From The Sublime To The …

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Joanne and I made a stop at My Wednesday Place en route to an epic Halloween Party several weekends ago.  We wanted to share our transformation with our bartender friend.  The mustache was the only sticking point. The damn thing just wouldn’t stay stuck.  When Alan made us laugh, it popped out of place.  That wouldn’t do, I planned to laugh all night.

“You two should paint mustaches on.  Do you have the eyeliner?”  This suggestion came after he made a valiant attempt to wrestle square patches of Scotch tape on the fake mustaches without success.

Eyeliner?   Eureka!  Joanne and I hastened to the bathroom and voila:  Two Charlie Chaplin’s replete with bamboo canes, bowler hats and unfettered by ill-fitting mustaches.

Earlier that evening, in the privacy of my bedroom, I slipped on the impossibly comfortable trousers I had found at Good Will; men’s trousers, of course.  What a revelation!  The waist did not taper and the pants hung on my hips without a tug.  The flaws of a middle-aged woman’s body disappear in trousers, no worry of middle section, or buttocks, or designers who try to convince you that you’re never too old for the skinny jean. Katherine Hepburn and Diane Keaton knew the secret of men-style trousers!

The white, cotton, men’s dress shirt felt clean and crisp on my skin, and the tweed vest, when buttoned,  gave me a hint of waist and bound my ample chest. No concerns tonight that a breast might peak out of a cup just because I danced. The blazer topped it all and slid on, its’silken lining a feminine secret stashed in a man’s jacket. Who knew?

Next came the shoes. When you select a transgender costume, the shoes are tricky business.  For $10, I found the perfect pair of barely worn size 8 ½  oxford tie black shoes.  Here’s a secret – with the exception of flip-flops they are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn.  No wonder Cinderella lost that glass slipper. You could dance all night in men’s oxfords.

The makeup was imprecise, white base and smokey grays to evoke silent films and black liner, smudged around the lids to accentuate Chaplin’s forlorn innocence.  Rather than tweeze eyebrows into submission, Chaplin’s face called for us to add volume.  What a concept,  more hair, not less!

My night as Chaplin was pure delight. I danced often and my stride away from the band was downright jaunty! My feet never tired and the oxfords did not squeeze my toes. I gave no thought to my imperfect face or aging body.  It occurred to me, as I said goodnight to a wonderful evening, that, well… It’s a man’s world, baby!

Tuesday, we elected a new President.  Two elections ago, I supported Barack Obama.  I was taken with his countenance, soaring rhetoric and, yes, his hopeful vision for this country.  He has been imperfect, but I still believe he is a good man.  History will ultimately weigh in on his tenure.  I am old enough to know that snap judgments on a Presidency are pure folly.  The dust needs to settle before the history books are written.

I did vote for Hillary Clinton last Tuesday.

The day after the Halloween party, I saw a bumper sticker on a car in my hometown.

It read:  “Trump That Bitch.”

It stole my Chaplin afterglow

That following morning I was dismayed when a news commentator suggested this,  “If Hillary could just find that person in her, who got teary in New Hampshire in 2008….”

He trailed off.

“Well,”  he went on,”Her popularity soared after that.” 

Suddenly, my Ralph Lauren boots felt tighter.

I happen to come from a curious background which foils the political divide in this country. I was adopted at 6-months-old, and my Irish Catholic father was a dyed-in-the-wool Eisenhower Republican.  He loved Ronald Reagan and disdained anything Kennedy. He was a World War II veteran with racist tendencies, saved mostly for Asians.  He was a product of his time, having served in China and never forgot Pearl Harbor.  At his funeral, there were a surprising number of people of color.  My father calibrated over his lifetime.  He was not perfect, but he evolved.

Of this I am certain; he believed that I could accomplish anything.  My father saw no glass ceiling for his daughter. He was a Republican and I loved him.  He was a gentleman who respected women. At his funeral, I gave a eulogy.  It ended thus;  I will miss my greatest cheerleader.

Uncle Bobby, as well, eschewed liberalism and clung to Fox News.  He knew I was a Democrat, but approached our differences with respect.  He watched this presidential nomination cycle with great interest in the last year of his life.  He didn’t much like Hillary Clinton, but never spoke of her with disdain.  For a time, he liked Ben Carson, and then “That Kasich fella seems good.”  He said this of Donald Trump, “Oh, him? He’s a clown.” Then, he leaned forward and whispered, “He’s a cuss.”  Uncle Bobby found our President-elect distasteful. 

In my fifties. I have come to know misogyny more intimately, though its forms are as amorphous to me as Chaplin’s makeup and as stealthy as his fluid movements.

Misogyny: Dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.

It can be hard to recognize. Sometimes it comes at you like a lamb, all soft and needy of nurturing, until you realize the giving is a one-way street.  When the jig is up, it moves on without compunction, like a parasite that has depleted its host.

Sometimes it comes as a labrador; a pal, a punch in the arm which anoints you as “one of the guys”.   Sometimes you get to hear the “locker room” talk, but be careful not to disapprove. With a wink and a smile, you might be reminded not to be too sensitive.   

In this Presidential election, misogyny came out like a tiger.  It was so obvious, it was nearly unbelievable.

It appears a lot of folks just don’t like Hillary Clinton or believe that she is  a “crook.” How  I wish I had not been so complacent before the elections.  I would have helped some folks out with a simple google search, and they could have unearthed in print and on video the President-elect’s quotes about women.  I would have told anyone who might listen to insert the name of their daughter,  wife,  mother, sister, or female friend.

If our African American President had said any of these things about women, I am sure he would never have been elected.  If Hillary Clinton had uttered the same kind of pejoratives against men I am certain she would not have been the Democratic Nominee.

