What I Learned From My Daughter

Last month we took a family vacation that had me, my wife, our 3-year-old son (Dominic), our 1-year-old daughter (Cora), my mom and my dad, my grandmother, my sister and her boyfriend, and my brother, his wife, and their 1-year-old son sharing a beach house on Oneida Lake for a week. (A four generation vacation!) Sylvan Beach was right outside our back door.

On our first afternoon on the beach Dominic very hesitantly took a step into the water. A small wave washed up over his foot, covering it in seaweed. He instantly ran back out of the water declaring “I don’t like that,” and stayed away from it for pretty much the rest of the week.

Cora, on the other hand, charged right in so fast we had to chase after her. She laughed, kicking her feet (sneakers and all because we didn’t think she’d want to go in the water) and stomping and splashing around. She bent down and reached her hands into the water, bringing them back out with little fists full of dirt and mud. She didn’t want to hold anyone’s hand and she didn’t want us holding her back. If it was up to her she would have swam to the other side of the lake just to see what was there. I couldn’t believe how brave and carefree she was.

I’m more like Dominic. Cautious, slower to try new things, untrusting of the unfamiliar. Before I was a parent I never would have thought this was possible, but I admired my 1-year-old for possessing a quality that I just don’t have. She is utterly fearless.

Later that day I carried a tired Cora down the beach, walking slowly along the water’s edge. After a few minutes her head became very heavy against my face and I knew she had fallen asleep.

I walked back up to the deck and laid down on a beach chair with Cora on my chest. Amanda covered us up with a couple of warm, dry towels as blankets. I closed my eyes and just felt the sun shining down on us and listened to the waves gently rolling up to the shore.

As I held my sleeping daughter on that perfect day I thought about the way we spend so much of life. Get up, get ready, get out the door so you can be to work on time, be at this appointment on time, get this work done on time, pick up the kids on time, get dinner made so you can get to bed on time to do it all again tomorrow. You’re trying to get through the day just so you can get to the next one.

When you get away from that you get a chance to live the day at its own pace. You get hungry, you eat. You get tired, you take a nap or go to bed. You laugh with your family, you play with your kids. And sometimes you just don’t do anything at all for a little bit and that is perfectly, wonderfully okay. It is so good for the soul to live life instead of just getting through it. We have gotten so far away from what life could/should be.

Holding Cora and feeling her fast asleep on me, listening to her gentle breathing as I felt a cool breeze blowing over us was the most calm, peaceful, serene moment I can remember in years and I can’t begin to tell you how much I needed it.

I felt like for just that brief moment that Cora was telling me, “It’s okay, Daddy. Don’t worry so much. THIS is what life is.”

I will hold that feeling with me during the stressful times. And I will try to be just a little braver, like my fearless daughter.

vacationcora

Grandpa

The smell of pipe tobacco takes me back like a sensory-fueled time machine. I’m back in the old house on English Road, and Grandpa is sitting on the couch. He’s wearing his blue Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, smoking his pipe, and the old black-and-white Batman serials are on the TV.

I brought over my binder full of Marvel superheroes trading cards to show him, with several new pages of entries since the last time. I tell him who everyone is, and he adds some anecdotes of his own on the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and Captain America; all characters that he remembers fondly from when he was kid like me who read comics and loved superheroes.

Outside in the backyard, I can still smell the faint hint of chlorine in the air and feel the grass under my bare feet. My fingers are damp and wrinkly as I grab another cracker from the small brown bowl on the patio table, and I eat it even though I know it will have a slight pool-water taste.

Grandma has made another batch of her famous peanut-butter chip brownies. There is a whole Tupperware container of them hidden somewhere in the house, a fun tradition that started simply due to the fact that my brother would get into them within seconds of us getting to their house. The brownie treasure hunt only makes them more rewarding and taste that much sweeter.

Val, Josh and I head down to the basement. I can still feel the damp coolness setting in as we walk down the creaky steps. The pool table, the bar with the “Cold Beer” sign, the little old TV, and the bookcase full of mystery novels make it the coolest hangout ever. We stay down there for hours, hiding the pool balls, cracking jokes, playing games and making up stories. When our cousin JD is in town visiting, that basement becomes a whole other world. We have my dad film us with the video camera, making our own zero-budget adventures as we transform the basement into a crime-fighting headquarters, or a seedy underworld tavern where ghetto secret agents do battle with evil scientists.

