“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Magic's In the Music

When I was a little girl, we went to church on Saturday nights. A family of five: with my parents in the front seat and the three kids piled in the back. I was youngest so I was always squished in the middle with my feet pushed up on "the hump."

Before church we stopped to see my grandmother, my father's mother. She lived in an apartment over what used to be my grandfather's medical practice, and what later became offices shared by my dad and my uncles. Grandma had wind chimes in her doorway that we rang incessantly to annoy her. Her house smelled like decades of deep fried cooking. In her dining room, she had a piano. I don't remember the first time, but I remember her sitting beside me on the piano bench. She would play a song, making me watch. Then she'd tell me, "Now you play it." And I did.

She passed away when I was ten, something that haunted me for many years after and in ways I didn't fully understand because I was a jerk of a teenager. But right around that time, my other grandmother, my mother's mother, bought a piano. This is the Grandma I was closest to, the woman I called "best friend" when I was little. The first phone number I learned. And when she bought her piano, I somehow scored an afternoon alone with her. She sat beside me on the piano bench and said, "Show me what you know."

I could play "Happy Birthday" and "Silver Bells" and pieces of other songs I'd memorized. Grandma quickly realized I wouldn't do well reading the music, even though I was able to. Instead, she did what my other grandmother did. She played me the melody and let me watch. And then I played it.

I spent a lot of time at her house, before and after that day, but once she had the piano that was pretty much all I wanted to do. At family dinners, sports would be on and someone would shout for me to stop playing, or my brother and sister begged for a turn, but my grandparents both encouraged me to keep playing. "I like it," my grandpa would say, and chuckle at those who were annoyed. "Play me 'Silent Night'," Grandma would call from the kitchen.

"Some day, it can be your piano. You were meant to have a piano, Lovey."

Today is that day.

After many months of waiting, we are moved into a beautiful new house. What many people don't know is that the entire floorplan of the house was designed around this piano. Joe was only able to convince me--at first--to leave our old house by pointing out that it had no real place for Grandma's piano.

When I walked in after work and saw the moving men assembling it, I cannot explain what happened to my heart. It broke and filled up all at once. When I saw the books my mother was careful to send along with it...books and books of music filled with Grandma's notations, I knew I would cry and had to put them away before I scared my kids.

And then this happened.

This little boy who used to climb in her lap just like I did. This little boy that, impossible as it is to really believe, a psychic told me Grandma watches over special. This little boy who has my hands, complete with fingers that bend back at the ends in a way just right for piano keys. He doesn't have it yet, but he will. I think they all will.

Because when we play, Grandma and Grandpa still hear us. I know they do. And I keep them close so I remember what it was like when I'd play a new song and turn to see if anyone noticed, and there they'd be, smiling at me like I'd just hung the moon.

I miss you both, and I'm glad you're together again. I'm grateful for over thirty-five years with you. I'm grateful you were strong, and danced at my wedding, and knew all three of my children.

I'm grateful for the music you left me.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

King of the Hill, Top of the Heap

When your family knows that you write (and are randomly quite good at creating slideshows set to music), they ask you to write the speech. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to write or speak, two things which usually come easily to me. But when someone gives you a legacy, you can give them a speech. Here it is.

My name is Mary Pat; I’m Santo’s granddaughter. I’d like to thank you all for coming today, to what is my grandpa’s last great party. We didn’t do this for my grandmother, and I think that’s something we all regretted, so we really wanted to say a few things about Grandpa today.

At the funeral home this morning, my brother reminded me of how Grandpa always wanted to know where each of his grandchildren were. If one was missing, he’d immediately notice and ask: “Where’s Pauly? Where’s Janie? Where’s little Joe?” It occurred to me as we were talking that I would never again hear anyone shout, “How’s Mares!” when they enter a room, and I would never again hear him ask for a “high five” from one of my kids.