My friends who voted for Mr. Trump are quick to tell me to relax, that this not a big deal. They tell me that it’s politics, a political divide between us, or that this is about the economy or a need for change. They tell me that he won’t be like that as President?  It’s just Donald, you know?  As though he is some irascible character in a prime time sitcom who just doesn’t have a darn edit button.

In 2016, I guess we still believe that boys will be boys.

They go round and round and round about emails and home servers in basements, and when they can’t quite drum up a character issue there, they pull out the big guns: Bill Clinton. It appears the  President-elect doesn’t have to take one iota of responsibility for his history of abhorrent behavior toward women. In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton has to be responsible, ad infinitum, for her husband’s egregious mistakes, for which he was impeached nearly 20 years ago.  She must be exhausted.

President-elect Trump now gets his chance. I love Democracy and everyone’s right to support whomever they choose.   I have not once protested the election of a Republican President, and I won’t protest this one.  

In the meantime, won’t you help me explain to my very strong, independent, opinionated 17-year-old daughter, why misogyny just didn’t seem to matter in this Presidential election? Let her know that respect for her gender isn’t part of the litmus test in Presidential elections.  Boys will be boys, you know.  Just a fact of life here in the United States of America. 

Life felt lighter to me just weeks ago, on a crisp, clear Halloween weekend.  I’ll find it again I am sure.  In the meantime, be patient with me while I try to wrap my head around a great disappointment.

A friend sent me this stunning Charlie Chaplin Clip which is pure irony.  Enjoy.

My Wednesday Place…

 

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I have a Wednesday place.  I didn’t choose it.  Candidly, I was sort of go along to get along at the suggestion.  I feared that a ghost from another time might make it a place better left alone. Not engaging ghosts is tricky business in my small swath of the world.  I gave up a local tennis venue and regular supermarket. Short of moving away, I had little choice but to brave it. I did, one winter Wednesday night 18 months ago.

In the muddle of last year’s Rubik’s Cube of heartache and Uncle Bobby’s precipitous decline, weekdays felt no different than weekends.  Days raced and crawled into weeks and months and nothing about me resembled mindfulness.  Getting through each day without dropping a spinning plate was all I could muster. I wanted to settle deep into my couch and shut the world away. Somehow, in the middle of each week, my world found its pace.

In the midst of The Januarys, my beloved, incorrigible Russian friend offered a midweek answer to the doldrums.

The place is not really the story.  It is dimly lit and there is a maze of rooms to navigate. At its center is a weighty, oak, wrap-around bar whose equally heavy chairs invite you to sit for a spell.  On the far side are a dance floor and small stage.  My only other time there was spent on that crowded dance floor celebrating a love unexpectedly returned. It left again before I even had time to catch my breath.

Like with people, I am not so much for flash.  I crave the comfort that comes with knowing something or someone over time.  I am skeptical of nouveau. The feel of a well-worn moccasin will forever outpace the thrill of immediate infatuation with anything, human or not.  Too many of us seek freshness. Familiar and flawed is where I find my bliss. It is where interesting lives.

As I walk in each Wednesday night, it is reassuring to see that the cracked window at the entrance remains unrepaired.  Damaged but not broken resonates with me. I am equally glad to see the faces that make the core of us.  There is Andrei, of course, the de facto center of our group.  I often only see him on Wednesday and he never disappoints in enthusiasm. When he has a story to tell, he animates in extremis, all talking hands and punctuated speech.

Tina is there, too. Blonde and beautiful, she embodies the elusive confidence of thirty-somethings. I remember that surety in myself.  I love her bravado and candor.  She is Russian as well, and I laughed aloud one day while reading a text from her announcing our Wednesday place as “consistently inconsistent.” Those Russians love to craft their second language with cleverness.  She nailed it.

My Wednesday place began as we three.

My writer friend, Joanne, was a come-lately addition. Intrigued by my unbreakable Wednesday appointment, she is now a warm staple; apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a crisp autumn night. She came just to see and hasn’t missed a Wednesday since.  Joanne trumps us all in warmth.

Dana is reliable, too. The mother of four, one doesn’t have to be prescient to know that she is also trying to find her life’s rhythm. One week she’ll grab the Karaoke mic, and the next she might quietly observe.  Mostly, I think she likes the promise of gathering with trusted souls.

Week by week our Wednesday place found its traction and others began to come, curious about our commitment to a well-worn place that promises little more than a finely poured beer.  The other cast of characters are “consistently inconsistent” in devotion. Some we already knew; some we are coming to know.  If life were a sitcom, my Wednesday place would have a continuum of guest stars, each one adding a different dynamic; their often-unexpected appearances adding to the shenanigans.

The left corner of the bar is our weekly goal.  Unlike weekends, when this place is packed, Wednesday is rarely crowded. Still, commandeering the left corner is never a given, more like a gift. It guarantees a flow of conversation and the best angle from which to observe the usually mediocre, but sometimes spectacularly great, karaoke which takes place in the vast space on the other side of the bar.  And yes, on occasion I lend my voice to the mediocrity. There have been epic failures like “Love Shack”, and a nearly acceptable rendition of “California Dreaming.”  The former all empty flash; the success of the latter owed to low register and subtle octave change. The B-52’s makes me edgy.  The Mama’s and Papa’s are comfortable personified.

Speaking of comfort, I have one more piece to add to the mosaic.  There is a bartender at my Wednesday place who is the most consistent of us all.  He is an Irishman with boyish charm; a peer for us in a place where a majority of the clientele need proper I.D. Over months, in small drips of conversation and revelation, he has become a part of us. He is an ear for the serious and the silly.  He has an intangible gift we all know, but struggle to incorporate. When he talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the room, like what you might be saying is important.

