The 4th of July

This is part 2 of a series. It can stand on it’s own or you can honor me by checking out yesterday’s post

Railroad Ave

My home town was incorporated in 1853 but the area was first settled in 1651. The building that is now the Town Hall has an enormous carved granite plaque on its walls dedicated to its founding fathers. My family is represented by 4 brave men, 3 of which died in the Civil War. Equally represented on the wall are the Smith’s (not their real names).

My family was always a presence in town, the Smith’s spread out all over Metropolitan Boston as aggressively as they proliferated in town. It was only inevitable that the two families would one day merge.

In the late 1940’s my Grandparents on my father’s side, along with a few cousins all moved to an uninhabited stretch of land along the abandoned Railroad tracks behind the Fire Station. It was an undesirable lot of land in many ways. On either side of the tracks was wetland that was prone to flooding every Spring. The ground was soft and needed to be fortified to build on. The insects were abominable in the summer. The Fire whistle on the nearby station was devastatingly loud. But the prospect of one family owning a whole street was attractive. Despite the family legacy of my family in town, we weren’t a family of wealth or influence. We were poor. 4 modest dwellings soon went up as 3 cousins I barely knew, and my Grandparents set up residence.

Railroad Avenue was born.

By the time I was born in 1965 my Grandparents had long since moved to the other side of town. Grandpa was forced into early retirement, sick with Emphysema from a lifetime of smoking cigarettes. He wasn’t able to afford the maintenance of a house. Ellie, my father’s youngest sister moved with them and assumed the role of caretaker. Her other sister Margie took over the house with her new husband, my uncle John and would have 6 children. My father had moved out when he joined the Army in 1960.

My parents purchased a home barely 2 miles from Railroad Ave in 1964. Dad was an Oil Burner repair man/Oil delivery driver for a fuel company that coincidentally marked the entrance to Railroad Ave. He would work there until it closed in 1970. Until that point, my earliest memories consisted of my mom and I meeting him after work and walking down Railroad Ave where we would hang out with my cousins. It was a happy time for me, my earliest memories are of playing with my youngest cousin Mike, who was my age. Learning to ride a bike on the puddle-ridden dirt road of Railroad Ave remains one of my happiest moments. The many cheers of the large group of beloved family members still echo in my head. This would be indicative of most warm summer days of my childhood. Until July 4th, 1974 when it all came crashing down.

July 4th was a standing holiday on Railroad Ave. Despite being avid campers in the summer we were always there. Family and friends showed up with coolers of beer, armloads of food and enough fireworks to level the town. For nine-year old me, it was the best day of the year. We ran around like heathens, played wiffleball and watched the legendary horseshoe tournament that almost always came down to my dad and one of my older cousins.

On this particular 4th of July the horseshoe tournament was interrupted by my uncle John, who came tearing out of the house yelling for my father. When he located him, he pushed my dad and began screaming about how my dad “stole it.” When pressed for details and a rational explanation he continued to attempt to fight my father, who fended him off admirably. A shouting match ensued, sides were taken and the day was inexplicably ruined for all. Once it was determined that my drunk Uncle was not to be calmed down by anyone, I was grabbed by the arm and we quickly left. I had absolutely no idea what had happened but what I did know was that it wasn’t good.

I certainly didn’t know that it would be the most formative moment of my childhood.

Old Wounds

I sat with head bowed, choking back tears in the front row of the funeral home. My children were to my left, my wife on my right. She clutched my hand. As if the day wasn’t surreal enough, it was the first time she had even touched me in years. We listened intently as the minister patiently read the obituary to my father. I’m not sure why I was so moved by the words as he spoke…I wrote it. To everyone else in the room, including them, the words were fresh. I’d like to think the eulogy was good, the amount of tears falling gave me a good indication. One word I purposely and aggressively peppered into my dedication to my beloved father was honest. It had double significance on that day. It served as a theme and also as a great big message to them. It was my intention while writing it that my overuse of the word “honest” made them squirm in their goddamn seats.

