Family

WHICH NUMBER IS AGE?

Age Old Question — “Age is just a number,” says the well-worn adage. But is it a number you care about, or one you tend (or try) to ignore?


Are you serious or just young? Because no one over 65 would posit a question like this without also laughing hysterically, possibly falling down and breaking a hip.

Photo: Debbie Stone

Photo: Debbie Stone

Age it isn’t a number, per se. But it’s a number which will tell you when you can stop pulling the plow and collect your pension. Otherwise, it’s more like an ache in your back, a bag full of medications, and more doctor appointments on the calendar than parties.

It’s being tired, but never sleeping soundly but getting to stay up as late as you want and sleeping in. Every day, if you choose.

It’s discovering you can’t do “that” — whatever that is — anymore. Your brain is fine, but your body persists in arguing about everything and worst of all, winning most of the battles. It’s finally having plenty of time, but being always short of money. Lots of time to travel, but not much motivation to tackle airports and long car trips. It’s also discovering the joys of being home. Of having a home.

It’s realizing you’re smarter, wiser, more experienced than the kids and grandkids, but they don’t want to know about it. So you get to watch them make exactly the same mistakes you made. If they are of a creative bent, you can watch them make a whole bunch of unique (and sometimes weird) mistakes you never imagined and which, if they weren’t so destructive (or it were some other kids about whom you didn’t care) you’d find hilarious.

And with an inevitability like day following night, after using their creativity to shoot themselves in both feet … they will ask to borrow money. (Note: Loans to children and grand-children are not loans. They are permanent grants-in-aid.) Or perhaps move into your guest room. Or leave their dog/cat/guinea pigs with you “just until they get their lives sorted out.”

Life does not prepare you for getting older. Nothing prepares you for getting older. No matter how smart you are, it always takes you by surprise.

The best part of oldness? Not caring what the younger ones think. And, if you are lucky, you get to say (or just think) “Ha! You’ll see! Your time will come.” If they are lucky.

THE COAT OFF HER BACK

The year I was 16, I entered college where I discovered the true meaning of angst. I’d had a difficult childhood, but no one except a teenager can fully engage in suffering. By the following summer, at 17, I was deep in the thrall of breaking up with my first love. I had become a moaning, weeping, sodden wreck for whom life was worthless. What stretched before me was a vast puddle of lachrymosity. Pathos. Loss. Oh woe was me.

Somewhere along the way, my mother thought a chat with Aunt Kate would help pull me out of the Slough of Despond. She gave me a few bucks for subway tokens and bus-fare and packed me off for lunch in Manhattan with my favorite Aunt.

Even a despairing teenager can’t avoid perking up a little at the prospect of an elegant lunch in New York. On someone else’s dime.

We met in front of the New York public library, our family’s traditional location for liaison. After ritual greetings and appropriately flattering commentary — “You look wonderful, Aunt Kate!” and “So do you, darling!” — we headed to a hotel for lunch.

In my sudden enthusiasm, I pointed out to my aunt that I was still wearing the fake fur coat she had give me many years ago because I loved it that much.

“OH!” she cried. “You’re still wearing that old rag?” And there, in the middle of downtown Manhattan, she pulled the coat off her back and said I had to have it.

“Aunt Kate,” I pleaded. “We are in the middle of 6th Avenue. And it’s the middle of winter. You’ll freeze. We’ll be mowed down by traffic! Can we at least discuss this indoors? Please?”

Acceding to my wishes, as soon as we got to the restaurant, she made me swap coats with her. Hers was nice, even luxurious. Also a fake fur, but plusher and 5 years newer. She wore mine (the one with the torn lining) home. You had to be careful in my family. If you admired something — or accidentally suggested you might like something similar — you would own it.

Spode Tower Pink

Spode Tower Pink

The ultimate example of family caring were the dishes. Blame me. I started it. I bought the dishes at a barn on a back road in Connecticut in the early 1970s. I was poking around a room full of old pottery and turned one over. It was Spode. The markings looked to be late 19th century. Eighty-six pieces, including a chipped sugar bowl and eight demitasse cups minus saucers … and a set of saucers without cups. In pretty good condition. For $30.

Of course I bought them, but they were delicate, so I never used them. They remained in the closet gathering dust. Years passed. One day, my mother admired them. Faster than you can say “Here, they’re yours,” I had those dishes packed and in her car. She loved them, but they were old and, it turned out, valuable. So she put them away and never used them.

One day, Aunt Kate admired them, so Mom gave them to her. Kate then gave my mother her set of bone china for 12 which she didn’t need, the days of dinner parties being long past.

My mother also had no need for a large set, so she gave Aunt Kate’s set of 12 to my brother, who gave my mother his china for six. My mother gave my brother’s dishes to me while Aunt Kate traded my Spode for Aunt Pearl’s old china. Aunt Pearl packed the Spode away in a safe place, because they were old and valuable and she didn’t want to break them.

