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Posts Tagged ‘father’

Me, dad and Hans.

December marked the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, meaning that I’ve lived a full quarter of my life without him.

I’ve learned that it’s not the big things in life that you really miss talking about when you lose a loved one. I don’t need job advice (OK, I totally need job advice, but from a higher authority than my dad). I don’t need him to answer the Big Questions.

Instead, it’s the funny little topics that make me want to talk to him, the goofy questions that pop into my head with some regularity.

Would his love for horror and sci-fi films from the ’50s and ’60s make him a fan of the current cultural obsession with zombies? (I can tell you with certainty that he would have little tolerance for sparkly vampires.) Just how flawed is the Alien prequel? Why did he like dachshunds so much? Doesn’t he think it’s time for a black actor to play Batman? Doctor Who: Still totally awesome, right? Why are there no Tom Waits albums in his music collection, when it simply BEGS for Tom Waits?

It’s the seemingly forgettable one-off chats that I miss, the perfectly benign conversations over coffee (Diet Pepsi for him), not the big, earth-shattering talks that we all think must be so important.

I also miss the dachshunds.

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Yesterday, we hustled this beast of a piano into a rental truck for a short trip across town to one half of The Owl Sisters, two Huntsville ladies who refinish old furniture. After they remove its incredibly heavy harp, one Owl Sister will move the piano (which will really be a former piano at that point) into her home, where she’ll probably turn it into a bar. Or, possibly, something even cooler.

I’ve learned that old pianos are essentially worthless unless they’ve been completely reconditioned, a process that can cost just a thousand dollars or two less than the newly reconditioned piano’s value. I’m not taking that wager.

In the past, I’ve called this the accidental piano. When I was helping my dad clean out his mother’s house, it seemed like a good idea to take it home, not because I had fond memories of it (or even played piano), but because I had always thought it was a groovy piece of furniture. I had no idea that nearly 10 years in Mobile’s humidity would render its delicate wheels virtually useless.

For me, it has held family photos and knickknacks, along with whatever objects happened to be attracted to a flat surface at any given moment. I will miss its unique addition to the general decor, but I won’t miss moving it to another house or worrying about it scratching/denting the new floor when we get around to ditching the carpet.

Au revoir, beastly piano. Enjoy your third life.

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Literally, the minute that I was supposed to be leaving for graduation last week (which was literally about 10 minutes after I was really supposed to be leaving), it struck me how sad it was that my dad wasn’t going to get to see me walk across the stage for my master’s degree.

(It was also sad that my mom couldn’t come to graduation, but as the parent who did not die in 2002, she’s still at a decided advantage in the current activities department.)

I’m not one to wallow in melancholy, however, especially when I’m busy, so I quickly formulated a fix: I would wear something that belonged to Dad, sort of in memoriam, sort of as a good-luck/don’t-trip charm.

I had his old college class ring, his wedding ring and a turquoise ring, pictured above, that I had given him when I was in college the first time around.

The class ring is huge, heavy and just plain cumbersome. And toting around a wedding ring from a divorced man seems a tad unlucky.

Turquoise it was. Only my dad was a big, burly sort, and this ring didn’t even fit on my thumb. I pictured it flying off my hand when I was midway across the stage before noisily rolling an embarrassingly long way under the assembled chairs.

So I was all, OK, I’ll put it on a chain around my neck. But my necklace supply is meager, and a quick dig through the jewelry box yielded nothing suitable.

Time was getting on. I did a mental check of everything I was wearing. No pockets.

The only contender: my watch. I quickly unlatched it, slid the ring onto the band and latched it back into place.

All of this took place in the span of about 30 seconds.

That’s how I took a little piece of my dad across the stage with me. And I didn’t stumble, although I did almost get my crazy-wide gown arm caught on the metal railing around the stage.

Afterwards, I texted mom a couple of photographs. It all felt sort of balanced, parent-wise.

Sometimes it’s best to just go with a crazy urge, especially if you’ve only got one shot at it. Better to do something now that may seem a little kooky than to later regret not doing it.

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Meet Lion’s Head Garbage Can.

It occurred to me this morning for the first time ever — and I do mean EVER — how ludicrous it must seem for a grown woman to keep — and use — a garishly colored plastic garbage can in the shape of a cartoonish lion’s head. But I honestly cannot picture my office without it.

I’ve had him (and, I assure you, he’s a he and not an it) for as long as I can remember. I’m pretty sure my mom got him for me in the 1970s using trading stamps from the grocery store.

And just let me add here that everyone should have a mom who answers random text messages like “Did you get my lion’s head garbage can with green stamps?” with the same lack of surprise or suspicion that mine does.

Lion’s Head Garbage Can has been to college and made it through several moves. He has suffered the indignity of being stored in a closet for months on end. Tragically, his name is, indeed, Lion’s Head Garbage Can, which I can’t explain given my penchant for naming anything and everything.

