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I’ve gotten to know my son better now that he’s left. I’ve been looking after his fish and turtle and I’ve been noticing his absence. Connecticut’s mandate had prevented gathering for his graduation in May, so relatives drove in for Independence Day. The 2020 pandemic for senior year meant online classes and shortened exams, a motorcade of cars on commencement, a socially distant and masked presentation of his diploma, and photos in the driveway. July fourth seemed fitting for the family reunion since Davis would be leaving for basic training at West Point, choosing the path of military service.
The incident report for the reunion was minor: a hawthorn in the foot, a burnt finger, a failed beach excursion. There wasn’t much to do since things were closed. Places offered take-out and delivery, and a hair-cut came with clippers purchased online or a black-market house call. I ordered barbecue for the celebration with pick-up an hour away. My town cancelled the fireworks, as it had done with the Memorial Day parade.
The family hung out at home, which is a lot of people in one place for multiple days. We had one successful escape. Davis’s piano teacher Sandra hosted a recital for just the four seniors, now graduates. She planned it for Friday, July third, same day as relatives were arriving.
Poor Sandra and her good intentions –parents expressed concern about where my family was coming from, which states, and the warnings for these states, and how many intended to come. Multiple emails and a discussion followed.
The music school was a converted carriage barn with three ebony grands on the main floor. The rugs, furniture and appointments were antique and dark, practice rooms where the hay loft used to be and a dark banister with balcony seating. Family would enter one or two at a time, take the back stairs and listen from the balcony. The performers would sit in different parts of the music room. Each senior had a parent or two with them, like small delegations at the United Nations.
Davis played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, with portions as loud as loud can be played, noted on the music as ffff for fortissississimo, a hyper-superlative of the Italian word forte. He shook the audience out of its reverie. The opening three chord motif harkened images of dark Russian literature, the misery of the Siberian hinterlands, the madness of the gulag. It was a big piece and he’d been working on it much of the year, his penultimate performance. It was not perfect but the message was delivered. Here was a boy, the same age as the composer when he had written it, on the verge of adulthood. A young man.
Whose funeral is this? was the question Davis would answer. The eminent Russian, AKA the Rach (pronounced Rock), would leave his country, and this piece like his lost home would come to haunt him. Everywhere he went, listeners begged him to perform it. He loathed it and cursed it in turn, but it brought the house down. Davis played it again at home for those who did not make the recital. He performed better on his own piano and he explained. The story goes that in a dream, the composer comes upon a funeral and in the distance sees a coffin. He begins to walk towards it faster and faster, until he gets there and looks in, only to discover the horror inside. Himself.
The Vulgar Parrot
It was late and friends had gone home after the backyard fireworks. Confetti littered the porch, spent sparklers in a water bucket, relatives seated on the chaise and sling-back chairs. The outside light shone on Davis and his younger cousin Dustin, distant pyrotechnics going off, flickers in the pines.
Davis began, “I received a parrot for my birthday. The bird was rude and it swore when it spoke.”
Dustin, as the joke’s sidekick, whispered to Davis, asking for a bit more explanation. “You got it, you’re fine.” Davis said, then paused.
“Dustin, lift one leg. Flap your arms.”
“Poopoo! Darn! Freaking Crap!” Dustin said and he flapped his bent arms against his side. He lost balance, touched his toe to the ground, then back to his knee, more stork than parrot.
“That’s unacceptable. You can’t speak like that,” Davis scolded Dustin-bird.
“Squawk Squawk. Poopoo, Darn!” D-Bird continued. The grups, at least myself, imagined the uncensored version: Shut-up, you bastard. Enough of that shit already!Dustin moved towards the chaise.
“This just won’t do. I can’t have you squawking this way,” Davis said. In a rush of panic and desperation, he told us, he took the parrot and threw him in the freezer. Maybe a cooling off would change him.
“Sure enough. Screeching and then bit of squawking. After a minute, the silence had me worried. What had I done?” he said. D-Bird was quiet, closed in on himself as if inside the ice-box.
So Davis threw open the freezer and rescued the dirty-bird. Dustin flapped out and was silent.
Then the parrot spoke, “I believe I may have offended you with my rude behavior and foul language. I fully intend to do everything I can to improve my actions and change.”
