Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saving grace

Growing up, my family sat around the Thanksgiving table, bowed our heads and said grace:

Bless us Oh Lord

and these thy gifts …

Which we are about to receive

through thy bounty …

Through Christ, Our Lord


We never rushed through it to get to the meat. No one ever really seemed to pay attention, either.

Unless my uncle was visiting.

On those occasions, he would have the honor of leading the prayer, and he would lead as if the whole thing were a single, meandering word set apart by taking the lord's name in vein:

BlessUsOLordandthesethygiftswhichweareabouttoreceivethroughthybountythrough JESUS! CHRIST! ourlordAmen. Someone, gimme the bird!

I loved my uncle. Bespectacled and bearded, he was a hippy and a mystery. Above all, he had swagger.

And boy, did he have stories. The way he told them, you couldn't help but to believe.

He had spent most of his 20s playing golf pros for cash until the greens were white with snow, and then he'd hustle pool for the rest of the winter.

At least that's how he claimed to have made his living up until he graduated college and began teaching juvenile delinquents how to type.

He had just the right amount of nonchalance.

Everything about him was irreverent.

The conversation over dinner was always preposterous. She'd just listen as he cracked wise. He'd laugh and drink milk. Tell us sweets were poison, and that he never ate them … and then polish off two huge pieces of Mom's special cheesecake.

And of course, my devout and reverent mother, loved him fiercely.

It seems odd, somehow, that we didn't make more of the ceremony of those occasions. The saying of grace.

It may have been a jumble of words to us, but to her the words had profound meaning.

My mother just closed her eyes, determinedly oblivious to those among us who would put all the emphasis in the wrong places or snitch bites from our quickly cooling plates.

I don't remember any other tradition. We never went around the table to talk about that for which we were thankful.

Being thankful, was something you kept to yourself. Like a superstition. Wouldn't want to jinx it.

Is it strange to wake up the day after Thanksgiving and realize you and the nine or 10 guests who sat across a table from one another never once shared in conversation the things for which we are thankful?

Is it horrible that we never took the time to reflect on what it was that got us to this place?




Good or bad?


For a moment I felt a twinge of guilt ... as if the failure to verbally examine gratitude made me as callous as if I'd spent the last Thursday in November greedily shopping for things I would never be thankful for.

It didn't last long. I know what I am grateful for and for whom, and trying to put those thoughts into words doesn't give them any more weight.

I am grateful for everyone who has ever made me laugh ...

or smile ...

or feel like a part of something more than just myself.

And yet, perhaps more surprisingly, I'm just as grateful for everyone who has ever made me irritated or anxious or feel at loose ends. For all the things that have frightened me. Saddened me. Made me think about the world and all the parts of it I can't control.

As I sit there, looking at my family, I feel thankful that we have this complicated history. I am thankful for unspoken acceptance.

And I know if I cleared my throat to make a speech about gratitude, it would seem more awkward than silence.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Cat fight

What was I thinking? Bringing two cats to the veterinarian at the same ...

Don't answer that. There was no time for that question … 

I was late and there was a problem.

No sooner had I stuffed the winter-widened mound of aged feline into one soft-sided carrier, than the wiry, wiggling strand of kitten flesh had nudged her way out of another.

I followed the scamper of little feet down the hall and under the corner cabinet.

Darn it all to heck!

Of course, I didn't mince words.

I didn't have time. I had to haul a caterwauling kitten out from under a china cabinet, stuff her into a make-shift cat carrier and schlep her into the car. Careful to place her far away from the growling cat who has, thus far, been her nemesis.

But I was getting ahead of myself. First things first.

I patted the floor underneath the cabinet, and, to my surprise, out she came, covered in fluff and dust bunnies.

Got ya!

A five-minute car ride later – a ride filled with the howls and growls of my two, non-traveling companions – we arrived at the veterinarian's office.

I struggle up the stairs with my lopsided luggage. Ariel, the canned ham of a cat, weighing down one bag, while Mittens, superfly kitten, floated around in another.

They were all waiting for me ...

The vet. The technicians. Even the office pet, a paraplegic cat that goes by the name of “Hope.”

“Go right into Exam Room One,” said the smiling woman, flapping the wings of a crisp, new manilla folder. “Mittens is the new one, right?” she asked as she stole a peek into the bag hoping to catch some of the magic that we believe encircles all baby animals.

“What a sweetie,” she exclaimed.

“Oh … you just wait. …” I sneered under my breath. “She had us fooled, too.”

Hope had heard me. As she quickly dragged herself in the other direction, I could tell she knew what mayhem I carried under each arm.

It wouldn't be long before the tiny terror was unleashed.

“I'll take Mittens,” said the nice lady, grasping the handles of the bag and whisking the kitten away to the lab located just behind a Levolor door. I put Ariel's bag on the stainless exam table, unzipped it, and waited.

A long hiss came from behind the door, followed by a deep, wet roar that went on for longer than a natural breath. And again. And again. Ariel and I both stiffened at the sound of it.

I couldn't picture our tiny cat making a noise that big.

There was scuffling and the low murmur of voices. I held my breath. Ariel's ears pricked forward. I could hear the team regrouping.

Even bigger cat noises followed.

Then silence.

The door opened and our tiny kitten was marched in at arm's length by the scruff of her neck.

“She's a firecracker this one,” said the woman at the end of the cat, miraculously still smiling. “Though, I think you might consider changing kitten's name from Mittens to Boxing Glove.”

“She is a firecracker,” echoed the vet, stepping into the room, bearing good news. “Everything's negative.”

The doctor even downplayed the attempted disembowelment we had overheard from the other side of the door.

“There is an age where young cats can be feisty,” he explained with patented calm. “We might have just gotten her right at that age,” he adds with a shrug.

Ariel started to growl as the woman approached the table with the kitten, who was wide-eyed but now purring.

“Don't worry, Ariel. It's all over. Your friend is fine,” said the woman soothingly.

“I'm not sure she was worried about the kitten ... My guess is Ariel was rooting for the Vet.”

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.


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.