Toddling… 6

The show ended every day as calmly and warmly as it began with a personal touch from Miss Nancy. She would wander off casually toward the side of the set and grab her magic, psychedelic mirror and start to sing The Magic Mirror song.

She would hold up an opaque mirror and talk from behind it. “Romper Bomper Stomper Boo, tell me, tell me, tell me who…. Magid mirror tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?” The screen would go into elliptical swirls and twirls of rainbow colors like Miss Nancy was on an acid trip, but when it faded back to her the opaque mirror part was gone and we were looking into Miss Nancy’s face and she would say the names of the kids she was seeing through her magic mirror.

She’d say “I see Judy, Ricky, Caroline and I see Mark this morning and Amanda and Timmy and on and on and on….” But she never said my name, and my name’s not that unique. She tried to cover the omission with “And of course I see you too, and tomorrow I’ll be looking for you tomorrow morning in the Romper Room School.” I don’t know; maybe I just missed it, but even on my Special Day, as she used to call a kid’s birthday, she didn’t say ‘And I see Danny!’

Mom asked quite often, “Did she say your name today Danny?” and I’d always answer with a ‘No’. “Well, maybe tomorrow she will; you’ll see,” mom would say in encouragement (mom was a Do Bee kind of mom). And I’d think ‘Hey, yea, maybe she will say my name tomorrow. It could happen!’ And I’d be hooked and wait the twenty-three and a half hours hoping.

Mom had a way of turning disappointments into hopes, she made my world my world, she was my world – that’s what moms do for their toddlers. And all she asked was that I say please and thank you, and eventually to distinguish between can and may (“Can addresses ability, may speaks to permission.

So you should have said, ‘May I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch?’ not ‘Can I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch?’ ‘). She wiped my nose, combed my hair, tucked-in my shirt, tied my shoes, did my laundry, cleaned my room, made my bed, wiped my nose, washed my face, cleaned-out my ears, combed my hair, always found Bunny when I mislaid him, encouraged me, scolded me, touched me, hugged me, held my hand, took me everywhere with her – she loved me, and I loved her. “Mom?” “Yes, Danny?” “Mom, I love you,” and she’d blush, stop what she was doing, and always respond, “Oh Danny, I love you too!” I loved her so much that I hated everyone else, even dad. It’s really quite normal for young kids to live with a zero-sum take on life – that if you love something so much, it must mean you hate everything else since you’ve only got 100% of everything, like love, and since mom got all 100% (it would have been an insult not to reciprocate her obvious 100% love for me with, say, 63% for her and 37% for dad). “Danny, you don’t hate your dad! That’s really not a nice thing to say.” “‘But I love you mom!?” was my only response – it’s every toddler’s only response, that is until we learn that we can love more than one thing at a time and are better because of it.

It’s all about figuring out what makes my mom, my mom. Now she gave birth to me, and that happened because of something she did with dad, but I had to learn that mom and dad were one thing – married.

Mom and dad married was like peanut butter and jelly on a sandwich was just one thing (who eats peanut butter without jelly, but word has it that Elvis liked to eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but that’s another matter altogether). This was why mom just smiled at me when I told her I was going to marry her. I once said that I was going to marry Miss Nancy of Romper Room, but I always loved mom the best. I couldn’t marry mom, of course, but she wasn’t going to tell me that. Not even dad said more than, “Hey, that’s my wife you’re proposing to young man!” when I informed him I was going to marry her.

I didn’t really think marriage was anything more than being with someone who is very special to you so that everyone else would know that person was special to you. What that something you did to that special someone was I had no clue. Dad said he asked mom to marry him and she said yes, and it was time for me to go to bed. “Okay dad, goodnight.

I’m going to marry her, just like you.” “Okay, Danny, you do that.” As he was tucking me into bed I asked, “What does it mean to get married?” “Well, that’s a good question,” dad said, but he didn’t really answer so I pressed, “What do people do when they get married?”

Maybe I thought this angle might improve my chances for an answer, but I was wrong. “Well, after the ceremony, there is a party called a reception where everyone eats dinner and dances and celebrates with the married couple.” “Then what?” I said. “Well, then the couple goes on a honeymoon.” “And?” “And what, Danny?” dad responded. “And, what’s a honeymoon?” “Well,” dad paused, again, “a honeymoon is kind of like a vacation for the couple and…they start their marriage together, and….” And dad stopped there. “Okay, thanks dad. Goodnight.”

And I went to sleep and dad seemed relieved at the end of the questions, but I never married mom.

*** *** ***

Toddling… 5

The show, like almost every show on TV that I watched, tried to communicate and reinforce basic American values of hard work, honesty, thriftiness, wholesome virtues of modesty and chastity (that’s why Elvis was such a problem to some people).

For instance, Romper Room taught you not only how to stand up straight (a chief virtue of adolescence), but it also taught kids to avoid complaining (like, I’m tried, I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m thirsty, I’m bored, I can’t, and the cardinal sin, I don’t want to, which covered everything). Instead Romper Room modeled ideal behavior in the Do Bee song; Mr. Do Bee would lead and everyone knew what it meant to be a Do Bee instead of a Don’t Bee.

It started with the chorus, “Did you ever see a do bee, a do bee, a do bee? Did you ever see a do bee? Go this way and that.” And then broke into verse after verse (back to the chorus in between the gung-ho, Marine-like chant of the stanzas), “Go this way and that way, and this way and that way.

Did you ever see a do be go this way and that?” And then bow, raise this hand and then that hand; and if you raise your hands you certainly have to wave them, “Did you ever see a do bee wave this hand and that?”

I did, just about every morning. And, last but not lease, you’d “Clap this way and that,” and the last stanza’s “that” would trail off and everyone would sit, exhausted, on their seats or on the rug and quietly model a controlled afterglow of excitement (whenever we did action songs at birthday parties we’d go crazy and get out of control and someone would get hurt, as the parents promised, If you don’t settle down, someone’s going to get hurt.

And, Sure, it’s all fun-and-games until someone gets hurt.). But no one ever got hurt, unruly, boisterous, wild or crabby on Romper Room.

