Bringing Baby Tracy Home to Columbus
February 15, 2017
By Michael A. Calvert
Dad shuffled from his bedroom in his old blue bathrobe. His slippers with broken down heels flapped. His hair had receded farther than I remembered, and the remaining hair was wildly awry. He dropped heavily into his plaid recliner and looked around at his family in the living room. He responded to my greeting with a slight nod and a strained smile. No comment about my new beard. His eyes darted from face to face before he fixed his gaze on the painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the opposite wall.
With my wife Carol, our little Tracy, who just celebrated her first birthday, I had driven in from Baltimore for a family visit in Columbus. The modest living room was full. In addition to Dad and Mom, there was recent college graduate Kathy sitting primly, teenagers Steve and Margy perched on the arms of the furniture, and grade schoolers Tim and Dave on the floor with hands clasped over their legs. They focused on little Tracy, sitting on my lap as she looked back at all the new people turned toward her. From behind her twin blond pigtails, I saw the benevolent faces of my family.
I unzipped her sweater in the warm room and lifted her high to sniff her diaper. Fortunately I only smelled Johnson’s baby powder. I held her in the crook of my arm and gently rocked her. I was now a dad, not just the first born. My brothers and younger sister had limited memories of Dad as a warm and attentive father.
Mom crouched in front of her first grandchild, cooed, and offered her a small fuzzy bear. After looking at her mother for guidance, Tracy tentatively reached for the bear. Mom gently poked her with the bear repeatedly. Tracy giggled with delight and clutched the bear to her chest.
After a while, I said, “Tracy clearly loves to play with her Grandma. Now it’s time for her to get acquainted with her Grandpa.” I placed Tracy on Dad’s lap. He held her stiffly at arm’s length with both hands. She twisted to look at Carol and me, her face contorted, a precursor to an outcry and tears. We both offered reassuring words, but Tracy reached her arms toward us in a plea for rescue.
Mom knelt next to the chair, cocked her head, and spoke softly. Soon Tracy’s eyes danced, and she laughed as Mom made faces at her. Mom prompted Dad to say hello to his granddaughter, and stepped back. He croaked, “Hello, Tracy.” She stared at him, and her face clouded over. She twisted toward her mother and me and cried out. After I took her, she became quiet and surveyed the roomful of relatives. Tracy was not accustomed to an audience.
Margy and Kathy came across the room to get acquainted with their niece. They babbled to her and raved about how cute she was. My brothers dutifully spent a couple of minutes paying their respects. Carol took Tracy to the boys’ bedroom to put her down for a nap.
I asked Dad if he’d heard from Uncle Bill or Uncle Edward. “Bill calls,” he said. When I asked how Uncle Bill and my cousins were doing, he just said “OK.” I tried football. “Will the Buckeyes win the Rose Bowl?” He averted his eyes and said in a nearly inaudible voice, “Don’t know.” Not even a word of hope for the team he’s followed his entire life.
An awkward silence ensued. Steve said he was on the janitorial crew at the Union Department Store where I had worked. Tim said he told John Culp’s brother that I would be in town, and he promised to let John know.
Mom appeared in the door and announced that supper was ready. Dad stood, steadied himself, and said to Mom, “I’m not hungry.” He slowly took short steps toward the bedroom, hunched forward like a man much older than his 48 years. Mom pleaded with her eyes, but he continued to the bedroom closing the door behind him. She sighed in resignation.
Although some were seated at a corner of the table, no one took Dad’s place. Mom bowed her head and said grace as Dad always had in the past.
“A baked ham, complete with a slice of pineapple. Looks like the Sunday dinners I remember, Mom,” I said.
“It’s a special occasion to have all my kids for dinner. Carol, we’re glad you’re here, too. Would you slice the ham, Michael?”
I wielded the familiar carving knife and fork with handles fashioned from a deer’s horn. Steve started passing the mashed potatoes around the table, and Margy followed with the green beans. I passed the sliced ham.
“I wish Dad was here, sitting at the head of the table,” Kathy said.
“He’s just not up to it these days, honey,” Mom said with a forced smile.
“He never eats supper with us,” stated Tim casually as he reached for another slice of ham.
“Sometimes when I come home late from babysitting, he’s eating a sandwich in the kitchen,” said Margy.
“Like Dagwood, his favorite comic strip,” I said.
Kathy leaned forward. “Do you remember how after Sunday dinner, Dad would often say ‘Let’s go for a ride.’ We’d all pile into the old Chevy—before you guys were born. We’d go up Sunbury Road to Hoover Dam.” Stifling a chuckle, she added, “Dad would talk about the dam water and the dam fish with a big grin. Mom, you’d tried to shush him, but he’d just laugh. Michael and I’d repeat his words with mock innocence, and Dad would laugh even harder.”
“Sometimes he would laugh so hard he couldn’t stop,” I said wistfully. “He always laughed at his own jokes—no matter how many times he told them.”
“Remember the one about the leaning tower of Pisa?” asked Kathy, already amused at the joke. “ He would say, ‘They’re putting a clock on it because it doesn’t do you any good to have the inclination if you don’t have the time.’ Then he would begin to laugh and continue until he was giggling.”
Amid the chuckling around the table, Dave said, “Wait a minute. I don’t get it.” Tim dismissed his younger brother, telling him he would understand when he got older.