Davis couldn’t believe his ears. Before he could ask what had happened, the parrot continued.
“May I ask what the chicken did?”
Davis riffed this from parrot stories he used to do in middle school. The family asked for more. He followed with a skit about a genie and three wishes, setting up his cousins and sister as stooges who happen upon the lamp. The first asks for wealth and beauty, the second upping the first, the third asks for his arms to spin in opposite directions then for his head to bob. The humor is in the acting, but mostly in watching the third as his arms and head spin and bob in successive wishes. It’s stupid, which is what makes it gut-busting funny.
My sister-in-law recorded it on her phone.
My husband’s older brother Joel was the highlight of the evening, though. He’s usually the quiet uncle, prone to wry comments and one-liners. He put the teens off their mark and they stopped their antics to listen.
Joel started with his war years, life as a young soldier in army basic training in winter at Fort Sill Oklahoma. Everyone settled into their seats around the room, on the chairs and floor. Joel said he never forgot Staff Sergeant Acosta because no one forgets his first drill sergeant. Two other recruits showed up to formation out of uniform, one was missing his gloves and the other, his field jacket. Acosta had them all take off their gloves. Then he had them all take off their jackets and began a lecture about the importance of uniformity now that they were uniform. The sting of the cold was a good motivator. They ran back to get in uniform and came back to formation, someone missing something else. Wash, rinse, repeat.
During training, they had an Okie winter storm, everything covered in a thick coat of ice. Running for physical training (PT) was impossible. “They smoked us the whole time.” The sergeant found a dust bunny under one bed during inspection. So he taped it to the floor and set up tape all around the barracks, pointing to that violation. They unloaded lockers, moved beds, breaking down the contents of the room and building it up again, cleaning every inch and spot of the place. Before basic was over, they would learn to complete a task and work together as a team.
“I had one advantage,” Joel said and the teens leaned in. He “knew how to shoot” since he had learned in the boy scouts. He had finished BRM–basic rifle marksmanship–as an expert every time. Davis looked pensive, not uttering a word during his uncle’s stories.
Joel’s granddaughter, Anna, celebrated her fifth birthday. She was curious about her brother Henry’s gift but resumed opening her gifts and eating cupcake. She took the plastic unicorn ring from the pink frosting and it hung off her finger. “It fits me,” she said.
Two-year old Henry had already gone to bed. Once during the visit, she took up the lacrosse stick and smacked him. She sat in time-out against the wall afterwards.
“Did you hit him on purpose or by accident?” my daughter, Cara, asked.
Anna and Henry didn’t say much to me that weekend which was OK since I hadn’t said much to them. Little people with grubby hands and drool were better with those not far off in age, or grandparents, or those so maternally inclined. Having them around gave me flashbacks of Davis at that age, a physical child with an overabundance of energy. Another cousin was a preemie and born two months after Davis; as an infant and toddler she took to crying and shaking just upon seeing him.
Henry found a Hess car which he toted around like it was part of his anatomy. He would toddle by on occasion, holding the car in one hand, punching a balloon in the other. His blonde hair stood up at the back of his head and went flat at the front, a kind of Groot do—the sentient alien tree from the Marvel universe—which made him seem like a moving tree stump. His eyes were as big as his cheeks, the azure circles fully exposed. He came upon me in the kitchen on the last day.
“You have a car,” he said. I was unscrewing the cover on the back side. The batteries had corroded and the contacts would need to be cleaned.
“Yes. I think your car might fit with this one. A kind of poppa and son,” I said, glancing down at the blond stump at my elbow. He was like a mosquito approaching its victim, well-honed sensors bringing him in range, ready to attack. His mother said he would find anything with wheels.
I screwed the plate on. “May I see your car?” I asked, then held out my hand. He lifted it up to me with deliberation, eyes on my face. I pressed on the hood of my car and it opened. Then I set his car inside and snapped it shut.
I didn’t think his eyes could get any bigger, the whites visible around the iris. Both hands went up and he nearly leapt off the ground. “How’d you do dat?” Davis had given him the Hess cars and the coupling came off as a miracle to Henry, a God car swallowing the kid car. He took them from me and scuttled off with his loot. I saw him later, on all fours with the cars.
