The Night Tripper

Mac Rebennack’s death last week brought a recollection of having had a chance meeting with him several years ago. I committed it to a few Facebook lines and sent a longer version to an old friend to whom I was writing.

My friend suggested that it’s a Rear View Mirror story. He’s right. I needed his prodding to see it.

I also came to understand in my own way and time what those pithy quotes and clichés mean –  life is a collection of moments. It’s not always the big, splashy vacations (though my first trip to Paris with a bestie remains unmatched) or huge events like childbirth and marriage (though definitely significant). In retrospect, the stories I have fun telling and others enjoy listening to and reading generally involve the ordinary, and some degree of happenstance.

And so it was the morning I met Mac…

In the “olden” days – which for me means pre-9/11 – there were flights from SFO to JFK leaving hourly on week day mornings. I always booked the 6AM which had me arrive dead tired at roughly 3PM eastern time. To make that flight the alarm sounded at 3:30ish, and I left the house at 4:30 to arrive at the airport by 5. I was so tuckered by the time I got to my hotel in midtown Manhattan that I could fall asleep on local time with minimal problem.

Boarding took place a little after 5, while still dark outside, and I would nestle in my seat for a little pre-take off shut eye then keep myself awake for the remainder of the trip. I took these flights frequently and flight crews often recognized me. They were kind enough to put aside my favorite breakfast. This mattered to me. I’m not a morning person. Correction – I am a morning person, just not a smiling, talking one.

This particular morning I noticed someone boarding a bit ahead of me in the jetway. A man. Tall. A hat with a feather and a long grayish ponytail down his back.

The 60s and early 70s are a time I don’t glorify. They were unique no doubt. The music unmatched. They changed the culture of our country in ways large and small from integration and abortion, to recreational drugs, even school dress codes for girls morphed to accommodate pants, and of course, the Vietnam war. The first time I’d seen a national issue turn father against son.

I like my 60s kept in the 60s. I’m not wistful about them nor do I pine for the summer of love. Therefore the sight of a man at least my age with a ponytail irked me. I wanted to say, “Excuse me, sir, do you know what year it is?” and jettison him out of hippie nostalgia.

That morning the not a smiling, talking morning person saw the offending man settle himself in the window seat next to mine on the aisle. He would be my seat mate. For six long hours.

In the days before iPhones and earbuds the best way to avoid all contact was to immediately cover up with a blanket and feign sleep which I did after stowing my belongings. Then the pilot announced a take-off delay of one and a half hours. I surely could not doze for seven and a half hours.

In the pre-dawn hours it was easy to fall asleep in spite of feeling annoyed by the presence of my seat mate and the delay, until I began to feel the rising sun’s rays on my face. It was then I heard a honeyed, raspy drawl say, “Let me pull the shade down for you.”

A voice at once familiar and not, unlike any other. A growl of sorts with a musical lilt, a hoarseness with a lazy twang.

I opened my eyes and turned my head toward the seat mate. He smiled. “Hi, I’m Mac Rebennack.” Stunned, I said nothing. He added after a pause, “Some people know me as Dr. John.”

Of all the seat mates this blues lover could ever have. Better than riding with Carly Fiorina and Senator Feinstein, Bill Russell, or even Tyler Florence (who, by the way is pretty danged good lookin’), I was seated next to the Night Tripper.

Mac talked. And talked. I didn’t mind. I listened. When it was clear he wanted or maybe even needed to talk, I asked questions. His body man was on the flight sitting a few rows behind us I learned when he approached and inquired if Mac would like to switch seats. I believe he thought I’d been bothering Mac. But no, Mac was planted; I was his audience. He was in full storytelling mode. No seat switch would happen.

We gabbed and laughed and when we got close to New York he suddenly became bashful and slightly embarrassed realizing he’d told of things both professional and intimate, “You’re not with the press or anything, are you?”  Nope. “And you won’t tell everyone, will you?” I won’t. “You’re easy to talk to and we share some interests. And I like your kicks.”

Kicks. The first time I’d ever heard that expression. Over 20 years ago. Mac liked my kicks.

As we landed he offered a ride to my hotel. His car would be picking him up. Famous or not, secrets shared and all, I did not know Mac Rebennack. I didn’t want to be rude and I didn’t want to accept a ride not knowing what it might indicate to him. I leveraged what I knew to make light of the situation. As one product of parochial school to another I believed he’d understand. “Thank you, Mac, but a good Catholic girl can’t accept a ride from a stranger.”