Later, as I stood graveside in the cold rain of the early December day, people approached me one by one and wished me well in their own way. All had an account of Dad and told me brief anecdotes of the times he had made an impression on them. The crowd thinned as everyone went back to their lives, many of the cousins held back. One by one they approached me and said something encouraging about Dad. I barely spoke to them. I stared straight ahead and nodded solemnly.

The only thought echoing through my brain was still waiting for that apology.
I was being harsh, I knew it. I didn’t hate them. I didn’t even dislike them. They were family. And it was a long time ago. I was simply feeling the full and mighty wrath of decades of resentment bubbling to the surface over an incredibly formative moment in my childhood.  

How do I just let go of something that almost ruined my childhood and scarred my father, the most honest man I ever met, for life?



Inconspicuous absence

There will be a funeral for my Aunt tomorrow. A “social distancing” funeral where no more than 10 people at a time are allowed graveside, including clergy. All others are to remain in their cars. It’s a 2 hour drive for me.

I will be inconspicuously absent.

I have an excuse, I have dialysis. As far as the attendees are concerned I made every effort to change my appointment but couldn’t make it happen. Call it my little secret, but I didn’t even try. Why do I care? Most of the people in attendance don’t want to see me. And I couldn’t give less of a shit if I had to.

Riverside Cemetery is in my hometown. An enormous, sprawling landscape of rolling hills and old, massive oak trees providing abundant shade for the eternally resting, Riverside is full of stones with familiar names. The amount of stones with my last name is staggering.

Ellie bought a plot near my grandparents on my father’s side. It’s that section of Riverside cemetery that I don’t want to visit. A place of meditation and introspection for most of my family, to me section C is representative of a house divided. Many of the stones are dedicated to good, honest people with a solid legacy in town. Many others turn my stomach.

Tomorrow, Ellie will be laid to rest next to her abusive brother in law who raped her nieces and beat the nephews. Only when he wasn’t shitfaced and beating her sister. On the other side of her will be the brother that died in prison, a career criminal known in town as a pedophile with three known child rapes and voluntary manslaughter under his belt. I could go on but I won’t.

There is no way that I can tell this story in this blog. I may tell it later. The only thing I can say in order for this to make sense is that many of the people buried in Section C of Riverdale in my lifetime, and many attendees tomorrow, colossally disrespected the most honest man I have ever met. My father.

I thank God every time I visit that he is buried in a different section.

Tomorrow’s attendees may have no problem at all with the shameful past of Section C. I do and always will.

If this story is something that you want to hear more of, drop a note in the comments section.

Ellie

We weren’t close. I’m sad to admit it. But she’s family.

My father has 2 sisters, Margie and Ellie. Margie had 6 kids and survived an abusive sonofabitch of a husband. He died and she met a man who would make up for all of the abuse and more. Sonny. He did everything right by her until he died ten years ago. Margie recently became unable to care for herself and she was forced to move to a nursing home.

Ellie was a far less accomplished woman. To be honest, she led a unaccomplished life. Born with Epilepsy she, by all accounts, used her illness as a crutch. She barely graduated from High School. She never worked a day in her life. She lived with my Grandfather and cared for him (he was sick with Emphysema from my earliest memory) until his death in 1983.

I worked at the local Supermarket through High School. Ellie and my grandfather lived on “the Pond”, a section of town named after an actual Pond, Martin’s Pond, a huge area of town notorious for lower income but hearty families. Many of my friends lived there, “Ponderonians” as it were. My kind of people. The entrance to “the Pond” was a street off of the main road that started as a long and steep hill. Ellie and Gramps lived on the very bottom where it flattened out. Gramps had a view of the water on one end of the house and the street on the other. Confined to an oxygen tank, he inexplicably chose the street view and sat in the window year round. He was notorious for his omnipresent face in the window. Ellie’s notoriety was to be seen slowly plugging up the hill with her obvious (and unexplained) limp as she pulled her makeshift shopping cart with her. She spoke and dressed poorly. She was the focus of a good bit of mockery among my Supermarket colleagues. Kids can be cruel and it wasn’t until they learned that she was my Aunt that they let up a bit, in my presence at least.I’d like to think that I wasn’t ashamed of her but I think I was. In the back of my head, however, I always reminded myself that she was family and you never turn your back on family.

