Tag Archives: Growing Up

I’ve heard that story a million times already

One night at dinner my dad said, “Did I ever tell you kids about the time I raced your Uncle George when we were little kids?”


And I was being a typical teenaged jerk, and so I said, “Yeah dad, you’ve told us like a million times already.” Even though that wasn’t true. I’d never heard my dad talk about racing, or Uncle George. Uncle George lived in Minnesota somewhere, and I couldn’t remember the last time we’d actually seen him. There was a photo album somewhere around the house, in one of the big bookshelves in my parents’ room. But even that was kind of off-limits. If we ever got caught snooping around upstairs, it was a big deal and it always ended with a lot of yelling.

My dad gave me an annoyed look, and he was just about to open his mouth to say something to put me in my place, when my younger brother Neil said, “Dad, I’ve never heard that story.”

So my dad closed his mouth and smiled a little, and without looking away from where I was sitting, he said, “Well then Neil, you’re in for a treat. Because this is a great story.” And I kind of rolled my eyes really dramatically, like, man, now I have to sit here and listen to a boring story from my dad. “But your brother’s already heard it, so why don’t we get out of here? I’ll tell you in the car.”

And my dad got up and pushed his chair in, walking away from his dinner plate. “Where are you going?” my mom said.

“Neil and I are going out of for a ride,” he said to my mom, and then turning to Neil added, “You want to grab some ice cream?” to which Neil bounced out of his seat and ran to the foyer to get his coat.

I waited until my dad was out of earshot and said in a mock-loud voice, “And who’s going to clear up all of these plates, your mother?” and nobody heard me, not my mom, definitely not my dad. And that was fine, because I didn’t know where I was going with that comment, not really. As soon as I said it, I realized that all I was doing was inviting my mom to make me stick around and help her clean up. The phone rang, my mom went further back into the kitchen, and I disappeared into my room until I was sure everything would have been put away.

And then I went back downstairs, my mom was smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table, I asked her, “Mom?” and she said, “Yeah?” and I could tell by the tone of her voice that she was in an OK mood, like she wasn’t pissed off or anything, and so I said, “What was dad talking about at dinner?”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“That whole race thing, with Uncle George?”

And her forehead got really tight and she said, “Uncle George?”

“Yeah, dad was going to say something about a race?”

“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him when he gets home.”

And just then the driveway lit up as the station wagon pulled in right by the kitchen. My dad and Neil got out of the car, and when they walked into the house, Dad had a pretty big smile on his face. I didn’t really want to stick around and see if he was going to start smiling in my direction, and so I got up to go to my room. As I rounded the corner from the kitchen to the hallway, I could hear my mom say, “You didn’t bring any ice cream home for the rest of us?”

I didn’t say anything that night, and I was pretty good about trying not to think about it for the next couple of days or so. But just when I figured that the thoughts of my dad and my brother and the story about that race were going to fade away for good, they rallied and made a comeback, something like three or four days after that night at dinner. It was all I could think about. What was so important about a dumb race? Why did my dad have to leave the house to tell Neil? Why wasn’t anybody else talking about this?

So I cornered my brother when I got home from school that day. I said, “Neil, what did you and Dad talk about when you went out for ice cream after dinner?” and I was ready, I mean, I wasn’t going to let Neil go without him telling me what happened. If I had to twist his arm behind his back, or threaten to scratch all of his CDs when he wasn’t home, I hadn’t really left anything off the table in terms of forcing him to talk.

But none of that was necessary. Right away, Neil was like, “Dad didn’t say anything. We drove around town for like fifteen minutes in complete silence. It was so weird. I kept thinking, where are we going for ice cream? Why isn’t Dad saying anything? And then finally he talked, he was like, Neil, when we get home, I don’t want you to say anything to your brother. He’s going to ask you about the race between me and Uncle George, and you don’t say anything, got it? And I was like, what are you talking about? And he said, the race story, from dinner. And I said, OK, are we going for ice cream? And he said, no, no ice cream, I think we have ice cream in the freezer. But there wasn’t any ice cream in the freezer. There’s never ice cream in the freezer. And then I said, but dad, what’s the deal with the race story? And he said, what? And I said, the race, you know, with Uncle George? And then he said, shhhh, be quiet, I love this song. It was that song Old Time Rock and Roll. You know that one, right? And that was it. There wasn’t any ice cream.”

My first instinct was that Neil was lying, but after a while he just wouldn’t stop talking and so I left the room, satisfied that nothing had really happened.

