Putting our Heads Together

Putting our Heads Together
I don't think he sees me

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Reflecting Pools

I have never liked my birthday. Not for fear of getting older, or leaving things to the past as the always unknown future beckoned. I think it was the attention, I don’t like the attention. I have always enjoyed celebrating those around me much more than celebrating myself. Also, there is the fact that I am an observer and it doesn’t feel right to be observed. Still there is no feeling on earth so good as knowing my life is populated by so many intelligent, loving, and fun friends and family.

The blink of an eye that has been the last 55 years has come at a price. I am missing so much of my childhood. The tide of time that flows behind starts out a full river from today, but when it hits my first 15 years it has shallowed and is broken by water rounded stones and sandbars. My early years exist as little more than countless unconnected tidal pools. Still, the reflections found in these pools do provide insight into who I am, how I came to be.

For the past 32 years I have worked in the rail industry as consultant and researcher. A result more of lucky happenstance than choosing. But I have a certain love of trains in my earliest days. I have pictures of me playing with toy train sets, there is a film that has me whirling some coupled rail cars above my head when I was just a toddler. There was a story my father told me over and over of me mimicking his hand gestures and sound effects when showing how a grade crossing worked when I was just in a high chair. And then finally, memories I will always cherish are those of going to the train station to pick up my grandmother when she would visit for holidays in the 60’s. What I do remember most about that is looking down the track and seeing the parallel rails merge in the far distance and thinking that is where Connecticut must be.

There are images in my mind of sneaking into my parent’s bedroom when they were not around. I would look around and sometimes snoop in Daddy’s things. Mainly I went in there for the security it provided to me. Being among Mom’s and Dad’s possession, the bed they slept in, the toiletries they groomed with brought me to the bedrock that was their love and support. It made me feel safe. Such memories often have bitter sweet ties, because it also brings back the time we small children were gathered about our parents in the living room as they told us that they were separating, and even though they got back together, their bedroom, my bedrock never felt quite as concrete.

I remember the birthdays of others when I was growing up. As a small person once, Mom was taking me to John Wilson’s birthday party. We had gone to Eckerds Drugs and picked out what I thought was a neat toy for John and wrapped it up. On the way to the party I cried because I couldn’t keep the toy and had to give it away to my friend. There was a birthday of my best friend Ben Lovejoy one year where in tribute to our favorite SNL skit, I made for him a model of George and Yortek’s (two very wild and crazy guys) industrial vacuum cleaner, and gave him a Hulk-head bank with a mock check for one million dollars to put in it. When I told my father about these gifts, he was genuinely shocked and told me that even written on scrap paper the check I had drawn was legal tender. I never worried, Ben knows I am good for it.

There are a million more fragments that have formed me. Recollections of sailing, vacationing at Calloway Gardens, playing baseball and football with the Griffiths next store, visiting grandparents and cousins in Atlanta, seeing ball games, stealing through the woods and swamp that were so close to our home, the vine kingdom, running through culverts, laughing, running with packs of friends on the warm, humid nights in South Carolina. There were the fears that helped mold me like my early (and not completely resolved) fear of heights, frightened of being sent to Vietnam because my draft lottery number was 5 (even though I was only 7), fear of the police looking for me after some insensitive adult yelled at me and threatened me because I was putting dirt clods on the road and watching cars run over them. My life to me is an impossibly complicated puzzle of countless pieces, that have assembled into a life I am blessed by and could never have imagined. In observing others, I guess I hope to make sense of the observations I see in me. Then again, miraculous outcomes are made to be accepted and not explained.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

18 Years

This week the relatives descend and the friends gather.  Our daughter Haley will be at full furious trhottle. All activity will reach its climax on Friday when our grandson, Russell, graduates high school from Colorado Springs Christian School.  Jean-Marie and I are all in for the festivities, but for the moment I just want to relax with my thoughts and enjoy the peace of the past.

This past begins almost nineteen years ago when Russell was sheltered in his mother’s womb as she was sheltered beneath our roof. First time motherhood can be a scary thing to face, and we wanted to support Haley without taking charge or becoming a crutch.  Jean-Marie came up with the idea of turning our old detached two-car garage (25’x25’) into a cottage that Haley could live in and be the independent mom she wanted and needed to be, but with love and support only fifty feet away.  It was a small space, and designing it into a home was no small feat.  I would love to say I helped, that I put my engineering skills to architectural use, but that would be a lie.  The brain trust of Jean-Marie and Marc and Dennis attacked the problem with a passion.  Ideas were floated back and forth, sketches developed and tossed, until one evening at a restaurant it all came to together and the final plan was etched onto a paper napkin.

