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.

Growing Pains

cartoon-tooth-dental-clip-art-thumb3234653
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!

Teaching My 4 Year Old About Dr. King

Last night at dinner, Penelope told us she’s off from school Monday because it’s Malu King Day. We worked with her a few times, and were able to get her to pronounce his name correctly by saying, “It’s Martin, like Martin Kratt from the Kratt Brothers.” Hey, whatever works!

She said: “He lived a long time ago. Before anyone was born.” When I told her I was three when Dr. King died, well, she looked at me like I was 263 years old. And while I may look that age by the time Friday night rolls around, I certainly don’t feel it. Penelope wanted to see Dr. King, so I uploaded a slice of a YouTube video of his “I Have a Dream Speech.” The video lasted about 90 seconds, which I figured was about the attention span of a four year old, but her eyes were glued to the screen. When it finished she wanted to watch another video (she pointed to a postage-stamp-sized square of Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis).

Dr. King's final speech.

We listened to Dr. King’s soaring words. : “And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around . . .”

“Dogs?” Penelope turned around and looked up at me.

I hesitated. “Well, you know how there’s that scary dog down the corner? He means dogs like that.”

Her head swiveled back to the video. When the speech ended, the video flashed to a grainy black-and-white photograph of a motel balcony in Memphis. Then the CBS eye and words “Special Report” flashed on screen. A smooth-skinned Dan Rather announced that Martin Luther King had been killed. I knew what was coming next.

“Why did he die, Papa?”

I struggle when it comes to explaining to her the darker hours of our history and inhumanity. Our nation’s history sparkles with great moments, but is also littered with great tragedies. I wonder, what is the correct age to start teaching your child about these darker moments. Any ideas?

For now I want my little girl to enjoy her innocence of the meanness that lurks in this world. “It was a terrible thing that happened, Pop Tart. And someday, when you’re a bigger girl, we’ll talk about it.”

She nodded, and turned back to the computer just as the screen faded to black.

After dinner we drove to Buckingham Friends meeting to hear the St. Thomas Gospel Choir perform. As we settled onto the stiff wooden benches of the meetinghouse, I glanced around the room. The choir members, dressed in white shirts and jeans, were huddled on the far side of the room, perhaps in prayer or in preparation for their performance. The musicians were tuning their instruments. Friends greeted one another, and several children giggled as they clambered among the back benches. Penelope watched them wistfully, and asked if she could join them. We agreed, and told her it would be time to return when the choir members took their places to sing. She hesitated a moment, suddenly uncharacteristically shy, but Bern coaxed her. “Don’t be afraid, go ahead.”

It didn’t take long. Within minutes, she was giggling right along with two other children: a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl; an African-American toddler; and my Asian daughter.

The perfect image to remember Dr. King’s legacy.

Having a Merry Lizard Christmas

Just before Christmas, Penelope sprawled herself across the family room floor and wrote out her wish list to Santa Claus. The list was seven pages long which was quite an accomplishment since she only asked for six things. I think that’s about right for someone who’s four years old. My favorite line in her “Dear Santa” letter was : “I’ve been very good this year unless I was bad.” When she finished, we stuffed the letter in a snow-white over sized envelope and shipped it off to the North Pole.

Perhaps the most curious item on her list was a stuffed monitor lizard. She’s grown rather fond these past few months of a book about reptiles, and one page features an illustration of a monitor lizard preparing to feast upon a nest of crocodile eggs. So come Christmas morning, Penelope clambered down the stairs to discover a foot-long stuffed monitor lizard perched precariously atop the manger. (I bet you didn’t know a monitor lizard was present at the birth of the baby Jesus!)

The monitor lizard has quickly become the king of the animal farm that is Penelope’s bed. Last night, when I tip-toed into her bedroom to make sure she was still breathing — sorry, that’s a joke for a few folks — I saw Penelope softly snoring with a bare leg sticking out from under a blanket and a stuffed monitor lizard hugged tightly against her chest. I’m anticipating the soon-to-come day when I open the refrigerator to find the lizard sitting atop the egg bin staring back at me as if I’ve just interrupted a private moment.

I doubt there are many four-year-old girls who sleep with a monitor lizard. Hopefully, she’ll get that out of her system while she’s still a kid.

I think her fascination with animals of all stripes and textures comes from three sources. First are the numerous animal books she has on everything from dogs to dinosaurs. I think our two beagles — Sammi and Rudy — are also partly responsible for her becoming an animal lover. And the feeling is mutual, although I suspect the dogs love Penelope because she has a habit of leaving half-eaten cheese sticks on the coffee table. Lastly, Penelope is addicted to “Wild Kratts” on PBS Kids. The show starts with two brothers (Martin and Chris) who talk about some critter — be it an aardvark or a gecko. Then they morph into cartoon characters to rescue an animal in trouble. She’s probably watched all 20-some-odd episodes multiple times. Yesterday at the park she insisted on calling some little boy she met Chris. (His name was Kenny.)

