Written Last Fall – for 50th Reunion Book

smith 50th bookTo give a full account of myself, the story has to go way back, to when my big sister Nan, our single-parent mom and I lived, together with a sheltering layer of three old folks, in a place where an actual lamplighter made his nightly rounds, and a tiny old man in a cap pushed a wagon crying, “Ra-a-a-a-gs! Bring out your rags!” It felt more like the 1920s than the 1950s, honestly, a feeling intensified by the fact that these elders were all born within a decade of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox courthouse. (And what a thing that was, to listen to the musings of people who remembered the 1870s!)

When these dear old ones died, as they did within a year of one another, the house was sold, and we needed a new place to live. Lucky for us, our sweet Aunt Grace and her husband Jack invited us to come live with them in the new town they were just then moving to. There, for the first time, Nan and I lived a real Leave-it-to-Beaver-style life, replete with bike parades and ice-skating on the flooded vegetable patch in the Talbots’ backyard. It felt like heaven for four great years – until old demons returned to claim this uncle who, on the morning after my junior high graduation, cleared out the bank accounts and left us for keeps.

We were four females alone then, with creditors calling the house day and night in the wake of his manic spending. Mom and Aunt Grace seemed as upbeat as funny as ever at the kitchen table, maybe moreso with Uncle Jack gone, but I could sense that they were scared. That’s when I got the notion that I could save us all by getting a scholarship to a top school.

It was the first flash of insight I had ever experienced and it came with the realization that I had agency; I could make things happen.

A thousand high school all-nighters later, it did happen. I arrived on the Smith College campus where I was encouraged by most of my profs though not all, notably the one who covered my virgin effort for her with stinging comments.  “Whence this gratuitous observation?” she scribbled on my second page; I still have the paper.) Her angry vehemence came as a shock to me since I’d always figured God liked it when we made observations of any kind, because it showed we were paying attention. How I got from that low point to a magna cum laude I do not know. I remember being so fearful of the sciences that when it came time for an oral presentation in my intro-level Geology course, I pretended to be so suddenly taken sick that kindly, no-longer-young Professor Schalk offered to give me a ride to the Infirmary on the handlebars of his bicycle. (I still tingle with shame at that example of my low nature!)

And then finally, there was Daniel Aaron, a giant in the field of American Studies, who just plain taught me how to write.

I cherished the friends I made there, and the way we gathered nights in the comically sloping hallways of dorm – an old frame house built 150 years before –  to compare childhoods in a semi-serious but-mostly-jokey sort of way. I cherished them too for not minding when I fell in love the summer before junior year and began taking off on weekends to be with the person I would marry three weeks after Commencement, the person with whom I have made a life.

That was when I decided to postpone further education for the sake of the really big bucks: the ‘princely’ $6900 a year I would earn as a high school English teacher in the Cambridge-adjacent city of Somerville. We rented a fifth-floor walk-up in Allston and David worked toward the MBA. But a year later, when, having been accepted into the Masters of English program at BU, I found I couldn’t bear to leave the classroom, and there came a second flash of understanding: I realized that nothing had ever felt more important to me than spending time with young people, who ever and always are doing the crucial work of growing a self that feels authentic to them. This remains true for me still and I continue to work with teens, principally through my town’s residential chapter of A Better Chance. Since 1982, I have driven to plays and movies and nights on the town with generation after generation of these young scholars in a vehicle with seven seatbelts. Now, for their sake, I am shortly to buy a vehicle with eight.

I adored having children of my, own with their art projects and their Strawberry Shortcake dolls and that Cabbage Patch Kid I stood in line so long for and who, come to think of it, I’m starting to look like. I loved the long talks we got to have, sitting on the stairs or perched on the edge of their beds nights.

Still, I missed the wider communication and one day at naptime I opened my high school yearbook and saw a reference to my old dream of being a writer. I whipped up a quick 700-word bouquet of gratuitous observation and brought it to my local paper. “Can you do this every week?” The editor asked. I could and I did. I produced, marketed and sold this light personal observation column every single week for the next 36 years, and there came another insight: I loved comforting people and making them smile. I even worked in six years as a massage therapist to bring comfort and healing without using words at all.

In 1986, before the space shuttle Challenger exploded before all our eyes, I learned  I had made it clear to the finals in the Journalist-in-Space competition. I remember the morning my name went out over the wire. It was just before a local news crew arrived and I was in the bathroom watching David shave. “Do I really want to go up there?” I asked him. “It depends,” he said. “Do you want to see your name in the history books?”

