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Posts Tagged ‘Once Upon a Midnight Dreary’

Today is my dad’s birthday. He would have been seventy and surely would finally be blissfully earning the moniker we gave him much too young, “The Old Man”. My dad would’ve been a good old man, the best really. He already excelled at it by his late forties and that sort of thing only gets better with practice.

For his 70th, I’d like to share a story from my 15th.

Once upon a time, there was a horribly selfish 14 and 364/365 year old, who was incredibly PUT OUT by the fact that her dad was going to miss yet another of her birthdays. You see, my dad {yes, I will be playing the role of The Selfish Brat for this story} was the secretary for something called the International Claim Association, or ICA. {Which, totally unrelated but worth mentioning~ when I was a young thing I was a little hazy about all of this so I used to tell people my dad was a lawyer for the CIA. Untrue! But probably impressed a lot of very confused people.} In fact, my dad was an attorney for a life Insurance company so he was deeply familiar with the claim department of his company which led to his involvement in this organization.

Let me just break here to say, none of this matters. Except that it did because the committee meetings for this particular organization were often held the second week of September which also happens to hold an extremely paramount moment in history: the date of my birth. And because these meetings were often held at warm, sandy-beach locations, my mother naturally wished to accompany my dad and where did that leave me? A neglected orphan cruelly left to suffer yet another birthday alone {or, you know, in the company of very loving, capable grandparents and older siblings who more than made an effort to give me a special day, WHATEVER.} {I should also note that while my dad did very well for himself and his family, 5 kids in parochial school and all the various other expenses so many grunions incur, of which there were numerous and plenty, is not easy on the checkbook so taking us kids along was just not a viable option.}

By the time my 15th birthday hit, I was OVER it. Had it been a year later, I probably would not have cared, being at an age where spending the day with my friends would be much more important than hanging with my family but at 15 I was not quite there yet and the memory of my 12th, and golden, birthday still stung. On that occasion, not only was I was missing my dad but out of the goodness of my mother’s heart {she stayed home this time}, she agreed to baby-sit my severely ADHD cousin who had been served sugar and Mountain Dew at a Boy Scout function and who subsequently had to be locked out on the porch for fear he would destroy our house. It was an unpleasant experience and I told my dad he wasn’t allowed to miss anymore of my birthdays until I was over 18. I’m sure he didn’t actually agree to this, but somewhere in my head he did, so when I found out he would again be attending the ICA meeting over my birthday I was… displeased.

He left a day or so before the 12th of September. I can’t remember the conversation we had or the hug I’m sure he gave me, despite the fact that I had not stopped giving him The Filch Eye since I found out he was leaving. On my birthday, from Wherever, USA {I can’t even recall which warm, sandy location he was visiting this time} he called and I told him, after careful consideration, I would forgive him for ditching me if he brought me home something really, really special. Something to make up for not only missing this birthday but the handful of others over the years. He just chuckled in his way and told me to “be good”. I took that as a confirmation that he was going to bring me home something awesome. Something truly spectacular. And really? I should not have been this naive. I can say with almost 100 percent certainty that my father didn’t pick out any of our gifts growing up. I’m positive that task was delegated to my mother and she did a fabulous job at it so I don’t know what I was thinking. By the end of my dads trip I had myself pretty well convinced that he was bringing me the 1995 equivalent of a time traveling, golden unicorn that shit money. {Spoiler alert! That did not happen. Disappointing, I know.}

Anyway I had built this whole thing up in my head, so sure, sososososo sure, that my dad wouldn’t want to disappoint me and would have been sufficiently guilted into picking me out something fabulous. And sure enough, when he got home, he intimated to me that he did pick me out something special. All my teenage angst and rage dissipated, I was immediately filled with love! admiration! and awe for this wonderful man. This beautiful father who brought his newly minted 15 year old daughter a special gift. He passed me a smallish green box. Oh! Jewelry! I hadn’t even thought about that! Diamonds? Sapphires? Oooooo definitely sapphires, they’re my favorite and also my birthstone which makes them awesome AND meaningful. I was so in love with the contents of that box for roughly 20 seconds and then…

I opened it.

And it was a fish.

A fish made out of shells.

It wasn’t even a pretty fish.

It was a dumb fish.

It was the goddamn dumbest, ugliest fish I had ever seen in my entire life.

I hated it.

