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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Anniversaries and Holiday Memories

There are all kinds of anniversaries.  I have developed an uncanny ability to remember the anniversaries of some of the most mundane things. For instance,  it was three years ago today, that I started to work on a needlepoint project of a bird perched on a branch.  Or it was eighteen years ago on March 9th that I started using Main Street Dry Cleaners.  “Hey, don’t you remember......” people will ask me.  I am the repository of memories arcane and unimportant. Oddly, there are times I  forget the specific date family members died, but I will remember the dates of the events circumscribing the loss.  What kind of brain does that?
Thanksgivings and Christmases are a melange of memories. In early childhood, we shared them with my mother’s sister and brother-in-law and their three children. My mother’s youngest sister (12 years her junior) lived with my immediate family of four, and my grandmother was always there. (My grandfather, having died at age 47) didn’t make it.  My aunt and uncle on my father’s side would entertain my paternal grandparents, her immediate family and us on alternate Thanksgivings.  This was arranged so that we could share Christmases with my mother’s birth family. It was an even exchange. My father, mother, sister, young aunt and I did not host Thanksgivings at home. My father’s job prompted us to relocate every year or two. We were not ideal hosts for those special days.  My mother’s mother worked as a bookkeeper; her modest income and living arrangements would not allow her to entertain all of us, but she was ever-present for all holidays.
By high school, the timbre of Thanksgivings had changed. One was  spent on Martha’s Vineyard; it was when we discovered that our Campground Cottage that was supposedly a three-weather Cottage was nothing of the sort. The oven heat-o-lator and electric heaters made it just bearable.  We always puffed fogs of breath when we spoke.  The plumber turned off the water to protect the pipes from freezing just as we drove away. Thereafter, we had small holiday gatherings in Rumford, Rhode Island at my parents’ home. Just the four of us, my mother, father, sister and I. By then, my resident aunt had married and moved away.  Gradually, our gathering of four changed, too, because my sister would bring home college strays to join us. Then it was my turn.
I fell in love with an Islander. He became my housemate and we lived in Amherst, MA.  The trek down to Providence on the Wednesday nights before Thanksgiving always included a massive gorging session at an Asian Restaurant in Monson or Palmer -- just before the Pike, because my mother NEVER had enough food.  Finally, it dawned on my fiancé and me that we should IMPORT the meals. We brought with us most of the makings for Thanksgiving dinner, stopping at a grocer at 8:30p.m. on the night before Thanksgiving to buy one of the last turkeys in the store’s cooler. We hi-jacked my mother’s kitchen and took over making Thanksgiving dinners. We brought along my fiancé’s younger brother (almost twelve years his junior) from his foster home so he could be with us.  My sister and her beau contributed pies (which she repeatedly cautioned were not her thing and wine -- which she said was) and my mother seemed nothing but relieved.
One of my favorite Thanksgivings was set back here on the Island the first year after I graduated college. My best friend’s grandmother, who was also our Vineyard next door neighbor (she sold us our house) offered us her winterized house to use because she planned to be in Florida. I can recall this because I wore the same brown, corduroy skirt suit I wore for my first job interview.  There is, catalogued in a photo album in western Massachusetts, a group picture of my sister and her husband and me with my fiancé sitting on a sofa. My legs crossed gracefully at the ankles.  I loved my hair cut. Such moments linger in the mind.
Within three years of graduating college, my husband and I began to invite family and unattached strays to join us on Thanksgiving. Whoever came, we served.  It was how we did it.
Fast forward through twelve years of Thanksgivings. Sometimes my parents and sibling came, sometimes not.  My brother-in-law was often there - a great boon since my husband and his brother cook surprisingly well together. We welcomed Russians, mechanics, and dentists. We served Asians and French countrymen and African musicians.  We offered up meals to the near homeless and the very wealthy.  Our table, sometimes tables, were an open feast because that was how we wanted it. We wanted our home to welcome all. We wanted our children to celebrate and be grateful for our prosperity - whatever that was, however we measured it, we had each other, and we were thankful.
One Thanksgiving, while the turkey roasted, I hiked up Mount Sugarloaf in Deerfield.  Another, I hiked through a wildlife preserve where I saw something I have seen only one time in my life;  the ponds and water ways were the consistency of jello. They had frozen into slush, a frosty freeze of nature’s making.
When finally, we owned a home in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, Thanksgivings migrated back to the Island.  Our first Thanksgiving here, we put the bird in to roast, and the ten pounds of potatoes on an infinitesimally low simmer. Then, our family of five, loaded up and drove from our home in Dodger’s Hole in Edgartown out to Katama.  My husband let the air out of the tires so we could drive down  the beach in the jeep.  Forty minutes later, we found ourselves in an unthinkable position.. The car was nosed toward the oncoming surf, but the tires were stuck in the sand. My husband, whose tenacity and car handling skills are epic, could not beat the clench of the sand and the onslaught of the sea. I was kvetching about the turkey needing basting and the potatoes boiling over, when I heard this loud whack, whack sound seeming to be growing closer.  Suddenly, the humph, humph was too loud for us to talk. lt overrode the steady sound of the three to four foot seas growing ever closer to the jeep. Why were we playing chicken with the waves, anyway? Wasn’t the outcome of such stupidity fixed? The house always wins.
The kids rolled down their windows and I stuck my head out mine. What we saw surpassed our expectations. A coast guard helicopter somehow communicated that they had a report of a stranded vehicle on South Beach. It was all the incentive my husband needed. He refused to suffer the indignation of a Coast Guard rescue. With a combination of foot work and body English, he wrestled us free.   We stopped at the Shell Gas Station on the way home to reinflate the tires.  I was the first one to rush into the house. Immediately, I knew something was seriously wrong. We had been gone for over two hours.  We should have been greeted with the heady scent of a turkey simmering in its own juices, but instead, there was nothing.  I opened the oven and saw a sad, pale, buttered turkey, not cooking. I lifted the potato pot lid and realized instantly that the pot was filled with cold water. We were out of gas. Apparently, the propane company did not deliver our gas on the automatic refill schedule. It never occurred to me to go outside to look at the meter before I started to cook. They made an emergency delivery (with a considerable surcharge, of course).  We ate a very late meal on November 26, 1998.