Russell was born and came home from the hospital to that warm and lovely cottage. In the blink of an eye, mother and father were mystically transubstantiated to our grandparent identities of GiGi and Bumpa as surely as host and wine become flesh and blood. I feel the name GiGi reflects my wife’s vitality and spirit.  I feel my name Bumpa (so conferred upon me by Russell’s Godfather his beloved Uncle Marc) accurately captures my roundness – and I have no complaints.

Russell lived fifty feet away for his first five years. Five years that spoiled GiGi and I greatly. Though (with one rare exception) he has never lived further than fifteen minutes from us, the difference between a few feet away and a few miles away has always felt huge. As huge as the eighteen years we have shared and witnessed with Russell.

For eighteen years, our hearts have ached with love for this young man. They are eighteen years of full memories that have passed in an instant. I can still feel the weight of him as a baby on my chest as we napped on the sofa.  I can still see his small infant’s hand blindly searching the edge of my desk trying to feel for my phone as I worked and he scooted around my office in his walker. I see him well behaved and helping (as best as a child can) his GiGi as we delivered flowers to a wedding or party. I smile as I remember trying to explain to Russell that I could not take him to the Christmas Parade because I had thrown my back out and could not drive (he dropped to his little knees and cried, “Bumpa, I am so humiliated!”). I see him as Cub Scout, and Weeblo, and Boy Scout. I see us when called upon taking him to and picking him up from elementary school, middle school, and high school (the same high school that is releasing him this Friday to his academic future). I see my little buddy grow before my mind’s eye until he now stands above me, smiling.

I can’t write down all that I remember, there is not enough room. And I do not expect you the reader to expend your valuable patience for such a deluge as written by a middle-aged man who sees time continually speeding up about him. The ending to this blog will be the same regardless of how many words are piled on top of it. So in conclusion, in this time of quiet reflection, GiGi and Bumpa thank our daughter Haley for raising a young man so well, for making the right choices, for making the necessary sacrifices, and giving her son as solid a footing as anyone could ask for.  We love you.

To Mike, Haley’s husband, GiGi and Bumpa thank you for a being a role model. Helping to teach Russell not only how to work hard, but also teaching him some of the manly arts involved as household handyman. We have watched you as a loving husband and loving step-father. We have watched you proudly as mentor and friend to our grandson. We love you.

Russell, our grandson, GiGi and Bumpa could never be able to express in words that are more eloquent than our smiles or tears of joy to say how much we love you, how proud we are of you, how much we look forward to your future. From the moment you began to talk, you were a person of astounding vocabulary. From the first puzzle you put together, you evinced a mind that was agile and flexible. From the first gift you gave, you proved yourself thoughtful and loving and caring. There is a renaissance man within you, a maturity beyond your years, a versatility of talents that are inspiring, and love that is both gentle and fierce. Before us we no longer see the crawling child. We see now the tall handsome young man going off to Colorado State University and out into the world. Please know we will always be here for you no matter what. Your GiGi and Bumpa love you.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Television has done the imagination no favors.  As my wife lies in an operating room having her appendix removed, I picture a dark space defined by fields of bright lights, rimmed by squeaks and beeps and rhythmic oxygen machines while the surgeon through the miracle of laparoscopy plays a video game to remove the offending organ.

Things like infected appendexes never seem to occur during normal business hours.  They wait for the cover of dark to reveal their dirty deeds.  They bide the creeping of hours when a clock is in sight, then cause the hands to advance at some dizzying rate when you are distracted to claim more dark territory, more isolation.  Things like this force your hand when you should be clothed in peace in the company of sleeping dogs.

As I write, the hospital’s hallowed halls are hollow and still.  The only disturbance the hum of HVAC and the occasional whine of some squeaky wheeled object in nocturnal transit from A to B.  The silence affords wandering thoughts and devout prayer.

Mickey says when the little hand is on 4 and the big hand is on 12, it means I still have an hour before Dr. Khan finds me to deliver the expected news of health regained through a surgical exorcism of Jean-Marie’s possessed organ.  The hours may have cheated in transit between 8:30 and 1:30, but now they repent that dishonesty creeping three-legged through this waiting.

I sit in this waiting room alone.  The space filled by shadows and half light and the sound of the scrawl of my pen.  When the room is filled, voices stay hushed out of respect of the waiting of others.  Alone I am hushed in respect to the void I find myself in, silently praying the rosary for the warrior/surgeon to conquer the dragon in the video game he plays.  Appendectomies are routine things, I know this.  Yet I am bound by unbidden gravity.  Fifty minutes now until the surgeon.  I am haunted by the quiet clock that cannot even show me the respect of ticking seconds in its glacial pace. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017


I think there are houses that get lonely.  I imagine Marc and Den’s James Island home is such a place.  We knew Marc and Den in two houses in Colorado Springs, their rented beach house at Folly, and finally their home on Godber.  Each house a home by virtue of love, memories, and their wonderful encompassing natures. 