Twenty years later, Garry and I went to visit Aunt Pearl. She had the Spode, carefully wrapped and boxed. She gave them back. Of course, we never used them. I eventually gave them to the kids, who sold them on eBay. They knew they’d never use them either.

In life you find kindness and love, sometimes in the form of dishes. And there is the coat off your aunt’s back, proffered in the dead of winter in Manhattan.


WEEKLY WRITING CHALLENGE – Honey versus Vinegar

JUST AN OLD MARRIED COUPLE

Long Exposure — Among the people you’ve known for a long time, who is the person who’s changed the most over the years? Was the change for the better?


Garry and I at President Clinton's party on Martha's Vineyard

Garry and I at President Clinton’s party on Martha’s Vineyard

All the people I’ve known a long time have changed, me and my husband in particular. Better? For whom?

I am far less sociable and hugely less outgoing. I was quite the party-maker with a wild and crazy social life and now I’m a virtual recluse.

1970

1970

Much of my life centered around work … and I don’t work any more. I’ve gone from being gregarious to being a loner, being work-centric to being survival-centric.

Good? Not good? If I hadn’t changed in response to the realities of life, I’d probably be dead or living on the street. I guess that makes them good, right? I read less, write more.

I keep taking pictures. It’s now more than forty years of photography. That’s consistent, anyhow.

Garry was shy, solitary. He was so driven by career and work he didn’t have time for anything, anyone else. Like making friends, building a personal life. Yet … when I came back into his life, he began to emerge. He started to pull back from work, become more sociable. Now, he couldn’t be paid enough to go back to work.

1990 in Ireland

1990 in Ireland with Author Gordon Winter

He used to be the kind of guy who always looked like he’d just stepped out of the pages of GQ. Now, he wears sloppy shorts and old tee shirts or pajama bottoms and sweatshirts.

He remains passionate about sports, but can miss the game and watch a movie without having a crisis.

Both of us eat less, don’t drink at all. Our world centers around each other and a few close friends and family.

You know what? I think it’s good. And appropriate.

FEAR OF FLYING (UMBRELLAS)

75-BroadBoardwalkHP-1

Once upon a time, my father had a business partner. I don’t remember his name, but he was a big, bluff Russian who used to come over the house and make gallons of cabbage soup.

He must have thought there were a lot more kids than there were because my mother couldn’t figure out how to store so much soup, even though we had a 24 cubit food standing deep freeze in the basement as well as a huge fridge in the kitchen.

Bob and my father would go into the kitchen and produce these gallons of soup and laugh a lot. We all had to eat it for weeks until we were sure we were turning into little cabbages.

Bob (or whatever his name was because actually, I’ve forgotten) was accident prone and an enthusiastic teller of stories, most of them about his own misadventures.

“So I was at the beach, at Coney Island” he says, almost shouting because he never said anything except very loud. “Very sunny. Blue sky. A nice day to take my mother to the beach, let her relax in the sun by the water. She is just settling down with her chair. And she asks me if I’ll set up the umbrella for her. I mean, she didn’t have to ask. I always do it, but she always asks anyway, like if she doesn’t ask I won’t do it. I took her to Coney Island, what did she think, I’m going to leave her to cook in the sun?”

75-BeachAtConeyIsland-707

We all nodded dutifully. Because he was my father’s partner and we were kids, so what else was there to do?

“It’s a big umbrella. With stripes. Red and yellow. I got it myself, on sale. Umbrellas are expensive and this was a good sturdy one and I paid bupkas for it. If you ever need an umbrella …” and he paused to remember what he was going to say. “Anyway, this was one of the good ones, with a heavy pole so it would stay put.”

We nodded some more. Our job. To nod. Look very interested.

“I opened the umbrella and had to find the right place to put it because, you know, if it’s in the wrong place, the shade isn’t going to be where you want it. So I walked around a bit until I found just the right place. Then I took the pole and a jammed it into the sand as hard as I could and it went pretty deep. Seemed good and solid.”

We were still nodding. I must have been — maybe 10? — and had been taught to be polite, no matter what, to grown-ups. We did not call adults by their first name. I think my teeth would have cracked if I had tried or my tongue would have stuck to the roof of my mouth.

“What with everything looking okay and my mother settling down in her chair with a book, she looked happy. So I figured it would be a good time to get something to eat and I told her I would go get us some hot dogs — and something to drink. She said that was good, tell them to leave the mustard off because — she’s always reminding me but I know, I know — she doesn’t like mustard.

“I walked all the way over to Nathan’s — pretty long walk, all the way at the end of the boardwalk — because they have the best hot dogs” at which I was nodding with enthusiasm because Nathan’s does have the best hot dogs, “And fries. I got five, two for her — no mustard — and three for me. I was hungry,” and he paused to pat his substantial belly, “I started walking back. I could see where to go — I could see our striped umbrella all the way from the boardwalk.”

