IRONING

Preparing to go out to dinner with our daughter, Sarah, her boyfriend, Matt, and his parents for the first time, I am more careful than usual in selecting my outfit. Though assured the restaurant is “extremely casual,” I garner my wife, Katie’s approval by selecting long pants instead of shorts, shoes instead of tennis shoes, and a brand-new polo shirt instead of a golden oldie.
“This is nerve-wracking,” I say. “It’s like going out on a first date.”
“That’s silly,” says Katie. “It’s just dinner.”
“This is a rite of passage,” I say. “We’re now old enough to meet our kids’ romantic partners’ parents with all kinds of freight attached. We might know these people for the rest of our lives.”
“I hate to tell you, but we’ve been old enough for a long time,” she says.
Fresh out of the package, my purple (Sarah’s favorite color) shirt is
creased.
“This needs ironing,” I say, hoping Katie will volunteer.
She doesn’t bite. “Make sure you use steam,” she says.
lroning is a rare activity in my life. Several times a year, I enter the laundry room, open the ironing board, and semi-competently run the hot appliance over a shirt or two. I’ve never mastered the liquid, however. I’m always wondering about technique: “Do I pour water on the shirt? What button do I press to get steam?” lf only I’d paid attention as a child, I would be an expert.

Throughout my early-mid 1960’s childhood, on Tuesdays, Naomi presided over our basement rec room. She was what was called “an ironing lady.” Though she was probably in her forties, I always thought she was elderly, since she stood on solid, black “old-lady shoes” and wore compression stockings that bunched up around her shins. Heavyset and dark-skinned, Naomi also apparently wore a variety of wigs. I would never have noticed such a detail if her style, color and length didn’t change nearly every week.
We’d had a succession of “cleaning ladies” when I grew up. We weren’t wealthy to the extent that we had full-time help, but it was typical in our middle class neighborhood to have a once-a-week cleaner. Among the several I remember were toothless Essie, who could not be understood; beautiful-accented Pearl from Trinidad who was incredibly kind; and, Corinne, black as night, who always came to work in a meticulous uniform of white stockings and black top fringed with white lace, and who proudly told us she’d once worked at a Dupont estate in Delaware.
Each of these women, and numerous others whose names I cannot recall, moved in and out of our lives within a year or two. The one constant was Naomi. She held dominion over the basement; at least, that’s how I viewed it.

When I came home from school on Tuesdays, I opened the basement door and went down to say “hello.” Once, when I was six or seven, I forgot to do so, and Naomi came upstairs, found me in the kitchen, and asked: “What, you’re too busy to say ‘hello’? You’re too important?” I never forgot again.
Visible at the bottom of the stairs was a green and white-checkered linoleum floor, a low, seven-foot ceiling, knotted-wood paneling, several old couches, and a black-and-white television with rabbit ears, that often failed to hold the picture horizontal. In the middle of the room, presiding over the ironing board, with a pile of clothing nearby, stood Naomi. While she worked, the iron hissed and sighed, like an old, asthmatic man struggling to reach the top of a flight of stairs.
I don’t recall many specifics from our conversations. Naomi asked me about school. I probably volunteered information about my little league baseball team. But I do recall she had opinions. Though she watched soap operas on the old television much of the time, she also watched news programs.
“That Nixon, he’s a nasty one,” she said.
Another time, she declared: “Vietnam is a waste of our young men.”
I’d never heard a cleaning lady offer an opinion on a subject not related to grease removal or vacuuming. I respected Naomi for her outspokenness.

The only gripe I had with Naomi concerned coffee ice cream, a staple of my diet. My favorite brand was Breyer’s, and we usually had a container in the freezer. Every Tuesday, I noticed, the half-gallon took a significant hit. When I was about eight, one Tuesday morning before I left for school, I built a barricade in the freezer around a brand-new ice cream carton. It was the first thing I checked when I returned home that afternoon. As I’d feared, Naomi had managed to remove the ice cube trays, packages of chicken and other food I’d placed in its way, found the ice cream, and made a monstrous gouge in the block.
Since I was always at school or camp when Naomi had lunch, I didn’t know if my mother had told her to help herself to the contents of the refrigerator, or just dessert. All I knew is I was angry Naomi felt entitled to systematically root through our freezer to get at “my” ice cream. I knew she knew that I had tried to hide the ice cream. Yet, she’d intentionally defied me. I recall our conversation that day was short and strained.

When I was ten or eleven, a transit strike hobbled Philadelphia’s buses. The first week, Naomi didn’t come to work. But the second week, with a pile of dirty clothing growing unmanageable, I overheard my mother arrange a taxi to pick up Naomi. At the end of the day, when it was time for my father to take Naomi home, I asked to go along. From the back seat, I watched wide-eyed as we traveled to a neighborhood I’d never seen before. The row houses were tiny and the side streets so thin only one car at a time could fit.
“Make sure your door is locked,” said my father, at one point, his words hanging in the air like a dark cloud.
There were bars on every corner and men hanging around, smoking and drinking out of bottles barely concealed by paper bags. I recall being petrified we would suffer a flat tire from the pot-holes and trolley tracks that blighted the streets.
Naomi stared straight ahead. The ride might only have taken twenty minutes, but it felt like hours in the silence. Finally, pointing to the right, she said, “That’s it. Turn there.”
My father carefully swung into a dimly-lit street. Midway to the other end, Naomi said: “That’s good. Thank you.” She got out, and we watched Naomi slowly climb a flight of stairs and disappear behind a small, wooden door. Several of the neighboring houses were boarded-up.
“Do you want to move to the front seat?” asked my father.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t mind it back here.”
What I really meant was: “I’m afraid to step out of the car.

Naomi continued to work for my parents until I went to college, though her visits were less frequent. My mother said she drifted out of our lives due to health issues. I’d looked at her more sympathetically after that ride to her home. It’s not that I wasn’t aware her circumstances were difficult, it’s just hard to picture for a youngster without actually witnessing it. Nothing really changed in our conversations as I matured; but I never attempted to hide the ice cream again.


LARGER THAN LIFE

I was born in 1956 to a household devoid of hero worship. We enjoyed movies and shows, but it wasn’t in our make-up to fawn over actors or entertainers; though my siblings and I were sports-minded, we didn’t collect autographs or have posters on the walls. There were baseball players we rooted for, but no one we loved. Perhaps, the futility of the Phillies in the early 1960’s had something to do with that. Still, even if they’d won more, I doubt I would have declared a personal “favorite.”
My father neither participated in nor was interested in sports. He may have had athletic genes, but they weren’t developed in a childhood spent selling cigarettes to the White and Red Russian soldiers who alternately took control of his neighborhood in Kiev. It fell upon my older brothers to teach me the rudiments of ball-playing and my mother to take me to such landmark events as “my first major league baseball game.” She also was the rare mother on the sidelines of my little league games.

