“Nowadays, when I look back on that day my dad died 50 years ago, what strikes me the most is not the memory of my own sadness, but the faces of the people who cared for me.”
My dad died 50 years ago today, January 15, 1971. I was nine years old. I remember walking home from Macarthur elementary school on that cold snowy afternoon in South Holland, Illinois. I was about half a block away from our house when my mom passed me in my dad’s red Chevy Malibu. She slowed the car and waved to me. I’ll never forget her face. She smiled but her eyes were sad.
As I came through the front door I could see my Nana in the family room, crying while she mopped the tiled floor. She paused when she saw me, still holding onto the mop, her cheeks stained with tears. My Papa milled about behind her, hands in his trouser pockets. He was crying too.
I made my way to the kitchen, where my mom and older sister had already gathered. My mom asked my sister and I to have a seat at the kitchen table. She sat across from us and said, “Your dad went to heaven today.” She’d obviously been crying but at this moment she was composed. She delivered the news gently but matter-of-factly. More than anything, she looked exhausted.
Learning of my dad’s death was not a surprise to me. He’d been in and out of hospitals for months, battling alcoholism the last several years of his life—a battle that had most likely begun before I was even born. In the years leading up to his death the battle that raged within our house and within his body was intense, violent, and bloody. Only after I became an adult did I understand my dad was just as much a victim of his addiction as my mom, sister, and I were.
Anyone who has lived with and loved an addict knows the particular, slow-motion horror of watching helplessly as the person you love is destroyed from within. It’s an epic battle that is sometimes won, and oftentimes lost. Thirty years after our dad’s death, as my sister and I took care of our mom while she was dying of cancer, I had the same feeling of watching someone being eaten alive from the inside. The difference between cancer and addiction is that most people find it easier to empathize with the person dying from cancer. It’s harder to empathize when the person suffering from addiction leaves behind a trail of arrest records, restraining orders, DUIs, totaled cars, gambling debts, barroom brawls, damaged careers, lost friendships, broken marriages, domestic violence, traumatized children.
It wasn’t until a therapist explained it to me in my early 30s that I came to realize I had grown up in a war zone. Looking at my childhood through that lens explained a lot of the things I experienced as a young adult—the sleepless nights, the nightmares, the anger that seemed to come out of nowhere, the feeling of not being able to trust my own happiness because I was in a perpetual state of high alert, bracing myself for the inevitable crisis that was most assuredly lurking around the next corner and would rear its ugly head the moment I allowed myself to relax.
The irony that I married a man who served 29 years in the Marine Corps, who deployed to geographic war zones while I continued to work to overcome the fallout of growing up in a familial war zone, has not escaped me. Of the two of us, I’m the one who startles easily, who needs to sit facing the exit in a restaurant, who remains vigilant when I have every reason to sit back and relax. On the upside, I tend to be extraordinarily calm in crisis situations. The ability to focus on practical matters during life’s various emergencies can be handy at times, yet that sense of calm in the eye of the storm also comes at a cost—unlike my husband, who’s very much in touch with his emotions in the moment, it often takes me days, weeks, months, or even years to come to terms with the normal range of emotions stemming from various life events.
Nowadays, when I look back on that day my dad died 50 years ago, what strikes me the most is not the memory of my own sadness, but the faces of the people who cared for me. In their eyes I saw concern, love, grief—not for themselves, but for the two little girls who just lost their dad. Remembering their faces is the thing that makes me cry. I imagine how difficult it must have been for them as parents and grandparents, the worry and responsibility they felt for the impact this day, and the years leading up to this day, would have on the lives of two little girls. Through them, I learned one of the most valuable emotions in life—after hope—is empathy. When bad things happen, it’s hope that propels us to keep getting out of bed every morning when our instinct is to stay burrowed underneath the covers, and empathy that allows us to close our eyes every night to slumber in peace, knowing we are not alone.
I’m 59 now, and still reminding myself to take that deep breath, live in the moment, embrace my own happiness. Because I have a lot to be happy for. Life continues to present us with challenges at every turn, as it does for all of us.And that’s another gift that cold snowy day in 1971 gave me—the knowledge in my bones that each of us is fighting an epic battle, that nothing is permanent, that hope and empathy sustain us.
In memory of my dad Ben Johnson (1931-1971), who died 46 years ago this January 15th.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
I don’t have many memories of my dad (your Papa) since he died when I was a kid. So when it comes to the memories I do have, I tend to hold onto them. Unfortunately a lot of those memories aren’t too warm and fuzzy, seeing that Papa was severely alcoholic in the years leading up to his death a few months after my 9th birthday. But there were good memories. And even some of the not-so-good memories are kind of funny now that Aunt Gerarda and I can recall them from a safe distance.
Most of my good memories are fleeting—moments in time that skate across my mind without much context. Like when my dad let me stand on his feet while he walked around the room taking exaggerated steps, holding my hands as I giggled and tried to hang on. Papa was 6’ 4”—tall and lanky—and I was a runt (according to him). He seemed like a giant to me.
Then there were the times he’d lie on the floor on his stomach and let us kids walk up and down his back. I thought he was letting us do it solely for the fun of it, but I later learned Papa was plagued with back problems and letting us walk on his back helped him feel better.
Speaking of my dad’s back, Papa was a big nap-taker. (Nana was too, which might explain Coleman’s penchant for napping.) I remember the time my dad was asleep on the family room couch, face down, shirt off, and one of my friends and I decided to play connect-the-dots on his back, using a marker to draw lines from freckle to freckle. (I’m pretty sure we got the idea from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. One can’t help but wonder how many other kids across America got the same idea?) Papa had a lot of freckles, providing us plenty of entertainment. I don’t remember how long he slept or what happened after he woke up. Maybe I blocked it out, because Papa could get pretty mad about things. If he yelled at us about it, we certainly wouldn’t have given him any back talk. (Get it? Back talk?)
If we were being punished for something when we were little, Nana usually made us sit in a chair facing a corner in the dining room. But Papa used a belt or a rolled-up newspaper on our behinds. Seeing him take off his belt when he was angry was not a good sign. I preferred the belt to the newspaper though. The belt hurt like hell, but with the newspaper we’d have to drop our pants so he could swat our bare butts. It didn’t hurt much but it was humiliating.
My dad was an imposing figure and I admit to being afraid of him at times. He kept a 20-gauge shotgun along with a bullwhip in the family room closet. (Yeah, you heard that right. Bullwhip. In the family room closet.) I saw these items every time I needed to wear a coat or use the vacuum cleaner—in other words, at least once a week if not daily. (The family room closet is also where my mom stashed her well-worn copy of Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker. It was supposedly hidden on the back of the top shelf underneath a pile of telephone books. But I found it when I was 11 or 12. Back then I eagerly awaited the nights Nana was working the floor at the Jerry Pals Real Estate office so I could return to Xaviera’s scandalous stories of life as a madam.)
