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!

For Mom, the Second Day of Kindergarten is Harder Than the First

First day!

Penelope waiting for the school bus on her first day of kindergarten.

(It’s the 50th blog post for “Growing Up With Penelope,” and I thought I’d celebrate by turning the page over to Bernadette. Since she’s written this post, there are two things I can guarantee. One, it’s a terrific read, and I’m sure you’ll love it. Second, this is a helluva lot longer than any post I would ever write!)

It’s the morning of the second day of Kindergarten, and the school bus has just pulled away. I’m mid-way into walking the beagles when it hits me, “Oh my God, she’s on the bus alone.”

Even though she’s not, of course, because all the neighborhood kids are on it with her.

And I have this panic attack – Will she get off the bus OK? Will she find her classroom OK? – even though I know perfectly well that the answer to both questions is yes.

I can’t call my husband for reassurance because he’s on his way to work sans broken cell phone. I can’t call my neighbor from across the street because I know she’s busy getting ready for an all-day PTA meeting. I can’t call my other two mom neighbors because they’re both at work.

So I do the only thing I can do: I take a deep breath, finish the walk, start a load of laundry, and sit down to write this story. But not before I post my freak out on Facebook, and learn from friends – not just acquaintances, but people who truly were friends in high school or college – that what I’m feeling is absolutely, positively, perfectly normal. (A newer friend, the mom of my daughter’s classmate and BFF, is on her third kid. She posts to reassure me that “the school is great. They will not lose her!”)

Rationally, I know all of this, but still I worry.

I worry that my daughter will have trouble making friends, though I know she has far more grace and confidence and self assurance than I ever did at her age.

I worry that my daughter won’t be kind to new kids who are afraid, though I know she understands what it is to be scared and different and in a place that is new and overwhelming.

And I worry that my daughter might get hurt, even though she survived two years of pre-K with only a few bumps and bruises, and I know there’s no reason to expect any differently now.

My husband emails me from work to tell me he’s found the folder he was looking for – one he thought our daughter had removed from his briefcase and placed in her backpack – and for a moment I’m disappointed that he’s found it because it means I no longer have an excuse to run up to the school, check our daughter’s backpack, and see with my own eyes that Penelope is truly OK.

An hour and a half after the bus pulls away, my mind is calmer. Writing, I know, helps; focusing on the screen as one word after another appears on it has, for me, always been a tonic.

And as I grow calmer, I find myself reflecting on the journey that brought us to this day. If you had asked me five years ago – before we began the adoption process that would ultimately lead us halfway around the world, to southern China and the most beautiful two-year-old you could imagine – I would have answered with the cockiness that only someone who has never experienced the agony of parenthood could.

“If I’m ever blessed to be a mother,” my childless self would have said, “I won’t be one of those overprotective ones who worries all the time.”

Ha!

I didn’t have to carry this child in my body for nine months to become a card-carrying, worrywart of a mom. I simply had to look at her, once, and to hold her, once. That’s all it took for me to be a goner.

I have calmed down in the three years since Penelope joined our family, but I do still worry. And I’ve learned from many friends, even before today’s Facebook post, that the worrying will never truly end. Not even, as my sister and sister-in-law are happy to tell me, when she’s grown and married and off on her own. They would know, having married off four daughters between them.

Yesterday, I was fine as I watched our daughter step onto the school bus for the first time, and without even a backward glance, find a seat and start chatting to her seatmate.

Now, 26 ½ hours later, I’m wondering exactly what sort of mother I am. Yesterday I was calm and collected; I didn’t worry a bit. Today I was, quite nearly, a hyperventilating basket case.

I’m blaming it on the adrenaline that’s no longer in my system.

The morning of the first day of Kindergarten was a whirlwind: getting showered and dressed, getting breakfast on the table, feeding the dogs, stuffing packed lunch and snack bags into the backpack, and asking Penelope if she’s nervous about Kindergarten. “No, Mama,” she answers. “I’m OK.”

