Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Tuning Up

Growing up, music was a big deal in our house.
Our living room, for example, was dominated by a console stereo system that provided AM/FM tuning, a turntable and a storage slot for 33 1/3 rpm records. All this high-fi technology was encased in a cabinet that, as a child, appeared to me to be the size of a shipping crate.
And as I recall, that stereo was prioritized as a family purchase before funds were allotted in the family budget for a color television set.
So clearly, my parents valued music in the home above the ability to watch The Wonderful World of Color in color.
At Christmastime, there were two milestones in the sounds that issued forth from its fabric-covered speakers.
The first came early December, when my parents authorized the playing of our family’s collection of Christmas albums.
Given the vast array of Christmas recordings and our parents’ appreciation of music, you would think we would be chock-full of Christmas-on-vinyl delights. But unless my memory fails, there were really only a handful:
We had the Harry Simeone Chorale Little Drummer Boy album; two recordings of Christmas classics played on organ (one was a mighty pipe organ, the other was a warbling Hammond – definitely higher on the cheese factor); and a collection album from WT Grant, which provided a sampling of songs from vocal stars of the 1960s, such as Robert Goulet, Mahalia Jackson, Steve Lawrence and Anita Bryant.
The Simeone recording had the title track that everyone knows, but beyond that, there were real gems here.
One of the cuts was a quick-tempo, rhythmic riff on the “Hallelujah Chorus,” sung entirely by the men’s half of the chorus and accompanied by blaring brass. I also loved the arrangement of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” whose intro was a whistled solo above lush strings. And one of the songs, “Every Christmas Is a Birthday,” had special meaning to me because of the December 27 date of my own entry into the world.
The Grant album was another winner. How I loved Johnny Mathis’ “Silver Bells,” with its gentle “Silent Night” countermelody woven in. And for some reason, the rendition of “Jingle Bells,” sung by Jim Nabors, always made me smile, if for no other reason than the inclusion of a little-known, seldom-recorded verse.
The organ albums were a mixed bag, but a highlight for me was a song called “The March of the Three Kings.”
By Christmas Eve, our affection for these albums began to wane from being overplayed. So late that afternoon, when the local easy-listening station flipped the switch to an all-Christmas format, we welcomed the variety.
Many of my memories of that marathon of merry music are of their accompaniment to the last of our last Christmas preparations before the big day. When Santa still came to the house, that meant it was the soundtrack to our hanging of the stockings before retiring to bed. When I was older, it meant something to hum or sing to while putting the final touches on our tree and the vintage trains – and tiny village – that surrounded it.
And more often than not, Mom was pulling the last of the Christmas cookie batches out of the oven.
Thanks to the digital age, I’ve now got nearly 500 Christmas songs on a mega-playlist on my iPod.
And fortunately, they include many of those cherished tracks from the days when the sounds of Christmas included the hiss of a needle finding a groove on a record album, filling a home with glory and glee.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Scent-sing My Father

They say -- and I believe it -- that the sense of smell is the biggest trigger for memory.

When I think of my kids when they were little, they were perfumed with baby power and mild shampoo, and a whiff now will bring me back to those early days of parenthood.

Mom? She seemed to whirl in an atmosphere of Jean Nate and vanilla extract, the latter which came into play when she was cooking homemade tapioca, a treat I would now pay a king's ransom for. Nobody made tapioca like her.

My father, however, was Old Spice. And Kiwi shoe polish.

For a while, he was also pipe tobacco, as he took up a pipe to, I suppose, move away from his cigarette consumption at least in theory.

But the shoe polish was a Saturday night ritual for him.

And us.

As Saturday evenings would unfold, he'd grab the shoeshine kit from the back of his closet and take out his Sunday-wear shoes.

With a rag on his finger, he would smear black polish on each one, rubbing the oily paste into the pores of the leather.

And then... Skfff - Skfff - Skfff - Skfff. The brush would do its magical work, making the shoes gleam. He was precise, effective and efficient, as his engineering background led him to be in just about everything he did. I'm sure the training in the Navy didn't hurt, either.

I remember doing it as well. As did my brothers, I suppose. It was as much a Saturday night habit as taking a bath and watching reruns of Sea Hunt and The Honeymooners.

When he passed away in 2006 (has it really been ten years?!?!) and we were removing his belongings (preparations for moving my mother), I came across the shoeshine kit.

