CHILDHOOD

Nature’s Way

My wife was the first one to notice. A bird had built a nest in the wreath that hung from our front door. Actually, it was two different birds, as thereFullSizeRender (21) were two types of eggs in the small stick structure–two speckled brown and four light blue.

The boys were fascinated for a day or two, but quickly lost interest as the eggs just seemed to become another adornment in the wreath. They were not intrigued by the gestation period the way I was. Throughout the spring, I looked out the small window of the door, down into the nest, with the excitement of a toddler on Christmas Eve. I placed a step stool against the inside of the door and checked periodically on the egg inhabitants. The mornings were simply a chance to make sure all the eggs were still there, but the evenings afforded more interaction with the mama bird.

It became part of my nightly routine: put the dogs to bed, set up the coffee pot, check on the birds in the nest. At first, the mama could sense me staring down on her, and would fly away. But I quickly learned to position myself to the side of the window.  Once I mastered this, I could marvel at the mother bird’s determination to protect her offspring. Her head was on a swivel, moving side to side to ensure her babies were safe, and the porch light added a warmth that she seemed to welcome. After a minute or so, I would leave my perch and quietly walk to the comfort of my bed.

Then, one day in mid-June, I looked out the window in the early morning and found that there were no longer eggs, but a mass of fuzzy creatures, bizarre in their ugliness and shape. I laughed at my ignorance. Why would I assume the birds would hatch looking more like, well, birds? In addition, not all the eggs hatched. Someone told us that the one mother bird probably removed the other mother bird’s eggs from the nest. My first reaction to this was, how cruel, followed quickly by, this is nature’s way. And only three of the four blue eggs hatched–again, the way the natural world works.

The boys now had a newfound interest in the nest. I would catch them standing on the bench on our front step, peering down at the trio, trying to make out where one bird ended and another began. I watched them bring their friends over to spy on the latest stage of development.

As for me, I was somewhat put-off that the birds were so indistinguishable. Then one day, about a week after their birth, I noticed something that FullSizeRender (22)amazed me; each worm-like mass had a tiny yellow triangle towards its top. They’re beaks! I thought aloud. Again, I was surprised at my ignorance. Yes, Michael, birds have beaks. You remember kindergarten, right?

After that, I was hooked. I gazed down at the nest several times a day, watching these beaks turn into birds. I stared in wonder as each bird developed its head, focused its eyes, sprouted its wings. The wreath wriggled with constant movement, as the mama bird flew back and forth with food. I had gotten good at watching her flight patterns, and could see her occupying various branches on the pine tree near the front pathway. I even took to speaking with her. “It’s okay, mom. I’m not going to harm them.”

During those few weeks, I made several observations. There was an order to the three birds. The one towards the front was in charge.  He watched over the other two, he opened his wings first. The one in the middle followed suit, and the one towards the back seemed to develop more slowly and tentatively. Also, the perimeter of the nest was comprised of their waste–did the birds know to do this instinctively? And the mother bird visited the nest less often. I surmised that this was her way of getting her young to be more independent–forcing them to fly. However, she was never far away. I could spot her on various limbs in the trees nearby.

 

Metaphors abound in nature. One can find lessons and connections between nature and our human existence almost at every turn. Poets have mused about this for centuries. People learn to take comfort in the beauty–the daffodils that sprout after an interminable winter, the caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly, and understanding in the tragedy–the thousands of sea creatures that feed off a dead whale’s carcass, the need for predators to stalk their prey in order to survive. Indeed, nature is humanity’s greatest classroom. Yet, we seem to ignore it in our day-to-day lives. It takes a tremendous effort to get us to notice things. To appreciate them. The arrival of this nest prompted me to rediscover the array of birds and wildlife that surround our home. We live in a beautiful area ensconced with trees, streams, a pond, walking trails. We are very fortunate. And, sometimes, we look up from our phone screens long enough to spy the blue heron’s wingspan as he ascends into the sky, the camouflaged frog springing in the tall grass, the design on the turtle’s back who has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, after a summer storm. Nature has its reminders, its lessons, yet there are perhaps too many for us to fully appreciate. So, when the world offers you a nest of birds–a literal bird’s eye view, one can fully embrace the mundane miracles that surround us.

FullSizeRender (23)As the birds became more active, so, too, did the interest from our dogs. Huckleberry, a hound rescue, and Rosie, a black Lab, started to spend more time near the front door. When Huck finally put his paws on the door and started clawing towards the wreath, we knew it was time to cordon off the front entrance. I set up a makeshift barrier of old puppy gates, and moved the bench. We had stopped using the front door months ago, so that was no hassle. Yet, the dogs’ newfound discovery made us worry. The three birds had come so far, we didn’t want to now be responsible for their demise.

And just as I learned to talk to the mother, I did so with her three young. “Good morning! How was your night? It’s okay. You’re safe.” My greeting was met with a frightened fluttering of wings and a bobbing of heads. Their reactions made me realize they were almost ready to leave the nest. These birds were now full-fledged. It was time to fly.

I watched one hot morning as the first bird–the front bird–moved up the wreath and attempted to flap his way out into the world. “Come on buddy. You can do it.” And he did. He teetered. He dipped. But then, he flew. High enough to disappear into the trees, joining his mother, I hoped. “Goodbye!” I called after him. “Good luck!”

The second bird was gone by sundown. No one watched her departure, but we were confident she was somewhere right above us with her family. The last bird, the tentative one, was struggling. Whereas the other two became emboldened with each passing day, this creature remained stagnant.

“Do you think she’s okay?” my wife asked at dinner that night.

“Yeah. It just takes some longer than others. She just needs a little more time to gain confidence.” Again, I could not help but think of the parallels between animals and humans. Everyone is different. All in due course.

