28 Jan

As the snow falls, time to shut out the world

Snow Mutes the Earth

“As the snow falls, time to shut out the world” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (January 28, 2015).

The night is silent save for the compression of snow as my shoes slog through the yard. God mutes the world with snowfall, and suddenly the slightest sound I make is an intrusion on that peace. The snow below talks with each step I take, just as the snow above begins to take its place.

I reach my destination and set to work. Wind-fallen branches have been stacked together, a depressed and discarded collection of woody arms that once reached out to the sky in leafy coats of color. I grasp and lift, bend and take; the branches give, crack, splinter, break.

Quickly a mound forms in the center of the stony circle. Stick by stick it grows. The higher the mound, the higher the flame.

But sticks alone will not do. With snow covering the earth, wetting the wood, something more is needed to help the spark along – perhaps the wood’s more opinionated offspring. I reach into my back pocket and pull out the folded newspaper. This will do.

First to go is the front page and its reports of death, disaster, discord, and discontent. Line after line of depressing ink shares stories of violent deaths, missing airliners, wrangling legislatures, and baying protesters. I grab the page with my fist and crumple.

Then, tucking the newsprint under the pyre as if making a deathbed, I reach for section after section.

One after the other, quickly the pages crumple, and quickly the bed is made. Terrorist plots, mass kidnappings, beheadings. Droughts, fire, toxic spills. In they go.

Next the talking heads of the opinion pages. Right-wing blowhards shout it out with left-wing malcontents, and never the twain shall meet – except in the fire. Common sense and compromise fall by the wayside as shouting voices forget that it takes two wings to fly a straight and steady course.

I grab them all and crumple their words.

The sports page provides no reprieve. Monday-morning quarterbacks critique and crucify, demanding perfection from coach, player, and owner alike. Perfection is a fable, and around these parts, so is winning.

I continue to clutch and crumple. Hollywood breakups, Twitter feuds, and mass hysteria about an actress’ new look.

TV listings and weather reports are of little use when snow descends upon the land. No better show can be found, and we are meant to join in it.

I grab the last page of newsprint and pause. Charlie Brown, the Foxtrot family, and Calvin and his snowmen stare back at me. I carefully fold the colorful pages and place them back in my pocket.

Then, bending down, I strike a match to the paper. Immediately the ink, the words, the letters, they begin to turn to ash; and within minutes the entire world has disappeared, replaced by the warmth and light of burning timbers.

I stand back and watch.

Snow is falling.

Flames are rising.

And the world is mute.

04 Jan

“Your Poor Mother…” Ode to a Mother of Seven Sons

“My poor mother: Seven sons should merit sainthood” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (March 7, 2015).

“Your poor mother. She must be a saint.”

These words, more than any others, have echoed throughout my life like a guilt-inducing broken record. They are usually preceded by two questions, asked in equal parts horror and disbelief:

“You’re one of seven brothers?”

Yup.

“No sisters?!”

Nope. At which point the interrogator’s face contorts from one of revulsion to one of sympathy and despair.

“Your poor mother. She must be a saint.”

A deep sigh usually follows, along with some compassionate tears. They quickly pass, though, as horror, disbelief, and an accusatory head shake return.

“Your poor mother…”

It’s enough to give any young boy an inferiority complex. Hey, it’s not like we asked to be born! Is it our fault our parents couldn’t make girls? If anyone is to blame, it should be our father and the seven years he spent in the seminary studying to be a priest. One year shy of ordination, he jumped ship to marry our mother. More than likely, my brothers and I were simply paybacks from a scorned God who had a fish on the line but let him go.

“Thou shall pay me tomorrow for thy freedom today! Cursed be thou with foul-smelling boys until one of them dons thy collar!”

Alas, there’s not a priest in the bunch. That’ll teach God not to bargain with an Irishman. Seven sons and not one priest? I think that qualifies one for excommunication in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

But does raising seven boys really qualify our mother for sainthood?

Let’s look at the numbers.

If each of us averaged four or so diapers a day (a conservative estimate for a family full of small bladders) for the first two-and-a-half years of our lives, we’re looking at over 25,000 changed diapers. And given this was in the day of cloth diapers, that’s 25,000 washed diapers too. As per number of loads of laundry completed during our childhood, that is easier measured by the number of washing machines kicked to the curb despite our father’s best efforts to keep them going just one load longer.

Trips to the emergency room varied depending upon each son’s degree of enterprise, stupidity, and gamesmanship. We excelled at each, and the ER parking lot knew our station wagon well. Only Delaware County Hospital knows the exact number of visits we made, but there was that one year my frequent rendezvous with the ER helped us reached our family’s insurance deductible. I took a great source of pride in this as a child. Our mother? Not so much. Number of trips to the ER, then? Well, we can simply mark that one as “plentiful.”

As part of my research into our mother’s possible sainthood, I asked statisticians at Stanford University to calculate her totals for the following: gallons of milk bought; trips to the grocery store; chicken dinners cooked; times vomited on by a sick child; innings of Little League watched; parent-teacher conferences attended; flowers seen trampled; baths interrupted; migraines induced; number of Lego pieces inadvertently vacuumed; and times fallen into the toilet when the seat was left up.

Their results were a bit lacking.

“Seven boys?” the professors asked. “No girls?”

I confirmed the variables: “Yup. Nope”

They simply wrote back: “I’m sorry, but your poor mother… she must be a saint.”

Thinking maybe they were onto something, I decided to calculate one final statistic to see if their hypothesis was warranted.

Number of sleepless nights? That one was easy to tabulate. Since becoming a mother, all of them. Our mother turned 70 this month, and with the oldest of her sons turning 47 this year, that’s some 17,436 sleepless nights and counting (first pregnancy and leap years alike included!).

47 years of continuous sleep deprivation? That’s not a sound night’s sleep since before Nixon was elected president! I suppose all those guilt-inducing head-shakers may be right after all. I think I’ll go ahead and write Pope Francis a petition recommending our mother’s cause for sainthood. He seems like a reasonable fellow, so I’m sure he’ll be agreeable to the request. I know how I’ll begin the letter:

My poor mother… she must be a saint.