Monday, August 10, 2015

1953: I've got mail.

From a letter my dad wrote to me when I was 10. It was the summer after my mom died, and I was staying with our cousin Peggy in Monterey, Massachusetts, while he was home in Queens. I think this first part of the letter is so funny. His mother (my grandmother "Lucky") had been an opera singer, and one of her favorite songs was the Joyce Kilmer poem set to music.

Dear Susie, Mother and I got home Saturday at 12:30 p.m. We had a lovely trip, all except Mother and her "Trees." "Only God can make a tree."  And then to make matters worse, she began to sing about the trees. I was praying for the time we'd reach the parkway where trees were not so numerous.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

1982: Two Poems by My Daughter Gillian, Age 7

Thears a green mommey
I said to myself
and there's a red mommey
and there's a purple mommey
and there's a tan mommey
and there is a my mommey

I gave her the first line, "I'll never tell you," and this is what she wrote:

I'll never tell you
wate I have not even
when you are bad
not even when you are good
So do not beg me

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Trivia Night

My library had another Trivia Night last week. This is a team competition, held every two or three months. I'm the captain of our team, which consisted of four people the first two times we competed. This time one of our members couldn't make it, so we did some recruiting and got up to six people.

The contest consists of 10 questions in each of 5 categories. When I saw the list of categories, I thought we were doomed:

Candy
Railroads
National Parks
Math
Superheroes

One of our members owns a health food store . . . how much could we possibly know about candy? An embarrassingly large amount, as it turned out.

Railroads? National Parks? A member is an editor of a children's magazine, and another member is retired from a similar job. As you might imagine, they've picked up lots of useful facts—useful on Trivia Night, anyway. And I was startled at how many National Parks answers I pulled out of thin air. I have no idea how I knew them. I didn't know beans about railroads though.

I was hoping for some math problems (the not-terribly-difficult variety), but the questions in that category were about the history of math. One of our members is a college student, and another remembers her education. (What a concept.) We did well.

As for superheroes, my grandson keeps me up to date on Batman, and the others took care of some of the rest. It was our worst category, but still not bad. We came in a close second. But I award us my own personal Grand Prize for sustained hilarity.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Advice to the Grieving

Sheryl Sandberg's beautiful post about mourning her husband, posted on Facebook last week, reminded me of something I've been meaning to write. This won't be beautiful, but it might be useful.

When my beloved daughter Gillian died in 2001, I had to ask a friend to come to the house to dress my husband for the memorial service because I had reached the limit of my tolerance for anything, even picking out a tie. It didn't matter one way or another to my husband; in the throes of dementia, he thought he lived in a hotel and I was the concierge. To him, my friend was just one more employee. So yes, I know a thing or two about grief. Here are some of the things I learned in the process.

New widows and widowers are advised not to make any big decisions, like selling their homes. I would take that a giant step farther: Don't sell anything, or buy anything, without a second opinion from a level-headed person who isn't grieving. I'm from New York and thought I had my share of street smarts, but people took advantage of me with ease.

I got talked into having some property logged, and what a mess that turned out to be. I had no idea the loggers had the worst reputation in the area, but it wouldn't have been all that hard for someone to find out. I gave away our beautiful 19' high-transom power boat to a guy I hardly knew because he said he always wanted to have a boat so he could take his young son fishing. As far as I know, he never took his son out on the boat at all. He sold it. There were other examples of similarly poor decisions.

Accept the fact that you're a little crazy right now. Yes, grief is crazy-making. It's an altered state. In my case, I didn't mow the lawn for a year or two, and I remember my shock at discovering I hadn't cleaned the cats' litter boxes in weeks. The condition of my house and property reflected my state of mind. It took me a long time to dig my way out of that—and in some ways I'm still digging. Two of my friends, after losing truly adored spouses, were alarmingly vulnerable to romance. Other people have bought cars they couldn't afford, added on to their house, gone on cruises, or done other things that were out of character. See paragraph 3, above, and add "trips," "additions," "remarriage" and "an affair" to the list of things that require a second opinion.