Nod, nod, nod.Nathans at Coney Island

“The weather began to change.  Suddenly. Big clouds coming from the ocean. And getting windy. This was all happening fast while I was out getting the dogs. Funny how weather changes so fast at the beach, you know? So now, I’m almost there when up comes a big puff of wind. That umbrella pulls right out of the sand and flies at me. Whacks me over the head. Boom. I thought my head was gonna come off.

“I dropped the food and fell over. Like a rock I fell and just lay there. My whole brain was like scrambled eggs. They had to come and take me to the hospital. I was completely compost for TWO DAYS! Two days! Compost!”

Be careful of flying umbrellas. They can turn you into compost, especially when your hands are full of hot dogs.

HEY MOMMA! THEY’RE ALL HERE!

Familial Feasts  — Yesterday was Father’s Day in many countries. If you could dedicate a holiday to a more distant relative, who would it be — and why?


In Israel, they have a word that translates loosely to “close-far.” It refers to the tribe of “almost relatives” by marriage or informal adoption. This includes all the rest of the folks who claim some sort of relationship to you, like your cousin Alfie’s second wife’s husband’s niece.

Picnic-Crowd

I recommend we have a Gathering Day during which we collect all these “relatives.” The ones who are related by blood, albeit so distantly we are unclear on lines of descent (but are sure they are there, somewhere), the kids mom and dad fostered while their parents were getting a divorce. The related-by-marriage to second and third cousins and their off-spring. The brothers-in-law of our sister-in-law, twice divorced and their adopted children’s children from their third marriage.

A mighty big picnic. With guitars. And booze. Lots of burning meat. A sing along to which everyone brings their favorite dishes.

Ya think? We get a day off from work during the best time of year for warm, sunny weather and do it in a public park. It’s safer in public.

We will call it Extended Family Day. It would be a huge hit! The greeting cards and invitations alone would generate a ton of money and maybe some new jobs! No downside unless you are unlucky enough to come from a family dominated by bad cooks.

Who’s ready to jump on my bandwagon?

Don’t be a spoil sport. Even if you have no known relatives or none you want to know, you can invite all the fake aunts and cousins — or hook up to another group and be one of the almost relatives in someone else’s clan. Anyone for whom you feel even the vaguest familial attachment will suffice.

On this special day of days, water is as thick as blood!

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, MOM AND DAD!

I intended this to be a Father’s Day tribute to my Dad. But my youngest brother, Anton, just reminded me it’s a double celebration. It’s William and Esther Armstrong’s 73rd wedding anniversary!

Dad has been gone twelve years, Mom seven. But I’ll bet the house they are celebrating right now.

We were never big on talking about our feelings. Maybe it’s a family thing, maybe it’s generational. Whatever, my two brothers and I never doubted our parents love. We tested their patience many times and were duly rewarded.

Dad was from the John Wayne school of conversation. Brief chats and meaningful looks to make his words (or silence) crystal clear. He was handy; I wasn’t. Remember what I said about patience?

One of our most emotional moments came after I enlisted in the Marine Corps. It was one of the rare times I saw Dad cry.

75-edited-GarryMomDad-WW2-300

Mom, Dad and baby me

My Father was a World War II veteran and like most vets, he didn’t talk much about his combat experiences. He kept it to himself for decades. Near the end of his life, Dad talked a little about some truly horrific war experiences. After he died, we found medals amongst his stowed away possessions.

Mom was always the voice of the family. She was the classic strong woman, but it came at a price. It was our last lucid conversation before dementia began to take its ugly toll. Mom, who always seemed estranged from Marilyn, asked how things were going. Before I could finish, she interrupted and quietly but firmly told me I should show Marilyn my love, to make her feel wanted and appreciated. Mom had a funny look on her face.

I just listened. Mom talked about the courtship years with Dad. It was fascinating. I never could picture Mom and Dad as young adults with all the ups and downs of dating. Those were the days when you wrote letters to your loved one.

It wasn’t easy for them. But, finally, loved conquered all.

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Perfect wedding

Their wedding in 1941 was something out of Hollywood. Bigger than big. Lovely women, handsome men.  Mom and Dad never looked happier.

My parents never talked about their dreams. I think they were put on hold — permanently — after I made my début the following year. Dad was off to war. Mom was beginning six plus decades of molding our family. I guess their dreams wound up in the lives of my two brothers and me.

I still see Mom and Dad in my dreams. Dad in his uniform, Mom looking like a cover girl. I’m the kid from central casting.

Here’s looking at you, Mommy and Daddy!

OY VAY! GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER?