I’ll always feel a special connection with my grandfather. Not just because we share the same first name or a love of superheroes, but I think because we share the same quiet sense of humor as well. I can still hear him saying “Some joke, eh boss?” and cracking that wry smile. Any time my grandma would ask him to remind her about something, for example if she’d say “Remind me to call Susan,” he would wait approximately three seconds and say, “Hey, don’t forget to call Susan!” I pull that same joke on my wife, Amanda, today. (She finds it about as amusing as my grandma did, which is to say not very!)

Near the end of his life, after he’d had surgery due to throat cancer, he could no longer enjoy the big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners with the family. He’d sit at the table with just a can of Ensure, which was about all he could reasonably consume at one sitting. I didn’t know how he could stand it, sitting there while everyone else was enjoying such amazing food that he could not partake in himself. I am sure it must have bothered him, but he didn’t let it show. Ironically it would only be a few years later, when I was in the very worst stages of my battle with Crohn’s disease, that I would regularly find myself in essentially the same situation, watching family and friends enjoy meals that I knew I’d never be able to touch. The greatest thing I could have ever taken from my grandfather was the ability to keep that sense of humor. I remember vividly, even drinking something as simple as the can of Ensure, when he’d start to gag and choke, going into a brutal coughing fit. He’d put a hand over his mouth, coughing and coughing and coughing, his face turning red as he put up his index finger as a simple “wait a minute” indicator… and then, when the coughing fit finally passed, he’d clear his throat, blink his eyes a few times, and say “Boy! That’s good stuff!”

It’s been 12 years now that he’s been gone. But, whenever I catch a smell of pipe tobacco, it’s like he’s still there, sitting on the couch, ready to look at my latest batch of Marvel cards and reminisce about the Golden Age of superheroes with his grandson.

Christmas Eve at Mema’s

It’s Christmas Eve and I am five years old. I am at Mema and Pepa’s house for a big Christmas Eve party. Packed into the small sunroom at the back of the house are Aunt Karen and Cousin Nick, Aunt Jeneane and Uncle George, Aunt Chris, Great Aunt Marian, and of course Mema and Pepa, my parents, and my baby sister Valerie.  The picture windows reveal fresh-falling snow against the nighttime sky while the wood burning stove keeps the room all toasty and warm.

Presents are being handed to us kids faster than we can open them. Mom asks me who that Thundercat action figure is from, trying to formulate a thank-you card list in her head. It’s too late, Mom, that was three presents ago and I don’t even remember who gave me the one I am opening right now.

Christmas music plays softly in the background, just beneath the sound of ripping wrapping paper, the click-clack-flash of cameras, the clinking of glasses, and of course the sounds of laughter. I swear I just heard a “Ho Ho Ho!” from the other room. I think it was Pepa, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if Santa himself couldn’t resist making a brief cameo at this shindig.

The food that is laid out on the dining room table looks like it could feed a group ten times this size. Turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, salad, biscuits, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce. Of course I’m too picky to appreciate half of it at age five, but even I can’t deny that the aroma in the air is enough to make your stomach growl.

Nick and I stage an epic fight between my Silverhawks and his Ninja Turtles, ducking behind piles of presents that form the battlefield. The floor is covered with cookies, Muscle Men, Ghostbuster Cereal, Pee-Wee colorforms, and trucks that go wheelies. We play and giggle until we are exhausted.

Finally the time comes to trek back out into the snow and pile into the car. It’s freezing cold in the back seat and my mom wraps a blanket around me. As we drive home I look at my little sister asleep in her carseat. I look out the window at the snow, still falling so gently down from the pitch-black sky. I stare in wonder at each house that is lit up with Christmas lights as my eyelids start to get heavy. I think about the fact that tomorrow morning is Christmas, and there will be even more presents and fun to be had.

I drift off to sleep in the back seat feeling warm, safe, and content. That feeling is what Christmas Eve is to me.

Media Play Nights & Pizza Hut Buffet

If you don’t remember the store Media Play, you missed out on what was probably the coolest store of all time (“all time” meaning if you were a teenager growing up in the 90s). Looking for a new CD or DVD? Maybe the latest video game? How about a poster for your bedroom wall? Perhaps a book or magazine? A t-shirt of your favorite band, or a bumper sticker, or an action figure? Pretty much everything that my siblings and I were into circa 1999.

My younger sister Val and I were members of Media Play’s illustrious Rewards Club. It’s not an uncommon idea now, but at the time it was a bit more innovative: you get a club card that keeps track of your purchases and racks up points every time you buy something. Once you get X number of points, you can get coupons for free stuff. The best part? Once every few months Media Play would host a V.I.P. night where the store stayed open late for members only and you earned triple points on everything you bought. They also had free snacks and drinks, and they even brought in a live band a couple of times to really make it feel like a big deal.

