My nephew Nick, he’s a father now. A husband, too. That’s hard for me to fathom.
I remember the day he was born.
It was a Friday in November, a month before my 16th birthday. I stood in a stadium ringed with screaming fans, right there on the 40-yard line, listening to Foghat ping-pong in my head as I crouched like some jittery meerkat across from a team I had grown to hate.
That was the Rocks of St. Andrews High in their puke blue. I was in the red, white and glorious gold of the Middleton High Razorbacks playing what’s known as a “monster back,” a mash-up of a position that was half-corner, half-linebacker, the so-called smart guy who read offenses and went to its strong side.
I always loved that name – monster back.
Anyway, we always played our last game of the year against St. Andrews, our cross-town rivals, and we competed on a football field beside their high school.
But it was our field, too.
Our stadium was hidden from the road by these huge oaks you find everywhere in West Ashley, a cozy section of Charleston, SC, where you can smell the salt of the ocean, the stink of the marsh and the stench from a paper mill — all in the same day.
That is, if the wind blew right.
We in West Ashley had grown accustomed to that distinct Lowcountry perfume. Back then, we also had grown accustomed to that Friday night in the fall where we, the Razorbacks from Middleton, traded licks and insults with the Rocks of St. Andrews.
The game always carried some big-time weight.
We all had grown up together. We had spent our school days in the same classes, the same ball yards and the same blacktop. By our teenage years, some of us partied together on Saturday nights and sat in the same pews on Sunday mornings.
But that one game divided our section of the city and stoked the passion not unlike what I see happening statewide the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Huge swaths of my home state turn garnet or Popsicle orange when South Carolina plays Clemson.
The South Carolina-Clemson football game is akin to what happens when Duke plays North Carolina in basketball.
Same kind of thing. It’s intense.
Like those big games, the Middleton-St. Andrews match-up always brought out the rowdy in fans.
Every year, fans from both schools poured into the stadium, and hatred seemed to bloom big. Banners hung from the rails. People did, too. They hollered and hurled obscenities at the refs, the players and the familiar faces known from many years past.
That night, I ignored the raucous din. My pre-game ritual helped. I always slipped on a pair of headphones a few hours before the game, laid on my bed and listened to “Slow Ride” by Foghat over and over on my brother’s old turntable.
It’s just like that last scene from “Dazed & Confused.” That tune from Foghat’s 1975 release “Fool For The City” always put me in a football frame of mind.
So, that night, I stood on the 40-yard line and listened to Roger Earl’s thunderous drums drowning out the noise around me as I chewed on a mouth guard that had the consistency of a hard piece of gum.
But for some reason that night, I looked to the sidelines and there, hanging from the rail, waving his arms and trying to get my attention was my dad.
And he was yelling.
I couldn’t hear a thing he said. I moved toward the sidelines with my arms raised, shaking my head, pointing at my helmet and thinking, “What is he doing?”
Then, my father — the retired sergeant major, the man who once made a living barking at young soldiers — bellowed. This time, I heard it.
“Your sister,” he yelled. “She just had a son! You’re an uncle!”
Right there, on a Friday night at the 40-yard line, I felt everything freeze around me. It was the third quarter or maybe the fourth. All I know was my body ached, my legs felt like rubber and my uniform smelled like a day-old sweaty sock.
But right then, that all seemed so inconsequential because I realized I had become an uncle to a kid I’d know for the rest of my life.
I had a good game that night. Middleton did, too. We won 33-0 and ended with a record of 8-2 and headed to the state playoffs. I had intercepted a pass and dropped another one that could’ve been a pick-6 — if it wasn’t for the bricks that passed for my hands that night.
Yet, after I got the news, my rival game or my performance didn’t seem so important. My older sister, my only living sibling, had given birth to a little boy named Nicholas John.
That … was a long time ago.
Nick Krapels is now on the doorstep of 40. But in my mind’s eye, I see this tall, lanky teenager with the shoulder-length hair, the one who hung by my hip 23 years ago as I helped park cars an hour or so before my wedding with a cigar clenched between my teeth.