While tending to his work, he always finds a way back to our corner. There’s often a wink or a smile emanating from his warm, comfortable face and that tells me that he “gets’ our motley crew.  Perhaps, I romanticize the place. If I do, he’s part of the fairy tale.  There is no satisfactory substitute.

My favorite Wednesday night of the many was the first after the death of Uncle Bobby.  I extended my reach to invite friends to join me in memoriam.  They came and I traded my usual Stella for the Uncle Bobby preferred Guinness.  We toasted his journey, urged on by patient friends to share stores of him. Uncle Bobby would have loved my Wednesday place and all the people who make it so. Like the brown plaid blanket he placed across his lap, he would have worn this place with comfort.

Eighteen months have passed since Andrei’s suggestion.  He could not know then that his intuition would help heal a heart that felt like shattered glass or sustain me through the difficult walk I faced with Uncle Bobby.  I have no idea how long the Wednesday night ritual will continue. Life seems so expansive to me now, so filled with limitless possibility, that I can make no promises.

But, tonight I will be there; comfortable and grateful for friends and an unexpectedly special place.

 

The New Year and Stuffing

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I feel like the absentee blogger.  This fall and early winter my mind nearly burst with thoughts which demanded virtual paper, and I was present to each prompt.  Then December came and my mind slowed a bit, I think protecting itself from the season.  That’s right, the season which seemed to mean everything once upon a time, and somehow became something I need to gird myself against.  I think I am not alone in this.

The second week of December is my favorite.  The festive tone begins its cheerful climb, perhaps sensing that we are finally ready.  There is hope in the second week, while the first seems premature, and the third, pressure-filled. Here in Northwestern Connecticut, little town squares look their best in week two, with twinkling white lights,  adorned trees, and church steeples bathed in moonlight, periodically ringing out Christmas songs we’ve known since childhood.  It’s nearly impossible not to feel hopeful in the second week of December.

The next two fly and with them go the dim hope that this Christmas will somehow exceed my expectation.  It doesn’t and the week to the New Year seems interminable.

As I write tonight just short of the midnight hour,  I hear fireworks in the distance, too soon announcing the change of the calendar. It’s warm for December 31 in Connecticut, and oddly, that is a bit disappointing, too.  My labrador always meets expectation, and sits beside me with his soft steady snore, untethered in assumption beyond daily walks and a twice filled bowl of food.

I am more than ready to put 2015 to bed.  It was a hard year, a sad and difficult year for me and for many of those I hold close.  The trick, I suppose, is figuring out how to turn all that on its head.

I will say goodbye to perseveration and looking back on what was in the hope that it will ever be again.  That Rubik’s Cube will be stored away in my metaphorical attic, welcome to collect the mold and dust it has earned.

I’ll write, and rework the writing, and write some more til I get the more important writing of a book to the place it deserves.

I will focus less on the physical care of Uncle Bobby and more on the emotional.  I am not a doctor or nurse or certified caregiver.  I am a niece whose heart swells with the memory of who he has been to me for 53 years.  Time now to be less administrator and more compassionate companion for the final leg of his journey.

I will cease seeking a partner the measure of myself, and be more that measure for myself.

I recall with fascination the respite enjoyed in the Emerald City by the beloved characters in The Wizard of Oz.  Who among us didn’t love the Scarecrow?  Poor fella had the stuffing plumb knocked out of him on his journey, and he was the absolute personification of bliss as straw was joyously stuffed back in.  Less impressively the Tin Man got his limber back, as the Cowardly Lion and Dorothy enjoyed the pampering they so desperately needed.

Of all those Iconic characters, it was the Scarecrow who captured my heart.  Pure Irony now that I felt like the stuffing was darn well pummelled out of me these last two years.  I lost the measure of myself in it; lost my swagger.  While we thought the Scarecrow needed a brain from the Wizard, we all found out, in a dandy twist.that his brain was well intact throughout the story.  Like all of us from time to time, the scarecrow really only lost his confidence, his sense of self.  A stumble here and there, and before he knew it, he forgot what it meant to walk tall. I forgot that, too.

It’s a tall order, to turn it all around, but I feel on the brink of it at the start of this New Year. I saw a marvelous little snippet today on social media.

You’re going to surprise

the shit out of yourself.

sincerely, 2016.

I’ll keep you posted….

Lucy and Ethel

 

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She is Ethel to my Lucy, Shirley to my Laverne, Louise to my Thelma. Lucy, Laverne and Thelma speak to my boldness, silliness and curious lack of grounding when shenanigans are at the ready.  As for my friend, she perhaps has more cautious optimism, a touch of stridency and smart self protection ala Ethel, Shirley and Louise.   And, she has this laugh that fills a room which never fails to tickle me.  We found each other little more than a year ago,  both stumbling down our suddenly and equally untethered paths.  We are each a little lost in the jarring changes brought to us, and precipitated by us, in middle-age.  Acquaintances for years, our friendship grew as we shared space on a mid-life Island of Misfit Toys.  Our separate journeys brought us together for a transformative week in Ireland.  It was a glorious trip that cemented our bond.  We haven’t wavered since.

And so, in the absence of the traditional, we have become each other’s “person”.  To wit:  emergency contact, late night empathizer, compassionate advisor. Nary a shenanigan precipitates without one including the other.  We have each others back and call each other out on the “shite” in which we sometimes dabble.  My world is a little less lonely this past year because of her.  I am confident the feeling is mutual.

I am rich in friends, but only one completely “gets” the space I inhabit in my heart and brain.  

