Friday, December 10, 2010

O' Christmas Tree

With the forecast calling for another wintery blast, I was surprised to see a crowd of overcoats and hoods oohing and ahhing over the gas-grill display, pressing the orange ignite buttons and turning knobs. They’re like a bunch of little girls in their white plastic pretend-kitchens, I thought, playing in a world yet to come.

“Christmas trees?” I asked an orange-vested woman whose blond curls hid her name tag.

‘”Fake or real?”

“Artificial,” I said.

“Garden Center. Go all the way back to fencing, turn right.”

Seems even “non-real” Christmas trees would garner more respect this time of year, I thought, making my way past the garbage cans, extra-large leaf bags, potting soil, bug repellants and Japanese lanterns.

“Hello…Hal,” I said, nodding at a name tag and pulling a crumpled ad from my pocket. “I’m interested in this five-foot Douglas Fir. Is this the one?” I asked, pointing to the jolly almost-looks-like-the-real-thing-with-fade-in-and-fade-out-white-lights tree.

It wasn’t. It was a 6-foot fake Scotch Pine and $70 more. Three hours later, at the epicenter of an explosion of trinkets, and Calpurnia in full attack mode against the army of yellowing paper that seems to threaten her very cathood, I am ready to decorate what is really a three-foot-green-plastic tree set into a two-foot “Grecian” Styrofoam stand. Every year, my former husband and I delighted in peeling away the newsprint protecting our treasures – Teddy bears popping out of gift boxes, reindeers frozen forever in flight – finding a headline, a dateline on a story: material evidence of a long and successful marriage.

But only in the dictionary does “long marriage” come before “successful.” Christmastime eventually became the War of the Orbs. He began weighing the branches with tiny replicas of handlebars and helmets from Harley-Davidson. I dotted the tree with ornaments set in doilies, lace. He especially abhorred the pink Victorian shoe that sprouted tulle. All of them, he gladly handed over to me in the distribution of assets.

And now I find every one of them too big or heavy to hang on the only size tree I can fit into my new living room without having to crawl over the sofa to get to the kitchen. Except, perhaps, for this one: a small crystal with red and green splashes and itty-bitty snowflakes suspended in its core. I bought it the year we began counseling. It’s not a color I can feel, can scratch off with my fingernail. The color is buried: a jewel in its transparent vault, unreachable unless—and I consider this for a moment – I smash it against something, drop it on the floor, kick it to the wall.

My three-foot Fir is waiting to be dressed. To all a good night.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Blue World

In January, the Y’s pool is always more crowded because of "resolutionists." I’m a serious swimmer and even without the influx these few weeks bring, already frustrated with the large number of swimmers who don’t use the lanes (fast, medium, slow, recreational) their abilities warrant. According to a posting on deck, a 50-second lap puts you firmly in the fast lane, and a huge sprint clock helps you figure out where you should be. The Lap Lane Etiquette hanging on the wall also explains what to do when someone swimming faster in any of those lanes wants to pass. However, it appears lifeguards are reluctant to enforce the rules or move slow swimmers, perhaps because they don’t want to offend their fantasy of being the next Michael Phelps. You may notice I didn’t say Michael Phelps or Dara Torres. That’s because most offenders, I’ve noticed, are men. But that’s a topic for another day.

This is why being a serious lap swimmer often warrants declaring anarchy. Case in point:

I joined a lane in which three people (one man and three women) were already swimming. The women were moving at a pretty good clip; the man…was not. We three were able to pass him, as well as one another; but eventually, we had a four-swimmer pile-up at the wall because of him. The women waited, deferring to me, it seemed, so I asked him to please pull over when he could.

“Okay, Sweetie,” he said. “Don’t get your tank in a twist.” Excuse me? “Only my husband and father are allowed to call me ‘Sweetie.’ And on your way back to the locker room,” I said, pointing to the wall, “check numbers five to seven of how to be…polite in the pool.”

I’d been dreading running, or swimming, into Mr. Sweetie again, but there he was the other day, doing a sidestroke in a crowded slow lane even though the fast lane was empty. Mmmmm. He nodded to me as he made his turn, and I graciously waved. An hour later, we found ourselves together in the sauna. “Pool was perfect,” Mr. Sweetie said. “Yes, good temperature and very blue,” I said. “Well, I’m cooked,” he said, rising. “Nice seeing you. Enjoy your day.”

So this is what I’m positing: Because the pool is a finite structure with an inconstant environment - like the world - and its swimmers the varied and complex “citizens,” lap swimming illuminates who are the aggressive and powerful Alpha, who are the yielding Omega, and who are Beta - like the two gals who probably would have said something had I not been there.

Wow, who knew the lap pool is a microcosm of society? Oh, by the way, I swim not only for sport, but for relaxation….

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Butchya Gotta Have Friends

My very first girl friend was Cathy. She lived two doors down. We baked Creepy Crawlers and ate dirt on a dare. When she moved in the 2nd grade, I moved on to Leslie up the street and then Andrea around the corner. As I was allowed to cross streets on my own, my friend “territory” expanded. And when the two elementary schools emptied into the single middle school, I was in a girl group! But that November, over Thanksgiving weekend, we would be moving three hours away, a galaxy away from my friends. On my last day of school that half-day Wednesday, I emptied my locker into a shopping bag, which broke on the way home in the pouring rain. Through the blur of tears I watched the puddles turn my perfect cursive into an even blurrier mess. Sounds rather Dickensian, no?

