The Family Apple Tree

Nothing can shake a stick at the tsunami of clichés in sports newscasting on Thanksgiving day.  One tired old athlete after the next call it like they see it from behind the Sports Desk.  Which player’s got the edge? When exactly is ‘gut-check time’??  And which team has got what it takes to bring it on home??? It’s anybody’s game, people. Every battle that comes down to the wire is just like another flip of the coin.  Even when one side seems down for the count, the tide may turn. But if it turns again and again, the crowd will go wild ’cause that’s when clutch players dig deep and show you what they’re made of in the clutch, whatever that means.

You can feel electricity in the air when two behemoths face off, trading blow for blow for their organization.  “Hey, did the tide turn, because this looks like a whole new ballgame folks!”  But when push comes to shove, one goliath will take home the gold. The other is left to lick his wounds.  “Shake it off fellas.  Tomorrow’s another day.”  It’s a story as old as time.  It’s the thrill of victory and the agony…. of….. uhhhhh….  Oh, nuts! I haven’t gone over my cliché limit have I?!  Don’t get me started on the misuse of the word ‘momentum’ as a pre-game predictor, or ‘lost momentum’ as the post-game-analysis patsy for whatever mysterious forces knocked a team off it’s axis allowing the underdog’s surprise come-from-behind victory that defies logic.

At least for a few brief moments last summer, I had hope that the Olympics might offer salvation from nonsensical sports chatter when NPR announced their Poetry Games.  Their crackerjack historians recalled that from 1912 to 1948 official Olympic Competition included Poetry, Art and Music.  Seemed like the track and field stadium would have been the perfect place to host the Iambic Pentathalon, but I didn’t hear much after that.   Perhaps Olympic organizers would have had better luck filling stadium seats if they forced the athletes to muse over their chosen athletic pursuit.  Imagine the mush-mouth Michael Phelps against that cunning linguist Ryan Lochte, churning it up Waterman-Pen stroke for stroke in a no-holds-barred battle of Bics.  Now that’s a slugfest I’d like to see, clichés and all!  

Alas, having just been immersed in Thanksgiving’s deluge of back-to-back-to-back-to-back football games, one thing is clear:  Now is not the time to hope for renaissance in sportscasting coverage.  So as I sit here recovering from a 48-hour Thanksgiving bender surrounded by in-laws and their in-laws, and anticipating tomorrows arrival of my father’s ‘side’ of my family for a second round of holiday feast-ivities, I begin to wonder:  Which side of our collective family tree will each of my sons begin to identify with more as they mature and their personalities develop?  
 
I’m not suggesting that they’ll like one side more than the other but c’mon, don’t we all?  Undoubtedly, they’ll hear variations on “You look just like your mother” or that ol’ back-handed compliment “You are just like your father” over the years.  But to them there is no distinction between the ‘His’ and ‘Hers’ sides of the family…YET.  They aren’t privy to enough family ‘lore to truly appreciate why they call crazy uncle Dave “Crazy Uncle Dave”. They don’t yet have any in-laws to enjoy the, shall we say, ‘contrast’ to their own family tree, and they haven’t developed a superficial interest in cinema vs sports babble to to draw them one way or the other.  But just as individual personalities are different, so too are the collective personalities of a family line.  Inevitably, as each of my son’s personalities develop they will begin to identify with one side of the family more than the other. Maybe they’ll all just prefer to hang with whoever is in the room with the game on.  It may be conscious awareness of a kindred spirit or the ease of a simple conversation that draws them together.   Whatever the case, I imagine some day they will find themselves sitting at a great Thanksgiving Feast or a cousin’s wedding, waxing poetic over their favorite team or chuckling at some clever exchange of humorous banter with one of their aunts or uncles when they realize which side of the family tree their apple fell from.
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Swinging For the Fence

“You all set?”

“Yep” he said collapsing onto his bed and kicking to straighten out the sheets which hung off the mattress from the night before. “I am utterly exhausted!” he groaned just as I was about to turn out the lights.

