Poppie's Lessons Remembered

Jack Cyphers, our Poppie, was a remarkable man: wise, practical, brave, athletic, charismatic. He taught us a lot—plenty of lectures, usually over an unnecessarily long phone call or while waiting for him to finish a meal on the porch at the lake. Here’s a lesson: your cereal won’t get so soggy if you don’t pause after every bite to orate about the furnaces at Bethlehem Steel.


But best were the lessons gleaned from hands-on activities and adventures. And I do mean adventures because with him, I always found myself risking my health and breaking rules posted on signs: no trespassing, dogs must be leashed, buckle up, etc.   


Committing to any activity with Poppie was sacrificing your whole day—not to mention a potential fine. You never knew what repair you’d suddenly have to help with, how many boring adults you’d have to listen to while he made his social rounds, or what death-defying feat he’d suddenly push you to undertake. Blow torches, tennis balls, box cutters, jumper cables, taxidermy skills… all would be needed—he was MacGyver meets Handy Manny, minus the Spanish fluency.


Today—and every day, really—I’m taking those same lessons and applying them to my parenting skills, proudly passing them down to the next generation.


Lesson #1: Brave the fear and be persistent.


Many of our lessons happened at the lake, where after morning exercises, a dog walk, a big breakfast, and a morning project, we’d head over to the beach. There were two shiny, metal sliding boards that flanked the stretch of sand, complete with buoys and nylon ropes to mark off the designated swimming area.


One slide was small, probably six feet high, intended for younger children. It dumped its riders into about eighteen inches of water, where everyone celebrated happily and safely.


The other slide, though, was…[gulp]…big. It was about as high as the forehead of an oversized brontosaurus—the Hakeem Olajuwon of brontosauruses. It dumped its riders into a deep abyss of green water that was over a mile deep! Each morning the lifeguards buttered and greased that metal surface so even the most abrasive of bathing suits would skate down at record speeds. Bull sharks and venomous water snakes and electric eels—and probably child molesters, too!—lurked just beneath the surface, waiting for their next meal.


Anyway, the second slide was the one Poppie wanted me to try.


“No, thanks! I’m good!” I’d call as my bony butt plopped onto the sandy bottom beneath the smaller slide. Smiling at the friendly ducks and sunfish who welcomed me into their haven of sunshine, I was happy. Safe.


But as was his character, Poppie persisted and convinced me to climb the rickety metal steps up to the top of the larger slide. He stood in the water at the bottom—giant legs, I guess—and splashed water onto the slide, making it even more slippery, faster.


“Come on, Erin!”


Perched at the top of the slide, my white knuckles, tightly and permanently strapped to the handles, I shook my head and refused to budge. Out of the corner of my eye, I took note of the line of kids—Saylorsburg’s bravest—growing behind me, impatiently waiting to brave the dangerous.


Poppie did not give up, though, and we’d go through the same ritual day after day, weekend after weekend: me stationed at the top of the slide and Poppie waiting at the bottom.


Until the day I finally gave in. I have no recollection of what finally convinced me to let go and slide down. Perhaps I counted one less shark fin in the water. Perhaps the lifeguard on duty seemed a bit more competent. Perhaps it finally dawned on me that Poppie wasn’t actually trying to kill me.


And I have to admit, as my body twisted upward toward the surface and water shot from my nose and throat, the adrenaline rush was kind of fun. Exhilarating almost. I mean, I still screamed and desperately reached for Poppie to lift me from the abyss and impending shark bites, but I emerged from the water with a sense of accomplishment. And Poppie was thrilled—proud of me and probably pleased with his dedication.


The slide is gone now—liability reasons, of course—and I don’t know which moral has been more impactful for me: to brave the fear or to be persistent, but both bubble to the surface as I drown each day in the parenting lake. I fear Sam’s tantrums, but out of love I muster my courage and deny him gum for breakfast anyway. And just because Nate shies away from attempting his two-wheeler or putting broccoli into his mouth one day doesn’t mean I’m not going to try again the next. And the next after that. So that they, too, can experience that same sense of pride and accomplishment.



Lesson #2:  Take risks and ignore the laws of physics.


Poppie really wanted to teach all of his grandchildren to sail at early ages. I remember one particularly traumatizing sailing lesson when I was about five. To be fair, I was already pretty fragile that day after a taking a nasty spill while running—as kids do—down a steep hill and slicing my knee on a rock. The cut was deep, though painless, and generated a long river of thick, dark red blood down my shin.