Saturday night I wanted to strangle my person.  That’s right, take her to the woodshed, send her to her room without dinner.   Saturday night, my friend did a terribly irresponsible thing that found my heart in my throat and my imagination racing to the dark side.  

She is an expansive person; a bleeding heart who has found her vocation in adult literacy.  When she speaks of her students she animates at once with passion wrapped in warmth.  Her destination to this has been circuitous: public school teacher, private school teacher, reading specialist, tutor.  All that exploration coincided with being a wife and mother whose family life moved her from Vermont to West Virginia, on to Texas and finally settling in Connecticut, where she even waitressed for a spell.  I first came to know her as a tutor for my son.  He loved her and she was dedicated beyond the imagination to his academic and personal success. Now, she applies that same devotion to motivating adults who cannot read. Adults most often living in poverty, who have decided it is time to do what is very hard in order to capitalize on the promise this country has to offer.  They are lucky to know my friend.

I am lucky to know her, and even more fortunate that she pesters me, sometimes beyond tolerance, with check-ins, check-ups and texts which go like this:

“U Ok?”

“Let me know where you will be”

“Text me that you get there safe”

“U good?”

“Everything alright?”

Most recently, an endless monologue regarding a “date” which included reference to woodchippers, background checks, and “text me with all his information, take a picture of his license plate, do you have a picture of him just in case I need to contact the police!”

I feign outrage, but am secretly comforted that I have won such a friend when I thought I had collected all the friends I might need for a lifetime.  In appreciation, I am sure to check in when prompted, ever aware that her time on watch of me is invaluable.

This past Saturday night our roles reversed. I prompted a last minute invitation to get “a drink and nosh”, and she was game, as usual.  Our plans would have to wait until she finished with a student at an undetermined time early in the evening.  I was on standby, but aware that rather than meeting her student in a public place as is her habit, she was actually going to his home. It was their first meeting, and his home was in a rather unsavory section of a nearby city, economically distant from our suburban homes. In a nod to the safety game she texted me his address.  I am still not sure her expectation regarding that empty gesture.  I consider myself a bit of a steel magnolia, but am unsure that storming the barricades of an inner city dwelling was a likely response should the need arise.

I began prompting her at 6:00. No response.  Again at 7:30.  No response. I called at 8:00 only to receive an automatic reply, “Can I call you later?” Another newly collected friend called to see what I was doing, and I let him know I was planning to meet her, but had heard nothing in hours. Michael, a treasured addition to my new life, is part paternal voice and bemused observer of the antics whipped up by my friend and me.  I meet him at the local pub, order a beer and some food and wait, and wait, and wait.  I text my friend again.  No reply.  Michael texts her, also, crickets. It is now 9:15 and exasperation has turned to fear.  Michael prompts me to do what I knew I should.  I call the police, speak to dispatch, and wait.   At 9:30 a patrolmen calls for more precise information, including my friends description, make and model of car, and reason for her to be in such a place at such a time.  I can almost visualize his eyes rolling in his head as I relay to him the increasingly disconcerting circumstances.  “Sit tight, I am headed over now and will call when I find out what has happened.”

The next 40 minutes are interminable.  A quietly concerned Michael, who has arrived with no appetite, is suddenly unconsciously devouring french fries from my now cold dinner plate.  We try to make small talk, but mostly focus on shallow breathing, catching each other’s eyes when not both staring at my silent phone.  “This is bad”, he says with the saddest sigh.  I nod in agreement.

My phone springs to life at 10:15. It is our patrolmen, “She is safe, she is fine, she was just exiting the apartment with her student when I arrived.”

Now I am angry.  Relieved, naturally, but mad as hatter and filled with empathy for every mother who waits on teenagers to check in.  

Five minutes pass and my friend  finally calls.  For all intents and purposes she is four hours late, and I feel 10 years older, worn to a frazzle in the course of one evening.

She leads with an apology and then has the audacity to mention that when the Patrolman met her in the parking lot with a flashlight, gun at the ready, and booming voice calling her name, asking if she is “safe”, she was so embarrassed for her poor student.  

My response is rapid fire,

“this is not the time to get PC with me! Calling the police had nothing to do with him and everything to do with your lack of communication. You cannot ask me to be your “person” and not respond to texts or phone calls, when you as much as highlighted the potential danger by sharing his address with me.”

I am just getting ramped up and the “and furthermore’s…,” which I am determined to lay on her are lined up and ready to be fired.   Articulation is not a challenge for me when I am outraged.

There is little pushback on the other end of the call.  I rant to silence. Then this,

“I am capitol G, capital U, capital I, capital L, capital T,  capital Y: GUILTY as charged.  I am so sorry.  It was stupid, I was stupid and I am so, so sorry.”

I desperately want to keep up the pile on, bury her with my well developed vocabulary, eviscerate her with the perfectly guilt inducing turn of phrase, but then she begins.  Suddenly, she warmly and precisely describes the 800 square foot apartment of her Jamaican student, and lets me know that as he tries to learn to read in English she thinks perhaps there is an embedded learning difference  She lets me know that he sends money to his mother, still in Jamaica,  and that she chose to meet him at his home because her gut told her that he was fine. She didn’t demand a public meet because so often the adults seeking literacy work better in private, as they feel embarrassed sounding out basic words in public places. She lets me know that the Jamaican man noted to her, when the beam of a police flashlight found him, “Your friend was just looking out for you.”  For the record, she had forgotten her phone in the car.

My anger melted easily.  I am in awe of my friend and her passion and her journey inspires me.

