Make a Wish

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Yesterday morning, I went to the mall with my Mother.  I am in California and she is in Kansas, and yet, unbeknownst to her even, we found ourselves walking the corridors of Metcalf South Shopping Center, in Overland Park, Kansas, circa 1973.  I don’t even know what spurred the memory, as I swam my morning laps, but that recollection stayed with me for the rest of the day.

It was an autumn morning, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the date was September 28.  My mom brought me to the mall, we walked around, she bought me a popcorn jack-o-lantern at Topsy’s Popcorn.  I think there might have been some toy that came with it.  We got in the car and we drove home, me elated by my new acquisition.

I think of this day from time to time.  I don’t know why, other than it’s just a pure, happy memory.  My Mom was the center of my world when I was 5.  She was the prettiest, the smartest, the best singer, the best dresser, the funniest.  I loved my Dad, I loved my brothers, I loved my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and my cousins and my dog Pee-Wee, I loved God and Jesus and church, too, but my Mother, she was my favorite.  My Mommy.

I tried to unearth more details from this 43-year-old outing.  Did we make other purchases? Were we preparing for some special occasion?  Was it definitely 1973?  Am I sure that it was even a popcorn ball and not some other candy or toy that brought me delight on that day?  Did I beg for this treat or was it her idea?  Was it something we could easily afford or a small extravagance? And while I arrived at no answers, I luxuriated in the speculations, the recreation of the scene.

Because I am a bit of a history buff, I decided to google Metcalf South Mall.  When my Dad had his surgery in 2012 and we were based in Kansas City for three weeks, I once drove by the mall and could see it was not the mall of my memories.  The intervening years had not been kind.  According to Wikipedia,  Metcalf South closed its doors for good in 2014.  Sad, I know.

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Metcalf South Shopping Center opened in 1967.  If some of its nostalgic Pinterest fans can be believed it was “the place to be in Overland Park” in the 1970s.  All that I can remember from those years affirms that observation.

Because we lived in nearby Merriam, we went to this mall often, at least once a month, probably more.  I’d forgotten the centerpiece of the structure, a three-story fountain.   In scrolling through internet images last night, the memories flooded back, of all the times my Mom or Dad would give me a penny so I could add my hopes into the collection and make a wish.

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Last week, I wrote a piece about my parents where I alluded to some health challenges.  What I didn’t say was that my Mom was diagnosed with macular degeneration three weeks ago.  While she had told a handful of people, I did not want to say anything on a larger scale before she wanted to share the information herself.  On Monday, before she met with a specialist in Wichita, she posted on her Facebook page about her diagnosis and asked for prayers.

The doctor gave my Mom a shot in each eye that we hope will improve her sight and/or slow down the degenerative process.  As she faces some uncertainty about what the future holds, her spirits are good and she remains hopeful.  On Monday night, after they had returned home from Wichita, my Mother told me how, as they sat in the waiting room, my Dad comforted her by reading to her all the loving comments friends and family had written in response to her Facebook post.  And even though I was in California, and they were in Kansas, I could see it.

I don’t know what I wished for when I stood in front of that grand fountain back in the 70s. What we dream about when we are young isn’t always what we dream about when we get older.  And yet, here I am, on my way to old myself, and my wish is as pure and simple as if I was still a five-year old.

Yesterday was a bit of a gift. For a couple hours anyway, I was 5 and I was at the place to be in Overland Park with my favorite person.  And because memory can be kneaded and stretched in any way we want, I created a new one, or maybe just added onto the old one. I saw a little boy walking hand in hand with his young mother.  When they came to the sparkling fountain with millions of coins lining the pool’s floor, he asked his Mom if he could make a wish. She dug in her purse and found a penny, maybe it was even a wheat penny.  She placed the coin in his small hands and he closed his eyes and somehow he, miraculously, made a wish for something decades into his future, something his little mind could not possibly imagine in that moment.  He didn’t say it aloud, not even to her, but as he sent the currency into the air waiting for it to fall to its splash, he hoped.  The little boy hoped his wish would come true.

 

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Guest Blogger, Michael Patrick Gaffney: Old Wallpaper

wallpaper 2My good friend Michael has written another guest blog, the first guest blog of 2014!  Partly because my parents have lived in the same, relatively unchanged, ranch style house since 1980, I can relate to this story.  And yet, since this is a story about constants and changes and our relationship to those things, I am sure everyone can relate.  

