Sunday, November 16, 2014

Virtual tour


Dinner was over, the kids had scattered, but we adults sat silently in place with our hands protecting the remaining swallows of our stemware. In every dinner party there usually comes a lull in the conversation.

The door opened and a cold wind entered carrying my father and one of my re-sealable containers with a half gallon of homemade soup.

“Why, I'll take a glass of wine, seeing as how you're offering.”

I'm happy to see him. Happy to take the container and stow it in the fridge. Happier still when he sits down and sweeps away the silence.

He's the kind of guy who has a smile in his voice. It makes you smile, too.

In no time we are making connections, meandering around in our childhoods, which are separated by geography and at least one generation.

“Do you remember Montgomery Ward?” my father asks, painting a picture of the trips he made there as a child. How he had taken a bus from Troy to spend the money he made from his paper route on model trains. Money that burned a hole in his pockets. He went on to describe how he bought his first lawn mower there as well. A machine to expand his after-school earnings.

“I loved going to Monkey Wards,” I said, remembering only the toy department and a catalog that rivaled Sears' Christmas Wish Book.

I remembered my mother taking me there in person to see the doll I'd pined for in the printed pages.

If it was going to disappoint, she thought, better it do so before Santa set in under our tree.

“It's all offices now,” said our guest, who had worked there for a time.

Small world.

While we sat and chatted, I image we all were probably looking at the dishes on the table in front of us, but seeing the white, art deco behemoth in Menands with a million square-feet.

“Where is that again?” ask my husband.

“He grew up in Maine. He can't help it,” I whisper to my friends.

He shrugs his shoulders. His connections to this place are older than ours, even if the lines didn't stay tied.

His grandfather once told us a branch of that family tree was named Covenhoven.

Small world. Smaller world that our friends' parents may have traveled in the same circles. Probably know all the same people.

It's funny how a conversation that doesn't have much weight can still feel like a warm blanket.

For an evening, we travel around my dad's 1940s neighborhood. We meet his neighbors. We go with him over the train tracks and into the cemetery that was his playground.

As his story continues, I'm revisiting all the people who have faded from my life. Our guests are meeting them for the first time. … The stable hand who taught him how to hand-feed a horse. The train engineer who took him for a ride. The man at the Oakwood, who invited him to witness a cremation.

We hold our breath as he tells us about how he once stopped to tie his shoes and looked up to see a freight train 60 feet upwind.

“All I could hear was my mother's voice telling me never to play around the tracks.”

And just like that time reversed.

I saw my grandfather again as my dad introduced him. A postal carrier, whose only vice once paid off the mortgage.

“It was the late '40s and he'd gone to Saratoga with his postal pals. He won the daily double, it paid out at the highest amount at the time: $1,900.

“Of course, he didn't want to have that much money on him over the weekend, so they wrote him out an IOU on a brown paper lunch sack and a check arrived in the mail the following Monday.”

The room filled with a sense of awe, not only at the idea of being able to pay for an entire house after a day at the track, but to pay it off for under two grand.

For more than an hour, a steady stream of people – many we've never met in person – paraded past that table in a strangely woven tale of colorful, albeit minor, history.

Small world. I bet they all had their own fond memories of Monkey Ward.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

Two old friends walk into dressing room ...


It was an epiphany. And it hit me like a cartoon train.

In a dressing room, at the mall, with a woman standing outside the door wearing a measuring tape as a necklace, I was staring into the mirror and seeing another woman looking back at me. And she was in her underwear.

This was a mistake, I thought to myself. I shouldn't be here. I should be searching through racks at a discount store. But there was no going back.

I had been wide-eyed and fully clothed when the sales clerk circled my torso in two places. Looking intently at the spot where her fingers had pinched the pink-colored ribbon, she announced a fact I wasn't prepared to accept.

“32DDD.”

I couldn't help but laugh even though I really just wanted to cry.

Those are cartoon proportions. Proportions that would have my husband -- Wild E. Coyote – calling me “Mudflaps” under his breath.

“What size have you been buying?” the sales clerk asked with an efficient flair as she flopped a handful of push-ups or demis or bralettes over the door for me to try.

