Unfinished Tales

It’s barely even March and I am already looking ahead to summer.

This is not normal for me. I’m the person who, when given a choice between the blazing hot and the freezing cold, will take the weather that requires a coat, a scarf, and a chorus of “Walking In a Winter Wonderland.” After all, you can bundle up, but there’s only so far you can peel down. And when you’re looking at the chores ahead, snow melts, but grass grows. Right?

I’m not saying I’m a complete polar bear. Spring is when life wakes up, especially life that wears baseball gloves and purple uniforms and has one chance in a hundred of seeing the World Series this year. Fall is the time of great-smelling grills and gorgeous trees that no rake can ever keep up with.

But summer? Really?

As usual, you can blame my addiction to theater. On March 16, the Longmont Theatre Company opens a two-weekend run of “Leaving Iowa,” a show about the iconic Summer Vacation Family Road Trip. And this time around, I’m playing Dad, which means I get to invoke the Ritual Repeated Parental Warning: “Now settle down back there, or I’m pulling this car over!”

But it’s more than that, really. It’s also a story about family ties over the years. About how your perspective changes when you move from child to adult (and not just by moving into the driver’s seat). And especially about how you always think there’s more time to know someone until there suddenly isn’t.

That last one hits home. No matter what the time of year. But for me, maybe especially now.


A few weeks ago, many of you saw my column about the recent passing of our 21-year-old cousin Melanie. I know, because so many of you chose to respond and send your sympathies, whether through the mail, online, or in the newspaper itself. It was gratifying, healing, and even a little overwhelming to see how many people cared.

I appreciate it and I thank all of you. It brought a lot of love and warmth to a season that had suddenly become too cold even for me.

As much as I love winter, it’s become a little haunted for us. Mel left us in January. Last year, so did our long-time canine queen, Duchess the Wonder Dog. Four years ago in February, we said goodbye to Grandma Elsie. A few years before that, it was Melanie’s dad Andy – January again. Story upon story, soul upon soul.

Sometimes we had a lot of warning before the final chapter. Sometimes none at all. Always, afterward, there are the feelings of questions not asked, things not done, stories not told. It happens even when you’re close, and if there’s been any distance at all, it only magnifies the lost opportunities.

I once wrote about a folk song called “Kilkelly, Ireland,” where an Irish father and an immigrant son exchange letters across the Atlantic for 30 years. The father is always asking the son to come home to visit, the son never seems to – and by the time he finally is ready to, Dad has already passed on.

There will always be a Kilkelly moment. There will always be one last thing you meant to do or say, because as people, we never go into moments thinking they’ll be the last one. There will always be something more you wanted them to experience, whether it’s to see a great-grandchild arrive or to enter college and begin life.

Living stories don’t end neatly.

At the same time, as a kind person reminded me, they also don’t truly end.

We are all more than just ourselves. We carry pieces of every person we’ve ever loved, every story that ever intersected with our own. They shaped us, influenced us, colored the way we see the world.

And when they leave, that touch remains. We carry a little of their flame.

Their story goes on.

And so, when I mount the stage in a couple of weeks, I won’t do so alone. In fact, I’ll be carrying quite a crowd.

I just hope there’s room for all of us in the station wagon.

Name Dropping

When you work for a newspaper, one thing you get used to is odd baby names.

Sometimes it’s a twist in spelling, like the Sheila named “Shelia.” Or a rising trend, like those angels in a mirror named “Nevaeh.” At one point, place names like Madison or Montana began to take off; a co-worker teased that if kids were going to be labeled with their place of origin, we might see “Chevrolet” before too long.

You smile. Sometimes you laugh. Once in a great while, you wonder what the parents were thinking. (“Marion Butts? Really?”)

But the honorable Lu Ann Ballew didn’t stop at wondering. The Tennessee judge acted, saying a family had no right to name its child “Messiah.”

“The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has been earned by only one person,” Bellew declared in resetting the baby’s name to “Martin.”

Psst. No one tell her about all the Latino families who have named their children “Jesus,” OK?

The thing is, we’ve been here before. Usually with a foreign court. The one that sticks in my mind is the New Zealand judge who barred a family from naming their child “4real Wheaton.” This act of humanity clearly saved a young boy from years of humiliation and ridicule … or at least, it might have, if Mom and Dad’s backup choice hadn’t been “Superman.”

Phone booth not included.

What can I say? Names are powerful, even the ones that don’t happen to come from Krypton. They reflect who we are. Sometimes they even shape it. They show our hopes and dreams, our values and fancies, maybe even our incipient insanity.

And trust me. Trying to block that force is an exercise in futility.

Don’t like titles as a name? Watch out for Fletcher (maker of arrows), Chandler (candle maker) or Tanner.

No religious exclamations? Then thou shalt not touch Elizabeth (“Oath of God”), Michael (“Who is Like God?”) or Joshua (“God is Salvation”).  Never mind the bus driver a few years ago who legally changed his name to In God We Trust.

We’ve used virtues from Chastity to Justice. We’ve used place names, plant names, colors, promises of royalty. We’ve even hit the produce aisle at the supermarket, not just with the infamous “Apple,” but with more time-tested monikers like Cherry.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure that any name out there can really qualify as unusual anymore. Though I’m still grateful to my parents for not naming me “Walter.” (Sorry, Mr. Disney.)

I’m not saying that naming a child should be a frivolous exercise. Quite the opposite. With great power comes great responsibility as Peter Parker (“Rock Forest Ranger”) once declared. And probably a great number of arguments as well, as Mom and Dad swerve between trying to be unique and trying to avoid getting a child beaten on the playground.

But such a powerful choice must be a personal one. It’s really not a place for a judge, except by invitation.

So thank you, your honor. Thanks for recognizing how important a name is. But I think the rest of us can take it from here.

And if we wind up with the occasional Picabo Street, or Moon Unit Zapppa, or even Messiah (762 boys last year, according to the New York Times), well, so be it.

After all, that’s the name of the game.