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Ain’t Misbehavin’

This week I was asked to answer the question of whether I was well-behaved, or badly behaved as a child. SO…here goes.

The easy and quick answer is to just say, “I was well-behaved,” and that is true.  I was.  But it would, of course, defeat the purpose of this exercise if I just let it go with that.  The idea of the whole “Storyworth” endeavor, I think, is to give our kids, grandkids, and others who may some day read our answers, a sense of who we are.

So let me expand a bit.  Yes, I was well-behaved.  I recall being a pretty easy kid.  A bit sensitive… a bit shy… but I didn’t cause too much chaos or drama.  I’ve talked before about being the kid who mom took shopping — perhaps in part because I was the baby for a number of years, but also because I’d sit patiently reading a book, while mom shopped, and just didn’t fuss much.  

At home, I read (a lot), I played tons of solitaire card games and I had molded plastic soldiers and cowboys and Indians that I enjoyed playing with.  I’d build card houses and then shoot them down with rubber bands.  I’d line up soldiers and do the same.  I got pretty good with those rubber bands.  I also had Lincoln Logs, an Erector Set, and lots of other things to keep me busy.  The point is, I could play by myself peacefully and contentedly for hours on end.  

My older sister Chris and I played together — and we fought too — but no worse than any other siblings separated by four years might.  I was a good student, I followed rules, and I was not one to rock any boats.  I wanted to be a “good boy.”  I didn’t want to disappoint.  I guess my sense of self was shaped in part by being seen positively by others… by adults.  

That’s what made it hard for me to be a “bad boy” later on as I grew older.  Not that I was SO bad.  But I started to smoke when I was in high school.  I’d tap into my Dad’s liquor cabinet, or we’d get someone to buy at the liquor store for us.  Malt liquor, blackberry brandy, (I cringe at the memory), beer, bourbon, the usual stupid stuff that kids did.  

I stayed out too late.  I skipped school and forged notes from my mother.  But although I saw myself as breaking out of my good boy mold, I was never really that bad.  I was just a kid trying to fit in, to be somewhat cool — and though I never really succeeded, I wasn’t a total nerd either.

But even when I’d be less than perfect, I took great pains not to get caught.  I still wanted to be perceived as a “good boy” — to be seen as meeting the expectations that everyone had of me.  A good student, a good kid, and one who people just expected would do the right thing, would succeed, would get good grades, etc.  And, to be honest, that IS who I wanted to be.  I wanted to get it right… to be smart… to be an achiever… to win the prize.

I put more pressure on myself to maintain that image than I probably needed to.  But I did.  And, although it would have been nice if my parents or others I respected told me ”it’s okay if you fail, it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to not always get it right,”  I was so busy living up to what I though others might expect that I didn’t let them see that a bit of reassurance would have been welcome.  

That was then.  This is now.  Life is a great teacher.  I’ve learned over the years since those days that we can’t live our lives to meet the expectations of others.  I’ve learned that we have to be true to ourselves.  We have to know what matters to US and not just what others think should matter.  I’ve learned that being good isn’t about following all the rules.  It’s about being doing what we know in our hearts is the right thing for us — no matter how others see it or judge us for our choices.

Being well-behaved as young kid was easy.  It fit who I was.  But over the years, I had to redefine what “well-behaved” looked like.  And that’s OK.  You can break a few rules.  You can struggle.  You can doubt.  You can fail.  The world won’t end.  But be true to yourself.  Know what is right and what is not.  And make the choices that let you be proud of yourself.  

That’s what being “well-behaved” looks like to me today.  It doesn’t matter what others see.  It’s what you see when you look at yourself, at your life and your choices, that matters.

Six decades have passed since I was that kid sitting quietly while his mom shopped.  I’ll not judge if I still fall into the “well-behaved” category or not.  Somehow that measure doesn’t mean much to me at my age.  But, although there are things I regret… things I could have done better… moments when I could have been kinder, more thoughtful, or more giving, the journey from then until now has been rich with learning and growth.  I am at peace with my choices and with the person I’ve become and, well-behaved or not, you can’t ask for more than that.

Courage

The original question for the week was about my favorite holiday memory but I have already shared a lot of those.  So I asked for a new question.  That’s one of the nice things about the whole StoryWorth concept.  You have options.  So I took advantage and got this question instead:  “Do you have a favorite poem?  What is it?”

Holy cow. That is almost worst. There are tons of poems over the years that have touched me. That have stayed with me. The poems my mother read me as child…and there were a lot of them. The poems of Robert Frost to which I was introduced in grade school. Of Carl Sandburg. There are so many. Poems that tell a story…Robert Service comes to mind…and poems that touch the heart.

In these days of the coronavirus we might find particular solace in poetry. We certainly have a bit more time to reflect. I pulled “Good Poems for Hard Times” off my bookshelf. An anthology curated by Garrison Keillor. I am inspired to selectively dip into it…picking and choosing…reflecting. Maybe I’ll share some of the ones that inspire me.

It’s hard to choose a favorite but there’s one poem that I have turned to again and again over the years. In the days after the death of Betsy, my first wife, I was sitting alone in the living room of our townhouse in Springfield. I’m not sure where the boys were…I think that a neighbor who had watched them often — Joan Murray — may have taken them for a while. I was thumbing somewhat mindlessly through the “Treasures of the Smithsonian” one of those coffee table books that looks good but that is seldom truly read.

Suddenly, however, something caught my eye. The word COURAGE. It was the title of a poem. By Amelia Earhart. I had no clue she had written poetry but apparently she did. And this was one of her poems.

I read it and it touched me. It gave me …something. That’s the thing about good poetry. It can trigger unexpected … it moves us, inspires us. It brings a smile, or a tear. It has an impact that each of us may feel differently.

“Courage” gave me hope. It reminded me that even in our darkest moments we can emerge stronger. And nothing in life comes without cost. We must look within to find the strength to pay it.

At that moment in time, at that crossroads in my life, the messages in the two stanzas of that poem brought me clarity. They gave me hope. They spoke to me. And they still do. Maybe, had I seen it at a different time, I would have responded differently — or not at all. But the words, the moment, and the need all converged. And I was touched. And changed.
THAT’s what a good poem can do.

“Courage”

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace, The soul that knows it not knows no release from little things; Knows not the livid loneliness of fear, Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear the sound of wings.

How can life grant us boon of living, Compensate for dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate, Unless we dare the soul’s dominion? Every time we make a choice, we pay with courage to behold the resistless day and count it fair.
Amelia Earhart

Something Big is Happening…

“What is the first major news story you remember living through as a child?”

Something Big is Happening…

It seems incredibly ironic to be thinking about this particular question this week given that we may be living through one of the most momentous events of our time even as I write this.   Like all of us, I have lived through my share of major events. Some have had a tremendous impact on our world. None, however, has been as transformational as the onset of the coronavirus will likely be. For my grandchildren this will be tory, in the years ahead.  

But today I’m supposed to focus on what I experienced in my childhood.  And for me, and likely for most of my generation, there is only one answer — the assassination of President John Kennedy.  That act of political violence gripped our nation and touched all in one way or another.  But I have to add that the FIRST major news story that intruded on my consciousness was the Cuban Missile Crisis so I’ll give a moment of time to that one as well.

That crisis isn’t on a par with President Kennedy’s murder but in a historical context it was 13 days in October of 1962 that took us to the brink of war.  I didn’t really know that at the time, but I do recall one Sunday night.  We were watching the tv — CBS — and waiting for the Ed Sullivan show to begin.  There was a special news bulletin…interrupting whatever was on. 

