Six weeks after my twenty-fourth birthday, my father died. Three years earlier, I had realized we were poor. Six weeks and four days after my twenty-fourth birthday I found my father’s checkbook and realized just how poor we were. And the reason it took so long for me to come to that realization is because through some magic I don’t understand to this day, on a slightly better than minimum wage my father managed to provide everything my sister and I needed growing up – and a lot of what we wanted. A profoundly depressed man, given to bouts of extreme rage, my father managed to come alive twice a year. Christmas, and the second week in August when he’d take us on his annual fishing trip.
When I was ten, it was very easy to make a kid happy at Christmas. With all of the technology and social pressures on kids today, I can’t imagine what it’s like for a ten-year-old to wake up to Christmas morning today; or the pressures on parents not stay the looks of disappointment on Christmas morning when the most-needed and too-expensive thing isn’t under the Christmas tree. Of course, I don’t remember the star Christmas gift when I was ten, but I do remember one of the gifts. It was a mod, red radio AM/FM radio shaped in a ball. I thought it was the pinnacle of cool.
Nearly all of my holidays until age twenty-two were spend in Le Mars, Iowa. Lately I’ve had reason to spend two or three holidays a year in the area again, and they are the same. Everything – EVERYTHING shuts down, and what was a quiet little town becomes even more calm. On holidays, no matter what the weather, the air becomes a little bit thicker. Anything that moves just seems to move a little bit slower, which seems to force everyone into an inertia that isn’t completely unpleasant.
In our tiny house, the three and sometimes four of us would retreat to our designated areas. Mine was the unfinished basement where I slept. To call it a bedroom would be a gross overstatement. But there was linoleum on the floor, and it was warm in the winter, sleeping next to the gas furnace, and cool in the summer being underground. I had the family’s first black and white TV; the picture having turned green and white with age. But before my first stereo, I was given the red radio. Le Mars had an AM/FM station. Both were old-people radio. The cool kids listened to a station in Sioux City. I don’t remember what it was called. But on the holidays, it broadcast Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. Casey was a part of most of my adolescent holidays, but none more so than New Year’s Day, when he’d count down the top 100 songs of the previous year. Twice. It was never really a topic of conversation, but on some level I just didn’t feel like I could go back to school after the Christmas break without knowing what the top song was.
Life changed when I went away to college. It became a bit more real when I graduated and moved to Chicago. And when my father died, it became extremely dark and jagged for many years. FM radio fell away, first squeezed out by the demands of being an adult, and then surpassed by technology. The only time I had to listen to the radio was for the couple of hours it would take each week to clean my studio apartment, and on a very rare occasion I’d find Casey still pronouncing the most popular songs of the previous week. I don’t know when, but Casey had long passed out of my life when I’d heard that he died and passed out of my consciousness almost completely.
Then yesterday, my usual routine was disrupted, and I found myself in a grocery store picking up the essentials to get me through Saturday night until my regular run on Sunday. I needed something for breakfast, and the Morse Fresh Market sells Grape Nuts for two dollars a box less than Jewel. I love Grape Nuts. As I came to the cereal aisle, over the sound system a radio announcer told us what the twenty-third song of the week had been. I know who Taylor Swift and Beyonce are, but that’s really the extent of my pop music knowledge – one of the perks of true adulthood. But in that moment, I remembered Casey, that red radio and the holiday silence of Le Mars. And for a second, nothing else about being ten years old mattered.
I was grateful.