Papa said he had the shotgun for shooting rabbits but there were plenty of rabbits in our yard and none of them were dead. (Speaking of the yard ask Aunt Gerarda about the time Papa was halfway through mowing the front lawn when he decided he was feeling a bit sleepy. On this particular summer day in the late 1960s, Papa turned off the mower and laid himself down in the grass for a nice long a nap. See, I told you our family likes to take naps.)
When my dad died in January of 1971, my mom gave the shotgun to his best friend, Uncle Ed Morrissey. I never saw that gun again until about 30 years later. I had recently finished writing the book about my dad, Live ’Til I Die, when the four of us traveled to Indiana to visit Uncle Ed and his wife Rosemary.
I hadn’t seen Uncle Ed since Aunt Gerarda and Uncle Dave’s wedding in 1980. During the rather lively after-party at Nana’s house, Gerarda and I noticed at one point Uncle Ed had disappeared. We ran outside into the late summer night and caught up with Uncle Ed, who was walking quickly to his car in an attempt to make an Irish Exit. (Uncle Ed and my dad were masters of the Irish Exit, a means of departure I find highly preferable to the hours-long goodbyes Dad and his side of the family seem to enjoy.)
Back to our visit with Uncle Ed and Rosemary in 2001 or thereabouts. We were sitting in the front room when Uncle Ed went into a back bedroom and came out with the shotgun. “Do you remember this?” he asked. The gun was still in its red and black leather case, exactly as I remembered it. Without even unzipping it, I could clearly picture the red fleece lining patterned with rustic drawings of hunters and various game birds (no rabbits though). “Oh yes, I remember this,” I told him. He placed the gun in my hands. “Here. You take it. It’s yours.”
My dad also owned a couple of handguns which he stored on the top shelf of my parents’ bedroom closet. (One can’t help but wonder why the shotgun and the bullwhip and The Happy Hooker weren’t also stored in the bedroom closet?) Unlike the shotgun, however, after my dad’s death my mom hung onto the handguns. That is until they were stolen in 1978, when I was a teenager. The robbery occurred two days after (and was no doubt related to) an epic party that had taken place at our house in South Holland. This unauthorized event (Nana and my step-father were on vacation at the time) involved approximately 200 or so of my closest high school friends along with a biker gang I hadn’t invited but who showed up anyway after they saw the cars up and down the block and people streaming in and out of the house. (Think Risky Business, except it’s the South Side of Chicago not the North Side, the Tom Cruise character is a girl, and instead of button-downs and Ray Bans the partygoers are wearing bell bottoms and puka shells.)
I have no idea whatever happened to my dad’s bullwhip. What a strange item to have in one’s family room closet growing up. I wish Nana was still here so she could tell us more about that. My guess (and Aunt Gerarda concurs) is that he most likely got it from someone he knew at the stockyards or while working one of the livestock exhibitions at the Amphitheater, which was next door to the stockyards.
As I’ve mentioned innumerable times, my dad had a very successful career—first as the assistant manager of the Amphitheater on Halsted Street and later as the director of special events at McCormick Place on Lake Shore Drive. In fact some of my best memories of my dad are of going to the various trade shows he ran at McCormick Place like the auto show, the boat show, the sportsman’s show, the housewares show, and the electronics show. I also have fond memories of going to his events at the Amphitheater like the flower show and the dog show.
Best of all were the times he took us to the rodeo and the circus at the Amphitheater. These memories are special because he would sit with us at the rodeo and the circus (if not for the entire show, at least part of it). Normally, at his other shows, we’d be with Nana while he ran around behind the scenes doing work stuff.
Speaking of shows at the Amphitheater, I am interminably jealous of Aunt Gerarda who was “there” when Nana saw Elvis Presley in concert. It was March of 1957—the first concert where Elvis wore the legendary gold lamé suit—and Nana was seated near the front with her parents (my Nana and Papa) while my dad worked backstage. In spite of the fact that she was six months pregnant with Gerarda, Nana stood on her chair the entire concert, along with 12,000 other screaming fans. Seeing as I am Elvis’s Number One Fan, it would have made a much better story if it was me inside my mom’s tummy that night instead of my sister, who I am sure doesn’t even like Elvis all that much.
Getting back to my dad’s career, he worked long hours, late nights, and since most of the shows went on weekends, he often worked Saturdays and Sundays too. Plus he traveled extensively on business. After his alcoholism started to get the better of him, he was in the hospital for long stretches of time the year or two before he died. Which is to say he wasn’t around very much in the nine short years I had with him.
One of the more indelible memories I have of my dad is the time he made creamed chipped beef on toast, aka Shit On a Shingle, for Aunt Gerarda and me. Nana was out somewhere and Papa was in charge of us that night—a highly unusual occurrence. That he cooked dinner for us made it even more memorable.
Shit On a Shingle, Papa-style
Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a saucepan over low heat. Oh hell, just turn up the heat to medium because Papa was impatient like that. While butter is melting pour yourself a cup of coffee leftover from this morning. It’s going to be a long night taking care of the girls; caffeine will help. On second thought make that half a cup of coffee and fill the rest of the cup with whiskey. Eleven-year old Gerarda has the chicken pox and she is not a happy camper.
When the butter is melted (whoopsie daisy, it’s a little on the burnt side), whisk in 2 Tbsp. flour to form a roux. As you’re standing at the stove making the roux (or trying to at least), the youngest curtain-climber (age 7, aka Nancy) is tugging at your pant leg asking if she can stand on your feet. That was all fun and games a few weeks ago but you have serious business to take care of. You tell the runt to go get herself a bottle of Coke from the garage even though Dorothy said the kids have already had their ration of one teeny-tiny glass of Coke per day. I can drink the entire bottle myself? she asks. Hell yeah. Get your sister a bottle too. She’s getting a little whiny about those damn chicken pox.
Whisk in 1½ cups warm milk. Forgot to warm the milk? It’s okay, dump it in there anyway. Oh, you’re supposed to add the milk gradually, a little at a time? No problem! Everybody loves lumpy Shit On a Shingle, right? Maybe a little whiskey will help smooth it out. If not, a little more whiskey in the coffee couldn’t hurt either.
Turn up heat on stove to medium. Oh yeah, it already is on medium. Crank that sucker up to high then. The runt is back by your side, holding a bottle of Coke in one hand and tugging at your pant leg with the other. Daddy, she says, Gerarda isn’t feeling so good. You glance behind you to see Gerarda sitting at the kitchen table, looking a little green, her bottle of Coke half-empty. You drank your damn Coke too fast! you tell her. No I didn’t, she says. I don’t feel good because I have the chicken pox!
You turn back to the stove. Were you supposed to be stirring the roux this whole time? Nevermind. Just scrape those brown bits from the bottom of the pan and mix them in with the roux, which is more like a glob at this point.
Runt is tugging at your pant leg again. Daddy, she says, Gerarda’s crying. What? You turn around to look at your oldest, who is in fact crying. Jesus H. Christ Gerarda! you say. How many times have I told you… Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.
This overly familiar pep talk only causes Gerarda to cry harder. Daddy, I don’t feel good! Here, you say, grabbing her half-empty Coke bottle and filling it with whiskey. Drink this. It’ll make you feel better. All of it? she asks. Yes. All of it.