I didn’t give a hoot about seeing my name in the history books and there was another insight: I didn’t care about accolades. and I never did go to grad school.

In my early years I craved attention; talked and wrote my head off; did all these magazine shows, ostensibly to promote my books but really just because it was such fun to improvise on live TV and radio.

I don’t do any of that now. Now I’d much rather listen than talk.

So here I am beginning upon this eighth decade of life. It can scare me to dwell on that that.

But my big sister Nan, who has been in Hospice since March of 2019 is still here and still the funniest person around: “Have you SEEN these diapers they put on me? They’re sized for Man ‘o War!” she said during one of my early visits.

Oh Nan, what will I do without you, you who earnestly told me, back in that first house, that girls got their periods at 12, and boys got theirs at 15? What will any of us do but keep loving whoever is ours to love?

 

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Saga of the Sad Old Bathrooms

Our bathrooms dated back to the 1940s, which meant the strangely off-plumb sinks stood on skinny metal legs and were topped by medicine cabinets the size of cereal boxes. Their potholder-size wall tiles were ancient rectangles. Every few weeks, despairing perhaps of their out-of-fashion lives, first one and then another would pop out of its dry frame of grouting to smash itself silly on the floor tiles which, like ancient petrified Chiclets, kept lifting from their crumbling matrix to affix themselves like wee clinking ice skates to the bottoms of our showered-dampened feet.

With all this COVID stay-at-home time, I’ve been circling around the rooms in this old ark of a house, where, for almost 20 years, even with TEN people living here, we had just one shower. We had to get up at 5:00 every day to squeeze in a mere six-minute sprinkling. That’s when my spouse and I began to think remodeling.

Usually, though, that was as far as we got – the thinking stage. And you have to know: these bathrooms were bad, with tiles done in weird unearthly colors, one a strange green like the nasty tongue-coating mint-flavored Milk of Magnesia with fixtures the exact queasy hue of Silly Putty.

They dated back to the 1940s, which meant the strangely off-plumb sinks stood on skinny metal legs and were topped by medicine cabinets the size of cereal boxes. Their potholder-size wall tiles were ancient rectangles. Every few weeks, despairing perhaps of their out-of-fashion lives, first one and then another would pop out of its dry frame of grouting to smash itself silly on the floor tiles which, like ancient petrified Chiclets, kept lifting from their crumbling matrix to affix themselves like wee clinking ice skates to the bottoms of our showered-dampened feet. One friend, on seeing the awful truth about these rooms, delivered herself of the opinion that we were true saints, as otherworldly as Mother Theresa. “You’re so… non-materialistic!” she had exclaimed – by which she meant, “Gad, what crummy bathrooms.” And she hadn’t even used the one with the famous Toilet That Tilted, which, if sat upon too quickly, would give its shoulder a quick porcelain shrug and flick you off like a horsefly.

But it isn’t that we were so … other-worldly, so evolved. Our bathrooms were crummy because younger, pushier members of the household clamored for changes in their bedrooms, thus sucking up all their parents’ energies in the home-improvement department.

First, it was one of our daughters, then 12. Suddenly, she despised her peach-colored bedroom. She wanted to spatter-paint it, she thought. I went along; masked every inch of molding and baseboard and painted the whole room white, walls and ceilings both. I tarped up the floor. Then, at the appointed signal, the two of us pried open four cans of bright primary-colored paint, dipped our fists clear to the knuckles in the vivid goo, and heaved it by the handful in every direction. It actually looked pretty good. (And boy was it fun!)

Not two springs later, our then-sixth-grade son became desperate to redecorate his room. He said he couldn’t even study in it anymore; the wallpaper was that embarrassing. (Teddy bears in cowboy hats: we couldn’t blame him.) He thought instead, a kind of God’s Eye View would make a nice decorating motif.

First, we steamed off the old paper and pulled up the rug. I painted the walls pale blue and he hand-sponged them with fluffy white ‘clouds’. Next, I made the ceiling a deep indigo, as directed, so he could paint upon it the nine planets, each in its proper relation to the sun.

The whole project cost me three solid weeks of personal time and a permanent kink in the back from the night I knocked the black paint over and created an oil spill to rival that of the Exxon Valdez.

But hey, the kid was happy. He spent all his time up there from then on. We would hear him from our own room, nights, zooming across the bare floor in his new desk chair with the wheels. And isn’t that a perfect metaphor for parenthood?  Your kids above, redecorating your world and sailing along among the stars; you down below, trying to limp to a crooked sink on rocky Chiclets.

