Wednesday, June 30, 2010
My dogs and I take a long walk down a nearby secluded creek trail most mornings. To find this trail you have to go down my street into a blocked-off driveway-like easement meant for use only by the local water district. You head south, and then west past the barbed-wire gate of the expansive Water District property. Didn't you always wonder why they need acres and acres of fenced-off grassy fields upon which nothing seemed to be happening?
Anyway, after passing this waste of prime space, you find a lovely dirt path running parallel to an even lovelier creek. The creek runs north to south, with some little waterfalls, a duck pond and a bigger waterfall. Someone years ago built a treehouse by that waterfall.
In the pond - which is in full barren view in winter, but hidden by reed grass in the summer, there is abundant wildlife. Ducks and geese nest and raise families there. Herons and hawks live there too. Garter Snakes, toads, squirrels and rabbits abound.
My dogs, Charlie and Sammy love this walk. they get to be off-lead here, up and down the ravines, splashing in the creek, chasing squirrels and geese and raising a fine ruckus. One day in late spring, as we walked together past the sandy footbridge, Sammy spied a creature of great interest in the middle of the path. I was a ways back and all I could see was her barking at something, sniffing and jumping back. Barking, sniffing, jumping. Charlie joined in the chorus. As I came closer, I could see what it was. A large snapping turtle had decided that this high-traffic area would make an ideal nesting area for her eggs. She sat in the scoop she had made with her back legs, bravely facing her yapping tormentors, alternately pulling her head in and poking it out for a warning snap. I know that snapping turtles can bite your hand off if they want, so I called to the dogs, waving cheese in the air as I moved away from the scene. No go. Charlie and Sammy were mesmerized, circling and barking. I got worried mama turtle would connect with a snout at some point and I would be making tournaquets out of my bra, like I had read about in a story about a man who was mauled by a bear and his wife stripped off her undergarment and saved his life.
It's interesting how whole dramatic scenarios come to you in those moments. Maybe this is where movie scripts come from. Maybe some bored commuter riding a city bus to work imagined 'Crash' during a Monday rush hour. Idk.
The dogs were fine, the turtle was finally left in peace and our walk continued. A gaggle of geese glided along the pond, oblivious to the mayhem occuring nearby. A woodpecker could be heard from a spot in the trees where a shaft of early morning light poured down from the sky like a slanted silent waterfall. I reached into my pocket and the dogs came running to me, knowing well the slight sound of ziplock baggie holding bite-sized chunks of cheddar just for them.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Dad lives alone now, in the house he bought brand new in 1955, the one I grew up in. It is small according to today's standards, where McMansions abound and computer rooms, media rooms and master suites are must-haves. It is a three bedroom, one-and-a-half bath ranch house with no finished basement, den or office space. Small enough for two, when my mom was alive, but somehow swallowing my dad in his solitude.
He really should live either with lots of help, or in an assisted living situation. He gets disoriented a bit and has hallucinations in the middle of the night. My brothers and I visit, cook meals, do his laundry and shopping, help him with his bills, take him to appointments. He has a cleaning lady once every two weeks.
My dad does NOT want to leave his house. This is not uncommon, I know. He knows every inch of his house and property. He was an electrical engineer by trade and, like many men of his generation, could fix, rewire, unclog or re-route just about anything. He can still feel his way to the circuit breaker box and the furnace.
My younger brother believes that if we insist that dad move, it will kill him. My older brother believes moving him is necessary now. I just don't know. He sits in the living room on one spot on the sofa day after day. The sofa is depressed and worn right there from all the sitting. Because he cannot see, he does not notice when his shirt is stained or his beard has sauce residue. Sometimes, when I go there, I give him a haircut and trim his beard. We both like this. It is a chance for contact - my hands on his head, his face. Dad was never demonstrative in that way. But now, as I wrap his shoulders with a towel to keep the hair off and touch his chin and cheek for a better angle, he closes his eyes and relaxes into my care.
It's a small thing - way too small. Part of me wants to wrap my arms around him from behind and stay there for many moments. But enough of me is not that brave, so I don't.
In my house, my kids - even the grown-up ones - still climb in my bed and lean on me while watching TV or talking. Random hugging is much easier here than it ever was there. How do I give my dad what he needs, what he misses and longs for? I cannot fill the gaping space my mom left. But I can do more. . .