The “athlete” in our extended family was my Uncle, Lou Fox, who’d married my mother’s sister and lived in Chicago. With prematurely white hair, he was called “The Silver Fox.” His sports were bowling and golf, and I grew up with the impression he was a professional. I avidly followed news of his tournament wins and looked forward to basking in his glow at some point.
With my father tethered to his clothing store seven-days-a-week, our family rarely traveled. Uncle Lou’s wife, Aunt Fran, returned to visit the family in Philadelphia fairly regularly. I don’t have any recollection of Uncle Lou visiting in my earliest years, though I’m sure he did.
What I recall with an odd mixture of vividness and haziness is my now-almost-fifty-years-ago visit to Chicago, in 1965, with my mother. As the trip approached, Uncle Lou had promised over the telephone to play ball with me, take me to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and also take me to his bowling alley. So excited was I at the prospect of all three activities, my first lifetime plane flight barely registered.
Upon arrival at my aunt and uncle’s low-slung brick bungalow, I made two observations: my aunt had plastic on all the sofas, so indoor ball-playing was unlikely, and there wasn’t much outdoor space, either. Still, Uncle Lou appeared immediately in the living room with a ball and two gloves and took me to the tiny rear yard to play catch. There he informed me that due to tragically bad timing, the Cubs were out-of-town the entire duration of our visit, so a visit to the iconic stadium would be impossible.
“Can we go to a White Sox game?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No one goes to the White Sox games. The neighborhood is too dangerous.”
I couldn’t imagine anywhere more dangerous than the area near Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, where I’d seen my mother pay a dollar to local street urchins to “watch our car.” I must have looked crestfallen.
“But there is a solution,” announced my uncle. “This weekend, we’ll drive to Milwaukee and see the Braves.”
Though the Braves lacked the magical aura of the Cubs, the notion that we would drive one hundred miles to a baseball game was immensely exciting. My family would never have considered such an adventure.
Though not the sort of kid to jump up and down and yell, “Yippee!” I’m certain I expressed excitement, since my uncle was showing me a whole different way of approaching life.

During the several days leading up to the trip to Milwaukee, Uncle Lou took me to “his” bowling alley. At the time, I thought he had an ownership interest, though I eventually learned he was just a very accomplished, regular bowler, who was acquainted with all the men behind the counter. He arranged for me to play “as long as I wanted” while he went off to work at his real job at a ceramics factory.
I recall the initial thrill of having a whole bowling alley practically to myself, since it was mid-morning on a weekday. I played game after game until I couldn’t lift my arm. When Uncle Lou returned to bring me home, he asked if I wanted to play again the next day. Considering the blisters on several fingers, I declined.
We drove home in my uncle’s brand-new Buick Electra 225. The car was massive, and it was the first time I’d ever seen power windows and air conditioning.
“This smells new,” I said admiringly.
“I get a new car every year,” said Uncle Lou.
“You do?” I said, trying to imagine such extravagance.
“Yep,” he said.
I gazed out the window awestruck.

When the day finally arrived for the trip to Milwaukee, my mother, Aunt Fran and I piled into the Buick.
“We’re eating at Frenchie’s before the game,” declared Uncle Lou.
“Will they have hamburgers?” I asked.
Everyone laughed. Hamburgers were all I ever ordered. That phase ended sometime in my twenties.
“You’ll like it,” he said. “It’s not a typical restaurant.”
Sure enough, Frenchie’s was a first for me. Apparently, in Milwaukee, it was an institution, “THE” downtown steakhouse with massive portions delivered by scantily-clad waitresses in fishnet stockings and high heels. I couldn’t find hamburgers on the menu, but Uncle Lou declared: “Don’t worry about it. You’ll like the food.”
He proceeded to order a Delmonico steak for me. In the re-telling over the years, the size of the steak has grown from ten to twelve to sixteen to, perhaps, twenty-four or thirty-two ounces. All I remember is that it was ENORMOUS and I ate the whole thing.
I also recall that Uncle Lou sat at the head of the table and commanded the room. With a sparkle in his eye, he was handsome and elegant. He joked boisterously with the waitresses and the other patrons. My mother, aunt and perhaps my cousins were present, too, but I only noticed my uncle. He was a force of nature, magnetic and charming.

The ballgame proved memorable, primarily for what was lacking. The Braves had declared their intention to move to Atlanta before the 1965 season, but the move was delayed by legal wrangling. With the impending move confirmed by the time of our visit, Milwaukee fans boycotted the games, so we found ourselves in a 50,000 seat stadium with fewer than 500 other people. It was dreary to watch a game amidst such emptiness, but if ever an eight-year-old had a good chance to retrieve a foul ball, this was it. Unfortunately, no luck. I recall the Cincinnati Reds, with a young player named Pete Rose, beat the Braves.
The drive home proved more memorable. A mid-western thunderstorm of epic proportions rolled in and multiple lightning strikes were visible simultaneously across the flat landscape. At first, I was scared of the noisy storm, but Uncle Lou approached driving through it like another exciting adventure, shouting “boom” with each burst of thunder. Eventually, I curled up on the vast, boat-like backseat of the Buick, and fell asleep amidst nature’s fireworks which were matched only by the dazzling good cheer of my uncle.
When we returned to Philadelphia, I suffered pangs of conscience because I wished my father were more like Uncle Lou. Though dependable and doting, my father lacked bravado and sportiness. He’d apparently used up all his sense of adventure finding his way to this country, via Poland and Cuba, back in the 1920’s. But time and attention shift quickly in the life of a child; after several weeks, I didn’t ponder Uncle Lou’s qualities again, and I appreciated my father’s unceasing, unquestionable devotion.

Just a few years after our visit, my Aunt Fran was diagnosed with cancer. She fought a hard and bitter fight and deserved every bit of sympathy for her misfortune and her struggle. However, she was not one of those cancer sufferers who appear on the last segment of the evening news for inspiring those around them with an amazing attitude. She was angry and she was depressed.
From a distance, it was my understanding Uncle Lou proved a steadfast partner. But after several years, his wife’s fight against the disease sapped his energy, too. When they visited Philadelphia together, he golfed one day with my brother, David, and me. By now, I was aware he was not a professional golfer. Probably, the eight-year-old me thought being a “club champion” conferred professional status that my twelve-year-old self understood did not. Still, he was an excellent player. The buoyancy in his personality was diminished, however.
At the risk of stereotyping, perhaps men in that era did not keep in touch as much as women. After Aunt Fran died, we rarely heard from Uncle Lou, and my only source of news about my uncle came from overhearing my mother’s discussions with my father. I learned he re-married fairly quickly to a long-time family friend whose husband had also died. He played lots of golf in Florida. As far as I could tell, no one in our family begrudged him his remarriage; he’d suffered enough.

