Archives for category: family relationships

LARGER THAN LIFE

I was born in 1956 to a household devoid of hero worship. We enjoyed movies and shows, but it wasn’t in our make-up to fawn over actors or entertainers; though my siblings and I were sports-minded, we didn’t collect autographs or have posters on the walls. There were baseball players we rooted for, but no one we loved. Perhaps, the futility of the Phillies in the early 1960’s had something to do with that. Still, even if they’d won more, I doubt I would have declared a personal “favorite.”
My father neither participated in nor was interested in sports. He may have had athletic genes, but they weren’t developed in a childhood spent selling cigarettes to the White and Red Russian soldiers who alternately took control of his neighborhood in Kiev. It fell upon my older brothers to teach me the rudiments of ball-playing and my mother to take me to such landmark events as “my first major league baseball game.” She also was the rare mother on the sidelines of my little league games.

The “athlete” in our extended family was my Uncle, Lou Fox, who’d married my mother’s sister and lived in Chicago. With prematurely white hair, he was called “The Silver Fox.” His sports were bowling and golf, and I grew up with the impression he was a professional. I avidly followed news of his tournament wins and looked forward to basking in his glow at some point.
With my father tethered to his clothing store seven-days-a-week, our family rarely traveled. Uncle Lou’s wife, Aunt Fran, returned to visit the family in Philadelphia fairly regularly. I don’t have any recollection of Uncle Lou visiting in my earliest years, though I’m sure he did.
What I recall with an odd mixture of vividness and haziness is my now-almost-fifty-years-ago visit to Chicago, in 1965, with my mother. As the trip approached, Uncle Lou had promised over the telephone to play ball with me, take me to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and also take me to his bowling alley. So excited was I at the prospect of all three activities, my first lifetime plane flight barely registered.
Upon arrival at my aunt and uncle’s low-slung brick bungalow, I made two observations: my aunt had plastic on all the sofas, so indoor ball-playing was unlikely, and there wasn’t much outdoor space, either. Still, Uncle Lou appeared immediately in the living room with a ball and two gloves and took me to the tiny rear yard to play catch. There he informed me that due to tragically bad timing, the Cubs were out-of-town the entire duration of our visit, so a visit to the iconic stadium would be impossible.
“Can we go to a White Sox game?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No one goes to the White Sox games. The neighborhood is too dangerous.”
I couldn’t imagine anywhere more dangerous than the area near Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, where I’d seen my mother pay a dollar to local street urchins to “watch our car.” I must have looked crestfallen.
“But there is a solution,” announced my uncle. “This weekend, we’ll drive to Milwaukee and see the Braves.”
Though the Braves lacked the magical aura of the Cubs, the notion that we would drive one hundred miles to a baseball game was immensely exciting. My family would never have considered such an adventure.
Though not the sort of kid to jump up and down and yell, “Yippee!” I’m certain I expressed excitement, since my uncle was showing me a whole different way of approaching life.

During the several days leading up to the trip to Milwaukee, Uncle Lou took me to “his” bowling alley. At the time, I thought he had an ownership interest, though I eventually learned he was just a very accomplished, regular bowler, who was acquainted with all the men behind the counter. He arranged for me to play “as long as I wanted” while he went off to work at his real job at a ceramics factory.
I recall the initial thrill of having a whole bowling alley practically to myself, since it was mid-morning on a weekday. I played game after game until I couldn’t lift my arm. When Uncle Lou returned to bring me home, he asked if I wanted to play again the next day. Considering the blisters on several fingers, I declined.
We drove home in my uncle’s brand-new Buick Electra 225. The car was massive, and it was the first time I’d ever seen power windows and air conditioning.
“This smells new,” I said admiringly.
“I get a new car every year,” said Uncle Lou.
“You do?” I said, trying to imagine such extravagance.
“Yep,” he said.
I gazed out the window awestruck.

When the day finally arrived for the trip to Milwaukee, my mother, Aunt Fran and I piled into the Buick.
“We’re eating at Frenchie’s before the game,” declared Uncle Lou.
“Will they have hamburgers?” I asked.
Everyone laughed. Hamburgers were all I ever ordered. That phase ended sometime in my twenties.
“You’ll like it,” he said. “It’s not a typical restaurant.”
Sure enough, Frenchie’s was a first for me. Apparently, in Milwaukee, it was an institution, “THE” downtown steakhouse with massive portions delivered by scantily-clad waitresses in fishnet stockings and high heels. I couldn’t find hamburgers on the menu, but Uncle Lou declared: “Don’t worry about it. You’ll like the food.”
He proceeded to order a Delmonico steak for me. In the re-telling over the years, the size of the steak has grown from ten to twelve to sixteen to, perhaps, twenty-four or thirty-two ounces. All I remember is that it was ENORMOUS and I ate the whole thing.
I also recall that Uncle Lou sat at the head of the table and commanded the room. With a sparkle in his eye, he was handsome and elegant. He joked boisterously with the waitresses and the other patrons. My mother, aunt and perhaps my cousins were present, too, but I only noticed my uncle. He was a force of nature, magnetic and charming.

