“The Wall”

 

Wall: : something resembling a wall (as in appearance, function, or effect); especially: something that acts as a barrier or defense.

The Berlin Wall, The Great Wall of China, both hold substantial significance in history. My history, unpublished, had become tattered at the edges, loss, it’s architect. The act of loving, now surrounded by an impenetrable wall, was neither built of money nor political advantage, but survival. That is until he came along.

Dark days fell, far too heavy to lift. One is enough. Multiple are torture. Partner, parents, pets, all gone. Examining the blueprint of my life, any builder would see the footings of it’s foundation were imperfect. As in any young structure weight is supported. Over time, grounds shift, foundations crumble and occasionally structures tumble. I’d secured the love of my life, the one for eternity, and if an after-life exists, there too. Our concrete was poured, dried and lived upon. Then the floodwaters came. With them, the ground shifted and the “once upon a time castle” crumbled.

“I’m tired of losing people I love.” My friend Denise countered. “You don’t mean that. Someone will capture your heart.” Would someone break through my emotional fortress? I felt protected, safe or perhaps numb.

“You’re wrong.” The following summer I met someone. “I’m stepping away, trying something new. Let’s see if this works.” Perhaps a new footing could support me, my inner traffic light turning yellow. He did his best. Flowers, cards, dinners, everything necessary to check the correct box. “For love, check yes, forever, check no.” Would fate check “no”?

In the midst of our budding relationship, Spruce, my English Springer Spaniel, grew old. While vacationing on the boisterous, indulgent streets of South Beach the call came. Spruce had died. If I were to die now, it would be ruled an emotional assassination. In bed, mid- afternoon, my knees pulled to my chest, my heart barely beat once per minute as I grieved. A plaque was embedded in my soul. “No more pets, ever, in my life.” This would insure one less unavoidable heartbreak.

“Alright, I’ll look.” A dog? Inside, torment was churning. Post Spruce, something was amiss. Gone, the waving nubby tail, her saliva on my face, the welcoming bark at the end of tedious days. “But don’t expect anything.” He was a terrier, cute, but not my type. The caged corridor of the rescue shelter was scented with urine, the scruffy faces watched our every move. In a huge, sparse cage, with only a plaid, torn blanket to comfort him, I fell in love. “Let me see this one,” I said, pointing at the ShihTzu , knowing for both of us life was about to change.

He was precious, rambunctious , curious and in a way, royal. A mop of black and white hair. His history? Four months old, left by someone along the roadside. The puppy paws fumbled over to me, nibbled my beard and this adoption became a done deal. My plaque was removed, shattered actually. Two days later, my new found “son”and I made our way home. He sat, curious, in a basket filled with soft blankets, me joyful through my pain. “Hugo”, a large name for a small dog. With one belly rub, brick and mortar tumbled. Puppy breath, chew toys, even small poops in the grass, brought relief to old, stifling fears. I understand. An expiration date is imprinted on the relationship between Hugo and me. It’s one of the multifaceted issues between a human and a dog.

Why would I do this again? Why place myself in the position of falling deeply, only to have it taken? I suppose it’s because we aren’t meant to live behind walls. It seems unnatural. We are meant to be free, to live, run, stumble, lose and love again. I’d lost sight of that last part. Walls, I have learned, don’t simply keep out, they keep in. Walls create prejudice. Hurt, pain, growth, all are prevented from occurring naturally, as they should, without restriction. I thought keeping emotional expression out would stop me from grieving, in fact it stopped me from living. Today I am full. I love my partner and life, more so, the ability to say “love” without fearing the end. And when an end does come, as it naturally shall, who’d ever think there may be no Berlin Wall? It would have never been me. Without prejudice, Hugo, unconditionally, dismantled this unemotional soul , to retrieve once again, that loving, emotional heart.

