“I got a Rocky.”

Best trick-or-treat of the night – two teen girls on foot, with a third one in a motorized wheelchair. I think she has cerebral palsy. I had been letting Rocky, our shih tzu, run out onto the front porch every time I opened the door, and this time was no different. The girl in the wheelchair lit up when she saw him.

The first two took their candy, and I walked down the steps so the third one could reach some. She kept looking at Rocky, and struggled to tell me her family has a lot of dogs. I asked her how many, and her face showed her effort as she proudly said, “Three.”

I asked her if she’d like to pet Rocky, and she was obviously excited when she answered resoundingly in the affirmative. So I put down the candy, picked him up, and held him out to her as she rubbed his head with one hand, seemingly unable to use her other one.

She stopped petting him long enough to gesture toward the other two girls, saying something I couldn’t make out. One of them laughed, looked at the other, and asked, “Did she just tell us to go?” Clearly, she wanted this moment to herself, and they weren’t going to begrudge her that as they walked up the driveway and waited for her at the street while she kept petting Rocky.

When I finally put him down, she said, “Thank you sooooo much!” then put her hand back on the controls, turned her wheelchair around, and sped up the driveway to her friends/sisters. I’m still not sure if she ever took any candy, but there’s no way she would have gotten a better treat than the one that interaction gave me.

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Mother, by numbers

At nearly 12,000 words, the following is easily the longest blog entry I’ve ever written. I wrote the three parts at three different times. I don’t expect anyone to read all of it, and even if someone does, I don’t expect them to react. I won’t say my grief is gone — probably never will be — but I’m not looking for sympathy. Please don’t feel compelled to offer it. This is just something I had to do. It’s a story that needed to be told. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it. Thanks.


Mom, thanks 4
60 years of parenting and
6 years of pregnancy,
resulting in 8 mis-4-tunes,
who would have been
2 much 4 other mothers 2 toler-8.
But even though your procre-8-ions
were of-10 a bunch of reprob-8s,
you saw us through with a be-9 attitude.

L8er in life, your heart is still a 1-der.
And even though your blood pressure is 2 high,
your resistance is 2 low,
your legs are 2 weak 2 stand 4 long,
and your hands shake 2 hard 2 hold on 2 much,
you have a strong grasp on 1 important thing –
the love from all 8 of us,
which can never be measured by any number.
And that’s what really counts.

I sent that to you in an e-card yesterday, Mom — complete with an image of the Jolly Boys — although I have strong doubts you’ll ever read it. You aren’t able to use the computer these days. Maybe Dad can help.

When I called to wish you a happy Mother’s Day, I asked one of the sisters — I don’t remember which of the four it was (remember how Nanny used to say she couldn’t keep track of them, because all of their names started with “S?”) — to prompt Dad to make his weekly email check last night, hoping he would read you the tribute and show you the picture. But I can imagine him getting frustrated at the numeric shorthand and giving up. I couldn’t blame him if he did; it’s confusing to read. It might even have merited a “wtf” (never mind what that means, Ma) out of him. But let’s face it — he’s lucky I didn’t write it in full-fledged 1337. (That’s pronounced “leet,” Ma.)

It’s also not exactly a showcase of my best writing; probably some of my more intellectual friends would scoff at it, but you know what? Fuck ’em if they do. (Whoops. Sorry, Ma. Kim can wash my blog out with soap later.)

That piece wasn’t intended to impress anyone. It’s cliched, childish, and contains offenses against the English language so egregious that they should be relegated to text messaging (that’s what you see all the grandkids doing, Ma). But it was still heartfelt and important to me, if not to anyone else.

I started thinking about this the last time we came up for a visit. On the day we left, you weren’t feeling well, and you asked Dad and Shelley to let you stay in bed. You didn’t even want to eat. When I came down the hallway to say good-bye, I stopped in the doorway to your room, feeling like I was interrupting something. There sat Dad on the edge of his bed, right next to your hospital bed, spooning yogurt into your mouth. It was a sublimely tender moment, and it made me think of two things.

The first was the 50th anniversary party we threw you back in 2001. That was before your Parkinson’s was diagnosed, and it was a happier time. I was honored to write the toast, and I used a bunch of numbers then, too. Remember that? It wasn’t as weird as the piece above, because I wasn’t using the numbers as syllables. Instead, it was an equation, looking at everything you two had done together. Seeing you two together in your room, Dad feeding you, reminded me of seeing you together at the anniversary party, and I started thinking about writing another, shorter numbers-based piece. That’s where the above came from.

But it made me think of something else, too, and I’m sorry this is a little darker. It made me think of a song I know by a band called Death Cab for Cutie. The song is called What Sarah Said, and it’s a song about watching a loved one die. It’s a beautiful song, Ma, and it makes me cry just thinking about it. Seeing you and Dad, I heard the first line in my head:

And it came to me then,
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time.

I probably said some prayers to Father Time as we drove home that afternoon, but the rest of the song was on my mind, too. The title refers to one of the last lines in the song, where the narrator remembers what someone named Sarah once told him: “That love is watching someone die.”

While our situations are vastly different — I believe he’s watching a lover die, and I get the feeling it’s from something unexpected, rather than a slowly progressing disease — the sentiment is still relevant. I used to think it referred to watching someone die in general, but I’ve come to the realization that he’s comparing two sets of people — those who wait for the news outside of the hospital room, and those who are in the room with the patient, watching as opposed to waiting. I think that’s why Dad is against the idea of sending you to a long-term care facility; he wants to be there with you throughout this whole ugly process. He’s not going to metaphorically sit in a waiting room.

The song also appeals to me because of the name Sarah. You might not remember, but you once told me that was the name you’d been planning to give the fifth sister, who was stillborn. I know you felt a connection to her, and I loved how you referred to her by name during the rare occasions when you talked about losing her. In a way, maybe Sarah has said to all us that love is watching someone die.

Then there’s this line:

And I knew you were a truth
I would rather lose
Than to have never lain beside at all.

Again, this is spoken to a lover, but it’s true of mothers, too. It hurts to see you fading, but it beats not having known you. And the line made me think of countless evenings the kids spent on your bed, watching that tiny little black and white TV while you tried your best to read. (I don’t know how you did it; I still can’t read if there’s any background noise.) Just lying there next to you in the king-sized bed that felt like a huge expanse to us, watching whatever sitcom was on that night with you beside us, while Dad tinkered with his equipment in the basement. Sometimes it was me and Shelley. In later years, as Shelley grew out of that practice, it was me and Bryan. Later, only Bryan. But Shelley and I came back to it the night they showed The Exorcist on network TV, didn’t we? You would think the edited-for-TV version of that movie would be considerably less scary, but not enough to keep us watching it downstairs alone. Sorry again about that; I know you wanted nothing to do with that movie, not even to hear it as you tried to read. But you were our mom, and you abided, as moms do.

Exorcist aside, those were some of my favorite childhood memories. And as the song says:

It stung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds.

I’m trying hard to reload that camera, Ma, and I’m sorry I’ve been sitting in the waiting room for so long. I know what’s coming, and I’m going to bring myself into your room to be with you for it.


I started Part 1 as a blog entry four years ago, the day after Mother’s Day. I could never bring myself to finish it. Guess I was still sitting on my ass in the waiting room, after all. That changed last fall.

The emails came from my sister Shelley, the nurse who’d left her home and family to move into our parents’ house, spending half of her time helping Dad with Mom and half of her time working at the local hospital. I guess she slept the the third half. At least, when she wasn’t busy keeping us updated with emails on Mom’s declining health.

First, the hospice news at the end of September. The local hospice organization was willing to help provide in-home care. This was the clue that I’d better get up out of that chair in the waiting room, and stretch my legs.

Next, the first weekend in October, the dropping vitals. Mom’s oxygen count was low, and hospice was sending out a tank — but she kept pulling the tube out of her nose. She was also refusing her meds, and having some sort of severe shaking episodes, which looked more like seizures than Parkinson’s tremors. This email used phrases like “you need to be prepared” and “she is steadily declining.” Shelley assured us nothing was imminent, but neither was it far off. It was time to start walking down the hallway from the waiting room.

Nine days later, a more dire-sounding email. She was extremely weak, with an irregular heartbeat and a low-grade fever. The hospice nurse had seen all of those symptoms in previous patients at end of life. It was time to quicken my walk, and to enter the room.

I made arrangements for work, Cub Scouts, and Parks & Rec basketball, and took off. I forgot to pack several things, but I brought a suit. I listened to “What Sarah Said” in the car repeatedly on the four-hour drive, trying not to cry to the point of becoming a driving hazard.

When I arrived, I walked into her room, and was shocked at how emaciated she looked. I tried not to show the shock as I said “Hi, Mom!” as cheerfully as possible and bent down to kiss her cheek where she lay in her bed. She looked at me as if she didn’t know me, and didn’t say anything. That’s how most of that week went — her in her bed, sometimes looking around, sometimes sleeping, always saying barely anything. Still, at least she was conscious some of the time, and able to speak if she tried. It was a small, weak sound, but it was good to hear when it happened. Usually, it was Dad or one of the kids doing the talking.

That first week, it was the four “jolly boys” and two of the four sisters. We mostly took turns sitting by her side while the others stayed out in the living room. Those in the room, either wept privately or tried to make wise cracks within earshot of Mom, trying to get her to say anything. On one occasion, I and my brothers Walter and Bryan were joking with her about which of us must have been her favorite. My sister Sandy walked in just as I asked Mom, “So, who really was your favorite, Ma?” In a rare moment of lucidity, she recognized Sandy as she walked up to the bed, and called out her name. For the next two weeks, we joked that Mom had settled the argument, and Sandy was her favorite.

Another time, Bryan and I were in the room, on opposite sides of the bed. Mom’s eyes were closed, and we assumed she was asleep, so we were trying to be quiet. We were both looking down at the floor when I thought I smelled something, and as I looked up, I caught Bryan’s eye and grimaced at him, whispering, “Did you fart?” Without opening her eyes, Mom said, “Yeah” in a little, insignificant croak. Bryan and I spent the rest of the time in her room trying not to laugh.

Other times were more solemn. We’d sit and hold her hand, quiet and pensive, knowing full well what was about to happen. Walter posted on Facebook of the holy nature of grieving, how it creates a sort of sacred ground, and that’s what her room felt like during that time — a sacred place. The atmosphere in that room was palpable, even for those of us sacrilegious enough to make light of things within its boundaries. But we did so with a purpose, and the purpose felt worthy of the holiness in that room. Anything less worthy was kept out of Mom’s room, down the hall in the living room, where jokes and conversation flowed freely. There was the holy place, and there was the villagers’ encampment outside its border.

That time was surreal, and exists in my memory in a place outside of any sort of timeline. We took turns sleeping on the couch or floor, or in various hotel rooms in town. For some reason, all of Culpeper’s crappy hotels were booked almost full during that time, and we spent it rotating nightly reservations from one to the next.

