My Parents

To give my audience a sense of who I am and where I came from, I was born in 1970 and grew up in a residential town in northwest Indiana called Munster. I have two brothers: Rob, who is about two years older and Chris, who is seven years younger. My dad has always been a hard-working, very active man who worked long hours in the steel mills of East Chicago, while my mom worked a couple of long overnight shifts in the admitting department of the emergency room so she could be home with my brothers and me during the day.

Now, before I go on to expose my own stupidity with raising kids, I’d like to begin by throwing my parents under the bus. They were terrific, responsible parents, and I have nothing but great memories of my childhood, but I just wonder if there might be an absent-minded gene that we don’t know about. Or maybe we do know about it, like some type of Attention Deficit Disorder or something like that, but never diagnosed. Allow me to illustrate some examples of what I mean.

When I was a young teenager, we went on vacation to stay at a cottage on a small lake in Michigan. When we arrived, we wanted to change immediately into our swimsuits and jump right into the lake. “Not so fast,” said my dad as he stared blankly into the trunk. “Looks like we forgot to bring your bathing suits.” We walked over and joined his bewildered gaze as we all stood staring into the empty trunk of our car, struggling to realize that we had no luggage at all. My parents swore that they remembered packing and carrying the suitcases out to the car, so this became the big mystery for the whole trip. Did we get robbed at a gas station or something? We had to buy poorly fitting, nerdy-looking clothes for the week at some secondhand store, since it was a very small town without any department stores nearby. When we returned back home, as we drove down our street, we noticed our luggage still sitting on the sidewalk next to our driveway–mystery solved! Once the shouts of amazement and laughter simmered down, my dad pointed out that it was a good thing we lived in Munster, Indiana because where else would three big suitcases sit on a sidewalk for four days?

My mom is notorious for being absent-minded. Lively conversations about her funny stories can go on seemingly for hours with her sisters’ howling laughter and slapping of thighs at our family parties. She amassed quite an array of strange mishaps over the years while working her midnight shifts in the emergency room. She once accidentally tied a patient’s wrist to the gurney with his wristband ID. Another time she kept asking this female patient with “beautiful big eyes” what her name was until the nurse had to tell her that she was dead. One morning, she came home from work and found an apple in her coat pocket. Wondering how an apple could have landed there, she finally realized that she accidentally brought her boss’s coat home instead. While taking an elevator down to the cafeteria and talking with her friend, she looked over and noticed that her friend was not there anymore. Apparently, she was facing the wrong elevator door and didn’t notice her friend getting out. The next thing she knew the rear door opened and she found herself staring directly into the morgue! When walking out to her car, she passed by the parking lot security gate and felt someone pulling her purse off her arm. She screamed and looked up to see the gate rising into the air and snatching her purse along with it.

When she was a teenager, she went on a first date to a drive-in movie. Her date went to the concession stand to get some popcorn and drinks. She got cold so she turned the car on, but her date had left it in reverse gear, causing it to lurch backward about five parking spaces! Fortunately, no cars were parked behind her. She didn’t know how to drive stick shift, so some obliging young man offered to move it back for her. Her date returned just in time to find this handsome guy driving his car with his date sitting beside him, both laughing and smiling from ear to ear! He figured he was not only stealing his date but his car too!

One of her most famous incidents earned her the nickname “Crazy Mary.” It all began as she drove to the local grocery store on a day like any other. Her sister, my Aunt Jean, happened to be driving down Ridge Road, which is the main street in town, and slowed down as a stately funeral procession began passing her by in an orderly fashion. But then she heard some of the cars honking, which of course is unusual for such a somber and ceremonious event. She even noticed that instead of the usual stone-faced expressions of the passengers, they looked a bit distraught. A moment later, she spotted the source of the problem, and my mom was the focus of it. My mom said she didn’t understand why cars kept honking at her, so she kept changing lanes, but for some reason kept cutting right back into the procession wherever she could find an opening. Aunt Jean joined in on the honking, trying unsuccessfully to get her attention. She watched in stunned disbelief as my mom changed lanes once again and looked to be finally passing the procession until cutting back once again into the motorcade—right behind the Hearst! She continued driving like this for some time, completely oblivious that she was driving in the most honored position of the funeral procession.

As much as our family loves to tell these stories about her, it is only fair to provide an example of when she saved me from an absent-minded mistake, an oversight that could have been catastrophic to my future career. During my senior year of college, I told her I had received an acceptance letter to medical school but was still waiting for a couple of other schools to reply before I made my final decision to attend. They came to visit me for the weekend around that time and wanted to see the letter. I noticed her expression turn from excitement and pride to alarm as she read every word. “Oh my God, did you know the deadline to respond is only two days away?” My head almost exploded in that moment since I had no idea and would have missed it if she hadn’t read it so astutely. She definitely set the foundation for me through her inspiration and setting me straight with good study habits. Now because of this I can more directly say that I never would have made it to medical school if it wasn’t for my mom.