In the moment, I assured her that we will one day laugh about this night. But not tonight.  Time to reign in the new independence in which we are both emerging.  Time to think smart, be smart, so that the glory of shenanigans can continue.  We seek life big, not small.  How wonderful to continue the adventure with this friend, at this time in my life.  

Thanksgiving and me…

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This is a slightly updated post from 2015.  Somethings seem worth repeating.

It seemed important once upon a time:  Wedgewood China, delicate crystal, brining the turkey, and the background noise of the Macy’s Day parade.  I have this wonderful, repeating memory of my mom doing the one task I deplored; peeling pungent, pearl onions, reading glasses perched on her nose, seated on a high back bar stool at the kitchen counter, in her quilted pale pink bathrobe.  She was an expert with a paring knife. Those Thanksgiving mornings were good times for us to talk while the kids played near my dad as he scoured the newspaper.  

I loved Thanksgiving as a grownup.  Christmas elicits excitement, but Thanksgiving has a gravitas that children don’t quite understand. Christmas is often sensory overload. Thanksgiving rarely disappoints with expectations set at a reasonable level.

My mother died in the peaceful care of hospice on November 26, 2005, Thanksgiving night.  The irony of passing on her favorite holiday is not lost on me. It’s an eternal gift of sorts from a woman who was armed with black Irish wit and a strong sense of self.  I imagine her saying to herself, “Might as well exit this world on a day no one will struggle to remember.” Thanksgiving remains hers in perpetuity.

When cancer inserts itself into the life of someone you love there are words which gain traction you do not seek: adrenal cortex, metastasis, palliative, hospice. Words delivered with authority by smart, often bespectacled, men in white hospital coats.  Doctors with knowledge, but most with little bedside manner.  She was a fascination to them.  Adrenal cortical cancer is beyond rare. So rare that my mother, in pain,  but never absent her wit, queried, ” I couldn’t win the lottery, but I get the lottery of cancers?”  

Weight had fallen off her stout body so quickly in those eight weeks that milkshakes were encouraged by the doctor. Even to this long-denied treat, she had a retort, delivered with knowing sarcasm, “  haven’t had a milkshake in years.  They must be fattening me up for the slaughter.”

In the telling, it seems crass, but in the moment, her blue eyes twinkled at her cleverness and momentarily shooed the shroud of grief we already wore.

My mother was strong in death, a gift of Catholicism, really.  She knew she was done and stoically accepted the undoing despite the unbearable pain of tumors on her spine and radiation treatments at the source. She worried about my dad and her children more than herself.  In a quiet hospital moment, a week before she passed, she turned to me and said, I wish he had gone before me.  He’s going to be hard for you.  He won’t know what to do. She was right of course, he struggled the next three years of his life.  He missed her immeasurably.

Dad started the missing before she was gone.  Returning home from Hospice one night, I brought him a chocolate sundae. Oddly, I thought a treat might somehow help his preparation.  He sat at their small kitchen table with a view to the backyard, and, as I cleaned some leftover dishes, I heard him weeping, shoulders slumped, fiddling with the pool of melted ice cream. His baby blues gazed at the now barren backyard, where a clothesline still hung.  Softly he said, “She loved to hang the wash,” and then his weeping turned into a soul-stirring sob.  I thought but did not say to my dear old dad, No, Dad, not a day in her life did she love to hang the wash.  It was just that you loved to watch her hang the wash

It’s never the grand things we remember about those we love, but rather the simple routines that etch themselves into our memory. 

I was fortunate to be alone with my mom as she drew her last breath and softly exhaled herself from this world.  I did not know then what I know now; it is a gift to be present to death.  

Thirteen years is a rather unbelievable measure of the loss of my mother.  I can still summon the sound of her voice and the way she cleared her throat.  I can conjure the habit she had of using her thumb to twirl her wedding rings around her left finger when she was in thought. I wonder if, from her watchful place now,  she wishes I might break out the Wedgewood, crystal, and fine linens which seemed so important once upon a time.  

When life is hard, I miss her most.  She had a way of simplifying challenges with a common sense born to her.

Today will be enjoyed with someone else’s linens and china, though I will bring wine to help fill the crystal. I believe my mother urges me on still. I know that, as she watches me move forward and occasionally backward with human misstep,  she remains my finest underpinning.  Ten years have passed and she is no longer my first thought each morning.  The racking grieve that overcame me in her death is a distant memory. These days she is more companion of the soul; a limitless reminder that grace, humor, and faith never fail you.

SAINT MARYS 

imageThe Sisters of Mercy called us the Irish mafia;  four little girls who hopped the bus at the corner of Wilson and Holbrook, laden with tin lunch boxes and backpacks. Kitty Hogan, Marguerite and Deirdre MacNamee, and me. The MacNamee’s and I would dash the two block to the bus stop , while Kitty was the lucky one. The bus stop was just outside her door.

Our neighborhood was oak, maple, and willow tree-lined and while a fairly busy road swept through it, we had no chaperones to the stop. We ran and giggled our way to it without fear.

My mother would listen patiently to whatever tales I brought home from school. Breathless with news, dropping backpack, coat and lunch box by the small eat-in table near the back door of our modest three bedroom colonial, my delivery of the day’s events came rapid fire. As I remember it, mom was always in the kitchen, ironing on a remarkable board which dropped from its decorative cupboard on the wall.

I was a blabberer even then and would launch into the news of the day immediately upon entrance. She would tell me to slow down, that I sounded like I had marbles in my mouth. I might as well, for a girl from the Irish neighborhood the last names of most of my classmates were challenging and usually ended in vowels: Cicilline, Amoriggio D’Angelo, Romano. Their first names were nearly as daunting: Roberta, Angela, Ermelinda, Isabella.

