Befriending Time

My grandfather and I in 1984

I stood up from my seat in the pew, ready to carry a heavy weight. Could I take a punch? I guess this was as good a time as any to find out. Only it would have to be a wet one, like a kiss, because it was starting to rain.

***

When someone dies, you still need to do the normal things. Like shave, make sure your shirt is wrinkle-free, help your kids get ready for the events of the day. There’s fixing up the daughter’s hair, helping the son with his tie, and you eat a little bit if you’re hungry or you know you’ve been forgetting. Then there are the abnormal things, the new things. Trying to find a way to comfort your mother, who’s just lost her Father. Remembering the last time you saw someone, how they looked. How they looked compared to what you remember them as.

The first time we found out my Grandfather had cancer, we quickly gathered plans to race down and see him. It always amazes me how our small family can create chaos out of quiet, when given the sliver of a chance. This was more than a sliver. It was just after Easter, the time of year that Connecticut is in the full bloom of spring while northern New England is still going rounds with winter, hoping at best for a draw. We escaped the dirty snow banks to flowers on the trees and something like blue in the skies. We were told, rightly or wrongly, that we needed to visit Grandpa because things did not look good. The kids ran around the back yard, we setup lawn chairs, the aunts and uncles gathered. You talk about work when you don’t want to talk about the future.

Four years later, he died. Four years of ups and downs, long nights we could only imagine with all the distance of 300 miles and a half a climate between us and my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors. What did my mother go through in those four years that I could learn from? Not just the fear of driving to the hospital, but the loneliness of driving home, to go to bed, to wake up and go on with their lives the next day, waiting for news.

What about my Grandfather, at the center of it? You’ll need to change your eating habits, try to like new things, have patience forced on you like an icy sidewalk when you fall. The patience of waiting rooms, test results, the patience of waiting to see if a new treatment works or what else it will do to you while you’re trying to battle the larger of two evils.

When I think about those four years, I imagine the patience is tempered by the vast uncertainty of length, like how driving somewhere the first time always seems so long. Do you lose sense of time wondering if today will be a good day, or if this month will bring setbacks, or this season will be filled with promise as the enemy retreats? And come to think of it, did the enemy retreat, or are they regrouping? When you’re a child, time alternates between enemy and friend at different times. Growing up means understanding time, befriending it, ultimately controlling it. The cancer takes that, returns days to weeks, hours to months, removes your ability to predict and balance your present with your future.

Secretly, I didn’t think he’d get well, only manage, with bouts of triumph and resolve, while a steady decline walked on, ignoring his will.

***

He died in February, yet another time of year when Maine is consumed by the darkness and the whiteness of winter, while Connecticut turns the corner. There weren’t quite flowering trees, but the snow had given way to rain and the immeasurable dark skies were now just gray, with a hint of blue.

Me with my Grandfather Gerald Dowd, Christmas 1984.

We were ready. I had a haircut and bought a larger wedding band to fit over my broken finger. My family would immediately notice if I wasn’t wearing a ring, and even a swollen and purple knuckle would not excuse the adoscelent arrogance of not wearing it to such an occasion. Death is one of the reasons we maintain traditions in the first place.

Saturday morning, we were groups of dark suits and dresses, piling into dark cars under deep gray skies. They weren’t showing clear signs of lightening; that took the promise out of our small talk about the weather. Some of those gathered  were handed umbrellas by the funeral attendants, until the umbrellas ran out. My own children had never been to a funeral; never seen my wife and I at our most vulnerable. We would need to expose them to the power of grief and still hold them close enough to not feel alone.

A traditional Catholic mass anchored the solemnity. Even for those people who grew up outside of the church, it provided meaning to our dress and united our quiet solitude. The sermon reminded us that my Grandfather received comfort as dramatically and as surely in the other world as he had been plagued by pain and decline in ours. This peace was possible in his new place because, the priest assured us, “Only the father knows the son,” and “only the son knows the father.” This was religious in intent. Then my uncle got up to deliver the eulogy for his father, gone after a lifetime, and those words meant something even more to me.

***

After a short drive from the church, we gathered at the gravesite. The rain clacked on umbrellas above us, and below the somber quiet followed us from the church. They’d erected a canopy over the grave for the service. My grandmother and aunts and uncles and friends gathered in seats for the military ceremony, honoring my Grandfather’s service in Korea. I stood outside the canopy, listening.

Approaching middle age, I realized I had been wondering, for nearly 30 years, how my Grandfather felt on the long boat ride from Korea back to the United States. I know from stories that he and his friends played cards to relax and pass the time, but what else? What mix of confidence and relief showed itself on the faces and in the words of him and the men next to him? Did he dwell much on the choices that lay before him, as impossibly wide as the ocean? Did he plan out the universe he would co-create, that now stood gathered around him in the cold and wet world he left? You rarely think of something when you’re in the middle of it, even as long as a life.

