Happy Birthday, Dad

This was your fourth birthday party you’ve missed, Dad. But Mom was in a huddle of kin, holding babies, laughing at her sons’ lame jokes and her daughter’s hilarious tales. She was doted upon by daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Your kid sister brought stories of the old days along with your beloved niece and nephew. Jim held Mom’s chair and Rosie hit a whiffle ball onto the neighbor’s roof. The kitchen counter was filled with tubs of pulled pork and mac & cheese (you would have doubled down on your Lipitor, for sure), and the fridge was packed with beers and lemonade. 
We miss you.
But we felt your presence in a baby’s embrace, in the thud of a bean bag on plywood, in the sweet release of laughter, in the first swig of a beer, and the last hug out the door.
Happy birthday, Dad. 

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Kevin Billy Sheldon

Paco was a good rabbit. A ball of thick, black fur – he was as obedient as the family dog. He was the perfect class pet. We’d leave his cage door open and he’d come and go as he pleased. Most mornings he’d spend lounging on his belly in the hallway, next to the bust of Abraham Lincoln, waiting  for the  kids. After the first bell, he’d flop back to his cage for breakfast.

Paco was everyone’s favorite, but no one loved him as much as Kevin Billy Sheldon. Billy was one of those kids who spent his life attending to everything but what he should have been doing. I couldn’t get more than a minute or two of his attention at a time. His conversation went into wild circles, never focused, just whatever flashed across his mind. Paco became the center of his scholastic universe, though. The other kids realized this and abdicated feeding duties to him. I rationalized; I felt the added responsibilities might develop better mental habits for Billy, and after awhile I noted that he was following through with his responsibilities, although overdoing it a bit.

“Billy,” I’d say, “Paco shouldn’t eat the whole box in one  day.”

“Yea, Mr. Tim, but he gobbled  it all up. He just ate it all up.”

“Sure, Billy, but he should only have one bowl every day, not a whole box.”

“Yea, but he ate it all up, didn’t he?” – he’d say with a satisfied grin.

It was hard to reason with the boy.

One afternoon Billy’s mom came to the classroom. She wore leather pants and a halter top. I couldn’t tell her age, although she dressed young.

“I come to pick up the rabbit,” she said.

I put down the map I was showing the kids and walked toward the door.

“Pick up the rabbit? Why?”

“Billy said you’d let him take the rabbit home this weekend. I come to take him home.”

“Take him home? Um, O.K.” I was a first year teacher. I wasn’t about to challenge her.

While the kids stared at Mrs. Sheldon with mouths agape, Billy and I gathered the food, wood shavings, water bottle, cage and our beloved rabbit and set off for the car. There was more than enough room in Mrs. Sheldon’s 76’ Pontiac for Paco and all his belongings. I remember Paco driving away, his nose wiggling frantically as Billy shouted out the window – “I’ll take good care of Paco, Mr. Tim. You’ll see. Don’t worry, Mr. Tim.” He must have read my face.

***

A week went by. The kids kept at me, “When’s Paco coming back? When’s Paco coming back?”

I felt like telling  them to go ask Billy, but I was afraid of what he might say. Sure enough, during independent reading, I overheard Billy talking in an excited voice. He used the same tone of voice he’d used when relating an exciting episode of a neighborhood feud, or a real cool explosion. I heard the words “fur,” and “flying” and saw Billy’s arms waving as if demonstrating the flight of an injured bird. It caught my attention. Instinctively I did a word association: fur, flying, Paco. Paco doesn’t fly. Dang.

“Billy, come here!”

“Yes, Mr. Tim.” He came to me as if nothing was out of the norm,  processing only what was happening that very second.

“Where’s Paco, Billy?” I asked, my forehead turning red.

“Well, Mr. Tim,” he began, turning his gaze from the floor, to the wall, up to the ceiling, down to my shoes, anywhere but at me. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

“You know my pitbull Sammy?”

“No, I don’t know your pitbull Sammy. What about Sammy?”

“Well, I went down to feed Paco. I feed Paco, you know.

“Yea, I know. Where’s Paco, Billy?” By this time I had both hands on Billy’s shoulders.

“Well, I went downstairs, and there was fur all over the place. Sammy bit his head right off!” he said, eyes wide, as if relating something cool that happened at recess that day.

Still holding Billy, I scanned the room without moving my head, just rolled my eyes back and forth to see if anyone heard Billy. Sure enough, the same kids who didn’t pay any mind to me thrashing about and shouting when our egg incubator caught fire were frozen in place, eyes glued on Billy and me. You’d think I was a master teacher, having all those kids’ attention at the same time.

I released Billy from my grip. He casually walked over to the block area, sat down, and lost himself in play. The rest of the kids stood in place, apparently waiting to see what I’d do or say. I stood with them, thinking, “Why wasn’t there a class-pet methods class in teacher training? Yeah, with a section on violent death.’

Intuition kicked in.

“O.K., everyone, recess!”

The kids unfroze and filed out of the room into the cool hallway, past the bust of Abraham Lincoln, Billy taggin along well behind everyone.