It is always helpful to have access to a perpetual calendar so that you, too, can surprise and delight your friends with your crystalline memories of innocuous events! http://vpcalendar.net/4_Columns/Calendar_2.html

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Day an MRI Technician Introduced Me to Sleeping Beauty

The day before yesterday, I had an MRI taken of my right shoulder. It has been a problem for years, but the time had come to learn why. While being led back to the dressing room by an attractive, young, blond woman named Ashley, we joked because I am such a frequent visitor to the MRI department of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.  This young woman is bright, ambitious, in fabulous shape, and quite attractive. I asked if she had a beau. I learned a lot about the difficulties of meeting people if you are not part of the bar scene. She was reluctant to use the Internet to sort the field, preferring to meet on a personal level.  I told her how pretty and smart she was and that I imagined that her ”someone” was out there – in the great big world – doing his thing, while she was doing hers. I told her I was confident that time would bring them together. Then she said something completely unexpected, unsolicited and definitely unsettling. She told me I was pretty. 

      Here is the thing, there have been people in my life who have told me I was pretty – even beautiful – but I always assigned them as belonging in one of two categories.
The first group:   Those are my family and close friends who would say that I was beautiful even if I had moles on my nose and three eyes because they see me through their eyes of love.  They see me as a whole entity including personality, physique and  and visage. To them, I am an animated whole. These wonderful people do see my beauty and remind me of it in all sincerity, but their opinions are jaded.
The second group:  Members of this ilk tell me I am pretty because they want something and have long ago discovered that flattery is a valuable bargaining chip.

     Yet on Wednesday, there was this young woman -- with absolutely no investment in me –emotionally, physically or financially -- she was not seeking an outcome of any sort, by telling me I was pretty.  It caused me to think, “My goodness, what if she is actually right!?“ Can you imagine the Richter scale earthquake this thought precipitated in me? Could I have been pretty my entire life and been so dubious of others and blind to it myself that I missed this vital fact?

      The odd thing was that just a couple of months ago, I met a gentleman who apologized if he was staring at me. I hadn’t noticed, actually. He hastened to add that  he couldn’t stop looking at me because I was so beautiful.  He talked about my cheekbones and my eyes and my wide, bright smile. I laughed, delighted at his joke and changed the subject. So you see, even then, a small crack had started to threaten my understanding of who I am. Naïve of me, maybe, but it did not feel like a pickup line.  He seemed too embarrassed for that to be all it was. I filed the incident away under Interesting Factoids until the day before yesterday, when I was forced to reconsider the possibility that it might be true.