Then we’re speed-walking down the driveway, video camera in hand, to wait for the bus with the boy across the street.

After a few minutes of picture taking and chatting with the boy’s parents, the bus arrives and, just like that, Penelope is on it and the doors are closing and I know with absolute certainty that if I’d allowed myself the time to think about how the years between now and college will pass in a blur of Daisy Troop meetings, sleepovers and first dates, I know I would have stood there crying as the bus carrying our little girl faded into the distance.

As it was, though, my husband and I had plans. We jumped into the car, drove to the school and parked, and sprinted across the parking lot and playground to the school’s front walkway so we could shoot photos and video of our daughter as she got off the bus for the very first time.

Mercifully for her, we weren’t the only parents who had this idea.

I stretched my neck and stood tippy-toed, watching for her cute little face to appear in the open doorway of the bus when suddenly, there she was: animatedly talking to the little boy walking alongside her, her fingers wrapped firmly around the straps of her bouncing owl backpack, not an ounce of fear or uncertainty anyplace on her face.

She was beaming, I was not crying, and my husband stood there smiling, part misty-eyed, part heart in his throat.

I knew, as we watched her walk down the long hallway to her Kindergarten classroom chatting to another little boy, that David was thinking exactly what I was thinking: how lucky he is, how lucky we are, to have this miracle of a child in our lives.

Superheroes, super aches

Super Penelope channeling her inner Batman at a friend's birthday party.

I learned some new things playing superhero at the park with Penelope:

  • The proper superhero flying pose is to make a fist and extend your right arm. Your left elbow should be held tight against your ribcage.
  • Superheros work on “school days” but not on “home days.”
  • Superhero duties include: chasing bad guys, helping kids in trouble and feeding dinosaurs.
  • Dinosaurs live under sliding boards and eat pebbles, but only pebbles from the area of the park farthest from the sliding board.

Penelope is running across a field toward a pebble-strewn track. I’m chasing behind her and dragging along our eldest beagle, who would prefer the comforts of her bed to playing the role of Superdog this chilly afternoon. I worry that Superdog’s only super power will be the ability to poop on my pillow while I’m in the shower. We gather a few choice pebbles and skip back across the field to feed the dinosaur. Penelope puts her hands to the side of her head: “Oh no! We need more dinosaur food!”

Oh boy! I take a gulp of air. This endeavor was supposed to wear the kid out, but I’m the one who’s likely heading to bed early. Back across the field we go. I’m huffing and puffing like a steam engine in pants. We make several trips collecting dinosaur food until Penelope pronounces the imaginary beast sated.

Galloping across the field, I suspect I’m providing a good chuckle for anyone looking out from one of the windows of one of the houses abutting the park. And if that’s the case, I don’t mind a bit. One of the unheralded bonuses of having a four-year-old is the chance to be a kid again yourself. If I tried skipping across the open fields without a kid, somebody would probably be chasing me with a net.

One other thing I’ve learned cavorting around the park this day: No matter how good I am about shunning Easter candy, there’s no way my caboose is wending gracefully down the sliding board. Nor will it fit comfortably on a swing. And, while we’re on the subject, didn’t any of these playground planners consider making the plastic tube that serves as a passageway from one side of the play set to the sliding board just a little bit larger?

By the end of the afternoon, I’m feeling my age. My knee joints ache, and my back is barking at me. I strap Penelope into her booster seat and hoist the beagle into the back where she can plot her revenge. I pour myself into the car, grunting a half-hearted vow about getting in shape. But as I back out of the parking space, I catch a glimpse of Penelope smiling in her car seat. And suddenly, I feel super.

Reflections on a Family Murder

Ten years ago this month, a man my uncle barely knew walked into his home, punched him in the face and strangled him to death. He dragged his lifeless body across a cold marble floor, dumped him into a closet and locked the door.

Then he picked up the telephone and invited his friends over to the house for a party.