The ballgame proved memorable, primarily for what was lacking. The Braves had declared their intention to move to Atlanta before the 1965 season, but the move was delayed by legal wrangling. With the impending move confirmed by the time of our visit, Milwaukee fans boycotted the games, so we found ourselves in a 50,000 seat stadium with fewer than 500 other people. It was dreary to watch a game amidst such emptiness, but if ever an eight-year-old had a good chance to retrieve a foul ball, this was it. Unfortunately, no luck. I recall the Cincinnati Reds, with a young player named Pete Rose, beat the Braves.
The drive home proved more memorable. A mid-western thunderstorm of epic proportions rolled in and multiple lightning strikes were visible simultaneously across the flat landscape. At first, I was scared of the noisy storm, but Uncle Lou approached driving through it like another exciting adventure, shouting “boom” with each burst of thunder. Eventually, I curled up on the vast, boat-like backseat of the Buick, and fell asleep amidst nature’s fireworks which were matched only by the dazzling good cheer of my uncle.
When we returned to Philadelphia, I suffered pangs of conscience because I wished my father were more like Uncle Lou. Though dependable and doting, my father lacked bravado and sportiness. He’d apparently used up all his sense of adventure finding his way to this country, via Poland and Cuba, back in the 1920’s. But time and attention shift quickly in the life of a child; after several weeks, I didn’t ponder Uncle Lou’s qualities again, and I appreciated my father’s unceasing, unquestionable devotion.

Just a few years after our visit, my Aunt Fran was diagnosed with cancer. She fought a hard and bitter fight and deserved every bit of sympathy for her misfortune and her struggle. However, she was not one of those cancer sufferers who appear on the last segment of the evening news for inspiring those around them with an amazing attitude. She was angry and she was depressed.
From a distance, it was my understanding Uncle Lou proved a steadfast partner. But after several years, his wife’s fight against the disease sapped his energy, too. When they visited Philadelphia together, he golfed one day with my brother, David, and me. By now, I was aware he was not a professional golfer. Probably, the eight-year-old me thought being a “club champion” conferred professional status that my twelve-year-old self understood did not. Still, he was an excellent player. The buoyancy in his personality was diminished, however.
At the risk of stereotyping, perhaps men in that era did not keep in touch as much as women. After Aunt Fran died, we rarely heard from Uncle Lou, and my only source of news about my uncle came from overhearing my mother’s discussions with my father. I learned he re-married fairly quickly to a long-time family friend whose husband had also died. He played lots of golf in Florida. As far as I could tell, no one in our family begrudged him his remarriage; he’d suffered enough.

I’m not sure my Uncle Lou was a “hero” to me. I didn’t know him well enough, or spend enough time with him to form a meaningful relationship. But for that one week in the summer of ’65, I couldn’t help but think the earth and sky crackled around him. And it wasn’t just because of the lightning.


DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?

Sportscaster Al Michaels posed that question when the US ice hockey team defeated the vaunted Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. On their way to the gold medal, a mixture of US college and minor league players came together to shock the sports world and provide an explosion of patriotic fervor during a low period of Cold War relations. The now ubiquitous chant “USA! USA!” was hatched during the course of that contest.
The game, which inspired a movie and propelled the head coach and several players to successful professional careers, brought ice hockey to the forefront of American sports consciousness for weeks; perhaps, as many as ten percent of the nation was excited.
By fortunate coincidence, I’m in Costa Rica this week and have watched the national soccer team advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup by remaining undefeated against the traditional juggernauts from Uruguay, Italy, England and Greece. Whether or not this performance qualifies as miraculous (some proud Costa Ricans claim it is not even surprising), the reaction of the country’s population is beyond comprehension for an American.
Yes, if UNC wins a national championship in basketball, several thousand people congregate, celebrate, and even make a bonfire. If a professional sports team wins a championship, their home city reliably hosts a “parade,” attended by thousands. Tee shirts and caps are sold to commemorate the event, but there isn’t a national swelling of pride. For instance, when the Yankees win a championship, their accomplishment is greeted by indifference by a vast majority of the nation and is more resented than cheered by the fans of the other twenty-nine teams.
Boy, is it different here! Following the win over Greece, spontaneous celebrations exploded across Costa Rica; people cruised hanging out of windows and perched on top of cars on city streets and highways with flags flying and horns blaring. People cried from joy, and President Solis spontaneously strolled from his home in the capital to personally lead the celebration. A poll before the tournament revealed fifty percent of the inhabitants of Costa Rica believed the performance of their national soccer team to be important or very important. This week, the number is over eighty percent. Since the win over Greece, people are uniformly dressed in team colors smile, and nod to strangers, and everyone understands.
In a world where news is filled with terrorism, drought, war and poverty, where politics has become toxic and culture increasingly profane, it is delightful to bask in a contagious haze of happiness. I recall having previously basked in several weeks of personal “do you believe in miracles” wonderment that also concerned soccer. But the story began several years earlier.

When our daughter, Kelly, started ninth grade at Ramsey High School, we encouraged her to try out for the girls’ soccer program. Her performance on the field prior to high school was best described as “energetic.” Soccer offered her an outlet for a variety of positive personality traits, including: fearlessness, persistence and positivity. But we’d rarely detected several other attributes of successful soccer players, namely: nuance, control and skill. If someone asked: “What position does she play?” there was no one-word answer. Kelly was “all over the place.”
Accordingly, we anticipated Kelly would be assigned to the freshman team. Perhaps, if the junior varsity was short players one day, she might assist. We were stunned when she burst through the door, and declared: “I made varsity!”
“You made what?” I asked.
“Varsity,” she said.
“That’s amazing,” I said. But I have to admit my thoughts were, in no particular order: “Is Ramsey really weak this year?” “Did a whole raft of freshmen make the team, since several of Kelly’s classmates had always outshone her in youth soccer?” and: “Will she be sitting on the end of the bench and, perhaps, be better off on the junior varsity?”
“I’m the only freshman,” she added.
“Julia and Joanie didn’t make it?” I said, incredulous, thinking of two highly skilled freshmen who thought highly of themselves, as did their parents.
“No,” said Kelly. “They were kind of upset. They were crying. They wouldn’t even talk to me after practice.”
“Oh, boy,” I thought, feeling a combination of dread about how several angry fifteen-year-old girls were going to treat Kelly moving forward, along with a guilty thrill of satisfaction and triumph.
“Are you worried about that?” I asked.
“No,” said Kelly, shrugging.
Fearlessness can be helpful in life as well as in soccer.