“You’re right. You can’t,” with his deep chortle. He took out the business card of his manager and on the back he wrote his home number. “If you ever need anything, you call me or my wife, Cat, and if we don’t answer, call this man. He always knows where to find me.”

He handed me the card.

I thanked him. It seemed only fair to confess that I tried to stay undercover, so I didn’t have to talk to someone I thought was lost in the 60s. “That’s okay, I thought you were bitchy.”

Perfect.  It was a draw.

I never used the card, didn’t call the number. I was always curious if I was one of many holding something similar, or someone special. But It didn’t really matter for the flight was special enough.

I kept it in my wallet for years occasionally pulling it out, turning it over to find his handwriting, and recalling the story to myself. I’d wonder if I made the whole thing up. Then I’d remember the sound of his voice. “Let me pull the shade down for you.”

It was real alright and signaled the beginning of seven rapt hours.

Good night, Mac Rebennack. Thank you for the ride.

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Mac Rebennack – Dr. John, The Night Tripper

 

 

 

Red Paper Hearts

Years ago I met a special band of people who had all endured wrenching losses. Holidays tended to bring them to our group where they felt safe to talk about how difficult seasonal festivities were for them. They could be blunt. They could be angry. They could be raw and share random shocking thoughts and language without the burden of shielding loved ones unprepared for their shattering grief. In the vernacular, when we came together we could be “real”.

Christmas was especially difficult, as one might expect, with some also having anniversaries and birthdays wrapped around the holiday. And just when they thought they were out of the woods, the worst having passed, January snuck by and turned into Valentine’s Day. Red hearts blaring “LOVE” decorated every grocery, drug and department store, as ads on television and radio prodded gift giving, and painfully reminded us all of a time when we were recipients.

HCH898W_muMy late husband had loved Valentine’s Day and had exquisite flower bouquets created for me. White. Freesias, tulips, roses, Oriental lilies. Each flower visual perfection, sturdy stems of lilies and roses mingled with the gentle bends of tulips and freesias, the stamen of each bright against the cream and white colors. The collaboration exuded a heady fragrance; the freesias always had the last say. When he was gone the pain left in his place crowded out happy memories of Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day had become so serious. It hadn’t always meant I had a sweetheart. Didn’t always hail a marketing frenzy for the retail sector. In my childhood world those cheerful red hearts heralded fun. And treats! Friends, a classroom party, crafts, delights from Mom’s kitchen. Bee (buzz, buzz, buzz) mine.

I know some people don’t like Valentine’s Day on principle. They think it’s a Hallmark 61596-Bee-Mine-Valentineinvention. Madison Avenue strikes again. Then there are those without mates who yearn for one, and others who had a lifelong love but life was so much shorter than they imagined.

Valentine’s Day coaxes me to my rear view mirror to see all its presentations over the years, and reminds me of those I have loved.

There are memories of white paper bags decorated with crayons and construction paper, taped to desks at school. Corny cards stuffed inside I couldn’t wait to open. Conversation hearts in little boxes. Mom’s heart-shaped spice cake made before Wilton had a heart-shaped pan, her waxed paper template placed atop each layer as she carefully trimmed around it, then frosted it with pink icing, and finished with a border of red cinnamon candies. Made with love for my dad, this was her annual gift to him and lucky for us, he always shared (because we always hovered).

51814854_10218758656096475_9145409236447002624_nI keep a long-empty velvet heart candy box given to me by my then 11-year old son on the first Valentine’s Day after his dad died not three weeks before. So many miles ago in the rear view mirror, I can imagine how Mom must have taken him shopping for it and how he carefully chose it.

On years when I’ve been sniffling with a cold, tissues and cold medicine littering the bed, I’ve still managed to wear my sparkling diamond earrings, Rick’s gift to me on our first married Valentine’s day, 20 years ago. He handed them to me disguised in a brown grocery bag while apologizing for not having had time to shop. It was a ruse as I lie on the sofa, watching Oprah, recovering from a double mastectomy. He delighted at his successful surprise with the help of a friend, Judy, a jeweler and no doubt gleeful co-conspirator. She’s gone now, too. Each year when I put those earrings on, see them glitter and dazzle as I open the box, the memories dazzle, as well. Today Judy’s face will come to life in their light.

