September 25, 2016

surviving my own civil war

About 7 years ago, I got roped into driving our big white van to Gettysburg with my Dad and ten children.  Dad's initial plan to trek out east with several grand-kids packed in his Buick Rendezvous. didn't fly with his adult children.  He envisioned a quick trip featuring his solo chauffeur abilities.  With the travel portion of his trip in the crapper, he turned to me and requested that I accompany him on the journey.  My former airport-shuttle van would serve as the perfect vehicle providing twelve seats and increasing the number of kids able to attend.  Hooray.  

My three oldest boys were included in this informative, historic, mind-blowing road trip that Dad longed to accomplish.  Because the use of my car was paramount in rounding up so many of Dad's grand-kids, he was overjoyed that in a moment of weakness I agreed.  One of my terms in agreeing to attend included the absence of AM radio being played regardless of who was driving. 

Each child was assigned the task of researching a particular battle in addition to a colonel or a sergeant in the army.  Power point presentations and written reports were required to be emailed to Dad on a set date before a kid's admittance on the trip was secured.  Laddie cringed when I shared his cousin Kate's report with him.  Since he was attempting to skate by with the least amount of effort poured into his report, Kate's detailed project caused him to bristle.  'Stupid over achiever,' he muttered under his breath.
General George Meade

The long weekend was far from relaxing for me.  I do not share Dad's thirst for historic re-creation, but I supported his endeavors whole heartily.  Part of my services included acting as the warden of the girls' hotel room.  The male lodgers bunked with Dad in the neighboring room minus Tetanka.  As the youngest traveler, Tetanka was slated to be the one token boy in the girls' room.  As an 8 year old, Tetanka hadn't met Dad's age requirement but since his mother was one of the chaperones, the rules were bent to a certain degree.  The hotel room arrangement, much to his chagrin, was non-negotiable.

Hand drawn map by Dad.
We survived a violent hail storm, unpleasant teenage odors, hefty appetites, and a frightening episode when the large van shook wildly during a steep section of highway in the mountains of Pennsylvania.  After a panic stricken call to Coach, I learned that the van needed to be driven in a lower gear to handle the incline.  With my video camera rolling, I recorded each child's presentation.  The other grandchildren applauded their fellow cousins after each kid took a turn educating the group.  Dad supplied his students with hand-drawn maps and black and white copies of memorable sergeants' pictures.  He filled in the gaps between presenters with lengthy lectures, and directed us on a walking tour of the battle fields and monuments.  We spread blankets on the ground at various stops for our juvenile crowd to gather on while Dad unfolded the sole lawn chair he brought for his comfort.  A few times we witnessed other tourists gravitate towards our group trying to eavesdrop on one of our informative sessions.  This irritated Tetanka to no end, who shot them a look to discourage them from 'stealing' our private speeches.

Dad's forced march with his ten grandchildren in tow.

Both nights we stayed at the hotel, Dad and I worked to feed the crew, enforce mandatory bathing, and adhere to a reasonable bedtime.  Before we checked out, bags were packed and dragged down to the waiting van, and a casual breakfast was offered thanks to our mini fridge and a couple of bags of mini donuts.  I drove the majority of the way home knowing that my lead foot would land us home sooner than Dad's.  Bathroom breaks were kept to a minimum, reading was encouraged, and sleep was sporadic on the 10 hour return trip.

As we approached Chicago, Dad told me to call my sister and let her know that we would be arriving sooner than expected.  From his place at the wheel, he grumbled that he didn't want to be responsible for all these kid for a moment longer than necessary.  No one answered Ann's phone.  I told her son to call from his phone and she picked up his call instantly.  He handed me the phone.  'I just tried to call you, why didn't you pick up?' I asked.  She really didn't have an answer.

'What's up?' she inquired.

'We are making really good time and Dad wants you and Marie over at my house to claim your kids before we arrive.  We should be home in about 25 or 30 minutes,' I shared.

There was a hesitation before she told me to talk to Mom.  Mom took the phone and began to chant, 'Girls' weekend, girls' weekend, girls' weekend!'  At first I was confused.  Then I realized that I had been duped into spending ten hours each way in a van full of kids, sitting in the hot sun being subjected to never-ending details about the Battle of Gettysburg, and eating remnants of stale chips from the bottom of salt coated bags all while suffering from sleep deprivation.  Now it was clear that my sisters and Mom had enjoyed a very different weekend away.  'We decided to stay downtown and do some shopping.  We are about to grab a bite, and then we will head home,' she explained in an airy, guilt-free manner.

