Posts Tagged ‘family’

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Dog Days

June 20, 2017

For those who are inexperienced in such matters, life with a dog is significantly different from life without one. I am particularly aware of this because I happen to have a foot in both worlds.

I do not own a dog myself, so the majority of my time is spent dogless. However, since both my brother-in-law and niece are dog owners who go away fairly often, I thus become de facto caretaker of an intensely loyal Schnauzer named Rocky and a cute but rambunctious Morkie named Max.

Rocky and Max

I love animals in general, but dogs have a special place in my heart. The unconditional love they share with the humans in their lives is unmatched (very often by humans themselves), and there is no price that can be put on the joy they bring us.

But, as with everything in life, there are pitfalls as well, ones about which the dogless are oblivious.

Dogs, for instance, do not know how to use a toilet. Such an incongruous idea never occurs to those who are not in the position of walking a dog in pouring rainstorms, freezing cold, or sweltering heat (one becomes hyper-sensitive to weather forecasts in such situations) or at inconvenient hours (such as 5:00 in the morning or after you have already gotten ready for bed). At least cats, for all their faults, know how to use a litter box. But I digress.

Dogs (many of them I hear, and certainly the two in my life) like to sleep with their humans. Now I am not so fussy as to object to a pup snuggled at the foot of my bed, but when he insists on cuddling up right next to me on my pillow, that’s where I draw the line. Dogs, unfortunately, don’t understand the lines that one draws.

Dogs like to bark, some more than others. Chloe, the pit bull that lives down the street, never barks. In stark contrast, Rocky and Max make a living barking. At the mailman. At the children passing on the way to or from school. At birds that fly by, at squirrels that prance teasingly on the branches outside the window knowing they are immune, at chipmunks that scurry by the front door, and at cats. Especially cats.

This is particularly problematic for us since we maintain a small group of feral cats who have lived in and about our yard for years (now all neutered). They are friendly and entertaining and keep down the rodent population in the garden. It is not difficult, in my opinion anyway, to live at peace with them.

Rocky and Max, on the other hand, have quite a different perspective. It is their mission to relentlessly pursue them (a near impossible task if you are at all familiar with cats) and, failing that, to bark their fool heads off whenever they see them (like when lounging in their favorite spot on our deck). I have taken to keeping large cardboard sections handy to strategically place in lines of sight by doors and windows to control the racket.

My brother-in-law employs shock collars to deal with this problem at his house, but I don’t have the heart to do that. I’ll just stick to the cardboard.

Dogs like to eat. They like to eat just about anything, above all whatever you happen to be eating. At the table during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. On the couch snacking during TV time. In the car after a stop at the drive-in or ice cream shop. Dogs also don’t quite get the impropriety of begging.

During this current period of dog days, it is only Max that is staying here. He is watching me right now as I write this from his customary perch on the back of the couch (he has a Snoopy complex in that regard). I had considered letting him look this over before posting it, but his editing skills don’t quite match his barking ability. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my minor criticisms, for he knows well my tender feelings toward him as does Rocky.

Though at times I look forward to being free of the inconveniences of their presence, each time they go, I end up missing them. And I think perhaps that is the most essential measure of the quality of life with a dog.

Whaddaya mean the cats are your friends???

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The Italian in Me

October 2, 2016

Though many are likely not aware of it, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. No doubt quite a few jokes have been made at the expense of this commemorative designation, but in spite of many widespread negative images and stereotypes of Italian Americans, there is much to be proud of.

Almost 6% of the population of our country, some 15.7 million people, are of Italian heritage. Though most of the original immigrants started their journey in the United States low on the totem pole, the successive generations have made their mark in virtually every area of endeavor. Best known, of course, are those who achieved prominence in music, film, and sports (and yes, unfortunately, crime), names familiar to all: Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, Joe DiMaggio, Al Capone. However, others, though perhaps not household names, have excelled in politics, jurisprudence, the sciences, and the arts.

But most have not achieved fame. They are policemen, firemen, mechanics, nurses, teachers, and office workers, the ordinary people in all walks of life, each bringing some degree of their Italian background to their American lives. I believe the American culture has been enriched by their contributions as well.

My Italian-American mom Ida.

My Italian American mom Ida.

