For me, the underlying truth regarding the permanence of mortality came about when I realized that some problems couldn’t be solved in this life. That mom can’t make everything better and that some questions simply have no answer. In other words, I found out that death is, for many, the only solution to the dilemma of life, the only answer to a few of the complex problems and puzzles we face. It wasn’t just getting older that taught me this lesson. No, I can sum up how I learned that in two words -- Heather Pizzo.
But what’s the fun in summing something up? A two-word answer doesn’t provide you with any insight, doesn’t teach you the same lesson, and certainly doesn’t keep you from wondering if I’m a bleak person for saying such things, like “death is the answer to life”. So, let me tell you a little bit about Heather Pizzo, Kevin Long, and, most importantly, their parents.
Roger and Kimberly Pizzo were two people who lived in the same house without living together. The Pizzos, still married after 25 years, were no longer a couple and did not get along very well. Not even good friends.
Now, hey, don’t get me wrong; the Pizzos have always been a bit on the weird side. After all, these were the parents of Heather Pizzo – Heather Pizzo! I don’t know if you grew up with a person like Heather as a kid but I bet you did. This was the girl in first grade who told everyone that there was simply no such thing as Santa Clause. I still remember her delivery of the crushing blow; we sat on the old metal monkey bars, 5 feet in the sky with feet dangling over the edge, tiny butts balanced on the thin bars and both hands gripping metal tightly. Pressed to provide evidence to these blasphemous claims of no Santa, Heather brought in a signed note from Roger Pizzo, her father, which read:
“Children, your parents have deceived you. Santa Clause, like the referential God he represents, is DEAD! No one is watching over you and this message is your freedom.”
Now in those days, an adult’s word was gold in the court of recess. The signed note, the simple claim of truth, well, that was enough for us. There were a lot of crying kids and angry parents that year among Ms. Kowan’s Little Lions (we wanted to be the Prowling Panthers but the class down the hall took the name, and the cool stuffed mascot, before we had the chance).
Heather had a birthday party in her home – I want to say that it was 6th grade, but it could have been 7th. Not really sure anymore as the details and distinctions between 6th and 7th grade begin to blur in the blobby vaults of my mind. The memories of 5th - 8th grade are basically characterized by an awkward fumbling insecurity, so it’s a bit difficult to tease out specific events that happened in one grade or the other – let’s just call it the “Days of Holding Hands and First Kisses” and leave it at that. Okay, back to Heather’s birthday party:
Once upon a time, in The Days of Holding Hands and First Kisses, Heather Pizzo had a birthday party. There was no cake, no hats, no party favors. Plus, we were asked not to bring presents – so, there were no gifts either – there were no presents at a little girls birthday party?! The card actually said we ask that you respect our attempts to raise a minimal materialist as we celebrate the birth of our beautiful daughter by not bringing any presents. Even in The Days of Holding Hands and First Kisses, most kids could grasp that things worked a little different at the Pizzo household. If they didn’t get that before arriving at the party, they certainly figured it out while they were there. Kimberly Pizzo – Ms. Pizzo – Heather’s mom and a high school art teacher, wore one of those big necklaces with wooden blue beads carved into ambiguous geometric shapes. Her hair was cut short and she felt like the opposite of my own mom.
Art teachers would make good leaders. Most of them just don’t have the confidence in their public speaking abilities and interpersonal skills to understand the potential. Why do I say this? Because art teachers have a way of sounding enthusiastically critical in response to whatever you say, do or produce. Ms. Pizzo was no exception to the rule. At the party, we sat down at two picnic tables in the backyard. The picnic tables had a natural look like they just spontaneously self-assembled from the pile of red pine mulch in backyard orchid garden, simply motivated by the creative environment to defy the laws of physics. Too perfect, too clean to be made by human hands. In actuality, the tables were built by Mr. Pizzo who was both the art museum’s carpenter and a set designer for the largest live theater venue in the city. While Ms. Pizzo talked non-stop, coddling and fawning over her flowers, her kids, and the guests at the birthday party, Mr. Pizzo hardly said a word. Stoic but nice, quiet but not stern.
We sat at the long red benches while Ms. Pizzo passed out thin pieces of rawhide cut into large circles. I remember wondering if this was food or craft. It turned out to be craft – or a “shared musical experience” to be specific. After passing out the rawhide, we also received these odd cardboard cylinders and cones, and even cardboard-cylinder-cones joined at the apex. You see, this was the necessary equipment to make – to create – your own drum, your own addition to the rhythmic percussion circle of sound. So, there I was, young and awkward, sitting in a circle on the back patio of Heather Pizzo’s house, banging on a drum that dripped glue onto my jeans from the sloppy attempt I had made of adhering the leather to the open rim at the top of the cylinder.
But you know what? It was a hell of a lot of fun. We were encouraged to bang loudly, to get up and dance, shimmy, and shake. To move with the music and parade around the flowers. Yeah, it was a little weird, very silly, but also more fun than Timmy Lambert’s stupid rolling skating party where I fell and broke my arm in 3rd grade, or Katie Fields’s dumb putt-putt golf day that same year. I have to say, from what I remember at that party and from the many other times I visited Heather’s home over the years, her parents always seemed happy, genuine, and romantic. Actually, her parents seemed much more in love than my own parents who were divorced and not speaking by the time I was ten years old. Heather’s parents went on dates, held-hands, called each other pet names and never seemed to argue or force themselves to swallow underlying tension in the presence of company.
To be cont......