Clean and Empty

Well, the summer houseguests are gone,and now I’m cleaning and putting the rooms to rights, vacuuming up the hundreds of spider webs that I just KNOW weren’t here two weeks ago (A spider web from the mirror on my bureaus to the curtains on my window!  A spider web WITH A SPIDER, not five feet from the bed, where I have been sleeping all week…


with David a thousand miles away bringing the wonders of foam to a grateful nation.

The vacuuming part is actually sort of fun. It reminds me of going to Confession in the hard old days when you had such terror about having to report every bad intention never mind every bad act; but afterwards – ah! – You felt so clean! Shriven was the word they used. This house is shriven!

The sleeping-alone part seemed like it might be fun for a change but it hasn’t been.

Oh at first it was cool knowing I had the bed to myself and piling all kinds of things in there with me but after that…  I don’t know.

Last night I tossed and turned.

I miss the old ball and chain and when he gets off that plane at 4pm today I can tell you I will be HAPPY to see him, that wiper-down of counters  and picker-up of sticks outside, that meticulous householder. I suppose he’ll notice right away that I ran over a giant bottle of Nivea with my car. It exploded with a loud crack when it went under the wheels and sprayed its special Super Enriching formula in a 30-foot delta across the driveway.

Yeah. He’ll notice that. He is  one vigilant guy.


Here is a picture of him now, keeping watch over our littlest one’s supper that time we took all the kids to Disney World. (Or, come to study it more, he might just be eyeing everyone’s leftovers.)

I hope he even gets here early. I think I’m growing a little odd without him. Can you say Grey Gardens? 🙂

There was something cool about old Edith Beale but ice cream in bed taken straight from the cartoon is generally a bad idea. 🙂

Saints? We’re No Saints

Somebody said to me yesterday, “You and your husband must be saints, having teenagers in the house all summer”  -see yesterday’s post “The Give and the Get” – but it makes me so uncomfortable when people start with that you-must-be-saints stuff.

I grew up in a three-generation household so it feels totally normal to me to have a bunch of people under one roof and I’m guessing it feels normal to  Old Dave too. Wasn’t he one of four brothers in a three-bedroom house that also included a single aunt?

Didn’t he share a room with that aunt as a baby?

These are the four Marotta boys on the left here. That’s oldest brother Toby looking like a teen idol, then my future husband David with his striped shirt and his white teeth, then in the front row younger brothers Skip and Jeff.

Even here in our current house we’ve had many years when there were six or even seven kids, only three of whom our biological ‘own’ kids – and this is back in the era when we had just one shower. .

David does occasionally have insomnia these days, so the one request I made to the guys when they moved in last June was that they be out of the downstairs after midnight which is when the affliction really hits. I figure what sleepless adult born before the first moon landing wants to come downstairs with his George R.R. Martin book to find a 17-year-old draped on the couch in front of the Cartoon Network?

They got that. Of course they got that. They also got it that I don’t want to be chatted with when I’m writing.

And for our part we ‘got’ some things too. A long time ago we started ‘getting’ it that most houseguests don’t want to be fussed over. Accordingly, we showed the boys the spoons and dishes and bought them the right milk and the right cereals and the kinds of chees and rolls and coldcuts that they like. We showed them the pots and the cutting boards and kept the fruit bowl full and that was about all we had to do.

They were easy – in part because they are ABC Scholars, young people who because of their academic ability and their ambition applied as eighth graders to the national A Better Chance program and ended up coming here to this town with its first-rate high school. They left home and family at 14 to do this – some came at 13 – and they know better than most of us how to navigate new waters.

Plus having lived with one another in the ABC House, they’re wonderfully neat. The bathroom they used all summer never had so much as a wet towel in it never mind any toiletries. They carry those things in and when they’re done they carry them back out again.

Then they’re so funny and smart and they wrestle each other to the floor just like I used to see Dave’s brothers do with him when we were young and I was first coming into the Marotta family.

So saints? We’re no saints. We’re just doing what we’ve always done in this house. This below is Dodson, our own ABC host son, when he lived here too just before heading off to college in long-ago 1990. Then under that here is he is again teasing our oldest girl Carrie. They painted the study for me and earned money pulling  the old shingles off the front porch roof that summer. I look at these pictures and remember back over  these last two months and think, well, the fun is where you make it in life!

The Give and the Get

It’s not hard to love the people who live in your house. They’re right there in your house, so you really SEE them,  almost from inside their very own eyes!

