Messy Families


Years ago when my brother Keith was renovating his teenaged daughter’s basement room, my stepfather offered to help, a gesture I thought was beyond reproach.  Days later Keith said to me “I can’t be alone in a room with Dave and a hammer.”  And now, since I’ve been helping my mom with her great-grandson, not yet 2, I feel that same inkling.  Don’t get me wrong.  This is a stellar human being, an ex-patrolman who took a year’s leave to care for my cancer-ridden grandmother because my mother couldn’t really deal with it.  He would have made a fantastic nurse if his own family history (two profoundly deaf parents, a bunch of not-great relatives) had waylaid him.

That said, if you ask for a cup of coffee, Dave will clean every component of the coffee maker before making a 16-cup pot.  If you stand in “his corner” to butter a piece of toast he will stand behind you and grind his teeth until you move so he can make three sandwiches, which he will then eat in succession.  Getting him to move the car out of the tightly-packed garage while I held a screaming toddler was tantamount to watching Congress discuss each budgetary line item.  One.  By.  One.  And my folks’ yard, where every grandchild and great-grandchild has grown up?  To say it’s booby-trapped would be saying Death Valley is warm-ish.  It was constructed over many years with love but also constructed over many years by someone who is anti-social and desperately trying to fight it…mostly because he really wants to be a family man.  Just some of those things:

Meyer lemon tree, bursting with seductive lemons and lethal spikes.  The toddlers love it, their arms are skinny enough to reach in there without getting poked, and, like Mr. Halfstory always says, “it’s only child labor if you pay them.”

Loose boards around the entire perimeter of the pool, unmarked.

Windmill.   Let’s talk later about how much my mom loved this surprise gift.  This is adjacent to the statue of Mary, who is about 3 feet high herself.

Windmill and loose boards. Bonus!

Two or three overturned wheelbarrows.  Forget the plastic baby-sized ones from Rite-Aid!  Kids love the real thing and from that, a true work ethic is born.

Gnome behind a mini tree of unknown origin.  Scares every kid that ever sees it…and one or two uncles.

Assorted splintery wood, dusty bricks, piled up to make the best spider hotel ever.

Gazebo, circa 1983.  Bought at Home Depot, constructed and weighted down with random flower pots and odd-shaped “weights,” by which I really mean old toys filed with sand.

Non-working tractor and truck, covered in tarps and lashed down with about a dozen dry bungee cords (we know where this is going), in the back area, no access granted to anyone under 4 feet tall, but if you get back there, a locked shed awaits you.  There is nothing in this shed.

I always chuckle heartily when I see manicured children’s play areas.  Because I think – and perhaps this was the start of all my issues, or my deep affection for Sanford & Son – kids need slightly dangerous and spooky yards.  Benign, yes, and no snakes, but a little trepidation is good for everyone.

And yet, my hat goes off to Dave for putting up with buckets of family drama for decades.  Sometimes, though, I need a cup of coffee right now.  And he always refuses to let me make it, because a good dad always wants to offer his daughter a decent cup of joe.

I finished Jonathan Tropper’s One Last Thing Before I Go, a novel about another messy family.  Silver is an aging rock star guy with a big torn heart problem and big torn family problem.  He still loves his ex-wife, he wants to help his teenaged daughter out of a crisis and he wants to find meaning in a life he suspect he may have wasted.  He has also decided not to have lifesaving surgery.  Tropper’s writing is crisp, hilarious, and sweet.  While the daughter is bit too perfect and his buddies a bit too convenient, Tropper makes up for it by examining heavy issues with humor and the interior thoughts of a likable, but emotionally shabby guy.

Tons of press surrounds Michael Chabon’s newest, Telegraph Hill; I have yet to read it.  I do love his writing, but more, I love his interviews!  Check out any single one and note, if you will, how precise and intricate are his answers.   Michael, can we have lunch?  I think I could be smarter if I spoke with you for a minute.  Some of his essays on his blog are incredibly funny, too; one details how he tried to  “recycle” the endless art projects his four kids keep bringing home from school.  Same interview props go to Junot Diaz, he of This is How You Lose Her and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (read this one and am on hold for the new one).  I did read an excerpt from Diaz’ new book – it’s riveting and razor-sharp.   It was long ago and in The New Yorker but it made me want to hang with Yunior and examine his crazy, raw life.