While Gerarda attempts to chug her very first Whiskey and Coke at age 11—making retching noises behind you as she does so—try to focus on chopping 8 oz. dried beef (made right down the street at the Carl Buddig factory) and add it to the roux.
Daddy! This drink tastes terrible! Gerarda cries. Just finish it, you say without turning around. At this point take another swig of your “coffee” and proceed to add a shit ton—and I mean a SHIT TON—of pepper to the saucepan, until the entire mixture has become grayish in color. (In other words, until it looks completely unappetizing.)
Meanwhile, ignoring the runt tugging at your pant leg and the gagging noises Gerarda is making at the table, pop a couple pieces of bread in the toaster and when it comes up tell the runt to butter it while you put in two more pieces of bread. Now you hear whimpering and sniffling behind you but you refuse to turn around because there’s two more pieces of toast to be buttered and you’ve got shit to do.
Place a piece of toast on each of two plates for the girls, then place two pieces of toast on your own plate. Grab the saucepan and evenly distribute the lumpy, grayish gobs onto each piece of toast. Voila! You have now made Shit On a Shingle. Tell the runt to grab a plate and sit down. Holding your plate in one hand and Gerarda’s in the other, you finally turn around, only to find Gerarda, head resting on the kitchen table, completely passed out.
It’s hard to lose a parent at any age. No matter how old we are, a parent’s death affects us deeply and profoundly. Yet there’s something singular about losing a parent in the formative years, when our brains are at their most malleable. From that point forward, every moment in one’s life is experienced through the lens of loss. It shapes who we become, the career paths we take, the partners we choose, how we raise our children, our willingness to take risks and live life to the fullest. Because we know at any moment it can all be taken away from us. For better or worse, the parent we lost at an early age remains a compelling presence throughout the rest of our lives, reminding us that life is hard, life is unfair, life is transient.
The Saturday my dad took Aunt Gerarda and me on a spur-of-the-moment excursion to the Shedd Aquarium stands out in my mind as one of the more carefree memories I have of him. I don’t remember many of the specifics of that day. (Other than the fact that Nana was still asleep when we left the house and Papa didn’t leave her a note. And yeah, she was pretty pissed with him by the time we strolled through the door that night.) But I do remember the giddy excitement of being on an adventure with my dad.
In the many times I’ve returned to the Shedd since then—on school field trips, with friends, and later with all four of us when you kids were little—my feelings from that day have stayed with me. When I walk through the galleries of the original wings of the Shedd, marveling at the beautiful sea creatures from all over the world, what I remember most about that day with my father is the feeling of being loved. I didn’t really know that’s what it was at the time, but now that I’m a parent I understand. When a parent takes a child on an excursion to the zoo or the park or a ballgame or a museum, it’s not really about the destination. It’s what the parent is telling you by taking you on that adventure: “I love you. I care about you. And I want there to be more happy times in your life than sad times.”
I can’t say for sure if that’s what my dad had in his heart that day. If all he wanted was to go see the fish at the aquarium, he certainly could have gone without us, seeing as he left us in the dust more often than not. But something made him choose to take us with him that day. Somewhere deep inside him, he wanted to be a good parent.
In honor of my father in-law Bob McCarthy (1930-2007), whose birthday is today.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
When Grandpa Bob was alive and the McCarthy siblings entered adulthood, it became something of a tradition for the sons to take Grandpa on a golf outing for Father’s Day. These outings typically involved Uncle Chris, Uncle Steve, Uncle Tom, your dad, Uncle Larry, Uncle Emmett, Aunt Sue’s husband Donn, and Uncle Steve’s oldest son, your cousin Ian.
Eventually the Father’s Day golf outings in June were replaced by a night on the town to celebrate Grandpa’s birthday at the end of November. After Grandma Caryl died and Grandpa formed a new blended family with Grandma Pat, Grandma Pat’s sons also sometimes joined the get-togethers.
The evening would kick off with a nice dinner at a place like The Rosebud on Taylor Street or Fogo de Chao on North LaSalle. Dinner would be followed by a few stops at nearby bars before calling it a night. As you can imagine, when six Irish brothers hit the town with their Irish dad, raucousness generally ensues. Rumor has it the particular level of rowdiness correlated directly with the amount of alcohol consumed—mostly beer and Irish whiskey, from what I hear. (Unless the birthday dinner happens to be at Cuernavaca in Pilsen, where your dad swears he and his brothers invented the idea of mixing rum with Horchata, years before RumChata became a thing. Ben, I think you might have been in attendance on this particular night since you were living in Pilsen at the time.)
Speaking of beer and whiskey, one of Grandpa’s favorite drinks was a “shot and a beer,” also known as a boilermaker.
How To Drink a Shot and a Beer, Grandpa-style
Walk in the door to the house in South Holland and loosen your tie after a long day doing engineering stuff at the Sanitary District of Chicago—now known as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
(By the way, Coleman, you and several of your cousins most likely inherited your enginerd tendencies from Grandpa. As a Marine option in the Naval ROTC program at Marquette University in Milwaukee (where he and Grandma Caryl met), Grandpa earned his degree in civil engineering and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. During the Korean War he served as a combat engineer for 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, where, according to Grandpa, he and his fellow engineers dedicated themselves to building bridges, blowing up bridges, and then again building more bridges. After he got out of the Marine Corps Grandpa spent the remainder of his career at the Sanitary District, working on projects like Deep Tunnel, the largest public works project in Chicago history.)
Back to Grandpa’s shot and a beer. Go upstairs and change out of your business attire into something more comfortable, preferably a tattered shirt from the 1960s you refuse to get rid of and a pair of trousers that are even older than the shirt (probably mid-Century), which Grandma Caryl has mended at least 80 times. (There are plenty of new clothes in the closet but Grandpa prefers wearing the old stuff. Hmmmm, that sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
Enter the kitchen and say hello to Grandma Caryl, who’s standing at the stove making something delicious yet cost-conscious like meatloaf or split pea soup or chili mac (they did have seven kids to feed after all). Sit down at the kitchen table where your boilermaker is already poured and waiting for you: A shot of whiskey—sometimes Jim Beam but usually Kessler (or Kesslers as we say in Chicago)—and an ice-cold glass of either Carling Black Label (or Carlings, see above), Weidemann’s, or Stroh’s. (These last two beers really do end in “s,” no South Side dialect required.)
Some people mix the whiskey with the beer, but Grandpa drank his boilermaker the old-fashioned way: Down the shot in one swig and follow it up with the beer as a chaser—usually sipped, but in Grandpa’s case, more likely guzzled. In the rare event Grandpa sipped rather than guzzled his beer, Grandma Caryl might ask him for a schluck (pronounced “schlook”), which means “sip” in German. At Grandma and Grandpa’s house, “schluck” held a particular meaning, which you guys (or should I say yous guys?) already know, since Dad and I use “schluck” the same way: A schluck is bigger than a sip but smaller than a gulp. Neither dainty nor greedy, a schluck falls somewhere in the middle—a perfect way to nab a taste of someone’s else’s beer.