Godber was different than any place we had seen them in.  I recall the warm cottage in Old Colorado (a section of Springs) with its wrap around porch and odd neighbors who at one time had a deer hanging and dressed from a tree in their backyard for a week.  We spent more time at their next home on Bijou which was a larger place.  The thought of their Victorian home makes me smile and tear.  They gave their Godson, Russell (our grandson), his first “big boy” bed there.  Marc often told of Russell’s first night in that bed, Russell’s first night without a crib.  He said that late at night, he and Den were lying in bed, and as he was sleeping lightly the pad of small feet woke him up.  Marc peeked and saw Russell standing there in the dark, looking toward them but trying not to disturb them.  Russell then turned around and padded back to sleep.  Apparently Russell just needed the security of seeing Marc and Den there in this brave new world without slats.  There were many parties on Bijou that we attended.  At one of which I asked Jean-Marie to marry me for the first time.  She yelled for Marc’s help, to which he told her it was her problem.  Thanks, Marc.  It took me three years to get up the courage to ask her again.  It was a house characteristically full of life even when it held death as when they provided a room, comfort, and love to their dear friend Rick who was dying of AIDS.  During that time the house always had people there, helping Marc and Den care for and love Rick.  When we visited with Rick, because of the sanctuary and community provided by Marc and Den we could focus on Rick and not circumstances. 

Marc and Den’s first South Carolina home on Folly was my least favorite house.  It was a beautiful house that came furnished, and as such lacked their personality.  It does have one memorable event attached to it for me.  During a visit around Easter, Jean-Marie and Den had a late night of conversation, laughter, and general bonding over candy Peeps and Cointreau.  I won’t say any more. 

When they moved to Godber, we were there to join new friends in moving things in and setting up house.  I didn’t hold out much hope for the house.  It was a solid practical house, a house with good bones.  But it was a basic brick rancher and did not carry the more timeless personality of their Colorado Springs homes.  I was wrong though.  House became home as they filled it with the memories and moments cherished over their lifetime together.  Pictures and paintings went up on the wall.  In no time, people that so easily shared their smiles with Marc and Den over the years (including our own) were smiling a greeting to all who entered Godber.  Knick Knacks were placed on shelves, antiques took up their positions, statues stood guard, and memories quickly defined and warmed the space that Marc and Den had taken as their blank canvas. 

Godber became a nexus for life as was typical of the pair.  What resonates most to me are the quiet family moments that we took part in on our many trips to Charleston to visit Marc and Den.  Not long after Marc and Den were in Godber, Dennis with longtime friend Chris Vinley in tow, drove to Alabama to retrieve Dennis’s mother and bring her to live in the cottage behind the house.  Dennis and his mother would share a ritual of early morning cigarettes and coffee out on the brick patio until she passed.  The small elderly dog Penny came with Dennis’s mom and ended up outliving them both.  What amazed me about Penny was that she could not have lived a more pampered life, yet given the opportunity she would totter under the gate and take off down the driveway.  As the world’s slowest animal, you only had an hour or two to react before Penny reached the end of the driveway and the wide world.  I retrieved Penny a time or two as I imagine many friends of Marc and Den did.  The brick patio was its own world, we would sit about the teak garden table just talking and drinking and laughing on countless occasions on countless visits.  Each visit we would enter Godber and were always greeted with the same hospitality that started with Marc telling us what room we would be sleeping in, and with Dennis taking our drink order.  Den would make the first round, after that we were on our own. 

Over the years there were so many celebrations and parties at Godber.  Jean-Marie and I were at one (it could have been Marc’s birthday), where there was a pig roasting in the driveway with an elderly neighbor attentively sopping it with sauce (a task he was paid for with a bottle of vodka).  Marc’s niece Jamie was married in the spralling backyard ten years ago this April.  Dennis’s life was celebrated in the same backyard with Marc joining the band to sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. 

The importance of this congregation of life hit me hardest as I spoke separately with our son Michael, Marc’s niece Jamie, and the dear Trisha Mae - long time renter and friend from the cottage out back of Godber.  When Marc passed, our son as executor flew down on a red eye to begin the mechanical process of death.  He stayed at Godber, and worked with Marc’s family to; among other things, set up a memorial service at Marc’s church with following reception at Godber.  Michael told me how it felt to have the gathering and how the empty house transformed when love was invited back in.  One night, with Michael and Marc’s family at the house they had a fire going in the fire place and they lit the outdoor fire pit, made drinks, and talked into the night.  I could hear Jamie’s voice over the phone soften and smile as she expressed how important that moment of life and light was in the house that no longer held Marc.  Of that same night, Trisha told me it was the night she returned from holiday in her native Virginia where she had been when Marc died.  She told me how much longer the ride was made as she carried this sense of dread of coming home to a cold and dark Godber.  Pulling up into the driveway she saw the house alight and heard the voices of this family gathering and all her fears were dispelled. 

