Monday, June 30, 2008

Big Tuna

"I'll have a tall Pike's Redeye, please."
"Okay." Then the young barista asks "Will there be anything else?"
"Yeah. Whatever this guy wants."
She turns her attention to my friend. "For you, sir?"
I absentmindedly scanned the store while the order was placed. I turned back to the barista when I heard her say, "May I have your name, please?" A sharpie was poised over the paper cup.
A pregnant pause later and my friend responds, "Bob."
I don't know any "Bob".
The barista looks incredulous. She laughs, "Are you sure?"
"Yup. Bob."
"Wow. You just lied to the poor girl," I say.
"What do you mean?"
"Your name's not 'Bob'."
Laughter. "I guarantee you that when they call out 'Bob' that I'll know who they're talking about."
Right then I was wishing that there was another 'Bob' in Starbucks.
After writing 'Bob' on the cup she said "I've had worse than that. Last week a guy came in and told me his name was 'Tuna'."
"No way," I replied.
"Yup. Tuna. I couldn't believe it."
"Seriously?" He was THAT guy?"
By "that guy" I mean arrogant and full of themselves. She knew what I meant.
"Yeah, he was.
"Wow." I paused for a moment. "Could you throw 'Tuna' back?"
The barsita snorted and then burst out laughing.
"Was he too small?"
And laughing.
"I mean, seriously. I would have said "So, are you 'Dolphin safe', there 'Tuna?"
More laughing. A lot of laughing.
"I wish I had used those!"
"Feel free to use them whenever you'd like."
"Oh, I will. Thanks a lot."
A few moments later "Bob' had his drink in hand. As we sat down at a small table he chuckled and said, "I could have thought of that joke too, you know, if I didn't just get up an hour ago."
"Oh, really?"
"Yeah. You've been up for what, three hours?"
"See? Your brain is firing on all cylinders because you're awake already. I'm not there yet so I couldn't think of anything funny to say."
"If that's true then you've been sleeping since 1985."
And this was my Saturday morning. Bringing laughter to Starbucks baristas and tired friends everywhere.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Mom was leaning over the back of the recliner in the den. We were chatting casually about her upcoming anniversary celebration. She matter-of-factly stated that "On this day I will have been a 'Peterson' longer than I was a 'Little'."
I didn't understand what she meant and told her so.
She patiently explained that, on this wedding anniversary, she will have had her married name longer than she had her maiden name. Therefore, she had spent more of her life as a 'Peterson' than a 'Little'.
"That's a good thing, right?" I laughed.
"Yes it is," she replied.
We moved onto other topics but I never forgot that moment.
My Mom died in 1984 when I was nineteen years old. I waited for nineteen more years to pass. Every year I went to the cemetery on birthday's, Mother's Day, Christmas, the anniversary and whenever the mood struck. Every time I went to the grave I would kneel and run my hands over the stone, feeling the raised letters beneath my hand as I read her name. The cold stone was unyielding as I moved my hand over the RN symbol engraved next to her name. And I would read the date: 1984. Finally, I would place a single red rose in the vase and quietly say "Hi Mom."
And I would softly cry.
For nineteen years.
And nineteen years was nothing.
The first 19 years of my life were a blur. I hadn't even started coming into my own until my late teens. I knew nothing about the world, myself or my parents. It wasn't until I was eighteen that Mom and I were spending time together as adults. On my early release days from college I would take Mom out to lunch. Sometimes we went to JJ's, sometimes we went to Lake Palace and sometimes we just ate together at home. During this time, I realized that I was getting to know "Joan" and not just "Mom". Joan had some funny stories to tell. She had some sad stories, too. But she had stories. Listening to these stories I realized that Mom had been a kid, too. She had girlfriends and boyfriends, arguments with her parents and struggles in school. She had been a kid, just like me.
Who knew?
Getting to know Joan was a revelation for me, because I vowed that if I was ever someones Dad, that my child would know who and what I was long before they were eighteen. And, for the most part, I think that I have done this with Jenna.
Anyway, I was just getting to know Mom when she was taken from me.
And I only had 19 years to know her. This is not a long time. But the next nineteen years was a lifetime.
Finally, November 5th, 2003 was approaching. This was a milestone. Because 19 years was everything.
On the nineteenth year plus one day, Mom had been gone longer than I had known her.
And, somehow, this was cathartic to me.
Because I stopped crying.
Now I realize that I have one more mental hurdle to get over.
Mom died at 46 years old. When I am 47 years old I will have lived longer than she did, too. This means something to me, although I am not sure why.
Being adopted, I have no genetic tie to my parents. Therefore, their ailments are not mine. I have no reason to believe that the weak aortas and valves that have plagued Mom's side of the family will effect me too. I know this. Yet, I know that on that fateful day when I have outlived my mother that it will be the last hurdle that her death has placed in front of me.
Nineteen Years + One Day made all the difference to me. 47 years will, too.
It makes no sense.
I can't explain it.
It just is.
The last hurdle.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Old Man