And although my care for my shoes had evolved to sloppy polishes with foam applicators and then on to a careless swipe with a paper towel, I decided to keep the kit.

It now resides in the garage, high on a shelf.

But should I have a desire to revisit him in a physical, sensory way... I take it down, like I did tonight to photograph it.

And open that small tin.

And breathe him in through my nostrils.

I love you, Dad. I miss you. And I think of you often.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Throwing in the Towel

"Bless me, Neptune, I have sinned."

"Yes, my son. What is the nature of this sin?"

"I have led my family out of the promised land. I have turned my back on one of your most bounteous gifts. I have blasphemed one of your offspring."

"Oh. In what manner?"

"I... We... Our family..."

"Just say it, lad, You'll feel better."

"We opted for a 2017 vacation that was not Ocean City, NJ..."


That's right. 

This branch of the Weckerly clan chose not to go to Ocean City this year.

Worse, we did have a beach vacation. But rather than the familiar sands of South Jersey, we chose instead the bleached sands of Cancun, Mexico.

The reasons were many. For one, our 2016 vacation in OCNJ was a little bumpy. We opted for closer proximity to the beach, so we took a house on Central Avenue, increasing our budget to accommodate the accommodations.

Our error was in not seeing the place for ourselves. We booked based on Internet info. Which wasn't as forthcoming as we would have liked.

The apartment did put us close to the beach. But it was also a little on the rickety side. The increase in investment didn't really pay off.

Second, we were still saddled with the pack-horse chore of getting to the beach each day. In the heat of the mid-morning sun, each of us loaded up with chairs, towels, sunscreen, books, umbrella, lunch, beach tags, money, iPODs, Kindles, newspapers, games, water bottles and cash.

And if the weather happened to sour while we were there, all that gear had to be reassembled and shlepped back to the house, posthaste.

We also, as tradition holds, braved the Boardwalk a few nights. Played some mini-golf. Ate some Mack & Manco's (corporate rebrand be damned). Bought t-shires. Went out for a "fancy" dinner. Slept in late. Ate too much. Etc. Etc. Etc.

All very enjoyable, but all very standard.

So our Mexican decision was an offshoot of the general feeling about our OCNJ family vacations: Maybe there's something better than this. 

Especially considering the dollar outlay. Couldn't we, we wondered, spend about the same but go somewhere not requiring so much work?

Factor two was in the timing.

Claire, middle daughter, snagged herself a sweet summer job, monitoring corn production as part of an ag project in Lancaster County.

Bad news was that because July and August is prime corn-growing season, her employer asked that no extended vacations be taken during that timeframe.

The Jersey Shore in June sounded awfully chilly to us.

So Mexico it was. We shortened the stay to less than a week, in deference to keeping the cash outlay in the neighborhood of our usual NJ outlay.

The hotel was nice; its all-inclusive setup eliminated a credit-card meltdown along the way. We took one excursion into an underground river, which was unforgettable, and well worth the additional outlay.

We also lined up for meals, ala a cruise line. The food was well prepared and attractively served but nothing spectacular.

But to be fair, The Lobster House in Cape May isn't exactly a five-fork dining experience, either.

In the end, we had a very enjoyable family vacation.


It rained. A lot.

We made due as best we could. Got to the beach while it was relatively dry. Scurried back inside when it poured.

I couldn't help feel the irony of having passed on a beach vacation in Ocean City where we invariably spend time around a table playing Uno... To go to Mexico and spend time around a table playing Uno.

Oh, Neptune.

Thou art a jealous god!


Monday, May 22, 2017

Pinecones and Crabcakes v. Irish Potatoes and Dog Hair

This past weekend, Eileen and I celebrated 29 years of marriage.

That means we have been together more than half our lives... four years more than half our lives, by official count.

That's a long time.

What's the secret?

Well, it's a lot of things: respect, patience, support, connection, unselfishness, faith...

But it's some oddball things, too.

Like pinecones and crabcakes on my half of this relationship.

And Irish potatoes and dog hair on her half.

I'll explain.

It's the little things. The things we do for each other regardless of whether we think they make sense or not. It's the sacrifices, even the small ones.

Or maybe especially the small ones.

Like pinecones. 

Well, to be clear, they're not even pinecones.

They're leaves.

We have a rather colorful comforter on our queen-sized bed. It's a rather country-looking design of vines and branches and fruit and flowers, all done in a very stylized manner, in patterns that repeat across its length and breadth.