      Most of us  carry the definitions of ourselves just as our families ascribed them to us unless we work to change them. My grandmother often told me that I would never be pretty, but I certainly was a “handsome” girl.  My mother told me I was pretty and smart just the same way as she said, “Good job on your grades, dear, would you please feed the cat?”  There was little or no substance behind her words.  Of course, I understand better now.  For my entire life, I have looked very much like my mother.  She was self-effacing and would never sing her own praises – even if it was by inference. Later in life, when I was a mother myself, she told me I made a beautiful mother. I took that to mean something entirely different than a comment on my looks.  My father’s approach was to group me in with other family members.  For example, “Look how pretty the girls look tonight!”  he might say of my mother, my sister and me.  My husband, in our days of courting, told me I was beautiful.  I put
him in both categories; he was at once kind of required to say that -- and he also knew that, in all likelihood, his avowal of my beauty would stimulate and improve my amorous nature.  

      The young MRI technician named Ashley, really started me off on a new line of inquiry altogether.  So let’s try on for size the idea that I am a beautiful woman. I mean the kind of easy-on-your-eyes beautiful. Exactly how had I missed that for 56 years, and what’s more, what else have I been missing?

      Over my lifetime, people have told me I am strong, I am smart, I am brave, I am wise, I am kind, I am generous. I want you to picture bulbs flashing – like the camera lights that left you seeing white dots dancing in front of your eyes for five minutes after the bulb had stopped flashing. What if, at birth, the same fairy godmothers that visited Sleeping Beauty visited me? What if I, too, was instilled with the special gifts bestowed upon Sleeping Beauty – but I never realized it until January 21, 2015 when I was 56 years, four months and sixteen days old?

     I guess the only possible way to test the hypothesis is to start believing. Start believing that I am beautiful.  And believing that I am strong, I am smart, I am brave, I am wise, I am kind and I am generous.  And perhaps, of most importance, that I am grateful. I know, that whether or not I really am pretty, strong, smart, brave, wise, kind and generous, there are people in my life who love me and that very love allows them to believe these things to be not only possible, but true.