The only time I got out of control was when I mislaid my Bunny. By that time I was four Bunny was just a rag with strings, but it started out as a baby toy – a stuffed animal that I had in my crib since I was in my crib.

Over time, with day after day with a toddler, Bunny began to show signs of wear with every inch and ounce I gained. Bunny started out blue (I was a boy, after all), then became brown as the fur wore off to reveal the fabric underneath, then it tore and the stuffing fell out, but I still hung-on to Bunny even though Bunny was now just a ragged thing with strands and stitching dangling from it that I would rub in between my fingers as I went to sleep.

When I lost Bunny I couldn’t go to sleep; I could be in bed but I cried and refused to sleep. I loved  Bunny. Once I left Bunny in the station wagon, and another time I put Bunny in the bread keeper-drawer in the kitchen, and one hysterical night I refused to sleep without Bunny even though it was late and I didn’t know where I had put Bunny that day. Mom and dad looked everywhere, tried to bribe me with the promise of a new Bunny in the morning, threatened me with grave bodily harm if I continued to whine and cry for Bunny, until they got me up and led me on a tour of everywhere I’d been that day in the house.

When we got to the kitchen, I checked the bread keeper-drawer (Bunny was there last time), I checked the oven but mom barked that Bunny couldn’t be in there because she had baked a casserole in there just hours ago. And we checked the clothes’ hamper in the bathroom and in the closet in the hallway, the one in the basement where some toys were stored, and we had already checked the closet in my bedroom.

We eventually returned to the kitchen and started going through the cabinets and mom even checked in the cold cuts drawer in the refrigerator, but I was standing looking out the screen door. “Did you take Bunny with you when you went with mom to the store?” dad asked, but I wasn’t looking toward the station wagon.

I was looking into the yard, “I think Bunny is out in the yard, by the swing.” Mom said Bunny couldn’t be there because I wasn’t outside that day. “Yes, I was” (I needed Bunny so I had to be honest even though it would get me in trouble because I had slipped out in the afternoon and played on the swing when mom thought I was watching TV while she was taking care of Mary up in her bedroom). Dad didn’t ask how Bunny got outside, but when he returned with a ragged, brown, stringy piece of fabric just moments later I jumped for it and gladly hurried off to bed without saying a word.

I guess mom and dad were so happy I was going to bed that it never bothered them that I had gone outside when I shouldn’t have. The next morning I took Bunny to breakfast with me and then to Romper Room, just like every other day.

*** *** ***

Toddling… 4

Instead of gaining weight because she quit smoking, mom was getting fat because she was pregnant. I would stand in her shadow, literally, as her extended abdomen cast an eclipse of the sun in my direction.

Eventually, I asked the inevitable, “Mommy, how does a baby get in your tummy?” I wasn’t asking for an explanation complete with pictures or a lecture in reproductive biology, or even an answer to what she and dad were doing under the covers the night I walked-in on them dancing in bed. Every kid wanted to know because we didn’t know and it was so special and so important according to all the adults, “Oh, you look beautiful!” and  “You’re positively glowing!” And they had parties for the baby and the baby got presents.

All mom would say to my how question was, “Danny, you say the darndest things!” It wasn’t like it was a unique question, it was just a question she didn’t (or couldn’t) answer. And Art Linkletter had already cornered the market on the phrase, Kids Say the Darndest Things, in a series of books he published with that title (the first was the number one best seller for two whole years), and Linkletter was on television with his show People are Funny and House Party for most of the ’50’s and ’60’s. He would put a microphone in a kid’s face and ask some poor little boys a simple question like, “Is it okay for a boy to kiss a girl?” And the boys would say, “As long as she’s your mommy” and “Not until you’re eighteen years old, until then it’s against the law” and “If you kiss a girl then you have to marry her – it’s the right thing to do.” And when he asked something like “How can you tell when two people are married?” The kids said, “When they’re a boy and a girl” and “When they have a baby” and “You have to watch to see if they are yelling at the same kid.” And when he asked, “Do your parents fight?” (and the mom’s looked embarrassed and shy, covering their blushing faces with their hands), kids would say things like, “Yep, all the time, but it’s usually my fault” and another one said, “No,  because mommy is having another baby” and everyone in the audience laughed and giggled and the kid didn’t understand why so he insisted, “She is so having a baby! You should see her big, fat tummy.” When Linkletter asked the boy where the baby came from the kid protested with, “Well, I didn’t put it there.”

That was a bit too racy for my mom’s tastes (reality TV isn’t for everybody, I guess), so I’d have the channel turned to my kind of programming and that usually meant Channel 9 in Chicago, WGN. It ran all the kids shows that I watched during the days at home with mommy pregnant with Mary and then with Johnny. Mom would watch soap operas while I was taking my naps, but I’d get most of the early morning and lunchtime viewing I wanted with shows like Romper Room.

And none of these shows talked about where babies came from (like the Linkletter joke: “A second grader came home from school and said to her mother, ‘Mom, guess what? We learned how to make babies today.’ The mother, more than a little surprised, tried to keep her cool. ‘That’s interesting,’ she said, ‘How do you make babies?’ ‘It’s simple,’ replied the girl. ‘You just change ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es.'” That was better than Linkletter’s characteristic joke, Q: How do two porcupines mate? A: Very carefully).

My days always started with a bowl of cereal (and I’d always add sugar), toast and sometimes a little fruit (those pictures of a ‘Well balanced breakfast to start off your day’ worked on my mom).

Sometimes I’d sit with dad and mom, but dad didn’t want the television on (even though I could see it just sitting there across the room). There was never a newspaper at the breakfast table, just mom, dad and me. Dad would read the paper at night, after dinner, but before he’d go out on the front porch to just stand there, he’d sit in his chair and read through the paper, from cover to cover, from the news to the local interest stories to the business news to sports, and sometimes even the funnies (I’d climb on his lap toward the end of his reading because that was when he’d get to the funnies and even though I couldn’t read, dad would sometimes read them to me and I’d look at the cartoon drawings, but it was more enjoyable than funny).

