Archive for the ‘it's a family thing’ Category

Heather and Justin

One week from today, son Justin is getting married.

And if you think there has been anything else on my mind of late, you would be mistaken.

While blindly slamming together a bunch of mind-numbing newspaper information the other day for all the people who have nothing better to do than read about local news things (like that’s important), I was concentrating heavily on all the things in my life that have caused this much distraction. I came up with a list of life’s highlights and lowlights, but they all paled in comparison, emotional reaction-wise, to my little boy signing his life away to the lovely Heather.

And I mean that with all the affection and appreciation a doting father-in-law-to-be can have for the beautiful, sweet young woman who is not only the reason I am adding a hyphen-filled title to my dad resume, but also, for some reason, thinks this guy’s the one.

Kids. They’ll never learn.

Anyway, I am surprised at myself for the level of emotion I am feeling about this wedding. Not only because I’ll be in a tuxedo and have a captive audience doting over me as the father of the groom, but also because I’m gonna look real good and probably garner the majority of the compliments.

I simply can’t wait.

These emotions are beginning to play off of one another. I get sad when I think that it seems like only yesterday my little boy was trying to plug the car keys into the electrical outlet, or translating for adult ears the gobblety-speak of his younger sister, or announcing, from his high chair, that the toaster just popped (“Toot,” he’d trumpet), and then mash a piece of dry, slightly warmed white bread between gooey moist fingers, getting more of it on his face than in it.

Hopefully this latter habit will not reappear next Saturday during the singing of “The Bride Cuts the Cake.” If there’s one thing I hate about weddings, it’s people who still think it’s funny to mash cake into another person’s face. But, then, I have also always hated old movies that contain a pie fight. Never understood the humor of one person hitting another person in the face with food. And I have felt this way my whole life — long before I became a fuddy-duddy.

OK. That was a tangent. I’m over it.

I’ve been thinking about all the things fathers are supposed to teach their sons before they head off to Marriageville, and how many of these things we have yet to talk about.

If I’ve taught him one thing, it’s make friends with the bartender. All else in life, I have learned, is an off-shoot of this one essential lesson. If I have taught him anything else, it was by pure luck or keen observation on his part.

I realize it’s been 30 years, which seems like plenty of time to instill all of my fatherly knowledge (which would only take a few quick moments anyway), but somehow the years slipped by so quickly.

Here’s a piece of advice: The years slip by quickly. If you think they’re going fast now, you — being the roller coaster afficionado that you are — are gonna love the next two decades. Hang on tightly and keep both arms inside the ride. This tidbit, I have to believe, I have mentioned in the past. The memory is shot. It can’t hurt to mention it again.

Also, the memory is shot.

Pay attention more than I did. That’s probably the next best piece of advice I can offer. Regret sucks, it comes C.O.D. in the back of a giant dump truck, gets deposited right on top of your head, it hurts like a sonofagun, and never, ever goes away.

Be mindful of your regret, there, sonny boy. That’s what I would have wanted to hear 30 years ago. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the advice at the time, because, I wrongly thought, I knew more about the world then than everyone else in it would ever know.

I didn’t realize it would take until this very day right now today before I would know more about the world than everyone else in it would ever know.

Take a lot of pictures. One of my favorite advances in the world of technology has been the making easier of picture taking. Everything nowadays has a camera in it. We no longer need to drop film off at the drug store and wait two weeks for our pictures to come back. We can grab our phones from our pockets, snap a quick shot of the baby and the kitty sleeping on top of one another in the sunlight pouring through the nursery window, and, with the quick flick of a couple of fingers on a couple of buttons, we can share this photo with everyone in the world.

I grew up in an era when the option to request double prints was considered a technological breakthrough. Today, we go “click” and the next thing we know, it’s on CNN.

Anyway, take a lot of photos. When you visit the old people in your life (namely, me), photos will be the best way to fill in the awkward pauses in the conversation — which are going to happen, once we discuss what I had for lunch that day (which I won’t remember) and why it is I found my teeth in my slipper.

The great things that happen in marriage are the bookmarks in our lives. Our vacations, our big home renovations, our ridiculous purchases. They stick out above the other pages, they mark the stuff we did before and after that great event. And they hold our place until the next bookmark comes along.

Write the year — this is very important — get out a Sharpie and write at the top of each bookmark what year it came into your life. You’ll be disappointed — I certainly am — when you are unable to remember which thing you did first and what year that was.

I have no idea what year Karen and I did a complete gut-job renovation on the downstairs of our house. Living room and dining room completely torn out and done over. But what I did do, when we were installing the new floor, was, I grabbed the Sharpie and wrote the year and our names (circling all of it with a giant heart; awwwwww) in the middle of the cement slab. I took its photo and then we covered it with the new flooring.

