Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Happy 50th to my sister Suzi, a perpetual high-flier

My sister Suzi turns 50 on June 26, a milestone I find hard to grasp. Empirical evidence that Suzi really is that old abounds, such as her son graduating high school a few weeks ago, but my mind’s eye still sees my eldest sister in her lavender oasis of a room in our childhood home, putting on her soccer uniform, diligently practicing the clarinet, or picking out the perfectly on-point outfits that led Dad to call her “Fashion Plate.” Maybe I’ve trapped my image of Suzi in her formative years like a bug in amber because I refuse to accept my own aging, but I think it’s also because her formative years left a huge impression on me, too.

I have long joked about Suzi’s first-born perfection, but she really does excel at nearly everything she attempts. A trait like consistently high performance — Suzi’s report cards showed up with A’s slathered all over them like peanut butter on bread– could have bred resentment and rebellion in us younger siblings, who suffered through countless teachers calling roll for the first time and saying, “Oh, you’re Suzi’s sister?” They gushed those two syllables in a way you just knew meant, “I wonder if angelic near-perfection runs in the family?”

With a last name like Yankosky, trying to claim I belonged to some other clan was pointless, so my choices were to try to rise to the occasion, or to recalibrate the teachers’ standards by stinking up the joint. I chose Door #1, not because I’m high-minded but because I thought Door #2 would get me thrown out of the house. My sister Lynne and my brother, L.J., made similar choices, possibly for similar reasons. As I watched Suzi ace elementary, middle, and high school in rapid succession, ultimately landing herself at the University of Virginia, I saw that academic achievement didn’t just make you a nerd or your parents happy (though it accomplished both of those things); it opened doors. Whether or not my sister meant to, she set an example that was so powerful and positive, I couldn’t help but want to go down a similar path.

Over the years I realized that example transcends academics and comes down not to what my sister does but who she is. To commemorate Suzi’s five decades on Earth, I’ve decided to share five of the most enduring things I’ve learned from her:

  • Talent is nice, but it’s no substitute for hard work. My sister may have inherited some musical ability from my father, who used to bring down the house with renditions of exciting accordion hits like “Lady of Spain” and “Roll Out the Barrel.” (Dad played with some reluctance– generally a very redeeming quality in an accordion player –but when he did play, he was great and we loved it.) So maybe Suzi had a bit of a musical head start, but that didn’t make her first chair of Lake Braddock’s Symphonic Band and one of the best players in the state; the constant desire to improve her skills, along with the hours and hours she spent practicing up in her room, got her there. Those things also got the door to her room shut quite frequently because, no matter how good somebody is, the human ear can only withstand so much unfiltered clarinet. But closed door or not, I saw that consistent hard work is what it takes to get really, really good at something.
  • Don’t look for shortcuts. My sister does things right, even if she has to slow down to do it. She has patience and an ability to stay focused on details that I lack. If the two of us are asked to decorate 150 cupcakes to look like miniature American flags, all 150 of hers will look exactly the same and will feature delicate stripes and tiny icing stars coaxed lovingly from a pastry bag. I, by contrast, will crank out one, maybe two decent-looking cupcakes –fraternal twins at best– before the stars resemble an icing sneeze and the stripes an EKG readout. I then will declare, “This s&^t’s for the birds,” drive to the nearest grocery store, and buy a box of pre-decorated cupcakes topped with toothpick flags.
  • Be generous. Suzi was always better than the rest of us at sharing, maybe because she, unlike me and Lynne, didn’t have to deal with some other sibling coming along and taking over half of her room. Whatever the reason, my sister is unfailingly generous with every resource she has, whether it’s her time, cash, creativity, or encouragement. Need cupcakes for a school event, a birthday, or because it’s Tuesday? Suzi will make them, and, as I mentioned, they will be perfect. Launching a book? Suzi will drive four hours on a school night with her entire family in tow to rally behind you. (She will later drop your book into a sewer, but that early show of support enables you to overlook such minor lapses.)
  • Always take care of your team. Suzi sometimes watched us kids for short stretches when we were little. She never seemed to mind, perhaps because it cemented her place in my parents’ succession plan but more likely because she just enjoyed taking care of us and helping. (With an ethos like that, there was no way she was going to become the lawyer in the family.) We mainly liked it when Suzi was in charge — she was far more benevolent than our usual overlords –and she usually did a great job at it. I say “usually” because there was that time she took her eye off of my brother for all of ten seconds, during which he managed to crash into the concrete and split his his forehead open like a ripe banana. But hey, he needed to be toughened up. The point is, my sister likes to take care of people and, as any member of Team Yank will tell you, she’s really good at it. That attribute has also made her a great manager in the business world, where thus far her employees’ foreheads remain intact. As far as we know.