     Evidence!  I say, there must be evidence some of these qualities exist..  Like the bubble in a level, I roll back and forth with my thoughts until they settle in 1997.
Some of the golden jewels of my memories took place during the year my son was three-years old.  I would have been harried, sleep-deprived, and, in all probability, quite disheveled as well. As a stay-at-home Mom raising three children between the ages of three and seven, there were moments I couldn’t summon the wherewithal to remember my name. I moved on autopilot, feeding, clothing, and caring for these three small creatures. On the otherwise empty refrigerator door, I carefully placed a biblical verse to inspire me, 
 “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”  
So far as I could tell, my work was cut out for me, but at least I had my marching orders.
    The job as a mother consumed me. It was an all-hands on deck situation. I was grateful my husband was there to share the responsibilities with me. Our partnership was a good one. When we reached the conclusion that our children would benefit from having a stay-at-home parent, I was the one to give my notice and adapt my corporate skills to running a household and raising a young family.   I missed my paycheck.  I admit that.  That paycheck gave me a form of independence I haven’t enjoyed since. In addition, I missed receiving performance reviews. At work, when reviews were delivered by people whom I respected, I found them tremendously helpful; little did I know that my own children would become both my mentors and critics.  Instead of formal, quarterly reviews, my new job provided daily, sometimes hourly, feedback on how I was doing as the mother of Hannah, Kay and Charles.  Surprisingly, it was not all bad! There would be unexpected moments of splendor that would carry me for weeks.  It was when the children found a way to let me see myself through the lenses of their eyes that I received the greatest and most useful gifts.
     I remember how I would genuflect before three-year old Charles every morning to help zipper his jacket or tie his shoes before we left for preschool. Balancing on one knee, I kneel before him, just about to scoop him up and hustle him to the car and into his car seat.  For those brief moments, we found ourselves eye-to-eye. That’s all it took. At the most unexpected, heartbreaking moments, he would cup my face in his little chubby hands. My son would hold me there until I looked right at him, then say in his sweet little, high voice, “Mommy, you so bootiful.”  That phrase, “Mommy, you so bootiful,,”  still rings in my ears today.        
     Kay let me know how I was faring as her mother every step of the way. I clearly recall the day midway through adolescence when I realized I simply didn’t have the skills she needed from a mother. I was failing her.  She was irritable, unreasonable and disrespectful. I could find no way to reach her. After weeks of that behavior, I went in to her room to talk to her after the heat from our most recent dispute had cooled down. I had taken her cell phone and hid in the porcelain Easter Bunny we keep out of sight most of the year. I sat on the edge of her bed, desperately trying not to cry.  I said, “Kay, I am not sure I am equipped to give you the guidance and mothering you need. I am thinking it might be a good idea if I went away for a week so we can both reflect on how we can move forward.” By then tears were flowing freely down my face and I could do nothing about it.  She looked at me, dry-eyed and stern-faced and said, “Why do you have to be so dramatic?”  I got up and walked out of the room, carefully shutting the door. I wondered exactly who was this young woman?  Was she really mine?  Fast forward two years. Both of my parents were very ill. I couldn’t get to them right away because of other commitments at home. Kay offered to go help them until I could join her. My parents called her their “Angel of Mercy.” She stood alongside me caring for both my parents where they shared a hospital room. (That they could do so is one of the very special perks of living on a small Island).  During my mother’s last weeks, Kay barely left her. She massaged her legs, brought her ice, adjusted her pillow, and she sat. Intuitively, Kay knew that being present, simply being there, is one of the greatest gifts you can give a dying person. When my mother died around three in the morning, she was in my arms and Kay lay draped right alongside us both:. three generations, one bed. It was a vignette that we will remember and cherish for our lifetimes.  When Kay went to Thailand, she brought me back a small bell used by the monks at one of the temples she visited. Some days, I tap the bell from where it hangs in my bathroom. The high-pitched sonorous ring always centers me. It reminds me that out of brass, something unyielding and hard, comes something of great beauty is created and it reaches far beyond its perimeter to touch many hearts. The bell brings me to Kay,                               
 Hannah is studying for her doctorate in psychology focusing on children with anxiety disorders.  Recently, she asked me, “How did you know what you were doing when you raised us, Mom?”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
She said, “Well, I don’t know if you realize this, but you did everything right.” “Right?” I said. “I was flying by the seat of my pants, Hannah. I did what my mother did with me.  I guessed a lot and I used the book, ‘Raising Your Spirited Child’ by Mary Sheeda Kurcinka as my bible.  Somehow, against all odds, your father and I managed to produce not one, but three spirited children. And now I say, thank goodness!”  It was astonishingly nice to hear that, in Hannah’s opinion, I did okay.

Which brings me back full circle. Children have a way of letting us know exactly how we are doing.                 
As I move forward with the task of reinventing my life, I carry with me the knowledge that, YES, my goodness, I am beautiful.  I may even be strong, smart, brave, wise, kind, generous and most certainly, grateful. I am going to look for these qualities in others and try to acknowledge these gifts in myself. That which we reinforce in others we make blossom in ourselves.  

And you can quote me on that.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Welcoming in 2015 with Holiday Cards

