Monday, November 17, 2014

Larry Parker: A Plaid, Mad, Doting Dad

Plaid pants and Star Trek boots.
During my early teen years, I was always a little surprised when my friends expressed that they liked my dad which they often did. Of course, I realized my gruff dad was really a nice guy but I figured that, during their brief visits, my friends were only experiencing one aspect of his personality and I didn't see how they could possibly get past that one part.

It was the voice.

The scary, barking, Army voice my dad used for disciplining ("Andrea LYNN!") made my heart feel like a draining pool of quicksand. Sometimes he used that booming voice or a slight variation thereof for minor infractions ("Don't hang on that!") and, once in a while, for completely innocuous situations ("Andrea LYNN! You want a root beer barrel?")

So I assumed all of my friends would be terrified of him.

I especially remember my friend, Katy, surprised me by saying something about my dad being so nice.

"My dad?"

"Yeah," she said, "he's like a big, cuddly teddy bear."

Even though my dad was known for being opinionated, outspoken, hot-tempered and, to the embarrassment of his three kids, for disciplining other people's children, Katy had picked up on something very true. Daddy always did have a tender side that revealed itself in many ways.

For one thing, Dad had a soft spot for animals, even though I think he tried to fight it. My mom has often told us how devastated Dad felt when he had to have their first dog, Puggy, put to sleep. He vowed to never have another pet. That vow didn't pan out with my animal-loving mom around. Turned out Dad was a pet magnet. Out of the five humans living in our home, each cat or dog in our series of pets always chose Dad as their favorite, despite his blustery protestations.

My older brother, Puggy

As tough as he was, Dad frequently melted in response to us kids. I said frequently, not always. One particular time was when I was in 6th or 7th grade. My sister and I called him at the high school where he taught, sobbing and screaming into the phone because we had discovered our new dog gnawing on our little turtle, Clyde, like he was an ice cube from a freshly polished-off glass of soda. (Oh, wouldn't you love to have been the school secretary for THAT phone call?) Dad came home from work early that day to comfort us and to bury Clyde in the backyard.

I was always deeply appreciative of the times he decided that we didn't need a spanking (his go-to behavior modification tactic) because our own stupid actions were punishment the time in fifth grade when I was swinging Tarzan-style on a flimsy willow branch out over the creek that was covered in a thin sheet of ice. Of course, the branch broke, depositing me on the ice which also broke, leaving me seated up to my hips in icy, cold water. I can just imagine all the people in our trailer court, watching out their windows as I waddled home in the freezing air like I had peed my pants. On second thought, this isn't that great of an example. I think I felt so stupid, I just assumed I was going to be in trouble. However, I do remember Dad saying, "Well, I think you've been punished enough," on this occasion and several other occasions that were actually deserving of some disciplinary action.

I've often repeated the story of when I was fourteen and Tommy Bradford caused a bit of a scandal on the TV show we were watching, Eight is Enough, by befriending a teenage girl who had become pregnant out of wedlock. Just when I was thinking, "This is painfully corny," Dad decided to make the most of a teachable moment. He said that if I ever found myself in that predicament, he might be a little disappointed but that he would do everything he could to help me. I didn't at all understand the magnitude of this promise. So I said that was disgusting and it was never going to happen to me because I wasn't so sure I was going to do that even if I ever got married. He got all mad and used a milder version of the voice to insist that it wasn't gross when you are in love.

I never tested the sincerity of his promise on that particular situation but I did provide him with many other opportunities to prove that he wasn't joking when he said that he would do everything he could for me. I did all sorts of dumb things, like spent too much money or locked my keys in the car or found myself without a place to live. Every single time, Dad came to my rescue. I know I wouldn't have completed my college education after my divorce without his support. He picked up my kids from school while I worked late in my classroom, had dinner ready when I got home, and watched the kids when I went to class at night.

As I said before, though, there was a darker side to Larry Parker. In the fiery furnace that was my father's temper, you could forge a suit of armor.

And maybe I sort of did.

During my teen years, when I decided, much to my dad's fury, that homework was a waste of precious, precious time that could otherwise be spent having fun, I developed a highly effective form of self-hypnotization: you simply hang your head in apparent remorse, so your long, stringy hair obscures both your face and your vision, and you repeat to yourself, "None of this will matter in ten years." Like I said, it was highly effective. It got me through rants and tirades that mapped out my guaranteed future of living in an abandoned, rat-infested bus with no heating. Disclaimer: This method doesn't work as well when your dad is lunging for your throat.