These V.I.P. nights debuted right as three other stars happened to align: I had my driver’s license, I got my own car, and I was able to drive after 9:00 p.m. This opened up the whole new world of possibilities that came with not having to ask Mom and Dad for a ride anymore. Any time a letter came in the mail informing us of an upcoming V.I.P. night (that’s right, they notified you by mail – nowadays it would surely be an email or a text alert sent to your phone), we would clear our schedules and start making a list of what we wanted to shop for.

I’m not sure when the first time was that we invited our little brother Josh to come along as a “special guest,” but he quickly became a staple of our MP outings as well. Being able to be out somewhere, just the three kids, no adult supervision – at night, no less! – was a real thrill. Sometimes we didn’t even buy anything if money was tight or nothing caught our interest that night (it was rare, but it happened). Just the fun of going out and doing something was enough to make it exciting.

Media Play just happened to be right next to Friendly’s, so the tradition of getting ice cream for the ride home was quickly added to the routine.

The other recurring outing for the Dimino kids was Pizza Hut Lunch Buffet. This one was harder to coordinate because they do not do the buffet on weekends, so it would have to be done on a day off or half day from school. We took Pizza Hut Buffet very seriously. All the pizza, pasta, and breadsticks you could eat (and salad, but let’s not kid ourselves, we weren’t there to eat salad) for like five bucks? This was not just a good deal, this was an opportunity we had to take full advantage of.

Timing was critical. You wanted to get there right at the start of the buffet so the freshest pizza would be available and you would have the maximum amount of time to eat. Pacing yourself was key, though. Down too much food right out of the gate and you were bound to hit the wall too fast. We would often remind each other to take breaks, using the downtime as an opportunity to scope out what new pizzas may have come out in the last few minutes. We had to keep a special watchful eye out for the elusive “plain cheese,” as that was the one and only pizza that Josh would eat. On the ride home we would compare notes on who had eaten the most, tallying up our total slices consumed. (By the time we got home the triumph had usually turned to regret as we all began to question why we had eaten so much, but that last part was forgotten by the time the next PHB outing rolled around.)

I look back on this era of MP Nights and Pizza Hut Buffets fondly. In many ways, this was when Val, Josh, and I stopped being just siblings, and started to really become friends.

Murder At The Convent: The True Story Revealed

Every year on Easter we have a big family reunion at my Great Aunt Marian’s convent. Relatives come from all over, many flying in from out of state to attend the annual gathering and share in a good meal, visit with family and catch up with everyone.

Well one year (circa 1999) I brought my video camera, and my cousin Nick and I thought it would be a fun idea to shoot a murder mystery during the family reunion.

It was kind of carrying on a tradition in a weird sort of way.  When Nick and I were little kids we used to have sleepovers at the convent sometimes (that sounds a little strange now that I am typing it here, but trust me, it’s cool), and we would always come up with some kind of play or skit to perform in the courtyard for Aunt Marian and any other nuns that might be lucky enough to be around to attend.  This was just an extension of that, only with a video camera this time.

The convent was a place that truly captured our imaginations when we were little.  It was so huge to us as kids, with long hallways that seemed to stretch on for miles, dozens of rooms, and a small chapel at the end of one hallway.  Spending the night there was like the setting for some kind of Narnia-esque adventure tale.

So that Easter, while most of our relatives were contemplating a second plate of ham and talking about how much the kids had grown over the last year, we were planning out our murder mystery movie.  “Murder At The Convent” would feature Nick and myself as two police detectives investigating a homicide at a convent.  The victim, one of the nuns, was killed by a young orphan in her care (played by my brother Josh), but we would need to do some detective work to figure that out of course.  Here was the fun twist that we came up with – our relatives were going to be in the movie without knowing what it was.  We would interview them, in character as police detectives investigating the people who knew the murdered sister, without our loved ones knowing we were throwing them into the middle of a murder scene.

Nick was brilliant.  He never broke character.  Every question he asked to an aunt or cousin seemed like he was talking about our dear Aunt Marian, but it also worked in the context of a detective investigating a murder.  No one seemed to pick up on the fact that he kept talking in the past tense somehow.  “So she WAS” this, or “So she DID” that… At one point he had to clarify that “I even find myself referring to her as Aunt Marian” to explain why his detective character would be calling the deceased his aunt.

