How To Start A Day
It’s been about a month since my dad died. He would have been 85 today. We’d been planning a party; it turned into a memorial. At the reception, many people mentioned this story from The Middle Place. They said they do the Hello World routine with their children. I like to think of it, of him, carrying on in this way.
I grew up on Wooded Lane, just a mile from Villanova University, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Wooded Lane has about thirty houses on it, and every one of them is exactly the same; if you knew where the bathroom was in the Wilsons’ house, you could find it at the Walshes’. Our house, the last house on the street, has classy brown shingles on the face, but the other three sides are aluminum siding, which made it an affordable choice for my parents’ first and only home.
I have two older brothers, GT and Booker. In some ways they’re hard to tell apart. They both live for sports and tell a good story and make every party they go to louder and better. They’ll eat whatever you put in front of them, neither of them will ever retire, and they cry when they give a toast.
In other ways, it’s hard to believe they are related. GT is a born worrier and Booker appears to be sliding through life like it’s a giant water park. GT is savvy and ambitious and always busy. He’s been to the symphony and owns a tuxedo and knows the difference between a pinot noir and a cabernet. Booker, a Bud man, may well do the same job forever — he’s a gym teacher and a high school lacrosse coach — and would never ask for anything more than a few free rounds of golf a year and a winning season for the Flyers.
Anyway, after Booker was born in a last-minute cesarean, the hospital counseled my parents against another baby. But, the lore goes, my dad wanted a girl so much, they snuck me in.
I suppose it’s possible they could have had another boy, but it never seems like that when my dad tells the story.
My brothers shared a bedroom, but I had my own, a pink gingham wonderland behind a hollow door from Sears that was covered with Wacky Packages stickers like Shot Wheels race cars and Cap’n Crud cereal. Later, I removed them and covered the stubborn bits that wouldn’t peel off with James Taylor quotes, which I copied from the album liner onto thick paper, using a calligraphy pen that didn’t make my handwriting look any more like calligraphy than a Sharpie would have. Because I was very deep, I burned the edges of the paper.
From my desk, you could look out on the backyard, which must have been the reason my dad wanted the house. It was a big, flat rectangle, with a drainage gully marking one end zone and a small garden marking the other. The yard became known as Lambeau Field, after the stadium where the Green Bay Packers play — I think the Connor brothers named it, or maybe it was the Kelly brothers — but anyway, a thousand games of Shirts and Skins were played back there, and I watched many of them from my bedroom. More than once, I came down to the sidelines carrying lemonade and Nilla Wafers (after changing my clothes many times, fixing my hair, and glossing my lips with a touch of Vaseline). On a good day, when the light was right, before college added things to my body that laziness has created a permanent home for, someone might have called me pretty. Most days, I was just considered one of the many fine girls in the neighborhood.
Lambeau Field was also home to my dad’s tomatoes, which he grew every summer.
“No photos today, men! No autographs!” he’d call out to the guys on the field as he crossed the end zone with an armful of stakes. (Celebrity Seeking Respite from Fans was one of his favorite roles. I’ve seen him play it for Japanese tourists on street corners in New York and little old ladies in the supermarket parking lot, startling and confusing every one of them.)
“Need a hand, Coach Corrigan?” the boys would say, referring to my dad’s prized role as head coach of the local youth ice hockey team.
“No, thanks, men. Play on!” My dad would never interrupt a game.
They’d go back to playing, and he’d start positioning his plants and I’d keep tabs on it all, while working on one of my many projects, like making a new K*E*L*L*Y sign for my door, or cutting the collar off another T‑shirt at just the right Flashdance angle.
“Aw shit,” I heard my dad say one day, creating a pause in the game.
“What happened?” Booker asked. And then I heard six guys cracking up.
“Hey! Up here! What happened?” I called down from behind my screen window.
“Dad’s tooth flew out!” Booker called back. “He sneezed out his front tooth!”
By the time I got outside, all the guys were poking around in the dirt, looking for the tooth, and my dad was explaining that his dentist/friend, Punchy Peterson (or was it Ironhead Keating? there were so many nicknames), warned him that if he didn’t get a partial plate, one of these days something like this was bound to happen.
“I’m just glad it happened out here with you knuckleheads and not at a business meeting. Can you imagine old Greenie shooting a tooth across the desk at a customer?” He often referred to himself as Greenie, or the Green Man, which is a nickname his brothers gave him way back after a long, crammed car ride when a case of bad gas reputedly turned the air around my dad green.
The neighborhood guys were kicking around in the garden, laughing through a relaxed search. I was leaning into my dad, who had his arm around me.
“Keep going, men! There’s a dollar in it.” At the time, a one-dollar reward could have bought three or four Cokes.
