Monday, December 23, 2013

Little Voices

Dave crouched before the stereo tinkering with the door of the cassette player with a miniature screwdriver.  It was a good thing he was the one tinkering, for if I’d been the one with the tool, that stubborn piece of plastic s@# would have been snapped off and flung across the room.

Whew.  Step back.  Despite that tirade, the sparkle and promise of Christmas has infused me this year for the first time in a while. Cancer, Newtown, and my father’s passing colored recent holidays, but, along with Casey and her boyfriend PJ, our son Tucker and his wife Lisa will be home this December.  This is a treat as they are now on a four-year rotation as two families (four actually) vie for this beloved couple over the holidays.

So I started early, taking out Santas that spend the off-season in a wooden jelly cupboard that once belonged to my grandmother.  Over the past two decades, I’ve moved those Santas in and out of that cupboard annually, so how did I miss the small black plastic box tucked in the back corner?  Yes, it was behind a wooden decoy from Mom and Dad’s old house in Vermont, and yes, a stuffed vampire teddy bear obscured it some, but still.  For twenty years I’d searched for the box, once purchased at Korvettes or Caldors or some other chain store now out of business.

When Tucker and Casey were tiny, there were no iPhones or Flip cameras.  In 1983 or so, Dave purchased a two-piece contraption, which claimed portability by virtue of a heavy shoulder strap, but the hand-held camera was huge and the video player ungainly.  But we had our kids’ childhoods to capture, so we lugged that thing out on vacations, to playgrounds, and during holiday events.  Before that get-up, all we had was a tape recorder.

Tucker was three and Casey an infant when we recorded our son singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  Casey would chime in with a squall or coo, but during the recorder-only era, it was largely Tucker’s show.  Sometime around our move to Easton, the tapes disappeared.  Precious as they were, I knew I hadn’t thrown them out; someday, they’d turn up.

At the glimpse of black plastic, my heart leapt.  I reached to the back of the cupboard and pulled out the case.  It was dusty, maybe six and a half inches high and four inches deep, with six drawers, each with once-white Scotch labels now flecked with brown stains.  I pressed the square red buttons at the end of each drawer.  Nothing.  Pushed the drawers, nothing. Really?  Finally I have the box in hand, and I’m flummoxed by an antiquated system of plastic and springs?  I squinted at the buttons and noted an arrow.  Pushed in and up, and the drawer slid out with a snap to reveal a white plastic tape and Dave’s faded handwriting, “Tucker – Sept-Oct, 1980.”

Five drawers contained tapes, each a sliver of our young selves and our children.  “Tucker – Dec. ’81,” “Tucker – Dec. 1982: ‘The Night Before Christmas,’” “Kids,” and “Casey – August 1983.”  It was an odd feeling, holding them in my hand, not wanting to hope for much in case the tapes had degraded, but still feeling the tingle of possibility that I held living moments with my babies, moments when Dave and I were young and Tucker and Casey were so completely ours. 

“Dave!  I found them!  Those tapes of the kids!  Do we have a cassette player?”  Not a sure bet, for the era of cassettes is long past. 

Dave barreled in from the kitchen where he’d been making bread.  He paused and thought, then said,  “We do!  I think we do…”

Together, we kneeled on the living room floor in front of the stereo, and pondered its components, four black metal devices, each by a different manufacturer: Radio Shack, Denon, Onkyo, and Sony, not to mention the rarely-used turntable by Technics.  Triumph.  The black box by Denon housed a cassette player.

Dave selected a tape and placed it in the compartment.  In wonder, we listened to the whir as the tape rewound.  Afraid to watch it spin, fearing a tear and tangle, I gazed out the window to the backyard, the vibrant green and red of spiked holly leaves and berries framing my view of November browns and grays. 

Rewind complete, Dave hit “play.”  Nothing.  Tried again.  Nothing.  He pushed the eject button, and nothing happened.  The cassette stayed put.  Omigod.  The past, our past, on a flippet of plastic trapped inside the unrelenting compartment of an obsolete Denon tape player.  Enter the screwdriver, tinkering, removal of tape, insertion of tape, and any number of jabs at the “play” button. 

What makes one jab better than another?  For suddenly, a high-pitched breathy voice, two-year-old Tucker’s voice, filled the room.  With glee, he sang “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Hickory Dickory Dock.”  Nursery rhymes!  Of course we taught him nursery rhymes, although I barely remember them now. 

At times, it was hard to understand him and in the background, young Lea said, “not so close to the microphone, Tuck.”  And my boy, the freshie, not so different then from now, moved closer, his voice booming from the Denon, as his parents, both young and old, chuckled in 1982 and 2013.  I pictured those wide brown eyes, soft kissable cheeks, bowl-cut hair, and beaming smile and yearned to corral that happy little one into my arms.

Then thirty-two year old Dave, his voice loving and patient, cued Tucker, “Twas the night before …..”

