Monthly Archives: October 2016

Ghosts, skeletons and Dolley Madison

This is a bit of a  Halloween tale from the archives of my childhood.  Growing up in New York City in an apartment building with fifty-two  apartments and hence fifty-two potential sources of  candy, made Halloween quite the holiday from my vantage point.  Occasionally, we were allowed to buy costumes at the local Woolworth store (remember that?).  However, I really liked the chance to see if I could come up with something unique.  Yes, I was a strange child with a vivid imagination, who didn’t necessarily follow convention when it came to all things Halloween.

The apartment building was filled with all sorts of characters, the kind you might see in a Neil Simon play.  Some were glamorous, or at least I thought they looked that way.  It was still the time when people would dress up to go out for the evening and looked elegant and coiffed.  My sister and I had built in friends who lived in an apartment one floor below and one apartment to the left.  There were three sisters who became  part of our little gang of five.  I was the oldest and then between the four younger ones were two more, my sister and then the youngest among us.  Often, other tenants were unsure who belonged to which family, despite the  obvious differences in appearance.  As the two oldest, we formed an alliance and we worked as a team to create good costumes.  We were relegated to taking the younger ones with us as we went from door to door with Halloween inspired paper shopping bags to collect our treats.  In addition we all had small cardboard boxes to collect coins for UNICEF.  So there was a moral lesson with the pursuit of candy, lest we forget there are children who don’t have candy or much else.

Once we collected the loot (which somehow I am remembering being something my mother called it) we would go to our respective apartments, dump the bag and separate the really good stuff (big candy Baby Ruths, Mounds and Hershey Bars) and the other stuff which included smarties, Good and Plenty in those little boxes  and popcorn balls which I thought were just disgusting as they were colored in non food colors.  Then our mother would review the candy, for  a surcharge of at least one Baby Ruth and we were allowed to pick a few things, and the rest would be sequestered somewhere.  Having a surfeit of candy  always made me feel wonderful.

When I think back to my best costumes, I remember two  of which I am particularly proud.  The first one was a ghost, but not just a ghost, it was also a skeleton.  Let me explain…. my father’s best friend was a paint chemist who for some reason, when I asked for phosphorescent paint (in a greenish yellow),  he was able to find some.  I think now it was not something children should  not have had access to, because of some chemical issue, but at the time it was the essence of the costume.  My idea was that we would get white sheets (also something that everyone had as colored sheets were not yet in vogue).  I would draw the outline of a skeleton on the sheet, paint it with the phosphorescent paint, and expose it to light and voila! We would go to people’s apartments and since we knew most everyone, they would invite us in for a minute and we would tell them to turn off the lights and we went from ghosts to skeletons. It was so badass!  Not bad for a 12 year old.  That was an especially good Halloween.

To preface my second best costume, I need to tell you of my strong interest in biographies of women in history.  I fell in love with the stories of Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Amelia Earhart and Dolley Madison.  One year, I was invited to a Halloween party of my girl scout troop.  Somehow, I was able to find one of my mother’s old dresses that I thought embodied Dolley Madison.  I even wore a white cap to make myself look authentic.  When I arrived at the party, the room was dark and we entered to the sounds of spooky music and screeching.  It was a little scary but appealed to my sense of curiosity as we put our hands in a bowl of grapes which we were told were eyeballs and another bowl was filled with cold spaghetti, which we were convinced were brains.  At some point in the evening the lights went on and we all got to see one another’s costumes.  There were witches and cats and movie stars.  We were getting ready to vote on best costume and then the group looked at me and said ” Who are you supposed to be?”.  I said “I am Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth president of the United States!”.  There was a lot of blinking and a bit of smirking and eyerolling.  It was a moment I haven’t forgotten.  Part  of the girl scout pledge is the following:

” I promise to serve God and my country, To help people at all times, And to live by the Girl Scout Law. Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.”

The mother of the girl who hosted the party  and who was also one of our leaders, looked around at our group.  She was a very kind woman, as I remember, and she asked the group to write their choice for best costume and put the paper in a plastic pumpkin.  She then tabulated the votes.  The cat won.  Dolley Madison came in second.  Not sure if the voting was rigged.  Dolley and I (as one) left with our white capped head held high.  Small victory and quite the treat.

Happy Weekend! Happy Halloween!  Pick good candy, just in case there are leftovers.

 

Eavesdropping….

