And they’re off…

Here are my three youngest kids waiting at the bus stop yesterday morning on the first day of the new school year.

Leah (9th grade) was “so excited” that she couldn’t sleep the night before. (To be clear, the excitement stems from seeing her friends, not from the classwork.) Peter (11th grade) just had to have his four eggs and oatmeal for breakfast, to stay on his weight training plan (I think it’s called “suns out/guns out”). Andrew (7th grade) had the trepidation you’d expect from someone attending their first day at a 7-12 school with a big campus, a confusing classroom layout and 2000+ kids.

They all survived. Live and learn.

 

Back to school, so uncool

If you believe the funny Staples commercial from the 90s, back-to-school time is fun for parents.

Obviously the dad in that commercial wasn’t the one responsible for waking up two teenagers and a twelve year old every school morning… at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. They have to be at the bus stop at the end of our street by 6:30, which seems like it could qualify as “cruel and unusual punishment” for kids who, at their current ages, are biologically wired to stay up later and wake later.

During the summer, I can “sleep in” until about 5:50 a.m. That gives me enough time to do a bit of morning exercise (love those kettlebell swings), eat breakfast (it involves sauerkraut – don’t judge), take a shower and maybe check email before my bus to work arrives at 6:45. But the school schedule is a game-changer. Now every morning becomes a fire drill. Especially with our youngest starting junior high – so he’s now on the same wake-up schedule as his older siblings. And we only have two showers in our house. I figure I’ll have to start getting up at 5:15 or so in order to keep up with my exercise regimen, wake the kids (it takes a few tries), make them breakfast (it ain’t gourmet) and get them to the bus stop (a.k.a. the 100-yard mad dash).

On a couple of weekdays, my wife can drop the kids off at school on her way to work. Which seems great in theory, but in reality it just makes “bus days” that much more painful… because when mom drives they get to sleep in an extra 15 minutes, so she’s a hero, and when dad wakes them for the bus he’s a zero.

How many days until Thanksgiving break?

The year without a Santa Claus

As I sit down to write this, it’s 10:40 a.m. on a Sunday. Normally I’d be at Mass right now, sitting in the same pew as my wife’s uncle Neil, and his wife Gayle. They were with us on vacation in Florida July 1-8, along with a bunch of Neil’s relatives, and everyone rolled back into town late last Saturday night. After every Sunday Mass, all the family members in attendance always gather and talk for a bit, with Neil at the center of the conversation.

A week ago, it was just Neil, Gayle and me. We chatted for a bit, and said our “see you next week” goodbyes… Neil had a heart attack later that day, and passed away on Thursday. Yes, he was 78, and overweight, and had already had a heart attack and heart valve replacement several years ago… but I still feel like he was stolen away from us way too soon. That’s the way it always is with great folks, and he was a fantastic human being.

There are so many stories I could tell about “Real Deal Uncle Neil” as I called him, but to me the one that best epitomizes his character and caring is this: for nearly 40 years, Neil would dress up as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and spend several hours visiting the homes of dozens of relatives, friends and co-workers, spending a few minutes at each house talking to the kids that lived there, having them sing a Christmas song, reminding them to go to bed early, asking them to leave a snack for his reindeer… totally getting into playing the part of Santa Claus. Our house was one of the stops when our kids were younger, and I’ll never forget the look on our kids’ faces when “Santa” showed up and spoke with them. Pure magic.

Think about that for a bit. For 40 years, Neil sacrificed his Christmas Eve to make others happy. It was no fun riding around dressed up in a sweat-inducing Santa suit, with heavy boots and an itchy beard… but bringing some magic into the lives of others superseded that.

Here’s the thing – the Santa suit was just a prop. Honestly, Neil was the type of person that brought magic into the lives of others every day – kids and adults alike. He had the Irish “gift of gab” and never let the facts get in the way of a good story. He was comfortable talking to anyone and everyone, and always left you with a smile on your face.

In hindsight, as we look back at a few things Neil did on vacation that were a bit more sentimental than usual, we think he knew his time on earth was drawing to a close. We’ll miss him dearly. But I’ll also take solace in the words of Ray Bradbury, from his beautiful story about dying called “The Leave-Taking“:

Important thing is not the me that’s lying here, but the me that’s sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that’s downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I’m not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family. 

Magic bus…er, minivan

I’ve been slacking on blog posts lately because I’m on vacation, so I’m slacking on everything that doesn’t involve a beach. But I do want to pay tribute to the mighty minivan that has taken us on our annual summer trip (or trips, depending on the year) since 2003.

