WHAT’S BETTER THAN TOAST N BUTTER?!

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With Veterans’ Day upon us my first memory of such a HERO was John Earl Robinson whose service in the Big One, WWI, was always on proud display in his apartment. Throughout my early youth i spent many a weekend there with my PopPop. i went there after school on Friday and returned home on Sunday morning by way of a bus to our church. He lived only a couple of miles away, but it seemed to be in a different city far away.1116151134

My many siblings must have protested, “Hey, he likes Mikie most!,” this despite the fact that this was the man who officially renamed me, “Stubborn Gus, the Knucklehead!” Hey! MAYBE my parents were sending Knucklehead off to boot camp? i do recall sleeping on a military cot!

When i look back at those times, it was my entrance – even before seminary – into a world of ritual. My grandfather did the same old things at the same old times day after day after day after day…and on weekends he pulled me right into the thick of them. One of them, taking place at sunrise every Saturday and Sunday, was the simple yet passionate consumption of toast – preferably burnt – and butter. “What’s better than toast and butter?” one bud would ask the other. And the other would respond, “Nothin!” So we would sit in that humble little kitchen, as if in heaven, staring at each other, very very simple men, so easy to please.

To this day i begin almost every morning at 6:10 at the sanctuary of my kitchen counter, sipping coffee and nibbling toast – preferably burnt. Not a piece goes down without a loving thought of my OLE COMRADE! i even look down at my beagle’s face staring up for crumbs, and i sometimes ask him, What’s better than toast n butter?

ONLY LOVE!

And even that i first learned – the hard way – in that little home away from home. It was, i believe, kept our little secret, my pop pop and me, for over fifty years. i think it’s time to be told.

Jackie Robinson, as everybody else called him, besides being my bestest buddy and teacher of all things Philadelphian, was a great boxer. He loved to gross kids out with his “boxer thumb,” popping the bone in and out quite disgustingly, no matter how much you screamed. He was most proud of it! As i said, everything was ritual, so every Friday late afternoon was the same old hike to the Merchandise Mart in Wilmington, Delaware.  This was pre-malls, you younger readers! Malls were only marts then, open outdoors. Ours boasted one of the famous, coolest Horn and Hardart Automats (you’ll just have to GOOGLE that!!! even you old-timers, for the sheer fun of it). You’d open a little window with a little bit of change, and get a whole meal! i only wanted the chocolate cupcake! That was our dinner every Friday, followed by a long slow stroll home, looking into every shop window and “sitting on the corner, watching all the girls go by,” which i still find myself singing in his honor. A photo of us was even taken one day and used as the cover of a local magazine.1109152019

After all of that ritual came our GRANDEST OF ALL. We took our sacred places, his in a big easy chair, mine atop a plastic-covered ottoman, right in front of the TV. Anyone who lived through the 1950s would know the theme song well, “Look Sharp, Be Sharp” by Maylon Merrick, introducing another nail-biting installment of Gillette’s “Cavalcade of Sports.” Time to meet the greatest boxers – and the not so great, on the planet, the real Rockies before there was a Rocky Balboa. Graziano, Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, who made our name so proud, Joe Louis, whom Pop  Pop never tired of telling me he met!

But on this one Friday night, both of us no doubt so overtaken by the excitement, swinging our paws all over the place – suddenly a left hook caught me, and i found myself on the floor across the room! Stunned as i was, and still stinging, i jumped right up and bolted, running for my life. The old boxer must’ve bolted as well, but i was way too fast for him. i left him in the dust, crying, “Mikieeeee!” i was lost to him for hours. Down in the basement of his apartment house there were large storage cages, one for each tenant. My grandfather had so much junk in his, making it very easy for a little creature like me to crawl in and hide. When he came around screaming, i stayed paralyzed. Now that i’m an old man, i often imagine what the hunt  was like for that poor man. My heart aches more than it did then. Neighbors were helping, voices were echoing, but my feelings were hurt far more than my jaw. When my boxing-bud made one last stab at it, the mouse made a little squeak, and then the hugs and the tears. Picture that: the great big boxer, Mr. Jackie Robinson of South Philly, and the same man who marched with Allied Forces in Europe, now on his knees and crying, with a little boy pouring MERCY on his wounded head and breaking heart.

Just a few hours later, i was drawn to the kitchen by the sweet smell of burnt toast, as if nothing had happened. My Pop Pop surely asked me, “Is there anything better than toast n butter?” We both smiled and said, “Nothin!” But we both knew there is nothing really better, or sweeter, than LOVE, MERCIFUL LOVE.


			

LYNDSEY GRACE

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My last post was a short n sweet tale of my golden-haired Molly and her coming to see that TRUE GOLD is in CARING, as she did by letting her locks be taken for children with cancer. More than with any previous blog, that one had many writing to thank us for the sharing of how Happiness is not found in the Marilyn Monroe- looks but in what comes from within to ease the burden of others. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Only that do we take with us in the end!”

