Archive for October, 2010

When Dad is Colorblind: A Love Story

October 25th, 2010 by Julie Silver

Until very recently, my father, who is completely color blind, had been wearing the same brown leather belt for thirty years. And unless you are browsing the gently worn shops or the Salvation Army store, you would no longer be able to find this particular style of belt for sale. On a fashion scale, it fell somewhere between what one might have worn to a groovy 70s wife swapping party and what Gordon Lightfoot probably wore while he was inhaling bong hits and composing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. My hard-working father would not have been physically involved in any of these scenarios, but in a romantic way, this two and a half inch thick belt buckled him to a time and place, despite keeping both at arm’s length.

Dad got dressed in the earliest, darkest hours of the morning and it always looked like an ensemble that he hadn’t merely thrown together. He tended heavily toward plaid. As a student anxiously picks the perfect outfit on the eve of a new school year, I imagine my father laying out his old blue jeans lengthwise and draping them on the bedroom chair next to one of the many, many plaid shirts he had held up next to the jeans to see what worked. He wore plain white undershirts beneath plaid shirts. This combination made me feel warm and protected as a child, embarrassed as a teenager, and finally comforted as an adult. With the belt, he looked like he should be holding a hatchet and standing next to an ox named Babe.

In our tony little suburb of Newton, Massachusetts where professionals dressed like professionals, my Dad went his own way. While other kids’ Dads shopped at The Men’s Wearhouse on Route 9, my very own lumberjack of a father looked more like he drove the hard highways of Northern New England, shaking hands and looking people right in the eye, selling equipment to other hard working men, and maybe even chopping down a tree or building a fire. And while other kids’ Dads looked like they were going to an office, my Dad looked like he was going to a log-rolling competition.

Not once in my childhood did I ever go shopping with my Dad or hear him say things like “I need a new _____”, or “Let’s go to ____ to buy some ____”. I never saw my Dad spend money on himself. I only saw him earn money. In 1974, my mother who handled the household finances gave my father a blank check to use in an emergency. Any time he opened his wallet to give me a few bucks, I would see that old check from 1974, ink fading, edges tattered, waiting in vain to be filled out and signed. But it was never to be. The unused check had taken on the smell of cash and the bend of his wallet, which had left an equally permanent outline on the back pocket of my father’s old blue jeans, confidently held up by that brown belt.

During the Spring of 1978, my mother took a rare trip by herself to see her parents in South Bend, Indiana. I was 11, my sister was 13, and my Dad was 38. No one was really on their A-game for the ten days my Mom was away. She had only been gone a few days and the house and family were already showing signs of neglect. Chores had been ignored, dishes were dirty, food was scarce, morale was low. One Saturday my Dad took my sister and me to a Woody Allen film, “Interiors”, a film so dark that it ends with the mother committing suicide. My Dad fell asleep while I ate milk duds and memorized dialogue, barely blinking.

The one thing I appreciated about having my mother in another state was the fact that she couldn’t monitor my clothing choices. I was a tomboy, but my mother wanted to dress me like the girl I simply was not. Every morning, I would get dressed, walk downstairs in my ripped up jeans, high top Nikes, and hooded oversized sweatshirt to a loving look of disappointment. You’re wearing that, my mother would say as she poured herself a cup of decaf. No Mom, I’m not wearing that, I would mutter under my breath as I climbed the stairs towards my daily morning wardrobe change.

I wore my hooded sweatshirt almost everyday while she was gone. One particular day, I wore my favorite football jersey to school: The Patriots’ quarterback, Steve Grogan, #14. I was in heaven wearing that jersey. My Dad slowed down the car to drop me off at school that day. (Having my mother in Indiana was beginning to take a toll on him as well.) I ran to my classroom with the confidence of a starting quarterback running onto the field for her first team huddle. Then came the blitz. My best friend, Terry Hassol saw what I was wearing, ran up to me and yelled, “It’s picture day, Julie. You’re wearing that?” She was wearing a cocktail dress. I felt like I had been sacked in the end zone.

