Because I was born in 1812 (Overture), my school years went like this:
Elementary school: Kindergarten through 6th grade. (Also, if you want to get on my nerves, pronounce it “kindy garden.”)
Junior high: 7th through 9th grade. (Also, if you want to get on my nerves, call this * an “as-ter-ik.”)
High school: 10th through 12th grade.
I know now there are some years in there called “middle school.” I did not experience this phenomenon. I experienced junior high. Where, truthfully, I ate a lot of Junior Mints. And shopped in the juniors section. And we all wondered who shot Jr.
Back in the ’70s, my Uncle Leo taught 5th grade. Not to me, but to other kids. And starting with my 5th-grade year all the way through junior high, my Uncle Leo would rave about one student who was my age: Cardinal. (He wasn’t the ONLY student my uncle raved about. Uncle Leo got attached to many students, students who would actually pop in and visit him and so on. My Uncle Leo is extremely extroverted. Possibly TOO EXTROVERTED. Dear Uncle Leo: Stop fekking loving life.)
Anyway, Cardinal and I went to different elementary schools and junior highs, but by the time we got to the same high school, I was already over him, so enamored of him was my Uncle Leo and even my Aunt Kathy, who of course was also there when Cardinal would pop by. “Oh, he’s so funny!” she’d say. “You have to meet him!”
It’s a lot like how I feel about Disneyland. At this point, people have raved on about it so much I hate it.
When high school began, I was walking home from school on, like, day three with one of my friends, who said, “There’s this guy who went to the other junior high. His name is Cardinal. Have you ever heard of him? He’s so funny!”
Had I ever heard of him. Good gravy. His name was burned into my brain at that point.
Eventually, I saw the elusive Cardinal, at the roller skating rink, as you do. Someone pointed him out to me, and there he was, wearing overalls. He had curly hair. “That’s him?” I asked. He just seemed like a regular dude. In overalls.
It turns out, all that time, Cardinal had been hearing about me, as well, from my Aunt Kathy and Uncle Leo, who seemed hell-bent on having us mate. (Dear Aunt Kathy and Uncle Leo: That eventually happened. Also, hi, mom.)
They showed him my attractive and not-at-all masculine bowl-cut-and-cowl-neck junior high school photos, and he was all, “Hunh. …Yeah.”
And right at the beginning of high school, he met my other high school boyfriend, Giovanni Leftwich, who said to him, “There’s this girl I like, June Gardens. Let’s get out of sixth hour and go walk past her sixth hour,” and they did, and Giovanni was all, “THAT’S HER!” and Cardinal once again thought, “Hunh. …Yeah.”
What I’m trying to say to you is it was love at first sight. Man, were we ever impressed with each other.
What ended up happening was, one bleak February afternoon in 10th grade, Cardinal walked on over to my Uncle Leo’s for a visit. I imagine people don’t do that now, do they? Just randomly visit teachers. If you’re in 10th grade now you probably have scheduled play dates and you’re planning to live at home for at least 15 more years and you aren’t allowed to walk anywhere without a parent attached to you like a backpack.
Anyway. My uncle was looking at slides from photos he’d recently taken. What you should know about Uncle Leo is he gets INTO things. Playing the fiddle, tapping trees for sap, veganism, the stock market, stained glass. I mean, he embraces these hobbies wholeheartedly. He becomes Gordon Gekko and Yull Brenner and Charlie Daniels … and then he’s over it.
So right then he was into photography. He got out the slides and forced Cardinal to look at what I imagine to be 58 photos of the same flower, the way people who are newly into photography make you do.
Anyway, one series of slides was of me. Because I’ve had this charming personality all along, from birth I’ve been in a Show-Me State, these pictures were of 10th-grade me, dressed top to bottom in my grandma’s clothes. Oh, I’d placed a babushka atop my June hair, slipped on one of her housedresses and her cat-eye sunglasses, even some orthopedic gramma shoes. The photos he took were of me in this getup, holding hands with my then-teensy cousin Katie.
How I wish I had one of those pictures, incidentally.
So after all those years of seeing me doing my male impersonation in junior high, and after not being impressed with my profile during Mrs. Vitito’s sixth hour, somehow the sight of me dressed as a gramma is what did Cardinal in. He had to have me.
So from 10th grade up until we were 21, Cardinal and I dated on and off more often than — well, I can’t think of anything funny that goes on and off a lot.
Afterward, after the lovin’, we stayed friends (depending on which woman he was dating could stand us being friends, and Dear Every Single Woman Cardinal Dated from 1986 to the present: WE ARE JUST FRIENDS OH MY GOD).
My point is, the ’80s found me hanging at Cardinal’s house just all the time, till we both moved away.
So when I found out Cardinal’s dad died last month, I started thinking a lot about those years. Here’s what I remember about Cardinal’s dad.
First of all, I did the math–god help us everyone–and of course when I met Cardinal’s parents, they were younger than I am now.
I remember Cardinal’s dad was the first person I knew to have a phone in his car. Cardinal would leave my house at night and eight seconds later, the phone would ring.
“June! Guess where I am? THE CAR!!” Cardinal would say. It was so EXCITING. Also, Dear Cardinal’s Dad: I’m sorry that that probably cost you $80.
I remember his dad listened to The Doors on Sunday mornings, and that he grilled really good steaks. I remember being there one summer evening, getting ready to have a steak, when their two Afghans ran through the yard and knocked the whole grill over. Cardinal’s dad did not have a tantrum the way I would have. He just calmly saved the steaks he could.
Incidentally, Afghans are not bright dogs.
And no matter how many times we broke up and got back together or hung out as friends, any time I reappeared at Cardinal’s house, his dad never said, “I thought we were through with you.” He just always welcomed me and took the whole thing in stride.
Cardinal’s parents retired to North Carolina, so I was able to drive to the memorial yesterday.
When I walked into the church, after first showing up at the wrong damn place (“The ad said it was at the funeral home,” I said. The ad. What the hell is wrong with me?), I was worried I was STILL at the wrong place. I didn’t recognize anyone.
It took several minutes for me to place Cardinal’s family, and for them to place me. His mom said she stood looking at me hug Cardinal and wondered who the hell I was. “It’s the person who haunted your kitchen for years,” I said.
There was his sister, who was always nice to me. And his brother, who caught me hiding in the closet once when I was up in Cardinal’s forbidden room. There were Cardinal’s nieces, who when I last left them were in high chairs and who now have kids of their own. Once I got used to what everyone looked like now, I totally recognized everyone.
Afterward, we went back to Cardinal’s mom’s house, and we sat around talking for awhile, and I thought about Cardinal’s dad. If it weren’t for him, none of those people would have been in that room. Those funny, interesting people.
He was married to Cardinal’s mom for 60 years. He had three kids and if I’m counting right, seven grandkids and a few great-grandkids. And there they all were, carrying on without him even though no one wanted him to be gone. All of his kids went on to have kids, and even though he’s gone, he continues, you know?
The only memories I have of Cardinal’s father are happy ones. I only remember him being nice to me, and welcoming, and funny. And that’s a pretty good legacy to leave if you ask me. Leaving someone with good memories and a more-than-slight desire for a grilled steak.
Godspeed, Cardinal’s dad.