I knew George Wright, the only coach the Ramsey Girls’ varsity had ever had, since he was also a real estate lawyer. I called him the next day to find out what he was thinking. I hoped Kelly hadn’t misunderstood. Her triumph was so unexpected.
“George,” I said. “I’m thrilled, of course, and I promise I’m not one of those parents who’ll question your choices in the future, but do you see something I’ve missed?”
“Yes,” he said. “Kelly has an energy level we need that has nothing to do with ball skills or positioning. She’s going to be our designated ‘marker.’”
I’d played soccer, and was familiar with the term for playing tight defense, but I’d never seen Kelly focus on marking. I was concerned.
George continued: “In tryouts this week, in a good way, Kelly was disruptive and annoying to the other girls on the field.”
I was skeptical. “You think Kelly will be a critical part of your defense?”
George laughed. “Many of the teams we play have a dominant player in the middle of the field who makes the offense run. Kelly can mess that up. I think she’s inexperienced and oblivious enough to not be intimidated by All-County players.”
George explained: “My plan is this: Kelly’s going to go wherever they go. If they go up, she’ll go up. If they go back, she’ll go back. If they go to the bench for water, she’ll stand and wait for them to come back on the field. Her job is to be within one step of whichever girl I tell her to mark, to make her miserable.”
I was relieved to know George had a specific plan.
“But you have a job, too,” he added.
“Hunh?” I said.
“In the event Kelly needs to kick the ball, it would be nice if her skills were a little better. Can you work with her?”
“Sure,” I said readily; however, I was actually apprehensive. Though we kicked the ball around occasionally, Kelly was hard to pin down for consistent practice.

I’m certain we celebrated Kelly’s elevation to varsity suitably. But what I really remember was the rush of pride I felt. I’m Kelly’s stepfather, and we are temperamentally opposites. In brief, she is an extrovert and I am an introvert, with all the huge differences that implies. Accordingly, while we “got along” at home, we lacked a full range of common interests, and reacted to situations differently. Finally, here was a connection we could share.
During Kelly’s first two years of high school soccer, I never missed a minute of her games. At home, we practiced together once or twice a week, and I drove her to club soccer games. I enjoyed our one-on-one time together more than ever before. On the field, she fulfilled George’s expectations perfectly. She was so good, in fact, at frustrating the opposition’s best player, that one was expelled by the referee for swinging an elbow at Kelly’s head, and declaring: “I’m gonna pull your f…ing braces out!”
A defensive specialist, Kelly scored only one goal each year and the team was mediocre, but Kelly always played as hard as she could; I certainly wouldn’t have expected more. With her seventeenth birthday looming midway through the junior year, Kelly had other things on her mind besides soccer, including: social life, driving, social life, saving baby-sitting money for a used car, and social life.
In a fit of playful encouragement, I said to her one summer day: “If you score twenty goals this coming season, I’ll buy you a BRAND NEW car.”
Kelly’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
Absolutely,” I said.
“Twenty goals,” she repeated. “We play twenty games, so one goal a game.”
“Or two goals every other game,” I said, laughing.
Kelly ran out of the room shouting: “Mom! Mom! Guess what?!”

“You promised her a new car?” asked my wife, Katie, incredulously, while we waited for Kelly to come to the dinner table.
“Only if she scores twenty goals,” I said. “She’s scored one a year, so far, so it’s not exactly realistic.”
“You’re bribing her, with the promise of spoiling her,” she said. “Do you think that’s good parenting?”
“I prefer to call it ‘incentivizing,’” I said. “Anyway, if she were somehow to score twenty goals, she’d get a soccer scholarship to college and I’d make money on the deal. It’d be a win-win. But, you know, twenty goals is impossible.”
Kelly arrived at the table. “We’re gonna practice in the basement every night.”
“We?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “You’ll serve me the balls and supervise. What do you think of the Honda Civic?”