While his appreciation for a good whiskey and glass of beer (or two or six) may have caused the family a certain amount of angst in earlier days, by the time you two were born Grandpa had grown into himself as a loving and dedicated husband, father, and grandfather. When Grandma Caryl was diagnosed with a rare and deadly melanoma, Grandpa stepped up to the plate like a boss, transporting Grandma back and forth to the hospital for her treatments and taking over the cooking and cleaning—all while still working his full-time job at the Sanitary District and being a parent to Uncle Emmett, the youngest of the McCarthy siblings still living at home.
After Grandma Caryl died and Grandpa was lucky enough to fall in love with and marry Grandma Pat a few years later, his dedication to his kids and grandkids became even more apparent. When he wasn’t calling on the phone or visiting everyone in person, he’d mail newspaper articles to each of his seven children, their spouses, and you kids—always with a note saying, “This reminded me of you.” Grandpa was the original email forwarder, except his links were actual newspaper clippings, his notes written by hand, the articles folded into a real envelope with a stamp, and sent through the mail.
I’m glad Grandpa was alive long enough that you two could get to know him. I know you felt his love when he and Grandma Pat took you downtown to go ice skating in Millenium Park or to see the Sue exhibit when it opened at the Field Museum in 2000. Or when you spent the weekend at their townhouse in Orland Park and they took you to play mini-golf at White Mountain and to the Plush Horse afterward for ice cream. (Speaking of ice cream, Coleman, I know you especially loved it when Grandpa ate all your chocolate mousse after dinner one night at the Berghoff. Ha!) Or how about when they flew hundreds of miles to visit us in Fredericksburg, Virginia (remember our adventure to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, eating grapes right off the vine?) or when they drove to Kansas City for Dad’s Marine Corps promotion and celebration dinner at Starker’s Reserve on the Plaza, where Grandpa could barely contain his pride.
As far as fathers in-law are concerned, I won the jackpot. Even before your dad and I were married Grandpa treated me like I was someone special, picking up Fannie May Mint Meltaways on his way home from work to give to me for my birthday because he knew they were my favorite.
Grandpa was incredibly supportive of my career. He bought copies of my books to give to family and friends, and came to every one of my book signings and trade shows within driving distance. During our frequent phone conversations he never failed to ask me how my writing was going. And you knew he wasn’t just asking to be polite—Grandpa was the type of person who really listened to what you said and remembered every detail the next time you talked.
I learned a lot from watching Grandpa interact with family. He was proud of every single one of his kids and grandkids, and rarely spoke a negative word about anybody. When he married Grandma Pat he embraced her children as if they were his own, and it meant so much to him (and Grandma) when the two families came together for holidays and special events.
Grandpa was frugal to a fault. He had a hard time getting rid of anything. (Hmmm, that sounds kinda familiar too.) When he was moving out of the house in South Holland after Grandma Caryl died, he couldn’t bear to throw stuff away, but he was okay with giving it to us kids. So when the four of us stopped at the house to visit, Grandpa wouldn’t let us leave without a trunk full of boxes. Boxes of old papers, canned goods that had expired ten years ago, and random pieces of junk from the garage. Dad and I learned to accept the boxes with a smile. Then we’d stop at a dumpster on the way home, sort through everything, save anything sentimental or useable, and throw away the rest. (Sorry Grandpa, it was our little secret.)
When Grandma and Grandpa stayed in hotels, Grandpa always collected the paper cups, coffee stirrers, sugar packets, and napkins to give to us. Like father like son, your dad considered these items extremely useful and we ended up accumulating an entire drawer full of Grandpa’s hotel “gifts.” It became a running joke to the point that one year on vacation I collected all the cups, stirrers, sugar packets, and napkins from every hotel we stayed at, wrapped them in fancy paper, and sent them to Bob for his birthday. Grandpa was always one to appreciate a good prank, and this was no exception.
When we traveled back to Chicago in 2000 for Grandpa’s 70th birthday party at Uncle Steve and Aunt Christine’s house, Grandpa gave a heartfelt, tearful speech expressing his gratitude and reminiscing about his life. He shared his memories of growing up during the Depression. He talked about picking up pieces of thread off the street to bring home to his mother so she could use them for mending their old, worn-out clothes because they couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. When he told us about his schoolmates teasing him for his threadbare, ill-fitting outfits, Grandpa cried into his handkerchief. Watching him blow his nose and wipe his tears away, I realized we’d been given a glimpse of the little boy Grandpa held inside his heart all those years.
Another of my favorite memories of Grandpa was when the McCarthys gathered at Uncle Tom and Aunt Martha’s house for Father’s Day 2007. Almost all the family was there, including Grandma and Grandpa and most of your aunts, uncles, and cousins. The 17-year cicadas were out in full force (the last time being the summer of 1990, not long after Ben was born). Our eardrums vibrated from the non-stop buzzing while the ground, littered with cicada carcasses, crunched beneath our feet.
I don’t remember what was on the menu that day, but I do remember (as I’m sure you do too), one of the McCarthy brothers (I don’t remember who) getting the brainy idea to toss a few dead cicadas on the grill to “see what they taste like.” In short order a “few” cicadas became many, and eventually the brothers began seasoning the cicadas with hot sauce or marinating them in whiskey before grilling, resulting in a rather unique dining experience. As I recall, most of the McCarthys in attendance sampled at least one grilled cicada, including Grandpa.
By that time Grandpa’s prostate cancer, which had remained in check the previous ten or fifteen years, had taken its toll. The numerous treatments he underwent in recent years were no longer working. He suffered from neuropathy and was in a great deal of pain. But that’s another thing about Grandpa—he rarely complained, preferring to talk about other people rather than himself. I think everyone understood the seriousness of Grandpa’s health issues but on that day he didn’t seem so bad. He and Grandma sat on Tom and Martha’s screened-in porch, Grandpa on the wicker couch with his feet up, pillows propped under his legs to ease the pain. He was sharp as ever (if not thinner), clearly reveling in the shenanigans going on around him. When offered a grilled cicada to sample, Grandpa didn’t hesitate to pop one in his mouth.
Because of Dad’s career in the Marine Corps, more often than not, we have lived far away from family. But whenever we could, we made the drive from Quantico or Denver or Fredericksburg or Kansas City to spend time with those we loved. And how thankful we were to have made the nine-hour drive to be with Grandpa on that Father’s Day. He died in his sleep less than two weeks later on June 30, 2007.
Grandpa’s been gone for almost ten years now but the brothers still get together to celebrate his birthday. Some years it’s challenging to find a date that works for everyone. But most years everyone makes it. This year has been a little more hectic than usual around our house, and the timing of the get-together isn’t ideal. When he heard the date for this year’s gathering, your dad expressed concern about leaving me to deal with various responsibilities on my own. I knew if I said I needed him here, he’d stay home with me in a heartbeat, because that’s the kind of husband he is. Your dad is who he is in part because of Grandpa. “You have to go,” I told him. “I’ll be fine.” Here’s to you, Bob. A shot and a beer in your honor.