It was easy to underestimate Ellie. She was an unremarkable person. My father didn’t care for her, his own sister. He had no respect for her. He thought that she could have done so much more and he believed that she hid behind her illness. According to my cousin Mike, who I am the closest to, her Epilepsy wasn’t a constant nuisance to her, her episodes were few and far between and there was no reason she couldn’t have worked, or volunteered or done something other than sit and watch soap opera’s.

I lost touch with her for a lot of years. We reconnected a little last year at the Nursing home. She ended up in the same facility as Margie. Margie is lucid and strong, Ellie has dementia. Catching up was not to be with her, she was on a loop in which she asked me the same questions every ten minutes. She was cheerful at least.

My relationship with Ellie wasn’t complex. But it has been a secret source of shame for me for many years. I could have been nicer to her, I could have kept touch with her. She was always nice to me.

It’s too late now. She and Margie contracted the CoronaVirus last week along with 59 other patients in the home. Margie is hanging on.

Ellie died yesterday.

Patience

I’ve never been described as patient. Now, its all I can be.

I want to get out and enjoy Spring. It’s my favorite season. I can go outside finally. But I can’t go anywhere where there are people. This virus is really fucking up my Spring. And maybe my summer and fall. But there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.
Patience.

I’m officially on the transplant list. The typical wait time is 3-6 years. I have been on dialysis for 20 months. I get credit for those. Still, I have 1-4 years unless I get a donor. Transplants are postponed, like everything else in the world until further notice.
Patience.

I met a woman. She’s the total package. Attractive, smart, funny, and fun. We got off to a rough start but I was lucky enough to get a second chance at a first impression. She had me firmly entrenched in the “friend zone” until I clawed my way out.
She’s great. But she is hesitant to put a toe in the cold water. I guess I’m the cold water in this scenario. It’s not me, it’s every guy she’s gone out with before me. I can’t say if they are good or bad but I don’t think they did right by her. She needs that and I wonder if she knows what it is like to be treated nice. I’ll show her if she lets me. It will take work. And time. I think we’re going to be great when the walls come down. Until then…

Patience

under the radar

Yesterday I watched President Trump take a moment to share the podium with America’s Truck Drivers. He put some guys front and center and thanked them for their contribution in this time of National crisis. It was a nice moment, one of many across the country honoring the professions that are on the front line at great personal expense as a unseen enemy ravages our Country. Our President knows that America needs heroes, it sells and makes people feel good.

My Dad would have appreciated it. To a degree.

My Dad drove a truck for 35 years. He was unequivocally the hardest working man I have ever met. I say that without bias. His work ethic was unparalleled. If he was to watch yesterday’s press conference he would have watched with interest for a while, smiled and then turned it off. It wouldn’t have been news to him, he always knew that America moved by truck and that just the slightest disruption in the supply chain would expose just how necessary his profession was. He didn’t consider himself a hero or essential. He just liked being needed.

He didn’t pick his industry by accident. He was a talented guy despite only a High School education. He was skilled at carpentry, electrical and plumbing. He renovated/rebuilt our house as we lived in it. But he chose driving a truck because it was one industry that would never be affected by the economy. I will say it again, America moves by truck. Everything would shut down if not for daily deliveries by trucks. I’ve always known this, many are just now learning.

As we honor the nurses, the grocers, the truck drivers, the mail carriers and other essential workers keep it in the back of your mind that it’s a day late and a dollar short. These are the people that have always kept us in the basics of life. They enable us to eat, to maintain communication, to stay or get healthy, to just function. We don’t urge our kids into these jobs because they don’t make what bankers and stockbrokers do. We want our kids to wear suits.

Sure, the world needs stockbrokers and bankers and other people in suits. But somehow in the push to make everyone go to college we forgot that our great Country was built by men in overalls with calloused hands and nearly destroyed several times over by men in suits.

Sure, celebrate the working man today as if it’s a new thing. But the grocery clerks, Nurses, Mail carriers and truck drivers and every other essential worker have always, and will continue to be the one who are making our lives as we know it possible.

