Category Archives: Family

The Dinner Party Denouement

The promise of a dinner party fills some with dread, and others with exhilaration. I’m in the latter camp, so when I suggested (read: mandated) that my brother have one to christen his new house, I was very excited that he agreed. His girlfriend Landrie helped him pull off a lovely evening in the midst of an oncoming winter snowfall, and it was as cozy and comfy as one could have wished. 

The menu was all comfort food, and the cocktail was the Blushing Betty. The company was relaxed and fun. The music was Ella. It was a wonderful way to pass a winter night. 

 

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A Winter Dinner Party

This evening my brother is hosting a dinner party at his new home in Amsterdam. At my none-too-subtle urging, we started planning for this a while back. Getting a new home in order is no easy feat, and he’s been working around the clock to bring it together. I personally think it looks great considering how long he’s had it, and the front two rooms are magazine-worthy. (Maybe they wouldn’t be the cover, but an interior layout is nothing shabby.) 

There is a cocktail hour loosely slated for before dinner, at which we’ll be serving bourbon-based drinks. The signature cocktail for the night’s festivities will be the grapefruit-accented Blushing Betty, as seen here. Of course, there will also be Bada Bing cherries on hand and a fresh bottle of sweet vermouth for anyone who wants a Manhattan

I’ve requested some mellow jazz for the evening, but my bother’s tastes tend to stray into livelier territory. I can handle some Buddy Rich, the rest remains to be seen. A fancy record-player and a extensive collection of vinyl means that the possibilities are endless. We might get into the Lou Reed and Velvet Underground weeds, and I’m not going to argue. Hell, we may even get my brother to strum the guitar and start a sing-a-long. Anyone know the chords to ‘Like A Prayer‘? 

JoAnn is coming in from the Cape to join us, and Suzie and Pat are driving in from Delmar, so it will be a good group for breaking bread and passing a winter night. 

PS – If the time isn’t right, then Mo Vaughn

 

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Family & Sealys

When there’s a lull or silence in the background noise after kids leave the dinner table, it’s usually time to check on them to see what they’re trying to hide. On a recent evening after dinner at my parents’ home, that silence prompted me to head into the kitchen and see what was up. I was immediately shooed back out and told not to look. That’s not the usual way with these kids (as I’d witnessed earlier when I passed Emi gleefully sitting on the toilet with the bathroom door wide open to the world. She had waved.) This time it was Noah, blocking whatever project he was working on, insisting on me not looking.

Whenever I see my niece or nephew working on something creative, I’m quick to encourage, and then let it happen. In this case, we were all called into the kitchen about fifteen minutes later, when he revealed what he had spelled out in pipe-cleaners: EMI, NOAH, PAUL and SEALYS. (The sealys are their pet stuffed seals.) It was quite the effort and presentation, and I let him know that it was impressive. All such endeavors deserve a moment of recognition.

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Where One Road Ends…

We first met him at our wedding party seven long years ago. On a day so filled with the love of our family and friends, it was a most auspicious moment to meet the gentleman that our Aunt Elaine had just started seeing. Introducing someone new isn’t always easy, especially to family, but Tony was instantly likable, and his willingness to try new things and go with the flow made it easy to see why Elaine was so enamored of him. The feeling was absolutely mutual, and he doted on her in surprisingly delightful ways. Many men are not entirely comfortable showing such fondness and adoration so openly and honestly. Tony wore his heart on his sleeve where Elaine was concerned, and we watched their relationship bloom and grow with a warmth that spilled over to the rest of us.

He had an ever-present smile with just the slightest hint of mischief to it, and twinkling eyes that conveyed kindness and a gameness for anything. He and Elaine would simply head out for a drive and let the roads take them where they were meant to go for the day. Without end or goal in sight, they’d already found their purpose in each other’s company. We could all learn something from that.

Along with his smile, he had a readiness to laugh at the slightest provocation, and one of the greatest things to witness was when he’d find something amusing, then throw his head back with a hearty laugh. He was always a fun guest to have at summer gatherings by the pool or at cozy winter dinners before the call of Florida arrived. He and Elaine joined our family in Ogunquit several times in Octobers past, when fall was at its height and winter loomed in the not-so-distant future. His active life was exemplified by his love of riding his bike. He would ride for hours, and refused to be stopped by the dip in weather. He went to Florida for the winters where, he could keep riding year-round.

When he was first diagnosed with cancer several years ago, he fought and beat it back with his typical gusto and verve. He wasn’t quite done with his journey, and we weren’t ready to let him go. When it came back in more vicious form, he fought again, but it was too much for him. Losing his ability to go on his beloved bike rides must have hurt. He faded a little more every time we saw him, but still there were glimpses of the sparkle that we first saw on that summer night so many years ago.