In honor of my mom, Dorothy (aka Nana), on Mother’s Day.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
“Shit.” “Goddammit.” “Fuck it.” These generally aren’t the types of expressions one hears coming from the mouths of mothers and grandmothers — unless your mom happens to be named Dorothy (or Nana, as she was known to you grandkids). But this is exactly what we heard coming out of Nana’s mouth that wintry December day in 1999 when I got the harebrained idea to make homemade Christmas ornaments using glitter-covered Styrofoam balls, straight pins, beads, and sequins. I had found the instructions in one of those home decorating magazines and thought it would make a fun family activity while Nana was visiting us from Florida for the holidays.
You guys were nine and six years old at the time, home from school on Christmas vacation. I remember the five of us sitting around the dining room table in Grayslake (Dad, me, Nana, and you two), the craft supplies spread before us. The concept was simple: Thread a bead and a sequin onto the straight pin, insert the pin into the Styrofoam ball, and repeat until the ball was covered in beads and sequins. You could choose to wing it, making a random design using multi-colored beads and sequins, or you could plan ahead, making a pattern or image using specific uniform colors in a pre-imagined shape. Easy-peasy, right?
Of course, we all had our own ideas with specific designs in mind, and we happily set to work threading our pins with beads and sequins and pushing them into our glitter balls. As I recall, I was spelling out the year “2000” with my pins using black beads and sequins on a silver ball (because Millennium), Dad was making an artsy-fartsy vintage design with green and gold sequins on a red ball, Coleman was making an extremely neat and precise spiral pattern in reds, greens, and blues on a silver ball, Ben was creating an abstract Santa smiley face using silver and black sequins on a green ball, and Nana was attempting something flashy using multi-colored beads and sequins on a gold ball.
It didn’t take long, however, for Nana to be the first to accidentally stab herself with the pin. “Shit,” she’d mutter under breath. I’d glance sideways at Dad, then at you two, and the four of us would share a secret smile. It’s not as if you guys had never heard Nana swear before. Hell’s Bells — it’s not like you’d never heard me swear before either. I’ve had a penchant for salty language since my teen years, and although I tried (unsuccessfully) to rein in my swearing when you kids were little, it didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out where I’d picked up the habit.
“Goddammit,” Nana would say, a little more loudly this time. Now she was getting frustrated because her design wasn’t turning out quite the way she’d had in mind. “What’s wrong, Mom?” I’d ask. “These stupid pins aren’t going in the way I want them to,” she’d say, pursing her lips in concentration. And then, as if for punctuation, she’d let fly another “Shit” or “Goddammit.” A large part of the humor of the situation was that it wasn’t the nine-year old or the six-year old throwing the hissy fit over the craft project — it was the 66-year old. And the wonderful thing about Nana? She fully recognized and embraced her childish lack of patience.
“This project is dumb,” she’d finally declare to the four of us sitting at the table. She was trying to look pissed off but she was clearly enjoying herself. “Whose idea was this anyway?” she’d say, looking conspiratorially at her two grandsons, then, once she had your attention, glancing pointedly in my direction, her green eyes glimmering with mischief.
“Yeah Mom,” you two would gleefully chime in. “Nana’s right — this project is dumb!”
“Thanks Mom,” I’d say to Nana, more amused than exasperated by her hijinx. “You really know how to liven up a family craft project.” Somehow, I convinced everyone to keep working on their ornaments a while longer. In spite of (or because of?) Nana’s mock anger, we remained in good spirits, persevering with our individual ornaments as we listened to Nana’s continued recitation of swear words until finally, having stuck herself with a straight pin one too many times, she’d push her chair away from the table and announce, “Fuck it. Is it time for a martini yet?”
Nana’s Very Dry Martini on the Rocks, with Two Olives
Open the cupboard and pull out the largest tumbler you can find. (No need to bother with an actual martini glass — size of the vessel is more important than style when it’s quantity you’re after.) A tall, oversized, plastic mug usually reserved for making root beer floats works perfectly fine. Fill the mug with ice, but not too much ice because you want to save room for a large quantity of alcohol. In olden days, gin, plus a small amount of vermouth, would be necessary for a proper dry martini (along with a proper martini glass) but when the situation is dire, simply pour a large amount of vodka over the ice until the mug is close to overflowing. (If you add two large pimiento-stuffed olives for garnish you can legitimately call it a martini.) Once the drink has been prepared, take the Big Gulp Martini/Vodka Slurpee out onto the back porch (the porch being the only location at Nan & Pat’s house where smoking isn’t prohibited). Plop down into the wicker chair, place feet (wearing pink slippers) on stool, fire up a Marlboro Light, and commence drinking Martini Slurpee. If the grandkids come out to the porch to sit on your lap, make an effort not to blow smoke in their faces while teaching them some new swear words.
In case it hasn’t already occurred to you, Nana certainly wasn’t the traditional type of grandma to you kids. She didn’t knit or sew or bake very well (her chocolate chip cookies were notoriously rock-like). She wasn’t much for physical activity but she did love playing hide and seek with you guys and taking you to Disneyworld and Sun Splash. I would say she wasn’t exactly a traditional type of mom to me either, although she was a meticulous housekeeper (Mondays were for doing the wash and ironing, Wednesdays for grocery shopping, Fridays for cleaning), and she was an excellent cook (in spite of her lack of baking skills). She smoked cigarettes and drank martinis when she was pregnant with both Aunt Gerarda and me, and her two favorite food groups were salt and butter.
She never went to college but in the ’70s she earned her broker’s license and worked in a real estate office after Papa died, a 37-year old single mom supporting two girls ages 13 and 9. Her frosted blonde hair was invariably perfectly coiffed (even while washing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees). She was tall and thin and her fashionable clothes always looked good on her. She had a temper, she swore like a sailor (see above), she had a lot of friends who loved her, she was funny, and she could find the humor in even the darkest moments of her life — and there were plenty of those. Nana was tough and blunt and not very diplomatic (to put it mildly). But she loved us with a passion and was fiercely protective in a way that could be embarrassing at times. (Just ask Aunt Gerarda about the time Nana called Ray Kroc to complain that her 16-year old daughter wasn’t being treated fairly as an employee of McDonald’s Corp.)
As Mother’s Day approaches and we think about Nana, it’s tempting to focus on our feelings of sadness and how much we miss her. As for me, Nana was my number-one cheerleader, my best friend, and the first person to hold my feet to the fire when I screwed up. Though she’s been gone since 2002, not a day goes by I don’t wish I could pick up the phone and have a nice long chat with her. But instead of feeling depressed on Mother’s Day, I feel happy and grateful, because both of my sons had a chance to know her. Although you were young when she died, you were able to witness her strength, feel her love, experience her humor, and hear her say “Fuck it” when she’d had enough and it was time for a martini.
In honor of my mom, Dorothy Johnson Moore, who died on January 17, 2002.
