Friday, June 07, 2013

Concrete, Cats and Combat

I am not sure where to begin with this story because what I want to share is a feeling that can be expressed through a particular memory but I am afraid that even that won't sufficiently convey the emotion. It is 1984 and my husband and I have just celebrated our one year wedding anniversary. We are proud homeowners of a rowhouse in Colwyn, Pennsylvania. An end of the row, with a small side yard where we hold big parties. We meticulously remodel, redecorate and clean and shine our little castle. It is Wednesday and it is sunny and warm and a perfect Spring day. It is June 6th and the concrete is being delivered at Noon. I just started a new job but when I heard who my Dad lined up to help him with the concrete I decided to take the day off to be there to help. In case. My father arrived at dawn and while waiting for the sun to fully rise he stood in the garage cutting wood for the concrete form. My husband hurries off to work, worried now that Dad's help may not arrive at all. I throw on a pair of overalls and bring the coffee outside and ask my Dad if he needs help. He looks at me and shakes his head. He does this when I am on his nerves or just plain ridiculous and tells me that I should just stay away from the power tools so that I don't lose a finger.

He builds the form. It takes a lot longer to do than to tell about it, but there isn't much to say about forms. They are like little wooden boxes, shaped like the thing you want to make with the concrete. We are building steps. Steps that will run from the side yard to the back door. There is a big wall there now and to get down, you have to jump. My Dad already measured the space a few days ago and calculated the risers and treads and truthfully, I am not good at this part because there is a lot of math. As the morning wears on, he cuts and measures and builds. At 10AM he hands me his little black book and asks me to go inside and call his helper. I call and there is no answer. I go back outside and I can see my Dad is getting stressed. I wouldn't want to do math and work with a power saw at the same time, so I try to be extra nice about the bad news but he isn't having it. He is pissed and tells me to call a few of the local bars to track down his helper. Back inside I make the calls but no one has seen him since yesterday so I leave lots of messages to tell him to come to the Colwyn job. I doubt that he will get the message or follow the instructions if he does. I grab a pitcher of cold water and paper cups and head back out.

I always wanted a dog of my own and thought that the minute I had my own house, I would have my own dog. I wasn't thinking that maybe I'd be sharing that house with someone who didn't feel the same way. Just after our wedding when I realized that my husband wasn't kidding about not wanting a dog, I surprised him with a cat. I surprised myself with the cat also, since I really wasn't too crazy about cats. Pete was a tiny runt of a thing that I carried around in the pocket of my scrubs while I cooked dinner and ran the vacuum. I wasn't even sure how to talk to a cat and the first time I had to say "pssst, pssst, psst", I laughed out loud. I felt so stupid. In the year since I brought Pete home our relationship grew into an obsession on my part and I worried about him constantly. I didn't let him near the door for fear of him getting loose and run over by a car. My Dad laughs at my behavior. He doesn't like cats at all and this one in particular attacks his feet when he walks up the stairs ruining any chance for a mutually respectful acquaintance. That morning I carefully pulled the door close as I went back outside with the bad news.

My Dad took the news with a pragmatic head shake and moved the radio to the side of the yard where we sat waiting for the concrete, He listened to WPEN 950 Club, a station that featured Big Band music and rockabilly classics. He is singing along with "It's Only a Shanty in Old Shanty Town" and I lean back and enjoy his smooth crooner voice. The station breaks and the DJ is talking about D-Day. It is the 40th Anniversary of the Invasion. In my mind, it is ages ago, another world away. My Dad tells me what he was doing on that exact day and time 40 years earlier. He marvels that forty years have passed. He tells me that his experience in England during the war is possibly the best and worst days of his life. He tries to explain the thrill of coming back alive when you accept that you are likely to die. He tells of his disappointment at the Japanese cars and German stereos so proudly displayed in American homes. He knows it is the right way to end a war, to be friends again, but it feels too  forgiving about something we should never forget. I am at an age where I begin to appreciate what my father has to say, I am experiencing the 40th Anniversary of the Invasion with a person who experienced the invasion. It is surreal and I am trying to figure out what I am feeling when my Dad gets up to use the bathroom.

I am not sure what is going on at first but I see my father run down the street. I move to the front of the yard and see Pete running back and forth across the street at the same moment the giant concrete truck is barreling around the curve. I watch as my Dad makes a swoop in front of the truck, lifting the cat off his feet and spinning back to the safety of the curb. He is holding the cat by the scruff of his neck and I can tell that the thought of tossing him in front of the truck might just cross his mind. "Put this goddamn cat in the house. The concrete is here". 

An argument ensues because my father feels the concrete is too wet and the guy delivering the concrete is intent on pouring it faster than Dad and I can work it. This is the first time I ever worked with concrete not made in small portions by hand. This is a huge pour and we have to work quickly to get the steps done correctly. I am following his direction carefully as I sense we don't get a do over on this. After the truck leaves, we do the finish work, smoothing out the concrete.

Later that evening when my husband is home and my Mom stops by to see the job, my father tells them about the helper he had and what a great job they did and the thing is, he isn't just laying it on. He is really proud of me. I tell everyone how my father rescued the cat from certain death.