Imagine this…a dark and extremely rainy night in a small, unfamiliar town in the mountains of Vermont.  You are staying in a “tiny house” (more about that at another time soon) and your host, who you never meet, tells you in a brief  telephone conversation, that there is a restaurant down the road, not far, where you can get a decent meal.  You are tired, after a long day of driving and meandering, through heavy rain and snow showers.  You decide to take a chance and as  you exit the very dark driveway, you hope you correctly remember her saying turn right, and just keep driving, always bearing to the right at every fork you encounter.  She said “you can’t miss it!”.  That just seems like a jinx, but you take the chance.  At night, all roads seem longer in unfamiliar territory.  The houses we passed seemed forbidding and not friendly, although someone had their Christmas lights up.  Not knowing the culture of the community, one didn’t know if they were still up, having never been taken down, last winter, or whether these folks were getting a jump on their “must -do” list.

As hope was just about out the window, we saw some lights and an old building with a name that sounded familiar, from what we had been told.  We turned into the driveway, put up our hoods and pushed our way through the rain, into the entrance.  We found ourselves in a corridor with a sign that said Lounge and we entered. We were greeted and seated at a table close to several others.  It looked somewhat austere but the waitstaff greeted us immediately and offered to take our drink order as we dried off.  Although there were only three tables of customers,  the conversations were loud and dissonant.  One table was filled with four blond haired women of a certain age who seemed as though they had been having quite a good time.  The waiter seemed almost apologetic as he got close to us to get our order.  My FHB had a pale ale and I had some Earl Grey tea.  Our typical choices when one of us wants to unwind, and the other wants to feel warm.  An older couple sat nearby and were contemplating dessert.  He loudly stated that he felt it was time for something chocolate. She vetoed his choice and reminded him that chocolate was not on his diet.  The conversation volleyed back and forth and while we sat quietly, they appeared to come to an impasse, and the waiter brought their check and it was moments before they departed, he walking quickly away, as she followed behind.  He did not hold the door for her.  You could somewhat figure out the score.  Two women, one older, one somewhat younger were engaged in a very intense conversation that seemed to go from a discussion of marriage, children, divorce and parents’ secrets on the part of the older woman, to the younger woman’s counter about having a personal philosophy on life.  My FNB and I are quiet people, and stealthy, when it comes to listening in, especially when the conversation seems so piqued with curiosity.  Younger woman states” and what would you say would be your beliefs if you could choose how to believe but not based on any current beliefs, but rather something that was completely your own”.  Older woman responds with a knowing glance and a professorial air…”to challenge the beliefs that have come before, means you must acknowledge that you have rejected other beliefs and that would deny so much of your essence, is that correct?”…or something like that.  It was positively out there in the universe.  The younger woman, I might add, never ate her food and took it home.  I always wonder about that.  They didn’t have dessert. While we were sharing our spinach salad with beets and goat cheese, no walnuts, another table was filled.  There were two men and one woman, but it was unclear how they were connected.  This restaurant was very near a well known college, and it seemed by all appearances, that we were surrounded by people who were somehow connected through the academic world.  These three, two of whom seemed to be a couple, and another man, who was older but familiar with them both started talking about four character idioms  in Chinese.  He gave an example of one that was something we use in English, but of course, I failed to remember it for more than a second, since the conversation was so riveting.  He was repeating phrase after phrase, and I kept thinking…”what a show-off” and then he stopped abruptly and they moved on to other topics.  We ate our dinners and waited for the next round of information to take in, which would be discussed on our ride home.  We ordered dessert which consisted of three enormous chocolate chip cookies the size of a small child’s head and a little pot de creme on the side for dunking.  Spectacular and while we managed to share one cookie and prepare to take the rest home, we heard the table of three talk about our dessert and discussing that we seemed to be enjoying it.  I guess they were eavesdropping. Turnabout is fair play…

Listen up….have a good week.

 

 

Drive, she said!

In December, I will have had my driver’s license for 42 years.  That’s a lot of miles.  I never had a desire to drive but knowing I was moving to central Illinois where they didn’t have subways, just cows and corn,  fast tracked the need to learn.  New York City’s subway system was always available to me. I grew up less than three blocks from the closest elevated train system.  I navigated the subway with appropriate caution, but little fear.  It was an easy mode of transportation and my friends and I knew the stops and the different lines and we never felt the need to drive a car. We were city girls.  It was a different mindset from growing up in a rural setting.  Getting a driver’s license was less a rite of passage.  In college, some men I dated had cars, but most were as likely to ride  the subway to pick me up.  I went to a commuter college, so once again, I took buses and trains and it was nothing I thought too much about.