“CHRISTMAS!”  Tucker crowed, and he was off, his voice rising and falling with the cadence of the poem as he took us all through the house, past mama in her kerchief, to a commotion on the lawn, and a spectacle in the sky.  “On Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Cupid and Dasher and Comet and Prancer,” called Tucker, repeating names until Santa had a full squadron of reindeer.  Young Dave commented in the background, “Seems to be a skip on the tape.” 

“Skip on the tape?”  Tucker asked, but then rattled along, landing Santa in the fireplace with an emphatic “Bumpf!” I smiled at the “bumpf,” a sound effect I add to this day, hearing in Tuck’s recitation his storytellers as well as his tale. 

I looked at my Dave on the floor by the stereo, his legs stretched out before him. His smile was broad even as he wiped tears from his cheeks, and I snuffled into a now-damp tissue while beaming at Tucker’s voice.  Who else but Dave would hear and see what I hear and see in listening to this tape?  Our minds’ eyes together in that time, seeing each other and grinning at our boy.




Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Doors Wide

-->*Note:  The following is an excerpt from a book I am writing about my cancer experience in 2009, so no worries; cancer references are past, past, past!
I wish I'd purchased an Advent calendar this year.  When I was little, the wait for Christmas day was agonizing in time’s slow crawl, and each miniature paper door marked a step forward, progress made toward the bliss of ripping off the wrappings and ribbons masking the presents under the tree.
Mystery beckoned in rectangular boxes, those deep enough to hold a doll.  Such packages were eyed with near lust, turned, treasured, and checked for heft.  Long flat boxes that rustled when shaken were shoved aside.  Probably clothes.  But… maybe not.  Nothing could be totally dismissed because one couldn’t really tell.  That was part of the exquisite pleasure.
Sometimes I would lie on my stomach beneath our Christmas tree’s fragrant pine limbs, haloed by glowing multi-colored lights, my chin resting on my hands.  While I yearned to know what lay concealed in the surrounding parcels, I also sought to transport myself to the scene captured in carved wooden figures in the crèche tucked at the tree’s base.  I’d close my eyes and seek the chill of night under a black velvet sky in Bethlehem. I strove to conjure steaming breath puffed from soft nostrils, bristly camel fur, wide brown cow eyes fringed with dark lashes.  The scent of hay and manure.  Rough men drawing ragged robes tight over sinewy shoulders.  And always, a radiance around a young mother holding her baby. 
When Tucker and Casey were born, Dave and I regained the magic of the season.  Santa resumed prominence on Christmas Eve, and now, decades later, so easily can I picture Tucker in red feet-pajamas and toddler Casey in a red flannel mop cap and nightie, both children dancing with excitement as they listened for sleigh bells.  Oh, the anticipation in reading “The Night Before Christmas” and setting out Santa’s snacks!  I still have the notes the kids’ wrote to him, their words spidery and crooked, haphazard on the page, with polite inquiries about Santa’s summer and sleigh ride, an invitation to cookies and milk, and the list of toy requests, lengthy enough to require parental help to transcribe them.  The passage of days to that night were a joyful march of projects, seasonal stories, baking, loving secrets, and the glitter-bright promise of Advent calendar doors to open every morning.
Having marked the past four months with chemo infusions, completion of each treatment was cause for celebration, as sure as opening doors #1, 2, and 3. In My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen writes of her grandfather’s belief that, “To be alive was to wait for the will of God to reveal itself.  And one waited with curiosity.  A sense of adventure.” A sense that the next day, behind the next door, might be…who knows?  A doll?  A puppet? New hair? A healthy body?  How my wishes have changed!
At this point, I feel a giddy bubbling inside.  I no longer have the chemo countdown, and ahead lies the return of energy, taste, enjoyment of food, my hair.  By January, I should have about a half inch, by March, a pixie cut.  Well, a sparse pixie cut.  By May, my wig – for which I have been so grateful – will be relieved of duty.
Until then, there are presents to buy, the tree to decorate, parties to attend, the kids coming home.  So many blessings, and I awake each day giving thanks for the potential it holds. 
Next year, I am definitely getting an Advent calendar.

* Yet another note:  This year, I have one, and it's a beauty!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Circle Unbroken

We heard their laughter and the lyrical rhythm of island accents before we saw them.   Two women - one with red lipstick and long hair, the other with corn rows tight against her scalp, both with cocoa skin - had struggled to sit atop a massive boulder on the lawn below the lighthouse and above the sea. Their male companion stood before them, holding a camera at arm’s length. Happy people on a glorious day, I thought and smiled to myself at their joy.

 “Would you like a picture of the three of you?’  Dave asked.  Naturally, they were delighted by his offer.

After they’d checked out Dave’s shots from their perch on the rock, the woman in cornrows, Ann-Marie, I soon learned, twisted toward me and said, “Is he a photographer?  Just has a way….”