I’m not sure my Uncle Lou was a “hero” to me. I didn’t know him well enough, or spend enough time with him to form a meaningful relationship. But for that one week in the summer of ’65, I couldn’t help but think the earth and sky crackled around him. And it wasn’t just because of the lightning.


AGING

Thursday is senior citizens day at our local supermarket, Harris Teeter, where shoppers over sixty receive a 5% discount. Fully aware that I am approaching that age in several years, I still make some smug calculations when I encounter discount day. For instance, I steer clear of the self-checkout lines, since the “seniors” are even less technologically able than I, and always seem to get stuck. I also avoid crowded aisles where the carts move more slowly than molasses. And I park in a far-off corner of the lot, since the ding potential from those beige Buick’s is tremendous. Imagine my surprise and dismay, therefore, when the checkout girl deducted 5% from my total last Thursday, without even the decency to ASK if I qualified.
“Do I look that old?” I nearly blurted, but then thought: “If they’re going to insult me by saying I look old, I’m keeping the $2.59.” Still, another milestone on the journey of life was passed.
“What other indignities are ahead?” I asked my wife, Katie, when I arrived home.
“Be happy you’re alive and healthy,” she said.
“You’re right,” I agreed, reluctantly. But I still didn’t like this small intimation of death, like a leaf falling from a tree in late-September.

I’m not certain when I first recognized my own mortality. I was probably around forty when I calculated I was at, or close to, the “back-nine” of life, actuarially-speaking. Yet, at that time, I was still intensely busy at work and ably performing in tennis, softball and soccer. At home, my children were young, and life was simply too busy to pause for reflection, especially on a topic that had no solution, no upside, and no negotiation.
Life is different now. All three children are finished with college and established in their own lives. I retired from real estate law five years ago. If I don’t make an effort to keep busy writing or exercising, reading, or traveling, thoughts of aging creep in, like the grey hair now surrounding my temples.
The realm of athletics is a microcosm, I think, for the issue of aging. There is an inexorable trajectory, from youthful obliviousness, to full-throttle power, to coasting “at the top of your game,” to reluctant recognition that maintenance is all you can hope for before, finally, slowing down.
At fifty, in recognition of the arrival of the “maintenance” period, in the form of creaky joints, I performed triage on my roster of activities. I gave up competitive soccer, softball and racquetball in the hope of competently continuing high-level tennis.
The challenge of remaining competitive against opponents half my age is not to play “their” game. Rather, I adapt to blunting their power with guile, their speed with spin. The task is made increasingly difficult due to my inability to play as frequently as before. Basically, I play “whack-a-mole” with my body. If my elbow quits aching, my shoulder stiffens. When my heels feel solid, the shrunken cartilage in my knees becomes apparent. If, one day, I think everything feels perfect, a twinge in the neck appears.

Sports have always been important to me. My earliest memories involve ping-pong in the basement of our home. When I was four or five, I begged my older brothers to play. Well before I was able to compete with them on the table, I tried to be helpful retrieving balls from murky corners behind furniture and spider webs.
I progressed at five or six to throwing rubber balls incessantly against the outside wall of our house and, as soon as possible, commenced playing little league baseball.
Soccer was added to baseball in seventh grade when I was informed at my new school the other choice was football. While I enjoyed playing catch, being tackled by people intent upon my destruction didn’t appeal. When I was ten, my sister introduced me to tennis and I have played, with varying intensity, ever since. During college, I added squash and racquetball to the agenda. As late as my mid-thirties, I was still adding, as platform tennis, a cold-weather fusion of tennis and racquetball, became a passion.
When I began the winnowing process, it wasn’t because I enjoyed playing less; it’s that my body was not able to play as much as before. I also suspected a subtle lessening of my abilities. “I may be a pretty good shortstop, but I’m no Derek Jeter; I don’t have to do this for a living,” I noted.

Derek Jeter presently is playing out his final season of a long and distinguished career with the Yankees. While his professionalism is admired, it’s impossible to deny the decline in his performance. His defense is slowed, his power hitting non-existent, and his durability is suspect. Several fans have confided they suffer cognitive dissonance when “The Captain” takes the field. They don’t begrudge him his accolades. However, they wish he would surrender his position at shortstop to a younger, more able teammate.
I’d hate for my tennis teammates to experience such thoughts when I come to play. I don’t want to out-stay my welcome. For this fall season, I’ve forsaken the “all-ages” league for the first time, in order to play against “Over-40” competition. I’m not yet psychologically able to sign up for the “Over-55’s,” though I qualify.
If the aches and pains overwhelm, I already have a plan to return to where it all began — the ping pong table. Great sport, no running, no body contact, weightless ball, and no age limits. Every day can be senior day.


DINING IN NORTH CAROLINA

It’s been five years since we moved to North Carolina from New Jersey and I’m still learning important new things about myself. This morning, I learned I don’t like cheese on my grits.
Most aspects of life here are easy to accept. Compared to New Jersey, the winters are warm, traffic is almost non-existent, and taxes are comically low. Food, however, is challenging. One of the best aspects of life in the land of the Soprano’s was availability of excellent Italian food. The only difficulty was determining WHICH restaurant to choose. In North Carolina, “Italian food” is largely confined to the defrosted fare found in mall-based chain restaurants.
Lately, after dining experiences ranging from dismal to mediocre that require a longer drive, we confine our Italian sorties to the place closest to our home with an authentic, old-world Italian name; we ignore the fact that it is actually run by two young, Brazilian sisters. As to pizza, we now make it ourselves.
Bagels also are better in New Jersey. Every town in the Garden State has at least one shop worthy of visiting on a sleepy Sunday morning. And you can count on a selection of whitefish salad and cheeses and cream cheese to go with the bagels. Not so in Dixie. Again, there’s a chain store in a shopping mall that stands in for a bagel shop; I wouldn’t want to be the first customer in a month to order a schmeer.
North Carolina is proud of its “barbecue.” Apparently, it competes with most other southern states for the designation as “the best.” Our local variety is vinegar-based, as opposed to the tomato-based type found in Texas and elsewhere. I’m not qualified to judge. I’ve eaten a couple of sandwiches. They were okay.
North Carolina cuisine also features something called “hush puppies,” which I’d grown up thinking were casual shoes worn by people with sore feet. Instead, hush puppies here are fried, finger-sized filets of dough, seasoned with varied amounts of sugar, sometimes including onions. Barbecue and seafood establishments are equally likely to place a plastic container of hush puppies on the table in lieu of the delicious Italian bread I crave. Though not inclined to “watch my weight,” I’ve never eaten a hush puppy without thinking: “What a waste of calories!”