I think some houses can feel lonely.  That they can is a tribute to the love and life that made them a home.  Godber is such a house.  It was as much an extension of Marc and Den as were Marc and Den’s smiles and loving embrace of family and friends.  Godber was more than a framework for brick and mortar, it was the framework for the lives of two men who opened their doors (both actual and metaphorical) to anyone that needed them.  And though Godber is destined to forget its sorrow through some unknown redefinition by resale, the haven it has been will live with the memories of my missing friends.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Heart of the Moment

In my life there have been two major influences that have opened love's door for me. The first and dearest, the one that fills me with passion and completeness with each breath she takes is my wife. The other has been the couple of Marc Edwards and Dennis Haddock - forever thought of as Marc and Den. To me, Marc and Den were the definition of love. They are both gone now. That is to say, they are both together again.

I want to tell the tale of how Marc and Den met. I apologize in advance for how clumsily I do it. The true sweetness of it could only be achieved by listening to Marc tell their story. Each time I heard it, the breath would go out of Marc's voice, his eyes would darken passionately with the memory of it, and you could tell just a few sentences in that he was no longer talking so much as reliving the moment. At the time of their meeting it was the eighties and Marc worked at the West Bank Club in Chicago as Catering Manager. Dennis showed up to the Club one day to interview for a job. For Marc it was love at first sight as something inside him melted away, and he could barely speak. So paralyzed was he by this first meeting with Dennis, that he had to run and get his assistant asking her to do the interview because he just couldn't think straight around Dennis.

That random stroke of lightening ignited something that would not stop burning. After some time, Marc and Den moved to Colorado Springs where we would join their lives. Jean-Marie met them long before meeting me. Marc was a partner in the very successful Food Designers catering company and Dennis was working at the Antlers Hotel when my wife was well on her way to being one of the best wedding and special events florists in town. As happens with Marc and Den, their friendship with Jean-Marie quickly deepened. So when I started dating my future wife, Marc and Den had us over to dinner to size me up. That part I did not know. What I did know was that the food would likely be exotic and spectacular because of Marc's line of work. I remember that night sitting in their lovely candlelit dining room sharing wine and conversation with a meal of pot roast and steamed broccoli. Perfect. I had a wonderful time, and only found out much later that the initial impression I rated was a lukewarm, "He's ok, but we just don't see it, J-M."  Luckily for me, Marc and Den gave second chances.

Over the years, Jean-Marie and I shared many meals, parties, and vacations with Marc and Den. When Marc and Den were planning to simplify their lives and were plotting their exit strategy from Colorado Springs, Jean-Marie and I joined them on trips to Charleston and Savannah to help them decide where they wanted to live. Though they ended up in my beloved Charleston, the Savannah trip held the most memories for me. Images from the trip bring easy smiles:  Dennis poking fun at me when we were at a bar and the barman kept "checking" me out, Dennis and I napping in the backseat of the car from the airport to the hotel (time often found Dennis and I napping), Marc hungover in the back of the convertible parked in the Southern Summer sun as the rest of us visited a garden shop (Den parked in the sun on purpose because he was miffed that Marc drank so much the night before). The sweetest memory of that trip came late one night at the hotel. Jean-Marie left the room to get ice and ran into Marc and Dennis kissing in the hall. Marc and Den were so embarrassed at getting caught!  She wasn't, and I wouldn't have been. I loved how Jean-Marie giggled when she told me what happened. Marc and Den were married and been together a lot of years at that point, and to still show that passion and youthful innocence about their love was simply beautiful.

Marc and Den were so adaptable as a couple. Charleston and semi-retirement did not go as planned when Marc did not realize the money out of his business that he had expected. Still they spent their first year in a beach house as promised, then hit the ground running. They found jobs and fell in love with the city. Dennis went about tending gardens, first at a church, then at a garden center, and finally the lush grounds of the stately College of Charleston. Marc worked briefly in a flower shop before moving back into work where he could make a difference. This started with Camp Happy Days where he was Director of Development for a cancer camp for children. From there he moved onto Senior Director of Development at the Charleston Animal Society (how he prevented Den from adopting all of animals himself I will never know). It was while there that Den was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Marc's world was turned on its head. It was so painful to see what Den's illness did to Marc. It was also an honor to witness how Marc's love allowed Marc to push through all his own anguish and pain to tenderly guide Den through the maze of treatments and provide Den the gentle daily care he required.

After Dennis died, Marc's friends and family rallied around him, but he was inconsolable. There was a light in him that passed along with Den. Eventually Marc re-entered the land of the living even if ghost-like. As best he could, he returned to the friends he loved as counselor, advocate, and port because that is who he was. He moved from the Charleston Animal Society to Low Country AIDS Services, where he could more directly help that neglected community. He would talk often to our children and our grandson. Jean-Marie would call him regularly and they would talk about hurts and joys, and sometimes nothing at all just hear each other's voice. I would hop on the phone with him (though I am horrible on the phone), and we would joke and we would laugh. I wish I could hear that laugh again. We would also see him as often we could.

