One of my mom’s primary contributions to our Thanksgiving meal for the extended family was sweet potato casserole. You know the kind: yams that when coated with a fine layer of brown sugar, cinnamon and marshmallows, become ‘candied’ and basically taste like candy. She had a gift for making this simple dish something from another culinary world. There were always Thanksgiving leftovers, but the heirloom dish she used to make her casserole was always scraped dry by ravenous spoons--and maybe a finger or two.
I awoke this morning to greet another family-filled holiday without her. I felt the familiar tinge in my heart to which I’ve grown accustomed when remembering her—and still grieving her absence. She’s been gone a few years, but it still hurts. It will always hurt.
Like her signature Thanksgiving dish, my mom was a simple person. She never required much from life aside from a good sewing machine, hot tea, art supplies, and Motown records. But she took simplicity and made a richness out of life that was irreplaceable.
It’s so simple. Life is sweet, isn’t it?
The good stuff, the bad stuff, and everything in between. You take what you’re given and make sweetness from those simple ingredients. Love the people around you. Love the people that piss you off. Love the people that don’t wish to be loved. Once they’re gone, there are no leftovers, just memories.
I'm going to attempt to make that casserole and it will taste nothing like my mom's, but that's okay, I'll still try.
My life sweet today and cherish the fleeting and be grateful for the simple things.
I remember his presence well; the almost giant-like presence, towering over my cousins and me with welcoming hands and a steadfast embrace. Enveloped in his arms, my world was easy, and fears that often swirl around a young boy’s heart were on pause. It was much like a dream for me hugging my grandpa, and when you are young, you expect those dreams to last forever. But like a handful of dandelion seeds must be whisked away by ever moving winds to form new landscape, so must these delicate dreams.
Robert Parent was a medic in the US Army during World War II. He carried a pistol at his side and was trained on a bazooka, instantly making him a bad-ass in his grandsons’ eyes. According to my mother, the day he returned from active duty he stuffed his olive green fatigues and military issued accessories in a cardboard box and threw them in the trash, along with any desire to speak of his wartime experiences. My grandfather knew there were wonderful moments in life from which to create worthy memories; war was not one of them.
There was an annual parade in our hometown celebrating the beginning of an event called the Rose Festival. The parade (and festival) was one of the largest in the area and seemed to awaken a young and excited spirit in my grandpa. There were numerous rolling vendors selling blow-up hammers, neon light sticks, and other assorted temptations for a young child. The scores of floats were ornate and striking; transporting local dignitaries and festival queens whose royal designation may or may not have bore a correlation with their level of attractiveness.
The marching bands burst forth with an endless supply of oxygen and drum rolls, as the pimply-faced high schoolers tried feverishly to stay in step with the chubby kid smacking a bass drum beside them. Every few feet a white polyester leg could be seen falling out of step with its counterparts giving the appearance of a robot soldier losing battery power.
Strategically placed in between the floats and bands, were overweight Shriners performing formations with go-karts. The merry drivers would awkwardly follow one another in a straight line until they approached a large section of the crowd, break from their lines, proceeding to thrill the spectators with figure eights and turns, all the while narrowly missing the feet of the dazzled children that stuck out from the front row seat on the curb. And on that curb I would sit enjoying the spectacle along with hundreds of others, occasionally sneaking a glance at my grandpa as he sat in his wooden backed aluminum lawn chair, smiling and puffing away at his Dutch Master cigar. He would always keep a supply of the cigars in his breast pocket, to keep him company on long walks with his dog Mitzi or while relaxing on his front porch listening to a Red’s game.
Usually about halfway through the parade, a particular float would grab his attention and he would stand up and begin waving excitedly. The float in question was sponsored by a square dance club and it shook uncontrollably beneath the motion of ten to fifteen stretchy cloth clad dancers with the sole purpose of demonstrating their best promenade…two by two. The man calling the square dance held a cheap microphone that crackled when he pronounced his consonants and his sing songy, folkster rap would continue the entire length of the parade route. The reason for my grandfather’s excitement at this moment was that he was good friends with the white haired caller and when the float passed by he would throw my grandpa’s name in the song and dance call:
“Swing your partner round and round, bow to the corner, Hey there’s Bob Parent! Bow to the left, Promenade!”
My grandpa would clap and wave and then plop back down in his chair. He would look at us all with pride as if the parade for a moment at least, was in his honor. And maybe it should have been.