Saturday, June 19, 2010
I grew up Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic elementary school and Catholic High School. I wore scratchy wool skirts, knee socks and saddle shoes. The skirts were supposed to reach the middle of our knees, for modesty. Since this was the sixties and the age of Mary Quant and mini-skirts, the middle-of-the-knee thing was completely unacceptable. We girls had a simple solution. Roll the skirts up at the waist until desired mini length is reached, leaving us with a bunchy middle, but great leg exposure. The principal (Sister Mary Sebastian) would appear at our classroom door randomly throughout the school week to do 'skirt check'. All the girls would have to exit the classroom and line up in the hallway. We were then told to kneel down against the wall facing out. If our skirts brushed the floor, we were safe. Any knee action going on would give us a one-way ticket to the Principal's Office, where our mothers would be called and they would have to come bail us out. This was the days before 'Harper Valley PTA'. Our mothers did not wear mini skirts, nor were they aware we created such on our own.
Some of the nuns - we were taught by the Sisters of Mercy, a teaching order - were old and crabby. We called them the Sisters of NO Mercy. Some were young and groovy. The young ones would tell stories, laugh at our jokes and sometimes come out to the schoolyard at recess, hike up their long skirts and jump rope with us. With Veils a flying and belted rosaries (as deadly as a nunchuk!) swinging, it seemed they were able to snatch a moment of childhood back for themselves.
I always wondered what they looked like underneath those crazy, restrictive black habits. Did they have hair? What did they wear to bed? Were they allowed to go swimming? And if so, did they have to swim at the 'nuns-only' beach, far from prying eyes?
The priests - there were three of them in our parish - lived in the rectory, with a maid, a cook and their own suite of rooms. They smoked and drank alcohol. They each had their own car. The youngest priest had a Pontiac LeMans convertible. And exept for sharing the weekly mass schedule and appearing at the occasional baptism, wedding or funeral, they never seemed to be very busy. I did see them walk to their cars sometimes with golf bags slung over their shoulders, however.
The nuns lived in the convent on the top floor of the school. It was communal. They each had a tiny cell for a room and shared the shopping, cleaning and cooking. They shared one old bomb of a blue station wagon that some parishioner had donated. They worked full time downstairs as teachers and were transfered every three years. This was so that they could not develop deep relationships with anybody, thereby devoting themselves entirely to God.
It was always a little unnerving seeing them in the supermarket. When you are a kid, you like to keep your worlds separate. Family and relatives here, friends over here, and teachers over there. When the worlds collided, it was so disorienting. Nuns in the toilet paper aisle? Ew! Even the thought of a nun using the bathroom was unimaginable. Feminine products? Please stop! My head is exploding!
Nuns are a dying breed (literally). Not many young women these days are interested in giving up their lives, not to mention sex forever. Many have left the convent (or as we used to say, 'kicked the habit') for more normal and free existences. Maybe some of them wear mini skirts. I hope they are still jumping rope.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
The Schramm boys lived across the street. Jackie, the oldest and most mysterious to me, Henry, my brother David's age, and Alex, who was in my grade, but not in my school, because I went to Catholic school and he did not.
This was a sorrow to me because I was in love with Alex. Never mind that we were only seven or eight or nine. To me he was THE ONE.
Actually, I was enamored of the entire Schramm family. Their father, Jack, or, 'Mr. Schramm' as I called him 'till the day he died, was a loud man, who always seemed to be yelling, at either one
of the boys or his wife, Jean. It was only partially because he was often annoyed, and partially because he was quite deaf, even as a young man. I remember him standing right in front of me, smiling at my pig-tailed little girl self and yelling,"So! Lisa-the-Tower-of-Pisa!" This was Mr. Schramm's way of communicating affection. I thought he was great.
I also loved Mrs. Schramm. Although it might have seemed that she was somewhat long-suffering, what with being married to loudmouth, and being the mother of three rambunctious boys who always broke their Christmas presents by Christmas afternoon, she had a ready smile and a sharp wit. She was not cowed by her husband, or anyone. She and I had a special bond. On most afternoons, after coming home from school, I would sit and have tea with my mother. We would chat about the day and then I would go off to my room to do whatever. But every Tuesday afternoon, my mother would lend me out to Mrs. Schramm. I would have tea with her, as her surrogate daughter, a civilised afternoon she could never enjoy with her boys. We would chat and I would pet Archie, their English Bulldog. I was in heaven. Not only was I almost a Schramm on those days, I also could imagine I had a dog too. We were never able to have one, because stupid David was allergic to EVERYTHING.
