I remember Rose. I wish I could do more than remember but I don’t have a choice.
Rose was the perfect name for her.
I have no idea how old she was but she looked about ninety. She was just like any elderly black woman you might see in a movie; toothless, sappy sweet, with just a little touch of sass. She was once a nurse; had been for forty years. She was never married and had no children. She lived with her nephew and an assortment of other characters that I could never keep straight. Cousins, nieces, grand cousins, play cousins, but they all looked older than fifty and none of them spoke to me unless I addressed them directly.
I met Rose when some missionaries asked me to come along for a discussion. She lived in a row house in North Philadelphia. It was the grand kind of place I would have loved to have seen when it was new, but that would have been about 1850 and it had long since been subdivided into apartments and I doubt many had loved to see it for at least fifty years. There were two short sets of stairs leading up to her front porch which was a large cement slab surrounded by a crooked railing.
She spent her days sitting in the living room, sharing the space with an old TV, a ratty couch, and an upturned coffee can filled with cigarette butts. She never went anywhere. She never left the room. She didn’t wander because she only had one foot. She lost it to diabetes some years before and so now she sat in her wheelchair on the ground floor of a three-story apartment. The others in the house seemed to go up and down, in and out, passing Rose the same way they passed the ratty couch and the old TV. The coffee can wasn’t hers. She didn’t smoke.”Naw honey. Gave that up years ago. T’aint good for ya and I gots enough problems as it is. That can’s for everybody else in this house. I wished they’d smoke ‘em out on the porch but I guess its cold out there. Anyways, at least when they’s smokin’ in here I can talk to ‘em a little.”
Rose found the missionaries when they knocked on her door and she hollered for them to come inside. Maybe she just wanted someone to talk to. Maybe she had been sitting there waiting for them. Whatever it was, they found each other and they called me to come along. “Miss Rose has lots of questions and has been reading quite a bit,” the Elder’s informed me. “Today we will be talking about church and baptism.” Now I knew why they really asked me to come along; my minivan.
I was happy to offer my services to help Rose attend church that upcoming Sunday. She was the only one in the house who had any interest in the gospel but it didn’t matter because none of them owned a car. “You sure that aint a problem? You sure you don’t mind coming all out your way to get me?” she asked. I did not mind at all. 8:30 that next Sunday Rose was waiting for me right on the other side of the screen door. She would have been on the porch but couldn’t get herself up over the door jamb. I wheeled her around backwards and we bump, bump, bumped our way down those two small sets of stairs and then I gallantly lifted her out of her chair and set her in the passenger seat of the van. “Hi Rose,” my daughter and wife called out to her. “Hello everybody,” she replied and we drove off to the chapel.
This became our regular Sunday pattern up through her baptism and a month or so after as well. But then my responsibilities changed and I was no longer available Sunday mornings. I couldn’t call to tell Rose because she had no phone. I stopped by on a Wednesday to tell her I couldn’t be there on Sunday and she apologized to me. She was sorry to be any trouble. I promised I would try to find someone else.
The only person I could find was Brother Berry.
I hadn’t really thought this through very well. Brother Berry was perhaps the only person I knew who was older than Rose. Despite his age Brother Berry would volunteer for anything and they were the only other people we knew with a van. That Sunday morning the Berry’s showed up without Rose. Sister Berry marched up to me and launched into some high decibel diatribe about Brother Berry’s back and stairs and wheelchairs, heart attacks, and another thing coming. I pled forgiveness. Looking back I guess it was my fault. I had assumed that Brother Berry had a plan or was simply more capable than I thought. He was not capable, just willing. After church I drove over to visit Rose and she apologized to me again.
After five months of asking for volunteers and organizing Rose had still never made it back to church. I refused to accept that I was the only solution. Besides, I had other things to worry about than just Rose. So I continued to try to find her rides and would swing by to visit her on weekdays as often as I could. I felt guilty I wasn’t able to be her taxi and was inspired by the addition of a blue book with gold print as the newest piece of living room furniture. It didn’t take long for that blue book to look as used and ratty as the sofa it sat next too.
Before too long our ward welcomed a set of senior missionaries. They weren’t all that old, they were full time, and best of all they had a car. I asked them to please go get Rose. And they did.