I can’t tell you what year it was, but I can tell you I have a photo of it. Somewhere.

Laugh all the time. Life is hilarious and a lot more enjoyable when viewed that way. Some of my favorite bookmarks are simply the times Karen and I have laughed so hard that I started squeaking, which forced her to laugh harder and start making monkey noises, which forced us both to stop making any sounds at all as the air in our bodies was forced from our lungs.

Finally, hug your dad. He’s thrilled and proud and beside himself and fragile, suffering from emotion. He’s also no longer the only married guy in the family. He’s been handing out the hugs for 30 years now and could use a break.

He could also use a hug. It’s your turn, son.


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The Kitty

Pets don’t live very long, yet they still die old.

I must be out of my mind to try this.

There is a fairness and an unfairness when it comes to pet ownership. This, in and of itself, is incredibly unfair.

We snuff them out like cigarettes, it feels, our aged and aging pets, when their pain and suffering grows worse than ours does at the thought of losing them. It’s one of the most bizarre — and important — of our human responsibilities.

We pick them out, we bring them home, we shower them with toys, comfort, toys, smelly food, toys, security, toys, unbending trust, unending concern, unconditional love. All the while knowing that at some point, way too soon, heartbreak is coming. It’s accepted and expected.

We stick our noses into that soft spot on the back of their neck and take in a deep breath, always marveling at how it never smells bad.

OK, maybe that last part is just me. But I can still see in my nose’s mind, he said, putting the role of the senses to the ultimate test, what our Kitty’s neck smelled like. (Stop calling me weird.)

Seeing the smell with my nose’s mind was a part of my afternoon Monday, the much-dreaded day Karen and I finally decided the Kitty had had enough. One of those decisions in life that come with the greatest of difficulty. It better, anyway.

As hard as it may be sometimes to put the life of the pet in front of our own, that is where it belongs as age and illness replace the years of purring and playing. It was amazing to me how for a while my sadness for the Kitty’s situation was based more on me and the loss I was suffering.

Once she was swaddled and comforted in her little cardboard casket, which was then cradled in my arms as I walked out of the vet’s office and sobbed toward the car, I realized how selfish my sadness was. Took me a while to come around, but I got there. Death does that; slaps a person in the face.

As a cat owner, I feel apologetic when explaining that my sorrow is over the loss of a cat.

I mean. It’s not a dog. Dogs, in my doplic way of viewing things, occupy the top rung on the pet ownership ladder. I would not be surprised to learn there are more dog owners out there who would never own a cat than there are cat owners who think dogs aren’t worth the trouble.

This isn’t always the case, but I have run across this more than once in my life.

“Why are your eyes all puffy?”

“My cat died.”

“So? Could have been worse. Could have been a dog.”

“I guess.”

I think it’s wrong that I feel this way, but it’s one of my personal truths about cats and dogs. (Unless the dog is one of those pocketbook ones that fills the role of a cat without all the cat quirks.)

There is a fissure between cats and dogs. As there is, I believe, between cat lovers and dog lovers.

Some folks — true animal lovers — have enough love to go around. Besides simultaneous ownership of cats and dogs, they’ve probably had birds or fish or rodents or reptiles of some sort at some point in their lives. These people are unique and, I submit, too short in supply.

People who love dogs and dogs only have a tendency to despise cats. Cat lovers, on the other hand, tend to respect and admire dogs, dog owners, and the entire dog thing. With the possible exception of dog exuberance.

I have deep and equal affection for both cats and dogs, and have owned both in my lifetime. I have most frequently opted, however, for cat ownership. I think it’s the exuberance. And the neck smelling thing.

Cats are stubborn, stuck-up, finicky, snooty, a little too quiet, self-important, narcissistic, egotistical, plotting, conniving, irresponsible, fickle. Dogs slobber and fart. They take less effort to love.

Cats tend to smell better, take little to no effort to maintain, and show no lingering effects after being ignored for long periods of time. I can relate.

But I digress. Delaying the sad part, I reckon.

Today this empty house is missing one heartbeat. And the silence is deafening. Through blood-shot eyes and a squeaky voice, to the Kitty, I say:

Thank you for all the love, the cuddling, the evenings we spent bathed in the light of the television while you chased the little red dot up the wall with such hilarity that it eventually became hard to breathe.

When you sat up on your hind legs, waiting for a jax to be tossed high above your head and then like a tennis player swatting a lob, you batted with amazing accuracy that little toy back into your mommy’s lap. Also, under the couch.