Every summer, for a couple of weeks, my family would load up the Plymouth, push its gear buttons and trek upstate to the Catskills where my grandparents owned a summer house. It was a fairly big house, uninsulated, so you couldn’t use it in the winter, in a sleepy little artist-colony town called Palenville. I loved going there, loved the house, the musty smell of the basement, the lingering smell of gas in the kitchen, the smell of the straw rug in the living room. Funny how smells conjure up vivid emotional memories so instantaneously. It’s like when we smell a familiar smell – like musty basement – we get happy for a second, even before recognizing what it is we are recalling.
For a number of years, the Schramms came to Palenville with us. We would caravan the two-and-a half-hour trip, or try to. Mr. Schramm always drove very fast, faster than my dad was comfortable with, so usually they would either beat us there by a half hour, or they would stop, buy cool boy stuff, like new pocket knives or copies of MAD Magazine, get crew cuts, or new white Keds high tops. Mr. Schramm and the boys wore
When we finally all arrived at the Palenville house, our moms unloaded groceries into the gas-smelling kitchen, the dads brought suitcases upstairs and we kids checked to see if the outside freshwater spring was running. The grass would be as high as my shoulder and we would be set to work with sickles, cutting paths to the cars, the tool shed and the spring. I loved it. Me and my brother and the three Schramm boys. It was as close to being one of them as I would ever get.
When we were all settled in, we put on our swimsuits (back then they were only called ‘bathing suits’) and walked down the road to the swimming hole, or ‘the creek’ as we called it. To get to the creek, you had to know exactly where to step off the road and into the woods, pushing aside branches and brushing through thick poison ivy. The trail would widen slightly and wind around into a clearing where the swinging bridge would appear. Now the swinging bridge was like one of those rope bridges made by African natives that dipped across enormous drops into crocodile-infested waters. To cross the swinging bridge meant bouncing and swinging and possibly falling through one of many holes made by missing floorboards. When we got to the middle, swinging and bouncing as much as possible, we would stop and synchronize ourselves into a massive side-to-side swing. Our moms were terrified every time. After the bridge, the trail continued down and down, until forest floor gave way to smooth creekbed stones. We would park our towels and belongings on a rocky outcrop and leap off the rocks into some of the coldest water I have ever been in. So clear. So cold. A little bit of heaven. The local boys, always in cutoffs, never in bathing suits, would leap off the high cliffs, flipping and chasing each other like Peter Pan’s lost boys. Only Jackie, who was a few years older than the rest of us, ever tried those cliffs. Once, a number of years later, I went back there with a group of campers I was taking care of. I actually went off that cliff then. I saw it, and I jumped. Didn’t stop to think about it. It was about a twenty foot leap, and you had to have a running start and jump OUT to avoid being smashed by the rocks jutting closer to the edge.
This one summer, with the Schramms, I brought the mask/fin/snorkel set I had bought with the Plaid Stamps I earned by doing shopping for my mom at the A&P. This set was a big deal to me and I was not sharing it with David or the Schramms, since they pretty much broke everything they touched. A man, a stranger came up to me there and asked if he could borrow my mask. I couldn’t say no to a grownup, so I handed it over. He put it on carefully and was swimming around in a kind of circle with his head down in the water. After a while, he swam over to me, thanked me for letting him use the mask, got out and, together with his family, gathered their things and began to leave. “What were you looking for?,” I asked. “My wedding ring” he sighed. “It fell off while I was swimming. I think the coldness of the water made my finger shrink.”
I took the mask back, and had a funny feeling all of a sudden. Strapping it on, I swam over to one particular spot in the middle of the creek, a spot I had seen the man swim past over and over. Looking down, I saw it. Right there next to a large rock, about eight feet down. I took a breath, dove down and came up quickly. “Hey! Wait!,” I called, seeing the man was already halfway up the trail. “I FOUND IT!” He turned, said something to his wife, and came trotting back to me. He thanked me effusively, almost tearfully and left.