I happen to be half Italian, that half coming from my mother. She was named Aida after the opera, though everyone knew her as Ida. Her family was 100% Italian. During my entire childhood, we would make weekly Sunday visits to the Brooklyn home of Sal and Mary Laporte, my grandparents, where I learned about my Italian heritage. Most of what I know about the food, language, and customs came from that small second-floor railroad apartment on Bay Ridge Avenue.

My mother had not only married a non-Italian, but someone from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake. I suppose these Sunday family visits were a necessary part of the deal for my father, not that he minded once he sat down at my grandma’s dinner table. That alone was worth the drive.

My grandpa would “reserve” a parking space right out in front of the building by placing his beat-up garbage cans in the street and then standing guard on his stoop so no interloper could sneak in. When we’d pull up, he’d greet us, cigar jutting out from his big smile showing his single front tooth. Grandma would be upstairs cooking, and as we were ushered up the steps, she’d come down the hall to deliver her smothering hugs with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand.

My cousin Bobby (taken in by my grandma as a boy after his mother died) would pop in from his daily duty of hanging around the neighborhood and sometimes pull me aside into his tiny room to show me some teenage treasure of his (a switch blade, a Cadillac hubcap he’d “found”) or tell some story of his latest adventures. A few years older than me and a whole lot more street smart, I learned most of the curse words I knew from these sessions. Soon my Uncle Mike and Aunt Josie who lived downstairs would come up with cousins Mike and Gerry.

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave.-- Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave. with a young Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

Of course the reason for the trip was to see family, but the main event was the food. As my grandmother, mother, and Aunt Josie finished up in the kitchen, we would all congregate in the dining room in eager anticipation.

The eating would begin around noon and continue on and off until coffee and desert time around seven. In between, plentiful courses were served in the warmth of the old-fashioned dining room, foods that resonated with the sound of Italy: braciole, prosciutto, provolone, pasta e fagioli, rigatoni. These courses would be separated by adult conversation and kids going off to play or nap to return again for the next round.

First came the antipasto, a table full of all kinds of delectable finger foods, cheeses and olives and crusty bread. Then the part I loved best, the pasta with steam rising off the huge platter along with extra gravy bowls full of red, rich, aromatic tomato sauce. My taste expectations for pasta were set here, seldom to be met elsewhere until I got married; my mother-in-law’s gravy turned out to be almost an exact match! Then there would be meat dishes accompanied by vegetables and followed by salad. Grandpa presided over the whole operation, wine bottle by his side. These meals were legendary, and we would all stuff ourselves to the point of near exploding amidst the loud and animated conversations liberally peppered with Italian curses swirling about the table and the unmistakable feel of family bonds.

As the day drew to a close, coats were retrieved and goodbyes were said, and we headed back through the dusk to my other world on the Jersey side. I would often nod off in the back seat, dreams fueled by the tastes of my forefathers. Those Sundays in Brooklyn captured that irreplaceable time in my life when the connections to family roots were so strong. I cherish the memories, and I am thankful that I can look back and see where I came from and recognize those parts of me that are indebted to Sal and Mary and pasta that was nothing short of paradise.

My adult life received a second infusion when I married an Italian American girl. My address book took on many additions to the LaPortes and Rizzos with Vendittis, Bertuccis, and Butricos joining the list. Her parents, Mary and Tony, provided continuity in the fueling of the Italian in me.

The Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much involved sitting around the table in the dining room at my in-laws. On Christmas Eve we held the traditional dinner of seven fishes. Then on Christmas day once again, the food — oh, the food! First the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

After Mary could no longer manage all the preparation, the tradition carried forth at our house for Christmas Eve and then at my brother-in-law Anthony’s for Christmas. Though the gathering may have grown smaller in number over the years, it has remained great in spirit.

Christmas Eve seven fishes, now at our house

Christmas Eve with the seven fishes, now at our house.

Since the influx of Italians into America, our society has been influenced by and in turn has influenced those who stem from that southern boot of Europe. This unique blend of Italian-American-ness has manifest itself in both positive and sometimes not so positive ways. I choose to celebrate the positive and revel in the warmth, passion, friendliness, and generosity so typical of this heritage which has become an integral part of the American fabric. So to all my connazionali out there, full-blooded or otherwise, I wish you buona salute, lunga vita, and felicita, and may we keep the best of ourselves flourishing.

 

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Pop

July 30, 2016
Pop (on the right) during his Army days

Pop (on the right) during his Army days

Unbeknownst to many, today happens to be Father-in-Law Day. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to do so can honor someone who, though not blood, is certainly an important part of family. So today I take the welcome opportunity to celebrate Pop.