Recovering from the hit, I ran against the rush to the office and called my Dad who had just arrived home from dropping me off at school.Dad! It’s picture day at school. I am wearing a football jersey. You have to help me. Dad, you have to pick out a different shirt for me, OK? And then bring it here now!” There was silence on the other end of the line. “Go to my room, Dad, and pick out a nice shirt,” I hollered. My Dad had no choice but to comply. I was panicked. “Dad, pick any color shirt you want but it has to be here now.” “Jesus Christ, alright already,” he said.I’ll be right there.”

The school secretary laughed into her attendance rolls as I hung up the phone. I ran to the front of the school and paced for ten minutes before I saw the station wagon pull up to the school. My Dad did not get out of the car. He made the hand-off and sped away. I looked inside the wrinkled brown bag to find an old, faded light blue turtleneck that to this day I believe he found in a pile of dirty laundry.

I see that 6th grade picture of myself every time I visit my old school. There is a wall of group photos that go back to the 1950s, and it’s interesting to see the changes as you walk down the long hallway. There I am, the only girl in my class wearing a wrinkled, pale blue turtleneck. I stare at that unshowered, eleven year old girl, wishing for just that day she had dressed like one. I would have looked better in plaid.

On and Off Training Wheels

October 14th, 2010 by Julie Silver

In 1974 I was eight years old and unable to ride a bike without training wheels. It was the source of much embarrassment. To make matters worse, anticipating that this would be the year I would finally balance myself on two wheels, my parents bought me a brand new bike. It was a beauty—the coolest bike I could never ride. It was purple, with a long banana seat covered in colorful power flowers. The handlebars were curved and set so high they forced your hands to rest above your head. Kickstand down, I would sit on that bike for hours in our darkened garage, dreaming of one day riding it on the streets of my town.

It stood there for weeks, teasing me, taunting me, whispering, get on—ride off into the sunset with me—leave a trail of rusty metal training wheel parts in your wake. Next to my untouched bike stood my old bike with training wheels. Like everything else I owned, it had belonged to my older sister. It was dull red, rickety, with a bent fender and plain, worn handlebars.

It was springtime and the days stayed lighter later. After work, my Dad would throw my old bike and a wrench into the back of our family station wagon in the evenings after dinner and drive us to the junior high school parking lot. He would not allow me to learn how to ride on the new bike. Learn on the old one, ride on the new one, he’d say.

I was a slow learner and my Dad was a patient man. In fact it would be on this same parking lot that, years later, my Dad would teach me how to drive a car. I ruined three orange parking cones and crushed countless tin cans during those lessons. Dad kept whatever frustration he might have felt inside, God bless him. By the time I got my drivers’ license, my Dad had gone completely gray.

One evening after pushing me off, running beside me and cheering me on, I rode–with a great deal of difficulty– the length of the Meadowbrook Junior High School parking lot without training wheels. I fell off my bike at the end, but I could hardly contain my excitement. It was my first taste of freedom, of independence, of tangible forward movement. That night we came home and told my mom the great news. “We’ll go back tomorrow,” he said plunging his spoon into a celebratory ice-cream sundae. “Proud of you, kiddo. Proud of you.”

And so it made perfect sense that I would wake up the next morning at the crack of dawn, run out to the garage, grab my new bike, all shiny and purple and calling out to me, and without hesitation ride it down our steep driveway, then turn left down our even steeper hill.

The wind blew through my helmet free hair and that feeling of freedom hit hard. Nine seconds later, I found myself lying on my back on Parker Street, a major thoroughfare in my neighborhood, with my brand new bicycle by my side. The bellowing sound of a truck horn and then a symphony of screeching brakes tore through the morning air. When I propped myself up on my elbows, there was a giant truck headlight eleven inches from my face. It dawned on me in an instant: I was inches away from getting completely run over by an eighteen-wheeler. Shaking, holding back vomiting, I pulled up my bicycle and got to the sidewalk. The wildly angry driver of the truck yelled from his cab but I was so stunned, so shocked I couldn’t understand anything he said. He wore dark glasses and had a moustache that resembled the handlebars on my bike. The truck made a loud exhaling sound as it drove forward, the driver yelling and pointing an angry finger at me the whole time.

I ran up the hill with my bike and got it back in the garage before my family even knew I had left the backyard. I never told a soul what happened.

I spent that day at school in a fog, tasting vomit in the back of my throat, biting my fingernails and reliving the short but powerful trip I had taken that morning.