Back to today: I awoke with an urge to go out for breakfast. In New Jersey, we would have debated which of several corner restaurants or diners fit the bill, all of which were within a five minute drive from our home. In Chapel Hill, our selection is between two places twenty minutes away: either the pancake place of esteemed reputation among the college crowd, or the elegant restaurant attached to “Southern Seasons,” the local gourmet shop.
Dismayed by the dry, indifferently-served pancakes in our last foray for pancakes, we opted for glamour. First, let me state clearly I intend no disrespect to Southern Seasons. The store is beautifully appointed and well stocked with every kitchen utensil and ingredient known to man; it’s a fine culinary establishment. Their restaurant, “The Weathervane,” is lovely inside and includes a flower-bedecked patio for outside dining. Because the inside air conditioning created a temperature akin to the South Pole to our just-back-from-Costa Rica bodies, we opted to sit outdoors.
The menu contained the usual selection of high-end breakfast fare, such as: eggs Benedict, smoked salmon and fruit and cheese selection du jour. Each ingredient’s organic and free trade bonafides are listed. As the one who suggested this treat instead of a bowl of cereal at home, I didn’t complain aloud about the prices, though the thought crossed my mind: “$12.95 for pancakes!? Are they made with truffles?” Hmmmm, possibly.
I ordered scrambled eggs with bacon, a biscuit and grits, a respectable southern meal. Grits, oddly, are the southern taste most readily enjoyed by me. Though derived from corn, they remind me of the cream of wheat my mother served when I was young. Compared to collard greens or black-eyed peas, for instance, I find grits to be the most accessible southern staple.
Our server was a local native, full of good cheer and “how y’all doin’ this mornin’?”
“Y’all want some cheese with those grits?” she asked. “Got pepper jack.”
Pepper in my grits sounded like a bridge too far, but I was persuaded by her good cheer to include aged Scottish cheddar. After all, The Weathervane is not the Waffle House, where grits require fake maple syrup for flavor.
“Are you sure you’ll like that?” asked my wife, Katie.
“How bad can it be?” I said. “I like grits, and I like cheddar cheese.”

Alas, when the plate arrived, I found the two tastes too divergent for my palate. The grits were bland and creamy; the cheese vibrant, salty and firm. “Yuck,” I said, after one bite.
Fortunately, the eggs were tasty, the bacon crisp and the biscuit fine. When the bill came, I learned that our server had succeeded in “up-selling” me a couple dollars on the cheese. I didn’t blame her; live and learn, y’all. Most of me is happy to have moved to North Carolina; only my stomach has some misgivings.


DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?

Sportscaster Al Michaels posed that question when the US ice hockey team defeated the vaunted Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. On their way to the gold medal, a mixture of US college and minor league players came together to shock the sports world and provide an explosion of patriotic fervor during a low period of Cold War relations. The now ubiquitous chant “USA! USA!” was hatched during the course of that contest.
The game, which inspired a movie and propelled the head coach and several players to successful professional careers, brought ice hockey to the forefront of American sports consciousness for weeks; perhaps, as many as ten percent of the nation was excited.
By fortunate coincidence, I’m in Costa Rica this week and have watched the national soccer team advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup by remaining undefeated against the traditional juggernauts from Uruguay, Italy, England and Greece. Whether or not this performance qualifies as miraculous (some proud Costa Ricans claim it is not even surprising), the reaction of the country’s population is beyond comprehension for an American.
Yes, if UNC wins a national championship in basketball, several thousand people congregate, celebrate, and even make a bonfire. If a professional sports team wins a championship, their home city reliably hosts a “parade,” attended by thousands. Tee shirts and caps are sold to commemorate the event, but there isn’t a national swelling of pride. For instance, when the Yankees win a championship, their accomplishment is greeted by indifference by a vast majority of the nation and is more resented than cheered by the fans of the other twenty-nine teams.
Boy, is it different here! Following the win over Greece, spontaneous celebrations exploded across Costa Rica; people cruised hanging out of windows and perched on top of cars on city streets and highways with flags flying and horns blaring. People cried from joy, and President Solis spontaneously strolled from his home in the capital to personally lead the celebration. A poll before the tournament revealed fifty percent of the inhabitants of Costa Rica believed the performance of their national soccer team to be important or very important. This week, the number is over eighty percent. Since the win over Greece, people are uniformly dressed in team colors smile, and nod to strangers, and everyone understands.
In a world where news is filled with terrorism, drought, war and poverty, where politics has become toxic and culture increasingly profane, it is delightful to bask in a contagious haze of happiness. I recall having previously basked in several weeks of personal “do you believe in miracles” wonderment that also concerned soccer. But the story began several years earlier.

When our daughter, Kelly, started ninth grade at Ramsey High School, we encouraged her to try out for the girls’ soccer program. Her performance on the field prior to high school was best described as “energetic.” Soccer offered her an outlet for a variety of positive personality traits, including: fearlessness, persistence and positivity. But we’d rarely detected several other attributes of successful soccer players, namely: nuance, control and skill. If someone asked: “What position does she play?” there was no one-word answer. Kelly was “all over the place.”
Accordingly, we anticipated Kelly would be assigned to the freshman team. Perhaps, if the junior varsity was short players one day, she might assist. We were stunned when she burst through the door, and declared: “I made varsity!”
“You made what?” I asked.
“Varsity,” she said.
“That’s amazing,” I said. But I have to admit my thoughts were, in no particular order: “Is Ramsey really weak this year?” “Did a whole raft of freshmen make the team, since several of Kelly’s classmates had always outshone her in youth soccer?” and: “Will she be sitting on the end of the bench and, perhaps, be better off on the junior varsity?”
“I’m the only freshman,” she added.
“Julia and Joanie didn’t make it?” I said, incredulous, thinking of two highly skilled freshmen who thought highly of themselves, as did their parents.
“No,” said Kelly. “They were kind of upset. They were crying. They wouldn’t even talk to me after practice.”
“Oh, boy,” I thought, feeling a combination of dread about how several angry fifteen-year-old girls were going to treat Kelly moving forward, along with a guilty thrill of satisfaction and triumph.
“Are you worried about that?” I asked.
“No,” said Kelly, shrugging.
Fearlessness can be helpful in life as well as in soccer.