I'm not sure when I started calling my Dad "Old Man" but it has always been apropos.
Dad was born old.
We joke about that now. Dad is always telling anyone who will listen (waitresses, cashiers, etc) that his son has always said "I was born old!" To which the cashiers/waitresses/staff laugh appropriately, telling him that he "sure doesn't look old" or some such compliments. But, believe me, Dad was born old. And he had lived a lifetime by the age of twenty.
By the time he was twelve he had lost a brother to a fire in a junkyard, a mother to heart disease and his father was a raging alcoholic. In his teens he had overcome abject poverty through his sister Agnes (his "second mother") who had taken him in (along with her husband Jack) so Dad could get a good education away from his father. Unfortunately, Agnes died very young and, once again, Dad was alone in the world.
He had gone to college to be a history teacher only to turn it aside because teaching only paid $5000.00 a year and his summer job at Proctor & Gamble paid $7500.00 a year. This mindset would later cloud Dad's judgement about my chosen career path (cartoonist) but at least I now know the source of his misplaced advice.
By the time I came long Dad was 29 and had been married to Mom for 8 years. Barbara followed the year afterwards and Mark came along in 1969. He worked long and hard to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.
The first time I ever saw Dad cry was when my maternal Grandfather died. "Grampa" had been more of a father to him then his own dad had ever been.
The second time was when we had to put Suki to sleep. She was the family mutt who, as much as I wanted her to be my dog, she was really Dad's.
The third time (the worst time) was when Mom died. They were married for 25 years. She died 3 weeks shy of their 26th wedding anniversary. He was devastated. Still, he shouldered on. There were still three kids at home, after all.
Dad made some quick life choices. Within a year he had sold the family home and we moved to Carver. He met Joan (which was also my Mom's name - I hated this) through a neighbor and remarried quickly, within 18 months of Mom's death. However, this happiness was short-lived. Joan died of cancer five years after they were married. During his time with Joan his brother Charlie had died of cancer and his brother Arthur of old age. After Joan died, his brother John died after complications from heart surgery; the same illness and aftereffect which had killed their father, "Pops" in 1980, at the age of eighty-five.
Any of these things would make me old before my time, too.
This is not to confuse "old" with "joyless", however. There has been much happiness associated with the Old Man, too.
Dad has a great sense of humor. Every week when he was at P&G he would come home to tell me the latest jokes that he had heard around the plant. When I had a summer job there in 1985 I met his co-workers. One group of women remarked that "Cliff is always talking about you. Every time he hears a new joke he mentions that he has to go home and tell it to Andy." This summer job was also the first place and time that I had ever heard that Dad was proud of me, too.
I remember Dad, sitting in his wing back chair, watching a Bruins game (or any sporting event) complete with a bottle of Black Label, some ruffles, cheddar cheese and slices of pepperoni. He always seemed content with just these things.
We watched the "A-Team" religiously. Every week we would order a pizza from Mike's House of Pizza in Hanson and race into the den to watch the A-Team. We would take no phone calls and brook no conversation during this show. We loved it when a plan came together. Pizza and the A-Team was our plan.
Dad has always enjoyed a good baseball game. When we were kids Dad would listen to ballgames on an old transistor radio that he hauled upstairs from his workbench, plugged it into an extension cord and ran it out to the picnic table. One of my finest baseball moments with Dad was during the 1990's. We were seated out in center field at Fenway Park about an hour before game time watching the players warm up. The sun was setting and the sky was lit with brilliant multicolored hues of orange, pink and purple.We had snacked on sausages from the "Sausage King" cart , had a beer and now we were smoking cigars as a gentle breeze was blowing across the outfield. I looked over at Dad in his baseball cap, smiling contentedly and I thought "this is a perfect moment."
And it was.
Once a month Jenna and I head down on a Saturday morning to visit Dad and Roe (his wife) and I talk to Dad every two to three days. We usually just chat. We talk about the Red Sox, or whatever ailment has flared up. I tell him about work and, if I've heard a new one, I'll share a joke with him, too. I'll talk about Jenna and her progress at school or whatever else is on his mind at the time. Our conversations rarely last more than ten minutes (his choice) but if I don't call by the third day then he calls me, concerned that "something is wrong". If he depends on me to check in every few days then who am I to argue? Its a small request. One that I am happy to fulfill.
I have long since given up trying to determine if the Universe is "fair" or not. Mostly, it just "is" and we have to deal with whatever is thrown in our direction. There is no tally at the end of the day that says that "You made X amount of decisions today. Out of X, this many were right and this many were completely effed up". Instead, we have to live with the many decisions that we've made during that day, that week, that month and that year. Constantly moving forward, ready to make more decisions again and again.
Dad has had his triumphs and his tragedies. He's made mistakes...but who hasn't? My own could fill this blog for the next year. Dad's experiences may have forced him to "grow up" a lot earlier than I did and he may indeed have been aged beyond his years. However, I have come to realize (very recently) that my Dad has taken everything that the universe has thrown at him and - to this day - he is not bitter or resentful about it. He just continues on the path.
I'm grateful that now, at nearly 72 years of age, he really has become an old man in fact as not just in affectionate title only. I'm glad he's still here and I'm amazed that after forty-two years he still can show me a thing or two about life.