The next day, she was still there. But she had managed to climb out of the nest and up into the faux leaves of the wreath. When I approached to check on her, she seemed skittish and panicky. “You can do it,” I said. But I had my doubts. I cursed the notion of survival of the fittest. Two out of three isn’t bad, but it doesn’t seem fair. Nature has a way–this now refrain popped into my head, and I wasn’t certain if I thought of this as a positive or a negative. A way of fulfilling or eliminating. Time would tell.

When I checked at bedtime, she was still there. Alone. “You can do it,” I whispered.

In the morning, I forgot about the nest until I was leaving to drive the boys to camp.

“Guys, shhh. I want to check on the bird,” I said in a loud whisper.

“I’ll do it,” said Hayden (10). He hopped on the bench. “Dad, it’s empty!”

“She may be hiding up inside the wreath,” I said, moving nearer to investigate. After a closer look, I was confident. “She’s gone,” I shouted. “She made it! I was worried about her,” I finally admitted.

As we walked away towards the car, the two dogs came bouncing around the house, hoping to join us for the ride. This had started to become part of our morning routine. But something else had gotten their attention in the Pachysandra that bordered our front path.

“What’s Rosie doing?” asked Owen (11).

“She’s after something,” I said, unaware.

“Oh, no!” yelled Hayden. “The bird!”

“Rosie, NO!” I screamed.

Confused, she looked up, with tiny feathers protruding from her closed mouth.

“Drop,” I hollered. “Rosie, drop!”

Rosie obeyed and a little creature tumbled out. It seemed to take a moment to regain form. But there, on the path, was the bird.

“Bad dog!” Hayden yelled. Tears had instantly shot into his eyes once he realized the worst, and Owen was in the driveway crying to himself.

“Is she dead?” Owen asked.

“No,” I said. “She’s just scared. Labs are retrievers. They have soft mouths.” I was grasping at hope here, not sure if I was making that up or not. “Get the dogs inside.”

While the boys did as I asked, the bird zigzagged her way under a bush. “Aww, birdy. Sorry about that. Are you okay?” She seemed weak, yet I wanted to be optimistic. I took the gates from the front door, and now made a barrier around the bush. If she did not progress by nightfall, she would probably die, I thought.

The ride to camp was somber. The boys stifled their tears, and I defended their canine sibling.

“Guys, Rosie was just doing what she was supposed to do. Dogs sniff out other creatures. Labs are hunting dogs. So are hounds. It’s in their nature.” Then I attempted to convey that birds, like all beings, need to quickly adapt or they will not survive, but as I began this line of thinking, both boys looked more distraught.

“Do you think she’ll live,” Owen asked.

“I do. I do,” I said. And I almost believed it.

“Should you move her?” asked Hayden.

“I might,” I said, but I really didn’t want to. “Well see.”

We pass a dead raccoon in the middle of the highway. “Whoa! Look at that.” Owen says, matter-of-factly.

It’s funny, I think. Roadkill doesn’t affect us. The bird that flew into our widow and died last month didn’t bring us to tears. We squash mosquitoes with glee. We fish in our pond. But certain lives affect us more. When you watch something’s life from creation to independence, you feel a connection, a bond. As a family, we felt this bond with these birds, on our tiny thumbprint of land that we call ours.

When I got home, I saw that she was tucked under the bush, up against the house. Her head was hidden in her wing. Is she giving up? I wondered. 

I kept the dogs away from this area and went about some yard work. She remained in her spot.

Before I went to pick up the boys that afternoon, I discovered her near the edge of the path. I was excited for her. “Good job. That’s it. You can do it.”

As soon as they get in the car at pick up, I give them a report. “Boys, she moved away from the house. She might even be gone when we get home.”

“If she’s not, you’re gonna have to move her,” said Owen.

“Okay! I’ll move her if she’s still there,” I said begrudgingly.

Once home, Hayden bolted up the driveway to check on our friend. “Dad, she’s still here. You’re gonna have to move her.”

“Okay. Okay,” I said. You’re the adult, Michael. They’re watching you.

With a surprising grace, I bent down and gingerly cupped the tiny bird in my hand. She was so light. So soft. The boys looked on suspiciously.

“I got her, guys. Don’t worry.”

I walked over to the shaded edge of our property where the dogs could not access. I found a spot hidden among the tall perennials. The grace I had moments ago was gone. Although my hand was inches from the ground, her landing was not soft. I had hoped she would flutter more when I opened my palm. There was little movement, and she fell over as I placed her down on the top of the small slope near the trees. I propped her up, but she was listless.

“Dammit,” I muttered, but the boys had already gone inside to get out of the June heat.

“Is she okay?” one asked.

“Yep,” I lied. “I’m just going to bring her some water. Come have your snack.”

By the time I came out with her water, minutes later, she was slumped over, dead.

“Shit!” I said, then I looked up apologetically, imagining her mother witnessing this scene from one of the many familiar branches she had stood upon these last few months. “I’m sorry,” I said to the trees, “I tried.”

That was a Friday. We were going to the beach for the weekend, and before we left, I checked on the bird one more time and pretended she was fine. I lied to the boys and told them she was doing well. They did not seem eager to check on her. Perhaps they did not want to confirm their doubts. By the time we came home Sunday, there was no trace of her. It was probably a nice surprise for the cat next door, or one of the many creatures that visit our property unbeknownst to us.

FullSizeRender (25)Weeks later, this small death has remained on my mind. A silly little bird, and I can’t seem to shake it. We live in a world where the atrocities dominate our attention. Murder, hate, destruction is at every turn. I’m still reeling from the horrific events at the nightclub in Orlando, and there have been at least five monstrous acts since then. My boys are still quite naive. We try to address concerns they may have, but we don’t actively seek current events to teach them how wicked the world can be. If they ask, we’ll answer, but they’ve made it into double-digits pretty unscathed.

