You think they will always be there. Of course, you do. You are a child – and they are there.
Always. Always, always there.
When the people who should be aren’t, or are withholding, too exacting, even scary. The ones you come to believe are always there, well, they are the ones who are. You don’t even think about why, you just know – and that knowing makes quite a difference in an at times topsy turvy world of never knowing what.
I oughta know: mine was topsy turvier than most. But the hands that steadied me were also solid, and on the level; welcoming when they saw me and always, always making me believe I was worthwhile.
Such a woman is Patti Davis, who was always there. Always laughing, wiping down a counter and half bearing down on her “mmmmm…” going into the punctuative final declaration “…HMMMMMM.”
Patti didn’t need words. She had intonation.
That was all Patti ever needed. Just the way those Ms poured out, it was jocular punctuation, undeclared disgust, the occasional sigh of appreciation. But if you knew Patti, you knew… You just knew.
Patti Davis, in her blue uniform and white apron, appeared at the snack bar when I was too young to even know to time-stamp moments with years or ages. Down there with Ruby, the exotic Southern beauty. Holding court, feeding children, hushing us when needed, saying “no” when they had to.
Patti was earthier, somehow. Less ethereal, but more down with the how it was. And I loved Ruby. Everyone did. But Patti? Patti was our’s; we didn’t even know that cognitively, we just sensed it the way young animals in the wild know who to cling to.
Patti is, of course, legend for her chicken salad. The secret ingredient no doubt pride in her work – and how much she cares about the community that she built at the Shaker Heights Country Club, a community of members’ kids, the grateful parents who could see the bond and relaxed knowing someone else cared for their family and of course, her fellow staff members.
Anyone who ever saw Patti and Jeannie, the locker room lady who knew all, counseled many and never breathed a word of any of it, sharing a moment understood the delicious joy that comes from a friendship so much deeper than words or moments or hardships. Jeannie and Patti laughed with a knowledge and rapture that came from understanding – each other, themselves and the world around them.
That understanding extended to us, too. Understanding and acceptance, the two things that can’t be bought, bartered or brokered – only given, never taken. Always without the need for acceptance. Whether the other person realizes or not, the gift remains the same.
And Patti was gifted.
I can still see her, outside the swimmers side of the snack bar, playing kickball with the swimmers. Everyone laughing, Patti rolling the ball at the next kid up for their turn to kick. Patti had a mean roll. She laughed as hard as anyone; but she’d also screw up her face and really try to make those rolls mean something.
For a bunch of skinny kids in form-clinging nylon Speedo bathing suits, skin wet with chlorine and Coppertone, hair slicked to their heads and sun-kisses scattered across their noses, Patti was the grown-up who’d be one of us. She could play as hard as anyone, and she could put us all in place with just the hint of scowl.
You never wanted Patti to turn cloudy on you, because you knew you’d crossed one of those lines a young lady or gentleman shouldn’t dare. If our parents taught us manners, Patti taught us how to be civilized in the world. She wasn’t Emily Post, she was more profound.
Just as importantly, Patti taught us dignity without ever lecturing. She knew and she understood the tides of adult lives washing aground, bruised or jagged on the rocks. She would look with such concern at those who were struggling, they’d almost feel better… just because someone had seen their pain, their struggle, their falter.
That was Patti: she knew out stories, our failings, our strengths – even when we didn’t know them ourselves. She knew those Mooney boys, the closest thing to Kennedys in Shaker Heights growing up in the 70s, could cut through the water like buttered blades, but that Kevin’s heart secretly pined for the golf course. That the Gardiner boys were raised by a mother who saw sunniness everywhere she looked – and they shared her ability to see better than often was. That the darkly handsome Mike Kelley, perhaps the best swimmer of all, brooded for reasons no one else recognized, but his elegance was the product of something that haunted an 11-, 12-year old bot that shouldn’t.
She saw it all. She knew, but never ever gave it away. That let her kept sending the good vibe, even when things seemed lost or beyond repair.
My father certainly had his share of struggles. A deeply good man who tried hard, taught me values that sustain and maintain me still, he battled demons self-inflicted and environmental, circumstances and – it turned out – biochemical.
But the road for my Dad was littered with a lot of rocks, stones, even boulders.
He did the best he could. He never stopped caring. Most importantly, he never let his passion falter. Ever. My father was a decent, but also passionate man.
When I was 15, all of the elements reached a crisis point. Too much, too long with no respite. You could say he snapped, but maybe he broke through. Regardless, he found himself in St Luke’s, locked down and very sad, not quite sure what all had conspired to put him there.
I know. I would make the trip two, three times a week to talk to the doctors about what went on at home, the things said, the moments shattered. The doctors were amazed: my father wasn’t delusional, he was telling the truth!
And he wasn’t raging, he was sad. A good man in a bad place. They realized the more they could give him to live for, the easier the treatment – eventually carefully regulated Lithium, something his bloodstream was lacking – would be.
So, three or four times a week, they would let me come get him. Let me take him places he loved, do things – such as he could with the off-kilter motor control the Lithium pre-proper levels – he loved.