Monday, June 23, 2008


"I first met Peter Souza in 1964 when I arrived at St. Mary's Church."
So began the eulogy for my cousin, Trish.
For the next five minutes the priest conveyed to the congregated how long he had been friends with Peter's family. He had kept in touch with them long after after he was transferred to another church within the archdiocese. He had officiated at Pete and Trisha's wedding 31 years ago today. Now, he had returned to St. Mary's in Plymouth to say the funeral mass for Trish and for the Souza family. He had come to say goodbye.
I was speechless.
I cannot remember the last time that I was at a funeral mass where the priest/pastor/minister actually knew the deceased. I have a tendency to resent the familiar platitudes that are repeated ad nauseum by officiates who through no fault of their own have been asked to "say a few words" about someone they only know through written soundbites given by the grieving family.
Not this time.
I sat in the 5th row of the church, between the Souza and the Peterson families. I was silent as I listened to the priest's recollections of Pete, Trish and their family. I remembered Trish's smile and how she and her friends took my siblings and I to Duxbury Beach over the summer of 1976 when my Mom had broken her leg. I remembered family barbecues at Uncle Charlie's house, when we would play horseshoes or boccie all day long. I thought wistfully of Dad's family and how, out of all his brothers and sisters, we only really knew our cousins Charlie, Gail and Trish and Nadine, Barbara and Jennifer.
Now Trish was gone.
I thought of my own mother and realized that, at 50 years old, Trisha had outlived her Aunt by 4 years. I looked over at Trish's son Michael and I shared his pain. At 22, he is too young to be burying his mother.
I sighed, holding back tears, alone in my thoughts.
Silently a hand slid into my left hand. Softly yet firmly, this gentle hand pulled mine onto her lap, where it rested. Then she put her head on my shoulder.
My daughter; quietly consoling me, said more with these simple acts of compassion than her words could ever convey.
Hands entwined, we sat together in shared silence.
And I was comforted.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Undiscovered Shores