Apparently, some displays of temper I have blocked out entirely. An example of this begins on a beautiful early April evening in Indiana, just as the snows from the blizzard of 1977 had begun to thaw. In our gravel driveway, hitched to the back of our car, was a U-Haul trailer loaded with everything we were bringing with us for our new lives in Arizona. The very next day would be Dad's last at his job, then we would be hitting the road the following morning - if all went as planned. However, more "foul weather" was brewing. My younger brother and I, enjoying a rare moment of camaraderie, were throwing a combination of snowballs and mud clods at each other and using the car and trailer as shields. We were having a great time together until we heard a strange crackling, popping sound. We investigated and discovered that the car's rear window had been hit. We watched in horror as the tiny cracks in the center of the window multiplied and crawled in all directions until the entire glass was shattered in a misshapen honeycomb design. One of our snowball/mud clod combos must've contained a rock. We were too terrified to go in the house. So we knocked on the front door of our own home and waited for someone to answer. That's all I remember. I have absolutely no memory of crossing that threshold. My mother claims that all hell broke loose, that Dad chased Tim and me around the living room, and that she had to intervene to save the lives of her two older children. However, my mom tends to exaggerate for comic effect so I can't know for sure. The one other thing I do remember is that for the next thirty-six years, my brother swore up and down that I was the guilty party who launched the loaded snowball.

The happy although creepy-looking family a mere few days before Dad 
had to be restrained from causing bodily harm to his two oldest children.

Daddy could be hard to understand sometimes but he made one thing undeniably clear with his actions - he loved his family more than anything in the world and he would do just about anything for us.  Mom said when we were very little, if one of us was sick, he was the one who stayed up worrying. He enjoyed snuggling up on the couch and watching The Wonderful World of Disney with us. I remember him sitting with me while we colored adjacent pictures in my coloring book.  He enjoyed telling us stories of the time he spent on his Grandpa and Grandpa Lucas' farm with his aunts and uncles as much as we loved hearing them. In more recent years, if one of my siblings or I mentioned that we wanted to try something we had seen advertised on TV, he would show up at our front door with it a few days later. (It was very hard not to take advantage of that.) He spent time in my classroom pretty much every week for 16 years, copying papers, stapling packets and sharpening pencils to help me get home earlier. He kept dog and cat treats in his car to bestow upon our pets every time he visited. He loved seeing his grandkids and made the rounds every Sunday, to my sister's house, then to my house, and then to my brother's house, to deliver donuts. He loved bringing us sugar.

I suppose I have some deep, dark issues as a result of my dad's harsh, domineering side, issues that could afford to be explored with the help of a therapist but, because of his always-present tender side, I also grew up always knowing that I was deeply loved by him. I wouldn't have traded Larry Parker for any other dad, not even for Atticus Finch.

Yesterday, November 16, 2014, was the one year anniversary of Dad's passing. So we all gathered at a donut shop - his kids, grandkids, daughter-in-law and a photobombing donut shop employee - to remember him.  We miss you, Dad! 

Today, November 17, 2014, is the one year anniversary of the day my brother, Tim, finally admitted to me that he MIGHT have been the one to throw the fateful snowball that nearly ended our young lives.  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

On Hold

Super short fiction written for a class. Feel free to let me know what you think.

