I’m not really a hoarder.

I am a proud member of a village that has successfully raised two village people.  Somehow they managed to survive  bandaged knees and chicken pox,  lost lunch money and forgotten field trip permission slips, losing seasons, winning seasons, stage fright, mean girls, puppy love, and broken hearts.

By now we’ve been through the stages of separation necessary for them to go off on their own to do the things that young villagers do. Still, one part of the child-rearing process lingers:

The village is starting to pile up with shoeboxes.

Every time I buy new shoes, I put them neatly on the shoe rack in the closet, and start to break down the box for recycling.

Free to a good home. No, wait. Someone might need these.

Free to a good home. No, wait. Someone might need these.

Then I freeze. And a slight panic sets in.

Someone might need this box. . .

You know how that always goes. . .

 As soon as you get rid of it, someone will need a shoebox.

After a lifetime — two lifetimes, actually — of looking at shoeboxes as vessels to hold sidewalk chalk, finger paints, scissors, glue, Barbie clothes, baseball cards, rocks (not the pretty ones — the dirtiest, grungiest ones he could find), Happy Meal toys, squirreled away allowance money (we’re certain my son is already well on his way to a secure retirement) and things I’m probably better off not knowing, I can’t look at a shoebox as just a shoebox.

Nor can I reason with my more altruistic self that cutting it down and putting it in the recycling will help the box find its way into serving some other village in some other helpful way.

No, not me.

I look at a shoe box and imagine that at just about 10:30 pm, someone’s going to call to tell me they just remembered that their Social Studies diorama project is due tomorrow morning. You never know.

Maybe they’ll want to paint them and turn them into colorful “bricks” to build a living room fort. You never know.

Or maybe this year they’ll start waxing nostalgic and will want to make a gingerbread village for Christmas. You never know.

And so the boxes pile up, because once you’ve been a responsible member of a village, you understand that it takes a lot of shoeboxes to raise a child.

The Salt and Pepper Talks

I’ve been working on this while watching a friend making some choices that put his reputation at risk. Normally, I’m a live and let live kind of person. It bothers me that I care.  It’s his life, his reputation.  I’ve said my piece and now it’s time for me to step back and gather the strength to be the friend he might need if and when it comes to picking up the pieces.

At some point during the writing, it seemed maybe the process of writing was enough to get my thoughts together. Maybe I was being judgmental and definitely I was being selfish. My interest in this is that I want to believe in someone and this is someone I have come to believe in.  He didn’t ask to be my paragon of virtue. I’m the one with the problem because I don’t want to have to do the work to adjust to his being human. I decided to leave the piece in the unpublished pile, with a lot of other things that aren’t so skippity-doo-dah.

They are his choices and the consequences are his consequences and beyond expressing concern, it’s not my business.

Then today I was on the treadmill at the gym when the CNN news feed announced that the reptilian mayor of San Diego has left his self-imposed two week rehabilitation for sex therapy (or whatever it is that causes him to grab women and stick his tongue down their throats) after only five days.  His lawyer says the mayor will continue  therapy as an outpatient. 

Whatever. I’m not a citizen of San Diego, so technically he’s not my problem. But I am a woman who has endured as many inappropriate advances as any other woman and the thought of Son of Godzilla facing no consequences, sending the message to others of his ilk (that’s right, I said ilk) that five days in therapy is the equivalent to a get out of jail for free card, got me riled up.

I’m choosing to publish and to accept the consequences.

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I imagine that one of the ways that a childhood with a visually impaired parent differs from “normal” is an expectation that there is a place for everything and everything should be in its place.

We rarely rearranged the furniture in our home or brought in anything new.  We didn’t leave our things lying around for fear that Dad might step on them or trip over them, the consequences of which were less reminiscent of Rob Petrie and his ottoman than of The Old Man’s battle with the furnace in “A Christmas Story.”

I made the choice to use this picture without permission.

It’s not a Rob & Laura Petrie world. I should probably just get over that.

It was easier, not to mention common decency,  to put things where he expected them to be and not to leave things where they didn’t belong.The towels on the middle shelf, the  jar of instant coffee next to the toaster, and on the kitchen table, the salt shaker always on the right and the pepper always on the left.