When your little drug bags (which was our name for your countless catnip-stuffed toys) would disappear for months at a time; then, as if out of the blue, one day one of them would miraculously reappear in the middle of the living room floor. As if it had been on vacation (or a drug run) and was finally back home.

Thank you for the stains on the carpets that were made during your feline hairball excavation rituals. It’s a great purging mechanism with which you fluffy little bundles of love come equipped. But you should also come equipped with the same GPS system that seems to work fine when locating the litter box for those aromatic purges that come from the other end of town.

Thank you for being the therapy Kitty your mommy needed in her downest of down times. Your arrival on the scene could not have been better timed and your brand of therapy could not have been more effective.

Your brief time in our lives was not wasted. Your life was not in vain. Your impact on this very short amount of time we are privileged to spend on this earth could not have been greater.

Nor can the hole you have left in our hearts.

This empty house and these empty arms will recover in time. But this empty heart will take longer to mend. The piece you’ve torn from it has gone with you.

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My mind keeps going back to the turtle. I’m sure there’s a psychological connection here that I’m not trained (and by “trained” Imean “smart”) enough to figure out.

Because dear mother is spending her silver years in the capable hands of a skilled nursing facility and the personal belongings she needs to get through each day have been boiled down to clothes, a bed, a chair, a tv and a stand to put it on, much of what failed to make the final cut is either in a small storage unit in southern Pennsylvania or in the box containing her photographs and memories, which rests safely on my den closet floor. That box has gotten into my head.

During a typical week, the mind travels to all sorts of places — many are related to work things. The vast majority of the remainder are based on home things.

Then there’s the other places. The places the mind visits when it’s not needed anywhere else for a moment. Of late, my mind has come to rest on the leaves that have been left for me to rake.

And on the turtle.

It might have something to do with the photo of my dad.

In the collection of family photos over which I  have assumed stewardship — as dear mother and sister no longer have the space or the inclination — there is a photo of dad, taken in the mid-1970s, holding a giant turtle.

It was during a visit by his twin sisters that the whole clan decided to motor off to Rensselaer County for a family get-together. On a back road (which out-number front roads by a landslide in Rensselaer County), their vehicle came upon a giant turtle crossing the road.

Dad, being the kind-hearted animal lover that he was (I think he got it from me), pulled the car over, got out, and carried the turtle to the other side of the road so as to not worry about it becoming crushed by one of the next vehicles to amble along.

One of the twin sisters snapped the photo. Everyone had a great laugh about the entire incident. Especially the visiting family members, who were as impressed with their brother’s humanity as they were with the size of the turtle.

It’s cool when the city mouse returns to the country for a chance to witness how the country mouse does things.

Anyway, I think this is the reason I have always had a fondness for turtles. Everybody has their things: Some people like frogs, others like moose (mooses? meese?), still others like horses or cows.

Mine’s turtles. And I have a photo of dad saving one from certain peril to thank for it.

So there’s that.

Fast forward to today. On my way to work, I pass a pond between Galway and Hagaman. One recent morning I noticed something in the road, and those of you who have already skipped ahead to this line know it was a giant turtle. Cool, I said.

But scary. Because I didn’t want him to get smooshed. By the time my car neared him, he was just stepping from the road onto the shoulder, headed away from the pond for the day. Phew.

Probably had a hare appointment. Didn’t ask.

But it made my morning and it reminded me of the dad photo. So I got all warm and squishy inside, reliving the childhood memory. Been doing that a lot lately.

Next day, as Ipassed the same spot in the road, there he was again — this time waiting in the grass with his head sticking up, watching me pass before making his treacherous, time-consuming journey across the road.

For those of you skipping forward to this paragraph to find out if I saw him dead on the road the next day, the answer is no. But thanks for your impatience.

As of Friday morning, he was still alive, sitting in a similar location, getting ready to toddle off for yet another day’s adventure. Next time Isee him, I’m going to take his photo and carry him across the road. Give him a safe head start on his day. I’m certain he’ll thank me. Or urinate.

The sad part of the story is that on Friday I learned the hard way that there’s more than one turtle in this little commune and between Thursday and Friday, one of them didn’t make it. (I know it’s not my turtle because mine was in the same spot as always. The dead one was several feet down the road. In turtle perspective, this is considered miles and miles.)

It’s not something I see very often, but it aggravates me a great deal to see a smooshed turtle in the road. Seems a senseless death. It’s not like you don’t have time to react; it’s a turtle, for chrissake. (Unless you’re driving like a maniac; or worse, aiming for the poor thing. Better not be aiming for the poor thing.)