Her friend, Maxine, slid to the ground and strolled over to where I sat nearby on the grass. “We have reason to celebrate,” she volunteered.  She nodded toward Ann-Marie and said quietly, “A year ago, I was with her when she had surgery.”

A few years back, I would have left it at that, but since I’ve had cancer and Ann-Marie is a woman, I said, “What kind of surgery?”  Given the statistics, it was almost a formality.

“Breast cancer,” she replied, and the sadness is, I wasn’t surprised.

When Ann-Marie joined us, I told her of our bond and hailed her as a sister.  Her nice-stranger-smile deepened to one of connection, and she hugged me tight, a hug infused with shared fear, relief, hope, and gratitude, then she settled to the grass next to me, just barely loosening her hold. 

I was half in her lap, my hand in hers, as the five of us spoke for close to an hour.  “During diagnosis and treatments, it was the circle of love that kept me going,” Ann-Marie said as she smiled at Maxine.  “The circle of love is essential.”  With our hands still clasped, her eyes locked on mine, she added, “There is no coincidence in our being here, together, in this place.”  And I knew she drew strength from our companionship in cancer, just as I had from Joanne, Dede, and Wendy.  The disease and fear might have been ours to fight as individuals, but we were not alone.

Nor were Dave and I alone this weekend; we had a date on the hill above New Harbor, so it was time to mount up.  Dave took group pictures, we exchanged emails and hugs, our three new friends headed to the lighthouse for a tour, and Dave and I retrieved our bikes for the ride back to the hill.

 For over a decade, our September Block Island gathering has served as escape and celebration. In 2008, the route to Point Judith was tagged with evacuation signs and cars, countless cars, heading the opposite direction as a hurricane blew in.  Did we postpone?  No!  Otie and Janet made the trip from Pittsburgh a day early just in case, and our Connecticut contingent barreled ahead, thrilled at the prospect of howling winds and pounding surf.  There was one brief moment on the way up, after we’d passed the third evacuation sign, when I thought, are we being stupid about this?  Forget about it!  All aboard!

In 2009, the weekend fell during my second round of chemo-loser days.  I’d just lost my hair and felt logy and sad, plus it was windy and rainy and I worried about errant gusts stealing my scarf.  Dave had thrown out his back and we were a gimpy, pathetic pair – not our usual BI selves.  The Friday ferries were cancelled, so we made the crossing on Saturday; the rest of the group – Hallie, Buck, Steve, Deb, Len, Mary, Otie, Janet, and Joan – had taken an earlier boat.  They met us at the dock, a receiving line of loving friends.  They relieved us of our backpacks, and Dave and I rented a mo-ped, a motorized means to free-wheeling, so we could keep up.

Every year, on the Friday of departure, there’s the ordeal of the white-knuckled drive down I-95, zipping along at 15 mph through rush hour traffic to make the last ferry.  Once that ferry pulls from the pier, however, there is water between us and …everything else.  Water between us and worry.  Water between us and doctors.  Water between us and the ability to take care of to-dos, commitments, and concerns. Through Steve’s diagnosis, Colombo’s strokes, hurricanes, and my cancer, Block Island has been gloriously and blessedly AWAY.

I hesitate to speak to my Sylvestros of God, but this weekend, that of Steve and Debby’s 40th anniversary, I sensed His hand in the brilliance of the sun, meadows of golden rod glowing yellow, sapphire seas, and blue skies swirled with playful wisps of clouds, a setting fit to honor four decades of marriage.  

By the time Dave and I pedaled up, most of the others were on the hill, spreading blankets on the grass, hauling a ponderous picnic table to a level spot, opening bags of chips - tortilla and potato - and the requisite containers of hummus.  While mudslides – a frozen chocolate/coffee/rum confection– are always the drink of choice, Hallie was also chilling champagne.

What would be the afternoon’s format?  No one was sure.  While this time together on the hill was a given, the anniversary layer was uncertain.  A few weeks before, Deb mentioned to a few of us her wish to renew her wedding vows.  “When we got married, I said the words I was supposed to say, but I was a kid. I didn’t get it.  Now I do.  It’s not always easy.  You have to work things through.  It really is ‘in sickness and in health.’ After forty years, I know about commitment.  I’ve lived what I vowed.”

Steve, I’d heard, was not so sure about the renewal of vows piece, but he’d bought Deb – forty years later – an engagement ring, and today, he would present it. 

Others had planned their own presentations.  Moo had flown in from New Mexico, her first trip to the Block.  She’d done some research on traditional 40th anniversary gifts and had something hidden under a sweatshirt in her bike basket.  Nelson and his wife Ann had also joined us, and Nelson had worked with the island to create an appropriate gift. 

Steve and Deb’s son, Trevor, had thought the celebration was the next day.  Oops.  So, as the rest of us chatted and sipped mudslides, Trevor sat eyes and fingers to phone, working on his toast while his wife, Lisa, and soon-to-be-three daughter, Ava, spilled packets of colorful sand on paper, preparing a bee-u-ti-ful picture. 

