bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Friday, June 22, 2018

You Are Here

by Kelly Garriott Waite

The picture, taken before color photography was ubiquitous, is gradations of light and dark, bright and shadow. In it, my father straddles a three-foot log, a jagged vertical crack down its center like a lightning strike. The bark is rough and covered in places with moss. The grass surrounding it is mostly short and neat, as if the log had been dragged to this space specifically to make a seat for my father. But it can't be comfortable: Dad's right leg bends back, the toe of his shoe dug into the ground as if for purchase. His left leg is forward, his heel pressed into the grass. His pants—the seventies equivalent of Dockers–are sharply creased down the center. He wears a button-up shirt, untucked, and Converse tennis shoes, their dark laces loosely tied. Dad holds a five-string resonator banjo, its round drum resting on one leg. His smiling face is in profile, that characteristic dimple in his cheek as he looks at the middle finger of his left hand, pressed behind the D string's third fret.

* * *
1. To worry excessively and without cease.
2. Music: One of several thin silver strips separating the fingerboard of various stringed instruments into sections. Pressing just behind a fret will divide a string in two, causing its lower half to vibrate faster, thus producing a higher-pitched note. Each fret will raise a string's tone a half-step or 1/12 of an octave.

* * *

Between certain frets, the fingerboard of Dad's banjo was inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the smooth white inside of the shell of certain mollusks: oysters, mussels, and abalones. I remember swaying from side to side, studying the shimmer of the inlay, watching the colors change from violet and pink to gold and green. Looking at the photograph, I am reminded of the abalone shell that belonged to Dad's mother, a woman who fretted so often that my grandfather sometimes snapped at her, stop buying trouble, as she peered through the dashboard of the passenger seat, giving voice to her worries about weather or traffic.

Why steal the mollusk's rainbow to settle it upon the neck of the banjo? More than mere adornment, it served as position markers, grounding my father to keep him from getting lost inside the music. This is where you are, the inlay murmured to Dad. Remember, you are here.

* * *

Used in Western music, an octave is composed of eight notes and their four half steps. The beginning and ending notes of an octave match in pitch but differ in frequency.

* * *

A mere handful of notes, a single octave is insufficient to express musically the range of human emotion. And so, using the fret-string combination, the octave is repeated three times on Dad's banjo.

* * *

A can of Budweiser rests before Dad, its label gazing off camera. A music book is open, its soft cover folded back. I hold my magnifying glass over the book and try to discern the title of the song. But all I can make out is a smattering of notes, fat circles with wings, except for the whole note, which is entirely too heavy to fly and thus has no need of wings.
* * *

Note value:
Used in music to show how long to play (or hold) each note. Commonly, a whole note is held for four beats, a half note for two. On it goes, with each previous note value halving itself all the way down to the smallest, rarest note, the 256th, a note with six fast fluttering wings, a note so light it barely makes a sound as it briefly alights before flitting away. 

* * *

Dad often played "Cripple Creek" and "Dueling Banjos" from the movie Deliverance. Sometimes he played "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a song featured on an album of the same name by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Dad bought this album and stored it beside the seventeen-volume collection of Beethoven's works, eighty-five records in all, which he largely ignored, but which my sister played loudly when she cleaned the bedroom we shared: sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets. I remember the scratch of the needle upon a record. The momentary silence before the room was flooded with sound. I remember, after the room was clean, my sister returning the records haphazardly to the shelves until the cabinet was so messy, Dad could no longer stand it and made us sort out the records and put them into their correct volume. Dad's life was a series of attempts to impose order on a disordered brain.

* * *

When he wasn't playing, the banjo hung on the wall next to Dad's recliner. Beside it was the four-string he'd also acquired. When he got the notion to play one or the other, Dad sat up in one swift motion, his back lifting and his legs folding down simultaneously while he reached toward the wall.

* * * 
1. German: anxious.
2. Music: anxiously.

* * *

Here's what Dad never told us: He took a prescription medication to alleviate the symptoms of Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a disease rooted in anxiety.

Here's what took me years to tell my children: I also suffer from OCD.

Here's what I hope my children tell my grandchildren: They have anxiety. They have learned how to manage it. There is no shame in mental illness.

* * *

A phrase or theme that recurs throughout a musical or literary piece.

* * *

I believe that the leitmotif of Dad's life was anxiety and finding a way to alleviate it. He never spoke of anxiety, perhaps because he didn't want to buy trouble. Instead, I believe he sought relief through his hobbies: photography or sailing or playing the banjo, dropping one project and taking up another, sometimes circling back to an earlier one, repeating the pattern throughout his life.