Valentine’s Day is a bubbling cauldron of memories; joy and laughter, grief and IMG_8170loneliness, hope and love. Sorrow and sweetness. It’s a remembrance of those we love and have loved wherever they may be as they linger in our rear view mirrors. The best part is, today is about love. One day on the calendar dedicated to nothing but love. The silly red paper heart kind, the mournful lost-to-us-forever kind, the warm I-can-count-on-you-my-Pal-entine kind. The snuggly pajamas with my cat kind, the sticky-handed little kid kind. The I-did-the-best-I-could-kind. The “I will love you forever” kind.

To everyone, in every way, celebrate this day of love. Celebrate with cupcakes, and hot cinnamon hearts, and cards made with white paper doilies pasted on red, lettered with crayon. There is love in the world. Maybe not just the one we’d like right now, or maybe one so perfect we’re afraid it might go away. Today it’s here. Take a deep breath, open eyes wide and see the love that surrounds us every day in every way.

Have fun! Eat red jelly beans. Tell those you care about how special they are to you. I hope the paper mail bag taped to your heart is stuffed with notes and cards from your loved ones.

This is mine to you.

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For Riley Hayes. The King family’s newest little Valentine.

The Lath House

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Thanks, Wiki

Out back was a yard that stretched fully from the house to the street behind. It was a very deep lot that first had a paved tar and gravel area for play and drying clothes, and an entrance to the cellar under the house. Then there was a step up to a large cutting garden for flowers and herbs, and abundant vegetables. Through the last gate was a fruit orchard with apple, peach, black and white figs, walnut and loquat trees. Down the center, dividing the orchard ran blackberry vines. Among the tools left from tilling and trimming was a rusty oil drum used for burning paper trash before its ash was turned into a compost heap at the furthest point of the yard.

My grandfather was in charge of the garden. A little bull of a man, immensely strong, short compostand compact, hairy golden arms and chest, a gray-blonde comb-over, light skin and blue eyes. His stature was exactly what one would expect of an older Italian gentleman while his coloring was the opposite. One of his jobs was to ride herd on the grandchildren and keep order in the yard. With our unwanted help horse beans grew in the daisy and gladiolus beds, and avocado trees (launched from seeds on the kitchen window sill) sprouted almost anywhere. None of this made Grandpa happy.

On the first level where the grandkids played (and Grandpa sought to contain us) was the lath house. Set on a concrete foundation it was a rectangular structure covered with wooden, white diagonal lattice on three sides and a large stage-like opening in front. It 80a6627eee27a640f9460d7371e06b3a--climbing-roses-cecilebacked up to a thick hedge that created a border between my grandparents’ yard and the Bonaccorsi’s, next door.  Sometimes the vines in the hedge played a weaving game, tangling with other greenery then poking through into the lath house. Pink and red climbing roses grew at its sides among blue hydrangea bushes. Nature provided all the adornment needed against the crisp white back drop of the lath house.

The lath house sheltered a long table my grandfather had built, with benches running its 1599px-walnuts_01length on each side. During the winter the table was covered with newspapers and screened racks for drying walnuts and fava beans in their variegated pods. As warm summer days slipped into chilly late autumn, walnuts dropped from the orchard trees. The nuts spent winter drying in the lath house and those not carried away by the squirrels made their way inside for shelling, sorting and storing.

The table had other uses for the children. It provided not-so-secret shelter for games of hide and seek, and easily became a fort with the addition of a worn green, woolen Army blanket found in the old garage. Sometimes little bodies hidden below it stretched arms high to the table top and puppet shows were born. When school was out for summer, the lath house served as a stage for fledgling performance art, while Mom and Grandma served lemonade to the cheering local audience who arrived on two and three-wheel bikes, dressed in their finest flip-flops and ribboned pigtails.