My only experience driving a car prior to the awareness that necessitated learning, was bumper cars.  I loved deliberately bumping into the other cars in the arena, or whatever it was called.   That was a kick.  But then I had to learn to drive and not hit, bump or make contact with any other vehicles or I would be in very serious trouble.  So said my father, an insurance executive, who described himself as “risk adverse”.  He was the person who was going to teach me to drive.  It was a difficult relationship, fraught with gutteral sounds, the likes I had not heard outside of a horror movie.  He would count the m.p. h.s  as I accelerated.  As I rode along the local streets in our neighborhood in Queens,NY,  which were one way streets, lined on each side by car after car, he would tell me “TOO CLOSE!! MOVE OVER!!!” and would utter those awful sounds like a fisher cat capturing a small animal.  You would have thought I was aiming for my grandmother.   It finally came to a halt, literally, when I stopped the car, at a traffic light, turned off the engine, removed the keys, and handed them to my father, the terrified passenger and I exited the vehicle. I turned to him as I exited, and said ” I will be walking home”.  We did not speak of it again, and I insisted to my mother, that she get in touch with a driving school and from then on, I followed the instructions of a licensed driving school instructor, who had those extra set of actual brakes, rather than the invisible ones my father pumped repeatedly.  I did take the driving test twice, since the first inspector failed me for not negotiating a stop sign and initially screamed at me  “Get in the car stupid!  It’s raining!”.  I apparently did not turn on the windshield wipers quickly enough for him and I was racking up points against me so that by the time I returned to the test site I knew that I was not leaving with a temporary license.  However, as my mother would say….I “fixed his wagon” by reporting his yelling at me and subsequently, he was fired, as he apparently, had been rather negative with other student drivers.  The second time I had more confidence and aced the test, or at least didn’t fail it.

I enjoy driving now.  I actually don’t even mind getting stuck in traffic, or at traffic lights, or locally at the bridge which opens up several times a day while the fishing boats pass through the swing truss bridge between between New Bedford and Fairhaven, Massachusetts.  I try to obey most of the rules of the road and my personality also makes me wish I had a bullhorn to remind others of those rules.  I often prefer driving to being a passenger, and sometimes driving alone, without music or news, is my modus operandi.  I’ve become a backroads kind of woman, taking in the scenery, and slowing down to look at a cow or two, much to the chagrin of the person behind me. I signal even when there is no one around.  In the end, I know that I have become “risk adverse” and I always wear my seatbelt.   Perhaps he wasn’t the best driving instructor, but I did learn a few things.  Thanks Dad.

Afterthought…teaching your kids to drive is also teaching them to drive away from home, sometimes.   Keeping them safe gets harder as time goes by. Turning the wheel over to your child, and letting them drive you, is one of those moments when you know it’s  going to be okay.

Safe driving and enjoy the weekend.

 

 

Looking back to look forward

My birthday looms.  It’s actually next month and the acknowledgement that it is coming soon, is based on the birthdays of close friends and family members, who celebrate  right before I do.  I’m fine with birthdays as a benchmark in my life.  No getting around them and accepting that we are getting older is just a sign of maturity and acknowledgement of what is real.  Of course, 63 is old to lots of people and young to others.  I hold fast to the possibility that I am in the final third of my life and happily consider that if I live to 100, I am not yet at that two thirds marker.

Recently,  I began to research my family tree.  My FHB had given me a kit to get my DNA tested to check whether my European roots were not what I thought they were.  I sent my very unique spit to Ancestry.com, and I kind of forgot that the time had gone by, past the time frame I was given on the website.  I had read that I would be notified within six to eight weeks.  I looked back at the date the company received my sample and did the calculations and found in fact, it had been 11 weeks.  So, there are people ready to help me at all hours of the day and night (depending on the time zone).  It was 9 pm on a Friday and after listening to some fairly innocuous elevator type music, I was connected to a very earnest sounding man, named Josh.  He asked me for all sorts of identification that “only I would know” and after establishing my identity he walked me through the website, told me to scroll up and that I would find…..my ethnic origins.  Tada!!!! I am 100% European Jewish.  I was underwhelmed.   Josh could hear the disappointment in my voice.  He did find something that he felt was important for me to be aware of with the news. He told me that he had been doing this work for a while, and that he had never actually seen results of someone whose DNA was 100%!  He indicated that he had seen  results in the high 90s but that I was the only one who came up with 100.  I felt somewhat like a purebred of something.  I felt slightly better, yet still not very interesting.  I did examine the website for others (this is calculated for you) who have some matching DNA that increases the possibility that we are related. It is complicated.  There were a couple of messages from other folks who were possible relatives looking for my information to see where our tree branch might be intertwined.  It was like falling down the rabbit hole. I was now part of something bigger than just me.