Odyssey is an apt name for our van, because it’s been to Florida, Alabama, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, South Carolina, Louisiana… anywhere the Dubbatrubba six-pack of people needs to go for summer fun. Last year the alternator died on our return trip, but other than that it’s been smooth sailing. We’ve been through so much together that I’m really going to miss ol’ Blue when he’s gone.

This year we brought a cousin along for our trip, so we took two cars. Usually we have the hard-shell luggage carrier (we call it “the turtle”) on top of the minivan, crammed to the gills with all manner of boogie boards, beach chairs and sun canopies. But with two cars we had more storage space, and I was able to take our kayaks instead. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put those kayaks to good use…

 

Summer’s not a bummer

Happy Summer! June 21 is the Summer Solstice, the official start of summer and the longest day of the year. It’s also the wedding anniversary for my lovely bride and me. That’s not a coincidence. I had to pick a day that I’d remember, and I love Summer so June 21st made sense. (It also helped that the church was available on that date.) I tease Tina all the time that “the longest day of the year” was also “the longest day of my life” – but really we both know it was the luckiest day of my life.

This year is our 20th anniversary. Two full decades. A “score” in Abraham Lincoln’s parlance. 1997 seems like a long time ago (4 kids will do that to you) but it also seems like just yesterday in many ways.

My man John Hiatt captures the daily adventures of married life quite well in this pretty little ditty. It has some great lines, like “I always thought our house was haunted  ’cause nobody said boo to me” and

“Now I’m in my car
I got the radio on
I’m yellin’ at the kids in the back seat
‘Cause they’re bangin’ like Charlie Watts”

But my favorite lines are here:

Time is short and here’s the damn thing about it
You’re gonna die, gonna die for sure
And you can learn to life with love or without it
But there ain’t no cure

While we’re on an Americana jaunt, let’s keep the momentum going with a great duet from Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

 

Field of Dreams… Cow Pasture of Reality

Last weekend I went back to Arkansas for the first time in nearly 30 years, for a high school reunion. While I was there, I just had to drive past my childhood home in Hagarville, Arkansas (population: 129).  I hadn’t seen it since 1985.

It’s changed a bit.

You can barely see the front of the house from the road in front of it.

And there’s cattle fencing all around the house. Because my dad sold the house to the farmer next door, and when my dad moved out (circa 1999) to live with my older sister in Brooklyn, Farmer Ocil just extended the cow pasture that used to be next to our yard, and used the house to store feed and supplies. Ocil died in 2012, and whoever took over is just letting the place go to seed. So the house is abandoned, and falling down. I had to peek through the overgrowth by the fence line on one side of the house just to try to snap a few photos.

Did it make me sad to see my old childhood home in such a sorry state? Sure. But then again, it was never a showpiece, even in its prime. And in an “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” way, it’s fine. That house served its purpose for many years – as a safe harbor for Herb and his four young kids after his wife died. The yard was a place for us to play football, and basketball, and baseball, and catch frogs (and run from snakes), and feed persimmons to the horses next door. But we outgrew it, went to college in Boston and and Omaha and Cincinnati, and really never looked back.

Who cares if cows (and bulls) are now roaming our old stomping grounds?

The house can fall, but the home lives on. And that’s no b.s.

“Where does it lie this reverie

like a distant land

it shines forever in my heart

we all go home again…”

 

The other Memorial Day

May 30th was my dad’s birthday. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about him on Father’s Day. Since only 2 people knew of this blog’s existence back then, I’m doing a “rerun”:

I think of my own father, Herbert, who also was the father of four. His wife died at age 33, of leukemia, just a few months after the diagnosis. Dad was left to raise four children under the age of 7 all by his lonesome. How do you survive that gut punch, that heartbreak, that total meltdown of your world? In many ways, my dad never did fully recover. But he did the best he could. We moved from Jersey City, NJ to Hagarville, Arkansas – from the big city to the tiniest speck on the map in the foothills of the Ozarks. “Culture shock” doesn’t do it justice. However, it was a great place for us to grow up with a single parent, and has made my life experiences richer.

We were dirt poor, but our dad bestowed gifts upon us that were priceless: kindness, integrity, compassion.

Herb passed away in 2010. I miss him every day. To anyone who has lost a father, this beautiful song by Billy Bragg is for you.

And to add a bit of “bonus footage” to the rerun, there’s another great song about missing your old man below. My friend Tim Condron (check out his Second Takes blog) lost his father, a Norwood, Ohio firefighter, while we were in college together. His dad contracted Hepatitis B on the job, while coming to the aid of an overdose patient.

(You can read the entire article Tim wrote for Cincinnati Magazine here.) Tim and I took several classes together at Xavier, as we were both communications majors. Shortly after his father passed away, Tim put together a video of still photos of his father with this song as the soundtrack. It was one of the most moving pieces I’ve ever seen.