In those days, it seems to me, a story had to be really momentous to break into network programming.  But the missile crisis fit that bill.  I don’t recall the exact content of the report — I think it  may have been about Khrushchev accepting the terms for ending the crisis and agreeing to pull the Russian missiles from Cuba.  As I said, the details are foggy but what registered for me was that something big… really big… was happening.  

I realized that they were talking about the risk of war.  Perhaps a risk narrowly averted by then but that war was real and that it could have happened.  I heard the broadcaster talking of missiles and blockades and it all sounded very serious and more than a little frightening.  This was, after all, the era where neighbors had fallout shelters in their basements or backyards and where there were weekly tests of warning sirens (1 PM every Wednesday) whose eery wail always was a bit frightening.  

There were drills at school for the kids and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was one that even touched the consciousness of otherwise politically unaware nine-year-old kids.  

We emerged from the crisis into calmer days, at least for a while.  And I guess I’m glad that I didn’t fully appreciate just how close we came to war and the type of holocaust we feared.  And President Kennedy and his advisors seemed to have the answers.  It was all good…until it wasn’t.

Only a bit more than year later, on November 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 PM central time.  Most of my generation and those older than us can tell you where they were.  I had returned to my fifth grade classroom after lunch.  I lived close enough that I could walk home for lunch and I did that day.  It was a cloudy November day as I returned to our parish school — Nativity.  Sister Shawn was my teacher.  

I remember someone wheeling into the classroom the big TVs mounted on tall stands on which we usually watched our Spanish lessons on public television with Domigal (that was the instructor’s name — it’s amazing the funny things we recall half a century later).  Sister Shawn turned on the TV…there must have been instructions from the principal…. but I don’t recall anything really except the TV’s sudden appearance. 

It was, of course, the same story on every channel.  The President had been shot.  Assassinated.  

The shock in the voices of the newscasters.  The disbelief, the sorrow, the fear…all were palpable.  It was numbing.  Once again, you knew that something really big had happened.  But it was too big to absorb.  And we had never experienced something like this before.  How were we supposed to feel?

Maybe the fact that he was the first (and only) Catholic President, added to the sense of loss for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet who led our school.  All I know is that we were all devastated…at sea.  We were dismissed early and made our way home.  

Although a year had passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis I had not gained any significant degree of political awareness.  So I wasn’t focused on the many issues of concern about transition and governance and the implications for our nation’s future — though there were many.

I was just lost.  I remember feeling that this wasn’t right.  That the world wasn’t right and it didn’t feel like things would be right again any time soon.

I remember spending a lot of time sitting on the bed in my parents’ room.  They had a small black and white tv in there and somehow it seems fitting in retrospect to remember those images in black and white.  I don’t remember details so much as images.  The clip of the attack.  Of Vice President Johnson taking the oath.  Of Jackie Kennedy and the children.  

I remember as well the caisson on which his flag draped casked was drawn by six gray horses and one, riderless, black horse as they made their way to the Capitol where he would lay in state.  And I recall the endless lines of people waiting, silently, to pay their respects and the hushed voices of the commentators.  And of course the funeral and the salute of little John at his father’s graveside.

Some of those memories I am sure have been reinforced by video clips seen again and again over the years.  But I don’t need the clips to remember how I felt.  I was just a kid but there was a feeling in our nation in those years in which he led us.  We were reaching for the stars.  We were transforming as a nation.  It was a time of excitement and hope and for aspiration.  It was Camelot.  

I might not have understood it all, but I felt it.  And President Kennedy was “our” president.  And he was gone.

So this is the first major news story that I remember.  There were more that would come in the years ahead.  Stories about the struggles for racial equality.  The riots, the demand for justice.  And there were  the assassinations of  Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.  And then there was the Apollo program and man’s first steps on the moon.  All momentous in their own way.  All big things that were happening in our world.  

And, although the world seemed duller and sadder, after JFK’s death, we went on.  And, after the riots and discord, we went on.  And after the  deaths MLK and RFK we went on.  And, after the global pandemic of COVID-19 has come and gone, we’ll go on.  

These times of loss, of change, and of transition, are challenging and often frightening — but these are also the moments when we have the chance to learn, to grow.  These are the times when we must  make the right choices, do the right thing, and set the right example.  

For the sake of my grandchildren, and the kids for whom this is THEIR first time when something “really big is happening,” I hope we act with wise deliberation and care for their future.

What Mattered Along the Way

“What things are you proudest of in your life?”

This is the sort of question that warrants thought and consideration. You can easily sound too full of yourself or — the other side of the coin — so self-effacing that it’s no answer at all.

Pride after all, is one of the seven deadly sins of Christian teaching and the Bible reminds us that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” In fact, although justifiable pride isn’t a bad thing, when misplaced it has a very bad reputation. it equates with arrogance, vainglory and conceit in some quarters. It makes me wonder if this is a trick question!

I certainly don’t want to be accused of having a haughty spirit or of vainglory and conceit. I’ll try nonetheless to tackle this question honestly while seeking to avoid the pitfalls of hubris.

The easy answer to the question of “what am I proudest of” is to say our children. Tjiama, Joe, Tony. I couldn’t be more proud of them. Their decency. Their compassion. Their heart, and strength, and courage in a difficult world.

And I hope that Leija and I helped to give them a foundation on which they built their values, found their paths and shaped their futures. I am full of joy when I see the lives that they have created and I am indeed proud of them and to be their father.

And I am proud of the choices I made AS their father. The choice to be engaged. To listen. To be patient. To love unconditionally. The choice to be conscious of the example I set. I want to believe I was (am) a good father. However I KNOW that I tried. I made the effort. And that is something I am proud of and always will be.

I am proud too of the choices I made during one of the most challenging times in my life. My first wife Betsy died of cancer when we were both far too young. We were younger than any of my children are now. It’s funny to reflect now on what it was like to confront those challenges with so little life experience to draw upon for reference points or for strength. But, even with much more experience of the world, it would not have been any easier, I think.

We managed those days with dignity and, I believe, grace. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that we continued to embrace life while also being able to talk to each other honestly about death. I’m proud that we faced the challenges with courage and with honesty. And I’m proud that we knew what mattered in our lives and that I chose to be “present” in every way. The lessons I learned over those years have kept me grounded ever since and they remind me, even now, to value the things that truly matter in life — family most of all.

What else gives me pride? I know it will sound corny but I’m proud of a lifetime of service. I didn’t set out to “serve” when I joined the diplomatic corps in 1981. I really had no clue what it was all about but I needed a job, they offered me one, and it all sounded pretty cool.

I learned quickly, however, that it was about service…service to our nation …and service in support of values that I believe in. And that idea of “service” came to matter more and more and it became a force that changed my perspective on how I could…how I should … engage the world. I’m proud that I have been able to serve—and that I still do—in pursuit of the values in which I believe.

I’m proud as well that, when called upon to lead, I took it seriously and gave to those who served with me my best efforts and support. And I’m so very proud that, with their support, we lost no one in our “family” despite the growing risks of representing our nation in a dangerous world.

Finally, I will be deeply proud if how I have chosen to relate to the world and to those I have met along the way, is an example that resonates with my children and grandchildren. If that is part of what I leave them, I’ll be content.

But, no matter what, I’m proud to have served and to have cared and to have at least tried to make a difference in the world.

I never expected it to matter to me so much. But it does.

A December Afternoon

“What is one of your fondest childhood memories?” Yet another query from our inquisitive daughter and Storyworth. Well…..

The challenge is that there are so many childhood memories I could choose to discuss that I’m hard pressed to decide which is the fondest. But there is one image…one moment…that often comes to mind.

