In search of story


The dad thing

There were some good lines in M*A*S*H. One in particular was spoken by my favorite character, Winchester, when he said to Hawkeye something like “You’re lucky: you have a dad. I have a father.” He said his father was a good man, a good father, but that was different from being a dad.


I had a dad. It wasn’t that he was the warm cuddly type; he wasn’t. He was a bit distant and certainly undemonstrative (except when Notre Dame played), but still he was a dad. And I’ve known other dads with daughters; I’ve seen the bond, part genetic and unavoidable, part deliberate and conspiratorial. Despite the occasional head-butting, there remains between them an invisible wink which says “We rule!”

My son was a stay-home dad when his daughter was born, and they enjoyed each other mightily. There was trust and security, yes, but also that mysterious shared scoff at the rest of the world.

She’s nine now, and last week they ran a race together, a race not to be first but to finish. That life lesson. The weather was hideous but there they were, in step, headed to the finish line, her bright pink duct-tape bow bobbing in the icy fog.

I look at the photo and I think of being in step with my dad those last years of his life, when it was Dad, me, and the dementia: the caregiver’s race with the inevitable. Dementia outruns the caregiver every time. But the life lessons apply, and it’s the running to the end that may, after all, be the winning.

Our dads probably taught us that.

Pretty In Pink and Mr. HuffNPuff:  life lessons

Pretty In Pink and Mr. HuffNPuff: life lessons


Life with teeth

I have a long history with dentists; it started, pre-flouride, with my baby teeth.

My first dentist drilled without novocaine. My fillings had fillings. So from about age four to twenty-two I went under the drill with white knuckles and a genuinely pathological resignation to pain.

As an adult, I sought dentists who used novocaine, and I blessed the drug. But then came dentist music: wailing saxophones, bleating vocalists. Or 50s with decibels. A whole new kind of pain.

Eventually I had a dentist who played classical music, quiet and subtle. For me, analgesic: calming, deep-breathing sounds. He retired, alas, and his younger associate took over — I like him despite his apparent aversion to eighteenth-century composers.

Last week he was taking an impression of my upper teeth. A messy procedure. He had shaped a tray — a goo-filled trough — just for me. I have geranium planters that are daintier than that tray was, but he was determined to fit it into my mouth. I could feel the goo coming out my ears, but still he worked it inward, upward.

At that moment, the 60s exploded on us. Drums! Guitars! Volcanic energy! And the smashing percussive intro led inexorably to that immortal question “Do you love me now that I can dance?”

I had a mouthful of construction equipment, but I couldn’t help myself: I started laughing. Would the goo settle in my lungs or hit the wall?

I conclude that schools of dentistry do not offer pertinent courses. The relationship between dentist music and patient disadvantage has not been studied. “The Trajectory of Goo as an Effect of Mid-Twentieth-Century Rock Music” is overdue as thesis.

I think the ADA should chew on that.



My son claims he brings his children to my house to de-tech. What does he mean by that? I have a radio! As a matter of fact, I have FIVE radios, and four of them work! Plus a laptop! And a cellphone — never mind that my grandchildren view it with contempt because it doesn’t have apps. (When they get uppity about such things, I tell them about my single-phone childhood. They can imagine worlds with multiple moons, but not a home with only one phone; their eyes glaze over and I hear no more about my primitive ways.)

However, I do not have television, and the closest thing I have to any kind of digital game is an old Fisher-Price gizmo with a crank on the side that makes Dumbo fly. The closest thing to a big screen is an Ansel Adams print. Apparently, then, there are cultural gaps at Grandma’s House.

I do not apologize.

It is good that I don’t have television; television plays to my prodigiously lazy side and makes me contentedly numb. It costs more than it’s worth to me. So my grandchildren have books, paper, pencils. Seems enough.

It is good that I don’t have push-button games. My grandchildren build cities out of cardboard boxes and tents out of chairs and blankets. They race paper airplanes and labor over origami. They jump flowerpots and mine for silver in the back yard.

It is good that I have other technologies: ice cream scoop, knife sharpener, jar opener, for instance. They appeal to my grandchildren’s fascination with archaeology.

This is the place where their tomorrows meet my yesterdays, their time intersects with mine. It’s life. Technology is just along for the ride.

Grandma tech

Grandma tech


Hymn and her

Recently I happened to hear “The Church in the Wildwood,” an old hymn-like song which Mom used to sing. Suddenly, involuntarily, I was grappling with the mysteries of my incongruous parents and was reflecting on their summer vacations in places where their dads grew up. Places in their hearts.

Mom’s place was deep in the hills of North Carolina, where she conversed with cows, ate cornbread baked on bacon, and attended her grandparents’ Baptist church, where she sang “he walks with me and he talks with me” and kept a wary eye on the tobacco-chewers who tried to spit through the open windows. Like the rest of us, they aimed for heaven but often fell short. Dark splatted stains told how short.

Dad’s place was Jeffersonville, IN, on the Ohio River, an adventuresome train ride from his northern Indiana home. He reveled in his Huckleberry Finn summers despite the liquid air of the river town. He hailed the paddleboats and cavorted with myriad cousins. Everyone to Sunday mass where Dad’s meditative pastime was watching women faint. Latin, stained glass, flowing-robed statues. Spitting not an option.

Their childhood summers flavored their lives. Mom was Catholic but was unenthusiastic about mass: ethereal, perhaps, rich in symbol and story, but also sterile and stiff. Mom’s heart was in the plain little church with the flesh-and-blood hymns. But Dad loved the mass; his heart was in the arched and sculpted texture of that contained world and in the rise and fall of plainsong. How eloquently that difference told about them.

And yet how much the same in the buoyance of those summers.

“So dear to my childhood,” says the old song. Roots in the heart, the prayers of our ancestors. The church in the Wildwood.