I knew George Wright, the only coach the Ramsey Girls’ varsity had ever had, since he was also a real estate lawyer. I called him the next day to find out what he was thinking. I hoped Kelly hadn’t misunderstood. Her triumph was so unexpected.
“George,” I said. “I’m thrilled, of course, and I promise I’m not one of those parents who’ll question your choices in the future, but do you see something I’ve missed?”
“Yes,” he said. “Kelly has an energy level we need that has nothing to do with ball skills or positioning. She’s going to be our designated ‘marker.’”
I’d played soccer, and was familiar with the term for playing tight defense, but I’d never seen Kelly focus on marking. I was concerned.
George continued: “In tryouts this week, in a good way, Kelly was disruptive and annoying to the other girls on the field.”
I was skeptical. “You think Kelly will be a critical part of your defense?”
George laughed. “Many of the teams we play have a dominant player in the middle of the field who makes the offense run. Kelly can mess that up. I think she’s inexperienced and oblivious enough to not be intimidated by All-County players.”
George explained: “My plan is this: Kelly’s going to go wherever they go. If they go up, she’ll go up. If they go back, she’ll go back. If they go to the bench for water, she’ll stand and wait for them to come back on the field. Her job is to be within one step of whichever girl I tell her to mark, to make her miserable.”
I was relieved to know George had a specific plan.
“But you have a job, too,” he added.
“Hunh?” I said.
“In the event Kelly needs to kick the ball, it would be nice if her skills were a little better. Can you work with her?”
“Sure,” I said readily; however, I was actually apprehensive. Though we kicked the ball around occasionally, Kelly was hard to pin down for consistent practice.

I’m certain we celebrated Kelly’s elevation to varsity suitably. But what I really remember was the rush of pride I felt. I’m Kelly’s stepfather, and we are temperamentally opposites. In brief, she is an extrovert and I am an introvert, with all the huge differences that implies. Accordingly, while we “got along” at home, we lacked a full range of common interests, and reacted to situations differently. Finally, here was a connection we could share.
During Kelly’s first two years of high school soccer, I never missed a minute of her games. At home, we practiced together once or twice a week, and I drove her to club soccer games. I enjoyed our one-on-one time together more than ever before. On the field, she fulfilled George’s expectations perfectly. She was so good, in fact, at frustrating the opposition’s best player, that one was expelled by the referee for swinging an elbow at Kelly’s head, and declaring: “I’m gonna pull your f…ing braces out!”
A defensive specialist, Kelly scored only one goal each year and the team was mediocre, but Kelly always played as hard as she could; I certainly wouldn’t have expected more. With her seventeenth birthday looming midway through the junior year, Kelly had other things on her mind besides soccer, including: social life, driving, social life, saving baby-sitting money for a used car, and social life.
In a fit of playful encouragement, I said to her one summer day: “If you score twenty goals this coming season, I’ll buy you a BRAND NEW car.”
Kelly’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
Absolutely,” I said.
“Twenty goals,” she repeated. “We play twenty games, so one goal a game.”
“Or two goals every other game,” I said, laughing.
Kelly ran out of the room shouting: “Mom! Mom! Guess what?!”

“You promised her a new car?” asked my wife, Katie, incredulously, while we waited for Kelly to come to the dinner table.
“Only if she scores twenty goals,” I said. “She’s scored one a year, so far, so it’s not exactly realistic.”
“You’re bribing her, with the promise of spoiling her,” she said. “Do you think that’s good parenting?”
“I prefer to call it ‘incentivizing,’” I said. “Anyway, if she were somehow to score twenty goals, she’d get a soccer scholarship to college and I’d make money on the deal. It’d be a win-win. But, you know, twenty goals is impossible.”
Kelly arrived at the table. “We’re gonna practice in the basement every night.”
“We?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “You’ll serve me the balls and supervise. What do you think of the Honda Civic?”

Initially, I was skeptical. For several weeks, however, Kelly practiced without fail and made me a believer. We devised a routine where she preceded me to the basement to work alone for fifteen minutes on dribbling skills, then I came down to toss balls to her: left foot, right foot, left thigh, right thigh, chest, head, EVERYWHERE. In the final five minutes each evening, I would revive goaltending skills not used for twenty years, and catch shot after shot. Kelly’s improvement was so remarkable that she quickly outstripped my knowledge of technique, and we arranged additional private lessons with Minor del Rio, a former professional player, coincidentally, from Costa Rica.
Once the season began, Kelly emerged as the junior star on a senior-dominated team. Her style wasn’t subtle; she careened around the field like a bowling ball going through pins. I modified her incentive so three assists would count as a goal, too, since it would be bad if she shot when a pass would be preferable. Thus, fifteen goals and fifteen assists would also earn the car.
When the season reached its climax at the 2000 New Jersey State Championship game against Delran, Kelly was already choosing upholstery. The Honda was hers, with eighteen goals and twelve assists. For the final game only, George put her back in her old role as the marker of Delran’s star, Carli Lloyd. Not only was Carli All-County and All-State, she was All-AMERICAN, on her way to becoming the center-midfielder for the US Womens’ World Cup team. Kelly delivered several strong shoulders (and, perhaps, a bit of an elbow) during the first five minutes of the game, and Carli was never a factor. Ramsey won, 2-1.
A reader would be forgiven for thinking this was the end of the story. The girl got her car, the team won the championship, and the father was delighted. But more was to come. On the strength of her stellar junior season, Kelly was invited to play on an elite club team for the winter and spring instead of the local team on which she’d previously played. Compared to the smooth and silky players the coach was used to, with their multiple college scholarship offers, Kelly was still “a diamond in the rough.”
As usual, Kelly wasn’t intimidated. She pin-balled her way into a starting position and was unapologetic that no one mistook her style for ballet. She insisted we continue our practice routine, IN ADDITION to all her other practices, and assured me I was still helpful, even while I was certain she was beyond me.
Kelly’s senior season started sluggishly; she failed to score in the first eight games and the entire team seemed to be suffering post-Championship apathy. Still, she revived at mid-season and produced fifteen goals in the final seven regular season games, all wins. When the playoffs began, Kelly was in her element as the senior leader, the center-mid-fielder, and the captain. She scored one goal in the first round victory, all three goals in the second round, the game winner in overtime of the semi-finals, and we traveled down to Trenton again for the State Championship game against Freehold.
This time, it was Kelly whose reputation and press-clippings preceded her. The opponents kept her bottled up for most of the game, and what I recall, primarily, is that it was freezing cold. When the clock wound down with the score 0-0 and Freehold controlling play, no one on our side of the field would have been upset with a co-championship. Unable to stand the continuing cold and stress, Katie decamped for the restroom with about five minutes left in overtime.
When Katie emerged to meet us in the parking lot, she glanced up just in time to see Kelly burst through three Freehold defenders to deliver a thunderous finish that nearly broke the net. The sudden-death goal provided a second consecutive State Championship for Ramsey, made a local hero of Kelly, and allowed all of us to stumble through the next several weeks with a sense of “do you believe in miracles?” Accolades along the lines of “All-County” and “All-State” poured in and upgraded Kelly’s choice from a so-so college with a Division-3 soccer program to an excellent university with a Division-1 soccer team and scholarship money.
As the Bergen Record newspaper noted in a feature on Kelly the following week, I had once written a novel-length manuscript about a young soccer player that was a fictional composite of my three children. In the story, the protagonist takes a final shot at goal in the final minute of her final game and hits the goalpost. I explained to the reporter I didn’t think anyone would have found the story believable if the ball had gone in. Apparently, real life is stranger than fiction.
All in all, for a few weeks, our family lived in its own private Costa Rica, where we nodded and smiled to each other and didn’t need words to express our happiness. As for Kelly and me, it was bittersweet when she left for college. After several improbable years of soccer, I’d lost my practice partner. But at the same time, my stepdaughter had become my daughter.


