As the two of you who read this blog may have noticed, I usually follow up a “Dust Bunny” with an “Observation.” I don’t particularly know why, I just do it. Maybe it’s an OCD thing. Not so this week. Since Father’s Day is in a couple days, I thought I’d offer up an homage to a man who became a father to my brothers, sister, and I. Too many years have passed since he was in our lives and the only fathers left among us are…us. Still, we remember those special men who were fathers to us. Incidentally, my brothers and I have found that we’re too old to play wiffleball anymore.
The idiot in the White House can wait another week, after all.
“Kids, I’d like you to meet Ray.”
Reluctantly pulling my eyes away from a Star Trek rerun, I regarded the unfortunate soul standing in our front doorway.
Raising his right hand, he gave the five of us a cheery, “Hey, guys.”
Without a word, I nodded and returned once more to the TV.
As unenthusiastic as my greeting was, it was better than what he got from the others. My brothers and sister pretended they didn’t hear him or our mother.
Slowly lowering his hand, Ray turned to our mortified mother and shrugged.
“Well,” I could hear the irritated edge to Mom’s voice, “we’re going out for a few hours. Don’t forget, church tomorrow.”
Fixated on Kirk’s trouble with tribbles, I heard them step to the door.
Vainly hoping for anything, Ray said, “Nice meeting you.”
Coldly deciding I wouldn’t give in, I called, “Bye, Mom.”
I guess you could say our first meeting had gone about as well as Donald Trump at a BLM rally.
The past few years had been rough for our family. Even though we didn’t know why, it was plain that something was terribly wrong between our parents. From muted snarls in the living room to flying ice cube trays in the kitchen, we knew our world was whirling apart.
Deciding that raising five children on her own was far superior to living with a man who was the embodiment of Ralph Kramden, Archie Bunker, and Fred Flintstone, our mother finally asked our father to leave. Before she asked for a divorce.
It wasn’t easy. She had her hands full, whether fighting with my sister over joy-riding in her boyfriend’s black primer Volkswagen or helping my little brother make papier mache puppets of the Founding Fathers. Through it all, though, she pulled off the single parent role as well as anyone.
Even so, it was clear Mom craved more than a life of runny noses and missed homework assignments.
Steeling her nerve, she convinced a man at work that dating a woman with five kids really wasn’t much worse than a prostate exam from Edward Scissorhands.
We kids, on the other hand, treated the newcomer as an invader. Our father, while given to belching in church and scratching his back with a fork, was still our father. How dare our mother replace him?
I’ll give Ray credit. Ignoring our sullen indifference, he continued to try to foster a relationship with us. Even after they got married and he became our stepfather, we stubbornly refused to let him get any closer than the milkman.
Still, Ray would go out of his way to ask us how our day went when he got home from work. Whenever we struggled with homework, it was he who insisted on helping us. Rather than bark out commands for yard work, he’d pick up a rake to help us.
“Wow,” my brother whispered to me one Sunday as we yanked weeds, “I never saw Dad out in the yard when football was on.”
I watched Ray scoop a handful of muck from underneath a garbage can. Hmm, come to think of it, neither did I.
One of the games we played constantly throughout the summer was wiffleball. From dawn to dusk, my brothers and I smacked a little white ball with a little yellow bat all over the yard. It wasn’t the World Series, but it wasn’t smoking cigarettes and playing in traffic, either.
The only problem with playing as much as we did was that we tore up the yard. Our constant shuffling on the pitcher’s mound and at the plate had worn the grass away to two rock-hard patches of dirt.
Needless to say, this drove our mother crazy.
Of course, we still played, ignoring her pleas that we go to the park. She never understood that the real fun of wiffleball was that you had to play around backyard obstacles. Swimming pool, picnic table, trees-all enhanced the fun factor.
One afternoon, I was engaged in a heated contest with my brother. Already jacking one off the dog to the base of the pine tree for a double, he’d sent another whizzing by my head like a rocket-ship. You could say I was in trouble.
Suddenly, from inside the house came a shrill, “Are you two playing wiffleball in the yard again? You’re tearing up the grass!”
My brother and I looked at each other. We shrugged, figuring she’d eventually come outside if she was really mad.
As I began my windup, the back door banged open. Ray stood on the porch, frowning at the two of us. Oh, great, I thought, she sent out her muscle.
Just when we figured the game was over, he held up a three-foot length of broomstick wrapped in electrical tape.
“Looks like someone needs to teach you two how to play.”
Ray beat us. What’s more important, he became part of our family from that day on.
We all grew up, moved out, and raised families of our own. Even though we lived in different parts of the country, we never failed to return home to visit our mother and the man who became father to five kids.
Even when Mom was taken at an insanely early age by cancer, it was Ray, or Poppy as he became known to our kids, who was there for us. He may have thought onion dip was fancy cuisine and Howard Stern was Masterpiece Theater, but he was the epitome of a real man and father.
When he succumbed to cancer himself, we were overwhelmed with grief at the loss of someone who had guided us into adulthood and sadness that our own children wouldn’t come to know the man.
The pain eventually faded, of course, as we all went about our lives. We still missed them, but life went on. Life has a funny way of doing that.
Several summers ago, our families got together for the 4th of July.
For old time’s sake, we decided to have a wiffleball tournament in my backyard, which I called Poppy Memorial Park. The games lasted all day and even included my son and daughter, who were the same age as we were when we started playing so long ago.
Slowed by too many years and too many beers, we couldn’t best the youngsters, especially my son. As he fired the final out past my wildly flailing bat, he raised his arms in triumph and strode triumphantly to where my wife was setting up supper.
Pulling her attention from the grill, I heard her shout from the deck, “Look what you did to my lawn! Couldn’t you go play in the park?”
I followed her outstretched arm. The grass where we’d played had worn away to two raw patches of dirt.
As my eyes began to water, I wondered if she’d mind if I cut up a broomstick.