You may have noticed I haven’t been around lately. I’ve been distracted. There’s a new woman in my life. You know how it goes. When graced with new love, little else penetrates your thoughts. “But, John, what happened? You’re married – happily. What does your wife think of this?”
The truth is she’s ecstatic. No, she’s not excited to get rid of me – as far as I know. Quite to the contrary, this has brought us closer than ever. No this isn’t a sister-wife situation – get your mind out of the gutter – one spouse is enough for this guy.
The new love of our life is a granddaughter. Truthfully, I’m shocked with my reaction. Having no children of my own, and never possessing much of a paternal instinct, I never, ever, ever, imagined having such strong emotions. Sure, I was excited for mommy, daddy, and granny, but I was meh. When my nieces and nephews were born, I hadn’t much of a reaction holding the new bundles. It was cool and all, but I was in my twenties and intimidated. I expected similar with the new arrival. I didn’t expect to be flattened by a freight train.
From the moment I laid eyes on her – holding her less than an hour into her life, I fell in love. I’ll spare you the gushy details. I don’t want to be one of those people. Needless to
say, I can’t get enough of her. The more religious of us would say she’s God’s precious gift. The spiritual comment that she represents the possibility of life. The more far out think she’s stardust. Other’s state her innocence is from recently being in the presence of the divine. I’m in line with the idea a newborn’s glow is Mother Natures little trick: a mix of pheromones and hormones that prevents us from eating our young. Whatever it is, the experience has been most intoxicating. I’ve taken to holding the bundle in my arms for hours. More than once tears have rolled down my cheeks. Some of my miscreant friends say I’ve grown a vagina. I laugh, think of my little angel, and feel tears well.
One night while holding my angel, as she made the same expression in sleep as her grandmother makes in hers, the following words found me.
Baby on my chest
Rising – Falling with ancient breath
Her Innocent smile tears in my eyes
Cleansing soul – Healing heart
Feel the love – Bathe in its light
From my arms into life
If lonely, tired or frightened
Reach across time Tug my heart
Shower in the white light
Rest within its might
Yes, my grandfather moniker is Gepetto. I wanted to call myself Zedo, in honor of my Slovakian Grandfather, but when I looked it up I found that Dedko was Slovakian for grandfather. My family either twisted the pronunciation or Zedo is rare dialect, either way, it just didn’t feel right. Then in the word play that always happens in our home, Gepetto was born. Maybe because of my Pinocchio nose. At least I’m not called Granny Panties.
Welcome to life Anastazia Mae…
Yes, she has her Granny Panties initials in her name, poor kid.
Many moons ago, on a summer’s night, I stumbled across her profile in an AOL chatroom. Does anybody remember AOL chatrooms? If you don’t, you missed out on a cultural phenomenon. Anyway, I read and re-read her profile; something really stuck out, though the only thing I remember it saying was: “I say what I mean, I mean what I say, I mean it!” Sensing that I had one chance to make an impression, I played with words and composed a line of two parts quip and one part schmaltz. For the life of me, I can’t remember what it read, though what I do recall was pausing and thinking: Are you ready for you life to change? I sent the message… but this isn’t the day I’m talking about.
Nor was a it couple of weeks earlier, when during my first visit to Missoula – in the throes of a hangover – I sat up in the backseat of the car in which I was riding, looked out over the Reserve Street bridge towards Squaw Peak and the Nine Mile Valley and thought: I can’t imagine being in a relationship this far west and this far north. Pretty heady stuff for the worldly Philly boy that I was at the time.
In the second tidbit, I’m convinced that I was sensing her presence in some weird ethereal plane. In the first, I think I had identified her. Nevertheless, the day that I’m talking about was roughly six months later, when I was going to meet the girl who had become ‘The Voice in the Night.’
For hours on end, night after night, we ‘chatted’ online. Soon we were talking on the phone. I couldn’t believe it, here I was relating to this voice, this person, better than anyone in my life. For months our nightly ritual continued, building an unspoken relationship. If one of us would have mentioned the ‘R’ word I think we both would have ran the other way. We were so open with each other precisely because there was no expectations or pressure. There was definitely no hurry to meet. We used to joke that we would get around to that in 2029. We were constantly in the moment with each other. But a funny thing happens when you strike gold like this. Certain emotions creep in.
