He rocked in the treetops

We could always count on my father to fall off something.

His motor skills weren’t in question really; dad could rewire complex circuit boards and operate a bandsaw without issue. But ladders, step stools, ledges, the roof – if it were more than a foot or two off the ground, dad would invariably wind up losing to the principal of gravity.

You’d think being a physicist he’d be more inclined to side with scientific theory; what goes up must come down and all that. But in addition to his distinct lack of balance, dad suffered from something much worse … Good intentions.

They’d usually manifest in various home improvement projects. Painting, hanging pictures and installing light fixtures were typically safe enough, at least in that they only ended with a few days of dad limping and tossing back palmfuls of ibuprofen. It was the change of season that we all came to dread.

Spring meant hauling patio furniture down from the loft in the garage; winter involved an assortment of wreaths and bows to affix to the exterior of the house. Not all these projects included a trip to the ER, but even dad started to lose his rosy, DIY glow around November when the rain gutters would clog.

That was the trouble with living in the Midwest – especially where we did, on the cusp of a forest preserve – the trees would all simultaneously dump their leaves at the first sign of a chill. Add a few days of freakishly warm rain and we’d wind up with a great dismal swamp circling our gutters.

It never seemed to occur to dad that there were people to handle projects like gutter cleaning, people who came with their own tools and extensive medical coverage. Dad just considered it his duty as the homeowner, so every year he’d drag out his gloves and bucket and we’d find him perched atop a ladder, elbow deep in muck.

We learned fast that these were days it was best to avoid dad. Mom usually hustled me into the living room with her to watch television. She could keep an eye on him from there, pausing between commercials to glance out the window, watch his ladder rock precariously, and return to TV with a shake of her head.

One particular soggy Saturday we were watching WKRP in Cincinnati. Dad had been at his work on the gutters for more than an hour. He’d long abandoned his bucket and was instead sweeping pools of coagulated leaves and bird remnants onto the ground. The rhythm of his vile work – scrape, curse, splatter – overtook the living room in a noxious crescendo.

Mom, used to the chaotic bumblings of my dad, turned the volume up. The “Turkeys Away” episode of WKRP was airing at the time, and the idea of live turkeys being kicked out of a plane onto unwitting shoppers had mom and me in a fit.

I can still see the tears in her eyes as Less Nessman called out, “They’re dropping to the ground like bags of wet cement.”

“Poor turkeys,” she snorted, collapsing into her chair.

The commercials began then, and mom, out of habit, turned to the window. Dad had suddenly become eerily silent, and before we could consider that further, we heard it: a wild sort of scrambling, like a raccoon maybe, but bigger. Then – the ladder.

All 26-feet of it came crashing down onto the front lawn in an explosion of aluminum glory. And dad, of course, was close on its heels.

His legs dropped into view first, dangling in that mad way they’re wont to do when you’re searching for footing and coming up only with air. Dad was clearly clinging to the roof and likely wishing he hadn’t relied on writing on classroom blackboards to hone his upper body strength.

As his arms gave out their final grip on the roof, WKRP kicked back in from break. It seemed our eyes made contact for one lone second on his slow plunge to the ground, and though no sound came from dad’s open mouth, I would swear he was thinking, “As god is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

That was the last season dad cleaned the gutters himself.

We’ve told this story hundreds of times at home; no one does a better impression of dad’s plummet better than my mom. And though I laugh every time, it’s made me wonder about myself. What can I, a new stepmom and aunt, be counted on for?

My experience in being any sort of role model is limited at best. I certainly didn’t take much away from my brief stint babysitting as a teen. It was my mother’s bright idea, and just like her other gems (trying out for cheerleading chief among them) it failed miserably.

I have always been more inclined to avoid children than watch them, let alone find ways to occupy their attention. But I did try. Armed with ideas culled from the Babysitters Club books and my own good intentions, I got a weekly gig sitting for Bryan and Allison, two kids who I’m sure grew up to steal lunch money and knock over liquor stores.

Bryan bore an uncanny resemblance to Chucky from the Child’s Play movies, and delighted in sneaking up on me with his pumpkin carving knife. Allison, a plucky five year old, enjoyed playing hide and seek. Her favorite hiding spot? Her mother’s giant gas oven. I lasted three afternoons with the thugs before I renounced babysitting for life.

To be fair, my track record with kids has improved somewhat over the years, but I’m still left here today in a position I never quite imagined: actually looking for and working toward acceptance as a parental figure. I’m rather annoyed that Judy Blume hasn’t written a book about this. She essentially handed me a blueprint for my adolescence; is it too much to ask that she address my adulthood, too?

It would suck dramatically to be counted on for comic relief, known in my niece’s future social circle as “the aunt who set the kitchen on fire” or as “crazy spice lady” when my step kids figure out that the quickest way to make my eye twitch is to rearrange my spice drawers. Then, the big family game will become how to poke my crazy and I’ll wind up a viral video on YouTube.

No thanks. Of course, when I realize that my dad was, if not my exact age, then very close to it back when he earned his reputation for falling off rooftops, a cold chill sets in and I realize I’m way too close to becoming a cautionary YouTube video than I care to admit.

What would mean the most to me is to be thought a role model – someone who isn’t so far removed from how wretched it feels to be a kid, and who can just be real when talking about it.

Is it possible for me, with all my quirks and issues and fascinations, to be someone the kids in my life will look up to and enjoy being with?

In the end, all I can do is hope. Hope that maybe this turkey can fly.

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