re bickering about, but I know it’s my fault because I’m smart enough to realize that someday Bern will read this blog.

The disagreement melts away quicker than a late April snow, and soon we’re chugging down Interstate 81. Since we have plenty of time on our wheels we try teaching Penelope how to pronounce her name.

Bern: “OK, let’s try this. Say Pe-“

Penelope: “Pe-“

Bern: “Nel-“

Penelope: “Nel-“

Bern: “O-“

Penelope: “O-“

Bern: “Pe.”

Penelope: “Pe.”

Bern : “OK, now put it all together. Penelope, what is your name?”

Penelope clutches her hands to her chest and breaks out in a mile-wide grin: “MEEE!”

I suspect we would have had an easier time if we’d decided to name her “No” or “Ahhh” or even “Trick-or-Treat,” but we — perhaps foolishly — elected to pay homage to the ancient Greeks.

Our smartest move for the drive south was to pack two coolers with enough snacks to allow Penelope to graze her way across five states: dinner in New Jersey; a cheese stick and an apple in Pa., grapes in West Virginia, a cereal bar in Maryland, and crackers in Virginia.

We stop at a Motel 6 in Harrisonburg, Va. They were kind enough to leave the light on for us, as their old advertising slogan used to claim, but I should not have parked under it. The giant fluorescent light glares down on our car and wakes up Penelope and the dogs. By the time we swipe the room key and throw our bags on the floor, midnight is approaching, and the dogs and Penelope are wired and ready to explore every inch of the room. It takes 90 minutes, but feels like five hours, to get everyone settled and sleeping. We sleep for five hours, but it feels like 90 minutes when Bern’s phone alarm starts blaring The Pet Shop Boys.

Half asleep, we pile ourselves and our belongings back into the car. We’re eager to get to Charlotte so my parents can meet their granddaughter for the first time. The second leg of the trip takes six hours, but we’re surprisingly alert when we pull in my parents’ driveway. Knowing we’ve reached the journey’s end is revivifying.

We enter the house, and you can feel how special the occasion is. Penelope is tentative at first, but quickly warms up and hugs her grandparents. Moments later, A Yi (Auntie) Sue and Shu Shu (Uncle) Joe arrive, and Penelope is charging around the living room with toys and crayons and a few advertising circulars she found on the coffee table. My mother carries out a bowl of peanut-butter crackers for Penelope. She practically dives headfirst into the bowl.

Hey, she hasn’t had a snack since we crossed the North Carolina border.


October 31, 2009

Bernadette decorated for Halloween on Sept. 14 — six weeks before the holiday. I arrived home from work that particular Monday and discovered plastic tarantulas dangling menacingly from cotton cobwebs in the archway leading to the family room. Banners with ghosts and the word “BOO!” festooned the walls. Ceramic jack-o’-lantern candle holders grinned from atop the dining room table.

A delirious Penelope greets me at the door and throws her arms around my kneecaps. She prances over to a pair of lighted scarecrows, points and giggles. “Ooooooookeeeeeyyyyyy!” She proceeds to give me a guided tour of the house, pointing out each decoration. As we dance through the kitchen, Bernadette is admiring a package of Halloween clothes her mother, sister and niece mailed from Buffalo. Lots of browns, oranges and blacks. Creepy cats, wide-eyed ghosts and happy skulls plastered across T-shirts.
“I see you taught our daughter a new word today,” I say. “Lots of spooookeeey stuff around here.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I decorated for Halloween a little early,” she replies.

Of course I don’t. This is the first year we’ve ever decorated for Halloween. In the past, we celebrated Oct. 31 with the same relish we reserve for Arbor Day, Bluebeard’s Wedding Anniversary and National Indian Pudding Day (Nov. 13 in case you’re wondering). We stopped buying Halloween candy a decade ago when we realized trick-or-treating in farm country is a losing proposition for kids. The acne, cavities and additional five pounds dumped onto my paunch the first week in November served as an additional incentive to shun the holiday. Unfortunately, several years ago two trick-or-treaters appeared like specters at my front door. I greeted them with a puzzled expression on my face, which I promptly passed along to them when I reached into the food pantry and dropped boxes of fettuccine into their eagerly outstretched pillowcases.

