My brothers and sisters and I grew up in a big house on 51st & Colfax, when the neighborhood was crawling with baby-boomed Catholic families. My dad had his own upstairs office that was filled with stacks and shelves of books, a tiny TV, and a door that was always wide open. All six of his kids walked through that door countless times, collapsing on his couch to find guidance, warmth, wisdom, laughs, and a few bucks “off the bat.”
My dad turns 80 in May. He’s had some health problems in the last few years, but he’s still up and around and kicking. He grew up in this neighborhood, behind the Boulevard Theater and a block from Annunciation church and grade school, and everywhere I go these days I see signposts from his and our youth. It seems like we’re getting ready to say goodbye, but I’m not quite ready for that, so today I want to talk about a lesson my father passed on to me, maybe by mistake, maybe the most important one.
When I was 8 or 9, my daughter’s age, my dad would come into the bedroom I shared with my brother and lie down on my bed, face down on the pillow, exhausted after a hard day’s work as an employment counselor. Outside the window, the stars winked and promised UFO sightings — a potentiality that enthralls us both to this day. As soon as he got comfortable, my dad, still in his work shirt and tie, would gently demand, “Gimme a skerch.”
For most of the world, the more common term is “back scratch,” but somewhere along the line Dad morphed it into “skerch.” When he asked, we’d set to it, always more pleasure than chore, under or over the shirt, and never longer than five or 10 minutes. As we grew up, the older kids would pay the younger kids a quarter for a skerch as we played Boggle or Scrabble or watched sitcoms, sports, the news, or Leo Buscaglia, the hugging guru of the day who said:
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Diane Ackerman, in her amazing “A Natural History of the Senses,” said that “touch might be as essential as sunlight,” which is likely not news to the thousands of SAD sacks around this burg. To be sure, there are all sorts of studies out there about how touch helps and heals. It connects us to another life form, gets us in touch with each other and our own inner pack dog, and soothes the savage beast. It’s why we go to massage therapists, have pets and crave the warmth of another body. Personally, I’m convinced that giving each other back scratches all those years is what has kept my family close over the years, passing it on, as we have, to spouses, lovers, and other animals as we go.
Beyond the touch part, the skerch would always lead to a story or a talk. Dad would tell me about his work, I would tell him what I did at school. He would make up a story, I would make up a story. It’s part of what set me on a path of seeking and story-telling, which brought me to two book stores last Sunday, doing what my dad has spent his life doing: browsing.
I picked up five new books, including Anais Nin’s “Henry and June,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and Rabbi Irwin Kula’s “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” which states early on:
“Jewish wisdom teaches that our yearnings generate life. Desire animates. As the prophet Amos says, ‘Seek Me and live.’
Jewish wisdom urges us to go for it, to seek answers to our deepest questions, to search for spiritual and personal fulfillment while knowing we will never finally get there — oh, but the discoveries we’ll make along the way! We are meant to live, to search with intention. When we can uncover our deepest longings for intimacy, pleasure, creativity, and self-understanding, life yields illumination and happiness. Far from being a burden, our desires themselves become a path to blessing.”
I can draw a straight line from bolts of wisdom like that to my boyhood bedroom, and as I make my way now as a man and father, part of my studies will always be linked to the action of my hand gliding over my father’s back, his oil and sweat pooling under my fingernails, and knowing even then how special it was.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.