I Begin on My 60th Year

It was my birthday yesterday. I was at the lake with my old pal from camp days who came to see me from her home in Swarthmore.

Bobbie was the counselor of my cabin for three summers running when I was 13, 14, and 15. She taught swimming and wore the baggy sweatshirts and the skin-tight Bermudas of the times over her two-piece bathing suits. Some nights after Taps she got to ride the ten miles to McDonald’s with the other counselors who were also “off” and came back two hours later and woke us up to give us flat little cheeseburgers and soggy sacks of fries which, coupled with extra-thick shakes made of honest-to-goodness ice cream, were about the best thing a person could imagine tasting at 11 at night.

Bobbie comes up at least once a year and I go to her house in Swarthmore.

This time she came to our vacation house at the lake where we all like to go in winter when we want to see what it’s like to be eyeball-deep in snow.

Early on this morning of my birthday I was stilled holed up in my bedroom writing when the phone rang. It was my big sister Nan who for the last 20 years has greeted me on this day by saying “Happy Birthday, Little Wormhead!” We talked a while and she made me laugh as usual and by the time I hung up I felt so great I popped open a screen and wrote an email that went to all three of my kids at once and also their dad my husband holding the fort back home. “It’s my birthday!” I wrote, and “No need to call!” and “Drop me a line!” and other such annoying and typically maternal mixed messages.

My middle child did call, halfway through the day. My oldest child later sent an email saying among other things that she thought I should quit writing a column and just blog full time. And at 7 at night my youngest kid, who leads the glamorous semi-poverty-stricken life of all young people living in New York City, texted me. He said he really enjoyed all the typos in my email, especially at the end where I tried to sign it “A girl who expects to be around for another 30 years,” but so mangled ‘girl’ that Word mistook my intent, did that blindingly fast mid-air correction that Word is famous for and wrote “grill” instead. My son’s message in brief: that you had to love any grille with THAT kind of durability.

Someplace in there Bobbie and I went food-shopping and I overheard two young guys stocking the shelves. “No no, anyone can go to the frat party,” one was saying to the other. “You just have to bring two girls with you to get in.” An older man and I both heard this and traded that special smile, three parts delight and one part rue that the young always elicit in us the no-longer-young.

Bobbie bought us a special New Zealand wine that the guy at the liquor store said was famous for its grapefuity flavor and we stopped in at an antique store where for 20 bucks I got a beautiful bowl to set fresh flowers in. Then we walked two miles just for fun and I holed up again to write some more.

It was then that Dodson called. Dodson “became” our oldest child when he joined our family as a 15-year-old freshman at Winchester High, in our town’s chapter of A Better Chance. He was tiny then, the shortest kid in the school but he isn’t tiny now. Here he is with me nowadays, all grown up and remember, a mere click blows this way up:



Anyway he called together with darling tiny Veronica of Buenos Aires by way of Sarasota Florida whom he married last March.

As I raced to finish my column Old Dave called to say that yes the cats were fine and he was just fooling around with the taxes and I should cozy up and have fun with Bobbie – who really capped off the day by making me a wonderful dinner to go with our New Zealand wine, a recipe involving lentils and tarragon, chopped-up bacon and a fried egg of all things and for dessert a homemade fruit compote with Crème Anglaise on top.

And we ended the night watching ancient home movies from our days at Camp Fernwood, movies in which Bobbie and Nan are seen to be dominating the Track and Field events with their long, long legs. Nan and I, we went to that camp through all of our young lives because our mother and aunt were the directors there. Our mother had in fact taken all these movies.

Oddly enough the movies inched backward in time. Here we were one minute at 12 and 14 doing the Long Jump and practicing at Archery and now suddenly here I was only one while Nan was three. And then those scenes gave way to a wavery color film of Mom’s wedding day in 1946 when such a blizzard blew in that that the photographer never got to the event at all.

Somebody with a movie camera did though and these images are all we have of our father, who was Gone Baby Gone not two years down the line. I never saw what the man even looked like ’til I saw this movie, as a woman grown.

It’s funny though: it wasn’t his face I couldn’t take my eyes off as this very nice birthday drew to a close; it was Mom’s. She was 38 years old. She never thought she’d marry, but she did and had the two of us and almost 40 years later – the last time we saw this very in fact – she laughed and said to us, “Be careful what you pray for girls! I wanted children! I never prayed for a man!”