Old Wallpaper

In 1973 my dad moved us from Queens, New York to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  Needless to say it was a bit of a culture shock for the whole family.  No one could understand what we were saying with our thick, New York accents and every time the lady at the Piggly Wiggly store said, “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear”, we would literally come back to the counter wondering what we had done wrong.  It was like living on the planet, Mars.  But one of the great things about our move was that we got to watch our house being built.   The first time my dad took us to our lot, all that was there was the cement foundation.  Once a week the whole family would pile into the new Ford, Galaxy station wagon and check out the progress of our house.  Soon there were studs up, then walls, then brinks and stone, and then the roof.

When it was finally finished it was the quintessential 1970’s ranch house, with avocado green, shag carpeting, burnt orange appliances in the kitchen, a wagon wheel light figure in the living room and lots and lots of loud wallpaper throughout. 

Flash forward 40 years!  My mother and father still live in that same house, minus the green, shag carpet, etc.  When I was visiting last summer they mentioned that they might finally take down the old, original wallpaper in the half bathroom off the garage.  “Oh, no don’t!  That’s all that’s left of the original design and it’s so cute”, I pleaded.   I made sure to take a picture of the bathroom before I left in case they followed through with their foolish plan.

This morning on the phone, my mother casually mentioned that they finally remodeled the half bath off the garage.  She also mentioned that they were thinking of finally selling the house and moving to a smaller place.  A four bedroom house was just too much trouble for a couple in their late seventies.  It was time.

 It was just old and worn wallpaper, hanging in the half bath off the garage. It was dated and silly and dingy so it was time for it to be torn down and replaced with a fresh coat of beige paint.  Preparing the house for the next family to take over perhaps.  What’s the big deal?

But that wallpaper was my youth, my memories and a link to the past.  When I would visit my childhood home, little by little things would change but I could always go into that half bath off the garage and I was immediately  pulled back into the 1970’s and my childhood.  

As a kid I probably spent too much time in that bathroom, sitting there trying to figure out the story of those characters on that red and white, kitschy wallpaper. There was the woman sitting at her vanity painting her fingernails.  The bald man drying himself off with the checkered towel.   The woman with the night cap on, checking her wrinkles in the mirror.  The man in his bathrobe combing his hair.  The mom brushing her little girl’s hair while she plays with her toy, with the cat watching closely.  The naughty poodle pulling the towel off the rack.  What did it all mean?  Pondering it now I guess it was just a simple story about a family living together and sharing a space on a daily basis.  It could have been any family I suppose, but I guess to me it was my family that I imagined on that wall.   I think that is why I find it so hard to let go of it completely.   So this afternoon I blew up the picture I had taken last summer, put it in a frame and mailed it off to my folks.  I want it to be a reminder I guess…or a monument really, to that young family from Queens, New York starting off their new life and adventure together on the planet, Mars.

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Lineage

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I’ve been swimming at the same pool for about 4 years now.  You get to know the regulars over time and there is a Russian woman who reminds me of my grandmother.  She has one lane that she likes best so if I’m swimming in her lane, I usually offer to switch lanes with her.  She always thanks me profusely and tells me that I am a good boy, or something along those lines.  Once when I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day, she thanked me and told me I had good parents.  Today, after we switched lanes, she said, “You are good person.  You are your parents.  You are your grandparents.”  I think that what she was saying is that the people we are is greatly influenced by our lineage.  She proceeded to tell me that when she visits her kids who all live in different countries, they go to the market together and she’ll say to them, “Why are you buying this?  This is the same thing your grandmother always bought.  You are your grandmother.”  And then she told me again that I was my grandparents.

What struck me about the conversation was that my grandmother had been on my mind all morning.  Just last night, I was called on stage to share an impromptu story and I talked about my Grandma Sue, who played Scrabble with me and knitted clothes for my favorite stuffed animal Chim-Chim and was sometimes known to tie a scarf around her head, hold out her hand and mourn, “Alms for the poor?”.  In general, I was not one of those cute kids that adults took a shine to, but my Grandma always treated me like I was funny and interesting and smart, even though I was probably none of those things.  I talked about how I was 19 when she passed away and I wished that I’d had the opportunity to spend more time with her.  A few years ago, one of my cousins told me a story about a time when she and Grandma worked breakfast and lunch together at another cousin’s cafe.  After their shifts were over, they’d go across the street to the dive bar and drink tomato juice and beer cocktails for the rest of the afternoon.  When Vicki told me this, I realized what I feel like I missed by her dying when she did: we didn’t get to become friends, drinking buddies.  My Grandma loved happy hour as much I love happy hour, apparently.