The latter arrangement figured prominently not only in the proper seasoning of Dad’s food, but also as visual aids for a series of lectures dubbed “The Salt and Pepper Talks,” in the eulogy one of my cousins delivered at Dad’s funeral. As my cousin, who credited the lecture series in part for his own path to becoming an  ordained minister, explained, there wasn’t a single one of us in our age group denied the experience of a Salt and Pepper Talk. We all laughed in agreement.

It may be a rose-colored memory, but I don’t recall being the direct audience of a Salt and Pepper Talk. I sure sat in on my share. It was unavoidable, especially if you weren’t up to speed on who was involved with what misdeeds and what their particular whereabouts were at any given time.

If you knew so-and-so was hanging around someone who would meet with Dad’s disapproval, or they’d missed curfew or sassed a teacher, you did your best to know where they were before you entered our front door. This was much harder in the years of our Lord B.C. (before cell phones).

Dad’s place at the head of the kitchen table was visible from the front doorway of our old Sears home.  If you came through that door at some time other than meal time and he was sitting at the table without his guitar, odds were someone was at the other end of that table listening to a Salt and Pepper Talk and the sound of the front door alerted Dad to the fact that you were there.

“Come sit down. You might as well hear this, too,” he would say in a tone that made clear you weren’t so much being  invited as  you were being summoned.

I never knew who I might find sitting in the lecturee seat. It could be — and often was — one of my siblings, but it might also be a cousin, a neighborhood kid, the paper boy (true), the paper boy’s brother (also true). Sometimes I knew or could make an educated guess as to what had landed them there, sometimes not.

I could always assume, though, that Dad had somehow learned — through methods that to this day elude me — that the lecturee had shown signs of veering off the Salt path. They appeared to be headed down the Pepper path and, by golly, they needed to learn what lay in store for them down the Pepper path. Almost always a Salt and Pepper Talk included the admonition to “straighten up and fly right.” I doubt anyone on the Pepper path was ever peppery enough to note the mixed metaphor.

Anatomy of a Salt and Pepper Talk.

All Salt and Pepper talks started the same way.  He would invite you to have a seat at the end of the table, at which point unless you were a total fool, you knew what was about to follow, and you started reviewing your transgressions.Then he would sit

We weren't Catholic, but these would have been perfect for our kitchen table.

We weren’t Catholic, but these would have been perfect for our kitchen table.

in his own chair and calmly state the issue at hand.

You know, I heard that you might have . . .,” or “Seems to me that you’ve been . . ..”

With the issue out in the open, he would relate at least one but usually several  stories from his own life or the life of someone he knew, where actions similar to whatever you were up to had turned out badly. Dad was a marvelous storyteller and though I believe his stories were true, I sometimes wondered if there weren’t a bit of embellishment to drive home a point.

This was usually when  I’d wander in, unsuspecting that a Salt and Pepper talk was underway.  If I didn’t already know what the lecturee was in for, I could usually figure it out based on the parables employed.

You knew the talk was coming to a close when he reached for the salt and pepper shakers, salt in the right hand, pepper in the left, and explained that there were two ways you could go just now, two paths to follow. One was the Salt path, doing what you were supposed to be doing, getting yourself back  in line, straightening up and flying right,  mixed metaphor be damned.

He released the salt shaker from  his right hand and it glided smoothly to your end of the table, usually landing just in front of you. . . .

Or, you could continue on the path you seemed to be on  (offenses — or suspicion of offenses —  restated, as well as the potentially devastating consequences) ; you could follow the Pepper path.

At this point he’d fling the pepper shaker with his left hand with a force and velocity proportionate to your crime or his mood or both, and with the  amazing accuracy of the baseball player he’d been before the accident that took his sight, the shaker whizzed right past you, off the edge of the table and onto the floor. The cap, which he’d loosened prior to the talk, would fly off and pepper would spill all over the place.

Then with a “Hmm. That’s probably a mess. Why don’t you clean that up,” he’d rise from his seat, leave the room, and that was that, unless you were fool enough to land your keister  in the lecturee seat again.

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Choices and consequences.

I don’t think Dad believed in the strict duality of good and evil, right and wrong, salt and pepper.  He was too wise for that and he knew that life’s choices aren’t always clear. I think what he intended to demonstrate for us was that we always have choices and those choices have consequences.

I’ve carried that with me throughout my life. Anyone who knows me will tell you that my choices haven’t always been the best, but the consequences have always been mine to endure. To me, it’s that simple.

That, in fact, was the sum of my own lectures on the first day of class every year.