Pop is Tony, my father-in-law, who is 95 years of age. I have known him since 1968 when I was the long-haired boyfriend on the motorcycle dating his daughter. I can only imagine what he thought of me then. However, over the ensuing years we have come to know each other well. He is kind and gentle, a salt-of-the-earth type of man in its best possible sense.

His has been a life filled with the struggles that made up the pursuit of the American dream by those of his generation. He followed the rules, worked hard, fulfilled his duties, and kept his faith and integrity intact while doing it. He lived through the Depression and was a soldier in World War II. He did masonry work, owned a small grocery store back in the 50’s, and worked as a butcher well into his 80’s. Until recently, he was maker of homemade sausage, walker of impetuous Schnauzers, and washer of dishes. He took loving care of Mary, his wife of sixty-plus years who suffered from Alzheimer’s, staying by her side in their home right to the end.

Simply put, Pop is one hell of guy.

He is living history with many stories to tell of by-gone years. One of Pop’s favorite things to talk about is his army days during World War II, a singularly important period in the life of so many like him. Some of his memories are quite vivid in spite of the time that has passed, and his stories offer insights into the individual experience of that period one doesn’t often get in history books.

First arriving at Camp Sibert in Alabama before shipping out, Pop got his initial shocking glimpse of Jim Crow in action. As the bus to town made its many stops, he didn’t understand why all the black folks headed for the back when there were seats available in the front. When he saw the sign posted above the driver, it finally dawned on him what was going on. Then he saw the restaurants that couldn’t be entered, the fountains that couldn’t be used, the bathrooms that were off-limits. When stationed overseas, he ran into Ace, one of his friends from high school. They spent time together chatting about home. Afterwards, Pop was confronted by some guys in his outfit, southerners who took exception to his association with someone of color. Their way of thinking baffles and astounds him to this day.

Pop remembers well his Atlantic crossing on the way to the war, his transport part of a large convoy. A problem much greater than the seasickness rampant on board occurred. His ship, the Washington, developed engine trouble and was left behind by the convoy. Pop said he stood on the deck with a sinking feeling watching the rest of the ships shrink and then disappear on the horizon. The only thing he could see in the vast, swaying ocean was a single small destroyer which circled them as protection from enemy submarines while the repairs were being made. After a seeming eternity, the Washington proceeded at full steam and rejoined the convoy, making an eventual landing in North Africa.

Pop describes his time in North Africa with awe, both for the exotic nature of the places — Casablanca, Tunis, Oran, Bizerte — as well as the surrealistic experiences which sound at times like vignettes from Catch 22. His outfit had been given the task of guarding the Italian prisoners who had surrendered (quite gladly, as he remembered). Since Tony was of Italian heritage, he became the translator. He told me of the practice of sending some of the Italian prisoners to the perimeter with unloaded rifles to “guard” the camp. When German bombers attempted to destroy the American ships in Lake Bizerte that had gathered in preparation for the upcoming assault on Sicily, the men watched the anti-aircraft fire bursting in the air as though they were watching fireworks.

Like so many of his era, raising a family and buying a home became the priority after the war ended. Most of Pop’s family were involved in the building trades, so they each helped the other out building houses in Middlesex County. A son and daughter grew up in the one he built, were educated, got married, and moved away. And it was in this small brick house that Pop and Mary lived until she died and he could no longer bear to live alone.

Things have changed considerably over the years. Pop now lives at our house every other week. New routines have been fashioned to shape his day. Sometimes he’ll take a book we’ve gotten him about World War II and sit on the deck and read a bit. He loves watching sports in their season, especially golf, the Yankees, and the football Giants. Fare like The Steve Harvey Show and The Price Is Right occupy his day, though his TV viewing is now interrupted by more frequent naps.

Gone are the family vacations, senior bus trips to Atlantic City, bowling, and playing golf. Newfangled gadgets like the TV remote or his cell phone sometimes confuse him. He frets about official-looking letters from banks or insurance companies and angrily talks back to recorded corporate calls on the telephone. Though walking has become more difficult, he still helps out as best he can, folding clothes and drying dishes. He misses Mary, he misses his house. But he soldiers on.