As soon as dad kissed mom and me goodbye in the mornings I’d turn to mom and ask if I could turn on the television, “Yes you may, Danny. Are you going to watch Romper Room?” I’d sit too close to the TV and mom would order me not to sit so close or I’d go blind, and I’d oblige her by scooting back an inch or two, still just feet, not a yard, from the console Zenith television with knobs and a hidden panel concealing the important controls that I was forbidden to touch).

The television would hum when I clicked it on and there would be a hiss, sometimes a flash on the bowed tube – it looked like a bubble, bulging and stretching out as if the shows were pressing against the inside of the screen trying to get out. It warmed up and brightened slowly; the sound of the program playing coming through the speaker first, then the image to match coming into focus in a minute or so. This anticipation was thrilling and agonizing at the same time.

Romper Room was a preschool educational show that ran in almost every television market in the country starting in the mid-1950’s. (We didn’t know it was education, of course.) There was really no such thing as preschool for kids in The Hills in the late 50’s though; instead we had moms and we stayed home with them like normal families while dads went off to work (like Ward and June Clever on the 1957 debut of Leave It To Beaver). Years later, when dad started referring to the TV as “The idiot box” and “The boob tube,” it was his way of complaining about the valueless, entertainment that television was to him. But Romper Room was purely educational – a classroom setting complete with teacher, students, activities, and lessons.

Bert and Nancy Claster came-up with the idea for Romper Room and syndicated the show, first from Baltimore and then from Chicago, and Miss Nancy (who was actually Nancy Claster and took the hostess job because the actress backed-out at the last minute, which was obviously a poor career move) was seen in American homes for ten years until the Clasters’ daughter, Miss Sally, took over in 1964.

They also franchised the show in 150 markets and local Miss So-and-So’s, trained by the Clasters, brought the alphabet, the days of the week, reading from books, lessons and lectures in good manners, and action songs to all of us each and every morning as if we were in a kind of pre-kindergarten schoolroom.

The show had less than ten kids on it each day and they weren’t passive, just like true viewers (and I was one) rarely spent the whole show on our bottoms. When the music for the Posture Basket Song started-up, I’d hop up to retrieve a paper picnic plate to do the action song along at home. “See me walk so straight and tall, I won’t let my basket fall…. Watch me hold my head up high, Like a soldier marching by. A back that’s straight and strong you see – Helps to make a healthy me.”

And I’d walk around the room with the plate balanced on my head, moving too quickly and the plate would fly off so I’d scramble to pick it up and get back in step with Miss Nancy.

The show even had a snack time in between an action song and the alphabet, and before the kids on set had their milk and cookies they’d say a prayer, God is great / God is good / let us thank him / for our food. And I’d ask mom if I could have a cookie and of course she’d say no because it was still early in the morning and I’d just finished a wholesome bowl of sugared cereal, so a cookie wouldn’t have been healthy this early in the day.

Toddling… 3

By the time mom was ready to have her baby that everyone would know as Mary the cocktail parties had slowed considerably, mom had stopped dancing and she would sit next to dad on the couch while other couples would slosh around with a drink in one hand and a partner in the other; that is, the drinking was still going strong (but mom sipped something that looked and tasted like Coke that she let me sip and then sent me off to bed with Bunny), and only a few people were smoking.

They never told me when, but they told me how they both quit smoking – cold turkey, like everyone did before everyone thought smoking was an addictive behavior and the smoker was a victim of an evil drug called nicotine.

It was all made worse because cigarette companies cured the tobacco so that it was milder and people could inhale it more, and mechanized processes made it cheaper to make a pack, and then someone invented the safety match, and cigarette companies paid just about everyone to advertise their products.

Some doctors (the smart ones) started to worry so in the 1950’s the Public Health Service started telling people that smoking cigarettes could give you heart disease, lung cancer, cancer of the mouth, esophageal cancer (or it would be easier to say just about any kind of cancer, since that’s the point), asthma (that would be preferable to cancer, I’m guessing), respiratory problems like bronchitis and emphysema, decreased pulmonary function (meaning you’d run out of breath dancing in our living room), and intrauterine growth retardation and the corresponding low birth weight (I was almost nine pounds so either mom didn’t smoke when she was pregnant with me or I would have been fourteen pounds at birth unless she had). In 1957 Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney said, “The Public Health Service feels the weight of the evidence is increasingly pointing in one direction; that excessive smoking is one of the causative factors in lung cancer.” And it was that word, “excessive,” that was the out for those who kept smoking – the too much of a good thing can kill you, kind of logic.

You see, it wouldn’t be scary if the chances of getting cancer from smoking were relatively low, especially since four out of ten young adult Americans smoked in the 1950’s, but people started smoking more and more – from three thousand cigarettes per year per smoker in 1950 to nearly four thousand per year per smoker in 1960.

And people started dying more and more (at a pack-a-day plus, it was unavoidable). Even though everyone died eventually, chances were 70% higher that if you were a smoker you’d die of cancer, younger and sooner. So if you wanted to live, or just improve your quality of life, you had to buck the trend and quit (as in, just stop – cold turkey) smoking. As a result, chewing gum companies made a mint, and cigarette companies countered with a smoking = quality of life campaign, like the one for Camel’s in the 50’s,

The thorough test of any cigarette is steady smoking. Smoke only Camels for the next thirty days… And see how mild Camels are, pack after pack… how well they agree with your throat as you steady smoke. See if you don’t find Camel more enjoyable than any other cigarette you’ve ever smoked.

And Rock Hudson said, “I’ve tried ‘em all, but it’s Camels for me! Why? Because, There is more pure pleasure in Camels! More flavor, genuine mildness! Good reasons why today more people smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” And the ad from 1956 ended with, Remember this: pleasure helps your disposition. “And for more pleasure – have a Camel!” Who could argue with that?!

Arguing with that, or with people in general, was also attributed to poor quality cigarettes or the lack of cigarettes altogether, so another Camel ad read,

MAD AS A WET HEN? That’s natural when little annoyances ruffle you. But the psychological fact is: pleasure helps your disposition. That’s why everyday pleasures, like smoking for instance, are important. If you’re a smoker, you’re wise to choose the cigarette that gives the most pleasure. And that’s a Camel!