I mean here’s this one’s toothbrush, and comb, for example and the towel he uses each day for his shower, tokens of the daily care-of-the-body tasks we all must perform each day.

Here’s the book that one reads when sleep eludes him. He has left it on the porch, thinking maybe to pack it on his bike and take it to work to read at the lunch hour.

And here, under the bureau: here is a balled-up sock where it has landed after being taken off and tossed away some weary midnight.

You can never be annoyed at a person once you have seen these things.

I should say I don’t do actual maid service around here- not unless my houseguests are the ages of the two little ones I wrote about yesterday – so I see socks and such only sometimes, when these guys would be away for a week or two and I stripped their beds to washed their linens, just because everyone deserves clean linens….

But why don’t I back up a little here and explain this better: We have had four different young people staying in our house this summer, all part of the National Program for a Better Chance, all young men of on the cusp of college life.  No shower has gone forth without the muted boom of hip-hop pulsing from the bathroom. No golden summer afternoon has billowed into evening without the sound of their happy voices in the kitchen.

Two of them had jobs in this the first summer before heading off to Bard College RPI. That’s Cam and Tristan at the top here. Then a third, now a high school Senior, worked as a tech for a computer repair company, leaving for a two-week stint at Brown where he took a course in the computer operating system known as Linux . And a fourth, a high school Junior did a college tour, took a Neurobiology course at Emory and spent just a week with us, doing an SAT-prep boot camp at a great place called Chyten.  Boy Three did the same course and both came home each day at 5:00, brimming with news about all the English words derived from Latin.

The “give” By David and me was that they slept here and ate a little, though not very much I must say. They packed their own lunches so I just had to buy deli stuff , and it’s amazing how far a teen male can go on Pop Tarts and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Cocoa Puffs, foods I have never before stoked in this house. It’s true they like meat at night but hey so do we and if you’re grilling two nice fat burgers you might just as well grill six. I guess I also gave them rides to the Y so they could work out but again, I was going to the Y myself to catch those cardio classes I love so much.

So that was pretty much the ‘give.’ Not such a long list.

The ‘get’  list for me is much longer. I personally got:

  • Much more motivation to get to the Y than I would normally have.
  • Help putting away the groceries
  • Companionship in buying the groceries
  • All the emergency help I could ever have wanted with my PC, my i-Pad and i-Phone and even  my i-Pod when I dropped it in the sink that time
  • Help hanging drapes on extra-wide windows (Number Three has a six-foot wingspan) and..
  • A million laughs.

Here are House guest Numbers Three and Four, Rayvoughn and Hazees, helping me tote stuff in June.

Ray was with us almost the whole summer. He helped me, he teased David, he backed down from an arm-wrestle challenge from David (more than once) and he played with our little grandsons.

It’s  time now for him to start the long grind of applying to colleges.

He’s equal to the task I think. He’s a smart as a whip and hurdles just don’t scare him. even if he doesn’t always ZIP the life jacket even tough he put its mostly on, and maybe THAT’s the lesson he taught me this summer: Strike a humorous pose, look like you’re equal to any challenge and you might just pull it off!

When They Can’t Sleep, Neither Can You

What a time we have had in the summer of 2012. At the moment I can’t think back past last weekend when two very young guests had  a sleepover here, giving rise to my new understanding that when your house guests can’t sleep, you can’t sleep either. (And this is the younger one in a picture snapped by his brother who is three years older.)

I didn’t sleep more than two hours together that night. And when one of these little boys began weeping brokenly over the mosquito who wouldn’t leave him alone I did the only thing I could think to do:

“I’ll lie on the floor here” I said, “and we’ll keep watch together,” meanwhile thinking “Oh there’s no mosquito really.”

There WAS a mosquito all right, whose high tiny whine almost drove me mad as I too lay all quiet in the dark hoping to hear the child’s breathing change as he slipped into sleep.

It never did. And then of course I also ‘saw’ the world as he was seeing it; heard the sound of the trains swishing past the end of our street, and the deeper whine of motorbikes and the sound of traffic on the parkway.

I also began to realize just exactly how an invalid gets a bedsore as I felt my pelvis digging into the floor: There’s the hard knuckle of bone and the hard grain of oak and between them only half an inch of flesh and maybe three-quarters of an inch of that old Persian carpet. I could almost literally feel the red crater developing, which made me feel fresh pity for all people too debilitated to turn over.