Through the course of these interviews we ended up getting some pretty heartfelt responses from relatives who thought we were interviewing them about Aunt Marian.  Aunt Virginia talked about how Aunt Marian helped Aunt Penny learn to play the piano and inspired her to play at a level far beyond other girls her age.  Cousin Martie talked about how Aunt Marian always seemed to be able to find the perfect Christmas present for everyone.  Some of the little kid cousins raved about the egg hunt that she organized as part of the Easter gathering every year (they were also apparently under the impression that she hand-made all the candy).

And because of this, the rumor got out that we were making a tribute video to Aunt Marian.  And the rumor made its way back to us, because now everyone wanted to know when we were going to show the tribute video.

That was pretty much when we realized how horrible this was going to be, when a room full of our relatives from all over the country gathered together to watch a loving tribute video to our great aunt, a nun, the woman who tirelessly organized and hosted a gigantic family reunion for everyone year after year… only to find that they are watching a movie where we have seemingly killed that dear sweet woman off.

The last few minutes of the video are a hastily recorded apology, where Nick and I sheepishly say that we never meant for it to go this far and that we really love Aunt Marian and meant no disrespect, and then we pull about a dozen of the little kid cousins into the room and everyone says in unison “We love you, Aunt Marian!”

Even so, we could not bring ourselves to show the video.  We did debate it for awhile.  Could we get away with it, maybe if we issued some type of disclaimer before we started it, explaining all of this?  Well, considering the opening scene is my cousin Nick, wearing a sheet like a habit, kneeling in front of the altar in the chapel, when you hear a loud BANG sound effect…  no, we could not show this video.  We had made a horrible mistake.  This video could never be shown to anyone, ever.

We put the camera away.  Anyone who asked about the tribute was told that we were not able to finish it and that we would have to show it some other time. 

A select few have seen it since then.  They know the story and they think it’s hilarious.  Some of it actually is quite funny.  As I said before, Nick’s ad-libbed, dual-meaning interview questions are truly something to behold.  And the unprompted thoughts and feelings of the relatives who really are sharing true stories about Aunt Marian are touching. 

(But even now, 15 years later, I wouldn’t show that thing at the Easter reunion if you paid me to!)

The Glory Days of Chuck E. Cheese

The Chuck E. Cheese restaurants of today bear little resemblance to the one I knew from my childhood in the 1980s.  Today the inside of a Chuck E. Cheese is wide open so you can easily see everyone and everything from wall to wall.  The tables where you eat your pizza, the video games, the rides, and the tiny little stage with one single animatronic singing Chuck E. are well within anyone’s view no matter where you are.

In the 1980s Chuck E. Cheese was the kid equivalent of the wild west.  As a parent it was a nightmare because it was nearly impossible to keep an eye on your kid at all times.  As a kid it was awesome because it was nearly impossible for your parents to keep an eye on you. 

The Chuck E. Cheese of the 1980s was split up into three or four different rooms or areas.  There was the main dining room where you could sit down, eat pizza, and watch as six or seven animatronic characters sang and danced for your entertainment (each one appeared in their own little “window” – Chuck E. was one of them of course, along with a bird, a dog, a purple monster, and an Italian chef who I presume was the one who allegedly made the pizza you were eating). Then there was another, smaller dining room that featured a full size animatronic character that was some kind of Elvis knockoff cat or something.  Outside that dining room was a hallway with row upon row of arcade-style video games that led into an even bigger game room, with more arcade games, some small rides, and then the big train that you could ride on as well (into a tunnel, where, again, your parents couldn’t see you).  So if you were a parent out with a group of kids, unless there was a 1 adult to 1 kid ratio in your group you were pretty much guaranteed to lose track of someone at some point.  

As a kid it was pretty much the most exciting place you could possibly go.  It seemed huge, and the multiple rooms just added to the sense of mystery and wonder about it.  As much fun as your were having, you were always kind of wondering if maybe there was something even more fun you could be doing elsewhere.  It was the only place you could sit down with the absolute best kid-food in the world – pizza – right in front of you, and you barely even cared about it because you were so eager to go dive into the ball crawl or ride the little Chuck E. merry-go-round.  So you inhaled your pizza, guzzled down a glass or two of sugary soda, then darted off at full speed into a world of fun and games.

There was always kind of a feeling like you shouldn’t be there.  It was dark, it was loud, there were flashing lights, and those robots that were so cool were also at least a little bit scary.  It was like you were on Pleasure Island from Pinocchio.  If you stayed there long enough you were probably going to turn into a jackass.