And then later that week at dinner, in between bites of meat loaf, my dad said out of nowhere, “So, I bet you’re wondering about that race story between me and your Uncle George.” And he kind of just smiled. I looked down, but he probably gave Neil a wink.

And I didn’t say anything for a second, but then came back with, “Who are you talking to?”

Dad looked pissed off, but pissed off in a way that tried to make it look like he wasn’t pissed off. So he had this kind of half smile, half scowl. And he said, “I’m talking to you. Don’t you want to know about the race?”

And I looked down at my lap and said, “Dad, you’ve already told that story like a million times. You tried to race Uncle George, but he was always a lot faster than you, and so you never beat him. Come on dad, that’s a pretty lame story. I don’t know why you keep telling it.”

Mom started laughing, but it was like she was trying not to laugh, and my dad shot her a nasty look. Everyone was really quiet for a good amount of time, all you could hear were the sounds of forks and knives clinking against plates and teeth. I thought about ratting Neil out, telling everyone about how Neil told me that him and Dad just drove around in circles listening to classic rock. But I didn’t.

And then five more minutes passed, and I opened my mouth and said, “Hey Mom, do we have any ice cream for dessert?”

And my mom looked at me with a really confused face and said, “Ice cream? Dessert?”

I said, “Yeah, Neil, didn’t you say something about ice cream in the freezer?”

“No,” he said, looking down at his lap.

And I said, “Oh, my mistake. I thought you said something about ice cream in the freezer.” And then I looked up at the table and my dad was just staring at Neil with a really pissed off look on his face.

Rick’s punishments

When we were little, my parents maintained order by allowing my older brother Rick to come up with punishments for any wrongdoing in the house. It sounds crazy, and yeah, because it was crazy, but it was effective. Because Rick was ruthless. One time my younger brother Scott put up too much of a fuss about doing the dishes after dinner. He kept whining about not wanting to clean, and then he stood around at the sink for while doing a really half-assed job of working the sponge.


So my mom sent Scott to Rick for sentencing. “Come on!” Scott screamed. “That’s not fair! For dishes?” And, fair or not, that’s just the way the system worked in our house.

“Two weeks, no winter coat,” Rick decreed. It was February. We all stood around and looked toward our parents, to see if they might intervene due to the shocking and cruel nature of Rick’s penalty.

“Mom? Dad? Really? It’s freezing out!” Scott pleaded. But it was futile. If my parents gave an inch, Rick’s power over us, and thus my parents’ order over the house, would have been questioned. As it was, order was maintained through Rick’s almost sadistic love of heavy-handed punishment.

And so things weren’t fair, not really, but they were crystal clear, and we all tiptoed around the house. Scott didn’t have his winter coat in the middle of the winter, and yeah, some of the teachers called the house, wondering why he was getting dropped off at school shivering, wearing nothing but a sweater. “Huh,” my parents would say. “We’ll have to look into that.” Nobody ever looked into anything. We all just tried our best to keep our heads down.

Trying to reason with Rick was out of the question. If you even thought about questioning his authority, he’d probably rat you out right away for something that you didn’t even do. And since he never, ever got in trouble, my parents believed anything he said.

None of us have any idea how he stayed out of the spotlight for so long. Because every kid gets in trouble once in a while. But it’s like he was perfect, probably because he loved doling out punishments so much. But also probably because he knew that if ever messed up, he was done. That’s because the flip side of the house rules was that, if Rick ever got caught, it would be up to the rest of us to decide his fate.

Looking back, it really was genius on mom and dad’s part. They didn’t have to worry about discipline, they just set up this twisted system and stepped back, free from having to wonder how they’d keep their kids in line, no good cop, bad cop. It was indifferent cop, indifferent cop, and then Rick.

And maybe Rick enjoyed it, I don’t know. Because we all hated Rick. Growing up, even now none of us talk to him, but back then, we wanted nothing more than to catch him with his hands dirty, just once. When we were absolutely sure he wasn’t around, we’d all huddle together in a circle, whispering aloud our fantasies about how we’d frame him, all of the ways in which we’d subsequently make his life hell.

Peggy wanted to ban him from watching any TV for a year. That all stemmed from one time when Peggy and Katie were fighting about who got to watch what. While they went back and forth, Rick snuck out of the living room and grabbed my mom. He ratted them out, and then decided that they’d only be allowed to watch reruns of Golden Girls for a month. And yeah, my parents were totally cool with it.

But years went by and Rick always kept to himself, always out of trouble. Until the summer right before he was set to go away to college, when one night Scott saw Rick load up the washing machine. Who knows why he even bothered to look, it was something so small. Rick had set the machine for hot water, and my parents were really strict about only using the cold setting. “The clothes get just as clean on cold!” my dad would yell throughout the house. “Do you know how expensive the gas bill is?”