There's no right or wrong way to grieve. We have to do it in our own way. If that means you want to talk and cry and talk and cry, that's okay. It's also okay if you want to sit in silence by yourself. Don't let anyone tell you what you need to do.

Grief hurts. I'm talking about physical discomfort. Just as depression hurts, grief can cause all sorts of aches and pains. When pain started to build up, I knew it was time for a no-holds-barred "good cry." Find yourself a safe place, a virtual padded cell, and yell and scream if you want. But don't use your car. The highway is no place to have a meltdown.

Expect to be blindsided. You'll be thinking about something unrelated to tragedy, something completely benign, then suddenly become engulfed in sadness. Almost like skipping stones on water, our minds jump with astonishing speed from A to B, and C—with C for crying. Even after all these years, it still happens to me sometimes.

Don't ask these two questions: "Why me?" and "What if . . . " are useless and will only make you feel worse. "Why me?" has no answer, except perhaps "Why not you?" and if you embark on an endless string of "What ifs," thinking of all the things you could have done to prevent what happened, you'll only add to the crazy-making. If you try to second-guess your decisions anyway, keep in mind that you don't know what might have come next. If I've learned anything in this life, it is this: We have no idea what's ahead of us.

You've heard it before: Live your life the way they would want you to. It's good advice.

A few things that helped me (in no particular order):  I had no idea I knew so many people who had lost a child until I lost one of my own. Some I didn't know well—like the clerk in the Post Office of a neighboring town—but they were willing to come forward and tell me their stories, and I deeply appreciated it. There were times when I felt like a freak. Knowing others had outlived one of their children helped with that, and with the inevitable guilt about anything that happens on our watch. And it's all our watch.

Friends . . . A friend brought me a stack of books about losing a child, and parts of them were helpful. The one thing I still remember was that I knew I had been changed forever, and the books didn't try to talk me out of that. A friend told me, "Life is neither fair nor unfair. It just is." I found that oddly comforting. A friend who had survived breast cancer said, "You'll be surprised at who is there for you, and who isn't." She was right, and when I wondered about those few who had disappeared into the woodwork after Jill died, I just blew off those thoughts, remembering what Debbie had said.

I can remember a collage of moments with friends . . . Patsy bringing my husband to the memorial service . . . Lindsay helping me stick photos of Jill on huge pieces of foam core . . . Bill crying with me on the porch . . . Mike, who taught both Jill and me, hugging me so hard it imprinted my necklace on my chest . . . Cindy arriving when she heard the news, and just staying . . . Geno at my front door, his arms filled with fruit, the only thing I could eat . . . Jennie and Ray providing a beautiful setting for the service, and the lunch, and not letting me pay for anything . . . Linda nailing Jill's blue ribbons to trees to guide the way to the outdoor service . . . Jessica and Art showing up at the service with extra chairs and other things I hadn't thought of . . . Bob and other members of Jill's band playing a song they'd written for her. And many more. So many.

Forgive me for digressing.

The one thing that helped me more than anything was the sure knowledge that Jill was still very much around, and I would see her again. In her efforts to get my attention and let me know she's okay, Gillian has proved to be every bit as creative and loving in spirit form as she was on this earth. I'm grateful beyond words for the many signs she has sent me, and I hope every grieving person is open—wide open—to signs of their own.

Many of Jill's signs involved animals and plants, but the first one involved her car. As I drove to town the day after she died, I thought, I had no idea we bought Jill the most popular car in the county. I passed them everywhere—her make, model, year, and color, by then 11 years old. A few days later, as I drove in Scranton, rain fell in small sections. It poured in an area around 20 ft. square, then I'd pass that and see no rain, then I'd come across another area of rain about the same size. This went on for blocks. It was like watching special effects in a movie.

Jill is skilled at this, and apparently I'm a good receiver. So if you don't see anything or talk with anyone in your dreams, please take my experience as all the proof you need: The one you love is okay. You will be together again. I know it.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Wine Parings (yes, I meant parings)

I'm a restaurant server's worst nightmare. Over the years I've had to eliminate so many foods from my diet that my doctor jokes I'll end up dying of starvation. If anyone's interested in knowing about all the things I can't eat, and why, I'll be happy to share some time. But for now, I want to tell you about Tuesday night.