But there was really only one thing Daddy wanted to do when I’d pull up and find him on the curb outside that grey/beige stone hospital.
“Take me for a cheeseburger,” he’d say, sliding into that 1972 lime green Mustang that had been my dear friend Blair. “The food in there is awful. It has no taste, and no one makes a burger like Patti.”
I’d spent that summer baking for my father. Blueberry streusel cakes, chocolate chip cookies, brownies and sour cream muffis, strawberry bread. Anything I could find that seemed interesting. Somehow even with all that, his khakis hung too loose off his hips, belt cinched as tight as possible, paperbag waist gathered to keep his pants up.
Telling the truth: people must have known. There are no secrets in small towns or country clubs. Most people’s silence is louder than throwing it in your face. But when you’re young, you’re also not so aware – of anything other than your concerns.
My concern, of course, was my sweet father. Daddy locked up in a ward with people who babbled, who didn’t speak, who didn’t seem to have even a tenuous tether to the world which I inhabited. Anything that could help accelerate his delivery from that place was something I wanted to be a part of.
“Take me for a cheeseburger” was my divine refrain that summer. Take him I did.
Patti always had a big smile for my father, had a “Well, Mr Gleason…” that set him at ease. Heck, it made him feel normal when nothing that summer was.
Patti didn’t even need the “What’ll you have?” My father always had the same thing. A cheeseburger on whole wheat toast with relish. Always.
They’d talk about nothing. I’d tune out, so my father could enjoy a little adult conversation with someone who wasn’t locked down or taking notes. Usually it was the weather or the golf course, who was playing well, what little bit of country gossip would be tenable instead of nasty.
“You don’t say?” my Dad would respond, as the hamburger Patti sizzled on the grill.
“Oh, yeah,” Patti would reply, savoring the validation. It was an easy moment for a man leading a very uneasy life.
During this time, people would often look away or dawdle when they saw my father coming. Even with his noted limp, swinging that one leg just a bit, he wasn’t the smoothest mover. But with the medication adjustment, his motor control made him a little herky jerky… like Talking Heads’ David Byrne without the artist’s grace.
There but for the grace of God… in action, people shyed away. Uncertain what to say to such a vibrant man so compromised.
But not Patti. She was easy with it. Easy and compassionate, strong in her embrace and resolved in her insistence on my father’s dignity. Insistence it was, too. My father made it hard to give him that.
Stubborn and proud, he wouldn’t acknowledge the effect the salt was having on his ability to weigh the amount or range of motion needed for many tasks. It was comedic in some sense, but mostly embarrassing for a man who traveled the world with such grace.
When the burger arrived, he and I would enjoy a pas de deux of request and action, reaction and result that was always the same. He would look hungrily and happily at the juicy sandwich before him. I would have the look of foreboding that came with what I believed to be inevitable.
“Would you like help with that?” I would ask.
His eyes would flash.
“I can feed myself.”
“Yes, Dad. I know…,” I would say, having gauged his walking and knowing the proper balance hadn’t been found. “But it’s the fine motor skills that aren’t quite calibrated yet.”
I would try. He would refuse.
So it would begin. The slow and methodic destruction of Patti’s perfect burger. His hands, unsteady and uncertain, would clutch at the buttered wheat toast that Patti had grilled. The baked and toasted surface would soak with juice and tear from the pressure. A bite or two in, the hamburger would start to crumble… bits and small chunks falling to the heavy cardboard plate beneath.
“Do you want help?” I’d whisper, knowing the burger was a goner.
Holding back tears, of frustration and embarrassment most likely, he’d shake his head no. Small movements, almost jagged, barely noticeable if you didn’t know him.
“Okay,” I’d say even softer, trying to ease his shame. He was, after all, a full grown man, a 4-time Club Champion, a leader in so many charitable endeavours, a believer in the kids who fell through the cracks championing encouraging and turning lives around.
He didn’t deserve this… Didn’t deserve to be seen so comprised. Yet, here he was. And the only thing in the world he wanted… wasn’t glory or money… just one of Patti Davis’ impossibly good cheeseburgers with sweet pickle relish.
It wasn’t too much to ask, but man, the reality sure came hard.
Finally he’d concede that the mess was too great. Sad at what this summer had come to, he’d just look at me, and say “Okay.”
“Okay” meant I could help. “Okay” meant he didn’t care about the sidelong glances and tsking that came our way, sitting on the golfers’ side of the Snack Bar, in the plastic molded chairs on thick all weather carpet that felt like industrial felt when your spikes sunk in.
We were watching the pines hang low and slow on the hillside banking the 10th tee. Time semi-suspended; reality denied for a few minutes while Dad pretended all was well – even though the remains of the battered burger would disagree.
“Okay,” I’d say back with a gentle smile, reassuring and encouraging. After all, it wasn’t his fault, it was just fate in this cruel moment of time.
Somehow Patti always knew. Always, always.
“Let me go order…,” I’d say, rising and twisting to put in my request.
But like my father’s order, that was never necessary. Patti already knew, was already loaded and ready.
“I got it,” she’d say some days, sliding the fresh cheeseburger across the counter to me.