My college pals, who’d all settled in the NYC area, and I kept in close touch with our “Soho Saturdays”; the women I swam with in the mornings at the Y created “Swim Girls Suppers,” a once-a-week girls night out so we could chat—something you cannot do with your head submerged in water. During my first marriage, my husband and I socialized with a large group of other marrieds. But in my early divorced days, I rediscovered the joy of having pals all to myself. On Fridays nights, Fran and I met over drinks and appetizers and shared woes; Pat and I alternated Sunday night dinners of never-before-tried recipes; Elaine and I met at the mall every other Tuesday after work, where we each bought one thing under $20. Then, at the age of 50, I reconnected with an old beau, a Bucks County “boy,” and moved 73.7 miles away to be with him. But being with him meant leaving my friends. It snowed the day I packed up my car for the last transit and led the moving van along the interstate, then county roads, all the while my windshield wipers beating steadily.

Making friends as a younger woman was easy: “Hey, would you like to…” I’d say to a girl in one of my college classes, then, as time passed, to a woman I felt comfortable with at work. And living in small neighborhoods inside larger towns, somehow friendships just happened. However, making new friends here hasn’t. Part of this, I know, is because I work at home. Still, while my new husband has lots of friends, I was surprised that few of their significant others made an effort to get to know me, let alone invite me to join them anywhere, my theory being that women of a certain age have certain feelings about uncertain new associations. And while it took a few months of branching out and meeting loads of fabulous women, thanks to the Goddess Group I joined (that’s a story for another day), the Doylestown Y, where I swim, and people I’ve met through my writing – along with dusting off “Hey, would you like to….?” – I want to publicly acknowledge Cindy, Heather and now Kathi as my first friends west of the Delaware.

More are welcome….

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Little Dab'll Do Ya

I wasn’t a big fan of Rachael Ray’s Food Network show. My male friends really dug her, in that Mary Ann vs. Ginger way, and especially found her throaty vocals sexy - an effect I’m able to create every February, recovering from my yearly bout of laryngitis. However, I found that ebullient voice rather grating. I’m happy to say she seems to have kicked that down a notch on her daily talk show, which I happened to catch a couple weeks ago.

I was in my robe, passing some time, thumbing through Oprah magazine while celebrity guest RuPaul, out of drag, was hawking his book “Workin’ It: RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Style.” A few select women in the audience were sharing their beauty woes, like too-short and -thin eyelashes, and I was only half-listening… Until audience member Allison, wearing a wide, plunging neckline, took a seat on stage and admitted to Ru (if I may call him Ru) that she was breast-challenged with not much to show up top. RuPaul knew how to fix that! First, he swirled some glittery powder on a brush, knocked off the excess, then dabbed a vertical “stem” between Allison’s breasts before drawing up the brush to create a martini-glass shape in the same spot as Superman’s “S.” And that’s how, RuPaul said, you can “make a bosom.”

I was riveted. And so was every other woman sitting in a robe, a pink robe, in the waiting room at a local women’s health center on “Diagnostic Day,” which is different from “Screening Day.” We’d all had our screening mammogram sometime during the previous week and had been called back for "additional imaging studies for complete evaluation." I’d already been marked and paddled and scanned —and was waiting to hear if I needed to schedule a biopsy. Might I need an oncologist, surgery? Reconstruction? A update of my will? Though I tend to catastophize (I made up that word), I’m sure most of the women there were at some stage of a similar state during Rachael Ray’s show, only days before the arrival of October, which this year marks 25 years of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to one government statistic, 12.7 percent of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. On this given day, I remain in the 87.3 percent. “See you next year,” my technician said, with a smile, and I reached for the plastic bag containing my above-waist garments. But just before I disappeared behind the curtain to change, I heard her say to the woman who’d been sitting beside me: “The radiologist would like to speak with you.”

Meanwhile Allison was back in her seat, sporting her new sparkling cleavage, marveling at how easy it is to make a bosom.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Professor Barry Gibb

After two years of high-school honors English with way too much Chaucer, Milton and Donne, taught by nuns old enough to have read the first printings, I begged my parents to let me drop into what was called “rapids.” The teacher was a lithe, bespectacled former hippie who taught the poetry of Annes Bradstreet and Sexton; and Lennon and McCartney. I decided I liked literature and, as a fallout, writing. So if someone had asked which teacher had left the greatest impact on me, I would have replied: “Mr. Checchio, junior English.”

That was, until last month when I was friended on Facebook by a former colleague’s cousin; at a paltry friend-count in the 160s, I’ll accept just about anybody. My first action is always to “see all” of my new friends’ friends. And near the top of this list was Barry Gibb. His name really isn’t Barry Gibb, but Bee Gee are his initials, so I’ll call him Barry Gibb here.

I received my bachelor’s degree in journalism, then embarked on a career in the magazine market. Getting a master’s in writing now would be a breeze, I thought. It was, until Professor Barry Gibb came into my fall schedule. Our first assignment was a 1200-word profile. I chose my cousin Bela, a Holocaust survivor who still possessed his baby brother’s shoe, kicked off during the Birkenau selection and which – in an extraordinary turn of events – helped him escape Auschwitz.

B+ Wha? “Your overuse of the pronoun ‘it’ is dismantling." Professor Barry Gibb had, in what I saw as venomous red, underlined five places I’d used “it” as my following references, go-to pronoun. “How many ways can I say ‘shoe’?” I queried my writing friends, who all chuckled.
I substituted words like “relic,” “tiny treasure.” The writing felt forced, until, in a lightbulb moment, I replaced every “it” for what “it” was. “Shoe” I typed in at all five locations. I got an A on the revision and didn’t use "it" again for the remainder of the term; but when the semester ended that December, I bailed on Barry and returned to my old wicked ways. “F--- IT,” I joked.