“Utterly exhausted?” I paused. “Utterly?” It wasn’t that he professed to be soooooo tired as much as that word caught my attention. A perfectly good word ‘utterly’ may be, I seldom think to use it. And why was he exhausted? What events had transpired that had so completely depleted his life force? Was it even possible to be anything more than exhausted or was the proclamation of utter exhaustion the melodramatic equivalent declaring one’s self really REALLY tired, which got me to thinking.

Back in 10th grade I remember my English teacher putting up a challenge against use of the word ‘really’ in classroom discussions or our subsequent writing assignments. Mr H. ran an interesting classroom. As a relatively average looking fellow of average height and medium complexion I’d say he’d blend right into the crowd of students passing in the hallway outside his door if it weren’t for the fuzz of his closely cropped cranium which I can only assume alluded to the eminent recession of his hairline at a relatively young age. But his youthful exuberance for the written word was palpable, and a welcome change after my freshman year of conjugating verbs and dissecting grammar under the watchful eye of the old redheaded crone that preceded him. Instead, we’d dive into Catcher In the Rye, explore poetic imagery, and immerse out minds and fingers in a pot luck supper dubbed the Medieval Banquet. If that weren’t inspiring enough, rumor had it that he was also bangin’ Miss L., my eigth-grade English teacher who had recently ascended to a new position on staff (pun intended) at the high school. She was a modestly bohemian young woman who wore gunny-sack dresses to compliment her untamed mane of curly hair. It didn’t matter if it was true, but it did earn him the respect of myself and the other guys on the soccer team that shared class time with him.

For whatever brief moments a room full of 16-year-old angst could endure, he brought passages to life with fervent vigor and boisterous thespian articulation. Clad in faded blue jeans, muted flannel and understated sweaters, it was as if Shakespeare himself had stepped out from between the tattered catalogue pages of LLBean and Eddie Bauer. He simply asked that we think about words in our writing and expression and avoid the pitfalls of ‘ummm’ and ‘uhhh’, ‘totally’ and ‘wicked’ that were haphazardly strewn about like extra exclamation points at the end of every sentence which is really unnecessary!!! Whatever happened to him, I wonder. Perhaps he’s enshrined himself in a hermitage surrounded by books that are actually made of paper. His catatonic gaze upon the woodland creatures that pass the window to his hovel is broken only by turret-like blurts of profanity and jumbled quotes from Hamlet and Fifty Shades of Grey. Either that or he and Miss L. are fornicating on a beach somewhere in South America when they’re not lying in a hammock mercilessly LOL-ing over the degradation of contemporary American English propagated by hip-hop music and Damn-You-Autocorrect! Oh, were it only ‘so true’, verily.

“That’s an interesting word, ‘utterly’…. I have a question for you,” I started in. “If ‘exhausted’ means the complete depletion of something like energy, or food or resources, and ‘utterly’ means ‘completely’, then isn’t saying ‘utterly exhausted’ like saying ‘completely completely depleted’?”

“Uhhhh…… I guess.” He didn’t care, but I couldn’t stop myself.

“I mean, does it add anything?” I asked as innocently as I could. I know I should have let it go, but I believed it was an interesting little thought nugget he might appreciate. I had the best intentions. My boy, now 13, is a bookworm. Whereas I am resigned to chip away at a book at a daunting 15 pages an hour, He can leisurely rip through a 500 page novel in a couple days. His bookcase and nightstand are stacked high with more books than I’ve read in a lifetime. But in that moment of inspiration, that forced one-sided conversation, I thought I might make a connection over the common thread between his passion for reading and my interest in writing: words. “I just wonder what you think,” I said to dispel his natural inclination to wander off. Fortunately, he was already tucked in against the headboard of his bed with no means of escape. “I don’t know what’s right”, I confessed, “but ‘utterly’ seems sorta similar to ‘really’ when you use it like that, doesn’t it? What is that, a vague adverb or something?” I think he shrugged and grunted some monosyllabic form of “idontknow” which I took to mean that it was time for me to please leave. – Strike One.