I was feeling quite pleased with myself, not only because I had found the man’s ring, but because I did the heroic deed in front of the duly-impressed Schramm boys. I had proven myself. For that moment I was one of the boys. It was a beautiful thing.
Being one of the boys, however doesn’t spill over to bedtime. They all, including David, got to pile into the big iron sunken-in mattress bed wearing no shirts at all. I had to sleep on the hard cot in my parents’ room, suffering in my scratchy flowered pajama set, because I had gotten such a bad sunburn that afternoon at the creek. I could hear the boys whispering, laughing and poking on the other side of the wall. A wall that divided the boys from the non-boys. . .
I saw the Schramms infrequently after I grew up and moved away. Jackie married, had triplets and divorced. Henry married and had two daughters and a son and became a wealthy insurance agent. Alex joined the Air Force, married, divorced, married and had a son and a daughter. Mr. Schramm died of cancer in his late sixties. Mrs. Schramm came to my wedding and visited me a couple of times when I had just had one baby or other.
She came, along with Henry and Henry’s wife Pat, to my mother’s funeral last January. We hugged and cried a little. She looked frail and lost. Even so, even in that grief-stricken moment, time and distance disappeared. I sat with Henry and we reminisced about our childhood for a few minutes before it was time to leave in the limousine. “I remember Palenville,” he said with a sad smile. “It was like we were all one big family. All us boys and you. But then, as I remember it, you were really pretty much one of the boys.”
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
I grew up on Long Island. I was born in Brooklyn, where most Long Islanders are actually from. My parents bought a promise of a house in a new development after the Korean War pretty much around the time Suburbia was being invented. As with most subdivisions, the streets were all named after the builder's relatives. In my neighborhood, there was Sherman Drive, Ronald Lane, Richard Lane, Ira Road and Miller Boulevard. The builder - Mr. Miller - may have been Jewish. I don't really know. Maybe he was related to Mr. Levitt.
Our block, Sherman Drive, was a dead end. Not a cul-de-sac, mind you. A real DEAD END. No friendly circle turn around at the end, just a guardrail. There was a sign that said DEAD END. Some wise acre kid (I think it was Wayne, who we called, 'Wayne, Wayne, the big fat Pain') had carefully printed the word 'REAR' between the DEAD and the END. When you are seven, this is hilarious.
Since there was little traffic on our block, we kids often played in the street. Kickball, Stickball, SPUD, Monkey in the Middle, Touch Football.
Both girls and boys played most games, with the exceptions being Stickball and Touch Football. These manly games remained boy-only. There was one girl on my block named Patty, who was a natural athlete (she went on to play high school and college sports and to this day referees at high school field hockey games). She was so good, the boys realized they would be fools not to include her. Patty was in.
But in order to balance out the teams, one other girl was needed, or so our young senses of fair play dictated. There was Elizabeth Ann. No. She didn't like getting her nail polish chipped. Or Tracy. Tall and awkward. Marylee. A crybaby. Nancy. No. She lived on Ronald Lane and, as everyone knew, THEY were the enemy.
That left me. I was a pretty good choice. I was small and wiry and fast and not afraid of the ball. I hit fairly well and, even though I didn't own a mitt, I could catch too. So, I was in.
Much of my remembrance of that time of my life comes, not from actual memories, but from the enhanced recall that the 8 millimeter home movies my father took of us imparted. Once, after dinner, instead of playing the usual ball game, we decided to have relay races up and down the block. The hard part was that the races would be run on my little brother's John Deere Tractor and my other brother's hand-pumped go-cart. We had all outgrown these two vehicles and looked very funny and awkward on them, with knees and elbows sticking out to the sides.
This was my moment in the sun. I was still small enough to handle both vehicles smoothly. And, as I mentioned, I was wiry and fast. We have film footage of the races, where Bobby and Jackie and Henry and Alex and David are having trouble getting the go-cart to do anything but go backwards and me fiercely pumping for the win every time. Did I mention we have actual footage of this?
At one point, the boys got tired of losing and began sabotaging me on my laps. They would dart in front, or hand off the cart facing the wrong way. At one point, Bobby actually jumped ON to the front of the tractor I was pedaling and tried to brake with his big clodhopper feet. I was furious. The final footage of this delightful film reel is of me punching Bobby in the back so hard, he falls off sideways. Henry jumps in and pulls from the back. I turn around and slug him hard in the ribs. He falls off. I win and all the boys are lying on the ground. Dad, can we see this one again?