P. T. !!!

My wife, Katie, is diligently subjecting herself to variations of Medieval torture as part of post-shoulder surgery physical therapy. The house is outfitted with ropes, pulleys, weights and rubber bands a thousand times larger than the ones that hold a pony tail in place. Moans and groans intermittently form an auditory back-drop, and they don’t indicate satisfaction.
Increasingly, at social gatherings among middle-aged people, maladies and therapies dominate the conversation, and more medical information is exchanged than I wish to acquire. My personal accumulation of unwanted medical knowledge commenced twenty years ago, when I was thirty-seven, and awoke to find a burning arrow wedged in the lower section of my back. Not a literal burning arrow, of course, but it may as well have been. I had never felt anything like it as I tried to stand up. I fell to my knees and crawled, ashen, towards the bathroom.
“What is it?” asked Katie.
“I don’t know,” I said through clenched teeth. “But it’s, it’s, it’s amazingly painful.”
“What does it feel like?” she asked.
“Indescribable,” I said, honestly, for I could not find words to do justice to the distress calling from a part of my body I’d never contemplated.
“What caused it?” she asked.
“Um,” I said. “Maybe lifting the children yesterday? Maybe ice skating last week? Maybe playing soccer fifteen years ago? Does it matter?” I didn’t intend to be snippy, but my mood was darkened by agony.
After pulling myself up with the help of the sink I found that standing ramrod straight provided some relief. Laying flat on my stomach, too, merely yielded pain, several steps down from anguish. Any position in between was excruciating.
“I’ll drive you to see Keith,” said Katie, referring to a client of mine who was a chiropractor. “He’ll know what to do.”
“I’m not sure I can sit in the car,” I said.
“We’ll use the station wagon,” she said. “You can lie flat in the back.”
“Like luggage?” I asked.
“Like a pair of skies,” she said.
“Wonderful.” I grimaced.

Keith needed only to look at my facial expression to take me in ahead of a full waiting room. After he elicited several unnerving cracks from my lower back, he declared: “It’s a strain of your gluteus maximus, a large butt muscle. It’ll loosen up as the day goes on.”
“Well, I’m certainly skipping my tennis game tonight,” I said.
“No, you can play tonight; it’ll be good for it.”
I looked at Keith incredulously, but he appeared confident. “Call me tomorrow,” he said, “to let me know how you feel. Then, if you come three times a week for a month or so, we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
With his “adjustments” and several Tylenol I was able to work that day, standing. Katie drove me home in the rear of the car.
“Should I really play tennis tonight?” I asked.
“Keith seemed to think it would help,” she replied.
When we arrived home, I shook my head as I gingerly changed for my weekly doubles game.
“This seems crazy,” I said.
I drove myself to the courts holding my body straight like a plank to reach the pedals. I hobbled onto the court and took a few warm-up swings. Immediately, the pain erupted like a volcano. I could barely utter apologies to my playing partners before staggering back to the parking lot. The drive home was luckily without incident as I drove in a haze of pain. Once there, I brushed past Katie at the door and fell, clothed, onto my bed for a largely sleepless night.
Before I could call Keith in the morning, he called me, which made me wonder how confident he felt about his diagnosis.
“How’s your back?” he asked.
“I’m really suffering,” I croaked. “Tennis was NOT helpful.”
The line was silent for a moment. Perhaps, Keith was reviewing his malpractice insurance policy.
“Um, let’s schedule you for an MRI,” he said, finally.

My first lifetime MRI was memorable. I had no problem with claustrophobia, as some do. And the odd, metallic clunking noises didn’t bother me. But lying flat on my back meant I was directly on top of the pain source.
“I think I know what childbirth feels like,” I said afterward, recalling Katie’s facial expressions during those events. Having seen me crawl out of bed, she didn’t disagree.
The radiologist immediately declared my condition to be a herniation of the L-5 S-1 disk, for those keeping score. Newly familiar with such descriptive terms as “lumbar” and “thoracic,” I told Keith, and he said: “Come in for some adjustments and electrical stimulation. I’ve fixed many a herniated lumbar disc. It might just be a bulge.”
For nearly a month, I worked standing all day at my law practice and traveled prone in the back of Katie’s station wagon or in the back of accommodating realtors’ or clients’ cars. I avoided sitting, even at closings, though that made me the subject of intense curiosity, and subjected me to other peoples’ sore back stories which, to my surprise, nearly everyone had. Keith “manipulated” and “adjusted” and “stimulated” my lower back every other day. At a minimum, Keith’s efforts served to pay his mortgage that month.
“The difference between how a herniation presents and how a strained gluteus maximus presents is subtle,” he started to explain one day.
“Unh,” I grunted in unsympathetic skepticism.
“If it’s just a ‘bulging’ disk, it can recover,” he reassured. “You definitely don’t want surgery.”
He was right about not wanting surgery. However, at Katie’s insistence, we sought a second opinion from an orthopedist. “If it’s merely ‘bulging,’ the chiropractor is correct,” said Dr. Bellotti, after probing my lower back for a brief instant, sufficient to nearly make me scream. “But I think yours is fully ‘extruded.’”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You know how when an egg breaks, you can’t put the yolk back in the shell?” said the doctor. “That’s fully extruded.”
Dr. Bellotti referred me to Dr. Quain, whom he described as “the best neurosurgeon around.” Katie drove her human cargo across the George Washington Bridge to his office at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital the next day. There, Dr. Quain, a bald, sixty-something man of imposing girth and booming voice, banged my kneecap for a reflex that elicited no response and declared, like in the movies: “you’re not going home tonight. We will operate at dawn.”
“But the chiropractor said…” I started
“Chiropractors are merely one evolutionary step above slime,” he said in a tone that allowed no disagreement. “Your extrusion is extreme. Your sciatic nerve is completely blocked, so we must remove the disk material. When there’s no reflex, effective use of your leg is at risk.”

Sciatic nerve? Worse and worse. I was learning additional new vocabulary, and now I was slated for emergency surgery. The situation had only one consolation: my room on the twelfth floor at Columbia Presbyterian had an unobstructed, priceless view of the George Washington Bridge. I gazed at it all evening from my unmoving position in bed while I awaited the excavation of my lower back. I recall being delighted the bridge’s lights danced like fireflies, but I’m sure painkillers had something to do with my enchanting vision.

