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Two Fabulous February Birthdays

smilesNOTE  FROM  DON: The middle of February is a special time for our family. Becca and Joey celebrate birthdays and, of course, there is Valentine’s Day which reminds us to pause and celebrate the romantic love in our life, which I am fortunate to do with Kathleen.

Below are two personal columns I wrote many years ago while a reporter at The Daily Herald in Columbia, Tennessee. They commemorate the birth of our children-four years and two days apart. After a day of hard labor, Rebecca Rose (whose original due date was Feb. 2) was born on Feb. 13, at 11:58 p.m., just two minutes before Valentine’s Day. The late Dr. Growdon offered to make her a Valentine’s Day baby. Everyone in the room seemed to like the idea although Kathleen was groggy at best. The decision was mine. I thought our daughter might resent having to share the day with a holiday but maybe it would be fun. Then I also considered that every Valentine’s Day, at least for the foreseeable future, would be her birthday instead of a day to pause for romance for me and Kathleen. I said no. Fast forward four years. Due to a somewhat difficult pregnancy, Dr. Growdon suggested Kathleen deliver no later than Feb. 13. We said we couldn’t do that because that was Becca’s birthday. Okay, said the doctor, then the next day. No can do, we said and reminded him that we (meaning I) had turned down the possibility of Becca being a Valentine’s baby and certainly couldn’t make Don Joseph one. Oh, yes, he remembered. Okay, then , he said, Feb. 15 and that is my final offer. Hence, our double-whammy birthdays in February.

Of course a lot has happened since I wrote these columns. Two entire adults have emerged. Daughter Becca is married to Jonathan and mother to 14-month-old Edmond. More about these two wonderful men some other time. Joey will graduate from college in the spring. And I will write more about wife Kathleen in the future. But for now, she and I could not be happier about our children and our son-in-law and grandson.

But this posting is to celebrate the two little munchkins that came into our lives so many years ago — even though such a posting cannot come close to describing the sunshine, smiles and love they have brought into our lives.

Rebecca Rose Came from a Magic Twinkle Star

When I ask my 28-month-old daughter, Rebecca Rose, “Where did you come from?” she answers, “Tennessee.” I guess that’s a perfectly fine answer for now, but there are times when she falls asleep on mommy and daddy’s “big bed” that I will lie down next to her and stare at her and still can’t believe I had any part in the creation of this incredible being.

Or sometimes, I’ll be in the living room and she’ll be by herself in her bedroom, singing away like a little bird on a spring morning, and I wonder, “Who is this singing? Where did she come from? … Tennessee?”

No…

She came from a far-off star. She had existed there as some form of celestial energy since the begining of time. And one night when I and my wife, Kathleen, were out gazing at the heavens, little Rebecca Rose’s star shined in both our eyes and twinkled a magic twinkle. At that precious instant she came to Earth where she lived inside her mother until it was time for her to reveal herself.

I was one of those goofy dads who sang to my child in her mother’s womb. We knew we would call her Rebecca Rose if she was a girl. But a boy’s name was still being debated. Kathleen said she wanted to name him after me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. So Kathleen said jokingly, that if we had a boy, he was going to be named after a once-popular doll called Rainbow Brite.

In no time, however, we came to call our yet-to-be born child, Rainbow. And I would lie next to Kathleen’s tummy and sing a children’s song: “Rainbow, come out and play with me…”

And finally, she did.

Though I was a witness and a willing “assistant,” th ebirth experience was between my wife and daughter and itwa sn’t easy for either of them. In a different time or a different place, they both may have been in danger. But Kathleen’s spirit and modern medicine prevailed. Rebecca Rose came into the world weighing ten pounds, three oucnes, and just two minutes before Valentine’s Day, 1989.

While Kathleen lay recuperating, I held Rebecca’s hand as nurses pricked her toe for a blood sample. She howld but barely cried. She’s never been much of a crier. This may sound contrived but I truly do remember thinking to myself: “I wish that were the only pain you were going to feel in your life.”

In the 28 months Rebecca has been with us, we continue to be amazed at how fortuante we are. She is a happy child, filled with curiosity. She learns quickly and we need use only a modest amount of discipline. She is also a teacher, an organizer, and quite a performer. I know much of her personality comes from her mother who tries to make every day special. They have a very strong relationship, which I hope continues for the rest of their lives.