When I recognized the organist, I fought the urge to call Dave on my cell phone.  Only Dave would find the humor in my sighting of this one-time high school celebrity who, as a popular senior, impersonated Elvis at pep assemblies more than thirty years ago.
 “Just guess who the organist was!” I would say.
“You are kidding me!” he would laugh.
Then I spotted Kimmy across the aisle.  Beyond celebrity, here was high school royalty.  A cheerleader.  Now I was dying to call Dave because this was too damn funny.  To Dave, Kimmy was one of his older brother’s crowd, a family friend.  To me...well, Dave knew the ancient, one-sided love/hate relationship I once had with the cheer squad based on my from-afar admiration and jealousy.
“Kimmy still looks gorgeous,” he might tease, “Oh, here she comes.  Quick, put this bag over your head!”
I overcame the reflex to dig for my phone.  With one heel, I nudged my purse under the pew.  Interesting that so much of our friendship was conducted over the telephone.  Dave enjoyed indulging in lengthy rants about the cranky cashier at the grocery store, retelling old tales about his brushes with fame in L.A. and initiating passionate debates on the heated Joan vs. Bette issue. For me, in the midst of unpaid bills, car repairs and kids needing their dinner, Dave was a connection to those distant high school days when we could and did laugh about everything... back when life was never too serious.  Well, not for me at least.  There might’ve been some more serious moments for a skinny sixteen-year-old boy who endured living with two quarterback brothers, wore out Donna Summer albums, and inexplicably made an inordinate amount of gay jokes.
It was time.  My turn to walk up to the front of the church.  Adrenaline jangled through my limbs. The sanctuary looked weird, like I was looking at it through a fish bowl turned upside down over my head.  “Elvis” was singing Just a Closer Walk with Thee.  When I reached the altar, I peered over the side of the polished wooden box.  Though afraid this jarring image would never subside, I forced myself to take in the folded hands and neatly parted hair.  I realized with relief that this moment was powerless to overshadow my memories.  Dave wasn’t in there, not really, and that realization made the sight less disturbing.  My only worry now was what would everyone think of me...when I turned back around dry-eyed?  That I was cold-hearted and didn’t care?  Still, I couldn’t cry.  That was not my friend.  I knew my Dave was somewhere else...some might say in Heaven, others might say living on in our memories.  But Dave was nowhere to be seen in that suit buttoned up by a stranger’s hands nor in that powdered face shaved post-mortem, with artificial color on the lips.  Well, actually, the part about wearing lip color wasn’t that far off.

Ha! That’s pretty funny.  You know who would appreciate that one...?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

An Encyclopedic Retrospective of my Teenage Babysitting Years

This is me in 1978 after my first full year in Arizona. I had just graduated from 8th grade at Kyrene Junior High in Tempe and was freshly sunburned and red-eyed from the neighborhood pool's intense chlorine level. Weeks after this pic was taken, we moved into Chandler, where a young mother from across the alley, who I'd never met, came over to see if I was interested in babysitting. However, before I could be entrusted with her infant I had to meet some rigid standards. "How old are you?" she asked. When I told her I was fourteen, she responded with, "Great, you're older than I thought!" Thus, I embarked on a new phase of my education about life, music, grownups and myself. Maybe you can relate to some of it. 

In case anyone is interested in keeping my regulars straight, I identified   the families by the name of their child in parentheses if my memory allowed.

Albums, record  Record albums are the very reason I took babysitting jobs. Starting in the late 1978, from the ages of fourteen to eighteen, I enhanced my teenage record collection with the ample funds garnered through late nights of torture and humiliation.

Bong  I was a little surprised to find one behind an easy chair one night in a client's home. I wasn't snooping; it had been set just behind the corner of the easy chair, close to where I'd set my glass of soda. Took me a little longer than it would've taken my most of my cohorts to identify the item. (Holly)

Cat Stevens  The couple who had a bong stashed behind an easy chair in their living room also had a huge record collection which included Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens. I would listen to it on their stereo after tucking their little girl in bed for the night. I loved these people. (Holly)

Death  The family I babysat for most regularly had three big, loveable dogs: Harry, an Old English sheepdog, his wife, Sam who was a black collie mix, and their gigantic daughter, Jo. One evening, I phoned my parents sobbing after big, ol' Jo lay down at my feet, emitted a strange, eerie howl and died with her eyes open. (Becky)

Exorcism concerns Toward the end of my babysitting era, I took my little sister along on a job, I think in preparation for passing the torch. The infant in our care was sleeping innocently in his room at the back of the house and we were watching some late night TV when Jo-el said, "Wouldn't it be weird if the baby came floating down the hallway?"

Fights over the TV There was a Diana Ross special on TV that night and these boys thought they were going to watch The Dukes of Hazzard on the color set in the living room? Sorry, kids. I'm in charge. Their parents' record collection consisted largely of Barry Manilow albums. I didn't babysit for them again.

Ganja I am pretty sure I was the only teenager in the entire neighborhood who didn't smoke it which made me a popular Saturday night choice for parents.