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When not working, my dad has always been engaged in some project or another which usually involves gardening, digging and designing beautiful ponds, photography, and even hypnosis. He hypnotized Chris’s high school swim team before sectionals as well as his cycling team for optimal performance. If you can believe it, he even hypnotized a stubborn wart off Chris’s foot that finally disappeared within a week.

 He prides himself on being quite the handyman. I am the opposite of a handyman, so every time he comes to visit my family, we have a list of projects to keep him busy. I’m pretty sure he would actually be insulted if we didn’t have any repair or installation projects for him when he arrived. He loves to wear pants or shorts with a lot of pockets to keep his “nifty” little tools with him at all times. He really enjoys showing off his latest tool. “Have you seen my new pocketknife?” he asks with a beaming smile as he reaches into one of his many deep pockets. Once he brought out about five handy tools within a two-minute span that had no relation to what we were doing. He basically just wanted to show off how many he could fit into his pockets and how useful each one of them was. My wife couldn’t believe it as she laughed harder and at a higher pitch with each successive tool he presented. He wasn’t even done yet, because when I facetiously asked him if he had an adaptor plug for my amplifier that I was trying to find for the past two years, his eyes lit up and he promptly whipped one out of his magic pocket: “You mean one of these?” Unbelievable but true story.

He often gets irritated when people aren’t paying attention to their surroundings, and he is usually the focused one who calls others out on their carelessness. Patience has never been one of his virtues. He is quick tempered, but fortunately his wrath dissipates as quickly as it starts. My mom is the most frequent victim of his frustration. My kids’ favorite line of his that they love to imitate is his famous: “What are you doin’, Mary?!” using his rising pitch and exasperated tone to a tee. But she has never been one to put up with his anger, so they are like a living embodiment of the old comic called “The Lockhorns.” One evening when he came home from work, he saw my mom struggling to make dinner with two whiny young toddlers hanging onto each of her legs. She had worked overnight the night before and instead of sleeping, spent the next day trying to clean the house as best she could and play with us kids. She hadn’t had time yet to fold the laundry and the ironing board was still up. Instead of offering to help her out, he groaned “This house is a mess!” Completely frazzled at this point, she darted her head around, revealing bloodshot eyes and a storm of wild hair as she blurted out “Why don’t you just put a broomstick up my ass and I’ll sweep the floor with it too!”

As focused as he usually is, he is not completely immune from this absent-minded trait, as this next anecdote told from Rob’s perspective will expose. One snowy, cold morning as teenage Rob was lazily lying on the couch and watching MTV, my dad descended the stairs, shaking his head in disgust and telling him to make himself useful. “Hey Rob, instead of watching this crap, how about snow blowing the driveway so I can get to work?” He said he would, but then feigned a long bathroom break in hopes that Dad would get tired of waiting and do it himself. He didn’t hear him nagging to hurry up, so he quietly went to his bedroom to find himself another distraction. Suddenly he heard him booming up the steps before bursting into his room. “I thought I told you to snow blow the driveway! Get your ass out there right now or I’m going to be late!”

“Fine, geez, I forgot,” he meekly replied and skulked out of the room. He made his way downstairs and noticed a good video on TV which gave him pause but was immediately nudged along by his increasingly impatient father. He then had the gall to get a light snack out of the refrigerator, but as he was unwrapping the cheese, Dad whacked it out of his hand, slapping the cheese against the wall. “Don’t even think about picking that up!”

“God!” he retorted with a harsh whisper under his breath, “All right, I’m going!” He slowly put on his boots and coat and finally made it out to the garage. After about five minutes of struggling to start the snow blower, he felt satisfied with his effort, came back inside, and started to take his boots and coat off. He was startled by the sudden appearance of Dad looming over him as he bellowed from the top of the steps “Now what the hell are you doing?!”

“The snow blower won’t start, what do want me to do?” Then something seemed to snap inside Dad as he burst into a full-blown conniption. He furiously threw on his coat and pulled Rob back out to the garage, shouting obscenities all the way. “You have to learn how to be a man! You have to be able to figure things out on your own! If you want to be successful in life you need to work hard!” He approached the machine and checked the gas which was full. He primed it a couple times and with his great strength, yanked the cord nearly out of the machine and it fired right up. Triumphant, he puts one foot on top of the roaring machine like a conquered foe and pointed his finger at Rob, shouting over the engine noise, “You see!  That’s how you get things done!” 

Feeling proud of Dad during this big teaching moment made it all the more difficult for him to point out the obvious. “But Dad, that’s the lawnmower, not the snowblower.” After a long pause, his brain finally came to terms with the situation and he began laughing out loud. The tension was momentarily diffused, until he quickly discovered why the snow blower wouldn’t start: no gas.

My dad is actually known more for being injury prone than being absent-minded though. He might just be the only person to ever break his knee playing golf. Ok, he wasn’t actually playing golf when he broke it, but hopping a fence to get his ball that he had knocked over. He tripped over a pipe at work some years later and broke his nose as well as his other knee at the same time. A few years ago, he lost his balance on his bike while trying to reach into his mailbox and broke his thumb. His latest injury was when he lost control of his bike on a gravel road and broke his pelvis.