Initially, I was skeptical. For several weeks, however, Kelly practiced without fail and made me a believer. We devised a routine where she preceded me to the basement to work alone for fifteen minutes on dribbling skills, then I came down to toss balls to her: left foot, right foot, left thigh, right thigh, chest, head, EVERYWHERE. In the final five minutes each evening, I would revive goaltending skills not used for twenty years, and catch shot after shot. Kelly’s improvement was so remarkable that she quickly outstripped my knowledge of technique, and we arranged additional private lessons with Minor del Rio, a former professional player, coincidentally, from Costa Rica.
Once the season began, Kelly emerged as the junior star on a senior-dominated team. Her style wasn’t subtle; she careened around the field like a bowling ball going through pins. I modified her incentive so three assists would count as a goal, too, since it would be bad if she shot when a pass would be preferable. Thus, fifteen goals and fifteen assists would also earn the car.
When the season reached its climax at the 2000 New Jersey State Championship game against Delran, Kelly was already choosing upholstery. The Honda was hers, with eighteen goals and twelve assists. For the final game only, George put her back in her old role as the marker of Delran’s star, Carli Lloyd. Not only was Carli All-County and All-State, she was All-AMERICAN, on her way to becoming the center-midfielder for the US Womens’ World Cup team. Kelly delivered several strong shoulders (and, perhaps, a bit of an elbow) during the first five minutes of the game, and Carli was never a factor. Ramsey won, 2-1.
A reader would be forgiven for thinking this was the end of the story. The girl got her car, the team won the championship, and the father was delighted. But more was to come. On the strength of her stellar junior season, Kelly was invited to play on an elite club team for the winter and spring instead of the local team on which she’d previously played. Compared to the smooth and silky players the coach was used to, with their multiple college scholarship offers, Kelly was still “a diamond in the rough.”
As usual, Kelly wasn’t intimidated. She pin-balled her way into a starting position and was unapologetic that no one mistook her style for ballet. She insisted we continue our practice routine, IN ADDITION to all her other practices, and assured me I was still helpful, even while I was certain she was beyond me.
Kelly’s senior season started sluggishly; she failed to score in the first eight games and the entire team seemed to be suffering post-Championship apathy. Still, she revived at mid-season and produced fifteen goals in the final seven regular season games, all wins. When the playoffs began, Kelly was in her element as the senior leader, the center-mid-fielder, and the captain. She scored one goal in the first round victory, all three goals in the second round, the game winner in overtime of the semi-finals, and we traveled down to Trenton again for the State Championship game against Freehold.
This time, it was Kelly whose reputation and press-clippings preceded her. The opponents kept her bottled up for most of the game, and what I recall, primarily, is that it was freezing cold. When the clock wound down with the score 0-0 and Freehold controlling play, no one on our side of the field would have been upset with a co-championship. Unable to stand the continuing cold and stress, Katie decamped for the restroom with about five minutes left in overtime.
When Katie emerged to meet us in the parking lot, she glanced up just in time to see Kelly burst through three Freehold defenders to deliver a thunderous finish that nearly broke the net. The sudden-death goal provided a second consecutive State Championship for Ramsey, made a local hero of Kelly, and allowed all of us to stumble through the next several weeks with a sense of “do you believe in miracles?” Accolades along the lines of “All-County” and “All-State” poured in and upgraded Kelly’s choice from a so-so college with a Division-3 soccer program to an excellent university with a Division-1 soccer team and scholarship money.
As the Bergen Record newspaper noted in a feature on Kelly the following week, I had once written a novel-length manuscript about a young soccer player that was a fictional composite of my three children. In the story, the protagonist takes a final shot at goal in the final minute of her final game and hits the goalpost. I explained to the reporter I didn’t think anyone would have found the story believable if the ball had gone in. Apparently, real life is stranger than fiction.
All in all, for a few weeks, our family lived in its own private Costa Rica, where we nodded and smiled to each other and didn’t need words to express our happiness. As for Kelly and me, it was bittersweet when she left for college. After several improbable years of soccer, I’d lost my practice partner. But at the same time, my stepdaughter had become my daughter.


WAITING FOR FATHERHOOD

Nine months is a long time to wait for a child; good thing we weren’t elephants, whose pregnancies last two years. Nearly twenty-five Father’s Days ago, I was soon to become a father, and I still had plenty of time to think about it.
I did not “hate kids,” as some intimates maintained when I was in my twenties. They based that opinion on my frequent use of the term “piss-pots” to refer to small children. However, I’d simply adopted that expression after hearing George Burns use it in the movie “Going in Style.” No, what I really felt was not distaste, but the absence of clear-cut thoughts concerning children. I’d simply never contemplated what it would be like to interact with them or raise them.
How did this happen? My three siblings were significantly older so, in many ways, I was raised as an only child. During my childhood, our neighborhood had no other young children, let alone babies. A demographic shift had occurred, and I was left marooned in an all-adult world.
When I approached twenty years of age, my now-married and geographically distant brothers begat my six nieces and nephews like a tag-team, in alternating years. I uttered the appropriate “oohs” and “aahs” over photographs and stories about their babies from afar, as though they were great athletes or movie stars. When our family convened for holidays, and I actually encountered the babies, my main impression was of bodily discharges, crying and fussing.
In short, while I was pleased my brothers appeared pleased, I was mystified, and certainly did not envy them or see myself in their positions. Fatherhood was not something I craved.
I married at thirty. While I was a willing participant in the conception process, I didn’t ponder what having a child would mean until my wife, Katie, revealed she was pregnant. My reaction was fear. I thought: “What if I don’t feel anything special, only a sense of duty?” I was confident I could “hang in there” and “perform” the role of a father, but I feared my time, finances and relationship with my new wife would suffer.
During the early stages of Katie’s pregnancy, lacking a positive emotional surge, I assured Katie I “would do what I have to do.” She was not sufficiently comforted and, with the benefit of hindsight, I understand why.
“I need more support,” she said.
I looked at her without comprehension.
“And I want you to show more anticipation.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It would be nice if you rubbed my belly, or talked to it,” she said.
I nodded, skeptically, and attempted a few awkward strokes. I was determined to avoid discussing the subject, lest I reveal too many of my doubts.
Pregnancy is a challenging process, to say the least, for a woman. (Can’t Mother Nature come up with something better?) It’s not so great for a husband, either, if he struggles to summon empathy from a seemingly empty supply.
Each morning, I ran to the kitchen hoping to deliver dry cereal to Katie before she might begin to retch over a toilet. We were both stressed out. While she was not a complainer, she was always exhausted, her back was sore, and her appetite was bizarre. She craved sweet potatoes or yams on a regular basis. Meals often featured crackers and plain pasta.
My doubts were constantly in the back of my mind. How could a child who I spawned come into the world without a father’s wholehearted love and affection? But I was prone to denial and good at compartmentalizing. I focused on work and such things as gardening, tennis and reading; anything to avoid considering the imminent change; I was soon to be a FATHER.
Three months in, Katie had an ultrasound exam. For the first time, I saw a tiny heart beating and learned my child would be a daughter. I tried to picture pink clothing, ribbons and the like. That wasn’t too bad. Then I pictured boyfriends. Not good. I realized I hadn’t formulated a preference for a son or a daughter. At least I wasn’t an old-style chauvinist who preferred a boy. The photo image they printed and handed me showed a stark reality: I was not prepared.
At five months, Katie signed us up for a Bradley birthing class. She explained it was a progressive sort of Lamaze, which I believed vaguely to be a sort of breathing exercise program, not that that meant anything to me. We paid to visit a woman’s dismal little apartment, where we sat on the floor with four other couples, and performed exercises and stretches with cushions that were somehow meant to assist childbirth. My thoughts were mostly consumed with not dirtying my clothes on the filthy carpet. I struggled not to laugh or detectably roll my eyes at the New Age pronouncements of the leader, such as: “You are vessels of creation. Life springs eternal from within, etc.” Such celebrations of pregnancy are designed, I imagine, to bring joy and anticipation to the birth event. But, for me, with my lack of enthusiasm so clear, it only made waiting worse.
After the sixth month, Katie’s morning sickness began to subside but her appearance continued to transform. “Who is this woman?” I asked myself. Formerly trim and athletic, a small bump in her mid-section had progressed from the size of a softball to that of a volleyball, and was heading to a basketball. I struggled to not resent the pregnancy every day. Katie’s energy was less, her back was worse, and I was becoming increasingly nervous. No longer in the back of my mind, I was worrying all the time, “What if I feel nothing for this child?”
“Are you excited?” people would ask.
“Yes, sort of, pretty much” I would say, trying to muster a smile.
Katie knew better than to ask. She didn’t want to hear my mantra about “Doing what I have to do” anymore. The waiting and uncertainty were agonizing for her, too.
When the eighth month arrived, and we chose wallpaper and a crib for the baby’s room, the wait was almost over. On a trip to buy curtains for the baby’s room, we discussed possible names.
“Valerie?” I said. “No,” said Katie. “What about an ’S’ name?”
“Susie?” I said. “Sharon?”
Katie shook her head.
“Definitely not Sandy,” I said.
I felt uncomfortable shifting the concept of “the baby” to a specific individual. I feared my ambivalence was a betrayal. In my anxiety, I offered a joke with regard to my last name, Sanders: “How about Orbital?” I suggested. Katie was not particularly amused.
I’d once told Katie that, according to family lore, I was supposed to have been named after my grandmother, Sarah, but I’d ruined the plan by being male. Desperately trying to foster a connection, Katie suggested we name our daughter “Sarah.”
I liked the sound of “Sarah Sanders” and appreciated the gracious nod to my family. Yet, waiting for this newly-named member of the human race, my progeny, was now even more nerve-wracking. “If I don’t feel anything special,” I thought, “it’ll be horrible. How will I live with myself, an emotional stranger to someone named after my own grandmother?”

