Monday, June 30, 2008

Straightening My Underwear Drawer

By the end of this sunny day, the forsythia spikes in the yard may burst full yellow against blue sky. Frogs and birds clamor from swamp and swaying limb, calling, “Come forth and walk or weed whack!”

Eventually, I will.

For now, however, I am sequestered inside. Last night I made the mistake of trying to locate a specific necklace to wear to a friend’s home for dinner. This resulted in a frenzy of flinging, an eruption of socks, undies and camisoles while plumbing the depths of my underwear drawer in pursuit of my gray-bead necklace. I found it, but now my bedroom is strewn with the detritus of the search, leaving me no choice but to purge.

Although it is probably the first place your average robber would rummage, my underwear drawer holds my most precious possessions.

The robber would be disappointed.

My favorite costume jewelry - spangled silver drops, a bounty of bangles, beaded earrings – are cleverly hidden (shhhhh) beneath my bikinis. Two clay pennants, gaily splotched with pastel glaze, are etched “To Mom” by my long-ago kindergartners. Rusting “Clinton/Gore ’96” campaign buttons and bumper stickers are jumbled among miniature Disney figures, Barbie dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids and stockings.

My underwear is balled and squished, barely given space in this drawer that bears its name.

I keep important papers here as well - greeting cards from Dave, my kids, and Mom and Dad. I love the handwriting, so reminiscent of the authors: ill-formed, awkward little kids’ scrawlings, Dave’s hurried script, Dad’s illegible letters, Mom’s cheerful, looping, penmanship. I’ve saved these samples to call up the writers once they are grown up or gone.

Tearfully I peruse a collection of poems and hymns, suggestions I’ve clipped together “For My Funeral.” I’ll remind the kids to check my underwear drawer when it’s time, anticipating their saying, “Mom! Don’t even talk about it!”

I flip through envelopes of mis-matched photographs - pictures of my grandmother, Byeo, hugging my six-year-old Mom, a blurry shot of toddler Casey dressed as a bride, and Tucker at five, grinning at the prospect of breakfast served in bed as a special treat. My senior-year picture occupies an envelope along with Dave's, Casey’s and Tucker’s. All four of us, our adolescent skin air-brushed to perfection, smile formally - so much younger! A muddle of memories mixed up with my stockings and socks.

There are jury notices, passbooks from banks that have closed, and IRS envelopes, some from ’94 and ’95. I have organized this drawer before, but apparently not very well.

I make separate piles on the floor: formal papers, letters, cards, toys, jewelry and, oh yes, underwear. The wastebasket overflows; the drawer is now neat and self-contained. It slides in and out of the bureau unimpeded, the battle to control errant undergarments won.

The space allotted for each component remains constant: a layer of little dolls, clay pendants and campaign buttons on the bottom, socks and underwear piled neatly on top, to the left side. A box of bangles and earrings is tucked in one corner, and my abbreviated life file - pictures, poems, papers, letters and memos – spans from the middle of the drawer to the right.

I trot outside to the garbage bin and shake the wastebasket, upside down. A flurry of faded snapshots, outdated notices and cast-off knick-knacks tumble like blown dandelion weed. I re-think a few items and snatch them back, then turn to admire the forsythia.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Girl Wars - A Confession

It was a gentle spring day as we gathered in the school courtyard for lunch, a gang of fresh-faced girls with ponytails bound by bulky yarns of pink and green. While the regulation green tunic each of us wore draped my scrawny body like a pleated sack, other girls were already curvaceous. My hemline ended, as required, just above knobby knees; other girls were daring, cheating on inches, their skirts brushing mid-thigh. The braces on my teeth had not yet completed their work; other girls smiled widely with straight, white teeth.

We were in eighth grade, old enough to know better.

Metal lunchboxes opened with a grinding squeak; brown bags rustled in unfolding. After I checked between the slices of Wonder Bread in their wax paper nest, I traded my bologna sandwich for Gay Smith’s tuna. I loved the way her mother made the salad, adding a dollop of ketchup to the mixture of fish and mayonnaise.

We chatted companionably and ate.

Sarah, a petite blond - curvaceous, short-skirted and wide-smiling - held out a small wax bag and offered a cookie. “Help yourself,” she said, leaning closer. In remembering, I imagine a glint in her eyes, a malevolent twist to that grin, but I returned her smile gratefully and reached into the bag, pulling back in revulsion when my fingers touched soft, yielding feathers.

Who would’ve thought a dead sparrow so frightening?