Hippy Housemate Even if you do have a slight crush on the client's hippy roommate because he seems cool, has shaggy hair, and wears a long moustache like a favorite uncle, it is totally weird and uncomfortable when, after the parents are gone for the evening and you've put the baby to bed, he suddenly makes his previously unknown presence known by wandering out of his room and flopping down in a chair next to you. Why in the world didn't HE babysit the kid? (see: Ganja) (Becky)

Invasion of Privacy My sister is going to be mad at me for sharing this but it was so funny. She was about eleven and had come along with me on a house-sitting job. I turned from doing something to find her on her knees on top of the kitchen counter, nosing through every single cupboard. I said, "What are you doing?!" Jo-el, who had 20/20 vision, quipped, "Uh...looking for my contact?" She really should've studied at Second City. (Kimberly) 

Japanese massage  Things got even weirder with the hippie roommate that night when he stretched out on the living room floor and begged me to walk on his back. I declined. The crush was dissipating. (Becky)

Knocking knees You know that cartoon image of a person so terrified that his body trembles violently causing his knees to knock together and actually produce a noise? I always thought that was just a hyperbolic joke until it happened to me one night and I heard the weird sound of my own knees knocking against each other. (see: Terror) (two boys) 

Land line That was the only kind of phone we had back then and I made sure to keep my clients' land lines completely tied up after the children were abed. Hope Mom didn't want to check on little Suzie between dinner and the movie. There were high school boys to be discussed.

Motorcycle One of my favorite couples to sit for commenced their date night by roaring off on a gorgeous motorcycle both wearing brown leather jackets that matched their long, brown hair.
(see; Bong, Cat Stevens) (Holly)

Nilla Wafers  I mistakenly believed that I had been sneaking cookies undetected. I was disillusioned the day Becky's mom asked me to stay a little longer so she could unpack her groceries. As she emptied her paper sacks, she pulled out a new box of Nilla Wafers, shook it at me and said, "Look what I got! Your favorite!" Humiliating. (Becky) 

Old movies The very best way to end a night of babysitting was to watch a 1940's movie to completion, hearing the parents pull into the driveway with my hard-earned cash just as the credits rolled. Old movies were my favorite because I enjoyed the wonderful costumes and hairstyles, appreciated kissing scenes minus close-ups with visible spit strings, and was intrigued by how acting styles have changed over the years. I also got a kick out of hearing silly phrases like, "Gosh, Ann, don't have kittens over it."

Pervert, little  I can't remember this boy's name. I think I blocked it out. He was about eight and loved to recount to me his weird, dirty little dreams that always involved naked women. And conveyor belts. (two boys)

Quandry One evening, the pervy dreamweaver and his little brother sought to avoid their prescribed baths by running naked out the front door and racing around the front yard. When I went out after them, they ran back in and locked me out of the house. (two boys) 

Racism The Grammys were on TV and the "cool" hippy roommate first started to really irritate me by criticizing Elvis Presley (who was being honored in memoriam.) But then, after a performance by a black singer, he really shocked me, horrified me, when he said that all black people should be shipped back to Africa. I was fourteen and just stunned out of my mind. I said, "You're just joking, right?" He, in turn, was clearly shocked that I didn't agree with him. I was repulsed and the crush was over. (Becky) 

Saturday Night Live If there wasn't a good black and white movie to watch at ten o'clock, I was somewhat relieved because that meant at 10:30 I could watch SNL unhindered. However, if there was a movie on another channel with Gene Kelly or Bette Davis or Clark Gable, I was forced to catch bits and pieces of SNL during the movie's commercial breaks.

Terror  The boys I was watching were asleep. It was after dark and the house was quiet except for me chattering away on the phone with my friend, Brigette. Mid-laughter, the door leading from the family room to the garage caught my attention; the doorknob was slowly turning. That was plenty scary enough but when I asked several times in a shaking voice, "Who's there?" and got no response and the door knob continued turning slowly, I started picturing an expressionless man wearing black gloves and a ski mask on the other side. After calling the police (pre-911) and trying unsuccessfully to convince them that the boys and I were in imminent danger, after calling the operator and begging her, again unsuccessfully, to break in on my parents' busy phone line (pre-call waiting), and after my dad and little brother came running down the street to save me, it turned out that there was no psychopath on the other side of the door. Public Service Announcement: When going out for the evening and leaving your children in the care of a neighborhood teenager, be sure to inform the poor girl about the new, doorknob-turning pet cat that recently joined your family. (see: Knocking knees) (two boys)