My classmates were mostly Italian with a sprinkling of Portuguese, all with olive tones, dark hair, thick eyebrows, and bodies, which by middle school, were way ahead of ours.  Of course, we weren’t the only Irish girls at Saint Mary’s. Garrahy’s, Moran’s and Sullivans were there as well.  I remember but one black girl during my nine years at Saint Mary’s Academy, Bayview. Here name was Perri Ann and she fascinated me.

The Sisters at “Bayview” dubbed us the Irish Mafia, not that it was public knowledge, but rather an audible memory I have from a parent-teacher conference. Sr. Mary Florella, the gentle, elegant French teacher, shared it in a whisper to my mom. Rhode Island is a small state and the greater Providence area was an enclave of ethnic neighborhoods. The Italian girls from the big city itself, and towns to the north.  We lived in East Providence, in a neighborhood called Rumford. I suppose it was a bold move in those days to send your freckled faced cherub to the all-girls Catholic school a bus ride away. The parish school was in walking distance. Bayview was a privilege.

The school sat behind an endless wrought iron fence and spread across two buildings; one which housed grades K-6, the other 7-12. We started French in Kindergarten and could stay for piano lessons after school. Our jumpers were blue and gray and forever slipping off one shoulder or the other. The white Peter Pan collared cotton blouses couldn’t support them, particularly with our prepubescent chests. The knee socks were navy wool and itched, their elastic wore quickly and we were forever yanking them into obedience.

It was the 1970’s, so no Latin, but ample obedience. I do not share the traumatic memories of Catholic school which plagued some of my peers. While I do remember Sister Lillian directing me to stand by her desk waste paper basket while the gum I had been caught with sat on my nose, I am no worse the wear for it.

It was a transitional time in the church and the country and any minor fear of Sister Lillian was eased by the presence of the new wave of nuns; young woman who modified their habits to include vests and slacks. Sister Carol is my memory of change and she was warm, soft, and kind. Her acoustic guitar sat in its heavy black case in the corner of our classroom. She would play at rest time, exposing we protected Catholic girls to Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. When she reminded us, “Jesus loves you”, I believed that she did, too.  

My personality as a child was well suited to all girls Catholic school. It was marked by enthusiasm, optimism and a sense of humor. I understood respect and while “chatty”, I was never accused of being “sassy”. The sisters, with the exception of  Sister Lillian, loved my innocent energy. Years later, as I struggled through high school math, my mother would lament, “the nuns let your personality override your need to know math.”  Indeed, The sisters cut me slack in arithmetic. They didn’t have the heart to undercut the enthusiasm I brought to those sweeping linoleum corridors.  It somehow excused my inability to breakdown fractions. My limitations in math haunt me to this day. 

I do not specifically remember learning religion at “Bayview”, for the tenants of Catholicism were imbued throughout the school day. I have a complicated relationship with Catholicism, but it lives at my core regardless of the fact that I no longer practice it. As an adult with progressive leanings, I am discouraged by the church’s resolute positions on social issues.

Regardless, when life is hard,  I confess to conversations directed to the Blessed Mother, and a soaring Ave Maria still brings tears to my eyes. I feel the presence of my now gone mother and father daily, and I suppose that’s the lingering beauty of being part of a small posse of Irish girls who clamored down those tree-lined streets and climbed a bus to travel the miles to Saint Mary’s Academy, Bayview.

Cape Cod

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I want to live nearer the sea.  I am my father’s daughter and his bliss was sitting on the deck of his parent’s clapboard shingled summer home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the hamlet of Weekapaug, Rhode Island.  

Long after his parents were gone and I was grown, on summer evenings he would sit in wait on that porch and announce the last ferry of the day headed out of Block Island.

Sometime around 9, when the house had quieted, he would sit in solitude with a martini and cigar, awaiting the far off lights of the ship and announce to all, or no one at all, that the last ferry was headed home to Galilee.  My father did not sail, or fish,  nor did he spend more time in the sand than it took to get one swim in the ocean each day. Yet he was a man who loved the sea.  And so it is with me.  

My father will be gone seven years in January.  He taught me the simplicity of loving the sea and it informed my life in ways he will never know.  Just today, that lesson helped give space to my most muddled mind.

I walked the beach early this morning in Harwich, Massachusetts.  My visit here a gift from a gem of a new friend.  She is a  “Codder” whose home invites you to stay for a while.  

Maggie is, at 72, intimately familiar with the loneliness that can accompany your middle years.  She sniffed out my desperate need for escape from everyday and I did what it is I do in response to generosity.   I pushed back at the invitation for “a coupla days at the Cape” armed with excuses, pathetically pitiful reasons it can’t happen: work, Uncle Bobby, daughter and dog.  Naturally, verbalizing those excuses only fed my feeling of confinement, and exacerbated the necessity of escape. I fought against my recent habit of self-denial.

Two days I can carve out.  Surely, two days and my world at home will not crumble.

And so I drive to the place where the air taunts you to roll down your window and take in the unmistakable smell of salt and seawater, mingled with sundrenched sand, that has no chance to reach my home in Western Connecticut.

I arrive mid-afternoon and the world at home quickly melts away.  We talk of writing and love.  The former we share, the latter lost for me and newly found for her.  We shop for foods we should not eat and find the perfect restaurant that “codder’s” go to; rustic and simple with fresh seafood dominating the menu.   

In that moment when the perfect cup of clam chowder and accompanying oyster crackers are set before me, my entire body relaxes in realized respite. Clam chowder tastes best when you need it the most. Fish and Chips are my test of authenticity and I am not disappointed; lightly battered cod that falls away to just the suggested poke of my fork. A crisp Sam Adams Octoberfest and I surrender to this seaside restaurant which overlooks the Harwich Harbor.