A Mother’s Tale
The relatives had left. It was time for the last supper before Davis would leave for basic training and I thought it would be fun to share stories about him over sushi, his favorite food. I decided to curate by theme and age. It went something like this.
As an infant you used to shuffle to my room and open the door, your pooh blanket draped across your head, two middle fingers on your left hand in your mouth, pointer and pinky on each cheek. You’d stretch up to the bed and climb in. For preschool in Florida, you had to be potty-trained. You shed your pull-ups and went to school. That first day, the teacher needed to talk with me. Davis punched a boy.Something about playing Power Rangers. I apologized.
Not long after we moved to Connecticut when you were in grade school, your teacher needed to talk to me. You had stuck your arm into the space between the hall banister and the wall. I needn’t worry, though. They were able to get you and your arm out, but they wanted to let me know.
In middle school, I went to see you for the rocket launch, a milestone event with spectators. Later I received a call from the dean, who needed to talk with me. You had punched a classmate on the field. They gave you an in-school suspension, which would keep you from classes for a day. Clean the field or empty trash bins I had suggested, but miss class? The dean investigated the incident and said another boy was trying to take your rocket, but they could not condone a physical response. I spoke softly to the Dean: my children would not stand by when provoked. He said if he weren’t speaking as the Dean, he might have a different answer.
In high school you decided you were done with baseball when you did not make the varsity team. I said you needed to play another sport. So, you helped start the Frisbee team. You played with students from football, soccer, and other sports. You didn’t have uniforms, you coached yourselves; you made it and placed at the state competition. I stopped by the last game. After your team won, I watched a senior jump on the bleachers, an old Frisbee in his hand. He talked about the MVP of that first season. Then he called you up and gave you a disc with writing on it, your name.
You stepped up and quietly accepted the award. You looked at everyone who had gathered around. You thanked the visiting team, the school for its support, and your teammates.
You played Frisbee for the fun, for the love of the game. No supervision, no league, just friends doing something they loved. You didn’t play just one sport all year because you loved lots of things. I hope you continue to do so. When you figure out what you love, let your passion guide you.
You still come to my room to visit. I hear the door open and you appear, no blanket on your head, no fingers in your mouth. You need the car. You are going out with friends. You are going on trip. You are going to West Point. You are going to basic training. You are going.
His Own Man
Davis is the middle child with sisters, separated by two years on either side. Cara the oldest, Norah the youngest. Like his father and me, all three were late bloomers. Cara was first born and this placed her squarely in that role, from changing her siblings’ diapers to driving them places. They grew to rely on her and she grew into a leader. Davis was a summer-born boy which made him young for his class.
Later in high school, I think he surprised himself in the classroom and on the fields, with the speed and strength and focus that comes during adolescence. Cara had chosen to go to West Point and would become an Army officer. Davis appeared to have misgivings: just what was hispath forward and who was he.
These were hard choices. When both parents, all of your uncles, one aunt, your cousin, and your sister choose to join the military, how do you know it’s for you or whether you are a lemming, blindly following others off a cliff? It was a big cliff, with an oath of service and a minimum of twelve years, four at the Academy and an eight-year commitment after. To a teenager, that equaled a lifetime in school so far. Neither my husband nor I wanted to influence the decision, though that’s ludicrous. Our existence and our choices were inescapable to our children, that part of his environment as fixed as his DNA. Davis had applied to other schools, earned a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship which would allow him to go to a normal college. He wanted options, alternatives. Most friends were going to regular colleges and several were taking a gap year.
Davis had early encouragement from West Point and received an appointment in February. He didn’t make a decision until close to May, a week before the deadline. Just what was going through his head, I have imagined. He spoke to family friends, a civilian and a veteran, both successful. Gordon told Davis he’d be an idiot not to go to West Point. Cesar had reported to West Point and had left the same day; he took his commission into the Army through ROTC. He was one of the best officers we’ve known. The irony was he regretted his decision.