Because Dave is an online-ordained minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanism, a justice of the peace, and Steve’s brother, he was chosen to orchestrate events, whatever those events might be.  After Ava changed into a pale blue princess gown and donned long pink gloves with the help of two young courtiers enlisted at the playground, Dave rose to chorale our attention. 

Until he spoke, we were scattered, small groups on blankets facing this way and that, but when Dave began to speak, we naturally formed a circle, a circle of love.  Deb and Steve were the focus, at the head of the circle, but in a circle, actually, there is no head, so all the words spoken of lasting love and friendship were spoken for all of us, everyone in that circle. 

Steve’s white mane, Deb’s river of blond hair, a circle of sunglasses, a circle of soul-deep smiles that have beamed at each other and at these two people for most of those four decades.  There have been losses, hospitals, worry and nursing homes, but there’s been traying at Trinity, cheering at races, work at Eagle Hill, hunkering down for hurricanes, dancing at Captain Nick’s, trips home for the holidays, weddings, Trevor and Christopher’s concerts, strumming guitars, playing with Ava, and this shared weekend on the Block.  How does that translate into words?

We tried… with laughter, stories, tears, and hands to hearts.  We spoke of Steve and Deb’s love, their courage, their example, and their role in bringing us all together.  Dave, who accompanied Steve and Deb on most of their dates and followed Steve to high school, college, and Eagle Hill, relayed a dream in which Carolyn, our recently departed friend, told Dave “True love is a gift,” thus giving him his message for this day.  With great ceremony, Moo unwrapped her offering: an eggplant engraved with “Happy 40th Anniversary.”  Nelson unveiled a rock-solid symbol of love, a rock, in fact, found on the beach, shaped like a heart, and signed by each person in the circle. 

Trevor waited until everyone else had said their piece, then mused aloud, “How do I say thank you for all the love and caring over the years?  How do I repay all the sporting events, girlfriend advice and all the hours you lost when I was late coming home (or would fail even to come home)? What can I give you for all the times you supported me in my triumphs, and provided a shoulder when there were losses? What present is there for all the times we just sat together and shared…whatever? How do I thank you for the guidance when I was unsure of my way, and your restraint to allow me to find it myself? You nurtured my growth, yet allowed me my independence. So… what gift is enough for two kickass parents?

The answer came to me today. And no box can hold it, no wrapping can cover it.  No store had it on a shelf. My gift is not to you, it is to my little girl. I promise to care for her the same way you did for me.
And someday, just maybe she'll say, ‘How can I thank you -- for all you've done for me?’
Hopefully I get the chance to tell her, ‘Don't thank me. Thank your Mimi and Poppy. Because I'm the product of their love.’”

Whooshhhhhh.  Tears.  Tears around the circle.  Every one of us wiping eyes and cheeks as Steve and Deb reached out to their boy for hugs.  And then, thank God, Deb requested a bathroom break before the boys brought out guitars to sing.  Trevor called his brother Christopher, in Arizona, who spoke to his parents and sang along via speakerphone, as Otie, Dave, and Trevor played the Wedding Song, as it had been played at the marriage forty years before. 

And that would be a good place to end, a moving place, but Nelson emptied and upended a beige plastic ice bucket, now a drum, and joined the musicians.  Steve whipped out his harmonica and Len scrolled through words on his cell for round two of the festivities: Sloop John B, The Boxer, and Shanty.  A gleeful blond princess whirled to the music, arms outstretched as her own kickass parents looked on.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Summer Reflections Part III - Envy?

  It is an August evening, close to 6:00, yet the sun is warm, so the beach is busy despite the dinner hour. Lying on towels, teenagers bask, text, or chat while swimmers loll in the water, rising and falling with the rhythm of the waves. Sand castles dot the beach.  Some, tide casualties, are water-rounded and misshapen, like all ruins once of man and eventually returned to earth.  But around those under construction, there are shouted directions and discussion as crews of young ones haul and dump buckets of wet sand to smooth turrets and walls into shape.

Wearing neon orange trunks that match the shade of his shovel, a small boy bends to scoop sand from a widening pit dug just beyond reach of the sea’s frothy fingers.  His baby sister, in a purple suit with criss-crossed straps, sits in the hole.  Their father, ankle-deep in water, hands on hips, gazes toward the horizon while Mom sits on her haunches, forearms on thighs, smiling at the children.