I was probably six years old. Seven at the most. It was a December afternoon. Cloudy and a bit dark…threatening snow. A typical afternoon in St. Paul in December. I was in fist grade..walking home from school. We all went to Nativity Grade School. Our parish school.

In the course of that walk, someone (and in my mind I always think it was my sister Chris though that may not be right) decided to inform me that there was no Santa Claus. Well…you can imagine how disturbing THAT news was to a little boy who was still a believer. (LoL…that’s probably why I attributed it to Chris…she was a cold-eyed realist who wouldn’t mind busting her annoying little brother’s bubble. I love her dearly today, of course, but we DID have our moments in our childhood).

In any event, no matter who delivered the new devastating news, I remember arriving home near tears on that dreary December day. My Mom knew right away that something was wrong and I didn’t hesitate to tell her — hoping, she’d convince me it wasn’t true –though I think I knew in my heart that it was.

She called me to her and we sat together in an armchair tucked into the corner of the living room. The bank of windows looking out on the street were fogged at the corners thanks to the heat streaming from the radiator below them. The curtains further blocked the day’s uncertain light outside. Mom turned on the lamp. Maybe it was the shade on the lamp or maybe its just a trick of memory, but I remember distinctly feeling as if the corner in which we sat had become a small island bathed in a soft amber light, warm and safe and in sharp contrast to the oncoming twilight.

Mom pulled out a volume of the Book of Knowledge, the set of encyclopedias on the built-in bookcase behind our chair. I picture it all very clearly.

The piano was to our right as we looked out into the room. The windows on the left.The bookcase with the encyclopedias held some of my brother Dan’s sports trophies and Mom’s paint by numbers paintings — and odd pair featuring male and female ballerinas in harlequin style costumes and masks performing in an outdoor setting that included fallen columns and, I swear, a frosted cake in the foreground. Really.

Mom opened the book in her hands…and found what she was looking for. With the authority of the encyclopedia to lend weight to her words, she told me how Santa was real…but just a bit different than I thought. She told me how the magic of Christmas did exist. That the spirit of Santa was one that was shared by parents everywhere and that it was this magic…this spirit…that led them to want to give their children the joy and mystery of a Christmas in which a white-bearded saint of legend transformed the world for us all one night in a year.

I don’t remember her every word. But I remember the moment. The feeling. The comfort. And the sense that it was all OK. And it was.

My mother always loved Christmas. And she and my Dad always made it special, magical, and joyous. And I came to know it wasn’t about the gifts…or who delivered them…it was about the love of parents who cared and the love that we shared as a family. It’s a memory I treasure. And always will.

The End of a Chapter

(This week my Storyworth tale is replete with screen shots taken from old home movies that have lost the little sharpness they once had –even when Dad didn’t cut off the heads of the subjects).

Was there a special vacation that your family took?

Every family has a story.  A narrative.  And like any story there are beginnings, endings, twists and turns.  Births, graduations, jobs, marriages, and more can all mark new directions for the tale that makes a family’s story.  And there are times when we miss the turning points at the time but, in retrospect, we can see the end of one chapter and the start of the next.  This is the story of chapter’s ending — though we didn’t see it at the time.  For us it was just a special summer; unlike any we had ever had.  

It was the summer of ‘61.   It was before the sixties got crazy.  Before a President was assassinated….before MLK was too.   It was before race riots and busing and Vietnam and growing generational divides dominated our national consciousness.   It was a simpler time and, if the memories of an eight year old see true, it was a gentler time — despite injustices and inequalities that lay beneath the surface.   Those can be discussed another day in another post if that is ok because, for me, that was the summer of a great adventure.  And what eight year old can resist the call of adventure.  

My mother was pregnant with my little brother, Andy.  She was due in November and there had been a miscarriage(s) I think, in the years after my birth in 1953.  We were planning on visiting her sister Joan McFarland and her family in Sacramento that summer but the cross-country drive was considered “too much” so she was flying round trip.  That left dad…38 years old and quite possibly clueless about what lay ahead…to transport Debbie, 16; Dan 15; Christine 12 and me on a 4000+ mile round-trip journey of discovery.

I remember setting off in the family station wagon. 

No AC in those days.  It was early summer I think.  I have no idea of how we got packed — I can only assume Mom must have overseen that before she left.  The suitcases and all the assorted paraphernalia was loaded in the back and off we went.

I recall the trip began with my sister Debbie sobbing into a pillow in the back seat.  It did not seem to bode well.  She was distraught, you see, at leaving her boyfriend for the summer and, like any perfectly normal teenage girl, imbued her concerns with an extra touch of drama.  But how long can you bury your face in a pillow as the world reveals itself to you on a road trip unlike any we’d taken before. 

We’d been to Colorado before to visit my Mom’s sister Barb and that was our first official stop where Mom would be breaking her journey as well to see how we were faring.  But, there was no mad dash to Denver.  Instead, this trip, with Dad in command and on his own, revealed something new’. Was there the spirit of a wanderer we hadn’t yet met hiding inside him?  Was he an explorer at heart wanting to share his discoveries with his children?  Or was he just riding the line drawn on a AAA Trip Tik?  I don’t know, but whatever drove him, we were thrilled to be along for the ride.  

South from the Twin Cities, through Mankato, to Windom and then to Sioux City South Dakota and finally on to Pierre where we spent the first night. I’m not sure that Pierre was anything but a good stopping point for the first leg but we nonetheless have the State Capitol Dome prominently featured in the background of a video clip and I always know the capital of South Dakota when the question arises on Jeopardy!   

 

The next day it was on to the Badlands with its sharp ridges, canyons, gullies, pyramids, and  knobs that stretch as far as the eye can see.  A wild landscape that made you think of the Indians of the plains, the huge herds of buffalo, and a young nation convinced this was part of its destiny.  The films, and books and stories…they all came alive here against a  backdrop that looked as it may have 100 years before.

Then it was on to Wall, South Dakota and Wall Drug — with the countless billboards reminding that you had covered yet another mile across the plains and that this incredible, not-to-be missed place awaited your arrival.  Since 1931 it  was that middle of nowhere spot with free ice water that lured travelers traveling across the east-west roads in the nation’s northern tier of states.  150 miles to Wall Drug…29 miles to Wall Drug….You Just Missed Wall Drug!  How could you not stop.  And the build-up matched the reality. There was a T-rex.  Cowboys.  Zoltar.   As you wandered the labyrinth of aisles with everything from taffy to petrified wood to all the assorted paraphernalia that epitomized the cowboy and Indian   stereotypes of the day.  It was overwhelming.

Dad not only stopped —there and at countless other spots along the way — but he indulged our whims and let us choose our loot.  I can’t say I remember exactly what I bought but it was enough to make my eight-year old heart sing.

Sure there were moments of impatience, times when everyone would be tired and cranky but I don’t recall them when I think of the trip.  Magical is an overused word perhaps but it was prety cool as I recall it.  I asked Chris and she remembers it much the same way.  It was special.  A memory worth preserving.  

From Wall Drug it was on to Rapid City where the a dinosaur….yes…a dinosaur greeted us.  Pretty impressive in the days before Jurassic Park.  

A little research tells me today that it was one of several towering beasts from the Rapid City Dinosaur Park dating back to science of 1936 when what is now considered to be one of America’s quirkier parks was created.  To us, it  was just cool to see a dinosaur in the middle of nowhere without the forewarning that would have come from Google searches and the like today.  It was unexpected.  Fun.   