At one point, in one of the most ill-conceived ideas ever, there was a small “mouse hole” under the stage in the main dining room.  I know I have said several times already in this blog that one of the thrills of Chuck E. Cheese was losing your parents, but this took it to the extreme.  The mouse hole was a little crawl-space area that was only big enough for kids to enter.  Not only could your parents not see you, but they couldn’t get to you if your life depended on it.  And one time, for me and my cousin Nick, it wasn’t far off.  We couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old when we crawled into the mouse hole one time to find that two other little kids were already inside holding sharp sticks.  They told us that this was their mouse hole, and if we didn’t get out of there right now they were going to stab us.  (I am dead serious about this, and it is probably one of my earliest clear memories.  I remember being scared and wanting to get out right away, and I remember Nick with a really angry and determined look on his face.  I think if it had come down to it Nick would have opted to fight for the mouse hole, but I probably convinced him we should run away and tell our parents.)  The next time we came to Chuck E. Cheese the mouse hole was closed up.  

That Chuck E. Cheese closed down sometime in the 1990s.  Years later they tore down most of that plaza and then built a Lowe’s on that spot.  Then, just a year or two after that, they tore down the old Cine 8 movie theater and built one of the new-style, lame Chuck E. Cheese’s where you can see everyone and everything.  

But during those years when the original Chuck E. Cheese was closed down but still standing, I would often drive past it and wonder what it would be like if you could go inside.  Suppose you could break the locks off the door and sneak into that closed down Chuck E. Cheese.  How much had they cleaned the place out, and how much was still standing?  Were the old animatronic robots still there, frozen and lifeless in their darkened windows?  What about the giant Elvis cat?  Would there be balls in the ball crawl, or would it just be a big empty mesh cage?  Was the big train still there, or would you just find empty tracks leading into that dark tunnel?  The strange, skeletal remains of the wondrous childhood Pleasure Island, the 1980s Chuck E. Cheese. 

The Thrill of “Note Hide-and-Seek”

Every kid played Hide-and-Seek growing up.  It was a requisite childhood game.  The concept couldn’t be simpler, and the name said it all; someone hides and then you try to find them.  Well, at some point when we were kids we decided to throw a twist on the game and add a new element, and “Note Hide-and-Seek” was born.

Instead of just trying to find someone who could be hiding anywhere, you had to follow a series of written notes that pointed you to different areas to look.  The final clue would basically tell you where the person was hiding.  (To be clear, you weren’t exactly trying to crack the DaVinci Code here.  A note might say something like “I could go for a glass of milk,” and then you’d find the next note in the refrigerator.   You didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to interpret these clues.)

The planning was what took the longest.  From the moment we decided to play a game of Note Hide-and-Seek to the time anyone actually hid would sometimes take a good 45 minutes to an hour as we each planned not just our hiding spot, but also mapped out our path of clues and filled out post-it note after post-it note.  Then, depending on who was going first, you might not even get to put your plan into action until much later.  Hopefully by the time your turn came around you still remembered what you had in mind!

When it was your turn to hide you would designate a room as “the counting room.”  Everyone else (usually the players were me, Val, Josh, and Dad) would wait there while you ran around and hid all of your notes.  Then you would return and tell everyone to count to 30 as well as where to find the first note, and then go hide.  Then the other players would embark in their journey to find each of your notes, and then, ultimately, you.

If you did your planning very carefully you could pull off some tricky maneuvers.  Since you knew the sequence of your notes, you would know exactly where the “seekers” were going to be at any given time.  Let’s say I made my room the “counting room,” and I knew that my first note would send everyone downstairs.  As soon as they were gone I could then go into my room and hide, having the game end where it began.  Or, as long as you were careful, you could continue hiding notes as you went and have the trail double back, re-using rooms the “seekers” had already been in and creating a real feeling of being one step ahead of your pursuers.  It’s like you were the freaking Riddler trying to stay a step ahead of Batman.

As the games went on they got gradually more elaborate, and we would try to find ways to keep it fresh and do things that hadn’t been done before.  A note might refer to a book, and then the next note would be hidden between the pages.  You might have to go outside and get a clue out of the car.  One time I even recorded one of the clues on my taperecorder and then left it out with a note that said “Play Me.”  

Since the last clue would lead you right to where the person was hiding, finding the person wasn’t really the challenge of the game.  The real thrill and the real fun of Note Hide-and-Seek was when you got to put your plan into action, knowing that everyone else would be following the trail that you had set up.