Scott immediately called out, “Mooooom!” and everyone came running. Rick had finally been caught. He tried to abort the rinse cycle, but it was too late, once set and locked, it was impossible to turn the machine off.

“Well gang?” my mom looked at us. “Here’s your big chance.” She looked at Rick. “What’s it going to be?”

And I don’t even know where it came from, but I blurted out, “Rick can’t go to college.”

And everybody just stood there, mouths hanging open, but only for a second, because everyone started to smile. And then we started to laugh. And a minute later we were all in a frenzy, a joyous, passionate frenzy, laughing, crying, hugging each other.

“Haha,” Rick said. “Very funny guys.”

But that only made us laugh and cry even harder. Peggy started screaming, like she couldn’t even control the raw emotion coursing through her body.

“Mom?” Rick said.

And yeah, even I thought that my mom had her limits. Like why would she do that to Rick? But she did.

“Well …”

And that was it. Rick wasn’t eighteen yet, and he wouldn’t be until next October. So they cancelled his registration. He got really pissed off and moved out of the house, swearing to enroll in the spring. But he must not have been used to living on his own, because he went from one minimum wage job to the next, barely able to keep his head above water. And then a couple of years after that, he started drinking really heavily, and then he there was talk about drugs. And then he moved to Arizona, and none of us have heard from him in years.

And you know what? None of us really feel bad. We don’t see each other all that often anymore, seeing as how nuts-o our home life had been, we’d all moved out as soon as we could and never looked back. But on those rare holidays or family get-togethers, someone will mention Rick. And we’ll all just nod our heads from side to side, like you might think some of us feel remorse, maybe just a little bad. But I can tell, I look at all my brothers and sisters, and I know they feel exactly like I do. Like fuck Rick, that asshole, he totally had it coming.

I had a pencil sticking out of my leg

One time when I was like ten or eleven, I remember running around the house, a full sprint through the living room, around the kitchen, back again into the TV room. I was just doing laps, a little kid with way too much energy and nowhere to go, no place to really burn off any steam. On this particular day, my theatrics weren’t getting any attention, nobody yelled at me to stop, or calm down, and so after a while it got kind of boring, like a flame deprived of oxygen, without managing to get a reaction out of anybody, I slowly burned myself out.


But not before going out with a bang, my cooped up, ten or eleven year old version of a stuck-inside-the-house grand finale. I climbed up onto the arm of the sofa, jumped into the air, and tucked my legs under my arms, hoping to land like a cannonball onto the couch cushions.

Only, as soon as I hit the furniture, I felt something sharp, stabbing me in the leg. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, really. I’m the oldest of six, and back when we were all younger, a house jam-packed with little kids, there was just stuff everywhere, little pieces of toys, crayons. This time there happened to be a pencil stuck in between the couch cushions. How it got like that, positioned so that the point was sticking straight up, I have no idea.

But that’s how it was, like a spike, my right leg landing directly on top with all my body’s weight to really drive it in. I looked at my leg, I couldn’t even react, not really. It was such a weird sight. The pencil had to have been at least an inch and a half deep inside my shin. You couldn’t see the point, or any of the wood, just the yellow back end protruding from my leg.

My little sister Emily was like four or five years old, and she was the only one close enough to actually see the whole impaling go down. But she was a little kid, and while I appreciated her look of shock, this was a much bigger deal that just that, worthy of a lot more attention, the kind of attention I was constantly craving, my need for spectacle the driving force behind most of my actions, my running around the house, my indoor acrobatics.

My mom wasn’t in the house. She was there just a second ago, but now I couldn’t find her. I needed her to see this. I ran outside of the house and down the driveway, but no luck. After a minute or so, I looked down at my leg. For the first time, I was starting to freak out a little, the gravity of the situation sunk in somewhat, that I had a pencil in my leg. I reached down and yanked it out.

And it just slid right out, easily. It bled, but not that badly. In fact, looking at the wound from the outside, you couldn’t really tell that a whole pencil had been lodged inside just a second earlier. I deflated a little, like maybe I should have kept it in there a while longer.

When I went back inside, my mom was back in the kitchen. “Mom, where were you! I just stabbed myself with a pencil. It was in really deep! Mom, look, it’s bleeding! Mom! Mom!” And she looked at it, but like I said, the after shot didn’t really do any justice to how severe this thing looked when it was still sticking out of my leg.

