Homecoming

 

 

 

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Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Best of Times

I’ve read that we are better at remembering bad things.  Our minds etch them in place as a survival tactic.  One remembers a punch longer and more vividly than a caress:  fights can lead to death and damage; loving touches do not.

I’m prone to negativity.  Someone once asked me to choose which character from “Winnie the Pooh” I most resembled, and I picked Eeyore.  I assume the worst, am pleasantly surprised when something better comes along, and immediately worry about how long it will last.

But I’ve gotten a bit better over the years.  So today, as Tropical Storm Alberto lumbers through the Gulf of Mexico and dumps torrents of rain on my roof, I’ve decided to recall some of my better moments.  Most of them are brief glimpses of happiness.

  1.  Mom is hanging laundry on the clothesline in our back yard.  I’m very young, and she is tall, strong and beautiful.  A cool breeze blows across my forehead.  The roses in the garden are bright red and fragrant, and the sky is bluer than blue.  It’s spring.
  2. I’m about ten.  We’ve pulled up to the house in my Dad’s old Dodge, and now, as I walk up the sidewalk to the front door, I happen to look over at a patch of grass and mud.  Something about the pattern of green and brown brings up a thrill of joy.  I can’t figure out why I suddenly feel so happy, but don’t care.
  3. I’m on the mound pitching for our seventh grade team.  We’re up one run in the last inning, and I’ve given up a homerun to the last hitter.  I need one more out to win the game.  The huge batter at the plate looks clumsy as he takes his practice swings.  I throw three fastballs high and tight.  He can’t get his bat around quickly enough to hit them, and I strike him out.
  4. I ask my first girlfriend for a kiss, and she happily complies.
  5. My future wife, Judy, and I are driving in her little blue Subaru on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  We’re engaged and returning from a visit to her parents.  They had never met me before.  I’ve passed inspection, and all things “are go” for our wedding.  I look at the passing trees, the mountain ridges on either side, and I feel like we are starting a great adventure.
  6. Annie lies on a bed next to Judy.  I stand at the door and study them as they sleep, and then go out to the kitchen to wash baby bottles.  I’ve recently become a father and feel dazed but deeply content.
  7. My son, Alan, and I ride bikes home from school.  His second grade teacher has given him yet another miserable day, and he delivers a blow by blow account.  I try to change his mood, but he’s stuck in an angry loop. We keep squirt guns in the carport, and I get off my bike and start to fill one.  He grabs a second, and we chase around the front yard.
  8. Judy, Annie and I sit in a crowded tea shop in Edinburgh.  We’ve just hiked up Arthur’s Seat on a rainy, blustery day.  A woman with a thick brogue takes our orders.  We talk about our day’s adventures and our upcoming trip to the Highlands.  Our waitress brings us a pot of tea and a tray of cakes and pastries.  I look around at the Victorian bric-a brac on the walls and bite into a slice of lemon cake.   I’ve never tasted anything so good.
  9. Judy and I are outside on the back porch of the main house at Leu Gardens.  We’ve retreated from the noise of the wedding reception inside.  The DJ has decided to crank up the volume to levels my wife can’t tolerate, and we find a bit of peace and quiet as we stare out at the reflections on the lake.  Our boy’s just gotten married, and his sister will follow suit in a few months.  Judy and I marvel at how far the four of us have come.
  10. Judy and I watch an episode of “Doc Martin” before going to bed.  There’s church tomorrow, but nothing else has been planned.  Judy lays her arm next to mine, and we hold hands.

 

Annie Baby (V): Crows, Planes, Socks and a Bible Verse

annie baby backpack

When Annie was a few months old I began to carry her around in a back pack. I would take her outside for a walk in the neighborhood, a suburban plat of one story brick houses, or farther afield to the Penn State farm that abutted the houses on the northern most street of our development. We would walk through a small wood and come out into open spaces that were mostly corn fields. I would point out birds and rabbits and squirrels to her, and she wiggled when she got excited by something. Sometimes we found cows behind a fence in a side field tucked away in the corner of the wood, and I mooed at them to try to get them to come near.