These little ones do not look like my sisters and me, but there is an aura of the sixties in the scene, and the late summer sunshine bestows a halo of sepia memory to the present.    Wistfully I imagine the three of us playing with my cousins on this same beach five decades ago, with my grandmother Byeo, Mom and Dad, Uncle Ding, and Aunt Barbara relaxing in their chairs under an umbrella.  The leap to little Tucker and Casey is even easier: the baby with her dark hair and almond eyes, the boy’s lithe form, prominent shoulder blades, and possessive stance as he surveys his work.
Dave and I lounge in our beach chairs, the Boston Globe and my book within reach.  Oh, we are relaxed, and it’s possible, perhaps probable, that the young parents eye us with envy.  We are enviable, with our books, drinks, and serene companionship; no kids to watch over and entertain.

How I remember lusting after such leisure while grappling with a cooler of snacks and Capri Sun juices, a diaper bag, toys, towels, and a playpen.  The playpen was absurd, of course, ungainly and unnecessary, but I was young.  Sigh.  I was young, lithe myself, with unspotted skin, and two little ones to watch over and entertain.  Even then, I recognized how precious the time was and tried, I tried, to freeze it. 

Beach days were tiring, but joyous.  Dave and I would dig, scrape and sculpt a sand car big enough to hold two diminutive drivers and keep them happy for hours.  Well, no.  Maybe for a quarter hour at best.  And then Tucker would head off, delighted to be exploring on his own, at least while within range of a quick parental jog.

Casey loved the beach, but hated bathing suits.  She’d start the day in an adorable skirted stretchy outfit, which she’d soon wriggle out of and refuse to wear.  So she’d sit on a towel, a sweet round nudie, feeding herself shovels of sand.  Our little flower. 

When the kids were a mite older, Tucker’s Crab Restaurant was a favorite activity, usually at Dave’s suggestion.  We’d clamber gingerly over mossy rocks bathed by incoming rushes of water.  Tucker and Casey would squat like frogs, peering into tide pools, feeling under stones to tug glistening purple-black mussels free from their seemingly safe nooks.  The kids would crack the shells and submerge the soft insides to entice and feed the scuttling crabs.   

Now I stretch back in my chair, a folding backpack model with a pouch big enough to hold towels, sunscreen, and snacks.  I watch the young mom as she wades into the water with the purple-suited baby on her hip.  Chubby feet hitch up as tiny toes touch chill water.  The child’s eyes are wide, uncertain, afraid, and then she squalls, as the mom dunks her up to her shoulders. Yes, I am envious of her with her little ones to watch over and entertain, but that squall prompts a flash of whiny, less enjoyable moments.  Like childbirth, I’ve forgotten most of them.     

Our current status has allowed us a summer glorious in its wanderings, flexibility, and freedom.  We attended two weddings in June, a reunion in Maine with my Farmington friends, and a gathering with Trinity friends.  We visited Charlie and Joanne in New Hampshire, Tucker and Lisa in Boston, and, a tradition we are fortunate to have every summer, spent time in Weekapaug with family. While I strive to live in the present, I’ve felt grounded in these re-connections and the reminder that I’m not just 60-year-old-Lea, but the sum of events and people, and the girl and woman I have been in relationship with them.  Each phase has held joy as well as challenges, and what a blessing to say honestly – and perhaps with a trace of wonder – I am content where I am.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Summer Reflections - Part II - Shark Week

Since her college days, our daughter Casey has loved PBS’s Shark Week.  She says her obsession with the series began as an effort to ease, or at least balance, her morbid fear of the prickly-toothed beast.  That goal has not been realized, but when Shark Week is broadcast, Casey is on the couch in front of a TV.  It was a triumphant moment when I discovered a birthday card for her last year that depicted a cartoonish shark in just that pose, remote control in hand (or in fin, I should say) gleefully exclaiming, “Yay!  It’s ME week!”  So very Casey. 

For those who do not know, this week (that of August 5) is Shark Week.  Today, as Casey and her boyfriend PJ join Dave and me on the beach in Weekapaug, from the safety of the sand, we chat about the previous night’s show and scan the expanse of ink-blue water in search of dorsal fins or ominous shadows.

“Jaws” came out soon after I graduated from Trinity College.  I’d spent the summers of my freshman and sophomore year working on Martha’s Vineyard, which is also the setting of the movie.  One of the minor characters, a young guy who enjoys a drunken romp on the beach with a shapely blond who gets chomped by a great white early in the story, also went to Trinity.  Two too many parallels for me, and I was shaken.  Shaken to the extent that, to this day, I never swim underwater without some anxiety and the “Jaws” theme drumming in my head, and I never go into the water without first surveying the seas before me.  “That won’t help you, Mom,” says Casey.  Chock full of info from last night’s show, she adds, “They’re fast.  They come right up beneath you.  You’ll never see it coming.”

Great.  Thanks Case.

Dave nibbles pistachio nuts, grins maniacally, and flips the shells into the breeze, trying to land them on his daughter.  Relaxation is not Dave’s forte and if there is not a game of some sort in play, he creates one.  “Pistachio Provocation” is a favorite and he is endlessly entertained by Casey’s good-natured annoyance as shells catch in her hair, skip off her arm, and settle on her stomach.  “You’re a child Dad. ” she says with a snort.  “Beyond irritating.”