As for now, I’m the one who says “no” most of the time. I think I’m overly protective and try to anticipate every tumble and scrape she may encounter. And I guess I’ve always had a problem with responding to authority figures and she is always bossing around. So that’s another reason I tell her “no.”

I like it that she’s tough and independent. But she is also very sweet and loving. Soon after she was born, I initiated a three-way “group-hug” with our small family. She has now taken up that ritual as her own. That is one command of her’s I will always obey.

I also appear to be the only person who can put her to sleep at bedtime. Part of it may be because I’m her authority figure. Maybe it’s because she has so much fun with Kathleen, she wants to stay awake when Mommy tries to get her to sleep. Every day is full of excitement for her and it is very hard for her to calm down at night.

I don’t really tell her bedtime stories. I more or less talk with her. We talk about what she did all day. We talk about what she is going to do tomorrow.

Then I sing her a couple of bedtime songs that only I know and won’t share with anyone but her. I even changed the closing lines of “Rock-a-bye, baby” because the imagery of “down will come baby, cradle and all” seems too cruel.

In the morning, Rebecca Rose wakes up and summons me with a loud “Daddy!” I’m not sure why. Maybe she figures that since I’m the one who put her in the bed, I should be the one that gets her out.

But once she is out, she’s off and running again–until the day is through and it’s once more time for bed.

I’ve come to think of bedtime as our special time. As we chat I am still filled with awe. I hope it will always be so. But somewhere in my mind and my heart I know there will come a time when she won’t want or need daddy to help her fall asleep. She will experience lonely nights when everything she wants eludes her. She will experience the excitement adults feel when they realize they are on the verge of good fortune. She will wonder if she will ever find love. And when she does, she will wonder how long it will last. And when she realizes that true love is forever, she will hear her own songs as she falls asleep. And daddy’s secret lullabies will be only a faint memory.

Joey is Ours but We don’t Own Him

Originally published Feb. 24, 1994

Joe. Joey. Joseph.

We’re not sure yet which name will stick. But he’s ours, all ours. Our little bundle of 10-day-old joy.

Sleepy fellow. Sleepy. Sleepy. Sleepy. Well, except for his fifth night of life when, in desperation to get him quiet, I placed him on the floor in front of the television. He seemed to enjoy MTV. He actually seemed to be focusing in on the music videos. Once I realized the strange images on the screen might be sinking into his consciousness, I changed the channel. That upset him. Too bad. I think I may have rescued him in time. A musician–maybe. But a rocker I don’t need. By the time his hands are big enough to span a guitar bridge, I’ll be old enough to collect Social Security. Cars may be fueled by garbage. Humans may be walking on Mars. I may be nearly deaf but my bones will be brittle and my flesh soft and sagging. An MTV baby, plugged into a nuclear-powered amplifier, could produce the type of high-decibel music which would crush an old man’s frail body. Even with him in the basement and me in the attic, I doubt I would survive. I’ll try to direct Joey toward some more peaceful pursuit. Something which requires a calculator or a pencil and a T-square. Won’t really matter thought.

Children seldom become what their parents envision.

When I look at my 4-year-old daughter Becca, I am confronted with the age-old question of “nature” versus “nurture.” How important are genes to intelligence and personality? How much influence can a parent reasonably expect to have? I know the jury is still out on this one. I don’t believe a person’s life is predetermined at the moment of conception. But I am convinced children come into the world with different characteristics and abilities. And I also know television and peer pressure can turn a smart, sensitive child into a little monster. Can mom and dad compete with mutant Ninja pizza-eating reptiles? Or can we shatter sexual stereotypes when competing against fashion dolls which have a better lifestyle than we ever will?

Do I want Becca to be “Barbie–the intergalactic brain surgeon?” Do I want Joey to be a Michael Jackson-esque Supreme Court judge dispensing justice from the barrel of a high-powered squirt gun loaded with truth serum? Does it matter what I or my wife, Kathleen, want? How many times have we seen dense or untamed children grow up to become high-paid attorneys or business leaders? How many times have we seen one of the brightest kids in the school end up behind bars or behind a cash register earning minimum wage?

As parents, we can only try our best. And we must forget the bad stuff but take nothing for granted. Just try to focus on the small brightness you rock to sleep each night. Focus on that ray of hope which beams from your arms. Think about the future.