The last time we were with him was over Thanksgiving just this past year. One day we were in the kitchen cooking, drinking, and listening to a CD of Marc at his first cabaret recital. There we were with the beautiful voice of Marc singing the standards in the background of our conversation and something hit me. I turned to Marc and said to him that I did not know how he could have performed without breaking down, because what we were listening to was simply a love letter to Dennis. Marc just shrugged, eyes wet with held back tears.

Not long after that visit, Marc's broken heart caught up to him. He completed the greatest love story I am likely to know when he rejoined Dennis. Both Marc and Den did many fine and noble things in their lives. They were leaders in the community, they were strong shoulders in weak times, they were an example for us all. More than anything else that I learned from them or shared with them, how they so openly defined love with both passion and innocence is what I will cherish the most, and will forever pay forward.

Friday, January 27, 2017

How Marc Stole Our Children

It is unsurprising that my thoughts keep going to Marc since his death (they went there when he was alive as well – Marc was that kind of important).  In over two decades of having known him, there is a broad tapestry of many colors and leagues of yarn woven about him.  Marc becomes impossible to describe trying to take in the scope of him.  When I do attempt, I am overcome and the tears flow.  Better to take him in parts, vignettes of memory and insight.  Perhaps in pieces the whole can be seen through gentler tears.
                I have said it often in recent weeks, that Marc loved so fully that there were those he didn’t just befriend, he adopted.  My family and I were adopted, baptized, anointed, and given permanent lodging in his heart, and we reciprocated without hesitation.
                Jean-Marie knew Marc before I did.  Once introduced I went through the scrutiny of being “He’s nice, but I don’t see why you’re with him, Jean-Marie,” to being welcomed with hugs, to finally being immersed.  As our lives intertwined, Marc’s embrace widened to take in our three children.  He developed his own relationships with them and became their Uncle Marc.  It was far from the typical “be kind to the kids of your friends.”  Our children were quickly assimilated as individuals into Marc’s love.
                I remember there was a time during our youngest daughter’s teenage years when she was having a problem with me.  I think it had to do with a boy, but I am unsure and the exact issue does not matter anyway.  She had talked to Uncle Marc and Uncle Den about it, and they listened, and they advised.  They also took exception with me for whatever Louise had told them.  We got into somewhat heated discussions on why I was wrong (particularly Dennis, but Marc was firm in his calmer style as well).  You would think that I would have been offended by that.  But I wasn’t, it in fact did not affect our friendship at all.  I did not agree with their opinions, but I took it mainly to be a difference in parenting styles.  I think “parenting styles” is accurate, Marc did not take being an uncle lightly, and we would have it no other way.
                Over the years when we would be sitting around talking about the kids with Mark, he would work into each conversation a line I quickly came to love, “You know, Haley (or Michael or Louise) tell me things that they don’t tell you – and that I would never share – but I can say…”  He relished his status with our children, and we felt blessed that they had Marc to turn to and talk with and get advice from.  He became an implied safety net for them, and at times a welcome intermediary between our children and us.
                When Dennis died, our son Michael was in Charleston visiting and was there for Dennis’s passing.  His presence and strength for Marc in that time of the immediacy of Dennis’s death elevated their relationship to a level Jean-Marie and I were not privy to, but were thankful for.  It was Marc clinging to something solid when his legs and heart could not bear himself up, and there may be no one more solid than our son Michael.  During this time, we would see Marc and talk to Marc on the phone and he would say, “I know he’s your Michael, but he is also MY Michael.”  And that spoke volumes, and that was as it should be.
                We have been blessed in so many ways over the years of being family with Marc.  One of the largest blessings has been having him as Uncle Marc, by having him as our grandson’s God Father.  This has brought Jean-Marie and I so many smiles over the years as he stole our children and grandson and made them his own.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Resolute New Year