Some guys dug around the dirt, some fingered the grass. I just stood with my dad, since I could get a dollar off him anytime, for nothing. Minutes passed. Commitment waned.
“Men! Let’s take it up to two dollars! Two dollars right now for whoever finds the tooth!”
“Coach, what kind of teeth do you have, anyway? I mean, how did it just shoot out of your mouth?”
“Oh God, Timbo. You can’t believe the way they used to do things — I mean, I think I had about twenty cavities by the time I was ten years old, and braces for — God — I’m guessing seven years. The guy’s office was over a garage. He probably didn’t even have a degree — ” he explained, sort of. “Men,” he called out to the guys who were still in the hunt. “Let’s go for five! Five dollars for that tooth!”
That stepped up the action for a while, but after ten minutes, the hunt was declared hopeless.
“I guess I better call that guy and see if I can get in there today. Carry on, men! Lovey, ride over with me. He’ll take better care of me if he sees you,” he said.
When we got to the dentist’s office, my dad made a big deal out of introducing me to the secretary, whom he himself had just met.
“Candy, this is my daughter, Kelly Corrigan,” he said, like I was someone Candy would want to know, someone she would remember meeting.
“Hi, Kelly,” she said, playing along.
“Well, Mr. Corrigan — ”
“George! Please, Candy, call me George!”
“Well, if you wait here, George, I think we can get you in, but it might be an hour or so.”
“Tell you what, Candy!” he said, like he was about to announce something exciting. “Why don’t Kelly and I go run some errands and we’ll be back here in forty-five minutes?”
“You sure?” she said, looking at his six-year-old smile.
“Yeah,” he said. “Who’s looking at an old Billy Goat like me?” When he wasn’t referring to himself as Greenie, or The Green Man, my dad referred to himself as “an old Billy Goat.”
Candy and I made eye contact, and I think I was able to convey to her that although most adults wouldn’t bomb around town with a missing front tooth, it was well within the general operating procedures for George Corrigan. Off we went.
After a swing by the Coastal gas station, where my dad hollered a compliment to Pete, the proprietor, about the new flower boxes by the front door, we headed to the farmers’ market. The first person we ran into was Frank Tolbert, who was in line at the deli.
“Lefty Tolbert! How you doing?” my dad said, laughing and chomping down on his lower lip like a beaver.
“Good God, George! What happened?”
“Lefty, you wouldn’t believe it if I told you! But it’s nothing that’s gonna stop me next week on the court, so you better work out that kink in your backhand!” Then he turned his attention to the high school girl behind the counter and said, “You should see this guy try to return my serve. How’s the roast beef today? I love that roast beef you guys have.”
She said the roast beef was good, same as always. She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows impatiently, uninterested in the story behind the missing tooth, the fact that Lefty had trouble protecting the alley, or that my dad favored this deli’s roast beef over all others.
“Um, there’s a line,” she said.
“Aw, God, sorry! You’re a hardworking gal!” my dad said. “I’ll have one pound of your best roast beef!”
Such was my dad’s relationship with the world that he paid more attention to the good stuff than the bad and effortlessly forgave almost all — the peevish girl at the deli, the kids destroying his lawn with their cleats, the daughter who cut her brand-new shirts to look like a Juilliard student.
When I was a high school freshman, GT was a senior and Booker was a junior. That year, my dad took over the morning routine from my mom, whose reign involved the usual nagging — time to get up… your breakfast is on the table… don’t forget your biology book… I said time to get up… you’re not wearing those jeans to school… is that mascara I see on your eyelashes?
With my dad in charge, things changed.
“Lovey,” he’d call out as he pulled the plastic shades and flipped on the light. “Let’s get to it! It’s gonna be a great day!”
If I waited for a moment, he’d be gone, doing the same drill next door with GT and Booker. He’d personalized his appeal with little add-ons like, “Booker, The Book Man, Citizen Book! You’re gonna ace that math test!” or “G, big game tonight! I’m seeing a hat trick!”
When his usual ruckus failed to get feet to floor, he’d walk down the hall to his bedroom and throw open the window. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he’d call out:
And then, playing back to himself in his one-man show, he’d flip to the role of World: “Hello, Georgie!”
“I’M COMIN’ OUT THERE TO GET YOU, WORLD!”
To which World would respond, as of course World would, “I’m waitin’ for ya, Georgie!”
And then he’d turn around and head back toward our bedrooms, making a certain kind of merry battle cry.
After a couple years of this, I could only deduce that the world was a safe place. In fact, according to my dad, the world was beyond safe — it had a sense of humor, it knew your name, it was waiting for you. Hell, it was even rooting for you.
My relationship with my father was magic. If you have a daughter, or if you’re married to a father of a girl, I’m told The Middle Place is a nice road map. Anyway, it makes me happy to hear it is sometimes read by dads as a sort of guide. He’d have liked that.