I thought about my mother, now 20 years in her little grave. She gave me life and she stuck around to help me live it, guiding me through the vain, wildly fibbing, self-centered years to land me here, still feeling about 12 in more ways than I care to admit. Here, on this far shore of 59, where last night I watched large clouds sweep in out of nowhere and in one quick swipe like some angry teacher erase that lovely moon, so lately full and moist and brilliant.

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So here’s a new low: the Postal Service swore at me.

Hard to believe, I know, but I have it right here: a naughty abbreviation thickly scrawled on the envelope of my nice neatly-lettered envelope, which was only addressed a LITTLE wrong in the sense that I had a city that didn’t go with its state, and a zip code that didn’t go with either one.

Somebody there at that Mississippi post office not only wrote, “No Such Address” – or I should say checked the “No Such Address” box on the inky, stamped-on grid that lists all the possible reasons why your letter is coming back to Sorry Old You – but then scribbled the naughty phrase on there too.

“WTF?!” it said right there in black and white.

Now not so long ago I wouldn’t have understood the meaning of this tidy little acronym, for I am old and limited in my understanding generally. I only know it now because I have so many young people in my life, most of whom can hang out a whole clothesline’s worth of vividly bad language once they get going.

For others like me out there I will explain that the phrase means basically “What in tarnation?” (I told you I was old) or, more exactly, “What the HECK?” only with a certain other word in place of “heck,” the whole phrase perhaps being another one dreamed up by enlisted men, along the lines of “FUBAR” which we’re all now familiar with, having seen “Saving Private Ryan” back in the late 1990’s.

I felt hurt a little hurt, I’ll admit. I mean, I make mistakes all the time and no one else in my life finds it necessary to talk in to me in curse words and the Post Office most especially. The Post Office is really nice to me.

Last year I had a whole envelope stuffed with a whole month’s worth of paychecks sent me by the papers that subscribe to my weekly column, which instead of bringing to the bank I accidentally mailed. Mailed in an unsealed envelope, with no address on it of course and no stamps. (I was hand-carrying it to the bank so why would it have an address and stamps?) Luckily, I had used one of my business envelopes with my name and return address printed right on it.

So even though I dropped it in the mailbox instead of bringing it to the bank back it came to me, the very next day: I found it in my post office box with not a single check missing and more to the point no saucy talk scribbled on the envelope.

They look out for me there at my P.O. and I am very grateful for this fact. I get mail all the time with just my name and “Winchester MA” written on the envelope. Plus once some unsavory looking guy approached Sam at the window asking where Terry Marotta lived. “Why?” said Sam accusingly. “Because I want to mail her something.” “Give it to me and I’ll see that she gets it,” Sam said coldly and the guy turned right around and left. And once I walked in to the place and Sam said, “I don’t like the sound your brakes are making. Go right to the gas station and have them looked at,” and I did and they were on the brink of total meltdown.

So with that kind of loving-kindness directed at me you can totally SEE why I’m shocked to receive this piece of nasty commentary, right? I mean right? Talking like that to a nice older person like me? Heavens my word! as my most old-fashioned friend regularly exclaims. Land sakes! Or, in common parlance and stooping to this guy’s level, What the frickity frick?!

Premature Burial

It’s 4:30 in the morning and I’ve just stumbled across a website about the Anatomy of the Foot and Ankle. I use the word “stumbled” just about literally since I haven’t slept for one single second of this long night – not since I climbed into bed just after the 10 o’clock news. The foot and ankle anatomy lesson starts this way: “At some time in your life you should experience foot, heel, or ankle pain.” How’s THAT for a cheerful notion? You should experience foot heel or ankle pain.

Well if you should then I by God will. It’s my fate is how I feel right now, with the worst cold I have had since I stayed home sick from school for a solid week at age 15 and missed not just factoring in Algebra but also the whole darn unit on Silas Marner. My head feels like someone drilled a hole in it of the kind you might make to drain the milk out of a coconut. It feels as though it’s first had very drop of moisture sucked out of it as if by a Shop-Vac and concrete poured in. I feel completely walled up respiration-wise, buried, sealed in the tomb, like the poor guy in the Poe story Premature Burial.”

