Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My Sister's Birthday

I originally posted this during the A-Z blog challenge.  Since today, September 25, would have been my sister's 52nd birthday, I think it's a good thing to repost.

I was born September 23.  My sister came into the world four years and 2 days later.  On the one hand, she became the best birthday present I ever had.  On the other...?

Birthdays became a "shared" event, but I never believed that.  My parents themed them for girls, Candy Land, Barbie, Mary Poppins.

I enjoyed the movie "Mary Poppins," but it just wasn't for the guys.  I complained.

"What about Michael Banks?" Mom asked.  "Burt?  Mr. Banks?  There's plenty of boys in there."

That may have been true about the movie, but not the cake, not to mention that none of my friends would come.  So I had to share a birthday cake with my sister showing Mary Poppins, umbrella over her head, flying over the rooftops of London, and the Bird Woman sitting on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral.

The party consisted of me, my mother, my sister, and 9 of Deborah's friends.  My father stayed ten minutes then retreated into the house to watch television.

In high school, my activities on the debate team prevented me from celebrating birthdays with my family.  Oh, they sang Happy Birthday, true enough, and bought me a special cupcake with three candles.

No party.  No celebration.  No get together with friends.

I learned to mask the disappointment until I could stroll past.

Fast forward to my twenty-second birthday.  I had my own job. My own place.

Since it fell square on a Sunday (my only weekend day off work), I hoped my girlfriend would forgo her weekly visit to her grandmother with her parents and sisters, to be with me for lunch or dinner.

She couldn't.

"Well, I see y'all before Mass and we can have breakfast."

She threw her hand over her mouth.  "I'm sorry.  We're taking my grandmother out to breakfast and to Mass."

"On my birthday?"

No sale.  "I'm so sorry, Rocky.  We'll celebrate another time."

"Oh, Rocky," my mother said when I wondered if I could spend some time with her and my sister.  "I forgot yours fell on a Sunday this year. Deborah and I are going to Jefferson for the weekend.  We're celebrating hers next week.  Let's do something for you, too.  Invite Angie and her family over."

"That's not going to happen," I said, rather petulantly I'm afraid.  "They'll be at her grandmother's.  I understand family, but damn!"

"I'm sure she feels bad about it," Mom said.

I woke that Sunday so full of self-pity that it leaked out of my pours.

My roommate Greg helped.  "Chief, let's go to Mass, have a nice brunch ... my treat ... go to the movies ... my treat ... and head over to your Mom's."

"She won't be there."

He patted me on the shoulder, "I know, but we should make sure the dog's okay, right?"

I suppose.

I had a grand time in spite of myself thanks to Greg.

I offered one last wistful sigh before pulling out my key.

Mom opened the door.  "Rocky!  Greg!  What a wonderful surprise. Come on in.  Deborah's gone, but I made some tea.  Let's go to the patio."

Sure, whatever.


Everyone was there.  Deborah and my brother, my girlfriend her parents and sisters.  Damn was I surprised.

And oh, so happy.

We played pin-the-tail-on-the donkey.  We danced.  We had chocolate cake.

At the end Deborah came up to me.  "It's about time, don't you think?"

She'd made it happen.  Arranged the whole thing with Angie and her parents, and Greg of course.

I didn't have a clue.

After my forty-ninth birthday in 2006, my sister called my friend Jill wanting to set up a surprise birthday for me for my fiftieth.  Deborah died December 19, 2006.

But Jill, with my supplying information on who to invite, made sure that my sister's desire to give me a great fiftieth birthday happened.

She did a helluva job, too.

And despite what folks may think, Deborah was there as well.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Unexpected Perfect Line

Sometimes a mere few words can topple mountains of tension.

I worked at a fast food restaurant in the late 1970’s as the night shift manager.  At the end of our incarceration at 3:00AM one crisp Fall evening, one of our workers -- I’ll call him Jack -- wanted to know if I and the other two workers -- I’ll call them Nick and Karen -- wanted to ride with him in his cargo van, spinning doughnuts in a field about two miles down the road.

“Sure,” I said.

The other two readily agreed.