(This piece, which I wrote in 2011, is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
I saw a movie today where the mom was in a coma and the kids and husband had to say goodbye to her before taking her off life support. I got really choked up seeing the grief on the kids’ faces, especially the ten-year old’s. Since I lost my own dad so young stuff like that always rips my heart out. But then I started thinking about the mom and how sad it was that she couldn’t say what she might have wanted to say because she was in a coma. And I started feeling really bad for her even though she was married to George Clooney. Well, she wasn’t married to George Clooney in real life but in the movie she was married to George Clooney. And although I wouldn’t mind being married to George Clooney (that is, if I wasn’t already married to your dad), I would mind being in a coma and I would especially mind not being able to talk to you guys if I was about to die. Even being married to George Clooney wouldn’t make up for having to lie in a hospital bed listening to your family say goodbye to you with your lips all dry and cracked and chalky-looking and not being able to say anything. And I asked myself, what would the mom say if she could talk? What would I want to say to my children if I knew I was about to die?
I guess it would depend on how much time I had. Five minutes, five hours, five days, five weeks, or five months? If it was just five minutes I would cut to the really important stuff, like how much I love you guys and could you please make sure the funeral home fixes my hair the right way. If it was five weeks or five months I’d probably have a really long list of items to go over, like where all the computer passwords are and not to let your father keep wearing all his clothes from the ’80s—they make him look like a dork and he’ll never get a new wife wearing the Magnum P.I. Hawaiian shirt tucked into the high-waisted Lee jeans with the skinny belt, no socks and those huarache sandals we bought in Puerto Vallarta when Coleman was still in a stroller.
Speaking of last words, not long before Nana died, she wanted us to call her neighbors in Florida and tell them not to throw out the bacon grease she’d been saving in the refrigerator. I suppose if you were the daughter of a Polish immigrant who cooked pretty much everything in bacon grease, you’d be concerned about what would become of your stash of bacon grease after you died too. Speaking of bacon grease the last meal Nana requested before she died was bacon and eggs.
Nana’s Bacon & Eggs
Fry up an entire package of bacon in a skillet over medium heat. Remove the bacon from the skillet to drain on paper towels. Pour half the bacon grease in a glass container with an airtight lid. (If you already have a hoard of bacon grease stored in your refrigerator just add the new bacon grease to the old.) With the remaining bacon grease in the pan, break two eggs into the skillet and cook over medium-low heat. While the eggs are cooking baste them with the bacon grease and add a lot of salt and pepper since you’re probably going to have a heart attack anyway. Meanwhile cook two pieces of toast and slather the toast with real butter (not the fake stuff; see previous comment regarding heart attacks.) When eggs are cooked through but still a little runny put them on a plate with the toast and bacon and sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Dip the toast in the egg yolk until the toast and the yellow stuff are gone, leaving the egg whites for the dog. Finish eating the bacon while watching the dog eat the egg whites. (At least the dog won’t have a heart attack.)
Getting back to the movie, one of the reasons I liked it so well was that it wasn’t sappy—none of the characters was a saint, not even the mom who was dying, and there was a lot going on besides the family crowded around the hospital bed alternately crying and throwing objects against the wall. There was a whole subplot involving a Kauai land deal the dad was trying to figure out, in addition to his discovery that his wife was cheating on him before she fell off the jet ski or whatever it was she was riding when she hit her head, nearly drowned and went into a coma. (Not to be mean or anything but it kind of serves her right seeing as she cheated on George Clooney.) My point is that the movie was a lot like real life in that we are all a mixture of annoying and endearing, selfish and generous, troubled and together, and that even when someone close to you is about to die, life continues to happen all around you and you still have to make decisions on whether or not to sell the land to the haoles or hunt down and confront the creep who was screwing your wife or if you should have chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert.
And I got to thinking if that were to happen to me—if I suddenly fell into a coma and couldn’t talk to my children, wouldn’t it be nice if I had already written my last words to you, so that after I died you could read everything I ever wanted you to know? Not that I plan on dying anytime soon (although it’s true I recently turned 50). But I do think it’s one of the reasons I became a writer—after my body is dead and gone, my clothes given to Goodwill (or to dad’s new wife—assuming she’s not a size smaller than me), the only things left of a person are the memories and the words. If you’re a writer, you generally leave behind more words than the average person (unless you’re Grandma Caryl, who tended to talk a lot). With any luck, after I’m gone there’ll be more good memories than bad, and my words will still have the power to make you smile.
Christmas Day 1970, Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, Dyer, Indiana.
I was nine when our mom took my sister and me to the hospital on Christmas Day to visit our dad. It was the last time we’d see him alive. He died three weeks later of alcoholic cirrhosis. He was 39 years old.
We knew at the time he was very sick. In fact, I remember curling up with my mom in my dad’s favorite oversized green chair one night before Christmas, my head in her lap, Christmas lights twinkling. He’d been hospitalized several times before. “I don’t think he’s going to make it this time,” she told me.
The Intensive Care Unit was decorated for Christmas, and one of the nurses had put a Santa hat on my dad’s head. He was awake, sitting up in his hospital bed. He tried to smile at us, but even at that young age I could see the sadness in his eyes. I don’t think I touched him. I was afraid of all the tubes and how sick he looked.
For many years afterward, Christmas never felt real to me. The happiness seemed forced, superficial. Sure, getting presents was fun. But there was no joy in it. During Midnight Mass, my mom cried.
Then I fell in love and got married. A family of my own. New memories to make. At first it was just my husband and me, a few gifts around a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. But our love was plentiful and genuine. Then our sons were born. More memories to be made. My mom in her pink terrycloth bathrobe, watching us open gifts on Christmas morning, a cup of coffee in her hand and a smile on her face. New traditions, like the Santa footprints in front of the fireplace and a birthday cake for baby Jesus. Our boys jumping up and down in their pajamas, giddy with excitement. Pure joy on their faces. Pure joy in my heart.
Christmas is real to me now. But I’ve learned it’s not just about the happy times. Like any family, we’ve had our share of sad times during the holidays. Living far away from loved ones, missing out on annual family get-togethers. Christmases when one or both of us were without a job and money was tight or nonexistent. My mom’s last Christmas when she was in hospice at our house, knowing it wouldn’t be long before she, too, was gone. The year Christmas was just the boys and me, when Pat was serving in Iraq for thirteen months, his only physical contact a hug from the USO lady on Christmas Day.
I’ve come to realize that even though Christmas didn’t feel real to me when I was young, it was every bit as real then as it is now. It’s just that life and death, sickness and loneliness and tragedy don’t take time off for the holidays.
It’s no wonder Christmas lights, Midnight Mass, and Santa hats held a particular sadness for me as a child. But now I understand how much those seemingly superficial efforts at holiday cheer during the end of my dad’s tragic life mattered. “We’re not giving up on Christmas,” they said. The Santa hat mattered because it held hope. Hope that next year would be better (and if not next year, the year after that). Hope that a frightened little girl would one day make a better life for herself than the hand her mom had been dealt. That she wouldn’t fall prey to addiction the way her father had, even though her DNA was stacked against her. That she would one day find someone who loved and respected her, and together they would bring new life into the world. That they would raise their children to be better human beings than they were, leaving the world a little kinder than they found it.