I could turn over and I kept doing so. But then the little boy began again to weep so we collected up his special blanket and stuffed animals and climbed the stairs to try that third floor room with the crib in it.

Thank God that room ‘worked’ and he fell asleep – only ten minutes  before the OTHER little boy stumbled into the room Old Dave and I share,  where I was trying mightily to doze off.

“I can’t sleep TT,” he said miserably so now all three of us were awake.

For almost an hour it was like a Restless Leg convention in our bed until  I finally picked up my own favorite blankie  and stuffed animals and decamped to my office and the pull-out sofa this second  little guy had so recently vacated – which worked until 4am when he appeared by my head to say he was hungry.


His mosquito-plagued older brother always wakes before 6am , but he knows how to read so I didn’t hear from him for a while, bless his heart.

But the hungry younger one was wide awake bright and early and scaling the bookcases before the  sun had crested the horizon. Here HE is pondering his great grandfather’s library and looking happy as a clam.

He looks fresh as a daisy doesn’t he? I’ll spare you the picture  he took of me two minutes later. The bags under my eyes are still so heavy I need one of those airport carts to lug them around.

It was fine though. It was all part of a much larger weekend extravaganza also involving two teenaged boys, who were and have been our houseguests too.

I’m still changing beds and washing linens. More on all that when I’m done.

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A Late-August Memory (For Nan)

Every year at this time I think of the camp my sister Nan and I went to from the time we were five to the time we finished high school. This is Nan when she was five, here in the left.

Our mom and aunt owned and ran that camp, and how they agonized over it during the off-season, mailing their hopeful brochures, driving to meet mother-daughter pairs in the tearooms of the old hotels, anxiously counting and re-counting the number of campers signed up already.

And then how they worried as they ran it all summer! Would they have to deal again with that bear who appeared out of nowhere, nuzzling the little kids’ beach towels on the lines behind their cabins? Or with some misfit counselor who was mean to the kids, or the one who cried for hours, or the one with a bad yen to slip out nights and drink in some roadhouse? Would lightning, God forbid, strike one of the buildings, as it had that one summer?

They fretted constantly over these things, but Nan and I scarce gave them a thought.

We only loved the place.

We loved the weeks camp was in session of course, but we also loved the weeks beforehand, when we were the first kids of the summer to whack the new tetherball, big as the moon and buttery yellow; the first to visit the camp store pre-season, helping ourselves to the bottles of Halo, to the tubes of Gleem and Ipana, those health-and-beauty products of yore.

Then camp started, and we learned again all over again how to bunt and hit a backhand; how to make a fire and do the overarm sidestroke.

There were plays and track meets.

This is Nan as Anna in The King and I:

a summer’s-end banquet when even the six-year-olds won awards; and that magical last-night ceremony involving candles, when the big girls wept prettily over the pain of parting and the little ones made mischief with the wax.

Then suddenly by 5:00 the next afternoon they had all gone home, counselors and campers alike.  That’s when the fun resumed for Nan and me, as we took off into the empty camp, two kids alone with a world of sporting goods.  For hours we high-jumped. We played badminton. We shot arrows – thwock! – into a by-then mighty ‘thwock-marked’ target. We went again to that little closet that doubled as camp store again and helped ourselves to more Halo and more Ipana. We invaded the infirmary and took turns playing Broken Leg and Busted Appendix, then used the nurse’s chart to measure ourselves and see if we’d grown.

And we knocked that old tetherball silly. We ran to the lake and swam ‘til our fingers went blue and jumped and dove and cannonballed off the diving board.

We were giants for those weeks, champions, giants, amazons.

And then Labor Day came and we were home again, two pale kids in school uniforms, exchanging wordless looks when, escorted by a flying wedge of nuns, we passed in the no-nonsense hallways of that no-nonsense convent school.

Maybe it’s the feel of who you were in summer that’s slowest to fade as fall approaches.

I close my eyes and see Nan now, graceful as a deer, arcing up and up in a swan dive, then, in an instant, jacking her hips to reverse direction and slice narrow as a knife-blade into the water. I am ten and she is twelve which is what she is in this picture below (Nan on the left) and for me we are ten and twelve still, somehow; just as somewhere, for us all, summer lasts and lasts, and never ends.



Richard Nixon in a Wig

My cousin thought that was a picture of my wet bottom on the plane – see here – but that could never be me, and not only because it’s practically impossible to take a picture of your own backside.

It couldn’t be my bottom because I would never wear shorts on a plane.