Last week, the entire Yank clan was in the Outer Banks for a few days, so we seized the chance to sneak in a surprise 50th celebration for Suzi, too. You know those planes that fly up and down the shore, trailing giant banners encouraging you to “Buy one shirt, Get 14 Hermit Crabs Free at T-Shirt Emporium”?

Well, we hired one to fly past with a banner that said, “Happy 50th Birthday, Suzi!! Team Yank loves you!”

Yep, Sooz, we sure do. Happy 50th birthday to a sister for whom they sky’s the limit.
19146063_10213169988146065_3386902166242638932_n19225756_10213169988306069_5557861478393974838_n

Celebrating 50 Years of Team Yank with a 21-Fun Salute

My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on April 16.

Fifty years of marriage —600 months –is a big deal. A very big deal. I can’t begin to comprehend such a feat, especially considering my marriage to the Lawnmower lasted two percent as long. My siblings and I were determined to make a very big deal of this very big deal. We booked a private room at Fireworks, a cool pizza and craft brew joint in Arlington, for a celebratory Team Yank dinner and invited Mom and Dad’s siblings to join us.

I woke up on the morning of the party feeling an odd mix of emotions: unadulterated joy for my parents on reaching this milestone, gratitude to them for showing us that people and love matter most of all, nostalgia for our years together as a family, and an unrealistic but understandable desire to hold on to all of this, and them, forever. As I drove to my parents’ house to spend some pre-party time with my brother and his family, those emotions formed a swell of sentiment that threatened to crest. To stay ahead of the wave, I cranked up a few of my favorite Earth Wind and Fire songs, and that got me to my parents’ house. The Roommates happened to be there too, a sight that never fails to improve my mood.

An hour and a half later, I was wrapping up my visit and getting ready to run some party-related errands and Emily, who may have detected that swell of emotions rising up in her aunt, said, “Can I come with you?”

As we got in the car, I told her she’d made my day. The minute we backed out of the driveway, we lowered the windows, opened the sunroof, and fired up our favorite tunes in preparation for a rolling dance party. We hit our stride twenty minutes later when she cued up “Walkin’ on Sunshine,” complete with air guitars and arms-through-the-open-roof dance moves. I was feeling so sunny I almost didn’t mind having to go to Michael’s: we needed a frame for one of the gifts we’d gotten my parents. Emily, who is Arts and Crafts people, was elated about this pit stop, so I didn’t feel guilty about using her as a human shield as we entered the store.  We knocked out our task in short order and had a little extra time, so I told her to pick something out for herself.

In a move that just might land her a spot on our Peeps squad next year, she asked, “Can I get a glue gun?”

Off we went, me carrying a frame and Emily concealed-carrying some Elmer’s. When we got to my house, we assembled the gift, grabbed the fancy gold wrapping paper I’d bought and some tape, threw it all in a bag, and Uber’d over to the restaurant. We got everything set up and needed only to wrap the gift. That job required the perfection of my sister Suzi, but I knew when she arrived she’d be busy setting up a cake she had decorated (flawlessly, no doubt). I decided to give it my best shot. I put Emily in charge of handing me pieces of tape, a job she performed admirably. The super-fancy paper I’d bought, however, seemed repulsed by a pedestrian adhesive like scotch tape. We couldn’t get it to stick, no matter what we did.

Emily’s eyes met mine and I said what she had to be thinking, “Get the glue gun.” As the two of us hot-glued wrapping paper seams together, I noted that such a thing would never happen to Aunt Suzi.

“I know, right?” Em said. “I just wish she’d make a mistake sometime.” We finished the job just as Suzi was coming in with her perfect cake. Shortly thereafter, the aunt/uncle contingent arrived, followed by the rest of my siblings and their families, and then, to round out our 21-person gang, my parents.

My Aunt Kate, who is no slouch in the Fun Aunt department, sent my parents out of the room and closed the door so she could give them a proper wedding-style introduction like they got 50 years ago. Mom and Dad pranced in, arm-in-arm, and took a few twirls around our tiny dance floor. The party had begun.