That’ll stop him. Not.  For Dave, such an admonition is bait, if you will, akin to the scent of seal to a shark. 

Meanwhile, PJ has been on his phone doing research on shark attacks.  He rattles off statistics that trigger my animal rights sense of injustice.  “In 1996, 43,000 Americans were injured by toilets, and 11,000 by buckets and pails.  Only 13 were injured by sharks.    You are far more likely to be killed by a toaster than a shark,” PJ continues.  “600-700 people die each year in toaster incidents versus 20 people killed by sharks.  And domestic dogs?  50 deaths per year.  But get this, for every human killed by a shark, 2 million sharks are killed by humans.”

I have no love of sharks and wish no one a maiming by those gruesome teeth, but those numbers really piss me off.  “Whenever animals kill humans, they are branded vicious killers and hunted down.  What about the innocents we slaughter every day, all the pigs, calves, chickens and baby lambs?”

There is a pained silence.  Buzzkill.  I’ve turned a little enlightenment into a soapbox moment, but still, I think I have a point.

With sighs, we turn to gaze out to sea where we spot movement, a swimmer, as it turns out. With our eyes, we follow her path as vigorous strokes propel her toward the horizon.  Finally she swings left for a lengthy lap along the shore. With admiring nods, we applaud the woman’s courage and style, but decide her bold embrace of the sea indicates she is probably not spending evenings enthralled by tales of the gaping maw of the megaladon on PBS.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Summer Reflections Part I - Ripples

Sunlight glinted on choppy wavelets tinted neon blue through my sunglasses.  My fingers were curled tightly around a strap across my seat.  Soul light, I leaned close to Joanne as we zipped, jolting and smacking, across the water.  Over the buzz of the Jetski’s engine, I yelled, “Look at us!  You and me and our four fake boobs!”

With her long white hair twisted into a loose knot on her head, joy emanating from her face, she grinned back over her shoulder and called back, “Survivors!”

It had been years since Dave and I spent time with Charlie and Joanne.  We’d met in 1988 when our sons Tucker and Jake became friends.  Back then, Joanne wrote a column for the Greenwich Time and was re-decorating her house.  I was into quilting, crafts, and animal rights.  Our husbands loved playing guitars together, two aging hippies strumming Rolling Stones and Beatles songs.  Hm.  I say “aging,” yet we were still in our thirties.  Ah well. 

A lot has happened in the intervening years.

Dave and I moved to Easton.  Terrorism took out the Twin Towers.  Joanne got breast cancer.  Charlie had a heart attack.  Our kids grew up and moved on to their own lives.  I got breast cancer.  Joanne and Charlie moved to New Hampshire.  And finally, over the 4th of July, we were able to accept their invitation to visit them in their now not-so-new home.

One afternoon during our stay, I sat on the dock with Jake.  His cousin Lauren was eager to rent a stand-up paddleboard.  “You better try it early on,” he said, “before the boats and Jetskis make it too rough.”

I scanned the crests and troughs of  water circled by pine-fringed shores and the mountains beyond.  A few boats dotted the lake, but surely not enough to stir the surface to this degree.  “But those boats are so far away…” I said.

“Yes.  But you know how it is when you drop a pebble in still water,” Jake said.  “The ripples just keep on going.”

Ripples.  I have always loved the possibilities, literal or not: a line in a book that resonates and leads to a new direction.  A random observation that sparks an idea and generates invention.  Small acts of kindness or valor that change lives or a world.  My friend Joanne, struck with cancer, coming through it, and helping me make it through my own…and now the two of us, jubilant together, sending ripples cascading in our Jetski’s wake.

On the morning of the 4th of July parade, along with Charlie and Joanne, their kids, their kids’ spouses, their adorable granddaughter Abbey, and assorted siblings and cousins, we staked out spots with blankets and chairs under a spreading maple on the lawn of an antique colonial.  Nearby, an old retriever, the coppery fur of her muzzle gone to white, panted in the scant shade cast by her human companion’s beach chair.  

Vintage cars, fire engines, farmers on John Deere tractors, a troop of little girls in gauzy skirts and fairy wings, and, on roller skates, an aging majorette in spangled attire, glided past, some tossing candy to the small children who scampered to the road with hands outstretched.  

A skinny scrap of a guy in a straw boater and patriotic vest stood among his fellow WW II vets on a float draped in red, white and blue bunting, and lip-synced Jimmy Durante songs.  With the cock and shake of his head and a distinctive fake nose, he had Jimmy nailed. 

A convoy of vintage WW II vehicles rolled by followed by a float bearing the old men who’d once driven them.  I thought of Uncle Jack who, during his service in North Africa, drove an ambulance much like the one cruising past.  Dave’s father, Colombo, served in Italy in that war, and the third brother, Uncle Phil, was posted in the Pacific.  Miraculously, they all came home, but Cam, their sister, said of Jack, “He was too sensitive for war.  He never spoke about it when he returned, and he was never the same.”