Why not? Because I’m older than faxing, that’s why.

I may even be older than office photocopying. Wait let me check…. YUP. WAY older than office photocopying!

And when you’re old in this way you wouldn’t dream of wearing shorts when you fly. Instead you sort of dress up, a little, even today.

In the old days when a lady flew, she wore not just a skirt and heels but often a hat – a hat! And little white gloves, natch.

I just came across a few photos of me in my senior year of high school on a trip my family and I took to Our Nation’s Capital, which is what we called it back then.

I’m wearing the get-up I flew down in – well minus the hat because now we were touring around, in our high heels and our skirts and it was like 90 degrees although it was only April.

My mom had on this shawl-collared coat in fake cashmere. My sister Nan looked like Grace Kelly. And I looked like Richard Nixon if he dressed up as a woman.

Also a little like Imogene Coca. Remember her?

The point is we made this big effort and we made it because that was the expectation placed upon women: that we’d smile, and be charming and stoke male egos in all places and at all times. I remember weakling down a street when I was just 17, homesick, far from my family, getting plumper by the minute on the Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding Dinners the college kept serving us, accompanied by buttery homemade rolls and followed by puddings and thick chocolate cakes. I was dawdling along the street minding my business when a guy around 35 passed and said to me in this really nasty voice, “SMILE for God’s sake!”

It was the “click” moment for me all right, when the personal became the political, just like our Gloria described 40 years ago.

God bless Gloria! God Bless the Women’s Movement I say! And, sisters, if someone asks if you’re a feminist you just tell them, “You can bet the farm on it BABE! ”

Your Friends All Think You’re Crazy

Speaking of how others see you, the low point of your relationship with your significant other has to be when he or she tells you that your friends all think you’re crazy.  (And here’s a pretty crazy person right here so thrilled at the idea of being away from her work station that she’s blinded by smiling!)  My sister Nan’s onetime spouse said this very thing to her once and it immediately shot to the top of the list we keep of the all-time worst things one person can say to another person.

But now I look at yesterday’s post about all I carry onto a plane and am compelled to wonder about my own sanity as a person who will only travel with her own food. Who must personally concoct all her own beverages. Who would not in ten million years eat the fruit from the salad bar.

Does this mean I have trust issue then?( “What in OUR house?!” as Lady Macbeth says when it’s discovered that the poor old king has been murdered even though she was the one who goaded Mac into killing the guy.)

Could be, could be. That would certainly explain why I’m so uneasy as a passenger that I keep my foot jammed down on an imaginary brake. I do trust Old Dave behind the wheel which is surprising since the guy tailgates like you wouldn’t believe. And yet t he’s never had a mishap on the road, never gotten so much as a speeding ticket, galling fact, but there it is. He says he thinks it’s safer to ride close to the people in front of you somebody else doesn’t cut in and themselves cause an accident.

I guess you can rationalize just about anything if you try hard enough. Doesn’t the White Queen tell little Alice that she has sometimes believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast?

Maybe the main impossible thing I myself believe before breakfast is that I’m sunnily normal.

But come on. Is anyone normal really? I mean why else did God put Lady Gaga here on earth to spread her Born This Way message?

I could treat you to a dozen examples of the odd things I do but hey. I bet we all have a list of oddball secret things we do. You know there are people out there who save their toenail parings in  ajar. You know there are people saving their bellybutton lint in case they want to spin it  into wool some day and knit up a bunch of tiny sweaters.

What’s fun is noticing the oddball things in yourself.

Tell you one thing: it sure helps you keep from judging others.

See this grand lady below with her nose in the air?

I can get behind the sitting with your drink and gazing around part but where’s the fun in judging what you hear people saying? I’m usually too busy smiling and shaking my head at the varieties we humans come in. That and guarding against any cut up fruit the bartender may try sticking in my drink.

How We Look to Others

The late Caroline Knapp wrote once that all her adult life she knew she seemed very ‘smooth and ordered’ on the outside but in fact was ‘roiling and chaotic’ underneath, and boy did that ever strike a chord for me because I am told I seem pretty ‘smooth and ordered’  too.

Once, when I brought a teen to look at a boarding school to which he was hoping to win a scholarship, the young woman who interviewed him asked to speak to me separately afterward. We chatted about things generally and about this young man too, and at the end she said, “I just feel as if I could talk to you all day! You’re so CALM!”