Though we lost him last weekend, we have a treasure trove of memories that keep him in our lives. Kindness is a lost art – and Tony had always been kind. The world needs more of that. For now, there is only the profound sadness of loss, and the ache that comes with the realization that his kindness, and the joy he brought to wherever he was, will always be missing.

Yet I have a feeling that Tony would not want anyone to wallow for long. Somewhere, he is back on that bike, pedaling to his next adventure, a beautiful breeze rushing by and that smile breaking across his face. The end of his road here is sorrowful for the rest of us, but I think Tony was someone who would not want to look back. That doesn’t mean we won’t miss him a lot.

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My Mom’s Birthday

Today we celebrate the day my Mom came into the world, and every day since then the world has been a better place because of it. Any remnants of kindness and goodness, patience and concern, grace and dignity, and style and élan that I may possess have been passed on to me from her. She’s the person who taught me how to put an outfit together, but that underneath it all such superficial trappings didn’t really matter. She showed me through example more than words that while we should be generous enough to want to impress people, what anyone else thinks of us is vastly unimportant to how we feel about ourselves. She’s also illustrated that sometimes it’s enough to give, without expecting anything in return, and the sort of grace that results is something precious and rare, and to be her son is a blessing I most often don’t deserve.

We’ll have her and the family over for dinner in honor of her birthday, and I’m already at work plotting out our Mother’s Day weekend on Broadway (‘Dear Evan Hansen’ tickets are already in the bag). Happy Birthday, Mom!!

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From Our Christmas Eve to Yours

The magic of Christmas Eve can only barely be captured by these photos, and even less by anything I might try to put into words. Hope yours was as lovely and warm as ours.

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My First (Last?) Soccer Game

About an hour before I was supposed to be at Afrim’s, I texted Sherri and Skip to find out the best way to park in that crazy parking lot. If you are blissfully unaware of what Afrim’s is, I would advise trying to remain that way; it’s that sports monstrosity for kids of all ages near the traffic circle of Albany-Shaker Road. Up until now, it was a site I avoided at all costs, for obvious reasons. But when your nephew is playing in his final soccer game of the season, an Uncle has to make a sacrifice and take one for the team. (Andy claimed to have last-minute shopping to do, so I was on my own.)

Sherri and Skip said to park in the back and walk, to avoid any crazy soccer parents looking for a fight. ‘What land was this?’ I wondered as I found a spot relatively close to the entrance. A messy mix was still falling, and as I stepped out in my L.L. Bean Rubber Boots (all the better to blend in with this slice of suburbia) I noticed that I was walking on a slushy stretch of astroturf. In the parking lot. Forget Kansas, I didn’t even think we were on this planet anymore. I looked back at the Ice Blue Show Queen and waited for further info from Sherri and Skip. (For instance, are flasks outright banned at this kids’ place, or merely frowned upon?) Alas, there was no flask for the driver, so I trudged through the snow and ice in sober fashion.

Inside, a nightmare beyond my wildest imaginings unfurled. Kids, kids, and more kids. Kids of all sizes and shapes, of all ages and stupidity levels, and in every decibel known to the human ear. I knew they would be there, I just wasn’t expecting so many. Roaming in packs or singly stalking the halls, they were everywhere, and I sent up a single prayer to the Sweet Baby Jesus right before his birthday: that I would escape without contracting pinkeye.

There were signs advertising beer – something to give certain parents a glimmer of hope I suppose – but no one was drinking so I wasn’t about to be the poster guy for Bad Gay Uncles (my boots were already bringing down my people). A slight stench permeated the place, not quite as bad as a gym, but not far from it either. An enormous wooden box of ‘Lost & Found’ items, including a whole section of used water bottles, lined one wall. Judging from the contents, they could have dropped the “& Found” portion and called a nasty spade a nasty spade.

Just as I was about to give in to overexposure to kids and holiday exasperation, my nephew and niece bounded in and gave me a quick hug. I saw Noah’s eyes light up when he saw me, and suddenly realized that it mattered that I was there. When a little lesson like that comes at Christmas-time, it means a little more. Noah was gone in a flash, but Emi stayed in the lobby area with me for a bit.

Soon it was time for the game to start. I knew nothing about soccer other than it was what David Beckham did. My brother explained that here the clock didn’t stop like it did in football, and the 20 minutes up on the board would run down regardless of pauses in the game. Finally, something I could really cheer about! Amen to that! My relief might have betrayed more than I wanted, but I didn’t care. Emi complained about how bored she was, but I reminded her that certain people had sat through a six-hour dance recital for her not too long ago. She smiled and went back to watching before the first of a few trips to the bathroom.