My grandpa’s jovial spirit fueled his friendships and interactions. Rarely would he enter a local restaurant or store without hearing a boisterous “Hey Bob!” Granted, his conversations during these interactions were brief and mostly surface topics, but his welcoming personality and warm laugh made the other person feel as though their words were worth a fortune to my grandpa’s ears. He had a certain gift for making his friends and family feel on top of the world.
My grandparents played a major role in my early childhood. Through most of my young life, my mother bore the weight of parenting my brother, sister, and I. We struggled to say the least, but my mother was resourceful, working hard to keep our hearts filled and stomachs satisfied. Due to her work schedule, usually consisting of 2 to 3 jobs, it was necessary for me to stay with my grandparents after school.
Their home was filled with warmth, and proudly displayed the wear and tear from countless years of loving and raising children and grandchildren. My grandma was a wise and kind woman; the type of person who knew how to transform a simple box of macaroni and cheese into a kindergartner’s dream come true. Her motherly love came naturally and she selflessly gave her love to our family. At that time, my grandpa worked for a local bank making deliveries. He would arrive home shortly after the bank closed, around 5 o’clock.
I would wait for this moment the entire afternoon: the huge bear hug from my grandpa.
His scratchy wool sport coat…
The prickly 5 o’clock shadow against my cheek…
The overwhelming waft of Old Spice aftershave…
His gentle strength.
While in his embrace he would enthusiastically ask my grandma, “Mom, did you see what I got?!” referring to the hug, and the love given by his grandson, the grandson that felt adored by his grandpa’s simple actions.
For a little boy struggling to make sense of his little world which lacks the strong presence of his father, this hug and attention from my grandfather was my compass. For he was more than just my grandfather: He was a humble war hero and my grandmother’s soul mate. He was the joyful caretaker of the hearts of his best friends and the ‘unofficial’ grand marshal of the parade.
My grandpa passed away during my senior year of high school from cancer. I sat by his side along with my mom and brother, the morning he whispered his last breath to the earth. How such a common affliction could ravage such a unique soul will forever confound me. During his funeral I grew angry at myself for my lack of tears. I listened to family members speak of his life and history. I stared at the empty vessel that was my hero lying in the casket. I prayed that he was with Jesus.
As we walked by the casket for the last time, I realized the physical comfort my grandpa provided to me was now a memory. I turned to walk to the back of the church. Tears flooded my eyes at the loss of a beautiful part of my life. But I know the beautiful flowers can not last forever, there are new fields to grace…new dreams to fill.
I’ll hug my kids tightly tonight.
My mom would always tape a 3x5 card to the fridge. On the card was a written list of our bills for the month. While walking through the kitchen or opening the fridge to steal a hunk of bologna, I often found myself pausing to look over the list. I was only in the 5th grade so I was just beginning to understand large numbers and how money worked—but I still had no clue as to the amount of work and time it took for my mom to pay for those 2 to 3 digit numbers on the card. She held down a full-time job, and spent many other hours either employed part-time or fulfilling various sewing or art related requests to support our family. My mom loved her kids; she grew tired of work, but never grew tired of us.
So when the time came for me to join the band at school—and buy an instrument (snare drum)—I knew it would be difficult for my mom to afford the extra cost. But she believed I had the ability to play drums and she wanted to provide the means for me to do so. Luckily, the music store selling the band instruments offered a monthly payment plan to spread out the cost. So on to the fridge it went: $15/month – Snare Drum. To some people this may have been a drop in the bucket, but this was money that could be used for groceries or gas for the car.
We would have band rehearsal on Wednesday afternoons, so that morning my mom would drop me off and I would carry my snare drum (in a big case that weighed almost as much as me) from one end of the school building to my classroom on the other side. It was heavy and my back ached. When the school day was over, I couldn’t transport my drum on the bus so I had to be picked up from school, which meant I would be waiting a good 30-45 minutes until my mom was available to pick me up. I would watch as numerous teachers left the building, occasionally one would speak to me asking if I had a ride and then I would have to explain the situation to them. I was extremely shy so I was often embarrassed and awkward as I talked to them. I grew to loathe Wednesdays.
My mom would eventually arrive in a beat up car and greet me with a Hey Kiddo and I would respond in kind, but underneath I was so angry and disappointed in her.
As we drove home I would steal a glance at my mom. She was tired. She spent many hours each day working because she loved her kids. She worked jobs she disliked to provide opportunities for us to live and grow. She knew music would become a passion for me, and her sacrificing some time and effort on her part was totally worth it.