I suspect he caught my eye, or my mom’s eye, because of my favorite childhood book: Crosspatch. I can’t quite remember what Crosspatch was about, although I’m pretty sure the plot revolved around a grouchy little lion cub. I apparently had grouchy little lion cub tendencies as a baby — my father claimed that my early grouchiness was the reason that he nicknamed me Bear.

But Lion’s Head Garbage Can can’t be renamed Crosspatch, because I actually HAVE a small stuffed lion named Crosspatch, which my mom recently rescued from my grandmother’s house for me.

So, here sits Lion’s Head Garbage Can, essentially nameless, but useful and loved, a somewhat ridiculous item that I cannot imagine doing without.

This is the best thing about paring down your possessions to only the essential and the treasured: You figure out the things that you simply adore, and you give yourself the physical and mental space to enjoy them.

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Having heard about the death of a friend’s father and the death of one of my mother’s friends within the past seven days, it occurred to me that perhaps I’ve reached that age when deaths become more common. Then I realized that my father died nearly 10 year ago, so I guess I’ve been reaching that age for a while.

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I’ve been trying to get my mind around murder since I was 10 years old.

We were at my grandmother’s house, about 2.5 hours from our home in Kiln, Miss. The phone in the hallway — the only phone in the house at the time, the phone that, over the years, continually brought horrific news, news of fatal fires, news of shootings — self-inflicted and not — news of heart attacks and cancer diagnoses — the phone rang while we were having breakfast.

It was the principal of the high school where my dad was band director. One of the members of the band’s flag corps had been brutally murdered, along with her mother and father, the night before.

This was in the early 1980s, a time before parents (at least my parents) felt the need to shield their children from bad news. My brother and I were quiet, inquisitive, analytical kids, and we instinctively knew that if we kept our silence and blended into the background we would eventually learn everything there was to know about any topic.

K’s brother had systematically beaten her and her parents to death with a hammer (a sledgehammer, maybe – this detail escapes me). (I call her K because this case is so old that there is no reference to it on the Internet, and I would hate for this to be the only link that shows up in a search.) Another brother survived; he had spent the night at a friend’s house.

I remember being told that the murdering brother had what we would now call a history of mental problems; the term used back then was likely “crazy.” I remember hearing that he had moments when he claimed to be Jesus.

I have long pondered the effect this had on my young psyche, especially when events occur like last week’s shooting at UAHuntsville. Anytime I see news of a multiple slaying, my mind returns to that breakfast phone call and then starts flipping between two questions: How could anyone do this, and how could no one have seen it coming in time to prevent it?

If the multiple murders at K’s home occurred today, there would have been counselors swarming our tiny school the next week. As it was, we were supposed to simply take it to heart that this was an anomaly, something that could not happen to any of us, so long as we didn’t know any crazy people.

The problem that I recognized then and now is that “crazy” is not as easily defined as everyone would have had us think.

I also learned that the “stranger danger” line fed to us after the Atlanta child murders and the murder of Adam Walsh was not the entirety of things we had to worry about. Not that I suspected my 8-year-old brother of murderous intent, but the realization that someone K knew and loved was capable of such atrocity was a game-changer for a pre-teen.

The idea that you might not ever REALLY know someone, that there might always be some part closed off to you, no matter how close you are, was not that foreign to me, but the idea that the closed-off part might harbor such unpredictable anger and violence was alarming.

The world was a little less safe, and for the past three decades it seems to have become a LOT less safe.

School shootings, workplace shootings, murder-suicides … it seems like our closed-off parts are more dangerous than ever.

I couldn’t make sense of it when I was 10, and I’m no closer to understanding it now. I just have to hope that events like this really are anomalies, and that the hidden parts of strangers, friends, associates, and even family members aren’t as dark and dangerous as others have proven to be.

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The thing about paying attention to life is all the bittersweet moments, like last night when the Saints won and the first thought that popped into my head was, “Wow. I wish my dad would have lived long enough to see the Saints go to the Super Bowl.”

The thing about bittersweet moments is that you can make them more sweet than bitter if you try. So, way to go, Saints. Dad would be proud.

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A co-worker complimented me on my paperclip holder this morning.

It’s an ashtray.

My grandmother (father’s side) LOVED to smoke. She loved it like some people love their pets. It was her hobby.

When we were children, my brother and I would argue over who got to flick the Bic to light her Chesterfields, secondhand smoke be damned.

After her diagnosis of lung cancer/heart disease, she halfheartedly tried to quit. I remember looking outside one Thanksgiving and noticing smoke drifting up from the open driver-side door of her K-car. She may have sort of tried to take her doctor’s advice to quit, but she wasn’t taking any orders off of anybody.

After she died, I found secret stashes of Chesterfields all over her house, in handbags, dresser drawers and cabinets. They seemed like dirty secrets, and finding them made me wish that everybody had just shut up and let the woman smoke after her condition was diagnosed as terminal. Instead, she seems to have spent her last couple of years sneaking cigarettes only when she could get all the caretakers out of the house.

This is only one of the entirely awesome collection of ashtrays that I inherited from her. Most are very evocative of the ’60s and ’70s, and there’s not a plain one among them. Like her, they’re colorful and weird, and they don’t really go with anything.