And this is where I find my brain has wandered off to. The health and well-being of the road-crossing turtle has become somewhat of a thing with me.

Because our lives are our lives and they seem larger than life — to us they are the thing around which all other life rotates — we don’t realize until we start raking them into a pile just how small they are in comparison to the entire picture.

I have been charged — actually, not charged, but rather assumed the responsibility of manager, roadie, custodian, ambassador and file clerk of the family footprint.

Handed the torch, as it were. Responsible for raking up our family chapters as they fall with greater regularity and purpose. The leaves that tell our little story from the microscopic dot upon which that story has been etched.

With mom in skilled nursing and dear sister now in assisted living, that leaves me with an increased feeling of responsibility for the care and feeding of their legacy — our footprint — no matter how miniscule such a thing is in the grand scheme. In the only scheme I know, it’s a big deal. To be taken seriously.

It is why I have commandeered the family photo collection and begun sorting through it, scanning it into the computer, and preserving the record of our life. Dear mother and sister will receive their own copies — some of the classic shots blown up and framed; the majority loaded into the digital photo frames that — thank you, technology — add warmth and color to faded and fading memories.

All of this, mind you, is what goes through my head as I reach for just one of these photographs from among the thousands in this box of family history. This one just happens to have a turtle in it.

Lord knows across what road the next photo will escort me.

At this pace — a turtle’s pace — sorting through and touching every memory in a life-sized life is sure to be a long, slow process.

But even more so, rewarding.

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On the occasion of my son Justin having announced to the world this past Thursday that he and his lovely girlfriend Heather have decided to make it legal, I find yet another excuse to share a wee fraction of my knowledge without having been asked.

First, pride and space requirements force me to share how the two love birds broke the news.

The way he announced it was kinda romantic. He gathered us — all four of his parents and step-parents — in the same place and told us all at the same time. Sweet kid.

He sent me a text message at work saying I should keep an eye on my e-mail in-box. Then he e-mailed to us all photos of the engagement ring — sans finger — saying he and Heather are getting married in the summer of 2012. Then he and Heather changed their relationship status on Facebook to “engaged.” After which we, as a family, joined together and clicked “Like.” Then we all posted it on our Facebook pages so we could watch as our “friends” clicked “Like” and then leave us messages of encouragement because it’s not only about the lovely bride and fortunate groom. It’s also about me me me me me and how many Facebook notifications I get from people paying attention to me me me me me.

The only decent photos I have of the happy couple are from last summer's thoroughbred meet in Saratoga. Here, Justin meets a professional athlete.

It’s refreshing to know that some wedding traditions have not yet been tossed out with the virtual bath water app. (It was also a relief to learn the wedding is more than nine months away. Whew.)

This wonderful news of impending, constant, infinite, suffocating, inescapable togetherness affords me not only an opportunity to spend the next 13 months, three weeks and a handful of days fretting about whether I’ll still fit into my prom dress, but also whether I’ll be invited to the bachelor party.

Haven’t jumped out of a cake in decades.

This is also a chance for me to break out my “Father’s Guide to Occasionally Tolerable Marriage,” which I’ve been compiling for decades and have never once reread to see if any of it really works. Or makes sense.

This, and genetics, I figure, should be considered my wedding gift to the not-yet-unhappy couple.

I offer to this relationship two professional marriages worth of advice. I base my wisdom on one youthful practice marriage during which I built a foundation of knowledge that I lugged with me to my current (and final) marriage, whereupon it was summarily sledgehammered to bits.

For the groom, I have a few do’s and don’ts.

Don’t flick a booger into her ear while you’re driving along the Mass Pike. You might think this is the funniest thing ever (and you would be right) but you will also be wrong — verrrry, verrrry wrong — and never be able to live it down.

Living it down is big in marriage. They don’t tell you that when you’re standing at the altar while old people you don’t remember meeting because you never thought you’d see them again are now all of a sudden sitting behind you, perspiring in uncomfortable clothing and staring at your butt, hoping beyond hope they won’t be forced into a Hokey Pokey re-enactment before the day is over. With any luck, they all bring you nice gifts. But don’t mention this when you are reintroduced to them.

You’ll never live it down.

While Heather is distracted, the pickpocket makes his move.

Don’t remind her of that great big argument you had that ended with her acknowledging that she indeed wound up apologizing because, as it turned out, that was the one and only time in her entire life she was ever wrong.

The dinner guests might be entertained by the discussion, but she won’t be.