Borne by one friend or another, that poor bird with its lolling head and frozen claws pursued me throughout the afternoon. I put on a gratifying show, shrieking when the floppy carcass stared bleakly from my desk at study hall, and screaming when it was dropped on my head as I sought refuge behind a door.

I shudder to think of it even now.

As if my response to the bird wasn’t entertaining enough, the next day I heard rumors that my best friend was hunting me, harboring a dead squirrel in her bookbag. When we sat, side by side, in her mother’s car on the way home from school, she laughed when I asked about the squirrel. She set the bag on her lap and stuck her head inside. “Would I do this if there was a dead squirrel in here?”

Of course, I believed her.

Before turning into my driveway, she asked If I’d fetch her math book from the bag that now rested on the floor between us. Thinking nothing of it, I bent to comply. Again, my hand brushed the bristly fur of something dead.

What was I, some kind of idiot?

Oh, and I haven’t yet mentioned that in addition to the squirrel and the bird, no one but my best friend was speaking to me. This was a war, randomly declared. One of the popular girls, those with straight teeth and short skirts, would select some unfortunate from the lower ranks and a war would commence, for three to four days. Needless to say, once the ceasefire-on-Lea was called, I never wanted to be on the receiving end again. You would like to think – I would like to think - that having felt those barbs, I would have spared others that pain.

But it didn’t work that way.

Mid-way through the year, a new girl joined our class. Ruth had shoulder-length, mousey brown hair. She smiled a lot and was eager to please. No official war declarations had gone out as yet, but she was new, so it was a given.

A few weeks after Ruth joined our class, we bounced along in the bus on our way to “The Farm,” home to the school’s athletic fields. Every girl wore a white blouse and green tunic. Every girl was armed with a hockey stick. I was flush with relief at release from pariah-hood. I, too, was eager to please.

Over the engine’s rumble, over the clack of wooden sticks, came a chant from the front of the bus. “We hate her! We hate her!” Bubbling chatter quieted as it grew, the chorus swelling louder as it rolled toward the back, gaining strength with each row of seats. Gleefully, (It was not about me!) I sang along. Spiteful. Exuberant. “We hate her! We hate her!” I knew the war-on-Ruth had begun.

She was sitting next to me, her tremulous voice parroting the wretched refrain. I turned to her and touched her arm. She was startled, pleased at being acknowledged. “Do you know who we’re talking about?” I said.

As I remember the moment, a hush descends at my question, though I imagine our exchange went unnoticed. She hesitated, her shoulders caving as she whispered, “Me.”

I wish I could tell her I’m sorry.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

More Than Waiting

It is baseball season and the Red Sox are doing well. My husband’s hand reaches automatically for the phone to call his Dad to hoot about wins or grouse over bad plays. It hurts that his father, Colombo, is not there to take the call. Dave phones our son, Tucker, or Colombo’s ninety-year old sister, Cam, and they hoot and grouse together, and it’s a good substitute. It is. A good substitute. But it’s not his dad.

Throughout Dave’s life, spring has meant playing catch, shagging flies, being coached by his father. We are glad that his father is free. We feel only joy for him. But as the Sox return to Fenway and little kids head outside with their mitts and balls, we miss him.

Two and a half years ago, Colombo’s second stroke necessitated a move to a nursing home. It was a painful phase for us, and excruciating for him. The amazing thing is, we adjusted. We rolled it into our lives. And we learned a few things.

Certainly, the jolt of stepping from the world of active living into a world of awaiting life’s end was nightmarish at first. The helplessness. The sadness. The smells of disinfectant, brown gravy, and soiled laundry. Those smells stayed in my nose as I left the building, as I walked the parking lot, as I drove away. But I came to understand that was all surface stuff,

For Colombo, his initial horror at a fuzzy mind and imprisonment in a body that didn’t work melted into brave acceptance as he waited. For my husband and me, insight and connections came through the waiting.

The healthcare workers relieved us of the most intimate aspects of Colombo’s care. For that, we will always be grateful. There was Michelle, the R.N., and Ted, who buffed the floors, as well as Monica, Raymonde, Marlena and Dorotea. Keith, a handsome Jamaican, was Colombo’s primary attendant. He was unable to be with his own father when he passed away in Jamaica a year ago, “But I can do for Colombo. In him, I see my father.” As Colombo grew increasingly unresponsive, there were times when I had to work to see the man I had known in this hollow-cheeked shell (his spirit packing up, getting ready to fly), but Keith never lost sight of the man struggling inside.

Cynthia was another healthcare worker who brightened our nursing home stay. She shared pictures of her daughter’s wedding, introduced us to Jamaican ginger wine and hugged us during hard times.