Jack’s van was, to put it mildly, bare bones.  The floor and sides of the back area consisted of nothing but metal, the only other rear passenger being a loaded toolbox looking to weigh forty pounds or so.

“Are you sure this thing is capable of doughnuts?”  Nick asked.  “Seems a little top heavy to me.”

“Just sit back there and relax,” Jack said, pushing the air down with his right hand before making sure that Karen was properly secure in the only passenger seat.  “I know what I’m doing.  Don’t be a wuss.”

“And you’re done this before?”  I asked.

“Well … not in this,” Jack admitted, “but it’s going to be far out cool.”

Mmmm hmmm.

To show us the van’s raw power, Jack peeled out of the parking lot and gunned the thing until we had passed 80 miles per hour … in a 30 MPH zone.  At the time, I feared being pulled over and hauled into jail for reckless driving.

No such luck.
Jack turned into the empty field and stopped about fifty yards in, as though waiting at the starting line, his face locked into an attitude of determination.  With the van in neutral, he revved the engine until it hummed those notes that send auto aficionados into the heavens.

I took deep breath after deep breath trying to slow my heart and steady my nerves.  I didn’t like being sitting on cold, hard metal, my back against cold, hard metal, looking up and seeing nothing but cold, hard metal.

Had Karen not been there I would have told Jack that I wished them well, but I was exiting from the back, and would promise to wave and play “Aloha Oi” on the steel guitar.

I didn’t want to seem less than manly in front of Karen.

Jack back off, then put it in “Drive.”

With his left foot hard on the brake and his right hard on the accelerator, he bounced up and down in his seat like a stallion about to rear up.  The back tires spun madly and spewed clouds of dust and dirt behind us.

“Hold onto your butts!” Jack yelled, then removed his left foot from the petal, tossing us into the bosom of the Goddess Fortuna.

The sounds of flying gravel and dirt gave way to those of Karen’s squeals, and … had Nick squealed, too?  One of those horrifying and hilarious man-screams?

I couldn’t tell because the force of our takeoff threw me to the back of the van.

I’d just righted myself when Jack yelled out.  “I’m cutting the wheel at 70.”

Ten seconds later, he turned hard to the left.

The idea had been to create circles of dust as the back end spun around and around, tires churning the grass and dirt, putting us in the middle of a dust cloud

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…

Not even Robert Burns could have foreseen my face rapidly approaching the opposite panel, crashing into it before I started rolling and flying around like a towel in a dryer, the hard pounding sounds of metal pounding into metal nearly deafening.

I couldn’t count the number of times the van rolled, but thinking back I would say at least two and a quarter complete turns (maybe three and a quarter) as we came to rest on the vehicle’s right side, the passenger side.

I took a moment to shake off the cobwebs and return to the world of real things.  A drop of something fell into my eye, and a swipe of my hand, an inhale of a bitter coppery aroma, and a peek in the light of the harvest moon confirmed it to be my blood.

I moved my hands, arms, legs, and feet, and miraculously felt little pain, most of that residing in my face and left shoulder.

I looked over to Nick, who had been looking at me, both of us glancing down at the forty-pound toolbox that had miraculously missed us both, then back to each other.  Nick’s face expressed what I felt … that damn box could have killed one or both of us.

Thank you, Goddess Fortuna!

I looked to the front seat.  Jack just shook his head, then smoothed back his greasy, macho-dripping hair.

Karen fiddled with her seat belt.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and started to say something.

Karen beat me to it.  “Thank God I pee’d before we left.”

Thursday, September 12, 2013

To Smile. To Really Smile

I don’t suppose I’ve really smiled since 2009 or so.  Or so the photos of me over time indicate.  I’m not going by last week’s Alfred Hitchcock photo.  No, when Phillip took that, I was focused on my stories.

No.  In fact, I thought I looked fine for an aging, fat, bald guy. 

Here’s one, I’m third from the right …

I’m smiling.  It’s a decent smile, but something’s missing.

Compare it to this one taken in 2008…


… and this one of me and my great friends Brent and Michelle taken in 2007.  I’m the one in the beard.

Big difference, don’t you think?

What could cause such a difference over time?

