Last Lesson

When I was about five years old, my Dad would take me to Mountainview Park. For a little kid, that playground was like Disneyland. It had a sliding board enclosed in a tube, an above-ground tunnel and swings that made you feel you could kick a cloud. Playground equipment back then was constructed out of metal. It would have the occasional jagged edge or bolt that wanted to pop out when you least expected it, but I didn’t care. My Dad would stand close by, letting me run wild but keeping a close watch to make sure I didn’t hurt myself.

When I was 16, my Dad took me to Mountainview Park again, this time to teach me how to drive. He set up the horses to act as the front and rear bumpers of cars and showed me how to parallel park. I remember his patience despite the damage I did to his workshop equipment.

My Dad taught me a thousand and one lessons great and small. Paying me a nickle for each frog I caught in the yard (and taking them to the nearby woods to release them) taught me the value of money and to care for all God’s creatures. I remember when he’d drive past a boarded up house he would ask me how I’d feel if I “lived in a place like that,” and realized that he was teaching me to appreciate what I had in life. (When he was a kid growing up in the Depression, his family had very little.) He showed me how to spackle a hole in the wall, how to take care of a puppy and how to hit a baseball.

But it didn’t occur to me until I was packing Wednesday night to visit my Dad for the last time what those lessons all meant. He wasn’t just teaching me how to have fun while being safe or how to drive. All those little lessons added up to something far more important. He was teaching me how to be a good husband and a good Dad.

I hope I can be as good a Dad to Penelope as he was to me.

Thanks for everything Dad. I love you and will never forget all you taught me. Rest in peace.

{Thursday morning as I was leaving my house to drive to North Carolina, my sister called to tell me my Dad had passed away in his sleep earlier that morning. The Parkinson’s Disease and other ailments he fought so bravely for so long, finally beat him. He was 84.}

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Between the covers, under the covers

I arrived home from a Historic Preservation Committee meeting around 9 one night and was surprised to see my daughter’s window all lit up. Penelope’s bedtime is around 7:30 p.m. A well-lit window is not a good sign.

I grabbed my bag and rushed into the house. Bernadette hovered over the kitchen island. The white toddler monitor crackled; it’s yellow and red lights flashed like a smile.

“Come here. You’ve got to hear this,” she said. I leaned in and listened. Penelope’s voice rang through the bursts of static.

“Tushy . . . . tushy . . . tushy . . .  tushy. . . .all done.” Thunk. Pause. “Moo moo sere . . . moo moo shere . . . woof woof sere . . . woof woof shere . . . quack quack sere . . quack quack shere . . . all done.” Thunk.

“She’s up there looking at books?” I asked.

“Yes, I was going to go up there, but I thought I’d give her a few minutes. I mean she’s looking at books.”

I understood. Bern and I have always loved to read. As a kid she loved going to Two Guys to spend her birthday money on Nancy Drew and Little House books; I remember my father driving me to the local library for the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Three Investigators” series.  Our living room resembles a library crammed with old biographies, history books and a collection of fiction I inherited from my uncle.

We chatted briefly over a Rolling Rock before I headed upstairs to settle Penelope down again for bed. On nights when I put Penelope to bed, I let her pick three books to read, hiding as best as I can the ones I don’t like. Then I’ll read the first story and she’ll “read” the second. By her reading I mean she knows two or three words for each of her favorite books, and will repeat those words as she turns a page. The third book is read by her stuffed Elmo toy.

My Elmo impersonation is mediocre at best except with the undiscerning toddler population in our house. Besides, I think what I lack in vocal skills I make up with enthusiasm. Stuffed Elmo raises Penelope’s window shade to look for Mr. Noodle, peppers Penelope with questions about her book and cracks goofy jokes. (“You’re wearing pajamas with my picture! Wow! I have a pair of pajamas at home with your picture on it Penelope!”) When story time ends, I lay stuffed Elmo aside and click off the lamp. Penelope has taken to fumbling in the dark for stuffed Elmo  and nestling it beside me as we finish the night with a few choruses of “Mama Buy You Me!” (which translates to “Mama’s Gonna Buy You a Mockingbird”).

One day I will miss these moments.

Penelope’s door squeaks when I push it open. Sure enough, her favorite books are piled on the floor — which explains the “thunking” noises we heard — including those we just heard her reading: “The Tushy Book,” “Old McDonald” and “Big Frog Can’t Fit In.” She goes through phases with books; one week “Big Frog” is her favorite, the next it’s “Moose and Magpie.” I guess I do the same thing with authors. Presently, I’m on a William Styron kick, so it’s a minor miracle I’m not writing this:

Penelope and I could taste the haunting briny air as the cedar trees swayed and moaned under the weight of the squall. Books failed to ward off our emptiness. (OK, pretty lame, but you get the idea.)