In the rear view mirror nothing seems more important in lath house lore than its ritual spring purge. After all, its real purpose was to seat the entire family for outside summer dinners. As days began to lengthen into spring, holding promises of future al fresco dining, the last of Grandpa’s cool weather bounty was harvested and the lath house was emptied of its winter work.

man-hand-garden-growthI believe calling it merely spring cleaning would be to understate the energy and enthusiasm poured into lath house purification. All furniture was removed as walls were swept clean and spiders left homeless. The tangle of vines and webs and crunchy fall leaves trapped between them was removed from the lattice. Debris was broomed from the roof, the concrete floor mopped and rinsed with the hose. The table and benches were scoured before being returned to the lath house.

Grandma, Grandpa, Mom and kids participated in the event though I can’t say the pexels-photo-1437267grandchildren were much actual help. I wasn’t. The idea that soon the table would be covered with lively print oil cloth and set for a family meal invited excitement on par with Christmas dinner. Memory of summers before, Grandma emerging from the back door and down the steps with a platter piled high with steaming pastasciutta fomented the fervor.

In the lath house we could be a little messier without Dad’s evil-eye, we could be a bit noisier without a stern shushing. Unnoticed we could linger a tad longer after dinner listening to adults moving between English and Italian, switching to the one we couldn’t understand when they talked about us. There they would drink Zin from small juice glasses, and have after dinner tazze di caffè. The lath house represented summer. And family.

As dusk tip-toed into sundown my brothers and I slipped away from the table to ride bikes in the paved area between the house and lath castle, to run and chase away the day before being loaded into the family car and taken home for bed. There were evenings of Pinochle, wine, whiskey shots in strong caffè, Italian cigars and desserts of fruit and cheese, but we were left out of those; only sometimes were we lucky enough to spend the night at Grandma’s where we could hear grown-up laughter on the breeze through our bedroom window not knowing then that these memories would become so vivid in the rear view mirror.

italian-feastThe lath house no longer stands behind the home on Myrtle Street. A snoop on Google Earth revealed it’s been replaced by a Victorian-type gazebo. In my dreams I buy the little bungalow back for our family, my brothers and me, our children and grandchildren; we erase all evidence that it ever slipped from our hands, or that time has passed. There the lath house stands tall, awaiting the spring flurry that brought summer and stories of clinking glasses, shouts of Salute!, laughter and love. As it is in my rear view mirror, the lath house never ages in my dreams. Instead it provides the tales future generations will tell.

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The Lath House

Wood strips, cross-purposed into lattice, made
this nursery of interstices—a place
that softened, then admitted, sun with shade,
baffled the wind and rain, broke open space.
It’s now more skeletal, a ghostly room
the garden seemed to grow, in disrepair,
long empty and well past its final bloom.
Less lumbered, though, it cultivates the air
by shedding cedar slats for open sky.
As if, designed to never seem quite finished,
it had a choice to seal and stultify
or take its weather straight and undiminished,
grow larger but be less precisely here,
break with its elements, and disappear.

 

 

 

 

 

Olallieberry Memory

Peanut butter sandwiches with Olallieberry jam and a little mac salad on the side. Daily lunch when staying with my grandparents during the hot summers in Santa Rosa.

My grandmother, Vivian, made her jam and pies during the first weeks of June, the only time Olallieberries are available.

Grown almost exclusively in the moderate climate of the northern and central California coast, they came from Corvallis, Oregon. Kissed by morning fog and cooled by the nearby Pacific Ocean, they flourish in California. But when warm weather comes, the berries are done. There’s less than a three week window in which to grab them. Then a long year before another chance arrives.

My dad used to say God must harvest them himself, so beautiful and delicious are they.

Years later when I lived on the coast in Montara with a child of my own, blackberries and raspberries grew wild in the empty lot behind our house. Long pants on to escape their stickery brambles, Mom and I would pick until our colanders were sufficiently full to fashion a pie. But they weren’t Olallieberries, that special cross of a Youngberry and Logan blackberry.

God’s hand for sure, Dad.

My grandmother was raised in an orphanage and I’ve wondered who taught her to cook and bake, and she was good at both. Questions we think of too late, when there’s no one to ask.

She left few recipes, mostly those that belonged to others. No recipe for her Olallieberry pie or jam, or macaroni salad, leaving me free to remember and create on my own.

Just like her. A free spirit and free-thinker in a generation unfamiliar with and unwelcoming to either quality in women, as if it weren’t difficult enough to be Jewish and raised in an orphanage. Or, maybe because of.