Every year a friend invites me to a fundraising dinner at an iconic jazz club. This is the friend who, a long time ago, taught me to enjoy good red wine. This year it seemed particularly appropriate to attend because instead of the usual upscale buffet, the event would pair five Italian wines with small plates. But when I heard that, I groaned. Not only am I not particularly fond of Italian wines, which always taste somewhat tart and tannin-heavy to me, but I couldn't imagine many of those small plates would hold dishes I'd be able to eat. "I'll be sure not to arrive hungry," I said.

Because of a mix-up in scheduling, we were the first to arrive. While waiting for the event to get underway, we ordered from the bar: a beer for him and a glass of Argentinian malbec for me. Forty-five minutes later, the first course was served: chicken liver pate along with red peppers, the latter dressed in chocolate balsamic vinegar. It was paired with a dry sparkling white. The pate wasn't something I could eat, and I don't care much for champagne. I would have liked to have tasted the chocolate balsamic, but peppers are a no-no. So I gently moved plate and glass to the left, toward my companion.

The next course paired a chardonnay with a sparse selection of vegetables: a couple of slivers of celery, half of a small potato, more red peppers, two very small button mushrooms, and half-inch chunks of something pink. Lots of white space on the small plate. I asked the server to ID the pink chunks, and she said they were pickled garlic. The four of us at our table were amazed. "This doesn't taste anything like garlic," I said. The others agreed. "The texture doesn't even seem like garlic," one of us said. The rest agreed. We also agreed it was very good. Then someone remembered the emcee mentioning radishes. Aha! Suddenly the pink chunks tasted exactly like pickled radishes, which is what they turned out to be.

The potato half and the peppers were moved to my friend's plate, and the chardonnay followed. I did enjoy the two celery slivers, two embryonic mushrooms, and spoonful of radish chunks while they lasted (about 90 seconds).

All the wines, by the way, were in the $60 to $85 range. The next course featured a 15-year-old red, paired with veal cheeks. Veal cheeks? Looking around at the other tables, it was apparent no one else was on PETA's mailing list. I refuse to support the cruel veal industry. And the aged wine with an orangey cast tasted to me as though someone had squeezed a lemon into the bottle. Both were moved to the left.

An amarone, the star of the evening, appeared in the next course, along with two small raviolis made with chestnut flour and covered with a thick mushroom sauce. I actually ate these, and they were delicious. I tried to avoid the sauce, but managed to eat most of the mushrooms. As for the amarone, it was pretty good. But with an alcohol content of 16%, and considering that I was the designated driver with very little food in my stomach, it was quickly shifted to my left.

The last pairing was dessert: zabaglione topped with raspberries and melon, served with a rock-hard biscotti and paired with a sweet, syrupy wine the color of dark apricots. The wine was delicious, but remembering the alcohol content of sherry and port, I inched it over to my left. We were encouraged to dip the biscotti into the wine, which probably would have made it chewable, but that too, made the clockwise trip. So did the zabaglione.

Before it left, I plucked my dessert—the fruit—off the top. I noticed that while everyone else's custard was accompanied by four or five raspberries, I was given only two. A little passive-aggression, perhaps? Like I said, I'm a server's worst nightmare.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mascara!!! (I never thought I'd say that word with exclamation points)

This week, for my 72nd birthday, my granddaughter Lizzie (who is 24) gave me some Clinique makeup: a lipstick, lip liner, and black mascara. I'm an admitted collector of lipsticks, and was happy to try the lip liner, although the product was new to me. But my heart sank a bit at the mascara.

I'd never worn black mascara in my life, and hadn't worn any mascara in decades. Back in my 20's, I wore brown/black mascara. I knew most women bought black, but I thought black would look bad on me. I had no desire to channel my inner clown (if I had one).

