Service.

James Ward (my grandfather) and his brother, John Ward | 1944

Both my father and grandfather served in the military. I knew this fact when I was growing up, although neither really ever talked about it much. I do remember that my grandfather had an old picture of a navy ship in the basement when I was a kid. I’m sure I asked him about it at one point or another (at least, I hope I did), although I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t recall his answer.

A couple years ago, the local paper interviewed some veterans in the area. In just a few short paragraphs, I came to know more about my grandfather’s experience than I’d learned in all my years prior. I decided to make a point to ask him about the article and his experiences, a gesture that was admittedly long overdue. To my surprise, he sat down and told me a few stories. While recounting what I’m sure was an extremely sanitized version of the things he witnessed all those decades ago, he began to tear up and had to stop. Death witnessed, friends lost, the horror still alive in his eyes… there it all was, right on the surface.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the fact that countless men and women over the years have made the decision to serve our county — I certainly did — but it was more of an abstract theory for which I felt no personal frame of reference. That day, though, the look in my grandfather’s eyes was the instant frame of reference that I needed.

For each and every one who serve and have served, on this Veterans Day and every day, I have nothing but gratitude. Thank you.

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Freshman.

Family members often remark that my niece Cece and I seem to share a personality, which is not a statement I think is ever meant as a compliment to either of us, although being who we are, we certainly take it as one. Thank you, we simply say. While I’ve done my best over the years to impart little wisdoms that may have otherwise slipped through the cracks — how to leave tiny footprints on the underside of her mother’s glass dining room table, a love for colorful language and the occasional double entendre, and an appreciation for sushi, all things Apple, and 80s alternative music — I couldn’t let this moment pass without a few practical tips as she heads off to her freshman year in college.

And so, here we go.

(1) Reinvention is overrated. A lot of kids go away to college and attempt to launch a new persona. (Ever wonder why some people on Facebook call me Jeff and others call me Jeffrey? This is why.) I imagine it’s because this may be the only time in their lives when they have the opportunity to start completely fresh and be whatever and/or whoever they want to be. That’s a great plan. For a week. A month or two, tops. And then they return to being who they always have been, which leaves everyone they’ve just met a little confused. So, don’t bother with it. You’re pretty fantastic just as you are, so just do that.

(2) Bathe. It bothers me that I have to even mention this, but please bathe regularly. One in five college freshmen don’t bathe at all (I made that statistic up) and there’s no excuse for it. Bathe in the morning before classes, which, yes I know, means rolling your lazy ass out of bed seven and a half minutes earlier. But, if you do, you’ll be able to concentrate better in class, you’ll end up learning more, you’ll look better to casual passersby (what’s more important than that?), and you won’t stink. Win, win.

(3) Avoid the 7:50. If you schedule a class at 7:50 AM, the likelihood that you’ll attend regularly is slim, so don’t do it. And even if you do end up attending the class now and then, you probably won’t have taken the time to bathe first. We just covered that, Cecilia.

(4) Meet people. Lots of people. People you wouldn’t normally meet. You’ll be surprised.

(5) Call your mother. She’s not going to figure out how to Skype, so you’re probably going to have to call her. On the phone. But do it. You’re her first born and she’s nutty enough as it is, so check in periodically. If you do this somewhat regularly, you’ll be able to get away with a quick call, too. If you only call every two or three weeks, you’re going to end up on the phone with her for an hour and who really has time for that? Texting is all well and good, but she’s going to want to hear your voice. Just don’t call her when you’re drunk, because she’ll know. Not that you’re going to drink, because you really shouldn’t do that, either. [Important side note: When your college friends tag you in pictures on Facebook, remember that your entire family will see them. Do I really need to elaborate?]

(6) Use a calendar. You have that shiny new iPhone, so use it. Enter all of your paper due dates, test dates, and study group times in the little calendar and have the thing alert you a day or two ahead of time. Because life will get busy and you’ll forget, that’s why.

(7) Don’t plagiarize. If you found it using Google, your professor can, too.

(8) And now, a word about grain alcohol. Don’t.

(9) Ask for help. You’re a smart kid and all, but you’re going to occasionally need help. When you don’t understand a particular assignment, when you need a safe ride home from an unsafe party, when you decide that you and your roommate would prefer to bunk your beds after all, and in countless other unplanned and unimaginable situations, don’t be afraid to ask for help. So, cultivate some good resources… before you need help. This is another reason why you need to meet people, lots of people, people you wouldn’t normally meet.

(10) Not every class is life-changing. In fact, I’m not going to lie to you, some of them will be complete bullshit. You can still learn something, though, even if it’s just learning how to tolerate (and succeed in) less-than-enjoyable circumstances. This is a life skill that will serve you well. Trust me on this.

This is an exciting time for you. It should be. You have all the promise and possibility imaginable right at your feet, so don’t screw this up. That said, you’re going to screw some things up and that’s okay, too. Learn from them, admit when you’ve been wrong, have a sense of humor about yourself, and then, press onward. They will end up being the life lessons you remember anyway.

I’m serious about the grain alcohol.

I love you.

A thousand words.