My Mom called me two mornings later. She recounted the detective’s story of how friends grew worried when my uncle wasn’t answering his telephone. His girlfriend and best friend drove to his home, peeked past the living room curtains and saw fast-food bags littering my fastidious uncle’s coffee table. That’s when they called the police.

The disbelief in my Mom’s voice was palpable. Or, maybe, I could not believe what I was hearing. Within hours my wife and I packed our bags and staggered into our car for the two-day journey to my uncle’s home.

While today the memories are as fresh as this evening’s news, I still struggle to understand the jumble of events I confronted that week.  The feeling of being blindfolded and drop kicked into an episode of “Dragnet” permeates the shards of images that surface:

  • A mustached detective in a crisply ironed white shirt standing in the hallway, hands on hips, declaring in a gravelly voice: “My bad guys” know to stay away from this block.
  • The odor of decay that lingered in the musty air of the closed-up house; the red fingerprint dust that coated tables and bookshelves as though the devil himself had rifled through my uncle’s belongings.
  • Combing through drawers and cabinets, finding papers, photographs and objects — piecing together a mosaic of someone’s life. Someone whom I had known all my life, but didn’t really know at all. Or someone I knew as a child whose perspective never changed when I became an adult.
  • Me sleeping on the dining room floor with a carving knife under my pillow after we heard some alarming noises outside. (It’s a miracle I didn’t stab myself in the ear.)

I remember standing on my uncle’s front porch with my father. A warm sun baked my left arm; my father’s face shadowed by the porch overhang. He glared at me, his voice hushed. “You tell me everything that’s going on. Your mother doesn’t need to know. But you tell me.”

I’d been trying to shield my parents as much as possible. Spare them the gruesome details, the trauma. Much like they had spared me from life’s tragedies and horrors when I was a child.

No different from how I now shield Penelope.

But I told him; told him everything I knew. When I was finished he looked out past the front lawn, past the houses, down the street to somewhere else. To another street hundreds of miles and fifty years distant. To a boy my Dad once knew. That boy is riding a bicycle delivering newspapers in a respectable neighborhood on a chilly morning. He stops at a house and as he flips the newspaper onto the front porch, the door creaks open. A middle-aged woman purses her painted lips and comments on the chill. She scans the sleeping neighborhood for signs of life. Seeing none, she beckons him inside. . .

My father finishes his story. My eyes are still stinging when the screen door slams.

I’m alone on the porch.

But I’m not alone really. I’m standing on my uncle’s front porch, but it’s a different porch in front of a different house hundreds of miles and twenty-five years distant. There’s the smell of fresh-cut grass and an ache in my young shoulders. There are glasses of ice tea sweating on a metal tray, and my uncle is melting into a lawn chair. “You might like these,” he says, handing me a couple of paperbacks.

He’s talking, but I’m scanning the books, reading the blurb on the back and the reviews. “The Holcroft Covenant.” “Operation Skydrop.” Not exactly Hemingway but still a curiosity to a kid who’s just getting out of The Three Investigators and The Hardy Boys. These books are hundreds of pages long, small type, no pictures. Something resonates and an interest in books becomes a lifelong affair.

Since that week a decade ago, thoughts of my uncle always center around his terrible demise. He became labeled as: “My uncle, the one who was beaten and strangled to death . . .”

I realized not long ago the terrible thing I was doing. Bad enough someone had murdered my uncle; I had allowed that person to hijack my memories.

This discovery occurred as I stood in my living room before a locked bookcase which holds some of the greatest novels and poetry ever written. These books are beautiful editions; some signed by the authors. As someone who adores the classics, I treasure every book sitting on the shelves.

The books arrived in a dozen cardboard boxes about a month after my uncle’s murder. My mother thought he’d want me to have them.

——————

As a former newspaper editor, I would have sent this story back to the reporter and told him to fill in the blanks. So, here goes: two days after my uncle’s murder, police caught the man responsible. He planned a second party at my uncle’s home. The party guests arrived at about the same time the police did. They didn’t need Joe Friday to solve this crime. They found enough evidence to send the man to the state penitentiary for a very long time. My uncle’s ashes were shipped home a few months later. In a drizzly spring chill, my uncle, the book lover, was laid to rest in the family’s burial plot.