“Yeah?” she asked, “Well, it doesn’t look too bad. I think you’ll be OK.” But she didn’t get it. Nobody got it. Nobody except for my little sister Emily, but she was way too little to have any sort of a significant testimony. I had wasted it, a golden opportunity to make use of what looked like a potentially serious injury, without any real danger or lasting damage.

Because, for real, why didn’t it bleed? I swear I’m not exaggerating, that thing was in deep. Shouldn’t it have hit something? Wouldn’t you have expected a lot more pain?

My only consolation is that, after all these years, my sister Emily still claims to remember exactly how the situation played out, my dramatic leap onto the couch, the heart-stopping realization that there was a pencil stuck deep inside of my leg. And so it’s nice to have some sort of confirmation that I hadn’t just made it all up. I think so. I hope so. I mean, she was really little. Part of me wonders if I hadn’t coerced the memory onto her by sheer force of will. I just wish that everybody could have seen it. I wish that everybody could have been paying attention to me.

Happy Flag Day!

I just love Flag Day, but I always get so bummed out that it’s not a bigger holiday. I mean, I’ve already said, “Happy Flag Day!” to at least half a dozen random people, and nobody really gets it, most people just kind of look at me like I’m nuts, maybe if I’m lucky I’ll get an awkward smile in return. Nobody’s ever like, “Happy Flag Day to you too!” Which sucks, because Flag Day’s a real day, and it’s awesome.


My family was big into Flag Day when I was a kid. My mom would wake us up really early and she’d make a special Flag Day pancake breakfast. I don’t know how she did it, but each pancake came out exactly like the American flag. And I’m not talking just a plain rectangle, no, they were the shape of a proud flag that’s bravely blowing in the wind. Then she’d put out blueberry and strawberry jellies, so we could decorate the stars and stripes ourselves. It was awesome.

I went to the diner this morning, and, whatever, I always get a little sad on festive holidays as an adult, for whatever reason, I can never seem to recapture that Flag Day magic of my youth. I asked the waiter if he could somehow get the chef to at least try to make my Flag Day pancakes. He kept saying, “What?” every time I explained to him what I was looking for. “Pancakes shaped like an American flag blowing in the wind with a side of blueberry and strawberry jam,” and each time, “What?” Finally he just said, “OK boss, you got it,” and he came back ten minutes later with the most regular looking regular pancakes I’ve ever seen in my life.

That’s OK I guess, that’s not an official Flag Day tradition, it was just something my family always did to really amp up the spirit of the grand old flag. Kind of like our annual flag hunt. After breakfast, my dad would lead us outside, where he’d spent all night painstakingly hiding little American flags all over the backyard. “First one to fifty flags in the winner!” he’d shout out as he pulled the trigger on his Flag Day starter pistol. It was cool because when he fired, a little flag popped out and unrolled itself, just like you’d see on a cartoon.

We all had American flag t-shirts and shorts, we’d play outside on the Slip-N-Slide and dry off with these American flag towels that we only used on Flag Day. My parents got really into it. I remember one year my mom bought this America Flag doormat, and we all thought it was a really cool addition to all of the Flag Day paraphernalia. But later in the day my grandfather came over. He was a World War II vet, and he got really upset about the idea of someone stepping on the flag.

And yeah, everybody got really quiet after that, the realization that we’d all been stepping on the flag, all day, on Flag Day. My little brother was only like four or five years old, and he started crying, wailing. He was totally inconsolable. My mom tried to reassure him, “It’s OK, it wasn’t on purpose, look, I took it off the floor and I’ll clean it off, it’s going to be fine.” But my grandfather was getting even angrier, “No!” he shouted, “Let the boy cry! You should all be crying!”

After like fifteen minutes or so, the scene was only escalating, and my father, who had so far been reluctant to oppose my veteran grandfather, finally made a move to try to diffuse the situation. Unfortunately, it was at that moment that the sprinkler system went off. My dad had rigged the whole setup so that miniature American flags popped up from underground.

“What is this? You think the flag is some sort of a joke?” That was my grandfather again. His face was beet red at this point. And he was wearing a blue and white shirt, so it was actually kind of funny, I think we all thought it, how he sort of resembled a really angry American flag. But nobody dared say anything. We all just stood there and tried to act contrite until my grandfather left in a huff, screaming stuff about, “double-ya double-ya two,” as he backed his truck out of our driveway.