I saw my first seizure that week. I was in her room, holding her hand as she slept, when her arm twitched and her hand clamped down on mine. Then her entire body began to twitch, and suddenly she was wracked with violent convulsions that seemed too powerful to be associated with the small, frail figure that had just been lying there in front of me. I called out for Shelley, and she and Dad came running. Dad took Mom’s other hand, and Shelley ran to the kitchen for Mom’s seizure medication and an ice pack. Dad held the ice pack on Mom’s forehead while Shelley navigated the medicine dropper through Mom’s pursed lips. Dad spoke comforting words to Mom, and I just wanted to scream. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. The worst of the convulsions stopped after about two minutes, but the twitches continued for about half an hour. I felt wretched and helpless.

I had to return home over the weekend to help Matthew and Kim with a Cub Scout commitment. Before I left, I had a private conversation with Mom. My other sister Sharon had come to see her a week or two previously, and that morning, my sister Sue had called. Mom hadn’t been able to talk, but we had held the phone to her ear. Before I left, I took stock for Mom. She was awake, and looking at me, so I said with a tremor that she’d now seen or spoken to all of her kids, and most of her grandkids, so if she felt it was time to let go, it would be okay. I couldn’t stand the thought of her holding on for our sake, especially if she was suffering, and I told her not to. She glared at me, as if I’d just said the most impertinent thing I’d ever said to her. I told her I love her, and promised to come back after my commitment to Matthew.

That was two and a half days later, and something interesting happened during the last bit of the trip. I was driving down Virginia Highway 3, thinking about Mom and letting go, and was about 10 miles out from the house when a huge eagle flew into view, coasting alongside of the car and tracking my drive for a little bit before veering off and soaring away. I thought it was a beautiful thing, and decided to take a clue from the animal kingdom — until I turned onto another road about three miles out. I rounded a curve and there at the side of the road, as if it had been waiting for me, was a chihuahua, taking a crap. Its business end was pointed right at me, and its head was turned to face me over its shoulder, almost as if it were mocking me. The little bastard. About a mile later, I saw a vulture sitting on a fence, staring at me. I silently hoped it would go choke on the chihuahua.

When I arrived, Mom looked even worse. She had changed dramatically, even over the course of a few days, and was now so emaciated as to be almost unrecognizable. Her eyes were sunken and hollow, her cheeks gaunt, and her skin waxy. She was also unconscious, and stayed that way the whole time. There was no hope of getting her to converse this week, as she never woke up. That could have been the morphine, which the hospice recommended be given frequently. Whatever the cause, she lay there on her side, opening her mouth every few seconds to draw in a quick, rattled breath. At one point, I actually recorded her on my phone. I don’t know what inspired me to do it, but it gave me comfort to capture her rhythmic breathing on video.

That night, Walter told me he had talked to the other siblings, and they agreed to ask me to write Mom’s eulogy. I was stunned. I’d never felt so honored, yet so scared. But of course I accepted.

It was also at this time that I started feeling angry at everything and everyone. I found out later, this was happening to other siblings, too. I was trying to make plans for a Cub Scout trip the following weekend from Raleigh to Washington, I was dealing with unnecessary questions about it from batshit-crazy parents, I couldn’t get a decent phone signal at the house, and Kim and I were under a deadline to pull together a bunch of documents and information for a refinancing that we were trying to complete. I still feel bad for the mortgage guy, who kept calling me for one piece of information from Citibank, and Citibank had screwed up multiple attempts to get me or him the documentation he needed. I was talking to him at one point, walking down the road in search of better reception, when he mentioned Citibank again. I exploded at him.

“I don’t know what to do about them! I can’t get the correct documentation! I’ve talked to them several times, and they swear they emailed it, but it’s not in my box. I can’t get a signal because I’m at my parents’ house in the country, where I’m literally watching my mother die!”

For at least 30 seconds, there was only silence from the other end. Then, tentatively and meekly, he stammered, “I…I honestly don’t know how to reply to that.” It was actually a bit comical, all things considered.

I apologized and told him not to worry about me, that I would somehow get the non-compliant bastards in line.

Another time I was doing the signal walk, I was trying to send a file from my phone. If anyone was watching, they would have seen a tall man with crazy eyes, muttering obscenities to himself as he held his phone at strange angles overhead. I finally found a sweet spot, and stopped walking in order to maintain the signal. I realized I was standing in front of someone’s driveway only when they pulled up next to me in the street, and asked if everything was okay. I looked away from the phone and into the open window of a sheriff’s deputy’s SUV. At least this time I held my temper as I explained what I was doing. It turns out, he knew my parents from having checked on them a couple times, and he was sympathetic when I told him about Mom. I apologized for having blocked his driveway and scurried back up the road to my parents’ house, thankful that I wasn’t under arrest for suspicious activity.

A little while later, I heard from Kim, whose aunt had just had a massive stroke, and was unconscious with little likelihood of ever waking up. Now it looked like each of us might be going to a family funeral soon.

The hotel shuffle continued that week, and when I had my time at a hotel, I was lonely and worried, and couldn’t sleep. One of the nights, Bryan came back with me, and slept in the other bed. We got up for the breakfast buffet the next morning and helped ourselves to a couple stacks of French toast. Once we started eating it, we realized the hotel had made a mistake, and used garlic bread to make it. Either that, or the cook had sprinkled it with garlic salt instead of cinnamon. Small things like that kept us sane as we laughed them off. We shared these stories in the “encampment” outside the sacred ground, sitting on the living room couch and floor, sharing stories of Mom and pontificating on things like how Dad had started calling her “Dolly” (her name is Rita) — a nickname from their early days that none of the kids had ever heard. Again, these conversations kept us grounded. It reminds me of a line from “The End of the End,” by Paul McCartney:

On the day that I die, I’d like jokes to be told
And stories of old to be rolled out like carpets

That children have played on and laid on
While listening to stories of old.

Also, Shelley’s birthday was coming up, and the rest of us wanted to surprise her with a small token of appreciation. Sandy was going to make a German chocolate cake, and we were going to shop for a gift bag of silly toys, like you’d find in a kid’s favor bag. Again, it helped keep us sane.

We tried to help Shelley as much as possible, too. She was essentially working two nursing jobs — one at the hospital, the other at the house — and we tried our best to take some of the load off for her. One evening, I agreed to watch Mom while Shelley napped. She left me with a schedule of the various medications Mom needed, and I had seen her give them multiple times, so I thought I knew what I was doing. When the time came for her morphine, I got it out of the fridge, squeezed the right amount into the dropper, and took it into Mom’s room. I stuck the dropper in her mouth, as I’d seen Shelley do, and tried to push it to the side of her mouth, between her cheek and gum. As I did so, Mom winced and jerked her head back. I didn’t know what I had done wrong, but it had obviously hurt her. Maybe there was a sore in her mouth, and I brushed against it. Whatever the reason, I felt like a heel. I was trying to administer pain medication, and wound up hurting her, instead.

Meanwhile, I was also agonizing over the eulogy. I must have started it and changed my mind about five times. I even talked to Dad about it and the obituary, hating to bother him about details, but needing to know how he would feel about mentioning Mom’s miscarriage and Sarah, her stillborn. And the closer we came toward the weekend, the more I worried over whether I could join Matthew’s Cub Scout den on their big trip. They were supposed to take a train from Raleigh to Washington, and I was supposed to be one of the few chaperones onboard. But I didn’t know if I’d be able to get back home by Thursday night and take him to the train station early Friday morning. I had promised myself I would be there when Mom left us.

Tuesday afternoon, the night before Shelley’s birthday, something interesting happened. Mom had been unconscious and breathing in the same lulling pattern, but occasionally would vocalize when inhaling through her mouth. It was a little “huh” noise, almost as if she were trying to say something. That afternoon, Walter and I walked into her room, and as we neared the bed, I said, “Hi, Ma.” At that moment, she made one of her “huh” noises, but it was a little louder, a little more forceful. Walter’s eyes went wide, and he looked at me in excitement. “Did you hear that? It sounded like she said ‘Hi’ back to you!” I wasn’t convinced, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to believe it. I hope on some level, she was still able to hear us, and was able to enjoy our company.

I looked down at her in the waning afternoon light, and my head spun momentarily. It felt like I was going to black out, but I didn’t. My field of vision closed in quite a bit, though, and all I could see in that moment, was Mom’s face. And I saw it as the face of some trapped animal, struggling to break free — almost like a turtle that had been flipped over, and couldn’t right itself. In that moment, I became absolutely convinced that Mom wanted to leave us, but couldn’t. Something was keeping her there, and whatever it was, I hated it for its cruel influence over her. She looked tiny and pitiful, and I wanted nothing more than for her to be free.

I found it hard to sleep that night, even though I was in a comfortable hotel bed rather than on the couch or living room floor. I had to hit the snooze alarm a couple times Wednesday morning, and dragged my feet getting in and out of the shower and into the day’s clothes. I stopped at the hotel restaurant, giving their breakfast buffet another chance before heading out to the house. Besides, today they had pancakes instead of French toast. I had almost finished my stack of them when my phone rang.

I picked it up and saw that it was Shelley. I answered, and no one was there. She must have gotten disconnected. Or maybe she was sobbing too hard, and had ended the call before I answered. I called her back, and through tears, I could hear her say, “Dan?”

“Is she going?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Ye-hess!” she said through tears again.

“I’ll be right there!”

I ended the call, jumped up, threw a tip on the table, and ran out of the restaurant, through the lobby, and to my car. I made the 10-minute drive in about five, barely able to see the road through my tears. I just wanted to see her alive one last time, but that was impossible from the start. I found out later, she was already gone when Shelley called; Shelley must have misunderstood my question. But I raced into the house not knowing this, bursting through the front door and tearing down the hallway to Mom’s room, where Dad, Walter, Sandy, Shelley, and Bryan were standing around her bed, sobbing. I ran to her, and Dad made room for me. Dad, who was sobbing on her chest, saying, “Good-bye, Dolly!” He made room for me, the one who’d still been in the waiting room after all, eating those damned pancakes. I wanted to vomit them up at this realization, and I couldn’t stop telling Mom and everyone else how sorry I was. Of course they forgave me, but I still haven’t forgiven myself, and I wanted to collapse when Dad said, “She’s with Sarah now.”

The morning passed in a blur. George arrived a short time later, and went in to see her. I went outside to beat myself up a little bit, wanting to scream at the world. I texted Kim, “She’s gone” and sat in my car to cry some more. The hospice nurse pulled up while I was out there, and did her best to comfort me as we walked in together. She had all of us wait in the living room while she examined Mom and made the pronunciation, then came out to talk to us. She was amazingly reassuring, and helped all of us feel at least a little better. When we were ready, she called the funeral director, who arrived 20 minutes later with a couple of assistants and a body bag. He offered his condolences and gave each of us a chance to go in and see Mom one last time before they took her away. All I could tell her was that I was sorry.