The game was actually interesting, even if I was starting to get the sense that their team wasn’t very good. (My brother confirmed this in no uncertain terms.) I was a bit taken aback by how seriously some people were taking it – these are six and seven-year-olds, right? And it probably would have been better in a tiered stadium with beer and hot dogs, but by half-time, or the fifth inning stretch, or whatever the hell they call the damn thing in soccer, I was getting into the groove.

Noah scored two goals this time out, and though I’m biased I also have it on good authority that he is always one of the strongest players. He did his team proud, and afterward I took them out to lunch at Chili’s. Their choice.

On Wolf Road.

On the Saturday two days before Christmas.

Because that’s what a good Uncle does.

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The Ilagan Bros. Holiday Tradition

It was one of the moments that brought my brother and I back together after adolescent turmoil and trouble: our trip to pick up the family Christmas tree. In high school we went our own ways, about as far apart as two brothers could go, but by the time I was spending most of my year at Brandeis, we had grown up a little and were ready to become friends. On an unplanned whim, we both volunteered to go pick up the tree in the mid-to-late 90’s. I still remember the drive, on a bright but wildly windy day, and the twins still ask me to tell the story of how the tree fell off the car before we even got home. 

That story came up again, after we picked out the tree (and by we I mean Noah and Emi) and had secured a table by the fire at our old stomping ground the Cock & Bull.

On the ride over, we passed the frozen pond that I drove by on all my oboe lessons. The kids studied their spelling words, and my brother and I searched for Christmas music on the radio. 

It was a warm tradition still intact, and I asked the twins to tell us some of their stories. At seven they claimed they didn’t have any, but we all recalled the night Emi went backwards in her chair when we picked up a tree a few years ago. They will have more, much more, to tell one day. They have only just begun. 

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A HighBall With Andy’s Mom

It was the first and only Christmas I’d get to see Andy’s Mom. The year was 2000 – which in many ways seems a lifetime ago, and then again just like yesterday, so vivid is my memory of this night. We were stopping by Andy’s parents’ home to drop off gifts and wish them a Merry Christmas. It was my first time meeting his mother – I’d only just corresponded with her via a shared love for reading at that point (I’d given her a copy of ‘The God in Flight’ by Laura Argiri and she wrote back her notes and opinion of it. A rather bold choice of mine, considering all the gay sex in it, but she was unbothered and unfazed by it – only remarking that some of the more graphic moments might be better left out.) I knew then that we’d get along famously. Though I may have jumped the gun a little on that first meeting.

We sat down at their little kitchen table. Andy’s Mom asked if we wanted anything to drink. (He’d told me it would be ok to request an adult beverage, or I never would have suggested it.) I said a highball would be great, then proceeded to take it a little too far. What I planned on saying, and the sentence that was formulated in my head was, ‘Andy says you enjoy a good drink’ but what came out was, “Andy said you liked to drink!”

She looked at me for a second, then bent down to her son and whispered, “I’ll let that go since it’s Christmas.”

It was the perfect first meeting, and sadly one of our last, but it remains a fond Christmas memory, a way of holding onto our past, of bridging our time with lost loved ones. And it still makes Andy and I chuckle whenever we think about it.

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Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past

Next week will mark the first Thanksgiving that Andy will be without both his parents, which will make it one of the more difficult years to give thanks. I still remember the Thanksgiving we had the year his Mom died. It was Andy’s second holiday with my family, and he’d already won everyone over. We sat in the Ko house, where I’d spent almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas since I was born, and it was one of the last times both our families were relatively intact. 

I think back to those who were still with us then – Andy’s parents, my grandmother, my Uncle Roberto – and I wonder if we did our best to realize how lucky we were. Suzie’s brothers were talking to Andy when we got the call that his Mom had taken a turn for the worse and we had to leave early to get back to the hospital. Our Thanksgivings would never be the same. 

As much as we once loved the holidays, there is always a slight dampening of the festivities when you think back on what has been lost, and what we’re always in danger of losing. More than a dampening of the eyes, it’s a dampening of the spirit and the happiness that is often afforded innocence and youth. 

In the darkness of the early morning, before the sun has risen and the world feels a little lighter, I watch in vain for the cardinal to visit our backyard. I hope it returns by the time Andy wakes. I hope he finds it, and that he finds some small comfort in the season. 