A couple of things, I think.  The minor, easily fixable one was my teeth.  For a long time after those pictures were taken, I was frightened to go to the dentist, because on a simple teeth cleaning …?  Well, let’s just say that it was the first time I’d suspected a dental hygienist of being trained at Guantanamo Bay.  Consequently, my teeth became so stained by tea and red wine that my own medical doctor thought they were rotting.  He believed it until I insisted he examine them a little closer.

He concurred.

Regardless, that he thought ... what he thought ... in the first place humiliated me.

That very day I sought out another dentist/hygienist combination, and have been quite happy with them both, fillings, crown, deep cleaning, and the blessedly gentle routine cleaning included.

It’s been six months now.

So, with clean teeth I looked in the mirror and tried to smile like I did in the above pictures.  I couldn’t make it happen naturally, try though I would.

So I stepped away from the mirror and looked inside.

Took awhile, but I found something lurking in the dark like a black widow spider filling me with a poison aimed not only at my manhood, but my humanity.

I walked through the corridor and found my sense of self in the midst of a horrible, agonizing death.

It showed in my face and through my eyes.  My mouth is starting to be permanently curved downward as though weighed down by something sinister and obscene.  My eyes are beginning to droop, too.

This is not mere age.

A little over a week ago, I decided that this couldn’t continue.  I wouldn’t let it continue.  I would reach down inside and give CPR to my sense of self.

You know from my last post that I recently visited my cousins in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

There, I determined to reclaim myself.  Make myself fit to walk with the rest of humanity again, beginning with my weight.

Sixty more pounds.  That’s what I have to lose.  To that end, I determined to eat healthily, exercise by swimming and walking, and eliminate wine with a couple of predetermined exceptions, until I reach my goal weight.

Today is my tenth day under that program.  I’ve lost five pounds.

The difference between this time and the hundreds of others I’ve tried this is that for the first time I have a weight-loss buddy.  I won’t say who, but we have grimly determined to support each other, and congratulate each other, and cry on each other’s shoulder, and celebrate victories, of which there will be many.

I think this will be the difference maker for me, and I hope to be the difference maker for my buddy.

You see, I’m determined to recapture those smiles of earlier days.  That they come from an older body won’t matter to me.

Only that they come.

I’ll keep everyone posted.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


A week ago I drove seven and a half hour to a city with which I have little in common. 

Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

But what I have common with it makes it one of my favorite places to visit.  My baby cousin Chandra, her husband of thirty-two years Phillip, with occasional visits from their kids Andy and Megan, 29 and 23 respectively live there, or, in Andy's case about three hours away.

We reminisced about family members no longer with us, and, except for my brother, that's everyone.

We focused mainly on our mothers (they were sisters, my mother being the eldest).  Chandra still marvels that I'm the only person she's ever known her own mother never yelled at.  It's true.  She never did.

I'm not certain why, but my guess is that she was a senior in high school when I was born, and it might have been cool to have a nephew.

In her later years, I became a confessor priest, a confidante, telling her stories of her own upbringing that she didn't know.

We reminisced about our sisters.  Hers, Ruthanne, was a dynamo.  I loved her energy, her insight and penetration.  She died twenty years ago at the age of twenty-six, leaving behind her husband and two young sons.

Mine, Deborah, would work tirelessly for any cause that wouldn't make her a dime, and make anyone laugh at anytime.  She died in 2006 at forty-five.

Chandra and I promised to always stay in touch, and we will.  I'll visit at least once a year.

I think the world of her husband Phillip, too.  Each of us is cut from a different cloth, but we've come to know a little about each other over the years.  Most important to me is that he's been good to Chandra.  He's a wonderful man.

The picture I'm posting, he too.  The one that makes me look like a young Alfred Hitchcock.  He took it in his mother's antique shop.

We ate too much.  We drank too much (I did, anyway).  But I'd do it all over again, and will.

The seven and a half hour drive back found me fighting through mighty thunderstorms, and not all of them rain.

I'm home now, and miss them already.

Here's to my cousin Chandra!  My cousin-in-law Phillip.  Andy and Megan.

I'm proud to call them my family.