The waiting was nearly over when the ninth month dawned, and we planned the trip to the hospital. I knew who to call at the midwife’s office and what route to take. I made sure the car always had plenty of gas. In short, I was doing all the things “I had to do,” but was still waiting with nagging discomfort.
The due date of October 23 came and went, prolonging the marathon. By the seventh day, we were discussing the process of inducing birth or, worse, the possibility of a Caesarian section. In efforts to start labor naturally, we took long hikes, ate spicy food, and even had Katie ingest castor oil. Something worked, and labor began the evening of October 30. We arrived at the hospital after midnight, and Katie spent a torturous night pushing and sweating and, generally, suffering. I sat beside the bed in the birthing center, held her hand, avoided saying anything stupid or insensitive when progress slowed, and finally suggested to the preoccupied midwife: “Why doesn’t Katie get up and take a shower?” That was a trick I’d heard about, ironically, at the long-ago Bradley class.
“That’s a good idea,” said the professional.
The shower seemed to work. After standing under the water for just a few minutes, Katie returned to the bed, grabbed my hand for a climactic squeeze, and pushed out the final product, at 8:12 a.m. on Halloween. Having never actually seen a live birth (I’d averted my eyes even when my cat gave birth), I was stunned to see a fully-black-haired head emerge from the birth canal and slide into the mid-wife’s hands. I cut the umbilical cord as instructed, and beheld my daughter, Sarah, for the first time.
The wait was over. What did I feel? How did this end? With extraordinary and spectacular relief, I found the welling up of love and affection for that little black-haired baby to be instantaneous and complete. It was love at first sight. Yes, I thought my daughter was beautiful, but that wasn’t why I loved her. My stomach flipped with excitement, my veins pulsed with continuous shots of adrenaline, my heart pounded like a jackhammer, my hands sweated and I couldn’t stop beaming. Katie, too, was elated. She was done with labor. She had a healthy daughter. And she could see, finally, I was delighted.
I hope to never experience that sort of long-term, high-stakes uncertainty and dread again, but it was worth the wait.