                                  Holiday Cards                      dee 2015

         Every holiday as I was growing up, I would wait until New Year’s Day to read all the Christmas cards that trickled in between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. I started this practice when I was about ten-years old, and have continued it right through the present. I discovered the heady joy of hearing from family, friends, acquaintances and wanna-be friends in one stampede of correspondence. It was like having everyone important in my life in the same room at once.  I also delighted in imagining that all these people cared enough about my family and me to choose a card, write a note – brief or long- address the envelope, stamp the envelope and find a mailbox. The whole time, I was, for just a little bit, on their minds. In the hey-day of the United States Postal Service (pre Facebook, Linked-in and iMessage), it was not unusual to receive 75 cards.  On New Year’s Day, I was punch-drunk on greeting cards.
         When I struck out on my own, had a legitimate address with my boyfriend – later to be my husband – we began to grow a list of card senders of our own.  Between my husband’s business connections and my communicative family and friends, our basket of cards grew.  For a few years, I abandoned my habit of waiting to open them, but I missed the rush of having so many loved ones converge in that one magical hour. It made sense to revert to a habit that worked for me. I spent the time carefully -- reading quickly scrawled regards – then rereading them closely.  I could be found moving a lamp closer so I could hold a magnifying glass to a photo postcard to better assess the expressions on my friend’s children’s faces. The magnifying glass would float over those near and dear to me and I would wonder had I aged equally? I would note that my cousin’s family had grown from five to six, or was it seven?
           There was one category of card that had, traditionally, received some ridicule in my family, but, truthfully, provided us all with untold pleasure.  It was the card that, when opened, included The Holiday Letter.  The letter was devoted entirely to recounting all of the remarkable events in a family’s life during the previous year.  Of the ten or twelve we received every year, there would be one, just one, that would cause us all to wonder what potion of homeopathic, black-market pharmaceutical or serum of grandiosity the scribe had ingested before the annual account was written. It was unkind and petty of us.  We would read the winner’s essay aloud and howl at the unheard perfection of life that luck and tunnel vision had visited upon them.
Emergency gall bladder surgery? They had the best surgeon in the Northeast.  The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980? Why the National Guard escorted them to safety. Johnny was attending Wesleyan? Don’t forget he is a legacy student and his grandfather donated the new library.  I am uncomfortable when I confess I was so catty that I would laugh and laugh. My parents reassured me that I was not laughing “at these happy boasters,” but rather “with them.”  I am pretty sure that is not true.
          Most Holiday Letters describe the trips, the graduations, the career moves, the changes in residence, the hospital trips for anxiety attacks, the sad and moving news that a beloved family member has been laid to rest, the trials of college applications.  In other words, most Holiday Letters describe the stuff of life, with a bit of a positive spin, but rooted in reality and offering a strong focus on the successes with a minimization of the failures, disappointments and struggles. It is only that one rare, boastful exception of the Holiday Letter each year, the one overflowing with hyperbole and  bordering on being comically braggadocio that fell outside the norm. My parents had friends from the 50’s that reliably sent such a Holiday Letter.  And then their cards ceased all together.  Their lives took a 90 degree turn and things went sideways. There were no more cards.
          In a category entirely of its own is a card from my closest college friend. Usually, sometime in January, I receive an elaborate, multi-folded card that has been designed, directed and produced by a N.Y. ad agency.  Built around a theme (i.e. Pirates of the Caribbean) every generation of the family is captured in an elaborate storybook pose. Addresses to match their images (all 54 or so) are catalogued on the back of the card. I wait for that card like a wine connoisseur awaits the snifter of after-dinner port.  It is a rare and special treasure that brings to a close that year’s greeting cards.
          I have received some cards this year.  They are from my closest family and friends who have succeeded in keeping up with my address and location.  The good news is that, to the best of my knowledge (and God, if you are up in the ether somewhere, I am not taunting you, and please don’t laugh at such presumption on my behalf) my mailing address is fixed. Two days ago, I met the man who has the post office box next to mine. I said, “Can you imagine, my family has had this box for 50 years, and I have never met you?” His crusty retort? “Well, I have had this box for 87 years, and I have never met you.”  I surely hope my family has the same box for another 50 years.
          I hesitate to launch a Holiday Letter of my own. 2014 has been a year of trials and triumphs. My progeny have surprised and surpassed my expectations of them in their pursuits in life.  However, of more importance, each, in their own way, have demonstrated character, compassion and integrity. In my mind, there are no awards, career-paths or achievements that can outshine the importance of character, compassion and integrity. 2014 has granted me a renewed appreciation of the value of family and friendships.  They have kept me aloft when I nearly lost my way. My father’s death and a series of relocations left me rudderless and adrift. Yet, when I needed help, it was there. Always. Inexplicably. I am left with profound gratitude for the blessings that seem to populate my life, even in those darkest moments. I believe there is a mathematical formula that can reduce this phenomenon to something we can all understand; the absolute value in any moment of despair, loss or sorrow is love.
          This year, I was in receipt of fewer-than-ever Christmas cards, photos cards and Holiday Letters. However, I was more than ready to break them open and see just what kind of year 2014 delivered to those about whom I care…..and better yet, I  looked forward to reading what hopes my friends and family held for 2015. I was delighted.  Meanwhile, I am still waiting for that one card that always closes the season.  I hope my friend has my address…

Wishing good health, hope and effervescent light – d.