She died in the fall when I was a college freshman. Every year about this time I realize that I’m becoming more like her as I get older (sans the smoking and multiple divorces), and we could have some great conversations if she was still around. We could have spent the last 20 years taking those crazy guided bus tours that she liked, smoking our way around the continent.

She would have been a blast on a cruise ship.

Instead, I’ve got the grooviest ashtrays you’ve ever seen. They may never see another cigarette, but they’re great reminders of a majestically weird lady that I wish had been around longer.

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It’s been four years since Hurricane Katrina hit, wiping out nearly all of my childhood haunts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and causing unimaginable destruction in New Orleans. It also did thousands of dollars in damage to my home in Mobile, Alabama, but that’s an afterthought considering what happened to folks west of there.

The dichotomy of kindness and chaos during Katrina’s aftermath did a number on me. At times, my faith in the innate goodness of people was strengthened, but then another tragic headline would tear that faith to shreds.

I didn’t know where my mom was for two days. Turns out she lives on the highest part of Biloxi and just had wind damage, but the only images of Biloxi on television showed blocks of flattened houses. The last image she had seen of Mobile before she lost power was the appropriately named Water Street, filled with so much water that there were waves cresting over street signs.

Fears on both sides were put to rest when Mom, her boyfriend and their two bad little dogs pulled up in my driveway on the third day.

Not two years earlier, I had scattered my dad’s ashes in the Mississippi River from the levies near the French Quarter, returning his remains to the city he loved, the city whose music inspired him. The Mississippi River had, in turn, scattered itself all over the Crescent City.

I had left two of my dad’s saxophones with a horn dealer in New Orleans a few months before the storm. After his death, I had decided that they needed to be in the hands of someone who would use them.

Several weeks after the storm, I made a halfhearted attempt to track down the dealer and check on the horns. I found out that his warehouse had been destroyed, and my best guess was that his delicate old home had, at the very least, sustained massive wind damage. I was close to being ashamed of myself, checking on $1200 worth of horns when parts of the city had virtually been wiped from the map.

The thing is, I didn’t really want the money (though it would have bought a good bit of non-squishy carpet), and I certainly didn’t want the horns back. I just wanted to see if they survived the storm.

My fiercest hope is that they survived the wind and the water and the looting, that someone picked them up and gave them to a down-and-out musician, or hell, SOLD them to a down-and-out musician for Sheetrock money, and that they’re making music on the streets of New Orleans to this day. My worst fear is that they’re rusting away in a landfill, or entangled in debris at the bottom of a neglected waterway.

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The last time I saw my dad play was at my wedding. He was the kind of guy who needed an assignment to make it through four hours of socializing with strangers, and putting him on stage was a great move. He knew how to blend in with the band without upstaging anybody, though he threw in some ass-kicking solos when the moment was right.

I was cool with the idea of not knowing exactly where my dad’s remains would lie. Really, I couldn’t wait to get the box out of the house after it arrived in the mail. I never had any intention of keeping ashes in a vase on the mantel.

Sometimes I have this vision of his ashes flowing through the streets of New Orleans in the floodwaters, landing here and there, making themselves a permanent part of the spirit of the city.

I miss my dad, and I miss New Orleans. But the thought that his saxophones might be helping entice tourists to toss dollar bills into a horn case on a street corner somewhere makes it all a little more bearable.

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Remember training wheels? For me, they were the last bastion of bike safety, and they became more of a security blanket than a training tool. I remember being reluctant to let my dad take them off, until one day I realized that they didn’t seem to be touching the ground anymore. Sure enough, I took a short test drive on a neighbor’s non-training-wheeled bike, and I could totally ride on two wheels.

I could also totally crash on two wheels, as evidenced by the latticework of tiny souvenirs on my knees and elbows.

I’m still removing metaphorical training wheels from my life, some 30 years later.

Two weeks ago, we had one very sick cat. Yang was showing signs of kidney failure, a diagnosis that would have fit his age of 13 years.

I spent four days and nights convincing him to eat and drink. I drove to three supermarkets in search of no-sodium-added tuna. I baked him a chicken and made a salt-free stock. I woke up at 2 a.m. every day to check on him. I made sure my phone never left my side so that the vet could give me the results of the blood tests the minute they came in.

Most surprising of all, I made peace with the situation.

I realized that it was the first time I had truly been in charge of an animal’s care. Sure, I had pets as a child and even as a teenager, but my mother was, in the end, the decision-maker, the one who had to decide on treatments, the one who had to decide when to let go.

It’s not a small thing, deciding when to let go.

In the end, the blood tests came back normal and Yang started eating like a lumberjack again. It does appear that he and his brother have permanently added a couple of servings of baked chicken and homemade broth to their daily menu, but that’s a small price to pay for the return of a healthy cat.

I realize I’m not out of the woods on this forever. I have teenage cats, and they won’t live forever. Pets break your heart, every damn time.

I won’t say that the decisions I’ll be faced with one day will get any easier, but I’m on two wheels now, ready to brave the hills.

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