Tribe

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The good stuff about being an only child:

–being the only one to lick the batter off the beaters

–not having to wear too many hand-me-downs

–growing up to have your parents become your best friends

I loved being an only child. Oh, there was a brief time when I urged my mom to adopt a playmate for me, but mostly I loved being the dreamy bookworm who had no problem talking with adults.

My parents moved away from our extended family when I was 8 so I learned to create my own Tribe. As I grew older, I started forming a family of choice: dear friends whom my own daughter would grow up to call “aunt” and “uncle.”

Still, my parents and I were a tight unit with our own memories and jokes, an exclusive triad. Even after marriage and the birth of my daughter, my parents were the curators of my childhood stories.

And then my mom died three years ago and my dad died last month.

And then came the bad stuff about being an only child:

–the knowledge that there is no sibling who can miss your parents in the same way you do

–the realization that no one can vouchsafe a memory that is starting to fade a little because no one else was there when the memory was made

–the understanding that mysterious papers or objects found in old safety deposit boxes will never be explained because you didn’t know about them and you didn’t know to ask

And that is when the Tribe steps in. They say you are stuck with the family you get, but my family by choice chooses to let me in, to fly across the country so that I have my Tribe with me at funerals, to call and to let me say ugly, hateful things or nothing at all, depending on where I am in the grieving process.

An aunt at my dad’s funeral – not one of my more tactful aunts – said, “Now you know what it feels like to be an orphan.”

Orphan as in without parents, yes. But orphan as in alone in the world?

The Tribe won’t let that happen.

Not Alone

 

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Summertime and Time

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: This first appeared as a blog in Skirt Magazine)

When I was a child, the first day of summer was a day of extraordinary luxury for me. My mom would take me to the library right after the last school bell and I could get out as many books as I wanted.

The deliberations could last all afternoon. What to get? Mysteries featuring Nancy Drew? Adventures featuring nurse Cherry Ames? Or the Judy Blume books with the angst of the teenager I hoped to become?

The best part was the official first day of summer. I was allowed to stay in bed as long as I wanted. No miser counted gold with more avidity than I paged through my library books, reading the synopses and the first pages to decide which book I’d start with. The slick plastic-covered books, the slightly musty smell, the stamped library card that became my de facto bookmark…library books were a sensory door to summer.

Eventually, the smell of bacon would tempt me from my lair. But after a quick breakfast, I’d slip on shorts and an old t-shirt, tucking my bare feet under the covers to keep them warm in the air-conditioned room, and immerse myself again in whatever faraway world the chosen book was creating.

I was allowed to bring the book to the lunch table on that first magical day of summer. And I would keep reading until I needed to flip on my bedside table lamp.

I owned time.

My dad died on the last day of June this year. It was not an anticipated death: he was healthy, and longevity ran in his family. Suddenly, there was no more time for the planned visit this fall, the Christmas together, the smoothing out of recent relationship bumps. Would my dad have lived differently if he had known he had so little time left? I doubt it. After my mom died three years ago, he became the most carpe diem of carpe diem dads. He had seen mortality and it made him a dessert-first kinda guy.

His death – and the scorching day it took place in New Orleans — made me think about summer. About the fact that true luxury isn’t a tottering stack of library books or a stuffed closet or even a burgeoning bank account. Luxury is the feeling that there is so much time that you can waste it, can consume it in great careless gulps without worrying about saving little sips for later.

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Happy Birthday, Daddy

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My dad died June 30, just 12 days before his birthday today. Please indulge me as I share what I wrote for his eulogy, my tribute to him:

To understand my dad, I have to talk a little bit about my mom.

They met when they were teenagers, had me at 20, and grew up together through 53 years of marriage. My dad became who he was because of who my mom was, and vice versa. They balanced each other.

Where my mom couldn’t tell a story without embellishment – she didn’t know how to make a long story short – my dad was a man of few words. Mom was War and Peace. Dad was, “he came, he saw, he conquered.”

My mom was the most charming, loving, effusive and warm person you’d want to meet. Only if you knew her really well did you know the flinty Sicilian core, the one who could cut you dead if you hurt someone she loved. Maybe that’s why my dad, so hard on the outside, was the one who was really the cockeyed romantic, the eternal optimist, the complete mush inside.

It was that soft inside that got so bruised and wounded when Mom died. And it was because of that, that he was so grateful to find Katie to end his loneliness, and to be his partner in the adventures of the new seize-the-day philosophy he adopted after Mom’s death.

Without Mom as a buffer, Dad and I clashed a lot. We fought because of how different we were, and we fought because we were so much the same. But still, dad remained the man against whom I measured all others.

He taught me to fish, to catch with a baseball glove, to change tires and to drive. And he taught me to dance, the great passion of his life. He shared his irreverent and often inappropriate humor. He taught me to do what’s right, even when it’s hard – maybe especially when it’s hard. By example, he taught me to be a leader. And he taught me to never settle for a man who doesn’t adore me.

As a father, he could be stern, but he could also be silly. When Mom decided he needed to curb his cursing because I was beginning to curse too, he came up with the memorable, “Fugaboo” and “Fingledash” that became family curses for years.

I remember one birthday when he and Mom took my best friend and me to a fancy restaurant. For dessert, we ordered the caramelized bananas. The waiters brought a couple of bowls of water.

“What’s that?” my friend asked.

“Those are finger bowls,” my dad said.

“But they have ice in them,” I protested.

“That’s how they do it here,” Dad said, quickly dipping the tips of his fingers in the bowl closest to him.

My dad could be very convincing. We were about to dip our own fingers into the cold water when the solemn waiters came with the platter of sizzling bananas, setting the caramel by dropping the bananas into the same bowls of ice water my dad had just had his fingers in.

My friend was equal parts horrified and amused, and she talks about it to this day.

And although he was the main disciplinarian in the family, I always knew about that soft heart.

My very first dog, Tramp, was a dog dad brought home after he saw some guys abusing the stray on the wharf, and Tramp was followed shortly by Scamp, another stray who won dad’s heart. He loved animals his whole life, and he told me that anyone who abused an animal deserved a painful death.

Nowhere was his soft heart more evident than in his love for his granddaughter. My dad was so young when he had me that he used to tell me he grew into being a father, and he grew slowly. But as a grandpa, he jumped right in to the mutual adoration that he and Emily shared to the end. There is nothing like seeing someone share perfect love with the child you love with all your heart.

When I was little, my dad and I had a game. I’d shout, “You killed my father!” and launch myself at him for a bout of wrestling. I’d watched some Western with him and got the idea that the thing that must be most avenged was the death of a father.

Now, my dad has taught me one more lesson. Now, I know that the death of a father is so much more. It’s the death of your hero and the death of your first-ever love.

I’ll miss you, Daddy, and I hope that wherever you are, you’re dancing and laughing.

Joe Mitternight