Sitting at Starbucks I look to my right and see a man about twenty years my senior with grey wispy hair peering through glasses at his laptop screen while his pale and thin-skinned fingers scroll and type.  I turn back to inking my New Year’s blog with fountain pen in hand, now feeling like a scribe to some indeterminate age or perhaps just to my ego as a writer.
I find at the turn of each year, that looking into the future is like looking in a mirror – there is a very limited view of what is before you, and excellent vision of what lies behind.  I don’t know what to expect, not many of us do.  Perhaps that is why we write down our resolutions, to set goals in order to set the future.  I have done this, and almost always failed at this.  It is why I have stopped setting resolutions.
I also feel like learning from that clarified past I see in the mirror, gives me an idea what to do and not to do in my future without constraining the wonders of chance.  It is the same thought process I apply to having a bucket list.  Of course there are things I would like to do in my life, but I feel if I focus on certain things too much I might not notice the essential spirit of the journey I am living.
It is not as if I am going through the world with blinders, so much as going through the world with my eyes wide to see as much as possible.  I don’t begrudge the resolution writers or the list makers.  It simply isn’t me.  I am thankful for the strength to face whatever future I may have, grateful that in the spaces that make up majority of life I have my wife, children, dogs, and friends about to share it, and I look at the roof over my head counting my blessing that cold nights are made less cold and hot days more bearable for having it there.  What I have to offer as a New Year’s tribute is that I will face the challenges before me with an eye on my past mistakes, I will flow with change rather than fight it, I will work to be a better person to help make a small part of this world a better place, and I will take my wife’s hand and look into her eyes as we smile our way into 2017 and the many years ahead.  God bless and Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas stirs up memories in most people, and I am no different.  I have memories of all kinds from attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve to crawling beneath the tree to unwrap my gifts early to traditions built around my children and grandchildren.  This year I am thinking of Santa (which is only fair since he spends so much time thinking of us).

            When I speak of Santa, I am not talking about my father dressing up in costume for so many Christmases.  By the way, he wore the outfit even after we grew to adulthood, although by then he just wore the red pants and the cap.  What I am talking of is falling into my memories of the jolly old elf himself.

            I recall two very early memories of Santa Claus.  The oldest of which took place when the family lived on St. Andrews Drive in Orangeburg.  Our grandmother, Nanny (Dad’s mom), would come and join us from Connecticut most Christmases and in those days she would come by train which made her visits more magical.  She would come to town and take us kids to the cafeteria at Eckard’s Drug at the Orangeburg Mall where I would always get a chili dog and the waitress would always remember our Nanny.  Nanny would take us other places as well, and anywhere she drove was an adventure because she was not a good driver…she scared us.  Anyway, this one Christmas, I remember charging out Christmas morning to take inventory of what Santa had brought.  I don’t remember what it was that year, but what sticks with me the most was Nanny telling us, “I heard a noise in the middle of the night, and when I got out of bed to look I saw Santa and I rushed right back to bed!”  The image that formed in my mind was of Nanny peering around a corner and spying Santa from behind as he bent over his pack.  That goes down as the first and most substantial proof I needed that Santa truly existed.

            Later after the family outgrew the St. Andrew’s house and had moved to Mason Drive, my older brother Chris and I shared a room with a nightstand and AM radio separating our beds.  On Christmas Eve, we would go excitedly to bed and celebrate what became a ritual for us – the listening to the Santa radar tracking from the mysterious Cheyenne Mountain in some far off land called Colorado.  We would track him most often across Canada and Yankee climes (he must have been saving his visit to the South for later – the best for last!) before falling asleep to muster ourselves for an early morning assault on our parents and presents.  This memory is lasting not only because I live in Colorado Springs at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain now, but because if the United States Air Force said Santa existed, that was good enough for me.

            Time passes so quickly (as only time can), and I grew up.  I drew the mantle of Santa onto myself.  Santa is a busy elf, and I think it is our jobs as adults and parents to help him out so that he can spend his efforts helping those around the world that cannot as easily help themselves.  I married Jean-Marie, a beautiful woman with three incredible children, and we joined forces as Santa for them.  We filled stockings, and placed gifts out with tags reading “from Santa” each Christmas.  Doing our jobs as Santa helpers.  Though a joy, it is not really the memory I wished to share here.  The memory that is currently making me smile is after our oldest child at 21 years of age gave birth to our grandson Russell.  To provide space and security for them, Jean-Marie and I turned the detached garage into a cottage that she moved into at Christmas time two months before Russell was born.  It was in that cottage when Russell was almost three years old, that Haley asked me to do something special for her.  So after dark on Christmas Eve after Russell had been put in his bed, she called over to the house and told me it was time.  I grabbed a ladder, walked across the back yard, and set it up against her cottage. Quietly as I could, I climbed up on the roof, then stomped around for a bit so that Russell could have his magic moment with Santa.