As I watch Pop deal with all the difficulties of his present existence, I feel fortunate to have the chance to observe someone attempting to overcome the unforeseen obstacles of aging with the grit and grace and heart that he has shown. He may not have been a famous general or scientist or athlete, but he is a special man none-the-less. He is Pop. I am proud to know him, and I consider myself lucky to have him as my father-in-law.

Pop

Pop, 95 and still ticking

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A World Without

October 5, 2015

There is the world, and then there are our worlds. The world is populated by billions of people. Our worlds are populated by a number vastly smaller, and a smaller number still who are essential to us, people it would be hard to imagine being without.

Now we are without Tony. And the feeling is numbing.

How could this possibly be?

Tony was an unforgettable teacher who I had the great privilege of working with for over two decades, a master director of plays and purveyor of literature for countless fortunate students. He was a valuable mentor who shared insights about this delicate art called teaching. He was a loving husband and father and grandfather.

And Tony was my friend. How could all of us who shared in his life be without him?

I think of all those stories told and retold over lunch at school, the always-ready wit that rang of truth, the common everyday conversations about work and family and life that replay in my mind with such clarity in spite of the time gone by. And I miss these now even more in this world without.

The world goes on as it always has done and always will. Even our own worlds go on, but never quite the same, for though these endings are an inevitable part of our existence that must be accepted, the pain and sorrow of our world without is hard to endure.

But endure we will, and through our fond remembrances we honor him. All of those whose lives have been made better for having known Tony — and that number is great indeed — now feel such intense loss. However, though we are left in a world without, our memories of Tony are his lasting gifts to each of us whose life he touched, and for that we should remain forever grateful.

Tony

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Sidekick

December 31, 2014
a moment of innocence at Nana and Grandaddy's

a moment of innocence at Nana and Grandaddy’s

I had the good fortune of growing up with a big sister. Well, good fortune most of the time. Being older than I by two years, she did sometimes take advantage of her lofty position to manipulate her little brother. But on the whole, what I remember most about life with Laraine are the many adventures I had as a sidekick to my big sister.

Some of the most notable of these occurred at our grandparent’s. The weekly visits we made to that big old house in Tenafly took place with clockwork regularity throughout our childhood. My Nana, as we called her, would be taken food shopping at the local Grand Union by my mother and father while my Grandaddy would sip wine in his rocking chair on the porch to keep a supposedly watchful eye on us.

This arrangement allowed the two of us — at the direction of my sister, of course — to have a wide range of activities at our disposal from playing in the stream down the road to poking around in the rhododendron bushes which were big enough to pretend were forts to making improvements to our bottle cap tree.

Now it was a surprise to me when I later learned that every kid didn’t have a bottle cap tree. What exactly is a bottle cap tree, you ask? Well, in our case it was a giant old oak tree at the end of the gravel driveway by the root-heaved sidewalk on Columbus Avenue. How it started I don’t recall, but it was a very big deal through all those years. Laraine had one side and I had the other, and we would take all the soda bottle caps we collected at home, were donated by kind relatives, or found on the street and would nail them in rows to the trunk. I’m sure it couldn’t have been that healthy for the tree, but it was so old and its bark was so thick that I don’t think it had any effect. We had scores and scores of them, and as the years passed, the rows would rise as the tree grew and the earliest would eventually be swallowed up by the bark. There were Nehi, A&W, Canada Dry, White Rock, Hoffman, Dad’s, and virtually every other brand available in row after colorful row in various stages of rusty decomposition. My grandparents probably were not crazy about the public defacing of their tree, but it kept us out of trouble, so I think that was the overriding factor.

However, it was getting into trouble that became our most memorable activity during those weekly trips. On one occasion we (meaning of course my sister, the perpetual ringleader) got the idea of replacing grandaddy’s glass of wine with a concoction that we made up from ingredients found in the kitchen. Grandaddy was from England, and he drank a somewhat syrupy dark wine, most likely port or sherry of some kind. He had asked us by about the fourth glass to refill it for him, and that’s when the plan was hatched. The refrigerator had an array of condiments: catsup, Worcestershire sauce, beet juice, salad dressing. We busied ourselves like two chemists, trying to match the color and consistency to the wine as best we could without taking a suspiciously long time. We ended up with a vile brew that was in the general vicinity of deep red, so we returned to the porch with the glass and scuttled away, barely able to contain our giggles.