My wife pulled my daughter closer under her umbrella. Men in uniform moved through traditions. My Grandfather had never been as far away from that boat and its possibilities. No harm could come to him anymore as he stood with the Father, in rest following a lifetime of choices and sentences, lucky and smart, fair and cruel.

My son looked up at me, and I looked back at him. I don’t think you learn how to act at funerals, any more than you learn how to control life. You befriend time, and you carry an umbrella, and when you escape one battlefield, you take a moment to laugh and play cards and maybe you catch a glimpse of the next adventure you’ll have a hand in creating. Then you go towards it, with fear and confidence, invincibility and fragility. Peace and loss.

As my son stared at me standing in the rain, his face moved for a second. I think it was recognition. Then he lifted up his umbrella, stretching to the limits of his reach to place it over my head. I took it from him and held it over both of us. We were out of the rain for the time being, but it was still loud as hell and inches above our heads. He stood close to me to keep out of the cold.

Only the father knows the son, and only the son knows the father.

Don’t just create memories — look back on them, together

Scrolling through Instagram the other day, I noticed a friend’s photo of a photo of a jar filled with slips of paper. She and her family had spent the month of November writing down things to be thankful for, and then took turns pulling out slips of paper and talking about them together on Thanksgiving.

Since I was already feeling like Thanksgiving went by too quickly for our family, without much of a chance to reflect, and inspired by my friend’s simple idea to add some meaning to the typically busy holiday season, I decided to grab the kids and do something similar. The result is our first ever Memory Jar (beta version, of course).

The idea is that every Wednesday for the next couple of weeks — and in between, if the inspiration strikes — we’ll jot down a memory from the past 11 months (happy or sad, both are important) on a slip of paper and drop it in a glass jar. Some afternoon or evening between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we’ll sit down and take turns pulling slip of paper out of the jar and talking over what we’ve done over the past year.

The resulting “memory jar” craft project is described below. Since this an off-the-cuff project we whipped up last night, I’m not sure how it will turn out, though I’m hoping it helps us take just a few hours to get together and think back on the ups and downs of 2014.

Here’s how we made our memory jar:

  • Some wrapping paper (holiday themed, if you’re into that)
  • Some ribbon (again, holiday themed is possible though not required)
  • A basket (or similar container)
  • Scissors
  • A jar
  • Something to write with (pen or marker recommended)
  • Friends and/or family to contribute
Step1

Step 1

Grab some different rolls of holiday wrapping paper and cut off 1’x1′ square pieces. Then, fold the pieces in half 3-4 times until it’s folded into a 3″ square.

Then, unfold the piece back again, and you’ll have some nice creases to cut on.

Step2

Step 2

Using the creases as guides, cut the larger squares of paper into smaller squares. Then, fold the smaller squares in half (with the paper design on the outside) and crease them to make sure they lay flat.

As you finish them, put them in a circle in the bottom of your basket. Leave room in the middle of the basket for the jar.

Step3

Step 3

Grab some ribbon (green and red, if available) and tie them to the top of a clear jar. Place the jar into the middle of the basket.

Step4

Step 4

Set a particular day of the week (“Every Wednesday”) or just invite friends/family members to jot down memories any time.

When you’ve written a memory, fold it back up so it’s hidden and place it into the jar.

Step5

Step 5

When the slips of paper are gone, or on a set date (we’re going with New Year’s Eve), take turns removing a slip of paper and reading it. Then spend a few minutes talking over the memory before passing the jar along to the next person to take the next slip of paper.

Bonus points for having a phone or laptop on hand — when a slip of paper is pulled from the memory jar, find photos or videos of the event to add to the conversation.

 

Top 10 favorite comics

The title panel from the comic "Dustin"

The Sunday comics are a big deal in our house, and while we love the overall experience of reading the entire comics, a discussion about our favorites quickly turned into three of us building our own “Top 10 favorites” list. Here’s my list — this isn’t exhaustive, as it only represents the comics available in our local paper, and it’s not permanent — just a few weeks ago, the previous #1 fell to #2.

10. Pickles

9. Hi and Lois

8. Wizard of Id

7. Barney Google and Snuffy Smith

6. Blondie

5. Baby Blues

4. Non Sequitur

3. Zits

2. Dilbert

1. Dustin

Pumpkin carving tips

If you’re doing some pumpkin carving this weekend, here are my tips for a fun and successful experience:

1.) Choose a big pumpkin. Bigger ones are nicer looking, give you more room to carve your pattern, and generally are more sturdy. You’ll also want to look for a nice carving area- so only choose as big as the one with a good carving surface. You’ll thank yourself later.
2.) Prepare the space. Your kitchen table is the ideal spot. Clear it completely off, then lay down newspaper (or spread out a roll of wrapping paper). Set out a big bowl for the pumpkin insides, and get a baking sheet ready with wax paper on it if you plan to bake the seeds.