For months I was walking around like I had a girlfriend that nobody knew about. I’m sure I exhibited all the outward signs of falling in love, but to those around me, there was nobody on my arm. With the exception of a select few, nobody knew what I was up to. There were times, when I was playing hockey, I would look up from the crease and gaze at the spectators and imagine her being there, watching. A bittersweet loneliness crept into my existence. The sweet part was to have this connection with this human being, the bitter part was being separated by thousands of miles. At some point the conversation got around to meeting. Despite the 2029 jokes, we agreed that December would be as good as any. I suggested the twenty-ninth. It was after Christmas, all the family obligations would be over with, and it would be the perfect time to hang out for a few days – five to be precise. Who was I kidding? I wanted to see if this magic conducted itself to real life.
So the countdown was on. When I mentioned: “See you in eleven days,: Tammy had a reaction. It was thing like this: “AAAAAHHHH!” She felt the pressure. What ifs were creeping into our thoughts, like when a good friend asked, “only five days? That’s not a lot of time.” To which I responded: “It’s an eternity if we don’t hit it off.” I mean sure, we got along on the phone, but, what if she was nothing like her picture? What if she had rancid broccoli farts? What if…
Christmas came and went. The hours ticked away. The night before I was flying out, I got a phone call. It was the airline. You’re flight from Minneapolis to Missoula has been cancelled due to staffing concerns. What? Didn’t they know there was a Nor’ Easter coming up the coast and was forecast to hit Philly on the thirtieth. There was a real chance that the storm could take a huge chunk out of the plans and that our five days could be reduced to five hours. That wasn’t going to happen, so I got on the horn and said, “hey, I’m flying out on the twenty-ninth. If I have to spend a night in Minnesota, no big deal, but I’m not staying in Philly.” When I told Tammy, she thought I was joking. Then she felt relief. What was see you tomorrow was see you in two days. More time to stew in romancistential (yes, I just made that word up) angst.
And so, as of this writing, thirteen years ago to the minute, I was sitting in the Philadelphia airport watching the sun rise over a city rife with anticipation of approaching Armageddon. If you think I’m being overly dramatic, you haven’t lived on the east coast. There was an energy in the air, and as I waited for board my flight I fed off it knowing that I was about to meet this voice in the night. If you were in the Philadelphia or Minneapolis airports that day, I was the guy with the coy smile. Everything felt right.
Speaking of Minneapolis, with backup plans in place ( a hotel room and the idea to see a Wild game) I played the standby game. The experience gave me my love of airports. There’s just an energy about them. It could be that most people are out of their element and possess a certain vulnerability, or maybe I just relive the anticipation I felt that day. I even savored standing in line to get a cup of coffee.
My first chance to get to Missoula the standby route went up in flames. The fight was overbooked and there wasn’t a chance. It was decision time – do I fold and go to the hockey game and wait another day, or do I take a chance? Since I was having such a good time being an airport voyeur, I hung out for another three hours to give my quest a fighting chance. As the time neared, I approached the gate. The only other couple there were arguing with the Gate Nazi about this or that and were demanding to be placed on the flight. Me, I just enjoyed the show. When she finished with them, I told her my story: That I was on my way to Missoula to meet a girl, my voice in the night. She swooned. I know for a fact she bumped me up the list. “How?” you ask. Let me tell you.
As the time approached, I counted the bodies in the gate and compared it to the planes capacity. Yes, the Gate Nazi told me the plane’s capacity. She told me to sit nearby and count. I did. As the plane loaded I was feeling discouraged. More passengers trickled on. I got a better grip on the numbers. There was a possibility. I felt a smile. I was going to make it. Then, my name was called. She smiled at me and wished me luck and handed me my boarding pass. The couple that was giving her grief was left out in the cold. On a side note, to the Northwest Airlines Gate Nazi on that last flight of the day from MSP to MSO on December 29th, 2000, thank you… You helped change my life.
But, things are never that easy. As the plane was ready to depart the captain comes over the intercom and says: “Sorry folks, this flight is experiencing a critical weight ratio, we will be asking for volunteers to give up their seats, if there are none, we will be forced to bump passengers.”
What? Oh shit, I thought. I was the last one to get a boarding pass, they will bump me off the flight. I held my breath and waited. And waited. Someone obviously took the bait, because I was still in my seat. It would be a matter of hours before I would be face to face with the voice in the night. I smiled as the plane rumbled down the runway and took off into a cold Minnesota night. Somewhere over the plains, I looked from the window – where way below lonely lights bobbed in a sea of dark desolation – to the ‘air’ phone that made its home in the back of seat. Yes, this was in the days before everybody had smartphones. I got my wallet out, swiped my credit card, and called her.