When this is over, please remember to respect the Blue Collar. They are our real heroes. My dad would politely thank you. And then he would go back to work.

the middle of the road

It’s hard at my age to make change. But I’m working on it. I’ve reluctantly acquired the ability to look at myself with a critical, honest eye and I’ve had some success. My biggest challenge of late has been open-mindedness and I’m happy to say that I am really breaking down barriers.

A big one for me is my, for lack of a better word, politics. “Politics” is a funny word. Many shy away from it as if it was a civics course with a required grueling exam.
“I don’t talk politics.”
“Ugh, I don’t get it.”
“I don’t care about politics, it doesn’t affect me.” That one is my favorite.
To me, politics is current events. Knowing what is going on in the world. Being present as if my lone, infinitesimal opinion matters. Understanding the human element as it pertains to world events. It’s a game, really. But I believe that it affects all of us and knowledge of it is critical to our existence. Politics matter.

While nothing is cut and dry in the world I believe most people, at some point pick a side. Our personalities often play a large role in which direction we lean. The problem as I see it is that people feel that they must pick a side. In today’s charged political environment many have become entrenched.

There was a day, not that long ago that it was ok to think what you want and support who you choose and discourse was possible. We could agree to disagree. At some point we have lost that. The climate has gotten angry, intolerant even violent. Couples have broken up over who won an election, people have been attacked in public places for wearing a hat. Elected officials have publicly called for violence against those who disagree with them. Hate is in the air.

I got caught up in it. The attacks on social media, the anger, the intolerance and the name calling caused me to feel as if it was personal. I picked a side and I dug in. Forgetting that it’s ok to walk the middle of the road.

It’s a good place to walk, just don’t allow yourself to get hit. Of course, I’m speaking metaphorically.

Somewhere along the line I forgot that it was ok to not react. To think before I spouted an opinion. To not take a side. I forced myself to read blogs by people who are polar opposites of me politically. I tuned in to networks that lean differently than I do. I made an effort to challenge myself and encouraged others to challenge me. I found myself gritting my teeth at times but I’m a nicer person for it, and that was my goal. None of the anger made my life any better.

My father always said that nothing is ever simple, that everything has a story. In this day and age of soundbites and misinformation it is easy to forget that. Books have been placed by YouTube videos and everyone has a digital pulpit to speak. The question I have to ask is “is it true?” Then and only then should I react. React to what is right, not what aligns with whatever side I have chosen. Critical thinking is a God-given gift that I for one failed to open.

I don’t know. Let me look into it and get back to you. I’ll think about it as I walk down the middle of the road. That’s where the truth lies…somewhere in the middle.

let’s get small

The tiniest of organisms have the same role in the universe as the largest ones. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. The Blue whale feeds on Krill, the largest creature sustained by one of the smallest. Pollen, carried by the small but mighty bee sustains all life here on dry land. Small matters. Except when you are a person, then it’s all about big. Big dreams, big houses, big cars, big bank accounts. The bigger the better, give me more more more and when done with that I’ll take just a little more. Not all people, of course but you get the point. Given the means I may be the same way. But my profound and distinct lack of means has had a very profound and welcome effect on who I have become at this stage in my life…I have embraced my smallness.

At some point in life we have to check our ego at the door. For some, it may never happen but for a lot of us things, money, or both stop making us happy and we want more. By more in this case I mean more substance, more meaning, more gratification, more connection. Unfortunately, this can only be obtained by downsizing. If not your life then at least your attitude.I am on a journey in that direction, a quest for smallness, but I had an easier path than most. I didn’t walk away from the pursuit of more influence, stature, and wealth. Illness took it all away for me. For quite a while I didn’t know what it meant, I questioned why it happened to me and felt that my life as I knew it was over. What I would find is that when one life ended, so to speak, another one began.

My old life, littered with insecurity and doubt was made no better by the pursuit of big things, in my new life I have found it to be all about the simple and the real. It happened when I stopped trying to control everything. It can’t be done.

No man, regardless of stature is a match for the awesome power and force of the tide. No man will ever make his life better by shaking his fist and screaming at the heavens. Regardless of wealth, stature and achievement no man will live forever. Billions have lived and died before we were ever born and their physical legacy will never be larger than the plot of ground they are buried in. While our time on earth may seem long, it is but a speck. We are all miniscule players in a vast tapestry that we know not a damn thing about. But if you embrace your smallness you will begin to see the big picture.

