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.

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Reconnecting with Our Past

horse

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.

Ties That Bind

I had just confused a boccie ball with a melon ball. Or maybe it was a Scarlett O’Hara and a Red Headed Slut. Either way, I was pacing back and forth behind a bar, hands on hips, muttering something not printable in a family blog.

This was back in January when  I was practicing for a portion of my final exam for bartending school — a speed drill in which I would have to make 12 drinks in seven minutes from among any of the 160-some-odd drinks we had covered during class. I had the drinks down cold if you gave me a name and asked me to spit back what went into the glass. But I needed work on the actual practice of grabbing the proper glass, bottles, mixers — in the proper proportions — along with the garnishes, and move onto the next drinks. I would eventually get it, but I just wasn’t there yet.

The instructor, who was kind enough to tutor me when she likely had better things to do like arrange future class schedules or play Farmville, sensed I needed a break. We started chatting about my future plans, and why I decided to learn a new skill. I told her I had always wanted to bartend, and that I’d realized lately the importance of truly enjoying your work. Important for me and for my family. I hope to teach Penelope the importance of making a career by doing what you love.

When I mentioned that I had a four-year-old adopted daughter from China, the instructor leaned over the bar, her voice getting slightly hushed and gentler. “Can I ask you something?”

I wasn’t sure where she was going, but I have always been pretty open about my experiences adopting a child. “Of course,” I said.

“Is it the same? When you adopt a child, do you have the same feeling . . . the same bond, I guess, that you do if you have the child naturally?”

It’s a good question. I can’t compare the two experiences because we’ve never conceived a child. But I can tell you of the immeasurable and immediate joy that swept through me the moment I held my daughter. And, the exhilaration. And the sheer terror.

And the feeling that somehow a miracle had just occurred. Maybe not the miracle of witnessing birth, but one of traveling halfway around the world to meet and hold a little girl (she was two at the time) who will be a huge part of our lives forever. The feeling that this is exactly what was supposed to happen and how it was supposed to be. Yes, it took reams of paperwork, miles of legwork and a wad of cash, but all the headaches and small heartaches melted away the moment we looked into her beautiful black eyes.

Dozens of books exist that detail the attachment process, so perhaps a story will suffice here. I remember the second or third day in Xiamen City, and we were at the pool. I thought it’d be fun to take Penelope into the adult pool. (This was before a rat the size of a chihuahua dove into the pool and sent Japanese businessmen scurrying like rice on a hot wok. I wrote about it here.) I hoisted Penelope above my head and started walking down the pool steps when I discovered something interesting about swimming pools in China. (Well, at least at this hotel.) The tile used in this particular pool was slippery bathroom tile. On the second step, my feet went flying out from under me. And although my toes were level with my chin, somehow instinct kicked in and I kept Penelope above my head, while I floundered backward into the water. I suspect she had no idea what happened, but my back sure did.

Later, I lay in bed thinking how quickly it all happens. One minute you’re cruising along without a care in the world, and the next you’re totally responsible for this tiny soul. Doesn’t matter whether it takes nine months or two years, or whether the child enters your life — screaming like a banshee — in a hospital room or a hotel suite. The bonds are instantaneous and unbreakable. And yes, miraculous.

On The Road to Social Slam

Our plans for a 5 a.m. departure begin promptly at 7:20. I’d blame it on an airline, but we’re not flying. I’d blame it on Amtrak, but we’re not taking a train. I have no one but to blame but myself and my inability to get out of bed when the alarm bleats. Our first stop is Charlotte where we are dropping off our 4-year-old daughter, Penelope, before heading to Knoxville. Charlotte wasn’t an arbitrary selection; my family lives there. Bernadette MapQuests the route before we leave.

10:30 a.m.

We’re three hours on the road and two hours behind schedule. Bern apparently checked The MapQuest boxes for “select route with the most construction.” We break at a truck stop in southern Pennsylvania. It’s an all-purpose joint where truckers can shower, do a load of laundry and purchase a beautiful set of chrome hubcaps. Since the dingy joint looks like the crime scene in an episode of Criminal Minds, I hover around the women’s bathroom listening for Bern and Penelope which only makes me look like the creepy guy who hangs around truck stop bathrooms. So I wander across the tiled corridor to a barber shop with a large poster tacked up in the window titled “Diamonds in the Rough Contest.” The poster features before-and-after photographs in which the barber has taken scary looking ex-cons and junkies with long hair and converted them into scary looking ex-cons and junkies with really bad haircuts.

Noon

Bern tells Penelope that if she doesn’t nap, we aren’t eating lunch at the Cracker Barrel. I groan. I have nothing against Cracker Barrel; we started stopping there because the bathrooms were clean, and the store fascinated Penelope. But now it’s become a ritual and we stop on every trip. Frankly, I’m rather weary of the place. I contemplate turning up the radio and poking Penelope with a stick.