The next day it was on to the Rushmore Cave  It’s funny the things you remember.  My sister Chris, with whom I had my moments when I was a kid (as any brother and sister separated by a few years in age might), was unhappy.  She wasn’t thrilled about the cave, I think, and Dad was a bit put out with her.  So, as we walked up the path the to the caves and Dad brushed my arm accidentally with his lit cigarette (unfiltered Lucky Strikes in those days), I was SO determined to not be a baby.  Chris, after all, was in the doghouse, and that’s where I wanted to keep Dad’s focus!   Like I said…funny what sticks in your head.

When we reached the entrance to the cave the tour had just left minutes before starting to descend in to the caves with stalagmites and stalactites and other limestone formations like I had never seen.   They told us to head off to catch up to the group that they contacted by walkie-talkie, telling them to wait for the family with the pretty blond girl with the blue ribbon in her hair.  (THAT, I seem to recall, perked Debbie up a bit).

The caves were cool — I thought.  Chris hated them though — and not just in the anticipation but in the reality. Dad had to take her out partway through the tour. A bit of drama but it was all part of the adventure, .  And, when it we done, we calmed down and carried on.  

Mt. Rushmore was next.  We were all suitably impressed.  Those massive presidential portraits in stone.  We were seeing America.  It kind of hit you. 

 I’m pretty sure we spent the night in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  The Frontier State.  Images of a cowboy on a bucking bronco silhouetted against the sky seemed commonplace.  Nothing like the Twin Cities.  And then it was on to Denver where Mom and Aunt Barb awaited.  A taste of home en route.  Not sure how long we stayed, but there was a lot that we did.

Chris remembers swimming in the pool at Barb’s house and friends was impressed by Barb’s friends who had a real arcade-style pinball machine in their house  

  We went to the Frontier Days Festival in Central City.   I recall that there was a clown who chose Debbie to flirt with and there was the saloon with the Face on the Ballroom Floor — Mom used to read us that poem all the time.  There were kids square dancing and a  volunteer firefighter competition that got me sprayed with their firehose.  (I may not have been particularly stoic about that incident, but I was, after all, still the baby of the family and Mom was with us and responded appropriately to my playing that card!)

Chris and I both remember we saw Buffalo Bill Cody’s grave on Lookout Mountain and we also saw Mother Cabrini’s shrine.  Both were in the mountains outside of Denver and we stopped on the way home from Central City.  We both remember the sky darkening, the temperature dropping and snow squalls that made a summer’s day turn icy and the roads back to Denver far trickier than we would have expected.

After Denver, on we went into the Rockies.  It was Chris’s turn to bury her face in the pillow. She hated the narrow roads and the steep drops.  She was quiet..sort of…having given up for the moment on her self-appointed roll as the chatty Cathy who would keep Dad awake on the road…no highway hypnosis for him if she was going to have her way!  She must have been successful — we all survived.  She may be lucky that SHE did, however, as Dad probably wearied of being asked if he was “OK?” All along the road.  

On we went, nonetheless, as he led his brood across the country.  I don’t recall how we passed all the long miles in the car — besides Chris keeping Dad awake — but I don’t remember much bickering.  I was fascinated to see the changing landscape.   We played the alphabet game, the license plate game, and Dad sang (he had quite a repertoire).  I can still see him driving…window down, elbow resting on the door, cigarette in hand and the vent window adjusted just right to keep the air moving.  

We saw Pikes Peak.  Crossed the Continental Divide and then descended into Utah and Nevada.

We spent a night in Reno.  Dad was intrigued I think by the idea.  It was the era of the Rat Pack. Vegas was a sort of Mecca and Reno, not so far from Sacramento, was the next best thing.  

The lights.  The hype.  The neon signs.  It even made an impression on me.  I remember my sister Debbie being the babysitter us while Dad tried his luck in the casinos.  Chris remembers she and Debbie having their own room — the height of luxury — while Dad and Dan and I were destined to bunk together..  Hamburgers for dinner in the hotel room?  Not sure why THAT is in my head or if it’s what we ate but, again, memory works in funny ways and that’s what I tell myself.   

It was a different world.  At the restaurant in the morning there were even slot machines at the booth.  A few coins may have been slipped into those one-eyed bandits by a few underage gamblers but we avoided the long arm of the law and on we went, eventually making it to California.  

In California Mom was waiting for us and it was great to see her and Aunt Joan and Uncle Ray and their family.  My cousins Mike and Rick were older, closer to Debbie and Dan and Chris in age.  I don’t recall that they had a lot of time for their youngest cousin but they really were nice kids. 

It was very hot while we were there.   And I of course sought relief and what better way than to enjoy the cold air of the stand-up freezer at the house.  When I was discovered… eventually… enjoying my own air-conditioning I was informed that this was NOT the proper use of a freezer like this.  Ah well.  What did I know?  I was only 8, after all.  It seemed a good idea at the time. I was reminded for years after, however, of how Aunt Joan couldn’t figure out why the ice cream and other frozen items were so soft until my creative problem solving came to light.   

While there Debbie dyed Aunt Joan’s hair blonde.  That was quite the event.  And Chris remembers that our cousin Mike was dating Linda — who later became his wife.  Chris remembers visiting Linda’s family’s home and was impressed with both their kidney-shaped pool and  their sunken living-room.  Both exotic when compared to the houses we knew!

 We weren’t just in Sacramento, though.  We explored.  We visited San Francisco.  There was Alcatraz prison out in the bay.   We wandered along Fisherman’s Wharf and even sampled frog  legs — at least some did — I don’t recall being convinced to try them!  We went to Disneyland too. What an adventure that was!  

We sailed on the Nautilus —the submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — and while in the “depths”  a giant squid eye pressed against the window in front of us.  There was Davy Crockett’s FrontierLand, Mark Twain riverboats, and Mike Fink keelboats.  And I seem to recall that a coonskin hat (tail and all) and a Davy Crockett-style tomahawk left the park with me.

We saw rockets to the moon in Tomorrowland and there was the Magic Kingdom with all the wonderfully iconic characters that are the heart of Disney.   The castle was impressive to my eyes then and when visiting Disney World with the Tjiama and Joe and the grandkids this past November it was still as entrancing.   Disney is woven into our lives in many ways and I’m so glad we saw it first when I was old enough to remember and young enough to be entranced.  

We visited Lake Tahoe as well and I remember more than anything just being impressed by the beautiful setting and striking blue water.  I think some of the older kids even did some water skiiing (though I think the water was cold even in summer) and Debbie buried me in the sand untill only my head was still exposed. 

Eventually, of course, we had to head home.  But even then there was a bit of adventure.  We had to cross Death Valley.  The name alone conjures up powerful images but there had  also been a TV show —  Death Valley Days — that left no doubt about the dangers of that stretch of inhospitable desert  I seem to recall that we got up super early — we might have spent the night in Bakersfield — to set off before the heat became too intense.  (How Dad wrangled all of us into the car before the sun was over the horizon is beyond me.)

The ride after that fell into a certain rhythm.  I think that by then our thoughts had begun to turn to home.  By now we were seasoned travelers content to let the miles pass us by, each one bringing us closer to the comfort of the familiar.  I’m sure we made a few stops.  They just don’t come to the front of mind as I write this.

I do recall as we got closer and closer Dad was picking up the pace.  I think he too was eager to get home.  One night as we drove and it was getting later II may have been urging…somewhat insistently and probably in a less than charming whine….that I was tired and wanted to stop.  We were in Nebraska and I think Dad may have harbored illusions of driving on through to Minnesota. But that wasn’t going to be.  