I have this cold presumably because someone sneezed on me. (click on any pic to enlarge):


I’m not sneezing like this woman; I’m just in gridlock. In fact I’d welcome a good sneeze which at least would show some movement . If I had snuff right now I’d take it to make me sneeze. What I did take was Afrin which whoops I just read TURNS OUT TO BE THE LAST THING YOU SHOULD TAKE because even if it’s just the third time in three days that I have used the stuff and they say that’s ok, I got the rebound effect. Chat rooms I have just now visited say “Hell, never take that stuff” “Throw it away!” one person wrote. “If you can’t go cold turkey, use it one nostril and the next night in the other.” Somebody wrote “Use Benadryl instead” and somebody else “Eat raw foods only.”

I might try this last since I can’t taste anything anyhow


Anyway I finally crawled into bed again at 5:30, hoping for a few zzz’s AND MY HUSBAND WHOM I DESPISE BECAUSE HE CAN SLEEP opened one eye.

“I’m dying,” I croaked.

“Nobody ever died from lack of sleep,” said the brute.

“But I have chest pain too! And I think it’s radiating down my arm!”

“TT,” he said, patting my arm.. “Old TT!” That’s been his name for me since oh, 1972.

Sooooo, I lay there for another 90 minutes trying to breathe through the desert cave of my mouth.

Then, just at 7:15 the room suddenly bloomed with a flood of coral-tinged light that lifted me straight out of the bed.

Here is what I saw from our deck at the conclusion of my miserable night: a series of vistas that that filled me with such a sense of wonder and unreasonable joy that, speaking of feet and ankles, my best friend Self Pity couldn’t even set a toe down.

the 1st flash sm-first-light-at-lake.jpg sm-sun-up-at-the-lake.jpg


Fax Me, Chill Out, Oh Baby of Mine

They’re something so touchingly dated about Necco’s gritty little “Sweetheart” Conversation Hearts. I mean who exclaims ”My Baby!” these days, never mind “Love Bird!” Of course “Fax Me” is in its own category of out-of-it-ness because when in the last 25 years has anyone with romantic intent excerpt for during a moment back in the 80s when we were all still blown away by the new technology? I faxed a birthday greeting to my brother-in-law in California and could hardly wrap my head around the fact that he’d be getting it at 9am when I had ACTUALLY SENT IT AT NOON! He was getting it BEFORE I even sent it! This is the kind of ecstatic mind-altered thinking that led to people sitting on their office equipment to photocopy their fannies (which, ha ha funny stuff, they would sometimes then FAX it to their friends.)

Bottom line: if a would-be suitor says “Fax Me” you’re dealing with some kind of culturally handicapped person Andy Kaufman’s Latke Gravas character from the old show “Taxi.”

But to get back to hearts which come to think of it are shaped like the human bottom when it is compressed on a flat surface, Necco’s website offers some history too. Seems these candy hearts go way back to the 1880s when they were much bigger and used the kind of high courting language we just don’t see today. Messages like “Dear One” and “Be Mine” are all I could find remaining of that era in the little box I have here but once they said things like, “Please Send a Lock of Your Hair by Return Mail,” and “How Long Shall I Have to Wait? Pray be Considerate!”

Now the only thing you’ll find on a heart is what fits in two short words or maybe even one. It’s kind of a falling-off if you ask me. Plus where are the QA guys? Half my candy hearts are smudged or stamped on crooked, the way American automakers are said to be putting your new car’s door on if it’s a Friday and they’re just kind of phonin’ it in there at the factory.

Let me tell you about the ones I have in my lap here. OK the one I just ate a minute ago said “Love (smudge)” and the one I’m tossing back now says “Sunshin,” the ’e’ having slid away and out of sight. Some are blank entirely and some are so crooked it looks like the sugary “ink” got stamped in the dark by helper monkeys.

Plus another lame thing this year: they’re going for a meteorological theme. That’s where “Sunshine” comes in and also “In a Fog” (which is supposed to recommend someone to you?) Also “Chill Out,” which sounds to me more like the prelude to a fight than a kiss but what do I know?

I say if they’re going to pursue themes they should really branch out, to the wide world of medical care, say and give us hearts printed with “Hold Still” or “Open Wide” or that phrase we all tingle to hear, “You’ll Feel a Little Pressure.”

Hey but wait! I just took a quick look around the Internet and look at this! two people from Minneapolis have offered a tallying-up the inky message inside their own bag of these little confections. The ones with a zero next to them are the ones they’re just making up but they offer them in such a great deadpan way. They say they found all of these and more: two Smiley Faces, five Unreadables, six Angels and five Call Me’s; but none that said “WWJD,” “Recently Tested,” “My Ho,” “Bad Rash,” or “Mammogram.”

