'm back in Milwaukee after an extended stay at my sister and brother-in-law's place, where I visited for the dual birthday celebration of Grace and Haley, who turned 7 and 5 in June, respectively. I returned just in time, apparently, as I'm completely achey today. Either they battered me into my current state by jumping and climbing all over me for the last several days, or I'm perhaps catching some kind of flu or something. I hate to say it, but this is the kind of ache that usually gets followed by chills and such. If that's the case, all I can say is that man, I really drew the short straw for the last few years. Of course, that would be more-or-less my own fault, since I knew perfectly well that the girls had all run fevers for a few days just before I came down. Hopefully, it just means that there's some kind of massive cold front going through: I'm getting sailor bones of that sort, I think.
I arrived on Saturday before dinner, which ended up being out at the girls' favourite Japanese place, out in some suburb southeast of their home. Despite being enormously picky eaters, Japanese is something for which they have a profound and inexplicable appreciation. I hadn't eaten Japanese since South Bend, I think, so I was very much out of my depth, opting for some sort of tempura sampler after hearing Leslie describe my options. Mostly, I just enjoyed the food and watched the action as the girls made enormously loud spectacles of themselves, much to the mortification of their parents.
Sunday, the day of the party, which was for family (the girls having already had parties with their school friends), started with Mass and then just some play before everyone arrived in the afternoon. I watched the girls while their folks got things organized, sitting on the front porch while they biked back up and down the sidewalk with their neighbour, a classmate of Grace's named Lisa. It was fabulously windy and just the perfect temperature, and little Sophie (now 2 years old) kept coming over to me to talk with me, with us mostly marveling about the wind and agreeing how good it felt when it blew through our hair and clothes. (This sensation and sensitivity is the root of my wearing longer hair for most of my adult years: the pure hedonism of it all.)
Although it was the birthday celebration of the two older girls, I found myself doting a bit more on Sophie than the other two. Part of that was simply due to the fact that Grace and Haley often want to play a little more independently at this point. Added to this is the fact that Sophie, when she's not in a temper, currently is doting right back on me, and I'm powerless before her charm. Of course, this is true for me with regard to all my nieces. Grace can be just plain beautiful at times, and Haley has one of the best smiles in the world, if she chooses to share it, although that's slightly obscured right now by the loss of a tooth a few years ago from a tussle with Grace. But Sophie has a kind of explosive smile of her own, which, we all laugh and admit, has the power to overwhelm us with sheer cuteness. She's a bit more socially open than her two sisters, not possessing nearly their degree of shyness, and she seems to instinctively know how to use it, which I hope won't lead to trouble for her in the future.
Present-giving went over as well as it usually does, with Sophie happy with her stuffed-animal sea turtle (long-overdue from missing her birthday party by being sick and saved to give her something on this day so she didn't feel left out). Haley looked reasonably satisfied with her new pink pajamas, which is her colour of obsession, although I completely struck out with Grace, I think. She's shown a fondness for guidebooks, even when much of them is beyond her understanding, because she has just such a raw passion for, and delight in, sheer information-acquisition, which I of course find enormously exciting as a teacher. During my previous visit, she got quite excited, and Haley following her, when we talked about types of trees on our way home from playing in the park, where I pointed out some of the basics that I know: oaks and maples. So I grabbed her a copy of the Audobon field guide to Eastern U.S. trees, not expecting to be as huge as birds were for her last year, but still assuming that I was on safe ground. But Leslie's recommendation that I go for "dogs" instead, which I received after I had ordered the book, proved to be dead-on: right now it's all about dogs for her and Haley. Mostly this is manifest in their devotion to a computer game called Nintendogs and not the real thing, but it's still the current subject of choice. I suppose it's part of a common fault with me: I have always found it hard not to be impatient to talk to High School or College Student Grace.
Family time was as interesting and entertaining as ever, with plenty of time to talk with everyone. I was mostly surprised to discover during the present-opening (provoked by Sophie's horrifically-loud blowing on a plastic recorder, which she kept calling "my trombone") that Leslie knew nothing about Grandpa Novak's career as a musician in his twenties, when he played saxophone and clarinet in the Chicago speak-easies, often for the Capone gang. This is easy not imagine, as we never once in our lives saw him play, and since we knew him as one of the world's most straight-laced human beings, rarely to be seen outside of a three-piece suit, even while gardening in the heat of the summer, except in his last few years. I had discovered this bizarre fact of his past in my undergraduate days. So Dad related the story to Leslie, punctuated by Sophie's "trombone"-blasts, while I recorded it
, thinking it would prove an interesting piece of family oral history for the girls later on.
Grandpa had been asked to join Red Nichols and His Five Pennies
back at the time, but turned it down, which is kind of amazing when you think of them hitting the #1 slot on the pop charts
. He simply played as a way of providing income for his family, but once he started working a real job, as a banker for a few years before the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and started a family of his own, he told me that he simply put his instruments away and never played again. I cannot fathom so thoroughly giving music up, myself, especially since the family still stayed a musical family, with my Dad and uncles all being jazzmen, and taking lessons from the father of the late, great Louie Bellson
, who no less a light than Duke Ellington called not only the world's greatest drummer, but the world's greatest musician. (Looking at my uncles playing drums and piano, and my Dad singing, and knowing of Grandpa's past, I always felt bad that I'd never gotten more into jazz, much less blown most of my own childhood instrumental music education; still, I developed a strong and independent high school love of the RnB combination of Joe Williams and Count Basie
, which turned out to be my Dad's youthful favourite, too, and so I felt like I inherited something
So the afternoon passed into evening, with us telling and hearing stories, including more stories of our grandfathers engaged in such practices as letting their young or unlicensed children drive on the nation's highways. The girls played, we ate fine steaks from a fabulous and serious butcher that Jim and Leslie had just discovered, and life was good for another day.