            The last memory I am thinking of happened seven years after that last memory on a December afternoon when I was driving around with Russell.  We had the 850 KOA Sports Zoo on the radio and one of the hosts, Dave Logan, began some kind of rant.  Suddenly he made an inadvertent slip and said something to the effect that to think such-n-such was like still believing in Santa Claus.  There was a hasty commercial break and when they returned, the hosts Susie and Dave were trying to smooth it over any way they could.  I was just sitting there, stunned and silent behind the steering wheel.  At almost ten years of age, Russell was at the cusp where he might still believe and then again he might not.  It is not a conversation you hold with a child, so I didn’t know what to say or do.  So I did one of the things I do best - panicked.  I sat there sweating, trying unsuccessfully to map out what to say when Russell turned to me, placed a hand on my arm and said, “It’s alright, Bumpa.  I already know about Santa.”  My heart melted, because Russell didn’t know it then, but he was starting his path to take up Santa’s mantle with that act of kindness toward his grandfather.  And you know what?  For the second Christmas Eve in a row, Russell (now 17) will be joining his step-dad Mike on the Santa Hotline - Santa continues to be payed forward.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

GUNPOWDER ( a short story )

Some family ties can only be born of gunpowder.  This sounds like some deep-South rednecked bullshit, but it simply represents truth to me.  Raised on a small dirt farm in South Carolina under the demands of work that would often leave hands bloodied and spirits despondent, gunpowder provided the best and only real communication my father and I would share.  It was a recurrent theme in our lives.  Most of the time my daddy spoke to me in grunts and gestures, with a firm and often unforgiving hand.  If not for the balance of love provided by Momma, I may never have known that life was anything other than an uneven and desperate landscape as rocky as the soil we tilled for the cotton that barely fed us.  Momma saw to it that I knew affection, that I learned of God in church, and drank the very marrow from the teachers and books that sustained me in my haven hours at school.  I could talk volumes of her and her deep effect on my life, but this is not her tale.

My father was a quiet man, the son of a quiet man, and his knowledge of love lacked anything but the most rudimentary concepts.  Daddy worked the land, protected us, and fed us.  The expectation of tenderness would have been too much to ask of him.  Each morning, I awoke to a dark world with the weight of my father’s strong, knotted hand on my shoulder.  That hand did not shake me, nor pull nor push at me.  Through that heavy mitt, my father passed the gravity of his presence to me, and I would wake instantly.  There were chores to be done, the makeup of which often depended on both the season and my age.  We never lacked for work whatever time of year, whatever the weather.  My going to school only put Daddy on edge, it was time I should have been at the farm.  He didn’t see a lot of use in school in the face of work that needed to be done.  But my attendance was non-negotiable with Momma, so Daddy relented on that one thing.

When I was six, Daddy got me my first rifle, a bolt action 22.  I was given the rifle as a privilege, not a toy or as people see it today - a right.  Through obedience and hard work, Daddy felt me ready for a gun.  We used guns to hunt food and to occasionally kill vermin that went after the chickens or picked away at our feed stores.

Daddy first taught me to clean the gun.  I learned to always make sure to remove the ammo first, particularly the round in the chamber.  Then came the repeated lesson of disassembling and reassembling the gun until I was as proficient as a six-year-old could be.  Daddy taught me how to clean the barrel and taught me why we oiled the weapon.  He made sure that I knew that when the gun was not with me, it would be unloaded and in its rack.  Leaving the gun lying around would have lost me the gun perhaps for good.  The gun became part of my chores with its own set of consequences.  I sat raptly with Daddy, listening intently to his teachings and admonitions.  When Daddy and I worked with the gun, he talked to me and not at me.  He shared both a passion and rite of passage with me.

Daddy began taking me hunting with him for small game.  We hunted squirrel, rabbit, and birds mainly.  On hunts we didn’t speak because we didn’t want to spook the game.  Whatever food we brought home was food we wouldn’t have to buy, and we never hunted beyond our need.  Though silent, we communicated through looks, glances, and hand signals.  In hunting, Daddy and I found our sacred time together, our secret language.  Father and son, man and boy elevated to equals through the gunpowder.

Sometimes Daddy would see something like a rabbit and take the shot.  Sometimes he shared the shot with me.  He would look my way and point.  Then I would raise my rifle quietly to my shoulder, aiming along the oil dark barrel through the forked site at the quivering prey.  Daddy told me never to shoot straight away but to calm myself before the shot.  To take three breaths, and on the exhale of the third one pull the trigger to let breath guide the bullet.  Daddy taught me killing even little things was never anything but serious business.  If a bullet was off and the animal lay suffering, he taught me the mercy of finishing the job with my knife so as not to prolong the pain, and also to honor the act of hunting for food and not sport.

Hunting became a repetitive task to me, a duty to fulfill.  Taking an animal thrilled neither my father nor I.  But being alone with Daddy in something that we shared, something private outside of our home selves, is where lay the joy in these outings for me.

As I grew, Daddy shared other rites with me, extending our bond in the gruff way of men.  He shared beer with me after hunts beginning when I was eleven.  At thirteen, he passed to me his father’s 12-gauge shotgun (immaculate with my father’s care and his father’s care before him over the years).  At that time, I began to accompany him on deer hunts.  During those outings along the dirt backroads, I learned to drive our rusted three-speed pickup.