Most times, teachers fade away, like all those Sister Mary Margaret Catherine Whatevers. Sometimes they leave an imprint, like Mr. Checchio. However, my guess is that teachers would love to be in that small “club” of educators whose lessons come screaming back to us years later and when we least expect them – like "it" did for me four weeks ago. I had four unnecessary, replaceable “its” in this essay the first time around. Without them, this reads much better. I’m thinking I may friend Professor Barry Gibb – and send him this column.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Teddy Palley

All seven-and-a-half inches of him reclines against the punched-up pillow tucked neatly beneath the floral quilt on the daybed in the guestroom. He used to reside across the hall, in the more manly beige-and-mahogany room, a palette Claire acquiesced to when she and Kevin redecorated the house three years earlier in the effort to plaster and spackle their marriage as well. “Don’t you think it’s time,” Kevin said, “that Teddy Palley has a room of his own? I mean, he’s not a baby anymore.”

But for Claire, the ecru-furred, ebony-eared, chipped-button-eyed boy bear, cut and sewn and stuffed by some toy manufacturer, would be a baby stuck forever in his stitches.

First, he was “Teddy,” playfully bounced in front of her eyes by a babysitter who seemed very…tall. In her memory, Roberta was a giant. It wasn’t until over a dinner conversation years later, when Claire learned that Roberta had married a Denver Nugget (“They’ll have towering children,” her dad said with a mouthful of bowties) that Claire learned that Roberta had actually suffered from a rare genetic “whoops” that kept her growth spurts continually spurting until surgery stopped its advance.

So Teddy had been Giant Roberta’s. And if Teddy had been new to Roberta when she was a baby (but had she been, Claire wondered, a giant baby?) that would make him 16 years older than Claire. And if Teddy had been handed down to Giant Roberta, well, who knows? In dog years, Teddy Palley he might be as old as Abraham, she considered, scribbling math notations in her notebook in Hebrew school on the day they read the story of Abraham, who, according to the Bible, was 900 years or something like that when Isaac was born. And Abraham died 100 years after that. Having a baby with an age into the four digits was just too much for a 9-year-old to wrap her brain around, so she crumbled the piece of paper into her backpack. Teddy Palley was really born five years earlier in her brother's bedroom on a rainy day.

While most little girls stuff baby dolls under the blouses, and pulled them out by their feet announcing, “I have a baby!” (not realizing this was a dangerous breach birth), Claire walked around with Teddy stuffed under her shirt. “I have a … bear,” she’d say. And when she gave birth for approximately the 17th time on her brother's bed that smelled of Clearasil, with her kindergarten boyfriend, Randy Palley, at her side, Teddy, for the first time, had a daddy. And a full name: Teddy Palley.

Teddy Palley went to the “basement salon” for his Saturday shampoos in the laundry basin, and had his ears tied up in a bow for birthday parties. Teddy Palley went to summer camp; Teddy Palley lived in Steinbright then Lawrinson dorms; Teddy Palley was kicked to the floor in mad dashes to shed clothes and make skin contact, then kissed on his thin red felt tongue the next morning in apology before being returned to his perch.

And Teddy Palley went on a honeymoon to St. Maarten. “Really,” Kevin said to Claire as she unpacked him from her carry-on and laid him on the bed. “Please tell me he’s not coming to the beach with us.” Claire ran her fingertips over Teddy's bald belly (from age...and those countless Saturday morning shampoos). “No," she said. "He'll burn."

And now Teddy Palley sits on the daybed in the guestroom, where Claire has been sleeping for the past two months, since Kevin announced he thought he might be in love with a woman he knew from the gym. A woman he’d only talked to, but knew he wanted. Claire knew now what she wanted.

Soon, when the house is sold, after some new couple eyes the muted master bedroom and imagines themselves there, loving each other at least in the foreseeable future, Teddy Palley will make another trip to another new home, where Claire will paint the room pink and long for that first morning when she kisses his little red tongue in apology after having kicked him to the floor.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Marvelous Night for a Moondance

I am staring at the spinning light of the police car, the blue orb pulsing in the dark. Someone is in trouble. Someone needs help….

My eyes snapped open. In the half-moon light, I took sleepy inventory of my bedroom: the outlines of the sepia photos on the wall, the ghost-like cedar branch standing in the corner, the plant I kept moving around the house for better exposure. And then I saw a flash of green that bathed the dormer. On…then off. On…off.

I sat up with a start. My first thought: an outlet was sparking. An anvil of terror crashed into my chest as I envisioned the house bursting into flames. I leapt out of bed, dropped to my knees for inspection, my eyes now adjusted to the dark.

I have a memory of being six or seven at Mitchell Gassner’s house on summer evenings. The Gassners had a monument of an evergreen in their yard. During the nightly light shows, I’d imagine it was a most splendid Christmas tree with dancing luminaries and sparkling ornaments come to life, like something out of a Disney film. We challenged one another to collect as many fireflies in jars with holes “humanely” punched in the top, then see who could “go longest,” inhumanely imprisoning them until, one by one, their lights went out.

This is my first summer in Bucks, having made stops in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Hoboken, where I lived on top of, below, and squeezed among lots of other people, and where I always had a bug “problem.” For me, one bad bug did spoil the whole bunch. I was undiscriminating in my pursuit, capture and execution of anything that flew, crawled or scurried. Please know that before the swat, slap or whack of a newspaper that left its inky scar on a wall or counter, I always apologized. But something shifted when I moved here. In the splendor of this area, I have discovered a respect for all of nature, even the tiniest, peskiest, most unappealing creatures I share my new world with. I have cupped countless stinkbugs in my hands and coaxed shy spiders onto sheets of paper, depositing them outdoors then bursting into “Born Free.”

Tonight, I would make very meaningful restitution.

Still on my knees, I reached for the windowsill, dumped the tea candle from its crystal votive, and gingerly lowered it over my charge, jiggling the glass a bit so he (I don’t want to pursue that gender designation at this time) would float inside and I could close him off. Then padding down the steps, I carried the encased, magical treasure—my own ailing Tinker Bell-- through the house and flung wide the door. “Live!” I commanded, and he flitted then danced upward, his waning green glow brightening against the gaining light.

