On one side of the family equation, middle-aged Michael and Grace have a daughter just learning to drive, a son who broke his ankle playing football, and plenty of worries about their kids’ companions.
Will there be drinking at that party? Drugs? Could daughter Maria’s new boyfriend be taking advantage of her?
And what will it be like when Maria moves away from her longtime home into a college dorm?
If you think that sounds stressful, consider the other side of the family equation in “Just Like Fred Astaire,” a new book by author and former Times Leader journalist Joe Sylvester, of Bloomsburg.
Smack dab in the middle of the sandwich generation, the fictional Michael and Grace have similar concerns about Michael’s elderly father, Johnny.
Johnny’s not driving as well as he used to. Should his son take away the car keys?
Some young women in his neighborhood may not have the retired gentleman’s best interest at heart. Could they be bringing him uncomfortably close to a drug deal?
And what will it be like when Johnny moves away from his longtime home into senior housing?
The bittersweet story about trying to help an aging parent is based on Sylvester’s own experiences, especially the time after his mother, Antoinette, died in 2002, and his father, Peter, began to suffer from dementia.
“I did actually ‘steal’ his keys a few times, and eventually his car,” said Sylvester, who wrote about the character Michael using the same methods to curtail Johnny’s driving.
“Oh, he was not happy,” Sylvester said of his father. “And he had all these spare keys around,” which prolonged the ordeal.
“It would be ideal if an elderly person could live at home with family,” Sylvester said. “I personally, and the character too, felt a lot of guilt about ‘not being able to take care of Dad.’”
But the book doesn’t mirror Sylvester’s experience in all respects.
While the author is a reporter for the Sunbury Daily Item and news editor for the Danville News — and previously worked at the Times Leader and the Scranton Times-Tribune — the character Michael owns a delicatessen.
“I’ve never run a deli,” Sylvester said with a laugh, explaining that giving the character that occupation was “kind of an inside joke, because he’s in the sandwich generation.”
Being in the middle isn’t easy, but the book reminisces about some real-life joys, including the way Johnny and his eventual wife, Gaetana, meet at a dance, just as Sylvester’s parents did. Johnny’s strategy of winning over Gaetana’s mother with gifts of ice cream is just what Sylvester’s father did, right down to bringing it in Dixie cups.
Why did Peter Sylvester have to make that extra effort?
“He grew up in Jessup, and she was from Dunmore. In those days, if somebody didn’t live in the same town, they were under suspicion,” Sylvester explained.
It didn’t help that Sylvester’s father’s heritage was only half Italian. To his mother’s Sicilian clan, that was almost foreign.
Throughout the book, partner dancing in the style of Fred Astaire offers a kind of release to Johnny.
Similarly, writing the book helped Sylvester work through his emotions as his father declined and, in 2010, passed away.
“It took four and a half years to write it,” the author said. “It was cathartic.”
“Just Like Fred Astaire” is available at amazon.com.