(In this season of graduations, here’s a piece I wrote two years ago reflecting on our older son’s graduation from art school. It originally appeared in May 2012 in the Kansas City Star.)
Sitting in a darkened auditorium at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that blazing August morning back in 2008, I listened, enchanted by the speaker at the podium, whose words etched themselves in my memory. The occasion was new-student orientation, and my son, about to begin his freshman year at SAIC, sat next to me, doodling in his program. The speaker, Tony Jones, chancellor and former president of the School, said a lot of funny things in his introductory remarks, including the obligatory jokes about Chicago winters. He may not have had my son’s full attention at the start, but when he got down to talking about artists and art, Jones really captured his audience of nascent artists and anxious parents.
Jones talked about the type of student who goes to art school. He said if you choose to study art because you like art better than any other subject, or if you choose to study art because you’re good at it, then you shouldn’t be at art school. He went on to say that if you choose to attend art school for any reason, you shouldn’t be there. As Jones put it, the only reason to pursue art in college is when you can’t imagine yourself doing anything but art.
The other thing Jones pointed out is that, in today’s world, it takes a lot of courage to be an artist. We live in a society that places a lot of importance on college majors like science and business. Not that we shouldn’t place a high value on these areas of study (our younger son is a biomedical engineering student who will no doubt make his own great contributions to the universe). But the emphasis on math and science comes at a cost. A young person who wishes to pursue art is often discouraged from doing so by parents and other well-meaning adults. As parents of an art major, our conversations with other parents often go something like this:
Your son goes to art school? What’s he going to do—teach?
No, he wants to be a studio artist.
Yes, but what does he want to do?
He wants to make art.
OK. But what’s his real job going to be?
You get the idea. If we as parents find it challenging (or amusing, depending on your mood that day) to explain our students’ vocation, imagine how they must feel. That’s why Jones said it takes a lot of courage to be an artist. Art is hard. Not just a hard way to make a living, but hard in the way of finding one’s place, both in the art world and in the world at large. And no one puts himself out there quite like an artist does. Imagine taking a piece of yourself and putting it on display for others to see and comment on, day after day. Artists find strength in vulnerability. Artists are makers. They make something from nothing. How many of us can claim the ability to do that?
I won’t bore you with why I think art and the makers of art are vital to human existence, other than to say, what a humdrum world it would be without art! Suffice to say, four years and countless sleepless nights since that August morning in 2008, our son is now preparing to graduate. Not all of the students have made it this far. Of those who have, many have fought hard to get to this point—our son included. I can’t wait to see him walk across the stage. When he does, I’ll not only be filled with pride for his accomplishments, but with admiration for his courage.
This piece was originally published in May 2013 as a Facebook Note. I’m wishing a Happy Mother’s Day to all my friends and family. I know Mother’s Day can be a sad day for many of us—a time when we miss our mothers who are no longer here, when we grieve children who left us too soon, when fractured relationships make it hard to feel celebratory. So grab whatever happiness you can find and treat yourself with kindness this Mother’s Day. We’re all just doing the best we can, right? —Nan
To My Sons: What I Would Like for Mother’s Day
I want you to have good hearts and be kind to others.
I want you to be independent, self-motivated, and self-sufficient.
I want you to love yourself, but never stop trying to be a better person.
I want you to love each other, and be there for each other when I’m gone.
I want you to be honest with yourself and others.
I want you to be true to yourself even if some people would rather you not.
I want you to feel love and be loved and love freely, even though that means you’ll probably be hurt sometimes.
I want you to be lifelong learners.
I want you to read a lot.
I want you to do what you say you’re going to do.
If you screw up, I want you to own it, apologize, and try to do better next time.
I want you to treat others with respect, and demand to be treated with respect in return.
I want you to put others before yourself sometimes.
I want you to know life is not fair, but keep being optimistic.
I want you to be able to keep your sense of humor even in the dark times—especially during the dark times.
I want you to work hard, work before you play, and when you do play, enjoy yourself (as long as your work is done first).
I want you to be curious about others—genuinely curious.
I want you to know you don’t know everything.
I want you to choose happiness, and understand that you have to keep choosing happiness over and over again, every morning you wake up.
I want you to do what you love. Sometimes that’s not what you imagined it would be, so you have to stay open to new possibilities.
I want you to be grateful for simple things, like a good night’s sleep, a walk outdoors, food in your tummy, warmth when it’s cold outside, and a soft clean pillow on which to lay your head at night.
I want you to keep your word.
I want you to be able to forgive others and never leave room in your heart for hate.
I want you to know I would give anything for your happiness, including my life.
I want you to remember I was once young just like you, that I had hopes and dreams just like you, and that you’re never too old to dream—because if I can keep dreaming, so can you.
I want you to know the value of hope. Hope is everything.
I want you to remember things always seem worse in the middle of the night. It will be better in the morning, I promise.
I want you to think of me as a whole human being who has feelings just like you, but also know that I’ll never stop being your mom, and there’s no one on this earth who believes in you more than me.
p.s. A homemade card with a handwritten note would also be nice.
In honor of my mother in-law Caryl McCarthy (1930-1992), who was born on Christmas Eve.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
Other than having a tendency to talk too much on occasion, Grandma Caryl was a wonderful mother in-law to me. Apart from her dedication to family, she was also a Renaissance Woman, and I admired her for that. She was not only a fantastic cook, she was ahead of her time when it came to popular trends and culture. The first time I ever tasted Cajun/Creole food was at Grandma and Grandpa’s house when your dad and I were dating in the early 1980s, and Grandma served blackened fish, red beans and rice, and jambalaya. This was well before all the trendy restaurants (back then at least) began serving blackened fish (or “blackened” anything for that matter).
Grandma was also the one who introduced me to Zydeco music in the mid-1980s. After we were married and back home from dad’s Marine Corps tours of duty in Okinawa and Virginia, your dad and I enjoyed going to dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in South Holland. We’d arrive at the house on a late afternoon in the summer to find Grandma floating on a lounge chair in the above-ground swimming pool out back while drinking a lemon shandy, or standing at the kitchen sink preparing dinner (still wearing her wet swimsuit of course)—but always with music cranked up to eleven on the stereo in the living room, usually Claude Bolling, Johnny Cash, Prokofiev, or Zydeco. After she got sick she’d lie on the living room couch with her eyes closed, the sounds of Enya drifting throughout the house. (You might also remember Nana listening to Enya before she died. It took a long while after both of their deaths before I could listen to any of my Enya CDs.)
How to Make Grandma Caryl’s Lemon Shandy
Grab a cold can of Stroh’s or a bottle of St. Pauli Girl. Pour half the beer into a chilled Welch’s jelly jar glass (preferably Flintstones or Archies special edition), then fill the rest of the glass with lemonade. Add a slice of lemon and some ice. Don swimsuit, turn up the stereo loud enough to be heard in Holy Ghost parking lot, commence relaxing in pool. When lemon shandy is finished, return dripping wet to kitchen, check jambalaya cooking on stove, pour another shandy using remaining beer/lemonade. Get back in pool and repeat process until Pat & Nancy arrive for dinner or Bob comes home from work asking for a boilermaker (more on that in another letter).