So this loss was on my mind this morning, when my swim buddy told me that I WAS the person she reminds me of, the person who’d been in my thoughts for those 72 laps.  There are ways that I am like my Grandma Sue. When I go to Claro’s Italian market, I know I buy the same pepperoni and olives and provolone that she used to buy, the same items my parents buy.  Food and family were always at the center of her life and I feel that I am the same way.  My meatballs are a variation of my mother’s meatballs which are a variation of her mother’s meatballs that I can only assume goes back much further.  It is a lineage.  

So this morning, I felt like I received a gift. Not only the reminder that my Grandma Sue is still with me, but also, in a funny way, I am her.

 

We’re Looking at Christmas!

loopedopen460eNo surprise here, I have been following Valerie Harper’s cancer journey since she announced it last March.  I remember hearing her tell the story of receiving the dire diagnosis and the effect it had on her, her husband and daughter.  At the time, it reminded me of something my family experienced about the same time one year earlier.  I’ve talked about my Dad’s cancer here and here, but hearing Valerie’s story last March reminded me of the day that my mother left a message saying, “We just got out of the doctor’s office.  Go ahead and give us a call when you get a chance.”  I knew my parents had gone to the oncologist and I knew that if the news had been remotely good, she would have indicated as much on the voicemail.  I called her when I was in my car, driving home, along Olympic.  She asked if I was driving, I said I was.  She asked if I wanted to pull over, I told her I was fine.  She told me that the doctor told them that Dad had cancer in his jaw and they were going to perform surgery to remove the jaw.  It was not a surprising call, my Dad had been bothered by a persistant sore in his mouth for a few months, but it was not a diagnosis any of us were prepared for.  And soon, we went into the saddest, longest, weirdest summer of our lives.  My Dad had his surgery and after 2 surgeries, 5 weeks of hospitilazation, 3 or 4 staff infections, countless cards, flowers and prayers, he was back home.  And then, with each week that passed, there seemed to be more hope that he would get better.

Valerie Harper was on the Today show today, the link to the article and video is here.  The cameras were with her when she visited her doctor recently and he told her that her cancer was “pretty close to a remission”.  It’s heartwarming to watch, but what tugged at me the most is toward the end when Valerie and her husband Tony Cacciotti are talking to the cameras and he says, “Going from having three months to live, or less; we’re into our sixth month, and now there’s even hope beyond right now we’re looking at….” and his wife finishes his sentence with, “we’re looking at Christmas.”

Of course it made me think of my parents.  After such a precarious summer, it was not until October that I thought maybe my Dad would be with us to celebrate Christmas.  And as he continued to heal, I looked forward to the holiday in a way, I had not appreciated it in a long time.  When he and my Mom picked me up at the Tulsa airport at Christmas, I could not believe how healthy he looked.  And I felt very lucky, all three of us did.

I realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but whoever you are, there are the yearly events, often holidays, that mark the passage of time.  I realize that none of us have the promise of another Thanksgiving or birthday or Christmas or New Year’s, but it’s nice to have something to look forward to. It’s all about hope.

So, today, I celebrate Valerie Harper’s good news. I know how much it must mean to her family and it reminded me of a time when the bad news turned into better news and we, too, said to ourselves, “We’re looking at Christmas!”

Guest Blogger: Theresa Barnhart

carrie-closet-1040kk052410-500x399A few days ago, some friends of mine suggested to me that I ask my Mom to write a guest blog.  When I asked her about it, she hesitated initially, but I think the idea appealed to her.  She IS a writer, she’s been writing me letters since I was 12, when I went away to camp for the first time.  If you think my writing leans toward the sentimental, you only have to read the following to see where I get it.  Enjoy:

I was asked to write a guest blog for Ray. I told him I wouldn’t know what to write.  Later, after our conversation, I thought, yes, I will write about my summer experience.  First, you have to know that I save everything.  I have boxes, manila folders and file cabinets filled with my memory keepers.  We have eleven closets in this house and I bet I have some memory keepers in each one.  Does it sound like I am trying to find an excuse not to get rid of the Christmas cards or baby teeth from my son’s mouth or those special drawings and homemade cards from my grandchildren?   Of the eleven closets, three of them are walk-in, including the closet in our bedroom that doubles as our tornado safe room. I have tried all summer (school starts next month, I work at the high school) to get rid of some of these boxes and folders and other paraphernalia. I started with a box here and a folder there, not finishing  one.  I got rid of a few things, but I just couldn’t part with a newspaper article about my son and his bunny rabbits and how they came to live with us.   Another newspaper article about a play called “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” with a picture of a boy with a bag over his head.  I knew it was my son even with the bag over his head, a mother knows these things.  Right?  So back in the folder with these other special treasures they go.  Now back to the safe room, my closet.  One afternoon, the tornado sirens started, so I gathered my dog Ruby and a chair.  Why a chair? I knew if I sat down on the floor it would take a tornado to get me up.  There we sat, Ruby and I,  only Ruby wanted to look in my boxes where some of my treasures were stored.  My thinking was, if there is a tornado I wanted to save my treasures or at least the ones in my closet.  As I tried to get her nose out of the box, I discovered what one might call the “mother lode”. I found three accordion folders!  Each one had hundreds of papers in them dating from the mid 80’s through the mid 90’s.  I had written down appointments, how many hours I worked, prayer requests, praises, books I read, movies I’d seen, movies I wanted to see, personal thoughts and prayers and more. Well, I couldn’t shred them ’til I read them, so you can guess what happened.  I shredded a lot, but I couldn’t part with all my memory treasures.  I guess there will be another summer to clean out those treasure boxes.  I still have all my Christmas cards, birthday cards, etc. from this past Christmas and birthdays.  Next summer for them! 

 

 

The Family Stone

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So, I love this movie. Diane Keaton. Rachel McAdams. SJP. I have two favorite scenes, one I won’t talk about, because it’s at the end and I don’t want to ruin the ending if you haven’t seen it. This is the other one. I saw The Family Stone twice in the theatres and the third time I saw it was in 2006 in a hotel room in Pismo Beach. That fall, I won a significant amount of money on a game show, and that year, my Christmas present to my parents was a trip up the California coast, on me. As a person who has mostly worked in restaurants, up to that point in my life, I had had few opportunities to splurge on my parents. We went to Hearst castle, ate nice meals, walked on the beach, visited Mission San Luis Obispo. We brought my two dogs at the time, Lucy and Mandy, who loved running on the resort’s expansive grounds. One night, after dinner, we were in the room, I may or may not have been drinking a couple glasses of sauvignon blanc, The Family Stone came on tv. I’d seen it before, I can’t remember if my parents had seen it before, but we watched it together, The Family Barnhart. Whenever I watch gay things with my parents I notice things I didn’t notice before. I seriously didn’t know how ribald Will and Grace was until I watched an episode sitting beside my mother. When I was in my 20s, I was in a gay play where every character got naked, but it wasn’t until my parents were in the audience that I realized, hey, they talk a LOT about sex in this play! But I digress. It’s 2006 and we are in this somewhat luxurious hotel room in a resort overlooking the Pacific Ocean and we are watching The Family Stone and THIS scene starts. And I lose it. LOSE IT. Oprah’s Ugly Cry. My parents are sitting on their bed, my dogs and I are on my bed and tears are bursting out of my eyesockets and I’m trying not to shudder for fear they notice what’s going on. Why did I react this way? In as few words as possible? Maybe it’s a gay thing, maybe it’s a not so successful actor thing, maybe it’s a working 25 years in restaurants thing, but I’ve always felt like I’ve disappointed my parents a little. But here I was treating them to this wonderful vacation that they deserved, it was in fact, overdue. And suddenly, I was happy and sad and wistful and proud and ashamed and tipsy and silly and all the other things that make me me. I don’t know if they noticed my blubbering (how could they not?), but they’ve never mentioned it. And time has eased the embarrassment when I recall the evening, it’s actually turned it into a beautiful memory of time spent with my parents. Fortunately for me, one of many.

Moms

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Recently, I posted on Facebook a status update about how I never get tired of pictures of dogs, people’s parents when they were young, and cake. My friend Aaron saw the post and sent me this video tribute his brother Matt Levitz made for his Mom a couple months ago. He promised the video had dogs, cake and many pictures of his Mother. It goes without saying that it’s a loving tribute. Linda is the star of this movie and she is as magnetic as Julia Roberts, with a smile to match. From baby photos, through childhood, wedding, young motherhood, not so young motherhood, involvement in the Adelines, etc., her life is documented. At the end, I felt like I knew her and in a way, I do know her. I had a real reaction partly because the video made me think of my Mom, Theresa. Like Linda, she was born in 1944 and married in 1965 and as women who have travelled through history at the same time, they share other similarities. I asked Aaron to ask Linda if it would be okay to share this on my blog. She responded, “How sweet! I absolutely give permission, provided that he gives Matt credit.” I thought to myself, what a proud Mom. I knew that’s the kind of person she is from watching her movie, but I also know that’s the way Moms are, from knowing my Mom.