On behalf of Mitchell Gassner and the kids from Grant, Lincoln and Lawrence Avenues, I dedicate this to all those who died on those soft summer nights.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Hilton Garden Bethesda Says So

B'shert. That’s the Hebrew word for what’s meant to be. Even when I was little, I felt out of step with the other girls who walked around with dolls stuffed under their shirts, who pulled them out by their plastic legs (we didn’t know these were breach births) and announced, “I have a baby boy” or “I have a little girl.” I never stuffed a doll under my clothes. I somehow knew I would never have a baby of my own. I knew for sure when the doctor told me at 29 that my “open just a smidge” window of opportunity was closing—and I was marrying a man who couldn’t decide just yet if he wanted children at all.

This past spring, I picked up a 19-year-old from her first year away at school. A few weekends ago, I asked a 15-year-old to leave her room neat so that when we come home on Monday, we’ll return to a clean house.

These girls are my husband’s daughters. My new husband. What’s extraordinary about us as a couple—and what makes a great story (we think)—is that he and I dated 30 years ago. Thanks to Google and my high-school reunion site, I woke up one winter morning to an email from him. Both divorced, we soon picked up where we’d left off. “It was meant to be,” friends said. B'shert.

Almost every morning, as another day begins, I have the same thought. From where I am with my book on the couch, I study him opposite me in the loveseat, the newspaper open against his bent legs. If we’d stayed together back then, I know, we would have children together—during the years my window was open wide enough for a Cadillac Seville to drive through. Am I mournful? Yes. Do I wish things had been different? No.

These two lovely girls, whom I adore, wouldn’t be here if things had been different. B'shert.

The first time the younger one needed to introduce us post-wedding, she presented “my father,” then paused. I extended my hand and said, “I’m Carla.” We giggled later, discussing that since I am still Carla, saying “This is Carla” is perfectly suitable. At a college event, as the words “this is my stepmother” finished passing through the older daughter’s lips, our eyes locked. We both knew what the other was thinking: Yuck.

So, who am I? What are we?

We were traveling that weekend to Maryland (when I’d requested we come home to a clean house) to attend my brother’s wedding. “There will be two adults traveling with two teenagers,” I’d told the hotel reservationist by phone, requesting adjoining rooms. Minutes after hanging up, the hotel’s email chimed in my Outlook in-box. I scrolled the page, my eyes settling on the last line: Family of Four. I maximized the window so the document filled the screen. I read the line again.

It has been confirmed by the Hilton Garden Bethesda. B'shert.

When My Brain Grows Up, I Want to Be President

On my way home mid-afternoon on one of the first really warm days, the windows of my Subaru were down and NPR’s “Fresh Air” was up. Terry Gross was interviewing Barbara Strauch, the health and medical science editor at “The New York Times” about her new book, “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.” By grown-up, she means middle-age. By middle-age, she means anyone between the ages of 40 and 68. By anyone in that age span, she means me.

As an illustration to demonstrate the difference between my brain and, say, my 16-year-old stepdaughter’s brain, she offered this quick test: How many “D” words can you come up with in 15 seconds? Since I’m a “word girl,” that should be a no-brainer. Mark the time. Okay. GO!


The bad news, reported Strauch, is that our brains do decline as we age. The good news: This decline most of us are experiencing is perfectly normal. It’s not a big deal if you can’t remember the word “refrigerator” in a nanosecond. It is if you can’t remember what a refrigerator is for.

The status quo: We middlers are easily distracted; I’ve spent several minutes looking for keys that were in my hands. We become immersed in inner dialogue or drift into daydreams, often while we’re doing something rather important, like cooking…or driving; I’ve boiled a reduction to destruction and traveled miles before realizing I’ve long passed Turkey Hill where I needed to stop for…something. And we suffer from what are called “episodic memory lapses,” losing entire scenes or moments; I may or may not have had a whole-grain waffle for breakfast. I can’t remember.

Remembering names is probably the most common complaint (besides bad knees) of middle-agers. I call to mind a recent collective breakdown several of my high-school pals and I experienced on Facebook. Someone had posted that our sociology teacher, a guy we thought was ancient 35 years ago, was finally retiring. This is an abridged version of a two-day 27-comment-long thread in which 11 of my fellow alum weighed in:

John: Didn’t he teach math too?
Janice: Yes. But low level. Who was the guy who taught trig? I hated trig.
John: I think he was a short guy.
Cathy: Bald?
Me: And didn’t he limp?
Janice: I’m getting my yearbook--if I can remember where I put it. lol
Me: No! Not yet! OMG! I should know this. He was also the swim coach.
Cathy: A… I’m going through the alphabet. B… B-a… B-e… It was B-e… something.
Me: You do that too?! OMG! Yes! B! And it had an L… M… It had an N in it somewhere.
John: Mr. Benner?
Janice: Bennett!

Go, Janice! The math teacher’s name was indeed Mr. Bennett. Now here’s the thing I was most astounded to learn, making my way north on 611 as Terry and Barbara chatted on the FM airwaves. We store words in two locations: One place is for information/data associated with the word; and the second holds the sound that goes with that information. So the part of our brains that remembered the short, bald teacher with a limp who taught trigonometry and coached swimming is still strong. Where the word “Bennett” sleeps needs a wake-up call. That’s why many of us, I now know, mentally run through the alphabet as reveille. I thought it was my own brilliant cheat-sheet.

But what we lack in memory, I learned, we make up for in reasoning and planning and in understanding the gist. We’re better at sizing up people, deciding rather quickly whether the salesperson really has our best interest at heart when he tries to sell us an extended warranty. And while a 25-year-old might be quicker in compiling a list of vegetables, the middle-age brain will automatically categorize those vegetables into colors and shapes. I guess this is a good talent to have. However, I’d rather be able to remember an author’s name when I’m standing clueless in the stacks at Barnes & Noble instead of mentally noting that asparagus, celery and scallions are all long and green.