It seems that the Camel people had stumbled onto something. And they weren’t alone. Chesterfield went sexy and smoky in their ads in the 50’s; like, “PACKS MORE PLEASURE – because it’s More Perfectly Packed. Firm and pleasing to the lips…mild yet deeply satisfying to the taste – Chesterfield satisfies the most.”

And there was a picture of a busty, firm woman with bright red lips sucking on the phallic cigarette, cheeks drawn in, eyes rolled up just a bit. Chesterfield even had a Girl of the Month before Playboy had the centerfold. They might as well have portrayed a spent male and a rosy cheeked model tucked beneath bed sheets, puffing away at their Chesterfields looking like the afterglow of orgasm. Smoking was sexy, and linking it with sex, sexuality, having sex, or just having had sex, sold cigarettes.

For people who actually quit smoking in the 1950’s didn’t seem to think of it as a great burden. They didn’t require the sympathy of their culture, no detoxification, no fits of addictive withdrawal, no support groups, and no cigarettes (just second-hand smoke which they still enjoyed).

From the Journal of the American Medical Association to Reader’s Digest and its abridged version of Roy Norr’s newsletter, “Cancer by the Carton,” everyone was starting to be told that people were dying because they were smoking. And people started to get the message, but so did the cigarette companies. So, if you wanted to quit because of the health concerns but didn’t really want to give up the pleasure and relaxation of smoking the cigarette companies had an alternative for you: filters! In 1950 less than 2% of cigarettes were filtered, and by 1960 it was more than half of all cigarettes. So,

Winston smokers believe that smoking should be fun. That means real flavor – full, rich, tobacco flavor – and Winston’s really got it! This filter cigarette tastes good – like a cigarette should! Along with Winston’s filter flavor, you get a filter that really does the job. The exclusive Winston filter works so effectively, yet lets you draw so easily and enjoy yourself so fully.

Cigarette companies called filter tipped cigarettes “less harmful” and “smoother too,” and said the filters trapped the dangerous stuff that killed you but let the flavor through (but they had to use harsher tobacco so the filtered smoke would still taste like the good old days smoke that killed you right up front without a mediator). And everyone believed them; kind of like selling death to someone as “less harmful” and “smoother” at the same time. After the Public Health Service said cigarettes would kill you and ruin what life you had left, more people ended up smoking in America by the end of the 1950’s. So the Surgeon General had to really go after the problem and released the infamous January 11, 1964 report, supported by an advisory committee of over a hundred doctors, from Drs. Ackerman to Zukel, saying,

In the early part of the 16th century, soon after the introduction of tobacco into Spain and England by explorers returning from the New World, controversy developed from differing opinions as to the effects of the human use of the leaf and products derived from it by combustion or other means.

Pipe-smoking, chewing. and snuffing of tobacco were praised for pleasurable and reputed medicinal actions. At the same time, smoking was condemned as a foul-smelling, loathsome custom, harmful to the brain and lungs. The chief question was then as it is now: is the use of tobacco bad or good for health, or devoid of effects on health?

It was pretty gusty, considering that the Surgeon General was about to tell half of the adults in America that something they were doing, something they did everywhere they went – at baseball games and parties, at home and work, in restaurants, parks, trains, cars, cabs, buses, bars and bedrooms, with drinks, after dinner, after sex  – was not only bad for them, but also bad for America.

At the time smoking – why you did it and how you quit doing it – was all a matter of character, of will power, of what kind of person you were. There was no clearly unique personality of a smoker (probably because one-third of all adult women and two-thirds of all males were smokers in the 1950’s so the personality type would have been simply your average American). The Surgeon General’s report put it this way,

Nonetheless, there are many, though not always clear, relationships between smoking and a variety of social end economic variables. Taken altogether, there emerges the picture of smoking as a behavior that has over many years become tied closely to many of the complexities of our present society.

There can be no doubt that smoking as a habit is determined in some measure by a variety of such social forces as are reflected in demographic data of the kind reviewed above.

But it will be some time before the specific interrelations can be disentangled. Since man is not a passive target of such forces but an active participant, no possible explanation can omit consideration of the way in which he reacts to and, in turn, creates such forces, in short, a consideration of personality factors.

You see, it’s about will-power, about what kind of people Americans are; and in the 50’s the American aphrodisiac was will-power. Americans are not victims, we’re not addicts, and we’re not bad people. And by the early 60’s, when smokers gave reasons for quitting, few of them said they were afraid of cancer.

They explained their choices with macho reasons like, “Because I wanted to” or “Because I just didn’t like the taste of smoking” or “Because I didn’t like spending so much of my money on cigarettes.” It was personal and the Surgeon General made it even more so when his report said that parents were killing their kids because more kids took up smoking when mom and dad smoked.

Killing their own kids! Kids also started smoking in order to seem more grown-up, and some did it to spite mom and dad. Both had the same motivation – acting like equals with parents.

Mom and dad explained that they smoked to relax themselves, to relieve stress (or maybe just to show other people they were under a lot of stress and pretend to be more important than they were – no one figured that one out either), or to lose weight – dieting to death, so to speak.

*** *** ***

Toddling… 2

Some people, as in some loud people, weren’t sure about Elvis; while most people bought every record they could by the kid from Tupelo, Mississippi.

Elvis Aaron was supposed to be a twin, but his brother, Jesse Garon, wasn’t alive when they were born. Gladys and Vernon raised their only child to sing gospel songs in their Pentecostal church and he was as successful doing this as he could be (which meant he wasn’t known outside the Assemblies of God in Mississippi).

When he was discovered in the mid-50’s he was living in Memphis and started making demos that impressed a few people because the songs he sang were said to be rockabilly. His first demo was That’s All Right, Mama, and although everyone else sang the same song Elvis said “I don’t sound like nobody.” It was when he performed live that people noticed him, because they discovered that he was actually white and that he moved like everyone said he did.