The encounter with the highway patrol didn’t help.   Dad’s foot might have become just a bit too heavy.  Dad tried valiantly to play the “dad traveling cross country with his kids and just trying to them home tonight” card and the officer took one look at all of us in the car and I’m sure we DID look pathetic.  But not enough to keep him from issuing a ticket that did little to foster an upbeat mood 

And, as I continued to make my own unhappiness know, and as  — like a mini-Wall Drug-style campaign —  small heart shaped signs kept announcing the ever-decreasing distance to Valentine, Nebraska, Dad folded.  And we pulled in to the Valentine Inn…or some similarly named spot….for the night.

Now who among us hasn’t wanted to experience the delights of Valentine Nebraska.  Right?  I really couldn’t fathom the somewhat grudging — well, really grudging perhaps for some of our number — acceptance of what seemed a great idea. 


I’ll just add here that sister Chris recalls the spot as somewhat charming (and of course I’d never argue with her memories of the night)..  Perhaps it seemed to her to be a throwback to an earlier era.  She remembered lamp shades with covered wagons and old west themes.  I’m glad she remembers it that way.  

I seem to recall, however, that it was not quite so charming and that at some of our group — Debbie perhaps?  — seemed to be silently blaming me for lousy beds, a dingy room, a less than stellar bathroom and more.  The food, I was told wasn’t too hot either, but I don’t recall that as I fell asleep before the food we ordered could even be collected. I really was tired! 

In the light of a new day, however, we made a new beginning.  We were only hours now from home and the less than perfect last night on the road couldn’t dim that excitement and I think every one of us was glad to be back in our own rooms and home at last even though it had been an incredibly adventure.  

Andy came along a few months later and then Martha followed in 1964.  Our family grew and changed and I realize now that that trip with Dad was, for my older siblings and me, in many ways the final chapter of a period in our lives.   That summer was ours.  It belonged to us.  There would be other road trips but never again one involving the entire family like this.  It had been something unique.  Just us, and Dad, and the road.  

It was a once in a lifetime journey that only Chris and I are now left to recall.  

“Do You Believe in Magic?

“Which musicians or bands have you most liked seeing live?” was the Storyworth question this week. The answer, for me, was easy.


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The date was  November 27, 1966.    My brother Dan pulled up in front of our house at 2077 Jefferson Ave, in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He was driving his old 1950’s Cadillac.  Not sure of the exact model but this picture comes close.

I remember that the engine was noisy and it was a stick shift — my Dad’s cars were always automatics.  The inside was beat up a bit, but it still had a “feel.”  It WAS, after all, a Caddie.  And, from my perspective as a 13 year old kid-brother it was pretty darn cool.  


Dan was 21 years old at the time.  The eight-year difference in our age meant that we hadn’t been playmates or particularly close growing up — though we did share a bedroom for many years when I was small.  And, in truth, at that point in our lives he was a bit of an unknown to me.  I know he had had a rough few years after his best friend was killed in a biking accident while they were roommates at St John’s College.  But, even if I didn’t really “know” Dan at that point in his journey, he was still my big brother.  


And that was enough to make this day special.   Just as it had been when I was smaller and he gave me a glimpse into the world that he he shared with his buddies — the big kids.  Whether it was him letting me into one of the shacks he and his friends had built out of scrap lumber or tolerating my “help” when it came time to create the backyard skating rink in the winters, I treasured those moments of connection.  


And now…my big brother had invited me to go with him to a concert.  My first ever.  The Lovin’ Spoonful were at the peak of their popularity and we were going to go see them play at the Minneapolis Convention Center.  It was a Sunday afternoon.  

I couldn’t have been more excited.  Not only to see the Lovin’ Spoonful play…but because my big brother was taking me.  At thirteen that trip across the river to Minneapolis and the Convention Center seemed pretty magical and intimidating all at once; the crowd, the noise, the excitement. But Dan had it covered and I just followed his lead.  

To this day, I don’t know what led him to ask me to come with him but, because he did, it made my first concert my most memorable, without a doubt.  There have been better musicians and probably more dynamic performances that I’ve seen over the years but that doesn’t matter.  It was me and my brother.  And it was cool.

I don’t recall what we talked about.   In those days,  I talked a lot (and yes, I know, I still do).  Dan less so.  Certainly later in life he learned the art of asking questions…he was often non-stop.  I think he was interested in hearing the answers, but also, the more questions you ask, the less you have to talk about yourself.  Not sure if that was his strategy but it worked for him.  


But that day as we sat in the Convention Center we didn’t have to talk — just listen.  They played “Summer in the City,”  “Do You Believe in Magic,” Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind,” “Other Side of This Life,” and “You Didn’t Have to be So Nice”  to name just some of the set list.  Oh….and they played  “Daydream” too (a song I used to play on the guitar while our sister Chris sang and our Dad thought it was about the best thing he’d ever heard — but that’s another story).


In the music that day we began to find a certain common denominator that became an even stronger connection over the next few years.  It opened doors for us to know each other in ways that I might not have expected but for which I’m grateful and that musical connection was important in giving us a way to build our relationship as I started to grow towards adulthood.  

Image result for the white album

I  remember Christmas 1968, for example, — the Beatles White Album had came out late in November and was one of the gifts waiting under the tree.And Dan and I sat down the basement later on Christmas Eve listening to it together, critiquing the songs and just enjoying the experience of sharing something special together.  


It wouldn’t be the last time we compared musical notes or shared artists we liked.  Chicago, Gypsy (from Minnesota), Blood Sweat and Tears, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills and Nash…so many new bands were coming on the scene..  It was an amazingly rich time musically and I can remember conversations about them all with Dan.  The questions gave way to commentary and insight.  His passion was clear. 


As I grew older we found more ways to bond and to know each other better and, for all our differences, I like to believe we were close.  And I miss him now very much.  He passed away — far too young — in 2007.  But I’ll always be grateful that he took the time to take his little brother to  a concert over a half century ago.   I’ll never forget it…or him.

     (Dan is far left, I’m on the far right…our Dad and younger brother           Andy are in the middle.)

“All Grown Ups Were Once Children”

“What is your best advice when it comes to raising children?”

That was this weeks question on the journey set for me by my daughter and it is, I fear, a touchy one. No matter how carefully you tread you are likely to step on someone’s cherished beliefs, deeply held convictions, and absolute certainty that they know the best way to raise a child because….after all…junior, of course, turned out to be perfect!  So let me offer a disclaimer at the outset.  I don’t claim to have any answers nor is this a critique of any approach to parenting.   Certainly, I don’t pretend to be the perfect parent or to know what’s right for anyone else and their child.  Hell, I’m not sure I ever knew what was right for ours.  But, stumbling, and unsure, and constantly bewildered though I may have been, I tried.  And that is the starting point.  You have to try.

When our kids were small, we didn’t have the internet to turn to. Alexa and Google and the countless website that now are ready to counsel us, weren’t a “go to.”  And that’s probably good.  Wisdom about child raising is far from consistent and what we believe today will likely be replaced by a new theory tomorrow.   There are those truisms that were once “gospel” but that we cringe when we hear today.   ”Spare the rod and spoil the child.”  “Children should be seen and not heard.”  Remember those?

In the 1920’s there were experts who told you not to hug or kiss your baby.  And that argument made a comeback in the 60’s when one pediatrician even warned that showing the baby love will make them a socialist.  God forbid! 

It was also argued in the 20s that you needed to avoid giving your child a “soft” name if you wanted to raise a child with backbone and strength.  

Then there was a pamphlet published by the U.S. government in 1932 that suggested one should start toilet training their baby immediately after they were born.  (Wonder how THAT worked out for folks!) 

