Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Home Is...

It was the first time our children, Tucker and Casey, had seen the house Dave and I were close to buying.  At ages ten and seven, our kids had lived their lives on a school campus, eating most meals in a cafeteria with other kids and their families, having the run of a gym, playground, and athletic fields, even tubing downstream when the creek became a rushing river during Hurricane Gloria.  Life was good. 

Still, this house was pretty cool.  

We’d toured the interior, and the kids had scoped out the rooms that would be theirs.  We’d stood, all four of us, in the vast fireplace that had been the heart of this home in the eighteenth century.  And then, we’d headed outside to explore the woods-encircled yard.

Dave and I studied the roof, which we knew we’d have to replace.  An unwelcome expense, but then we’d be set for the next twenty-five years.  A lifetime!  The kids raced around, checking out the barn, playhouse, old well, and the shed built around a gnarled apple tree.  

When Tuck spotted a low-hanging dogwood branch, he leapt up and grabbed it to swing.  With a startling snap, the branch split.  Tuck landed on his feet, rattled but unhurt, as Dave and I looked at each other wide-eyed.  We hadn’t bought the place yet and already we were breaking things.

Dave found a strong, straight cedar limb near the edge of the woods.  We propped the sagging branch back into position and sheepishly headed to the car. 

Twenty-seven years later, that cracked branch is still sprouting a few limp leaves come spring.  Twenty-seven years later, and we’ve re-shingled the roof again.  Twenty-seven years later, Tucker is 37, and Casey, 34: both are married, and Tucker has a son.  Both recently purchased their own homes.  It’s not like I wonder where the time has gone: so many stories, milestones, and memories have filled those twenty-seven years… Still...  Yeah.  Where has the time gone?  

The other night, the phone rang around 10:00, late for a phone call.  Luckily, I didn’t glance at the clock or I would have panicked.  An accident?  A death?   No, thank god.  It was Casey, running another load of bins and boxes from her apartment to the new house.   “Mom.  I just had a thought.  You were only a few years older than me when you bought the house in Easton.  And you already had two kids!  That is crazy pants!”

It is crazy pants.  Casey and Tucker are such grown-ups, more than I am it seems sometimes.  But it is amazing to think of all the years, all the living, all the change that has brought me from Casey’s age to 64, that has brought my kids from those scampering little ones to the wonderful adults they have become.

After bringing over four carloads of boxes on Casey and PJ’s second night in their new house, we sat on the rug on the floor (no furniture yet) in the newly painted “NYPD Blue” living room sipping celebratory Proseccos.  It was easy to conjure myself at their age, standing in our foyer when we were moving in 1990, gazing at bare walls... and our future.  My thirty-eight year old self felt an empathetic tug of nostalgia for the former owner as I pictured him standing where I was, giving a sweeping look into the empty rooms before closing the door behind him for the last time.  He had lived in the house with his wife and daughter for forty-five years.

Every so often, I broach the idea of selling our house to move into something smaller, something within walking distance to town and biking distance to a beach.  I’m trying to be practical.  A number of friends have told me, “you want to move out by the time you’re 70, when you still have the energy.”  70!  And yet, incredibly, that’s not so far off. 

I love the idea of a walking, biking life, but I wish I could take this house with me. With its porches, huge fireplace, and decrepit, finally dying, dogwood, it is home.  I don’t want to abandon it. What if someone who doesn’t appreciate its history buys it?  Someone who sees it as old, rather than venerable?  Someone who thinks it would be fine to rip up the wide-plank floors and wrench out the massive beams?  Omigod.  I can't stand to think of it.  This house is more than a building; it’s an embracing friendand we have been its charges as well as its stewards.  Over its 235 years, it has been infused with spirit: ours, those who have gone before us, its own.  Fact is, it actually is home to some spirits, but that’s another story.

 For now, moving is off the table. Last time I mentioned the idea to Dave, he shook his head and said, “Have to tell you, Lea, I can’t see myself leaving this house anytime soon.  I’m only leaving this place in a box.”  Oh.  That’s pretty clear.  Good.  I can settle in, love my house, and for now, not worry about being practical.  This house is perfect for visits from grandchildren, the perfect place for grandchildren to remember

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Finding Art

What might the artist’s message be?  What was he trying to say?  Thumbtacks secured a length of string reaching from the floor to the wall and Carey pondered the installation with concern.  All she could get from it was, well, office supplies.  Was she really that shallow?  Sigh.  The eyeball projected on a glass ball was equally bemusing.  But wait.  What is this?  She spotted a series of ridged gills emanating a stream of air.  Inhalation and exhalation.  Breath!  The sustenance of life!  She glanced about, smiling with satisfaction, eager to share her insight with some other patron.  