I was so moved by the reaction of the boys when they discovered Rosie with the bird. They were crying before I could even piece together what had happened. I was relieved that their sadness was so palpable–honest and pure. And, oddly, I am jealous. In middle-age, I can barely shed a tear when moved to do so. I did not cry when I found the bird dead. Nor, did I cry over the recent loss of one of my favorite neighbors, or the many experiences that are worthy of tears–many tears. Is it human nature to become numb? Do our senses dull to the point where what was once tragic is now merely trite?

In the end, I guess the realization is I want to feel more, react more, notice more. I am humbled that raising these boys has allowed me to see things fromFullSizeRender (24) other, younger, perspectives. To grapple with innocence and naiveté in all its forms. To assist them as they navigate the truths of the natural world–death is a part of life. Nature takes its course.

Nature has a way. Everyday, creatures are born and they die. Beings thrive or succumb. Innocence is preserved or abandoned. Mothers and fathers do their best to protect and empower. And nature teaches us all the while. For those who are willing to look, to watch, to wonder.

 

Advertisements

No, Virginia. No!

I have an old winter jacket that I wear when I walk the dogs. I put it on at least a hundred times a year for such walks. And there is a pocket inside the jacket–a breast pocket that sits close to my heart. And inside that pocket were two envelopes containing two letters–letters that rested there for over four years. Letters to Santa.

Many a night I would feel the edges of those letters in the zippered breast pocket and think about how I held a secret close to my chest.

FullSizeRender (12)-001

A lifetime ago, when my youngest son was half his age, and my older one still looked like a little boy, I was handed these letters. I’m sure I was on my way out the door to walk the dog (we only had one at the time) when the boys forced the envelopes into my hand. And being the dutiful dad, I promised to place those ever-important letters in our mailbox, so Santa would indeed know what two little boys on his list wanted for Christmas.

Once outside, I’m sure I shoved those letters in that pocket and zipped it up tight, And there they sat, and sat, and sat. I didn’t plan on housing them in the jacket this long ( I didn’t plan on having the jacket this long, either). But you know how life is. Things have a way of just remaining in our lives, until, one day, they don’t. Things like jackets, and secrets, and Santa Claus.

As time passed, I would occasionally feel the letters inside the pocket. My hand would brush past the flattened lump, and I would think, Oh, right, the boys letters to Santa. How long have they been inside this coat…1 year, 2 years, 3 then 4? What if they discover them? Well, even if they don’t find these letters, they will one day learn the truth, and then these letters will remind me that it’s the end of__________. And that’s the part I always fumbled on. The end of what? Innocence? No. Childhood? Certainly not? The magic? Perhaps. I would settle on magic and tug my coat a little tighter–a reminder that for now the letters meant they still believed.

But Easter morning changed all that. Yes, the Easter Bunny dropped a big dose of reality in the boys’ baskets this year–the fact that he doesn’t really exist. And with that came the dreadful domino effect–no Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, and no Santa!

It was a wonderful morning. Honestly. I had just thought to myself how much I was enjoying this particular Easter Sunday. The boys let us sleep in. They bounced into our room with homemade cards. They helped each other find their eggs. The sky was even as sunny as our dispositions.

And as Owen (10) was coming back in the house from getting me the newspaper (another reason it was such a splendid morning) he got a quizzical look upon his face,

“Wait. How did you know there were 22 eggs in all if the Easter Bunny hid them?”

Pause. Parental glance.

“What?” he said, a bit panicky. “Is he not real?”

Another pause–this one more awkward. Parental glance and simultaneous nod, yes.

Tears sprung from his eyes as big as Cadbury Mini Eggs. “Nooooooooooo!”

“Does that mean there’s no Tooth Fairy?” said Hayden (8). Another affirmative nod.

“Oh, God! Is there no Santa Claus?” Two more nods. Owen was inconsolable (I just caught myself grimacing, recalling these moments while writing this post–it is so incredibly sad that THEY were so incredibly sad.)

“I guess there are no leprechauns, either?” chimes Hayden.

“No, Hayd. No leprechauns.”

“We’re sorry, guys. We thought you might already have had an idea that these things weren’t real.”

“No,” says one. “We still believed,” says the other.

The day continues in fits and starts. The boys calm down, then get weepy again. Calm. Weepy. Calm. Weepy. In talking about the various characters that have been visiting our house this past decade, we recall many memories. Pam produces two tiny jewelry boxes; each a home for the boys’ teeth. And I run to that old winter jacket and pull out their letters to Santa that I had hidden in there for four years now.

Owen opens his letter and tries to decipher his wish list to Santa.

FullSizeRender (8)-001

Hayden opens his and bursts into laughter.

FullSizeRender (9)-001

Rest assured, he got the Bat Cave that year.

WE spend the hours saying all the lines we hope will soften the blow. Things like: There really is a Santa Claus–it just happens to be mom and dad…I know it seems like we lied to you, but think of it as playing pretend–we pretended there was a Tooth Fairy…You had fun at the egg hunt yesterday, and you knew our friends hid the eggs–not the Easter Bunny…Look at how much you love Harry Potter–that whole world is made up, too. And on, and on, and on.

Pam and I try to gauge their emotions. “Are you worried that now that you know the truth, you won’t get as many presents next Christmas?” she asks the boys. “No,” Owen says, “I don’t care about the presents. I’m just sad about the magic.”

We all were sad. Pam and I got a bit teary recalling the many times we played these parts. Truth is, I’ve been wanting to live in a world without the pressures of these imaginary figures lording over me. I thought Hayden would have another year or two of believing beyond Owen, and when I told my nieces that, they said, “No. It’s good they had each other to lean on.” That made me feel better.

But when I saw them crying and even a little pained by this news, I realized what made me sad was not the fact that they know the truth–I never felt right lying to them once they were in grade school. No, what made me sad was seeing my sons hurting and knowing that they just had to suffer through this loss, the way they will when other painful things–real tragedies and the world’s harsh realities–come across their path.