Payback is another thing they leave out of the wedding day nuptials. An incident like this could lead to payback. The husband might occasionally win at cribbage and can most often cheat well enough to win at Uno, but the husband never wins at payback. Payback’s nickname is gender-specific. There’s a reason.

Do bring home flowers on occasion. They sell them for cheap in the grocery stores now. Instead of another 30-pack of Yuengling, grab a bouquet of flowers. And a 12-pack.

She might say she doesn’t mind that you never bring her flowers, but she’ll not mind a lot less if on occasion you do.

Also, the best time to buy flowers is for no reason whatsoever. Just cuz I love you, butter dimples.

(This way, where there IS a reason to bring home flowers, she won’t ask what you did this time. Butter dimples will just assume you love her. The fact that you accidentally did a stupid, typical husband thing won’t enter her mind.)

Do always tell her she looks perfect in that dress, hat, sweater, mitten, shoe, pair of jeans, squad car, position, whatever. No matter what it is, it looks perfect on her.

Do not, no matter how tempting, point out a wrinkle, stain, hole, bird dropping or any other undesirable fashion accoutrement until you are at least more than half way to your date night destination. This will keep you from having to run back home and wait longer than it took you to get her out of the house the first time while she tries on everything again and decides nothing fits, all of her clothes are stupid, you are the most evil, horrible person on the planet and you never understand anything ever.

While this storm cloud is overhead, say nothing. No words work here. Not even the ones that work in other circumstances. This storm will pass. Do not stand in its way; you will only make it rain harder and for a greater duration. Let it happen. You’ll know it’s over when the sun comes out and the earthworms start to cook on the driveway.

(A quick stop at the convenience store for one of those cash register roses is a good move here.)

Some professional wives like back rubs or scratches; others are into the foot rub thing. Some like the deep muscle neck squeeze. Best idea is to accommodate whenever possible. However, if you give foot rubs, don’t tickle. Unless it’s requested.

The surprise foot tickle can be funny as the  dickens, but an unanticipated response from a muscle group not expecting to be rudely jostled can result in a tickled foot sending the canned beverage in your other hand clear across the room. And you only brought home 12 tonight.

Finally, for now, rest assured more advice is forthcoming, as the fast-paced and ever-changing world of wedded bliss is a many-splintered — I mean splendored. Love is a many-splendored thing. There are always corrections and additions to the handbook. In fact, I am handed fresh pages for rewrites every day.

Now, however, I am off to buy flowers for the wind beneath my personal wings. Not because of something I did.

But rather for when she finishes reading this.

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Circa 1970, mom's flowers against our fence with the Richters' house on the right.

The house next door to us has been empty for a couple of years now. And I can’t figure out why. I admit Karen and I do, on occasion, torment the neighbors, but only the ones we like. And we didn’t like these people. So I don’t get it.

The cretins who lived directly next to us played the music in their house so loudly that it rattled the stuff off the shelves in our living room. (This was the same couple who got so rambunctious with a video game that apparently involved yelling, kicking, punching and jumping that while playing it one day the lady in the relationship went crashing through her sliding screen door and landed out in her yard, laughing like a fool. Actually, this maneuver almost made them seem normal. But they also never, ever, talked to us. I said hi when they first moved in and that was the extent of our interaction for the two years they lived there. Never even learned the lady-person’s name. In fact, this might have been the only time she ever came out of the house. Then, one day, they were gone and the house was empty. OK. What ev. Buh-bye.)

We didn’t get a chance to torment these people. Not like we have other neighbors. Like back in the ’90s when our best friend neighbors were baby-sitting in the very same next door house that now stands vacant and late at night Karen and I snuck into the yard and started running around the outside, banging on the siding, unintentionally making them fear for their safety and that of the child in their care. But we didn’t consider that part when we dreamed up this excellent idea. Ahh, what fun.

Or the time we sent the trick-or-treating Halloween kids down to the house of these once-terrified baby-sitters, telling them the guy with the camping trailer in his driveway was handing out movies on video cassette. Little buggers went running down the street to get their movies, only to find the guy answering the door had no idea what they were talking about. He eventually figured out the source, though. Oh, the laughs.

I am proud to say I gained a lot of my tormenting skills by paying close attention to the interactions between my parents and the neighbors of my childhood.

One of my mom’s greatest hits came at the expense of Uncas Richter. Uncas and Claire lived directly next door to my childhood home. Uncas was a great ol’ guy (I say ol’ instead of old because he was only a few years older than my parents — which still made him light years older than I — but also because ol’, to me, is a reference to someone I regard as a pal.) They were good neighbors.

Despite having moved next to the Mattisons.