I felt uncharacteristically at a loss for words.  I handed my nephew his phone back and fought the urge to cry for the remaining leg of the trip.  After explaining to Dad that we would have to supervise a bit longer because my sisters were lunching, I asked him how long he knew about their hidden agenda.  How well this had worked out for them!  Send our youngest, clueless sister out of town with most of our children so we can slip into the city and enjoy a relaxing, bonding weekend together.  Dad fumbled around a bit when he answered.  'I don't know.  They don't tell me things.'

Back at the house, I was greeted by hugs from my youngest three.  I kissed a serious looking scratch on Curly's cheek and basked in their multitude of kisses.  The bitches, dressed in their Sunday best carrying little clutch purses and wearing pumps, showed up eventually.  I marched into my house and allowed them to claim their kids and hear about our exciting adventure while I was out of earshot.  I paced in my kitchen unsure of how to handle the hurt.  My gut felt like someone had thrown me an unexpected sucker punch.

I recalled a conversation from the weekend before we left for Gettysburg.  While attending a graduation party at Ann's house, I heard my aunt ask Mom and my sisters what kind of plans they were concocting while their kids were away.  Mom had shaken her head assuring her that no such plans existed.  Remembering the looks between the three of them, I now understood that their 'girls' weekend' had been in the works for some time.

My sisters and Mom took turns over the next few days calling me.  No one apologized.  Each sister described how thrilled her kids were with the trip.  All of my passengers found me very entertaining.  They thanked me for my involvement.  Was that supposed to make what they had pulled acceptable and forgivable?  I had very little to say in response and hung up as soon as I could.  Mom of course explained that it just worked out so well since Ann was without her children.  'This weekend was exactly what Ann needed after all.  She's had such a difficult time since the divorce.'  I don't know what she took me for, but since the divorce Ann was without her children every other weekend.  Since Marie was still married, a weekend could have been orchestrated when her husband was available to watch her brood.  A similar 'girls only' weekend, with full participation hasn't been organized before or since.

After viewing the battlefields of Gettysburg, I felt like I had suffered a sneak attack of my own.  I just wasn't sure what I had done to deserve a not-so-civil assault of this kind. 

September 18, 2016

a memorable Prince performance

When Prince died unexpectedly a few months ago, it made me think of an awkward situation that I hadn't pondered in years.

My younger brothers and I were lounging around in their room watching a music award show or the academy awards or something along those lines in the early to mid 80's.  I was around 12, Pat 11, and Mike 10.

Pat and Mike shared a room that featured wall to wall antique furniture.  Mom and Dad collected antiques.  After stuffing as much of the delicate yet pricey purchases as they could in most other rooms in the house, the boys' room showcased the aftermath of their most recent antique shows.

This was my brothers' cross to bear.  They never complained about it, but I don't think they knew any better.  If you asked me, and no one did, I would say that the sports-themed wallpaper hanging in the background clashed with the carved wooden ornate headboards.  

Maybe the Pat and Mike tolerated the old-lady styled furniture because they had a television in their room.  When Mom and Dad finally upgraded to a color TV for the master bedroom, Mom decided that the old black and white set would land in the boys' room.  That TV placement was made despite the fact that there were three older sisters.

Age didn't matter in our Irish Catholic family.  There was, however, a huge focus on whether or not an individual came equipped with an extra appendage. 

I don't believe any of us were overly interested in the show, since we were all pretty clueless when it came to pop culture.  Who could expect us to know anything about Top 40 music when Dad only bought cars with a standard AM radio, and we didn't have cable?  But sure as shit, we sat and watched some of the awards.

That formerly-mom-and-dad's ancient black and white set only received certain channels- on a good day.  Perhaps the kid wrestling with the dial and monkeying around with the bunny ears antenna grew tired of trying to locate a 'real' show.

It was uncommon for us to all crowd into Pat and Mike's room when the spacious family room boasted a bigger, color television set.  Years prior the knob had broken off of the bulky, console TV that was meant to resemble furniture.  Changing channels became a challenge.

Of course remote controls probably existed for newer model television sets.  We weren't that lucky.  Regardless of the inconveniences presented by watching TV in the family room, we typically gravitated towards that space and that set. 