3.) Cut a big enough hole in the top. You only have one shot (if you want to put the cap back on), so make sure it’s big enough to fit your hand in- and to put a candle in if you so desire! The best approach here is to trace out a big enough hole with a pencil- then cut on that mark. You’ll want to use a serrated knife; that’s your best bet for getting a clean, easy cut.
4.) Scoop right. After you’ve cut the hole, scoop out what you can carefully with your bare hands. Separate the seeds onto the baking sheet if desired. Then, grab a ladle or big plastic spoon and use it to carefully scrape around the inner wall of the pumpkin. When you’ve got a pile of insides in the bottom, grab them out with your hands and drop them into the bowl you’ve got waiting. Repeat this process until the sides are clean and flat.
5.) Clean and prep. Before you get ready to transform your pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern, clean up your space and your pumpkin. First, remove the bowl of insides and set the baking sheet of seeds off to the side. Then, grab a damp washcloth (not paper towel!) and gently wash the outside of the pumpkin. Remove any dirt stuck between the ribbing and any goop that may have stuck to it. Then, carefully wipe the pumpkin with a dry towel. Wash your hands, and you’re ready to carve!
6.) Plan your design. It’s important to plan what design what you’re going to carve before carving it. First, draw your pattern/design on a piece of paper, or print out one of the thousands of free ones available on the internet (Try this Google search: pumpkin patterns). Unless your an expert, the simpler the design is, the more happy you’re likely to be with the results.

7.) Set and trace Grab a pencil and choose the flattest, most attractive side of your pumpkin. Then, lay your paper flat on the surface of the pumpkin and slowly trace over the paper design using a sharp pencil. Don’t move the paper until you’ve traced the whole design! Then, check the results to make sure you’ve pressed hard enough to leave at least a faint outline on the pumpkin. That’s all you’ll need- just enough to see it as you’re scoring, but not enough to leave a lasting impression.
8.) Score it! Before you dig in, you’ll need to take an important and often overlooked step: scoring your design. This is also the most difficult and dangerous step- and this is probably where you should relieve your children of duty and finish up for yourself. What you’ll want to do is grab either a craft knife (commonly called an Exacto knife), or a nail with a smallish head, and trace over your pattern by making small indents, or score marks, along the pattern. You’ll want to push the knife or nail pretty far into the pumpkin, breaking through the wall or coming close to it with each score mark. When you’ve carefully scored the entire pattern, you’ll find the cutting quick, easy, and much more accurate.
9.) Time to carve! First, find a serrated knife. This cannot be stressed enough: Find a serrated knife! Most kitchen knife sets will have at least one. If not, borrow one. Again, let your kids look on, but make sure an adult handles this step. You’ll want to start at the top of your design, and carefully guide your knife along the score marks of your design. When you reach a corner, remove the knife and put it back in again, approaching the corner from the opposite direction. For curves, cut slowly but don’t stop at any point in the curve- stopping may turn the curve into a hard angle, and nobody wants that. Finally, when you’ve broken through a part of the design- say an eye or a nose- don’t push the piece out, but rather cut it cleanly off. Then, carefully trim the edges of each section so that they’re flat with no hanging pieces anywhere.
10.) Want to light things up? This is not the place to extol upon the dangers of candles. So let’s assume you know how dangerous they can be. To add a candle to your jack-o-lantern, make sure the inside bottom of your pumpkin is flat. If it’s not, carefully trim the raised portion until you’ve got it flat. Then, choose a candle that’s as wide as you can fit through your hole, yet short enough not to show too much through the holes of your design. Using an Aim-a-flame, or similar brand of extended lighter, carefully light the candle, turn off the lights, stand back, and enjoy your creation! For best results, don’t put the top on the pumpkin when the candle is going.

Meet Big Bird again, for the first time

Hey, parents: Have you watched countless hours of Sesame Street and/or Muppet movies with your child? If you’re anything like me, your mind begins to wander a bit as you’re enjoying the 23rd consecutive viewing of the one where Zoe’s tutu flies up in the tree. Because I’m curious about how things work, my mind tends to wander towards the how of both the show(s) and the movies, specifically the world of puppetry, which I find pretty fascinating. To me it’s one of those things that is way under-appreciated, especially considering how much happiness it brings to our children.

For example: have you ever thought about how Big Bird is brought to life by a pupeteer? Think about it for a sec. Is there somebody inside of him? Okay- that sounds like an easy answer. But, keep in mind he’s 8 feet tall. So is Carroll Spinney just a really tall guy? I doubt it- I’d like to believe there’s a bit more magic at work.

Enter the relentless power of the web and the people who make it. Today, a few of my long-standing questions- including how Big Bird is played, and trust me, the answer will surprise you- were answered thanks to The Muppet Wiki, a huge collection of information, trivia, and insider info on all things Muppet, from Big Bird to Kermit to over 1,000 other characters of varying acclaim. Besides providing great historical insight into the creation and development of the Muppets, the site has quite a few really interesting nuggets that I think might interest parents, and their kids, who consider Jim Henson’s world a great and really interesting place.