He showed up on Jackie Gleason’s Stage Show in ‘55, and appeared on Milton Berle’s television variety show, and then on Ed Sullivan’s Talk of the Town and that made him famous. He even sang the Gospel song, Peace in the Valley on Sullivan’s show because he had promised his mama he would. He loved his mama, like he should have, and cried when she died in 1958 and was always happy that she insisted he sing Peace in the Valley on Sullivan’s show even though Sullivan didn’t want a Christian gospel song.

For all Elvis Aaron’s popularity it was his religious recordings that earned him Grammy’s when he was alive. Religious? Yes, and three Grammy’s for them; Best Sacred Performance for his How Great Thou Art album in ’67 (and, no, he wasn’t singing about himself), Best Inspirational Performance for He Touched Me in ’72, and Best Inspirational Performance Song for How Great Thou Art (same song, again) in ’74. When he sang rock-and-roll on television they showed his feet and knees and hips with his wiggle-waggle-wiggling, but when he sang Gospel he swayed like a choir soloist, rhythmically.

Like when he sang Peace in the Valley on Ed Sullivan his pelvis was peaceful and the cameras stayed on his upper body – elbows to head in a tight-shot, with his eyes sleepily closed as he sang, “Oh well, I’m tired and so weary / But I must go alone / Till the Lord comes and calls, calls me away, oh yes… / There will be peace in the valley for me, for me.”

Nearly everything he sang sold, especially in ’56 and ’57; Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog (which mom really never liked because if you took the words for what they were Elvis was calling a girl a bitch, or so mom and her friends said), Don’t Be Cruel, Love Me Tender (and he made a movie with the same title), Blue Suede Shoes, Jailhouse Rock, and All Shook Up (which was number one for nine weeks in ’57, and in our living room one night a few years later).

Then he stopped singing, got his hair cut and spent the next few years in the Army, which made my dad happy and made my mom wonder if people would forget him (they didn’t).

*** *** ***

Toddling… 1

Let’s fall in love, why shouldn’t we fall in love? Now is the time for it, while we are young. Let’s fall in love….

It was sometime in the middle of a Saturday night and Sunday morning; I was desperate to pee and for a glass of water (the midnight irony of childhood). But I was under strict orders to get up when I had to go (instead of wetting my bed, again) and I obliged most of the time.

So, after peeing but before my drink of water that I wandered through the closed door of mom and dad’s bedroom. I never flushed in the middle of the night (never in the daytime, for that matter) because it was too loud and violent a sound, and I walked like a ghost around the house in the middle of the night; some people (like my dad) made more noise at night than during waking hours, but I was a silent-sleepwalker.

Dad was on top of mom under the sheets, like they were moving around or dancing except they were in their bed and not in the living room. I softly and ignorantly strolled up to the bed and stood quietly by mom’s side and eventually said, “Mommy?” They jumped (more than they already were) and dad dashed back to his side of the bed and sat upright with his hands on top of the sheets in his lap.

He kind of yelled out my name in a loud voice that trailed off at the end, and mom said softly, “Oh, Danny, how long have you been here?” I was groggy…it was the middle of the night…so I didn’t know how long I had been standing there, but it was long enough to ask, “What was dad doing?”

She didn’t answer me, but said she’d meet me in the bathroom and get me a drink of water. In her robe she filled one, then a second Dixie cup and shooed me off to bed with strict orders, “Now stay in bed Danny; and don’t get up again.” And she tugged-up the covers, and snuggled-up my Bunny next to my left shoulder where Bunny belonged. “But what if I need to go again?” I answered, but mom didn’t respond. And my sister Mary was born nine months later.

The air in our house those Saturday nights was usually stale from cigarette smoke because mom and dad hosted cocktail parties. I knew they were cocktail parties because that’s what they called them, and they weren’t dinner parties because we all ate dinner before the adults came over and we had to go to bed.

Mom and dad smiled at each other more than usual after cocktail parties. Little trays of food, nuts, pretzels and mixed drinks (nobody drank beer at these parties), glasses sitting in dozens of coasters on every piece of furniture in our living room on furniture that I wasn’t allowed to even touch let alone set a glass of juice or milk on. And there were ashtrays, filled and spilling over with cigarette butts, match books empty and partially used nearby, and small plates with crumbs of things I didn’t recognize, “Oh Danny, you won’t like this – it has a very strong taste.” “Is it cheese?” I asked (I liked cheese -grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, cheese and crackers). “You won’t like this kind of cheese,” but I insisted and maybe it was the greenish-blue flecks in it, or the uneven consistency like it has gone bad and soured, but I spit it out into mom’s hand after popping a whole cracker covered with the stuff in my mouth. “Sorry, Danny, but I didn’t think you’d like it,” mom said as she went to wash off her hand. “They’re acquired tastes” is what dad called them – sardines, pickled herring, anchovies, sharp and dry cheeses, raw onions and garlic, and alcohol (and, I now admit, he was absolutely right, about the alcohol at least).

And there were people, adult couples, hanging all-over each other, hugging, kissing; women sitting on men’s laps and knees. And dancing – everyone was dancing, even mom and dad. I’d snuck out of bed and to just to the top stair so I could look into the living room. It was ringed with couples – women sitting on men’s laps, others leaning into whoever was close by, hands on their shoulders or palms opened on the jacket lapels.

Mr. and Mrs. Flynn were laughing and bright eyed on the blue couch, next to the Moraveck’s and Fodor’s, and our next door neighbor – Mrs. Green – was sitting alone on the arm of the couch with a glass in one hand. In the middle there were couples dancing in place, swaying back and forth, and mom and dad in the middle dancing to a Nat King Cole song. “Let’s fall in love, why should we fall in love?” They were moving slowly, together, alone but in our living room full of their friends, “Let’s close our eyes, and make our own paradise. Little we know of it, still we can try – to make a go of it.”

But mom and dad’s eyes were open as they looked over each other’s shoulder, mom with her left hand on dad’s arm, dad’s right hand on mom’s waist, stirring, turning as they swayed, feet almost still and subtle under them.