The Caffeinated Kid and Other Parenting Mishaps

As someone who will slice up a bunch of jalapeno peppers and then immediately take out his contact lenses, or rub Ben-Gay on his wife’s back and then go to the bathroom, picking out five really bad parenting moves was no problem. Actually, it was a problem because I thought of 16 and had to cut.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my five personal favorites:

Think before you sing. The other day I was driving to the supermarket with Penelope in the back seat. We were listening to a track by G.B. Leighton, an indie musician out of Minnesota, called “The Most Important Night of My Life.” I didn’t think much about it until after we returned home, and Bernadette asked me why Penelope was singing the first line of the chorus: “I’m going down to the liquor store.” (Ironically, if you watch the video link, Leighton warns about this very thing happening. If only I had seen the video sooner.) All I can say is thank God Penelope couldn’t decipher The Clash’s “Death or Glory.”

And, as a corollary I’d like to add that parodies of children’s songs are a really bad idea. Singing “the driver on the bus goes (insert farting sound here)” to the kid is a pre-K parent-teacher conference just waiting to happen.

Think before you practice. This week I started classes at Mix ’em Up Bartending School. (As an aside, I just want to say that the classes are fantastic, the instructors are terrific, and I’m happy to be adding a skill to my repertoire that can’t get outsourced to India.)

When I return home in the afternoon, I take a little time to practice what I’ve learned. Since I’m pouring liquid — really, water — from one type of container into another, Penelope suddenly finds me more interesting than the Kratt Brothers on PBS Kids. Later, Bernadette was giving Penelope a bath when the little one grabbed her plastic play cups and asked, “Mama, would you like an Alabama Slammer?”

Note to self: Practice making Sex on the Beach after 7:30 p.m.

Note to everyone: No matter how I phrase above sentence it always sounds dirty.

Opposites don’t attract. A recent conversation between Bernadette and I went like this:

Bern: Penelope is in this phase where she just won’t listen. You ask her to do something, and she won’t do it. Or she does the opposite.

Me: I know what we can do. We’ll just tell her the opposite of what we want her to do. So, if we want her to clean up her toys we’ll tell her to go watch TV.

Bern: Really? That teaches her to listen to us . . . how?

Umm . . . yea, good point.

Bedtime ain’t crazy time. I have a tendency to rile up Penelope right before bedtime. One example, and believe me there are many, was when I decided to act out one of her favorite books, “Sneaky Sheep” by Chris Monroe, complete with her stuffed sheep, wolf and Golden Retriever. Funny voices and bouncing animals all but guarantee a 7:30 p.m. bedtime isn’t going to happen. Penelope stayed awake several more hours, and was — how shall I put it? — an absolute joy when the sun rose the following morning. I’d like to publicly apologize to my wife, Penelope’s teachers, the woman who runs the playroom at Shop-Rite, several neighbors, my two beagles and a stray cat that wandered onto our property the next day.

The “new” new coffee generation. Recently I was working from home. I like to start each morning off with a cup of coffee or two or seven. On this particular morning I set my steaming mug down on my desk, shuffle back to the bedroom for a sweatshirt, then downstairs to drop a load of laundry into the washing machine, then into the kitchen to make some scrambled eggs. I carry my plate of eggs to my desk, set it down, reach for my coffee, but it’s gone. Since I have a terrible habit of leaving things all around the house, I pick up my plate of eggs and retrace my steps, but no luck and no coffee.

So, I call out to Bern who has a sixth sense for knowing where I’ve mislaid my car keys, wallet or the remote control. But she’s stumped. As I stand in the family room, scratching my head, a whirling dervish of a four year old careens past me, arms flapping in the air, yelling, “I’m flying!! I’m flying!!”

When I got back to my desk, my plate of eggs was missing. It was the beginning of the longest day of my life.

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.