I’m sure her flaky crust came by way of lard or Crisco because that was the way of the day. When I first set out to re-create an Olallieberry pie I started with my mother’s recipe for pie dough. I didn’t succeed even with Mom by my side. There was something about that particular dough which wouldn’t come together for me, or even for her if I were around. The dough and I were not friends.

Then came the Silver Palate Cookbook and the one pastry dough recipe that loves me. A good start to my Olallieberry memory.

I combed recipes from here and there; I searched the internet and old cookbooks going back to Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School. Then I found a recipe in a McCall’s cookbook I’d been given in 1975 by my cousin, Eva. “Fresh Berry Pie”.

Can you taste things with your imagination? Read an ingredient list and with each addition have the mouth in your mind follow along, adding flavors until a taste takes shape?

I can.

The recipe read, “Dash ground cloves”.

I knew. I could taste it. Dimension, another layer of flavor, depth without sweetness. Unexpected. In a berry pie, or in the cookbook falling apart high up on the shelf in my kitchen cabinet.

I used Silver Palate dough for my crust, four pints of beautiful Olallieberries snagged during their way-too-compact-early-June season, and from deep in my cluttered baking drawer, Vivian’s  pastry cutter to pink the lattice ribbons for the top.

Did its baking fill the house with a scrumptious fragrance? Did it look to tempt the devil himself? Was it torture waiting for it to cool? Did I remember to slide a little a la mode next to it on the plate? Did I savor every bite?

You don’t really need me to answer, do you?

Right out of a 1950’s diner. Lava-like juices had bubbled through the lattice and cooled around the rim to a shiny, luscious deep purple. Flaky barely sweet pie crust, each bite filled with Olallieberry goodness.

As tasty as it was, delicious as the day was long, it was this memory that filled and warmed me, reminded me of who I am, the people and stories that came before me. The joy wasn’t as much in consuming pie as it had been in pursuit and capture of summers five decades ago. Summers filled with sunshine, and love, and berries “harvested by God’s hand”, then baked by my grandmother into an Olallieberry memory.

Vivian Doris Harris Reilly

 

 

 

It Works

This morning I began preparing Leah’s famous apple crisp. It’s actually not hers but the creation of her dear friend. We’re all sworn to secrecy.

Don’t ask.

Slight error with photo pressure. Good thing my brother wasn’t choosing.

The recipe called for 12 ounces of butter – a cube and a half. Richard’s recipes are foolproof. And precise. Don’t mess with a thing and you get a product that draws raves for years.

But I was tired. I decided not to measure that last half cube. I scoffed. I EYEBALLED it.

When I measured what I thought was half against the other, they were exact.

You know why? When we were kids my mom always said, “If you cut, your brother chooses.”

Gadzooks. The pressure of a brother so empowered. He was allowed to choose first which side of whatever he wanted. A sandwich. Toast. A piece of pie…

I’m 66.

It was still a perfect half.

 

Children Are Always Good

My mother rarely cried. Unlike her daughter, a veritable fountain on the verge for any occasion, Mom wasn’t given to showing sadness. Anger yes, sadness no.

It might be an Italian thing.

I was 12 years old making yet another trip from my bedroom to the kitchen for a snack after school when I heard my mom in tears at the front door speaking to a neighbor lady who was her good friend. In hushed voices there was only their mumble but I could make out my mother’s distress. Laverne said, “I’m so sorry, Ann. I’m so sorry.”

At 12 what does a kid do? I was afraid. I was curious. I was upset. I was in distress for Mom. I retreated to my room until the front door closed and the voices fell silent. I emerged to find Mom wiping her tears. I stuttered. I asked what happened.

She hesitated and didn’t want to tell. She was unable to quickly create a cover story for the incident and I think that’s the only reason she told the truth.

My grandmother was dying. She was diagnosed with an advanced and untreatable form of leukemia. In disclosing to me, my mother sagged and melted into tears again.

That was over 50 years ago yet I can see every detail in the rear view mirror. Of that day and those after until Fanny died in early December of 1964.

At school the next day I couldn’t concentrate and when lunchtime came, I told my teacher, a sweet, 10891629_10205631889135505_2597179225136233629_nancient, tiny nun. I described all that had happened the day before. I had some fearsome faith back in the day. I probably thought she could pull up some Catholic mojo and make my grandmother better. I could barely get the words out to explain what I knew, what would be the undoing of my little family. Fanny was the light at the center of everything.