“Lucky thirteen”

As I walked York Street in New Haven a young woman sat, legs crossed, on the sidewalk, in front of her a cup. “Please, any change,” she asked. I looked at her and understood. “Sister,  just twelve hours ago I was you…”

Lifestyle is like the tide. It ebbs and flows and the best we can do is float. If I were to choose the artist to paint the landscape of my life, it would, of course, be my favorite, Claude Monet. Unfortunately, I can only afford Ernst Richterfuzen. Exactly. No one has heard of him. Financial security. There is no other reason the past six weeks, post surgery, have been eye opening. This day was the most of all. It was a Saturday and I slept in. Hugo and Cody, their little bodies lying next to me with subtle breaths, were still. The plan was to wake early, putter around the house and knock out my Physical Therapy. After, and since I am able to drive, a visit was overdue with my nephew, Christopher. 

The plan changed when Maria texted and asked if they could visit me instead and swim in the pool. Elated, I agreed and headed for home. As I passed the “Field View Farm” the sign out front reeled my car in. “Ice Cream”.  On a scorching summer day what could be better? “What flavor ice cream” my hands texted quickly as I sat before the dairy farm barn with its sliding window for orders. How could Chris visit without a special treat, not to mention I’d wanted to try their product out. And then, it was before me. The bold lettered sign. “CASH ONLY”. This was a problem.

While working, I am never without cash. It lives in my pants pockets, my car and on my person, but since not working because of surgery, it is non-existent these days. I had two options, plead poverty and hope the high school girls behind the counter took mercy or scour the car for any remnants of cash leftover from six weeks ago. Opening the glove compartment and tearing through papers and sunglasses cases, there was nothing. My head, while not small, squeezed under each seat, my arms violating the space in assault mode. Again, nothing. In the console, so deep,  I was seemingly digging a burial plot. And there they were— three one dollar bills. This was a start. Ripping through papers, receipts and the cleansing hand wipes, at the very bottom, between a folded receipt, mercifully, was a ten. I had a total of thirteen dollars and was elated—thirteen was the “new” lucky number.

“What are some favorites?” The young girl with the curly hair suggested “Moose Tracks”, a concoction of vanilla ice cream, hard fudge and Reese’s peanut butter cups. “Sounds good, he’ll like that. What about the chocolate chip?” She smiled and said, “Can’t go wrong,” and started to pull the containers. “That’ll be 15.40.” I stared at my palm holding the thirteen dollars. Was this really happening to the king of cash? Suddenly a Xanax was in order. Actually an ATM would have been better.

“I only have thirteen dollars.” I can’t imagine it actually but it was like a bullet shattering my cranium. She most likely wasn’t,  but I felt her pitying me. “I didn’t know you only took cash.”

It was a semi-truth created to sound as if I was not impoverished. I hadn’t been this uncomfortable since the salesgirl at Goodwill, after purchasing a four dollar gown for Halloween, asked, “Would you like to become a ‘Frequent Buyer’…It can save you twenty percent off this purchase?” That eighty cents could have come in handy right now, had I not been an imperious snob.

“ You can just buy one pint.” That was an option except it wasn’t, but she did not know me.  I needed choices for my nephew and quite frankly me. I stared at the ten and three ones as if it would compound there in my hand the. Turning again to the price list I noticed two large cups with lids was affordable. A resolution at last.

“That’ll be $12.75,” she announced and, lifting the window screen, collected my fortune. I noticed a plastic container on the counter with the bold words, “TIPS FOR COLLEGE EDUCATIONS”.   

As she handed me the change I dropped the dollar and several coins into the tip cup. “I’m so sorry, it’s all the money I have…or I’d give you more.” My apology made no difference to her. 

“We appreciate any donations, thank you.”

Collecting the ice cream, I entered my car and started the engine so the coolness would come quickly. After that episode there could be no risk of it melting. Besides, I couldn’t afford to replace it. Pulling away laughter overtook me. As my Jaguar SUV pulled away, down the dirt and pebble driveway,  I wondered if they were thinking, “He lives way beyond his means…and he’s cheap.”

These past weeks, and the months to come, have been invaluable. Driving home I thought of my parents, sound, secure and happily middle class. On a warm day, not unlike this, my father came home from work. He told my mother, “It’s over. I don’t have a job after next week.”  He’d dedicated his life, forty years or better, to a company and when the sons of the owners took over they let all of the “old guard” go. Our parents had not denied us anything within reach, but now, a once solid world became like the Jell-O molds she’d create for summer picnics, shaky.

