Laddie was my father’s best friend. In many ways, he was my father’s only friend. At least he was the only adult male I thought of as caring about my father.
Laddie was my father’s opposite. He was shy, reserved, and gentle. My father was loud, a bit of a bragger, and always sought the limelight. Since my neighborhood offered no such limelight, it was good for Dad to have Laddie’s friendship.
They watched their favorite shows on a twelve inch black and white Zenith. In the cold months they set up their clubhouse in our basement, next to the coalbin. Big cushy chairs and footstools, as well a giant ash trays and tiny TV tables.
During the warm months they moved Jackie Gleason and Art Carney and Ed Sullivan and Red Skeleton and Jack Benny, out to the garage – doors wide open and the space encased in mosquito netting. The two of them looked like they were on safari.
They exchanged cigars twice a week, shared tidbits of conversation, screamed and yelled during the Friday night fights or when Art Carney tossed tinsel on the world’s ugliest Christmas tree on an episode of “the Honeymooners.” They laughed so loud it woke up my mother, who loved catching a nap while “the boys played”. This was their ritual for most of my childhood.
When my father painted our basement steps an institutional grey, and started at the top, leaving himself stranded in a corner by the fruit cellar, Laddie laughed and applauded my selling tickets to see him sitting there waiting for the floor to dry. He brought my Dad a bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich with extra mayo, a Chicago Tribune, and a Coke, and reminded my father he would never live this one down.
When my Dad’s brother was murdered in England, Laddie still showed up for their TV shows. They never spoke of Uncle Bill’s murder or my father’s swarming sadness, they simply allowed the ritual to do its slow sure healing.
When my father died in 2000, Laddie came to the funeral. He looked the same, only his age made him appear to sag all over. He did not stay for the service, but simply paid his respects. I thanked him for being there.
I wish I had thanked him for showing me the importance of friendship, and how vital it is to have someone with whom to share a good laugh.
I've had a few friends like Laddie over the years, but nobody with whom I shared a weekly ritual. I suspect it would have made a difference, having a buddy, counting on a presence, sharing the day’s big and small events, and swapping cigars. I'm not sure what kind of difference, just that it would have made life a little easier.
Bert and Ernie, yes, those were their real names, were brothers. They lived together in an upper flat in our rather frumpy old neighborhood. We kids called them Checkers and Chess, as that is all they did all summer long, sitting at a card table set up in their front yard. They would not let us play, and shooed us away whenever we stopped to watch.
My mother called them twin string beans, and my sister said they each had a nose the size of a giant’s big toe. My grandmother once said their ears rivaled Dumbo’s and Cleo, our spinster neighbor, said the size of their feet held great promise – at the time I had no idea what that meant. My pal Richie’s Mom simply stated they were the two homeliest men on the planet.
I always found the word homely to be odd or ironic. I remember when I went with my parents to England, and we ate at a restaurant in a charming village called Thaxted, which advertised homely fare. I was not keen on dining on ugly food, and was puzzled by the arrival of mashed potatoes, peas and roast beef. I asked my Mom why they called the food homely, and she said it just meant plain old ordinary cooking – just like home.
If homely meant ugly, well, then Bert and Ernie seemed to fill the bill. If homely meant plain and ordinary or just like home, I guess it could be said they filled the bill again. I decided that Bert and Ernie were just average looking guys at home, where acceptance was guaranteed, and it was only when they left home and ventured into the world’s sharp toothed streets, that they may have been conscious of their looks, or lack of them.
When I was twelve, Bert and Ernie’s Mom died of a long bout with mental illness and cancer. She had been in a “home” for years, and the brothers visited her every Wednesday for lunch. At the funeral, the brothers draped their arms around each other’s shoulders and sang the hymns with great gusto. They each had a beautiful voice, one a tenor, the other an alto. They sang their mother’s favorite hymn, “Be Still My Soul”, to a stunned, mouths agape congregation. Nobody had known the loveliness of the voices which emitted from these two "homely" men.
These two tall scrawny guys served all the guests kringle and coffee, and thanked everyone profusely for having attended. As I watched them, it struck me that our whole neighborhood was their home, and we were now their family. It was on our block these two bean poles felt at home, and were oblivious to having huge ears and noses and feet the size of Utah. I asked my Mom that night to tell the women of the front porch to be kinder to them, and pick up some of the slack left by their own mother’s death. She told me I was a sweet boy with a good heart.
In recent years, I have grown to understand the huge importance of the term "HOME." It is a spiritual word to me, one which speaks of acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness and love. Home is the place where Grace resides, or at least it should be. The care and compassion you find at home comes without conditions and is eternal. Without a home, Life can become quite tragic. Imagine if Dorothy never returned to Kansas, or ET gut stuck in LA. Both beloved stories would become tragedies, and we would never want our children to witness them on the big screen.
Bert and Ernie died within weeks of each other. The pastor who spoke at each funeral told of their devotion to one another, and their enjoyment of the Cubs, checkers, chess, and Cheetos. I guess in our crazy culture, this describes a way too ordinary life, maybe even an ugly one, but I think these two brothers had a profound understanding of the beauty of being at home. They were home for each other, an experience of raw and abundant Grace, and like their magnificent voices, the world just never knew how happy they were.
Bert and Ernie lived homely lives, and they were quite content. I believe that.
Reverend William R. Grimbol has spent the past 30+ years helping people create and develop strong spiritual connections with loved ones and God. He is also a published author, with over a dozen books to his credit.