As I watch all this I wonder if it means anything for her future. Will she become a veterinarian or a zoologist and help animals? Will she want to work at an animal shelter? Or is she just on her way to becoming a crazy cat lady?

Well, I doubt that last one. But I can’t help wondering if the clues about her future are already in place. But, then again, why rush things? In my heart I know it’s best just to enjoy a quiet moment watching a snoring child cradling her stuffed monitor lizard. These moments don’t last forever.

Dog Heaven Can Wait

I should never have refused to read “Dog Heaven” to Penelope. This book is supposed to help children — and adults, I suppose — cope with the death of a pet. It features big cartoon drawings of dogs sleeping on fluffy clouds and chasing geese in a park in heaven.  The book is one of Penelope’s favorites.

Bernadette’s childhood friend Stephanie gave her the book to console her after our Golden Retriever, Bailey, and elder Beagle, Hannah, passed away only four days apart almost three years ago. Bern deeply appreciates the book’s comforting message. I think the book is beautiful, but it makes me sad. So, one day when Penelope was choosing her bedtime reading and grabbed three books including “Dog Heaven” I told her no.

“This book makes Papa sad,” I explained. “You don’t want to make Papa sad, do you?”

She thought about this. I could tell because she tapped her index finger on her forehead and said, “Think, think, think.” (She gets that from “Winnie the Pooh” on TV.) She returned the book to the shelf and selected another.

However, the next evening, when I asked her to pick a book, an impish grin spread across her face. She ran to the bookshelf, grabbed “Dog Heaven” and waved it in front of me: “How about this one?” I again tell her how the book makes Papa sad, and back on the shelf it goes. This becomes a ritual with a different twist each night. One evening, Penelope hides “Dog Heaven” between other books. Next time its behind her back or under the covers. One night she slipped the cover of another book around “Dog Heaven.”

Finally one night I figure, “What the heck?” It’s just a story. Maybe if I read it, it’ll actually help me better handle the loss of a pet, something I’m lousy at. Back in the late 1960s, shortly after my grandfather died, my parents inherited his cocker spaniel. The dog’s name was Teddy (for Theodore Roosevelt).  When a four-year-old boy gets a dog, he thinks it’s perfect. He throws a squeaky toy around for the dog, pets it, chases it around the backyard. At least, that’s my image of Teddy.

For my parents, the dog was something entirely different. You see the dog was raised and trained by my grandfather: A cranky old man with a splinter’s talent for getting under someone’s skin. At least that’s how my father described him. Teddy mirrored my grandfather’s personality. If the dog only smoked cigars, the resemblance would have been eerie.

The dog ran away every chance it got. Take him outside and he wouldn’t go to the bathroom; bring him inside and he would immediately poop on the nearest bed. My parents eventually lost their patience and returned the dog to my grandmother, but told me it ran away. I spent much of that day looking for that dog. About two years later, my quixotic seven-year-old brain saw a dog with a slight resemblance to Teddy (the dog was actually a labrador retriever), and I — missing him still — chased him for a half mile.

I guess I haven’t changed much over the years: It’s three years later and not a day goes by that I don’t remember – sometimes fondly, sometimes sadly, often both – Bailey and Hannah.

So, I took a deep breath, tightened my jaw, screwed up my nerve, told myself I was being a total idiot . . . and promptly went to pieces. Damn book! At about this point I could feel my voice quivering: “When dogs go to Heaven, they don’t need wings because God knows that dogs love running best.” I paused, took another breath, and plowed through the last few pages.

“Sorry Pop Tart, but I am never reading that book to you again. Sorry.”

Then something happened I will always remember. Penelope took the book from my hands, looked at it, then looked at me.

“Papa, you sad. Let’s read another book. You’ll be happy. Let’s read the Grinch. I’ll get it.” Penelope clambered off the bed, and grabbed “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” from a pile on her dresser. She handed me the Grinch book, and looked at “Dog Heaven” in her other hand.

“I’ll hide this. You won’t be sad then,” she said. She took the book and slid it behind her toy barn. “See. Gone.” She spread her arms wide. She climbed back in bed, settling under the covers. The she hugged me.

She curled up next to me as I began reading the Grinch. Just as a smiling Grinch raised his carving knife to the roast beast, I could hear Penelope’s breathing deepen.

And the next morning, I was just waking up when I heard Penelope reading “Dog Heaven” to Sammi and Rudy, current Beagles in Residence, as they lay snuggling in their bed. Which, by the way, is in our room.

Perhaps she thought the story might comfort them.