Flag Day was never the same after that, the next year’s celebration was markedly subdued in comparison. And like I’ve said, Flag Day today is nothing like the Flag Days of my youth. Still, my iPhone’s calendar app had Flag Day preinstalled as an event on today’s date. So that was cool. And I found a deck of American flag playing cards at a store a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been saving them for today, so hopefully my wife agrees to play a few hands of spit or gin rummy. We’ll see. We actually don’t play cards that much. Because yeah, it’s kind of boring, and there are so many more interesting things to do.

Happy Flag Day everybody.

I taught my sister how to shave her legs on Easter

When my family was little, every Easter my grandparents would take the whole family out to dinner on Long Island. I’m the oldest of six, and growing up, going out to a restaurant with just my immediate family was pretty much a logistical impossibility. But each year it was everybody on my mom’s side, all of my aunts and uncles, all of the cousins, all of us sitting down to a ridiculously long table at the New Hyde Park Inn on Easter Sunday.

All of these annual dinners were more or less identical. It’s like, when you’re a little kid, everything feels mostly the same, you don’t feel yourself growing up, you don’t notice your brothers and sisters getting older each year. And having a holiday ritual that doesn’t change from year to year, it kind of reinforces that feeling, like you look back on all of those Easters and they all just kind of blend together into one generic Sunday memory.

But one year in particular stands out. Even though by the ninth grade I was pretty far removed from all of that Easter Bunny nonsense, my littlest sister is ten years younger than me, so I kind of had the extra several years where I had to wake up in the morning and act surprised at all of our baskets of candy.

After a traditional breakfast of Cadbury eggs and marshmallow peeps, the festive atmosphere quickly descended into chaos as my mom desperately tried to get us out the door on time for church. My grandparents’ dinner reservations were right after mass, but nobody was dressed and ready to go, so the plan was to swing by the house on the way to dinner so everybody could finish putting on their nice Easter clothes.

The car rides to and from our house were never very far away, but whenever the six of us had to pile into a single minivan, there was always enough time for everybody to get a little crazy. Depending on current alliances, my brother Brian and I might be teasing our little brother Joe, or Kevin might try to torment Joseph and Jessie. Warnings of “knock it off!” from my parents would go mostly ignored. With no way to enforce any sort of behavior behind the wheel, car trips were a free for all of yelling and laughing.

But this one year, for whatever reason, my sister Emily fell into the crosshairs of my oldest-brother mean-spirited wrath. I was actually trying to tease my younger brother Kevin, he was wearing shorts to church, and I wanted to get him crazy by commenting on how he didn’t have any hair on his legs, to make him feel like a little kid.

“Even Emily has more hair on her legs than you!” I pointed and made a face. I started my over-the-top jerk laugh and waited for Kevin to start wailing in protest, but instead Emily got really quiet and cried.

It was probably one of the first times that I actually felt bad about something that I had said. Of course the intent was to make someone else miserable, but not like this. This was beyond the normal crazy inter-sibling rivalries. My teenaged mind wasn’t really capable of processing what was appropriate and not appropriate to say in regards to your little sister, but it was obvious that I had crossed a line, and I wanted to fix it, immediately.

Usually our verbal sticks-and-stones were fairly easily remedied by a joke or an “I’m sorry” or an especially strong yelling from mom and dad, but Emily was clearly hurt here, to the point where I remember my dad giving me this look from the front seat, like, what the hell man? What did you say?

Emily wouldn’t talk to me during church, and she wouldn’t entertain my apologies on the ride home. But I had a brilliant idea. As soon as we got home, I’d help her out. “Emily,” I told her, “I can fix this. Look. I have a Mach 3 razor. Just wet your legs and shave.” And it worked. She wasn’t mad at me anymore. She took the razor and I went downstairs to see if I could get in a game of Mario Kart before my parents started corralling us back into the minivan.

Not even five minutes later, I heard a scream from upstairs. Thirty seconds after that, my mom yelled out, “Robbie! What the hell is wrong with you?” I guess my sister didn’t yet understand the whole razor thing. I don’t know. I mean, yes, looking back now I realize how stupid I was. But at the time, I really didn’t think anything would go wrong.

Not like it did. Not like the three inch gash on my sister’s shin, the one that bled all over her pastel-colored Easter dress, ten minutes before we were supposed to be sitting down at that long table with my grandparents and all of my aunts and uncles and cousins, all of us there for that Easter Sunday dinner at the New Hyde Park Inn.

I still feel bad about that one. She was fine. Like, it didn’t need stiches or anything. But yeah, it was a mess, and we were definitely late. Emily was probably a little traumatized. And my parents were pissed. Like pissed, pissed. And I totally deserved it. I couldn’t have just made anybody’s life a little easier. No, I was always finding some way to be a giant pain in the ass.