Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Path Not Taken

With all due respect to Mr. Frost, our well-trod path in Indiana has yielded a milestone.  Young Dominic has turned 18 and straddles the line between high school and adulthood.  He stands at life's bus station, ticket in hand, and intently studies both directions: the road from whence he came and the winding, partially obscured curves of the future.

The image is a curious double-fold for Dom.  As the youngest of four brothers, I'm sure it has been difficult, at times, bringing up the rear.  In role of family caboose, one is expected to follow the tracks well laid before you.  The course has already been cleared in most instances...just follow the well-trod, matted down grasses and don't stray too far from the pathway.  You went to the same grade school, high school, scouts, et cetera, because, in a way, you were expected to...because that was simply the way we did it.  The anticipated challenges of sweeping away debris had been done before of you.  Just follow the path.  (At least you were all boys.  No "hand me down" clothing for any of you as they were always too worn out to pass along.)  As far as expectations go, the only requirement was to keep up, step lively and follow along.  Fortunately, that wasn't entirely the case.  

It is worth noting that you're occasionally leaving the path, literally and figuratively, has been interesting, if not refreshing.  When you were five, you strayed from the family on vacation at the Liberty Bell in Philly and your dad got to give the nice Park Service Ranger his name and address in exchange for a crying child's hand and a stern lecture.  In grade school, you read so many books that your teachers gave you ribbons and we purchased eye glasses   Later you explored the mountains of Colorado with your scout buddies, seeing indescribable vistas first hand, that your brothers and parents have only seen in photographs.  As a college major, you've pointed your gaze toward chemistry...chemistry?!  Didn't I tell you about my straight "D's" in Mr. Middendorf's class?  You've never strayed dramatically and always seemed to find your own unique way back home.

And now the "real" journey begins.  There's no roadmap now.  No required attendance.  No hand-me-down guidebook.  The world is wide and big and (sometimes) frightening but you have a well-crafted internal compass and the stars to guide you.  Like the hiking backpack that you've hoisted many times, be confident that you have packed what you need to endure, survive and thrive.  Load up your broad shoulders and get ready to experience the "road less traveled" knowing that you are always loved and any steps can always be retraced back to your home.  The future awaits...and that makes all the difference!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Ode to Grit and Growth

This is late.  My older boys graduated from high school and their dad wrote something heartfelt in a timely manner to try and express emotions revealed.  Theo, dear Theo, waits an extra year.  In fact, I am embarrassed to say that, as time has passed and boys grown into men, I've become less and less timely.  Perhaps because I am less and less ready to let go.
Theo's my dirty kid.  His thoughts and manners are clean and pure as fresh snow but his hands are filthy.  Visit Theo and you'll find him arm deep in a motor, or engine, or some other oily, greasy project.  How does it work?  How does it come apart?  And can it go back together and work again?  Honestly, not everything that has come apart has gone back together smoothly but that's, perhaps, a lesson in life we can all share.
"That boy will always have a job offer" I am told.  Willing to work, and work hard, Theo is entirely comfortable getting dirty with projects I probably would have shied away from even when I was young and confident.  I always liked to "tinker"--as did my dad and grandfather-- but, for me, there was always a line drawn between a "tinker" and a full-blown, hair-pulling rebuild.  My patience, what little I used to have, completely eludes me in my graying years.  Theo still enjoys the challenge of the big project as much as the reluctant satisfaction of completing the small task and always has.
So it was really tough when he went off to college last Fall and took with him his handiness around the homestead.  Sometimes tasks waited until he came home for the weekend or on break.  I always felt kind of bad to hit him with a "list" when he walked in the door but he's been a cheerful, pliant recipient of the needs of the household.  I'm sure I'll face those same empty feelings this fall, too, when Year Two begins.
Lest one read this and think I am only raising a worker bee, Theo is also a fun kid to be around.  All of the boys are so different it confounds and fascinates me.  Theo is the only child who gets excited about a photo of a tractor or a video of a steam engine or even a funny cat video.  And while I don't always understand the displacement of a Ford tractor engine any more than Gabe's explanation of how a Bluetooth works or Tony's summary of how non-profits act in a bullish economy, I do listen and enjoy the lessons.  I might not "get it" but I enjoy sharing that precious time.   Dom, you are next...where will your interests lay?
And, oh, isn't the time going so fast?   I sincerely regret all of the precious moments I failed to fully exploit as a dad and I am so sad I cannot return down those lost miles.  After years of being the boy's taxi, it's tough expressing how much it hurts when I drive with an empty passenger seat beside me.  The loss feels both permanent and temporary.  As long as I can imagine the next time we are all together, the familiar sights, sounds and laughter flood my imagination with warmth and joy.   Only then do I feel full again because while one cannot completely shake the brutish feelings of regret, he can strive to replace them with a hopeful brighter vision of the road yet to come.
And for Theo?  He will always be master of his domain--that being of tools, trucks and tinkering.  He's comfortable in his skin and that would be a great place for all of us to be...even if it needs a little soap and water now and then.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Happy Birthday, Hayley Mills