But before the Nat-man, as dad called him, finished their song, someone in the crowd picked-up the needle and quickly fumbled another record into place, dropping the needle just into the start of an Elvis Presley song, and everyone hooted and laughed as my mom put her hand up to her mouth, forming her surprised and embarrassed expression, saying “Oh my!”

But dad didn’t miss a beat, and stood upright, still for a moment and then began to gyrate, bending one knee out to one side, elbows flying, and his one hip thrown to the other side, all with a straight face, except for his protruding bottom lip sticking out as if he was pouting in one direction and the upper lip, opposite side, pulled up into his cheek as if he was eating a cracker with the gross cheese on it. And he mouthed the words, as if he was singing, “A well’a bless my soul, What’sa wrong with me? I’m itchin’ like a man on a fuzzy tree… I’m all shook up!”

And when dad sang out loud “Her lips are like a volcano that’s hot” and pulled mom close to kiss her, she blushed and everyone laughed hysterically. I giggled with both hands over my mouth, my feet jumping on the stair. Everyone laughed and clapped louder and louder, calling out his name, “Go, Pat, go” and “Wooo! Look at Pat and Mary!” and mom eventually joined-in, sort of, bending her knees and swinging her elbows and hips in opposite directions at the same time.

When the music ended, mom fell into dad’s arms, and he swayed back and forth; their heads were thrown back and laughing, mouths open in smiles but no sounds coming out. Men clapped with cigarettes in their mouths, smoke rising into their blinking eyes. The crowd closed-in around them and the music went back to something that sounded more like Nat King Cole, but everyone was still laughing like Elvis was on.

The Year I Was Born… 12

The doctors didn’t know and didn’t really care, but the three different chaplains who stopped-by during Neil’s last week all seemed to nod knowingly when they heard what was wrong with Neil, as if he should have expected it and that to regret it or fight against it with all that pain was his just deserts.

The first man was a Catholic chaplain on routine rounds visiting rooms where the patient’s chart was marked RC. He asked, “Why are we here?” and I wanted to ask him what the hell he meant and how dare he use the royal ‘we’ when we (the family of the poor guy dying in the bed right in front of us) didn’t know this visitor from Adam.

When I told him that Neil had cancer, he asked ‘What kind?’ and shook his head and clicked his tongue, “Tist, tisk, tisk.” He asked if he could pray for “the patient” (Did he forget Neil’s name already?) and  Cathleen nodded her approval but didn’t say a word. So, he mumbled a prayer over Neil that Neil couldn’t have heard even if he wasn’t in a coma and smiled a sickly smile and walked out.

I didn’t even wonder about what he had prayed until I heard a Baptist chaplain’s prayer. He came in the next day saying “I don’t mean to intrude, but I wondered if you would like some company?” and he walked into a room with seven people sitting and standing (the standing visitors were Cathleen’s friends and they were standing because there were no more seats). “Well, are there any questions that I may answer for you?” was how he started his bedside visit.

When we didn’t answer he asked if we minded he said a prayer for “him” and pointed down at Neil in his death bed. Cathleen nodded, again silently, and his short-sleeved white shirt with a multi-colored tie, brown polyester pants, and black loafers with soft rubber soles launched into his prayer.

He raised his chin and wasn’t even facing Neil but was speaking up into the I.V. tower as if he was praying to the morphine, “Dear Father in heaven” and a couple of Cathleen’s friends bowed their heads, made the sign of the cross and folded their hands.

And he prayed for “the patient” and his unfortunate circumstances, prayed that “if it be Thy will, that Thou would heal his body” and failing that “heal his soul before facing eternity, if it be Thy will to take him” and then the man reached down and almost touched Neil’s arm with his opened hand hovering over the thin skin that seemed to be just draped over bones and sinew and collapsed veins. He concluded his prayer with, “in Jesus’ name” (but pronounced an extra s so it sounded like Jesuses) and pulled a business card out of his shirt pocket and handed it to Cathleen but had to wait for her to complete the sign of the cross before she took it from him.

The third chaplain was from the hospital, an Adventist, dressed in a cardigan and carrying a clip-board and looking like he was taking a survey, which it turned out, he was. “Excuse me,” he said to Cathleen and me on the night Neil was going to die, “Have you had a visit from a chaplain?”

I answered that we have had several chaplains visit and he seemed pleased and jotted something down on his form. “Would you mind if I visited for a moment?” he asked and Cathleen nodded a yes before I could say my no. He walked up close to the bedside and folded his hands, tipped his head to the side and made a soft ticking noise with his mouth in sympathy. It was a gesture I would have expected to find in a chaplaincy textbook – page 38, ‘Sympathetic bedside posture; position 2a’ with a note showing the progression of slow gestures, hand moving to chin (position 2b), scratching and pondering, maintaining eye contact with the patient in the bed, not scanning the medical apparatus, I.V., heart rate, blood pressure monitor but showing concern for the patient (position 2c). Illustration 3a would be about gaining eye contact with the family nearby, pressing and thinning your lips to show contrite and compassionate facial mannerisms, tilting of head and a slow (position 3b), understanding blink of the eyes before returning to the patient in the bed (position 3c).

And he was good at it; he sucked Cathleen’s attention toward him and it was as if she was looking on from outside as the chaplain and Neil were a framed photo and she was just watching. Wanting to belong somewhere she slid over next to me and put her head on my shoulder, I put my arm around her shoulder and dipped my head onto the top of her head (wondering if this was position 4a through 4c).

He didn’t pray, didn’t even ask to pray, didn’t touch Neil; he just broke the sequence of sympathetic gestures with a sudden click of his retractable pen and made a notation on the form on his clip-board, thanked us for our time, and exited the room. It was almost eight o’clock and the hospital was quiet.

At 11:53 pm Neil took three last, harsh, shallow breaths, coughed up some bloody spit, opened his left eye just a little and that was it; he left us, he went, he passed, he died. Just a minute or so later the nurse looked in to check the I.V. and she found us gathered around the bed. “I’ll get the doctor on call… to confirm….”