“Mammogram,” see? There are others out there whose minds work like mine!

To see more and marvel along go to “How Much is Inside Converation Hearts?”

Then hurry out quick to the store to get something for your own honey; something living in this season of the brown grass even if it’s a box of yeast. I saw a guy trying to pass off a bouquet of purple kale as flowers for his lady last year. “Hey, it used to be alive!” he told me at the check-out. “Plus she can cook it up after. “

I wished him luck as we all should wish one another luck in this perilous season of the valentine. And now I have to run out and get something for my own main squeeze who’s going out to play cards and drink with his buddies tomorrow night instead of spending the evening with yours truly. He’ll be home around 1 and maybe a little muzzy with his evening’s fun. I bet he won’t even notice I’m keeping watch camped out in the guest room across the hall. I might be gittin’ up there agewise but by God I still know how to short-sheet a bed.

Life, Sliced Pepperoni Fine

still dancin’

Ben Coonley was in our living room on Superbowl Sunday, not just to watch the Patriots- Giants game but to record it in his own unique way.

Ben is a video artist and the creator of several memorable pieces you can see on YouTube. A couple of Februarys ago he made one of those videos that zooms all over the globe in 24 hours. It’s called “Valentine Perfect Strangers” and it stars his dead-pan formerly-feral cat Otto who is looking for love over the internet.

He’s also famous for his Pony series, with such works as “ One Trick Pony” and “Every Pony Plays the Fool,” both starring a blissed-out looking Hobby Horse scored from everybody’s favorite big-box toy store.

Ben has been making these videos for years and years and in a way my kids were in on the ground floor with him. Meaning that my oldest girl with her three-foot-long fall of maple-syrup colored hair appears briefly in his “documentary” of a middle school rock concert that gets shut down when certain of the musicians start yelling bad words out at the audience. (“Don’t point that thing at ME!” she is heard to exclaim in the quick shot that shows her.) And, speaking of bad words, our youngest is the out-and-out star of “The Homework Diaries” in which, over a period of months, he disgustedly recites the list of all he has to do for school the next day. Even our middle girl worked behind the scenes on a couple of pieces not yet orbiting in the vast junk-filled Internet asteroid belt.

But the technique of his that I love best is the ones where he uses the “intermittent record” feature on his camera, which allows him to set it up on a tripod and capture one-half of one second of every 30 seconds of lived life. He used this feature to document our kids and their pals as they watched the three other Superbowls that the Patriots played in and he used it again last week. And I have to admit I just love watching these very short works, where the unattended camera just takes tiny biopsy-sized chunks out of life and serves them sliced up fine.

Take this year’s effort: people appear and then instantly disappear. This chair has a person in it and now it is empty. It is bright sunny and it is utterly dark. The lamps are off and the lamps are lit. There is a truncated whoop of joy and a bark of dismay; leaps of exaltation and dejected slumps. Now here comes someone’s pants walking toward the camera. Now a Bud Light passes by in somebody’s hand. A baby’s head flashes in the foreground and is gone. A small child in footed pj’s does a nano-second of hula dancing and is also gone (but gone where? To college and a career?) And we are all shown continually eating and drinking and eating and drinking; flashing into existence and out again and all I can think is: this must be what we look like to God.

Take a peek at these stills to get the idea. Clicking on them blows them up, natch.

superbowl-xlii-baby-included.jpgstill dancin’superbowl-xlii-aargh.jpg


Ben may be doing an installation using this technique in the future and then you maybe can see all these pieces. They’re all just five or six minutes long.

Life is short but art is long they used to say but maybe all the best art is short too. A good lesson for all us bloggers!

What You Need

Princess Diana is buried with the rosary beads Mother Teresa gave her when they met. That was a year or more before she was hunted down like the poor bunny by the ravening foxes.

She wasn’t religious as far as I know but she admired that little gnome of a Mother T, cruelly ‘outed’ after her death as a doubter like the rest of us.

And I totally see why Diana took to her. Mother Theresa was very blunt and most people like bluntness. She was also quick to dismiss what stuck her as trivial. I remember when she came here once to look in on one of the modest urban dwellings of her order of nuns, some good soul tried to give the house a few air conditioners. “We don’t need air conditioners!” she told them, swatting away the idea.