I hated that fish more than anything I had ever hated before and I was an angsty teenager so I hated A LOT of things.

Here is where I’d like to tell you that I pushed that hate deep down. Deep, deep down. And graciously smiled and hugged my dad for picking something out just for me. I did not do that. “What the hell is this?” may have been uttered. Also “A fish? You thought of me and bought… a stupid fish? Really?” I was not happy and after making sure this wasn’t a gag and my REAL gift wasn’t waiting for me outside, I left the little green box on the counter and stormed off to my room.

Such a brat. A complete, utter, ungrateful brat. To my mom’s credit, she was patient and understood why I was upset. Later that night, through the crack in their bedroom door, I heard her explaining to my dad that no 15 year old girl wants a fish made out of sea shells for her birthday. “They want CDs. They want pagers. They want Abercrombie shopping sprees. They really don’t want decorative fish.” And in true, unperturbed Garry form, he said quietly, “I thought it was nice.”

I did not forgive him easily. I did not take that dumb fish out of its box for weeks on principle. Eventually it made its way to my room, I’m sure my mom brought it there, and at some point I took it out. Inside was a little stand so it could be displayed and well, time is a funny thing, that ugly fish made it into that stand and was placed on a shelf in my room. I still hated it. It reminded me not only of being disappointed in my dad but of my own shitty behavior when I had received it… but there it stayed. Mostly forgotten, occasionally despised, for the rest of my years at home.

*         *        *      *

After he died I found myself in my old room. For the few months following the unexpected, I had abandoned my cozy loft apartment that still had my cats and my fiance, to give support to my mom in the wake of a loss that seemed as long and wide as all eternity. There, on my dresser was that dumb, ugly fish. And I picked it up, and ran my fingers over its cool, smooth surface, its sharp angled fins, and I cried. And I clung to it. I imagined my dad wandering off into the hotel’s gift shop. I saw him walking slowly along the shelves, scanning the various kitschy objects. Picking trinkets up, putting them down. I saw him pick up the ugly fish. I saw him smile at it. I felt him run his fingers along its surface. I heard him say, “I’ll take this one. For my daughter, she turns fifteen today!” And then they put that atrocious thing in that small green box and now here it was, 8 years later, a gift from my dad. A part of him here, waiting for me to love, and to appreciate the love it always had for me.

Ugly Fish {that’s its name… after all, a spade’s a spade} has spent every night since, these 10 long years of missing him, on my nightstand. It is a reminder to be gracious. A reminder that I was loved. A reminder of my dad. And I love him so much. And the dumb fish too.

Happy birthday, dad.

2.10.1

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One of the high points of the room swap was freeing up space in our room for my desk. My mom bought me this desk as a college graduation gift. It was a light in an otherwise pretty shitty time, considering my dad died the last week of classes, just two weeks before the graduation I would not attend due to the circumstances. We went out shopping for it together the following spring, when we had all found just a little bit of footing. I spotted it, covered in old, delicate looking doilies and china knickknacks in the back room of a cavernous antique shop in St Paul. It was {and remains} a turn of the century piece, beat to hell, covered in scratches and stains. I loved it immediately and absolutely, for no explicable reason other than it was solid and it had hope, and gave some of that hope to me. It was to be a place to gather thoughts, to form ideas, to write, to sit down at to use my degree. {Ha!} Or you know, house errant Barbie shoes and Lego heads. {Oh life, you are a funny thing.}

When I brought it home to our apartment on the second floor of a St. Paul Victorian, I placed it in my very own writing room. A room with a circular cutout alcove lined with windows, scratched wood floors and paned french doors. {This is where I ironically point out that when it was just Bill and I we had more bedrooms then we do now with three kids.} It was my office and I cannot tell you how much I loved that room. I’m sure I am romanticizing the shit out of that place but oh, it was so me and I felt more like myself in that room than I ever have before that time or since. For one year it was mine and then… well, it was time to be a grown-up, to build equity {so. much. ha.}, to raise our kids in the tree-lined suburbs, in homes free of giant shards of lead paint just hanging out in the corner of every windowsill. I knew we had to go but still, poor Bill had to drag my 5 months pregnant body kicking and screaming from that room in the city back to our hometown where we created the most wonderful little people on planet earth but man, this place has never been, nor ever will be mine. It has always been a place for my kids, a sacrifice for my family and it’s served its purpose and then some. But that room, with my desk, was home and when we move on from this place I’ll know I’ve found the right house when I feel that again, in whatever form it may take.