 

A Salute to Them Both

(My sister Nan at three-and-a-half and me at 18 months with our mother Cal)mom nan & me when I was two0001-1

I wrote this some years ago but it has come to mind again in this season of ‘pause’ when suddenly all the moments of my life seem to be one present moment….

I was 8 when my mother was 50, and sometimes, standing among the young moms in the schoolyard, she said she felt like our grandmother. For ‘Cal’, as everyone called her, had married late.

Because there was a Depression, she said, and no one had money. Because there was a war, she said, and all the men were gone. We had heard both reasons as she described her young life as one of five children of a widower.

They may not have had much money, but they sure had fun, to hear the tales: of evening dresses by night and raccoon coats by day. Speakeasies even entered into it.  And yes, there were men on these occasions: young singles and the brothers of friends. “But to be honest,” Mom said of them all, “there was no yeast in the bread” – by which she meant they didn’t attract her.

Then she met our father, stationed during the war in Boston. They called him Hap, for his mild and cheery way. This time there was plenty of yeast in the bread so she married him. He had wavy hair and red cheeks and bright blue eyes. I know because I’ve seen snapshots; he left before I was born.

It was when I was 8 and my mother was 50 that my slightly older sister and I began to understand how different our family was from the norm.

“Where is our father?” we asked our mom. “I don’t know,” she told us truthfully.

“Our dad’s dead,” I told the neighborhood kids. “He kicked the bucket,” an old friend tells me I said with false insouciance, though Nan and I plotted in secret to write “Queen For a Day,” that old TV show that identified women with difficulties, measured their hardship by audience applause, then put the ‘winner’ in robes and a tiara and offered to make her Dream Come True.

Our Dream would be finding our dad – little realizing he preferred to stay lost.

So Mom raised us without him, in her childhood home. It was actually our grandfather’s home which he shared with his own older sisters. Each night Mom fed and bathed and tucked us in alone, the old folks being past all that. She crouched between our beds to stroke both our childish brows at once and sang us to sleep.

Often, we were naughty. But often we sensed her sadness too: we turned down her bed for her and wrote notes raw with love and apology. She told jokes and drove fast and made great faces. She also had a temper and was late for everything all her life.

I was 18 when she was 60. She sent me to college and listened on school breaks as I told her everything I was doing in those wide-open late ’60s years. It never occurred to me to lie to her.

But I did lie once: I said I was going a few states away during spring break to see a friend. I saw the friend, all right. But I looked for the man with the blue eyes too. When I got back, I told her how I had found him. She listened, the tears running down her face.

One day toward the end of that week, the phone rang at home. I picked it up and said hello. It was my mother, calling from work. “Tell me again what he looks like,” was all she said.

I was 28 when she was 70. Nan had a baby and I had two, just when she was beginning to think we never would. Shortly before my third child came, she moved to a retirement home in my town, where she hosted sherry fests and ignored the fire drills and nearly drowned, in her sunny little room, in subscriptions to every magazine from Prevention to Mother Jones.

I was 38 when she died at 80, all unexpected. I felt wholly a kid at the time of her passing and no more equipped to do without her than in the days of the early bedtimes.

But I am better now. 

And I hear from her in odd ways: Our daughter Carrie has her very smile; our boy Michael has her sense of humor. And our middle girl Annie, as wise practically from the cradle as any adult, heard this story at age 10 and said, in dead earnest and with shining eyes, “I will call my first boy Hap.”

Some cold thing in me melted then. And it causes me to say, as this fresh Mother’s Day approaches,  Here’s to you, Cal, who held out for love, and got it, however briefly, and two kids too, who loved you fiercely. And here’s to you too, you lost father redeemed from blame at last, as we all would wish to be redeemed, deserving it or not.