“Medium,” I said sheepishly, knowing that I had never abided by the laws of base-layer structure.
“A proper fit,” it is well known, “makes all the difference.”

All these years I'd been lying to myself.

Lying, and squashing my chest into the undergarment equivalent of an ACE bandage, trying to rebel against all the authority vested in mother nature.

Stupid mother nature. And her vests.

Despite appearances, this epiphany didn't start in a swank lingerie dressing room. It started on page eight of a 34-page booklet my daughter brought home from a special “Your Changing Body” workshop she attended in fourth grade with the school nurse and most of the other female students of the fourth-grade class.

She, of course, wanted nothing to do with the “maturation kit,” which included the booklet and a few sample products. After the class, she'd stuffed all the things back into the drawstring bag and hidden it at the bottom of her backpack. Where I found it ... looking through a fist-full of homework assignments and graded papers.

It was fascinating. … all the biological facts that I suppose I already knew, but hadn't exactly thought about for years, or thought about in elementary-school terms.

“Starting at the Top,” offered a simple math equation for bra fitting that confounded me:
“Measure around your chest just below your breasts … If it's an odd number, add 5. If it's an even number, add 4. This is your frame size.

To find your bust size, measure around the fullest part of your chest. Compare your frame size to your bust size and if they are the same, you need an AA cup. If they differ by 1, you need an A-sized cup. If they differ by 2, you need a B. If it differs by 2, you need a C.”

But the grade-school equation only went up to D.

Which, I guess, is probably appropriate given the audience for the pamphlet I was holding.
Even so, I was getting an education in middle age that I had probably received in Middle School but likely stuffed into my own backpack after the presentation.

Honestly … I had NO idea THIS was the trick to properly measuring one's bust line. Adding. Subtracting. All these years television commercials had me believing it was all about lifting and dividing.

Numbers. Letters. I'm still at a loss for how all this mysterious algebra works.

“How do they get to 3Ds?” I wondered aloud.

“Are you ready to try more?” the voice called from behind the door as another set of garments flopped over the transom.

“I'm not sure I'll ever be ready.”

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Love worth celebrating


My parents were married on Halloween.

Fifty years ago, to be exact.

My mother swore she didn't actively plan to wed on a day when grade-school ghosts and goblins prowled the nearby cul-de-sacs, following the lure of porch lights and filing their plastic pumpkins with sugary snacks.

All she had planned was a small, church wedding on the last Saturday in October.

When she realized the coincidence, she laughed it off with her famous nonchalance.

“I went to my wedding as the bride. Your father went as the groom,” she told me I don't know how many times.

“The song your mother chose for our wedding was 'Oh what a fool am I,” my father laughs.

Every year on October 31, save for the last four, my parents celebrated the same way: at home, with fun-sized candy, the music of the doorbell and the serenade of “Trick or Treat.”

I used to feel badly for them.

They didn't mind. My mom always said it was just as much fun staying home. “Who needs a candlelight dinner with your father when you have a bowl full of candy and perfect strangers coming to your door?”

For most of those years, business was brisk. It was a young street, with young children. My mom counted the parade of children by subtracting the sugary remainders of the once-full bags.

It was a sweet accounting that always left plenty of peanut butter cups for an anniversary dessert.
Over the years, of course, the leftovers grew more plentiful. The children who haunted our neighborhood grew up and moved into newer, bigger developments. The street aged and grew feeble by comparison, until only a trickle of grandchildren visited.

Still, the thought of turning out the light and going out never appealed to my parents.

This year should have been different. By custom alone, this milestone should have included a catered gathering of all their friends and family. A grand party to rival their wedding.

It's a shame we didn't get to plan that party.

My parents don't live under the same roof anymore. They have been separated by medical necessity and the cruelty of aging. But they are never really apart.

Instead of sipping champagne and cutting a replica wedding cake with my mother and their friends, my father, still full of love and devotion, sits at the end of a communal dining table and feeds her a meal of pureed food. She asks him “Who are you?” I don't know how many times. He always answers “I'm your husband.”

Despite this not being the story I wanted to tell, this isn't a tragedy. It's just another kind of love story.