Underfed child, an This full-time job was foisted upon Jo-el and me one summer when we should have been home sleeping late and watching game shows instead of caring for an infant. It was for our mom's friend who we loved but she had a swamp cooler and the Oreos were soggy. It was a rough gig. One afternoon while on duty, Jo-el and I started bickering about something and didn't let up until the baby's mom came home, couldn't figure out why he wouldn't stop crying, and asked us point blank if we had fed him his most recent bottle. Jo-el and I were quickly on the same side again and made a silent pact with our eyes. "Yes!" we said. (A friend who proofread this expressed concern that I would admit to this incident but I was seventeen and it was just ONE feeding. I'm sure the kid is just fine!) (name withheld to save my mother undue shame) 

Visitor? (uh, nevermind!) I knew I was a completely trustworthy babysitter (this was before the Underfed Child story.) So I had no qualms about asking one of my regular moms if I could have my good friend, Gary, over while I babysat for her daughter this one particular evening. I assumed she would say "yes" because I figured I had proven myself to be pretty much the best babysitter ever. When I asked, she opened her mouth as if she were about to say "yes" but then her eyes went through this weird series of expressions. 

Thinking back on it, she was probably remembering what she was up to during her own teenage years, but I realized she was imagining all the worst possibilities and I was mortified. I launched into a frenzied explanation about the platonic nature of Gary's and my friendship. I honestly don't remember how she ultimately responded. I think she said yes but Gary was unable to visit for some other reason. But I never, ever asked again! And the memory is extremely foggy, so I don't know for sure, but I confess that I MIGHT've been secretly hoping to NOT be the                                                                       best babysitter ever once my charge was put to bed. (Becky) 

World Wrestling Federation The gigantic, Saturday night, groan-producing buzzkill that periodically preempted my regular weekend television viewing plans. (see: Saturday Night Live)

X-rated material, apparent exposure to  One family I only sat for a few times had a TV channel that my family did not have. Sitting on the couch with the kids and trying out a new-fangled device called a remote control, I was shocked when I came across a channel with nudity. I quickly changed the channel but the five-year-old girl started clapping her hands and chanting, "Oh, boobs and butts, boobs and butts! Change it back to boobs and butts!"  (Kimberly)

You so, told This is actually a sad story. Once I couldn't accept a sitting job because I had plans (I did have friends).  So the couple with the three big dogs and the hippie roommate asked me who else I would recommend from the neighborhood. I highly recommended a wonderful girl who was responsible and cool and always super kind to me despite my nerdy, goody-two-shoes status. I loved this couple so I was really disappointed in them when they made it clear that her being black was a problem. They went with a different girl even though I specifically told them she was not a good choice. Later, they told me that when they came home that night, they caught their white babysitter smoking in the house and rummaging through their bedroom.  I was quite smug in my satisfaction that justice had been served.

Zealot Even as a very little boy, my younger brother was always passionate about making a buck. When he was in first grade, at the prompting of an older boy, he picked apples off a neighbor's tree and went door to door selling them for maybe ten cents a piece. While preparing for this blog post, I asked my mom what she remembered about that first neighbor asking me to sit for her. Knowing my brother's history with money-making schemes, I shouldn't have been surprised when she said, "Well, I know your brother was excited because it gave him an idea about how to make some money." But I was surprised. She went on to tell me that Tim, then about ten years old, created a flyer advertising my babysitting services which he distributed throughout the neighborhood. Apparently, he also negotiated with me to pay him a commission on each job I landed as a result of his efforts. I went from surprised to astounded. I can muster up only the flimsiest, cellophane memory of this. And here, all these many years I was thinking news of my babysitting talent flew up and down Mesquite Drive by word of mouth, thanks to some highly satisfied parents. I'm crestfallen.

In case it doesn't show, I loved babysitting. Maybe it was an opportunity to get away from the family for a while and feel independent. I don't exactly remember. I do know I had fun, loved my regulars and raked in the bucks, despite my brother's rumored claims to his cut. I hope my memories provided you with a couple of laughs.