We’ve got to provide food and shelter. Love and security, too. We’ve got to chase danger out from under our children’s beds. We’ve got to mend wounds – both real and imagined . We’ve got to explain a thousand things which we often don’t understand ourselves. And once we get the children through the early years, we’ve got to prepare them for the bigger world. We’ve got to get the kids through drugs and sex and rock and roll. We’ve got to get them through college if that’s the course their lives take.

If we’re lucky, we’ll dance at their weddings. And if we’re luckier still, someday we may rock their children to sleep.

Through it all we must remember that, although they are our children, we don’t own them. And, although parents give and give and give, our children don’t owe us a thing. We want them to be the best they can be. However, they don’t have to be anything but our children.

There can be happy endings

Fifty-one years.

It’s hard for me to believe anyone can be married that long. As a person who did not get hitched until I was 38, I realize it is unlikely (though not impossible) that I will ever celebrate my 51st wedding anniversary with my wife, Kathleen. But this week my parents, Bob and Phyllis, will once again mark another year of marriage, 51 years in all.

Legend has it they met at the Eastwood Gardens dance hall on Detroit’s east side. My mother, being the youngest daughter in a large Italian family, must surely have sneaked out of the house or, at least, fibbed about where she was going. Parents, especially Italian parents, were much more strict in those days. She was with a group of other Italian neighbors and friends. She has said the Italian boys used to come along to “protect” the Italian girls from, I guess, non-Italian boys. I can imagine… My dad was from the west side of town, an area called Delray. His community was mostly Armenians and Hungarians. He was into big band music and sometimes played a trumpet. I suspect he was more into listening to music than dancing to it. I doubt he intended to find his future bride that day early in the summer of 1942 when he and a couple of buddies traveled crosstown to Eastwood Gardens.

My mom was sitting at a table up front. Dad was standing near the band. I don’t know if it was love-at-first-sight but it must have been something close to it. My dad is more a man of action than a talker. And when he sets his mind to do something — it happens. He didn’t really ask my mother to dance. What he did was look at her and kind of twirl his finger in the air. She must have understood this as an invitation to dance and she accepted. Being an Armenian, my dad looked Italian. I guess everyone with my mom, including my mom, must have figured him to be Italian so it was no problem getting the unspoken “permission” from my mom’s little group for dad to dance with her. However, not wanting to go into a long explanation about where or what Armenia is, my dad said he was French.

I’m not sure when my mom was made aware she was dancing with an Armenian named Popkin (Americanized to Robert). They courted that summer and fall and things must have been going well because mom said she bought him a birthday gift for his 21st birthday, November 16, 1942.

On December 14, my dad got a letter from Uncle Sam — he was being drafter into World War II. Like many other couples at that time, my parents decided their romance wasn’t going to be separated by any war.

Besides, mom said recently, “He didn’t want to let this Italian girl go.” They got married before a justice of the peace Dec. 16, 1942. My dad survived the war because, fortunately, the war ended before he got close enough to smell burning gun powder. A church wedding followed his return. And then children and then a move to the suburbs, bigger and better jobs, and more children — four in all.

As a youth, it was good sport to find fault with my parents’ generation. Now, at mid-life, I’ll say this much for that bunch: They had confidence and they had guts. My generation has not fared so well when it comes to marriage. We might have done well to listen more and criticize less. Last year we celebrated my parents’ 50th anniversary with a big dinner for family and friends. My brothers and sister and I thanked mom and dad for bringing us into the world, taking good care of us and giving us the guidance we needed as we set out on our own. This year, I won’t be with mom and dad — who are still healthy and spry — as they celebrate 51 years of marriage.

And though it would be nice if all their children could gather around them for the special occasion, in a way, I think wedding anniversaries really need only two people present.

In this case, it’s those two people who met so long ago when the world was young and lay before them like an unexplored land. Just like a 1940’s black-and-white Hollywood movie: A handsome man and a beautiful woman meet at a dance. They fall in love and get married. He goes to war. She has a baby. He returns. He gets a job. They build a house and fill it with more children. At one point he says: It ain’t easy. Then a little later on, when the house is filled only with photos of children and grandchildren, she wonders: Where did all the time go? And then she sees that one special photo of her, young and smiling, and her youthful husband, beaming confidence. She looks at him no as he naps on the sofa, older but still dashing, and she knows life can be sweet and — just like her favorite old movies — young lovers can live happily ever after.