Due to our growing family, and shrinking usable space, the desk ended up in our open loft and Bill took it over to work at for his freelance projects for a number of years but then he got a work laptop and the desk has sat, mostly unused for months until last night. It may seem insignificant but this is the first time since shortly after having kids that I have my own space in a room with a door. A door that I can use to shut my {lovely! sweet!} loud-ass offspring out of my room with. Even though it’s nothing fancy. Even though I haven’t cleaned the last 10 years’ worth of junk out of the drawers yet. And even though I can still hear said offspring banging around on the other side, a measly four feet away, it just makes a difference, a big difference. Now I have a place to put my computer {which has been taking up a corner of the kitchen table for the last forever}, my camera {previously housed precariously on the top of a tall bookshelf in the living room}, a journal and whatever books I’m currently reading, which right now are Understanding Exposure, Click magazine, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban {with the kids before bed} and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It is a happy place, a hopeful place and mine. All mine.

11.17.1

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The resemblance is strong with these two…

And also, this guy…

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I say it a lot without thinking or even really meaning it,  “I wish that…”

But I don’t wish.  Not really anyway.

I do wish he was here though. With everything in me I wish he could have met Rowan, Keaton and Ezra. I’m sure he and Rowan would have charmed each other with made-up stories and their shared superior negotiating skills. I’m sure he and Keaton would have love-love-loved to tell silly jokes to each other and play catch out on the front hill and basketball in the drive-way. They would have been best buddies. And when he met Ezra I’m sure all anyone would have said to him was Look! He’s got your hair, Grandpa Garry! Because he does, Dad. He has the long, fluffy, blond Norwegian hair that could only have come from you and when I look at it, it makes me happy and sad, all mashed together at the same time.

The reality is, I’m not so sure about any of this. Before my dad died I didn’t want anything to do with starting a family for years. No, really. YEARS. Bill and I made a tentative five year plan, but it was more of a check-point than a ‘we’ll for sure have kids in five years’ sort of thing. The whole reason we had planned to get married that summer {by what is pretty young by today’s standards} was because we wanted to move out to California as soon as humanly possible, as that is home base to all the cool digital creative companies that Bill wanted to get in at and we were more than ready to strike out of Minnesota.

Then he died. And everything changed. I was only 23 and life stretched out before me endlessly up to that point, until all of a sudden… it didn’t. Fifty-nine years seemed horribly short, terrifyingly unfair. He was so close to watching me graduate college. But he missed it. He was so close to walking me down the aisle. But he missed it.

The old “Life is short” adage became painfully, heartbreakingly true and the importance of knowing your family replaced any need for the career driven, lazy weekend mornings, life of a newly married twenty-something I had envisioned. It certainly didn’t help that my mom was older by the time I came along so, yeah, it’s morbid but I wanted my kids to know her before she was gone too.

The time between my dad’s death and when I got pregnant was exactly one year. It was by far the worst year of my life. I came home from work. Drank. Smoked a thousand cigarettes. And cried. It was not pretty. Hot mess doesn’t even begin to describe it. The landscape of all of our lives, of our family, had completely changed. We lost him so suddenly that my emotions just could not catch up with the reality of life without him. It was then followed by nine months of puking and agonizing over a baby I was not at all prepared to have… only it turns out I was. And Rowan turned something back on in me that had gone off on December 6th, 2003 and it has only burned hotter and brighter each year since.

So I’d like to think all those wonderful things about my dad and my kids would be our reality if he were still with us, but the thing is… I don’t think they’d be here if he hadn’t gone. Do I think we would have eventually had kids? Sure. Do I think my dad would have loved those kids? Sure. But they wouldn’t be these kids. They wouldn’t be Rowan and Keaton and Ezra. We had a completely different life mapped out before us, one that involved us living several states away, so even if we would have had kids sooner it wouldn’t have been the same.

With the shape life has taken, with the path we did end up following, I still allow myself to imagine what it would be like if he was here to watch my family unfold. And it makes me happy. And it makes me sad. And there are those goddamn mixed up emotions again. But I expect it now because the truth of it is that his death was the catalyst to my life as I know it. And for that I am so sad, but so, so grateful.

Still though. I wish.