 In the 1930s there was a strong push as well to ensure that babies got fresh air and what better way than window baby cages.  (NO…I’m NOT kidding). 

Thumb-sucking kids?  In the 40’s paint a mixture of acetone and cayenne pepper on the offending digit was seen as the way to cure the problem.  In the 60s? The answer was to let them suck away as much as they wanted.

Yep…tons of advice out there.  Bathe the infant with lard.  Give them coffee at six months.  Bath them three times a day (1920s) or twice a week (1970s).  The list goes on and on.  And today?  Even more complicated.  Be engaged — no, wait — don’t be a helicopter parent.  Give your child autonomy — no, wait — your child needs your guidance.  Encourage kids to be comfortable with offering and receiving love — no, wait — never push them to hug or kiss because they need to know they’re in charge of their bodies.  

There is nothing easy about any of this.  Do it all.  Watch out for everything.  Manage screen time, build human connections, adapt to a changing world, changing norms, changing technologies.  All this has an impact on our kids and how we raise them.  And I thought it was hard for my generation!

But then, today you only need to check Google and it will tell you the four parenting styles are “authoritarian,” “permissive,” “uninvolved” and “authoritative”  (Hint:  the last one is the good one, I’m told).  Which one are you?  Had I been asked that question, the answer would have been…”I don’t know.”  And, to be honest, depending on the day, the issue, the child, and my stress levels, the answer could have been any of the above.

So…I’m not big on theories about this  And I’m far from confident about offering advice or guidance.  But there are a few things that seem to me as clear and as “right” as breathing. At least for me.  And that’s the best I can do.

Try” is one of them.  You were part of bringing this child into the world.  You owe it to them to try.  To care.  To guide, nurture and give them your best, even if it may not always be perfect.  You owe it to them to give them love.

And not just love but unconditional love.  Love when they’re small and helpless and depending on you.  Love when they’re 40 years old.  Love forever.  They are always your child.  And your love matters.  No matter what.  I’ve often said…and I believe it to be true…  you don’t always have to like your kids (though I do…really), but you do always have to love them.  No matter what.  It was in the small print of the contract we signed when they came into our lives.  Don’t breach the contract.  

It isn’t that hard though.  That’s the beauty of parenthood.  Why is it that when we hold that infant child in our arms our hearts grow bigger and the spot assigned for them is filled.  A spot we didn’t even know was empty until they came along.  And with each child, we find that there is still more room in our hearts.  For them.  And then for their partners.  And for our grandkids.  Love is pretty cool that way.  Remember that.  And always, always, offer love — even when wisdom and patience and other virtues may be in short supply.  

Listen.  Our kids always seemed to have dreams.  They had ideas.  Passions.  They had fears, and hopes.  They had goofy stories to tell.  They could be crushed by childhood betrayals.  Crestfallen because of an embarrassing moment.  Devastated by a mistake, thrilled at a victory, excited by a new adventure, or just wired with too much sugar.  But, no matter the trigger, our kids could talk.  They could talk a lot.  I can’t swear I always “heard” ever word, but I tried to listen.  That’s part of parenting too.  

Be There. Be glad when your children come to you…at any age.  Make it easy for them to do so.  I’d like to say be a friend, but at the end of the day they don’t need you to be their friend — they need you to be their parent.  Someone they can turn to — knowing you won’t judge, but confident you will listen and, when needed, advise.  I’m still thrilled if my kids ask for my views..and I’m happy to share them…but we also have to learn not to be offended if they chose another path.  The reality is that our children are not going to be our clones.  They will find their own way and their own answers.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t guide nonetheless.  

Be their moral compass until the day comes when they can rely on their own.  Help them to learn by your example what is right and what isn’t.  What it means to be kind, to be compassionate.  Let them see by your example what love is.  What decency is.  And let them learn from your failings and weaknesses and mistakes —we all have them and we all make them.  How we handle them, though, is what matters.  They say that kids close their ears to advice but open their eyes to example.  Set the right one.

Remember the power of your words.  I believe that our words matter (even if kids don’t always listen to them).  Words have tremendous power.  The power to convey love.  The power to inspire.  To comfort.  To bolster confidence.  And also the power to hurt.  To be judgmental or dismissive or hurtful.  Even if that is not what is intended.  Think before you speak.  Words spoken to a seven year old can be remembered…and quoted back to you….decades later.  Words that are.remembered long after you forgot they were ever uttered.  Try to ensure that they are words you want to be remembered.  What you say matters…sometimes more than you know.  

“All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.”  Those are words from “Le Petit Prince.”  There is value in them.  Find your inner child.  Let it peek out now and then.  Play with your kids.  Be silly.  Remember the simple joys which hold a tremendous power of their own.  

About 2500 years ago a Greek philosopher observed that:

Raising children is an uncertain thing; success is reached only after life of battle and worry.”

Democritus

I don’t know that the story has changed much since then.  It’s too bad but, although we as human have built a cumulative storehouse of experience about so many things over the centuries, wisdom about the right way to raise our children does not seem to be included in that compendium of knowledge.  So we all struggle.  We all start anew with our families and we hope.  Whether it is baby cages or lard baths, or helicopter-parenting or just letting the kids raise themselves like a pack of wolf cubs, we all have to figure out what works for us.  

I can’t say that I found the “right way,” but somehow I found my way.  Far from perfect, far from a plan…it was just the best I could do.  And, somehow, our kids survived my ad hoc parenting (fortunately they had Leija’s parenting to balance mine) and they grew into adults that we love, cherish and yes, like.  Very much.  

Maybe it had something to do with us. Or maybe it was luck. 

But isn’t that what it is for most of us?  A lot of love, a bit of luck, and an undying hope that maybe, just maybe, it will all work out in the long run.   

“If Bullshit Was Snow…” And other memories of my Father

I guess it is only fair that, if I wrote about my mother last week, that this week’s question is about my memories of my father. In some ways it’s a tougher question to address.

It’s not that my Dad wasn’t memorable. It’s just that dads in the 50’s and 60’s were very different than dads of today. Moms were the nurturers. The caregivers. Dads were supposed to be the providers, the disciplinarians and the remote, but powerful force behind all that unfolded.

But Dads were also being redefined by new models of fatherhood being served up by television which was starting to expand its influence.

We had Robert Young playing Jim Anderson in “Father Knows Best.” Hugh Beaumont as Ward Cleaver on “Leave it to Beaver;” Danny Thomas on “

Make Room for Daddy” and later Fred MacMurray as Steven Douglas raising his boys on “My Three Sons.” These TV dads were founts of wisdom, counsel, and, as needed, fair-minded but firm discipline offered with love. Yep…the networks served up some great role models.

The problem is that most of the dads of that era were watching other channels. At least I don’t remember any Jim Andersons or Ward Cleavers among the fathers I knew — and that includes my Dad. That’s not a bad thing. But it does meant that in talking about about my memories of my father, Joseph Salvador DeLisi, I can’t rely on the stereotypes to convey who he was.


My Dad was thirty years old when I came along and he was already “broken in” as a Dad by my older siblings, Debbie, Dan, and Christine. I am sure he had to work to figure us out — we were all very different — but we had to work to figure him out too. He wasn’t always an open book and the challenge was compounded by the fact that Dad was busy as a fruit and vegetable wholesaler building a new business, and a new future, for his growing family.

He’d be up at 4 or 5 AM and some days even earlier. I don’t recall him ever being home when we left for school because he’d already be at the warehouse where semis with loads of lettuce or cantaloupes or boxcars filled with tomatoes or oranges waited to be unloaded and where trucks needed to be dispatched to retailers across the Twin Cities or further afield to Duluth, or Mankato, or Red Wing or into neighboring Wisconsin.