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The Rumblings Abdominal

Over the past couple of years, my eyes grew so heavily hooded it was as if I was peering out at the great Street of Life from under a pair of heavy canvas awnings. Thus, late last month, I had an operation to open these peepers up a bit.
Everything went swimmingly the surgeon said, and so, five hours after the initial scalpel cut, he sent me home – with an Rx for a 10 mg dose of Percocet, which, besides some acetaminophen, holds within it a small but mighty hit of Oxycodone.
These pills I took in strict moderation, choosing to take only the one-, and not the two-pill dose at a time and stopping cold turkey after just five days. I still felt pretty crummy of course, and my eyes stung. I couldn’t bend over, lift anything weighing more than a few pounds, or even read or look at screens. And so my husband and I decided that, come the weekend, we would seek a change of scenery. We would drive the hour and 40 minutes north to our summer place where we could curl up with our new kitty, stream some good shows and look out at the frozen lake.
Now I had not been outside at all in the ten days since my operation, but the morning of our planned trip I felt the need to join three friends in doing an errand of mercy for a fourth, very elderly, friend. And so I slowly dressed and, glad to be out at all, drove to meet these three, one of whom called out to me as she crossed the parking lot.
“Should you really be here?” she exclaimed, knowing of my surgery. “And also, WHY are you dressed like this?!” she added, her eyes sweeping down over what turned out to be one very ill-considered getup: a silk blouse, a crepe skirt with a voluminous hemline just brushing the tops of my high-heeled boots, and the fanciest coat in our front hall closet. “I mean, are you going someplace after?”
Well, I was going someplace, of course: to the lake, later, but first home to meet up with David, there to give the kitten a small palmful of kibble before settling her in the cat carrier for her journey on my lap, and finally to visit a drive-through for burgers to go. BUT, I told my friend, the far realer truth was I had dressed up just to feel better.
And mostly I did feel better, at least for the first third of the journey. David and I talked companionably, and I nibbled at lunch, balanced over the cat carrier that held our soundly sleeping kitten.
And then it all went south.
The little cat opened her eyes just as a certain.. scent reached our nostrils. It was a mild scent, reminiscent of the meek scent of a newborn’s diaper. Alas, she then began crying out,
Something was coming.
It was coming.
It came.
We sped like Roger Rabbit in his roadster to the highway’s nearest rest area, me whispering “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” into the cat’s wee triangular skull. Because I just knew that her troubles followed from a nurturing flaw. I knew that the only other time I had given her kibble – as the vet had said I could do now and then “just as a treat” –  she had had what appeared to be a kind of painful diarrhea that caused her to cry out just like this. 
And now it had happened again.
Once we had reached the rest area, I pulled the poor creature out of her foul prison and set her on the floorboard in front of the passenger seat, there to be looked after by David, while I shot into the Ladies Room and did what I could to dab at the many stains and pawprints on my silky blouse, my fancy coat, and that gorgeously wide crepe skirt. I made a spectacle as horrifying as the raggediest of the ragged Walking Dead, and people were shrinking from me, I could see, but what else could I do? I crawled back into the passenger seat and cradled the kitten in my arms, David doing 80 because you can go that fast in New Hampshire.
Nestled up against me, she went right to sleep, tummy up and legs splayed. After a while, in despair and alarmed by this new immobility, I whispered to David in mournful tones, “I think I’ve killed her.” “Nah,” he said back. “She’s just worn out.”
Of course, he was right. She was just worn out. And once we reached the refuge of this house up north I was able to give her a bath, hose and scrub the holy hell out of her cat carrier, bag my formerly fancy outfit for later consideration by the dry cleaner, and treat myself to the world’s longest shower.
So all of that was Story One.
Story Two commenced at the end of that peaceful weekend when I met my daughters for a fun dinner out – only to find I couldn’t eat a single morsel, or concentrate, or say much.
I was just as sick the next day, and the day after that, or for all three of the days following. Finally, 18 very long days after my eye surgery, I began to both faint and throw up, a winning combination in anyone’s annals of illness.
“For heaven’s sake get in here to the hospital!” cried my PCP when finally I called her. “You need to be evaluated!”
David came home from work and into the ER I wobbled, to do my seven hours of penance among the suffering.
There were people coughing, people in masks, people spitting up and people passed clean out. As far as I could tell, though, I was the only one with blood puddles under me legs.
Long story short, after a CT scan with contrast and various other ministrations, the docs decided to admit me to the ER’s observation unit 12 stories up. I felt I had died and gone to heaven. From the rag-and-bone shop of the ER, I had ascended to the hospital’s uppermost floor, with a twinkling view of the Boston skyline.
I got to stay in that room for two blessed days, and though they discharged me before I was altogether well, I have done the remainder of my healing at home – or to be utterly candid, at home for two days and then in the cozy stateroom of a Viking cruise ship whose itinerary loops all around the Caribbean.
Both David and I have treated these 8 days as a rest cure. We pad about on deck, take gentle walks on land, eat amazing meals and toddle back to our cabin for yet another nap.
This – tonight – is our last night on board. Tomorrow we fly home to that new little cat of ours who has been well cared for by not one but two sets of family members nice enough to have actually MOVED IN in order to look after her.
I can’t wait to see her, keenly aware as I now am of our connection. For are we not all meek small creatures, utterly dependent on the intricate workings of our bodies to go about in the world? We are indeed, and in this connection the famous limerick comes to mind that gives this post its title:

I sat next to the Duchess at tea.