I like being a small cog. I like being part of the crowd, not standing on my toes to rise above the others. I like the challenge of being a bit player trying to create meaningful change. I enjoy doing small things that make a big impression on another. I’m ok with being ordinary in stature. Don’t know what I mean? Throw a pebble into a pond and see how far and long the ripple carries.

This is where faith begins and control ends. I have placed, finally, my legacy in the hands of a force I know little about but trust inherently. God, mother nature, fate…I can’t tell you for sure. But I believe in the darkest recesses of my soul that by downsizing my attitude I will achieve a greatness in the arena of humanity that I never would have if not for the epiphany I have been so fortunate to have experienced.

I no longer care if I have the answers. They will be revealed in time. I have faith. I have never been happier since I have learned to respect the mighty tide as a humbling yet beautiful reminder of exactly where I stand.

Let’s get small…


Faith

With eyes closed, slowly swaying with her right hand to the sky, she sings with a passion and conviction that I can only look at with admiration and longing. My eyes close, my skin bristles, a small tear forms in the corner of my eye. The music makes me feel vulnerable, open. She begins to freeform, she breaks into a rambling tearful prayer. I’m mesmerized…

The Holy Spirit is what she’s having. And I think I want it.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have had a complex and difficult relationship with God. Once “Born again”, or so I thought in my teens it wasn’t long before I lapsed into a state of agnosticism which later devolved into what I can only call Atheism. I rejected all of it. I have no problem telling you why; I saw too many people praying for themselves and their own advancement, and I had a very hard time understanding why a kind and benevolent God would give babies cancer. While tolerant of other’s right to worship and willing to engage in a debate with anyone, and I could argue my side as good as anyone, I didn’t budge for years.

Much ado was made about my atheism when I got married. We got married in a hotel. A Justice of the Peace presided. It was a civil ceremony and I told the J.O.P. quite definitively that I wanted no mention of G.O.D. My wife, a non-practicing Jew and me a Atheistic angry ex-Protestant…well we sure pissed off our families. That, the pissed-off thing reached new heights when we failed to introduce our kids to religion. No baptisms, no Bar or Batmitzvah’s. No church or temple. I do regret teaching my children my views, as impressionable children I may have ruined it for them.

I wouldn’t begin to come around, and I only came around a small bit, until I petitioned for membership in Freemasonry. Freemasonry is a organization known for making good men better. I was by all accounts a good, if not flawed man and I was a good candidate by all standards. But I was required to acknowledge a faith in a higher power. No specifics required as to denomination or name, but no atheists. I had to really evaluate my stance because one thing I did not want to do was enter a faith-based organization characterized by worthy men on a lie.

Hard questions followed and if not for a good friend I wouldn’t have started on the path that I am now discussing.
“A good friend came out of nowhere and gave you a kidney, saving your life?”
“Yes.”
“And that was just a accident or a coincidence?”
“No.”
“You know for certain that there is nothing out there?”
“No. Nobody can honestly say that.”
“Then if you dismiss nothing, then you logically have to ackknowledge something?”
“Yes.”
“Isn’t it possible that you don’t need to know why things happen, that it’s beyond you?”
“Yes.”
That was the conversation that opened the door for me to acknowledge that maybe there’s more to it. My compromise was to call it Spirituality.

Then my father died. My father was a Godly man. He lived by a strong moral code and he loved Jesus. Especially towards the end as Parkinson’s ravaged his once strong body and spirit. When he died I started doing two things I never did before; I talked to a granite gravestone, and I began seeing shadows in my house.
The Paranormal is a great indicator of God. The shadows, hopefully my father, seemed benevolent but I had heard enough stories to know that not all are. You can’t believe in evil without acknowledging its polar opposite and that is something holy.
Still, that one incident aside, I really didn’t move beyond the label of Spiritual.

But I began to open myself up a bit more. I began to find the chirp of the bird, the deer sightings, sunsets, mighty storms and reflections on the water as particularly beautiful and less of a coincidence of nature. I found God outside the walls of a Church. I adopted the “Kayaking” doctrine.