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She told me if I prayed hard enough and if I was good enough, God would save my grandmother. I pulled myself together to execute.

I was not only good. I was excellent. I spent hours praying. Days. Nights. I prayed to God. To Jesus. To Mary, His mother.

At school I made As on my lessons. At home I cared for my brothers and my dad so Mom could be with Grandma. I cooked (poorly) and cleaned the house (like a 12-year-old). My mama wept for her mama and I toiled and prayed some more.

Then, my grandmother died.

15591647_10211601282126599_749632490219273768_oThat first Christmas came three weeks after her death. I prayed even harder to the baby Jesus tucked in his tiny manger under the watchful eyes of His parents, nestled in the crisp white sheet at the bottom of our Christmas tree. With twinkling lights and shimmering tinsel, ornaments reflecting its surrounds, our tree stood tall and alone in the corner of our living room. Each evening in the quiet before bed I knelt before the tree. I prayed to atone for Fanny’s death. I hadn’t been good enough in God’s eyes to save her.

I didn’t realize until well into adulthood that I carried that memory deep within, that I operated believing I wasn’t good enough. The ultimate judgment had been rendered and a life was lost. I saw it all in the rear view mirror and was shocked by the depth of the belief, the decision made as young girl based on a teacher’s words.

I never told a soul. I was ashamed and guilty. To whom could I unburden myself and confess this murder? God already knew.21741184_10214368590067568_7115962655116691979_o

You know what I know now? Whether there is or isn’t a god doesn’t matter – children are always good enough. They’re born good. And if you tell them they’re good and lovable, even if sometimes they’re naughty, they will grow into good and loving adults.

Children are good. It’s immutable. Tell the children around you how lovable and good they are. Tell them every day.

I was good. I am good. And Fanny knew for sure.

Fanny & her adoring daughter, my mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Alike Than Different

I don’t think of myself as someone who has anything in common with the Bush family. Not 41 and not 43.

My politics tend to be left of center and I didn’t vote for either of them. Their patrician upbringing couldn’t differ much more from mine. I have grandparents who were Italian immigrants and one who was raised in a Jewish orphanage. There were no second homes or sail boats.

2007-12-26-bush60minutesdecisionThe ever-present smirk on W’s face always bothered the heck out of me, though now I don’t think it’s so much a smirk as just his face. (Kinda like RBF* but different.) George Herbert Walker Bush seemed to me, at the time of his race against Bill Clinton for a second term as president, out of touch with the common man. Not mean spirited but lacking a generous spirit and desire to understand the day-to-day struggles of the working class.

Elite prep schools, ivy league colleges and law schools didn’t speak to me and didn’t represent anything in my family’s world. Not to mention the land and oil baron part of their stories, more like a fairy tale to me.

I pretty much wrote them off and out of consciousness.

Over the last ten years the Bush family has come back to mind. Of course there has been the annual news report of elder Bush jumping from an airplane on his birthday, but I’ve begun to appreciate W when he shows up on the late night talk show circuit bantering with Jimmy Kimmel. I’ve read with interest articles about his paintings and the charities he supports with them.

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Dalai Lama, by George W. Bush

I haven’t suffered Clinton-like Bush-fatigue, or been tortured with family fashion, style, and vacations the way we have been with post-Obama administration non-news. Stories about W generally have more substance and are far less frequent. I enjoy them.

All this I noted checking the rear view mirror as I witnessed the sad week leading up to President George H. W. Bush’s recent burial at his presidential library in College Station, TX.

Thirty years after he occupied the Oval Office.

George & BarbaraThrough the lens of the loss of my parents I absorbed the deaths of Barbara and George H.W. within a half year of each other. Watching and listening to W speak about his father brought my own dad to memory along with my tremendous sorrow at having lost him. I could empathize deeply with the Bush children and grandchildren as they said difficult good-byes to their matriarch and patriarch within such a short period. It was the same for my brothers and me.