I was so happy when this good Elder wheeled Rose into the chapel. She reached out to give me a big hug repeatedly asking, “Where’s the baby?” till my two year old was eventually produced to be hugged as well. It was a great day till about four o’clock.
At four I got a phone call from this Elder’s wife telling me all about her husband’s back problems, his age, and the challenges of getting Rose back up those stinking stairs. I apologized. I often find myself in situations where this is appropriate. This senior Elder spent a day and a half resting hs back but had the bright idea of a deal moving forward. If I couldn’t be there to pick her up, and he couldn’t get her home, maybe we should work together. He would go get her if I would take her home.
That next Sunday the senior missionaries showed up without Rose. When they arrived at her home one of the others in the house told us she was in the hospital. Something about her diabetes and surgery. No one there seemed willing or able to tell us anything more than that. After church the senior couple began calling hospitals eventually tracking her down. That Tuesday I paid her a visit.
There she was, smiling her toothless grin. She had lost her other foot but not her smile. She chuckled and waved me into the room past an extra bed that looked to hold a large pile of pillows and sheets. “That’s Clara”, she said pointing to the other bed. “She upset because they won’t let her smoke and I keeps reading the Book of Mormon out loud.” With that she winked at me and pulled open a side drawer to show me her dog eared scriptures. I love that she had her scriptures and loved even more that she winked at me. How could anyone not like Rose?
The senior couple continued to visit Rose till she was moved to a convalescent home nearby. We all talked about how it would soon be time to start arranging for her to get rides to church again, there was some discussion about maybe perhaps bringing her the sacrament, but no one felt any urgency. Things were just moving along. It all began to feel quite normal. That is the right word for it; normal.
It was now normal for me to drive right past the home where Rose was staying as I went to and from wherever doing this and that. I would drive by on my way to pick up one of the youth for an activity, look over, and think to myself, “I should go visit Rose.” But I was on my way somewhere else, somewhere worthwhile, so I would vow to visit Rose later. I would pass by Rose’s center on my way to meet the missionaries somewhere, look over and be reminded I hadn’t yet been by to see Rose. “I should make a note to go see Rose”, I would tell myself, and then hurry off to meet the Elders. I recall one day driving past having finished my work for the day and thinking, “now is the time to go see Rose.” It was dark, it was late, and I was tired. I figured it wasn’t that big of a deal, I would get by to see her. She wasn’t going anywhere, besides, no one but me seems to be able to move her. I went home.
Sometime later the senior missionaries told me a story. It had been just a little too long since they had seen Rose so they scheduled some time to drop in and visit.
Rose wasn’t there.
Rose had passed away.
The people at the home had done their best to contact someone but Rose had listed no relatives and left no point of contact. With no one to contact Rose had been buried by the state. The employees at the home were only disclosing this information to the senior couple because they recognized the logo on the name tags as the same logo on Rose’s copy of the Book of Mormon.
Riddled with guilt I asked where she was buried.
“They don’t know. They said people buried by the state are put in unmarked graves. They have no idea where she is. Sorry.”
I know enough of the gospel to know that Rose is in a better place. It wouldn’t be hard to be better than an empty living room in a wheel chair. Yet when I think of Rose I mostly remember that I drove past her house, thought I should stop, and didn’t.
My little family was in the airport getting ready to board a plane when my little three year old yanked on my sleeve, “Look Dad, it’s Rose!” she said pointing to an old stranger in a wheel chair. “O yeah, that does look kinda like Rose.” I say in my best fatherly voice; encouraging and matter of fact. But it wasn’t Rose. Rose was gone.
Where Rose is now, she can smile with teeth. She can stand. When I knew her she couldn’t do either of those things. I should be happier about that. But I haven’t changed all that much, I’m thinking about my own guilt and failure to act. I’m trying hard to get better and I think I am making some progress. Slow progress. Rose didn’t have time to wait for me to get better. I couldn’t fix all Rose’s problems, but I could have helped more than I did.
How many Roses do we drive past every day without stopping? Let’s do a little better.