At 12:06 am a bleary-eyed young internist stumbled into the room, took Neil’s wrist looking for a pulse and pronounced him dead, “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said without raising his eyes, signing a form, checking his watch and jotting down the time of death.

He’d really died the day before, at 11:53 pm, but nobody seemed to care. We lingered, said our good-byes and I straightened up Neil and Cathleen’s things. Someone had been drinking a can of 7 UP and it was with a yogurt carton and a wrapper from crackers with peanut butter and I spilled the crumbs on the floor and didn’t care.

As I tossed the can in the garbage I noticed it had an advertisement for a new James Bond movie, Die Another Day. And we walked out of the hospital into the middle of the night. It was snowing – a Spring snow – the last of the season (everyone hoped); it was cold but not bitter.

It was quiet, and the air was filled with light, soft flakes floated, twisted, turned and quivered slowly, settling lightly on limbs, sidewalks, grass and cars on this breeze-less night. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God….

 

The Year I Was Born… 11

It was cold and rainy outside, as the weather had warmed enough to turn from snow; but this was worse than snow. The air inside the church had warmth to it, but wet shoes were chilled by the marble floor, and the chill met the heat in my gut. The only reason

I’m ever in a church on a weekday mid-morning – the only reason anyone is ever in a church on a weekday mid-morning – is for funerals; the familiarity is unmistakable and I take no comfort from being in a church at all. There are only sad memories, and this makes me mad so I decided to do something about it. I decided to say the last words Neil couldn’t say.

I gave the eulogy and it went like this,

Neil’s life could be described in all its details, in all its highs and lows, and in the twists and turns it took; there is much that is remarkable just as there is much that is ordinary. He could with ease be compared with others who lived well, died young, and will be sorely missed.

And we could all offer – as many of you kindly have offered to Cathleen and the family –appreciation for the small and large ways Neil made our lives more enjoyable, more honorable, and more blessed. Each of our lives crisscrossed his in some way or another and that is why we are here, together this morning. And the more this happened – the more we were part of Neil’s life – the richer our lives were for being part of his life….

He inspired his own family with the way he lived, the way he labored, the way he persevered – especially when life became difficult. His parents were proud of his effort to earn an education. His brother was, is, inspired by the way Neil worked, against great odds, to complete his college degree; Neil met the challenges that came his way and refused to be discouraged.

The way Neil faced the past year, in particular, impressed his brother. As a veteran of the Viet Nam war, he knew how men faced the threat of death, and was amazed with the courage and bravery Neil displayed when faced with death. It was not that Neil was unfamiliar with death; instead it was that he understood that only life conquers death.

Cathleen, Neil was your sweetheart, friend, as well as your husband. From your brothers, Johnny and I offer this: Neil loved you, treated you with gentleness and respect and tenderness and appreciation in such measure that we were pleased to have him as our brother.

You and Neil enjoyed a love that was not coaxed nor feigned. You simply saw life through the same eyes, and you did not take for granted that your kind of love is so rare. You and Neil brought love and life into great fellowship – a union that was untarnished by the stain of disease. You cared for Neil and displayed your affection for him during the past year in such a wonderful way that we, gathered here to remember Neil, offer our thankfulness to you. [–And Cathleen cried out loud here; and just about every widow in the church joined her in tears.]

Somewhere in the past year, after the initial discovery of the cancer but well before the fight was completed, Neil was told by one of his doctors that he had received a great gift –knowing that he will die, but having the opportunity to prepare himself…to say what he needs to say, to do what he needs to do. Most of us will not have that gift and our passing will be sudden and hurried.

So, we should all note how little needed to change in Neil’s life when he received this gift. He spent time with Cathleen and Danny and Claire; he spent time with his family; he worked; he watched his kids laugh and play; and as a family they laughed together and they cried together. [–And everyone in the church turned to look at my nephew and niece.] Some might become embittered by the very fight against cancer – angry at God or at themselves, in frustration. But Neil’s fight was not with God, it was against what took hold of his body but could not take hold of his life. Neil kept loving and Neil kept living. Now for us who have the memory of Neil to live with, we do well to acknowledge that he lived a wonderful life. [And here I cried and couldn’t stop.]

Why he got cancer now, why he had a secondary tumor sticking right into his brain when so many other people smoke and don’t quit and live, was anybody’s guess. Philosophers and poets and rabbis and preachers and moralizers of all sorts try to explain why – why bad things happen to good people or why no one’s good and therefore bad things should be expected or why there’s meaning rather than meaninglessness in the death of anyone before they’ve grown ripe and old.

 

The Year I Was Born 10…

So I was first, then Cathleen Mary was born late in ’57 (and dad called her Little Mary which she enjoyed but objected – sometimes violently – when I attempted the same) and then the baby, Johnny, was born the next June.

I didn’t choose to be born first, and although Johnny got all the attention I don’t think I would want to be him. I’m really happy to have a little sister, and for some reason I always was, always proud to say that Cathleen Mary Kelly was my sister (I stopped calling her Little Mary when she went to college, then picked-up the habit again a few years later).

She seemed to be just as proud being a Kelly as I was but for me keeping the name as long as I can and when I die I will be buried by the name I was given at the Sanitarium. Cathleen changed her name in the rebirth called marriage.

She met a guy who turned out to be better than most but it took a while for me to get over that whole thing about someone finding your sister attractive in, well, that way.

They dated for a couple of years, and Neil (the guy) was nice to our mom, but it took a while for Johnny and me to admit he was a good guy. It took a couple of years of good living (his good living) to convince us that he was worthy of our sister’s affection, but it took only a few months of dying to convince us that he was our true brother.

Just forty-two years after my entrance into the world at that Sanitarium I found myself in the same wing, one floor up, right above the maternity ward, but this time at the end of a long, dark hallway.

This room, #568, was one-of-a-kind on this floor – a suite really, with a single bed but little signs of hospital and many signs of temporary hospitality, like generic recliners, a stereo, and soft lighting. It was reserved for in-hospital hospice care for the quickly dying.