Everyone will be there. People will emerge larger than life from day to day shadows to remind me of our shared history together.
Words will be said. Official words, Ceremonious words. Nonsense.
Then we will gather as a family. Words will be said here, too. Words filled with shared loss; words from those who have travelled this road together. Words that share a common, familial thread.
The food will be plentiful. There will be more than a few homemade items sitting alongside the Stop & Shop deli platter and plastic party cups.
There will be laughter and tears; joy and heartache. Hello sprinkled with a liberal dose of farewell.
Looking around the hearth I will see those who have meant so much to me. Most will be present; some will not.
All of us, gathered together, in person and in spirit, to say goodbye to my cousin Trish (Peterson) Souza; who has journeyed to the undiscovered country all too soon and far too young.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Three Subs

The smell of cheeseburger subs from Billy Kidd's sub shop filled the PT Cruiser. The smell of cut grass filled the air as we parked the car at JJ Shepard Field in Bryantville. The hot sun was beating down on the two separate little league games that were being played that morning. Of course, we couldn't see the games because Dad had pulled the car face first into a parking space so we got a great view of a cluster of trees and route 27 beyond it.
Dad orders his sub with everything except hot peppers. Jenna (new to cheeseburger subs) ordered hers with onions and salt. Me, I get what I usually get - a large cheeseburger sub with extra onions, pickles, salt and pepper. Dad opened his car door and swung his feet out; all the better to hold the sub with both hands. I sat next to Dad with my sandwich in my lap and Jenna sat in the backseat. For a short while no one spoke. No talk - eat. Then, Dad announced that he was going to save half of his sandwich for dinner, So, in effect, Dad was done. He began to chat a bit as Jenna and I finished our lunch. We sat and talked as one game had ended and a parade of parents and children piled into their cars and left. Soon, there was only our car left near the ballfield. As we chatted Jenna and I watched a father pitch to his young son. Jenna wondered why his Dad was throwing balls straight AT him so that he had to duck to avoid being clobbered by this parental fastball. "Maybe he's teaching the kid to duck," I replied. Then, "In all honesty, I have no idea."
The conversation was slow and easy. We had all day, after all. Dad had no pressing engagements and Jenna and I planned on spending a good couple of hours with the old man. Dad told Jenna about how he had wanted to be a history teacher and he even graduated from college as a history major with a minor in education. I'm glad that he's telling this story because Jenna wants to be a teacher, too. We chatted amiably then Dad said abruptly "Well, I guess we should be heading off now."
Jenna and I exchanged questioning glances. "Okay, Dad. If you want..."
The cruiser roared to life, AC blaring, and off we went, back to his house. We stayed for a few moments but then we heard "Well, I don't want to keep you..."
"You're not keeping us, Dad, but if you're tired we can head out...?"
We headed out.
Back in our car Jenna asked, "Is Grampa okay?"
I explained that he wasn't feeling well. His allergies were bothering him badly but thanks to his many daily medications he cannot take any allergy pills. This, combined with fatigue from a new drug prescription have made him more tired than usual. Still, Dad was like this even when he wasn't on meds.
Dad has always made plans with a mental time table in place. Today was no exception.
  • Drive to sub shop: 10 minutes
  • Drive to field: 2 minutes
  • Time required to eat sandwich: 10 minutes
  • Smalltalk: 20 minutes (most of which will overlap with eating time (see above))
  • Drive back to house: 10 minutes
  • More Smalltalk: 20 minutes
And we're out. Once he has reached his scheduling maximum then he's done. Not consciously, and not to be mean, but he's done. Time to move on. Next plan. Whatever.
And do you know what?
I don't care.
The point of our visit was to spend some time with the old man and take him out to lunch at his favorite sub shop. In doing so for a few precious moments I got to watch my Dad and my daughter just talk about life. Their schooling, her boyfriend, and some baseball talk. If the time was shorter than I would have liked then that's fine. Because even though I spent more time doing the round trip from Roslindale than I did visiting with Dad the end result was worth the whole trip. My Dad and my daughter with me in the middle - three generations of family in one car that had a great view of a cluster of trees and route 27 beyond it, eating from the sub shop that was already old when I was Jenna's age and just enjoying each others company.
I had a great Father's Day.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Laughing Monkeys