I am Mormon. I think most people I know, know this. It’s not so much that I wear it on my sleeve, but moreso it is just sort of who I am.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, there are no pastors or priests, at least not in the professional sense. There are plenty of people doing a lot of preaching, just not a whole lot of getting paid to do it. By not a whole lot I mean none.
But things still need to get done. Lessons to be taught, sick to be visited, Sunday sermons to be given. This is why Mormonism is about who sits next to you. Because that is who does these things. Better yet, you do too.
I have not learned so much about what is in our books, which is important, but I have learned a little more about how the stuff in those books doesn’t matter a bit if I ignore the person in the chair sitting next to me. No matter who it is.
Some of the people who have sat next to me have been right, even more have been wrong, and better yet, I’ve been both of those things too. Some have been beautiful, some not so much. Some well educated, others not so much. Some have been nice, many more quite the opposite. On and on and on, and still things have to get done. And when it comes time to get those things done, you look around, and that is all you have.
And you learn to love.
A family kind of love. The kind of love where you want to strangle your cousin Larry, because he deserves to be strangled, but he is your cousin and always will be. So you have to love him. You don’t have a choice whether or not to be cousins, you only have the choice to learn to love him or be miserable.
It isn’t easy.
But thats the point.
This is simply how it is.
This is reality.
Take a look at the people around you and this is how it is. It is like this now, and it will be like this in eternity.
It is not clouds and space,
it is faces.
But here we all are. In this together. And our charge is to get better.
A lot better.
Christianity, of which we are part, is based on the idea that this human persuit of perfection is impossible. We can’t do it and are doomed to be failures, hence the need for a Christ to redeem us from ourselves.
And that is Mormonism.
And we are charged with the task of becoming more Christ-like.
So we have to help the person in the chair next to us, even if they are no longer sitting in that chair, even if they don’t deserve it, even if they are horrible…
Or even if they are wonderful.
Because on any given day or in any one way, I am both horrible, or even wonderful.
And this role of Christ, this role of helping others strive for perfection, the role we are charged to take part in, has to be done with love.
Love must be the motivator.
It takes practice.
So you go about trying to get stuff done; great lessons or boring ones, false doctrines or clear and simple ones, friendships or trials.
If you figure out the love part,
It is wonderful.
In fact, I think my first ballet was also my child’s first. Someone got us free tickets to the Nutcracker. This little girl was hooked.
One day, while we were playing at the please touch museum, a local ballet academy gave a small promotional performance in the museum’s theater. The flier they left behind looked legit and it said they gave scholarships.
There were at least a hundred little girls with numbers pinned to their chest. They stood in rows while we parents huddled against the walls. It was tryouts but there was no real dancing. Two women, one with a clip board, would go to the children one by one, inspect their arches, look at their knees, rotate their hips. The groups were given some basic instructions and asked to follow along, one, maybe two steps, and that was it.
We got a letter a month later congratulating us on our acceptance.
That is how we came to the Rock School for Dance Education, and unknowingly gave up all the Saturdays for the rest of our lives. They have a strict policy about missing class. It is simple, don’t miss class. The first year it was twice a week, then three the next, now we do three times a week plus rehearsals.
Pretty strict for a bunch of little girls in dance class. But then again, I had no idea what, or rather where, my little girl was enrolled.
Everywhere claims to be good. All the other parents, the one’s who drive over from Jersey every day, say it is the greatest, but the cynic in me always wondered if they were just trying to reassure themselves.
I liked it well enough, but really, my kid was little. I would watch class during the one week when parents are allowed to do so, and the little girls and boys would stand up straight, go up on their toes, bend their legs, put their arms up in the air, rinse and repeat.
I know enough, to know that I know nothing, so I cannot judge. But then again, judging aside, I did find it interesting that this place where my girl was taking dance class, had dorms.
I struggle to find the correct comparison for what I saw. I came expecting a recital. The kind where doting parents clap and cheer for their child and endure everyone else’s children.
I have been to dozens of high school musical productions of varying quality, been to high school football games in the south, coached football against a private boarding school with the budget of a junior college, and I have never seen a production of any sort that matched the Rock School’s Nutcracker.
I had to keep telling myself these were kids.