Now how do we keep our frontal cortex fit? Exercise, experts recommend. It’s not just the heart that benefits. All that oxygenated blood that’s coursing through the body is nourishing the brain too. And we should put our gray matter on a metaphoric treadmill as well. Sudoku is okay. Learning a language is better. But best: Argue a point; talk to people who disagree with us. Churning around a conflict, it seems, keeps us sharp.

I pulled up to my house, listening to the conclusion of the interview (a/k/a I Was Having a Driveway Moment) and deep in thought. With the mid-term elections bearing down on us, it occurred to me that the perfect place to argue, confront and disagree is the political arena. Yes! Holding public office will keep me smart. While I admit that to many that statement seems oxymoronic (confession: I needed a 15-minute break while writing this to retrieve the word “oxymoron”), consider my mom.

Thirty years ago, when she was 51--the age I am now—she was first elected to her town council, eventually becoming mayor while sitting on a number of state boards and commissions. She’s still writing press releases for local candidates and attending every council meeting she can. And more often than not, at these Tuesday meetings, she waits in line for the podium with something rather prickly in her arsenal about the goings-on in the current administration. But is Mom a role model when it comes to mental acuity?

The other day I was driving her to a doctor’s appointment, telling her all I’d learned about the aging brain and bemoaning my miserable showing on the “D” test. She interrupted me, the starting gun having gone off. “Detriment, dexterity, demeaning, diligent…” she began to rattle off. I thought of another “D” word:


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Volume On

One arm around her waist, the other bent, a glowing stub jammed between
index and middle knuckles, the way men hold cigarettes. Wearing a tux,
he’s looking at her in her Jackie Kennedy wig and the lime silk dress my grandparents
brought back from the Orient (they called it the Orient then). Her head is tossed
back, laughing at something he said. Our parents are caught in the lens for a change
in this old home movie where there is nothing but silence. There is nothing but silence
as I sit and watch the hours of birthday parties, Christmas mornings and dinners
my brother has converted to video from reel-to-reel. Our childhood a vacuum,
our childhood muted. But I remember the sound of the front door squeaking open
and my brother looking up to see me on the landing. “She can hear you!” he
screamed at my parents, perched in the love seat, in their matching terry bathrobes, ice crackling and sliding in glasses they’d long stopped drinking from to negotiate the end of our family. Slipping off his maroon-and-cream varsity coat, my brother wrapped me in the scratchy fabric, the collar smelling of sweat and his girlfriend’s perfume, and carried me back to bed, while words still poured from their mouths.

My Grandmother's Gloves

"So what did she give you this time?" my husband asked as our car merged onto the New Jersey Turnpike. "More stuff," I said, shuffling through the bag. There were green linen napkins, cat-food coupons held together with a paper clip, and a faded decorative box. "I wish she'd stop giving her things away."

For the past year, every trip to my grandmother's house has yielded a gift. I wrinkle my nose whenever she points to the bag she's left by the door so I won't forget it. "Grandma, why are you giving me this?" I protested when she gave me her tureen. "Who in the world am I going to make that much soup for?" was her reply. "Grandma, this is one of your favorite art books. Why don't you want it?" "I don't see very well anymore. You enjoy it."

Home, after my latest visit, I put the napkins in the top drawer of the server, and the cat coupons in the kitchen drawer, adding to the pile of others she's clipped. She usually mails them to me, but if she knows we're coming, she slips them into the bag that will most certainly be sitting at the back door.

Now what could be in this old box? I lifted off the top, concave after years of sitting under something heavy. First, the smell of mothballs; next, yellowed and cracked tissue paper. Then gloves. Gloves? On top were a pair of off-white leather driving gloves. And the deeper I dug, the more elegant they became: crocheted, satin with bows, with pearls. And at the bottom, protected in plastic, were--I discovered as I shimmied them out of their casing--above-the-elbow-opera gloves.

The month I turned 13, my grandmother took me to see three operas on three consecutive Saturday afternoons. "I could never do this with your mother," she said, sitting next to me on the bus into Manhattan. "When she was your age, we were in the Depression. It's good to be introduced to culture as a young lady."

Over the years, my grandmother and I saw many more matinee performances together. "Oh, you should see how grand the opera is on Saturday nights," she often said. "The men wear tuxedos, the women gowns." But when we went, Grandma wore her wool coat. We'd grab a bite to eat at the Metropolitan Opera House restaurant for ticket holders, then slip into our seats. "I couldn't do this with your mother," she'd whisper as the orchestra swelled. "No, I couldn't."

I came to see that there were many things my grandmother, for reasons I may never understand, did not do with my mother. Even as my grandmother's health began to fail and the sorrow of age overtook it, it was with me she cried. "I can't read the newspaper anymore...I can't walk across the room...I could never tell this to your mother. I'm scared."

Gloves. I was baffled. A serving plate she doesn't need, I understand. Candle-stick holders she hasn't used in years, sure. But why did she dig out this old box? Then I remembered. A few weeks, sitting in her den on a Sunday, reading the Times, my eyes landed on this season's opera schedule. I turned to her, sitting in what was my grandfather's chair, and watched her for a few moments, holding a magnifying glass to her large-print book, her hands trembling from age.

"Let's go to the opera," I said. Before she could protest, I told her we could arrange for a wheelchair at the curb. There's nothing really to see in an opera anyway, it's all about the music, I pressed. I joked we'd get preferential treatment, that people might think we're famous. "Especially because we'll be all dressed up. C'mon. Let's be ladies together."

"No," she replied. "We had some wonderful times. But now, you should go with your husband."