She evidently couldn’t hear the yips and barks and funhouse shrieks going on inside me.

You just don’t know what the inner reality of another person is; that’s why you can never judge.

Another interpretation of myself that I’ve sometimes been treated to involves the fact that I tend to walk around with a smile on my face.

“You’re always smiling at people! Why are you always SMILING?” near strangers have said to me in random settings.

Out of the blue like that. Not during any kind of conservation. Just in this pointed, halfway-nasty way as if what they were really saying was, “How about I punch you in the face right now?”

I’ve also noticed over the years that people who know you only a little often don’t like you that much, especially if you seem happy. It’s as if they think you stole their portion of happiness; that they could be a whole lot happier if YOU weren’t so darn happy.

When I was as a high school teacher, students who knew me only from seeing me in the corridors sometimes disliked me.  I know because they would tell me as much, after they had become my students. But by then they were in my class, and wrapped in that warm blanket of niceness, the one that all teachers are meant to wrap their pupils in, and their dark assessments had melted away.

Here’s one thing I know to be true: If I find someone hard to like,  it’s almost always because there’s something about them I’m not quite ‘getting’ yet. I just need to pay closer attention and try to know them better.

As to the always-smiling-at-people part, I smile that way because the aunt who raised me smiled that way –  throughout a life that was far from easy. I used to love walking down the street just behind her, to see the effect she had on the people in her path. By the time she had passed them, they were smiling too.

So you can roil all you want on the inside or be baffled or gibbering like a chimp and nobody will necessarily know it. That’s one more nice thing the sainted Fred Rogers told his television audience of little ones: Other people really CAN’T read your thoughts and thank Heaven for that!

What’s Worse?

I’m home now from out west. I put in my five hours on a plane, my knees pressed against my chest and the tray table driving itself into my sternum.

Flying is such a joy.

I should admit that traveling knees in my mouth is my own choice, because I hate to have to use those overhead bins. People vie so for the space in the overhead bins and I’d just rather not do that if I can help it. All jockeying for position makes me uncomfortable. Not enough testosterone in the mix maybe.

Plus what if you need something during the flight and it’s up there in the overhead bin? You then you have to stand up in front of that whole planeful of bored people who are going to WATCH as scraps of luncheon meat rain down on your head because you had them in your raincoat pocket after stopping to refuel your rental car where,realizing how hungry you were, you then bought a package of ham and tore open with your teeth so as to toss most of it down as you zoomed toward the airport and who needs that?

It’s embarrassing to find yourself festooned in half-eaten foodstuffs, like our friend Oscar here.


( I remember that sales trip back from Ohio so vividly! All I needed was a banana peel on my head.)

Anyway, so now I choose to travel right WITH everything I might need stuffed in my backpack.

Which I then jam under the seat in front of me.

Which is why my knees are up so high: my feet are resting on it.

For this last trip I had craftily poured my coffee into Thermos Number One back in the terminal.

I had done a similar thing with Thermos Number Two, filling it with the special brew of lemonade and mint tea I favor.

PLUS, I carry my own food, natch. That day it was two boiled eggs and some black beans for the first snack; a small tub of cauliflower and salmon for the second. (I never do tire of the looks on my seatmates’ faces and when I pop the Tupperware tops and release the scent of these dishes into the air. 🙂 )

So, I reasoned, I was all set. I would eat well and drink my drinks straight from the ‘jugs’ .Then all I figured I might need from the flight attendant was a nice cup of ice.

She served it to me and 20 minutes later I knocked it over, letting icy water spill all over my lap, soak between my legs clear through to the seat of my pants.

Whether or not it worse than wearing shreds of deli meats about my head and shoulders is hard to say but I can certainly attest that it was it was a WHOLE lot lot less comfortable.

Way to Go

This  is Susan, who is really on the mend now with the drain out, and the eye no longer stitched shut, and, the doctor said, some ‘tone’ beginning to return to her face.

She does her physical therapy religiously, though balancing on one foot with her eyes closed still makes her tip over.

She’ll figure that out. She’ll conquer that mountain, just like she conquered the one in this picture. (She’s a geologist: I think I never said that here.)

Down below here is the sweet illustration that is displayed in their guest bathroom, where Kevin and Susan have it displayed, and where I admired it, every day I was out in that high desert with our ‘patient.’ (oh! Should say the details of this journey of Susan’s start here and continue on..)

A good piece of advice, Goethe! It was good for Sooz, who has long since internalized its message, and good for us all.

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