They survived. Certain choices were made to economize. We pitched in to help and ultimately I gave a position at the salon to our mother. My father took in work for the men he’d done business with and the tide turned. It was a lesson in the art of being humbled and the art of appreciation. Today, I am humbled. I have a better understanding of those, who not by choice, live modestly. And while mine is hopefully temporary, it showed a new perspective.  I haven’t great wealth but have gained knowledge, very much the equivalent. And I have, at the end of the day, like so many, simply floated in the tide.

 

**Just a footnote: My father had done business as a gentleman and forged relations with companies his former employers relied on. When the “old guard” of those companies stopped doing business with his former employer’s sons the sons asked my dad to return on a “case by case” basis. My mother gave my father advice. “Tell them to go to hell.” And he did. Two years later the company filed for bankruptcy and ceased operating.

“Because…”

 

He was “Dad” to my brothers, “Daddy” sometimes, Henry to most and Hank to his co-workers. How could one average sized man carry so many aliases? To me, one on one, he was “Pa”.  It wasn’t tradition nor a moment when as a child I could not pronounce something. The term of endearment came after watching Gerald O ‘Hara, the raucous, poker playing, horseback riding father in “Gone With the Wind, take charge of his property. Henry was, when his wife allowed it, the master of the house. I liked the sound of it and it stuck. “Pa”.  

My father was not loud but I hope this story is. My mother generally received my accolades and admonishment. It wasn’t that she loved more or nurtured more, she simply talked more. No one could accuse my father of talking too much unless the topic caught his interest. It was clear whose son my brother Randy was. Not one person ever came up to me and said, “Your dad is the life of the party, he never shuts up.” There was no condolence card after losing him which read, “The thing I’ll miss most was his boisterous nature,” or “The world will be a quieter place without him.” That honor, when the time comes, is reserved for Dennis, more our mother in that respect. Several words did however resonate—gentleman, friend and master craftsman.

“Pa, why do work so much?” It seemed a fair question. Normally  my father would leave the house around six in the morning, well groomed and tidily dressed, then return around five-thirty. There were those Saturdays when he would leave us, usually when the company had “a big job” to finish up. He’d look at me, Raisin Bran in bowl, spoon in hand and simply say, “Because.”  

Because? That wasn’t an answer and defined nothing. It wasn’t until today, nineteen years after his death, that simple, single word defined everything.

If you need to fix a flat tire don’t call me. I’m not the one to install a railing or build an outdoor structure. If your kitchen needs renovation or table needs refinishing delete my number. The man you wanted was Henry. There was nothing he couldn’t do and no one he wouldn’t do it for, though to my mother’s dismay it all would be done “gratis.” 

“Your father’s a fool,” she’d say, “He gives his talent away.” 

During my impressionable years, statements such as that left an impact. Could we have lived better had he been less generous? Did the fact he gave of himself make him weak or strong and what was the litmus test for that? Money? I’d never known him to publicly want more. Cars? He preferred his Ford pickup. Clothing? That wasn’t his “thing”, it was my mother’s and mine. So what motivated him? 

“Pa, why don’t you charge people when you build them stuff? Why give it away?”

“Because.” He never hesitated. Because.

Again with the one word answer. It was frustrating. Did he not think himself to have value? Did he not think of the Cadillac I wanted him, and ultimately me, to drive? It seemed a weak trait. There is, after all, value in your skill and with value comes compensation. And then one day…

 I was 30 years old when my parents renovated their swimming pool. The old deck and filter house had been torn down and a new pool house was needed. Taking pencil to pad I sketched. “This is what you need, it should have columns and a changing room. Maybe a kitchen. Yes, a kitchen.”

“Slow it down, we don’t need the kitchen. But a changing room would be nice.” She saw herself continually prepping meals poolside. It was unappealing.

My dad, a carpenter, agreed and my mother thought it a good idea for me to be part of the process. I’d never built anything in my life except model planes, some rockets, Lincoln logs and LEGO houses. Not exactly an impressive resume.