That night, in the bathroom getting ready for bed, I sit on the tub’s edge as they take turns coming in to brush their teeth. I can tell they’re sad again. They are unusually quiet.

I watch Owen in the mirror and our eyes meet. “I know today was hard. I don’t really have anything to say that will make the pain go away. But I want you to know that we are a family, and we will get through this together. And each day, it will get a little easier. I promise.”

I feel good about this, so I repeat these words to Hayden when it’s his turn to brush. Both boys seem comforted by my message, but as I sit in the hall and listen to them settling in to sleep, I hear heavy sighs and a few stifled cries.

They’ll just have to be sad for a time, I think. But then I recall my words, and I repeat them in my mind. “…We are a family, and we will get through this together.” There is such power in words, and these words helped my boys realize that when we share the pain, it doesn’t hurt as much.

And now, that’s what I’ve been carrying close to my heart since that day–and I have to admit, there’s a little magic in such thinking.

++++++++++++++++++++++++

Here are Owen and Hayden’s cards from Easter morning. The last thing they created as true believers. After the cold hard reality set in, their drawings took a dark turn for me. I kept imagining Owen’s #1 fingers as middle fingers, and Hayden’s bunny brandishing a gun instead of a carrot.

FullSizeRender (11)-001

FullSizeRender (6)-001

The Crayola Factory Is Not Where Babies Come From

Last week, we took a day trip to the charming town of Easton, Pennsylvania to visit the Crayola Factory. Like most families, our kids have been holding Crayola crayons since they were babies. And, like most families, we took this one-hour car ride to the factory to talk to our boys about sex. Nothing says sex like…Wait. You don’t see the connection? (I’m relieved). The two are not connected, but that’s the thrill of parenting: you never know which direction your children will take you, even when you have Google Maps on your phone.

In the morning, as we are getting ready to leave, Owen (10) walks up to Pam and whispers something to her about sex. “Do you know what sex is?” she asks.

He shakes his head no. “Some kids at school were talking about it,” he says.

Hayden (8) chimes in: “And someone wrote it on the seat of the bus.”

We exchange a look. The time has come.

“Well, we have an hour in the car. We can tell you all about it,” I say. Owen looks nervous. “Don’t worry, buddy,” I say, “sex never takes a whole hour.” Pam shoots me a look that says behave, Michael. Behave.

And so our journey began. It was like Masters and Johnson by way of Binney and Smith.

Me: Guys, pause your video games. Mommy and I need your attention.

Pam: Are we really doing this now? We haven’t prepared what to say.

Me: It’ll be alright. We just have to start the conversation today. Boys, do you know anything about sex?

Boys: No.

Me: You have NO idea?

Boys: No.

Me: It’s okay if you have. We just want you to know the truth.

Both boys shake their heads. Sure, they giggle at the word “sexy” in songs. Sure, they wonder why Snow White and Prince Charming kiss so much in the TV show Once Upon a Time. They’ve heard talk, but they just weren’t putting two and two–or should I say X and Y–together.

Me: Well.. (deep breath) sex is something two people do when they are in love. It is a physical act. During sex, a man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina.

Both boys appear panic-stricken.

Me: A man and a woman have sex when they want to have a baby.

Both boys mouths drop.

Hayden: You’re freaking me out, dad.

Owen: Do we have to have sex?

Me and Pam in unison: No!

Owen: Do we have to have sex if we want to have kids?

Pam: Well, no, there are–

Me: Honey, let’s keep it simple. Yes, sex is where babies come from.

Owen: I’m not having kids.

Me: And, when a woman has a baby, it actually comes out of her vagina, not her belly.

Hayden: No way!

Me: Way.

Pam: It can come out her belly if…

Me: Keep it simple, hon.

Pam: Well, both of them did come out of my belly.  Mommy had what’s called a cesarean section with both of you.

More looks of fear.

Hayden: So, you guys had to have sex twice?

Pam: Mm-hmm.

Hayden: Oh, my gosh, Owen, could you imagine if you walked in on mom and dad when they were making me?

Owen: Stop, Hayden! That’s crazy. Can we stop talking about this now?

Me: Yes, we can. But I want you to know, you can ask us anything you want about sex. I’m sure you are going to hear things from other kids, and we just want you to know the facts. I’d rather you hear it from us then on the bus or from kids at school.

Hayden: Sex! Ew, that’s so weird. Why would anyone have sex?

Me: And don’t be those kids that go around telling everyone else what sex is now that you know.

Owen: Don’t worry. I don’t want to think about it. I’m NEVER having sex.

Hayden: Me neither!

++++++

For the rest of the day, the word pops up every so often. The boys crack up and shake their heads in disgust and amazement, but overall. a fine first outing.

AS we explore the Crayola Factory, I am thankful for all of the wonder they still have in being kids. Coloring and creating, climbing the crayon shaped jungle gym; making figurines out of molding clay. This is what it’s like, I think. They are exposed to things, and then they go back to being kids. Like rubber bands, their minds’ stretch, but then return–almost–to the original shape–almost.

++++++

A few days later, Hayden hands me a note from school. It’s announcing the return of his guidance counselor from maternity leave.

“How exciting!” I say. “Maybe she will bring in her baby for your class to meet.”

Hayden seems preoccupied by something. Finally, he says, “Her poor husband.”

“Poor husband?” I say, confused. “Why her poor husband?”

“Umm. I think you know.”

“No, I don’t buddy.”

“Ummm. S-E-X,” he spells.

“Sex!” Owen exclaims.

“Yeah, the poor guy had to have sex with her!” Hayden says.

“He’ll be alright,” I say. “He’ll be alright.”

And so will you, I think to myself.

 

Behold the boys latest creations, brought to you by Crayola markers. Can you spot any damage from our conversation?