This is the kind of love we promise, but hope we never have to deliver. In good times and bad. In sickness and health. For as long as you both shall live.

It's the love we all secretly worry we can't provide, or that won't be provided us.

It is the unknown. Trick or treat?

We all have to walk up those steps one day, ring a bell and wait in uncertainty for a door to open. If my husband and I stand outside of that door, I hope we get to go inside dressed as my parents.

Because that kind of love is always worth celebrating.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Karma is a cat on your doorstep


I knew I'd caught heartbreak in my hand one afternoon as Ittybit and I were running off to dance class. I just had that feeling.

I could barely understand the words coming from my daughter as she hollered for me to come quick. “Kitten” was the only word that registered.

Ittybit was dragging her dance bag to the car when a tiny, gray kitten startled her. It had been sitting on our porch when the two surprised each other face-to-face. No sooner had they locked eyes than the little feline vanished into the backyard.

"I don't see it," I said, not really wanting to find another pet. We already had a dog and a cat. Our furry family was complete. Not to mention, dance would tap and jazz without her.

"We should go. We'll be late."

"But it's just a baybeeee," she wailed.

Just then she spotted it. We spread out.

Ittybit tried to grab the tiny cat, but it spooked and ran in my direction. I reached out instinctively, and before I knew it, I had the gray fluff of infant feline gently in my hand. As a thank-you, it had sunk its teeth firmly into my finger.

No good deed ...

"Why didn't I just pretend it was too fast for me," I asked my husband as I washed and bandaged my pinky.

He just smiled and nodded. He would have done the same thing.

I smiled, too. “We should name it 'Karma.” It seemed fitting since a few weeks earlier I had teased some friends as they opened their door to a fifth stray cat.

One more and you might be able to skip the audition for 'Hoarders'.”

Karma … that is a kitten on your doorstep, alright.

Our vet said she seemed healthy enough, aside from the malnourishment and dehydration. No telling how long she'd been out in the world, separated from her mother.
I'm calling her a girl,” he explained. “But it's hard to tell. She's pretty young.”

So we took her home – this terrified, but now-purring, six-toed animal that had somehow found us -- and told The Champ the good news: It was his turn to name the newest addition.
And there was joy. The kind of joy you forget about when your household gets older.

The lighter-than-air, happy baby, midnight-feedings kind of joy. The imagining what she will look like when she's older, kind of joy.
Of course, it wasn't to be.

Twenty-four hours later this tiny, barely-named kitten died. The dehydration too far gone for little laps of water and smidgeons of food to turn around.

We learned from a neighbor that the kitten's mother had been hit by a car several days earlier trying to move her four babies from one side of the road to the other.

I knew it was coming. She'd almost stopped eating after her first shots at the vet. She wasn't playful. She became cuddly and wanting of attention. She fell asleep as the children stroked her back.

As the children were getting ready for bed the next evening, her breathing turned labored and her mournful cries became whispers. I called the vet.
There wasn't anything they could do.

The next morning, we tearfully buried her next to our beloved dog.
Ittybit and The Champ took turns at the shovel.
Everyone cried. Her passing seemed more tragic that the release of our 16-year-old pup. It was too soon.

The only comfort, whispered over and over, was in knowing we'd given her all the warmth and love we had in her last hours. Knowing that she didn't die alone in the wind and rain.
In a few days, karma paid us another visit, or more accurately our pet-hoarding friends ...

And of course they brought with them a kitten they'd found under a porch – a playful, full-bellied, healthy little bundle of feline energy.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ahead of his time


My husband has always been ahead of his time.

“When is Daylight Savings Time?” my husband grumbled.

I don't know why he asks me.

“No, I'm serious. When is it?”

For 12 years, this has been our semi-annual fight, and my response is always the same.

First, I must correct his grammar:

“It's daylight SAVING time. There's no S.”

“Whatever … When is it?”

Then I correct his usage:

“It's in the spring.”

“Fine! … Then when do we turn the clocks ahead?

“In the spring.”

“But then we'd gain an hour.”

“Sure. We gain an hour of daylight but lose an hour of sleep. In the fall, we get that hour of sleep back.”

He shoots me a look that says what I am doing is the mental equivalent of pulling the wings off of flies or burning ants with a magnifying glass. Torture.