I collect the books, give Penelope a peck on the forehead and let her lie down in darkness. Moments later, she slumbers peacefully.

I don’t know if Penelope’s growing fondness for reading is innate, or the result of seeing her parents snatching odd quiet moments with a book. I’m just grateful it has happened, and I hope it never ends.

Toddler vs. Food

Lately, I’ve become addicted to the TV program “Man Vs. Food” on the Travel Channel. In case you’ve never seen MvF, during each episode the paunchy host visits restaurants that specialize in serving single portions of food capable of feeding the island of Madagascar. I watch in stunned amazement as someone tries to devour a stack of 13-inch pancakes or a 7 1/2 pound “Sasquatch Burger” the size of a monster-truck tire.

My fascination, I believe, stems first from my love of discovering local eateries that break the chain of homogeneous restaurants one finds scattered around every truck-stop interstate exit from Trenton to Tucamcari. The show also draws upon memories of college days when several dorm-room buddies and I attempted to drive a Fritsch’s Big-Boy bankrupt by gorging on its all-you-can-eat midnight buffet. That failed effort culminated with me lying on the frozen ground in a farmer’s field watching wisps of my breath swirl amongst the stars as I groaned prayers for a quick death to God, Buddha and the Galloping Gourmet.

But perhaps my interest is rooted in my ceaseless wonder at how much food Penelope can pack away. After all, on a daily basis I have a front-row dining-room seat to Toddler vs. Food.

Most mornings Penelope greets Bernadette and I by standing in her doorway yelling “Hi Mama! Hi Papa!  Hungry! Hungry!” Bern and I now employ a lightning round of “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” to decide who’s getting out of bed first. (In case you want to settle disputes this way, it’s: Scissors cuts paper; paper covers rock; rock crushes lizard; lizard poisons Spock; Spock smashes scissors;  scissors decapitates lizard; lizard eats paper; paper disproves Spock; Spock vaporizes rock; rock smashes scissors. Credit Sam Kass and Karen Bryla for inventing Rock, Paper, Lizard, Scissors, Spock in 1998.)

Since paper disproves Spock, on this particular Saturday I stumble downstairs as Penelope scampers besides me. She charges toward the refrigerator, throws open  the door and digs into a drawer for a cheese stick. A bowl of Cheerios and some blackberries or apple slices will follow, sometimes before the coffee pot beeps joyously from the kitchen counter. Penelope will clamor for “Nemo Snacks” — gummy fruit snacks shaped like fish from the Disney cartoon — but those are afternoon treats since we don’t allow her to eat candy before noon. (The no-candy-before-noon rule was strictly adhered to in my parents’ house when I was growing up, and one I abide by to this day. Since my Mom didn’t have a no-drinking-before noon rule . . . well, let’s just say it made college that much more entertaining.)

Later we all hop in the car and drive to Buckingham Friends Meeting to attend a memorial service for Dr. Christian Hansen, a truly remarkable man. I encourage you to check out his free e-book autobiography In The Name of the Children and consider donating to the American Friends Service Committee. Chris, a pediatrician by vocation, spent his life helping the world’s neediest children. His book also discusses his experiences meeting Dr. Martin Luther King and participating in the Meredith March in June 1966.

After the service, Penelope chows down on some blackberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, seared tuna, roast beef, orzo salad and a brownie for dessert. By the time she’s nestled back in her car seat for the ride home, she’s clamoring for those Nemo snacks. But since she just finished grazing at the buffet table, we decide to give her jaws a break. You’d think with all this eating that Penelope would resemble a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, but she’s quite thin. In fact, she’s a tall skinny kid; our doctor tells us she’s in the 95th percentile height wise for her age. I have started to wonder if she’s Yao Ming’s love child.

Penelope has also impressed us with the variety of foods she will eat. The other night after dinner, she pronounced the white clam pizza positively “mm-yummy.” We’ve watched her devour mussels, tofu, bok choy, artichokes, calamari and quinoa — not in one sitting, of course. On our last trip to the supermarket she cheered when she spotted the broccoli. Recently we visited friends in Denver — I’ll be writing about that soon — and I was sorely tempted to see if Penelope would eat Rocky Mountain oysters, but Bern nixed that idea. (“You’re not feeding our child bull balls!”)

Bern and I are thrilled that she’ll try just about anything. Now, we’re just waiting for that call from the Travel Channel.

{Note: So, where the hell was I? For those of you with whom I haven’t spoken, I’ve been busy collaborating with several other members of my community’s historical society on a book that will be published later this year. I hope you will consider checking that book out once it’s published. A portion of the profits from those books sold by the historical society will go to our organization. The book will also be available at area Barnes & Noble’s, Borders, etc. and will be available online.}