We hadn’t thought beforehand about any adverse reactions our grandfather might have, like being poisoned or gagging on the horrible fluid. But nothing happened. We strained our ears and peeked as best we could, but there was no reaction at all. In retrospect, he could have very easily smelled that it wasn’t his usual but probably figured discretion was the greater part of valor since he wouldn’t have had that extra glass had nana been there to monitor him. Wisely not willing to tempt fate, this shenanigan was never repeated.

Playing with matches was one of the distinct no-no’s for young kids, which of course, along with the natural attraction to fire, made it all the more tempting. Somehow Laraine was able to procure a book of matches, not too difficult considering both my grandfather (cigars) and father (Pall Malls) smoked. After anxiously awaiting the shoppers’ departure and grandaddy’s settling in, we snuck off to the garage. This ancient structure was more like a small barn with a very high-peaked roof covered inside with immense cobwebs spanning the inside beams. There was all manner of old-fashioned gardening implements and boxes and barrels inside. We generally were not allowed in there, but it was perfectly secretive for this latest mission.

After a few furtive test lightings, we spotted a bale of peat moss in a hemp-like sack. The strands of hemp sticking loosely out at the top looked so much like the fuses on those round black cartoon bombs that we couldn’t resist. We lit a strand. Before we knew it, the flame spread rapidly to the rest of the hemp and then the peat moss itself until we had a major conflagration on our hands. Panic escalated as the flames shot upward, igniting the webs and threatening the structure itself. Beating the blaze with brooms contained the fire enough so that we could drag the bale out the door to the neighboring florist’s field next door, now fallow, luckily for us. The smoldering peat finally submitted to our pounding, and when the last wisps of smoke dispersed and the charred remains were safely buried, we surveyed the damage.

Other than the gaping holes in the webs and the lingering smell of smoke, there wasn’t much evidence of a fire after sweeping and dispersing the ashes, but the problem was one of the now-missing peat moss. Could such a large item be overlooked? We had no way of knowing, nor was it within our control, so we headed back into the house to lick our wounds. Up in the bathroom, after washing up and calming down, my sister sat me down on the edge of the bathtub. As I stared blankly at the chick on the can of Bon Ami cleanser next to me, she made us both swear an oath to never, ever touch a match again for the rest of our natural lives. I don’t think we did, either. Again, somehow, much like the wine incident, nothing ever came of it.

That was most definitely not the case with our biggest escapade, however. The funny thing is, this one was the most innocent of the bunch.

There was a very odd candy store around the corner and a few blocks down to which we would sometimes walk. It was strange because it was really just some lady’s house, and in her living room there was a glass counter with candy that she sold. One afternoon after going there, Laraine got the idea to walk farther down the street. Upon arriving at an intersection, it excited her to realize that this was one of the ways our father would sometimes drive to Tenafly. The spirit of exploration swept over us, and we continued walking.

After quite some time, we realized that we had gone very far from Nana’s house. Another bright idea: since we knew where we were going, why not walk all the way home to Bergenfield! Won’t Mom and Dad be surprised!

Oh, boy, were they. Except surprised is really not quite the right word. Perhaps irate? Incensed? Livid? It was getting dark by the time Laraine and I walked the last leg of our journey down New Bridge Road to our house. Only one problem. We had no key. These were the days before the ubiquitous cell phone, so what do we do now? A knock on the neighbor’s door, a phone call, and a nervous interim while awaiting our doom.

Other than the thunderous waves of parental tirade we endured that evening, I don’t remember specifically what our punishment was. I believe I played up the innocent-little-brother angle to save myself. I was confident that Laraine, experienced as she was at this business, had the wiles to make her own escape.

This incident signaled the end of our adventures at Nana and Grandaddy’s house, though our long walk home would eventually take its rightful place in the family annals of infamy, the crown jewel of all our childhood capers. As we grew older and teen-aged interests overtook us, our paths diverged. But our tales of those days when we were inseparable have lived on, told and retold at many a family gathering, and the richness of our shared adventures are a gift to each other as we age, a fond remembrance of those long-gone days of our childhood together.

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The Great Lawn War

October 25, 2014
eggplant george

George tending to his kingdom

My father came, they say, from a long line of gardeners reputedly once in the service of French royalty but later exiled to England for some unnamed transgression. Their craft was perpetuated through the generations that followed and then continued in America when a single branch of the Daborn clan ventured across the Atlantic to New Jersey. There James Daborn became a gardener to the rich folk in northern Bergen County. His second son, George, was my father. He saw to it that the tradition was upheld, for no king had grounds more tenderly cared for than that of our little brick house on New Bridge Road.