It was just as I feared it would be:

Her rumblings abdominal 

Were simply phenomenal 

And everyone thought it was me.

Well, it was me, this time.
The upside is that I now keenly sense my commonality with all beings, and I am content. Sure, my eyes still sting a bit and yes, some bruising persists. But these eyes are OPEN! – enough to see that whatever further surgeries await me in this life I will never, ever, again take the fiendish little pill known as Percocet.
ariel in her cave
See? My eyes DO look better, don’t they? 😉

A Crummy Cook Gives Thanks

A Facebook friend posted the night before Thanksgiving that she was really grouchy just then and wondered if anyone else was feeling that way too. I was, boy. I was feeling super grouchy though I didn’t post as much, being at the time too grouchy to join in the spirit of generosity that characterizes Facebook at its best.

I had a list of good reasons for my grouchiness that night, or so I told myself. For one thing there were the muscle cramps I keep getting as I sleep, which make me dread the night as much as the parents of colicky newborns do. I LEAP from the bed every time one hits to put weight on the troubled limb, even knowing that one of these days I could accordion flat down into a human puddle, like those collapsible tin drinking cups the Scouts used to use on camping trips.

There was also the tedious chore of food preparation, a task I have not enjoyed since the Seventh Grade when our poor Home Ec teacher tried to teach me and 29 other snickering 12-year-olds how to make Prune Whip.

There was the personalizing of 200 holiday cards that I’d spent the previous six days working on. I wish I could just sign our names and be done but I can’t seem to do that any more than I can plunk a big box of Count Chocula down on a dressy Thanksgiving Day table.

And finally, there was the way I looked just then, in worn-out sweat pants gone in the waist, a hand-me-down man’s shirt in which I look like the old dad in Modern Family, and over it all an apron from a decades-past college reunion embroidered with an image of Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

Well, I knew that much: I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, if Kansas is seen as Martha Stewart’s version of the run-up to Thanksgiving Day.

My husband David had gone up to bed before 9. I minded that and wished desperately to join him but instead stayed downstairs by the kitchen bingeing past episodes of This Is Us and inscribing another 40 Christmas cards while a slew of wee laboriously peeled onions seethed on the stovetop. (I’d been too late with my shopping to find the kind in a jar that comes all cooked, dammit.)

I worked and I worked and finally at midnight thought The heck with this, pulled off the apron and crawled into bed.

The next morning I spun up now less three bowls brimming with greens and various toothsome mix-ins. I made the bechamel sauce for the onions and blobbed the whole sucking lava-thick mess into a chafing dish even though at that point it looked to me like nothing so much as a mixture of Ping Pong balls and Milk of Magnesia.

I spread all these dishes out on our kitchen counter and texted a picture of them to our daughter Annie, along with the “caption” Three Salads and a Funeral”, the funeral being what I had come to think of as my Creamed Onion Surprise. She in turn texted back lovely pictures of the three holiday tables she had set up for the whole family and the next thing we knew we had set out Over the River and Through the Woods to her house. My failing Merit Badge contributions were added to the feast and we all sat down to eat on the all-too-short remains of the waning, amber-and-amethyst-colored afternoon.

In other words, the sun rose and the sun set on that day, mere hours from Decembers’ start, and we looked, and saw that it was good.

 

On Being Backed Up By Your Mom

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I get such a kick out of this picture; I don’t know why. I can’t recall my own mother backing me up like this when I even metaphorically stuck my tongue out at anyone. Parent-child solidarity was rare when I was a child. Most people my age go on about how they got punished twice for wrong-doing, once by the teacher who discovered them at it, and then again by their parents when they got home at night.

Come to think of it though, my mom wasn’t like those parents either, and actually may have BEEN more like the filly-mare team pictured here. For one thing, she was twice as old as all the other mothers in my Second Grade class. She’d seen some hard things in her life and at age 50 was not about to let anyone push her kid around. For another, as I gradually realized over time, she had a wee bit of a problem with authority and liked nothing better than to challenge it whenever she had a chance.