I recall little from the day of surgery except that Katie told Dr. Quain sternly: “You’re going to perform the surgery, right? Not an intern.” In this instance, her tone of voice allowed for no disagreement. The doctor agreed.
When I awoke after surgery, I felt instant relief, as though the herniation had never occurred. Once painkillers wore off, I experienced spasms for several days while the sciatic nerve reverted back to its old route down the spine. (More acquired knowledge!) But the interesting part of the experience was that the doctor did not visit me the next day.
“Does the scar look okay to you?” he asked Katie on the phone.
“I guess,” she said.
“Then he’s okay for discharge,” said Dr. Quain. “Come see me in a month. Meanwhile, have him take it easy.”
“That’s it?” she asked.
“He’ll be fine,” said the doctor. “Good-bye.”

One month later, now totally pain-free, Katie and I visited Dr. Quain. He looked at his handiwork briefly, and concluded: “Looks good. Now, nothing but walking or swimming for you.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“For life,” he said.
“But I play tennis, and soccer,” I said. “I want to play with my children, too.”
The doctor shook his head.
“What about physical therapy?” asked Katie.
“Not necessary,” said Dr. Quain.
Katie was not convinced. “I’d like a physical therapy prescription, in case he feels up to it.”
The doctor shrugged and wrote out a sheet. “Twice a week, if you insist,” he said. “But not before six months. Just remember, I’m not in favor of strenuous activity.”

Taking the doctor’s words to heart, I treated my lower back like a Tiffany egg. I didn’t touch it. In accordance with suggestions from “bad back” magazine articles (practically an entire genre) I made sure to exit cars with both legs first, to never twist around to reach behind, to roll out of bed without abrupt movements. I warded off physical contact with the kids, and let my racquets gather dust in the closet with my golf clubs.
Exactly six months after surgery, Katie scheduled a physical therapy appointment for me.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But you’re going to try it. You can’t just give up all activities in your mid-thirties.”
She was right. I had to try, but how could a stranger touch my lower back? I barely ran my fingertips over the scar when I took a shower. I pictured it as a hot-spot of total disaster, like the button for a nuclear weapon.
When I arrived at the office for my appointment, I was relieved to see my randomly assigned therapist, Susan. She was a petite blonde, about five-foot-two, and clearly not capable of inflicting pain. I wondered if she worked with adults or only small children. Her hands looked too small for her profession.
“So, what have you got?” she asked.
I lifted my shirt to show her my small scar just above the belt-line.
“How does it feel?” she asked. “Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I never touch it.”
“Never?” she said, “for six months?”
“Doctor Quain said to ‘take it easy,’” I said, sheepishly.
“Ah, Dr. Quain. He’s ‘old school.’ Doesn’t believe in therapy and, incidentally, he believes his ‘cure rate’ is better if his patients never move. Lie down and lift your shirt,” she said, with a smile in which I thought I detected a glint of sadism.
Apprehensive, I arranged myself carefully on the therapy table. “Are you going to touch…?”
Before I could finish my sentence, Susan plowed into my scar with her knuckles, as though she were kneading the toughest cookie dough in history. In my shock, I almost screamed in anticipation of the tsunami of pain waves that were rushing at me. Then I realized, I felt… nothing at all. My back was totally healed.

For two months, I visited Susan twice a week. She provided a regimen of stretches. I commenced performing them daily to keep my back in shape. It is fair to say that my lower back is now the strongest part of my body; it’s the only part that has been exercised at least 350 days a year for twenty years.
I resumed playing soccer with the children shortly after therapy ended, and I play vigorous tennis now. I am still careful to “bend my knees” when I lift something, to avoid excessive sitting, and to walk every day. I am a BELIEVER in physical therapy, which will doubtless be necessary again. Let’s see, occasionally clamoring for attention these days are the right elbow, the left knee, and the right wrist. Time does not go backwards.


Don’t Assume

Making assumptions is problematic. A prime example was our next door neighbor where I was raised in West Philadelphia, Villy Leudig. He moved in with his wife, Aily when I was around seven in the early-1960’s; he still lived in the corner house, separated from my parents’ home by only a thin median of grass, when my parents moved away thirty years later.
My first awareness of the then-thirty-something couple was overhearing my father return from greeting them to tell my mother that our new neighbors were Stonians, and probably D.P.’s.
I didn’t know what either of those things were, but I had heard the latter term used by my father to describe occasional customers at his clothing store, and it didn’t seem to be a good thing.
“What’s a Stonian?” I asked my father at dinner that evening.
“Estonian,” he said, emphasizing the ‘E.’ “Our neighbors are from Estonia, a small country north of Germany,” he said.
“Is that a good country?” I asked.
“Well,” he hedged.
My father was usually straightforward in answering my questions, particularly if I showed interest in a business or political sort of subject. His hesitation was intriguing.
“Is it a bad country?” I asked.
“They were not helpful during World War II. The Nazi’s used Estonians as concentration camp guards; they looked perfectly blond, just the way they wanted people to be,” he explained.
I was wide-eyed with alarm.
“Are the new neighbors Nazi’s?” I asked.
“No, no, I’m sure they’re not,” he said. “They seem like nice people. But I think they’re D.P.’s.”
“What’s a D.P.?” I asked.
“A displaced person,” he said. “It means they didn’t have anywhere to go after the war.”
I was still confused, not sure what ‘displaced’ meant. If they had nowhere to go, maybe our new neighbors were bad people.
“Well, how do we know they didn’t work as guards?” I asked.
My father shrugged. “Those murderers melted back into Germany or Poland or went to South America. I don’t think they came to Philadelphia. You’ll be safe.”
He smiled.

I was not entirely satisfied with my father’s assurance. Not an outgoing child, I was reluctant to encounter our new neighbor, but I followed his movements from the safety of my second floor bedroom window. Sure enough, I observed, Villy looked exactly like a concentration camp guard from every World War II movie I’d seen. He was thin and of medium height, with light skin, a blond crew-cut and blue eyes. Aily, too, was a platinum blonde, with hair braided as though she were auditioning for a part in “The Sound of Music.”
During their first week next door, the couple were busy as bees reshaping their yard. While Aily created gardens and planted flowers, Villy undertook a large project to chop down brush and weeds from an area between our houses. He began to build a sitting area, with paving stones, an ornamental wood fence, and a barbecue pit.
Next, he re-tarred his detached garage roof and painted the trim around his house. Never had I seen such a blur of home-improvement activity, especially by a homeowner. Though our neighborhood was not wealthy, it was comfortable, and landscaping and repairs were rarely performed by anyone who wasn’t hired. Villy was the first neighbor I’d seen who cut his own grass.
I finally met Villy after several weeks, because my father said he was going next door on a hot Sunday afternoon (the only day he didn’t work at his store) to examine the on-going projects and offer Villy a cold beer.
“Why don’t you come along?” he said to me.
I didn’t question why my father chose to be sociable but I followed behind him to be introduced.
“Thanks, Lou,” Villy said, accepting the beer, with a vaguely European accent. “Is this, aaaaaaaaahhh, your son?”
“Yes,” said my father, and told him my name. “Say hello to Mr. Leudig,” he said to me.
“You can call me aaaaaaaahhh, Villy,” he said.
I’d never heard someone speak like that, with such a long hesitation. I looked carefully at him, trying to see if any evil lurked behind his kind smile. My father and Villy spoke for several more minutes while Villy showed us his improvements. I couldn’t ignore the speech impediment, but I detected nothing else amiss; Villy seemed like one of the nicest adults I’d met. My father had a new friend unlike any other friend he’d ever had — significantly younger, not Jewish, and not related to the men’s clothing business in any way.
In the next several years, most of what I knew about Villy came from overhearing my parents. I learned Villy and Aily spent most weekends at a home in New Jersey, where my parents assumed they had a large community of Estonian friends and relatives. I learned Villy was a traffic engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Aily was a pharmacist. I didn’t know what a “traffic” engineer was, but any sort of engineer sounded impressive to me. I assumed Villy designed bridges or roads; I assumed his household projects indicated a person of incredible technical know-how.