The lawn there was the site of my first explorations of the world, cautiously challenging the borders of my blanket to venture forth on the green expanse before me. It was the field of glory during many a summer’s day of make-believe and the hunting ground of lightning bugs in the sultry star-filled New Jersey nights. Most of all it was my father’s refuge, the place where he would retreat from all the hardships of his life, spending hours edging with the precision of a sculptor, stooping over the enemy weeds and prying them loose with an old screwdriver, standing with the hose patiently watering every last corner in the fading evening light. The sound of the mower and the smell of fresh-cut grass were a constant backdrop during my life at this house. Somewhere in the blur of those years gone by, the War began.

Next door to us lived the Talleksons. Astrid, a hearty Norwegian outdoorswoman, was the matriarch and absolute ruler of her domain. Her husband Teddy, a short white-haired man with emphysema, seemed to be relegated to watching over their frenetic dog, Trooltz. Since my father was half Swedish and therefore a fellow Scandanavian, one would have thought this to be an ideal situation, but that turned out to be far from the case.

Our property ended a good four feet before the edge of the Tallekson’s driveway, but the lawn extended beyond that imaginary line to their driveway cement, a natural border if ever there was one. This section of grass was logically an extension of our own lot, but it actually belonged to the Talleksons. Who, then, was to mow this strip of lawn? ”It’s just an extra couple of feet! Why not just mow it?” That was my mother’s sentiment (although she was not the one to mow the lawn).

Indeed my father had for years given that strip the same devoted nurturing that he had to the rest of our lawn. But for some reason, perhaps the result of an escalation in the already existing though undefined (at least to me) tension with the Talleksons because of some unneighborly incident (Trooltz had bitten my sister, after all), my father decided that he would no longer be responsible for what was, after all, not his to begin with. So when my father would mow, he would end at the official property line rather than the Tallekson’s driveway, leaving the final few feet uncut. It was as if there were a miniature green cliff marking the beginning of the Tallekson’s land, thus causing the imaginary line to become a real one, and the War was on.

Astrid Tallekson apparently decided upon the tactic of just letting the strip go, no doubt figuring that my father’s innermost gardener’s ethic would not allow any lawn, especially a piece so intimately connected with his own, to go untended. But he resisted, and the strip grew wildly. The grass cliff rose; the battle line had been unequivocally drawn.

Soon, either through the complaints of other neighbors, the intervention of the town fathers, or Astrid’s own considerable horticultural conscience, she did cut the contested space, but never in synch with my father’s mowing. Thus the dividing grass cliff continuously reversed, and the battle line remained.

Time did not wilt the resolve of my father. It did, however, take from him his strength. The beloved reel mower was replaced by a power one, the frequency of mowings grew less and less, and when the stroke stole from him the ability to care for his once impeccable kingdom, it was time for me to take over.

The intrusion of life’s daily obligations shaped the time I could spend driving up the Turnpike to my father’s house, but I went when I could. He would watch as I mowed, always in the precise methodical way that he approved of. The first time I got to the disputed border, I too left the small green cliff. I don’t know if he thought I would have, not knowing if it was something of significance to me. My father could no longer speak, but he did not have to. I saw in his eyes a mixture of pride and happiness. He knew that his War would be carried on.

It was. After my father could no longer leave the house, he saw it, smiling as he stood with his walker by the front door. And after he was gone, his line of demarkation stood.

It’s been years since my father died. I no longer mowed his lawn; a local outfit took care of that. Young guys — they did a nice job, my mother said. I hadn’t really bothered checking, but they probably mowed right up to the Tallekson’s driveway. Not that it mattered. She had since departed this life as well. But I do remember the last time I did mow my father’s lawn.

It was not out of obligation that I did this task (certainly not always the case), but rather with a sense of reverence, a final communion with my father. As I crossed back and forth, mowing the straight rows and then recrossing them in the manner that pleased him, I thought back to the time when this was no more that a bothersome chore. The lawn had never been in my charge when I was young, only occasionally pitching in as forced labor, usually manning the hated rake. Still, the family secrets of good lawn care were taught to me (use a reel mower, border cut first, lift and spin to catch the edges, always crosscut). I did pinch hit from time to time, though reluctantly. My father’s penchant for manicured lawns was not shared by me. There was a world out there waiting to be explored — no contest for mere grass.