Uncas had this thing about keeping track of the stuff going on at the Mattisons’ and making every effort to keep his yard as tidy and presentable as my mom and dad did ours. Mom’s flower gardens, in their prime, were amazing and stretched for great lengths along our property.

Kinda hard to see. The only photo of Uncas I could find.

Uncas called it “Mattisonizing.” As in: “I see Florence’s daffodils are up and blooming already. I better go buy some and Mattisonize my garden, too.” The grownups in this relationship all laughed and joked about it. Uncas had a booming voice and I can still hear pronouncements like this booming from his side of our tidy split-rail fence.

Not to be outdone by mom’s green thumb, one year Uncas planted daffodil bulbs in one of his flower beds. And for the better part of what seemed like forever, that was all he talked about.

“We’ll see how pretty your daffodils look after mine come up,” I remember him chiding mom. “I Mattisonized my garden.”

So, spring came and stuff started popping up in all the neighborhood gardens … except one.

And every morning, Uncas would stand on the deck in back of his house and stare at his dirt. (The deck, I feel compelled to mention, was built for him by my dad, who had built one on the back of our house and obliged Uncas when he asked, “Hey, Keithy-burger” — Uncas called dad Keithy-burger and me Kevvie-burger because he was Uncas and he bellowed — “Hey Keithy-burger, how about Mattisonizing the back of my house?” So dad did.)

And while standing there every morning, coffee in hand, Uncas would stare at the naked piece of dirt where he planted those daffodil bulbs, and not for the life of him could he understand why they weren’t popping through the soil.

At some point in the morning he would come over to ask mom what she thought he did wrong. Did he plant them upside down? Was it a watering thing or a sunlight thing? She really had no answers. And she eventually tired of reiterating that fact day after day.

One day, she decided it was time to end the discussion. She grabbed a handful of plastic daffodils from a vase that I am sure occupied a prominent position in the house because it was the early 1970s and if there was one thing that our house had an ample supply of, it was clear glass things supporting plastic flowers (stuck in green styrofoam).

She waited until after dark, snuck over to Uncas’s failed daffodil experiment, and jammed the plastic flowers into the ground, in her best “maybe that will shut him up” manner. (A manner, I believe, I have inherited, based on the feeling I derive from retaliation. Thank you, mother.)

The next morning, Uncas grabbed his coffee, walked out on the deck, and bellowed, for the entire neighborhood to share: “Hey Flo-burger! They came up! The daffodils came up! Flo-burger! Come see this!”

Ol’ Unkie-burger was ecstatic as he ran across his back yard, leather slippers slipping on the morning dew, bathrobe flopping, coffee spilling on the lawn. “Ahh-ha-haaa. Hee-hee. They grew! They finally grew!”

Never once during any of this — which we witnessed from our back deck because we knew it was going to happen and wouldn’t have missed it for the world — did it cross his mind that in the time between the sun going down the night before and the sun returning for another day, these flowers, which were not even poking out of the ground eight hours previous, had in that time sprouted, grown to full height, and blossomed in full yellow splendor. And that they had all reached identical heights and sizes.

All he could think about was the fact that he planted these things and now they looked better than mom’s. That is, until he reached his little garden, bent over to caress one of his golden gems … and it tipped over with a stiff plastic thud. “Flo-burger!”

Which, while I still enjoy laughing like heck at the look on ol’ Unkie-burger’s face when he realized he got punked by dear ol’ mom, doesn’t explain to me why today the house next door remains vacant.

We don’t start terrorizing our neighbors until after we’ve become good friends. Family tradition.

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So this was Thursday.

One of my new-found adult responsibilities of late has been that of recorder of mother’s finances. She has advanced to a point in her life when it’s no longer necessary to make her keep track of things like bills and money and numbers.

The responsibility has thus, finally, fallen to me.

I know. Scary, scary world we live in when kids are given the keys to their parents’ lives. Which is why I didn’t ask for it. I won her in a raffle.

One of the hardest things I have ever done in my life occurred Thursday. I had to call the Social Security Administration and — how dare I? — request information.

If this gets too technical for you to follow, please raise your hand or tug on my sleeve and I’ll try to eliminate as much of the technological jargon as possible without weakening the point.

I might still be on the phone if I hadn’t, for illustration purposes only, shattered the part you hold in your hand while slamming it back down on the part that has the numbers and stays on the desk.

The task before me was to be a simple one. Without going into excess detail and giving up any privileged matriarchived data, I am trying to have the Social Insecurity Double-Secret Association stop direct-depositing a check in this account and instead direct-deposit into that account. Both accounts still being held by dear, sweet mother.