When everyone had said their good-byes, the funeral director asked if they could take Mom. He told us the exact route his team would take out of the house and to the car, in case anyone wanted to avoid seeing them. I stayed in the living room and watched as they carefully, respectfully carried her away in a black vinyl bag — the person I’d loved since before I was born, now relegated to that. I silently wished I hadn’t watched, and trudged back down the hallway to Mom’s room — now Dad’s room. I stared at the empty hospital bed, the crumpled blanket and well-loved teddy bear now neatly folded and stacked on top of the lilac sheets. I took a picture of that desolate, empty bed and posted it on Facebook, not knowing what else to do. For once, I had a decent signal, and the comments came pouring in. I had told myself early on that I wouldn’t share such personal details so publicly, but had found myself chronicling the whole two weeks — and I’m glad I did. My friends brought me comfort.

Some time later, we brothers accompanied Dad to the funeral home, to help him with decisions and to make sure he didn’t get ripped off. Walking in, I couldn’t help but notice a sticker in a window, for some school team I’d never heard of. This window was probably in the director’s office, but it was visible from the parking lot by the door where the bereaved would enter. It felt mildly inappropriate. There was also some awkwardness in the meeting room when Bryan tried to stake a claim to the seat at the head of the table, in an effort to send a message, but the funeral director moved his folder and notepad when he wasn’t looking.

I had brought my laptop, working on probably the seventh draft of the eulogy, but with a finished copy of the obituary. I didn’t have a thumb drive, so I told the director I could email it to him. I couldn’t logon to the guest wireless account, so I asked him for help. He told me I could use the company account, then looked as if he wanted to bite his own tongue off when I came back with the natural follow-up question: “What’s the password?”

He turned a little pale, and started making excuses about how the new admin had created the password, and it was a little offbeat. I thought, My God, is it something about dead people? He continued to stammer a little, and finally said, “It’s ilovepuppies.”

I looked around the table at my brothers, trying not to smirk. I found out later, George was thinking the same thing I was based on the director’s reaction. We were both relieved to hear his admin loves puppies.

A little later, we went to the church to meet with the priest. Mom had been an active member of a Catholic church in Purcellville when they still lived in Lovettsville, but when they moved to Culpeper, her health was already declining and she hadn’t become active with a new one. The priest of one Catholic church in town, had brought her Communion at the house and had offered a Prayer for the Dying — sort of the Last Rites in advance, something I didn’t know they were offering in the Catholic church. But he had done it, and he was going to preside at Mom’s funeral.

We met with him in his office, four tall men trying to sit around a tiny round table with him as he asked a lot of questions about Mom and scribbled notes. He told me I could have ten minutes for the eulogy, and I told him that would be impossible. He pushed it to 15, and George smirked, knowing my wordy nature. We moved on. He kept asking questions about Mom and Dad, and the answers finally got to Dad — he broke down a little when he was talking about how they met and how he knew he wanted to be with her, and I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been tempted to punch a priest whose picture was not being displayed on the evening news. But we got through it with no punches thrown, and took Dad home to rest.

There, Sandy was baking the cake, and Shelley was mad. She didn’t want us to celebrate her birthday in light of what had happened. I think she was worried about how Dad would take it, but as a big fan of German chocolate cake, he was okay with the idea. We had a little party together, then some of us decided we needed to go out for a while.

There’s a Mexican restaurant within walking distance of most of the hotels, so we knew it fairly well by then. George, Bryan and I wanted comidas y cervezas, so we took off. Shelley’s daughter, Cassie was there, and wanted to go with us. That’s a dangerous mix, as Cassie is usually somewhat disgusted by the antics of her uncles. But the ties that bind and all that, so she rode along with us. Cassie’s not old enough to drink, so naturally we put a giant margarita in front of her and took a picture to send to Shelley, then its true owner reclaimed it and we toasted Mom.

Our waitress, all of 18, was a little strange. She kept insulting Cassie for not having ordered a drink, and told the rest of us how much she likes to party. She also dropped a lot of innuendos; I think she wanted to see if she could get a rise out of the three old guys. We didn’t take the bait, and when we told her our mom had died that morning, she laughed. I don’t know if it was nervous laughter or if she thought we were joking, but the little monster laughed. Between that and insulting our niece, her tips were probably pretty sparse that night.

That was Wednesday night, and I was supposed to drive home Thursday, so I could catch the train Friday morning with Matthew. I kept telling myself I could make it, so I wound up doing the other leaders a disservice by postponing the inevitable decision until the inconvenience to them was at a maximum. Kim was trying to talk me into it via text, having not come up because her aunt had passed, and she had her own family issues to deal with.

On Thursday afternoon, George and I were moving Mom’s hospital bed out of Dad’s room and into the basement. We felt it might help him to have it out of his sight. We got it to the bottom of the basement stairs, and set it on end while we looked for a good place to store it. Once we found one, we went back to pick up the bed again, but George wasn’t ready, and the reclining portion of the frame came loose from the flat position, rotating 180 degrees on the hinge like a paper-cutter, and came to rest on the back of his hand. It sliced one of his fingers to the tendon. More fun for the Bain family.

I rushed George to urgent care, calling Kim en route to tell her I would be later coming home than I thought. At urgent care, we had a nice brotherly conversation about him not being able to pull out his wallet for his insurance card, and needing me to do it for him — by reaching into his front pocket. I reminded him of the old joke with the punchline that goes, “The doctor said you’re going to die,” then took a deep breath and grabbed his wallet. We got through that trauma, and he wound up with a couple of stitches and a splint to immobilize the finger for a week or so. This included the time he was planning to hunt in November, and of course it was his trigger finger. The fun never stopped.

By the time that was done, knowing there was additional planning and having the guilt of leaving, I finally bailed on the Washington trip late Thursday. Matthew had worked hard to earn it, so we wanted him to still be able to go, and at his level of Cub Scouts at that time (second-year Webelos), boys are allowed to attend without a parent. In fact, we had planned this trip so that the other boys would go without their parents, relying only on the den leaders. But another parent was kind enough to step in at the last minute, taking my place as leader, and Kim dropped Matthew off at the train station early Friday morning. I hate that I missed the experience with him, but am glad he got to go, and am especially grateful to the other den leader and the mom who stepped up to help.

On Friday we went to visit the cemetery, to ensure everything was in place. Mom was to be entombed in a mausoleum, in a double-length vault, where she would wait for Dad to join her one day. Her feet were to go in first and his head was to go in first, so they’ll lie head-to-head for eternity. We had to make sure everything was in place for that. The director took us to the mausoleum, and I was shocked. It had crooked nameplates on the vaults, a dirty carpet, cobwebs on the walls, and tacky, mismatched chairs and sofa in the center of the room. I could only hope Dad wouldn’t notice. Friggin’ rural Virginia.

The funeral was set for Monday, Oct. 26 — what would have been Mom’s 85th birthday. There was to be a private viewing Sunday afternoon and a public viewing Monday, followed by the funeral late morning and entombment early afternoon. We still had a few details to work out, followed mostly by arts and crafts all weekend — creating collages, buying candles, and collecting various mementos to be displayed at the viewings.

My oldest sister, Sharon, arrived with her family over the weekend. That left only Sue, who was in a rehab center in North Carolina, recovering from her own stroke. Her daughter Danielle planned to check her out and drive her up Monday morning, reuniting all eight siblings at the second viewing. It was going to be close.

The brothers went to the funeral home again on Sunday, in advance of the viewing, to have one last chance to verify the director had seen to all of the details we’d requested. He walked us to the chapel and opened the doors, and I will never forget the feeling that washed over me when I saw Mom in the casket at the front of the room. I had been grieving all along, but that moment brought it all home, and four grown men looked at each other awkwardly as they felt the same thing, and began to weep as one. We walked up the aisle to make sure all of her mementos were in place, and each of us took a private moment at the casket. This was more sacred ground.

During the private viewing, we were able to keep it together as much as could be expected, but when Dad knelt at the casket and spoke to Mom in hushed tones, broken by sobs, we just couldn’t. Nor should we have. We went home to a solemn night, and I think most of us went to bed early.

Dad had kept Mom’s rosary, and wanted to put it in her hands in the casket during the second viewing. This became a source of some contention Sunday night. He was worried he would forget to bring it with him Monday morning. Knowing Shelley would be at the house with him, I pulled her aside and reminded her to be sure he brought it. Apparently, I wasn’t the first one to do so, because she exploded at me. I get it. When enough people remind you of something, it starts to sound like they don’t trust you. That wasn’t the case here, but it was understandably upsetting to the person who’d possibly looked after details for Mom and Dad the most since they had moved to Culpeper.

Monday morning, we met at the funeral home again, and as I walked in, Shelley pulled me aside. Her face was broken up, and she looked miserable. “Dan, I don’t know what to do. I left the rosary at the house!”

My mind raced. I think we had the chapel for an hour, which would just give me time to get to the house, find the thing, and get back. “Okay, let’s figure this out. I think I can go get it; don’t worry. I can…”

Shelley grinned. “I’m kidding. Dad has the rosary.”

That was a nice bit of revenge.

Danielle arrived with Sue not long after that, and the eight of us were there to see Dad hobble up to the casket, kneel down with the rosary in his hand, and say a few words to Mom about it before he quickly reached into the casket, under the blanket that was covering his hands, and pulled his own hand back out in a flash. At the very end of the viewing, the director picked up the blanket to give it back to us, and gave us one last chance to see Mom before he closed the lid. Somehow, that rosary was lovingly entwined between the fingers of both of her clasped hands; I still don’t know how Dad managed that.

The kneeler at the casket was particularly rickety, and Dad struggled to get up (as several of us had). Shelley went to help him up, and as she was walking him back to the pew, she stopped and threw her arms around him and sobbed.

Watching the two of them crying together at the front of the chapel, Bryan and I walked over and put our arms around both of them. I bowed my head and wept, holding the as tightly as I could for what felt like an eternity. By the time I looked up, something wonderful had happened, and it seemed as if I was watching it from a distance. I hadn’t felt anyone else, but the other four siblings had silently closed in, three of them standing with their arms around us, and Sue reaching up from her wheelchair, placing her hand on someone’s back. There were the eight of us, surrounding our widower father in a protective circle, in the most powerful image from the entire two weeks  — one I still see today as if I were watching from one of the pews, and one I’ll still see on the day I die.


For anybody who doesn’t know me, I’m Dan – aka Number 7, Big Boy, or Long Legs – plus some other choice epithets occasionally bestowed upon me by the woman I’m here to talk about. Her, I was blessed to know as “Mom.”

First, I want to acknowledge and thank my siblings and their children  —  not only for entrusting with this, the greatest honor and most important assignment of my life, but for their help with it. No single person could possibly come up with all the right words to pay proper tribute to that remarkable woman over there, so I asked the rest of her progeny to send me the words they thought best describe her, as well as their favorite stories of her.