* * *

As expected, Dad gave up playing the banjo. The instruments remained on the wall for longer and longer stretches of time until they became more decoration than entertainment. With every hobby, Dad discarded its accouterments, in this case, the music books, the silver picks, the pitch pipe. Eventually even the banjos disappeared.

But I don't think Dad was a quitter. Rather, I believe that when a hobby had lost the power to distract his mind–-when, for instance, he could play a song without having to concentrate–-he dropped it for something new upon which to focus. Every new project had the potential to quiet his mind. Something to tell him: You are not lost. Remember you are here.

* * *

My younger daughter, like her grandfather, flits from thing to thing, as if searching for something to quiet her brain, something to ground her, too. She tells me she doesn't want to have children: she's afraid they'll inherit the anxiety.

Can I guarantee her this circle of anxiety will eventually be broken? No. But I try to explain the positives that accompany it: the compassion for others, the creativity, the way of finding beauty in the world where others might not. I'm not sure she believes me. I'm not sure she believes it's worth it.

But perhaps mental illness isn't so much illness than the normal about which we do not speak. Perhaps each of our brains are gradations of lightness and darkness, brightness and shadow. Perhaps if we spoke our truths rather than hiding them, we would feel less alone, braver, not as strange as we perceive ourselves to be. Perhaps the heaviness of our hearts and our minds would evaporate. Perhaps if we said, this is where I am, someone might reply, me, too. I am here, too.

Kelly Garriott Waite writes from Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Hopper, Allegro Poetry, and the Fourth River: Tributaries.

Friday, June 8, 2018


by Sarah Belliston

Ever since my son Jack could walk, he’d head to my bookcases and pull the books from the shelves into a pile. Sitting there like a hen hatching chicks, he’d pick a thick volume and set it on his outstretched legs. He’d turn it sideways so the weight of the book rested on his feet and the cover opened into his lap. Then his dexterous middle fingers would run along each side of the book, catching just one page, and flip it down. One by one. Over and over. When the book was finished, he’d turn it around and repeat the process. My family joked that he was reading; I joked that he loved books as much as I did.
At eighteen months old, a team of doctors diagnosed Jack with autism spectrum disorder.

A hybrid is something born from two different species, or a composite built from two different things. Hybrid cars are supposed to be good for the environment. We would not have the purposeful inventions of the liger, the tangelo, or the blood lime without hybridity. (Lions and tigers do not live in the same areas so the crossbreed of the liger has only been documented in captivity.) Because of their genetics, these hybrid animals are often, though not always, infertile.
At conception, the DNA of each parent is put into a blender and cut into pieces, so the child gets a unique mix of the parents’ chromosomes. When those chromosomes merge to make sequenced pairs, they can only match with the same structure. Different species have different structures, but related species like zebra and horse or citrus fruits have enough in common to make a hybrid. In plants especially, the seeds sometimes carry the genes for multiple colors or varieties. Depending on how the plant is pollenated, a recessive color could become more common despite being he recessive trait. When the seed grows up to have the same desired trait as the parent plant, gardeners call this being “true to the parent.” Many genetic probabilities work the same in plants as in humans. These probabilities can sometimes be determined by a Punnett square.
For example, my husband, Scott, has a genetic blood disorder called hemochromatosis. Two of his five siblings also have the condition, which is relatively mild as long as you know you have it. Those with the disorder absorb too much iron, which can cause liver failure if left unmanaged for too long. Another relative had hemochromatosis and developed cirrhosis of the liver late in life, never once having drunk alcohol. My husband has to get his iron levels tested every few months. When his iron becomes too elevated, he donates a pint of blood, which makes the body produce new blood, which in turn uses up the high iron levels and returns his system to normalcy.
Before we married I took a blood test and found out I carry the recessive gene for hemochromatosis. One study estimates that ten percent of Caucasian people are a carrier, and one in 200-500 develop the disorder. Our Punnett square looks something like this:

Sarah h

Sarah H
Scott h
Scott h

Each of our future children would have a fifty percent chance of having hemochromatosis and a one hundred percent chance of being a carrier.
My mother asked me if I was okay with these odds. I said yes. I married my husband. His genes mixed with mine and the sequence of our combined DNA made a hybrid, what we thought was a good hybrid with smiles and laughs and ten fingers and toes.
I considered the known problems, but I didn’t think of the unknown. When autism appeared, I wondered what our Punnett square would have looked like. And what my decision would have been.