"Skater Down a Manhole Cover" By: Hayden

“Skater Down a Manhole Cover” By: Hayden

"Rocky Roads" by: Owen

“Rocky Roads” by: Owen

Disney Loves Company

The family Grinch recently endured  survived  returned from a magical trip to Walt Disney World. Truth is, we had a wonderful time. Exhausting, but wonderful. One thing that I noticed was the fact that each day became less hellish. What was met with dread on day one (Yes, we have to take a car, then a tram, then a ferry to the Magic Kingdom…Yes, the wait time for this ride is 50 minutes…Yes, the line to greet Mickey is longer than the length of our home state) was, by day three, met with acceptance, even contentment (Wow, the monorail takes half the time as the ferry…Cool, the wait time for this ride is ONLY 45 minutes…Aww, look at those poor suckers waiting in line for a photo op with Mickey).

But not to worry. This post is not a park-by-park summary of our stay. Rather, it’s a reflection on my first trip to Disney, when I was just about my oldest son’s age–10. For some reason, every experience I have as a dad is reimagined through the lens of myself as a boy.  And as we sat on the plane, ready for takeoff from Philadelphia International, I watched my sons quietly working through the sticker books that their mom makes sure they have for each plane ride. I was impressed with how seasoned they’ve become as airplane passengers. Even though traveling today takes the patience of a saint, it has become somewhat enjoyable as the boys are getting older–maybe not enjoyable, but at least manageable. And it was with this observation that I hearkened back to my first time on a plane, traveling to Orlando, Florida–to visit Walt Disney World.

The year was 1980. A time of feathered hair and large combs peaking from the back pockets of Wrangler jeans. A time when my teenage siblings dabbled with Sun-in and Dexatrim. A time when the ominous face of the Ayatollah Kohmeni stared up at me from our doorstep every morning when our neighbor, Kevin, delivered The Bulletin. A time when a news anchor by the name of Ted Koppel informed the nation each night about America’s hostages. It was during this time of familial and political upheaval that my parents decided to bring us to Disney. ALL SEVEN OF US–nine including them.

Yes, we loaded up our duffel bags and set out for the Sunshine State.

Honestly, I don’t recall much of our actual visit to Disney World, except for the fact that so much that is there today was non-existent: Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Universal…None of those existed yet. But, I do recall our plane trip down there, and  its abysmal aftermath.

I wore my Mickey Mouse shirt–not the t-shirt, but one with pearly buttons that snapped and had little vignettes of Mickey in pioneer gear. I loved that shirt, and felt like Disney royalty wearing it on the plane with my favorite pants, a pair of Toughskin kakhis. We were flying TWA (Trans World Airlines) and my mother assuaged any fears we might have by saying that we were sure to make it there safely since TWA stood for Traveling With Angels. “Do angels hold up the wings?” I asked, nervously. “Of course they do,” she assured me.

Once on the plane, I sat with my sister and brother who were closest in age. The rest of the family was scattered throughout the cabin. Freedom. Such freedom that it felt like I was flying first class. Freedom to order sodas and peanuts, and pretzels, and more soda.

Boy, was flying fun back then! My brother and sister and I just lounged around the seats chewing wads of gum to ward off ear popping. And we struck up a conversation with a girl across our row, who got out of her seat and chatted away with us, all while hanging in the aisle. Each time the stewardess walked by–yes, that’s what they were called back then, stewardesses–I would ask for another drink or snack. She must have liked us, because she obliged every time. I didn’t know what Disney was going to be like, but this plane ride was enough of a highlight for me. “Are you kids behaving?” my mom asked on her way to the bathroom, lit cigarette dangling in her hand. “Yes,” we all said in unison, including our new best friend from across the aisle.

As we approached Florida, the plane began to experience turbulence. The fun was over. Everyone to their seat, lap belts fastened. Once settled in my chair, I felt anything but. The ride turned bumpy and the half-dozen sodas percolated in my stomach with all the peanuts, chips, pretzels, and candy I had consumed in the past two hours.

“I’m going to be sick,” I said, looking at my sister.

“Well, use this!” she said, fetching me the barf bag from my seat pocket. As I struggled to open it, I could feel the bile in my throat. I had seconds to react. Finally, I pried the bag open, and as I pushed my mouth towards its opening, we hit a major air pocket. BUMP! The vomit missed the bag and spewed all over my shirt (Oh, Pioneers, Mickey!) and my favorite pants. I was covered in remnants of our junior happy hour.

“Mom, Michael threw up!” Erin yelled.

“What?” said my mom, a few rows up.

“MICHAEL THREW UP!!”

Thankfully, my mom came back to get me. She and the stewardess walked me to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet while my mom wiped my clothes. The stewardess–she really was an Angel–kept rinsing towels and handing them to my mom. The plane rocked its way to the runway, and I jumped from the tiny toilet seat crammed in the bathroom with my mother and another. “Welcome to Orlando,” a voice sang over the intercom. I stifled a moan.

I exited the plane, damp and smelling of a mixture of Coke, bile, and pretzel salt. I felt groggy. Hungry yet full. Excited and embarrassed. We were in Disney! I had to move on.

After getting the luggage, we made our way to the rental car company. My dad stood at the counter, and 16 eyeballs bore into his back. “What is taking so long?” someone finally whined.

“I’m sorry. There’s been a mix-up,” said the man behind the counter. “You rented a van, and vans are at our other facility. We’ll have to take you there.” He looked at the gaggle behind my father. “All of you.”

All of us AND our luggage. And so ten of us–TEN- squeezed in to a four door sedan. The nine of us and the rental car worker. As we tried to figure out seating, everyone was getting grumpy. My six siblings lapped it in the back seat. My mom sat between the driver and my dad in the front seat. And me? Where was I? I was crouched in the well of the passenger side, scrunched up against the glove compartment, sitting on my dad’s feet while whiffs of evaporating throw up stung my nostrils…

How many people can say they’ve ridden in a car looking up from the glove compartment?