Of course, I also suspect they’ve started a pool on how long I’ll talk, because I wound up with a lot of suggestions. I’m sorry I don’t have time to repeat all of them, but we might just have a group-led “Part 2” later, if anyone wants to join us for dinner.

As for the words that describe her, many of them were repeated time and again:

  • Loving
  • Caring
  • Kind
  • Compassionate
  • Generous
  • Selfless
  • Patient
  • Loyal
  • Playful
  • Funny
  • Vivacious
  • Abundant – This one sort of encapsulates all of them

Before I address any of these words, I want to ask one more question — and it might seem like a weird one. (This is the point where some of my siblings might be worrying a little about what I’m getting ready to say, but trust me.)

The question is:If Hollywood had turned Mom’s life story into a movie or a television series, what celebrity should have played her? Go ahead; if you have any ideas, shout them out. It’ll be caTHARtic, even if it’s not CaTHOLic.

The celebrity I picture had a short-lived TV series, but she was better known for her time in front of a typewriter than her time in front of a camera. In fact, I used to find her books in various bathrooms at the old house, and they were an early influence on me. They might have even belonged to Mom; I don’t know.

But I loved every word in those books – books like At Wit’s End; The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank; and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?

I always thought Erma Bombeck could have played the role of Mom. That could never happen now, because Mom outlived her. In fact, she damn near outlived all of us. [Look at priest.] Oh. Sorry, Father.

Erma’s writing always reminded me of Mom, in that I could easily imagine Mom saying the things Erma wrote. Granted, Mom wasn’t a writer — but she was certainly expressive, wasn’t she? She could say more with one finger…than most people can say in several pages.

Here are some examples of Erma’s words; listen and see if you can hear Mom’s voice in them. As with all things in life, some are funny and some are profound:

“Insanity is hereditary. You can catch it from your kids.”

“All of us have moments in our lives that test our courage. Taking children into a house with a white carpet is one of them.”

“Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth.”

“A grandmother pretends she doesn’t know who you are on Halloween.”

“The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.”

“My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?”

That’s Mom to a tee. She wasn’t always overly concerned with housecleaning, because she had her priorities straight. She had her mind on things like family…love…mai-tais. But her top priority was her family, and she would have done anything for any of us.

That’s another reason I thought it only appropriate to turn to the family for inspiration. One of the words I heard was, “abundant” – and that, she was. First, abundant in love…

And if we’re going to talk about her love, we need to start at the beginning, with what many of us believe is the greatest love story ever told. And Dad, that all comes down to you.

By the way, this is a perfect time to point out the three heroes of the past several years, because I just spoke to one of them. Of course that’s Dad, and the other two are my sister Shelley and my brother George.

You three have sacrificed so much for Mom since she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and we love you for it. The love she gave is apparent in the love she inspired, and you three have radiated it in the way you’ve cared for her during this time. Thank you.

Getting back to that love story, Mom and Dad had a deep, abiding love – one that still inspires me and many others. There was never a doubt they loved each other, always holding hands and/or “smooching” as they called it. Dad, remember how you’d walk into the room, and she’d say something like, “Hiya, Sex!” [Look at priest.] Sorry, Father. “Come here and give me a smooch!”

Mom kissed him every morning before he left for work, until the day he retired, and we would often catch them holding hands like a couple of love-struck kids. In fact, they held hands and smooched until the very end.

Their love story was amazing, especially when you consider how different they were. Even Dad has observed, ever the physicist: “Plus and minus attract each other sometimes.”

And she was the plus to his minus…the chaos to his order…the Irish to his German…the celery to his face.

Some of you know what that’s referring to. I’ve often thought we’re one of those families that have collected so many stories — and retell them to each other so often — that it would be easier if we simply gave each story a number, so whenever one of us wants to tell one of those stories, all they have to do is shout the right number out.

If that’s true, the celery is Story Number One. Without it, none of the other stories would have happened.

In 1947, Dad’s family had relocated to Ballston Spa, New York, and he and Mom met during their senior year of high school. Thunderclaps did not occur. They knew each other, but there were no sparks initially.

Late in that year, his family was moving to a different house, but they underwent a week or two of transition. Nana Bain found a house where Dad could board during that time, and guess whose it was?

Obviously, it was Nanny’s. By which I mean, it was Mom’s.

Now Mom had been through a couple of rough years herself at that point, having lost a father and a brother, so no one would have faulted her for being moody or distant. But that wasn’t Mom’s way, because Mom kicked aaa… [Look at Priest] Sorry, Father. Mom rocked!

And when Dad was sitting in his somber way at the kitchen table one night, she decided he needed some livening up, so she grabbed the nearest harmless thing and smacked him in the face with it.

It was a stalk of celery.

Dad maintains that wasn’t the spark, but I suspect that celery hit his face with all the force of a thunderclap, and his fate was sealed.

Nevertheless, love didn’t blossom until after graduation, when he went off to Syracuse and she went to nursing school at St. Mary’s Hospital. They corresponded some, and eventually started dating.

Even then, there were obstacles. They broke up at one point, and dated other people for about a year. Then when he realized he’d like to see her again, he called her one night and said, “How about if we go out, for old times’ sake?”

To which she quipped, “I’m not that old.”

But she went out with him, just the same. Multiple times. It was on one such occasion that Dad proudly remembers the only time he beat her to the punchline.

He was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, and as she came down, she stopped midway and sort of flirtatiously turned her back to him and asked him to check out her stockings, asking, “Are my seams straight?”

Dad answered, “Yes, your seams are straight, but your legs are crooked!” Good thing she didn’t have a stalk of celery in her hand that night, Dad.

There was also the time she came to Syracuse for a weekend visit. After she arrived, Dad and a fraternity brother were walking her to a bar, where they had a plan; as soon as they got in the door, each of them took one arm and lifted her off her feet. They carried her across the floor and plopped her down on the corner of the bar. When the confused bartender looked over at them, Dad instructed him, “Fill ‘er up!”

Of course Mom didn’t mind. Not only was she a good sport, she also enjoyed beer! She was quite proud to have his ATO brothers give her the honorary title of “Miss Hollow Leg” during Dad’s senior year.

It was also during this time that she was out one night drinking with Dad and other friends, and the waiter came to their table to bus away the empties. She had about a half-inch of beer left in the bottom of her bottle, and as the waiter reached for it, she said, “Get your hands off my beer, you G.D. vulture!” (Sorry, Father.)

It’s true Mom loved beer. And wine. And liquor. But this is not a judgement of that. She just liked to celebrate. In fact, she and Nanny celebrated together just about every afternoon, with their Manhattans in those silver goblets.

I tried to find an Erma quote about drinking, but couldn’t. The only thing I could find was, “Never accept a drink from a urologist.” Mom would have liked that one, but she had one better.

It was during their first year of marriage, I think on the date of a football game when they were planning to party with his fraternity brothers. He’d gone out for a bottle of booze for the occasion, and she’d asked him to buy a bottle of milk while he was out – not for the party, of course, but she needed it to cook something.

Dad returned with his hands full, and was struggling to get his keys out at the front door. At the same time, Mom was approaching the door from the inside.

But she was too late, and the booze slipped out of Dad’s hand and shattered on impact. (You grandkids understand, there was a time when booze and milk both came in glass bottles.)

Dad had yet to react when he heard Mom’s voice from inside the door, saying in a dire tone, “I hope that was the milk….”

But their love of each other exceeded even their love of partying. Dad himself explained it recently; he said she made him feel comfortable.

They were married at the beginning of Dad’s senior year, and it’s pretty rare nowadays for a fraternity brother to get married before school is out. A little more than 13 months later, Mom gave birth to the first of eight children.

Dad recently told me she’d always wanted ten. I don’t know how many of you knew that, but you might be aware that she actually was pregnant ten times, and sadly lost two. One was stillborn, and would have been named “Sarah.” Dad told me the other day, she’s probably with Sarah now.

Mom was the quintessential matriarch. She always put family first. Always.

She was supportive of Dad in his work and hobbies, and participated in any and all activities involving her children and grandchildren (scouts, ball games, school activities, dance lessons, etc.).

I had a moment with Mom shortly after Nanny’s funeral. I’m sure everyone here has moments they remember, the one-on-one connections that could be so nice in a sea of siblings. The week Nanny died, I was in final preparation for the school play, “Harvey.” I was playing Elwood P. Dowd, one of the most courteous and respectful characters in literary history – obviously, it put my acting skills to the test.

The three performances were scheduled for that weekend, when suddenly we had a funeral scheduled, too. Mom urged me to continue with the performances, and she came to every one of them, even in the midst of mourning and planning a funeral for her mother.

In one scene in Harvey, there’s a young nurse who is trying to get out of the room, but afraid to set off Elwood’s automatic response of standing every time she stands. So she would stand partially, only to sit again when he noticed her and stood up, too. Then he’d sit back down until the whole dance started again. It was a bit of physical comedy in a couple of choreographed incidents that had us looking like pistons together.

After the funeral was over, Mom confided in me that she’d had to suppress the urge to giggle when remembering that scene. It was because she’d been brought up to bow her head every time a priest mentioned the Lord’s name, and at one point during the service, His name was mentioned several times in rapid secession.

Mom said the resultant bobbing of her head had reminded her of the scene with the nurse and Elwood standing and sitting, standing and sitting, and she’d been tempted to laugh at her own mother’s funeral.

She made everything fun. So keep that in mind, anyone who’s embarrassed to laugh at a memory of Mom – to quote one of her own sayings from one of many of the incredible vacations she used to plan for us… “It’s allowed.”

Mom’s sense of abundance was also evident whenever there was a holiday or birthday – of which there were many — in our home.

From the decorations to the parties to the games to the prizes to the gifts, and every minute detail in between, she put her all into them in her effort to bring us joy.

It’s only fitting, then, that we should be gathered here on her 85th birthday, throwing her one hell of a party! [Look at priest.] Sorry, Father….

Who has fond memories of Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in our home? Erma Bombeck also wrote, “There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.” I would amend that and say “not be a Bain child,” because no one had better celebrations than we did.

Also, how about the food? Good Lord, could Mom cook! From getting up at 3am to start the Thanksgiving meal, to whipping something up in a matter of minutes on any ordinary day, she had a true talent in the kitchen. And she always made us whatever we wanted for our birthday dinner; I always requested her lasagna and three-hole cake. Any other favorites out there?

Mom took care of us, there’s no denying it. She took care of her own mother through her declining health, and nursed each of us on many occasions. She was always there in the middle of the night, whenever I had a stomach bug, holding that stupid green trashcan for me to vomit into.

You know that thing is still in their house? I’m sure it still has a little DNA from each of her kids, her husband, herself, and possibly a few grandkids, making some sort of bizarre Bain stew.

