Who Would Have Called You Gramps

Nice day, Sunday. We cleaned house. Remember Lady Macbeth saying “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him,” just after slicing the king up as he slept? That’s how we felt yesterday when we cleaned out the cabinets where we store liquor. Who knew the Marottas could open a saloon?  Most stunning was the realization that we had five entire bottles of Creme De Menthe.

IMG_3295

My sister likes to have a stinger after dinner when she visits us from Florida every three or four years and stingers are made of brandy and this creme de cremey stuff and I guess she brings a bottle every time thinking ‘Surely they’ve have finished that bottle from 2002.’  But it seems we never finished that bottle or any bottle. To me the stuff is kind of eh. I mean, I’ll just as soon have a shot of Scope.

It was Father’s Day of course so I asked David to wear his Hop on Pop T-shirt in part so people could see I didn’t make that story up about how he’s too highly evolved to brag in his class reunion book and how he’s so simple in his needs and hangs on to his clothes forever. That story I told last week and it’s right here.  And that piece, which was once a column that I only much later turned into a chapter in my second book? I wrote that piece in the summer of ’96, almost 20 while years ago and still the T-shirt gets worn. He also so worked in the yard for many hours so here’s a picture showing him taking a break, with our middle child Annie beside him and her giant dog’s tiny dog toy in hand. (They weren’t acting as extras from the prison scenes in a local production of Les Miserables. It was the sun painting those stripes on them from the deck beneath which they sit.)

IMG_3303

Then later, the rest of our gene pool came over and there was Chinese takeout and a little FIFA watching and a long fun game of whiffleball out back. It was all very nice.

Later, after they all had left, I opened Facebook, and saw that everyone was putting up pictures of their fathers but I never knew mine, so posted nothing. And I guess I write this now by way of focusing on what I have instead of what I ever lacked.

Anyway here’s the man now, taken when my sister Nan was a baby and he was still around.

Hap Sheehy US Marshall

One time, a minister I knew and respected told me he saw sorrowful-looking older man bending over me in his pastoral office where we sat talking. “Was there an older man in your life who might need your forgiveness?” my friend asked me. There was I supposed and it would have been our dad.

But who doesn’t need forgiveness, even now, even decades after the harm they might have caused? I think most of us inwardly punish and hold ourselves responsible for the pain we have caused in this life. I think we all know the ways we have failed others, and I think we are all sorry.

Anyway here’s to you Francis John “Hap” Sheehy of Wilmington Delaware. I hope that you’re resting in peace, wherever you may lie buried. And I’m sorry that you never had a Hop on Pop T-shirt yourself, or knew the four children who would have called you Gramps.

 

 

Advertisements

The Getaway

cold cold dudeYou know how it is when you try to cheat winter and grab a few days in warmer climes. You stay up late and get up early every day for weeks, to shoehorn in just a few days when your ears won’t feel like a couple of frozen shrimp pinned to the sides of your head.

That’s what I did, fretting ceaselessly over the question of how life would go on without me. ‘Who will do all the driving?’ I obsessed. ‘Who will collect our papers and our mail? Never mind that, who will make sure the moon comes up with me gone?’

David and I were to leave before dawn and a mere five hours before that, as Jimmy Kimmel Live rolled its final credits, I was still throwing things in a suitcase.  Then the big day arrived, and brought with it many vivid hours of the blur-and-turbulence that is winter air travel.

frozen plane

Then – finally  – we were in the Caribbean.

IMG_2730

Waiting for the ferry to take us to our hotel across the bay, I watched a promotional video about the place. It was playing in an endless loop on an immense super-hi-def TV.

You know how it is: you can’t look away from these big TV’s, even if you want to.

Ten times I must have seen this video. First, it showed old footage from the 1950s, the people moving jerkily in that old home-movie way, waving sweetly and self-consciously at the camera.  (“Oh the past!” I always think, seeing such footage. “Are my parents there? Where are MY parents?”But then this nostalgia bath gave way to the wordless ‘story’ of a modern couple – two actors really – riding bicycles and smooching and getting up out of the hotel bed that floated not near but actually IN those blue ocean waters. (They can do anything with film editing these days.)

The fourth time it looped, I noted a chickenpox scar on the female actor’s face. The sixth, time I saw three small pimples on her neck. The tenth time, watching the actor boyfriend in his filmy harem-pants tumble from the bed and swim off like the Little Mermaid, I laughed out loud.