I say this because two months after my seventh birthday I got kicked out of the much-becalmed convent school my sister and I attended – for talking, of all things. And I don’t mean I got sent to the Sister Superior’s office. I mean I got hauled out of my little nailed-down desk-and chair combo by my scarlet-faced teacher, handed an empty cardboard box and told, “Pack your books! You don’t go here anymore!” Out of all patience, the good sister threw my coat at me and told me to go stand alone at the abandoned edge of that urban schoolyard under the darkling shadow of the elevated train while she had the main office call my mother to come fetch me.

I stood there and stood there. “What will I do now?” I remember fretting through my tears. “I think I’m too little to get a job!” And then I saw my mother bounding up the hill of the school grounds in our goofy old station wagon. She took me home all right, but the next day she brought me back and, on encountering the young nun there by the doorway, hopped from the car and strode right up to her.  “See HERE!” she began. “A child who talks in class is a child who is BORED!” and what could this green young nun say, especially since it did really kind of look as though my mother was actually sort of lifting her up by the snow-white bib of her habit?

Anyway, my mother saved me, even though I didn’t faintly deserve saving. Because the truth is, I did talk, endlessly, to the kids in the seats to the front, back and sides of me. I was guilty as charged. I have always suspected that Mom knew that as well as I did, a fact that remained unspoken between us for the rest of our time together on this earth.

The funny thing is, her doing that for me made me more, rather than less inclined, to stay on that straight and narrow ever since.

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Get Back to Work, You

On a plane ride home from Tampa, I saw a giant of a man in the seat in front of me who wore such a skimpy tank top that I had a chance to count every one of the thousands of shoulder and back hairs visible to me.

Then, on that same flight, a mere 30 seconds after the pilot turned off the Fasten Seat Belt sign, a woman in one of the backmost rows began shouting “Jesus Christ,  will you people MOVE!”

Later, as we were all proceeding along the lengthy peristaltic trek to Baggage Claim, I saw at the bar of one of the airside eateries a youngish dude in a cowboy hat who kept shoving his napkin up under his sunglasses as he wept and wept while talking on his phone.

These were all things I noticed in one three-hour period.

It has literally been months since I have come to this blog to write down anything at all, whether happy or sad. Suffice to say it was some summer. But now, finally, I think I’m ready to begin again, maybe because of the kindly dermatologist I saw for the first time just before that flight. He asked what I did for a living so I told him I had taught high school English in my 20s, and then added with a look that was unmistakably nostalgic, that for 36 years I had written a weekly newspaper column.

Had written?” he asked .“Yes,” I sighed. “A day came, kind of out of the blue, when I felt I just couldn’t do it anymore. Writing a weekly column is like having to produce a term paper 52 times a year, I could also have quoted author Sidney Sheldon’s observation that a blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.

It was at this point that the nice dermatologist said something that has echoed in my mind ever since. “But of course you still write, don’t you?” he asked, and I literally hung my head. “Um, well…” I stammered, shamefacedly – and felt lucky to get even those two words out.

You know how when we were kids the grownups would sometimes say, “Let that be a lesson to you?” Well, I let that moment be a lesson to me. And it was only days later on my trip from Tampa to Boston that I suddenly noticed these three people I opened with above.

Why was the cowboy crying? I would never know. You can’t intrude on private grief by going up to someone and asking but still: I wondered.

Why did that mountain of a man wear what amounted to an above-the-waist thong on an airplane? Did he not feel embarrassed, the way I would feel if, say, my travel companion suggested I pull out a razor and start shaving my armpits? (Shaving on a Plane, now there’s an idea for a new trend!)

And I wondered even more about the yelling woman at the back of the plane who by now had elbowed her way to just two rows back from me. “Why don’t you go in my place?” I said to her.

She looked at me quickly, maybe to see if I was being sarcastic.

I wasn’t. “No, really,” I said. “I’m in no hurry.”

“It’s just that I get panic attacks,” she said. “I have awful claustrophobia.” And I thought yes maybe she does, because hadn’t I noticed her at the outset of the trip joshing good naturedly with the people around her as she was stowing her bag?

I had indeed. And maybe I would not have ‘seen’ her at all if that lovely doctor had not metaphorically lifted my chin, thus encouraging me to keep on doing what I so clearly love doing, that is noticing things and writing down what I notice.  Maybe, speaking of God, doing that is even a kind of prayer.