INSTRUMENT OF TORTURE

That Sam would play the oboe seemed inevitable. Someone had to.  He was the youngest of three children, after all, and his two older sisters had both failed at the piano and refused to play the oboe, respectively. With my wife, Katie’s professional-quality, hand-crafted instrument consigned to the back of a closet for decades, he represented the last chance one of our children would carry on her legacy as the one-time second chair of the Connecticut State Youth Orchestra.
“You can take piano lessons, if you prefer,” we offered, knowing he had long-refused to consider the beautiful instrument anchoring our living room, by then reduced to a silent piece of furniture.
“Why do I have to take anything?” Sam protested.
“Because musical training is important, your sisters suffered through it, and it will be good for you,” we answered, more or less. We probably also suggested: “it will enhance your college applications, provide an extracurricular activity in high school, and develop whichever side of the brain might otherwise be neglected.” We figured if we threw enough half-baked rationales against the wall, one might stick.
Sam was in fifth grade when this ambush took place. He had just entered middle school where there was an extensive music program. Each participant received a weekly lesson from the band director. Some students took private lessons, too, but the instrumental program at the school was renowned for developing beginners. Eventually, the talented and/or devoted would feed the award-winning high school band, an institution in our town whose fervent following rivaled that of the sports program. In fact, at Ramsey High School, the home football crowd was known to swell just before halftime and diminish precipitously after the band finished performing.
Nearly all the boys who began lessons in fifth grade chose to play the drums or something brass. We’d bought Sam a drum, at his insistence, when he was five. But he abandoned it after just a few days of sporadic pounding. Nearly all the girls chose the flute or clarinet. Not since the eighteenth century, perhaps, had a ten-year-old clamored to play the oboe. When the band director learned that our household held a prospective oboist, she nearly leapt with excitement.
“Does he already play?” asked Ms. Latronica (“rhymes with harmonica,” she always told the students on the first day of school).
“No,” we explained, “but Katie can teach him the basics, and he’s agreed to practice at least fifteen minutes a day.” We didn’t think it necessary to reveal the arguments and bribes involved in gaining the latter assurance. Suffice it to say, Sam’s ice cream and video games were secure for the balance of fifth grade.
“This is so exciting!” enthused the twenty-something Ms. Latronica. “We’ve never had an oboe before. Sousa wrote some great oboe parts!”
We nodded and smiled, but thought back to our daughters’ failed musical careers.
“I fear,” I whispered to Katie afterwards, “that she is headed for some disappointment.”

*****

Fortunately for me, I was at work when Sam commenced his initial oboe practices after school. One day, I arrived home earlier than usual and heard a braying sound emanating from the living room piano bench, where he sat.
“Do we have geese?” I asked.
“That’s Sam practicing,” said Katie.
“Wow,” I said. “Does it always sound like that?”
“Sometimes worse,” she said. “But he’ll get better, eventually.”
“What if he doesn’t?” I asked.
“He’s already made a lot of progress,” Katie assured me. “He can play a scale.”
“In three weeks, that’s all he’s learned?” I said.
“If he took the French horn, he might not be able to hit a note for a year,” she pointed out.
I nodded in agreement, recalling the unfortunate French horn player in my high school orchestra.
“But, at least a French horn sounds mellow. This sound is irritating; it’s hard to take,” I said quietly, cringing, as several additional honks bounced off the walls.

Over the next several months, Sam did make progress. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for instance, became recognizable. But he clearly lacked a gift. Since Katie had been an excellent oboist decades earlier and I’m one of those people blessed/plagued with music running through my head at all times, I couldn’t understand our progeny’s lack of musicality.
“They’re all good students,” I said. “And they’re great at soccer. Why do they lack musical talent? We’ve provided nature AND nurture, and received nothing in return,” I continued sourly.
Katie shrugged. “Let’s hope he’ll be happy he tried, someday. There won’t be much pressure. He’s playing third-oboe in the holiday concert.”
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted. “How can he play ‘third’ when there’s no first or second?” I asked.
“Actually,” said Katie, “the third part is what Ms. Latronica thinks Sam can handle. Remember, he’s just a beginner.”
“Fair enough,” I said, apprehensive.
On the night of the concert, we were stunned and impressed to see the middle school band file into the gymnasium before us. Over eighty players made it larger than all but the most august of professional orchestras. Several of the hundreds of parents and grandparents rushed forward to hand flowers to their children. Others stood brandishing video cameras. We remained quietly in our seats, heeding Sam’s request that we “not do anything embarrassing.” Still, we were proud to see Sam amidst the ensemble, though his sheepish posture revealed his desire to be somewhere, anywhere else.
Ms. Latronica, glowing with excitement, took the podium in a form-fitting outfit guaranteed to command the attention of students and audience alike. The band performed a selection of Christmas carols with a Thanksgiving-themed song and a Hannukkah piece mixed in. The skill level was impressive; many of the students played with enthusiasm.
“I can’t hear the oboe at all,” I whispered at one point, though Sam appeared to be blowing.
“That’s probably a good thing,” whispered Katie. “The third part shouldn’t stand out.”
After the concert, while waiting in a long line at Baskin-Robbins (we weren’t the only bribers in town, apparently) we congratulated Sam for his efforts.
“I didn’t play a single wrong note,” he said, smiling suspiciously broadly.
“That’s wonderful,” I said, warily.
“I was just blowing,” he said, “but not hard enough to make sound.”
“Sam,” said Katie. “Why would you do that?”
“I didn’t want to mess up,” he said.
I considered expressing anger or, at least, canceling ice cream. But the latter was difficult because I wanted ice cream, too, and the former would have been hypocritical because I’d done the same thing decades earlier at a high school holiday concert. In fact, what I’d done was worse, since I was the first trumpet, and responsible to carry the melody!

We didn’t let Sam quit the oboe mid-year, despite his requests, but we did move his practice location to the basement. Several closed doors would insulate the rest of the house from the noise.
“He’ll probably be watching television while he practices,” I said.
“Probably,” said Katie.
“Do we care?” I asked.
“Probably not,” she said.
I pondered the situation for a moment. “What kind of parents practically invite their son to goof off when he practices?”
“Realistic,” said Katie. “He’s not gifted and he’s not excited to play. We can’t force it.”
The school year ended with a spring concert. We attended and applauded and didn’t even ask Sam if his instrument was contributing to the sound. And he didn’t volunteer the information. When we arrived home, the oboe reassumed its place in the closet.
As the years proceeded, Sam developed a healthy enjoyment of music. Now that he is in graduate school, on the rare occasions the subject of playing musical instruments arises, I note that my son expertly plays the I-pod and Pandora, and he’s perfectly satisfied with that. Therefore, I suppose, so am I.