“You know what I mean. When do we turn the clocks back?”

“Yes, yes. I know. We return to Eastern Standard Time the first weekend in November. … Wanna know how I know?

“How do you know?”

“I Googled it on this thing in my pocket called a smartphone. … It looks surprisingly like yours only my case is much cooler.”

“Ha, ha. Very funny.”

Twelve years. Seems like a long time when you're an outsider looking in.

For me, it seems like yesterday.

I remember the torrential rains that visited the night before. The elation of a clear morning followed by the forehead-slapping realization that we would welcome our guests to our outdoor wedding in a field of ragweed. Everywhere we turned, we faced the potential for allergen disaster.

He doesn't remember it that way.

He was too busy looking for his car keys.

These weren't keys to just any vehicle, mind you. Nooooo.

He was frantically searching for the keys to our “get-away” car: A 1974 Lincoln Mark IV hardtop that had been painted purple and accented with metallic-gold stencils of poisonous flora and fauna. It also had orange, matted shag carpeting that smelled of paint-thinner and cigar smoke.

It got nine miles a gallon. It would have cost us $1.64 to get from the wedding to the reception.
Holy moly was gas cheap when we got hitched.

Not the point.

The most miraculous thing, besides the cost of petrol, was that I did NOT hide the keys to that monstrosity.

My sincerest affirmation of this amazing fact, however, did little to stop his mind from weaving all of his last-minutes of bachelorhood thoughts into a giant conspiracy-theory hat.

Not that he would have held it against me, even if he hadn't found the keys later on that week in the laundry, accidentally left in the pocket of a pair of jeans.

Thing is … time doesn't fly in his world, it seems to go backward.

I know this now, because as we were both busy almost forgetting this particular anniversary, we had both tried to pull together last-minute, year-appropriate gifts.

I had gotten him a snarky t-shirt.

He commemorated the occasion a few days later by buying table linens, “the traditional gift of that particular anniversary,” he explained.

“Guess how I knew what it was?”

“You Googled 13.”

“How'd you guess?”

“We've only been married 12 years. When I Googled, it came up silk or pearl. I went with snarky pearls of wisdom. ...

You really are ahead of our time.”


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grocery seeking


I'll never forget the sound of my enlightenment -- an explosion of air, followed by the crinkling of plastic over wrap.

Gratification, 1; Delay, 0.

Honestly, it was horrifying.

My best friend's mother had unceremoniously opened a bag of cookies right there in Aisle Seven as we accompanied her on the weekly shop. All hands dug in ... All hands except for mine.

I had never seen such effrontery.

"Have some," she offered kindly, as she extended the bag.

I couldn't speak. I must have been in a state of shock. I shook my head and looked down at the floor, a light-colored linoleum that had seen better days. The world went dark around the edges.

Wishing the spider vein cracks in the floor would open wide and swallow me up, I tried to steady my breath. I felt like I was about to faint.

I don't remember what year it was, but something in the moment – the moment after I regained my composure – signified a new era. Everything I knew about etiquette and decorum was crumbling. Waiting was over.

"It's ridiculous," she said, reading my thoughts and dusting cookie crumbs from her hands as she continued to steer the half-full cart toward Frozen Foods. "They say, never go shopping on an empty stomach, but who goes shopping when they have a houseful of food? I say, eat!"

It's not as if we would eat and run. I knew her to be an honest woman. She'd hand over the sampled package with the rest of the unopened purchases and pay up.

Of course, she was right. Appearances be danged! I greedily reached into the bag. Cookies would be eaten. Hunger would be abated. Kid grumpiness reduced.

This is freedom.

Funny how over the years I'd forgotten about that educational outing.

I never tagged along on shopping trips after that. And my mother never got peckish during our weekly chore. She would have been aghast if I'd asked to snitch from a sleeve of saltines.

Aside from the testing of a grape or two for sweetness and the occasional sampling of snacks handed out by chef-garbed hawkers, I haven't noticed much pre-purchase munching going on at our local supermarket.

The more I think about it, though, the more perplexing this phenomenon seems.