On the Road.. er, Ship

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Water travel is always so broadening, especially in the hips. Especially if you’re spending nine days on a Viking Riverboat cruise where the food never stops, even at breakfast, what with the stout coffees and delicate teas; the fresh omelets and smoked fish and sausage; the veggies both raw and cooked; the breads and rolls and croissants; the cereals both hot and cold; the bowls of berries and the platters of sherbet-colored melon; not to mention the juices from every kind of fruit Eve ever thought to toss in her Garden-of-Eden blender.

This tour I set out on last month made its way through the Netherlands and into Belgium. Some of us also took the optional excursion as well, to visit World War I battlegrounds near the border of France. (After such indulgence on board, it felt only right to bear witness to the suffering the people of these lands endured during the bloody century just before this one, and I can say more of that in another post.

There in Amsterdam on that first full day, I learned about this old, old city that, staggeringly, saw over 17 million visitors last year. While threading through some of its 165 canals I learned too that it is home to people from 181 nations if you can picture it. I can’t, as my own list of the world’s nations stops at around 40.

It has a population of 850,000 people, 40% of whom are under 30 and there’s a frightening thought. I mean, what if these youth kick off a real virus of a border-crossing movement to take out all us oldsters, wallowing in our nifty AARP benefits and discount movie tix?  What then? Oh, admit you’ve considered the possibility. I mean can’t you sometimes just feel them behind you in the subway stations, waiting ‘til no one’s looking and shoving you in front of the train, Frank Underwood style?)

Still, they’re pretty adorable, the young, and here in Amsterdam especially where they’re all the time wheeling past on bicycles like so many American tykes in the great era of Hot Wheels. Sure, they drink and get high and amble over to the Red Light District to check out the patient ladies sitting bare as newborns in their cozily furnished display windows. And yes, in a typical year the city has to fish some 12,000 bicycles out of the canals, tossed there in moment of youthful high spirits. Nonetheless I am heartened by the sight of them. At the AnneFrank House there are at least as many young people as older folk waiting in line to get in. At the Rijksmuseum too where all the Rembrandts are kept. They are not innocent of history, the young people here. They know what has transpired here in this fallen world.

One crisp morning I stopped for coffee at a Starbucks with a whole plaza of outside tables. It was a place overflowing with both older people like me and with the younger too in their practical backpacks and their jaunty scarves, and as I sat among them all in a freshening breeze, I thought this is what peacetime looks like. For if this isn’t what people the world over don’t want I’ll eat my hat as the old fogies used to say: What we want is only to sit together, the young and the old and the in-between, the babies, the dogs and the toddlers too, and feel the blessing of each passing moment.

I thought all this. Then, it being almost time for another storied meal onboard, I trotted the quick mile-and-a-half quick back to the ship.

bikes in amsterdam

 

Travel Don’ts from a Hapless Tourist

A few things you’d best NOT do when traveling for ten days to countries where you don’t speak the language: One, fail to pack a warm enough coat; Two, fail to pack the most important hair product in your bristling arsenal of hair products because you foolishly believed the cruise line when it said no blow dryers or flatirons; and Three, scratch the living daylights out of the oh-so-delicate tissue protecting your eye, necessitating a trip to an eye doctor with whose staff communication was impossible given the language barrier.

But let me take these step by step, not necessarily in this order.

I’ll start with the forbidden hair care items about which the cruise line was as primly stern as the evil governess in a 19th century novel. No, you may NOT bring your own electric appliances, heavens no, it said the literature they send out ahead of time say. The current, you know. The strain on the ship’s energy sources. Anyway, they sniffed, you’ll find one of those leaf blower hair driers right in your stateroom.

But the problem for me, see, is that with the type of hair God gave me I have never been able to get even an approximately normal look by wielding a round brush in one hand and some honking-huge drier in the other. Instead I have to use the kind of drier that has the brush attached right to the heat source, the kind that were designed for men in the great ago of disco. (Think John Travolta’s hair in Saturday Night Fever.) Most of the women onboard this Viking longboat sported fabulously fluffy and /or shiny hair styles come the Cocktail Hour and the elaborate dinner with all that complimentary wine that the waiters kept unstoppably pouring. I can’t imagine how even one of them managed to look so great when here I was at these events looking like the homeliest Chia pet on the block.