This year we’re celebrating Halloween with the enthusiasm of the Munsters hyped up on Monster Energy Drink. Besides putting on our best spooky for the house, we are driving to Buffalo so Penelope can enjoy her first Halloween. We’re traveling there not because we think Buffalo’s particularly scary, or because they give out chicken wings and beef on weck instead of candy, but because we want Penelope to trick-or-treat with her young cousins and to develop an appreciation for spending holidays with family.

Penelope dressed as a butterfly for her first Halloween. One of the souvenirs we brought home from China for her is a jacket and pants set with a butterfly stitched on the front and antenna on the hood. We completed the costume with a pair of butterfly wings from Toys- ‘R-US.

We arrived in Buffalo in the wee hours of Oct. 31. and collapse into bed. The next afternoon we attempt the closest thing to herding cats: Trying to get four children under the age of five to pose for a studio portrait, all barefoot and wearing cute little silk Chinese outfits that we brought back from Guangzhou. Eventually, after several adults dance, jump around and sing Christmas carols, the photographer captures enough shots.

Later, we head to Jennifer and John’s home (Bern’s niece and her husband) for a pizza and wings party before trick-or-treating. Two tiny Batmen vie for potato chips, a leprechaun and Spiderman toss a football in the driveway, and the adults congregate over a heater or the beer cooler to ward off a stiff breeze. Penelope rambles up and down the driveway trying to play football with the older boys.

Darkness falls and porchlights glow like beacons offering the promise of candy. Penelope is frightened by her werewolf cousin Joey, so he voluntarily removes his furry and fanged mask. She’s still scared so he removes his furry and clawed gloves. Now, Joey’s just an eight-year-old boy with a big heart and a torn flannel T-shirt, holding a toddler’s hand as he leads her up a driveway.

Joey helping his new cousin.

Joey shows his cousin the ropes: ring the bell, yell “trick-or-treat” and open the bag for some candy. Pretty soon Penelope is leading the charge. I suspect the idea of knocking on doors and getting food handed to her appeals to her greatly. I hope she realizes this is a once-a-year event. I’d hate to think she’ll yell trick-or-treat every time we visit friends or neighbors. (She also says “trick-or-treat” 15 times a day hoping we’ll give her a piece of candy each time. It doesn’t work. )

Within an hour, the Buffalo wind chills everyones’ bones, and we head home. Penelope is fast asleep in the car before we drive off the block. I start inspecting Penelope’s candy. (Wouldn’t want her to have anything dangerous like — oh, I don’t know — Reese’s peanut butter cups.)

Penelope may have loved her first Halloween, but there’s one small problem. The other day, Bern and Penelope wandered into a department store decked out for Christmas. Penelope pointed to a Christmas tree, widened her eyes and gasped, “Ooooooookeeeeeey!” I guess we need to teach her a new word soon.

October Valentine

October 2009

One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry. — Oscar Wilde

I’ll never forget my first date with Bernadette. For her 23rd birthday, I treated her to lunch at the long-gone Court Cafe in Somerville. I can remember the dark green dress she wore, and how her reddish brown curls cascaded down her shoulders. I remember how her smile took my breath away. I remember I had attended high school with the waiter, whose patience must have been stretched as Bern and I talked and laughed for hours. I even remember how after lunch we debated over who sang a particular song (“Tell It To My Heart”) and hopped out of the car to run into a record store to settle the matter. But mostly, I remember how everything felt: exciting, intoxicating, intriguing, full of the promise that something special was happening.

I also vividly recall our second date, but only because during the middle of the meal at the long-gone Newsroom in Somerville, Bern excused herself to visit the ladies room. She rose from her chair, took one faltering step and executed a stunning face plant on the floor. Turns out we enjoyed each others’ company and conversation so much that neither of us had moved for a while. Unfortunately, her leg had fallen asleep in the process.

So, let’s be honest here: Twenty years and 14,600 lunches and dinners later, some things change. Conversations about life, books, music and dreams devolve into more pedestrian topics like who forgot to return the overdue library books or 1,001 reasons why we hate Comcast. And, now that Penelope has entered the picture, our dinners and conversation have changed significantly.