By the time I turned 30, I'd given up mascara altogether, along with lipstick and all the rest. I admire women who can balance motherhood with the ability to look put together (some of them do it every day!), but I was not one of them. As a mom to young children, I was into arts & crafts and music and books and occasional homeschooling, and that's what I looked like. I didn't mind it then, and I don't mind it now. But somewhere in the middle of grandmotherhood I realized I'd reached the age where I looked better (a lot better) with makeup than without.

I've written about makeup here before, as recently as last October. But one item that was conspicuously absent from my reviews was mascara. I used eyebrow mascara sometimes, but never anything on my lashes. I could see that it looked good on other women, so I tried a few times. But it felt heavy and goopy on my lashes, and always made me want to rub my eyes. Not a good idea.

When I read that Lady Gaga never wears mascara either (serious validation!), I relaxed into my makeup routine. This takes place only when I go out in public, mind you, but I do enjoy it. My face is my canvas, and I get to play with light and shadow, and some subtle color.

So there I was on my birthday, reaching into a small gift bag and coming up with black mascara. I unscrewed the cap and said admiring things about the brush, trying not to imagine the product hanging little lead weights on my lashes. Plus black mascara looks so . . . black. But I adore my granddaughter (and I know Clinique cost her a chunk of money), so I knew I had to give this unfamiliar product my best shot.

Fast-forward only four days, and I love it! I apply it lightly and am unaware of it--until I look in the mirror and start batting my eyelashes (sparse though they are) at myself. I actually look forward to applying it. This is what I wrote to my granddaughter tonight.

I have to tell you I'm totally into my new mascara. I woke up this morning and figured out what I was doing today, and when I remembered a chiropractor appointment and date for tea with Christine, my first thought was, Oh, good--I get to wear my mascara! It's funny, I know, but it's true!

I ended up rescheduling the chiro because I had to go to a memorial service. At the church I encountered several people I haven't seen in years, and they told me, separately, that I never change; I don't age at all. (I think they would all benefit from cataract surgery.) Then a young man introduced himself and said he remembered me from when I was a newspaper reporter. He said, "Around 1999 to the early 2000's." I said, "Right--I started working for the paper in 1999, and left in 2002, but I'm surprised you remember me, because you must have been very young." He replied, "In 1999 I was 11. But I remember you--you haven't changed." How funny is that?!? I felt like telling all these people, "It's the mascara."

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Autobiography in 36 Lines

I swear I remember posting this here--but none of my searches brought it up. So here it is (again?):

Autobiography in 36 Lines

I was born nine months after a Greenwich Village
party--spaghetti sauced with red wine and dried
fruit, Chianti served in painted glasses. My parents
went home early to begin my journey. My mother

made art in those days, and in all her days to follow.
When I was seven, the curse of her illness threatened
to smother me. But I believed she couldn't die.
Two years later, I kissed her goodbye. My father

and I rode in a car without a radio, singing 40s jazz
for our own entertainment, as our own musicians.
By sixteen, I sang with the radio and 45s, and spoke
into a clunky black telephone with a dial. My friends

pored over Photoplay magazines with me, smoked
with me, and professed our (technical) virginity.
I abandoned the piano for the guitar and folk music.
By twenty-one I sang wherever I could. My boyfriend,

heavily educated, stiffly objected, so I quit singing 
and married him. He gave me Tiffany jewelry, trips
to Bermuda; then a little cottage in the country,
a farmhouse, a sewing machine. The dogs and cats

seemed to stay the same age always, as did we for years.
Our children entered school, and I settled to enjoy
what I thought would be the status quo for....decades?
Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Mother, father, three kids

forever. Seeds in the ground every spring, peas to shell
on the porch in summer, school bus in the fall. Winters
never dreaded because we never felt so much as a chill.
We read books by the woodstove. We felt safe. We were

for a time. Frost, when it comes early, unexpectedly,
hits hard. My husband went first, though his strong
body lingered years. Photos, framed around my house,
tell a story: Two of the children grow older; one does not.

I have struggled with clutter, sold off art, battled dust
and fruit flies, evicted dead mice, and rescued spiders.
I have laughed till I cried and cried till I screamed.
I have lost. I have won. And everything in between.