Modern Families


300-shmuel my uncle“So,” says Uncle Shmuel, who having appeared out of nowhere, now miraculously speaks vernacular American English — albeit with a heavy Yiddish accent, “Nice place you got here. I see you keep your animals in your house. That one there sounds like a pig but looks like a dog.”

“They are our pets, Uncle Shmuel. The oinker is Nan. She just makes that sound. She’s kind of old. I think that’s the dog equivalent of ‘oy’.”

“Pets, shmets. Animals. In the house. What’s next? Toilets? Never mind, your life, your choice. Oy.”

“Can I give you something to eat? Tea? Coffee? Cake? If we don’t have it, I can go out and buy some.”

“Are you Kosher?”

“Uh, no. Not Kosher,” and I shiver, remembering the many pork chops that have passed across our dishes. “Oh, wait, here’s my husband. Uncle Shmuel, I’d like you to meet my husband Garry.”

Shmuel looks shrewdly at Garry, then at me “He doesn’t look Jewish.”

Garry’s eyes twinkle. “But really I am,” he says and deftly pulls a yarmulke out of his pocket. It say “Joel’s Bar Mitzvah” across the back in big white letters, Fortunately, Shmuel doesn’t notice.

“So,” Shmuel continues after a pregnant pause, “You have problems with the Cossacks?”

“No Cossacks, but lots of politicians,” I reply.

“Cossacks, politicians, there’s a difference?”

“Not so much,” I admit.

“And for a living you do what?”

“We’re retired. But before that, I was a writer. Garry was a reporter. On television.”

“What’s a television?”

I look at Shmuel, realize we are about to embark on an extended conversation, so all I say is: “Oy vay is mir!” Which seems to sum it up.

Oy vay. Can someone set the table?

VIOLENCE AND THE EVENING MEAL – Rich Paschall

Marilyn Armstrong:

I think the worst culprit are mobile devices — phones etc. They have eliminated communication. Sad, but I have lost the battle and continuing to fight seems pointless.

Originally posted on Sunday Night Blog:

Pulling the trigger on violence

“Hey pal, what’s up?”
“Hey! I got trouble with my damn kids.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What seems to be the problem?”
“Last night they wuz shootin at cops and hoes all night.”
“What?”
“I said…”
“I heard you. That’s terrible.”
“You’re tellin me. I tried to call them little pests to dinner but they would pay me no mind. I spent a lot of cash at KFC, but it’s all good.”
“Good, what do you mean good?”
“I mean I can eat that chicken again today.”
“But the kids…what happened to the kids?”
“Hell if I know. They were at it all night.”
“What?”
“I said…”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it, but you must have terrible trouble with the police.”
“No, I don’t have no trouble. It’s those kids, they got the trouble, but I guess they’ll get the hang of it soon.”

View original 649 more words

WE’RE ON OUR WAY!

Pick Me Up

What is the one word or phrase that immediately cheers you up when you hear it?

 


“Friends are coming to visit!”

That does it every time. Since I’ve been out of the hospital, now more than a month, visits from friends and family have totaled zero. Lots of promises, but I haven’t seen anyone in the flesh. No smiles or hugs except electronically. A few phone calls, a handful of emails, a couple of cards.

I guess everyone is busy.

If anyone out there feels like dropping by, hey, I’d love to see a smile on a face I love!

WELCOME TO KINDERGARTEN

There I am. Probably the youngest kid in the class. I’m only four, but somehow, here I am anyhow. I’m certainly the smallest. All the others seem awfully big. I don’t know it yet, but I will always be either the shortest or next to the shortest kid in every class for the next six years.

P.S. 35 looks gigantic. Monstrous. Many years later, I will come back here and it will seem tiny, a school in miniature. Even the stairs are half the height of normal stairs.

But I don’t know about stairs yet because kindergarten is always on the ground floor. They don’t want the little kids getting run down by bigger ones.

The windows go all the way to the ceiling, which is very high. To open or close them, Mrs. O’Rourke has to use an enormous hook-on-a-pole. I wonder why they don’t have normal windows like we have at home. Our windows open by turning a crank; anyone, even I, can open them.

The teacher is kind of old and she’s got frizzy grey hair. She talks loud and slow. Does she think I’m stupid? Everyone in my family talks loud, but no one talks slow.

Now it’s nap time. We are supposed to put our blankets on the floor and go to sleep, but I don’t nap. I haven’t taken a nap ever, or at least not that I can remember. And anyway, I don’t have a blanket because my mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. I also don’t have a shoe box for my crayons. All the other kids have them. I wish I had one because I feel weird being the only one without a blanket and a shoe box.

Worse yet, I don’t have crayons. I wish I had some because the ones they have that everyone can use are all broken and mostly, the colors no one likes. My mother didn’t know what I was supposed to bring. She’s busy. I just got a new sister who cries all the time and mommy didn’t have time to come to school and find out all this stuff that all the other kids mothers know.