“Kayaking” worked for me. But the selfish praying for a football victory, a winning lottery ticket and the hateful vitriol or outright fucking hypocrisy that I had witnessed in past “Church” phases was still with me. And I still had a hard time with the whole dead baby thing.

Recently I have been talking a lot with a lovely woman who has shown me what I had been missing. She is kind in her actions and her prayers. She prays for others, not for personal gain. She is humble yet strong, she controls what she can and has faith in that which she cannot.
She has shown me what I have been missing and didn’t know I was searching for.
Faith.
People have a hard time with control and I am no exception, letting go of that white knuckle grip is a daunting task. And I’m not quite ready to fall in lockstep with the old “Everything happens for a reason”, or “It’s all predetermined”. But I am coming around to the possibility that I will learn someday, not today the reason for the triumph, or calamity that has just occurred. It’s called FAITH and I’m starting to come around to it.

The people of faith that I have been watching with a keen eye have a special walk. A special smile. They are not acting better than you and I, they just convey a feeling that something has their back. That everything is going to be ok even if they don’t know how, why or when.

I think I’m on a journey that will take me there. I think that my hardships, lessons, and scars have happened for a reason. I may be a vessel, placed on this earth to help one person or many. I may have to hold on to my questions for a while to see if they ever get answered. In the interim, I want to spend more time around people of faith.

I want what they’re having.

Growth

It’s a famous scene from Silence of the Lambs. After villain Hanibal Lecter dresses down the heroine Clarice Starling as “White Trash” with “cheap shoes”. Clarice responded in kind.
You see a lot, Doctor. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself? What about it? Why don’t you – why don’t you look at yourself and write down what you see? Or maybe you’re afraid to.” — Clarice Starling

It was powerful then and it remains so today because it raises an incredibly valid question…are you who and what you think you are?

If asked, most would say they are. Right or wrong, they believe it. Myself, I had to really dig to get the answer. The answer wasn’t definitive. What I came up with was that I needed some work. Not a ton, but I was getting a bit closed off. I got caught up in two things; the pervasive anger and division of society, and the failure to be myself.

With regards to society, I don’t have to tell you that with the division in our politically charged society many have been reduced to anger. It’s not enough to disagree now, you get attacked. Republican, Democrat, it doesn’t matter. Being attacked for a long enough period of time will make you defensive and angry. Some can compartmentalize it, many can let it slide. I applaud them. The angry ones, well I was one of them. WAS.

With regards to being myself, I can only speak for me but it’s harder than it seems and I believe many of us are putting up a front. Maybe a small one, but a front nonetheless. It is usually out of a necessity to maintain our stations in life. Bill Belichick is probably a very nice man in real life but he is known in the football world as a highly successful coach that would trade his mother if it meant winning. That is how he is known and he wants it that way.

I was once a Belichick in my career. I had a very difficult position that required that I make decisions that affected people. I was very black and white in my thinking because I only thought I was allowed to look at things in two ways. Sure, I achieved results but it wasn’t until I when my boss pointed out my rigidity that I applied compassion, kindness and original thinking to my process. I never would have done it on my own.

At first I denied it. Then I thought about it. Once I adjusted my thinking the results were amazing.

It took a long time but I learned to apply it in my personal life. I adopted a pretty simple philosophy. If someone told me something unpleasant about myself I forced myself to delay the initial instinct of denial until I could ask myself one simple but incredible difficult question,
“Is it true?”
Not for the lighthearted, this question opens a veritable Pandora’s box of uncomfortable scenarios.
Holy shit! Am I a racist?
Oh no, am I a homophobe?
Wow! Do I not like he/she because we have different politics?
Did I just get mad because he or she is right?
The list can be endless but you get the point.

Criticism and tough, uncomfortable indictments of ourselves by others are akin to sunlight to a flower. Once exposed, growth is inevitable. Denial and refusal to suck it up and make changes are the weeds that choke us out of existence.

No matter how old, established and successful we are…we must always continue to grow. If we refuse to grow we are just existing and I want more out of life than just existing.