***

 

The Things Dad Carried

Ronald Ernest Fournier
August 30, 1939 – March 16, 2014

The things Dad carried were largely determined by his love. Among his mementos were a St. Christopher medal, a picture of his mother, a picture of mom, a loc of our sister’s hair pressed in a plastic bag, a prayer card, an American Legion membership card, a Red Wings schedule, a handful of change for a paper or a cup of coffee, a badge and a leather notebook.

Dad’s notebook was wrapped in a thick rubber band to keep the business cards and receipts from falling out. It was chock-full of birthdates, to-do lists, planned favors (“fix Mary’s gutter”, “call Ed’s lawyer”, “take mom to doc’s”), appointments pending, batting averages, and devotions.

I remember once finding the dog-eared notebook under the front seat of the family station wagon. I took off the rubber band and it sprang open, sprinkling scraps of paper onto my lap. His distinctive cursive filled the journal. I found the dates of our ball games, references to work, car mileage and gas usage, and titles of books he had read. The mundane and the profound were scattered within a worn diary where our dad recorded the little parts his big life.

Ms. Cross

“The first stab of love is like a sunset, a blaze of color…” – Anna Godbersen

I agree with Anna Godberson. I’d add that first-love isn’t the only love so outstanding, but it is the measure of the (eventual) love of our lives.

My first love was Ms. Cross. It was the purest, warmest, fuzziest kind of love. Ms. Cross was my first grade teacher. Yet, she was so much more than that. She made my heart bigger, my courage stronger, my curiosity broader. I was years from puberty, my first car, or my eligibility to vote. Shoot, I had just learned to tie my own shoes when I met her, the lady who graced our first grade classroom at St. Jude Elementary School. 

Ms. Cross shone upon me like a magical force and transformed me into my better (seven-year-old) self. Beside her making me feel like a million bucks when she looked at me, she showed me kindness, beauty, grace, and generosity. She revealed those universal gifts in the classroom, on the playground, and as she floated down the hallway en route to the cafeteria.

Man, and her snacks: oyster crackers and cherry Kool-Aid. She served the Kool-Aid in those little Dixie cups with riddles printed on the sides that I only began to decode with her gentle tutoring. I ate each oyster cracker individually, letting them melt in my mouth like my heart melted for her. 

Oh, Ms. Cross. Once, I got to stroll with her, hand-in-hand, on a beautiful moon-lit summer night. It made a memory I take with me into old age. It would have never happened without the deft scheming of Mrs. Wahl, my mother’s friend, confidant, and collaborator. Mrs. Wahl and her four children were like family – we were always over each other’s house and the Wahls were a permanent fixture at our cottage in the summers. Mrs. Wahl was keen to my infatuation with the rookie teacher who, as luck would have it, lived just a few doors down the street. The night was still young, and the eight of us kids had just devoured a few Fantasy bowling ally pizza pies. We were in the backyard starting a kick-the-can tourney, when Mrs. Wahl called me up to the back porch.

 “Tim, you want to visit Ms. Cross?” She said, my mom peering over her shoulder with a mischievous grin.

I nodded, dumbly, answering matter-of-factly like any seven year-old would; not realizing in my young innocence that the question wasn’t rhetorical. 

 “Come on.” Mrs. Wahl took my hand and led me around the aluminum-sided bungalow and out onto the sidewalk. We walked down the street as I counted each crack in the concrete on our way to meet my angel-on-earth. 

And there she was. Ms. Cross stood in the middle of the sidewalk, bathed in the glow of the streetlight, her back ram-rod straight, her auburn hair cascading over her shoulders, a dimpled smile that couldn’t be fabricated – she was really happy to see me! If I could only describe the mirth, the joy, the serenity that whirled within me… pardon the cliche, but time stood still. And so did we, for a moment. Mrs. Wahl transferred my damp little hand into Ms. Cross’, bid us good bye, turned, and walked back into the darkness. I was left under the streetlamp with Ms. Cross. She looked down upon me and asked if I’d like to go for a walk around the block. Struck with wonder, I wasn’t able to articulate language –  I probably just grunted, or gestured, in the affirmative. And we were off, drifting around the block, my hand at head-level to reach hers, as we shared fifteen minutes of exquisite, pedestrain communion. 

I don’t know what was said on that twilight constitutional, nor what was seen. I simply remember that cacophony of splendid feelings within me, and the sense that all was right in a world that was graced with someone like dear Ms. Cross.

We soon went our separate ways, me to the public school a few blocks away, and Ms. Cross to a career that, I imagine, blessed the lives of many other children over the years. 

I’ve walked the earth for many, many years with her memory in my heart. That memory served as a life preserver during times of little faith, and a wind beneath my wings during more inspired periods. But, I assure you, her effect upon me wasn’t matched until many years later – in very similar circumstances, too. I was in my late twenties by then, and a good friend of mine and I went for a sunset walk at the cottage. We’d been friends for quite awhile, laughing at the same movies, horsing around while waiting in long lines, and reading the same books. But on that particular walk, I realized what this auburn-haired, dimpled-cheeked, straight-backed friend of mine was doing – she could conjure in me that same cacophony of serenity and joy that I knew back in first grade. 

She made me a better man, as she held my hand.