My little sister Cathleen’s husband, Neil, was dying and not slowly, of cancer (a tumor in his brain was killing him and a year of treatment had only weakened him). There were dozens of lines and tubes and needles stuck into Neil when he was admitted a week before this, but now there was just one line, dripping morphine in ever greater amounts into his ashen body.

When she married him I was genuinely pleased that he was able to be just as much of a man as he was a true friend and love of my little sister. Now he was dying like a strong Irishman, bravely and with pain (I don’t care how much morphine you get, it still hurts to die). Neil was just 47, ten years older than Cathleen.

Now Cathleen, Neil’s mother and I were gathered around his bed. His last actual words were for their children who were here earlier in the night for another visit to see their dad, but it turned into their final goodbye.

To their oldest, a boy named Danny, named after me, Neil said, “I love you Danny. You’re the man of the house now…take care of your mother and sister” and Danny quietly said ‘I will’ and said nothing more.

To their daughter Claire, Neil was trying to whisper words, but they only came as puffs and gurgles, and Neil’s mother supplied commentary, “Oh, Neil loved Claire so much. She was always his little girl,” and “Everything Claire did pleased Neil, even when she was naughty, he would smile.” And it bothered me that she already used the past tense, but I couldn’t say anything.

Claire just cried and said she couldn’t understand him, she shook her head and mouthed her own inaudible, “I can’t… I can’t hear what he’s trying to say!” and cried more as she turned into my arms, and Danny hugged his mom. And I panicked that Neil couldn’t get out his last words – he’d waited too long (but how does one know how long to wait). Albert Einstein got to say his last words, but because they were in German the nurse said she couldn’t understand what he said. I’d always assumed that everyone gets last words – it only seemed right and fair. But not Neil.

Where his cancer came from was an easy guess – he’d smoked his way through his teen years but quit when he hit his mid-20’s. They say there’s a better chance for a high school drop-out to wind-up in prison than for a smoker to get cancer, but he wasn’t the former and beat the odds to be the latter. Other than that his life was a pretty normal life, more usual than unusual to it. What distinguished Neil from most other people is that he died well.

We all gathered at the parish for Neil’s funeral – it all happened too quickly and it all happened too slowly. The church was filled with family and friends, coworkers, and even Neil’s oncologist and two of the nurses that had met the family in the hospital; and there were several widows here and there in the church, gathered to welcome a new member to their club.

The Year I Was Born…9

So I was born and I guess I’m thankful for that –being born, that is. None of us are taught to appreciate our own births (others are suppose to appreciate us, give us gifts, celebrate us by remembering us and showing us how much they love us). It –one’s birthday –shows that we are known.

The Greeks have us all lined up as souls waiting for the fateful moment when we enter the temporary abode of the body only to shed it and ascend once again beyond the stars. Some of them are convinced the body is a prison, others a pleasure-medium, and that makes quite a difference to how you live, but we all wind up coming from and going to the same place.

The Hebrews have us exhaled by God, or God’s halitosis, bearing the pain of the world as God’s chosen – a priest who is also the sacrifice. In a similar vein Muslims have us born to the chosen or to unbelievers, but at least the Quran gives a nod to whether we have a George Bailey moment or not, “Does there not pass over man a space of time when his life is a blank?

We have created man from the union of two sexes, so that we may put him to the proof. We have endowed him with hearing and sight and, be he thankful or oblivious of our favors, we have shown him the right path.”

And Christians have the God and Father who made everything so nice until Adam and Eve screwed it all up and contaminated our DNA with original sin and that’s why we die, which is bad enough, but it’s also way we die forever and know we’re dead and suffering, which is even worse.

So, the only way out of the mess of Adam and Eve’s dysfunctional family tree is adoption by the Pope, or ooze into consciousness with the great ecological oneness if the smells and bells give you the creeps, or just plain get yourself born-again if you are a revivalist. Since no one, but no one, is born the first time as anything but a sinner the only solution is a new beginning as if the first didn’t count.

The closest thing we get to choosing our birth, our life, our fate is that karma thing in Buddhism. Being from the Chicago area we didn’t get a lot of exposure to Buddhism (or Judaism, or Islam, or Greek writings as anything more than classics). When I got around to reading books like the ones named the Tibetan Book of Dead (nice name for a Bible, huh?) I was old enough to understand how different they were from the missal, and they were nothing that I heard about at home.

You want to get to the pure Clear Light of Nirvana, but you can’t and you have to go through demonic nightmares and wind up in a womb that just spits you out again in reincarnation and you start over, again, but hopefully a little better off. “Noble person (fill in name here), now the time has come for you to seek a path through. After your breath has almost ceased that which is called the Clear Light of the first phase of the Intermediary State will dawn upon you.”

That’s nice and all but the problem is that you stop being you because you don’t matter and shouldn’t matter, so while you are reincarnated it really isn’t you, if you know what I mean. “Noble son (fill in name here), hear me! You have not understood me even though I have directed you toward the right insight….

Now when you can’t close the womb, then the time has truly come when you have to acquire a new body.” The incentive for reincarnation? How about you’re as scared as hell, “Noble son, although you are reluctant to go, torturers –which are evil deeds –chase you.

Powerless, you have to go where you don’t want to. Torturers and executioners pull you and you feel as if you are running away from darkness, tornadoes, cries of war, snow, rain, hail, and blizzards. In your anxiety you are looking for a refuge, and you escape and hide – as I have said before – in mansions, rock crevasses, caves, thick undergrowth, or in lotus flowers which close over you. You ask yourself whether they will get you there.”

But when all this terrifying shit happens, think happy thoughts, Pollyanna-like ones, “Listen and memorize this instruction suitable for such an occasion! When the torturers chase you into a state of helplessness, or when fear and anxiety threaten you then you should visualize a wrathful deity who destroys all these forms of threat. Quickly perfect your vision of the deity with all his limbs….

Through their blessing and compassion you will rid yourself from the torturers and will have the strength to close the door of the womb.” Then, boom, you’re born again, but it isn’t you, remember? (or is it, don’t remember to remember –the irony of this stuff gets confusing). The blank space of fill in name here is supposed to remain blank.

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