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Eight

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I’d like to say my love for the theater is inborn. And, who knows… maybe that’s true. But even so, I came to its exposure from a source I don’t often, or enjoy, talking about because the person who is most likely responsible for that love is someone for whom I have very complicated feelings for, and no, it’s not an old boyfriend who jilted me, that would be extremely preferable to the actual situation.

It was my paternal grandmother. And she was…ummm…let’s be delicate…not a good person.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in my life, and that I am still struggling to grasp, is that life is not black and white. People are not solely good or evil. Choices are complicated and messy and therefore the reflection of who we are becomes complicated and messy. Our intentions may be good, our truth may seem whole and wise, but paths twist and wind and things that were never meant to become who we are, are somehow part of us, tattooed onto us seemingly without asking permission. Add the personal filters of the countless individuals that interact with us on a daily basis and wow, the definition of who and what we are can be so vastly different from what we even think ourselves. And there it is, so is life.

But as a habitual idealist and a cynical realist, {I swear these qualities are in my very nature, but also helped along by my nurture} my not immediately labeling someone “bad” or “good” is a real challenge. I have to constantly remind myself that repetitive bad choices, while undesirable, don’t make a person entirely bad.  And those that I admire and put up on pedestals are not the saints or angels I have made them out to be in my mind. We all stumble. We all fall.  Some of us get our asses right back up again and others take longer. Writing these things down, they seem pretty elementary, cliché. Nevertheless. I still haven’t figured out yet that the guy who cut me off and then slammed on his brakes isn’t  the reincarnation of Hitler himself, out there just being an asshole for asshole’s sake.

All this to say, I recognize that my grandmother was not wholly evil but if we’re on the color scale between black and white, I think it’s safe to say that she altered between a murky grey to about as charcoal as you can get during varying periods of her life. In her defense she suffered from severe alcoholism at points and I’m not sure what {or if there was ever an official diagnosis} but there was definitely some form{s} of mental illness. She was enabled by many people who loved and/or tried to love her and this contributed to her reign of terror over her household and family. Needless to say, she made some terrible choices in her life and my dad did not grow up in a stable, loving home and for that I am sad. For him and for the trickle effect that had on my family as a whole.

My dad was strong though. And had a sense of humor surpassed only by his remarkable sense of responsibility to those he loved. And though I know he struggled with his upbringing he was a firm believer in the fact that no matter how bad it was, no matter how bad she was, at some point you have to stop blaming your parents and take responsibility for the life you were given. He was a remarkable man, a good father and do you see the pedestal I have him up on? Yeah, I know, I just told you, I’m a work in progress. Yes, he made many mistakes over the years but his true self, his character, the stuff he was made of…shines through all that.

The theater, which I seriously do love with my whole heart, was introduced to me by this woman I find myself so despising. For the greater majority of my life, my parents cut ties with my grandmother and even after a reconciliation of sorts was hammered out, my contact with her was so limited that I barely have any memories of her after I turned eleven years old, {and the ones I do have that fall after that aren’t of the fond variety}. But before that, in an ebbing and flowing period of relative calm, I had a great relationship with both her and my grandfather {who was a favorite of mine, but was also the chief enabler of so many of her bad choices, something an 8-year-old is blissfully unaware of}.

As for the flip side of a woman who could be so ugly, so horrendous? Was a woman who was extremely intelligent, quick-witted, charming and savvy. She loved culture and gourmet cooking and exploring different religions and philosophies. She was very into meditation and yoga, long, LONG before they came the official New Hipster Religion. She loved her grandchildren, though sometimes her judgment was so far off I have to wonder if she ever knew what loving unselfishly outside of herself, really was. It’s hard to say. I only knew one facet of her along with the things that I gleaned from the hushed tones of grown-ups in other rooms.

I think I’ve made it clear she wasn’t your typical grandma and that was true in the positive sense as well. She didn’t take us aside and give us crocheting or needlepoint lessons…she gave us meditation lessons. She took us to the Renaissance Festival and bought us bona-fide medieval veiled princess hats. We didn’t watch old cartoons at her house over a bowl of buttery, gooey popcorn, but instead ate air-popped corn seasoned only with sea salt while curled up to watch The God’s Must Be Crazy and The Bells of St. Mary’s countless times. At Christmas she would take Snoreface and I to a truly fancy, white linen, completely-unsuitable-for-children restaurant before visiting the elaborate holiday display complete with an audience with Santa himself at the huge downtown Minneapolis Dayton’s. I can shut my eyes and see us all seated at that restaurant, beside a warm, glowing fireplace, wondering where the hell the kids’ menu was yes, but still loving every minute.