The explanation of the rigmarole involved in this seemingly innocent task takes up two sheets of legal paper and more space in my brain than I currently have available. So I will spare you.

Mom lives on the outskirts of Lebanon, Pa., home to some amazing bologna and little in the way of anything that can help me with my problem.

The Social Security office phone number in that fine city “is not in service at this time.” Think of the convenience they are sparing the needy public by making themselves impossible to contact.

Inconvenient and simultaneously brilliant.

This left the national 800 number as my only option. I dreaded picking up the soon-to-be shredded (in my mind) pieces of my telephone and making what I knew was going to be an agonizing call.

Sometimes modernization is monumentally annoying. I think intentionally so.

A major employer that forces you to navigate its automated phone system before granting you an audience with a living person is really telling you: “We would rather frustrate the living tar out of you than swiftly attend to your every need.”

“If you agree, say ‘yes’ now.”

Following Thursday’s call to the 800 number I am convinced no one works there any more. They’ve all been replaced by a friendly voice schooled in the fine art of frustrating human beings until they give up and start breaking things.

“Thank you for calling Social Security. Your call may be monitored for quality control and to ensure that you receive accurate and courteous service. To continue in English, press 1 now or say ‘English.’”


“Please tell me briefly the reason for your call.”

Direct deposit.

“For example, you could say, ‘What is the cost of living adjustment for next year?’”

Direct deposit.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand you.”

I’m trying to change the bank account a direct deposit check goes into.

“Would you like to hear this message again?”


“Main menu.”

No. I don’t want the main menu.

“If I can help you with anything else today, just say what it is.”

Rat poison for the neighbor’s dog.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand you.”

Direct deposit information.

“For example, you could say, ‘I need a proof of income letter.’”

Bank account switch.

“I can help you learn about direct deposit, set up, change or fix a problem. Just say ‘learn,’ ‘set up,’ ‘change’ or ‘problem.’


“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand you. Would you like to hear this message again?”


“If I can help you with anything else today, just say what it is. For example, you could say, ‘I need a proof of income letter.’”

I would like to hear this message again.

“Main menu. Thank you for calling Social Security. Your call may be monitored for quality control and to ensure that you receive accurate and courteous service. To continue in English, press 1 now or say ‘English.’”


“Please tell me briefly the reason for your call.”

I want to speak to a person.

“For example, you could say, ‘I need a copy of my work history.’”

I want to speak to a person.

“I understand you would like to speak to an agent. However, this could take a lengthy period of time until one is available. Our automated voice messaging system can handle many tasks. Would you like to try it?”


“If I can help you with anything else today, just say what it is. For example, you could say, ‘I need information about my local field office.’”

I need information about my local field office.

“Sure. To help you find information about your local field office, say the five-digit ZIP code now. If this is not the information you seek, please say, ‘Main menu.’”

I don’t know the ZIP code.

“Main menu. Thank you for calling Social Security. Your call may be monitored for quality control and to ensure that you receive accurate and courteous service. To continue in English, press 1 now or say ‘English.’”


“Please tell me briefly the reason for your call. For example, you could say, ‘I need information about my local field office.’”

I am going to need a new phone very shortly.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand you. If I can help you with anything else today, just say what it is. For example, you could say, ‘I need a replacement Medicare card.’ Or, if you are finished with this call, you can say, ‘Main menu’ or simply hang up. This call may have been monitored for quality control and to ensure that you received accurate and courteous service. Do you hear that banging sound?”

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Our pets are our living toys. They need maintenance if they are going to keep us entertained.

And I remain fascinated by the extent to which they roll, twist, salt and bake our lives into giant pretzels.

I say this after our cat’s second trip — in one month — to the veterinarian, after which she received yet another prescription (this would be the sixth for the little princess) to keep her hissing, defecating, food-ignoring finicky little self in pristine working condition.

Kitty no longer fits in the box she came in.

We’ve already thrown away the box she came in, so we can’t take her back to the toy store. Not that we ever would, mind you, for the wind beneath my wings would most assuredly choke the living air out of me at the mere suggestion.

It’s her cat. I keep it running, but it’s hers.

I am responsible for handling most of the feline  maintenance calls at Chez Mattison, but it’s only to keep m’lady and her favorite living thing (I believe I am either sixth or seventh on the list of favorites; it changes more frequently than the Billboard Hot 100) warm and happy.

We’ve had this little darling in our lives since 2005, when, surprise, Karen decided we had lived long enough without the odor of pet squeezings permeating the indoor atmosphere. Her official vet name is Red (because she’s black and white and I work for a newspaper), but we call her Kitty.