My son’s voice brings me back to the present.”Dad, my ears hurt,” he says as we begin making our descent into Orlando.

“Okay, buddy, do you want some gum?” “I’m chewing gum!” he cries, showing me his mouth. Uh-oh, the meltdown is about to begin.

“Try to yawn…stretch your mouth…hold your breath AND your nose and then blow.” I look like I’m playing charades as I mimic each movement. Nothing is helping and he is inconsolable. He writhes in pain then attempts to kick the back of the chair in front of us, so now I have to hold down his legs. I try to bribe him. Give him candy. I know he’s in pain, but really? Really? This seems a little extreme.

Finally, when it appears he can take no more, we reach an altitude where his ears clear. Ahhh. I can see he’s still upset, and I want to try to make him feel better. I reach for his hand and squeeze it tight. “Did I ever tell you about my first time in an airplane?” I begin. “It was also to Walt Disney World”…

My oldest brother, Charlie, and I. There's my Mickey shirt, pre-tragedy.

My oldest brother, Charlie, and I. There’s my Mickey shirt, pre-tragedy.

 

 

All the kids with my dad before our flight to Disney. My glasses seem to be made out of the same plastic as my bangs.

All the kids with my dad before our flight to Disney. My glasses seem to be made out of the same plastic as my bangs.

All smiles in the park. One of the only pictures I know where I am sporting cleavage.

All smiles in the park. One of the only pictures I know of where I am sporting cleavage.

 

TWA boarding pass. Smoking? YES!

TWA boarding pass. Smoking? YES!

The ONLY picture of our family in front of The Magic Kingdom. The beauty of a Polaroid camera--you know how shitty the picture is instantly!

The ONLY shot of our family in front of The Magic Kingdom. The beauty of a Polaroid camera–you know how shitty the picture is instantly!

The Last Kiss of Summer

hardyboys-4 One of the first times I felt the painful sting of death occurred the night of  October 1, 1978. I had just celebrated a birthday days before, and my ninth year was ushered in by tragedy. Her name was Jamie, a beautiful young woman who had her whole life ahead of her. She was an artist and she loved the beach. I had known her for all of 15 minutes, including commercials. You see, Jamie was engaged to be married to one of my closest childhood friends, Joe Hardy. Yes, the season premier of The Hardy Boys dealt me quite a crushing blow. That Sunday night, my world shattered before prime time.

zombiestookmybike+rolled+image+what+I+got+last+christmas+_d7ded52666da932739d4ef48c9abdf52I was too young to see the warning signs: For one, the title of the episode — “The Last Kiss of Summer.” Plus, Jamie never appeared in season 2, yet, here she was in the season 3 opener, already the better half of one half of the Hardy Boys. And the telltale sign of all– Joe and Jamie opened the episode with a car scene–lovingly looking over at each other–a harbinger of doom in TV land. Any time there is a driving scene, there will be an accident. But the creators of The Hardy Boys knew how to stretch the drama. The death scene happened the second time the couple were in the car together–on the way from their wedding rehearsal, no less. Jamie and Joe were cruising down the coastal highway in a convertible, when the evil Jocco and his girl were drunkenly swerving all over the road. Jamie wasn’t the only casualty in that episode; something died inside of me that night.

 

I could not believe my eyes. How could the world be this cruel? How could two people so good looking and83d3e16352d1b39916bdd4b5c895e25a nice, with perfectly feathered hair, suffer such a tragic fate? My goal in life was to BE Joe Hardy (Shaun Cassidy)– never Frank (Parker Stevenson).  Everyone wanted to be Joe. Solving mysteries, going on adventures, helping his brother and dad fight crime. I even thought he selected the perfect partner for us. Jamie was drop-dead gorgeous, wore a bikini like it was her second skin, and seemed like she’d never said an unkind word in her whole life.  How could I go to school the next day? There was a death–and I needed time. So did the Hardy Boys, apparently–the episode was a two-parter.

That whole week I was haunted by images of the happy couple. I searched for the girl in the third grade who was most like Jamie–I wanted to know who I was marrying. But then fear would strike me. What if I found my true love and she was taken from me? The thought was too much to bear. My sadness overwhelmed me.

I wanted to be alone when I walked home from school. The warmer days of Fall allowed me to linger. I comforted myself by trying to sing the song that was played and replayed throughout the episode: “If” by the kings of seventies soft rock, Bread. Freakin’ Bread man, can you dig?

“If a picture paints a thousand words then why can’t I paint you? The words I’ll never know, the you I’ve come to know. If a man could be two places at one time, I’d be with you, tomorrow and today, beside you all the way.” PAUSE. Please note: these lyrics were written from memory. These were the words I sang in the hopes of recreating the emotion I felt for Joe, for Jamie, for me! I made up words to fill the gaps. Let’s remember, I couldn’t Google the song. Hell, I didn’t even know it was sung by Bread til I was in college and ordered The Best of Bread as one of my free cassettes when I signed up for a Columbia House membership–yeah, Columbia House–Google it.

I sang that song for the next five years, walking to and from grade school. It was almost Pavlovian–when I was by myself, walking up the hill from St. John of the Cross, the moment my foot hit the sidewalk at the corner of Thomson and Woodland, Bread would images (5)come out of my mouth. “And when my love for life is running dry, you’d come and pour yourself on me.” You’d love me so much–yes, you Jamie–that you’d come and pour yourself on me. Your. Own. Self.

And maybe you haven’t picked up on this, but the song tie-in is genius because it sings about painting a picture and Jamie–soon-to-be-but-never-will-Hardy WAS a painter. Do you see the nuances laden in this episode? No wonder it was on at seven o’clock eastern time–that’s when educated people settled down for a stretch of Sunday night television.

