Where Have All the Backpacks Gone?

“Do you think it’s all a little over your heads?”

“Definitely,” he said, spooning back the last of the Cheerios and wiping his mouth on his shirt.

mike actsI miss having young kids around the place – I mean as nice as it is not to have to leap from the bed mornings to work a bunch of socks onto a bunch of other people’s feet.  I look fondly back to our last child, who is a good deal younger than his siblings, and to the fun he and I would have once those older others had set out for their day:

Instantly the IQ level in the house would drop as I would pretend to gouge out my eyes with my grapefruit spoon, say and he would squeeze his food “to see if it screamed,” as he put it. Now and then we’d put an egg into the microwave, shell and all, just to see what would happen.

In that half hour before he too stepped onto the school bus, our talks ranged far and wide. One day when he was in Third Grade, I copied one of our morning exchanges down word-for-word in my diary. Here it is:

“I tackled Phil three times yesterday!” he said. “I took Robert DOWN!” 

“This was in gym class?” I asked.

“No, Recess. In gym we’re doing Our Developing Bodies. Also drugs and alcohol.’”

 These kids are nine years old! I thought.

“So, uh, what gets talked about exactly?”

“Oh, deodorant and showers. Then there are these sentence beginnings the teacher writes down that we have to finish.”

“Like for instance?”

“Well, one said, ‘My friends can’t make me…’ and I wrote ‘Cool.’”

“I see!”

“Then a girl in the class had to finish the sentence, ‘One good thing about drinking is…’ and she wrote ‘Not getting caught.’”

“Do you think it’s all a little over your heads?”

“Definitely,” he said, spooning back the last of the Cheerios and wiping his mouth on his shirt.

I read this old journal entry and think  Oh for the days when your kids would admit that something was over their heads! Lately I sometimes suspect they secretly think things are over my head. Sometimes this former Third Grader in particular addresses me in a manner I find sort of strangely patient and forbearing, the kind of manner parents use when trying to explain something to their slow-to-catch-on child.

He’ll come home for a visit from the big city these days and say something like, “Oh, this picture hangs here now?” Or, “So you like the kitchen walls Colonial Blue?”

This is why I love afternoons with my young grandsons, who think everything I do is great and totally get it when suggest we paint all the light bulbs pink and then help me do it. Plus young kids are fine with changes you make in your home décor; it’s the ones that grew up in the house who want things to stay the same.

But this son of mine has been good to me always, and even now on walking into the house on his visits home he will still drop his bags, pull out his same Cheerios chair and tell me all the news. Once in a while, we still even find ourselves taking an egg or two from the egg carton and heading for the microwave.

God the kid was fun. Here he is at about 12, getting the word’s hugest kick out of a game of Pictionary with his  honorary sister Susan. 

susie & mike in a game 1998

 

 

 

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This is the World I Was Born In

On February 21st 1949 this is the ad that appeared on the back page of Life Magazine:

lucky strike ads

I was born that very day, Feb Twenty-One, Nineteen Forty Nine and I have to say:  What a bill of goods the tobacco companies sold folks for all those years.  And how my mother and aunt loved their ‘cigs’ and smoked them at the kitchen table morning and night, in closed cars on the way to our cousins’ houses, anywhere they could… Even when Mom  broke her pelvis and was in the hospital, family members came and mocked the sign that said “No Smoking” and lit up anyway. I distinctly remember my cousin Billy, then in his mid 2os, fake-reading that sign. “Nosmo… Nosmo King,” he said, pretending to sound it out. “Must be a previous patient.”

We brought her home a week later and Aunt Grace put her in her own room, because it was six steps closer to the bathroom. (They were a pair those two sisters, together through thick and thin.) As soon as she was installed, the whole family showed up again, smoked them some more smokes and drank them some fiiine whisky, right in her room.  Here she is now on that long ago night with my great ‘big sister’ Nan perched beside her on the bed .

mom nan '67 mom broken hip

Ah they were good times, tobacco-laden as they were.  Miss you so much Mom on this my 67th birthday!  And thanks, wherever you are, for giving me life (if not a lot of hair :-)) 

mom nan & me when I was two0001-1

 

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Therapy on the I’m OK You’re Crazy Plan

on the couch

Dying is easy; comedy is hard,” an old vaudevillian once said. But comedy never seemed that hard to me, provided I didn’t mind sacrificing my dignity some. I was just five years old when I first began trying to make my family laugh with a sped-up rendering of the “Look! Up in the air! It’s a bird, it’s a plane…” prologue to the old Superman show,  while standing before my captive audience in my little red jersey and tights, a dishtowel for a cape knotted around my neck.

So with all due respect to that old vaudevillian, if you were to ask me for an epigram depicting one true thing, I’d tend to say “Comedy is easy. Therapy is hard.”

I found out just how hard therapy is way back when I was first enrolled in counseling by my husband under the “I’m Ok, You’re Crazy” plan. Doing therapy under the “I’m OK, You’re Crazy” plan occurs when somebody you live with suggests you get counseling, although he personally wouldn’t ‘open up’ in a therapist’s office if you dragged him there in chains and threatened to pull out all his nose hairs.