On the way to my riding lesson that evening, Dad spoke in excited, hopeful tones but I heard almost nothing, only sentence fragments: forget about those training wheels…proud of you, kiddo…now the whole family’s on wheels…we trust you, kiddo. I couldn’t tell my biggest cheerleader about my near miss that morning. It will almost kill him, too, I thought.

Counting on the Fall

October 4th, 2010 by Julie Silver

I’m Jewish. This means that whenever the home phone rings, it is more than likely someone has died.Or worse.

Very early Tuesday morning, the phone rang. I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. From the bedroom, I heard Mary answer on the 2nd ring as I pulled the covers over my head and closed my eyes.As soon as I heard Mary say “And what hospital is she in—“ I knew it was my sister Robin and I knew, at that hour,she had to have had a bike accident.My eyes opened wide as I mentally sorted through my closet and picked the outfit I was going to wear to her funeral. For a split second before my warm feet hit the cold hardwood floor, I became worried that I wouldn’t fit into that outfit.On the short walk down the hall corridor, I said a prayer of gratitude that I had her as long as I did and wondered out loud how it had taken 17 years for her to finally crash into a tree and kill herself.

Mary was still on the phone when I walked into the kitchen, a look of concern on her face.She made a motion for me to step into my office so we could talk away from my daughter’s young ears.

Robin had indeed fallen during a long, early morning bike ride and had broken her clavicle, her pelvis, several ribs and sustained a concussion. All of her injuries would heal.Mary gave me the phone and although Robin was a bit incoherent, it was clear that she could still use her voice, her cell phone, her morphine button, and nobody’s opinion.

Nevertheless I sat and cried over my big sister falling off her bike for about 5 minutes. Hysterical, wet, snotty, loud, sobbing cries until my daughter came in and asked me what was wrong.”Oh, nothing, Sarah (snort). Eema just stubbed her big toe (sniff)”. Given my history, I was sure she would buy it.She didn’t.

OK, she’s alive, I thought.Now I’m pissed.Why must she ride that bike for that long at that hour on that pair of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen twin tires?“My sister!Jesus fucking Christ are we even related?” I whispered loudly to Mary as I put that fabulous black cocktail dress back in the closet.Then I got online to find a flight to Boston.Oh, I wasn’t going to be angry in Pacific Palisades.Not a chance.Have you seen my view?No, I was going to pay a small fortune and take a direct flight to bring my anger directly to Robin the very next day.

Did I tell you never to trust a ringing phone?

Now if flying to Boston to share your anger means being at your sister’s beckon call for three days and nights and doing 18 loads of laundry, then yes, I flew to Boston to share my anger.But I also shared three wonderful days with my older sister, Robin.I watched in awe and admiration, as only a little sister can, a constant stream of visitors, friends, family, neighbors, rabbis, fellow riders, fruit baskets, pies, apples, casseroles and various gadgets to make the next 6 to 8 weeks a little bit easier for Robin, pour down onto her house like a waterfall.

That’s the thing about never leaving the town in which you were born. Get hurt, and people you’ve known for 40 years show up to offer comfort, a laugh, a meal, or easy conversation.They heal you.My sister has lived in this community for 40 years so it was a familiar sight, watching her sit back and receive all of this love. She built this community. She maintains it. She passes it on to her sons every day.And if her neighbor fell, Robin would be right there, on hand and knee, picking up the sharpest pieces and working to put them back together. You can count on it.

I left home 16 years ago for Los Angeles and in many ways have lost that feeling of constantly being surrounded by familiarity. And perhaps that was why I left in the first place. More likely it’s why I fly back to Boston so often.But one thing was made clear to me last weekend that has never been clearer.In this life, you’re bound to fall off your bike. Somewhere around the corner, over that hill, beyond the next curve in the road, someone is going to run a red light and it’s not going to go well. In fact, you can count on it. And when you inevitably fall, there’s one thing that can make or break what happens afterwards: Community.Family members who, likefirefighters, run right into the crisis and carry you down the stairs to safety. Friends who bake their best pies and offer their tastiest trays of ziti with broccoli. Miraculously present parents and siblings and children who make sure the dishwasher gets filled and then emptied (correctly, I might add) And to know that you have that in your life and can count on it, just like you can count on falling off your bike, is the greatest gift life can give you.

That, and an excellent personal injury attorney.