Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Dearest You,

When I think of you, the scent of beeswax candles is the first thing that comes to mind. Your house was built without electricity and so most of the light came from these candles. Of course there were flashlights and the big kerosene powered Coleman lantern, but flashlights shine too often in the eyes and the Coleman's light was accompanied by the roar of the burning fuel. The candles were silent and flickering and their warm light seemed to boost the efforts of the pokey fire in the wood stove.

You were a teacher. First at Cedar Grove, the place I still refer to as "that hippie co-op," and later at San Antonito, the public elementary school where I started in second grade. You wore round, wire rimmed glasses, woven ponchos and tall, brown leather boots. I remember you kneeling in front of me on the playground as you zipped my coat.

My brother and I often spent the night at your house because we were both friends with your son. After school, you'd pack us into your orange Volkswagen Beetle and we'd make the long drive into the San Pedro mountains to your home. The road seemed like little more than a jagged path cut through the rocks. As you maneuvered around boulders, we bounced in the the back seat of the VW, cackling when our heads hit the curved ceiling of the car. I thought that like the tables and chairs in my elementary school, the enormity of these rocks would shrink as I grew, but when I drove your road myself a few years ago, I realized (with great pleasure) that some things do not diminish with time. Those rocks are indeed huge.

In the winter, when the house was so cold we could see our breath in the air, we unrolled our sleeping bags in a loft built in the corner of the living room. Your son slept with a Curious George doll and I usually brought my stuffed hippo, Bernice. My brother traveled with a little metal suitcase filled with Hot Wheels cars and Star Wars figures.

In the summer, we'd sleep on the roof and look for constellations. In the dark sky, the stars were so bright and so plentiful it seemed that we could almost reach out and rearrange them into animals of our own imaginings.

Spring marked your annual egg hunt with a special appearance by the Easter Bunny. Every year a different grown up would zip themselves into the white fleece suit and bounce around in the dust making smart aleck remarks while dolling out chocolate eggs. I wonder now, as I never did as a child, where the suit came from. At seven, eight and nine, I took it for granted that you had a bunny suit in your closet. Why wouldn't I? You had a teepee set up in the woods behind your house and you seemed to understand the meowed language of cats.

Your piece of land was a magical place to play. In a grove of Pinon trees, we braved sticky sap and splinters to fill brown paper bags with pine nuts. You'd roast the nuts in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop until they smelled toasty and sweet and we'd crack them open with our teeth and suck the meat from the tiny shells. The back side of the house was bare of trees, an almost moonscape of jagged limestone and shale, dotted with spiky cholla cactus. On this side, you'd left an old iron bedframe. We would take turns bouncing on the rusty springs. With our hands gripping the iron headboard and the wide expanse of the canyon in front of us, this bouncing was almost like flying.

Now I get updates on your life from my Mom. You are an energy healer and have taught Mom how to "zip up" to keep good energy in and bad out. You make brightly colored felted wool hats and add tiny faces and hands to turn pine cones, seed pods and bent sticks into fanciful woodland creatures. When your last cat died, she gave a little mew of good-bye and curled herself under a painting of my father's. You swear the painting glows with life -- even in the dark.

I can hear your laugh; can hear the way your Midwestern upbringing still flattens your vowels despite years and years spent in the mountains of New Mexico. I can just as easily imagine you in your long, patchwork skirt and bandanna, presiding over the annual egghunt as I can trolling the aisles of a thrift store with Mom on "senior discount day." You are a thread (a particularly bright and vibrant strand) that weaves through the whole of my life.

See you soon.


Monday, February 1, 2010


Dearest You,

You told me this joke:

After a plane crash, a man washes up on a desert island and he is alone for many days. One day, he sees someone swimming in the water and he jumps in and swims out to find that it is a woman. And not just any woman, but Cindy Crawford. She is nearly drowned. He pulls her to safety and when she has coughed up a lot of sea water, she gratefully kisses him. One thing leads to another and they become lovers. Days go by and the man is happier than he's ever been, but there is one thing missing. Cindy can sense this and so one day she asks how she can make him happy. He asks her to dress in his clothes and go around to the other side of the island. It seems weird, but because he saved her life, she's willing to do it. She dresses in his clothes and heads off to the other side of the island.

The man waits for half and hour and then, he, too, heads around to the other side of the island and there he finds Cindy dressed as a man. They sit down and he turns to her and says, "You'll never guess who I'm fucking."

You told me a lot of jokes and most of them had the word "fucking" in them, but this one is the only one I can remember in its entirety.

You called me "babe," and once told me I was more of a "dame" than a "lady."

When we worked together, you bought me lunch nearly every day until you realized that in a week's worth of lunch amounted to the price of a bike for your daughter. After that, I mostly brought my lunch or we went Dutch. No matter who paid, we always spent the first few minutes at a restaurant scanning the menu for typos, racing to see who could come up with the first mistake and then challenging each other to come up with more.

We spent a little time working and a lot of time looking for things. We looked for awnings for your house, English antiques and toasters. We spent a lot of time admiring the Dualit toaster, which was over $200. You really liked toast. We once drove way out into the Valley to look at a Porsche. We looked for just the right kind of paper on which to print a mocked up certificate of "Jewishness" for an office mate who'd recently converted. You called this kind of aimless comparison shopping "berbering" a verb you made up after the extended period you and your wife spent searching for just the right berber carpet.

Once we went to the zoo. You had a membership card because sometimes you took your daughter. It was a nice day, but the zoo was empty. We bought popcorn and walked around. We looked at the giraffe and stuck our heads up into the plastic viewing bubbles in the prairie dog enclosure.

You often remarked that you were around the same age as my own father. You often remarked that it was strange that I could have a father your age and you could have a daughter who was not yet in elementary school. It was all about timing, I guess.

Your timing was a little off, I think. You were a great writer. You were very, very funny. You were writing shows about nuclear families and dogs that could talk, but people wanted to see shows about young people living together and sorting out their love lives.

Now, it's changing again. I read in the paper that "old is the new young." There are mature people on television again. Meryl Streep is a leading lady at 60. It all timing.

Your daughter must be in high school now. She may even be waiting for college acceptance letters. I wonder if the two of you berber for things on the weekends. If she shares your love of old movie musiclas. I wonder if she's inherited your sense of humor. I wonder if she and I would be friends.

A couple of years ago, I read a piece you'd written for the LA Times magazine. It was a story I knew well and you'd written it almost exactly as I'd heard you tell it. You had a dozen or more stories that you told often. These stories distilled your life into amusing bites, each one carefully crafted to generate the most laughter; each one a little time capsule. These stories stay with me, each one as vivid as a slide projected on a screen.

I tell my own stories. You are starring in this one.

There is one typo in this piece. Can you find it?