There were no air conditioners when I went there. We just sweated.

So I sit in a chair and wait, being very quiet, while every one is napping. I don’t think they are really asleep, but everyone goes and lays down on the floor on a blanket and pretends. It give Mrs. O’Rourke time to write stuff in her book.

It’s a long day and I have almost a mile to walk home. My mother doesn’t drive and anyway, she doesn’t worry about me. She knows I’ll find my way. It’s just the walk is all uphill and I’m tired. Why do I have to do this?

By the time I know the answer, I am in third grade.

WHO ARE YOU? FAMILY TO STRANGER, OVERNIGHT

A family of strangers story by Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog

Russell was home from the university, perhaps for the last time.  He finally graduated after four and a half years and a double major from the School of Business.  He lived at school each year and came home for the summers.  Now his plan was to get a job, save a little money and move out.  His college roommate would soon become his roommate again, if they could arrange it.

Russell’s parents, now in their 50’s, never seemed to change.  To Russell they always looked the same and acted the same.  Russell’s father was a hard-working, quiet guy whom everyone liked. His mother was also hard-working and dependable.  They seemed to naturally know which household chores to perform without ever talking about it.  Russell sometimes thought they held secret meetings to plan out the details of their lives, Russell’s included.

After a few day’s at home, Russell decided it was time to have a talk with his father. He felt they had both reached an appropriate age for this sort of father and son talk. So he went into the kitchen where his mother was creating something that smelled good.

“Where’s dad?” Russell asked.

“Your father is in the basement fixing something,” his mother said as if Russell should automatically know that.

“OK,” Russell said and headed toward the kitchen door that led to the basement steps.

When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he saw his father at the familiar work bench.  He was re-assembling the vacuum cleaner which had sucked up something it should not have.  Dad never looked up so Russell just began.

“Dad, I have something I wanted to tell you.”     Taig_metal_lathe,_Drill_press_and_Workbench

“Russell, grab those pliers on the table there … bring them here, son”  There was no point in trying to start a conversation while dad was working. He still spoke to Russell as he had spoken to him his entire life, like a boy who needed instruction.

On one hand it was a bit comforting that his father always treated Russell in a polite, helpful dad-like manner. On the other hand it was a bit frustrating because Russell wanted to be considered an adult.

“Now, stand over here, so you’re not in my light. Oh, grab that bolt. Hold it real tight and don’t let go,” his dad said. Visions of helping dad when he was a little kid came rushing into Russell’s brain. Everything about his childhood grabbed him and held on tight, just as tight as Russell held the bolt for his father. When the project was done, Russell gave it another try.

“Dad, I came down because I wanted to tell you something.”

His father looked at him as if to say, “Go ahead and tell me what you want to say.”  Dad did not actually say a word, it was just that Russell knew his father’s looks. He did not expect to get much talk, so he had to read the expressions. Neither man was good at expressing emotions, so Russell swallowed hard and started talking.

“I wanted you to know how much I appreciate everything you’ve done, the sacrifices you made to send me to school. When I get a good job, I will pay it back to you.”

“Now son, you don’t owe us a thing so don’t worry about it,” was the fatherly reply. As if the conversation had concluded. Dialogues with dad didn’t last long.

“But dad, there’s something else I want to say,” Russell interjected before his dad could put away his tools and leave. So his father gave him another “go ahead” look and Russell said, “I’m gay.”  At that, his father said nothing. His expression did not change for a minute or possibly two. Then he looked a little sick, like he had a bad case of indigestion.  He stumbled back a few steps and sat on the bench.

“Dad, are you alright?  Can I get you something?  Water, or something?”

Russell felt a little panic until dad said quietly, “No, I’m fine.” Nothing more was said,  Dad put away the tools and Russell stood there like a boy who did something wrong and his father was just going to act like nothing had happened.

As the week went on, it was apparent that Russell’s father had not said anything to his mother. If he had, he knew she would have had a comment before very long.  Everything was fine with mom, but dad looked at him every day since his announcement like he was a stranger in his home. He gave Russell puzzled looks about everything and responded to everything with one-word answers. As Russell’s dad was a quiet guy anyway, no one else seemed to notice, but Russell felt odd. He wished his father would say something, anything, but there was no reaction.

When the week was finally over and Russell’s friend came to pick him up to go out for the evening, Russell declared, “I am going out for a while. I’ll be back late.”

“OK, have fun Russell. Be good,” his mother responded. Dad looked up but did not say a word.

When he got in Joel’s car, his boyfriend said, “Well Russ, how did it go with the parents?”  Russell shook his head.

“Mom doesn’t know and dad looks at me like I am some sort of stranger in his house.”

“You are,” Joel told him matter of fact-like.