Dear Ms. Mills,
I just wanted to write you a note on your birthday.  Actually, it's been quite a while since I've seen or heard of you, but I saw your birthday listed on a "this date in history" page and wanted to extend my fondest wishes.
Actually, we've never met.  In fact, we've probably never been in the same state at the same time.  But one time, long ago, you were my first real "crush" and seeing your name brought back a flood of good memories. 
I was a young man...well, boy...when I watched "Pollyanna" on television--probably the Wonderful World of Disney.  Okay, I was only 5 or 6 years old.  But I was captivated by your performance.  When your character fell off the ledge of the house and lost all interest in her recovery, I knew then you needed a, me to take care of you.  I don't remember much about the rest of the movie actually, and probably have seen it only once since, but I was prepared to abandon my luxurious 5-year-old lifestyle and hop on a train to come to your side and help you.  Instead, in our local newspaper's "TV Guide," I clipped out your small photo and kept it in my new vinyl wallet for several years, until it literally fell into pulp fiber dust.
And then it happened!  It was around 1973 (as I recall), when someone gave me a World Almanac as a gift.  One of the sections of the almanac was "celebrity birthdates" and I quickly dashed through the "A's," "B's" and arrived at the "M's" and found out when you were born.
...And I was crushed.
I then looked up when "Pollyanna" was filmed (1960) and did the math (I was never very good at math but could figure this one) and the realization hit me:  Our relationship wasn't going to work out.  I hope you understand but a May-December relationship probably wouldn't have gone over well in my childhood world.   Plus, you've never heard of me.
Being brave, and by this time focusing my attention on my first grade classmate (also unrequited, by the way), a lovely girl named Sherri who looked a lot like Pollyanna, I decided to break it off with you. 
In retrospect, it probably wouldn't have worked out anyway.  I did get teased a lot about "us" by my parents and friends.  In time, memories faded and only occasionally, over the years, did I remember that wallet-sized newspaper picture.  But I have no regrets.
There is something about those grade-school age "crushes" that I miss.  The reminder of those new feelings during an age when just about every feeling you had was new.  The childlike brain was just a mushy ball of emotions and physical changes that seemed to have no logical purpose.  In some ways, I'm sad those days of surprise are long gone, replaced by more calloused, retreaded emotions.  And yet, I would not want to re-live my childhood a second time.  I'm fortunate that, sometimes, I can still summon those deep down feelings from the hard drive of my memory banks.
Well, I must close now, but I wanted to send this along to "whereeveryouare."
Happy birthday, Hayley.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


There was an interesting novel (later turned movie) called A Dog's Purpose by Bruce Cameron--maybe you read it.  Without giving too much away, it's the story of a dog who spends his life (actually, several lives thanks to reincarnation) trying to figure out his purpose in existence.  I enjoyed the story and have often looked into the eyes of my pets to contemplate what they feel their purpose must be.  For our dog, Abel, it's simple:  to bark relentlessly for an hour each morning into the darkness to chase away unseen ghouls and goblins that could be lurking in the fields behind our house.  But for our older dog, Charlie, it was a lesson learned only this week.
Actually, it was yesterday.  When he died.  After a long, sad, slow couple of years, old age crept up and stole him away.  At 14 1/2 years, this big black-lab-of-a-dog was not shortchanged by life--he did what he wanted as long as he could.  But despite the strength and size of his heart, time finally caught up and overtook him and left his tearful owner staring into the inky darkness and asking questions to himself such as: what would Charlie say was his purpose?
Well, my drooling, wagging friend, that isn't an easy question to answer!  From the day he entered our family some 13-years ago, Charlie made it very clear that he was "too cool" and "too sophisticated" for the average dog routine.  Charlie never retrieved a ball or stick (despite being a "retriever") and had no interest in impressing anyone.  Content with a dip into our mossy pond (his previous owners had a mansion and in-ground swimming pool) or a long nap in the sun, Charlie was nobody's fool.  That's not to say he wasn't easy-going...I've never seen an animal so laid-back.  Charlie wouldn't think of biting or growling or showing angry teeth.  Even when other dogs playfully nipped, he stood and took it without the slightest hint of fierceness.  A newborn baby human would be perfectly safe in his company. He did enjoy the occasional long walk in the woods and he loved a good snack...but a "purpose?"
The answer to that question became clear to me in recent days as I started to accept the dire reality of the situation.  As Charlie got older and it became painful to go up and down steps, he decided, bullheadedly, to spend most of his indoor time on the cool floor of the basement.  The obvious negative side of this decision was that it kept him out of normal family "activity."  Without such interactions, Charlie spent a lot of time alone and I felt terrible about it.  He did still enjoy days outside lying in the sun when weather permitted, but that wasn't always the case.   Even our long walks became harder and more unpredictable.  But he always there...and, boom, therein lies my answer.
Charlie was Always Just There and that's a wonderful trait to have.  When I needed a friend, he was Always Just There.  And when I was busy or tired, he waited, patiently, until he was needed.  Always Just There--the golden trait of any good friend.    I'd tell him my problems, complain about my day, and, for a small scratch behind the ears, he'd give me his close attention and those deep, brown eyes, which seemed to absorb my stresses and spirit them away.  No pressure, no demands...Charlie was Always Just There.
I tried to pay him back, even a few pennies on the dollar, this week as he started to fade away.  The night before he died, I spent hours on the cool basement floor alongside him because that's what friends do...they're Always Just There.  And now he's gone, and I miss him terribly.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Looking Back