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Weird… and Wonderful

It really wasn’t all that out-of-the-ordinary or strange, when you consider it in the pantheon of outfits I’ve worn over the years. A ceremonial Indian wedding coat, adorned with a few sequins and some sparkle, and some beadwork around the neck. A bright marigold-orange silk, paired with a loose pair of turquoise pants. I’d worn it to one of the Beaujolais events a few years back. On the rainy day we were traveling to Amsterdam to check out my brother’s new house, it seemed a fine choice.

Andy and I pulled up to the house, and I texted my brother to help us with the potted palm I’d brought to warm the place. We entered and were dutifully impressed by the results. My brother had worked hard on the house, and he and Landrie welcomed us in as the twins ran rambunctiously around.

We talked home decoration and I offered what little guidance I could. They had already done quite a bit, and the living and dining rooms were mostly complete. We sat for a drink before getting ready for dinner with our parents.

As we were leaving the kids looked at me and asked why I was dressed like this. “Like what?” I asked.

“In a dress,” one of them said. “It’s weird.”

For one brief moment it stung, just a little.

“Aww, you hurt Uncle Al’s feelings,” Andy explained gently as we went out into the rain. But by then there wasn’t much hurt left. This was how kids talked. I understood they didn’t mean anything by it.

I just hope the rest of the world will be as forgiving as me.

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A Husband’s Birthday

Two score and a decade and half of years ago, a baby was born who would give his parents, myself, and everyone who knows him much joy. This is Andy’s birthday and, as is his desire, it will be a low-key event, without fanfare or pomp, but I’m still going to make some ado about it here because while he may not want a big bash, he’s more than worthy of some public gushing and online accolades. (He’s on Twitter and Instagram – @drewvanwagenen – so show him some birthday love and tell him I sent you.)

Since he’s not big on having his photo taken, he’s not on this site as often as he should be, but his spirit imbues just about everything I do, informing all of these posts in ways not often seen or blatantly explained. The truth is that I wouldn’t be half of who I am without him in my life, and maybe that should be said a little more often. Perhaps somewhat carelessly on my part, I’ve always assumed that everyone knew that. On this, his birthday, I’m taking a moment to confirm it.

Happy Birthday Drew – and many happy returns of the day!

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Memories of the Rose

SOME SAY LOVE, IT IS A RIVER THAT DROWNS THE TENDER REED

SOME SAY LOVE, IT IS A RAZOR THAT LEADS YOUR HEART TO BLEED

SOME SAY LOVE, IT IS A HUNGER, AN ENDLESS ACHING NEED

I SAY LOVE, IT IS A FLOWER AND YOU ITS ONLY SEED.

It was one of the first songs I learned on the piano, and to this day I can still play the opening chords and melody. A hit for Bette Midler before I was old enough to walk, ‘The Rose’ is one of those classics that has endured thanks to its timeless lyrics and beautiful balladry. For me, it conjures memories of my grandmother.

Whenever she’d visit, she would request that I play it for her, and she’d sit and listen in rapt fashion as only a grandmother could. Occasionally, as was her disturbing way, she’d mention that she would like me to play it at her funeral. A macabre and rather unsettling notion for a kid to contemplate, and when she did pass away, years later, I was in no condition to play ‘The Rose’ on the piano even if I wanted to. Still, there was something beautiful to what we shared as she bravely challenged her mortality and I vainly sought to put the idea from my head.

In many ways, my grandmother was a timid woman. Afraid of the world and often afraid of people, especially those she didn’t know, she taught me caution and quiet. She relied on and deferred to my grandfather while he was alive. He died before I was born, so I never saw her interaction with him, and by the time I was old enough to notice such things, she was more of a widow than anyone I’ve met since. I knew that she’d gone to work in a factory during the war, and I knew that such an act wasn’t for the meek or quiet, so I assumed she kept her strength and power hidden away. Of course she never had to show it to us children: as grandmother she doted on and adored us no matter how we might misbehave or push our bedtime back.

IT’S THE HEART AFRAID OF BREAKING THAT NEVER LEARNS TO DANCE

IT’S THE DREAM AFRAID OF WAKING THAT NEVER TAKES THE CHANCE

IT’S THE ONE WHO WON’T BE TAKEN WHO CANNOT LEARN TO GIVE

AND THE SOUL AFRAID OF DYING THAT NEVER LEARNS TO LIVE.