“Always remember the soldiers,” Colombo once said to my daughter Casey.

With pride and a tug in my heart, I ran to the roadside to take pictures knowing the three brothers would have gotten a kick out of this day, and out of the role they played in giving us this opportunity to celebrate; extraordinary ripples from the sacrifices of brave old men - once brave young servicemen – waving as their floats drove by.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Strangers Over a Rainbow

On the flight to Shannon and Dan’s wedding in Florida, we flew over a rainbow.  “Look!”  said Caitlin, the little girl sitting beside me.  “A rainbow!” 

I’d spotted Caitlin almost immediately when Dave and I arrived at La Guardia Airport in New York.  As we waited in line at Jet Blue to get our boarding passes, she caught my eye because of her outfit.  “Precocious,” I thought, and I feel sheepish admitting to being so judgmental, even of a young girl, but her black fingerless gloves and matching nail polish, camouflage pants, off-the-shoulder shirt, and bandana seemed a bit much for a freckle-faced strawberry blond of ten or so.  “Eleven,” she would later correct me.  She was accompanied by an attractive older blond woman, her grandmother, I later learned, who appeared to be flummoxed by the self-possessed girl in her care.

Once at the gate, Dave and I joyfully greeted Chris and John, long-time friends who were going to the Florida wedding as well.  We settled in to wait having heard the forecast of thunderstorms and been informed of a half-hour delay.  With surprise, I noticed that the little girl and her grandmother were seated nearby.  An attractive woman with coppery curls also drew my admiring glance.  In the eighties, I spent significant dollars hoping to coax my lifeless hair into just such body and volume.

When our flight was announced, Dave, Chris, John, and I gathered our bags and proceeded to the tube connecting the plane to the gate.  As we edged closer to the door to the plane, Dave slowed to offer a hand to a young mother – a beautiful babe of a young mother – who was grappling with several hefty bags and two small boys.  Dave is wonderful about going beyond registering a need and doing something to help where I tend to take note in a vague way and wander on.

As I wandered on, Dave grasped the biggest of the mom’s bulky bags and we inched down the aisle of the plane, Chris and John taking seats in row 10, as we continued past rows 20, 21, 22…searching for 25 and finding it to be the back row.  The very back row.  The row by the restrooms.  The row with seats that recline an inch or so only. 

I stowed my suitcase in the overhead compartment and slipped into the seat by the window.  The babe of a young mother stood in the aisle and smiled at me.  I smiled back.  “Would you mind changing seats?” she asked.  “”My son would be across the aisle and he’s only five.”

“No problem.  Of course,” I said, grabbing my carry-on and sliding back into the aisle and into my new seat. 

In the flurry of that quick exchange, I did not review the implications for Dave, that my move would leave him in the three-seat row with two little boys.  He is great with kids, the best man for the job, but the three-hour ride would not be serene for him.  Luckily, as I’ve said, the mom was a babe.

As it happened, my center seat across the aisle was next to the woman with coppery curls; Frani was her name. The last person to board the plane grinned at me as she nudged past into the window seat to my left: Caitlin, the girl with the black fingerless gloves.  She flashed a card on a string that hung from her neck and said, “Junior Crew Member.  I’m traveling alone.  Last one on; last one off.”

Turned out, for this flight at least, the last row was the place to be.  Caitlin was chatty and endearing, and I silently thanked God for another reminder, for I’ve had many, to avoid hasty judgments.  Together, Caitlin and I watched a trailer for “Despicable Me 2” and raved about the first version.  She told me she loved pirates and we were as one in our love for Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow.  We also discovered a mutual enthusiasm for Halloween, and when I said I am always a witch, she totally outdid me in listing a variety of costumes from years past – the Corpse Bride, a gypsy, a ghost, and of course, a pirate.  “I had chains and skulls and stuff, a bunch of old-looking keys hanging from my belt, a cool ring.  Everything.”

While Caitlin watched a cartoon on the screen on the seat back before her, I turned to Frani, she of the coppery curls.  She was a year younger than I am and in short order, we covered menopause, sleep issues, anxiety, our interests, work, and relationships.  Ah, strangers.  Invariably we have so much in common. 

While turning fifty steered me toward volunteering at Mercy Learning Center and writing, Frani left a career in advertising and now works in integrative health advocating the uses of essential oils.  “My mother uses them all the time,” Caitlin chirped up.  “If I get a headache or stomach ache, she rubs them on the bottom of my feet.”

Frani slid a zippered pouch from her carry-on and opened it to reveal small vials of oils.  “Lea says she’s anxious and has a hard time sleeping,” Frani said to Caitlin.  “Which samples do you think would be best for her?”  Perhaps she was just being kind to include the child in choosing, but Caitlin thought a moment and said, “’Serenity’, definitely, and maybe ‘Past Tense’?” 