And the plays, oh the plays. Season tickets to the Children’s Theater Company including performances of Cinderella, Bartholomew Cubbins, Streganona, and so many more. The kids’ plays were one thing but it was the yearly trip to the Guthrie at Christmas time to see their annual production of A Christmas Carol that was it for me, and then later when she took me to A Midsummer’s Night Dream there, well, it was all over. I was hooked. And while my own brief stint as a performer culminated in the role of the Nana in The Velveteen Rabbit at my school play in Fifth grade, I never lost the love and respect for the theater as I aged into a know-it-all teenager and again into the “asshole years” {a phrase my father coined for the ages of roughly 17 through 22 when your children believe they are invincible and also that they have life all figured out and those old folks {particularly of the parental variety) have nothing of value to add to their extreme awesomeness}.

I went on to see many shows at the Ordway, Orpheum, The Jungle Theater, Park Square Theater and Theater in the Round. I loved it all. From The Belle of Amherst, a modest one woman Emily Dickinson play, to the sullen Shakespearean works of Hamlet and Macbeth, to the enormous productions of Miss Saigon, Les Mis, Rent, Into the Woods and Wicked. The rush of emotion I feel as the theater lights dim and the stage lights shine up is the very same every single time. This is true love and it is beautiful.

The introduction and exposure of theater to my world was something so lovely, so wonderful, done by someone…not so lovely. Not so wonderful. Sometimes I think I should hate all that the woman stood for even though I know it’s such a stupid thought, throwing out the baby with the bathwater, etc. etc., but there it is. I see…she was not all bad. Somewhere in there I know this is true. There was good in her, a love for something that shined out of her and into me and that is something. I know there are those that must have loved her. Those that I know that have forgiven the things she had done to hurt so many in her life, but I, for better or worse, am not one of them. Not yet.

My father did forgive her. And I don’t count this against his judgment but as a testament to who he was.  Of all the things she’s done I think the hardest one for me to reconcile is that she, this grey, grey woman, lived to ninety-seven years, because although the rest of her body was a mess, her heart was ridiculously healthy and refused to quit beating, while my dad’s heart, so good, gave out after just 59 years. I guess when you don’t use it to love more than yourself, it has a lot more time to just tick away {yes I know that is patently untrue, immature and mean but sometimes I have to just let it out somewhere}.  I do pity her though, and recognize that my perception of forgiveness as a tool to enable those that are consistently dickheads has a few holes in it. I’m working on it, but for now, forgiveness might be a ways off and that’s okay.

This isn’t a story about forgiveness anyhow. It’s about reconciling that some of the good in my life came from her. And that doesn’t mean it has to be tainted by negative. It doesn’t mean I should feel guilt over loving something that she succeeded in cultivating in me. It doesn’t mean that I can’t take that love and pass it on to the next generation…

Because that's just what I plan to do.

 

PS~ At six, Rowan’s an old pro, having seen Cinderella and Annie already but this was Keaton’s very first play and we’re so happy at how great he did and how much he enjoyed it. Rowan loved “all of it”, “the mean, wicked witch” was Keaton’s favorite part, and I can honestly say my favorite part was watching them.

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For various reasons we ended up at home a lot this October, which gave us time to relax and appreciate this, the spookiest of months. And while I didn’t exactly appreciate the stomach flu that marooned us at home last weekend, causing us to miss a hayride outing and a big Halloween party with the kids, I did like the extra time we all sat together with the lights turned off and the candles lit, reading out loud Poe’s The Raven, The Tales of Beetle the Bard, and a handful of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Since I was thankfully not afflicted with The Sick, I took some time out to document what our house looks like for most of October {not pictured: The one thousandy and eleven tiny and not so tiny random orange and black toys that accumulate in every corner of every room in the house, at least 57 of which I step on/trip over every day causing me to expend my most favorite swear words after doing so.} {Usually some combination of shit, fuck and damn, if you want specifics. What’s that? You didn’t want specifics? Too bad, that goddamn shit fucking hurts.}


Happy Halloween!

P.S.~ Don’t forget the spooky stories…

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