“Your father will guide you.  Listen to him carefully and he’ll show you all you’ll need to know.” 

She had been my mentor. I could sew, put together a smart little cocktail party, cook a spontaneous dinner and even give a crackerjack manicure if necessary, but carpentry? That was more Dennis and Randy’s schtick with our father. 

He handed me the hammer. “Strike it like this,” he said, hitting both metals together with accurate precision. He was a sharp shooter. “Once, twice, three times. And watch your fingers.” 

It was as if he’d cursed me. The first strike caught my thumb. With the second it would bend to the left. “No, watch me.”  I studied the rhythm carefully and caught it. After five more attempts I could “tow” the nails and it wasn’t long before we used a level as God, or Stanley, intended. I never knew the satisfaction of corners that were plumb. Sweat and a tan came under the hot summer sun while shingling the roof. Together we installed the glass front  door and side windows and did it all with only minor skirmishes. It was while  working to fortify the walls, when he held up two different fasteners. 

“This is the female and this is the male.” In his voice was great seriousness.

“You’re joking.” The day had suddenly become awkward. 

“Are you going to take this seriously or not, because I’m not going to waste my time.” It was the most he’d said to me in six months.

I looked at my mother who shrugged her shoulders and pointed toward my dad. 

“Listen to him.”

“So you put a little Vaseline on the male.” He was lubricating the long piece between his fingers and I wanted to run. “Now, slip it into the female. There. That’s how you do it.”

He looked at me smiling. Had I just watched my father engage in construction foreplay? I’d never even seen him leave the shower. I looked to my mother who looked mockingly at him. 

“You know Henry, twenty years ago that kid came home because Parker Johnson told him you put your penis in me and babies came out. Where were you then? NOW, when he’s 31 years old and it’s too late, you finally step up to the plate.”

                                       *****************************

It’s amazing what you can do when you must. After one year of staring at the peeling paint of the pool house we’d built, I gathered my “Pa” motivation. From the garage came two paint rollers, a brush, a pan and one gallon of pure white paint. Along with them a ladder, rag and pruning shears for the wisteria which climbed vigorously over the trim. It had been a gift to my mother. I set up and began to work, dipping the roller in the paint and feeling the smooth sensation as it glided along the wood. 

Bit by bit, roll by roll, the pool house seemed to come back to life. Each column was renewed, gleaming and seemingly thanking me, though my skills are at best mediocre. I looked at each board, the glass front door and window trim and remembered putting the entire puzzle together. But it wasn’t until I looked at the nails, driven superbly into the wood, that the greater puzzle took shape. 

Stepping back I looked at the small, modest pool house. There were many times, even recently, when the thought of tearing it down and having a new one built arose. The wisteria, wild and twining, should be  replaced with something less invasive and more maintenance free. Suddenly, while gazing at my slightly sub-par painting, the full sentence comes to me. Why do I keep this as is and waste my time repairing it?

Because. Because I love it. Because I loved him. Because it gives me pleasure. Because it respresents who he was and who I hope to be. I do it because he loved doing it. Because helping others is compensation enough. Because he was generous. Because like so many other times in life, we don’t always see what we have. Until we have to paint it.

“The Thing about Spaghetti”

This is one week early but my mother, Edith, lived by a code: “If you can’t honor us every day then don’t bother on one day.”  I wrote it with my father, Henry, in mind and decided, “Why wait until Father’s Day?”….So “Happy Day” to all the great dads out there…and thank you for being the men you are….Love, Keith

 

Some did, some didn’t.  We didn’t. My friends and schoolmates would speak of spaghetti and meatballs but I hadn’t a clue. Of course I knew meatballs. I actually had an affair with them once, if not twice a week. If we could have rented a hotel room, my mother’s meatballs and I, it would be used wisely for making love to them,  as they deserved. But spaghetti? That was not on the menu. I never twirled the long strands of pasta, like Lucy Ricardo at “The Brown Derby”, until later in life. My mother’s “go to” choices were either Rigatoni or Mostaccioli. Occasionally, as a treat, she would slip in Perciatelli or Bucatini, but it was rare. With its length it bore a strong resemblance to its cousin and was therefore banned from her kitchen.