This husband, who I have  often wanted to drag places by his nose hairs, said back then he thought I should seek treatment.

Because I seemed sad, he said. “Hey, all humorists are sad down deep,” I quickly retorted, but  I knew he was right: I was sad. Not long before, my mom had died, and I guess I felt too young to face life without her. Plus, she didn’t just die. She died in my living room. During her own 80th birthday party. 

So, yes I was sad. And finally I began seeing this counselor to try feeling better.

Every week I drove to her office, all unwilling. Every week she asked me how I was. I could only tell her how everyone else in my life was. I told her a million stories, most of them richly humorous. I entertained the heck out of us both, but I wasn’t getting at the problem, and I think we both knew that, so after 18 months, I quit.

Then ten years passed, and ….I was funnier than ever! – yay! – though still in full flight from every kind of sadness that had ever come my way. I just didn’t want to feel it. 

Then one day, my oldest friend called to say she was doing counseling – over the phone of all things – with a gifted therapist in Colorado, who was at first reluctant to work with someone in such an unorthodox manner.

“But it’s helping!” my friend said, and one day added, “and, you know, you should really do it too.”

And so. And so I began doing it, though God knows it wasn’t easy.  I couldn’t seem to sit still as I talked to this faraway therapist but because we were on the phone, she didn’t know this.

Sometimes I cleaned the bathroom toilets while we talked.

Sometimes I stripped small pieces of furniture.

Once though, she got wise to me. “Are you DRIVING?!” she said.

I was driving all right.

But the main thing is I was doing it, as I wish my mom could have done in her younger years, to ease her own aching heart. Because it did sure enough help. I faced my sadness and the sadness under my sadness, and the sadness under that, and so what if I did most of that facing after the therapist and I had hung up.. 

I’ll say it again and you can take it from this old vaudevillian: Comedy really is easy by comparison; and therapy is very, very hard.

 

 

 

If the Shoe Fits

cinderellaYou hear these expressions and you wonder what they mean, really. Take when people say they don’t believe in the holidays. “But they’re real!” you want to say. “They come every year! Didn’t we just survive them?” Or take when they say, “If the shoe fits wear it.” That’s an expression that sprang instantly to my mind, when, the week after Christmas, I came upon a pair of women’s shoes jammed in a wastebasket.

A pair of brand-new Kate Spades, in with the trash! As a former hotel chambermaid I thought I’d seen just about everything a person might put in a wastebasket, but this: this took me by surprise.

Some delicate questioning finally revealed the fact that it was one of my grown daughters who had left the shoes, which she picked up at a consignment shop in the hope that, although they were a size 8 ½, they would fit her size 8 foot.
They didn’t. They were just too big and so she left him here, knowing I would bring them to the Goodwill truck that spends its days crouched like a sleeping dragon in the parking lot of a nearby shopping plaza.

“But wait!” I thought, pulling them out of the wastebasket and turning their finely crafted leather in my hands. “Maybe these shoes will fit me! Sure, I wear a size 7 but I think I have some of those round-cornered foam inserts with the adhesive backing around here somewhere.  I bet I can make them fit!”

I fetched the inserts, stuck two of them inside the back of one shoe and tried it on. Alas, all my ‘fix’ did was create an inch-wide gap between the back of my heel and the shoe. It made my feet look like Minnie Mouse’s.

minnie mouse.png
So I peeled the inserts out, and stuck them in again, this time up near the front of the shoe, figuring they would stop the ball of my foot from canting forward to give me that child-dressing-up-in-its-mothers heels look.

Still no good. When I tried taking a few steps, my toes popped out of the shoe’s front in a way that was comically reminiscent of that classic ‘wardrobe malfunction’ fashion.

No matter what, the shoes didn’t flatter me. Plus, I couldn’t actually walk in them. And so, as a child will do for her dead pet mouse, I nestled them into a small box in bade them farewell.

And yes I do know, dear reader, that the old saying about footgear fitting isn’t really about footgear at all. Rather it’s about how we react when people make an observation about our behavior. It suggests that we might want to heed them.

If someone tells me that I’m tight-fisted, surely I should ask myself if this is so and consider becoming more open-handed. If someone remarks that I’m frequently late, surely I should ponder the effect on others of anyone’s tardiness, my own included.

And if someone notes that I can’t seem to tell a simple story about shoes without bringing in dead baby mice, snoozing dragons and Janet Jackson’s big moment at Super Bowl XXXVIII then I might not be a journalist at all, but just some classroom cut-up seeking to have a little fun at the back of the room.

Possible? If the shoe fits wear it they say! Maybe what I lack on the gravitas side of things I make up for on the merriment scale. I can live with that. Because, I mean, how great is it to wake up every day to a job you really love? 🙂
 

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He May be Dead (but He Sure Isn’t Wrong)

kurt-vonnegut-quotes

Here below the thoughts of the late great sci-fi satirist Kurt Vonnegut writing about how one man among several such men in 19th century America grew rich and saw to it that they STAYED rich. This from his 1965 novel God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.  Food for thought as we enter primary season!