The entire exchange had only taken a couple minutes up to that point, but he was utterly exhausted after all. Reluctant to submit defeat in my misguided attempt to bond with him over some trivial literary concept, good sense told me it was about time to release him from the conversation…. almost. But then I had another interesting thought. “Hey, here’s another interesting thought for you.”

“Whaaaaat”, he begged off with a grin. In hindsight, I’m sure the few synapses that were still firing behind his utterly exhausted eyes were begging for mercy. I should have interpreted the grin as a polite white flag of surrender instead of mild interest in his father’s enthusiastic monologue, but I was on a roll.

A few weeks earlier we had been on a rustic family vacation in Maine. The lakeside cabin offered the modern conveniences of electricity, a wood stove for heat, a few basic kitchen appliances, and the bathroom had running water. It covered all one’s basic needs…. EXCEPT for television, a point of contention between all us boys and Mommy who had rented the shanty in the middle of nowhere, sans cable or internet. So as we each found other ways to entertain ourselves I stumbled upon a collection of short stories previously published in The Saturday Evening Post. Having nothing better to do without the comfort of my faithful TV remote control,  I thumbed through the anthology from 1946 figuring there must be something else interesting about the year my mother was born and settled on a story titled “Fire in the Night”.

I set the stage for him as I prepared to read a particular passage that had captured my attention so many days prior, hoping that it might capture his. Though the story was set in a small lumber mill town in the 1940’s it was easy to draw him a familiar comparison to our rustic vacation getaway. With only a few small shops, a bank and a post office nestled along a half-mile stretch of Main Street, the townspeople would be use to a very simple way of life. Instead of hitching-posts for horses and wagons, our contemporary setting came adorned with ATV and snowmobile parking spaces. If you wanted anything more exotic than a hearty breakfast or a good burger, there was one little pizza joint or a remarkably good Thai restaurant that had no business being there other than that it was a welcome alternative to the otherwise bland palette of the entire region. Perhaps the proprietors had planted roots in this town when the railroad had first come through to supply the lumber yard and the first settlers. The bowling alley at the far end of town had recently grown into a sprawling multiplex offering a bar, dartboards and dinner, a meager suite of arcade games and a dance floor. I’d bet that a good number of future townsfolk would be conceived right there in the ATV parking lot after whooping it up to country music and cheap beer on hot summer nights.

“So you remember that town we stayed in for summer vacation, right? Well, this story takes place back in the 1940’s. The town was just like it except that they rode horses and wagons instead of four-wheelers and snow mobiles, and their main business was a lumber yard right in the middle of main street. Everyone in the town worked and depended on that lumber yard. Without it, the town would fade away ’cause people would have to look for work elsewhere.” I gotta make this quick or I’ll totally loose his attention. “You remember the town, right?”

“Yaaaa…..” Maybe.

I’m not convinced he’s even listening, but I continue. “So in this story, there’s a fire in the night. The lumber yard which is like the heart of the town goes up in flames and all the men in town rush over to help fight the fire. They aren’t fire fighters. They just men doing what they can to save their livelihood and the town. So here”, I begin to read excitedly. Maybe my enthusiasm would be a little contagious. It was worth taking another swing at it…

“Billy heard the hoarse, tight voices of the men, the words thrown over the shoulders and across flame-swept alleys, the very sound and sparsity of the words significant. He saw the men of the town in this excitement, transformed from everyday nonentity to surprising summits of endurance, skill and strength. The grocery clerk was handling his nozzle with the skill of a veteran, playing the water in advantageous spots and not shrinking from the flames or falling timbers; words, sharp and acutely outlined against the noise of the fire, came up to his ears:
“Get that hose over here.”
Look out, Joe, watch that roof.”
“More pressure.”
“Watch it, boys. She’s going down any minute.”
“Give me a hand with this wrench.”

“…and here it is”, I interrupt to highlight my favorite part, and the reason for putting him through all this…

“They were simple words and in them was no dramatic quality, but the night with the fire and the noise and the newness of the thing made the words mean a great deal.”