Perhaps I was six, perhaps seven, the day I blasphemed. On bended knee, most likely with tears, my favorite tool, I pleaded for Franco-American SpaghettiOs. The canned pasta was advertised on television during my favorite shows. Exuberant children scooped up the saucy little “Os” as the catchy jingle, “The neat little pasta you can eat with a spoon. Uh-oh! SpaghettiO’s” played in the background. Campbell’s was catfishing. They drew youngsters like me in, hook, line and sinker.

“Can I have SpaghettiOs? They look really good!” It took three men to lift my mother off the floor after fainting. 

“Are you kidding? You want to bring THAT into my house?” When anything challenged her rules or cooking she took full ownership of the property, omitting my father.

“It’s on TV….kids love it. Please, please, pleeease?”

“Not happening. Let’s go.”

We left, the wheels clacking, as I gazed back toward my loss. It was a Film Noir moment.

There were three more attempts. After shedding my last tear and furrowing my brows for the final time, the wall tumbled. Against her will my mother, with no love, placed the red and white can with the little orange circles in the cart. I thought I’d won. She knew she had.

“Can I get the one with the meatballs?” Kudos to a little boy who was pressing  his luck.

The label sported a picture of tiny round balls of meat resembling rabbit turds lying among the pasta and sauce.

“Absolutely not. You’ll have diarrhea for a week.”

At home she set a pan on the counter and opened the metal can. The slightly coagulated contents slid out as my mother winced. On the stove it began to bubble up as did my excitement.  My lunch came in a ceramic pasta bowl, as it would any other time. She was clear about pasta propriety. My mother sat across the table, staring and waiting, a defendant on trial. The first spoonful held a vaguely familiar taste. Ketchup? Perhaps. Sweetness? Definitely. Tomato soup? Without question. It was tomato soup with pasta in it. This bore no resemblance to the hours long cooked meat sauce my mother and grandfather prepared. My curiosity was over.

“Satisfied?”

“Yep.”

“Should I run out and buy more cans?” Sarcasm. Her favorite.

“Nope.”

I hated it when she was right.

But what of spaghetti? Why was one pasta foreign to us, an Italian-American family, yet so familiar to the rest of the world? I needed the answer. 

“Your father’s mother died when he was barely three. His father married a woman who didn’t like daddy. She fed him spaghetti everyday of his life until he moved out.”

As I grew older, the details of my father’s early life emerged. It became more transparent and painful but I had my answer. It seemed inconceivable to me, a little boy, that anyone could eat one thing every day of their life. Beyond that, how could anyone not like my father, a gentle man, especially as a little boy?

“So when we got married he had one rule. No spaghetti. Understand now?”

I did. Each strand reminded him of a time he left unspoken. A time we, his sons, would never know. My father would never allow his past to be repeated, more so, resembled, in any way.

Years later, in New York, with my friend Marti, I broke the Cardinal rule. As we dined at an elegant Italian restaurant, I studied the menu. 

“This place is known for their Spaghetti a la Puttanesca. It’s amazing.”

I trusted her recommendation and it did not disappoint. The first twirl of the long, thin pasta felt exciting as it entered my mouth then passed over my tastebuds. It was an unforgettable moment. Why? I don’t know. Was it peer pressure all those years or had spaghetti simply been against the law so it was more desirable? It may as well have been cocaine. The briny, acidic sauce played perfectly off the pasta and sang an aria. When finished, like anything kept from you, I wanted more. But the compassion and loyalty for my father felt tested. All this over flour, water and eggs. It was a conundrum.

 

*********************************************************************************

 

With the passing years, and recipes such as Puttanesca, Aglio Oglio, and  a la Vongole,  Capellini found its way into my mother’s kitchen. It wasn’t a complete healing of the soul for my father but it was a step in the right direction. I understood, as my life grew in knowledge, the symbolism and pain spaghetti had caused. He was not one to speak negatively nor wear his past hurt on his sleeve. He was not the kind of man who issued ultimatums or insisted we obey him lest corporal punishment await us. He was sensitive, generous and kind. He would never be the one to deprive us or or make us feel deprived. If need be he left that to our mother. He loved and was loved in return. He broke a potential cycle.