For all her apparent meekness, she still held a certain sparkle and pizzazz, particularly when in comparison to the staid and strict way my parents behaved and expected us to behave. My grandmother was the one who taught me how to make a fashion statement, whether in a string of crystal rosary beads, or a glittering clip-on costume earring. She would wear sequins on her scarf, and carry handbags dripping with beaded tassels. Conservative in almost every other aspect, particularly in the leather-bound chignon that kept her hair ever-pulled away from her face, she showed her spark with her jewelry. I learned the power of a statement piece, and when we got to visit her home in Hoosick Falls I had hours of fun in her jewelry boxes. In that way, my grandmother lived in my imagination.

She would tell my brother and I stories of Greta Garbo, and how she was the greatest star in the world and then simply disappeared. The mystique she described lent her an air of mystery and magic too, and we begged her to trot out those Garbo stories at every bedtime. Try as I might, however, I could never place my grandmother among the youth from a former era. I desperately wanted to picture her laughing and sipping at her favored glass of beer (“with a good head on it” as she used to say), but I couldn’t reconcile the kind elderly woman who tucked us in with someone who would kick her heels up on a table and smile for the camera. Yet I know it happened. I’ve seen the picture.

WHEN THE NIGHT HAS BEEN TOO LONELY AND THE ROAD HAS BEEN TOO LONG

AND YOU THINK THAT LOVE IS ONLY FOR THE LUCKY AND THE STRONG

JUST REMEMBER IN THE WINTER FAR BENEATH THE BITTER SNOW

LIES THE SEED THAT WITH THE SUN’S LOVE IN THE SPRING BECOMES THE ROSE.

As she grew older and more feeble, as she lost her senses and her memory, she receded into the childlike innocence of old age. Shrinking into a tiny woman, she moved further and further from those youthful days of boundless energy and bold, shiny bracelets. The hesitancy and shyness that marked the bulk of her adulthood dissipated, and in rare instances she would get a glint in her eye of remembrance and fire. I wondered if she wished she had let loose more, or if she realized she had lived just enough. Whenever I have a moment of doubt before a moment of indulgence, I often think of my grandmother. She would have thrilled at this necklace, she would have run her hands appreciatingly over this scarf, she would have approved of these fancy shoes. She would have gotten dolled up and turned it out, just for a trip to church. She would have put on the pizzazz and sparkled, just for a moment, and she would have smiled like a beneficent queen. I learned that from her too.

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Father’s Day

On this Father’s Day I’m going to hug my Dad a little tighter, because I’m keenly aware of how dear our Dads are. My father has always been a strong and silent support system throughout my life, and I’ve often been too silent about how much he means to me. I’ll try to show that more than one day in the year. To all the Dads out there who do their thing in such unassuming yet loving fashion, Happy Father’s Day to you.

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A Father’s New Journey

My father-in-law passed away early on the morning of June 14. He will be buried on what would have been his 91st birthday, and there’s a beautiful bit of poetry in that. A small glimmer of hope and celebration in this ultimate rebirth, and I hope there’s a sliver of healing in the midst of such profound sadness.

He had always been kind to me, no matter what was going on in the world, and that meant more than I could ever fully express. Andy used to take him to see the car shows at the Saratoga Automobile Museum. On those mornings I would gratefully step aside while father and son spent the day together. One year they brought back a photo of a ridiculous Country Squire station wagon – and told me that the monstrously wood-paneled beast was ours. I didn’t believe it until it arrived a few days later. (Despite my pleas for burglary, it still resides in our side-yard.)

The following year, they attended another show, and when they came back they had a photo of Andy’s father pointing to another car, as if Andy was getting a bride for his Frankenstein. I was mustering every ounce of self-control to not lose my shit in front of his Dad when he said that he got me. Every time they went to a car show thereafter, Tom would pose with a crazy car and Andy would send the pic to me. Once I got his sense of humor, and he had a wonderful one, I felt like we bonded.

He got along swimmingly with my own father, and at gatherings at our home they would often sit together and talk. There was lots of laughter between them, right until the last days, and I know that my Dad will miss his friend.

He remembered me every Christmas and birthday, and he treated me as well as he treated his own children. He didn’t have to say anything to make me chuckle. It was a roll of his eyes, or a hysterically incredulous ‘are you crazy?’ look that could elicit a howl of laughter. He was sly in his digs, and witty when he wanted to be. There was a thoughtfulness in the way he spoke, and in the way he interacted with people. By the time he reached 90, he took it all with a grain of salt, but even in his last days there were glimmers of the hard-working man who brought my husband into the world.

On his last night, his father showed Andy a glimpse of who he had been. He mustered the energy to pull his Boston Red Sox cap onto his head. He tugged on the bill a bit, as if he was about to throw a pitch, and let a quick smile cross his face. He was ready for a new inning.

We will miss you, Dad.

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