Saturday, June 12, 2010
My town is really nice. It is home to about 30,000 and can, in turn, feel like a small town or a hip urban neighborhood. There is a Main Street where parades can march and a walking path that winds around the shoreline, ending at the town dock and the Sunset Park band shell. In the summer, Sunset Park and the dock provide lots of cool things to do. There is a Farmer's Market every Saturday morning where, if you come early enough, you can get locally grown organic produce, fresh-caught fish, homemade baked things and locally harvested honey. It's not cheap, but there is always something colorful and delicious-looking to toss into your hemp grocery bag and place in the wicker basket of your beach cruiser. Folks bring their dogs and wear their birkis. The women don't color their gray hair and let it fly loose and long.
On weekend evenings, the bandshell hosts free events. Sometimes the town band (a conglomerate of professional local musicians and high school kids) plays and some nights they show a movie. You bring snacks and water bottles and sit on blankets and watch for free. Earlier tonight they played"Mamma Mia." A fun romp with catchy ABBA tunes, beautiful Greek Island scenery and attractive, energetic people. I saw the Broadway show with my three daughters a couple of years ago. I love it.
On this night, my friend, my daughter and her two friends all went. We parked, put on our sweatshirts, spread out our beach blanket and settled down to watch the setting orange sun shoot pink and purple out of its arms on both sides across the western sky. We greeted and chatted with friends and neighbors, catching up and filling in. As the dark grew darker, the movie began. Mamma Mia is basically one song after another with three or four lines of dialogue in between. We sang along. Quietly, privately at first. Then we realized others were singing along too. We sang louder. By the time "Dancing Queen" started and Meryl Streep had every woman on that Greek island singing and dancing with her, we had a fine chorus backing her up across the lawn.
The movie ended and we folded up and drove home. ABBA tunes lingered in our brains and the smell of low tide and salt water remained on our skin and in our hair.
See that girl. Watch that scene. Digging the Dancing Queen.
Monday, June 7, 2010
Even though we are living in a more 'enlightened' and 'progressive' time, I still see signs every day that male chauvenism is alive and well. I'm not so much talking about keeping women in the bedroom as opposed to the boardroom. I more talking about how men, especially men who are hired to fix your car or something in your house, behave around the women who hired them.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Domino is a dog. A black and white pit bull mix to be exact. I don't know anything about his days as a puppy or who his people were. I do know he has lived at the animal shelter in a small cement kennel for the last two years. Domino is a problem child. He is skinny and jumpy and outrageous. He doesn't listen and won't look at you when you speak to him. It's as if he is blowing you off deliberately.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
One fine warm afternoon toward the end of the week and the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, my son asked me if I wanted to jam with him on the front porch. This was in part because we are working on a few songs to sing together at the little wine bar where we both play, he on Thursdays and I on Fridays. Jamming with him is great fun, and we sound really good, if I am allowed to brag.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
It is also traditionally Confirmation Sunday, when all the eighth graders re-affirm their commitment to the church. In our Methodist church we do confirmation through a one-on-one mentoring process. Each kid is assigned an adult mentor who guides them through the lessons and (hopefully) becomes one more trusted grownup in their lives.
This year was my third year as a mentor. My girl was great - enthusiastic, thoughtful and always came to our sessions with stories and questions. The day dawned bright and warm and the five to be confirmed looked so fine in their white robes and red corsages. Two of the confirmands were first cousins, from an exceptionally close and exceptionally LARGE family. There were photos being snapped, hugs and greetings being doled out. My confirmand was an only child of a single mother. No family, no relatives at all. When each child came up to kneel before the pastor for their special blessing, their entire families are invited up to place a hand on their head in support. When the cousins went up they were surrounded by a crowd of milling, proud relatives.
I was worried for my girl. Would it just be me and her mom? It was her turn. Her name was called and she took her place on the kneeler. I stood on one side, her mom on the other. But then I looked up to see all her friends coming forward to be her 'family'. Without a word, they took their positions and placed their hands on her head.
Family is what you make it. In this instance, family made it good.