I could have used her comforting touch this week, as I’m sure many of you could. I’m ashamed to admit, I had some selfish moments during our vigils prior to Wednesday morning.

During one moment after she became unresponsive, I was sitting alone with her, holding her hand, as all of us did during our time in that room. I remember being particularly petulant in my grief, and thinking to myself how unfair it was – that shewas the one who’d always comforted us in our most pain-filled moments, but now she couldn’t comfort me when I needed her the most.

And at that moment, she squeezed my hand.

[If I break down] I’m not going to apologize for crying, and I want every one of us to stop doing that, too. There’s no shame in mourning.

Mom was always the compassionate one. Another Erma quote is, “A child needs your love more when he deserves it least,” and I think Mom understood that better than anyone. She delighted in helping other children, too, from volunteering as a nurse at Girl Scout camp, to being a den mother and later a cubmaster in Cub Scouts (that’s when Dad was a den leader, so he thinks that’s the only time she outranked him – ha!), to tutoring learning-disabled kids in our schools.

But I will say this — she wasn’t 100-percent saintly in doing this, as she would come home and vent with us a little. Other people’s kids had a tendency to get on her nerves, which actually says more of her, because she was willing to do it, anyway.

I remember one story she told, when she was trying and trying and trying to get some mathematical concept across to one child at my school — something about counting money. At one point, she swore she could detect the mental lightbulb turning on, and she was delighted to finally have a break-through, so she asked, “Do you think you understand now?” and he looked up, smiled at her, and said, “Is Danny gonna go see Grease?!?”

Mom was also very active in her Church and community. [Look at priest.] Father, I’m sure you know the saying about time, treasure, or talent; well, she gave abundantly of all three. She worked with the Women’s Club, made chili to sell at fund-raisers, drove needy patients to doctors’ appointments, helped out at the hospital, and more.

Another quality was her honesty, and by that, I mean her brutal honesty. The relevant Erma quote here is: ‘When your mother asks, “Do you want a piece of advice?” it is a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.’

Her honesty could be embarrassing sometimes, as the time she was out grocery-shopping with Sharon, Sue, and Sharon’s new daughter, Nicole. This was at a time before barcodes, when most grocery stores still used price tags, and clerks usually had to manually key in each price on the cash register.

But at this particular store, they had this new scanning technology, and little Nicole was fascinated as the scanner beeped with each item the clerk dragged over it. Mom got a kick out of watching her reaction, and she looked at the baby and said, “What is that thing, Nicole?”

The clerk immediately answered, “It’s a scanner. It can tell the price of each item.” He probably thought she’d asked, “What is that thing called?” or maybe he just wanted to be part of the conversation, and explain it. Either way, Mom was having none of it. She looked up at him and snarked, “Is your name Nicole?!?”

So yes, she was very honest, if not always forthcoming.

If she thought you needed to know something, by God, she was going to tell you. And if she thought you didn’t need to know something, that’s all there was to it. You weren’t gonna hear it.

But in both cases, truthful or taciturn, she was most likely defending one of her own. (Her frequent bouts of truth to Nana Bain could even be seen as her defense of Dad.)

Other times, it was an effort to protect us from a painful truth. Mom lived through some tough times, and she was determined to keep that pain hidden from us. In fact, I’m sure if she could have, she would have hidden her Parkinson’s from us.

Does anyone know what the name “Rita” means? Surprisingly, it’s a Spanish name, not an Irish one, but regardless, it means, “pearl.”

Know what a pearl is? First, it’s a thing of beauty. Secondly, it’s a rarity, and of high value. But the most important aspect is how a pearl is created – it’s essentially a defense against an irritant, made by coating it with something far nicer. That’s how Mom defended us, too.

Which brings me to the next quality — Mom was loyal. I’ve already talked about how she was loyal to her family, but she was also very faithful. She never wavered in her Catholic devotion, and she only stopped going to church when she was physically unable to.

Even on those terrific vacations, no matter where we were, she would find a Catholic church and drag us there on Saturday night or Sunday morning. We tried to get out of it, but that was a losing battle — faith doesn’t take a vacation, no matter how many times we reminded her that we wanted to. The joke was on us, though, because one year at the beach, the only thing that saved us from an impending hurricane was hearing parishioners talk about it at church.

I bet all of the family knows what the other loyalty was. Yes, she had her “Hail, Mary” but she also had her “Hail to the Redskins.” Mom was devoted to them, even though she was a transplant to the area. I don’t know if she ever followed football before they moved to Northern Virginia, but she certainly did after that.

It just wasn’t a fall Sunday unless we heard Mom screaming, cheering, swearing, clucking, or making other various noises from the family room. It was even louder if Steve, her son-in-law and a Dallas Cowboys fan, was there.

She used to make this weird, high-pitched babbling noise whenever the Skins’ QB made a long pass and she was waiting for the ball to come down; remember that? Then on commercial breaks, she’d run back to the kitchen to continue cooking Sunday dinner?

Erma Bombeck also said, “Thanksgiving dinners take 18 hours to prepare. They are consumed in 12 minutes. Half-times take 12 minutes. This is not coincidence.” Mom understood this.

Yesterday, we caught the beginning of the game before heading over for our family viewing, and at the game’s low point, the ‘Skins were down by 24.

But Bryan had to leave the viewing at some point to check for an important message, and the funeral director happened to catch him at just that moment. Also, the game had just ended – and he told Bryan the ‘Skins had come back to win (in what was apparently the greatest comeback in franchise history), which we announced during the viewing.

Well-played, Redskins, and thanks for going out there and winning one for “the Sipper.”

Mom wouldn’t have minded that little jab. She had plenty of her own. She was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, as well as playful and spunky. This is what most people remember most fondly about her.

Remember how she would make some quip, then turn and grin at one of us, the way Mr. Roper used to mug for the camera on Three’s Company? Or if we were really lucky, she’d get going on one of her half-giggling, half-cackling fits, where her face just broke up and beamed, and spread the laughter to everyone who could see it.

Erma once wrote, “When humor goes, there goes civilization.

Mom absolutely understood that, and she loved to laugh and make other people laugh. She even laughed at herself. Remember when she used to go to a dance aerobics class at the Lovettsville Community Center? Every morning, she’d put on her gym shorts – if it was cold out, she’d pull a pair of sweatpants over them (possibly the only sweatpants she ever owned) – and head into town, then come back and talk about whatever songs and moves she’d been through that day. One morning, she walked into the house just cackling; when I asked her what was so funny, she said she’d gotten to class and waited for the music to start before she took off the sweats, so she’d been standing in front of the group as she dropped them around her ankles — only to realize she’d forgotten to wear her gym shorts underneath. But she thought this was funny, and she wasn’t embarrassed to tell us, because she knew it would make us laugh, too.

So many of our childhood friends told us time and again how much they enjoyed coming to our house, because Mom was so funny. She’d just do silly little things, like the time Walter’s friends were over, gathered in the living room. They looked up at one point and there was Mom — or rather, Mom’s head — peeking around the doorway, wearing some ridiculous Halloween mask she’d come across, and decided to put on for a laugh. She got it.

Erma also wrote, “He who laughs…lasts.” And Mom did both in abundance.

After the viewing yesterday, Walter asked if I was still coming up with new material for this eulogy. He pointed out that every moment, another old story comes up in conversation, and Bryan summarized this perfectly when he said, “That’s a sign of a life well-lived.”

What a perfect description for Mom. Vivacious to the last, she didn’t just live life — she owned it. She was fearless and joyful, and she constantly grabbed life by the ba…[look at priest] sorry, Father. Uh, by the horns.

Mom. Loved. Life. And if you don’t believe that, you need to think about how many times she created it.

Even when she wasn’t creating human life, she was building little microcosms or representations of life in her various hobbies. She loved animals, especially birds, and would relish those snow days when she could toss seed out on the patio, then sit and watch her birds gather in one of her microcosms.

I think she looked forward to snow days more than the kids did, and was willing to get out there in it with us. Remember her sledding with us, falling over, then laughing just as hard about that as we did? And her hobby of putting together jigsaw puzzles during snowstorms? That’s another microcosm of life.

Summers were no different, where she created life in her garden. And how about her other hobbies? Collecting and displaying Dept. 56 houses and cute little teddy bear families – two more microcosms.

Mom. Loved. Life.

And she celebrated it every day, whether dancing on the tables at one of her kids’ weddings, or dancing in the aisle of the grocery store, just to embarrass us. She had this ridiculous little side-shuffle dance that she did, just to be silly, usually accompanied by a musical number.

How many people remember Mom singing? She loved to sing. Loudly, out of tune, and usually with the incorrect words. Christmas is Coming, Mares Eat Oats, Pickle in the Middle, Hello Young Lovers, I’m Getting Married in the Morning – the list goes on. And if she couldn’t think of one, she’d make up a song on the spot.

Walter, remember when we moved to Lovettsville, and they had the Springfield house on the market? It finally sold to a family named Zack, and the morning they were supposed to go close on it, she started singing, “Mr. Zack is coming back with the jack!”

At the end, she grabbed the nearest thing, and smacked you with it, didn’t she? It was a frying pan. That celery stalk sounds a lot more preferable, doesn’t it?

That was all part of the joy she felt, and felt she had to share. Mom. Loved. Life.

She lived it on her terms, and she sucked the very marrow from it until she couldn’t get anymore from it. I believe the only grief she feels for her own life, is for the time she was unable to fully engage with us. Even so, she hung tough and did not leave us until she was ready.

And once she was ready, I can only hope someone warned the other denizens of Heaven, because I guarantee Mom’s up there right now with Nanny and Sarah, having one heck of a party!

One of my favorite Erma Bombeck quotes is one of her more poignant ones: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”

That’s exactly what Mom did, and the best way any of us could possibly honor her, is to do the same. Use those talents she gave you. Suck the marrow from life, use it up, and have her live on through us.

Mom used everything God gave her; in fact, she often gave it away, and expected nothing in return. She did what she knew she had to do, and then and only then, she left us. But she left herself in us.

Anyone who wants to see Mom now, has to see us instead. Because as of last Wednesday morning, we are all that’s left of her.

[Look at Dad.] Sorry, Father….


Of course I was lucky; some people don’t get the luxury of knowing a loved one’s death is coming. Others might see it coming, but it happens far too early in that loved one’s life. I lucked out on both counts; Mom lived a full life, and I got to spend a good bit of time with her at its end. Plus, I had her in my life, period. There’s no better blessing than that.

And in the end,
The love you take
Is equal to the love

You make.

– The Beatles

So who’s gonna watch you die?

– Death Cab for Cutie

Posted in Bathroom humor, Family, Mother's Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Blue Moon on Monday

My wife has loved Duran Duran since they broke through the American music scene in the early 1980s. If I’m being honest, I’ve been a fan since then, too — although I’ve been loathe to admit it ever since being teased about it in high school. Like Barenaked Ladies sang in Grade 9, “I went out for the  football team to prove that I’m a man. / I guess I shouldn’t tell them that I like Duran Duran.” (Well, except for the football part. I never did that.) Admitting that I’m a fan gave me a reputation that was a little too — dare I say it? — Notorious.