Do women still wear opera gloves? I thought as I pulled on each one, smoothing out the lace up past my elbows. Something felt scratchy against my left forearm. When I pulled off the glove and turned it inside out, I found a small tag, a price tag. My grandmother had never worn these gloves; and, I realized sadly, had probably never seen how grand the opera is on a Saturday night. When I go, I will get all dressed up and wear them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

When the Boardwalk Came to Life

The metal gates on storefronts from Chelsea to Virginia Avenues rattled up with a crash. Concession works slowly pushed couples in high-backed wicker rolling chairs. And for the kids in town, the amusement piers reopened: Painted horses bobbed on the carousel. Hawkers at the arcades dared people to Teeery yer luck, only a quarter while the Lucky Wheel clickety-clacked around and around. The air was filled with the toasty aroma of popcorn and peanuts. On Easter Sunday, after its winter nap, the Atlantic City boardwalk turned magical for another tourist season.

Too early for "summer people," the Easter Sunday celebration was like a cocktail party for the locals before the big banquet began. Every year, through junior high and high school, my best friends--Linda, Susan and Diane--and I saved our allowance and baby-sitting money so we could buy a new blouse or jacket from Lit Brothers to wear to the boardwalk on Easter Sunday. We set our alarms to get to an early mass and be out in time to get to one of our houses (usually Diane's) to get dressed and put on enough makeup to brighten our faces (but not too much for our mothers to notice). Then we made our way to the corner of Ventnor and Jackson where we caught the jitney that took us uptown to the boardwalk.

Now, if a boy liked you, he'd never ask to spend the entire day with you because he was there with his pals, too. This was a friends day. Instead, he'd arrange to meet you at a set time at the Orient Express on Million Dollar Pier. The two of you would climb into one of the red torn chairs that jerked along tracks through a dark labyrinth. A mechanical dummy rose out of its sarcophagus. You'd scream. He'd laugh--or maybe he'd take your hand and still be holding it when the car rolled out into sunlight again.

Anything was possible the day the boardwalk opened.

I am the child of newlyweds who honeymooned in Atlantic City, then decided to stay and raise a family there. When grand hoteels with names like Marlboro and Blenheim framed the boardwalk like an ornate setting around a jewel. When biplanes flew up and down the shoreline, beckoning beachgoers to visit the "World Famous Steel Pier," then to dine at Captain Starn's on the inlet. Visitors came from all over to our city by the sea from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when the Miss America Pageant provided a stunning epilogue to summertime.

But by the late '60s, when my friends and I were starting to meet those boys on the pier, the crowds had stopped coming to town. Air travel was less expensive and families were choosing more "exotic" destinations than the Jersey Shore. Over the course of the next decade, dozens of business failed. My dad sold his discount drug store and took a job delivering liquor and groceries. Still, every Easter Sunday, our families hoped that the new season would be better and pull us out of the downward spiral. Wasn't it possible?

Then, in November 1976, the year that we graduated from high school, the referendum was passed that would bring casino gambling--and a livelihood--back to Atlantic City. Most of us were thrilled with the prospect of a business boom, of construction jobs for our fathers and brothers, perhaps not fully realizing that before something new can go up, something old must come down.

Bally's Park Place, a casino hotel, stands where the Marlboro-Blenheim once surveyed its domain. And if Captain Starn's hadn't been torn down and you got a coveted window seat, the view of the open bay would be obliterated by the Borgata. Although many ma-and-pa stores still operate, they are a tiny batallion that fights for territory. The boys from Ireland who came to work the piers summer after summer are long gone, the piers destroyed or converted to serve new functions: a shopping mall, a helicopter landing pad for high-rollers. And though the echoes of laughing and shrieking children--of us--are dim, I can hear them between the thud of the crashing waves.

Today Atlantic City is a year-round resort. Even in winter, hordes of people pull their coats tightly around themselves as they stalk the boardwalk from casino to casino, in and out of the of neon tabernacles. But I remember winters when the only hue was the gray of the sky and the pigeons that scavenged for food. But just until Easter Sunday, when the boardwalk would come to life, full of sights and sounds and smells...and everything was possible again.

My Ba'sheret

Ba’sheret. That’s the Hebrew word for soul mate. The meeting, the melding. Soul mate, a lover. Soul mate, a friend. I read an article in the Tampa Bay News a few weeks ago. I had to write a lead based on the piece that was subject-authored. Tricia Rosenthal and her husband had been married for seven years, five of them spent wrestling with the monthly disappointment that there was still no baby. IVF, ICSI, endometrial surgery, Chlomid, Pergonal. Injections. Nothing. And so they decided to adopt. But in their 40s, birth mothers on this side of the Atlantic would find them too old. They thought about Romania, Russia; the children are Caucasian, but the children are troubled. In China, though, they care for their lost little girls, the doe-eyed babies abandoned on church steps, left with notes tucked into clothing. This is Chu. Please take care of her, please love her. Anyway, the Tampa Bay couple traveled to China to meet the little girl that the adoption agency said was theirs. And the moment they saw her, the minute she was placed in their arms, they knew they had met their Ba’sheret.

I knew I would never have a baby of my own. I somehow felt out of step with the other little girls who walked around with their baby dolls stuffed under the shirts, who pulled them out by their plastic legs and announced, “I have a baby boy.” “I have a little girl.” I never stuffed a doll under my clothes. I knew I would never have a baby of my own. Yet, I believed I would be a mother. I believed it when I was in high school, and I first got ill. I believed it when the doctor told me, at 29, that my window of opportunity was quickly closing. But I was with a man who didn’t want children anyway. Maybe this is what was meant to be, I was never meant to be a mother, and the memory of that viscous bundle swirling in the cabarnet water so many years before hurt even more.

Rosalie An Cutchall. Rosalie An Cutchall came to America on a hot August day. When Emily first emailed her picture to me a week before, I watched her unroll like a flag on my computer screen. First the top of her head, that shiny black hair, then her eyes, her short flat nose, and a mouth that was thin and flat. This child doesn’t smile, I thought as the little girl stared back at me.