I know quite a bit about my roots.  My father, after retirement, spent an enormous amount of time “digging up old relatives”.  My mother, suffered along with his pronouncements that he had found a new cousin or set of cousins that he added to our family tree.  They would often coordinate vacations with meeting these new folks.  I paid quite a bit of attention at the time. He accumulated lots of photographs and records, and flowcharts and floppy disks, which, when he died, I took , with the eventual intent of looking at everything.  Those floppy disks and 3 1/4 inch disks are part of our archives but of course, technology has gone way past their use.

In the past few weeks I have re-examined photographs for clues of dates (by wardrobe) and who was related to who.  The pictures are fabulous but the clues are not written anywhere so I have to slow down the process and analyze what I do have, and figure out the connections.  I try to make an educated guess as to which side of my family the photos may be from.  I match pictures of younger people with similarly looking older people.  Yesterday I found a golden anniversary party announcement with two pictures, one of a younger couple and one of an older couple.  I found some separate photos of the man and the woman.  I figured out that these were my great-great grandparents.  I used Google translate to understand the text. Small victories.  I attempt to cross check with other sources.  It is arduous at moments and exhilarating at others.  The reality is this….on my mother’s side, my sister,  my only  first cousin, and I are now the matriarchs.  No one else is left.  Some of my father’s first cousins are still around and I hope to reach out to fill in some of the branches.  I think about why I am doing this.

“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
― David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

We all want to be remembered.  Collecting the branches and leaves of my tree allows me to pass it along to the next generation.  I think we all want to do something and in the moment this is something I will do.  Remembering the past helps anticipate the future.

Look at the fallen leaves of the trees around you and look up at the branches where the leaves remain.  Think good thoughts. Have a good week.

But for the children….

I do not consider myself an overtly political person.  I formulate my opinions and investigate the issues and if asked, I will probably give a truthful answer of what my thought are on hot topics or views.  My demeanor is to try and learn within the dictates of a neutral position, until it is necessary for me to speak up. I speak up when I witness situations, either directly or through other relatively reliable sources, and I know that something is very wrong.  The news these days is particularly frought with completely crazy drama.  I am not going to spend time in that realm as it has already been discussed, synthesized, analyzed beyond what I could add to it.

What brings me to tears, on sometimes a daily basis, is when children die.  Last night I saw footage of dead children.  They  were described as just young children walking to school, in what had become a war zone, casualties of missiles and attacks, supposedly aimed at soldiers on opposing sides…except that these were children, not soldiers and they didn’t do anything wrong.  My breath is taken away, and the tears roll down my cheeks and I feel a sense of helplessness and the depth of sadness, as  I recognize that something has gone very wrong.  There is no numbing out of feelings when it comes to children dying.  I could turn off the pictures and the sound. I could choose to listen to something else, something pleasant and familiar but it wouldn’t change what is happening whether I bear witness or I don’t.  In a country I will never visit, in communities of people I will never meet, I will still cry for the parents and grandparents and families. I will cry for the loss of a life, of the  possibility of that child having the  experience of growing up and knowing the world.  I don’t pretend to understand the nuances of battle and war and what winning means and what losing costs.  I only know that as a grandparent, a parent, a member of a family, that to lose a child as a “casualty” of war will never be something I could ever come to accept because it is unacceptable.