Some autistics have symptoms from birth, while others go through a type of regression, usually before the age of five. This regression involves a breakdown of neural pathways in the brain that can affect communication and sensory perception. Some regressions happen overnight; parents wake to find an autistic child in their neurotypical child’s bed. This kind of regression produces the common metaphor of autism as a kidnapper that has stolen the child.
Other autistics, like my son, regress slowly, so slowly I couldn’t tell you exactly when it started. All I remember is that after his first birthday I noticed more and more signs. By his fifteenth-month well-child visit I had to admit he hadn’t met any of his communication milestones. At the hearing screen a month later, I watched him lick the hinges on the door as the specialist said, “Have you considered autism?”

Science doesn’t know why people develop autism. A Punnett square is impossible. There may be a genetic component, but if so, scientists have identified over 200 possible genes that could mutate in multiple ways and result in a spectrum disorder. My most recent talk with a geneticist said they can identify a genetic cause in less than ten percent of cases. The identification success rate gets even lower when the autistic does not have intellectual delays. I think of Jack and how he did first grade math at four years old. Testing him wouldn’t give me any more answers. My husband’s sister was diagnosed with Asperger’s after we were married. Her son, who is a few years older than Jack, is also autistic. It was in the sequence all along.

There is no cure for autism. Instead there is what I like to think of as “symptom management,” which usually consists of behavior modification therapy. This therapy focuses on substituting wanted behaviors for the isolating repetitive actions autism is known for, like replaying the same five second portion of a video 200 times or flipping pages in a book for hours.
Jack started behavior modification soon after diagnosis. When he was almost three, we decided to stop. Behavior modification works amazingly for many, but it didn’t work for Jack. The therapy had made his behaviors worse and caused a larger regression. Before using behavior modification, he mainly ignored my attempts to interact with him. After the intervention he would lie down and will himself to sleep in order to escape unwanted stimulus, i.e., me.

Six months later after we stopped behavior modification, Jack was more interactive with me but we weren’t making any progress on his communication. I travelled across the country for a weeklong training on a different kind of therapy based on relationships and social communication instead of deterring behavior.
The program is called Son-Rise and has a reputation in the autism community for the claim it can cure autism. I was more interested in the therapy because it focused on attempting to understand the purposes behind the autistic’s actions. The program also has the central idea that the reward for social interaction should be the joy of the other person, not a treat or motivator (as in behavior modification). So, instead of a cue to look someone in the eye, the parent/facilitator acts in a way that makes them interesting to the autistic and then rewards any glance with an overexcited response. In essence, they teach the autistic how interaction with another human being can be fun.
By the end of the week, there were many things about the program I knew would not work for my family or my child. To complete the program with fidelity, you need a dedicated playroom where the autistic stays for eight hours a day while different volunteers rotate through, ensuring that every moment is maximized for therapy and the environment is controlled to decrease the likelihood of surprises for the autistic. I could do the gluten-free and casein-free diet they suggested because Jack only ate a few items anyway. But when they told me to take away screens, I balked. Since then, I have come to see the wisdom in their words. Some autistics, and some neurotypical children, have delicate nervous systems that cannot handle the input from a personal, interactive screen. They become isolated, irritable, and have frequent meltdowns. However, Jack is not one of those kids, at least not yet.
So when I came home, I adapted the new therapy to our family and my son. We used our whole house as his playroom and tried to be observant and ready to interact with him all the time, instead of just for set hours. I saw an immediate increase in Jack’s eye contact and verbal communication. When I slowed down and focused on his reactions, he gave me more of them. When I flipped pages next to him, he stopped flipping and came over to take my book, which would turn into a game of passing books from one pile to another. Our “game” was a baby step to interaction, but leaps ahead of where we were before. Our future suddenly looked brighter, and the trip we’d planned to visit my brother across the country looked brighter too.

At the Son-Rise training, one female facilitator told a story of helping a child to say their first word. When she tried to celebrate with the parent afterward, the parent denied hearing their child speak. The session had been videotaped, and the trainer said she had to play back the tape three or four times before the parent could hear what their child had said. When I heard this story, I wondered how it was possible for a parent to ignore auditory evidence, but on that trip to visit my brother, I found out exactly how it could happen.
Sometimes Jack connects with people right away. When we got to my brother’s apartment, Jack connected with his then twelve-year-old cousin, Tyson. A good big brother to three younger siblings, Tyson happily sat with Jack in front of the television. They watched the credits of a show scroll by, and Jack supplied a steady stream of what I thought was gibberish. Tyson said, “I think he’s reading the names. I can almost understand what he’s saying.” I brushed off the idea immediately. I had heard this gibberish plenty of times when Jack stood in front of our television at home or flipped pages in his books.
Later that night I sat on the floor next to Jack as his three-year-old hands and eyes concentrated on an iPad. He had gotten into an ebook app and was flipping the digital pages as fast as he could. A steady stream of gibberish accompanied the motion. I thought about what Tyson had said. I scooted closer. Jack’s gaze was fixed to one spot on the screen, the top left corner of each page. Staring with him, I listened again and it was as if a translator had been slipped into my ear. All of his gibberish suddenly made sense. I heard “the,” “and,” “this,” and “can.”
Jack was speaking.
Jack was reading.
His sequence was wrong. He read the first word of each page instead of left to right and top to bottom. He read heavy volumes instead of picture books. But there was no denying it anymore. I wondered how long he’d been reading, how long I had been unable to hear.
I felt for those other parents, the ones who didn’t understand their child’s first word. Maybe their child was like Jack who, I realized, often dropped consonant sounds, so “pig” was a short i sound and “horse” was “ohss.” Maybe the parents were like me and couldn’t believe their child spoke because the action was tied to something unimaginable, like a child who could read before he could speak, or like understanding that autism doesn’t break someone’s brain, it only makes them process information in a different sequence.

In critical disability studies, there is an “affirmation model” of disability. The idea is that society and culture have trained people to view and portray disease and disorder as negative and pejorative. This model analyzes literature that highlights the good events or actions that wouldn’t otherwise happen if disability didn’t exist. Words in the Dust is a novel that tells the fictional story of an Afghan girl with a cleft palate. The deformity allows her to pursue an education, whereas fixing her cleft palate would result in marriage and little opportunity for learning. In John Elder Robison’s memoir, he writes how his undiagnosed Asperger’s allowed him to understand machinery in a way that led him to create pyrotechnics for KISS after he dropped out of high school. Naoki Higashida, a nonverbal autistic, writes in his book that taking away his autism would fundamentally change who he is as a person.
After reading these stories, I wonder if autism will turn out to be a positive or a negative for Jack. I’m not sure what about Jack is his autism and what isn’t. I don’t know if his ability to match his voice to any melody or sound would still exist without autism, or if his laugh would still bubble up from his center and spill over into everyone within hearing distance. Would his unusually blue eyes still twinkle? Would his gaze still make people stop and pay attention if it was more frequent?

In truth, I don’t know if my husband’s gene pool caused my son’s condition, gifting him the particular sequence that resulted in his autism. There are more members of Scott’s family with autistic qualities, but it could be something in my genes that is hidden in me but manifested in Jack’s hybrid sequence. A theory called the female protection effect thinks that genetic mutations must be more severe to cause autism in women, which means that I could have passed on faulty autism genes to my son without having any symptoms myself. Another study found that copy number variations (where sections of DNA are repeated and the number of repeats varies between people in the population) are more commonly passed on from the mother’s egg than the father’s sperm. At least for one specific area called the 16p11.2 region, found in about one percent of people with autism. However, the study points out that simply having a mutation in this area does not mean the individual will always develop autism.
At this point in the research, it feels to me like it’s just as likely that everyone has a gene that could result in autism. Autism affects almost every family I know. Some more than others. One in fifty-nine children are diagnosed on the spectrum in the United States. The statistic just changed in 2018. The rise is attributed to the growing number of mild forms of autism getting an official diagnosis. An article I recently read talked about the detrimental part of having a genetic profile. Two individuals with the same sequential defect can have very different outcomes. Genetics do not determine prognosis, and yet if parents know of a serious mutation, they may think their child is not capable of progress.
After diagnosis, the thing I most wanted was for someone to tell me that my son was capable of learning, that spending hours and years trying to teach him would result in success. I didn’t want to put him or myself through the hardship of therapy without a guarantee. If he lacked ability, maybe the kind thing would be to leave him happily sitting on the floor alone with his books.
Maybe he was happy there by himself, but I also know that he was happy when a few months ago he wrapped his little arm around my neck and gave me a kiss for the first time.
Even so, I am going forward with more genetic testing. If there is an answer in the sequence, I still want to know.

I used to think that autism appeared one day and changed my son. When I began this essay I wanted it to be about how my son was a hybrid of himself and autism. But really, autism was part of him all along. I am the one who has become the hybrid.
I spent my life before Jack unconnected with autism. Now, it is my life: in my life, my house, my writing, my brain, and my heart. I begin each day thinking of autism. I’ve become the autism lady, always ready to regale people with my laundry list of facts and opinions. Now those opinions include the possibility that perhaps my son has benefited in some way because of his hybridity, his sequence.
Moments are more important to me now than milestones. I judge my success as a parent, and Jack’s success as a child, not on achieving the goals we set, but on attempting them. I have hope and am more willing to entertain the impossible. If I had never thought my son was capable of reading, I would not have been listening, and I never would have heard his words.

Sarah Belliston lives in Utah with her family while she attends BYU for her MFA in Creative Writing. She loves a good book, a good movie, and a good musical but hasn't figured out how to do all three at once. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

My Mathematical Father: A Life in Numbers

by Karen Galatz

My father was a mathematical genius. He could calculate long columns of numbers in his head in a flash, count cards at a Las Vegas blackjack table, and estimate the number of pennies in a jar within, well, a few pennies.

I, on the other hand, can barely operate a calculator and cannot convert kilometers into miles. Yet when I think of my father's life, it is through numbers that I can best recount his story.

7 4 31
July 4, 1931: My parents meet at Coney Island. There for a blind date with my mother's best friend, my father said he took one look at my mother and "That was it." He wooed her with hot dogs, salt water taffy, and cotton candy, took her for a ride on the Whip, and then held her hair back as she threw up all that food. There were fireworks then and there were fireworks throughout the five decades they were married.

Shortly after meeting my mother, Dad took off "hoboing" around the country. Not for long. He sent a telegraph to his brother asking for money to get home so he could court my mother. On his return to New York, he went straight to my mother's home. Eight months later they married.

Some fifty-four years later, as we gathered around the kitchen table telling stories after my father's funeral, my Grandma recalled meeting her future—and favorite—son-in-law. Standing at the front door for the first time, he asked Grandma to please get her "sister." After so many years, she was still charmed by that first encounter.

14 ½
That's how old Mom was when she married my father. Already a senior in high school, she told my father she was sixteen. Right before they eloped, she doctored her birth certificate to support that lie. My grandmother accompanied my parents to the rabbi, but waited outside so she, in turn, could tell her own lie: "I didn't see anything."

That's how many days passed before my grandfather found out that his beloved Dottie was married and would not go to college as he had hoped.

They had planned to tell Grandpa of the wedding after Mom graduated from high school. In the meantime, Dad would spend the night at the house, ostensibly in my uncle's room. But one night, Grandpa, who wasn't feeling well, looked in on all the children. Just as he put his hand on the door to my mother's room, Grandma saw him and rushed him back to bed, saying he was too sick to be up and about. When he commented that my father wasn't in my uncle's room, Grandma said he was hallucinating because of a high fever and that, of course, Julius was sound asleep beside their own snoring Henry.

The next morning Grandpa was told of the marriage. He loved my father, but still, this old-fashioned, yet somehow progressive, Eastern European immigrant had held such high hopes for his firstborn child. He was bitterly disappointed that there would be no college for his brilliant daughter. No high school diploma either.

18 16
Two years into my parents' marriage, my father got a surprise. An insurance annuity Grandpa had purchased for my mother's college tuition was available to be cashed on her eighteenth birthday. On Mom's birthday, my father went to claim the fifty dollars. The insurance man said the policy wouldn't mature for another two years. My father said, "But she's eighteen." The man put his hand on Dad's shoulder and said, "Son, you'd better go home and talk to your wife." It was only then, two years into the marriage, that my mother admitted her true age.

Here's one of my favorite stories about my parents: they were in the back of a car, doing what young people generally do in the back of a parked car late at night. A policeman knocked on the window and sternly told my father, "Son, if you cannot control yourself, you had better marry this girl." My father sheepishly replied, "We are married. We just couldn't wait to get home." The policeman walked away without giving them a ticket.

Sometime in the late 1930s, mobster Meyer Lansky organized youth gangs to break up meetings of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund held in Yorkville, a section of NYC. I know from my oldest brother that my father and my mother's brother, Henry, were part of those gangs. My brother would describe with great pride how Dad and Uncle Henry would come home all bloody and beat up, but also victorious and happy.

From Lansky came this recollection: "The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of Adolf Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only fifteen of us, but we went into action. We threw some of them out the windows. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up. We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults."1

Street fighting was one thing, but pro sports was another. Three is the number of times my father boxed professionally. He quit because his arms were too short "from smoking cigars at an early age" (or so he claimed).

However, short arms had no effect on his abilities in track and field and he won two gold watches for setting jumping records in New York City. One of those watches hangs on my bedroom wall in an old-fashioned gold-flecked round frame with faded navy velvet backing.

Dad also could pitch a mean softball. Early in my parents' Depression-era marriage, my father worked in a White Castle hamburger joint. He and the other workers augmented the menu and sold sandwiches and snacks on the side that their wives and mothers prepared to bring in extra income. When the owner of the White Castle found out, he fired all the men except my father, who could pitch, hit, and run. The White Castle team won the citywide championship that summer. The next day, my father lost his job.

That is the number of times my otherwise talkative father spoke to me about his parents. From my mother, I learned a couple of sad facts: First, that Daddy's mother had been ill and hospitalized most of his life. She died when he was sixteen. My father was already working by then to help support the family, but, according to my mother, he harbored great guilt that he hadn't done more to "save her" and that whenever he woke up from a bad dream, he called out her name.

From my mother, I got the impression that my father's father was a stern man. Maybe the times required it. Maybe it was his nature. When there wasn't enough food to go around, my grandfather ate first. He was the breadwinner. He needed his strength.
And when it came to helping my teenage newlywed parents, it was my mother's family who did so. Night after night, my mother's father would sit in that White Castle while my father washed down the counters, the walls, the windows, and the floors. "My poor Julius," Grandpa would say. After my father was fired, Grandpa took him into the family electrical business.

5 17 31
Years later, working for my grandfather, my impatient father tried hoisting a massive air conditioning unit without help. He broke his back in multiple places and was hospitalized in a full-body cast for six months.

Even though I was a little girl and visiting rules were strict, hospital staff allowed me to sneak into his room to cheer him up. To pass the time, he counted my emerging freckles. First, there were five freckles; another time, we counted seventeen, then thirty-one. We measured time in freckles. Time in-between visits. Time trapped in a cast. Trapped in a bed. Trapped in a room and in his head.

7 11
No, not the convenience store, but my father's lifelong love of craps. My mathematical father could count cards and win at blackjack, but that was too easy. But craps, that was exciting, unpredictable. He craved excitement. It was the thrill of the unpredictable that held him captive.

He described gambling to a college friend of mine as "giving a license to somebody to take your money."

When gamblers win, they buy jewelry. It's a quick way to get rid of cash before the irresistible urge to gamble strikes again. Through the years my mother accumulated many sparkling pieces of hard-won gambling-earned baubles.
One evening my father jubilantly came home with a diamond ring. Mom refused it, saying she already had a beautiful engagement ring and that he should take it back to the store for cash. He refused and told her to give it to twelve-year-old me. Mom explained that was ridiculous. He then told her to put it away and give it to me when I was older. And two decades later, she did that, giving it to my fiancé, who, in turn, presented it to me. A family heirloom, Las Vegas style.

1 x "Y"
I don't have an accurate number here, but every time Dad needed cash, he pawned his 24-karat gold watch. That watch was in and out of pawnshops dozens of times through the years. When he died, a pawn ticket was in his wallet. We went to the store and re-claimed the watch for the last time. Now my son has it.

As in "I'll be back in five minutes," code for my father leaving us at some fancy "comped" hotel-casino dinner to gamble. He was always gone more than 5 minutes. If he looked flushed when he returned, it was a good sign. He had won. If he plopped a big stack of chips on the table in front of my mother, that was even better. It meant he had won and was content to quit for the night. If he was sweating and pale, well, that meant our "free" dinner had actually cost a lot of money.

21, 18
My two oldest brothers were twenty-one and eighteen when I was born. The oldest was already in law school when I arrived. Chagrined, he handed out cigars just as his classmates did—except they were celebrating the births of their children, not siblings. My brother used to say I was almost named "Surprise." My father would just smile and say I was the result of the best afternoon he ever took off from work.

That's the approximate number of schools I went to. We moved back and forth between NY and Las Vegas multiple times.

We moved West when my parents got sick of the relatives, the cold weather, and the traffic my father faced driving between Long Island and NYC, where he operated his electrical business.

We moved East when my parents missed the change of seasons, the family, and there was a crop of new Broadway shows to see. The other, not publicly stated reason for the moves back East, were the times when my father's gambling proved to be too big a distraction from his electrical business.

The most years I lived in any one place until I married.

I didn't mind all those moves. I thought it was fun. I loved playing "Hide and Seek” amid the mountains of the crumpled wrapping paper and moving boxes.

One brother lived in New York; one in Las Vegas, and the youngest brother moved with us each time. So, I had family everywhere, ready-made friends if you will.

And while I don't remember much drama between my parents about these zig-zag moves, my now-gone, oldest brother did. He said the moves became painful for our mother and that was why she went on spending frenzies at each new house. She was obsessed with getting us settled as quickly as possible. I always thought she just liked decorating. My father gambled. My mother shopped. It seemed a reasonable arrangement in my happy, clueless childhood bubble.

Even though gambling was my father's preferred means of making money, he had a variety of work adventures and stories. Here are four of them.

One: During Prohibition, he drove a truck from Canada or maybe just upstate New York bringing liquor to joints in NYC. He had already started going bald and always wore a hat (even at the movies), but at the time he wore it for another reason. He hid a gun inside, hoping to see and capture Al Capone and claim the reward.

Two: During WWII, my father worked on merchant ships. One night near the Panama Canal he had a premonition and slept on the deck, cradling a knife he had grabbed from the kitchen. The boat was torpedoed and started sinking fast. Dad did a running jump off the deck and floated in the water for a day or two. Rescued by a US military ship, he was brought to a naval base outside of NYC and questioned to make sure he wasn't trying to sneak into the country as a German spy. When he was released and my family went to get him, he was standing there, midwinter, barefoot, in a sailor's pants and pea coat—both several sizes too small.

Three: In the early 1960s, my father was a foreman on the Titan Missile construction project in Arizona. He hadn't even finished junior high school, but my father was smart. He pointed out a design flaw, which if it hadn't been fixed, would have been catastrophic.

The construction site was dangerous. There were rattlesnakes on the roads where the men walked and in the construction tunnels they descended to work. The men drew sticks to see who would go down first, knowing that the first down would be the one to startle the snakes. They all carried guns to shoot the snakes, but sometimes the deadly snakes were quicker than they were.

Four: After completing some basic electric work in the home of the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz, my father started to leave. Horowitz waved his elegant arm in an offhand manner and said, "Just send a bill." My father replied, "Maestro, I'll skip the bill if you would play something for me." The usually prickly Horowitz gestured for my father to sit and proceeded to play for about an hour.

My father was comfortable with princes and paupers. He was buddies with the Ambassador from Indonesia and equally close with the janitor who cleaned apartment buildings my father managed. His two favorite restaurants were the Bacchanal Room at Caesar's Palace and a short-order coffee shop on the Lower East Side. Both places had limited seating, but the service and the ambiance were decidedly different.

My father's full name was Julius David Galatz. Everybody, even kids, called him Big Julie. A boyfriend of mine gifted him with "business" cards that read:

Big Julie

Aside from that fancy gold watch, which he viewed more as collateral than adornment, Big Julie had only one true personal luxury: Prince Philip Macanudo cigars. I don't remember what they cost in the '80s, but they were and are pretty pricey. Christmas, Hanukkah, birthdays and Father's Day, we kids would each buy him a box. We wouldn't let him smoke the stinky stogies in the house, mind you, but we would buy them. One year, I bought him the obligatory Christmas box and also gave him a handmade coupon book "good for one box per month" for the entire year. For once, my gregarious father was speechless.

Cigars always for Dad, but for me, the best gifts I ever received from him were two lessons in kindness—offered spontaneously without judgement or condescension.

Once I complained that my father's brother, my Uncle Lou, had called somebody a "Spic." My father agreed it was a terrible word, but he also told me about Lou's hard life and the troubles he had faced including the loss of his wife in a horrible accident.

He added that Louie had some fun times too including a friendship with that "Red Hot Mama" Sophie Tucker. From all that, I realized an important lesson—people have complex lives and that I shouldn't be quick to judge.

My father re-enforced this lesson a few months later, when he handed me a Nazi party membership book. When I came to the page with the member's name on it, I saw it belonged to my father's close friend. "How can you be friends with a Nazi?" I fumed with all the righteous indignation only a twelve-year-old can feel. My father smiled; then said, "'Fritz' was just a little boy in a small village when the Nazis came to power. His membership consisted of wearing a hat, a tie and a pin. He marched in the town square and saluted. He didn't kill anybody. He didn't hurt anybody. He was just a little boy then. He's a good man."

Another time, thanks to my father's billiards' skills, I was "gifted" with that second lesson about kindness. Dad was playing pool one holiday with a dreadful relative. After a while the relative came into the living room, gloating how he had just beat "the Great Galatz." On the car ride home, I asked my father about it. "You let him win, didn't you? Why?" Smiling, Daddy replied, "It meant so much to him."

5 6
In fifth grade, my father played hooky from school for six months. Mornings, he went to the Bronx Zoo; afternoons, he hung out at pool halls. When the truant officer finally showed up at the house, my grandfather gave Dad a beating.

The next morning, limping into school, he met with his teacher. She gave him the six months of schoolwork he missed to study. He came back the next day asking what else he had missed. The kindly teacher said he could not possibly have studied everything in one night. She begged him not to lie and risk another beating from his father. My father swore he had reviewed all the material. She tested him. He got a perfect score and was written up as a "boy genius" in some long-defunct NYC newspaper. I never saw the article, but I'm sure it didn't reference his epic pool skills.

My father dropped out of school in the sixth grade to help support his immigrant family. It was a shame. Not only were his math skills astonishing, but he also had a photographic memory. He quoted philosophers and poets all the time. Each Sunday he read The New York Times from start to finish. It was his Bible and his refuge. For leisure, he would pick up a volume of the family encyclopedia and start reading from page one.

My father didn't just read poetry. He wrote it. One of my most prized possessions is a scrapbook my mother kept of letters my father wrote to her in 1941, while working construction on a military base in Newfoundland. Those letters contain quotations by Tennyson and Shelley, poems he wrote, observations about the nature of man in the midst of WWII, admonitions to my brothers to mind their mother and not be scared about air raid drills and blackouts, descriptions of the Aurora Borealis, celebrating Thanksgiving by taking a bunch of "Newfie" kids for ice cream, laments about loneliness and longing for my mother, and the need for her to control spending so they can save money for a down payment on a house.

$.05, $200, $50
"Give Gil and Mal (my oldest brothers) a nickel each for me," he wrote in one of those letters. In another, he suggested that while the two hundred dollar coat my mother wanted to buy was, no doubt, beautiful, perhaps she could make do with a fifty dollar coat.
6, 5.5
In those days before the Internet, my father was my personal worldwide web. Once while working as a reporter, I was doing a story about massive construction cables at Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas. I wanted to give some context for how much weight they could bear, so, I called my father to ask him how many elephants equaled the tonnage I needed to explain. "Do you want the weight in Indian or African elephants?" he asked "Whatever," I replied impatiently. "Well, think about it. It makes a difference. Let me know in a minute. I'm on the phone with your brother. His trial is on recess and he needs to discuss a point of law." (For the record, an adult male African elephant weight about six tons, an adult male Indian elephant, about five and a half tons.)

Dad once observed that if he could have stayed in school, he would have liked to have become either a writer or a lawyer, but that knowing he had produced a daughter who wrote and two sons who were lawyers he felt satisfied he had achieved both goals.

That said, my father led a hard life and suffered many personal disappointments and, in his last years, terrible health problems.

Once when I faced a significant professional setback, I was lamenting the unfairness of it all—this while my father was in a hospital bed after a massive heart attack. "You'll try again," he said. I looked up shocked. "Galatzes don't quit," he said. It was my last conversation with my father. He died the next morning.

That's the number of years my parents were married. It was a tempestuous relationship. He moved fast. She was cautious. He was a "regular Joe" without one ounce of pretense. My mother was regal. She could wear an inexpensive polyester dress and look like she had stepped out of a fashion magazine. He ate onions raw, like they were apples. She had a fondness for caviar. They fought a lot, mostly about money.

They argued, but they also agreed on many things: children came first, West Side Story was their favorite Broadway musical; music and books needed to be plentiful; and having company over for dinner was a must.

And besides writing poetry, my cigar-chomping father always bought his "Dottie" corsages to wear on special occasions.

In the hospital, his last words to her were: "You are always kind to me."

My father died at seventy-two. "How did he die?" asked a bewildered good friend, somehow not knowing of the heart attacks, the blindness, and the leg problems. My father was an electrician by profession, gambler at heart, and also one hell of an actor. He lied equally well about his whereabouts (when unaccounted hours were spent in casinos instead of on the job) and he lied about his failing eyesight, his chest pains, and the agony of the veins in his legs closing and causing nightly, howlingly painful cramps and spasms.

The only time I ever heard my father say anything resembling self-pity was one night watching the news on TV. The story was about the funeral of a very famous person. The commentator observed that the chapel was filled and that the crowd of mourners had overflowed into the street. My father said that he imagined only ten or so people would come to his funeral. He was wrong. I lost count of the number of people who came up and told me how my father had helped them, saved his life, and was like a father to them. I did, however, count the number of people who signed the condolence book: 137.

A few days after the services, my mother was in the garage folding laundry. She was still in a daze, moving through the task she had done countless times before without thought. As she folded my father's undershirts and socks, all I could think about was that this was the last time she would ever do laundry for my father. It was such a painful idea that to this day, the act of doing laundry is a true affirmation of life for me. But at that moment, I knew one thing for sure. There was my mother, moving forward, not complaining, doing what had to be done. Those were actions I knew my mathematical father would approve of—100%.

1 Quotation from "But They Were Good to Their People", American Jewish Historical Society

Karen Galatz is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, which offers a light-hearted look each week at the perils and pleasures of being a woman of a certain age. An award-winning television and print journalist, Karen's national credits include the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and The Nightly Business Report. Now a Berkeley, California resident, she is a columnist for J. and a contributing writer for Humor Outcasts. Her stories have appeared in numerous other publications.