After we’d all stuffed ourselves with delicious Italian fare, my siblings and I got the official program underway. We had decided that each person would share a favorite memory or story, and that my brother would give a toast at the end. We planned to go in order from oldest kid to youngest, but we didn’t coordinate our remarks with each other at all. I looked forward to my siblings’ stories. Though we have close relationships with each other and our parents, each of those relationships is a little bit different, and I love getting a glimpse into what they look like.

Suzi reminisced about the years in high school during which she had to sell citrus fruit as part of a fundraiser. Because Suzi’s always had a real knack for sales, for a few weeks every fall our home looked like a Tropicana warehouse. My father would spend hours driving her around, helping her deliver pound upon pound of fruit. Then Suzi mentioned my mother’s willingness to do absolutely anything for her kids and grandkids, including dropping everything a decade ago to help my sister out on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Philly and New York with Suzi’s three boys.

Lynne took a slightly different tack. Known as the “feisty” one when we were kids, she told a hilarious story about a doubles tennis match with my father gone seriously awry. Though she and Dad didn’t win that day, at least she, unlike me, managed not to bean her parental tennis partner in the back of the head. Lynne also talked about how my parents never lose sight of the little things that make us feel loved. In Lynne’s case, one of those little things is liverwurst, which my parents always keep in the fridge for her. (Maybe it’s just me, but if liverwurst is an act of love, I’d hate to see a show of hostility.) She also reminded us that, fifteen years ago, when Lynne had broken her arm and I had come down with bronchitis, Mom launched her own Meals On Wheels program, loading Dad up with tortellini soup for delivery to me and Lynne.

The stories my sisters told led precisely to the point I intended to make: even though Mom and Dad were a “them” long before the rest of us showed up, my parents have never, ever been about them. As I was making that point, that wave of emotions, which had continued to gather momentum all afternoon, got fully organized and swamped me. I pieced myself back together sufficiently to talk about how we get only tiny reminders of Mom and Dad as a “them,” such as when I watched them dance at my cousin’s wedding two summers ago. Or when they decided to go to Alaska in the summer of 2014 and I joined them, wanting to take in the “them” and their enjoyment. I will never forget the experience of riding in a small plane with them, landing on a glacier (on purpose, don’t worry), and actually setting foot on it. I watched the two of them stare in slack-jawed awe and I listened as they reveled in nature’s magnificence. They were right, it was astonishing, but to me the real natural wonders were the two of them and what they built together. As I was finishing my story, that infernal wave pummeled me again so I handed things over to L.J.

My brother began by sketching out memories in broad strokes, like the gift-laden Christmas mornings that began so early they were really still Christmas Eves, and our annual week-long vacations in the Outer Banks. Then L.J. talked about his baseball career, which my father nurtured at all points, first by hitting countless flies after work and on Sunday mornings after church, and then, when my brother went to Georgia Tech on a full athletic scholarship, telling my brother to leave him a ticket for games “in case I can make it.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that my father made it, every single time, sometimes even with Mom and always with her help. When L.J. reached the minor leagues – a place where dreams are big and salaries small –Dad handed him a literal blank check, something I never knew. And my brother had kept it all these years. As L.J. held it up, it seemed the same wave that hit me might have splashed onto him just a little bit too.

At last it was time for the toast, which reminded all of us that my brother handles words even more expertly than he does a baseball. He mentioned that Team Yank, which may not have won every game over the past 50 years but has a very solid record, has the attributes of the all-time great teams, like chemistry, strong fundamentals, and passion. He quoted Babe Ruth, who said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” That’s Team Yank in a nutshell: we love to play together, and when we do, we’re at our collective and individual best. Then we raised a glass to the greatest team any of us could ever hope to play on.

The party ended there but the story does not. Suzi and her family were staying with me, so we loaded up their car with all the leftovers. My brother-in-law drove so Suzi could sit in the passenger seat and hold the remaining half of that perfectly decorated cake on the ride home. We pulled into my driveway and I opened the car door just in time to hear a sound that looked just like this:

busted cake

The Cake Splat: No, of course it couldn’t have landed on the box, silly!

I couldn’t decide whether to call Emily or to get a piece of chalk so I could draw an outline around the cake where it died. It is perhaps fitting that four of us spent the waning moments of April 16 doing what Team Yank does best: laughing hysterically while batting cleanup.

team Yank parmesan

All 21 of us, in varying states of saying “Parmesan!” Sometimes plain ol’ “cheese” works best…