In my opening day speech, I would say that I knew that after so many years in school, and so many classes that day where they’d established classroom rules, that my students knew what kind of behavior was appropriate and what was not. There was always an individual choice to make and in most cases you were aware of the consequences.  The rules in my classroom were thus:

Choices. Consequences.

Certain choices led to pleasant consequences; certain other choices led to less-than-pleasant consequences.  Not so much  good and bad, right and wrong, salt and pepper as “if this / then that.”

The agreement was that each day I would post our objectives, those things we were there to accomplish. We could accomplish them by having fun. I could sing to them or have them sing to me. I could tell them funny stories or have them share theirs with me. We could march around the room stomping and tapping a beat to understand the difference between pentameter and tetrameter.

Or we could work silently from textbooks, reading pages 10 -50 and answering the questions on pages 50 to 53.

The choice to play by the unspoken rules was theirs to make, individually and as a group, and there was an unspoken peer pressure to keep each other in line so we could have fun.

I’ve been particularly annoyed lately watching news stories about people making astonishingly offensive choices that are disrespectful of themselves and those around them and, even more offensively, expecting that there will be little or no consequence for these behaviors.

I wish that Dad were here to gather them all at our kitchen table and show them what happens when the pepper flies so we could all watch the lesson and make our choices accordingly.

He was NotElvis.

From time to time I mention my father, “NotElvis,” often because he’s not around to defend himself.  In an earlier version of Le Cahier, I wrote the story behind the name “NotElvis,” and occasionally I mention it in passing.

Recently I came across some pictures that go with the story and a cassette tape that I can’t manage to convert to an audio file. That story is a post unto itself. 

My father was a teenager during the Elvis Presley years. As was the case for many boys his age, Elvis-mania was good for him in that the girls thought he looked just like Elvis.  I know this because years later one of the parent chaperones on our class trip to Montreal was a mom who had been one of my dad’s great admirers in high school.  She made such a fuss over how much all the girls loved Dad because he looked just like Elvis.

I’d seen his yearbook. He was nice looking, but all this gushing was embarrassing. To me he was Dad. He was not Elvis.

He was also not Elvis, despite the large sunglasses he wore most of the time. They were to protect his eyes and cover his face, both of which had been severely burned in a chemical explosion before he was even thirty years old. He wasn’t expected to live, and in fact for a while was thought not to have survived. If he knew you well enough to think you were open to it, he would tell you that story.

He was in the hospital the first time for months. The first record album I owned was one of the many gifts from Dad while he was away. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized they didn’t come from him. Mary Wells Greatest Hits was really a gift from one of the many nurses who’d developed a crush on NotElvis and sent us kids things to let us know that he was thinking of us.

After he was home, friends that had always been around, baseball buddies, car buddies, buddies of all sorts, stopped coming around.   He’d always had a guitar around, but now it was his best friend.  We lived next to the church and on Sunday mornings while others were on their way to worship, he was sitting in the kitchen playing gospel tunes, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and even some Elvis, as well as some songs he wrote on his own.  That was church for him, and that’s where my love of acoustic music comes from.

When he did go out in public, he wore those sunglasses to protect his eyes which no longer had lashes and brows and to cover a face that had been through multiple skin grafts. He managed to make his way around pretty well.  I always walked on his left and just ahead of him, telling him when we’d be stepping up or down, with his head held high and his hand on my shoulder feeling his way.

So he was pretty good at blending in and held off on a cane for a long time. Many people couldn’t tell he was visually impaired.  But some could. One of the many quirks of human nature is that too many people think a person who can’t see also can’t hear. Frequently, whether they realized he couldn’t see or they didn’t, people would quip, “Does he think he’s Elvis or something?”  

He was blind. He was not deaf. And he was not Elvis.

He didn’t say anything about this and I didn’t know that the comparisons to Elvis registered with him, until one day when I was living far away with a family of my own and I opened the mailbox to a videotape that Dad had put together, apparently with the help of a friend whose cat played a starring role.

I put the tape in the player and saw a sleeping cat stretched across a bed, with Dad playing and singing “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” in the background.  The end shot was of Dad….in an Elvis costume, with the headline “Not Elvis.” 

He taught me to laugh. He taught me to sing. He’s the reason my storytelling goes on and on and on. He taught me to smile even when I didn’t feel like it because my problems weren’t the world’s problems.  He was smart and funny and kind-hearted, creative and wise and strong. He was my father and he was NotElvis.