“Huh?” Russell said, quite surprised.

So Joel explained, “For twenty-two years your father thought you were one person, and you just told him you are really someone else.”

 

Photo credit: By James Bastow (Workbench) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANTON ARMSTRONG, MY BABY BROTHER!

Google my baby brother? Why in the wide, wide world of sports would I want or need to Google my youngest brother? Hold on — I got some ‘splainin‘ to do.

First, you need to understand there’s nothing humble about the oldest and youngest of Esther and William Armstrong’s three sons. They have creds. Lots of creds. My middle brother, Bill, knows how important his brothers are. Just ask him.

Dr. Anton Armstrong, Garry's baby brother

Dr. Anton Armstrong, Garry’s baby brother

Anton Eugene Armstrong is my baby brother. I think he probably likes that “baby” adjective more and more these days. Soon, he’ll start receiving AARP literature — if he hasn’t already. Welcome to my world, little brother.

Anton entered the world center stage on April 26th in a very special year. I was a high school freshman. Dwight D. Eisenhower was beginning his second term as President. John F. Kennedy was the junior Senator from Massachusetts. Elvis Presley was racking up number one singles every week. Two of New York’s three major league baseball teams were quietly hatching plans to abandon us for the west coast, leaving a generation of broken hearts.

Mom called Anton her “old age” baby but she glowed with happiness on his arrival. Mom always liked Anton best! (Spare me the groans). As oldest son in a family without girls, I was not only his big brother but Anton’s chief diaper changer, cook, playmate and baby sitter. He was an adorable baby and a cute kid. My dad, not given to spontaneous emotion, was obviously taken with his youngest son, even calling him “Tony.” I think dad was the only one who got away with calling Anton “Tony.”

It was obvious, from a very early age, that Anton was bright and talented. Even as a toddler, he had a lovely voice that would become memorable in later years. Young Anton would come into my room as I played my 45s. He would memorize two or three lines from my favorite songs. Richie Valens would’ve loved Anton’s take on “Donna”. “Oh, Donna! Oh Donna! Oh Donna!,” Anton would sing repeatedly with perfect tone changes. I figured my baby brother might be a star on “American Bandstand” one day. Wrong ballpark.

My parents decided Anton would flourish in private schools given his intelligence and quest for knowledge, especially his growing interest in choral music. Thus, Anton began attending Lutheran schools, quickly establishing himself as one of the brightest students, grade after grade.

Anton’s academic excellence continued through high school, college and graduate school. He didn’t take anything for granted, immediately giving back by tutoring younger students during summer school.

Anton didn’t forget family. He always stayed in touch no matter how busy his schedule. He would continue this even as his career blossomed and took him to an international stage as director of the world-famous St. Olaf’s Choir. I fondly remember the night when the choir performed a concert in Boston. I covered the event but kept my distance with the TV crew. Anton paused during the concert to make special note of my presence, acknowledging his big brother, one of the city’s most respected reporters. What a moment!

Marilyn and I have seen Anton’s work as a choir director, working with relatively young, inexperienced groups. In two or three hours, he turns them into an ensemble, as if they’ve been singing together for years. Impressive!

Anton has also brought diversity and freshness to the St. Olaf music department, no easy chore in a very traditional program. Anton has done this almost seamlessly while honoring music that has endured for generations.

Marilyn and I didn’t have to worry about music for our wedding. Anton, our good friends Kit Grundstein and Mary Mitchell were memorable and touching in their performances. Both Kit and Mary have gotten a lot of mileage out of singing with my brother.

Anton and Garry

I am used to being recognized after all my years as a TV news reporter. Matter of fact, I kind of expect it. As I said earlier, there’s nothing humble about the oldest and youngest Armstrong brothers. One day, a few years back, I was stopped by some people who asked if I was Garry Armstrong. I smiled and began reaching for the picture postcards I autograph for fans. I stopped when they asked if I was related to the famous Anton Armstrong.

Yes, I was humbled. But I was so very proud when I said “Yes, he’s my baby brother.”

Happy birthday, baby brother!

MARILYN’S BACK HOME-DOG DAY TUESDAY

The long national nightmare is over for our four furry children. Mom’s back!! During Marilyn’s nearly two week stay at Beth Israel Hospital for heart surgeries, the dogs almost seemed to be grieving. They were quiet. They had to be cajoled to eat. They refused to play all the games that are part of our usual days. Obviously, the past two weeks were anything but usual for the four legged and two legged members of our family. Our spirits had dimmed. Anxiety was high. Each new hospital report cut through our collective morale. It all changed with Marilyn’s surprise weekend rehab therapy work. The projected extended PT schedule was cancelled and we brought Marilyn home late yesterday afternoon.