But I’m over that, and ready to out myself. It’s not like I’m going to Come Undone. In fact, it will probably take the Pressure Off. Really, such an admission should be no Big Thing. And if Anyone Out There disagrees, well, they’re no Friends of Mine. Unless I’m missing a fact or two; Is There Something I Should Know?

Okay, sorry. Pun tangent (pungent?) over. Time to get Serious again. But only in My Own Way

Anyway, Kim is a longtime devotee of the band, and I’m at least able to defend that I like them. Regardless, Kim’s love has led me to several failed attempts at gifts. The first one was a month after we were married, in February 1993. That was the year Duran Duran came out with their second self-titled album, since labeled “The Wedding Album” by fans, to avoid confusion with the first “Duran Duran” from the previous decade.

That album, by the way, was fantastic. It deserved every atom of the precious metals it earned — gold in the UK and platinum in the U.S. I always looked at it as sort of a comeback, even though the band hadn’t really gone away. But their previous album, “Liberty,” hadn’t done nearly as well, and during the three years since its release, Kim and I had started dating and gone into that sort of domestic bliss where two people forget about their other interests for a while. She didn’t even know her favorite band was releasing a new album. (I can’t laugh; ask me how I didn’t even recognize R.E.M. a couple years later, when I was listening to “Monster” in a CD store without seeing the name on the case.)

So when I saw “The Wedding Album” in a Sam Goody a few weeks before her birthday that year, I knew it would be a great gift for her. The only problem was, moments after I bought it, she came into the same store to meet me, having finished shopping at the store where I had left her in that mall. And of course, she zeroed in on the display of new CDs. “Oh, cool! Duran Duran has a new CD! Mind if I get it?”

What could I do? Tell her not to buy it and have her be mad at me until her birthday? I had to admit I had already bought it — Too Much Information, indeed — and then hand it over. In retrospect, I guess that wasn’t a failed gift so much as an early one.

Years later, I heard they were coming to Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh, and I decided to surprise her with a couple of tickets. On the day of the concert, I came down with a bad stomach bug — couldn’t Hold Back the Rain, so to speak. I had to bail. Kim called a childhood friend who’d also been a longtime fan, and went with her, instead. This time, I was the spoiler. But at least she still got to go.

Not so with Monday night’s show at Durham Performing Arts Center. And that was a plan long in the making. I’d heard about their tour in January, and started making plans for her February birthday again. I ordered the tickets online and saved the confirmation email, careful to keep it hidden from her. The tour included a free copy of their new CD, “Paper Gods,” for every ticket, so I watched the mail to make sure she didn’t intercept those before her birthday.

When she told me she might be traveling for work in March, I told her she had to be in town on the 28th and 29th, making up my own fictitious work trip to “a conference” that meant she would have to stay home with the boys. Never mind that it meant I was apparently traveling on Easter Weekend; she didn’t look too closely at the March calendar before her birthday. In other words, she bought the lie, and I was assured she would be here for the night of the concert.

On her birthday, I printed out the tickets and wrapped them in a shirt box. The printouts were jumbled with ads on full letter-sized pages, so even when she opened them, it wasn’t immediately obvious what they were. Then she beamed. At last, we were going to have the opportunity to see the band together. Our 14-year-old could babysit our 10-year-old; we’d just have to entrust that he would enforce bedtime on a school night.

The CDs arrived, and each of us took one in his/her respective car. I listened to mine for two weeks leading up to the concert, playing it on repeat during every commute. Got to know the songs pretty well, and picked out my favorites. Kim looked up the band’s set lists from previous legs of this tour, and we approved of the choices. We were ready.

And on Monday morning, our ten-year-old woke up looking paler than Nick Rhodes’ lightest foundation. Refused to eat. Could barely stand or walk. And said he had a terrible headache. What are the Chances? But here we were again. There is no way we were going to leave him in the care of his older brother. Not that his older brother couldn’t have handled it, but the guilt would have killed us. What if something had happened, and we were 40 minutes away, in Durham?

So the deliberations began. She reached out to that same friend again. It broke her friend’s heart to turn down the ticket, but she had plans with her young son Monday evening. As if we needed a reminder that parental obligations dictate the necessity to miss a concert.

Couldn’t Kim go alone, and let me take care of Matthew? The tickets were her gift, after all. But no, she didn’t want to go to an unfamiliar destination in Durham on her own. I offered both tickets to a friend of mine, so he and his wife could go. Nothing doing. And by that time, it was too late to offer them up for grabs on Facebook; no one could have gotten them on time. So we spent the rest of the evening trying not to look at the tickets, or really even at each other, lest The Reflex kick in and get one or both of us crying.

And now, three days later, those same tickets are still affixed to the fridge, a lonely reminder that I essentially spent $150 on two CDs. But there came a point Monday evening, as Matthew shivered on the couch trying to watch “The Incredibles” on The Disney Channel, that I remembered why nothing could have dragged us to that concert. And as I sat down next to him, pulled him close for a nice snuggle, heard him whisper Thank You, and watched the rest of the movie with him, I thought to myself, “This was worth every penny.”

And I spent the rest of the evening in Heaven with my ragged tiger.



Posted in Family, Hassles, Health, Life and how to live it, Parenting, The Kids, The Wife | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Unhappy mediums

Last week, a 25-year-old lost her job at Yelp after posting a letter to her CEO on medium.com, essentially sharing her story of struggling to survive on inadequate wages.

The story was moving, but as it made the social media rounds, it predictably moved some people to respond with derision, including a 29-year-old medium member who posted a snarky rebuttal. A few turds of a feather shared her rebuttal, claiming she “ripped” the first woman.

Naturally, the rebuttal brought forth derision of its own, and a 37-year-old blogger posted her own rebuttal to the rebuttal, claiming to “destroy” the 29-year-old millennial who “ripped” the 25-year-old employee….

Of course the whole situation has now exploded, and most readers have probably forgotten the most important thing at play here — a young woman made a mistake, and is now unemployed in an expensive city without a support network. I hope she finds the help she needs, and is able to turn things around.

But I also hope the trend continues of older generations piling onto this story with headlines nested like matryoshka dolls, until we end up with a final epic burn like:

109-year-old interbellumist doesn’t recognize 85-year-old member of silent generation who fell asleep while scolding 65-year-old baby boomer who presented entire medical history to 49-year-old generation x-er who shared photos of first grandson with 36-year-old gen nexter who destroyed 29-year-old millennial who ripped 25-year-old Yelp employee who got fired after after complaining about her salary.

Bloggers. What are ya gonna do?


Posted in Life and how to live it, Politics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Super Bowl ‘ell

[As published in the January-February issue of Midtown Magazine.]

Panthers fans, here’s hoping by the time you read this, our as-yet-undefeated team has come even closer to playing in the Super Bowl out in San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium. This is a memorable year to make the Super Bowl, what with its alleged 50th anniversary. Too bad that’s incorrect…

Anyone who thinks 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the NFC champion and the AFC champion playing each other in the Super Bowl, is wrong on just about every detail. First, the 50th time something occurs is not the 50th anniversary – it’s the 49th. That’s because the first time it happens, it’s the original event, not an anniversary. For example, Super Bowl II was the first anniversary of the Super Bowl. But there never really was a Super Bowl II, anyway.

Confused? Don’t worry – so is the NFL. It all started in January 1967, with the first “Super Bowl.” Only that’s not what they called it at the time. Back then, there were two leagues – the long-standing National Football League (NFL) and the more recent upstarts, the American Football League (AFL). The NFL ignored the AFL for several years, looking at them the way we look at the Canadian Football League today – pointless.

But a rivalry grew during the 60s, mostly over which league could throw a more obscene amount of money at a college kid just for playing a game. And at the end of both leagues’ 1966 season, their respective champion teams met in what would later be known as Super Bowl I. Know what it was called then? “The First World Championship Game AFL vs. NFL.” No, really.

Those are the words used in the logo for that game. Officially, historical references call it “the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.” And it was the first one, so sometimes they refer to it by the fancier moniker, “the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game.”

In January 1968, the second one took place. Know what they called it? “The AFL-NFL World Championship Game.” No, really.

I’ve found no reference to any sort of number used for that one. In fact, it’s difficult to find a reference to that name, even without a number. I think it was part of a massive cover-up, after someone created the name “Super Bowl” as a less egotistical title than “world championship” for the best two teams from only one country of the world.

This happened before the third match-up of the AFL and NFL champions, in January 1969. That was the first time the new name was used, yet it was known as Super Bowl 3. I still wonder if a young George Lucas wasn’t involved in that numbering scheme. (I’m waiting for the special edition DVD, in which the Colts shot first.)

Regardless, someone made the decision to apply the “Super Bowl” name retroactively to the first two Championship Games. In January 1970, Super Bowl 4 saw the AFL and NFL champions meet for the last time, as the AFL and NFL soon merged into a league called – wait for it – the NFL.

It literally took an act of Congress to legalize the merger and approve of the gargantuan monopoly that we still know and loathe today as the NFL, but that’s what happened. And in order to keep milking the championship cash cow, the NFL set up two arbitrary conferences – the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). These were further divided into divisions by a secretary pulling team names out of a vase. No, really.

Regardless, in January 1971, the NFL’s respective conference champions met for the first time in, you guessed it, Super Bowl V. It should be noted that, according to ESPN, the league has used Roman numerals to count its Super Bowls ever since, for a string of 45 Super Bowls. This implies they used Arabic numerals for the previous two (as well as the first two, which weren’t really Super Bowls, anyway, but which would have been known as Super Bowl 1 and Super Bowl 2). But in any article I’ve found, the first four are referred to by Roman numerals.

Why is this important? Let’s be honest – nothing I write about is important. Still, it’s key to what’s happening in February 2016. It’s supposedly the 50th Super Bowl (even though the first and second didn’t use that name and the third and fourth were the only two played between two different leagues, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s only the 46th of its kind), and it seems someone doesn’t like the idea of representing that number using its Roman numeral equivalent: L. Apparently, the NFL wants to get the ‘L’ out.

Why, you ask? According to ESPN, it’s “because the ‘L’ isn’t as pleasing to the eye.” No, really.

Ten years ago, someone in the NFL realized an ‘L’ was coming soon, when they designed the Roman numeral logo for the 40th Super Bowl (or 36th, by my standards). That’s when they encountered that ‘L’ for the first time, as XL is the Roman numeral equivalent of 40. Listen to this brilliant quote from Jaime Weston, NFL vice president of brand and creative: “Up until that point, we had only worked with X’s, V’s and I’s. And, at that moment, that’s when we started to wonder: What will happen when we get to 50?”