I watched the president’s flag draped casket carried by military service personnel. Dad didn’t want his similarly covered. He reckoned he hadn’t done enough during WWII to warrant that respect. In his mind he was one sailor doing the least he could to help in a war effort drawing to a close by the time he reached the age of service. He was embarrassed he hadn’t done more though it wasn’t he but the calendar that bore the fault. He was turned away when he tried to enlist. Too young. He hesitated to call himself a veteran. He was a radar man. He spent much of his time in uniform helping to clean up the Marshall Islands post WWII. In his eyes, hardly a vet. When other dads told their stories, he would allow his to go unspoken.

George H. W. Bush was precisely the kind of man Dad believed should have a flag draped coffin, be saluted and acknowledged. A real vet who flew dozens of bombing missions.

3052_1168849180368_5698866_nI bet the 41st president believed Dad was just the sort of guy who should have been honored. An every man who did his duty without fanfare then quietly returned home to work and care for family, never to mention it again.

We ignored my dad’s wishes. His funeral mass was said with his casket present, a flag covering it.

In the rear view mirror the grand Bush family I once thought so little resembled mine now seems kin. Both parents gone in less than a year after a long and loving marriage. In a society where women are expected to live longer than men, my dad and W’s outlived their wives to keep their decades old promises to care for them for life, then faded away. As I heard the president wanted etched on his grave marker the words, “He loved Barbara very much,” I remembered my dad saying upon his fatal diagnosis, “My only sadness after this good life is that I will break my promise to your mother to love her til the end of her days.”

Against all odds, he kept that promise.

During the days after 41’s death, stories tumbled from the lips of friends and family, 600px-George_W._Bush_and_familysome funny and others so touching they barely rose from the tellers’ throats without first causing them to choke on a sob.

I have times like that.

Two men who were family first, followed by loyalty and integrity, and country.

UnknownBut for broccoli love, very much the same. My dad ate his veggies.

Just like the Bush family saying good-bye then marching into Christmas with sadness and celebration, so did our little family. A cremation and Christmas a week later.

What I’ve come to believe in my later years to be nearly always true, was proven to me again – our similarities are greater than our differences. In the heat of debate as we arm-wrestle ideas, it’s hard for me to remember. When watching television and listening to pundits translate our heads of state, their vision and values, I rely on third parties to tell a story which may or may not be complete and accurate as they encourage me to line up ‘fir or agin’ our leaders.

That we are flesh and blood, trying our damnedest to live lives of honesty and contribution while caring for families and communities, is where I find commonalities that need no interpretation.

We are all one I see clearly in the rear view mirror. Not only in retrospect do I want to remember this but in moments when I stand in opposition, lost in my judgment of another rather than my compassion and curiosity for who they really are. That’s when I want to remember we are one.

And that’s how I’ll remember George Herbert Walker Bush and my dad. Seemingly different and at the heart of things, so very alike. As his grieving son and me.

*RBF – Resting Bitch Face

Apology

A draft copy of my last post, “Arrivederci, Roma”, escaped my fingers and was published (because I’m still learning how to do things here) before edits and clean-up. For those of you with subscriptions, that means an immediate draft, links not working, typos and all, arrived in your mail boxes. Lucky you.

Many apologies. I ask, save me more embarrassment and delete the draft you received. You have my thanks! If you’re still interested in the story, please go directly to the WordPress website.

I’m going back to check for more typos now…

Arrivederci, Roma

shoppingHard leather soles make an unmistakable sound scuffling across an old wood floor.  There’s a sharp clunk if the back slides off the heel and a little shuffling sound, because slippers are often extra roomy. My grandfather’s were.images

In the morning he’d wrap himself in a red wool plaid Pendleton bathrobe, his long johns peeking from below the hem and ending to expose his ankles. Then the slippers. Always brown. He would drowsily make his way to the kitchen where my grandmother, cloaked in her housecoat, prepped the aluminum stove top percolator with morning coffee. Black coffee.

Medalgia D'oroMedaligia D’Oro.

Tar.

We didn’t get in Grandpa’s way in the morning. He plodded to the breakfast nook to read the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, drink his café, and smoke a morning, unfiltered Camel. Grandma would bring his breakfast. If we crossed his path we’d hear, “Scappa! camelScappa via!” and we scurried away.

So familiar were those words, frequently the first of Grandpa’s day when my brothers and I spent the night, that over 60 years later the sound of slippers dragging across a floor, scraping and clomping to the kitchen, will elicit from my brother or me, “Scappa! Scappa!”