Something held her back though, and she studied the oeuvre more closely.  Hmm.  Ah.  Upon closer review she realized the structure was… an air vent.  Oops.

What is art?  Centuries ago, it was defined and regulated by the church.  Artists worked their craft in light and shadow, color, portraiture, movement, and emotion through religious themes. I’ve wandered wearily through the galleries of the Uffizi and Accademia in Florence glazing over at one Annunciation, Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection after another… and don’t get me started on the torments of the saints.  Agony… for everyone involved.

With a little inner remonstrance to pull myself together, I’ve sought to get past the themes and focus on the paintings’ elements: depictions of village life, building interiors, fashion, and drapery; the extraordinary skill in realistic representation; the emotion conveyed with paint on canvas.   While I prefer Hudson River landscapes, I recognize artistic skill and beauty.  Go back a few centuries and the “what is art?” question is unnecessary. 

It’s the use of feces as a medium that really throws me.

But I do understand that art can inform and provoke.  On a recent trip to The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL, Dave and I were transfixed by a series of photographs taken at an African diamond mine. Laden with ponderous sacks, black laborers, so numerous that any identity was obscured, waited in line to scale rickety wooden ladders up a cliff. Startling in his unblemished shirt and arrogant whiteness, an overseer stood with his clipboard amid the sea of sweating, over-burdened workers.

It was a grueling scene and underscored how little I know of exploitation, how supremely fortunate I am in my life.

As Dave and I continued on toward the Monda Gallery, a mother and young daughter emerged.  The child spun, skipped, and bubbled with excitement.  “That was SO much fun!” she said.

“I knew you’d like it!” her mom replied.

Fun? I was still haunted by the diamond mine, and fun sounded good.

We entered a dimly lit, lofty room hung floor to ceiling with ribbons, thousands and thousands of multi-colored ribbons, a sea of swaying stained glass.  Soft classical music and birdsong conveyed a sense of cathedral quiet and deep forest, yet all who entered added their own melody of pure joy and discovery. 

Small children whirled in giddy circles shrieking with laughter.  Teenagers chattered and took pictures with their phones.  Others walked slowly in a moving meditation, the ribbons parting and falling gently into place as they passed through. 

Smiling as ribbons slid over my face and skin like a breeze, I held out my arms to let the ribbons flow from them like waterfalls.  Every movement was novel, a personal creation of sound, color, dance, and joy.

What is art?  It’s still an open question, but I found it in “Pathless Woods.”  

Note: Anne Patterson, the creator of “Pathless Woods,” has synesthesia, a condition that causes sensory perceptions to overlap; when she hears sound, she sees color.  In this installation, the artist helps participants experience that same merge as they create their own path through 8472 ribbons - the equivalent of 25.6 miles – cut into 16’ lengths.  If it comes to a museum near you, GO!  

Friday, June 30, 2017

Expressway to Revolution

Perhaps it’s the popularity of the Broadway show “Hamilton,” or whispers from the spirits slipping unseen through our 1780’s house. Or… maybe it’s my despair at the frailty of the Constitution’s checks and balances in fending off the maelstrom of policies of an administration of aging white men unconcerned about the morale of the country or the health of the planet.  Yeah.  That might be it.  Whatever the causes, lately I have fled to history and the refuge of events resolved. Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Lincoln have been my between-the-pages companions.

So, when I learned that a Museum of the American Revolution had opened in Philadelphia, I was eager to visit.  While home with my mother, I asked if she’d be willing to check it out with me.  Trudging brightly lighted galleries flanked with glass cases can tire anyone, and I know Mom’s not a fan of lengthy excursions, but she must have detected the plea in my voice, and trooper that she is, she agreed.

