march 16, 2020…tuesdays with otto…

Left to right: Jill, Jen, Gretchen, spider plant ~ 1983-ish.

Oh, so many stories in a single photograph, I could sit here all day, rifling through the memories—those steps in our old house, that sweater I’m wearing, the exposed wiring flailing like tentacles out of the doorway frame, that olive-green paint, why does li’l Gretchy look so calm and collected? But, I’ll reign myself in and tell just one, about the expression on Jill’s face, that reappears more than just occasionally on Otto’s face when we spend a day together.

Otto shows up at my house around 4 on Tuesday afternoons and hangs with me till about 8:45, or whenever Jill and Amelia get back from Ms. A’s tennis lessons in the cities. We cover a lot of ground in that short time together, Ottz and me, literally and figuratively. We usually take a walk shortly after he arrives. Or, as he tells his mom, with that look on his face, “Jenny’ll probably make me walk with her all the way to the dumpster, with a sack of garbage again,” referring to the bag of organics waste that I bring to the recycling site a half a mile or so away. He’s not lying. Last week, we were still stomping on ice along the edges of the streets and sidewalks. This week, the ice is gone, so are most of the puddles, and it’s nice enough to take a spin through Spring Lake Park. We find a big open field, where Otto tosses his football around a while (kid’s got uncle Kurt’s arm), until a remote control drone buzzing and diving overhead nearly drives Rocco over the edge of insanity, so we resume our walk and eventually make our way home.

Otto reads for about 20 minutes while I get dinner ready. I ask him how salmon, broccoli and rice sounds, face-deep in a Minecraft game that’s not his book, he mutters, “yeah, sure.”

“Put the iPad away, you need to read first. Or, we can get takeout from somewhere, if you’d rather,” I offer. He looks up from his game. “No, that’s okay, you can’t ever go wrong with salmon!” he says with a grin, reaching for a book. That he choses a home-cooked meal over pizza or Micky D’s gets me in the feels every time. Salmon it is.
After dinner (he nearly always finishes what I make, with extra helpings of vegetables, if you can believe that), he usually calls a friend and/or his dad right away; last night, he’d brought a book along titled, “Bet You Didn’t Know” or something along that line, and entertained me with trivia tidbits as I scraped plates and loaded the dishwasher. “Bet you didn’t know Ben and Jerry’s employees get to take home THREE FREE pints of ice cream every day,” he tells me. I wonder aloud if B&J’s is hiring and if I can do the job via Zoom.

We’re still working on the shoe tying thing, so before he can call his pal, Lee, I say we have to give it a go a few times, Mom’s orders. The way things have gone the past few weeks, I would be lying if I said I didn’t think he might be destined to a future of velcro tennies, but I also believe in the magic of things like tying tennis shoes and riding bikes and falling in love—no one can explain when or how or why it happens, a cosmic alchemy of so many things, some seen but mostly unseen, coming together at just the right time, usually at that point when we’re about ready to give up and resign ourselves to a reclusive life of laceless shoes and walking, then BAM, the universe shifts ever-so-slightly in our favor. I’m really curious to see if my theory holds true.

Of course, there’s a little dramatic eye rolling and protesting and feet dragging involved, “but I don’t wannnnnnna tie my shooooes…I’m too tiiiiirrrrrreeeeddddd….I can’t doooooo iiiiitttt, Jennnnnnyyyyyy…..”

“I know you can do it,” I say, “maybe not today, maybe not next week, but every time, you get a little better, I just wanna see how things are going this week. Three tries on each foot, then you’re off the hook, k?” We park ourselves in my bedroom, he hunches over his feet and the tying commences. He’s got the first part down, it’s the follow-through that trips him up. His hands are big, like catcher’s mitts, but I know plenty of people with big hands who can tie their shoes, hell even play banjo, thread needles, sketch breathtaking pictures, and type like a mofo. I have faith.
I crouch beside him, coaching him through each step, which is probably more annoying than helpful. His first try is totally half-assed; he’d rather call his friend, I can so tell. He drops the laces in disgust. “Seeeeee?? I told you can’t doooooo ittttttt,’ he whines. Of course, I imitate him, because I’m the adult here. Then I say, “Yessssss you caaaaaan. Imagine that tying your shoes is like that Minecraft game you’re so good at—for every step you complete, you get five points.” He gives me that look. “That’s dumb,” he says, but he’s also intrigued, I can tell. He hunkers down and starts again.

“Look!” I say, “there’s five points already, just for starting! And another five for that first crossover, and another five for that fabulous loop, and another for that second crossover—don’t let go! don’t let go!” I cheer him on, “now, tuck that part in there—don’t let go! don’t let go!—now, pull your fingers out and grab that piece—yes, that one! pull each loop—you’re sooo close, soooooo close— go easy peasy, George and Weezy—”

Otto stops mid-tie and looks up at me with That Look that reminds me so much of Jill in the photograph, it’s uncanny. “I don’t know what that even means—must be a cringy-aunt thing to say,” he says, dead-pan serious. “Excuse me?” I say, falling back onto the bed, laughing, “Did you say ‘cringy aunt thing to say’??!!”

“Don’t worry,” he says, “Gretchy says cringy things, too!” and now we’re both laughing. “Okay, just one more try on each foot, Ottz—you were soooooo close the last time, did you see that?” A little more whining, but he gets down to business, and if I weren’t watching like a hawk and whispering little coaching tidbits the whole time, I might not have believed it myself—the first cross over, the loop, the second cross over, the tuck, the pull and TA-DA—a perfectly tied tennis shoe, by the Amazing Ottz! We both leap from our hunkered down positions, erupt into squeals and let the high-fives fly, which sends Rocco into a barking frenzy not unlike what happened at the park with the drone, so we quickly reign in the celebratory antics to whispers and golf claps. “Rocco’s sure a party pooper, isn’t he?” I have to agree.

It was Otto, not me, who says, “okay, I’m going to do it one more time on each foot, but I don’t want you to say anything, just let me do it, okay?” so I have to sit with my hands clamped over my mouth and simply watch as the cosmic alchemy plays out again before my eyes, once again proving my theory true. Next week, it’s bikes, y’all. xo.

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