One of my dearest childhood friends, Cindy Mattey Rager, was just as proud of her own golden-headed Lyndsey Grace. Only put atop her locks a bright red ribbon, as this radiant beauty bore so valiantly from the age of 2 the tortuous illness of Type 1 Diabetes. Having spent so many years of my life working with sick children, i found countless whose diabetes spread to their souls in a devastating and paralyzing depression. But, on occasion you would come upon “Amazing Grace,” those whose suffering so led them to empathize with even the least suffering of others, that they learned to live to lift their sisters and brothers in any way they could. A “golden girl” like Lyndsey thus put into practice one of the most tried n true of proverbs, “Help your brother steer his ship across the stormy sea, and LOOK! Your own has reached the other shore!” Lyndsey was so absorbed, so POSITIVELY, in the care of another, that she could forget about her own misery.

Her mother was one of the bright lights of my youth. There was another who was not always so bright; though interestingly, his name was Ray. Ray Parnell was one who slunk into the dark of drug abuse, so much so that one night he actually DIED of an overdose. He was the first person i ever met who had that out-of-body-experience. And he confided in me that he even met the Lord, who then sent him back “to try again” (like that guy Phil in “Groundhog Day.”) Ray told me it was because he’d never done anything for anybody. “Even with my head hanging low,” Ray said, “I never even noticed a sparrow.” Well, he sure put an end to that, striving every day to REALLY BE THE RAY he was born to be, not in big ways but in tiny everyday offerings of self for anyone needy in his path – from sparrows to people. AMAZINGLY, this happened only for a short time, as Ray was called back to heaven about a year later, a very different, very peaceful man.

i started to scribble out a play back then – for Ray and many other souls whose lives were taken early. Based on that thought of St. Francis, i imagined various “heavenly homes,” sad empty shacks now the homes of once rich, but selfish, folk and great, glorious mansions spiritually built of lumber – AND GOLD – of each act of kindness and generosity, especially when they were  made of substance rather than of surplus.

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Lyndsey Grace Rager was taken from us at age 22, but can you imagine the awesome beauty of her home now, knowing that this young lady “never knew a stranger” but rather did everything she could to make this world kinder, fairer, better. Grace and her trusty dog, Gracie, lived to bring comfort one warm, loving act at a time. It is for this reason that a 20-room house has been set aside in her hometown of Fort Myers, Florida, as a shelter for women and their children in any need. In tribute to her “heart of gold” it is called The Lyndsey House. (You can contact “fortmyersrescuemission.org” or “www.lyndseyshouse.com” if you wish to join Lyndsey in any way in her neverending love…)1107150907

The Lord told my buddy, Ray, “Sorry, sir, but there’s nothing for you here yet. You’d be so lost, as you’ve never invested in heaven’s business – which is Love.” But, there a young lady of 22 was like a wise old veteran! So well practiced in the heavenly art of compassion.

In years and years of Bible study i don’t think there was a lesson so memorable to me as the one where i learned the original Greek word, which described Jesus’ feeling towards those he found in need. Like when he saw the great crowd so full of hurt and hunger, “like shepherdless sheep.” Or the time he told the rich young guy what he had to do to follow Jesus, and the Lord had tears of sadness in his eyes, as he knew the boy would not be able to leave the “riches” for true wealth. Or the time he told his tale of tales, the one about “the Good Samaritan” who, unlike the priest and the Master of the Law, truly cared for his “brother human being” until he was healed. In such times as these a big and funny word pops up – try to say it, it sounds just like what it means – SPLAGCHNIZOMAI! “HIS GUTS EXPLODED!!!” How many times does the sight of someone less fortunate JUST RIP YOUR HEART OUT? Well, this was the daily life of a goldilocks from Fort Myers, who so built, board by board and brick by tiny spiritual brick, her mansion in heaven. Lyndsey House will live on hopefully as its tiny reflection on earth, and her hands will be replaced by many many others who will be lifted up out of themselves by the memory of Lyndsey Grace!

i repeat: just google LyndseysHouse.com

THE HUNGER TO GIVE

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When our Molly was a toddler, her hair was as radiant as a sunlit tree in Autumn.1497618_711993295548636_6740975317656893406_nWherever we roamed, she was swooned over by jealous admirers. If they could, she feared, some would have snipped off many a lock and stolen away into the night! We had to keep an extra tight hold on our little child of gold.1103151914

But, in time our little girl came to realize just where “the gold” in life lies, where true treasure is…as she gave her hair away to “Locks for Love.”

William Jordan wrote, “Unhappiness is the Hunger to Get. Happiness is the Hunger to Give.”