“When the United States of America, which was meant to be a Utopia for all, was less than a century old, Noah Rosewater and a few men like him demonstrated the folly of the Founding Fathers in one respect: those sadly recent ancestors had not made it the law of the Utopia that the wealth of each nation should be limited.

“This oversight was engendered by weak-kneed sympathy for those who loved expensive things, and by the feeling that the continent was so vast and valuable, and the population so thin and enterprising, that no thief, no matter how fast he stole, could more than mildly inconvenience anyone.

“Noah and a few like him perceived that the continent was in fact finite, and that venal officeholders, legislators in particular, could be persuaded to toss up great hunks of it for grabs, and to toss them in such a way as to have them land with Noah and his kind we’re standing.

“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream went belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of Cupidity Unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.”

He had a great smile – here he as Writer in Residence at Smith College – but don’t be fooled: he spoke in dead earnest. Truth to power, that was Vonnegut. 

kurt-in-northampton

Friends from the Start

rob, cal, james 1908While sifting through some old papers in this quiet season, I came upon a stack of letters.

They detail a relationship begun some 100 years ago, when my then-eight-year-old mom first began spending some serious time with the seven-year-old cousin who would go on to become her very first friend.

This photo shows my mom. She’s the baby in the middle flanked by her two big brothers, born in 1905 and 1906. She herself came into the world in in 1907 (and yes she did have me at the last possible reproductive moment.)

 

…And this photo shows her cousin, also as a baby, and also flanked by his older sibs. He was born in 1909. Maloney children 1910

By 1914 or so, according to my mom, you could find the two kids sitting for hours on the curbstone, waiting for the fruit man to clop by with his horse and cart so they could pick up his rejected berries and surreptitiously wing them just past the retreating figures of random passing grownups.

They spent hours punished in their rooms.

I first met this cousin the summer I was ten, when my mother organized a family reunion. When he stepped from the car to greet this friend he had not seen for 30 years he called out “Hello old partner in crime!” He then turned and christened me “Muggsy.” My willowy older sister he called “Stretch.” And in his colorful reminiscing, he showed us a side of our mother we had never seen.

With their friendship thus renewed, he sent more letters, each filled with his signature humor:

“Mike and Paul continue their education studying to be bums,” he wrote. (They were nine and 11 at the time.) And, “Son David is finishing college and doing a lot of singing, most recently in a performance for 200 college girls majoring in something that has to do with being kind to people.”

In time, we kids grew up and this cousin wrote reacting to it all: Congratulations and think of it! Muggsy and Stretch having babies at the same time!” A few years on, when Mom went south to visit Stretch and ended up breaking her hip, his response was immediate: “That’s what you get for going to Florida.”

After she moved to a retirement home near me, my mother wrote to him to say, “It’s like college all over again!” Since she lived five minutes away, I well knew how happy she was, throwing spontaneous sherry parties, and ignoring all the fire drills and raising a late-blooming feminist consciousness in many an elderly breast.

Her friend from 1915 wrote to her in her new place:

“Now that you’re settled in with all the old fogeys, I take it upon myself to send you a note. I have diabetes these days so I can’t walk downstairs anymore. I slide down the banister.“ And a little later: “How are you? Still running the Home? I can just see you bossing everyone around. I have had a slight stroke and it has affected my handwriting and speech. I couldn’t write or speak before so it’s no loss.”

But soon after, there was this: “Back home after losing three more toes. Looks like I’ll have to give up ballet.”

The last letter in the folder was written not to my mother but to me, by yet another of this man’s sons, a singer-songwriter who I ‘re-met’ when his career brought him East on tour.

“The old Da’ is in bad shape as you might have guessed,” it begins. “I can honestly say, Terry, after much quiet meditation that I wish God would let him go to the next great adventure.”

Which God did, within days of his son’s writing.

It was late August when we laid him in the ground. Four months later, my mother followed her first friend, without warning, or sickness, or pain.

I want to salute those two frisky spirits from both horse-and-buggy days and to say once again how very lucky I feel to have known them.

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s all Happening at the Zoo

flamingo shadesSome cruises I’ve gone on were crazy fun from morning until night, like the one I went on 20 years ago with my sister Nan where she joked that we had to be careful about getting too much blood in our alcohol stream haha. 

This cruise that I’m on with my old man Dave hasn’t been like that, mostly  because on this cruise all I’ve been doing is getting a kick out of things generally and watching the people around us.

It’s been more fun  than a trip to the zoo, it really has, which is not to suggest I think I’m any better than everyone else, far from it. And I know that anyone looking at the two of us would say, “Why didn’t those two just stay home? They’re not doing the Macarena, they didn’t come to the bellyflop contest, they’re not wearing whimsical sunglasses with flamingoes sprouting from the frames, what is their deal?”

Our deal is that mostly we’ve been reading, reading, reading.

It’s been heaven. I see myself walking in the reflection of the gym at the ship’s tippety-top and think Who IS that lucky girl? but it’s me! It’s been like a dream is what it’s been like. More on what else I’ve seen later.  🙂

walking the deck