It’s been sometime since I have slept so soundly.

There is no question as to my morning priority.  While Maggie sleeps, I steel away to the beach just blocks from her home.  It is a crisp fall morning, and where the parking lot meets the sand, I impatiently unlace my sneakers and peel away my socks.  

The cold sand between my toes has been a longing for over a year now.  The sun is just above the horizon and and the wind is firm enough to make a mockery of my hair, but I do not care. I feel my calf muscles respond with every uneven stride in the sand. On this chilly October morning there are but a few of us enjoying the peaceful sound of lapping waves, wind whipped flagpoles, and the gentle beat of a flock of terns darting effortlessly just above the shallow waters.  I do not want this morning to ever end.

How my dad would love this day, happily trading Block Island for Nantucket, the perch on his deck for a walk near the waves.  Ocean as elixir and inspiration; a gift understood to the soul by a father and daughter.

A Friend, a word, today….

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I love words.  Spoken or written, they intrigue me and I collect them to use at my pleasure.  I especially love words that are new to me and feel exhilarated when they find there way into my vocabulary with ease. Words have great power and I suppose it is a strength of mine to articulate.

I have a lovely friend who appreciates my words and the way I weave them.  We speak daily, tuned in to our shared middle of life experience and she will often look to me to help her accurately articulate a feeling.  Her charming tendency is to race around words to find precision. In her hesitation I can almost feel her mind searching for just the right one.  In those conversational pauses, I am usually quick to what she seeks and her enthusiasm for that never fails to make me smile.  “Exactly! Perfect word!”and on she goes with the observation of the day, my word facilitating the advancement of today’s story.  It’s a wonderful ying to her yang; I feel clever, and she, heard.

There is a word she used one day to describe what I have been doing now for over a year: perseverating.  “Can you repeat that?,”I said with a hmm in my brain.  I loved the sound of it but, candidly, was unfamiliar.

“You know, perseverating, letting a thought or pattern repeat and repeat, like an obsession.”  Well, I didn’t like the sound of obsession, which to me is a dark and stormy word.  It reminded me naturally of the dark and stormy person on whom I had been, well…….perseverating.  

And so, my friend who looks to me for the perfect word, had found one I didn’t know.  In that whisper of a word she captured exactly the thing that has been undoing me. I am perseverating; I am hostage to perseveration.  

I never used to perseverate.   I am a woman of action;  a doer, an engager and above all else an extrovert.  I lead, coach, and teach and when the annual physical arrives, I am told that I have the blood pressure and heart rate of an athlete.  I am emotive, rarely one to hold feelings hidden.  I say what I mean and mean what I say.  

Until a year ago, I think I understood the journey of my life; nothing simple in it, but it’s winding places made sense to me and, the changes in it the result of my personal evolution.  There was no puzzle to it that I could not figure in reflection. The path of it was not always easy, but my confidence never abandoned me.

I lack confidence these days.  I am, for the first time in my life, wholly unsure of what will happen next.  I have trouble seeing the future with optimism.  I cannot stop my racing mind from continuing its race, regardless of audible books on “mindfulness” and the “mindful” attempt I make to focus on doing the things that make me happy and highlight my strengths, like watching over Uncle Bobby.

There sits in my virtual space this Rubik’s cube that I cannot seem to put down.  A Rubik’s cube of someone else’s tormented mind which has muddled my own.  No matter how many times I revisit that cube, I cannot find its solution.  The Rubik’s cube is simple to deconstruct, and can be done so quickly.  Just a twist here and there and the harmony of colors are dismantled. It is shocking just how fast a rubik’s cube can be undone.  

Even in the replaying of the deconstruction, it is almost impossible to find the simple solution; to get everything in it’s place, to restore balance.

Perseverating on the cube is an exercise in frustration, and the more you tinker with it, the more frustrated you become.  I thought I had a mind for puzzles, but this particular Rubik’s cube is wired for failure.  This cube, which sat by me in perfection for nearly two years, suddenly became undone and it is hard not to perseverate on what I did not see coming, on what I had no power to put back together.

Throughout my life I have been good at problem solving, circumventing crisis, surviving the heartache of loss and tucking it behind me.  This time, my intuition and coping skills have failed me.  My innate strength is no match for that particular beast and, all I understand in retrospect is that I was foolish to think I would not be damaged by it.  Its cruelty knows no bounds.

My friend who introduced me the concept of perseveration is also quick with an apropos inspirational quote.  Just yesterday, in the midst of my daily perseveration she nailed it:

“I’ve had the love of my life.  No one can come close.

So, I am just out there passing the time tap dancing. 

If you want the truth, maybe if I dance fast enough I won’t remember what I’ve lost.”

I think I’ll perseverate on that for a bit and see if, within it, I can find a way to get to the other side.

The Catholic Thing

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Uncle Bobby was an usher at Saint Sebastian’s Church on President Avenue for 40 years. His father’s family built that Church exactly 100 years ago. With the exception of World War II, sporadic vacations, and Cape Cod summers, he appeared at Saint Sebastian’s every Sunday morning of his life until his mobility began to limit him at 87.  I would, in intervals of my life, occasionally attend that 9 a.m. mass, and loved to watch him slip quietly out of the pew following the Prayers of the Faithful to take his station as an usher.  The ushers start at the first row with a long-armed wicker basket and collect donations solemnly before the serious business of Mass begins: the consecration. A bean pole of man, he did his job with grace and humility.  He made me proud.  He is a devout Roman Catholic, the kind bred to it; the sort never to question it. I marvel at the stamina of that commitment.