Or I’ll see the teenager who went to a college beside the Hudson River I only knew from a Steely Dan song. After a stint in NYC working in an art gallery, he came back South, back to his hometown of Columbia, SC, to renovate houses, fall in love and play guitar in a band.
But really, I thought he came back to figure out where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do following a life buffeted by hardship and heartache.
Nick did figure it out. He graduated with a master’s degree in international business from my alma mater, the University of South Carolina — or what we simply call Carolina where I’m from.
Now, that alma mater belongs to Nick’s as well. Go Cocks.
Oh, I did worry about Nick. My parents did as well. My sister divorced his dad, and his dad died right before Nick turned 12. My sister later remarried, and by the time Nick hit his teenage years, my sister’s new husband began squawking about showing Nick the door.
The guy wanted Nick to move out at age 18. My parents hated that. They didn’t care for my sister’s new husband either. They had moved from Charleston to Lake Murray to be close to her. But really, they wanted to be close to their only grandchild at the time.
They did so love Nick.
My sister ended up divorcing that guy. She now has a compassionate partner, a trumpet-playing English professor, who treats her well.
She’s better. And Nick is better, too.
He now lives in China where he teaches, tutors and works to finish his doctorate in Chinese politics. He’s married to a beautiful woman named Liu Yang – they met in China through a friend – and they now have a beautiful 14-month-old girl named Pearl.
And she is one busy little girl.
Now, if you play word detective and dive into Google, you’ll find that the Persian word for “pearl” is margarita. And if you dig deeper, you’ll find that the French turned the word “margarita” into Marguerite.
That is my mom’s first name. Now, here’s the odd part.
Nick didn’t know that when he named his daughter.
Then, there is the whole dime thing that involves my dad.
A few years back, I wrote about it when I was a staff columnist at the News & Record. It was a throw-off column, something I needed to write to fill my space for a Sunday in early January when news can be snail-like slow.
That column touched a nerve. I got all kinds of responses from readers telling me their own signs they received after someone they loved had died. And the funny thing, I’ll run into folks today who still talk about that column and even send me dimes in the mail.
You’ll find that column here.
I still find dimes everywhere, 18 years after my dad’s death. Matter of fact, my son Will and I found dimes on a stone windowsill at the top of the Bunker Hill Monument when we Rowes visited Boston two summers ago.
I wrote about that on Facebook. Then, in that FB thread, Nick mentioned his own dime story. Of course, it involved my dad, the man Nick called “Bubba.” He wrote:
We are here today in Haicheng, Liaoning, China — some 7,000 miles away from our beloved South Carolina – when my in-laws kind of tricked me. They told me they wanted to have a “small lunch” to celebrate my parents coming to China to visit my wife and meet her parents. It turned into our wedding celebration with 120-plus people…
So Mom and I and William go to the hotel where my wedding celebration was going to be. There are two weddings there that day. My wife’s family rented 5 dining rooms for the 12 tables of family members to sit and eat. Our rooms are on the 5th floor. The other wedding is on the 4th. The patriarch of my family debates where he is going to sit the white folk. He deliberates over a few of the rooms. Some Chinese family members go into one room. Others stream into another. Our job is to manage the cake, so we remain occupied for a little bit.
Then finally, the patriarch motions to a certain room. And then to a certain table that has seats facing the door. In China, the guest of honor is supposed to sit facing the exit of the room. There are a few chairs that meet this qualification.
Mom places her fingers on one and then another and another. She eventually pulls out what would become my seat for the celebration. And guess what? There is a one yuan coin (value 15 cents, but basically a Chinese dime) sitting on the chair.
I pull out the other chairs in the room to see if this is some kind of Chinese ritual that I haven’t heard about yet.
No other chairs in the room have a 1 yuan coin in them.
Gotta love that Bubba.
To me, that’s a God thing.
It’s when you find some reminder of someone you lost at the oddest — and often the most emotional — places and times of your life. It could be a dime, a maple leaf, a butterfly or a particular smell or song. It shows that angels walk among us and a Higher Power does exist.