But Rosalie did smile. She smiled and bobbed, her tiny hand holding onto the coffee table in Emily and Larry’s living room. I was angry that she was so happy. I was angry that Emily and Larry were so happy. Three weeks before, there was no Rosalie. And now, she was the most important thing in their lives. Rosalie An Cutchall was their daughter.

“What do you see when you look at them?” I asked my husband. “I see a couple with a Chinese baby,” he said. But that’s not what I saw. I saw a family. I saw a mother and child. And while at first, when the three of us went out together, to the mall, to a restaurant, while I was sensitive to people’s stares, as the months passed, I didn’t look anymore. I didn’t care.

On the top shelf of my closet, somewhere nestled among my photo albums and the ATT wireless bag I brought my cell phone home in (I can’t get rid of it, it’s a nice sturdy bag) is the information Emily gave me about Chinese adoptions. Not too long ago, my husband said that he’s finally seeing them as a family. He doesn’t see the difference. When a family loves one another, they are the same. But he still doesn’t want any children.

I pull that manila folder down from the shelf, the dust slide off and leaves a thin gray line on my black shirt. I pull out the papers, the brochures, the lists of contacts. I give them a cursory look and lay a final piece of paper on the pile.

“When we met Susanna, I knew she was my Ba’sheret.” My eyes focus on the call-out as I slide the article into the folder and shut the closet door.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Port Authority Police Wore Gray—You Wore Blue

This month, Rutgers student Haisong Jiang graduates with a Ph.D. in molecular biosciences. I don’t know what his plans are, but my guess is they will include a trip--maybe home to China or out west to see his girlfriend.

This next visit to an airport will likely be less dramatic than one made earlier this year when he broke security at Newark Liberty International Airport to give his girlfriend one more kiss—a breach that ended up emptying Terminal C. I was riveted to the story; I wanted to facebook him. And I wasn’t surprised to see that the media had made the connection between Jiang’s leap of love to the final scene in “Casablanca.”

I was weaned on a television picture tube, logging countless hours of old movies, wiping away tears as lovers parted at train stations or docks. But an airport good-bye was different. Something about the sky. And when Rick put Ilsa on the last plane to Lisbon, the bar was set. So I happily drove boyfriends to the airport; and I always asked for that service myself. While metal detectors and baggage checks sort of interrupted the sentimental stroll down the concourse, at least we could stay together up to the gate, the nose of the plane poking at the terminal window. I’d imagine a foggy night, a 1920s Travel Air Light Transport waiting…. Even though Rick and Ilsa’s would be an immeasurable separation, only one day apart could feel like forever, right?

But I never felt the fervor of a “Casablanca” farewell. Right airports, wrong guys, I guess. The closest I got was with the boy I met over college spring break. He drove me to the airport (check), walked me to the gate (check). They were announcing last call to board. Time was fleeting! I pictured the propellers spinning as Major Strasser sped along Casablanca’s streets to arrest Victor Laszlo. Perfect. But then, in a nanosecond he’d kissed me (I think) and disappeared into a sea of Tappa Tappa Kegga t-shirts. I took my window seat in dejection until--as the plane began its escalating roar down the runway--I saw him standing on the roof of his van parked along the fence, waving as we lifted off.

While that airport adieu was more romantic comedy than melodrama, it is a memory I cherish. I am sad for today’s lovers. What Mr. Spring Break did could not be replicated in these times, when Port Authority Police give you about 10 seconds at the curb. Don’t even think about shutting off the motor or getting out except for a “Beat the Clock”-style luggage toss. I thought it was mostly our innocence that had been lost in these post-9/11 days. But I’m thinking we lost a good bit of romance too. Here’s looking at you, Jiang.

Too Late to Die (Really) Young

“What’s the name of the street?” I asked, twirling my spaghetti.

Keith took a deep breath, twisted his mouth in thought, then said: “Hamilton.”

I took a deep breath. “No,” I said. “Hamilton is the street we live on now.”

“It begins with an H,” he said.

“That’s not good enough,” I replied. “There are lots of streets that begin with an H.”

“I don’t know,” he finally admitted.

“Harvard Avenue. Harvard,” I exhaled. “If you leave me at the wrong one, I’ll haunt you forever.”

I’d issued this pop quiz to my husband many times over the years. And always, always, he failed. So I told my closest friends and my brother—and I put in my living will—that I wanted my ashes to be spread where Harvard Avenue meets the boardwalk in my hometown of Ventnor, New Jersey, the town just south of Atlantic City.

Why cremation? I’m claustrophobic, I’d joked. But I wanted to sail into the salt air, then hang there for a moment before mingling with the sand on the beach where I once built castles, where I played Truth or Dare with my friends, where I got drunk on Ripple and high on cheap weed. Where I touched boys and let them touch me. I learned who I was on the Harvard Avenue beach. And though I’d been as happy or happier since those days, where I entered life was where I wanted to enter eternity.

I used to think about my death a lot—a preoccupation with the end of my life that had been with me all my life. I was about five when I first saw on television A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the Titanic. As the black-and-white images flashed in the darkness of our den, I imagined myself there on the sloping deck. The film made such an impression on me that for weeks afterward, in my nightly bath, I’d recreate the last scene, pushing the bow of my toy boat into the sudsy water, forcing the stern up high, then pulling it slowly beneath the surface while humming “Nearer My God to Thee.” I’ll know I’m dying, I’d think. It won’t come suddenly—it will be a slow slide.

Over and over I read Jo’s poem to her dead sister Beth in "Little Women": With one last look, one loving sigh, on the breast where she drew her first breath, she quietly drew her last…. Yes, I will die quietly and tragically young like Beth, I thought.