Now the little kids were obviously kids, complete with small ones picking their nose and one little boy yelling he had to go potty mid performance, but then there were the principals. The Sugar Plum Fairy and the like, they not only killed the cynic in me, but left me in awe. These were kids, from first grade through 12th, and it was better than any age similar thing I have ever seen in any context; period.
They have an alumni list touting kids who go on to Julliard, all sorts of division 1 colleges, and more in line with what they do, ballet companies. Principal in the New York City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Ballet West, dancers in every major company in the country, as well as Paris, Dresden, Berlin, and on and on and on.
The lead in Fame.
Then there was this little documentary that made a big splash at Sundance.
First Position follows a number of kids to and through the American Grand Prix, the big ballet competition for young folks.
Three of the kids they followed in the film went to the Rock.
My little girl is still little. Little enough that to assume that she will grow into one of these professionals would be presumptuous, and the folks at the Rock know this.
That is why it is on my list of places I love. Because they know she is a kid.
Because they know she is a kid, they treat her in a way that allows her to love to dance. They are strict, they are serious, but while walking around the lobby waiting for classes to get over, I get the vibe from those who work there, that they actually like kids.
I have been around coaches, art teachers, even dance instructors, who were once great. They were and are gifted in their craft, but just got old. No longer able to do what they once loved, they are forced to endure the existence of young people in order to make a living.
No the place is not heavenly bliss, it can’t compete at the level it does and be all bliss. But I love it.
This last year, my third, I sat near the front row of the Nutcracker. A woman sitting next to me leaned over and asked if one of the girls was mine. I proudly pointed her out.
“Oh she’s still little. Does she like ballet?”
“Oh I’m so sorry.” she consoled patting my shoulder.
Not the answer I was expecting.
“That one is mine, (pointing to the Sugar Plum Fairy) we moved here from Oregon so she could go to the Rock.”
“We just drove here from about ten minutes away,” I replied a little embarrassed by my ignorance and good fortune.
In 1774, two years before the declaration, delegates from the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia’s Carpenter’s Hall. They met to discuss what could or should be done regarding their collective issues with England.
Just a few blocks away is a small row of homes that have continuously housed private citizen’s from the days of the tri-cornered hat, all the way through our Phillies hat wearing present. Once or twice a year the residents open their homes up for tours. It is a mix of history and modern home and garden. When we went we hung out drinking wassel with Ben Franklin.
Christ Church was built in 1695 and is the original home of the American Anglican faith. Ben Franklin is buried in their grave yard and anyone who was ever important while wearing knickers and stockings worshiped here at least once. Joseph Smith, who I doubt ever wore knickers, even preached a sermon here.
City Tavern, was in fact a tavern back in the days of George W. and the other revolutionary types. Legend has it that more got done at the tavern over a pint of mead than was ever accomplished over at Independence Hall. I accomplished eating orange braised duck and leg of lamb with mint jelly. The last time I was there our waitress was a PhD student in history. She should talk to her advisor about that stipend.
The most American part of town is called China Town. I’m not exactly sure what was there back in the colonial days, but I do know that the colonials came here seeking the freedom to seek their fortune. That’s the same reason folks come to China Town.
On one side of the street is Independence Hall, where they signed the declaration, and on the other side of the street is the Liberty Bell. We rarely go in to see it, there is a large window right on the sidewalk. But the bell is turned so that if you want to see the crack you have to go inside. Sorta like the media. America is great, but we have some issues, but we don’t really like to show those off.
We drive past the bell all the time, usually while looking for a parking space to go to the park. There is a park a block away that has a carousel and a playground that is all fenced in. Ya know, the kind where you can set the kids free and not have to worry about them escaping. Which is ironic since most kids don’t want to escape a playground. Playgrounds are awesome.
Just like Philly. Happy 4th.
I’ve been in love with the place since I first walked up those long steep stairs. You can’t see whats up there and the noises and smells insinuate it is something worse than the street you just walked in from, and the street is horrible.
Posters paper the walls, bags are patched up with duct tape, and buckets hanging from the ceiling keep drips off the mat. The first time I met Frank he tried to talk me into going to Bally’s because its nicer.