It fell to us to sculpt our roles. I wanted to be helpful. I wanted to comfort. But I, who had all the stuff and people and places of my busy days as fodder, was at a loss for things to say when visiting my father-in-law. I tried to plan my visits for mealtimes; the partitioned Dentyne-colored dish surrounded by a cluster of eager little cartons and bowls - protein shakes, milk, soup, dessert and tea – provided a whole tray of fuel for discussion. And in feeding him, I was doing something. At times Colombo would purse his lips, refusing to eat the pureed glop that could be pork or chicken or potatoes or rice. Keith would stop in and encourage him, “C’mon Poppy, eat your supper!” And often, it worked.

Colombo grew up in Worcester, the youngest son in a traditional Italian family. He was raised on pasta and fresh vegetables from his father’s garden. When his mother died, his sister, Cam, took over the kitchen. Even though Colombo complained about overcooked noodles, or excess lemon in the salad dressing, he loved Cam’s slow-cooked sauces and the flavors of fried eggplant, stuffed peppers and baccala. Resignation to his lack of choice even in the foods he ate must have been a painful surrender. At times his courage hurt me like a wound.

At the nursing home, Dave always announced himself with a sharp knock on his father’s door – a rappety-rap-rap with his knuckles. Healthcare workers and residents along the hallway knew when Dave had arrived. The sharp sound stood out against the slow, predictable flow of the days. He had no need of food diversions. He would chatter about the Red Sox, or the Patriots or the Celtics as the seasons ran their course. He would drum up memories of old family vacations, friends or business associates. He’d prepare evening cocktails of orange and cranberry juice, asking, “How about a madras, Colombo?
I went light on the vodka.” They’d clink plastic cups with a cheery “Cent’ ans!”

While watching whatever game was on, Dave worked to incite his father to a good hoot or grouse He seized on any response - a grunt, a hand gesture, or the occasional lucid remark - and dressed it up to full-fledged conversation status. Dave had faith that his father was alert, albeit adrift, inside this shrunken husk, and it was Dave’s mission to provide the tow-rope that might lead him to shore.

When we visited Colombo, the bustling hum of the world beyond the nursing home walls was muffled. We came to appreciate the sense of suspension away from that hum. This community was separate, going about the business of waiting-for-the-end. It was life pared down to a room, or half a room, bathing, meals, and the occasional concert or craft project. We’d hear whispers of the past lives of Mrs. McKee in Room 11 or Mr. Watkins in 512 – a famous writer, CEO, or decorated war veteran. Who could tell, in glancing through open doorways at this frail, white-haired fellow or that elegant, hawk-nosed lady, which was which? It no longer mattered. The trappings of those lives had been shed. The defining particulars of appearance, affiliations, responsibilities and possessions were gone, tossed aside like the guy wires anchoring a balloon to earth. Some nursing home residents became bare skin and bones, lightened of their loads as they waited to fly free.

For Colombo, the waiting came to an end in February. He left behind an empty scrap where the feisty golfer and veteran had been. It filled my heart to picture him kicking off that used-up body as easily as a pair of thread-bare khakis, then strutting off across a heavenly golf course of emerald green to meet up with his brothers, Jack and Phil.

Dave and I missed our friends at the nursing home, so we went to visit. Keith was leaving a patient’s room, a dinner tray in his hands, when we encountered him in the hall. His eyes softened at seeing us. He said, “After Colombo passed on and you cleaned out his room, I found a picture you left behind. I have it at home. I see it and think, ‘There is my pal.’ I still miss him.”

Cynthia was on duty too. “Ah, we miss you! We miss hearing Dave’s knock.” She tapped it out on the wall next to her, a good imitation of Dave’s rappety-rap-rap. “Your coming today makes me think of Jesus and the lepers.” With my smile in place, I raised a mental eyebrow, wondering where we would fit into this story of lepers.

“Many people come here – their parents come here. They are angry, or scared, about what has happened. We care for their people, but they put that anger on us, no matter how kind we are. When Jesus cured ten lepers, only one came to thank him. I knew you would come back. You are the tenth leper.”

We hug her. We hug Keith. We hug Michelle and Marlena. How were we so lucky to have Colombo in their care?

But, it is baseball season, and Dave misses his father. Colombo has a prime seat now of course, but Dave wants him here, to hoot and grouse about plays.

A few weeks ago, Dave dreamed about his dad. While driving to work the next day, he passed a car with the license plate, “”614 SYL.” Our last name is Sylvestro. Colombo’s birthday was June 14th.

And The Red Sox are having a good run….