For the rest of the school year, I happily carried that snare drum through the halls, and Wednesday afternoons still found me sitting outside the school, alone, on my drum case. Teachers would stop and ask if I had a ride and I would simply smile and proudly say, “My mom will be here soon.”
We all have people we admire and look up to, maybe even aspire to be. They may be a celebrity, author, or a friend. For a child, professional athletes are a popular role model choice—I was no different—well sort of.
I was 6 years old. One winter morning I was eating some cereal at the kitchen table with my mom while she was reading the newspaper. She perked up and said that there was a professional baseball player named Barry Larkin coming to an antique mall in town to sign autographs. I had no idea who he was, but her enthusiasm was more than enough to trigger my own excitement towards the event.
The following Saturday we all piled into our Gumby green colored boat-of-a-car, and drove the few miles to the antique mall. There was a ridiculously long line filing out the front door and it would turn out to be a 2-hour wait to see this guy, but my mom didn’t seem to be troubled by this. I, however, was pacing in circles, hunching my shoulders and waving the flaps to my hot winter coat because I knew if I took it off I’d have to carry it. And, a six year old has little desire to look at antiques if he’s not allowed to touch them anyway.
I kind of wanted to leave.
What was I going to do with this guy’s autograph anyway? Throw it around with my friends? I had yet to discover my love for baseball cards and memorabilia, so having a signed picture seemed worthless to me.
The line creaked along and we finally came to a small table that displayed cards and photographs of Barry, which could be purchased for him to sign. My mom bought an 8x10 photograph of the shortstop in a batting stance. I don’t remember the exact price, but I know it wasn’t cheap—and we didn’t have much money in those days—so I didn’t really understand her reasoning.
I overheard the dad from the family in front of us say, “Thank you,” and they turn and walked away. And there he was: sitting at a small table in a Cincinnati Reds jersey and matching red hat. He looked at me and smiled warmly. My legs began shaking as I realized I was meeting an actual professional baseball player.
He motioned for me to come forward saying, “Hi! What’s your name?”
My mind went blank and I almost said ‘Barry’ but I finally murmured, “B…Ben.”
“Alright,” he chuckled, “Big Ben!”
That statement, coupled with my rising triple-digit body temperature inside my winter coat, almost made me faint.
He took the photograph my mom bought and signed it:
To Big Ben.
Then he shook my hand, at least I think he did, I couldn’t feel much at that point.
We left that day and for the next 10 or so years I would constantly wear shirts with the name ‘Larkin’ ironed on the back, or request the number 11 (Barry’s number) on my baseball jersey when playing pee-wee baseball. Christmases and birthdays would all include some type of Barry Larkin merchandise. I loved the guy and he could do no wrong.
Over the years I’ve looked back and reflected on my childhood loyalty to Barry Larkin and I couldn’t have picked a better athlete to emulate. In his baseball career, Barry Larkin was one of the best. He also was (and still is) supportive of many charities and remains a faithful husband and supportive father. Thankfully my mom put me in a position to meet him and discover an honest and hardworking role model.
That’s when I realized that maybe Barry Larkin wasn’t my true role model after all.
He was a great athlete and good man, but he didn’t actually know me. My mother knew before I knew, that I needed someone decent to admire. She put Barry Larkin in my life because she loved me and selflessly took a back seat in that respect.
No ball player could ever compete with that.
My brother and I shared a room in the first house known to me as ‘home’. It was a medium sized room with pale white paint covering the walls. Our bunk beds sat in the middle of the room; my brother manned the top bed and usually slept with a tattered sleeping bag while my bed was the bottom bunk covered with Sesame Street sheets and probably, boogers. (Hey, a kid’s gotta fall asleep somehow.) Unbeknownst to my brother, sharing a space like this gave his little six year old sibling great comfort knowing his big ninja brother was in the top bunk and would protect him should any dark and dangerous force come through the bedroom door.
There were two drafty windows on either side of the west wall, facing the city side street in front of our house. I would often sit at one of them and either look into the friendly maple tree that towered over our house, or watch the cars and people that made their way down our street. I would occasionally yell out the window to a lawn mowing neighbor or old lady walking to the grocery, and then immediately duck down behind the windowsill as they looked up, searching for the source of the idiotic sound. My adrenaline rushed as I sat there thinking about the confused look on their faces and how my clever prank had completely changed the outcome of their current activity. I was testing unknown waters. A part of me knew I was being a brat—that it was wrong—but another part of me needed to push the boundaries to see what might be beyond my safe little realm.