But I outlived Beth and made it to 1972: the year I sat in the back of the Margate Theater and watched lovely Jenny die for the fifth or sixth time. I’d already read "Love Story" about 15 times (though I wasn’t as obsessed as Roxy Kaplan, who’d memorized the entire text and walked around school asking people if they wanted to know what was on page 47…or 68…or…). Still, there isn’t a 45- to- 100-year-old-woman who doesn’t know by heart the beginning of the story: What can you say about a twenty-four-year-old girl who died…? I will die quietly and beautifully young, I thought. Eleven years later, in the months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I was so convinced I wouldn’t survive the year that I didn’t buy any new clothes.

My library at home was filled with titles that had “the Light” in them: Waiting for…, Dancing into…, Embraced by . “You’re morbid,” my husband would say. “You need to talk to someone.”
“Or maybe you’re an old soul,” my friend Sharon offered. “You’ve been through death so many times, you’re like a weary commuter who recognizes there’s always the next connection just down the track.” Okay, I’ll accept that, I thought. And I wanted to make sure that when the doors opened for me and I stepped out, my husband would know what to do.

But then some years ago, after a routine abdominal surgery, I developed a blockage—on a holiday weekend. My doc was in the Hamptons, and the residents were afraid to bother him until they knew it was absolutely necessary. Around 2 in the morning, it became absolutely necessary. My vital signs plummeted. As they were rushing me on the gurney to the operating room in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, I wasn’t waiting or dancing or ready to embrace anything. I was scared. I wanted to get back to my money-pit house and my mess of an office where I worked from home at a job I hated and my perfect-mommy neighbor who entertained 30 kids in her yard every afternoon while I was trying to work at the job I hated. I did go home—to a husband, whom I came to see couldn’t remember the name of my final resting place because he couldn’t care less about my life. I finally did see a light I hadn’t been searching for, and we divorced.

So am I still bent on cremation someday? Well, depending on how one interprets Jewish law (and I’ve read conflicting reports on this topic), I’ll be ineligible for planting
anyway because I will have altered—vandalized—my body, which is a sin against Our Creator. You see, in two years I plan on getting a tattoo to celebrate my 50th birthday.

If I live so long.


Everyone always told me I had the most beautiful mother. My friends’ parents, my teachers. My boyfriends. “I look like my father,” I always responded. But on this late autumn afternoon, with the sun peeking through the thickening October sky beyond the window, I can no longer see it.

“You came,” he whispers through fearful, clouded eyes. He slips his hand from beneath the covers and arduously pushes the arm of the television away. A playoff game is on. I slide the obligatory blue vinyl high-back hospital chair beside the IV pump. Closer, he takes a more comprehensive inventory and finally utters: “You look pale.” “I know. Mommy told me to put on lipstick before I came here,” I force a chuckle, my throat tightening at the irony. I start to tell him that she says I look dead without makeup, but change my remark just in time. “She says my face disappears without lipstick.” I am tempted to tell him the story about my wedding day, when my mother, right before she was to lead my attendants down the aisle, pulled a tube of lipstick from her cleavage and spread a new coat of color on me. Again I stop myself; he wasn’t at my wedding, he wasn’t the one who walked me down the aisle. And until he fell ill a few weeks ago, we hadn’t seen each other since I was 19.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen him at weddings and funerals, where we’ve been nothing more than two guests, two mourners who’ve nodded to each other and passed some pleasantries, like “How are you?” and “How’s work?” He’s a man I haven’t known for more than 30 years. I don’t know if he ever fell in love again, or which team he’s rooting for this October Sunday. I don’t even remember him being a baseball fan. Over the years, my older brothers never spoke to me about him, and at first, didn’t want to include me in the dying of their father. But at one time, for a time, he was mine.

His name is Joe. Joseph. I wasn’t much of a talker as a very young child. And when I did speak, animal was aminal. Glove was glubs. And Joseph was Jofish. What exactly happened between us, I can’t say. It had to do with the distance in miles after my parents divorced and my mother and I moved away. A physical distance that turned into an emotional one. It had a lot more to do with his laziness and my apathy bridging that distance as the years passed.

And as those years passed, as he ebbed more and more from my memories of day-to-dayness with him, I held onto to one. We were at the beach on the last vacation we took together as a family. My brothers were body surfing and he lifted me onto his shoulders. “Can you see the Eiffel Tower?” he asked. “Yes!” I shouted into the salty air. Oh, it was likely the mast of a boat, but I wanted to believe that I could see clear across the Atlantic, because my father was telling me I could.

A second memory has surfaced as of late; it is one that haunts me now, sitting beside him as the sound of the metal food cart bangs and rolls closer. “Daddy, please don’t smoke,” I pleaded with him that night in his apartment.

I was in the sixth or seventh grade, visiting over the Christmas holiday. We were eating the popcorn he’d made in a saucepan (my mother had taken the electric popper and it always bothered me that, knowing how much I liked popcorn, he never bought one for his own home). We were up late watching a rerun of The Honeymooners. At the end, Jackie Gleason always emerged from behind the stage curtains, a cigarette poised in his hand. The Surgeon General’s warning had just started appearing on the sides of cigarette packs and I looked at my father, who, I suppose inspired by Jackie, reached for his own pack.

He smiled. “Nothing will happen to me. I promise.”

Twenty-some years later he did quit. Today, 15 years after that, he’s dying of cancer that started in his lungs, spread to his esophagus, then spine and has colonized throughout his skeletal system.

The food cart passes his room. I want to tell him that he was the first man I loved and the first man who broke my heart. I wonder if he wants to say anything to me. A second baseball game drones on. It’s dark outside; he asks me to flip on the overhead light. I walk beside his bed and reach for the switch behind him. This is the closest I’ve been to him in more than three decades. He takes a long steady look at me, then with a shallow, labored breath, says, “You don’t need lipstick.”

And I want to believe I am beautiful—because my father is telling me I am.