One day we saw crows on the ground in front of us in a harvested corn field. I decided to sneak up on the birds, but a sentinel crow in the top of a pine tree fifty yards away cawed a warning every time we got near. Our target would fly off and settle twenty feet further on. We stalked several birds, but to no avail. I decided to walk toward the sentinel. I waved my arms and cawed at it, and it decided that the jig was up. The sentinel and the rest of the flock took off from their perches in a fluttering black wave climbing upward into the sky, wheeled in formation and flew far away.

The seasons changed to fall and winter, and sometimes we went out on walks even when it snowed as long as the temperature wasn’t too bitter or the wind too blustery. Sometimes Annie would tire out quickly and I would feel her head slump forward until it rested on the back of mine. Then I could feel her softly breathing on my neck. I would immediately head back home and carefully extricate her from the back pack while sitting on my bed. She usually stayed sound asleep, and I would lay her in her crib still wearing her pink, furry snow suit.

One day as we were passing through a park we encountered a woman walking her dog. The dog jumped, strain at its leash and barked at us. The middle aged lady shushed her German shepherd mix and apologized for the commotion, but added as she pulled it away from us, “He’s never seen a two headed person before.” I didn’t know what she meant at first, but eventually figured out that Annie had leaned forward and peeped when she first saw the dog. It must have looked like her head had erupted out of my shoulder.

I played games with her during the day when she was in a happy mood. I would lay her on my bed on her back, and circle around the room with my arms stretched out as I pretended to be an airplane. I would suddenly halt and stare down at her. I would make a few tentative dives toward her while making an engine sound (“rrrrrrrr”). She would start wiggling her arms and legs in anticipation, and then I would roar toward her at full throttle and make my attack run. I would pretend to dive at her, but swerved to one side at the last moment and landed on the bed beside her. She would bounce up and down for a second or two and look confused and excited.

I used the laundry to entertain her too. I would lay her down on the bed beside a basket of clean laundry. I would start out by dropping a sock down on top of her. She would bat it away with her feet while it was in mid air. Then two socks were dropped. She would dispose of them in the same way. Then I would bomb her with a clump of socks. Bat, bat, bat! Finally I would take the rest of the basket and dump half a load of whites down on top of her until she was partially covered. She would fight her way out by batting, swatting and thrashing, and would emerge with bright eyes and an eager look on her face.

annie baby crib

She always cried when she woke up from a nap, but would be happy and eager to see me once I showed up in her doorway. When she got strong enough to pull herself up, she would be standing at the bars of her crib when I came into the room. She began to make noises early on, and her first word was “Ma”. She would chirp, “Ma, ma, ma, ma,” at me when I greeted her. I would bend down and say to her in a mock-fierce voice, “I’m not your mother!” She would giggle and run away from me to the other side of the crib. Sometimes I would add, “Sharper, sharper than a serpent’s tooth is an ungrateful child!” while wiggling a crooked finger at her.

She found her first Bible lesson hilarious, and didn’t take the meaning of the verse seriously at all. I crossed “theologian” off my list of probable careers for Annie.

Annie Baby (IV): A Missed Chance For An Early Marriage

annie baby wedding reception

When Annie was six weeks old we took her on a car trip to Ohio. My brother was getting married and I was the best man, and everyone wanted to see the new baby. We put Annie in her car seat, and Judy sat in back with her while I drove. It was a nine hour trip, but stretched to twelve. We had to stop frequently to get out and give Annie a break. She tolerated the motion of the car well enough until we came to some highways in between Columbus and Dayton that were roughly patched. The car bounced around and Annies’ head bounced with it.

We got out at a state park off of I75, and I walked with Annie resting on my forearm. She stared up at the light breaking through the canopy of the maple trees, and was fascinated when a breeze made the leaves shimmer. I felt terrible when I took her back to the car and strapped her in again.