She held her concerns about hiking those halls to herself, and I kept quiet about my own worry:  city driving.  My experiences behind the wheel in big cities are limited, and have occurred only under duress.  The first, 24 years ago, was when my friend Carey was in the hospital in NYC for an emergency operation.  I was navigating those New York streets pretty well, feeling a little cocky, in fact, as I maneuvered my car, flinching only slightly at honking horns and aggressive drivers.  When I neared the hospital, I thought I had it nailed.  Confidently, I took a left turn… onto a one–way street.  OMG!!!  Cars were coming straight at me!  There was no place to go but the sidewalk!  Yes!  The sidewalk!  And that’s what I did!  Like some crazy cabbie told “Follow that car!” I cut the wheel and did a U-Turn… onto the sidewalk!  Good lord.  You understand my current reluctance…

But this was a trade-off:  a morning hike through the museum for my mom, and Lea as chauffeur through the narrow streets of Philadelphia.

Both WAZE and MOM were my guides.  We wanted to beat the tourist crowds at the museum and so, headed in just after rush hour.  The Schuylkill Expressway is a beautiful route along the river, but traffic-wise, it is no treat no matter the time.  I programmed the GPS to help us once we needed it, but we took back roads for as long as possible.  Unaware of our plan, the WAZE lady with her calm, authoritative British voice tried to convince us to take the Expressway… and Mom contradicted her every direction.

“Go left,” said the WAZE lady.

“Not yet,” said Mom.  “Go straight.”

“Go left,” said the WAZE lady.

“No,” said Mom.  “I think you’ll want the second light up ahead.”

“This one?”

“No.  Not yet.”

“Go left,” urged the WAZE lady.

I felt like an eager, over-anxious schoolgirl perched well forward in my seat, both hands gripping the wheel, posture erect, hoping to please everyone, but given those competing commands, unable to.

Once we reached “town,” as my parents call Philadelphia, we gave WAZE lady the lead. I thought I discerned a smug satisfaction in her tone as she led us unerringly to a parking lot a block from the museum.  “You have reached your destination!” she announced.

With the help of my two guides, I safely delivered us to the heart of early America, so my burden was lifted.  Mom’s museum march still lay ahead. 

We walked down a lane flanked by centuries-old brick buildings.  I noted an inviting tavern and filed it away as a future possibility. Several blocks ahead, I spied Independence Hall and, having not crossed its threshold since a field trip in fifth grade, felt a tug of yearning.  That stop, and the tavern, would have to wait. 

Acquiring our entrance tickets had been another minor challenge.  For years, I had taken pride in being one of the last people on the planet to carry a flip phone and gave in only when my grandson was born.  With its text, phone, GPS, and photo components, my iPhone has opened a new world.  I had no need for its other fancy capabilities, thank you very much, until it was suggested that museum tickets be purchased in advance. The day before our visit, therefore, I called Dave in Connecticut and he talked me through the process using Safari and Google. Neophyte that I was, I was wary, and as it turned out, rightly so. 

While the Viator ticket site assured me, “Your booking is paid for and confirmed,” no voucher appeared when I tapped “View Voucher,” nor when I checked my emails. After several convivial chats with Ella at the museum, Tamara at Visa, and Sarah at Viator, I was assured two tickets would be waiting for us at the will-call desk.  And Alleluia, they were.  Another potential problem overcome.

Tickets clutched tight, we turned to see a stately, but formidable, twisting staircase to the second floor galleries.  “There has to be an elevator, Mom.  There are people in wheelchairs waiting in line.”

“I know, but this will be fine.”  At 85, few things daunt my silver-haired mother, and when they do, she’s determined to best the circumstances.  She took hold of the bannister and, resolute, climbed right up. 

I loved the museum.  Open only a month, the exhibits were a mix of traditional glass cases, three-dimensional vignettes, and interactive digital screens. I could imagine the excited volley of ideas in the brainstorming sessions that led to an entire room dominated by a full-size privateer ship, available for bow to stern clambering; a movie immersion in the Battle of Brandywine where smoke and the smell of sulfur filtered into the room as we “charged” through tall grasses with a battalion; wall-sized time-lines on which the touch of a finger to an event or document generated a blow-up and history of that item; and two real stuffed horses, mounted by British dragoons, frozen in their race.  Dramatic as it was, several visitors wondered aloud how those horses died.  A nice lady assured us that the horses lived a full life on a lovely farm and died a natural death.  Mom and I would have liked to know their names.

Slavery, the “peculiar institution” that Lincoln abolished and that troubled our Founding Fathers’ consciences (clearly, not enough) was highlighted throughout, more than I expected given the usual coverage of the Revolutionary period. The historians who planned this museum wished visitors to contemplate the enigma of those who fought for their own equality and unalienable rights while holding others’ enslaved.