It also generated lots and lots of tears. Silent tears, though. Silent and discreet. I feared medical interventions of any kind, whether it be antiseptic and a Band-Aid, an amputation, or a blow-torch cauterization, so I hid my wound. Once I started to track bloody footprints around the linoleum kitchen floor of the kitchen, though, my grandmother caught me, slapped a Band-Aid on my skinny kneecap, and sent me down to the lake for sailing.


I sat in the hull of the Sunfish as Poppie tacked up and down the lake and coached me through keeping the sail taut and managing the rudder.


It was literally smooth sailing for an hour or so, despite the chafing on my neck from my bright orange life preserver. But the weather soon started to worsen and rain began to fall from the low hanging stratus clouds that had been protecting me from sunburn. The drops gradually got larger and more frequent as the wind picked up and worst of all, the clouds were rolling into each other and thunder was starting to send deep, vocal threats our way.


I blinked a smattering of raindrops from my eyes and glanced up at the mast. The metal mast. Then I remembered that kindergarten meteorology lesson that lightning usually accompanies thunder.


“Uh, Poppie? I think we should go back now. This is a thunderstorm.”


“What are you talking about? It’s just a little rain.”


“But there’s thunder and lightning. And water conducts electricity!” Ok, my thirty-two year old self added that last part, not sure if my five year-old self was aware of that physics law.


“We’re just starting to get good wind! Pull the boom in tighter!” he commanded.


I wiped away the tears that were now mixing with the raindrops and pulled in the rope. I knew it: we were going to die.


But ever the mathematics devotee, Poppie was calculating the odds. He knew a lightning strike was out of the question, much too rare to be worried about. I guess it’s the same reason he never played the lottery. Or worried about bull sharks in the lake.


And he was right, of course. The storm generated some exciting wind and we sped up and down the lake, although I was too frightened to enjoy myself. Poppie, though, had a great time, waving and calling to his friends onshore, and whether it was safety concerns or my nagging pleas, he eventually agreed to return us to the dock.


Lesson #3: Always be prepared for worst-case scenario. And bombs.


As the oldest grandchild, I was the first to learn to drive—a project that Poppie took very seriously. Cars were deadly weapons, he’d remind us. Which was fitting because he also taught us how to shoot guns.


His rules were strange: no talking, no radio, and my favorite: no seatbelts in the neighborhood! He wanted me to be prepared for any potentially catastrophic situation a car could bring about.


“What are you gonna do, what are you gonna do??!” he’d shout while leaning over the center console slamming his hand down on the accelerator, jolting the car forward, faster and faster. My brothers, screaming and wide-eyed with fear in the backseat of the hand-me-down Toyota Camry, were donned in bike helmets and not because they didn’t trust me.


Would he really kill us all in the interest of teaching a good lesson? Maybe.


“When would this ever happen in real life??!” I’d shriek, gripping the steering wheel, the scenery blurring past me outside the car.


“You never know! Cars will be driven by computers soon! You have to be prepared for their malfunctions!” He was right about that.


Sometimes he’d lean over and throw on the emergency brake. Once he tried to wrestle the steering wheel from my hands as we cruised through a parking lot.


“What are you doing?!”


“You have to be prepared!”


“For what? A crazed passenger?”


I faintly recall him guiding me through procedures in case I found explosives in my car. Like I was Keanu Reeves or Vin Diesel. Thank God that piece of tutelage was restricted to just a lecture, not a hands-on drill.


But his wisdom still percolates in me as I pack a bag each morning. Snacks, got ‘em.  Sweet and salty. Diapers and wipes, got ‘em. Water bottles, got ‘em. Extra bottle of ketchup, got it. Extra pack of gum in case Sam consumes the first, got it. Sure we’re just headed to the playground for thirty minutes before running a quick errand or two, but the preparedness helps me be brave. So does coffee. Poppie drank it black.


I’m not claiming that I can attribute all of my parenting prowess to Poppie because obviously there’s also been a lot of luck and grace and prayers. And let’s not forget Tighe’s interventions. But at least I can say that Poppie’s laid the groundwork. I’m brave. I’m persistent. I’m risky. I’m prepared. Bring it on, bull sharks.