“Here, listen to that again – “, I said, re-reading with thespian dramatic flare that Mr. H would have approved…

“Get that hose over here.”
“Look out, Joe, watch that roof.”
“More pressure.”
“Watch it, boys. She’s going down any minute.”
“Give me a hand with this wrench.”
“They. were. simple. words. and in them was no. dramatic. quality, but the night with the fire and the noise and the newness of the thing made. the. words. mean. a great. deal.”

“Wow.” How could he not find that interesting? Simple words wether for reading or writing could be so important to getting a idea across or creating a feeling without ‘really’ or ‘totally’ or Heaven forbid ‘wicked’. I’m fired up. The idea is fascinating. We’re bonding over the least common denominator of his passion for reading and mine for writing: words. “What do you think?”

“Mmmm, it’s good.” We’re not bonding. – Swing and a miss. Strike two.

“Ok”, I relent. “I’ll leave you alone.” I give his knee a loving little pat through the quilt as he pulls the sheets I was sitting on up to his chin. “I love you.” And just as I was about to flip the switch it occurs to me. “Hey. Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“I. Love. You. See? Those are simple words. Kinda like in the story. In them is no dramatic quality but the words mean a great deal.”

“uh huh.” – Strike three.

“Good night, buddy.”

“G’night, Dad.”

..

.

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"Fake Dad"

I can hear the ring of the telephone a few times on the other end of the line before anyone answers……

I just received a rarely seen email from my uncle who continues to resist the use of modern technology like email and cell phones.  I think Hell will freeze over before he pays one red cent for a Txt Msg, but first someone will have to explain to him exactly what a Txt Msg is.  Among the other miscellaneous trivia and current events contained therein, his email made reference to this date in family history which reminded me that today, August 3rd, is the 28th anniversary of my father’s passing after a short fight with cancer.  I am not one to memorialize things so this caught me a little by surprise and got me to thinking ‘bout stuff.
I was 12 when my father died.  A couple years earlier,  my mother and step-father were married at a Baptist retreat in California. They spent their honeymoon in separate cars driving across country to our new home in NH with my brother and I keeping them company as co-pilots. We had a couple of years to re-establish a ‘normal’ family structure and routine with my step-father in place before my father passed at a Military Hospital in Texas, a good comfortable time and distance away.
When I think of my biological father, my memories seem more like a small collection of photographs. They come to mind almost like still images.  I was young, so the memories are relatively quiet.  He worked long, hard hours for the Air Force so the pictures in my mind are few, though invaluable.  Over the years, I have managed to piece together quite a lot about the man he was through pictures and stories.  More recently, I was able to compile old paperwork that would prove to document his brief, but dedicated military career that lasted those first 12 years of my life.  Things start to make more sense over time, my uncle once said…. I think that’s true.
And then came Daniel.  When I first met him, he was just “Dan”.  Then, he was “The guy that’s dating my Mom”.  Next, he moved with us to California for a year of living-in-sin (yah, I said it!) before he and Mom married and he officially became my stepfather … and back to “Dan” again.  There was a time when I didn’t know what terms to use when the subject of my family tree came up with friends.  After I took the sorta awkward leap from calling him “Dan” to “Dad” I remember stumbling to make the distinction between my fathers as “Dad-Dad” vs “Dan-Dad.”  One day I referred to my biological father as “Real Dad” from which sprouted the sarcastically affectionate moniker “Fake Dad”.
Well, Fake Dad just turned 83.  His body is tired.  He has aches that plague him along with all the doctor appointments he has to keep.   Unfortunately,  he can’t blow out a birthday candle big enough to wish the pains away.   As I’ve been trying to think of the perfect belated birthday present, my mind fills with memories….  Watching him shuffle along behind the snow-blower  while my brother and I manned the shovels… seeing him in ridiculously tattered  jean shorts and an ugly golf hat paddling in the back of the family canoe for a day of fishing on Grafton Pond… the never ending project of painting the house, also wearing a goofy looking plastic derby covered with four leaf clovers… occasional stolen moments for a man-to-man conversation in the car on the way to pick up a pizza… and the day he came to check on me where I sat on a rock across the parking lot of the funeral home at my father’s memorial service.  I can hear his voice and his laugh.  Unfortunately, his singing voice also rings in my ears.