It would mean a great deal to my grandfather to see you all here, as it does to our family. I’d like to take a second to point out that Grandpa was not a man to mince words. If he didn’t like you, he made sure you knew it. Everyone sitting here should give themselves a pat on the back – you made the cut.

When I was asked to write this speech I was both honored and nervous. I wasn’t sure what I’d say. My grandmother, who we all love and miss, was easy to know, and easy to get along with. She was my best friend when I was four years old. Her, I could write a speech about. But Grandpa was a different sort of person. I remembered a time when my sister and I were at a drug store shopping to buy him a Father’s Day card. Most of the cards for a grandfather didn’t really fit with who our grandpa was to us. Puppies or flowers or cookies or hugs, the cards in the store suggested a cuddly man, a doting “gramps” sort of guy that Grandpa just wasn’t. As it turns out, there’s no card with  a picture of a Manhattan or a big bottle of Chianti on the front and then blank inside so you can write down the names of all your kids.

It took a big extended family dinner to get this right. Italian style, just the way Grandpa liked it—a couple bottles of wine, lots of my mom’s good food, and all of us sitting around the table long after it had been cleared, just talking to each other. And here’s what we came up with.

Grandpa, Santo to many of you, was born in 1927. Historically, that was two years before the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Grandpa was raised on the West Side of Buffalo by parents who had come to America from Sicily in the hopes of providing a better life for their family. The story sounds like any other, and yet Santo Bueme was a man all his own.

The newspaper summarized Grandpa’s life in just a few short paragraphs. A retiree of Niagara Mohawk, employed at the Huntley Station in Tonawanda, NY. He ran B&B Heating and Hardware alongside his cousin and partner, Carl Bueme, until they started Bueme Construction. That turned into Bueme Development Corporation, which included the great Wimbledon establishment in West Seneca. And finally, Oakridge Estates, known to me nearly my whole life simply as, “The apartments.”

But reading off that list still doesn’t define the person we knew. When we talk about Santo going into business with Carl, that wasn’t just a partnership. As my dad said, Partnerships come and go, but this lasted eighty-nine years. That’s not just business. Hardware stores and construction companies don’t explain that Carl and Santo grew up in the same house on West Avenue, that they ran lemonade stands together as little boys, were best friends for life. In fact, the story goes that my grandfather and his siblings and all his cousins, regardless of age, all started kindergarten at the same time. Because none of their parents could read, write, or speak English very well, every single one of those kids had “Bueme” spelled a different way on their record. It was the kindergarten teacher who figured this out, and looked over all the different spellings, and made up the way we all spell the name today. This might explain some of the confusion over how to pronounce it, because to a lot of people it doesn’t really look like “Bueme,” but we can all take a lesson from what Grandpa said about it: “If people say it wrong, just don’t answer them.”

Grandpa was proud of his name, and he worked hard to make something of it. Joe and my mom Judy can’t think of any part of their lives when their father wasn’t working at something. He went to work every single day. At night, he’d sit at the table with Grandma and say, “What are we going to do tomorrow?” and he’d be excited about the prospect of another day, more to do, let’s get going. Santo was a man who came from nothing, and just by getting married he put himself $75 in debt. His focus became not just working his way out of debt, not just making money, but working as hard as he could to build a better life. It was about providing for his family. I think it’s pretty cool that his job, the career and business he and Carl built for themselves, was building homes. Because homes are the backbone of family. Grandpa and Carl committed their lives to creating the place for families to go. I always loved being able to point to my house when I was growing up and saying, “My grandpa built that,” and I know my sister will always appreciate that she can say that about her house now. And even though when it came to be my turn, my grandpa had to say he was too old to build me a house, I want to take a moment and thank my husband for making sure that he got to see our house that we are building before he died. It meant a lot to him and it means a lot to me.

Before building homes, and long after that, Santo showed what “work ethic” should look like. He started out small, and took everything he earned to turn it into something better. A hardware store. A construction company. Real estate. Not for himself. None of it for himself. For his family.