One of the interactive screens provided images of a number of historic people and events and asked viewers to consider “What would you do?”  In one case, Eve, a slave for the wealthy Randolph family of Williamsburg, feared her son George would be sold, so mother and son fled to the British lines in search of the freedom they promised. They arrived to find the British camp infested with smallpox.  Eve was confronted with a terrible choice: stay and chance disease, or return to the Randolphs where punishment, enslavement, and the possible sale of her boy awaited. 

What would you do?

I stood before the lighted panel and pondered.  I‘d learned about Eve when Dave and I visited Williamsburg two years ago.  I tried to conjure this flesh-and-blood woman whose life was unpredictable and beyond her control.  I thought about being owned… owned by a master who could sell my son.  Eve was so respected in the Randolph household that she carried the keys to almost every lock in the house, but she could be sold like a bureau or table if the master wished. I pushed the button marked “Stay in the British camp.”

In a flash, the screen told me my choice matched Eve’s.  But the British lost the Battle of Yorktown… and Eve was returned to slavery.

Several years ago, the Fairfield Museum hosted a traveling exhibit about Abraham Lincoln.  A pen used by the Great Emancipator to sign the document that freed the slaves was in a lighted glass case, low to the ground.  In awe, I sank tearfully to my knees – again, the case was low, but still, the actual pen once held by that extraordinary man and employed to such purpose?  Praise God and thank you, Mr. Lincoln. I respect General Washington, and enjoyed seeing his blue sash, leather duffle, and war tent, but Lincoln holds my heart. 

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote of equality, rights, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while owning his fellow humans.  Just shy of 100 years later, Lincoln took a step toward upholding those assertions.  To this day, we falter in living them.  The Revolution is behind us, its principles touted and enshrined, but abroad and at home, Americans continue to fight.  Peace, respect, tolerance, and compassion are sacrificed because of distrust… oh, and for oil, money, and power. I ache at our willingness to kill and be killed for such things.

Mom had marched ahead of me, her hike complete, and was waiting on a bench in the hall. As I exited the final gallery to meet her, I passed through a wall of mirrors with a sweeping sign in large gold letters:  MEET THE FUTURE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION.  The founders wrote often of their responsibility to posterity; we must give more thought to the generations ahead whose well-being depends so fully on what we do now.

Or, what will they have to say of us?


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Soooo Much Fun, But Be Careful!

Friday’s deluge left satisfying slicks on the balcony that runs the length of Tucker and Lisa’s house.  Once the rain stopped, and the charms of building block towers, scaling stairs, and reading books have been exhausted, Dave and I release our small grandson to jump and march in the balcony’s puddles.

Careful! The word and warning circle in my head, and I strive to stifle it as Paul gleefully scampers the length of the balcony and dances in the pools.  Fun!  The squishing, the flailing, the drumming, and splashing.  The thrilling surprise of a little slip and a slide!  Careful!  Oh, it’s hard to contain it, and I sense Dave’s eyes rolling at my worries.  And then, oops! Paul goes down, his feet whipping out from under him.  He lies in the puddle, eyebrows furrowed, and whimpers.  A brave, little question of a whimper.

“You’re fine! “ we assure him with exaggerated heartiness as we set him on his feet… and off he goes!  It would take far more to squelch this little guy’s high spirits.

Eventually he tires of the wetness and running, or maybe we are the ones who tire first?  Anyway, we head inside, but the good times are not over.  Dave readies a bath with just-right-warm water and spells out “Paul Sylvestro” in yellow-red-green letters, vibrant against the white porcelain of the tub.  A waterproof book, rubber ducky, and small Rubbermaid bowl float in readiness.  Who wouldn’t want to dive in?

Getting clean is barely a consideration as Dave and I whoop, holler, and applaud as water flies.  In a high-pitched trill, with more than a hint of Julia Childs, Dave initiates a tale, “It was a lovely day in a calm little pond, and the fish were enjoying a quiet swim, when suddenly there was… A TSUNAMI!”  What splashing and waves and giggles ensue!  It requires one demo only for Paul to embrace the game, and he waits expectantly, a small smile playing at the corner of his lips, as Dave prattles about the pond…and then… TSUNAMI!