We’ve called all of our pets Kitty. Keeps us from having to change the monogram on their luggage.

She spent her formative years as the loving pet of an elderly Staten Island woman who had to give her up when she moved into a retirement facility. Karen happened to work with the woman’s son; he posted a sign at work: Cat Needs Family; and the rest, as they say, is now deposited in a box on the upstairs closet floor. …

… Usually while I am at the computer, thank you, banging out things like the one you’re reading. Which is, on occasion, interrupted by my needing to go grab the Febreeze after another of her epic scratch-and-sniff moments.

Kitty turns on the charm.

Gotta tell ya, for a small, occasionally sweet critter, she can pack a wallop.

We got her when she was 7. At first we were told she was 3. Then 5. The family really was clueless about the age thing. Then we received paperwork that showed she was born June 6, 1998. In the blink of an eye, we lost an incalculable (by me, anyway) number of quality cat years. Also, she simultaneously burned about four of her nine lives.

Which means that this year, she’ll be 13. And she’s starting to show her age. Not unlike her mommy.

For the past couple of years she’s suffered through an annual summertime bout of pancreatitis, which apparently is as much fun as it sounds for a little kitty. She has also been developing older-cat maladies that involve her blood flow and volume, her heart, her food jettison system (which I find most difficult to believe, but apparently it’s true), her teeth, and her spunk.

Anyway, the monthly prescription bill has hit three figures and continues to climb. And because she’s a bloomin’ lady, she is, she is not about to allow those who feed and pet her to pick her up off the floor and shove pills down her throat (not sure I can blame her there), so her medications have to be sent to the special pharmacy where they can be turned into chicken-flavored liquid, squirted into her bowl, and mixed into her food.

Keeping an eye on the clock, awaiting the dinner bell

Food, I am not happy to report, that little miss fur ball has been dismissing of late as unfit for feline consumption. Her maladies have not suppressed her finicky gland.

Companionship does not come without a price. This price is often paid with the hoops through which we pet owners jump so as to keep our bundles of joy from being the least little bit sad or depressed or — heaven forbid — disappointed with us.

She is fed soft food. She prefers hard food, but she tends to inhale it without chewing. This gums up the pipes and turns her into a giant, waddling, fur-coated, stomach-dragging puff ball incapable of making No. 2. Not unlike her daddy.

We learned this the hard way the first time we had to give her an enema.

Lemme tell ya, if you’re not busy some Sunday afternoon, cover your bathroom floor with towels, hold your bloated cat in the bathtub while your spouse (played by me) administers a vet-approved feline enema, run from the room quickly while closing the door, and check back on the kitty about four hours later.

I promise you, you’ll remember my name.

Ever put a raw potato in the microwave oven and come back too late to find it has exploded all over the walls inside the mikey?

Perhaps you should before you try the bathroom thing. It’ll give you an idea of the scope. Words of caution: The size of the room exponentially increases the size of the cleanup.

She eats one can of cat food each day, but her meals are split into four sessions. Can’t give her too much at one time; she won’t eat it all. And if she comes back to it later and it’s hardened a little, she’ll ignore it. So, four meals a day. Right around her paw, she has us wrapped.

Her belly filled, Kitty strikes a pose.

And into each one of these quarter cans of food, she gets a couple squirts of various medications. Lately, she’s become picky about the flavors of food she prefers. She’ll eat the chicken and liver but not the poultry platter. She’ll tolerate the salmon but not the fisherman’s surprise. Whatever, darling angel. Anything to keep you from bouncing all over the house at dinner time(s).

Lately, she’s developed a new trick. She won’t eat until the food’s microwaved. I put the bowl on the floor. She sniffs the food, starts to walk away, then looks over her shoulder. When she sees me pick it up again, she runs over to the mikey, listens for the ding, then starts meowing. I put the food back on the floor, and she dives in, face first.

Kitty atop the summit of Mt. Mommy, telling her it's time for another breakfast.

Another amazing cat feat I can’t understand is her ability to tell time. Doesn’t matter when we get home or what’s on TV or what we’re doing, when food time comes, she starts pouncing on her mother and mixing and staring (the staring is kinda spooky, actually). She runs to the kitchen and starts wailing. Then she runs back to the living room and starts all over again.

Very much like her mother.

In the morning before we’re up, she does the same thing, sort of. She bounces on Karen and paws at the covers and slaps her in the face as soon as it’s time for breakfast. She doesn’t do this to me (thankfully), only to her mommy. Even though I am the one who puts down her first, third and fourth meals of the day.

Hey. She wanted a cat. She should get all the benefits of ownership. Foody calls included.

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