Loco Parentis: Beyond Words

The heart really does have a language all its own

When she was four, my daughter Marcy’s favorite TV show was I Love Lucy. While other kids were wriggling to Barney’s theme song, Marcy was sitting stock-still, mesmerized as Lucy worked the ­chocolate-factory assembly line or touted Vitameatavegamin. I was perplexed by her fixation with a ’50s housewife, and a little chagrined. But Dr. Spock said the surest way to cement a child’s infatuation was to fight it. So we watched a lot of Lucy, and then that phase faded, and Marcy moved on to Salute Your Shorts.

But I thought of Lucy last spring, when the house next door was bought by a Hispanic family, a mom and dad and four young kids. The parents aren’t much like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, except that the dad has a charming accent. The kids are lively and silly, and the dad leads them in after-dinner bike rides in a long line, like ducks. They’re an exotic addition to our block. I’m too shy to ask: So, where are you from? But the neighborhood speculates: Mexico? Puerto Rico? I give them extra tomatoes from my garden. The dad mows the strip of lawn between our houses, even though it’s on my side.

In late summer, a young man moves in next door as well. “My cousin,” the dad, Julio, explains. “He’s come to stay with us a while.” The cousin’s name is Mario. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but he has a wide, shy smile whenever he sees me.

“He’s hot,” I tell Marcy.

She wrinkles her nose: “No he’s not.”

“He looks like Edward James Olmos.”

“Edward James Olmos isn’t hot. He’s old.” Marcy is about to head off to college, and she’s cross and contrarian. As summer wanes, she’s always off visiting friends or at a movie or shopping — anywhere, it seems, but home.

I want to spend more time with her, but life is complicated. My 83-year-old dad is in the hospital, in bad shape. He breaks something, they fix him up, he goes back to his unit at Pine Run, and he breaks something else: his ribs, his hip, his back. He’s just as cross and contrarian as Marcy, but in the long run, she has more to look forward to. It hurts Dad to speak, to move, to eat. Only his beloved Phillies still engage him. I sneak beers into his room, and we watch the games together. I find their stately, measured pace a respite. He finds Charlie Manuel’s bullpen management infuriating.

Dad used to be an educator, a teacher and administrator. He would make us spell “mayonnaise” before he’d pass it to us at the dinner table. Our home overflowed with books and magazines; Dad read poetry to us every night before bed. After he moved to Pine Run, he complained about the library’s large-type books: “These are best-sellers!” he’d say in disbelief. “And they’re terrible! Terrible!”

I became a writer to please him. He and I used to argue about words — he had no use for James Joyce; I didn’t venerate Kipling — but he taught me to love them, their nuances and romance and heritage. I was never thin enough to make him happy, but he was proud of me when it came to words. “See this?” he’d say, showing one of my magazine articles to strangers in the checkout line when we were at the grocery store. “She wrote this. My daughter.” The strangers inevitably thought he was nuts.

Now, we watch TV, mostly in silence.