Recently we decided to retire our mini-van.  After 351,000 miles and trips West, North, South and East over the last ten years, we decided that the time had come to downsize and move forward.  Our next vehicle will be smaller and have all-wheel traction to battle the rural winters.  In truth, with one son working out-of-town and another living away at college, there is no need for a vehicle that seats six.  The new vehicle eliminates one row of seats and we can certainly count on better gas mileage.
But what I didn't count on was a trip we took--not far--just last weekend.  In some fortunate confluence, all the "baby chicks" were back home for one night.  We decided to go out to get something to eat and immediately the oldest hopped into his car to follow along.  But mom and dad, sensing something important, strongly advised everyone to take one vehicle--the battered old mini-van with duck-tape on the fender...and I'm glad we did.
As we ventured across the back country roads on an absolutely stunning sunny afternoon towards our destination, I glanced in the rear view mirror and immediately my eyes began to swell with tears. It hit me.  Quite unexpectedly, really.  This would be it.  The final time all six of us will be traveling in one vehicle together.
Granted it was a unique situation reserved for those with multiple children.  I really doubt my parents ever faced such a thought (I'm an only child) and so there might not be universal understanding.  But the groundswell of emotions that flooded within me at that moment was powerful:  the sounds, the conversations, each bobbing head in its place.  Dom and Theo in their spots in the "way back" seats, Gabe listening to his headphones behind me, Tony readings something in the seat behind Sue--everyone in their place where they "should" be.  My goodness, how I witnessed that routine countless times!  We traveled out West to see Yellowstone, headed many times to the beaches of Florida..."Are we there yet?"  "Mom, he crossed the line and is touching me" "Hey, what was that for?"   "When is the next stop?"
There was no such fighting on this short trip (well, not much) because they are all older, but the noisy ghosts of the past kept bouncing around my head.  And the tears welled.
As "the dad," more often than not, I was behind the wheel of the mini-van and my attention was equally split between the road ahead and those bouncing heads behind me.  I yelled, I broke up fights, I pointed out (what I thought was) interesting sights.  For a fixed period of time, the bobbing heads were my responsibility.  No matter how tired I was (literally slapping my face, at times, to stay awake during overnight trips), or how dark and lonely the highway, it was my job to get them to our destination safe and sound.  Now they are growing or have grown and they no longer need me.  As the number of bouncing heads has reduced over the last couple of years, I really didn't notice.  Not until they all came back last weekend.  My heart soared during the moment, the last trip.  It was sunny and warm...but I also had to wipe my eyes.
After returning home, the older boys said goodbye and went their separate ways into the night. And the new vehicle will arrive in a week or so.  It will be nice--heated seats, zone air conditioning, no duct tape--and it will seat four, maybe five, comfortably.  I know I'll continue to have responsibilities for several more years until the last two chicks fly away from the nest.  My mission is in no way completed.
But I can't help but rewind and replay the sounds of that final full mini-van trip over the open country roads and I also can't stop glancing back into the rear view mirror of my life searching, looking, for something familiar and wiping my eyes over what I see and what I won't see again.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