Next, there was the issue of the warm-enough coat I had failed to bring which didn’t seem as it was going to be a problem when I unpacked that first night onboard – until it turned out that the weather report for the Netherlands and Belgium, which had PREDICTED temperatures in the low 60s with partly cloudy skies actually MEANT to say low 40s with a nice-two-for-one combo of pelting rain and hail. After one day-long walking tour on Saturday I couldn’t have said I had hands at all. You could have cut off all my fingers and applied nail polish to the bloody stumps and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

And finally, there was the wholly unanticipated visit I had to make to the eye doctor in Antwerp after, in an effort to remove the contact lens in my left eye, the darn thing just would not budge. This was at 10 at night after one of the fancy dinners with music and trivia games in the lounge afterward. I dug and I dug  ‘til the white of my eye turned dark red. See, I just knew the lens was in there and had rolled up into that part of my brain where I keep the multiplication tables and the names of all the major rivers in the world.

So the next morning I went to the ship’s concierge. He called a local ophthalmologist to make me an appointment. When the hour drew near, he called a taxicab to take me to the office of this good doctor.  Who peered with the standard blinding scopes and strobe lights into my eye said that whatever lens has been in there during that last elegant dinner was in there no more. Which means that what I had actually done was to cross-hatch with dozens of tiny slices the whole white of my eye. Death by a thousand cuts, in other words. But HOW after 30 years of daily putting in and taking out these single-use contacts, could I miss the fact that, before taking out the contact in my right eye, I had already taken out the contact in the left one?

All I can think is, must have been the wine. 🙂

There’ll be more to say about this wonderful trip in future blog posts. I just had to get the nonsense part told first.

chia pet

 

 

 

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She Dug Up Her Mother?

I just read an article in The Times about the subject of ‘serial’ memoir-writing that names author Kathryn Harrison, who has penned a number of autobiographical works over the course of her life. At one point she is quoted as saying she knows she needs to write yet another memoir when a perspective on her life becomes ‘an obsession’. For example, she writes, “It was only when I was on the phone with the funeral director out in Los Angeles, asking him to dig my mother up, burn her up and send her to me, that I thought to myself, ‘You’re behaving weirdly now. Perhaps you should start taking notes.'” The result: The Mother Knot, a book in which she finds peace of mind about her challenging relationship with her parents by scattering at sea her dead mother’s ashes.

This topic of trying to figure out – and write about – what happened to you really hit me as I read about it just now because it’s what I have been doing for 40 years: namely repeatedly beginning upon – and repeatedly not finishing –  a memoir of my own, filled with the often dramatic turns that both my life and the life of my parents and grandparents took over time.

I myself have never once thought of having my mother’s remains disinterred. Far from it. I like thinking of her in that old cemetery.  “Oh mom! You love that pale violet suit that you’re wearing still! ” I think even now, more than 30 years after she left us in such haste. I picture her there and recall how, on the cold winter day we left her on that little hillside,  I bent and scooped up a handful of the dirt that had been dug from the open grave. My cousin saw me, sidled over and said, “WHAT on EARTH are you going to do with THAT?”

I didn’t know the answer to that. I just know I needed it and I have still, in a slender glass vial. It is the more dear to me because it is dirt from the same grave where my grandfather has lain since 1958, with my sister and I looking on in our little Mary Janes and our new white gloves. It is dirt from the same grave where his bride lies, the young woman who was my grandmother, though neither of us had the chance to enjoy that bond since she died in the impossibly long-ago year of 1910.

Having this vial of earth comforts me yet, as does the fact that I still have the bright blue blouse my mother was wearing, all dressed up and feeling fine, when she died in my living room in at her own 80th birthday celebration. I still have the little purse she was carrying that December afternoon. I still have her cane. So much happened to her, both as a child and as an adult. So much happened to her two parents. How can I not wish to get it all down on paper, and say how it affected me, and how these effects have played out in my own life?

One day last year when I told two dear-to-me 16-year-olds only a part of this story their eyes widened in near-incredulity I suppose because truth really IS stranger than fiction and who among us, when young, can believe all that will happen to us in life?

Will I ever get it all down in words then? I have less energy than I once did so I have begun to doubt that I ever will, and maybe it doesn’t matter. I had a dream shortly after my mother died. In this dream, the two of us were trotting down a wide set of stone steps together, creating that rhythm people fall into when, sure of foot, they take on such flights of stairs. Halfway down, I looked over at her in surprise and said to this woman who in life saw most poorly and could walk only with a cane, “Mom! You’re running!”

“I know!” she called back, still mid-trot. “I’m not old anymore!”

It was a dream so vivid I’m not so sure it even was a dream. Maybe the idea of linear Time is a clumsy fabrication, the best we could do with our tiny minds. Maybe there is no Past but only an eternal Present, in which case why write your rueful memoir at all?

 

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