He is not what you’d call a ‘silver-tongued-devil’, despite the many years he tormented us with vocabulary quizzes from the back pages of the Reader’s Digest. But I’ve always found his words to be honest, self-respecting, and straight-forward.  He doesn’t take shit from people.  “Do unto others…”, “If you borrow something, you should return it in at least as good condition as you got it”, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, “Did I stutter?”…. the list goes on, and our eyes all roll at the thought of it.

My family tree is a little messy.  I don’t care.  For all that happened way back then, I have never thought that I missed anything or came from a ‘broken’ home. Sure I’d like to have known my father better and to have talked with him as an adult, but Daniel F. Cunningham has secured his place in my heart as my Dad.
That being said, I still haven’t got a satisfactory gift idea.  I’m trying to think of one that reflects how much he means to me.   I’ll keep working on that.  In the meantime,  better give him a call…
… Finally, someone picks up: 
“Hello?” he answers.
“Hi Dad! I just wanted to call and say Happy Birthday!
“What, no gift??”
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The Bucket Initiative

I sat there in the dark corner of my son’s bedroom, oblivious to how alone I was, but it would become all too clear by daybreak. Since dinner, we’d washed up, done all our homework, donned PJ’s, picked up bedrooms and hallways, flossed brushed and rinsed, and I’ll selfishly offer that I’d single-handedly cleaned the kitchen, performed a double-piggyback feat of superhuman strength carrying 150+ pounds of boys up two flights of stairs, and entertained a myriad of last minute stall-tactic requests including bedtime stories, drinks of water and back-scratches before calling “lights out” all on my own since Mommy left for another week’s business trip to somewhere that is “not here”. This time it’s Malta. “Where the fuck is Malta?” It’s an island off the heel of Italy’s ‘boot’ in the center of the Mediterranean. Sounds like a world away, but the reality is that whether 50 miles or 5,000 she can’t help me against these three stooges that continually challenge my grown-up intellect, patience and temper under normal circumstances…

…I stirred at the sound of something unclear coming from the doorway and settled back into the pillow before it came again –  “Dad?” said an uncomfortable voice in the darkness.

“…hhhmmghhh….”

“Uh, Dad??”

“Huhhh?”

“Dad?” again.

“Yah, hhmmm … what’s up buddy?” I asked in a seemingly compassionate yet gently exasperated tone at the interruption to my rest as I slowly gained consciousness.

“Umm, Dad.., my stomach doesn’t feel right. Can I stay in here with you?”

“Oh, uhh…yah, ok… sure. Hop in bed and I’ll go get a bucket for you just in case”, I offered as I squinted to see 12:30 on the clock. In the last 24 hours, his first younger brother had a rough bought with a stomach bug complete with moans and teary-eyed distress as he transitioned through positions hunched over the toilet, reclined on the couch and writhing on the floor in apparent gastrointestinal distress. “Awww crap” I thought to myself as I set the bucket at his bedside and proceeded to give very simple yet explicit instructions… which he obviously ignored:

“Here ya go, sweetie. Here. is. your. bucket. If you need to throw up, use it, OK?”

“Yah”

“Ok, try to get some rest. Goodnight.”

“ ‘night Dad”

..
.

At 3:00 the first last mouthful of dinner was lobbed onto the floor – ‘Last one in, first one out,’ you might say though it wasn’t quite so funny at the time. I was suddenly jolted out of bed by what sounded like handfuls of marbles being tossed onto the carpet. “What the..??!!” As my bleary eyes adjusted to the dim light and my foot found a warm wetness where I stood, I realized the failure of the bucket initiative which I’m now certain we’d agreed on earlier. “Where’s your bucket?! Use the buck…! Oh come ON! What the FUUUUUHHHHCK?! Well don’t just stand there! Go in the bathroom!” As he disappeared around the corner I heard one last grand splattering against the bathroom tile. “Ahhhhhhhhhrrrghhh!!!” My trail of tears lead all the way around the bed and splayed across the entire bathroom, the concentration beginning 2 feet from the security of his bedside bucket and ending just short of the toilet. The Grand Finale splattered the side of the tub, sink and walls.