Here’s to you, Herb and Jim, and all the other good dads who are no longer here, yet always present.

 

No cause for alarm(s)

Three of our kids wrapped up their school year yesterday. Our daughter Leah has a Latin exam today (sounds like fun!) and will be finished before noon. That means I’ll have three glorious months of no kiddie wake-up duty.

And if you’ve never tried to wake up a teenager, I suggest you go poke a rattlesnake nest with your bare hands, it’ll be less painful.

Oh sure, I’ll still get up at the crack of dawn. I’m a 52-year-old guy… nature calls early and often for me. But it’ll be nice to have just a few minutes to spare.

Now that the kiddies are ready to sleep in, I just need to work on the kitties

Enjoy your summer!

 

 

End of the (car) line

Our youngest child, Andrew, turned 12 this past Thursday.

Older sister Leah is not impressed.

A week from today, he’ll wrap up 6th grade at Sands Montessori, the same school his three older siblings attended (and the first public Montessori school in the United States!).

We’ve had kids there since 2005, and have made great friends with fellow parents over the years. It’s hard to believe that a week from now, we won’t be “Sands parents” anymore. It’s the end of an era, the closing of another chapter in our lives.

I work from home most Tuesdays, and drop Andrew off at Sands in the morning. I won’t miss the school drop-off line – for some inexplicable reason I fully expect preschoolers and grade schoolers to disgorge from their parents’ cars with the swiftness of WWII GIs leaving their Higgins boat during the D-Day invasion… a sure recipe for frustration.

  

But I’ll really miss my time with Andrew in the morning – waking him at 8 (I call him “Lieutenant Lazybones”), serving him a nutritious breakfast of… whatever sugar-laden cereal happens to be handy…

… listening to music on our three-minute ride to school, giving color commentary on the other cars in line (“look at this one, stopping only halfway through the circle… c’mon, your snowflake can walk an extra 20 feet!”)…

… sending him on his merry way with a quick “love you!”… and getting back a “love you too” because he’s not a jaded teenager yet.

Come August, he’ll be getting on a bus with two of his older siblings, headed to Walnut Hills. He’ll still be my boy, he’ll still be our baby… but baby boy has left the building. And I really miss him.

 

Cinco de Mayo is Quinto maggio to me

I hope you’ll excuse me if I don’t feel like celebrating today. Not only is it a dreary day in Cincinnati, but 5/5 was my mom’s birthday. As most of you know, she died when I was quite young. Three years old, to be exact. Leukemia stole her away from her husband and 4 young kids, at the age of 33 (a.k.a. the “Jesus year”).

Let’s get the easy answers out of the way first:

  1. No
  2. No

Sorry, I forgot this isn’t Jeopardy. The questions are:

  1. Do you remember her?
  2. Did your father ever remarry?

Those two questions are usually the ones I get when I tell someone about my mom’s untimely departure from this world. #1 is a lot tougher to wrap my head around. Trust me, I’ve tried my best to remember her, but to no avail. So how do you miss someone that you didn’t really know? It’s a weird feeling, for sure.

I know the time from birth to age three is a crucial period, and so my mom was my first/best teacher. But when I try to conjure up some sort of happy memory, a warm glow from those halcyon days… nothin’.

I’ll tell you what I do know. My mom was a first generation Italian-American.

She too lost her mom young… and a sister as well. She played basketball in high school. (We had her b-ball jersey at our house in Arkansas… long after we moved from Jersey City, where my mom and dad met and married. I studied that jersey like it was the Shroud of Turin.)

When she went into labor with her third child (yours truly), my dad took a route to the hospital that featured a few cobblestone streets… and my mom gave my dad some good-natured grief about that. (The extra bouncing might also help explain why I’m wired differently.) When she was trying to teach me how to tie my shoes, I got mad and kicked off one shoe, and it flew up and cracked one of the window panes in our front door… or at least that’s what my older siblings told me… or something like that. It’s been too long.

 

There’s a Superchunk song call “Void” that expresses my feelings very well:

I look for you
And all I see, all I say
Is a void
All I see, all I say
Is a void
“Pity? Party of one? You’re table’s ready.”
OK, I’ll stop wallowing now. Cinco de Mayo’s for celebrating, right? So rather than focus on the negative space, I’ll celebrate the fact that my mother laid such a strong foundation in our short time together that I do miss her to this day, even if my “miss” is different from most. Diamonds are forever, but so are DNA and “imprinting.”
I’m far from a masterpiece, but my siblings and I are her masterpieces.  Superchunk, bring it home:
Don’t go wait for me,
No, don’t go Wait for me
Because I don’t believe
I don’t believe everything I see
No, I don’t believe
I don’t believe everything I see