When I was about five years old, I was outside playing while Dad was up in a tree trimming branches. Suddenly he slipped, and the ladder fell away leaving him hanging onto a branch by his arms about twenty feet in the air! He told me to go get Mom for help, so I ran inside. “Hurry!” After hanging on for dear life for about two minutes, he sees me come back outside without her. “Mom is on the phone and wants to know what you want.” The entire neighborhood could hear his roaring until she finally came to his rescue.

Ok, just one more. I came home for lunch one afternoon in the fifth grade while my Dad was trying to dig up a post that was cemented in the ground in our back yard. He couldn’t lift it out himself, so he talked the garbage men into giving him a hand. The three of them were able to carry it to the garbage truck, but when they went to throw it into the truck, the post swung violently and whacked my poor dad across his head! He didn’t pass out but was bleeding all over his hair and face and clothes, and all over the yard for that matter. “Scott, go tell Mom I need some rags. I just split my head open!” Fortunately, she wasn’t on the phone this time. He had to go to his sister’s wedding the next week with his entire head wrapped in white gauze and over twenty stitches in his scalp.

My dad likes to relate his favorite story of what fatherhood really meant to him as we were growing up, because it exemplifies his love for his family alongside the chaos that goes with it. He arranged a week-long bicycling trip in Vermont through a beautiful, peaceful Bed and Breakfast that was featured on the cover of Gourmet magazine as one of the best places to stay in Vermont. He invited the rest of us along with a couple of our cousins and my Aunt Jean to do some sightseeing. Eight of us piled into one big blue station wagon that had well over a hundred thousand miles on it already. My little brother sat up in the front with my mom and dad. Aunt Jean, Cousin Mary and Rob were in the back seat, while either Cousin Dave or I would alternate sitting four across in the back seat with the others or else squeezed in the “way-back” with the luggage.

Everything went smoothly after stopping off at Niagara Falls and dropping Dad off at his Bed and Breakfast, and then the rest of us journeyed on to visit my aunt’s friend who owned an oceanfront hotel in Maine. My mom and her three sisters were notorious for having bad sense of direction, but despite this, they bravely set off on this grand adventure anyhow. The trip was supposed to take about five hours, but after driving about that long they noticed that we hadn’t even crossed the border of Maine yet so figured they must be lost again. The two sisters nervously chatted back and forth over the map, trying to see how to correct our route. After a heated discussion, we all agreed to keep heading in the same direction until we came to the next major highway which would take us exactly where we needed to go. Everyone except for my brother Rob, that is. He quietly looked over the map for a few minutes and explained quite logically what we needed to do. Nobody trusted him since he wasn’t even old enough to drive yet, so we all shut him down, saying he didn’t know what he was talking about, and kept driving out of our way for another half hour. He remained very adamant that we had to turn around NOW, and his persistence finally paid off. We stopped at a gas station to ask directions and it turned out that he was correct after all. They asked how much longer it would take to get to our hotel, and he told them it would take about another five hours! Amazingly, after another several hours of driving with Rob clutching the map and ensuring that we stayed on track, we finally made it to our destination.

After a few days of fun at the beach, we headed back to Vermont. We had no real problems with directions this time, but we noticed smoke beginning to emanate from under the hood that smelled like burning oil. We only had another hour to go so we pushed on. We had almost arrived, but Aunt Jean realized that she just barely passed up the exit. We were so close, and she didn’t want to risk driving on and possibly getting us lost again, so instead she BACKED UP on the freeway to get to the exit ramp! We all yelled for her to stop, but she kept backing up and reassured us that nobody was coming. Thankfully, we made it back to the exit unscathed and approached the Bed and Breakfast.

My dad describes this scene in all its glory. He was relaxing peacefully on the extended front balcony and engaged in pleasant conversation with the owners while enjoying tea and crumpets. They gazed out at the expansive lawn and backdrop of trees, as the occasional car slowly idled up the dirt road as if it were a carriage to pick up their loved ones. The view was immaculate, his mood in a state of bliss, feeling like a character in some serene painting. Then out of the distance, a cloud of dirt and smoke appeared from the furthest end of the road. He watched in silent consternation as this abomination rapidly approached. As it loomed closer, he could make out that it was in fact his own family in his dusty blue station wagon, tearing down the dirt road at 50 miles an hour! The smoke was really starting to blast out from under the hood by this time. We had wet, sandy beach blankets and towels piled high on the roof to dry and had also left a couple of bathing suits flapping out of the windows to dry and block the sun. His teenage kids were hanging out of the other windows and shouting “Hey Dad! Hey Dad! We made it!” The woman next to him smiled and politely asked, “Is that your family?” After a few seconds of staring at us in stunned silence, he raised his eyebrows and replied, “I’m afraid so.” His thoughts were a paradoxical mix of emotions because even though he knew this station wagon filled with utter chaos had arrived to rip him away from this serenity and back to reality; his heart was filled with joy to see his family again, and he ran to welcome us with a broad smile. He knew this was a memory he would never forget.

Published by swojtowich

I am a physician, story writer, husband and proud father of two sons. I enjoy travel, exercise, and reading/writing books.

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