One day while sitting at my window perch waiting for my next victim, I noticed a group of teenagers walking up the street. Okay, here we go! They won’t know what hit ‘em! I began with a few bird sounds, which didn’t seem to have much effect, so I moved to a few basic Hey you!yells.
They stopped. I ducked down, suppressing a mischievous giggle, heart beating out of my chest.
After a minute or two thinking they had surely continued down the street, I peaked up over the windowsill and noticed them still standing there…STARING RIGHT BACK AT ME.
Their eyes lowered and I watched as they proceeded up the steps to our front porch out of my sight. I heard a knock on our door.
I gasped and my stomach sank. I thought I even saw Bert and Ernie hide behind Big Bird on my Sesame Street sheets.
I heard the door creak open, followed by an exchange of angry muffled voices. The door closed and moments later my mom called me downstairs. I guess I shouldn’t say called, it was more of a demand. I stood and walked out of the bedroom and met my mom’s eyes as she stood at the bottom of the steps. Her face held a look that confused me. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or hurt; disappointed or sad.
“Have you been yelling out your bedroom window at people?” she asked.
Shoot. Where was this going? Who were those guys? Why did they talk to my mom? I’m only six… please don’t come back and murder me and my family!
“Uh…yeah,” I meekly replied.
“Those boys out there said you called them…”
Her voice fell into a soft beleaguered tone as she sighed and finished the sentence,
I immediately recognized that something strange was happening. I had yet to hear that word in my short life, but as my mom uttered it, a sense of confusion and fear fell over me. A new fear, one that made me realize that maybe life was not as simple as I expected it to be. The word was new and foreign, and it made me feel uneasy.
“Wh..what? I don’t know what that word is, mommy.” I stammered as tears began to fill my wide eyes.
“Those boys said you were yelling at them from the window and calling them that name. I know you may not understand, but that’s a terrible and hurtful name to call a black person.”
I could tell my mom hated having to reprimand me for something she knew I didn’t do, furthermore to have to teach her six year old son such a difficult lesson about life, so soon. But she was no stranger to hard lessons, and she knew it was necessary in order to help me successfully navigate this situation.
I nodded and she told me to return to my room and close the window, perhaps sheltering me from certain inconvenient truths my mind had yet to fully comprehend. Maybe all a six year old needs to grasp is that his family loves him, and that the outside world can—at times—be a confusing and complex space. For the time being, security could be found in my bunk beneath my ever vigilant brother.
Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed and gathering my stuffed animals, my mom hugged me a little longer than usual.
I never yelled from that window again.
When I was a boy, I lived and breathed baseball. I watched it, collected and traded cards and chewed the rock hard gum included in the card packages and cherished it because it was ‘baseball gum’, played pick up games in friends’ backyards, and participated in pee wee league all through my elementary years.
And here my friends, is where our story is set, so grab some grape flavored Big League Chew and find a splintered bleacher seat.
I was ten years old that warm July evening and it was late in the game as I took my position in left field. I wasn’t the best ball player in town and it was obvious that my place on the team was merely a result of a random grouping of area boys into teams. As our team was handed the third out of the fourth inning, my coach, out of guilt and what little heart he possessed, would say under his breath, “Alright Crawford…grab your mitt.”—Which could be translated as,We’re losing anyway, what harm can you do in the last two innings? (In little league, the games are only six innings.)
I stood up and put my enormous hat on my head, grabbed my glove from under the seat, and proceeded to the green grass and huge advertising signs of left field. I felt a knot in my stomach which I attributed to nerves because if a ball was hit my way there was little to no chance of me catching it.
My red and blue uniform was perfectly stiff and clean, save for the light dusting of tan dirt on the my front of my pants from my fellow two-inning players taking turns tossing baseball gloves and Gatorade bottles at one another’s crotches. We were ten year olds after all; a coach can’t expect his players to behave like adults when required to wear a jockstrap and awkwardly sized cup in their itchy polyester uniform pants. We spent our downtime in the dugout testing the strange new equipment’s effectiveness. It just made sense.
First batter: infield fly. “Alright guys!” I yelled, “One down!” I knew they probably didn’t hear me but my hope was they saw my puny finger signaling a one and thus would gain confidence in my abilities as a team player and fielder.
So here’s when my stomach began to gurgle.
Not a hungry kind of gurgle, but a you need to get to a bathroom FAST kind of gurgle. I didn’t know if it was the half pound of bologna I had eaten for lunch or the ‘suicide’ (all of the concession stand’s soda flavors combined in one cup) I had consumed in the third inning, but whatever it was needed to leave my body as soon as possible.