The following week’s episode was anti-climactic for me. Joe mourned. Frank swam with sharks. And the evil Jocco got his comeuppance. But Jamie was gone from our lives forever. The end of part 2, however, left us with a cheap ploy–Joe spied a girl on the beach who he thinks is Jamie. He starts running towards her white bikini, and I believed. For the length of a Hamburger Helper commercial, I believed that Jamie was still alive. That it was all a sick joke, a horrible dream. But when Joe grabbed her slender arm and she turned around, it was NOT Jamie. Just another pretty Southern California blonde. She looked at Joe eagerly, flattered by his attention. Yet, he was not ready to move on. Eventually, though, he would. I’m glad one of us was able to.

 

 

 

Sunscream

While my friend is away this week, I’ve been watering her beautiful gardens and taking care of her pool–a job I relish because the boys and I go swimming everyday.

Yesterday, however, I was there by myself. It was the perfect day: bright, crisp, a gentle breeze and a cloudless sky. As the sun danced off the water, I was drawn to lie on a raft and just float in the pool.

Why is it that in these moments I feel guilty? When we are at rest, and our mind is clear, we should commend ourselves, not chastise.  I pushed those feelings of guilt aside, and as I closed my eyes and the raft drifted aimlessly, my thoughts hearkened back to other memories.

Now if you’re normal (and I know at least two of you reading this are), then you might imagine my mind sailing back to other peaceful memories of floating, like my honeymoon in Napa or a trip to the Virgin Islands. No. Not me. My mind drifted back to childhood, to a memory that is seared in my mind’s eye. You see, whenever I’m on a float in a pool, alone, I end up thinking about a time when I was six years old.

Although it’s hard to believe, when I was very young, my family had a pool. An above-ground pool. A legit above-ground pool. The kind that is meant to stay up for several seasons. The kind that had a filter. It was the most extravagant toy of my youth. And one day, I remember walking out to the pool by myself and climbing the ladder and getting on a float and drifting off to sleep. The reason I remember this, the reason it is seared into my memory, is because I slept for so long that when I was awoken by my sister, I was badly sunburned. I spent the next week nursing a blistering burn–literally popping blistery bubbles all over my skin. If you’re grossed out, imagine how I felt? Sunburn_flickr_02 About a decade ago, I had to go to a dermatologist for a skin check. I had a “questionable mole”. The mole got the answer I was hoping for–not cancerous–but in the process, I received more insight. For some reason, I found the doctor’s questions humorous. As if the answers were obvious and she was teasing me.

Have you ever had a sunburn? Ahhh, yeah. I grew up in the seventies.

Have you ever had a blistering sunburn? You mean sunburnS, plural. Is there another kind? I basically shed more skin than a snake in my youth.

People who have had even one blistering sunburn before the age of fifteen have a fifty percent greater risk of WAHWAHWAHWAH…At that point, I had to block her out. One blistering sunburn? I was human bubble wrap back then–all seven of us kids were.

I left the doctor’s office feeling very scared.

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

When my wife and I were dating, I remember telling her my pool/blister saga while on a road trip. We were driving in the car one summer afternoon. “I just wish we had sunscreen back then,” I said, finishing my story somewhat awkwardly. Here she was, getting a glimpse into my wacky upbringing.

She looked at me with a sad expression, “Honey, we did have sunscreen back then.”

NO! No we did not. There is no freakin’ way we had sunscreen.

“Really?” I said, trying to mask my anger.

“Unhunh,” she said with a nod, feeling bad about being the bearer of such news.

“But that doesn’t make sense! Why would my parents not use sunscreen? We could always afford the Noxema afterwards to cool our scorched bodies. My mom even joked about how rich she would be if she had stock in Noxema.”

I was incredulous. I thought about all the times we were left out to bake in the sun like little potatoes: The trips to Wildwood, the days swimming in the pool, every outdoor event of my youth, with nothing but my white Irish skin to fight off the evil sun’s rays. And this was before the era of willfully laying out in lounge chairs with tin foil and baby oil.

What were we thinking back then? What!?

Sweetie,” Pam said to me, trying to draw me back from the past, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just pretty messed up, you know?”

“You know what’s more messed up?” she said.

I did not.

“What?”

“The fact that you were in a pool by yourself at the age of six. How could you be out there so long by yourself?”

Oh. My. God. I had never thought of that! In all the times I’d thought of that event, it was the sunburn that made me mad. I couldn’t even claim I was a good swimmer. I even failed swimming lessons. (More on that saga here ).

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

And now, a decade and a half later, I think about how different my children’s experiences are. Christ, we put sunscreen on them if they’re coming to the food store with us. We sit outside the bathroom as they take a shower in case the water turns hot or they need a fluffier towel.

So different from my own experience as a kid. So, so different.

Then, the other day, Pam tells me that the FDA just announced that kids should no longer use spray-on sunscreen as they are inhaling too much of the fumes. Cry me a river, I think. When I was their age I was inhaling second-hand smoke. Hell, I had even tried a few cigarettes by their age.

Just sayin’.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go water my friend’s garden. And not to worry, I’ve got SPF 50 on this bald head of mine.

Love

love

I have come to realize that my sons do not say “I love you.”  I am trying to train them to at least respond, “I love you, too.” But lately, I’ve shied away from doing so.

One night, a while back, I was tucking Hayden(7) in to bed and I said, “Goodnight, buddy, I love you.” Silence filled the room. His face was buried in his pillow.   Frustrated, I said, “I love you, too, dad.” Still nothing. I tickled him. He relented. “Sort of”, he mumbled into the pillow. “Sort of?” I shouted back. “Yeah,” he said, “it means a little.'”

For a time, this incident made me sad. He knows I love him, I’d think. I hug him, kiss him, tickle him, and show him affection daily. And I know, deep down, deeeeeeeeeeeeep, deeeeeeeeeeeeeep down, he loves me, too.