Well, Jaime, I’m no Roman mathematician, but my bet would be at that point, you’d be looking at a single ‘L.’ True to bureaucratic form, though, the league assigned a team to study this conundrum, once again inspiring the rest of us to wonder why we pay these people more than we pay people who actually studied in college.

Regardless, a crack team of marketers spent 14 months working on a logo for this year’s Super Bowl, and Weston actually admitted in public that they went through 73 versions of it. Seventy-three! In Roman numerals, that’s LXXIII. To my mind, it’s about 71 too many.

Nevertheless, they determined somewhere in those 73 efforts that the letter ‘L’ doesn’t look very nice. This strikes me as an odd opinion for an organization whose acronym ends in said letter.

Regardless, for one year only, they are moving away from Roman numerals, and this year’s game will be known as, “Super Bowl 50.” They have now saved our eyes from being put through ‘L’ – thank you, NF50! Might I suggest you make a couple of other changes? Perhaps at the end of the game, the winning coach should receive the 50ombardi Trophy – right there in 50evi’s Stadium.

And it’s a good thing you chose Coldplay over J-50o for the halftime show; their lowercase ‘l’ is far less offensive than her uppercase. You’re taking enough risks with the date – February 7. If someone is looking at their calendar upside-down, all they’re going to see is that big, ugly ‘L’ again!

Seriously, they didn’t like that one letter? What the ‘L’ is that about? If I had to pick a Roman numeral to avoid, I’d have picked the 30th Super Bowl, whose Roman numeral made the game look like an adult film. Then there was last year’s – XLIX. That one looked like a vanity plate you’d expect to see on an Ex-Lax company car.

But since when do football fans care about looks? This game is going to be watched mostly by drunken, overweight, old guys wearing nothing fancier than an undershirt or body paint in their team’s colors. And the team arguably most associated with the Super Bowl – the Pittsburgh Steelers, having won the most – doesn’t eve bother to put their logo on both sides of their helmets. Yet the brand VP thinks we’re worried about aesthetics.

Bloody ‘L.’

Posted in Bain's Beat, Life and how to live it, Sports | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The ghosts of Christmas presents

With eight kids, 11 grandkids, and an ever-fluctuating number of in-laws, my parents were on the hook for a lot of gifts over the years. I still remember the enormous piles of Christmas presents “under” the tree each year. This was due in no small part to the efforts of my mom.

This isn’t to say Dad didn’t play his part; it certainly wouldn’t have been possible without his efforts. He was the benefactor; Mom was the organizer. For two weeks before Christmas, the dining room table was converted into a wrapping station. Paper, ribbons, tags, tape, and scissors were strewn about the table’s surface, with various shopping bags underneath — some empty, some still hiding gifts yet to be wrapped.

Every night, she’d sit at that table and wrap diligently, somehow keeping track in her head of which kids still required purchases in order to keep everything even. By Christmas Eve, the pile of wrapped gifts had practically overtaken the tree, surrounding it with an impenetrable wall of color and joy. Here are two old pictures from the same year, showing two sides of the tree:









This is what we came downstairs to every Christmas morning, and it was a little sad to see it all undone in a matter of minutes. I remember one year, we tried to draw out the unwrapping process by having one kid open one gift at a time, while the others watched and grew impatient. That tradition failed to take off, and the next year, we were back to the chaos of a living room full of wrapping paper, noise, and love as everyone dove in at once.

Mom made Christmas great; I’m convinced to this day that no home had better Christmas mornings than we did. And to anyone reading this and mentally uttering a tsk-tsk because they think I should know Christmas isn’t about gifts, I can only say, shut up. I’m hearkening back to my youth, when gifts reigned supreme. No matter how you interpret Christmas, there’s an element of giving in there somewhere, and I’m talking about someone who knew how to give — in material ways and otherwise.

Receiving gifts isn’t nearly as important to me now, but earlier this month, I was reminiscing about some of my favorites from the days when I enjoyed it more. I’d been surfing online, and found a site full of old wish books.

Remember those? The Christmas catalogs that came in the mail from various department stores and outlets, and that somehow always got things wrong, because the first person to grab that catalog was a child, but the toys were almost never the first things to see. Nope, it took minutes of flipping through clothing, fruitcakes, appliances, and other practical things before a kid could strike gold in the Toys and Games section.

As I flipped through more and more of the scanned pages on that site, I remembered more and more of my favorite gifts through the ages. And I decided to post some of them on my Facebook page. It almost started as a joke, with a quip about a ventriloquist dummy, but the feedback was immediate and gratifying enough to make me want to post more. As the season progressed, I was humbled and happy to receive great comments from friends on every morning’s post.

I started on St. Nicholas Day, and as the posts continued, I realized they were a bit of a tribute to my own Santa. She’d really done right be me and my siblings, and I thank her for these memories:


From the 1975 Sears Wish Book. Someone gave me item 1. What kid wouldn’t want a doll called Willie Talk for Christmas? Not only was it an authentically creepy ventriloquist dummy, it had a name that made boys giggle. “Willie Talk” sounds like a chat show for men. “Welcome to Willie Talk, where we talk willies!” Weird, sure, but I wanted one, just the same. And I got it. I also spent hours practicing, saying “D” for “B” and “T” for “P” — but I still moved my lips. Such is life. My career path lay in a different direction.

Picture1The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle — I think every boy in my class had one. Some of the luckier ones also had the Dragster, the Canyon Rig, and/or the Fast Tracker. Many races took place in driveways, front yards, and school parking lots. Just insert Evel’s vehicle into the groove on the “energizer,” start cranking its arm like crazy, and once the vehicle’s tire(s) were spinning at an adequate speed, stop cranking — Evel would zoom down the ramp of the energizer and engage in whatever race or stunt he was pointed toward. But if you slow down while cranking, he’d take off too soon, and wouldn’t be going at the right speed. The perils of premature ejection….

12308706_10208070501428704_75773427573203587_nThe king daddy of all gifts, G.I. Joe dominated my Christmas and birthday lists for at least three consecutive years. I have such great memories of the Sea Wolf and one of the helicopters, plus a Jeep. I had one of the original Joes, with molded plastic hair, plus some later models, with the fuzzy “realistic” hair (and beard), not to mention Kung Fu grip. The hand on that one was more pliable than others, but it eventually dried up into a hard plastic grip that no longer worked. The same for the squid that attacked the Sea Wolf — they went on many a bath time adventure with me, but the squid stopped being able to attack and cling to the sub when its original rubbery texture turned into hard, stiff plastic. Then they shrank Joe into a mere four-inch action figure, but as any boy can tell you, 12 inches is better than four inches any day.

12366426_10208076201171194_2918527664243703338_nMattel’s overcompensating answer to G.I. Joe, Big Jim liked to strut his stuff. He was made of molded plastic except for one arm made of rubber, so his muscles could flex in that arm. He had a button on his back that made him give a karate chop. The kung fu studio came with a board that broke easily when he chopped it. Jim’s sexuality was questionable, but you know me — I didn’t judge.

Picture2Why didn’t Johnny West make the color pages of the wish books? That collection was seriously cool, with each figure coming in a rustic-looking box to capture the frontier theme, tons of accessories, and a wide range of characters — maybe more than Barbie had. Heroes, villlains, cowboys, Indians, and horses. The buckboard horse had wheels in its hooves, so the entire unit could roll smoothly along the ground. Of course, it was downright creepy to watch the horse sort of hover along like a ghost, but it was still a cool feature. This collection rocked, and I wish I could find a wish book image with everything it offered. I had Johnny and Geronimo, plus the buckboard. Another kid on my street had Sam Cobra, all of the Indians, and Custer. Lucky!

Picture8One of the best gifts I ever received was also one of the most basic — Hot Wheels Cutoff Canyon. It was the shortest race ever, but I ran it time and time again. I might have even let my baby brother race his cars against mine, but I never gave him the privilege of pressing the Fair Start button. The track was attached in a modified figure-eight configuration to a cardboard “canyon” and included a lane switcher near the start of the race, when there was still a good chance of collision. But it also ensured neither car would have the unfair advantage of running on the inner loop. This thing even taught me a little about physics and geometry. And it included a kickin’ supervan. Check out the corny commercial.



Picture5Santa brought me the Bozo Punch-Me when I was really little. It had a nose that squeaked when you hit it. At that age, I didn’t catch the same creepy vibe off clowns that I do now, but on some deep level, it was probably pretty satisfying to punch a clown and hear him squeak. That’s Christmas spirit!



12391305_10208103363410233_3058256739345968140_nThe eight siblings received so many View-Master reels and viewers over the years, I can’t remember who got what for which holiday. But I loved every one of them, especially the projector. They sold a screen, but nobody needed that — a blank wall was perfect. I still remember the sound of that projector, and the smell of the dust burning on the bulb. And there were so. Many. Reels. 3D, illustrated, educational, whatever — unless they were bent or the film was sliding out of the slot, they were all great.


Picture6The cool designs! The one-of-a-kind smell! The fire hazard! The extensive injuries! Ah, the woodburning set….





Picture4They were a little late to the party, but one Christmas, I was still enough into toys to be completely captivated by the Micronauts. Cool figures, vehicles, and playsets with interchangeable parts and weapons that actually fired little projectiles, plus their own back story, these guys had my rapt attention for a little while. They wound up being responsible for the start of an ever-evolving science fiction series that I still carry in my head — maybe some day, I’ll write it down.

Picture3I have only the vaguest of memories of this game, but I know it was a blast. I’m not even sure it was mine, but Santa brought it to one of the Bain kids, and therefore it belonged to all of us. Snoopy and the Red Baron, shooting marbles at each other — could it get any better? Only if you listened to “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen while playing it.

12391201_10208128733564471_1575343281334010620_nSo many Lite-Brite products graced chez Bain over the years, from the original 1967 version that some of the kids received, to the cubes and flat versions given to various grandkids. Then there were the refill packs, which started as a few generic pictures but expanded to have themes from movies, TV shows, toy lines, and other things kids wanted to “draw” with light. I remember recycling the used sheets — on the second or third run, you could still somewhat read the color code on the tag of paper that was barely hanging onto the hole that had already been made, but it became futile from there. Then there were the blank sheets; I was never creative enough to come up with my own designs. (I had the same curse with plain Lego bricks; if they didn’t come with instructions, they were useless in my hands.) I still remember the feel of a completed Lite-Brite drawing — the smooth pegs, barely radiating the heat from the lightbulb behind them — as well as the smell of a new sheet and the look of the finished drawing when I plugged in the unit in a dark room. A classic!

12376523_10208135404971252_3293049090947658152_nSimple to operate, difficult to master, and fun to own. Pull the T-Stick as hard as possible to get that single wheel spinning like mad, put the vehicle down, and watch it take off! Kenner ruled the 70s with their SSP Racers, releasing dozens of attainable models and following up with variations like the Speed Screamers and Smash-Up Derby. There was even an inexplicable Star Wars panel van in 1977. These things were constant throughout the better part of a decade, and the single cars fit perfectly into Christmas stockings. I can still hear the sound of one wheel running.