At 50, I chose to leave my husband.  It was early November when the decision was made, and December when I left my home in a legal separation.  It was not until February that I finally screwed up my courage and did a rather old-fashioned thing.  I pulled out some writing paper and wrote a letter to Uncle Bobby.  He was my Godfather and my remaining family underpinning when I wrote to him that thing I had been too cowardly to tell him.  It was a confessional of my personal failure. That is how I felt about the end of my marriage.  I did not measure up in stamina and commitment.  I made a promise in a Catholic Church before God and my family,  and in the end, I broke it.  When I wrote that letter to Uncle Bobby, and finally confessed my failure, I slid it into an envelope and put it in the mailbox, and I wept.  I was sure I would be his greatest disappointment.

It was not a surprise that five days later an envelope with Uncle Bobby’s perfect parochial cursive penmanship appeared in my mailbox.  I opened it anxiously, sitting at my small kitchen table, and carefully smoothed out the tri-folded yellow legal pad paper.  It was two pages long and started this way:

“It is no surprise to me that in consideration of all the personal challenges you have faced in the last 8 years that your marriage would be strained.  

It is no surprise that you are fatigued and ‘stressed out’.“

I was already relieved.  “Stressed out” is the sort of colloquialism he loved to sneak in with a wink and a smile.  It allowed me to breathe.

He went on to advise me carefully: take care of your health, take a deep breath, don’t make rash decisions and, above all else,  “I am only a car ride away for anything you need.”   He went on, in a way that only Irish Catholics can, to point out that “The Kennedy’s” had great struggles too and do not forget that the Good Lord is there for you always.

At the conclusion of that remarkable letter, which I keep in a special place to this day, I sobbed. Not in sadness and self-loathing, but rather in thankfulness.  I was so relieved and grateful for a very Catholic tenant: grace.  This man’s grace surprises me at every turn.

I was reminded of that beautiful letter yesterday.  The stress of the past several weeks has been impossible to cloak from him. I have not worn it well. Today, we were able to quickly work through some “business”  in part because I recently introduced him to online banking.  He marvels at online banking. The efficiency of it allows for more real conversation and on this day his complaints are few.  He did what he often does when it appears we have a swath of time; he waxes on about his agenda of choice.  Today it was me.  

My bachelor uncle, a medical “house of cards”, confined to a wheelchair and dependent on the varying levels of kindness in care from the staff at his assisted living center, wanted me to know something.  

“Now, listen.  Life is complicated and we can only do our best.  You are doing a great job. I know you have heartbreak, and the good Lord and time are the two things that will take care of that.  Until then, you just keep doing your best”.

His long-fingered, elegant hands are moving  throughout today’s lecture.  A finger pointed here, a touch of his chest for emphasis there, and finally two palms down on his lap to indicate he is done.  

Long gone are the days of passing that wicker basket down the aisle.  The old-fashioned art of letter writing in perfect cursive is over as well.  Strength has left his body, but not his heart, and I can’t help but think that his Catholicism underpins it all.  It is the cornerstone of his inner structure, built over time, based on consistent commitment and unwavering faith.  I have long been a “fallen” Catholic and I envy the sureness with which he wears his belief.  He calls on it often in the final struggle of his life. When he refers to the “Good Lord”  it sounds like a mantra to me.  When he senses I am feeling a bit cornered, he shares his mantra to great effect and it soothes me.

Saint Sebastian’s Church, built from stone in 1915, served Uncle Bobby well. Continue reading “The Catholic Thing”

Ishmael

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Uncle Bobby never married.  He came home from his grueling tour in the South Pacific, sold insurance for a  brief time and  became a teacher.  He lived his entire life with his widowed mother and unmarried older sister, Rita, in a duplex on Kingston Avenue.  He taught sixth-grade History for nearly four decades, and spent many bachelor summers on Cape Cod as a bartender at The Chart Room.

He had a small boat he named “Call me Ishmael”.  He loves to tell the story of the name of that boat.  He loves to quote Melville:

“ Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;

whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;

whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me,

that it requires a strong moral principle

to prevent me from deliberately

stepping into the street, and methodically

knocking people’s hats off- then,

I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

I’m quite sure that he knows he leaves chunks of Melville’s words out, and I never correct him.  When you are nearly 90, and find yourself with a bit of an audience, and the prompt is just right, why not give your limited gusto to the meaty beginning and end?

And, yes, he sits a little taller when he recites.  I only need to prompt,  “Uncle Bobby, tell me the name of your boat again”, and Melville’s words come alive.  His inflection and annunciation are perfect and when he recites I wonder if acting may have been a missed calling.  Uncle Bobby loves history and literature, but no longer has the stamina to read at length.  It tickles me when he recites the great writers.

I know the longing for the ocean and for too long it has been a “damp, drizzly November in my soul.”   In lighter times, and especially the heady days of college, I had no patience for Melville.  I found him dark and overwrought.  I veered toward F. Scott Fitzgerald for sparkle,  Jane Austen for Romance, and Charles Dickens for optimism.  Imagine finding a happy ending for Oliver Twist in a dark and haunting London?   Of contemporary writers, John Irving made me swoon with cleverness and complexity.  No Melville for me, only the Cliff Notes on Moby Dick.

I suspect I would appreciate Melville now.  

Ironic that the year of Uncle Bobby’s arrival would mark the only year in my 53 that I have not so much as put a toe in the Atlantic Ocean.  When I need it most, I have no time for languid mornings near the sea.  I have no time for day trips, let alone what I long for; a week by the shore in a cape cod house with my dog, a copy of Moby Dick,  and a comfortable chair to set in the sand.   Uncle Bobby would love the same.