Now it feels as if we are prisoners of stores. The sheer amount of time modern shoppers spend buying groceries has got to have increased during my generation.

And that's by design ...

I mean ... it takes me at least four trips around the store to find which of the five cracker sections has the saltines with the unsalted tops. Not to mention … Why, for the love of peas … is the third cheese section in the cereal aisle this week?

Where did they move the newspapers? They are still being printed, right?

Honestly, I think I spend at least an hour more per week grocery shopping than anyone from my parents' generation even though I rarely buy more than a meal's worth of groceries at any one time.
It's not as if I have much food at home these days. Between the lack of energy to do a “Big Shop” as we've come to call it, I browse through the kitchen cabinets every few days. Buying meat and produce as needed.

I can't believe I'm not famished by the time I reach the cashier. In fact, I can't believe people don't just set up lawn chairs in front of the beer cooler. Crack open a cold one and keep score of how many neighbors search for their favorite frozen novelties where the Pilsners have been placed this week.
At least if a person gets lost, she won't go hungry.

The worst thing in the world isn't an open bag of cookies at the check-out. It's a black head of lettuce at the back of the vegetable drawer and playing hide and seek with the lunch meat.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Red-letter days


“You can do this,” I told myself as I turned off the ignition and stared through the windshield at the low brick building straight ahead. “There's no reason to be frightened.”

But “Myself” wasn't buying it. I was volunteering in my son's second-grade class, and failure was in the air.

Teachers always intimidate me. Skillful masters of time. Always efficient, not a single moment wasted.
I'm just a mom. My kids don't even listen to me.

Slowly, I gathered my wits and headed toward the school. Might as well get this over with.

A steady stream of kindergarteners flowed past me through the front doors of the building and headed toward the play fields. Their coach, a smiley-faced man, inhaled deeply from the damp morning air and tipped his head in my direction. He recognizes my potential for cat wrangling.

That's what I told myself, anyway.

I am buzzed in, and go to the front office where a small test awaits. I must write the date and time, my name, the name of my son, the classroom I intend to visit and for what purpose. In triplicate.

Beads of perspiration start to form over my eyelids as I try to put the information on the correct lines.
Purpose of visit? I have to look at Jimmy's mom's entry from six minutes ago before I write down “Centers.”

I am grateful that she wasn't visiting for a birthday, but feel like a cheater.

I've also frittered away four of the six minutes I'd allowed as a buffer. If I got lost in the hallway now, I'd be late and the teacher would be disappointed.

Of course, she has all of my work cut out for me. … Cut out and stapled, with the important parts underlined and circled in green felt pen.

But the room was bright and filled with colorful posters. My eyes couldn't rest anywhere as every surface boiled with a host of shapes and patterns.

I raised my hand to ask a question ...

I could see the giant letter “F” circled in red looming over my head as she read from the page I held in my hands.

Turns out, I had fifteen minutes to get six kids to read a poem, answer five questions about the poem's contents and draw a picture that illustrated one point the poem had made.

Somewhere, in the fog that surrounded my brain, a buzzer sounded and my group of students started out of the gate without me.

And they're off ...Little Johnny Appleseed is reading the poem aloud … he's already on line two. Teenage Mutant Ninja Shirt is stuck on a word and is beginning to buck. Holy cow, it looks like My Little Pony Sneakers has rounded line five and is heading for the homestretch. This could be an upset, folks.

Of course, everything slows down once I catch up.

“Question One: How does the author describe fall.”

“I fell once. Skinned my knee.”

We're talking about the season, Fall. See here … look at some of the colors the author describes … 'red and yellow and brown.' …

“I have red shoes. … they're sparkly. I didn't wear them today, though.”

The minute hand on the clock races the second hand as I try to keep my herd of cats focused.

A bell rings and they scatter.

“That's a good beginning,” says the teacher and I hand over the kids' work. “Ideally, I'd like to see everyone get at least a start on the picture.”

“I'm not sure I can do this,” I confess. “I'm not a teacher.”

“Of course you can,” she says. “You're a mom.”

A mom? Yes. Why didn't I think of that?

This week if I feel overwhelmed I'll just tell the kids to go outside and play …
"Mommy needs a Time Out."