Or else there woud be no words. Just her eyes meeting mine, a silent nod of “You’re a good girl. He’s a good man… Here you go” understood between the two of us.
Patti never needed to say. You just knew.
You knew she knew; and in her knowing, you did, too.
It would all be okay. Even if you had no clue or reason to believe, you could.
It was that simple.
Like knowing Patti would always be here. As she has been. For years. That sound force of life, moving through and setting the Shaker Heights Country Club. Watching all of us children come of age, and have children of our own. Seeing the way time cuts grooves into all of our lives, witnessing the growth, the mistakes, the falters and the victories.
Patti would see it, would know. All would be right with our world, our children’s worlds, the entire world.
Heaven knows, that second burger went down awesome. Me, urging my father not to gobble, not to chew like a wild dog. Him, so thrilled with the lightly seasoned meat, the melting American slice, the tartly sweet bits of pickle that he wanted to swallow it whole, but knew better.
It was heaven in a suspended moment. It wasn’t all right, but it was alright – and Patti would watch us with that patient, silent encouragement that was her stock in trade. That made Patti Patti.
I got the news a couple weeks ago that Patti was stepping down. The general manager had to call me about an accounting issue that had been so tangled and not resolved in a way that pleased me; he had to listen while I told him how ridiculous I thought it was.
When I was done, and he acknowledged the problem was on their end, his voice dropped.
“You know Patti?” he asked, quietly.
“Of course,” I said. But how do you tell someone new to the world how profound she is, was.
“She’s retiring,” he explained.
The world stopped. There in my queen-sized bed, the gazillion threadcount sheets and mountain of down pillows wadded up and around me, starting the morning as I often do – with stretching and email, writing and netsurfing in my nocturnal womb.
“Retiring?” I said it like I didn’t understand. Though of course I did.
I was now a grown woman, just slightly younger than my father back when she was an angel of elegant mercy for a man who was stumbling through getting better. That was a lot of time, and while we don’t notice the rushing of days, it doesn’t change their impact.
“Yes, she’s retiring,” he confirmed.
“Oh…,” and so it began. The reflection on those things that got me through my youth, through my childhood. The people who imbued me with a sense of self and faith that I probably had no right to. The notion that always isn’t really, no matter what you tell yourself.
I felt vulnerable in ways I didn’t know I could, fragile in the face that Patti wouldn’t always be there. I wouldn’t say that wry smile coming at me in a hall, or laugh about some small detail no one else would’ve noticed. Heck, someone who saw the best in my father at his worst – and never, ever forget how good he was.
Those are the people who make us rich. After 35 years, Patti had most certainly earned the right to some time for herself. She’d given so much to me, to my family, indeed, all the families over the years who made the Shaker Heights Country Club – rolling up on its centennial year in 1913 – a part of the fabric of their lives.
Country clubs are, for the most part, exclusionary. They foster a sense of elite, of being something more or better. Unless you were John Gleason, who viewed them as temples of golf, faith, family and community.
For my father, Patti was everything Shaker should be. She was everything he wanted me to be as well: accepting, forthright, compassionate, plucky, compunctive when necessary and willing to step up when needed.
I can’t even tell you all that I am because of Patti… Heck, because of Jeannie and Eph as well. But I know that I am. Indeed, I am far more than I might’ve been because of the woman who could put you in line, make you laugh, roll a mean kickball and make a second cheeseburger without being asked.
If I walk through this world and make it better at all, Patti Davis is a piece of that. For what she gave me, for what she taught me about the best parts of empowering others – and giving what people need whether the take it or not.
Maybe she’ll never walk a red carpet or see her name in lights, but her essence is in the light in my eyes. My eyes, honestly, and the eyes of so many others, too.
Knowing that Sunday they’re having a fete to celebrate her retirement, I smile. It won’t be nearly enough, but it’s the least that can be done. She can’t possibly know for that how much she’s meant to so many, but maybe it’ll give her the ghost of a sense.
I know I hope so. Not for me,or the other kids who grew up like I did, but for her. Because even though those who tend to give rarely like to receive, the knowing is important. What it all meant when one can only wonder? Well, that’s the gift they can’t ask for, can’t conjure, but deserve most of all.
My money’s on those of us who grew up better for Patti. That they’ll be there, that they’ll reach out, that they’ll give this wondrous woman as good as she gave us all of our scattered lives.
Sitting in a bakery in Hell’s Kitchen, ramping up for a day of spinning plates and brokering fame, I feel very small. Tonight, it will be the Bowery Ballroom, sold out for an impossible evocative singer of songs; Hannah Storm coming in to witness the magic and a slew of media people attending to see if David Nail is really real.
Theoretically, glamorous and fancy-dancing. But compared to what? Compared to what Patti gave the world, it feels pretty shallow and not important. I am covered in the tears of loss and disorientation: a star that I steer by is receding from the skies and won’t just be there.
Still, Patti would smile and say, “Look what you did…” Smile that cock-eyed smile and let you know it was plenty. Let you know it – whatever it was – was pretty fine.
I can only hope on Sunday, she knows how fine she always was – and how much we loved her for it.
-- 19 September 2012