I realized somewhere along the line that Daddy was teaching me how to be a man, not by word, and not by sitting me down and telling me a lesson.  Daddy taught by example through chores, through beer, through driving, through the gunpowder.  I absorbed these lessons as devoutly as I absorbed each subject taught to me in school.

A couple of years after Momma died from the flu and just into my adult years, I learned the hardest lesson as Daddy lay dying with stomach cancer in the same ramshackle house of greyed and crumbling wood that he and Momma raised me in.  Even if there had been anything the doctors could have done for Daddy, he would not have accepted.  He made up his mind early on at Momma’s graveside that he couldn’t live without her.

I was able to help care for Daddy through his illness.  My first job was only twenty or thirty miles away from him.  Neighbors helped during the day, thankfully, and I sat with him in the evenings and on the weekends.  One day my father motioned me close to tell me something.  Through parched lips and with breath already smelling of decay, he asked if I would get his pistol from the case in the front room because he hadn’t the strength to get out of the bed.  I did not ask what it was for.  I knew he was in constant pain, and I knew he just wanted to be with Momma.  Without being told, I loaded the gun before handing it to him.  He did not say anything, simply looked at me then at the door.  Daddy was a quiet man.  I kissed his forehead, then left the room, obeying him for the last time.  I still picture him whispering through dry cracked lips, keeping count with his breathing.  One, two, three.  The final act of gunpowder between us.

I have not picked up a gun since that time.  Not because of how my father chose to die, but because without him that particular bond between us became dust.  I now have sons of my own, who I treat with a mixture of the love and firmness imparted to me by my mother and father.  I try to teach them to become the kind of men they should be, the kind the world needs, the kind their future families will want.  And my sons and I have our own rituals and means of honoring rites.  Rituals that are organic to each of them, that make sense to them.  It is in these acts I share with my boys that we have found our own gunpowder.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Passing of the Torch

Today marks the closing of Vin Scully’s 67 years in broadcasting and as voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Tomorrow, he begins retirement.  It is the magic of baseball that such a sad moment will also bring to countless individuals even more smiles as this event slips us into the past.  You see baseball more than any other sport not only embodies its present, but cannot exist without its past.  In baseball our tribal elders that pass along the stories and legacies of our clan are the announcers, and Vin represents the finest qualities of our elders.

The Dodgers during this last weekend of calls by Vin, are playing my Colorado Rockies in Los Angeles, and it has been both pleasure and honor to listen to the ceremonies, deserved tributes, and most of all the stories that surround the career of Vin Scully.  Baseball is all about the stories, and with each telling I not only learn a new tale, but I recall tales of my own.

I remember the bedroom I shared as a kid with my big brother Chris.  I don’t even have to close my eyes to feel the warmth of Southern Summer nights, see the grainy shadows of branches cast by street lights through the open window, and hear the coo of doves and hoots of owls as background noise to the call of baseball.  Chris and I each had our own twin bed, and between our beds was a nightstand on which a small box shaped AM radio softly glowed tuned to WDIX in Orangeburg bringing us Braves baseball from far off Atlanta.  Then it was Earnie Johnson and Milo Hamilton making the calls, telling the tales, bringing the likes Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, and Dusty Baker to life in our dark and shadowed room.  Nationally televised games couldn’t compete as the stoically neutral announcers shared their experiences somehow watered down and sterile when compared to the familiar voices we listened to almost every night of the season.

Now an adult, I live in Colorado and follow most closely our Colorado Rockies.  They came into existence in 1993, just a year after I had met my future wife Jean-Marie and discovered she was a fan as well.  The story of the Rockies for me begins with the announcers.  I think Colorado did it right by bringing in the voice of the wonderfully experienced announcer Charlie Johnson on TV to gently gather the fans into the fold of the Rockies, familiarizing us with the collection of players assembled for the new expansion team.  When Charlie left, Drew Goodman took over the play-by-play reins accompanied first by George Frazier and now by Jeff Huson and Ryan Spilborghs on color (all former ball players).  On the radio, there have only been four announcers and I can still hear all their voices in equal proportion.  It started with Jeff Kingery and Wayne Hagen, and now the games come courtesy of Jack Corrigan and Jerry Schemmel.  I can enjoy the game as easily on radio as on TV thanks to all these fine voices.

Really the point is, baseball is a family made up of players and fans in equal parts with the announcer seated at the head of the table introducing one to the other and uniting all.  As Vin Scully retires, we say goodbye arguably to the greatest of our tribal elders that have included Jack Buck, Harry Carey, and the legendary Red Barber.  Baseball in large part is a sport that is passed on to generations as an oral history, and Vin Scully has done it better than anyone else.  Through his humility, knowledge, skill, and uncompromising respect for the sport and the characters that populate it, Vin has become a mentor to generations of announcers and the nation’s home team announcer.  Broadcast booths everywhere are a little emptier after today.