“Guess what?” I said.
“I’m on my way. Be there in two hours.”
“AAAAAAHHHHH!” She said.
When Tammy tells her side of the story, she claims that I don’t know how to tell time. Because, the flight wasn’t due for three hours, causing her an extra hour of that angst I mentioned earlier. Her story is, she went to the airport, saw that the flight wasn’t due for another hour, went home, did what nervous women do, and came back in time to meet me.
Since that night, I’ve flown into Missoula scores of times, but I can tell you that no approach seemed as long and as foreign as that night. The plane just didn’t seem like it wanted to land. On the approach I looked over the ground that in the following years would provide the fodder for many memories, and more importantly, many stories. But I wasn’t thinking of that then, especially
after the plane landed and taxied to the gate. I sat in my seat as I watched people scramble in the aisle. When it was my turn, I took a deep breath, stood, and followed the heard up the jetway. Through the crowd, I saw her flaxen hair. It’s rumored that the 80’s never left Montana, so it’s no surprise that her hair was the first attribute I spotted. As I stepped into her sight, so began the most awkward ten minutes of our lives. I had so many images of what our meeting would be like, but nothing in my imagination could have prepared me for the dichotomy of reality. Here is this spirit that I knew so well, in this body that, well, that is in a body that was a complete stranger. Our minds knew each other, but our eyes were like seeing the person across a smoke-filled room for the first time. Do I ravage her? I wanted to. Do I kiss her cheek? I wouldn’t mind. Do I hug her?
The unspoken compromise was option three. We hugged. And then we struggled to talk, ironic considering our entire relationship was, and still is, predicated upon yapping. But what do you say when you’re in shock. I was too busy thinking that five days was going to fly by.
To make a long story short. on the very day, seven years later, I made an honest woman out of her. And that happened six years ago. December twenty-ninth changed my life forever! Happy Anniversary Tammy.
From the Toe (it’s an inside joke!)
which at the time, seemed like the edge of the world
It was a raw afternoon, the hint of cold rain in the air. A perfect setting for a football game, hands wrapped around a cup of steaming hot chocolate, maybe spiked with a spirit, maybe topped with marshmallows. Hardly the perfect weather for an outdoor wedding. But this wasn’t an ordinary wedding, no, this one possessed a different energy; it was draped in pall of sadness, adorned with dignity and laced with poignancy. It is and will be the inspiration for many bittersweet smiles.
The couple approached me early summer about officiating their wedding, they set the date for the anniversary of the day they first met. They wanted a 70’s themed wedding, they wanted ‘Ozzy Osborne’ to officiate and they wished for a fun ceremony. When I let my hair down, don the right glasses and wear the proper costume, I resemble a younger Ozzy.
Two weeks later, the groom was diagnosed with brain cancer and given less than a year to live.
Through his deteriorating health the couple insisted that they wanted to go through with the ceremony. Practically, it made no sense, the bride would be taking on medical debt that she wasn’t on the hook for, but, this wasn’t about practicalities, this was about spirit, about the immortality of love.
With each passing week, one wondered if there would be a wedding, despite numerous medical procedures the cancer progressed. On a personal note, I pondered how to write something that would be lighthearted and not make a mockery of the situation. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t have problem being inappropriate in the appropriate situation, but this was one line I wouldn’t cross. For weeks I fretted about the ceremony, I even lied to the bride saying that I had the ceremony written, gift wrapped and topped with a bow. The truth was I was clueless what to do. It wasn’t till the Wednesday night before the ceremony that inspiration struck. Keeping within the theme and mindful not to go over the top, the muse gifted me a story told in the titles of 70’s songs.
In the mean time, other logistical challenges arose, the venue cancelled, so it was decided to hold the wedding at the bar. A second problem arose, the weather, minutes before the ceremony a cold November rain set in, it was decided in the interest of the groom to hold the ceremony inside. The only problem, it was the fourth quarter of a tight Griz/Cat football game. In our neck of the woods, it’s the biggest college football game of the year. I’m proud of the fans who didn’t mind the interruption. Grasping the gravity of the situation, not one left, opting to stay for the ceremony.
Unable to stand for any length of time, the groom, joined by his bride, sat a buddy bar tucked against the main bar, while I sat cross-legged on the bar and conducted the ceremony. Below is the reading – the story told by song titles.