The dogs usually greet family members with exuberance and enthusiasm. We were concerned because Marilyn is still in the early stages of recovery and very sensitive to any body contact. When we allowed the dogs access to Marilyn last night, they were very tentative. Later, they crowded around her but kept their distance. The two terriers joined Marilyn on our love seat  but were very careful. Dogs have a keen sense of when their humans are hurting. They are protective rather than playful. When Marilyn fell asleep while watching TV, the dogs dozed off. When she woke up, they opened their eyes looking at her. When Marilyn’s pain and breathing issues rose, the dogs made moaning sounds. When Marilyn’s pain subsided and her breathing improved, the dogs visibly relaxed.

Today, Marilyn’s first full day home, the dogs took to barking and romping again but kept a respectful distance from Marilyn. One of the Terriers, as I write, is nestled at Marilyn feet. It’s her favorite spot. Nan is Marilyn’s dog. She’s the one who was most out of sorts during Marilyn’s absence. Bonnie, our vivacious Scottie, is lying atop the sofa, comfortable in her watchdog spot. We believe Bonnie has her own Facebook page. She monitors all street activity and is, I believe, captain of the neighbor dog watch committee. She periodically cocks her head back to make sure all is okay with Marilyn.

The big difference came at chow time. I filled the four food bowls and summoned the kids. They raced into the kitchen, eyed their dishes and scoffed the food down, barely pausing for breath. Everything was okay again. Licking their lips and barking with satisfaction, they raced towards the doggie door, pausing briefly to make sure Mom was okay and then dashing outside to do their business.

Marilyn smiled as the kids sped by, nodding her approval and satisfaction that she had returned a sense of normalcy to our furry kids’ world. Reality set in with a jolt of pain to Marilyn’s right arm which sustained muscle damage during her hospital stay. She winced, muttered something I couldn’t hear and then leaned back to wait for the pain subside.

The dog day afternoon continued with the furry kids outside loudly informing neighbors that Mom was back. Marilyn’s pain gradually subsided and we hoped the rest of her first day home would would allow us to enjoy each other’s company. Beats the hell out of making conversation in a hospital room.

THE LAST UPDATE? MONDAY: MARILYN COMES HOME

‘You came back! Why? A woman like you!! To a place like this?? Why?” Those of you who don’t know that line should be ashamed. It’s a riff on Eli Wallach’s demise as the bandit chief in “The Magnificent Seven”. Well, Marilyn came back today and there’s no reason to ask why. She’s home after almost two nerve wracking weeks at Beth Israel’s Cardiac Care Unit in Boston. Marilyn gladly relinquished her status as the patient with the most seniority in her unit. Marilyn had almost become a fixture for families visiting other patients. She would wave as they passed her room. Some say Marilyn is now a legend after her stint that included a bypass, a valve replacement, a pacemaker implant and inflation of collapsed lungs. To insure her iconic status, Marilyn sustained a muscle injury in her right shoulder, her “good” shoulder. The shoulder of the hand used to send emphatic gestures to her husband.

Marilyn’s return home today came as a surprise to some of us. It was thought she needed several days in a physical therapy facility to strengthen her body after almost two weeks of immobility. Marilyn pulled a wonder woman on us by regaining mobility dramatically over the weekend. A physical therapist made it official after examining Marilyn today. Visiting families looked sad as Marilyn left Beth Israel Hospital. Who would replace the iconic patient in room 606?

The mood here at “The Kachingerosa” brightened considerably with Marilyn’s return. We had to “gate” the four furry kids to allow Marilyn to enter the house, carefully make her way up the stairs and into the living room where she settled into her favorite spot on our love seat, a smile mixed with groans of pain and pleasure. She scanned the room carefully like a stranger returning to a place of her dreams.

The two terriers, Bonnie (the Scottie and ring leader) and Nan, who sounds more like a pig than a dog were allowed to spend time with Marilyn. Nan is Marilyn’s dog. I think you could see the joy in Nan’s eyes. Dogs have a sense about their people, especially when they are hurt or healing. So, the normally playful terriers were very gentle with Marilyn.

The first evening home is going slowly for Marilyn. She’s trying to catch up on some of her favorite TV shows. But she’s still in pain and has breathing problems as she tries to relax. Marilyn still has a long way to go. There will be visiting nurses, follow up appointments with specialists and a very limited program of activities for the next few weeks. But Marilyn is home and our family is whole again.

UPDATE-MARILYN: 8 MEATBALLS SUNDAY

The title of today’s blog should be a hint. I’ll get to it in a minute. Marilyn asked me to bring her clothing, her lap top and myself — in that order. Oh, yes, make sure there’s clean underwear in the clothing bag. Didn’t your mother warn you about going anywhere without clean under wear??  Marilyn sounded relatively upbeat when we chatted on the phone this morning before I left home. I should know better by now. I really should.