Grandpa Jim & siblings | Late 1920s

Every day we log on to Facebook and see pictures of our friends and family… of their kids, their pets, their random observations, and more times than not, the turkey sandwich they’re getting ready to have for lunch. The images are inescapable and, often times, forgotten in the time it takes us to scroll down the page. Sure, a select few make it from pixels-on-a-screen to a frame on the bedside table, but it’s easy to become desensitized to the notion that a picture captures an exact moment in time.

Jim & Millie | 1940

Several years ago we decided to throw a surprise 80th birthday party for my grandfather. Part of the preparation involved gathering pictures of my grandpa from various willing relatives, with the goal of building a photographic timeline of his life. I wasn’t sure what we’d be able to piece together, as my sole memory of “old pictures” when I was growing up was my grandmother talking about how some day she was going to put them all in chronological albums and label them. She was big on labels, my grandmother, perhaps proof that a little of my OCD trickled down the family tree from her. I don’t think the pictures ever made it into those oft-mentioned mythical albums, though, as her memory faded long before the task was checked off the TO DO list.

Jim & Millie | 1942

The pictures we were able to gather, though, were a wonderful surprise. Once the party was over, before returning the pictures to their rightful owners — I had to sign some sort of blood oath with a few of the donators — we made sure to scan a copy of each and every one, labeling them to the best of our collective abilities.

I’m really not overly sentimental when it comes to physical possessions. Running from a burning house, I’d have a hard time listing a half dozen things that I’d be sure to grab. Some of the pictures that were collected for that birthday party, though — many of them now enlarged, framed, and decorating our walls — have become my most prized possessions. Maybe it’s because they give me a sense of history or a feeling of roots. Perhaps they serve as a bridge to the past in a way that allows me to connect with the untold experiences of my loved ones. Often, though, it’s just because they make me smile.

Jim & sons | 1954

While I’m sure every picture has a story, I don’t know any of them for sure. I imagine that most of these pictures mark some sort of special occasion… a scheduled annual family photo, an Easter Sunday before leaving for church, or the arrival of a new bundle of joy. I love being able to recognize the same glimmers of individual personality, even in an old grainy photograph, that I still see to this day in my flesh and blood loved ones.

I imagine my grandmother often serving as family photographer, directing every pose and chastising the uncooperative. I look for signs of the same “would you please just take the blasted picture” rumblings that I routinely hear from certain teenagers (and yes, certain 41 year olds) whenever my mother pulls out a camera at Christmas dinner. I wonder what became of the photos once they were developed, if they were put in frames on the wall or kept on a bedside table. And then, when did the photos come down from those walls or out of those frames, only to be put in a box to be sorted at a later date? What did they think would become of them? Did they have any idea how meaningful those pictures would become, decades later, to future generations just looking for a connection?

So here are just a couple of my treasured possessions, a few small moments captured on film that mean the world to me. There’s not a turkey sandwich in the bunch.

Lottery.

My wife is an addict.

There were a great many years when I wouldn’t have been able to type that sentence, much less express it publicly. Just the word addict was full of too much stigma, too much shame, and too much responsibility. So, I called it other things or, preferably, nothing at all. It was the topic that caused me to whisper, as if lowering the volume of our conversation would lessen the reality of it, as well.

To her credit, my wife began to wear the label long before I was comfortable with the sound of it. She attended meetings and added the clarifying “recovering,” but my discomfort remained. I worried about what other people would think, mostly because I was concerned that they would view the word — and as a result, my wife — through the same judgmental filter that I had. And then, if we’re being perfectly honest, how would that make them view me?

My wife would tell you that she knew she was an addict the first time the warmth of hard liquor hit the back of her throat. Something just clicked for her — something that never clicked for me, despite my most valiant efforts — and in that instant, her subconscious began to map out a destiny for her that would include some form of addiction. I’m not sure why that happens to some people and not to others. It’s a twisted lottery of sorts and you don’t know if you have the “winning” numbers unless you have the ticket in hand.

When Amy Winehouse, who was as famous for her substance abuse as she was for her musical ability, passed away in July, the comedian Russell Brand wrote a piece on her for The Guardian. Brand, a recovering addict himself, talked about the very nature of connection with someone in the throes of addiction.

“I was myself at that time barely out of rehab and was thirstily seeking less complicated women so I barely reflected on the now glaringly obvious fact that Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction. All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but unignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his speedboat, there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.”

Read the whole piece here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jul/24/russell-brand-amy-winehouse-woman

Brand’s words hit me sideways because they expressed an unspoken truth that I’d long known about loving addicts. I’ve always struggled with the disease model for addiction, popularized by 12 Step groups and the like, but it’s hard to deny the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, whether you call it a disease or not. It’s easier to blame an addict who continues to use drugs in the face of unimaginable consequences, throwing emotional shrapnel at all those around him. Or maybe we just blame the addict for taking the very first drink, the one which started it all. No amount of blame we assign, though, will ever be able to compete with the shame they already feel.