The hot sun was finally setting.
Sweat dripped off my nose as I marched the electric mower back and forth across the front yard. The low hum of the engine was a steady drone. The peaks and lows in pitch from the motor determining the thickness of the grass beneath its blade. The noise ended abruptly as I released the handle to wipe my forehead. I was looking forward to a long, cool shower afterwards.
With the front yard completed my job was done. I walked across the front yard to the wooden stairs that lead up to the front door. A bright orange extension cord snaked along the ground next to me, up the stairs and into the house. I opened the screen door, its familiar metal squeal grating yet soothing to my ears. I walked into the dark living room and over to the plug located behind the sofa. From the kitchen, fifteen feet and one dining room away, another squeal erupted from the kitchen.
Jenna's laughter.
"I am not a monkey!" Jenna yelled, putting seven years of conviction into her tone.
Then the sound of Nana laughing.
"You are too a monkey! You're a little monkey!" Nana laughed. The higher pitch in Jenna's laugh told me that Nana was tickling her.
Generations of laughter filled the kitchen; the same kitchen that my mother, my aunts and my siblings and I all (at one time or another) have laughed in.
Grampa had been gone for over twenty years now. Yard work that was once the job of my father and uncle had fallen to me and my cousins. I lived nearby and I was glad to help. Jenna usually stayed in the house with her great-grandmother while I did my chores. This evening Nana and Jenna were making something in the kitchen while I mowed Nana's lawn. Cookies, I think.
It didn't matter.
As I reached for the plug I realized that neither one of them knew that I had come into the house. I almost called out to them. Instead, I just listened. And I smiled. A great, internal smile that filled my heart as I stood and enjoyed the sound of my Nana and my daughter laughing together.
"I am not a monkey! You are!"
Eighty years lay between them but they were one in the moment. Together, laughing in Nana's kitchen.
Nana will be 98 on Sunday, June 15th. She doesn't know that. The stroke that she suffered eight years ago took her mind but not her body. She doesn't remember us anymore.
But we remember her.
Today, I remember the laughter in her kitchen.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Wine and Conversation

Yesterday was our infrequent book club get-together. We ate imported cheeses and drank French red wine as we discussed yesterday's novel, which was "The Queen of the South". It was selected by Lisa and had only been read by half of the members in attendance. This should imply a short meeting. It did not.
During the time that our book club has been in existence I have learned that the book is never the focus of conversation for too long. Yesterday we had Bridget's friends Dana and Tuvie in attendance and they definitely had not read the book. Yet, rich conversation abounded. Among the topics discussed yesterday:

  • "You should definitely read "Salt."
  • "I am applying for a job in Alexandria. You have to come over for a visit if I get it."
  • "Arturo Perez-Reverte was skilled enough as an author that I'm reading the Captain Alatriste novels."
  • "There should be a White House cabinet position called "Historian". His job would be to point out how similar policy ideas have worked out in the past.
  • "If you've ever seen "The Verdict" with Paul Newman then you know how Arturo Perez-Reverte wrote 'The Queen of the South' - it's slow to start because it is laying the foundation for everything that comes later in the novel but it is worth the investment of time.
  • "'Bush's War' was an amazing piece of journalism. It was stunning to see who was willing to be interviewed on camera, time and date stamped, that shows that the dogs of war were rumbling within the White House long before 09/11."
I am always grateful for these meetings. By the end of the evening there were insights shared by a group of intelligent men and women. There wasn't one conversation that didn't receive a round table discussion by all. I left enlightened about different topics. I also left with two different books to read outside of the next book club selection.
Benjamin Franklin had his junto; I have book club.
I am so glad that at 42 years of age I am still curious about the world around me.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Family Ties