993861_10208142374745492_6881874551631179998_nVertibird was one of the first toys that made kids say, “Awesome!” Two levers controlled the pitch, throttle, and altitude of a little helicopter attached by cable to a central spindle. You knew you were cool once you had mastered the infinitely adjustable levers enough to make the helicopter hover in one place rather than moving in a circle. It seemed really high-tech in the early 70s, and yes, it was awesome. Santa brought the police set one year, and the Coast Guard ship another year. Both were endless fun. The helicopter had a little hook attached, and each set came with lightweight accessories that it could pick up and “rescue.” That’s pretty much it — fly around in circles and pick up a couple of pieces — but that was enough. Kids could (and did) play with it for hours, stopping only when the batteries ran out of juice.

12360377_10208149629846865_5833073088716032445_n“Be a Champion in the Bout of the Century!” That was the promise on the box lid of this game. That might not have been entirely accurate, especially with these bouts lasting about a minute, and there could be a lot of one-minute bouts in an entire century. But this gem delivered on excitement. Up to four contestants could play, each winding their top on a piece of string attached to a key, which was inserted in the side of the arena. After a mutually agreed-upon countdown, all players would pull their keys as hard as possible, starting their tops spinning into the arena. These things looked like some sort of mean little animals, skipping around with a furious kinetic energy that fueled the contestants’ excitement. They would collide and careen off in different directions, knocking each other down and sometimes jumping right out of the arena (in which case, that top’s player lost) to add to that feeling of not knowing what the heck they were going to do next. The last top standing was the winner, and the next battle would start. Some battles took less time than it took to actually wind the strings and get ready, but no matter — this one was fun to play, anyway. Some tops had names; my favorite was Dizzy Dan. This game came out in 1968, so it must have belonged to an older sibling, but I have good memories of playing this with them once I was old enough to get a good spin on. It’s such an elementary concept, coupled with what had to be low manufacturing cost, but for some reason, this game didn’t last. You just don’t see it in the stores anymore. That probably means someone, somewhere was hurt while playing it, and the game became history.

Picture9Mattel scored big with their electronic football game in 1977, and they might just have changed the world forever. Ours was the first generation to lose themselves in a handheld device, walking along without seeing where we were going, because we were too busy staring at our hands. Little red blips with tinny electronic sound effects — one of which made it into Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” in what was probably another first for pop culture. This game literally rocked.



Picture7Now for the other “electric football” game. I think this was a gift to my older brother, but it might have belonged to our older brother George. Regardless, it’s a classic. Line up the players with their little strands of plastic under them, flip the switch, and a small motor begins to vibrate the metal “field,” sending the 22 players off in every direction. I never figured out quite how to determine whether the quarterback had thrown the ball that was permanently affixed to his hand, who had received it, and whether they had made a first down, but it didn’t matter — this thing was big and loud, and it had cool pictures of the helmets of the then-16 teams in the NFL. Also, there was a risk factor — big metal plates with electricity humming through them! What could possibly go wrong? It turns out, it didn’t take long for this game to develop a short (probably for the better, allowing all of the Bain boys to survive). That didn’t stop us, though; we figured out all we had to do was repeatedly tap the field with our fingers to convey the same level of non-precise vibrations to scatter the players again.

1236369_10208175087603293_4022958360083479645_nRock ‘Em-Sock ‘Em Robots appeared under the tree one year, and as simple as it is, it’s been one for the ages. Not much footwork to the boxers; they were pretty much in each others’ faces by design, and not able to move too far from that. Each boxer has two buttons — one for a right uppercut, one for a left. It was just a matter of pounding each others’ chin until one block was knocked off — and you hear that unforgettable “Raaaahhg” sound of the metal “neck” unzipping. It always took a couple of tries to reset — push down the first time, and the head only pops back up again. Push again until it locks into place, then resume block-knocking. Because nothing says “Christmas” like two robots trying to behead each other.

12376050_10208184436197002_4837283799725305671_nOne night in early December during the late 70s, Dad came home late from work, toting this as an early Christmas gift. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, or what it was supposed to do, but I would find out that evening, and immediately be lost to the rest of the family. I spent the next few weeks engrossed, thinking about it during school hours and toying with it at night. Of course the TRS-80 Model I is archaic by today’s standards — 4KB of RAM (not GB, not even MB, but KB), memory-mapped keyboard about three inches thick, a cassette drive for loading software, low-res graphics comprised of rectangular dots that required a worksheet to map out, and no operating system to speak of (it just opened in a BASIC compiler) — but man, what a technological wonder it was at the time! I played kick-ass text games, gladly shelled out $20 or $25 every time a new cassette came out with a game with “graphics,” and learned logic and programming. The future had come to the Bain household, and my future had forever changed. Thanks, Mom and Dad! Now, for all of you, here’s a slightly edited version of the first program I wrote from scratch:

10 CLS
20 PRINT “Merry Christmas!”
30 GOTO 20


There were many others, but I’ve run out of days before Christmas. If you want to find more, Retroland has a great list of toys to get your nostalgia going, or you can scroll through catalogs at the wish book site I discovered.

I leave you with one last page, the cover of Sears’ Wish Book from 1985, and with the sincere hope that your Christmas may be filled with the joy seen on the face of the child depicted on it:


Merry Christmas, everyone, and thanks for everything, Mom. (And Dad.)


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Carol ears

Christmas is a little tougher and a little sadder this year following the loss of my mother two months ago, but I’m also enjoying some nostalgia I’ve recently uncovered. This was unequivocally her time of year, and that meant it was our time of year. She made the entire season a wonder and a joy. Some of my favorite memories are of sitting in the living room with her and my grandmother after the sun had gone down, with all the lights out save the Christmas tree, a few candles, and an illuminated snowman village, just staring at those few lights while listening to Christmas music.

sleighridejinglebells_SX1716003That was sublime, and in recent years, I’ve remembered some of the albums we used to listen to. Mom and Nanny preferred the more somber, traditional carols, but I and some of the other siblings enjoyed the Caroleers. Does anyone else remember these folks? They recorded several Christmas albums in the 60s and 70s, and Mom naturally had picked up all of them for her many kids over the years.

santaclauscoming_caroleers518I remembered four of them: Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Frosty the Snowman; and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They included classics plus original compositions like Christmas Mountain; 10 Thousand Santa Clauses (But Not One Gift for Me); Who’s That Up on the Roof?; A Ride on Santa’s Sleigh; The Christmas Tree That Ran Away; Gonna Hang up my Stocking and Fill it Full of Dreams; The Weatherman’s Christmas Prayer; The Day Before the Night Before Christmas; Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells; Mama Santa’s Surprise; There’s a Hole in My Christmas Stocking; The Little Elf; and Icicles, Holly, Red Berries, and Snow.

If any of those titles spark a memory, then you probably knew the same joy I did. Granted, you didn’t have “The Radio,” so your joy might not have been quite as complete. IMG_3592This was a large piece of what looked like antique furniture that sat in our living room, although, I recently found out from my dad that he and Mom had bought in in the early 50s, so it was only about 20 years old when I first started to really regard it.

The Radio was an old GE entertainment unit that looked like a cabinet, with two small side-by-side doors on top, and two larger side-by-side doors on bottom.

IMG_3598The top right door opened to the actual radio, one old enough to have two FM bands as well as AM and shortwave, and two FM bands, along with the controls for audio source and volume.

IMG_3597The top left door was actually a drawer, which housed a turntable old enough to have four speeds: 33 1/3; 45; 78; and the already-forgotten-at-that-time 16 2/3 rpm. It also had a record changer, and I used to love stacking all four Caroleers LP records on it and watching it drop each new one after the previous one had finished playing.

IMG_3601The bottom left door opened to an LP record storage compartment, which was packed so tightly that I could barely yank out whatever record I wanted to play at the time. But I managed, and it was always worth the effort.

The bottom right door was a faux door. It housed the unit’s one and only speaker behind it — no stereo here, thank you very much — and of course it couldn’t be opened. That didn’t stop me from trying to open it time and again as a very young child, or from fantasizing about what was hidden behind it when I couldn’t get it open.

That was The Radio, and it was glorious. We would stack the Christmas records up and listen to them all night long, every night. Those were usually the times reserved for Mom’s and Nanny’s favorites, but as I intimated, the kids managed to sneak in a Caroleers album from time to time. Otherwise, the weekends were reserved for the kids’ favorites; I spent many pre-Christmas Saturday afternoons sitting in front of The Radio, listening to the Caroleers sing while I stared at the artwork on their album covers and wondered things like, Is “the day before the night before Christmas” December 23rd, or is it actually the daylight hours of December 24th?

2079016Their songs were saccharin and goofy, but they resonated with kids. Any adult listening to one without the benefit of a nostalgic connection to them, would write them off as silly kids’ music. But those of us who grew up with them? We can still appreciate them. (I wonder if my kids will one day feel that way about The Wiggles.)

For years, I searched for CDs of those old Diplomat records, but never found anything. The old vinyl ones from my childhood are either lost or scratched beyond the ability to produce a sound worth converting to digital, so I looked in vain for replacements. Early last January, I discovered that someone, somewhere, had been able to salvage some of the songs from their old copies — there were some for sale on iTunes! I immediately downloaded them with a gift card I’d received for Christmas, organized them into a playlist, and looked forward to listening to them this Christmas season. Then I forgot about them.

In October, I spent two weeks in Virginia — the first one waiting at my ailing mother’s bedside with my dad and siblings, the second one planning, holding, and recovering from her funeral. That’s a story for another day, but after I returned home to my family, I spent a bit of time just going through the motions of daily life.

I wasn’t looking forward to the holidays, but one post-Thanksgiving day during my commute, I thought I’d give some Christmas music a try, and I pulled up the multiple Christmas playlists I’ve created over the years. Lo and behold, there was one called “Christmas Caroleers,” and the memories came back in a deluge. frostysnowman_SX1714005So did the tears once I started it, and the songs sent me from I-40 to my parents’ old living room floor. Here were many of my old friends, reminding me of my childhood, my mother, and the joy she and her children shared every December.

I’ve since listened to that playlist more than a grown man should, and I’ve played it for my sons. It’s a little young for the 14-year-old, but the 10-year-old has developed enough of an appreciation for The Caroleers to request certain songs by name when he’s riding in my car. That’s been another joy — passing the appreciation on to a new generation. He might not have The Radio or the LP covers to stare at raptly, but he has the music. Maybe one day, years from now, he’ll suddenly have a desire to listen to some of those old songs he used to listen to with Dad, and he’ll wonder if they exist in whatever format music has taken by then. I hope he finds them, and I hope they bring him as much joy as they’ve brought to me.

And maybe he’ll be able to finally answer the question: When, exactly, is the day before the night before Christmas?



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