At least I’d like to think so.
A few weeks back, Nick brought his new brood to Greensboro for a visit. We all did a lot of nodding, and Nick did a lot of translating. See, Liu doesn’t speak hardly any English. Meanwhile, we watched Pearl scoot around our house and pick up everything within reach.
You know, I’m STILL trying to find my favorite bottle opener.
Anyway, at one of our last meals together, we Rowes found out how Nick proposed to Liu in front of the Taj Mahal — yeah, that place — and how he did it on bended knee at sunrise with a photographer capturing every moment.
And they had to drive two hours to get there.
“Why do I have to get up so early to go to this place?” she says through Nick.
And when Nick proposed?
“Very good,” she says through Nick.
She laughs. We all laugh. And as I listen and as we all go back and forth about much, I keep thinking about a passage I stumbled upon in “A Gentleman In Moscow,” a book I had just finished. When I read it, I thought, “Yeah, that’s right.”
It’s when the book’s main character — the Count — talks about how his daughter, Sophia, is growing up and moving on with her life. Amor Towles, the book’s author, wrote:
“We should be dedicating ourselves to ensuring that they taste freely of experience. And we must do so without trepidation. Rather than tucking in blankets and buttoning up coats, we must have faith in them to tuck and button on their own. And if they fumble with their newfound liberty, we must remains composed, generous, judicious. We must encourage them to venture out from under our watchful gaze, and then sigh with pride when they pass at last through the revolving doors of life ….”
After Nick returned to China, I shot him a few questions through Facebook, just stuff I forgot to ask. Chalk it up to the journalist in me – or maybe the curious uncle. I just wanted to know.
Like about what he learned in China that surprised him.
“Sitting on the toilet is a luxury that many people in the world do not and can not enjoy. That coffee in the morning is really, really important to me. That is doesn’t take much money to live and even less to be happy. That you gotta follow your heart, all else be damned. That the only way to learn any language, perceived to be difficult or not, is to live in the culture and practice every day.”
Or what he has learned as a husband and a father.
“I’m just more patient. Being in a relationship is not easy and kids just make that more difficult. Kids can be trying, and I’m sure I was hell on my mom and dad. So, I guess I appreciate them raising me the way they did a lot more. It’s not an easy journey, being a parent, but one I wouldn’t turn down for anything else. When you see your daughter smile or sound out a new word, the joy is incomparable.”
And if China had become his home.
“Yes, China is home. I just wish it were better environmentally. That’s always been my assessment of living here, ever since I first spent the summer of 1999 in Qingdao. But the 6,000-year culture, the economic opportunity and just the adventure of everyday life is very satisfying.”
Nick’s answers make me think of Richard Wright. In his autobiography, “Black Boy,” Wright talked about why he left Mississippi for Chicago. He wrote:
“I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown. I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom.”
Seems Nick is doing that same thing, finding the warmth of another sun on the other side of the world.
And yet …
A few days after leaving us, he took Liu and Pearl to Charleston to see the relatives I’ll know until the end of my days. During that trip, they visited The Battery, a tree-shaded Charleston landmark that my dad – Nick’s Bubba – drove by every Sunday after church.
My dad would always wax poetic about what he saw or what he felt. Nick does that, too.
He posted this pic on Facebook, a pic he took at sunrise on The Battery.
With it, he wrote:
“I went down there this morning to remind me of the summer I spent at C of C. Every now and then I’d sneak down there at sunrise to see the porpoises frolic in the quiet golden waves, the solitary blue heron hover just above the water, and the pelicans fly in threes in a similar fashion… all just before the first human padded by absorbed in their futile attempt at keeping fit by jogging.
“I thought, ‘That’s the REAL Carolina.’ The environment that tempted our forefathers to leave England and make a go of it at the southern tip of a dreary peninsula draped in Spanish moss.”
Yeah, what Nick said.
China may be home. But the South, well, it ain’t ever going to be too far away.