To his credit he’d be home in time for dinner, almost without fail, but he would already have worked a 12 -13 hour day. Once dinner was over and he’d settled into his chair in front of the TV, sleep would inevitably claim him before long. I remember we used to giggle over his snoring. Imitating him from time to time. My mother would nudge him and say “Joe, why don’t you just go to bed” He’d startle, and then insist he was awake…watching the show.

We knew better. But maybe he wanted to feel like part of the family. Maybe he wanted to have that time with us even if he struggled to stay awake. I’m not sure. But there was a comfort in his presence whether he was awake or not.

As a little boy, I thought of my dad as kind and big and strong. I loved it when he’d “make a muscle” for me, flexing his bicep that showed the results of years of hard work as a produce man. I can remember the thrill as he’d throw us over his shoulder calling out “who wants a sack of flour” as he carried me around the house until he bounced me down on the couch. Some years later he’d still make that muscle for my little brother and sister and I can still hear him singing the Popeye the Sailor Man.

I remember him giving us whisker rubs (even five minutes after shaving his stubble was already coming back). I remember him challenging us not to laugh, then making us giggle uncontrollably just be looking at us and starting to laugh himself. And I recall how sitting on his lap he’d smell of a combination of the filterless Lucky Strikes he smoked for years and Old Spice after shave. It was a smell that was Dad. A smell that meant comfort.

I’d love to go with him to the warehouse on Sundays when he’d stop to check the banana rooms or to maybe help a customer who needed to pick up a few items. There might be a wild rides through the semi-darkened warehouse on a “two-wheeler.” I’d hold on tight ad Dad tipped me back, and off we’d race. Then I could usually cajole a dime for the old Coke machine (or better yet sometimes he’d produce the key and open it up exposing the bottles of coke and orange and grape crush….maybe bubble-up too.

The fact that Dad was the family chauffeur (Mom never learned to drive until much later in life) also gave us time together. t was Dad who’d also do the grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon and I’d often join him. We’d go to Foodland and he’d visit with the owner (Louis Lipschultz, who was also a customer of Dad’s) while I waited patiently to see if I couldn’t get a treat or two added to the cart as we patrolled the aisles, Mom’s list in hand.

We’d stop at the butcher shop owned by George Gaudet who, with his son, had a store at the corner of Grand and Fairview in St. Paul. We’d park in the lot behind the store and enter through the back door emerging by the cold case full of cold cuts, beef, pork, chicken and lamb. My Dad would tell George what he needed and I’d watch as the packages wrapped in butcher paper and sealed with what seemed like masking tape piled up on the counter. (We ate a lot of meat in those days

And it was Dad who took me to the library and waited. never complaining, as I browsed the books to find my latest haul of great reads and on all those rides he patiently listened to me talk…and I talked a lot.

There are so many little things that come to mind as I write this. I remember our summer trips to Gull Lake. Not every year but when I was small we did go pretty routinely. I remember him and my mother singing their silly old songs on the road trip up to Brainerd. (I sing them still). And then, as we got closer, we beg Dad to “go fast” on the “roller coaster road” that led to the Breezy Point resort and we’d squeal with delight as we parted company with our stomachs on the dips and rises.

At the lake the days were full but relaxed. We’d fish together, along with my Mom, for sunfish. We’d go out in the boat. Sit on the sand. Play games. Go to the marina to get gas and candy. My mom would make fudge. Those days at the lake were special and all the more so because we had Dad all day long for days on end — and he was awake!

One summer though, my father went above and beyond normal Dad duty and I realize in retrospect that he had far, far more patience than I ever appreciated. The summer of ’61 he actually drove us four kids (this was before my younger brother Andy was born or baby sister Martha) to California and back try himself if the summer of ’61. (Mom was pregnant and had to fly but the rest of us made the trip overland). He never once threatened to turn back or to abandon us in the Rockies or on a lonely desert trail. The trip was actually…fun.

 I remember stopping at the Rushmore Caves and Wall Drug and at other tourist attractions that caught the attention of a carful of kids ranging from 8 to 17. There was fast food…diners…. hotels. Disneyland. Adventures. We drove across the nation in our wood paneled Chevy (I think) station wagon, Dad’s arm out the window, the smoke from his cigarette streaming out and him enjoying, I think, the drive with his family around him. Pretty impressive for a Dad in those days. Pretty impressive for a Dad these days, too, I think.



With each passing year, I think he became more sure of himself as a Dad, but there were some things that he never quite mastered. He was a sucker for Christmas and followed my mother’s lead jin making Christmas special for us all but the tree decorating was not something he ever truly loved and there may have been more than a few muttered curses in trying to make those freshly cut scotch pines or whatever tree was their choice that year fit into an uncooperative tree stand. But that’s another set of stories for another time.

I do recall, however, that one year, when my sister Debbie wasn’t going to be home for Christmas for the first time that tears that would fill his eyes as “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” played. I was 12 or so at the time and I realized — perhaps for the first time, that there were more emotions at play than I had ever realized.



When you’re a kid it’s hard to see our parents as people rather than just your parents. And I realized not long ago that there’s so much that I really don’t know about him…even though as the years went on I got more glimpses of him as a person than just as my Dad.

It was a challenge because Dad wasn’t always a great communicator. It’s not that he was taciturn. He just didn’t share a lot and, if he did, it wasn’t always very personal.

And, as I thought about this, I realized I don’t recall Dad telling us stories of his youth or offering us glimpses of who he might have been as a boy or young man. I don’t remember him ever driving us by his childhood home on Mt. Airy St. in St. Paul down by the Cathedral. Talking about his home life, sharing stories of his siblings, his parents, or his friends was not really in his wheelhouse. I wish they had been.

He was the child of an immigrant family who grew up in a tightly knit immigrant community. As the second born son, I think he always felt he had to prove himself. And my grandparents were not, I think, overly indulgent about “feelings.” Children did as they were told. There was a family hierarchy. Respect, discipline, deference, indeed were expected. Taking care of your own was a given. But…warm and fuzzy? Probably not at the top of the list of styles of family interaction.

But he was a good son and I remember him calling his mother almost every day when he got home from work. He’d speak to her in the Sicilian dialect that he grew up with. I can still hear him say “Hey Ma, Chefai” (Hey Ma, what are you doing?) as he called her on the wall phone in the kitchen.


He and I struggled at times to find our connection when I was small. He had been an athlete. So was my older brother. Me…not so much. He had been class president in high school and football team captain. He payed hockey and baseball. He was a big deal.

I was shy. Sensitive — to a fault. I’d rather be reading than be part of a group. I played sports more for him than for me. We were not, I feared, a match made in heaven.

Our relationship was never bad. And though it did take us time to find our sweet spot, we did. And I’ll always be grateful for that.

Together we went to ballgames at the old Met Stadium. We’d see the Twins play and have lunch at the Parker House — a favorite of his in Mendota — before the game. And we’d sit through icy cold Viking games in December in Minnesota and, even if I was chilled to the bone, I didn’t complain — I was there with my Dad!

And at one point, when I was in my 20s and had gone back to school and on to law school — my Dad told me that he had wanted, before WWII and then the responsibilities of a family intervened, to get his college degree and to be a lawyer. That didn’t happen for him. But it did for his son. And I think he was proud. And that, felt good.

When he would come to visit us at some of our foreign postings — and for a guy who feared flying more than I could fathom that was really something for him to do — I saw in him a spirit of adventure and intellectual curiosity that I had not appreciated before. And I saw him charm Sri Lankans and Tswanas and others as readily as he did his customers in St. Paul. I was proud he was my Dad. I was proud to be his son.