I’ve been thinking about something else, however peripheral it might seem. I wondered, just what is in a name?Davis goes by his middle name which is one letter different from his father’s, David. We figured he could be his own man this way, eschewing the mantle of Junior or the Second. Ancestry sites explain that Davis means the son of David, or David’s son. Using this, he would be able to dis the telemarketers and strangers who ask for him by his first name Mark, or hope to reach his father. There is a whiff of distinction with two surnames though it was not intentional. At the time, I had thought it was original. The preferred use of a middle name collapses the first to an initial, M. Davis Shattan. Note the similarity: H. Norman Schwarzkopf, J. Edgar Hoover, H. Ross Perot, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Neither the initial nor the surname had given me pause. Turns out his friend is named Davis and the name is more common than I believed.
I’m not sure how much a name shapes us. In the Army he’ll be known by Shattan. I read that late bloomers are said to be intrinsically motivated, the reward derived from the pleasure in learning and doing. If that’s so, he slept till noon, played games, and visited friends in his final weeks, binging on freedom like air to a drowning man. Davis is in the Army now and I’ve been looking after his fish and turtle. I wasn’t happy about either, especially when I learned the turtle could outlive me. I suggested we release it where he found it and Davis insisted it wasn’t much work. I’ve been feeding them daily and changed the water last weekend for both tanks. He said to leave the lights on for five hours, especially the heat lamp for Leonardo de Turtle. The fish splash me if I’m close and I have figured out Leo’s habits, hiding on entry, eating after I leave. I sit in my son’s recliner and watch. Or I turn off the room lights and see the fish darting out from the rocks.
I’ve gotten to know my son better now that he’s left home, following his habits, noticing his absence. Candies and desserts last longer. When he was home, as he was for much of the pandemic, he was busy doing stuff, holed up with his pets, chatting online with buddies. I told him I would miss him and even his ignoring me, because I knew that he was at the other end of the hall.
The choice to go to West Point and serve may have been a calling for Davis. Those in the armed forces often say that and I felt the same when I was his age, as did his father, and his sister before him. Sitting back in my son’s chair and observing, I learned which fish ate at the surface, which swam together, and which fed on the bottom. Leo climbed onto the rock when he sensed I wasn’t there. Those who apply to the Academy arrive at the decision in numerous ways. Some know from time in the boy scouts, or from a visit to watch Army football, or from an uncle or grandfather who served, and there are those who seem to know from infancy. Others get there in a round-a-bout way, going to college, after working, after trying out something else for a while. Maybe Davis knew deep down what he was going to decide and he was watching and observing from a distance. He needed the space and time away, from all of us, to find his own course.
Davis phoned today, his first call after completing training. His father asked if anything about the training was unexpected. Davis’s voice softened with a hint of pleasure perhaps, a chuckle. “I was surprised by how much I felt like I was a soldier, in the Army.”
Runaway Parrot: Pollygon
Parrot in a raincoat: Pollyunsaturated
A parrot walks into a drug store and buys a chapstick. The clerk says, “Will that be cash or charge?” The parrot says, “Just put it on my bill!”
Four brothers left home for college, and they became successful doctors and lawyers. One evening, they chatted after having dinner together. They discussed the 95th birthday gifts they were able to give their elderly mother who moved to Florida …
The first said, “You know I had a big house built for Mama.”
The second said, “And I had a large theater built in the house.”
The third said, “And I had my Mercedes dealer deliver an SL600 to her.”
The fourth said, “You know how Mama loved reading the Bible and you know she can’t read anymore because she can’t see very well. I met this preacher who told me about a parrot who could recite the entire Bible. It took ten preachers almost 8 years to teach him. I had to pledge to contribute $50,000 a year for five years to the church, but it was worth it. Mama only has to name the chapter and verse, and the parrot will recite it.”
The other brothers were impressed. After the celebration Mama sent out her “Thank You” notes.
She wrote: “Milton , the house you built is so huge that I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house. Thanks anyway.”
“Marvin, I am too old to travel. I stay home; I have my groceries delivered, so I never use the Mercedes. The thought was good. Thanks.”
“Michael, you gave me an expensive theater with Dolby sound and it can hold 50 people, but all of my friends are dead, I’ve lost my hearing, and I’m nearly blind. I’ll never use it. Thank you for the gesture just the same.”
“Dearest Melvin, you were the only son to have the good sense to give a little thought to your gift. The chicken was delicious. Thank you so much.”
* From the PODCAST, a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll. Reference to my son as My Beamish Boy!