12:30 p.m.

Cracker Barrel dining room. The waitress arrives, and I order a large cup of caffeine. Bern and Penelope are wandering the aisles of the Cracker Barrel store rifling shelves loaded with plastic toys, moon pies and Merle Haggard CDs. I look around the dining room. I am the only customer under the weight of your average Hyundai. The family arrives, and we order lunch. I bypass the “aorta clogger” in favor of the “just Crazy Glue that sawdust gravy to my ass” selection on the menu. So much for being the skinniest guy in the dining room.

1:15 p.m.

We’ve just exited the Cracker Barrel. Penelope says, “I’m hungry.” It doesn’t matter that she has just devoured an egg, two pieces of bacon, a biscuit, some grits, a hunk of chicken and some orange slices. Bern says “Penelope, you just ate! Read a book or play a game.” Penelope thinks for a moment. “Can I pretend I’m visiting Grandma?” Yes, Penelope. “Hi Grandma! I’m hungry!”

1:30 p.m.

Penelope’s gnawing on her second Twizzler and clamoring for a third. Bern warns her: “No more Twizzlers. There’s no nutritional value in that! At least have a peanut butter cup. There’s peanut butter in there and . . . Ummm . . . Chocolate.” She starts thinking about the words coming out of her mouth and looks at me. “Ugh, I can’t believe I just said that.”

2:24 p.m.

I’m dozing in the Virginia sun. I lift up my eyelids. By the way, I’m not driving the car.There’s a tanker truck directly in front of us that reads “World’s Best Coffee.” I fantasize about telling Bern to pull alongside the truck while I — in my best Indiana Jones manner — roll down the window and leap from our car to the truck. I land on the tanker, plunge in and swim and drink coffee to my hearts content. Then the drowsy feeling lifts, and I realize I’m staring at a gasoline truck with a coffee advertisement on the back. I slam my eyes shut.

6 p.m.

Virginia is a pretty state. I wish I were out of it.

6:08 p.m.

Just passed a sign in Virginia that reads: “Work Zone Safety Week. Dial 551 for Details.” Because there’s nothing safer than driving and dialing in the midst of road construction.

6:23 p.m.

We cross the border into North Carolina. We cheer. Silence. We drive some more. Silence. Penelope asks, “When do we get to Grandma’s?” Umm, we have another two hours in the car.

8:34 p.m.

We arrive at my Mom’s home. The 10-hour trip takes 13 hours and 14 minutes. I used to laugh when friends with small children told me they would leave their homes at 3 a.m. when traveling long distances. Now I get it.

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.

Tis the Season

On a frost-tinged December morning, I feel battered and befuddled, squinting bleary-eyed out a back window at a brown patch in the woods. Was it a deer or a dying bush? Usually, I’m pretty good at playing animal, vegetable or mineral – especially with visual aids – but not this Sunday. Perhaps my confusion resulted from my decision to forego my morning coffee in favor of a deep mug of green drink, a pointy-hatted Elphaba-flavored concoction of kiwi, barley grass, broccoli, lemon grass, blue-green algae (really), Nova Scotia Dulce (whatever the f–k that is), toxic sludge (oh, does it really matter at this point) and spinach.

I really need coffee today. Bernadette, Penelope and I are headed out to pick up our Christmas tree. Picking out a tree with Bern is a bit of an odyssey. While we won’t be gone for 20 years, we will undoubtably wander aimlessly about the local tree farms until Bern embraces the Orson Welles of the Christmas-tree world.

On this day, Bern wanders about with her arms stretched wide in front of her like a chubby Frankenstein measuring the width of every tree in the lot. Penelope, her red nose running faster than the Delaware River, stumbles behind her singing “The Poopy Song.”

When I remind her to mind her manners, she asks, “How about ‘The Farting Song?’ ” “No, honey, no farting song.” “Well, how about ‘The Mommy Song?’ ” “Absolutely, Pop Tart. ‘The Mommy Song’ would be perfect!” Penelope sings: “Mommy’s farting! Mommy’s farting!”

Eventually, at our third stop, Bern approaches a tree, arms spread wide, and giddily announces, “We have a winner!” We throw the tree atop the Volvo which, while belching smoke and burning oil, lets us know that a 12-year-old vehicle with 210,000 miles on it is too old for this shit. Yes, the car’s nickname is Murtaugh.

We get the tree home and carefully balance it in its solid cast-iron stand. We check to ensure the tree is perfectly straight. We screw each peg into the tree’s base, first by hand and then with a wrench. We give the tree a little shake. It moves. I slide back under the tree like a mechanic fixing a 12-year-old Volvo and tighten it some more. Another shake. This time the tree doesn’t budge. We entangle ourselves in the white lights and shake them off ourselves and onto the tree. Next come the needlepoint angels Bern made by hand back in the day when she didn’t have her hands full with a Chinese child. And then the ornaments. We carefully hang the breakable ones on top while Penelope places the nonbreakables on the bottom. When all is done we stand back and admire our tree — safe, snug and glowing in all its celebratory brilliance. . . .