My childhood fear that Villy might have had something to do with concentration camps disappeared. By the time I went to college, Villy was an important, positive part of our lives. After my father retired in his late-70’s, he waited for Villy to come home from work like a pet waiting for his owner, so that he had a companion to share a drink and conversation. When I came home on school breaks, Villy and I played spirited ping-pong matches in our basement.
Villy offered advice and assistance on home-repair projects, like replacing toilet innards or repairing leaky faucets. Even though these tasks were basic, they were easily beyond the ability of my father or myself. Villy’s early burst of energy on his own house gave way to several curious attributes, namely: he never actually finished a project. Patio paving stones remained stacked up near the barbecue for decades, though the job could probably have been finished in a day; a porch he commenced screening-in within weeks of arrival remained mostly unscreened twenty years later; the garage that Villy had roofed and painted upon arrival became filled not with a car but with stacks of newspapers and boxes, from floor to ceiling. Villy, it turned out, was a hoarder.
We accepted Villy’s quirks in a friendly way because he was otherwise so decent and sympathetic. We learned that a traffic engineer was actually someone who did not construct things, but counted how many cars went past an intersection. Sometimes, Villy sat alone in his city-owned car for eight hours and monitored traffic flow at a stop sign, to determine if the sign needed to be moved a few feet in one direction or another. Still, the lack of professional status we’d assumed for Villy was no impediment to our affection for him.
The problem: when I came home from college or, later, visited my parents from the town where I worked, Villy’s frequent presence puttering in his yard presented a dilemma. Talking with him was torture. He rarely completed a sentence without an “aaaaaaahhh” and any effort to provide the missing word was counter-productive. For instance, if he said: “I’m going to get gas in the aaaaaaahhhh…” and you offered “car” he would begin again as though you hadn’t spoken: “I’m going, aaaaaaahhhh, to get gas in the aaaaaaaahhhh, car.”
I learned not to “assist” him, but there was still a significant disincentive to speak with Villy. He simply couldn’t converse “normally” and, if I had to be somewhere quickly, or just wanted to get inside the house, it was impossible to hasten the conversation. Every time I snuck into my house without saying hello and/or formulated the thought that I had to avoid Villy, I felt like a horrible person.
“How do you talk with Villy?” I asked my father once, when I was in my twenties.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “Plus, I’m never in a hurry.”
That was true. Since his retirement, my father viewed his leisurely conversations with Villy to be enjoyable, the longer the better. Little did my father suspect he was about to have more time with Villy. Late one evening, when I was visiting my parents, our doorbell rang, an extraordinary event. I was upstairs, and heard my mother rush to the door and greet Aily, who was crying hysterically. I couldn’t hear distinctly what they were saying but eventually understood that Villy, in his mid-fifties, had suffered a heart attack. The ambulance had just taken him to the hospital and Aily feared he wouldn’t survive. My mother comforted her at the kitchen table for an hour that seemed endless.

The next morning, my parents visited the hospital with Aily. Villy was stable despite a massive attack, but my parents returned home saddened not just by his physical condition. The vast Estonian community they assumed for the Leudig’s simply did not exist. They learned that Villy’s house in New Jersey was just a small cottage in the woods and, in fact, they knew almost no one there. Without suspecting it, my parents had become the Leudigs’ closest friends.
When Villy was discharged from a rehabilitation center after several weeks, he retired from his job on disability. He was home all day long, which was perfectly okay with my father. Villy, too, seemed satisfied to be finished with the traffic department and, other than his pledge, finally, to quit smoking, he seemed unaffected by his near-calamity.
I asked my father once: “Did you ever find out what Villy did during the war?”
“No,” he said. “I’ve never asked. And he’s never told me.”
Though hard to fathom, this sort of non-communication is not unheard of among men. In any event, I was pleased to know Villy was around. As my father approached eighty, his old friends from the clothing business dwindled due to deteriorating health, their inability to drive or, in many cases, death. Villy was available to talk or walk slowly around the block, or go out to get a sandwich.

When I married, at thirty, Villy and Aily were among the few non-relatives on my parents’ guest list. They drove two hours to the rehearsal dinner and I was happy to see them, though careful not to be cornered one-on-one by Villy. There were simply too many people to greet and details to attend to.
During the course of the meal, various of the sixty or so guests stood to offer toasts. Some were funny, some were sweet, and a couple were a little edgy. But the evening flowed without anxiety for me until, to my amazement, Villy rose from his seat across the room and tapped his glass.
“Oh, my,” I thought. I tapped Katie’s arm beside me and pointed: “Uh-oh,” I said.
For a long moment, after he had the attention of the entire room, Villy was silent. I feared he was frozen in some way that would become more memorable than any other aspect of the delightful event. The room fell completely silent. Another moment passed. Someone dropped a spoon. I heard a cough. Everyone waited expectantly. Only a few knew of his impediment. Several guests shifted in their seats. My heart pounded. Finally, Villy began to speak.
“I’m thrilled to be here this weekend to celebrate the wedding of two wonderful people,” he said, sounding like a professional public speaker. He held up his glass to us. “I’ve known Stuart and his family for over twenty years and consider them to be dear friends. I’ve battled Stuart in ping-pong and suffered with him over the Phillies. I’ve seen him grow up and go to college and become a lawyer and a man and I have just this to say: when Stuart and Katie slide down the bannister of life, may all the splinters be pointed in the right direction.”
With that, Villy concluded his toast amidst boisterous laughter and waved to us with a broad smile. All my fears were for naught. My negative assumption was wrong. I’m not sure who was more relieved and appreciative, me or him, but Villy had absolutely NAILED his toast.

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