One of the leaves has a patchwork pattern on it that makes it look, to me at least, like a pinecone.

And when I make the bed, Eileen likes it in a certain way. 

I argue that the comforter is basically a square and that it can go any which way on the bed.

But she likes it a certain direction. She likes these pinecones when they point upward toward the pillows.

So when I make the bed, even after all these years (the comforter is not 29 years old; I don't know how old it is [she would know, though], but the concept is the same), I think: Pinecones up.

It doesn't matter to me. It matters to her. So I consciously make the effort to get it right.

Make the bed: Pinecones up. Change the linens: Pinecones up.

I have the same relationship with her and crab cakes.

I hate them. I don't like crabmeat at all. But she loves them (the girls do, too). So every so often, I will fry them up for her for dinner. I'll eat something else and delight in her enjoyment of them.

But as with any good relationship, these favors are not one-sided.

On my side, she buys me Irish potatoes each St. Patrick's Day. Despite not liking coconut. 

She also puts up with mountains of dog hair in the house, thanks to Parker. She was never quite the dog person I was, but she agreed to having not only one in the house (RIP, Wesley) but, when he passed, getting another one (hello, Parker).

It's the give-and-take.

And thus far, it has seen us for nearly three decades.

So here's to compromise. The large and the small.

We may not clink champagne glasses to mark the event.

But we may very well bite an Irish potato or a crab cake, respectively. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Scrabbling Around

I am a Scrabble-holic.

I was not born this way; I evolved into a seven-letter, tile-shifting, triple-word-hunting maniac.

My mentor? My mother.

Mom loved Scrabble.

Early in their marriage, Mom and Dad were given a set. The giver clearly thought it was a good idea: Mom loved word games and Dad loved crossword puzzles. What could be better?

As it turned out, though, Dad hated the game.

"It's too slow," he complained. "I can't stand waiting for opponents to lay a word down. It's sit-sit-sit, stare-stare-stare, snore-snore-snore!"

So their communal set was relegated to a closet shelf for decades.

Until I was about eight or nine.

Mom introduced me to the game with Scrabble Junior, where players use letters that are about the size of flooring tiles to spell pre-determined words on the board.

Eventually, though, she graduated me to the real-deal. With utter glee, she would pull down the oblong, maroon box and launch a game.

There were concessions in those early years.

We could, for example, "shop" for letters. If one of us were caught with a Q and no U, for instance, house rules permitted searching through the unused tiles to find the necessary companion to the dreaded solo Q.

And we could "hunt." That meant perusing our huge dictionary for possible plays.

But over the years, we started trimming back on the rule-bending.

Some of my fondest memories are of her and I laying on our bellies on the living room floor, the board between us, records spinning on our stereo console. In summers, the front door would be open, and when a late-afternoon storm would blow through the neighborhood, we'd pause the game, scurry to close all the windows, and resume play, the clack of placed tiles being all but obliterated by the maelstrom outside.

I started occasionally beating her.

And then I started winning consistently.

To make the game more interesting, we would play penny-a-point. After the last word was placed, we'd subtract the loser score from the winner score, and the victor won the difference in cents. Payments were accumulated until they reached a certain level ($20 most often), and I recall being "paid out" in that amount more than once.

It became a great way to save for Christmas shopping, as I recall.

At some point, we upgraded our set to the "delux" version. That meant a board that rotated (before that, I played upside-down, to lessen the chance of letters spinning out of control as play shifted between us).

It was high-class.

One year for Christmas, I bought Mom the Official Scrabble Dictionary, and we dove into the realm of exotic, two-letter words: Qi. Za. Xu, Hm. Sh. Oi.

We'd play on vacations at the shore, with my aunt who had the apartment below us.

And my grandmother teasingly called the game "Scrapple."

By the time I got to college, our mega-matches began to tail off. They went completely on hiatus when I was in London studying.

And by the time I got married and started a family, they were completely in my rear-view mirror.

Sadly, as Mom aged, her memory failed her. Scrabble tourneys were no more.

I will play, though.

An app on my phone allows me to challenge the computer.

And I've found a fan at work. A few weeks ago, I stopped at Target and bought a board. It now sits in our lunchroom, and every so often, he and I will go head-to-head as we eat.

We haven't yet gone penny-a-point.

But maybe someday...