It is 29 years since that 40th Anniversary. Time has gotten so far away from me that I don't try to hold it still anymore. It is as fluid and fleeting as a summer storm. The war stories are nearly all gone too with the men and women who told them. The world spins and times change and nothing lasts forever. Except love and concrete.


Friday, April 19, 2013

No Answers

As usual, I feel bad for the “bad guys”. You know you are getting old when you have trouble hating people. Now, don't beat me up for this, I mean, I saw what they did. The images are permanently embedded in my memory. Embedded in the soul of our country.

I also remember what it was like to be young, to be passionate for an idea, even a bad one. Fortunately for most of us that passion centers around benign activities. But what if it did not? What if circumstances unfolded in a away that instead of an older sister with a fervor for antiques, she had a zeal for politics? Would I have spent countless Saturdays traveling around the countryside looking for other "freedom fighters" or spent evenings reading about the chemicals needed to make bombs instead of those used to properly clean old furniture? What if the ties that bind us had been born of violence and hatred?

And the images return. Eight year old Martin Richard, just moments before his death, his sister standing next to him. The family intact. The years of sibling love cut short in a second. Strong, vibrant young people missing limbs. Those same limbs strewn around the sidewalk like discarded trash. Others with head injuries that may never heal. Lives disrupted permanently.

We seek justice, but there is no way to make it right. The lives of the bombers, created in the same image of God as the rest of us (if you believe such things) are destroyed as completely as their victims, although, you might argue (and rightly so) they chose that ending. There is nothing the courts can do to make them pay the debt they owe. A judge can't raise from the dead the young women with the freckled face and pretty blue eyes. A jury can't award legs where none exist. Human beings cannot make this right.

So, as his brother went before him, I can't help wishing that the fate of the younger bomber be left to God also.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

You Know You are Catholic and from Darby ...

I found an old e-mail that I shared with family and friends, dated April 25, 2003. That was long before I kept a blog and when people still got excited to get jokes by email. I remember writing this in response to those "How to Tell You are Italian, Irish, a Philadelphian etc." emails that were going sround.

Until 1970 (when tuition was instituted) all Catholics from Darby went to BVM. Everyone that didn't go to BVM was "a public". So, if your neighbor went to Ridge Avenue or Walnut Street Elementary she wasn't Jewish, Presbyterian or Baptist. She was a "public", that other religion.

You were either an "uphill" or "downhill". Downhill kids had better after school munchies. We supported at least four different stores in penny candy sales. Bauer's, Bushmeier's, Pop's and Ray's Stand did a brisk business. At Ray's you got to feed the ducks in Darby Creek. (Pronounced Crick by a true Darbarian)

Your Easter Eggs came from Steven's Candies, the coconut cream ones had a yellow "egg" center. Those little clear candies that Father Gallagher gave out just before Christmas break came from Steven's too.

There was nothing extraordinary about 1,000 kids, in the middle of May, walking down MacDade Blvd., down Main Street and around the school parking lot singing, "Salve Regina" and laying flowers at the feet of a pretty eighth grade girl dressed like the Virgin Mary.

Ambitious boys delivered "The Bulletin" after school. They picked up the papers at "The Branch" near Martin's Market. They collected every Friday around dinner time. Nearly everybody read the Bulletin.

You bought 45's at Guy & Ed's and broke a balloon for a free banana split at the lunch counter at the 5&10. You bought at least one gift for your Mom at Wellworth's and your girlfriend at Tucker's.

Your Mom had lots of bags from "John's Bargain Store" and your first Converse "Chuck Taylor" high tops came from Bennett's. Your gym shorts were from the Big Store and had Darby misspelled "DRABY" across the gonads.

Christmas came from BabyTown. Santa came from a helicopter that dumped ping pong balls all over Main Street-get a ball, claim a prize. Your Easter shoes came from The Darby Shoe Store where, when you were real little, you'd ride the hobby horse. I'll bet you can still describe the salesmen there.

Nuns kept arsenals under their habits. Noisy clickers, dangerous pointers and yardsticks that were broken at least weekly over someone's back.

Everyone was born at Fitzgerald Mercy, laid out at Marvel's and buried at Holy Cross. You wouldn't consider missing 9 o'clock Sunday Mass even if your parents were sleeping off a rough Saturaday night. No one wanted to get hit by a bus on Lansdowne Avenue and die with mortal sin on their soul.

We all know that the Palmer Method had nothing to do with masturbation.

We all swore that the Saint Teresa statue cried real tears.

We sold candy at recess and lunch. Everyone wanted to sell Mallo-Cups so that they could take the "money" out before selling the candy.

Milk and soft pretzels were nutritionally sound.

BVM Carnival had swings, pizza and lots of gambling. Tickets were 5 cents each or 25 for a dollar when purchased in advance.

Moving to the "old school" was a rite of passage. Graduating eighth grade was a huge relief.

If we only knew how simple life was...

Pass this on to other Darbarians who may share the memories. It is nice to consider that no matter where we are or how we got there, we all started in the same place.