WONDERFUL SONG OF REDEMPTION

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One of my favorite amazingly-true stories from my life, one which scanned half a century, i never tire of telling. i tell it again today for my darling sister, Judy, and the love of her life.

It was early November, 1959, and the sweet little boy in his Philadelphia Phillies cap was about to have his world turned upside-down. Though only 5 i was quite the charmer, working that face to lure many a “2 bits” out of weak pockets in order to buy new packs of Topps-plus-bubblegum. My baseball card collection was already as legendary as its stars.

Suddenly, however, the boy was swept up by a force he never saw coming. It traveled in by way of airwaves and the transistor radio. No, my Beatles were still a long way off. This was a local boy, just a teenager, from Philly, Frankie Avalon. i was smitten. i was overcome. And my life would never be the same from that day forward. It was the last Number One of the 50s and first Number One of the 60s, just a 2 1/2 minute tune called “Why.” Little did anyone know how it would become a “Song of Redemption.”

Passion got the better of me, got the whole of me, and i just had to have that record. There was an older kid two houses away, a fifteen year old Richard Roberts, who had a copy. Talk about charmers!!! He decided to cash in on my major life-shift into the world of pop music. Though he had no doubt picked up the 45 with two bits of his own (yep, $.25 were all they cost), he offered it to me, knowing full well my feeble legs, for my WHOLE shoebox of baseball cards. And so, so easily did i crumble. It was not long after the trade that this little fella realized he’d been bamboozled. The charmer had been outcharmed. And Frankie Avalon, Number One, or not, i wanted my cards back! But if Richard Roberts was anything in life, it was TOUGH. They never returned.

The charms of Dick Roberts would only grow and grow. Add a U.S.Navy uniform, and soon he added my sister, Judy, to his shoebox and other trophies. LOL, Just kidding, Jude! Everyone who knew this man would speak immediately of his steely demeanor, but they would just as immediately add that Life – and the Loves of his Life – would mold and mellow him into a real-life Superman, so to speak. Just as the finest beef is tenderized with steady poundings, so our Richard became known for his tenderness more than for his steel. Yes, the Soldier became the State Policeman and  Skier and Cyclist, who had already pedaled 50 miles before us normal people even lifted our heads off the pillow, but over time we also watched life and love work its most beautiful magic on him, molding him into “the perfect gentleman.”

The high school which i attended bore the name of St. Francis de Sales (different from the Assisian), and in the lobby there was a quote of his on the wall. Along with Jesus’ Golden Rule, it pretty much sums up everything that makes for “the perfect man:” “There is nothing stronger than gentleness and nothing more gentle than real strength.” In my life there was hardly a man who lived this better than Richard Roberts. All of my children came to idolize him, in whom were these qualities which i long for them to find and embrace as life’s surest treasure. And to all of Dick’s great accomplishments he added Master Photographer, so that he did not just CARPE DIEM, but he sealed those moments in memories forever.

At a very young age my dear brother-in-law was suddenly overtaken and subjected to the most brutal pounding of “Mr. Alzheimer,” and while in a very short time the monster reduced that mighty body to ruin, it never ever took his heart. He was the “perfect soldier” in life, as tough as steel yet as tender as that love that came to sweep me away in November ’59. Add to all of this that Dick, on his own, became fascinated with the Love of God and became a convert to the Catholic Faith. The charmer was eventually OUTCHARMED BY GOD, Who “never lets us go, why, because He loves us!” He is with us through all of the POUNDINGS that tenderize and make us great, HAVING SUFFERED THEM ALL HIMSELF!!! This is what Dick Roberts came to BELIEVE!

So, now here is the AMAZING PART OF THE STORY. Ten years ago today, on Nov. 3, 2005, my children and i were headed out for our regular grocery shopping. As i pulled into the parking lot at Walmart, all of a sudden Frankie Avalon comes over the car radio, singing “Why.” Oh, how long it had been since i ever heard it! And i just had to tell my kids the story of my first record and their “rotten Uncle Dick.” But, when we got home that night, i learned that it was at that very moment that my brother-in-law was going in and out of consciousness – before finally passing away. To this day tears fill my eyes, and chills go up my spine at the very thought of it, of Dick trying to say he was sorry.

i never tire of telling this tale. Why today? “Why, Because I Love You,” Richard Roberts! You know, some have estimated the value of my shoebox today at a million bucks, but its value is NOTHING compared to every moment i spent with you, especially as i watched your love for my children and theirs for you.  (“The Charmer” was also out-charmed  by my daughter, Molly!) 1025151200 (1) Dick, you had already made up infinitely for our silly trade. And now more than ever the song rings true, “We had found the perfect love, yours for me and mine for you…and I’ll never let you go… We’ll love each other true FOREVER!”