Thursday, June 5, 2008

I'd Rather be Locked in the Bathroom at the Andover Inn

November 2002

As soon as we get into the car, I feel better. A brown bag holding mixed nuts, Wheat Thins and smoked mozzarella is wedged between our seats. The water bottles are in their plastic holders. My husband Dave puts on his sunglasses and turns the key. We are outta here.

Dave cranks up the radio and the Rolling Stones belt out “Gimme Shelter” as we head for the Merritt Parkway North. We’re off to see our daughter Casey performing in a show at Merrimack College, and “Massachusetts Dave and Lea,” our alter-egos, await us at the Andover Inn. They are so much more fun than this furrow-browed pair.

I love my house. I love my friends. I love the deer nosing the bird feeders and the cheery little titmice perched on our shed roof. I love our snuggly cats basking in their sunny spots. But I can’t get out of the house fast enough. In my more desperate moments, I contemplate moving away to escape the strident phone calls and all-caps email alerts. I feel badgered and beleaguered, but don’t seem to be adult enough to define my boundaries.

The mood in our small New England town has changed recently. While I remain firmly encamped with the woods, deer and disappearing foxes, there’s been an influx of new homeowners who are daunted by the three-mile drive to Route 25 where shopping opportunities abound. They long for the convenience of a bank, dry cleaners and ice cream shop just around the corner, and are willing to risk the change in zoning that these amenities would require. The bustle of traffic and strip malls characteristic of nearby towns is brushed aside with a dismissive, “It won’t happen here.” Hm. As if the good people of Monroe had sought the concrete crawl of commerce lining the thoroughfare that bisects their town.

Perhaps I’m over-reacting. Maybe I’m being selfish. Some are gleeful at the thought of a neighborhood Starbucks. Are my views simply out-dated? Maybe I’m just tired of the meetings and urgency.

Thank God for the refuge of The Andover Inn and Room 37.

Room 37 is cozy, dormered, wall-papered in a floral print, and half the usual price. Because of our willingness to share a bathroom with other patrons, we stay at this turn-of-the-century inn for $69 dollars per night.

We’ve tried other rooms – 48 and 45. They come at the same great price and with the same bathroom-sharing condition. They’re nice, but walking into #37 is like coming home – minus the screeching phone and email stream.

Upon our arrival, Laurie greets us at the front desk. “I see you’ve reserved your favorite room. It’s all ready for you!”

I love being a regular.

As we wait for the tiny elevator in the hall, we wave to Tom who is tending bar.

“Well hey! When did you get in?” He asks. “Are you up for one of your daughter’s shows?” He wipes a glass and sets it in a drying rack. His white jacket and black bowtie speak of an era past.

I ask how his bum leg is feeling,

“Ah, same old thing, but the pain is gone.”

The elevator door opens and we squeeze inside for the brief lift to the third floor. We walk down the corridor to our room, slip the key in the lock, step over the threshold and smile. Our green easy chair, our brass floor lamp, our gurgling sink. Breathing comes easier now.

The Inn was built in 1930 on the campus of Philips Andover Academy to accommodate parents visiting their children. My mother and my grandparents, Byeo and Poppy, used to stay here in the forties when visiting my Uncle Ding during his Andover years. When, in the evening, Dave and I read on the comfy sofas by the fireplace in the lobby, I can easily picture Byeo sitting on the couch across from me. A pianist plays old favorites for guests in the dining room, and I imagine Byeo and Poppy heard the same melodies as they enjoyed a drink before dinner. I miss them still, all these years after their deaths, but there’s a connection to them, to their time, at the Andover Inn.

November, 2003

We beat an exuberant retreat from home as the sky hangs low and somber. With a slam of the screen door, we shut off the “shoulds” and shrill shriek of the phone. Nosing the car north, Dave gives me a grin and we are off to see Casey's show.

Leaves blown by blustery winds skitter before us as flocks of birds fly, pulsing like a great insect swarm, over the treetops. In contrast, the cars inch along the Merritt Parkway. We inch along with them, but with the radio blasting and spirits soaring as high as those southbound birds.

Time passes. It is Saturday night. After a blissful evening in the soothing darkness of Merrimack’s Rogers Theater watching Casey perform in “Don’t Drink the Water,” Dave and I have returned to the Andover Inn and room #37. I down a dose of Nyquil to combat a case of sniffles and repair to the bathroom across the hall to wash up. Mission accomplished, I turn the wonderful old brass latch and … um, I turn the wonderful old brass latch. Hm. The wonderful old brass latch won’t turn. I push the door tight and slide the latch… It won’t slide. I rattle the door a bit, push, then rattle again. It’s really stuck.