That next morning, I saw that I’d forgotten to pack my comb, my sunglasses and my hat, my frantic planning notwithstanding, and sure, you could buy all these things at the gift shop for a small fortune, but I thought ‘Eh’ and just bought the comb, deciding to squint for four days and let the sun have its way with my dye job. 

And that was the start of my letting go. By degrees I went from noticing everything in that sharp 21st century way to noticing very little, except the lapping of the waves.

The ocean was almost body temperature. Sitting at its edge, I watched pelicans swoop down to feed and suddenly I WAS a pelican. I watched a cloud billow across the sky and suddenly I WAS a cloud.  

I looked over at David sleeping in a lounge chair that stood perpendicular to my own chair, so that I looked upon him not from the side, as usual, but as if from above.

I saw his still-muscular arm thrown up over his face. I saw his hair, no longer black as in days of old, but as white now as a seagull’s wing.

And suddenly I too was in a video, along with every living thing on this island, all of us in our own home movie, captured for those few seconds, all moving and breathing and as delightedly alive as the folks in this old reel. 

Memory Distorts: The Winter of ’64

Memory sure distorts. I could have sworn the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the same night I had that party where nearly 60 kids showed up and, as my diary, tells me, “ground chips into the rug, dumped sandwiches on chairs, tore books, spilled Cokes, flicked ashes, broke the television (Freddy fixed it), broke the glass punch ladle etc.” Maybe you can make out the writing for yourself down below here.

I also had the memory that, as the Beatles sang and the party roared on, some of the more poorly behaved boys, the ones who arrived smoking, were seen holding a bottle of Clorox. I know that the next morning I found out my little pet alligator dead, his ivory tummy thrown to the sky  in the shallow water of his enamel tub which smelled suspiciously like a swimming pool. (The party was held in our basement where the washer and dryer were, as well as the clothesline, which we took down for the night. (Clotheslines! Remember clotheslines?))

It’s true all this happened but it wasn’t the Beatles-on-Ed Sullivan night at all. The party was on January 4, 1964 whereas the big night on NBC was February 9 of that year as we were all told again and again yesterday.

How I blush to see what I revealed of myself in that diary: the way I was ‘auditioning’ one boyfriend and easing out another at age 14. The way I so callously described my mother’s poor bloody hand when she climbed up over the counter where we folded the clothes, hoisted the sash of the window she was bent on polishing for this silly party with one hand and then – too late – saw that same sash slam down onto her other hand. I only say that it ‘bled disgustingly’ but  even at the time I remember my heart swelling with love and gratitude to her for trying to make things nice for me and help me work my way in to the big new school.

Here’s my favorite picture of the pre-Ringo Beatles, just as they were just starting out – and here at the top, obviously, is that diary entry too. Long time passing since those days all right!

george john paul at 16

IMG_2753

Happy Birthday Fatty

This in honor of the recent birthday of my youngest, seen here in Fifth Grade, impersonating America’s tubbiest President, William Howard Taft.

mpm as fatsuited wm howard taftFor a while there, we were in danger of some real solemnity in this family; of growing downright grave what with practicing the quieter virtues. We had two children at first, both females, and I can tell you we all floated along on a great river of calm.

Even when a third child had come and was, of all things, a boy, we still moved with tranquility, and for a while the baby seemed to do so too – until the day at about 12 months old when he stood up in his crib and began hollering to his stuffed animals. A certain vividness surfaced for us all then; and quiet understatement went down for the third time.

This little boy’s grandmother had been a wise-guy and we all loved that about her. She died when this third child was only three so he doesn’t remember her.

But I found myself calling my sister not much more than a year after her death. “I know this sounds weird, but I think Mom’s back!” is what I told her. Because this third child was a happy little wise-guy himself, and brought to the once-peaceful supper table of family life a level of hilarity we never would have predicted.

He fancied toilet plungers as a First Grader, and when, at the hardware store, he saw a display of very small ones, he cried out with joy and began promptly applying them, with great sucking sounds, to his ears, mouth, and bare tummy. He asked for half a dozen for his birthday.

He told us in Fourth Grade that the teacher said they would need string for that night’s homework.

“What if we have no string?” he asked her. “Use dental floss,” she replied, setting herself up for it. “I can’t,” he answered with mock-sadness. “My family doesn’t believe in oral hygiene.”

We dreaded the next parent-teacher conference.