And oh, the fascination of a sinuous, crystalline thread poured from the Rubbermaid bowl. Paul’s eyes sparkle as he lifts both arms, angling his hands this way and that, opening and closing his fingers around that elusive, shimmering thread.  And when I pour A WATERFALLLLLLL (for Dave and I intone this with as much volume as the TSUNAMI!) over his head, Paul sobers a moment, blinking his eyes clear.  He wonders if this is unpleasant or delightful, then warms to the idea, dousing himself repeatedly, unconcerned, by then, about water in his eyes and nose. 

“Look at that,” says Dave as Paul lifts the bowl, having assumed the role of overhead-waterfall-god himself. “He’s figured out how to aim the stream even though he can’t see it.”  For as much as Paul is fascinated by every piece of lint on the rug, every twig in the grass, every sound we squawk, so are we fascinated by this boy and his quick grasp of things new.   

When the water grows tepid, we lift this perfect, precious, slippery, little soul from the tub and wrap him in a cozy, froggy, green towel.  Who’s that cute boy? We ask, as we peer into the mirror.  You’re all green! Are you a frog?  What a joyous respite from adult cares this is for us, to dwell with Paul in a world of primary colors, Pat the Bunny, TSUNAMIs, tiny sneakers, and frog towels! 

Once he’s dressed and had his snack of Cheerios, blueberries, cheese, and yogurt treats, Paul squats on his haunches and flips the silver catch on Dave’s guitar case.  Flips, flips, and flips.  Flips, flips, and flips.  Such focus!  Such study! What is he thinking?  What is he learning as that chubby, index finger persists in flipping; as he hears the click of metal against metal; as he sees the light shift and change as the catch moves?

And if home and tub contain wonders aplenty, a walk to the park holds a surfeit of splendors.  Paul discovers acorn caps pressed into the soil, filthy but intriguing, definitely worth digging up.  And look!  Oh Paul, look!  A squirrel!  Do you see him? See his bushy tail?  Or, do you hear that sound?  It’s a bird.  Can you say bird?  And passing by on the road: a bus!  Look!  A bus!  And I break into song, The wheels on the bus go round and round… Every passing vehicle, every creeping creature, every flowering plant seems a fortuitous offering, an opportunity for learning and joy.  What a gift to re-open to the world’s small miracles oneself, when walking about with a little one. 

“Look, Paul!” says Dave, slowing his gait to one weak and wobbly, and holding a curved stick in his hand.  He totters along muttering in a creaky voice, “I’m just an old man leaning on my cane.” Paul is mildly amused, and he likes the look of that stick.  While still too young to see a gun there, thank god, he senses its value and picks one up. How natural, so boyish, but of course, I worry.  What if he stumbles and pokes out an eye?  I want to deliver this child intact to his parents, and my habitual risk-avoidance antennae are on full alert.

For this weekend is an experiment.  For the first time since Paul’s birth, Tucker and Lisa have stolen away to relax and refresh, leaving their boy in our care. And I feel the full blessing and responsibility of that trust.  So, on our way back to the house, like a guardian crone, I hunch over my grandson, holding his hood so he won’t face-plant on the sidewalk.  I’m sure Dave’s shaking his head at my hyper-vigilance as he strolls beside us, pointing out leaves, car tires, violets, and tulips.

Once back inside, Paul races to the sliding doors that open onto the balcony: he’s ready for more puddle fun.  But, the sun has been out and doing its work, drying. The boy’s face is a study as he trots to the balcony’s end, turns in a bemused circle, tries out a little dance, and bends down for a closer look.  Where did the water go?

Without the rain carpet, I tune into the possibility of splinters, so no more barefoot frolics.  Sigh.  Another carefree joy stolen by an adult. Dave says nothing, but I imagine he’s biting his tongue as I take Paul in my lap and tug on his socks and blue sneakers.  So stoic my Dave in holding back comment. So stoic, his Lea, in limiting, as best I can, my knee-jerk cautions about playing ball in the house, about the size of bites of food cut for Paul, about running on sidewalks and balconies.   

And between the three of us, the experiment’s a success!  Tucker and Lisa return beaming from their time away together, and we hand into their waiting arms their son, happy and whole.

Well, almost.  A half-hour before their arrival – despite constant attention and old crone hunching – Paul swiped at the balcony floor and got a stitching of splinters!