Lately, though, I’ve changed my attitude about the lack of “I love yous” I hear.  I’ve had to search for why this affected me so much. There’s the obvious need to love and be loved, but I knew it ran deeper than that.

Why do we say “I love you”? What purposes does it serve? Certainly, it varies from relationship to relationship. Ultimately, however, I think it serves to remind people how much we care about them. But, as I consider this spoken gesture more, I also think it’s a way for us to remind them that they love us, too–or they SHOULD, we think (we hope).

Whenever I tell Owen (9) I love him, I do not get a response, but I feel a sense of acceptance. If I could read his thoughts, it seems they would say something like, “Of course you love me, I’m your son. I’m your first-born. I’m a good kid…but you don’t need to say it all the time–it’s a given. Relax.” Yet, often, when I tell Hayden I love him, there is almost a defiance in his reaction. His mouth turns into a half-smile/half-frown–a frile, if you will. I’m not sure I want to read his thoughts. I think he fights my love–I feel him rejecting this level of emotion because either he doesn’t feel worthy of my love, or he doesn’t want to care about me so deeply–or maybe a little of both.

But the love my boys identify with today, they will remember decades from now.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I still remember the lunch my mother packed me for my first grade field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. I walked home for lunch everyday, so packing a lunch was a treat. The bag was stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness: a ham and cheese sandwich, potato chips, a soda, cracker jacks AND a candy bar. I knew I had the best lunch in my group. I wanted to shout for joy from the top of the monorail. That day, that lunch made me feel so  special, so loved.

I still remember the time in second grade when I came home with a bad grade on a spelling test. I was so nervous to show my parents. And even though I was supposed to get it signed, I decided to hide it where no one would find it–under the clothes dryer. It was someone’s birthday that night and my grandparents were over for dinner. Towards the end of the meal, it dawned on me that the dryer gets very hot. As a junior neurotic, I decided that my spelling test would catch on fire and burn the house down. I began to cry. “I’ve done something bad–really bad.” My whole family, grandparents included, marched down to the laundry room. My dad laid on the floor and fished the paper out from underneath the dryer. He was not mad at all–about my subterfuge or my poor spelling. He smiled and said, “Next time, just tell us, okay.” “Okay,” I said, whimpering. As we ate our cake, I felt oddly elated–my dad loves me even when I make mistakes!

Both of these memories evoke times when I felt wholly loved by my parents. A very pure, somewhat magical feeling.

I grew up in a house where “I love you” was spoken a lot. Ours was a large family in a small house. Day-to-day, amid the chaos, it was hard to sense the love, but the words were uttered. As we left for school each morning, these three words would be part of the exchange between the seven of us and our parents. And each night, before bed, I would kiss my mom and dad, and say, “Goodnight. I love you. See you in the morning.” My mother would respond with her now-infamous “God willing,” leaving me to conjure her death as I laid down to sleep. My father? I don’t remember his response. I think it varied. But, I marvel at the fact that I kissed him goodnight throughout my childhood, and with every hello and goodbye as an adult.

For me, for my past, love was a spoken reminder. Perhaps the words were said in an attempt to add calm to the fray. Yet, those words hung like an albatross around my neck for much of my life. Often, love felt heavy, sad, anxious, chaotic. Often, love felt conditional.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

To this day, my mother says “I love you,” to me every time we speak. If she calls me four times in a day, she says it four times. In an attempt to not become obsessive about this (which I think makes me more obsessive about it) I purposely do not respond with an “I love you, too” every time she says it–I shoot for fifty percent of the time. I am aware that my mother takes note of this.

Perhaps my refusal to overstate my love stems from the fact that, even now, there seems to be an unspoken obligation with those words, as if love can magically erase all the burdens of our past, or is the antidote for all that ails the relationships in a family. Love cannot. At least the words cannot. As cliché as it sounds, “Actions speak louder than words.” I love my mom, and I know that she loves me, but I’ve realized in life that saying I love you and doing I love you are very far removed.

When I first became a part of my wife Pam’s family, I marveled at the fact that they rarely said “I love you.” It is written in cards, but not said at the end of every encounter. It was as if I were finally connecting all the dots: Hmmm. They don’t go around saying they love each other all the time, but I know they do. They are kind to one another, and respectful of each other’s opinions, and they do thoughtful things for one another–DING! Oh, you can feel it but not have to say it every day, every phone call, every exchange. I found this to be very refreshing.

Pam and I do say it often–even several times a day, which I appreciate, because she is the most important person in my world–my life partner. In that case, I find it strengthens our bond.

As for the boys, I find I say it often to them, and usually there is no response. At first, this made me feel angry, worried. Then it dawned on me–they feel loved. They feel my love. Their needs are being met daily. They want for very little and we spend a good deal of time together, interacting or just in each other’s presence. I believe that structure, that sense of stability, makes these words seem unnecessary to them.  Thus, there is no need for them to say it back to me. For now. For now, they just need to know that they are loved and feel they are loved. And in the end, all of us need to accept that we are worthy of the love we are given.

Once again, having children has taught me valuable life lessons. Kids may be the result of love, but we cannot create life as a way to force someone to love us back. Love is cultivated over time. For a parent, it seems that love begins with an ultrasound. For a child, that love manifests itself in stages. It is our job to teach children how to love, and the best way to do that is to show them. In short, to love them. Unconditionally.

“I love you” can serve as a reminder that you love me, too. Or it can serve as a reminder that you are loved. As a parent, I choose the latter, and I know what the answer is, even if it is unspoken.

Now, I seem to ponder the concept of love more. Whom I love. Who loves me. Not, who I have history with, or who I am in close proximity to, but who I have an abiding emotional connection to and for. It has been a very enlightening journey–emphasis on the lighten. I DO feel lighter. I used to think of love as something that anchored me, like a rock. Now, I try to view love as a feather, as a breath. Light and soft.

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta