2017.10.04 Old: Just a few words about family


I just read an issue of the Observer from 1987 when I appointed myself ombudsman—the head of the paper’s complaint department.

That action followed a letter from a reader who tired of stories in By the Way about my family. Ah, the good old days when I had lots of column material. Stories about our kids started as soon as I got out of bed.

I explained that family matters were a staple of By the Way ever since my father started the column in the late 1940s. I told him about the complaint that I received and he said that he never received anything of that nature. Instead, he was urged to write more about his family.

• January 1963: Tommy finished up the last of his Christmas toys this week as the wheels came off the most sturdy of his cars. He is now back to playing with the vacuum sweeper.

• May 1961: David fascinated everyone at dinner Saturday by breaking out with the measles, while we ate.

• January 1956: My wife was looking for something the other day, opened Diane’s purse and found a real honest-to-goodness bird’s nest that she had been carrying around since sometime last summer.

• September 1963: Tommy started kindergarten this week. He just wasn’t sure what to expect of school. He said that if the teacher started kissin’ him, he was getting out of there.

• August 1961: Now that Danny and David are both collecting rocks and both share the same bedroom, their room is quickly taking on the look of a gravel pit.

Those reports went on for decades, but in my two years of writing the column, I had already received two complaints. Either my family life was a lot more boring or my readers were a lot bolder.

My complainer that day wanted more serious topics and interviews because there are “some readers with a few brains.” A few brains? Yes, I suppose that would make for a good interview.

Friends advised me to ignore letters like those, but as ombudsman, I was required to reply. Besides, it helped me fill this column space.

I dared to offer more about my kids the following week, but with the warning: Family Life report coming. Feel free to skip this item.

Here’s what I wrote:

Ben likes his music loud. When I was a kid, it was teenagers who were known for loud music. Now it’s preschoolers.

He likes to slip his “Mainly Mother Goose” tape into the player and settle back in a chair and feel the bass tones of “Old King Cole” ripple through his body. Sometimes he’s right down on the floor, head in front of the speaker, trying to pick up every nuance of “Little Rabbit Foo-Foo.”

He knows what he likes and it’s an important part of his life.

I was playing an old Bob Dylan tape recently—something from about 1966—and one of the songs grabbed Ben’s attention. It’s just a silly song called “I Will Be Free #10.” Ben likes this part:

I’ve got a woman she’s so mean

Sticks my boots in the washing machine

Shoots me with buckshot when I’m nude

Puts bubble gum in my food

She’s funny, calls me honey, wants my money.

My father used to think Bob Dylan was about the funniest thing in recorded music. I don’t think my father said it, but I remember that someone described Dylan’s sound as a calf stuck in barbed wire. I knew he sounded funny, but I also knew that he sounded really good.

And now, 21 years later, my five-year-old wants to hear the song about the buckshot, and then he just lays on the floor listening to the remainder of the album.

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The following item was written a few weeks earlier. Maybe this is what ticked off the complainer:

Ben Green, soon to be five, had a surprise visit from his girlfriend, Renée Begnoche, who was in from Ludington for a few hours. They wasted little time.

“We’re getting married,” declared Ben. “We’re going on a honeymoon to Canandaigua.”

Not bad, that’s further than his parents got.

Ben is thinking of opening a car dealership in Seattle and I hope they have a happy life together. I heard them bickering before they even left for the trip.

Husband: “Come on!”

Wife: “I still have some things to pack.”