Not one to shirk my responsibilities as a trustworthy left fielder, I crouched down to my ready position as our pitcher doled out fast balls to the kid at the plate, who in turn was hitting one foul ball after another.
The sweat began to drip down my forehead—for the first time in the entire game—and season.
This can’t be happening I thought to myself, just hold on until we get three outs.
In this type of situation, control of bodily functions is somewhat manageable, as long there is minimal movement, especially of the fast running variety. But in the midst of my prayer, “Dear God let my clenching hold,” a foul ball was hit my way. I broke loose from my stance—in more ways than one—and held out my trembling glove in the general area where the ball was falling.
It fell right in.
I opened my eyes, took the ball out of my glove and threw it to the third baseman. I was beaming proudly as I shouted, “Two down!” As I walked back to my spot however, I realized that by running for the foul ball, I had relinquished all control of other important muscles, thus releasing the disaster I was holding back.
I *** my pants.
In the middle of a baseball game.
The third out came quickly and I headed back to the dugout with my fellow teammates to each await our turn to bat. I slowly sat down, so as not to further disturb the monster that was quickly saturating my uniform pants.
I thought to myself, The game’s almost done, if I can just make it through without anyone noticing, it will be okay and I’ll still get to bat.
That thought was interrupted by a teammate (a six inning player) sniffing the air and saying, “Man! It smells like cat **** in here!”
I got up, motioned for my brother and grandpa, and asked if they could take me home. I told the coach I wasn’t feeling well and needed to leave. He looked down at me with disappointment or relief, I’m not sure which, and muttered, “Okay, see ya.”
I walked out of the dugout and past the bleachers holding my glove behind me without making eye contact with anyone, vowing to return for my next 5th inning.
There have been numerous people praising Brittany Maynard for her strength during her battle with cancer and subsequent suicide. Brittany chose to end her life before the cancer in her body incapacitated her so that she could no longer care for her self and communicate with her loved ones. Of course the burden on those same loved ones would be a great one as they cared for Brittany and witnessed her suffering.
"You had a Dame that lov'd you well,
That did what could be done for young
And nurst you up till you were strong
And 'fore she once would let you fly
She show'd you joy and misery,
Taught what was good, and what was ill,
What would save life, and what would kill.
Thus gone, amongst you I may live,
And dead, yet speak and counsel give.
Farewell, my birds, farewell, adieu,
I happy am, if well with you."
- In Reference to Her Children
by Anne Bradstreet
"With You" by LIFT
During the first year of our dating relationship, my wife and I would sit outside a local coffee shop in her car and talk and stare at each other and talk some more. We began this little weekly tradition late in November of 1999. It was usually pretty late on a Thursday evening and the air was turning cold as the small town around us began to extinguish the lights of the day and turn in for the night. The car would be running, interior warm, and maybe on certain nights the wiper blades would stir awake every few minutes to clear fallen raindrops or a light scattering of graceful snowflakes; signs of winter returning.
The world was invisible to us in our small mobile bubble. Yet through our conversation, laughter, and dreaming, there was an outside voice that provided comfort and intermission when our words fell silent. This voice came from Phyllis Campbell, known affectionately as “Mama Jazz”. Phyllis passed away this past weekend at the age of 89.
Mama was a wealth of story and background information on the songs she played, but she was also a welcoming and warm presence on the radio. She wasn’t trying to push an agenda or sway public opinions, she wanted you and I to listen to good music and to learn about the amazing musicians that created it.
She lived a full, blessed life and she may have never realized the impact she had on so many hearts and ears; especially two teenagers falling in love while Mama spun the tunes that would become the soundtrack of those special hours.
We’ll miss you mama.
I caught a few minutes of an interview with Francis Ford Coppola at a film festival. During the Q&A portion of the interview, a young audience member asked Coppola what kind of advice he could give to an aspiring filmmaker. He said, and as usual I’m paraphrasing this horribly, “If you’re a man, get married.” He goes on to explain his advice, saying that he loved raising his kids and that they kept him grounded and focused on his work; held him accountable in his productivity.
As a creative individual, one could easily look at his or her family as a roadblock to creative independence and artistic output. But Coppola discovered that supporting a family and having them support him, inevitably bolstered the quality of his art and motivated him to continue his work.
It’s refreshing to hear this from someone in an industry such as film. So often we view the family of a brilliant, creative mind as a distraction from their work. But when we’re surrounded by those we love and love us, we can’t help but create beautiful art and in the end become better, well rounded people.