We stayed at my sister’s house. Carla was five months pregnant with her second boy. She watched with amusement as Judy and I carefully prepared bottles of formula for Annie by boiling the bottles to sterilize them, boiling the water we used to make the formula, and measuring out the powder with precision. Carla told me, “We put the bottles in the dish washer to clean them and just used hot water from the tap.”

Annie slept straight through the next two days. She saw nothing of the rehearsal, the wedding and the reception. She did stir from time to time long enough to drink a bottle with her eyes closed. I held her up among the women who were gathered around when the bride tossed the bouquet, but Annie remained unaware that her lack of alertness (as well as her complete inability to catch anything) made her miss her chance to ensure that she would be the next girl married.

When we got home I took her on a tour of our rooms and let her see and touch familiar things. Her eyes lit up in recognition of her surroundings, and she looked happy and relieved to be back home.

A few days later Judy took her outside in the back yard. Judy picked a peony from the garden, showed Annie the petals and let her sniff the scent. Annie looked up and gave her mother a melting look of love and adoration, and then she smiled for the first time.

annie baby peony flower

Annie Baby (III): Danger Baby!

The first two weeks were difficult. Annie woke up a couple of times during the night when she was hungry or needed a change. One night I heard her cry and got up to give her a bottle. When I changed her diaper in the crib she decided to gush while the diaper was still open. She wet her clothes and the sheets with urine. When I sat her up to remove her onesy, she threw up. I softly said, “Damn.” Judy, who I thought had fallen back to sleep, had been listening intently. She ran into the room, snatched Annie up and said, “Don’t you say that in front of my baby!” Judy was riding on a progesterone wave of hormone intoxication at the time, and she held Annie in a stance that conveyed the protective aggression of a she-bear defending her cub. My crocodile brain saluted her ferocity, while my Quaker frontal lobe searched for a way to appease her. My eventual response was to feebly say, “Hey, she doesn’t understand what that means.”

I spent many nights walking Annie up and down her bedroom, out into the hall, in circles around the living room and back again. If I put her down she cried. If I walked her she stopped. She stared at me the whole time with expressionless eyes, and as I gazed into their inky black depths I felt like I was in the middle of a job interview that was going badly. I got the distinct impression that she was evaluating my worthiness as a father, and that the preliminary results didn’t look too promising.

Things were better during the day. She took naps with Judy in our bed, and Judy told me that sleep with Annie beside her was so deep and restful that it was like taking a sweet trip to heaven. I figured out a better balance between giving Annie comfort and stimulating her brain. I would walk her around the house to show her paintings, the pattern on a chair, the rough texture of a lamp shade. Sometimes I would push my luck by swooping her up and down in my arms as I carried her around the house. I had decided, apparently, that my newborn needed to feel the sensation of flying. I imagined her as a comic book hero, as an infant who had the super power of stopping crime by crying so loudly and passionately that perpetrators would cease their activities and run away. I’d call out, “Danger Baby to the rescue!” as Annie flew from the living room to the kitchen in search of her next mission.

Every evening we put Annie into a baby swing in the kitchen when we sat at the table and had our supper. She would rock and we would eat. We heard her cough one night when she was three or four days old. We put down our forks and looked at her, and she seemed okay. We went back to our meal and conversation, and a few minutes later Annie coughed again. But this time it sounded forced and phony: aheh, aheh. We returned our attention to her and she seemed eager and happy. We heard another fake cough a few minutes later and Annie stared back at us expectantly when we gave her our full consideration. Judy and I were struck simultaneously by the same realization: our newborn had figured out how to play us. We were happy that she seemed very intelligent and aware, but were frightened by the future. What would she be making us do when she was six? Twelve? Sixteen? The possibilities were a little horrifying.

When she was a two weeks old I drew a black and white picture, a cartoon of a woman with a face like her mother’s, and put it in the crib beside her. She turned her head to look at it and batted it down with her feet. I put it back in place, and she knocked it down again. We were playing together for the first time, but there was a deeper significance to our game. I offered her Fine Art, and she kicked at it until it crumpled and fell. I was reassured that a German tradition, the one begun by the Visigoths when they sacked Rome, was being carried on by my little girl.