Of course, nowadays you can take the easier route and just buy the seasonal Summer Shandy beer made by Leinenkugel. (Which reminds me of our vacation to Sleeping Bear Dunes the summer of 2010, searching for Petoskey Stones, watching the sun set over Lake Michigan, a cooler of Summer Shandies always within reach. That was fun, wasn’t it?) But the point is Grandma Caryl, being of German descent and always on the cutting edge of popular culture, was drinking her homemade lemon shandies decades before they became a thing here in the U.S.
Grandma Caryl was also a fabulous knitter, crocheter, and all-around seamstress. Well, some of the handmade sweater vests dad wore in college were a little goofy, but I liked her knitted slippers, baby blankets, and Christmas stockings. (Coleman I’m sorry you never got your own Christmas stocking made by Grandma Caryl—she died the year before you were born, which explains why Dad, Ben, and me all have better stockings than you.)
Grandma Caryl was also an avid reader. She liked all the old Agatha Christie mysteries as well as the newer Sue Grafton “alphabet series.” Unfortunately, she only got as far as “’H’ Is for Homicide” before she died in 1992 (Grandma Caryl that is, not Sue Grafton). She also read biographies and all kinds of other non-fiction including the dictionary and encyclopedias. Yes, it’s true. Grandma read the dictionary and an entire set of World Book encyclopedias from first page to last. (She inspired me to try reading the dictionary once myself, but I only got as far as “apathetic.”)
My own enchantment with classic movies was originally fueled by Grandma Caryl, who would sometimes get up at four in the morning to finish one of her knitting projects while watching an old movie on AMC or TNT (this was before the days of TCM). Grandma got me hooked on all the Alfred Hitchcock movies besides “Psycho” and “The Birds” (which I had previously watched on network TV with Nana), including “Rope,” “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest,” “Notorious,” and “Dial M for Murder.” She and Grandpa also introduced me to a lot of holiday classics. The first time I ever saw “It’s A Wonderful Life” (one of your dad’s favorite movies—he still cries every time he watches it) was at the McCarthy house in South Holland when your dad and I were dating. Grandpa built a fire in the fireplace and we all settled in under one of Grandma’s homemade zigzag afghans to drink hot toddies and watch the movie, Christmas lights twinkling and Paine’s Balsam Fir incense swirling from the miniature log cabin chimney on the fireplace mantel. I had already fallen in love with your father; it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with his family too.
Grandma’s penmanship was illegible (which is why she typed all her recipes) and she wasn’t the greatest housekeeper. But she had other fish to fry—like being a dedicated hockey mom (never missing a chance to ring her cow bell at her sons’ hockey games), Holy Ghost Church choir member and volunteer (cleaning the rectory, among other things), election day poll worker and Democratic Party activist (serving as an Illinois delegate when George McGovern ran for president in 1972), and even working part-time at Dominick’s handing out promotional samples of cheese and crackers and cordials like Midori melon liqueur. All this while raising seven children, in addition to her many other pursuits. I forgot to mention she was also a pretty good oil paint artist, although most of her paintings were done before the kids came along. (Ben you must have inherited Grandma’s artistic leanings in addition to her manner of housekeeping.) It’s hard to imagine she had time left over to lounge in the swimming pool, but if nothing else, Grandma had her shit straight when it came to priority setting.
When I was offered a better-paying job in Denver in 1991, no one was more supportive of dad and me making the move from Chicago to Colorado than Grandma and Grandpa. Which is pretty remarkable, since by then Grandma had been diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of melanoma. Ben, you were only about a year old at the time, so a move to Colorado meant Grandma and Grandpa would get to see their grandson even less. But when I told Grandma the news of my job offer, she didn’t skip a beat in encouraging me to go for it. I appreciated her unselfishness at the time, but my respect for her has deepened over the years as I’ve watched the two of you fly the coop, pursue your passions, and strive for independence.
Before she died I wrote a letter to Grandma thanking her for raising a son like Dad. I told her he was the light of my life, and that I believed he was the man he had become in large part because of her. There’s a certain confidence and stability in people who grow up knowing they are loved unconditionally by their parents, and Dad is one of those people. He was well-loved by both his parents of course, but most especially by Grandma. Here’s to you, Grandma Caryl. Long live summer shandies, goofy sweater vests, and well-loved sons.
Sending a child off to college prompts meditations on parenting and the passage of time.
(This column originally appeared in August 2011 in the Kansas City Star.)
In his book Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman describes a place where time stands still—where raindrops “hang motionless in air,” pendulums “float mid-swing,” and “pedestrians are frozen on the dusty streets.” He calls it the center of time. Lightman then asks, “Who would make pilgrimage to the center of time?” His answer: “Parents with children, and lovers.”
At this time of year when parents of college freshmen are packing up the car with mini-fridges, extra-long twin sheets sets, study pillows, and shower caddies, the wish to stop the pendulum, if even for just a few moments, is tempting. Amidst the trips to Target and Staples, the cleaning out of closets and keepsakes, the going-away parties and the final good-byes, it’s understandable to feel wistful for the years gone by and apprehensive about the months to come. We find ourselves remembering moments of innocence and joy when our children were young, and reflecting on our parenting in times of challenge. In these moments of reflection and reminiscence the wish to turn back the clock in order to relive the good times and perhaps get a “do-over” in the bad times is hard to resist.
Add to that the uncertainty and trepidation associated with sending our children off on their own to fend for themselves in an unknown universe where they’ll inevitably come face to face with life’s hardships and everyday challenges. It’s no wonder we find ourselves doling out last-minute advice and warnings to our children as we show them how to use their new ATM card, teach them to do a load of laundry, or gather around the kitchen table for one last family dinner. If only we could send our children out into the world with an amulet that would protect them from harm and tragedy and people with hate in their hearts.
In the place described by Lightman, where time stands still and parents can be seen “clutching their children in a frozen embrace that will never let go,” Lightman imagines a world where our children would “never grow wrinkled or tired,” “never get injured,” and “never know evil.” Yet Lightman also alludes to the trade-offs involved in wishing for this “eternity of contentment,” in which we are “fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.” To be suspended in time requires the absence of movement. A heart that stops beating feels neither pain nor joy. So the choice becomes to keep moving forward, and take the bitter with the sweet. “Life is a vessel of sadness,” Lightman writes, “but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life.”
Barring amulets and the ability to stop the pendulum, as parents we must choose to bear these rites of passage with dignity and unselfishness. We remind ourselves that it’s not about us really—it’s about them after all—and that this is the way things are supposed to be. And so we seek a place of serenity in our hearts as we pull up to the dorm room, unload plastic storage bins, place fresh linens on the lofted dorm bed, hook up the new laptop, and wrap our arms around our child in one last embrace—offering an encouraging smile—before getting in the car to let the tears roll down our cheeks.