One of his biggest beliefs was that you have to focus on something, and whatever it is that you choose, if you give it everything you’ve got, you’ll do well at it. He’d say, “If you want to focus on girls, you’ll get girls. If it’s a sport, you’ll be good at that sport. If you want to focus on money, you’ll find a way to make money.” This seems simple, but it’s hard to achieve. And yet, it’s the way he lived his life. He believed in work, so he worked. When he retired from Niagara Mohawk, and he wanted to start running with my grandma, he started running. He won medals and awards. Runner of the Year. He did a half-marathon in an hour and 43. He wanted to do it, so he did it.

He also believed in family. He and Grandma were married for 67 years. My uncle Joe said, “As tough as my father was, my mother was just as tough; they both put up with a lot.” All the married people here know what that means, but 67 years of marriage is impressive. And he loved her. You could see it in all the old pictures, and we could see it after we lost her. They spent their life always together. And they were happy to be where they were, happy to see you. No matter what else was happening in their lives, if you had something going on, they showed up for you. Santo and Helen, walking through the door. You could count on it. To many of you that meant friendship. To many, it meant support. Friendship. Family. To me, it meant Grandma and Grandpa. Whatever they were to us, they were there. Because that’s what they believed in, and it’s what Grandpa believed above all. Family before everything.

He spent a lifetime showing us what hard work looked like, and how the reward was sharing it with the people he loved. He taught Joe and Judy: money is not about buying stuff. You could tell he believed this just by looking at him on a regular day. He used to pick me up from school in an undershirt and old jeans, in a pickup truck with the snowplow still attached, even if it was May. He was so understated that everyone at Joe’s wedding thought he was “the banana guy.” Amy had no idea what they were talking about. She said, “What banana guy?” and everyone said, “You know, the guy who delivers the bananas to the gym every week! He’s standing over there next to Joe in a tux!”

No, to him, money wasn’t about the stuff; it was for building a life. I think now, looking back over his life, and what a life, that it makes sense that my grandpa was a builder. Because while he built houses and apartment buildings and bowling alleys, he really built much more than that. He built a family, he built a life that has carried all of us. And now, we can carry with us the lessons he taught us. Hard work, family, love. His life was full and well-lived, one we can only hope to live, and it is worth carrying on his great legacy.

To show that we already do live his legacy, I’d like to share a story. When I was first dating my husband, he asked, “What are you?” I said, “I’m Italian.” He said, “You don’t look Italian. And…Michalek…isn’t that Polish?” and I said, “I’m ITALIAN.”

And my mother, she married a Polish man. Joey married a nice Polish girl. Even Grandpa married a nice Polish girl. And these are my blond Polish sons and my sister’s Irish redheads. Grandpa was our last full-blooded Italian. And yet, we all go to my mother’s house every week for Sunday sauce. We don’t miss it. We sit down as a family and we do that, because we are Italian. And that is from Grandpa. It’s because of him that we are a great Italian family.

In loving memory of Santo Joseph Bueme 
July 30, 1927-September 2, 2016

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Letter to My Sick Boy

Dear Max,

Right now you are asleep on a towel on the bathroom floor. Every once in awhile, you shudder, but mostly your breathing is deep and steady. I'm glad for this, and I won't move you. You might wake up and be sick again.

I have promised you every day for too many days that you will feel better tomorrow. Each time, I'm relieved you don't actually understand promises yet. I will be in trouble when you do. But right now, my promises have not been true and each day this week you have felt equally sick as the day before. It isn't my fault, but I'm still sorry.

I am selfish because I want to go to sleep. I am impatient and my back hurts from holding you and my heart hurts from letting you see that. Instead of thinking about it, I remember the day you were born.

They made me walk to the operating room. With Noah, an unplanned cesarean, I was rushed on a gurney. But with you I had time and, according to the doctor, plenty of strength. At 70 pounds of baby weight gain, I disagreed, but the man was about to bring you into the world so I didn't argue.