So when Henry Proto asked that spaghetti not sit at the dinner table with those he protected and loved, it was for a very deep reason. And his wife obliged. Spaghetti can be the perfect accompaniment to a perfect sauce. It can bring people together as the vessel to which things, even emotions, adhere. Like my father, my experience with spaghetti has lasted a lifetime. It’s embedded. That’s the thing about spaghetti. It doesn’t claim much on its own, but once twirled it may, mentally, emotionally or gastronomically, never let go of you.

“Milk and Cookies”

“This is just a simple “Keith-short”  I spontaneously wrote while recovering from shoulder surgery. I want to include some shorter, light works in the mix. I hope you enjoy it…Love, Keith

There it was. A Facebook post about kindergarten naps caught my attention and it isn’t long before “she” comes to mind. In my little blue knapsack, slung over my shoulder, was my favorite yellow “blannie”. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and using the extra wide Crayola crayons for some artwork, our kindergarten teacher, Miss Walczak, would shut down the harsh, fluorescent overhead lighting. As we lay our heads on pillows, on the polished floors, to refresh our young bodies, the day would drift off. While it seemed an hour it was a mere fifteen minutes of quiet solitude among thirty boisterous children. It was never my intention to frighten her, but everyday I’d try to position my soft, yellow blanket next to hers. She was the first female to captivate me. Today I would most likely be expelled for entering her personal space, but in hindsight it was a risk I was willing to take.

She was neither American nor a citizen, her father was here on a work Visa. Her words were crumbled bits of the English language, pulsed together like butter and flour in a Cuisinart before baking. It made no difference, for love is the universal language. I can’t remember the details of her entry into the United States but she was Swedish, from the top of her towhead hair to the buckles on her MaryJane’s. Her name was Helena and I fell for her. Helena wore her hair in tightly spun pig tails. Each fell on either side to her shoulders, bouncing with every movement she made. 

Her skin which clearly had little exposure to direct sunlight, was alabaster, in direct contrast to my cousins, who were of an olive complexion. I’d pretend I too had the same hair in the privacy of my bedroom, disassembling the string mop head from its base and placing it on my head. Pulling it evenly from side to side I’d form perfect pigtails. It smelled of Mr. Clean but what of it? It still lives as a mystery to me whether I loved Helena or the idea of “being” Helena. 

Now, as nap time concluded, we returned to our seats and our daily lessons. Helena and I abutted a corner, allowing me close proximity to her. As the teacher passed out the small, waxed cartons of whole milk and graham cracker cookies, I made my move. Creeping toward her, my small index and middle fingers walked across the desk in order to make contact with the delicate skin. There was no question this was an overt profession of my love. As they walked across the high urethane finish of our table, she raised her hand and, in a moment of heated passion, slapped mine. Not once but twice. I recoiled. Her face twisted into disdain, her brows furrowing. She came at me and slapped my hand again. Devastated and dejected, I withdrew. Heartbreak. My hope was that no one had seen the altercation, moreover the humiliation in me, but I knew that was not the case. I never attempted to woo my first love again. 

Stepping into the shower today, a grown man, I began to wash. As the water and frothy shampoo fell from my head the memory of Helena  surfaced. Then, as I played it over, there was an epiphany. 

“Oh my God,” I said loudly, “It was the cookies.” 

Rob looked at me but paid no attention. If I’m not singing in the shower I’m blurting out nonsense. 

I remembered my move into Helena’s space as we were having milk and cookies. It would make perfect sense for her to think I was trying to steal one. Fifty three years later my crime was solved. My ego, dealt a blow at an early age, knew it was all about transparency and perception. I meant Helena no harm but she didn’t know that. She thought I wanted her cookies and worse, wanted to take them without asking. And I, though simply a little boy, had learned three valuable lessons. “Ask for what you want, don’t just take it.” “Be clear, what you are thinking no one else knows” and “Hell hath no fury like a person whose cookies are about to be taken without permission.” All of which have served me well throughout my life.