So, I have no explanation why 10 days later the tree topples over onto the living room floor. Bern and Penelope are in another room eating lunch at the time — which means the dogs are with them, of course — and I am at work. Fortunately our neighbor James has fishing line and a studfinder (and yes, I, like every other American male out there, can’t help but annoy Bern with the studfinder joke: ‘Honey, take this thing. Every time I hold it, it goes off.’) Bern, the biggest Christmas Wienie south of the North Pole, has been collecting ornaments since she was a girl. She calmly surveys the damage, and after slowly exhaling a deep breath, reports that most of her favorites are intact.

“I’d suggest that we convert to Judaism, but with our luck we’ll light the Menorah and burn down the house,” I tell her.

************

Two weeks before Santa Claus comes to town, Penelope announces proudly to Bern that she wants to buy me a Lincoln book as a surprise for Christmas. For those of you who don’t know, Penelope now recognizes two famous people: Abraham Lincoln and Frank Sinatra. Sometimes she confuses the two. My telling her that Lincoln didn’t sleep with Ava Gardner doesn’t help. The pair (Bern and Penelope, not Abe and Ava) head off to the local Fox Books. Bern tells Penelope that Papa will be so surprised on Christmas eve when he unwraps his new Lincoln book.

When I arrive home from work that evening, Penelope is practically bursting: “Papa, I bought you a present. Lincoln book!!!” The kid just can’t keep a secret. Later, Bern and I sit with Penelope and attempt to re-explain what a “surprise” means.

This time the message gets through.

A week later, we travel to the New York City Macy’s to see Santa. After a short wait, Penelope climbs atop Santa’s lap. She giggles and whispers in his ear what she wants for Christmas. Santa laughs and pats Penelope on the head. We exit the beautiful holiday scene and are promptly dumped into the women’s outerwear department.

“Penelope,” I ask, “what did you ask Santa to bring you for Christmas?”

She nods her head and theatrically purses her lips.

“Really, you can tell me.”

“No Papa! It’s a surprise!” she says.

It’s almost a week later and I still can’t get her to tell us. Another lesson learned.

 

Silly Car Talk

Before Penelope entered our lives, Bernadette and I usually conducted family meetings in our car. Whenever we had something important to discuss we’d always wait until we had to drive somewhere. In hindsight, I consider it a testament to our relationship that neither of us drove off a cliff or into a tree.

This all changed once Penelope came along. Now, our family car conversations are generally fast, silly and nonsensical. Like a bunch of marbles in a roaring blender that’s missing its lid, I’m never quite sure what’s going to come out.  Or, perhaps I should say, I’m never quite sure what’s going to come out of Penelope’s mouth.

Recently, Bernadette, Penelope and I spent the day in Chinatown (or what Penelope now calls “The Homeland”). The hourlong trip took twice as long thanks to road construction on the NJ Turnpike.

B = Bern

D = Dave

P = Pelli P (singing): Muffin Man, the Muffin Man…

D: I better tell you now. Penelope knows three songs. The Alphabet Song. The Muffin Man. And Before They Make Me Run by the Rolling Stones.

B: Huh? What?

D (mumbles): My bad. The song was in my head the other day, and I couldn’t stop singing it. I guess Penelope picked it up.

B: What’s it about?

D: Oh, I don’t know…..I think….umm….Keith Richards wrote it after he got arrested for possession of heroin in Canada.

P (singing): …Before they make me runnnnnnn.”

B: You’re an idiot. (Pause) The bathrooms in Chinatown make me a little nervous. I swear last time I was in a bathroom there the floor was moving.

P (singing): Happy Birthday Chinese!

D: OK, she knows four songs.

P: Why?

D: Because that’s the number of songs you know.

P: Why?

B: Because you haven’t learned others yet. You will…

P: Why?

D: You know, I’m going to find whoever came up with the question “Why” and I’m going to beat him senseless. Then when he asks me why I’m doing it, I’m going to beat him all over again.

P: Papa?

D: You’re not asking me a question that begins with why?

P: Why?

D (sighs): Nevermind.

P: Papa, will there be boys in New York City?

Aside: What did I say about driving off a cliff or into a tree?

B: She plays with boys a lot more than girls at school. The other day I asked her who she played with and she named every boy in class. Aren’t there any girls in your class?

P: Yea, but . . . . (Indecipherable. However, I think she said they were boring.)

D: Remind me tomorrow that I have to go out and buy a gun, sit on the front porch and practice cleaning it. Maybe we should stop potty training her.

Sometimes in all the craziness, it’s easy to forget that it’s not just about getting somewhere, but enjoying the journey along the way. I think that’s one of the great blessings that Penelope has brought into my life.