Dear Mabel Day,
Once upon a time your daddy and I had nothing to do on New Years’ Eve. We were in high school, I was a junior and he a freshman, and our parents, your grandparents, left for the evening’s festivities with their friends, leaving your dad and I by ourselves.
We called some friends and we thought that, at the least, we’d watch Karate Kid, and maybe The Bodyguard if I could convince Geoff, and at midnight, run around outside and scream about the New Year being here.
Your dad and I, we had good friends. Not the kind that were good in the “they keep kids out of trouble” sort of way, but the kind that made Geoff and I laugh. The sort of kids that jumped out of the car at red lights and started to dance because the song that was on B96 was too good to just sit there buckled in. They were mischievous, but it was a benign, creative mischievousness. Like once, when we got our licenses and our parents told us we weren’t allowed to drive past Harlem, our friends shrugged and said, “Well. They didn’t say anything about going the other direction, did they? To the city?” Your dad and I confirmed that no, our parents never said anything about driving towards the Chicago skyline – just away from it – so of course they wouldn’t mind if we took the convertible down to the beach for a round or two of volleyball while the October waves crashed and the cars along Lake Shore Drive zoomed by.
I don’t remember all the details of the evening, Mabel. I don’t remember how the idea came about, whether it was your dad’s idea, or it was mine. Maybe it was one of our friends. At any rate, your dad was in the band and he played the baritone. The baritone is the granddaddy of the brass section. You can’t just pick something like that up and say, “Let me give this a try.” You need bicep muscles. Lung capacity. Me? I played the flute (I was first chair for a while, thank you very much). The flute fit neatly and perfectly in my backpack to and from school. And the days I got to play the piccolo? My walks home were a breeze. It’s like having a few toothpicks in your backpack. No big deal.
This is not the case with the baritone and I don’t know what your dad was thinking when he agreed to learn how to play it. Not only was he subjecting himself to years of, “Not yet, Geoff, it’s not time to come in yet.” “Not so loud, Geoff.” “Remember you need to blend in with the rest of the brass, Geoff,” but he had to lug that thing to and from school every day.
Your dad was a better student than I was, and he brought more textbooks home and they were heavier. When you don’t do your homework, when you take the remedial classes, when you play the flute, your walks home are easy. I wasn’t book smart, but my goodness, I could’ve helped your dad think this through before he decided to play The Big B.
Anyway, maybe it was after The Karate Kid that our eyes fixed on the baritone (did we call it Barney?) sitting in the corner of the basement underneath the stairs like Harry Potter might’ve sat in the Dursley’s home. Maybe one of our friends tried to pick it up to play it, had a near hernia and plopped it back down on its stand. I don’t remember how it happened, but that New Years’ Eve, your uncle and I, along with our friends decided that it would be hilarious if we got in the car, found people on the sidewalks walking to and from parties, and slowly drive alongside them while Geoff played the theme song from Jaws.
So that’s what we did for the remainder of 1992. I drove while your dad sat in the back seat holding the horn across his lap until we found people to scare. We had a caravan back then, before I crashed it (but that’s a story for another day), and Geoff had the entire back row to himself because of the baritone. One person sat shotgun, and everyone else sat in what we called, “the way back.” The part of the car with no seats. Your dad and I would beg your grandparents to let us sit back there and “drive really fast around corners” so we could roll around like ping pong balls. This was before the law that said kids need to be in carseats until they can successfully say the Declaration of Independence backwards.
The person in shotgun (I wish I can remember who it was. I want to say it was my friend Lisa, but I’m not sure.) held the sliding door open just a tad so that Geoff could begin to play quietly, as the song begins, when we found some victims. As we got closer, Geoff would play “da dum, da dum, da dum” faster and louder until it sounded like that damn shark was in the car with us ready to eat us alive.
I don’t remember if we scared anybody and maybe that disappoints you. But here’s what I do remember: I remember laughing so hard it was difficult to drive. I remember your dad taking it really seriously and telling me to stop laughing because it we won’t scare anyone that way because my laugh is so loud. His voice hadn’t changed yet, and he wore glasses that even today are not considered Geek Chic. Have your parents showed you To Kill a Mockingbird yet? He had Atticus Finch glasses. It’s OK. Atticus Finch is a hero and so is your dad so let’s let them wear whatever kind of glasses they want to.
I remember coming home at night close to the same time as my parents, all of us exuberant from being out in the freezing Chicago cold with our friends. We stood around in the living room and shared bits of the night with each other. Certainly this wasn’t the first time that happened, but I love this memory of the four of us standing in the living room laughing about our night before we went to bed because it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Your dad and I had no intention of hanging out with each other that night. Our parents probably assumed we’d be in bed, or watching TV when they got home and they’d say goodnight and head to bed themselves. But we’d all been out in the world and we’d had fun and now here we are in the warm house, the streetlights on Gunderson glowing through the bay window in the living room, their light sparkling from the wind outside.
Your dad and I, we love this story. I don’t think anybody has as much fun telling it as us. We try and tell it to other people and they aren’t as entertained as we’d like them to be. Once though, I told it to somebody and he said, “You and Geoff. You guys are the best brother and sister.”
I think that’s why I like this story so much, and it’s why I’m telling it to you for when you’re ready to know it. Sweet Mabel, there’s not much you’re going to need from me. You have two incredibly capable parents who adore you and will look at everything you do as a delight and a surprise – even the bad stuff. So as your godmother, I promise to pray for you, but the way that I think I pray best is to tell you a story, and I think this story about your dad and I is a good one to start with because one day, you might say, “My dad’s no fun.” Or, “I can’t believe my dad won’t let me do (fill in the blank, there’ll be lots of them).” You’ll need to say these things because you’ll want your parents to sting like you are stinging, and your words will be effective. I tell you this story not just to tell you: “Look. Your dad IS fun. Your dad IS the best.” But to tell him that, too.
You won’t understand this until you become a parent, but the heaviness of life, all the things that could go wrong, seem to sit on either side of your shoulders when that baby is born. I can’t even conceive of a time when your uncle Jesse and I will just go out and leave your cousins at home with nothing to do. They’d need dinner! They need to have cell phones with our number plus the number of at least five of our friends on speed dial! If they don’t have plans to go out then we don’t have plans to go out! We’ll have family night! This kind of thinking is exhausting. It’s a buzz kill. It’s desperately depressing, but it’s so easy to sink into.
Maybe your grandparents were hesitant to leave that night, though I don’t think so. I remember my mom putting on earrings and spraying Shalimar on her neck, her cool brown heels, the ones I secretly put on when she wasn’t around, clicked confidently up and down the hallway between our bedrooms as she put on the finishing touches. She was excited to go out with her friends. My mom and dad shut the front door, walked down the steps, and left Geoff and I with a night to wonder what it was we would do with this one wild and precious life of ours. I don’t know if there’s a better gift you could ask from a mom and a dad: to give you life so you can live it.
So I tell you this story so you can see your dad in a funny situation, and so you can know a bit about your grandparents. There will probably be several nights around a dining table where your dad and I will start to reminiscence about this and other stories (there are lots), and you’ll roll your eyes. That’s OK. Your uncle, mom, and cousins will probably do it, too.
May God give you eyes to see and create stories from your life, Mabel Day. May you hear a still, small voice in the humorous, in the happy, in the scary, and in the sad events of your life that says, “You are wonderfully and fearfully made. Now, go! Live that wild and precious life!”