He may not have said it much…expressing feelings was never his strong suit…but he showed his love in countess ways. And when he told a friend one day that “if bullshit was snow, Scottie would be a blizzard” the love and pride that I know lay behind those words filled my heart.

I wrote the other day about the importance of living up to my mother’s example and expectations in shaping how I conducted myself as a diplomat. But my father’s example — his kindness, decency, and civility — the respect that he showed all he engaged, no matter their station in life — is equally a part of who I am today.

And, as I write about these memories, I can’t help but wonder what words my own kids might put to paper some day. But that’s for the future. For today, I’ll linger a bit longer in the past, revisiting the memories of my Dad. They’re warm and inviting and call me to stay for a bit…and so I will.


Though She Be But Little, She Be Fierce

So… our darling daughter thought an appropriate Xmas gift for her tired old parents was to make them work.  She decided to give us the gift of StoryWorth, compelling us to comb our memories every week to answer —- in writing — questions about our lives that can be shared with our family and, at the end of the year, published.  Hmmm. 

Seems like a good idea to some, perhaps, but combing my memory seems, at times, as futile as combing the hair on top of my head….which, of course, has long since flown the coop just like many of my memories.   Perhaps they’ve taken up residence in the Islands (it’s a snowy day here so my thoughts flee to warmer climes).  

It feels like it could be a futile exercise.  But, because it’s our daughter…and because I’ve never shied from a challenge, I will try nonetheless.

The question of the week was about my memories of my mother when I was a child.  Now that I am relieved to say, is something about which I do have a few memories.  And, my revenge on the whole Storyworth concept, is to write so much that they’ll have to publish my commentaries in multiple volumes when the year ends!  We’ll see how I fare.

So, let me turn to the subject at hand.   

When my mom passed a few years ago, we included in her memorial program a quote from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  “Though she be but little, she be fierce.”  It was fitting. I think.  She never topped 5’2’’ — even on her best day of wishful thinking. 

And she could be fierce, especially when reminded of her stature.  But I don’t ever really recall her being fierce with me.  

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 I was the fourth of six kids — and the baby for 8 and a half years.  I think my older siblings thought at times I was her favorite…you know how it can be with the “baby,” right?  I’m don’t think that was necessarily true.  I’d argue that each of us just related to her in a different way.


I was the kid who went shopping with her.  She didn’t drive, so we’d ride the bus together.  We’d catch it at the corner of St. Clair and Snelling in St. Pul (and later as Cleveland and St. Clair when we had moved to the Highland – Groveland neighborhood).  We’d ride it down St. Clair to 7th St.  and then on to the heart of downtown.  

We’d go to the Emporium, or Field-Schlick or the Golden Rule (later bought by Donaldson’s) and to Schuneman’s (later acquired by Dayton’s) and it was there that we would almost always have lunch at the “River Room.”  (It became fancier over time, especially after taken over by Dayton’s, but the clubhouse sandwiches remained a classic).

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That was one of the treats.  A reward for my patience as I’d sit quietly and read a book as she tried on clothes.  I was a pretty good kid to bring along on these outings and I still remember always ordering a clubhouse sandwich (held together with toothpicks with colorful cellophane frills), French fries, and a coke.  There was something about that combination.  Mmmmm

I remember Mom reading to me at bedtime. Books and poetry, that  I talked about that in my first posting for StoryWorth   She sang too…often colorful songs many of which had been taught to her by her mother…”Babes in The Woods,” “Puddin’ Head Jones,”

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“Little Man You’re Crying,” “Bury Me Out on the Prairie,” “Five Little Fiddlers,” …there were plenty of them.  


She took the time to listen to me even though there were times she couldn’t quite figure out what I was saying (s’s and f’s were my particular nemeses — she would always tell about how I told her about how I love her “hudge” and wanted a “hecond” piece).  She helped me with my school projects — (I still remember a poster she helped me create in the first grade for the the school carnival.  It used the “Campbell Kids” (who sold Campbell soup in  the ads) and I was so proud of having something artistic that I wasn’t embarrassed by (scissors and paster were never my forte).  

For the All Saints Day pageant at school,  she even managed to convince me that since there was no St. Scott, I could be St. Henry (my middle name is Henry).  Now St. Henry was not, as I recall, a particularly exciting character, and the St. Henry costume didn’t quite fly (kids CAN be cruel – smile) …but she tried.  And I wore it because….well because my Mom made it.

That costume may not have been inspired but she rocked when it came to Halloween costumes.   She loved to come up with those…and some were quite elaborate.  I remember that I was six or so she had me in blackface (don’t judge, it was a different world then) or dressed as a little old lady..  There was always something in her bag of tricks it seems and I was her willing subject.   

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She was a great cook too but occasionally tried in vain to convince me (and some of my other siblings) that Brussel sprouts were truly edible and that beets (which she made for my dad who loved them) were truly not the food of the devil.  She accepted her occasional defeats in this area with patience (I don’t recall any desserts being denied).  

She had greater successes though with other dishes. Her breaded veal was incredible. Her goulash was a delight. Baked spaghetti, her mom’s recipe, was a Lenten treat. Mac and cheese? Wonderful. For breakfast there were soft boiled eggs with a dab of butter melted in them. There was bananas, sugar and cream which was another morning treat — even for a guy was wasn’t a great banana fan.

There was sugar bread  as a treat midday (butter on bread with sugar sprinkled on top).  And there were lettuce mayonnaise (Miracle Whip) and cheese ((Kraft Old English cheddar) sandwiches which I just loved to eat while watching Lunchtime with Casey — and Mom would make sure I was home for lunch in time to see it if I was outside at play.  

And I still recall how on Saturday mornings, when I got up to watch the cartoons that began at the crack of dawn,  there would be a bowl of popcorn waiting for me in the oven — left over from the Friday night treat I missed because I went to bed too early.

I remember making Mom laugh (it was always great if we got her to snort) and sitting together and playing gin rummy or casino or cribbage.  She taught us all Zioncheck, and Triploli and Hearts.  Life was good.

Of course I can’t think of Mom without her countless sayings coming to mind.  Crazy, sometimes silly sayings — “That will last from 12 o’clock ’til noon.” Sayings that were carryovers from her own childhood in many cases.  My siblings and I even compiled a list of Gloryisms — as we came to call them — for her 90th birthday celebration.  I look at them from time to time.   But I don’t need to look — they are ingrained to such  a degree that I couldn’t forget them if I tried.   

I still want to say “If it was a wolf it would have jumped up and bit you” when someone complains they can’t find their glasses sitting right in front of them (OK..maybe that was me who couldn’t find his glasses).   Or, I still recall how we’d be told “your eyes were bigger than your stomach” if we left that extra helping of pasta we had begged for on our plate.  There are many — many —  more.  They were….Mom.

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These are some of the memories that flood back as I cast my mind back sixty years or so  and reflect on my mother.

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She was there.  She listened. She cared.  She loved.   And I’m grateful she was mine.

Someone once asked me about what made me a good diplomat.  I’d answer that I always had an image of my mother sitting on my shoulder as I considered my choices and if I risked stepping off the path that reflected my core beliefs about decency, humanity and respect for others,  she’d remind me…”Scotty, I taught you better than that.”  And she did.

Late in her life, my mother wrote, in response to a series of questions not dissimilar to the types of questions I may confront this year, that she wondered if she had had an impact; — if she would be remembered.   

I like to think that if she could read this now she’d know her answer.