Around this same time, he got a new jacket imprinted, as these jackets often are, with our town’s name. The nice man helping us pointed out that with so many jackets alike, it was a good idea to have his name stitched on the sleeve.

“OK!” he agreed readily  “Only have it say ‘Fatty,’ he added, and three grownups could not talk him out of it.

At this point he was four foot eight inches tall and weighed 72 pounds. Every spring at his yearly checkup, the doctor would say, “Due for a growth spurt soon!’ And every year he would look ironically over at me.

But while we awaited this famous growth spurt, we had some dandy fun.

I recall the time he pulled some hair our of my hairbrush, glued it to his bare chest, sauntered into the living room and said in a theatrically deepened voice, “Dad, I’d like to use the car tonight.”

When he finally turned 11th, I remember we got him everything but more toilet plungers – and also a cake reading “Happy Birthday, Fatty.”

Of course he insisted on being the one to light its million candles; then rushed into the darkened next room and made us march in with it, singing.

“What did you wish?” one of his sisters asked after he blew out the candles.

He wouldn’t say – some things are serious, after all – but I knew what I wished: that night. I wished we could rewind the eleven years and run them clear through again.

And the 11 years that followed them too. Ah, those years too.

David & Michael Junior year

Now and at The Hour…

mom 6 mos pregnant

my mother, with her firstborn Nan inside her

Do most people believe in ghosts? I think they do, if by ‘ghost’ we mean that sudden sensed presence of one now departed. In fact, show me the person who claims never to have had this experience; never to have ‘heard from’ such a one.

I know I did, once. Only once, but I ‘heard’ all right. It happened about three months after I lost my mother, who died very suddenly, right before my eyes.

She was 80 and I was 38 and still a child myself in some ways. All I knew was that living my life without her seemed impossible; she was still that much of a parent to me.

She had a pragmatic kind of sense that she expressed with a wonderful bluntness.

Take the time I called to tell her we’d be welcoming a 19-year-old Austrian girl into our home to help care for our baby while the older children were in school, she laughed right out loud.

“Great! Now you’ll have FOUR kids!” she said, and come to think of it she was right about that. I felt such tenderness for this sweet young woman, so far from her home in the Alps, that my ‘office hours’ as a listening mom never ended. A full 90 minutes after I was supposed to be at church for choir practice, say, I’d still be sitting on the front hall stairs with one of them, whether the seven-year-old, or the nine-year-old, or the 19-year-old, listening, listening, car keys dangling in one hand – ‘til it got so late I knew the only lights on at church would be the outdoor ones illuminating the steeple.

She was pretty frail by then and she could hardly see, but she weighed in on things just the same.

“An aging actor in the White House?” was one tart remark from the spring of 1980.

Another: “Cookies IN the ice cream? Isn’t that going a bit far?”

Every week I would drive the 20 miles to my childhood home to see her and if I was ever delayed because of a deadline she’d be equally frank.

“Just write anything!” she would cheerily say on those occasions, even knowing that the wonky, stay-up-all-night-doing-homework daughter she had raised could never do a thing like that.

She loved to laugh. here she is the day she came home from the hospital with a broken hip that would keep her out of work for a month. Still smiling, as you can see.

mom nan '67 mom broken hip

Twenty years after, with Nan beside her

Eventually, she moved to a wonderful assisted living facility in my town – and brought her renegade ways with her: Once during a fire drill there, with sirens blasting, she buttonholed her best pal Alice, who was obediently caning her way toward the elevator. “Never mind that nonsense!” Mom told her with a wink. “Come, we’ll hide in my room here, and have some sherry!”

Ah, she was something. And what a hole her passing left in my life. In the weeks after it, I listened for her on every frequency I could think of. Where WAS she?

I heard nothing for months. And then I had this dream:

In it, she and I were descending a wide flight of stairs; kind of sprinting down them, in fact, with that galloping rhythm you develop when you do that.

I suddenly realized what was happening. “Mom you’re RUNNING!” I said.

“I know, isn’t it great? I’m not old anymore!” she said back.

And that was the dream. It lasted maybe two seconds.

Still, it comforted me.

And in these weeks with so much stirring and returning to life, the thoughts of powers beyond our ken? Well, those thoughts comfort me still.

Nan says goodbye to Mom

and twenty years after that, as Nan looks upon her face one final time

Road Trip

st joseph's hospitalI had to drive 100 miles on that cold short day and already it was 3pm.

I stopped first at my local gas station where the attendant always speaks to me in such a friendly manner.