I spent yesterday afternoon with Jenna and her maternal family mourning the loss of her grandmother. Nina's death was unexpected but not overly so. Still, a wake is a difficult event under any circumstances. I knew Nina - but not well. However, she is Jenna's grandmother and both she and Pam deserved my support during this time. When I arrived Jenna was visibly upset. This has hit her harder than she expected. Open caskets will do that. So, as she hugged me close she asked how long I was staying. I told her that I was here for as long as she needed me to be.
I paid my respects to the deceased and reacquainted myself with Jenna's cousins who, at 20 and above are no longer little girls. We did the whole "I haven't seen you since..." and "Gosh, you look great" to our satisfaction. Then we looked at a collage of pictures of Nina. She was a stunning young woman who looks very much like Pam's eldest daughter Leah. This started a lot of conversations about family and familial ties.
Throughout the course of these discussions I was surrounded at different times by Jenna's uncles.
Now, I have not seen Jenna's uncles in many years, perhaps not since Pam and I divorced. I had no idea what to expect when I saw them again.
After seeing them, I was right. It was not what I expected.
Each of them, in turn, took time to compliment me on what a great father I am to Jenna. Apparently Pam has been extolling my parental skills to them for years. Each was glad to know that I was actively involved in her life and willing to do what it takes to be a hands-on parent. They all appreciated my support of Pam throughout Jenna's life and that they were glad that I was still friendly with her. They complimented Jenna often, stating that she was so self-confident and so secure with herself. They were amazed at the young woman that she has become and all predict great things for her if she puts her mind to it.
While I was just a bit embarrassed I think they're correct. I am a good father. Pam is good mother. I am proud of the person that my daughter has become and I am proud of Pam and I for our hand in the process.
She and I worked very hard to be able to have the parental relationship that we have today. We've had our disagreements and we will probably have more of them but, more often then not, we are on the same page. At the end of the day our priority has always been our daughter and what is best for her. We worked hard to create a cohesive world for Jenna. In this I believe that we have succeeded admirably.
We are a family; Jenna, Pam and I. It may be unconventional, and it may not be a textbook definition of "family", but we are definitely a family.
Standing among Pam's siblings I felt like one of the family because I was treated as such. We were bound together by Nina; for without her my life would not be as it is today. Yesterday we came together as a very extended family to pay tribute and to say goodbye.
In doing so, I was reminded that I am a part of this family, too.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Sundays to Nowhere

During the warm Spring months to the first real chill of Autumn my mother used to like to involve the family in "The Sunday Drive."
We never had a destination. For Mom, it was all about the trip, the fresh air and the sunshine. Getting out of the house, away from the drudgery and just enjoying the day were her priorities.
Some days I remember traveling long, windy roads through Middleboro, past dairy farms and 4-H clubs. Other days we would go towards Plymouth; the smell of the salt air wafting through the open windows as we traveled down route 3A. Sometimes I even looked at the scenery if I could tear myself away from the stack of comics that I brought with me.
Without AC in the car we relied on open windows and a breeze to keep us cool as the station wagon lumbered along the back roads of the South Shore. Some days this was ineffective and we would stop for ice cream somewhere along the way. Peaceful Meadows in Whitman was a good place for yummy, homemade ice cream. So was Dairy Queen in Whitman (or was it Abington?). Melting ice cream on a sugar cone tasted so sweet on these drives. Once in while, we would stop for a late lunch/early dinner at J.J.'s Pub in Hanson so Mom and Dad could get the fried fish basket while we munched on burgers. J.J.'s served fresh hot popcorn as table munchies so this was a great place for us kids.
Dad used to like to stop at yard sales. So did I, if it looked like they had comic books or records. My siblings and I would scour someone else' trash looking for gold while Dad would expertly peruse Avon bottles, milk glass or old 45's to drag home. Then, purchases made, off we went to our next non-destination.
And so it went.
As a child, Sunday afternoons seemed to go on forever. Now, they are as the blink of an eye or the twitch of a cat's whisker. One second my Sunday afternoon is there; then next it is vanished.
The older I get, the less inclined I am to make any heavy-duty plans on a Sunday afternoon. This isn't to say that I won't make plans for a Sunday afternoon; I will. However, I reserve the right to edit these plans for content.
Usually, I am happy to make one big meal for the day to enjoy mid-afternoon and then quietly enjoy the rest of the day. Many times there is an afternoon walk, other times there is sitting on the front porch reading a book or watching the clouds drift by over Tyndale Street. A late-afternoon coffee or an early evening cocktail is a grand way to end a Sunday, too.
Gone are the days of a Sunday drive.
Here are the days of a quiet Sunday.