By the time I walked into Marilyn’s room at Beth Israel Hospital’s Cardiac Care Unit, things had changed. She wasn’t upbeat anymore. She was in pain. Lots of pain! Marilyn’s right shoulder, her “good” shoulder was the source of the pain. She said she thought she might need Tommy John surgery. Somehow during the past few days, she was jostled around and her right shoulder took a beating. She said it hurt more than her tender left shoulder where surgeons had gone in to implant her pacemaker. Trying to fend off the pain, Marilyn’s breathing became sporadic, exacerbating her situation. A nurse was summoned and a painkiller was administered. It took awhile for the pain to subside and Marilyn’s breathing to become more even. The pain was still clearly etched across her face although she tried not make any loud sounds. I just held her hand, feeling essentially helpless. There wasn’t much I could say that wouldn’t sound like mindless babble.

Finally, Marilyn looked up at me, a smile slowly replacing the grimaces. She patted my hand and softly said, “I love you”. “I love you, too,” I replied. “I love you three,” she countered. Always having the last word. Time crept along slowly. We didn’t say much. I think that was good. Later, a staffer came in to take X-rays of Marilyn’s lungs. There’s still concern about pneumonia. A half hour later, another staffer came in to discuss decisions surrounding which physical therapy facility Marilyn will be going to in one or two or three days. Hopefully, we’ll be meeting with administrators tomorrow to make that decision. Marilyn is anxious to get to PT and begin strengthening her body. She’s bored and restless. But she is still weak!!

The laughs came as Marilyn was trying to make a dinner choice. She read aloud from the hospital menu, making faces as she described each meal. One item caught her eye. The meatballs! She’d had the meatballs a few days ago and there were okay. Matter of fact, she had EIGHT meatballs the first time. They were tiny, Marilyn emphasized, but okay. The only problem was that when Marilyn ordered meatballs again they cut the serving to FOUR small servings. I suggested she go for broke. Take no prisoners. demand EIGHT meatballs!! I left before dinner arrived, wanting to avoid the possible high drama if Marilyn’s meatball demands were not met.

I called Marilyn just awhile ago after finishing my dinner here at home. She sounded upbeat. Maybe chipper. I paused before asking the dangerous question. “How many meatballs did you get??” A short pause. I sighed deeply. “Honey, I got EIGHT meatballs!!”, Marilyn exclaimed. “Wow!!!,” I rejoiced. “You’re on a roll now,” I congratulated Marilyn. She laughed. A nice long laugh. I promised to call later in the evening to make sure all was okay.

UPDATE: MARILYN-A QUIET SATURDAY

Time flies when you’re having fun. Let’s attribute that line to Marilyn who’s now almost a week and a half into her stay at Beth Israel Hospital’s Cardiac Care Unit. The fun includes a bypass, valve replacement, pacemaker implant and inflation of collapsed lungs. Today, there was another infection scare but tests came back negative. A day after our friends Ross and Mary Mitchell came to the rescue volunteering to pay for physical therapy rejected by Marilyn’s health insurance, Marilyn was in good spirits but weak and very pale. She was dehydrated.

Cherrie Welburn and I noticed Marilyn’s condition the moment we arrived around midday. Why didn’t anyone else, we wondered. Cherrie scurried around outside, talking to nurses and other staff members about Marilyn’s condition. I think she heard something about it being a weekend and there were fewer staffers on duty. I’m just a layperson but I find that puzzling in a hospital. Are patients less important on weekends?? Cherrie and I swapped off helping Marilyn walk to the bathroom, made sure she kept drinking water during our visit and promised to call frequently tonight, nagging her about drinking water. Marilyn seemed to perk up. She checked her tablet, scanning last night’s blog about the unexpected generosity of the Mitchells and the impressive number of comments from people damning health insurers and lauding the kindness of our friends.

Marilyn, again, complimented me on my blogging efforts. High praise from Caesar, indeed!! Cherrie, Marilyn and I discussed the days ahead. Marilyn likely will remain at Beth Israel until Tuesday at least until we decide on a satisfactory physical therapy facility. Marilyn noticed that Cherrie and I were a little wobbly on our feet and suggested that we head home to rest a little.

The drive home actually was the most interesting part of the day. It included impressive construction detours around “hospital city” that had changed in two or three hours. I switched into my Boston driver mode, skillfully out matching cabbies, texting motorists surely headed to their maker and touristas confused by everything. It had a classic demolition derby feel to it.

The final leg of our drive on the Mass Pike west and onto Rt. 146 included a pelting rain and an increasingly dense fog. I felt the juices flow. I was Steve McQueen. Despite my idiocy, we arrived home safely. Cherrie has gone back to her home in Hadley to deal with a bunch of her own family crises. I’ll miss her. She’s kept me sane. She’ll be back as soon as possible. Meantime, I’ll be flying solo, keeping the faith with my fair lady.