“……… Ok… ” …incredulous disbelief …. ….silence……followed by a submissive whimper of “.. okay then…” I surveyed the damage. Rancid dinner now polluted the room with an odor that wafted up from the floor like brown flames from the circle of a pentagram that he had inscribed around my bed. There was no way to sleep in that atmosphere. I resigned myself to begin cleaning.
Crouched awkwardly, still naked in the dim light and dumbfounded by what had transpired in the last 3 minutes, I was oddly reminded of an image I’d seen in a Museum.  Degas, famous for his candid depictions of ‘the nude form’ in sketches and pastels, captured his models in awkward and unflattering poses. Criticized by many for what some deemed “crude and torturous” works of art, I doubt that even he could have made anything admirable out of this scene as I fumbled around on hands and knees sopping up the mess with old beach towels and bathed in this noxious odor. There was nothing sensual in the awkwardness. The only solace I could imagine in their mother’s absence was that she was not here to bear witness to the sight of their father clumsily mopping and scouring the crime scene in unflattering birthday-suit poses, sweating, swearing, disoriented and aghast.
“Uh, dad?“Yah, bud?” I said sitting back on my heels.

“I’m feeling better now, so ummm, I was thinking that it would probably be OK if I went back to bed in my room?”

Seriously? Now he’s gonna go to his own room??  “Oh, alright. You sure?”

“Yah I’m good now.”

“Great, I’m glad you’re OK”, I said as he turned down the hall “But hey? Where is your bucket?” I call after him loud and clear. “Here. Keep this with you. Do. not. go. anywhere. without. it. OK? PLEASE.”

“Got it, Dad”

“A’right. Goodnight. Try to get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning”

I would have to hose down the bathroom and drag the carpet cleaner out to neutralize the smell before going back to bed. I still don’t understand who designs those goddamn things to be so ineffective. This one’s got Dual Dirtlifter Power Brushes, a built in heater for “maximum cleaning power”, some kind of heavy duty antimicrobial spot cleaning technology, power something-or-other and sounds like a jet turbine preparing to launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier when you turn it on.  In other words, we paid too much money for a machine that does a fantastic job at smearing everything so deep into the carpet pile that you can’t see it any more. So after 2 hours of Greco-Roman wrestling this thing in my boxers which I stopped to find when I realized all my, um, shall we say ‘worldly possessions’ had been on dangling in the bedroom window for the last hour, I found small consolation when I reached to turn out the lights and noticed my son’s smeared handprint in vomit on the wall around the switch and deduced that he’d at least tried to ‘catch’ the slurry as it poured out of his gut. As I lay back down and finally closed my eyes, the alarm went off: Time to wake up.

Epilogue: Later that day

I’m starting to feel like a doctor on the Mayflower, moored in the harbor that first hard winter when it found service as a hospital ship:

“Three men have fallen victim to this pestilence. The third child is coughing all over his homework and me. The first two of my ‘settlers’ remain suffering in their beds with fevers. This 24 hour virus has confused itself with a 48 hour affliction and they’ve been throwing up since 3 this morning while I’ve been washing carpets, mopping floors, and tending laundry. I’ve just informed the crew that they are not allowed to eat until further notice. Why on earth do they feel the need to run while throwing up???…

 
…I was overtaken by malady about an hour ago. Afraid to eat anything, I planned to stay hydrated on a steady stream of Mt Dew until supper. Alas, I’ll add its mild regurgitated flavor to the list of reasons it appeals to me. I can’t recall whence I’ve felt this irritable. I’d rather be out stealing land and horses from the Indians, but I shall conserve my energy and continue to drink this soothing tonic for medicinal purposes instead. As the only qualified nurse on this infected ship I have not choice but to stay the course until reinforcements arrive a fortnight hence. I’ve lost 10 lbs. in 2 days without breaking a sweat. Still, I must carry on for the sake of my charges despite exhaustion, chills, stomach cramps, joint aches. …. Am I menstruating? …



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