Your dad was made to leave the OR during my spinal tap. You probably won't want to hear this but, buddy, I took a massive needle in my spine for you so you're hearing it. My doctor held on to me to keep me still, and he and the anesthesiologist joked over who was more worthy to be the baby's namesake. Both had terrible names, but again, I stayed silent.

You had already been Max to me for quite awhile.

When that awfulness was over, they laid me back on the operating table. One side of me wasn't numb, so they tipped the table and I felt the rush of nothing fill my other side. It's a weird feeling that you only understand once you've had it.

I was afraid.

I have never fully been able to comprehend you, Max. You weren't part of my plans, which has always made me feel unworthy. From the moment I learned you existed, I felt sure I would mess something up for you.

But I was afraid for nothing. You came into the world screaming, if a bit blue. You already looked chubby and round and I loved you instantly.

Then you refused to breast feed. Clearly starving, nothing I did could make you eat what I offered. You just preferred the bottle, and that was that. It was hard for me to give up, but you had begun to lose that lovely chub. You are more stubborn than I am, and in the end, I was afraid.

But I was afraid for nothing. You ate from the bottle perfectly, and became the chubby-cheeked baby everyone needed to squeeze and kiss. You're not a cuddler, but you put up with it.

Now you are two. You are a monster toddler. I feel sure most days that I won't survive you.

But I look at you now, asleep in the floor in the bathroom, and I would give anything to make you better. It has been long days and long nights, and you hurt. I hate that you hurt, Max. I know there are much worse things out there in the world than this nasty virus, but I don't want you to hurt anymore. So I'm praying. I've tried everything else, and now I'm just praying.

You are my special angel sent from up above. You are my special angel, here for me to love.

I am afraid tonight. But I hope I am afraid for nothing. I pray tomorrow you will smile and laugh and make such trouble I only have to be afraid I won't survive you.

Sleep tight, special angel.

Love, Mom

Monday, February 1, 2016

Groundhog Day

I would just like to whisper a small thought out into the cold winter night.

You are not forgotten.

There are times I still look for you. I think you might just be in the kitchen, or in the next room, or getting ready back in your bedroom while everybody waits. It would be OK with me now to wait just one more time.

I see a gigantic car in the road, a real whale, that cruises smoothly along at a whopping thirty-five miles per hour and isn't going to move any faster, not even for fire or blood, and I think of you. I think of how we kids groaned in the back seat because we were never going to get where we wanted to go with you driving. I can smell the inside of your car: leather and fruit, because you kept ten thousand oranges and bananas in the garage. You let Pauly and Janie climb in and out of the windows like they did on Dukes of Hazzard, but not me. You took me by the hand and said, "They're just crazy and going to get hurt!"

I opened your cupboard about ten months ago and I saw your sugar bowl. If anyone had said, "What does Grandma's sugar bowl look like?" I would have laughed. "How should I know?" I would have said. But when I saw it there, tucked neatly in with the dishes, my heart stopped for a moment because I could hear your voice again. "Just put this on the table, Lovey, and then come back and help me."

When it's a bad day, a really bad day, I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I remember your arms around me. Not like at the end, where you were a feather and I was a gust of wind and it made me afraid. No. Instead I think of the real you. The one who could bench-press a train and once lifted me up in the Statler ballroom and polka-ed me around the dance floor, laughing the whole way. Your hugs made the world stop. They held me in place. They said, "You are all I care about in this moment." You were so strong. I know that.

When I look into my son's green eyes, I have to close mine for a second. So much of you is still here. It's still your world, and it amazes me that it keeps on turning and we have to live in it without you. 

When I look down at my hand and see your ring, which fits perfectly, I imagine the day you first wore it. The way you laughed your laugh and placed your hand over your heart, and it caught the church lights and sparkled and you said, "Some day maybe you'll have one just like it."

It's a big world, with big problems, all the time every day. And they matter. To a lot of different people, all kinds of things matter. Probably much bigger than a girl and her grandma. But you still matter to me, and I thank you for being that sort of person. The sort worth remembering and missing. We all love you.