“How was that funeral you went to?” he asked.  “It was in your home town, you said.”

“The funeral was really beautiful, but it was sad seeing the changes there. I went past a hospital that they’re tearing down now. I had to drive by twice to get it through my head that it would soon be gone.” As I spoke my thoughts strayed to the times we visited my mother there when she broke her hip, and our cheery aunts and uncles kept coming with sherry and little crystal glasses to drink it from, talk about your vanished world!

“The whole building was laid open,” I told him, “like a dollhouse, only with the roof gone too. It’s hard to see change like that, you know?”

“I know,” he said. “Oh, I know!”

He did know. Of course he knew. We are all refugees from the past.

I began my long drive then, and noticed after just the first few miles that the large box I had dropped on my foot just before leaving home was still ‘with’ me. Though it hadn’t hurt much at the time, a sharp pain was now radiating up my leg and into my hip..

I saw I had no choice. I would have to use the last of the fading light to get off the highway and buy some sort of analgesic.

This I did, literally limping into the first discount drug store I passed. I grabbed some Tylenol gel caps from the ‘pain’ aisle and limped out again, heading for the fast food joint next door in search of water to wash it down.

“What can I get you?” said the young woman behind the counter. “Oh, what’s wrong?” she added, reading the look on my face.

I told her. She gave me a big cup of water, no charge, and just as I was tipping back the two capsules she stopped me.  “That’s Tylenol PM!” she cried, half a second before it had gone down my throat, thus saving untold numbers of motorists from sharing the road with a seeming narcoleptic.

I thanked her and got back on the highway.

There was traffic by then and it had begun to rain.

An hour passed. Two hours. Finally, just ten miles from my destination, I stopped to gather myself a bit and elevate my foot.

I chose the 99, a chain restaurant. I love all chain restaurants, for so many reasons: The breezy manner of the wait staff, the speediness of the  service, the way they know right away that yes, you would like some popcorn while  you’re looking over the menu and so they just bring it to you.

I ate and looked around and slowly my stress level ebbed.

And when I saw the little girl gently leading her blind grandpa by the hand to the booth their family had chosen, the stress went away completely. It went away because there,  near the end of my long day, I realized what its lesson had been: That we are not alone in this life. That we too are led, escorted in a way, both by those we love and by kindly strangers.

This all happened last week. It was a good lesson to end the year on.

the tylenol pm

We Are Here. We Leave a Mark

Evensong_in_York_MinsterIn light of the horror that unfolded Friday in Newtown, it is easy to believe we make a scant mark for good in the world – that we are each just another account number at the bank, another face on the morning train. There’s even a philoso­phy to suggest as much, as in the comment made by the Spanish sage. “Place your finger in a bucket of water,” he said. “Then pull it out and see what a hole you have made,” the melancholy thought being that the waters close over us and we are forgotten.

I don’t buy it.

I once visited the old walled city of York in England, where the earth had been draped and clamped and laid open like a surgical patient so citizens of today could look upon the painstaking process of archeology.

inisde jorvik

At the end of the Disneylike underground ride through a re-creation of the old Viking village of Jorvik, you see a cross-section of the earth itself, sliced straight down as you would slice a fruitcake, and holding within it bits of pottery, and metal, and animal and human bone.

This is what happens, I thought at the time: You live and you die and you’re tamped down into a pudding of mud.

Lucky for me, our group went just after to a Ves­pers service at the house of worship called the York Minster, built a full thousand years ago.

We heard music written back then, woven in words penned at the time of King David, then held and sent forth pure and clear from the living throats of elders, and youths, and little boys not yet ten.

Words live, then, and music lives, even as good deeds and careful instruction lives, to a far greater degree than most of us realize and long after our little lives have yielded to ultimate gravity and fluttered to the ground like the glorious crimson leaves.

I picked up some photos last night from that shoe box I talked about yesterday.

I had taken them the day my youngest started kindergarten.

Here he is smiling shyly on the lawn, squinting a bit against the horizontal glory of early-morning sun.

Behind him the lavish branches of that certain stand of maples wave brashly to the camera.

Before him, invisible to me until now, visible to him some time ages hence perhaps, on the lettuce-green grass, the clear and unmistakable shadow of his mother.

However hard that may be to believe at times, we do leave a mark on the world. We do.

And now, a version of Pslam VIII sung in that great cathedral, very much like the one I heard when I visited there.