On a Snowy Presidents’ Day….

Penelope woke up before the sun again this morning. As usual, the first words out of her mouth were: “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” She hopped into our room as giddy as a spider monkey with a tennis racket much to the sleepy chagrin of Bernadette and I.

In my daze, I told her that in 10 years she is going to want to sleep until noon, and that’s when I am going to start the family tradition of the “Saturday Morning Let’s Vacuum the Upstairs Hallway Party.” She liked the idea. You all are now my witness to that.

I think Presidents’ Day has confused Penelope a bit. When I told her why I wasn’t going to work at the office today, she grew very excited and I could not understand why. Then I realized she thought I had said “Presents Day.” I then told her that we celebrate today because it’s near Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (That’s the president she knows. Well, she also knows George W. Bush, but thinks his name is “Jackass.”)

Her face lit up like a Christmas tree, and she began clapping and laughing and begging us to take her downstairs. She started babbling a bit, and it took me a few moments to get the gist of her words.

I had to explain to her that Presidents’ Day was different from the last holiday we celebrated. But she understands now that Lincoln did not come to the house last night and leave presents in the library. Although,  when we later clomped down the stairs for breakfast, I saw her cast a hopeful glance through the library doors. Fortunately this little kid bounces back quickly and the promise of a cheese stick and Mickey Mouse revived her spirits.

Maybe today her and I will swing past the local Borders to find a children’s book on Abraham Lincoln. I would imagine such a book exists. Yes? It’s not like I’m seeking “The Adventures of Millard Fillmore.”

Musical Notes

Last Christmas, the school Penelope attends opened a store that sold inexpensive gifts that kids could purchase for their parents. Penelope decided to buy me a purple rubber duck for the bathtub and a key chain. The chain is five inches long and in white blocks spells out “I (heart) music.” Because I’ve been listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra lately, Penelope tried to find me a key chain that read: “I (heart) Frank.” I’m glad she couldn’t.

Music has always been an important part of our household, and we’ve stuffed several binders with jazz, classical, rock, opera, Americana, blues (mostly the old eight-bar traditional blues of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf), pop, show tunes, gospel and older country. Everything but hip-hop and rap, which means, no doubt, that Penelope will likely embrace hip-hop and rap when she’s older.

Which is fine. I only hope the music she embraces is what touches her soul and fills her senses and her emotional and spiritual needs. I’d hate for her to gravitate toward some music simply because it’s popular or because her friends listen to it or because it’s rammed down her throat by a gaggle of corporate cranks who could be just as easily selling soap flakes as deciding what music gets marketed to the masses. But whatever happens, happens.

I think music forms the soundtrack of our lives. Many of my childhood memories revolve around music. I can remember drawing comic books on the back porch while my brother’s stereo speakers blasted Uriah Heep. I’m not exactly sure why my brother gravitated toward one of the worst metal bands of the 1970s. Just listen to this for 30 seconds — go on, I dare you — and after laughing your pants off at their pants and hair, you’ll understand why speculation is rampant that Spinal Tap was based on this band.

Another musical memory I have is wandering up to my father’s art room. He’d be hunched over his drawing board, working, and from his tinny speakers would bleat Marty Robbins’s “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” (which featured such cowboy classics as Big Iron and They’re Hanging Me Tonight).

Although the first album I ever purchased with my own coin was ELO’s “Out of the Blue,” I became a big Alice Cooper fan in my formative years. And while I don’t recall ever running about the house wearing mascara with a boa constrictor slithering around my torso, I can still remember my parents quizzical looks when I asked for “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell” one Christmas.  I doubt bringing this record into school for Music Appreciation Day was the only reason my teacher requested a conference with my parents, but I suspect it made her top 10 list. I waited until my 12th birthday to ask for “Muscle of Love.”

Somewhat amazing in hindsight that I’m not receiving some form of psychotherapy these days. Then again, Frank Sinatra did sing an Alice Cooper song, so perhaps there’s some symmetry to my musical proclivities.

While Penelope enjoys “The Muffin Man,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Before They Make Me Run,” her all-time favorite song is “Down the Road Apiece.” I haven’t taken a car ride with her in the past month when she hasn’t asked to hear it. (Although this song has been performed by Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, she prefers the Bruce Springsteen/Joe Gruscheky version.) The only lyrics Penelope knows are: “down the road, down the road, down the road apiece,” and “Mama’s cookin’ chicken fried in bacon grease.” But she knows them real well and sings them quite loud. Perhaps she likes the song so much because it mentions food. That would also explain “The Muffin Man.”

I know the time will one day come when she hates my music. But for now, I’m perfectly free to cruise down the highway, arm banging against the car door in time to “Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra.”

Provided I play “Down the Road Apiece” first.