Sometimes when I’m feeling sorry for myself lately – with the stress of modern life and the insomnia that’s been driving my husband David crazy for the last six months- (I’m perfectly quiet on my side of the bed which is how he can tell, I guess: no deep breathing. “Stop being awake!” he says – and I TRY to stop. Lately we take turns with our insomnia. I finally get out of the bed and stun myself with a scalding bath. I climb back in – now it’s 3 am and I haven’t slept yet – and at 3:05 HE climbs out and goes down to his couch in the living room where he reads his endless whodunits ‘til sleep overtakes him at 4 or 4:30.) As I say lately when I’m feeling sorry for myself it comes into my head that I’m not in pain, not hungry, not unsafe – and all the rest falls away, thank God, thank God. It’s so tiresome to be self-involved.

One day I will give away all my possessions (maybe to my kids first if they even want them) and then I’ll give away my diaries. Smith College has graciously offered to accept and guard these volumes begun upon in 1958 when I was a little girl lying through my teeth on paper.

“Give them to Smith?! Give them to your children!” David says and maybe I will but what a painful and stinging thing it is to read your mother’s diaries (as I well know who have read all my mother’s going back to 1916 when she was a sad-faced uncertain girl not doing her homework and getting lousy marks in school.)

And yet I have her 1921 volume next to my bed and I read it before sleep sometimes and think “I am the only one who gets these references.”

I get them because when we were little our mother and aunt who raised my sister and me told and told – all the stories. All the non-stories. Everything. In the end when Mom was in ER after ER I would say to her “Let’s leave this place Mum. Let’s time travel” and out would come more stories.

It’s true we might not need air conditioners; but we sure do need that connection with the past.


Back in Your Mother’s Belly

The secretary of my college class sent out a group email begging for news of us all. How were we really? she wanted to know

Well let’s see now, is what I thought. I think I’m in better shape than my mother was at my age since women didn’t even walk in the old days, never mind exercise. Men didn’t either plus they all had these little fat tummies which they wore UNDER their belts for some reason.

Everybody was soft, I guess, takin’ it easy after the War maybe – never mind that they all smoked their brains out. My own mother smoked in a closed car on the hour-long ride to our cousins’ on holidays; smoked madly until the summer of ‘74 when she got a bad bronchial infection and was ordered to her bed. She dragged a little TV into her room to watch the Watergate hearings. “That man is disgusting!” she yelled at one point about poor old Nixon, “and this is disgusting too!” she yelled again, looking down at the cigarette in her hand. She stubbed it out and never smoked again and lived until her 80th birthday party when she died within the space of about ten seconds, a little plate of cookies on her lap.

But I figure we’re all going to live so long with our annoying Boomer talk about enhanced sexual performance and all that our kids will be just dying to put the pillow over our faces.

I guess I expect to live up into my 80s – IF I can start paying pay better attention that is and not step off the curb into the path of some big old bus.

So in general I feel pretty much as I did at 19 though God knows what color my hair REALLY is. Still, it’s fun to grow older. I lie in bed at 5 in the morning when the alarm first goes off and time-travel all the way back to crib days. I like that: the way we’re lifting a little every day as we get older and can sometimes survey the whole landscape almost.

My oldest girl wanted to have her firstbaby at home last May and I was a wreck. We watched him kick and we could sometimes feel his little spine right through her skin. We all drummed on his little bottom: “Hello hello are you OK?” we said the way you would to someone trapped in a cave…

Along with not knowing what any body’s real hair color is anymore I find we don’t know what natural labor is like. The doctors hurry everyone along so with their Pitocin and then oops labor slowed down! and oops the baby looks upse!t and then it’s C-sections all around.

I was proud of our girl for wanting to do it God’s own way with her two midwiveswho said “Put sheets you don’t care about on the bed and under those a set of waterproof sheets and under THOSE your very favorite sheets in the world.” There’s the progression of the thing right there, peace at the end of the struggle.

In the end the medical establishment won of course. They took their tests when the baby was ten days overdue and said the amniotic fluid was draining clear away so in the end it was Induced labor and Pitocin and an Epidural after all – everything but the dread C-section.

I wrote all that in my email to the college and they printed like three lines of it in the Alumnae Quarterly.

The moral of the story I guess?How I am is how they are, meaning my children, and right now anyway my children are just fine and that new baby smiles away alone his crib like he was getting paid to do it. Even his big brother three is growing rather fond of him. He said recently that you do too get to go back inside your mother’s belly. “WHEN YOU DIE” he said and well who could argue with him there?