Being lucky in life takes on new meaning as time progresses.  Having the company of people I care about, and who care about me, makes me feel lucky.  Having plenty of food and a more than adequate shelter, a a peaceful existence, and intellectual stimulation and the ability to travel safely to and from my work and beyond makes me know that I am lucky.  A simple life includes music and books and the ability to learn new things, through my own experience or through the teachings of others.  Despite the normal frustrations of day to day interactions and obstacles, the sense of purpose and resolve allows the day to end and the next day to begin with a sense of certainty.  Not so for children caught in the midst of war.  The rules do not apply.  There is no luck or guarantee of much.  As parents and grandparents we worry, as that is hardwired at the moment you become responsible for another human being.  It has no end date. It is perpetual for as long as it is possible.  I shed the tears and then I get really angry.  I cannot accept this situation and I wonder if I was more “political” whether it would help.  My father who studied economics used to talk about war as the conflict between the “haves” and the “have nots”.  It seemed like a simple construct that if I didn’t factor in the humanity, it seemed like something that had to occur to continue to build reasonable civilizations.  I often wonder how he would view the world today, having been a refugee, an American soldier in World World II, a business man, a parent, a grandparent, a child.  The first war that my generation was aware of was the Vietnam War….it was in our living room nightly.  My father did not shelter us from seeing the numbers of casualties across the screen.  He didn’t explain who was on which side.  We were expected to develop our own views.  Here we are again, except that in the last 50 plus years , I have no clearer understanding of what happened then and what is happening now.  The media and the journalists explain things and it is subjective.  I cry because I will never reconcile why the children, just walking to school, didn’t get there.

Be peaceful this weekend and smile at strangers since we never know everyone’s story.

 

No Limits

This past weekend, while driving through neighboring towns, headed toward one of the most bountiful farmstands to buy fresh vegetables and have lunch al fresco,  I asked my FHB “If you could invite anyone to dinner, dead or alive, who would it be?”.  Without a moments hesitation he said “Thomas Jefferson”.  I wanted details.  I asked for the why, and wondered whether it was because of his political views, history, or personal story.  The answer was actually quite simple.   Since we visited Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Virginia, many years ago, he was fascinated by the inventiveness and beauty of the building and he would want to ask him questions about the construction and design.  My FHB is an incredibly creative man, who paints  from realism and builds  furniture from a practical vantage point.  Function and form is his credo.  Delving into Jefferson’s designs for his plantation home, there was a parallel in terms of his practical nature when it came to having furniture and arranging space.  I asked the question of where dinner would take place and apparently it would be in our loft.  I then asked who else would be at the table, and he stated that Norm Abrams, Master Carpenter from “This Old House”,  would also be invited.  I already figured out that I would be preparing the meal,  and I was curious as to what we would be serving Mr. Jefferson (not sure if we would call him Mr. President) and Mr. Abrams.  Since we live in a seaport and fishing city,  fish would be on the menu.  At this point, we had arrived at the farm and we sat and ate our lunch and worked on the details of the dinner.  I was dithering about the table setting and placement of our guests.  I didn’t want to be too formal, as in bring out the real good china, but on the other hand how often do you get to sit and eat with two people with whom you can get right to the heart of the details of shared knowledge, and talk about what your passions are.  I decided that the Wedgewood would not be over the top, and we would ,of course, use cloth napkins. I was not planning to sit, but listen in from the kitchen area. There would be no tablecloth, because the  wood is so beautiful,  I thought that  both men might comment on it.

The beauty of the conversation was enhanced by the realization on my part, and I am sure on my FHB’s part, that creating a dinner, attended by the people he  would want to break bread with (something crusty, of course, with sweet butter), is  always within our imagination.  I like to think of it as stretching our brains and satisfying that itch that often   comes from wanting to reach beyond the mundane.  The excitement of considering the possibility of experiencing the magic of history pared with our contemporary creative idols made it so real, in the moment.  It was satisfying to be engaged in creating a moment in our imaginations that we could both build together.

Reality is often constrained by the obligations we  have to consider.  As adults, we spend a lot of time, running errands and doing tasks.  We feel committed to  following our routine,  which, although comforting in some moments, can feel like a path worn down by doing it over and over again, day in and day out.

I like to ask the questions that generate the possibility that nothing is impossible.  In past days of counseling small children, they would often build wonderful structures out of blocks and give me details of what the building was, and who lived there, and how one entered and so on.  At the end of the hour, they would fret that they had to dismantle it, and resisted the idea that someone else might want to build another castle, and need those same blocks.  It was a frequent discussion.  The solution that I offered was that we would stand and “take a picture in our minds”.  I would put my hands up at eye level, and wait for the little one to copy my stance.  I would hold my hands as though I had a camera (not an iPhone) and we would count to three and click the shutter.  In that moment, a smile would come across their face and they would say “I have good picture,  it’s in my mind”.  Life would go on till the next time.

There are no limits  on how we can conquer our world with our imaginations.   Those moments do pass, but we can hold them as pictures in our minds.  I would hope that Thomas Jefferson would be happy to talk about his house and not his political views and enjoy a good meal and meet both Norm and my FHB.  It would be a great evening.  Imagine that…and have a great week.