Eleven Years

I’ve spent most of this day in reflection and contemplation.  How that could possibly be different than any other day is a riddle to me.  But this particular occasion marks the eleventh anniversary of Thomas Maenpaa’s death.  He was a good man, one that aspired to be a great man – not great in the world-sweeping change sort of way, but great in the impact he had on others.

My dad and I were close while he was alive, despite the difficulties and disagreements we had.  His absence in my life has been significant, though I’m sure it has contributed to my strength.  Now, with my own fatherhood visible on the horizon, it has cast his absence in a whole new light.  No longer is it about the things he’s missed in my life – graduation, adventure, marriage – but what he’s going to miss in the lives of my future children.  And what they’ll miss by not knowing him.

All these thoughts cluster in my mind, fragments at times or lingering details.  Sad and mildly frightening things – like not being able to instantly summon his voice in my ear.  Working to remember the little things, like the way he smelled.t

So I went hiking today, to get closer to his memory and to get some peace and quiet.  Colorado Chautauqua is within the city limits, with trails leading up into the Flatiron Mountains.  It was on the chilly side, a bit damp and gray – perfect weather for hiking.  I took my time, did a nice couple mile loop.  Brought some leftover pizza for lunch and a lot of water.

So a little past halfway, and a lot of uphill, I find a nice spot to sit.  I had started a poem and was intent on finishing it.  And I figured that pizza would be good right about then.  So I sat there, eating cold pizza on a misty day in the woods, thinking about my father.  I had an epiphany right there – that moment, a culmination of my memories of him – it all came down to eating cold pizza in the woods.  He could have been sitting right next to me, telling me about some tree or flower, or showing me a caterpillar or strangely shaped piece of bark.  And in a way, he was.

Cold Pepperoni Pizza

They say that time heals all wounds, but I think that’s absolute poppycock.  Scars remain, and scars can be more painful than the rend that made them.  But I feel closer to him now than I have in years, better able to understand him even if I can’t actually speak to him.  All I can do is try to be as good to my kids as he was to me, to love them and teach them and show them the beauty of the world.

I’ll finish this off, before I begin to ramble.  Here’s that poem:

Observance and Reflection 2011

Walking through rain-soaked woods
In a world shrouded by mist
Tangled up with tatters of the past
And glimmers of a thousand futures

Fatherhood dwells on the edge of mystery
An endless pattern in the fabric
I wonder what he would say
And for a moment I can't remember
The sound of his voice

We'll never know those answers
But I can imagine
I can talk to him in dreams
But he still won't answer questions
Should I fear his legacy
or welcome it?
Will my child be cursed?

Both thoughts and rock are chilly
And purposefully oblique
But at the core all is bright
Except the rock

New life, the gift of bright fire
Brought with love and joy
No longer living through other's missteps
But still learning from my own
Closer to peace

The Obligatory Holiday Post

The OHP is one of those unavoidable realities if you decide you want to share your opinions on the internet.  You must make a holiday post, wishing well and merry spirits to your loyal readership.  So the ten of you out there, happy holidays.

I’m one of those people that hates the holidays.  Oh yes, the crowds, the noise, the incessant Christmas music and the constant visual bombardment of Holiday Theme.  Sure I have fond childhood memories of Christmas Eve waiting for Santa, whom I knew to be my parents but was still exciting.  I remember riding in the back of my grandparent’s Ford Bronco on the way home from church.  I would look up at the stars, trying to spot Santa’s sleigh.  My uncle would point up in the sky at a flashing red light (satellite, plane, antennae, etc…) and say “Look Ralphie, its Rudolph leading Santa’s sleigh.”  I would get excited, and when we got home the presents would be under the tree.  Santa had been there!

Nevermind my dad packing me in with the relatives to drive back from church, so that he could rush home before us and pull out the ‘Santa’ presents.  I didn’t care.  I led the bizarre, present-rich life of a child with divorced parents.  After the Christmas Eve festivities, when all my presents were packed into my dad’s pickup and I was sleeping off a sugar coma, he would drive me to a mall.  This was the halfway point between where my parents lived.  My mom lived closer to Chicago, dad out in the western ‘burbs.  I would be sleepily transferred between vehicles, along with whatever presents I couldn’t live without until the following weekend.  My mom would ask me what I got, making me talk to her so that she would stay awake.  I remember being bundled into the puffy marshmallow coat, and that in collusion with the car heater, would put me right back to sleep.

The next morning I would wake up abominably early, as children are wont to do on Christmas Morning, scurrying to the living room to unwrap presents.  Only my mother was usually still sleeping.  Maybe I’m mixing memories here.  My parents divorced when I was 7, though my dad’s family always traditionally gathered on Christmas Eve and my mom’s family on Christmas Day.  The summer before 6th Grade, my mom and soon-to-be stepdad moved from Elgin to Oak Park.  So I was older, long past the age of caring about Santa, during most of these festivities.

Then, when I was 17, my father passed away from abdominal cancer and the whole holiday situation changed for me.  My dad always loved Christmas, would always get the biggest tree, would always decorate the house and have a swell party.  Christmas tunes would be heard in the house shortly after Thanksgiving.  My mother converted to Judaism when I was 12.  So then, I got Christmas and Hannukah.  But I started to lose the holiday cheer after he passed.  This post has become long and rambly, but I’m winding my way down to a point.  The point I mentioned earlier.  I hate the holidays.

Without my father’s enthusiasm for Christmas, I stopped caring.  All I could feel around the holidays was the hole in my life where he had been.  I went to celebrate the holidays with both families, but I was just going through the motions.  Instead of the time of joy and cheer, I could only think about the loss and grief.  I was too blinded by it to remember the family I still had.

That faded too.  Christmas is still rough.  I still miss my dad.   But now my reasons for disliking the holidays have changed.  Now I see Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving, here Christmas music before Thanksgiving and am bombarded by rampant, unwieldy commercialism.  Now its buy, buy, buy!  Christmas at a profit, and I’m not the first to make this rant so I’ll cut it short.  For me I feel that the holidays in general have lost their purpose.  For me, a holiday like Christmas is less about religion, less about buying things for other people and hoping I get some bitchin’ awesome presents.  Christmas to me is about family, about loving each other and caring, and taking a day out of the year to be with each other.

So what did I do to enforce that Christmas spirit in myself?  I moved a couple thousand miles away from my family.  Well, that wasn’t really my goal.  But it is an an unpleasant side effect.  I moved to California with my wife because we thought it was the best idea at the time.  But distant makes the heart grow fonder, and as the holidays roll through, I miss my family.  I miss those Christmas Eve nights, even if they were awkward and uncomfortable at times.  I miss the raucous and lively chaos of my mom’s family, 30 people filling my grandmother’s basement for 6 hours.

Once upon a time, maybe a couple years ago, I would’ve just been sad and depressed.  I would have most contentedly wallowed in the bleakness of the season, writing atrocious poetry about Santa’s helper, Black Peter, swapping my heart for a lump of coal.  Or something.  But as I attempt to build a family of my own, I must build a new tradition.  So often we cling to our past, lauding it as a golden time which will never be recaptured.  Half of that is right.  You don’t get to go back.  Instead, we build for the future.

This year I’ll spend Christmastime with my in-laws, who are kind enough to fly in and spend the holiday with us.  I can’t think of anything better than spending it with my wife and her parents.  That’s not entirely true, of course, but the holiday is still a time of joy.  Celebrate what you have, instead of mourning what you don’t.


Merry X-mas.