13 is Enough



   The other night I agreed to join a soccer team at the invitation of Stuart, an Englishman I’ve been acquainted with for years, but have only recently got to know. Whether I shine on the pitch next month or puke on it remains to be seen.

   As the two of us were walking on the field, inspecting the turf, and talking about The Beautiful Game, Stuart relayed some advice his father had given him:

   “Play for as long as you can, son.”

   Stuart had taken his father’s words to heart and, at forty years of age, was still chasing a ball on the pitch. He worried, though, that he was only one injury away from being sidelined.

   “All you can do,” he said with a wistful smile, “is enjoy it while you can.”

   It was a nice piece of advice and I could sense that there was real affection between Stuart and his father.

   As I rode the subway back home, I couldn’t help but think about my own father. He passed away a little over five years ago after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s. It’s an awful disease, Alzheimer’s. Steals a loved one from you years before death ever comes. Thanks to the disease and my living in Japan all these years, I never got the chance to speak to my father as an adult.

   Maybe that’s why the only word of advice I can recall my father ever imparting upon me was something he said to me shortly before I left for college. He said: “Think with your big head.”

   Not quite sure what he was getting at, I replied with a tentative, “Okay?”


   I can be slow at times. When I was a young boy I spent quite a lot of time with my alcoholic grandfather, my old man’s old man. Whenever Gran’pa was well-oiled he’d do a sad little vaudeville routine, dancing around with spoons in this hand, tapping them on his knee like castanets, or rolling up a napkin and sticking it under his nose like faux mustachios. Ask any of my siblings to impersonate Gran’pa and they’ll immediately reach for a napkin, such is the man’s enduring legacy.

   Now, there’s a joke that Gran’pa used to tell. It involved a policeman talking to a hippie who had witnessed a crime--this was back in the late 60s, early 70s, mind you. The policeman asks, “Was he a tall man?” And, according to Gran’pa, the hippie replies, “Not a tall man.”

   “Was he a tall man? Not a tall man.”

   I didn’t get it.

   I didn’t get it when I was five years old, didn’t get it when I was six, nor when I was seven or eight. But then one day as I was walking home from Holy Family, my grade school, I mulled over the joke, trying to understand the enigmatic punch line.

   “Was he a tall man? Not a tall man . . . Was he a tall man . . .”

   The problem was my grandfather’s Boston Irish working class accent which lent the two lines a cadence that had thrown me far off course. After repeating the line a good dozen times or so, changing the intonation and pausing, it finally dawned on me what Gran’pa was saying: “Was he a tall man?” the police asks the hippy to which he replies, “Not at all, man.”

   You might suppose that the heavens opened up and a choir of angels started singing, “Hallelujah!” but no. Instead, I shouted, “That is the stupidest joke in the world!”


   “Think with your big head,” my father had said.

   I went back to my room and started packing my things. “Think with your big head . . . Think with your big head . . . Think with your big . . .” Then it hit me. “Oh dear.”


Bloody Catholics

   “Look at ‘em! Bloody Catholics filling the bloody world up with bloody people they can’t afford to bloody feed!”

              --from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life


   When I was a kid--I couldn’t have been more than six--I asked my parents why they’d had so many goddamn children. I was Number Eleven myself, and Number Twelve had come into the world recently. It was in my mother’s arms, as new as the furniture in the living room that had also just arrived. The timing of the two was so uncanny that it wouldn’t have surprised me if my father had replied that we kids had all been promotional giveaways, my little sister having been thrown in for free when they bought the furniture at Ethan Allen.

   What he told me, however, was no less remarkable:

   “When two people, who are in love, sleep in the same bed together, babies happen.”

   My parents, who still hugged and kissed each other after nearly twenty years of marriage, were clearly in love. Even a six-year-old could see that. What’s more, they slept together every night in a giant king-sized bed. Why, if you put two and two together, naturally you got twelve. A year and a half later, Number Thirteen showed up.

   Now, compare that with the bleak conjugal life of my paternal grandparents and you’ll understand why I found what my father had told me had so convincing.

   I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, so much so that most of my earliest childhood memories involve them.

   Let me tell you, hardly a day went by when my grandmother and grandfather were not squabbling and bickering about something. I remember my grandmother would get so fed up with her husband’s grousing that she’d turn her hearing aid off. Out of earshot, out of mind.

   On top of that, Grandma and Grandpa slept not only in separate beds, but in bedrooms that lay at opposite ends of a hallway. It made perfectly good sense to me then that the two would have only one child: my father.

   Now that I'm in my forties, and a father myself, I understand that Catholicism probably played just as big a part in my parents' fecundity as that big bed of theirs.