“I remember picnics at Blendon Woods,” said Steve. I was little and got scared when you and Kathy didn’t come back from one of those hiking trails before dark. Dad took a flashlight and found you guys. I thought I’d never see you again.”
“I was telling you not to worry, but I was pretty worried your Dad wouldn’t find them,” Mom confessed.
“Does anyone want dessert?” Mom asked with faux curiosity. Tim’s hand shot up and Dave followed suit. “Me, me, me,” they shouted in unison. Mom stared at them until Tim said, “Please, may I have dessert?” David parroted his brother and closed his eyes in an angelic pose.
“I made Michael’s favorite, cherry pie. Two for this big family. When he was little he asked for it instead of a birthday cake.” I confirmed my love for cherry pie. Margy and Kathy began clearing the dinner dishes. Steve engaged me in conversation about the Union. He said his boss remembered me, and so did old Mr. Dunn.
As we finished our pie, Carol pushed back from the table and said, “Nap time is over. Tracy’s waking upand doesn’t know where she is.” Then I heard the baby wailing. I followed Carol up the stairs to the room we expropriated from Steve, Tim, and David. Soon we changed, powdered and dressed Tracy for a mandatory visit with Carol’s folks.
I loaded baby paraphernalia into the car, strapped Tracy into her car seat, and we left for the afternoon visit. As soon as we were out of the driveway, Carol commented, “Your Dad’s in bad shape, much worse than when I last saw him.”
I agreed but added “He might bounce back.” I had seen him go from depression to a manic phase and back several times over the years. The Veteran’s Administration doctors were always trying new medications, but nothing seemed to work for long. Carol marveled that Mom could keep everything together. I seconded that.
I was ready to change the subject when we drove past Port Columbus, the airport for landlocked Columbus. Expanded and modernized since I was a child, the airport still sparked a happy memory. “Dad would pull up to the fence, and we would watch planes land and take off,” I told Carol. Piper Cubs and Cessnas landed and taxied to a mooring area near our parking place. Pilots wearing leather jackets climbed out, dropped to the tarmac, and lowered steps for their passengers to use.
The North American Aviation plant was on the other side of the airport, and their F-86 Sabre fighters with sweptback wings were often on the runway. Sometimes we saw the Navy’s Apache that was designed for aircraft carriers and the supersonic Vigilante that broke the sound barrier to produce thunderclaps in blue skies. We kept a list of the planes we saw in the glove compartment. At home, Dad helped me glue together models of these same aircraft. My models were lined up and ready for take off from my dresser. I told everyone that I was going to be a test pilot when I grew up.
“So why aren’t you a pilot?” Carol asked.
“I gave up that dream to pursue a career in professional football. That was about the time two North American pilots augured into a cornfield and died. Then I never got the growth spurt I needed for football.”
“Then you went from football to city planning. Good decision.”
“City planning came much later, but maybe a seed was planted when Dad took me to the 47-story AIU Tower, the tallest building between New York and Chicago. At least, it was then,” I told her. Dad bought a ticket, and we rode a special elevator. My ears popped before we stepped outside in the wind. I’ve never forgotten that overview of our city. Our house in AmVet Village was lost in haze, but Dad showed me the control tower at Port Columbus, Ohio Stadium, the Scioto River, railroad yards, and the penitentiary where O’Henry wrote ‘The Ransom of Red Chief.’ Dad read that story to me more than once. You should be able to see the AIU when we cross Broad Street.”
“I remember that tall building, but never went to the top,” said Carol. “Tracy won’t last long at my folks before she’ll be ready for another nap. That’ll be our cue to exit.”
“Fine with me. The less time there, the better. They’ve never accepted me.”
“Well, they never accepted me—especially after I became a teenager.”
Carol rang the doorbell on her parents’ house. I was surprised she wouldn’t just walk in. Her mother opened the door, stepped backwards, and exclaimed, “A Catholic with a beard!” I knew my new, bushy beard would startle her and expected a negative reaction, but not such an outcry coupled with the religion I had abandoned years before. I grinned sheepishly. Tracy was welcomed with open arms and fussed over without any reservations, and the visit passed slowly but amicably. Carol sighed in relief as we drove away.
At home, Kathy, Mom, and I cut slices of cherry pie and poured ourselves coffee. Kathy said we needed to save a slice for Dad. Everyone nodded. I shuddered inwardly at the picture of Dad hurriedly eating pie without pleasure in the middle of the night, standing in the kitchen in his bathrobe, and desperately hoping to fall asleep as soon as he could return to bed.
Forks clicked as we ate the pie. Finally Kathy said, “How are you doing, Mom?”
“I’m OK.” she said with a reassuring nod. “But I don’t know what else to do for your dad. The shock therapy helped him for a few months, but then he was the same. Every time we get a new psychiatrist at the VA they have a different theory. Some of the medications help a little, but… We’ll keep going back.”
“I’ll bet he hasn’t laughed or even smiled for a long time. Not even had any pleasant thoughts,” I said.
“Not like when we were kids,” said Kathy. “We got Dad’s best years. A lot better than recent years for Steve, Margy, and the little boys.”
“Tim and David say they don’t remember when your dad wasn’t depressed,” said Mom. “They never knew the man I married.”
No one said anything. I thought about how Dad’s illness was a rotten deal for him, Kathy and me, and the younger kids, but especially for Mom. She was always so strong that we didn’t fully appreciate her. She was the hero of our family.
Mom paused, blinked, and smiled. “Anyone hungry? How about a ham sandwich?”