My first trainer had a scar, razor thin, stretching from his temple across his nose, down to the opposite jaw. He wasn’t in the greatest shape but never wore a shirt. He made me shuffle step in a straight line, taught me to jab, and gave me a notebook with diagrams of footwork and metaphors comparing a jab to an arrow and a hook to an ax.
My next trainer, “Joe Black” approached me after my first trainer stopped coming in. He told me he could get me ready to be the next great white hope, “but ya see the thing is… I’ze charges.” He wanted $50 bucks a month. Frank almost kicked him out of the gym for asking that much, but all these years later Joe is still there.
When Joe went AWOL “pad man” was always there to step in. Working with more than one trainer is a no-no but so is going AWOL. Pad man claimed to be the all-prisons champ and he had a way of making anyone he worked with look like a pro. He did this mostly by slapping the pads against his boxers fists making a loud noise and then shouting, “whooooie! This kid can punch!”
David Bey made me sign a form when he started training me. His paperwork even had a hand drawn logo up top. It was a pyramid and a third eye sort of deal. He took the Zen master approach rather than the whoop hollering style.
He trained me well enough to win the golden gloves in my first fight. Frank tried to get me to retire after the victory. “You can walk away an undefeated Golden Gloves champ. Who has to know you only had one fight?”
I didn’t listen.
In that gym I sparred the kid in law school, swung at air trying to hit that one middleweight, and broke my rib getting pummeled by that 300 lb Jamaican. There was that one mystery kid who walked in and just wanted to spar someone, then left with his left eye swollen shut, the light heavyweight with the tattoos who got his lip split, and then the truck driver who split my lip and blacked my eye. I loved it.
Willie Rush sat and watched me train without a trainer for three months before he slid over and asked me who my trainer was. He knew the answer.
We worked together every weekday for a year. He was always there with his stories about Mike Tyson or his days in the local 33 labor union. He wrapped my hands for me and spent hours slapping me in the head with a swim noodle.
We won our first fight together. It was the first round of the Philadelphia Diamond Belt and my victory forced me into my third match; one more than my original goal of two. The guy had fast hands that got tired by the third round. I hammered him again and again in the third but he just wouldn’t go down. I tried to shake his hand afterward but he just patted my shoulder and gasped for air.
It is hard to get knocked out in amateur boxing. You wear big soft gloves, a big padded head gear, and the ref is intent on no one getting hurt. They stop the fight well before anyone gets in trouble. I never got in trouble, but neither did that one last guy.
He was better than me plain and simple. He would step in, pop me three quick shots, and by the time I swung or poked a jab, he would be out of reach. Pop, pop, pop… whiff.
Tired of this I just started walking in on him trying to get him cornered. As I lumbered forward he would flurry down combinations against my gloves and head. The ref stepped in to stop it.
He waved us back to action, and the whole previous cycle was repeated, complete with the ref stepping in to stop us. After the third cycle of this pointless match I tried to duck under a wild hook and tripped on a loose part of the canvas. The ref waived his hand above his head, looked at me, and told me I was done.
The kid jumped and screamed like he just beat Ali. The announcer held my opponents arm up in the air and the awarded us both identical “participation” plaques.
I was too tired to take much notice and I guess the other guy was too excited to care.
After I changed into street clothes I lingered around the gym watching the remaining bouts. Standing at the top of the stairs I hear my wife shout from down below, “Hurry up, I’m getting tired of holding this thing.”
I had no idea what she was talking about and schlumped down the stairs to find out. Out on the sidewalk she handed me what looked like a pile of towels. I took it, unwrapped it, and hoisted the champion’s trophy.
Frank had pulled her aside and quietly told her to give it to me. He never even told her what it was. When I asked him the next day he said he just thought I deserved it; just wanted me to have it. He called me champ for a minute, but now he just calls me the preacher. The other guys still just call me the white heavyweight.
I’m happy with all those names.
Now the best place to get a Philly cheese steak is in Philly, but the best sandwich in Philly is a sliced pork. There are a couple places to find a good one, but the one that won the big prize is in the Reading Terminal Market.
If birch beer isn’t your thing, go one more store over to Herschel’s and order a celery soda. They call it a “cel-ray” soda, but its the same thing. clean and sharp… goes good with broccoli.