Before our dear friend Michele passed away last year after her own lifetime of addiction struggles, we’d often talk about the “why.” Why was I able to walk away from the partying of my youth without a second thought, why was my wife blindsided by addiction for so many years only to then be able to walk a path into sobriety, and why was Michele seemingly unable to escape addiction’s grasp? It wasn’t a difference in will power or moral fortitude and it certainly wasn’t because one of us simply prayed harder than the other. I do know that shame somehow plays a part, as I don’t think any addict can reach a point of consistent recovery until he deals with the often self-imposed shame of his affliction, but even that does nothing to answer why some of us become addicts in the first place when others do not.

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with my two teenage nieces about life, high school, college… and, eventually, addiction. I’m enough of a pragmatist to realize that most kids will “experiment” with alcohol or some sort of drug. The statistics are as staggering as they are depressing. As a parent, I’m sure I’d obsess about every instance of that experimentation, threatening all manner of hell-fire for each and every teenage stupidity. However, as an uncle, particularly an uncle who has walked a path alongside addiction’s casualties, I worry more about the lottery of it all, about the ticket purchased with that first drink or binge or blackout.

As fatalistic as this all seems at times, personal experience also tells me that there is hope and there can be recovery. Recovery is, at times, a hard-fought battle against insurmountable odds, but it’s a battle worth fighting. And it’s possible.

September is National Recovery Month. Click here for more information on recovery resources and events in your area: http://recoverymonth.gov/

The whistler.

Jim & Jeffrey | Christmas, Early 70s

For as long as I can remember, my grandfather has been a whistler. Usually he’s whistling an old church hymn or, occasionally, a country tune that was around long before I was a blip on the family radar, back when country music was worth listening to, he’d probably tell you. Most often, he whistles as he walks, like a bell to let you know he’s coming down the hall. His whistle is equal parts nostalgia and joy and humor and gentleness. And I love it. It’s unquestionably one of my favorite sounds on earth. Although I have only a handful of vivid childhood memories, some of the best ones include times with my grandfather, whistling or otherwise. It was my grandfather who taught us all to fish, whether we particularly wanted to learn or not, on our many summertime trips to Lake Erie. I know now that it was never really about the actual fish, or even the fishing. For him, I think it was about the time on the water and the peace that, somehow, could only be found there. “Quiet or you’ll scare the fish away,” he’d insist. And then he’d whistle because, as he explained, he was calling the fish to us. Perch respond to such beckoning, apparently. Naturally, we believed him. The truth is, I never did like fishing all that much, but there was something about those days — maybe it was the lake’s stillness that I learned to appreciate or maybe it was just the fact that I knew it made my grandfather happy — that remains imprinted on my heart. It was my grandfather who gave a fourteen year-old me the keys to the old blue Oldsmobile — a sad looking thing with a matching blue velour interior — and turned me loose in the field behind the house, much to my grandmother’s dismay and long before I should have been allowed behind the wheel. I still remember the way that car smelled, a mixture of my grandmother’s perfume and my grandfather’s pipe. As an adult, I’ve driven BMWs on closed racetracks and piloted convertibles on the Autobahn, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to replicate the feeling of euphoria that I felt behind the wheel of that Oldsmobile. It was my grandfather who first taught us about the importance of hard work, a lesson not taught by verbal instruction, but by years of example. By the time I was around, Grandpa had already started his own business (it’s strange to think that he was around the age that I am now when the business first opened its doors), a place where he spent most of his waking hours when I was young. The lesson was that in order to succeed, one had to work hard without griping, take pride in what you did, and be fair to people along the way. A simple business model, indeed, but one that proved successful.

Jim & Millie | Summer 1941

As important as the business was to my grandfather, he taught me an even greater lesson by walking away from it when my grandmother became ill. With my grandmother’s physical health in decline and the effects of Alzheimer’s becoming readily apparent, my grandfather took on his most challenging job yet. He would become my grandmother’s primary caregiver. The man we used to tease years earlier because he didn’t know how to set an alarm or make a pot of coffee or do his own laundry (after all, my grandmother always took care of such things and would have it no other way) now made lunch and baked cookies, not to mention all of the unmentionable tasks that are required when your loved one is suddenly unable to care for herself in even the most basic of ways. Those last years of my grandmother’s illness took a toll on my grandfather, as they do for anyone who assumes a similar caregiving role. His whistle all but evaporated during that time. Perhaps it was simply a product of fatigue and worry, or perhaps such a manifestation of joy just seemed inappropriate to him, given the circumstances. Whatever the reason, I noticed — and felt — its increasing absence and all that I assumed it meant. But then, a few months after my grandmother passed, my grandfather walked by my office one day and I heard the sound of him whistling, “How Great Thou Art.” Another lesson. My grandfather whistles a lot these days, which I credit almost entirely to his ability to keep his heart open to the possibilities of life — and love — even after losing his partner of a half dozen decades. For me, as someone who tends to build emotional walls at even the slightest whisper of potential hurt, this has been one of his greatest lessons yet. At eighty-eight years young, my grandfather is happy, in love with a wonderful lady, and full of the same graciousness that has marked every chapter of his life. I have no doubt that there are a few lessons yet to be taught. I just hope there will be the whistle of an old gospel hymn to accompany them.