My Music Teacher

The passing of the woman who first taught me a musical instrument, Sr. Frances Jean Sandschulte, O.S.F., recently reminded me how much my life is infused with the love of music. Sr. Frances Jean taught music at my grade school in an era when nearly every kid at least attempted to learn how to play an instrument.  Eddie, next door, tried the trumpet...Lisa, across the street, studied flute.  I went into Sister's office with every intention of learning how to play the saxophone.  Ultimately, I left that initial encounter with a loaner trombone because she said: "you look like a trombone player!"  (Later, I learned that the trombone player in the school orchestra graduated and there was a vacancy that needed to be filled!)  In time, Eddie and Lisa retired from their musical careers but I stayed on with the trombone through college and it changed my life.  Band camps, pep bands, marching, basketball games, band tours, clown band, stage band and music ranging from the silly to the serious...trombone, band and music have been an important part of my life.
Sr. Frances Jean was a patient teacher, too.  While I liked playing the trombone, I had a conspicuous aversion towards "practicing" and, thus, I was never very good. Decent, perhaps.  Sister was an accomplished musician in her own right--a CCM grad who excelled on piano and organ, but who could also play flute and any of the brass instruments.  She was strict and could be riled a bit by an occasional uncooperative youngster like myself, but she never yelled (although she'd tap briskly a key on her piano to mark a sourly played note.)  She must have taught tens of thousands of students in her career, which spanned 65 years, at several grade and high schools. I wonder how many other students were introduced to new musical worlds because of her.  If patience is indeed a virtue, she earned her angel wings with me alone.
And I also wonder about current and future kids and lament the fact that there are far fewer opportunities for them to learn music the way I did.  Instrumental music requires practice and more practice.  Gratification comes in small droplets over weeks and months and it's tough for such sluggish endeavors to compete with the flash of video games and computers.  I've seen the numbers of my own high school band shrink every year and I am saddened that there aren't more kids who display the patience required to practice scales or paradiddles.  Also, are there enough teachers to endure the curious kids toe-dipping into the rudiments of a wide range of instruments--particularly the non-guitar and non-piano types?  Surely, FA music degree grads need jobs.
Sr. Frances Jean lived to be 97 and I'm sure music added years to her life.  She was playing trombone, herself, in several Cincinnati community bands well into her 90s.  At the time of her death she was still organist and pianist in her Oldenburg, Indiana religious community.
Meanwhile, It remains to be seen if or how music affects my longevity but I do know it has added to its quality and richness.  It's rare when I actually pick up the old trombone anymore, but I listen to and enjoy music daily.  If I could better articulate that influence, perhaps maybe some young person reading this would be sparked toward attempting to learn an instrument.  Just trying is half the battle.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Tony and the Tide

Recently we went on vacation to Florida.  Because of college co-op commitments, it may be the final family vacation for incoming freshman and boy #2, Tony, for a few years.  I wrote awhile ago about boy #1, Gabe.  Tony (or Anthony as he sometimes prefers) is cast from a different die than Gabe.  Energetic at home, Tony was at one time, like his father, painfully shy in public.  But high school experiences, leadership speeches and a few added inches were the fertilizer that helped blossom his public persona into a much more self-confident young man. 
It's funny how us dads, as we get older, find ourselves comparing ourselves with our children.  "Wow, I wish I had my son's ability to (fill in the blank.)"  Tony, I confess, is blessed with more smarts, looks, athletic ability and artistic talents than his old man...which gets me back to the Florida vacation.
I remember being his age and staring at that same ocean on that same beach.  I remember thinking about the title of the Beach Boys' album "Endless Summer"---what a contradiction!  Of course summer isn't more than the span of boyhood, itself.  Vacations, summers, high school exams, boy scout jamborees--all must come to an end.  And then we move on.  And yet, one might stand on a beach, toes dancing in the incoming foamy surf and be suddenly overcome with feelings of permanence and eternity.  That ocean, that beach, probably hasn't altered its course much in millennia.  The tides churn in and out rhythmically and predictably every hour of every day of every year of every century.  Surely, there must be "endlessness" here, true?  By the way, the same can be said for those who ponder a mountain or an old-growth forest, if that's their preference.
So which is it...and what about that 18-year-old standing on the doorstep to independence and a bright, alluring, exciting world extending as far as an ocean horizon?   Well, perhaps there is a sense of permanence when one considers his or her "home."  I remember dipping my "toes" into adulthood cautiously, because I knew that if the sands would shift awkwardly, I always had a place to which I could return home (thanks, mom and dad!).  I feel badly for those who leave home in anger or disgust and never look back.  I hope, Anthony...knows that somewhere a lamp is lit for him if he needs it and that the regular, predictable "pulse of the tides" awaits him, day and night, no matter where in the world he chooses to explore.
By the way, Tony took the photograph using his cell phone propped in a flip-flop sunk in the sand, so photo credits go exclusively to him, the talented fellow!