Dream On, become Hot Blooded, get Saturday Night Fever and end up in Hotel California, the New Kid in Town playing That Funky Music with Fat Bottom Girls until the Levee Breaks, but Baba ORielly, One of These Nights, After The Thrill is Gone, you could be in Bad Company, listening to the Piano Man sipping Captain Jack wishing you were Kung Fu Fighting. It’s a Rock and Roll Fantasy, Rollin’ Down The Highway in a Chevy Van caught in a Bohemian Rhapsody. But when The Wheel in the Sky pokes through Smoke on the Water, The Dream Police appear and Draw the Line.
Imagine, like Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, A Blue Collar Man and a Killer Queen, a real Brick House, enjoying American Pie and Sweet Jane. Babe, she says, my Superstar, Child in Time, Take Me Home Tonight, be my Dream Weaver, Take it to the Limit.
Then You Fooled around and Fell in Love. Hush, Highway Star, ‘cause as every Whiskey Drinkin’ Woman knows, Love Hurts. After Communication Breakdown(s), my 19th Nervous Breakdown, through Good Times, Bad Times, I’ve learned to be Cruel to be Kind. Sweet Emotion, it’s Dog and Butterfly, it’s The Stairway to Heaven, but in The Long Run, We Are Family.
Easy, ‘cause All Along the Watchtower, before the Jailbreak and The Boys are back in town, Come Sail Away, Walk this Way with a Lady, sip a Tequila Sunrise and enjoy a Peaceful, Easy Feeling, and savor the Best of Times.
On a Saturday in December, we’ll be gathering in the same spot, to celebrate the life of the groom. Two days after the wedding, he entered hospice, a week later, his bride was widowed. I get the feeling that even death doesn’t do them part.
So begins a poem that appears in Cemetery Street. Shannie (pronounced Shane-ie) wrote it in James’ birthday card, and like so many things about Shannie, its significance haunts the narrator. So much that he recites the poem before her headstone. Was Shannie inferring that memories are the sentinels of our souls?
Your guess is as good as mine. I claim lack of expertise in the science of memory, but I have written a novel about romancing a memory, so that qualifies me to pontificate about memory’s potential sappy nature.
I have a feeling James isn’t unique and am willing to bet that everyone who reads this post is haunted by memories – good or bad, funny or sad. Double or nothing that you may have even obsessed over one or two. Heck, I may even be guilty of such an offense.
I hear the romantics shouting: “How can you not be guilty?”
Maybe the answer is directly related to how much time one spends in the memory universe and how much energy is expended recalling them. There’s no denying their power, heck, memories define our identity. Isn’t that what Shannie was saying? If it was, in lies their danger.
– Your father cursed and threw things when he cranked on a wrench, so you have an aversion to auto mechanics.
– You got a speeding ticket on Main Street, so every time you pass the location you check your speed and tap the brakes.
– You failed 7th grade English class and believed you could never write.
Suddenly, we’re in danger of being memory’s prisoner. James may be guilty as charged. On the other hand, maybe he’s a victim of circumstance and his obsession is a way not to relive the horror of a lost identity. (Plot hint… Plot hint… Plot hint…)
Here’s what James writes about regaining his memory:
“As I pen these words, I deal with the effects of what happened in the early fall of 1994. I forget things – I’ve learned that a short pencil is better than a long memory – and only come to cherished memories with the help of pictures or scents. Although playing with aromas is playing with fire. Certain smells trigger avalanches of uncontrollable memories: the smell of steak releases an onslaught of memories of my family; brewing coffee frees Shannie; burning leaves remind me of Count; cigar smoke evokes Russell and Main Street; burnt rubber takes me back to Atlantic City. The force of such memories paralyzes me. It’s as if my memories have me. It makes for a distracted lifestyle. Pictures are much safer, they aren’t the frayed edge of an unpredictable memory strand.”
I’m by no means a memory expert, but as you’ve read, I have written about them. In a sense, Cemetery Street is a memoir, but it’s the memoir of a fictional character, with fictional memories. So maybe that makes me an expert in fictional memories.
John, that’s all well and good, but you can’t tell me that Cemetery Street isn’t your memoir.
Well, yes I can. If it was, I would be on serious anti-depressants. I’m not saying there isn’t a memory or two woven into the story’s fabric. But I’m a prankster at heart and like to keep people guessing what is real and what is made up.
If you haven’t read Cemetery Street you can take a chance on winning a signed paperback copy.