COLLATERAL DAMAGE

It has been said that “surgery is minor so long as it happens to someone else.” But if that “someone else” is your spouse, on the major-minor continuum, even if the physical slicing of flesh is happening to a different individual, it’s major. Believe me.
This past week saw my wife, Katie, operated on for repair of her rotator cuff. Because her pain level was manageable when she initially visited the orthopedist last month, she expected he would detect a minor irritation in need of treatment, followed by a week of physical therapy. She was shocked when an MRI revealed a major tear. Apparently, years of tennis had separated three crucial ligaments from the bone. Without repair, explained the doctor to our astonishment, her arm would be ruined. He was so convincing I didn’t express my habitual suspicion that he simply desired a new Lexus.
One month later, when we finally arrived for surgery at the ACC (Ambulatory Care Center, though everyone at UNC thinks of the Atlantic Coast Conference) the receptionist said: “We don’t have you on the list. Are you sure you’re scheduled for today?”
Since Katie had had innumerable confirmations from the surgeon’s office, the question barely merited a quickening of our heartbeats. After a few minutes of panic by the receptionist and her assistants, (the ACC is fully staffed, to say the least) the appointment was confirmed, and we proceeded to “intake.” There, an assortment of doctors, interns, nurses, anesthesiologists, ombudsmen, and their respective assistants and adjuncts, proceeded to introduce themselves while we sat dazed.
“They may kill you with kindness,” I whispered.
“Shhhh,” said Katie.
After fifteen minutes of meet-and-greet, I was ushered to the waiting area while the surgery took place. I returned to the recovery unit three hours later to find an understandably bedraggled and bedrugged wife, babbling cheerfully thanks to pharmaceutically-induced relief. It would be twenty-four hours before she had sensation in her left arm. By the time of discharge, the next morning, major doses of Tylenol and oxycodone, accompanied by a “pain ball” filled with narcotics, were keeping the pain in check.
“This is going so well,” said Katie, in a rare moment of naiveté.
“Wait’ll that pain ball is empty in two days,” I said, in a customary moment of doom-and-gloom.
Unfortunately, I would prove correct in that regard. Still, the recovery was going well, and we were sent home. Upon arrival, Katie took control of the living room like Russia took control of Crimea. Her domination became absolute from the staging area of the lounge chair. An ice machine squealed 24-7 while she sat/laid/lounged (not in the fun way) the days away. A huge sling, like a medieval contraption of war, immobilized her left side. Somewhere, beneath its straps, pads and levers, was her newly excavated shoulder, healing.
There was a surge of pain on the third day when the “ball” was empty, but the next two days showed marked progress. Now, the oxycodone has been almost eliminated from the routine and Tylenol is lessening. The stronger, morphine-like back-ups were unnecessary. After visiting the doctor yesterday, to celebrate the progress, we treated ourselves to a quick biscuit breakfast at Hardees.
More disposed by temperament to Nurse Ratched than to Florence Nightengale, I am doing my best to provide water, food, fresh ice, blankets, encouragement, foot-rubs, reading materials, television and music. So far, my efforts have proved satisfactory, if I say so myself. But it’s only been five days; the sling is on for five weeks, so “mission accomplished” cannot yet be declared.
One of the nicest aspects of this experience has been the kindness of our neighbors. They have provided an abundance of meals, snacks, flowers and visits. I’ve had to manage traffic at the front door.
“Perhaps, we should periodically fake a surgery,” I suggested, “just to find out who really loves us.”
Needless to say, Katie did not indulge me with a response. She has been admirably stoic throughout this experience. While I would be wallowing in self-pity in her position, her complaints have been largely confined to imbecilic responses received from service providers, like the resident who, when asked about colace-resistant constipation, suggested a name-brand product that drew a belly-laugh from the pharmacist, since it consisted of the exact ingredients as colace. In the same vein, three nurses at the ACC warned Katie of likely reactions from doses of the pain-killer neurontin, though Katie’s records indicated in block letters she is allergic to it. Each time, Katie patiently, but incredulously, directed them to the drug-allergies section on the chart.
Surgery has allowed us to ponder the likely-related subject of aging. Is this a one-time event for this decade, as were my back and knee surgeries in my thirties and forties, respectively, or is this a harbinger of frequent procedures as we travel the back-nine of life? I sure hope it’s the former because, while we enjoy spending time together, this is NOT the way to do it.


AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

Frank Rizzo was mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During that time, he distinguished himself for brutish bravado. Describing how mercilessly he intended to disembowel opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I could not initially understand, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father was enamored of this man.
Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. Not surprisingly, his reign was dominated by charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for a big-city police commissioner. There were potentially violent protests from radical students as well as from such organizations as the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with holding a lid on potentially riotous situations that could have spiraled into deadly chaos. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of the nightsticks.
Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner and expressions were so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained a supporter.
My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a meaningful organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street was a bustling shopping area with over one hundred stores, but a sad joke by the late 1960’s. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a scene reminiscent of a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only store owner willing to act as “president” and, accordingly, his name landed on the new mayor’s mailing list. Each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”
“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”
“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.
“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.
A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard, green card. I remained silent.
Certainly, I thought, my father, a noted skeptic in his own right, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were doubtless sent to every club, organization and entity in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.
“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards here?”
“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.
“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.
“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little moved.
The annual receipt of the holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in earshot of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards we had received. After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow was perfectly capable of handling at the store, but seemingly unable to do at home.
“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?’” he would ask, each year.
We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”
“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.
As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which was barely surviving, became increasingly forlorn. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to stay open. After he was pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what could he do with the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one would buy it. It was in a worthless location.
“Someone offered $2,000 today,” he reported one day, dejectedly, as we sat down to lunch, “for the bricks.”
“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term is ending in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyal friendship.”
It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.
“Do you have the number?” he asked.
Home for the holiday break from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother retrieved the number for the Mayor’s office from the directory and wrote it down for him. My father went into the kitchen where there was a phone and, before he shut the door behind him, I heard him prounounce:
“This is Lou Sanders of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”
My father’s discussion continued for several minutes.
“Who could he be talking to?” I asked.
“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor’s office has employees.”
“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.
“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.
I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.
“Well?” said my mother.
“Who were you talking to?” I asked.
“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”
“And what did he say?” asked my mother.
“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”
“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” he repeated.
Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later. I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”
She nodded in agreement.
Imagine our surprise on December 31 when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.” The letter was signed by an unknown official. But a handwritten postscript was added at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”


IT’S IN THE JEANS

“Blue jeans are for farmers,” said my father.
I heard that pronouncement throughout childhood, first directed to my older brothers and, eventually, to me.
Lou Sanders’ Menswear in Philadelphia stocked Wranglers and Levi’s for customers but never for home consumption. There were few things my father, who had been born to a poor family in Ukraine, felt so strongly. He had no objection to selling work clothes to laborers, but his children were not to appear like proletarians. This belief was ironic, given that my father was far more sympathetic to the politics of the Red Army than to the White Army when the two alternately over-ran his childhood neighborhood.
I never managed to understand my father’s fickle political philosophy. I recall him reading the Socialist Workers’ newspaper when I was little. He was so sympathetic to Communist ideals I wondered, sometimes, why he ever left Russia in the first place. I understood, on some level, that it was a matter of economic opportunity and freedom from religious persecution, but he would not express distaste for the Soviet Union even in the face of Stalin’s obvious depredations. Perhaps, he held an idealized memory of his childhood there. But considering his family chose to flee the country, how ideal could it have been?
On the domestic front, my father disliked Johnson and despised Nixon, but he complained bitterly about those who demonstrated against them, too. He was equally dismissive of politicians on the liberal side, such as Humphrey or McGovern.
The picture painted above is more negative than I mean to depict. When my father skewered someone or something, it was, fortunately, usually leavened with wit and insight. A listener might wince at first, but a nod or smile often followed.
In race relations, he appeared colorblind in his dealings with customers. He found something negative to say about whites, blacks and hispanics, without discrimination. He derided members of all the world’s religions, including his own, without distinction. In fact, the more devout a person, the more harshly they would be criticized for their presumed hypocrisy. Somewhere, in his rarely-discussed formative years, my father developed deep skepticism of human motivations.
None of my father’s commentary prevented him from being an effective salesman, however. Anyone who shopped at his store was treated like a prince, at least until they were out of ear-shot. Thus, it was difficult to know exactly where he was coming from. His positions were strongly-held, even if they were completely contradictory. “Consistency? Ech, who needs it?” he would say, if confronted.
The subject of blue jeans bridged the gap between my father’s two realms, the store and home. Of course, he supplied his sons’ clothes. When he was young, my oldest brother, Barry, was indifferent to his wardrobe. Whatever my father brought home was okay with him. But David, two years younger, fashioned himself a rebel, relatively-speaking. In most families, he probably would have been “normal.” If my father would not bring home jeans, David earned his own money to buy them. This teenage flashpoint presaged subsequent battles over car choices (my father preferred a staid Buick; David a red Camaro), facial hair (David grew a full beard during a college-era camping trip which my father made him shave as a condition to re-entering our home), and girls. My father conveyed his disapproval wordlessly in that area, with just a withering stare. But that’s a different story.
I observed the fashion and other disputes from the advantageous position of being ten years younger. Some suspected and others declared my conception had been a “mistake.” Nowadays, the euphemism is “unplanned.” According to family lore, my father, who was fifty at the time, fretted during my mother’s pregnancy that I would be born with grey hair. Once I was born, however, he was dutifully positive and loving towards me, if rarely home. He worked, after all, seven days-a-week.
I grew up lacking rebellious impulses. I figured if my father worked everyday to feed, educate and clothe me, why should I aggravate him? Thus, my warm-weather pants were khaki and my cold-weather pants were corduroy. This wardrobe never struck me odd as a child but, as I reached my teen years and, especially during college, I realized I was unique. This fact appealed to me — initially self-conscious about my “squareness,” it gradually occurred to me I was the true non-conformist among my classmates, thanks to my over-arching conformity. (If the reader is confused, I understand. Any psychologists out there are welcome to weigh in).
In my twenties, several female friends took note of my lack of “style.” They bought me “designer jeans,” as gifts, with elaborate stitching and buttons. Depending on what I judged my prospects with a particular girl, these were either returned immediately to the store or placed in an obscure corner of my closet, just in case a desire for continued romance in the future made my stubbornness expendable. But the necessity of wearing jeans never became clear and, by the time I reached thirty, it appeared I would lead a jean-less life.
My father sold the store a few years before he died. Many things had bothered him, including: politicians; stale rye bread; cold coffee; and, rock-and-roll. Several things about me had also bothered him, such as: my lack of interest in the store; my lack of enthusiasm about practicing law; my choice to attend a college other than Penn, which he called “The Greatest University in the World.” But my wearing blue jeans was never one of them.