But I was now grown, and that growth had brought change, slow and torturous, I’m afraid, for my father, who I think never really understood the resentment and rebellion that filled his son through so many years. I had now come full circle, longing to be and do what I once rejected, and I found myself with the lawn once again.

As I maneuvered down the Border creating the grass precipice for the last time, I felt my tears falling, falling on my father’s lawn, mixing with the clippings and the lawn moths that flitted up and settled back with my passing just as they had always done when as a child I watched my father mow. I hoped that somehow he knew that it would end this way. I hoped he knew his son would carry forth out of love and oversee his wish, the one wish that I knew of and that we had shared at his life’s end, and it was as though all his unfulfilled dreams and unconquered hardships were within my power to make right on this day. It seemed a fitting tribute, one worthy in its own small way to mark the last battle of the Great Lawn War.

When I was done, I stood on the front sidewalk and looked at the lawn, the soft evening sun glinting its approval.

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Christmas With Mary

December 22, 2013

The celebration of Christmas in my life is divided into two distinct periods. The first is the Christmas of my childhood with my mother, father, and sister. These were the Christmases of leaving Santa Claus milk and cookies by the lolly pole and quarrels over decorating the tree and the stockings hung by the fake fireplace my father had built and the wild pleasure of new toys. These Christmases, now preserved in fading photos, ended when my sister and I became preoccupied teens with interests beyond our own home.

Christmas in the rumpus room

our rumpus room Christmas

The second is the Christmas at Mary’s house. Mary, my wonderful mother-in-law, the matriarch of the family and the impresario of the all-day Christmas dinner. These were the Christmases of all the Uncles stopping by after church for a glass of Jezynowka Blackberry Flavored Brandy or a shot of something stronger, my mom and dad arriving later to join in celebration with the loving and boisterous family I had married into. The Christmases of my niece Emma, the little princess and star of the show in her festive velvet Laura Ashley dress opening presents on the living room floor and mugging for the ever-present camera, a few years later joined by her brother Luke, always with a frisky Schnauzer — first Teddy and later Rocky — scurrying around amidst the mountains of wrapping paper. The Christmases of Uncle Sammy sitting at the end of the table telling his colorful stories that prompted the birth of the “paratrooper alert” by Paula to signal the need to edit a bit for her children’s sake.

The joy of Christmas at grandma Mary's

The joy of Christmas at grandma Mary’s

These are the Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much and remember so well, sitting around that oval table in the dining room surrounded by family photos and Mary’s Hummel collection, hearing the bustle of cooking coming from the small kitchen with Mary emphatically directing the operation. And the food — oh, the food! First the antipasto, the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive steaming platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

Some of us would retreat to the breezeway between courses to digest and watch a few segments of A Christmas Story. Uncle Sammy would plop himself into the well-cushioned arm-chair and soon nod off as Emma, Luke, and I laughed at Ralphy’s dilemmas even though we’d seen them countless times before. We’d be called back to the table as the ham and sweet potato and vegetables and salad made their appearance, belts loosened to accommodate the abundance. The glorious day of stuffing ourselves came to a conclusion with coffee, pignoli cookies, and Mary’s homemade cheesecake. It would take until New Years to fully recover.

Over the years, these Christmases suffered losses, first my father, then my mom, and then Uncle Sammy, but the tradition carried on. The past few years, because of Mary’s failing health, the job of preparation and cooking had to be taken over by my father-in-law Tony and Bernadette and Paula, but they performed admirably, and Mary sat there in her customary spot, agreeing with a smile that they had indeed done a good job on the lasagna, although never quite as good as hers. Last year we moved Christmas to Paula’s house for the sake of logistics, but Mary still enjoyed the evening surrounded by good food and loving family.

2010, our last Christmas with Mary.

2012, our last Christmas with Mary.

This will be the first Christmas without Mary. We will convene again at Paula’s, and I’m sure the stories of our Christmases past will be told with much laughter as well as a few tears. It will not be the same, though, Mary’s familiar spot now empty, her smiling approval of the stuffed mushrooms and lasagna missing. But the gift of all of Mary’s Christmases shall remain with us, kept alive in memory and story alike, and each year as the family gathers once again, Mary’s presence will be felt, and her indomitable spirit will live on as we celebrate Christmas together.