I take stock and smile. I’ve had dinner and seen Casey’s play. I’m toasty warm and there’s a toilet nearby. I ponder the fact that I’m locked in the bathroom at The Andover Inn and feel more content than I usually do at home. Interesting. This is going to be a funny story soon.

When Dave eventually comes to check on me, we whisper as the other patrons are asleep. I examine the hinge pins, but they are painted solidly in place. Dave dismantles his nail clippers and nudges the pieces under the door. I fiddle with the receiving band of the lock but it’s rusted and the clippers are thick and clumsy.

The helpful night watchman arrives with an old-fashioned skeleton key that proves unequal to the tenacious bathroom lock. He then spooks up a butter knife from the inn’s kitchen having discovered that a screwdriver won’t fit under the door.
I realize that short of bringing in the fire department, my release is up to me. I am empowered by this thought and accept the challenge with calm. Nothing is pending. The solution to my problem rests in my own hands. If only I could bring this attitude to my daily life. If only I could retain this sense of control.

With immense gratification over each screw painstakingly extracted with my never-again-to-be-undervalued butter knife, I remove the doorknob. Triumph. It is womb-like and cozy in my bathroom and I am giddy with satisfaction at my resourcefulness.

The doorknob removal achieves nothing but a glimpse of Dave’s Red Sox tee-shirt through the resulting hole. The only possibility of escape lies in disassembling the lock plate by removing the three screws holding it in place. They didn’t budge before when attacked with the nail clippers, so I’d dismissed that option. Forced back to them by process of elimination and armed now with my trusty butter knife, I bend to the task with renewed vigor, and they come out with ease.

I wiggle the plate free and open the door to a smiling, oil-smudged Dave crouched in the corridor. Bearing screws, door knob and lock plate in greasy hands, we march to the front desk to declare victory.

January 2008

Things have calmed down in our town; the non-commercial zoning remains intact. My days of urgent alerts are, for now, over. Casey graduated from Merrimack in 2005 and moved to New York to seek an acting career. Dave and I don’t get to the Andover Inn as often. This weekend, however, we’ve combined a stay at the Inn with a visit to my cousin Julie and her family.

It’s good to be back.

Laurie and Tom no longer work at the Inn, but Kate, at the front desk, is friendly and accommodating. We catch up with Colin who is tending bar. He’s dressed neatly, but casually, in a collared polo shirt. He tells us, “There’ve been management changes and a major renovation is planned for 2010.”

Renovation. I fear the word. I love the Inn just as it is. "What, exactly, will it entail?" I ask.

“Things have to be brought up to code and there’ll be a spa. That’s what people want now, you know?”

Just like they wanted an ice cream shop and dry cleaners seven years ago at home.

Breakfast is included with the cost of our room. This is something new, something new that I like. What a treat to pull up to a white-clothed table in the inn’s beautiful dining room with its dark mahogany wainscoting, tall Palladian windows and elegant, floor-length curtains of deep burgundy.

Vivian and Trisha, our waitress and hostess, chat with us while serving eggs benedict, French toast, a fresh fruit plate and crispy potato pancakes. “The curtains are coming down,” says Vivian, “to bring in more light.”

I look around, feeling something akin to panic. “But I love the curtains. They’re elegant, and there’s plenty of light.”

“Yes. Well. They’re coming down.”

Trisha introduces Elizabeth, the assistant innkeeper.

“I love the curtains,” I try again.

Elizabeth looks around the room and nods. “Yes. Well. They’re coming down. I don’t know what we’ll do with them.”

Trisha mentions the scene in “The Sound of Music” where the ever-resourceful Maria makes costumes from curtains. Scarlett O’Hara did the same with the green velvet drapes of Tara, and we laugh in recalling Carol Burnett’s spoof of that famous “Gone with the Wind” scene. “Remember, she sweeps down the staircase, and the rods are still stuck in the fabric! She knocks over lamps and paintings!”

Oh, we have a good laugh. But like a petulant child, I will not let it go. “Please keep the curtains. They make this room feel..."

"They make this room feel the way it must have felt when Byeo and Poppy were here," is what I want to say. But instead, I gaze about and finish weakly, “welcoming. They make this room feel warm and welcoming.”

Elizabeth smiles thinly and says it has been a pleasure to meet us, then excuses herself to attend to other diners. I feel sad. My French toast has lost its appeal.

I hope the curtains and brass locks survive the renovations. I hope the new managers recognize that there’s an abundance of Marriotts and Sheratons with plenty of light and electronic locks, but when the world clamors too loudly and I feel badgered and beleaguered, I want an old-fashioned haven like the Andover Inn.