I don't remember the circumstances of why we escaped the family room that evening.  If I had to guess, I would assume that Dad was slumped over his family room desk with his forehead resting between his fanned out fingers and thumb.  The thick fingers of his free hand drumming intensely on the fold out desk top.  Uh-oh.  His checkbook wasn't balancing.

The unfortunate placement of our father's desk in the family room killed many a family moment.  If he became frustrated about finances or some screwy paperwork situation, the volume on the television couldn't compete with his interruptions.  There was very little chance that any of us would stick around in such close proximity to his impending outbursts.

Perhaps we had retreated upstairs to avoid listening to Dad spout off about the cost of things, inflation, or God forbid a missing receipt.  Every purchase Mom made needed to be validated with the receipt.  She was expected to tuck said receipt into the little left hand drawer of his desk.  Since every expenditure needed to be accounted for, he relied on the intricate filing system of stuffing receipts into the little drawer.

Of course the uninteresting show heated up just as Mom entered the room.   

September 11, 2016

Homecoming date

Ah, high school.  Remember those years?  Some memories might be easier to forget than others.  Since Laddie just graduated from high school in May, and Eddie just started his sophomore year, my high school memories are constantly being jogged.

This year the school's homecoming dance is scheduled to take place in two weeks, which is earlier than normal.  While so much has changed since I attended a Catholic High School in the late 80's, I have noticed that history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Today's students text one another in order to communicate.  They also tend to go to great lengths to invite a potential date to a dance.  On the other hand, awkward moments still prevail and teenagers still act first and think later.

The approaching dance (that Eddie will most likely attend with a group of buddies vs. a date) has caused me to reflect back on an incredibly embarrassing situation that I endured as a junior in high school.  In order to explain the dynamics of the situation, I must describe the setup of my unique school environment.

My school was an all girls' school, but the same building housed a Catholic high school for boys.  Because of the gender division that the school was structured around - girl students didn't encounter boys during the academic classes.

Our shared lunch room was a social experience where girls with big hair, outgoing personalities, and rolled-up-in-order-to-shorten uniform skirts felt comfortable mingling with the opposite sex.  Self conscious of my over-sized glasses, my short hair fashioned with mom's straight edge raiser, and my lack of over-all 'cool' demeanor, I cowered at my all girls table and managed to avoid contact with my male counterparts.  I'm sure after my flattering description you find it hard to believe that the guy students weren't begging for a seat at our table, but alas my friends and I managed to steer clear of most coed encounters. 

Early in the school year, I was invited to assist in running a retreat for 8th grade students from the surrounding area.  A few other junior girl students were selected along with a few senior boy students.  We were given an outline and the guidance of a few teachers who worked with us to plan the upcoming retreats.  There were several schools that planned to visit our Catholic high school, and the teachers chose a female and male student pair to lead each of the scheduled retreats. 

For the retreat, I was expected to prepare a speech about friendship, choose music to accompany my talk, and present it to the potential future students.  In preparation for the big day, I met with the committee a few times and we brainstormed our ideas and practiced our speeches.  Eventually the adult leaders assigned two students to each of the retreats.

I just so happened to be chosen to lead a retreat with John Throb-heart.  OK, that wasn't his real name, but his first name was John.  Trust me when I say that his real surname was a compound word and one of the words was indeed 'heart'.  While the other word was not 'throb', it was a word that literally made his name match his status as a good looking, kind, all around great guy.  Lucky me.

Seriously, I felt fortunate.  There were guys who may have been well suited to run a retreat, but who were a bit full of themselves.  Some of the candidates made it less than appealing to work with them.  There were cool guys, egotistical guys, and nerdy guys.  Being paired with John Throb-heart was a gift.

Some of the only conversations I engaged in with teenage guys to this point included phrases like, 'Would you like fries with that?' or 'Is that for here or to go?'  Imagine my hesitation in responding to the thought provoking topics that we discussed while organizing the retreat.  Thankfully, I realized early on that John was not the judgmental type and that he didn't struggle to be open and honest.

Prior to the retreat, I had seen him at school and had heard his name.  His reputation as a great guy preceded him.  Once the task of leading this one day religious event for the 8th graders ended, John and I congratulated ourselves on a successful result and returned to our regular school schedule on opposite sides of the building.

Our interaction should have ended there, but it didn't.  Oh, how I dread revisiting what happened next, but I believe you will find it entertaining.  Let me know if you can relate.   
(To read the end of the story, click here.)