For starters, rather than a romantic dinner with candlelight and wine to celebrate our 18th anniversary, we wound up at Applebee’s at 6 p.m., hunkered down with a gaggle of senior citizens gumming their soup rapidly with the hope of getting home in time to catch the end of Lou Dobbs. Conversations are punctuated with verbal encouragements for Penelope to finish her dinner, stunned pronouncements over the array of foods she will eat (artichokes, mussels, bok choi, cabbage soup) or stern warnings that she cannot leave the table to chase the dogs.

Bern and I hadn’t shared a dinner alone since Beijing in mid-July. We enjoyed our meals there, but romantic conversation typically doesn’t include your spouse asking repeatedly, “You’re not gonna try to kiss me after eating that chicken foot now, are you?”

Recently, Bern’s mom and sister traveled here from Buffalo for a funeral, and when they volunteered to baby-sit one Friday evening, we jumped at the offer. Actually, they may not have finished uttering the word baby-sit before I grabbed the phone and dialed to reserve a table at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant (I will refrain from making any all-too-obvious Ethiopian restaurant jokes in this blog. Really, forget it, nothing about being skinnier walking out than when we walked in or anything else stupid like that.)

Driving home from work that Friday, I’m surprised at how excited I am. I’m debating what tie I’ll wear and trying to remember if I ironed a particular shirt. Naturally, the tie I eventually select has a mysterious dark stain on it and I neglected to iron the shirt, which compels me to choose another ensemble. Bern swirls her make-up brush around her face as I gamely attempt to tie a Windsor knot. We’re crammed in the bathroom elbowing each other like two hockey players racing for the puck.

We stampede downstairs. Bern verbally leaves a “Les Miserables” length list of instructions — I suspect all new moms do — even though her sister and mom have helped raise about a dozen children. Check the wallet, grab the car keys, a hug and a kiss for our little Pop Tart and out the door we go for an evening of adult conversation.

6:52 p.m.: I stick the key in the ignition and back the car up.

6:53 p.m.: Bern says, “I have to tell you what Penelope did at breakfast….”

6:58 p.m.: We drive past Hillbilly Hall. “Yea, thinking we’d take Penelope to the pig roast was a pretty stupid idea,” I say. “The big Confederate flag, Lynryd Skynrd cover band, drunken bikers . . . yea. I should have realized when that biker Rick told me about it the week before that it might not be a good place for a toddler.”

7 p.m.: Bern says,”You should have seen what Penelope and my mother were doing today . . .”

Bern stops talking (yes, it’s a rare occurrence, but it happens). In that silence, we both realize how quickly and firmly Penelope has enmeshed herself in every fiber of our relationship. Perhaps that’s part of the magic a child brings to a marriage. Nevertheless, we tacitly agree to discuss other topics as if to reaffirm our relationship will only become enhanced by Penelope, not consumed by it. And, for most of the night, we stick to that: We discuss places we’d like to visit, books we’d like to read, movies we’d like to see and Halloween costume possibilities (we eventually agree to dress as the lead roles in “Julie and Julia,” and yes, I was Julia Child, and yes, I was in character most of the night, and no, I won’t post photos here but I will share them with a few close friends.)

Bern hops out of the car in front of the restaurant, and since we’re in New Brunswick, I find a parking spot eight miles away, guaranteeing we’ll walk off the food on the return trip. At Makedas, we share a sampler platter for two which features chicken in awaze sauce, beef seasoned in an Ethiopian herb reduction sauce and . . . well, the enormous plate held about a dozen substantial portions. Rather than use forks, you soak up the meat and vegetables with a spongy Injera Ethiopian bread. Rather ironic, I thought, that we didn’t bring Penelope to a restaurant where you’re supposed to eat with your hands.

Midway through the meal an R&B band starts performing. Between the music, the exotic food, the intimate setting and the candlelight that splashes delicately across Bern’s cheeks, the evening feels perfect. I’m radiating with a warm glow because I’ve realized that after 20 years, the same smile still takes my breath away. A relationship can brim years later with romance and passion — if you keep your ears and heart open, and your mind disentangled from the daily drudgery that creeps into life. I think that wards off the chill emptiness that shrouds too many marriages.

Penelope may not have eaten dinner with us, and we may have stopped discussing her early in our date, but she never leaves us. Her entrance into our lives made this dinner special. We treasure our time with our daughter, but now we treasure even more the moments just the two of us share. Each one of our dinner dates is now a special occasion.

So, as far as I’m concerned, Oscar Wilde can go stick it.