There was however, on occasion, a different kind of morning. One that began similarly with the robe and the long johns, the slippers and the sleepy trip to the kitchen. Then Grandpa bypassed the coffee and headed for the refrigerator. He removed the textured gray, molded cardboard egg carton from a shelf, grabbed a glass from the nearby cabinet, and proceeded to mix a concoction that was largely raw eggs swished around and slammed down in a single gulp.

Not until much later did a glance in the rear view mirror reveal what we didn’t know then – these mornings followed a late night of stubby, vile smelling Toscano cigars, shots of whiskey and espresso, and too many hands of Pinochle with the paisanos at the Italian toscano-extravecchioAmerican Social Club.

There might also have been flirting with the young women who served them. There were rumors…

Grandma Fanny wasn’t happy. When Fanny wasn’t happy there was no talking. No laughing. No smiling.

There was a stern, fixed expression. The silent treatment raised to an art form.

Grandpa had other plans.

After the raw egg fortification he’d walk up behind her as she stood at the white enamel, three-raw-eggs-in-glassgas stove that still had a cubby for burning wood, and twirl her to him. He’d grab her in dance stance, and lead her around the kitchen floor while singing, Arrivederci, Roma. She resisted every step.

“Stop it, Pe-tah” with her Italian accent, and words in a language we didn’t understand. He did not stop.

“Basta!” she’d call out.

For him it was not enough. Around and around the kitchen floor he waltzed her, his robe flaps flying, scappa shoes scraping against the linoleum floor to the sound of his singing and the smell of perking coffee until she could resist no longer.

To the backdrop of his song came her laughter. The prize. The forgiveness. The real break of day.

Sunrise.

Her steely silence ruptured, she’d smile and laugh with a knowing resignation that married life doesn’t always present exactly the way one might like. She lacked the will to carry on angrily.

16195939_10211991329517540_5100011490949474683_nThough Peter lived into his mid-80s, Fanny did not. By 70 she was gone. Four years older than I am now. Did she know what was to come and  committed to using her time wisely, with love? I don’t know.

Around and around they go in her fragrant kitchen, to the sound of his slippers and her sweet laughter, his plea for forgiveness in the notes of Arrivederci, Roma, Fanny and “Pe-tah” dance forever in my memory. In my rear view mirror.

 

Like No Ethics At All

When I was 18 I dated a quiet, partly-nerdy, ever thoughtful, really bright guy. He read a lot.

15.Red-Haired-GuyHe had a shock of red hair.

Later I found out he had red pubic hair, too, natch, when he visited our family home from out-of-state. My brother followed his shower in the white shower/tub combo and immediately reported, as only a 15-year-old little brother can, “His pubes are orange!”

It was a moment. But I digress.

Anyway, there was a time when within the context of a conversation long forgotten, the holdinghands521red-headed wonder uttered the words, “Situation ethics are like no ethics at all,’ with stony faced seriousness.

An 18-year-old boy-man said those words. Who says that? At that age?  At any age.

In the rear view mirror it seems as impossibly outlandish now as it did at the time. Only for different reasons.

D145_233_622_1200Because I was not nearly mature enough to hear that kind of wisdom and probably never had pondered the word ‘ethics’, I immediately reported his statement to my best friend with the closest impersonation of his oh-so-serious voice I could muster. We laughed uproariously restating the phrase often especially before embarking on any kind of shenanigan.

Close to 40 years later I reconnected with my barely-red and mostly-gray high school love. (Facebook, you’re a wonder. But I digress. Again.) I asked if he remembered.

Of course he didn’t, those days long left behind and buried under adult responsibilities. He said, “It sounds pompous enough to have been me.”

He was 18. Pompous? Quite remarkable.

Now I measure nearly every important decision I make, political stand I take, essay I write, lesson I teach my grandson and will teach his infant brother, vote I cast, and weary self-evaluation at the end of a day, by those words.

U.S. Senator John McCain speaks during a news conference in KabulAnd I think a country fractured by identity politics and hypocrisy mourns Senator John McCain precisely because he practiced ethical congruency with a rigour most don’t know exists let alone understand.

In the rear view mirror, ‘situation ethics is like no ethics at all’ comes into keen focus.

Filed under “Words to Live By.”

Thanks, Andy. (I made you a red-headed hair model, okay? Sorry, I digress.)