Frani gave me a wide-eyed look that acknowledged the girl’s accuracy then nodded at Caitlin.  “You know your stuff.”

“Like I said, my mom uses them all the time.”

“An old soul,” Frani whispered.

Meanwhile, an elephant was making a lot of noise across the aisle.  Dave was entertaining the two boys, forcing air between his pressed lips, pretending to be a pachyderm.  Jesse, the five year old, joined in gleefully, adding a swinging arm movement to simulate the animal’s trunk.  The babe-of-a-mom looked at me and mouthed of my husband, as many have before her, “He’s amazing.”  Then, she noticed Frani’s satchel of samples.  “Ohhhh.  Essential oils!  I use them all the time.  Lavender?  Omigod.  Love it.”

Really?  Here I am in a row of oils enthusiasts and they’ve never crossed my radar. 

Thunderstorms, however, were on the radar, and the plane began to buck in turbulence.  As we shuddered and swayed, Caitlin asked calmly, “What’s all this about?” 

“Storms.  Wind,” I said.  “Not a problem.”

She looked out the window at soaring mounds of water vapor, towering turrets, lumbering beasts, great sails of clouds, and that’s when she saw it.  “Look!  A rainbow!” 

At first, I missed it because it was below us, an arched gateway of yellow, red, and green.  A wonder, it was.  “You know the song?”  I said.  “Somewhere Over the Rainbow?  We are there!  Over the rainbow!”  It was an omen, surely, of a joyous marriage ahead for Shannon and Dan, and also, “Florida’s welcoming me home,” Caitlin said. 

I have to marvel at the workings of the Universe.  Among those at La Guardia scanning Kindles, tapping iPads, and the odd fellow reading a book, I’d spotted coppery curls and a girl in fingerless gloves.  And then, they came to me, and together, we flew over a rainbow. 

When the plane touched down in Sarasota, those in the back row, the furthest row back, the row tight to the restrooms, slapped each other five and crowed, “Best row ever!”      

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Too Fast?

Do I drive too fast?  I’d debate it, but Dave says yes, and the Universe seems to agree.  Yesterday, on my way to school, a cop pulled me over for speeding.

Even before purchasing my new Ford hybrid and embarking on my quest for maximum mileage, the infirmities of my beloved old Caravan necessitated sensitive and conservative driving.  No sudden stops.  No revving.  No speeding.  Together, we chugged along at a moderate pace so I could react swiftly if her eccentricities threatened a breakdown.  

Now, moderate speeds are the means to hit my target mpg of 45.  When the cop pulled me over, I was gliding down the hill on Bronson Road, no gas, foot poised over the brake.  I’d checked the speedometer moments before and it read maybe 30 mph. 

This officer was the kind of cop I wouldn’t want to antagonize:  visor pulled low, head shaved, jaw tight, bottom lip out-thrust.  Stern. 

“Lady,” he said, “When I pulled in behind you, just after you saw me and jammed on your brakes, you were going 40.  So I hate to think what you were doing before.  It’s 25 on this road, and the Dogwood Festival’s this weekend.”

By his expression, it was clear he envisioned me plowing down whole families as they crossed the road with their arms laden with craft show goodies and bake sale cupcakes.  Still, I had not slammed on the brakes – just eased them on a trifle - and could not believe I’d reached the speed he claimed.  Still, I was not about to argue with the man.  

“I apologize, Officer.  To be honest, I just got this car and I’m trying to boost the mileage, so I really have been driving carefully, and….”

“Lady.”  He cut me off, voice hard.  He gestured with one hand, thumb and forefingers opening and closing like a pair of chattering false teeth.  “You’re going on and on, blah, blah, blah.  I’m just telling you it’s 25 on this road.  You’re lucky I don’t give you a ticket.” 

He turned to face forward, said, “Have a nice day,” and drove off.

“Blah, blah, blah?”  Ouch.  I do blather sometimes, it’s true, but if he treated me that way, dressed as I was for work in a blouse and black slacks, the epitome of a friendly Fairfield County matron, I can only imagine how that exchange might have plummeted if I’d been wearing my black hoodie. 

I crept onward to school, amazed at how ridiculously slow 25 was, and finding it very difficult to maintain that speed.

The next day, I was driving Park Avenue on my way to Mercy Learning Center, running a hint behind schedule.  I stopped at a traffic light and you can imagine my joy when a student driver took a left turn, placing himself in front of me once the light changed.  Great.

The young one did precisely what he should have, crawling along at 25.  I crept along behind him, and arrived at MLC only a few minutes late. 

Not to read too much into this, but I wondered if these two incidents were cosmically related.  Were they reminders to prevent an accident that was otherwise awaiting me?  Or was the lesson broader? 

My route to work follows tree-shaded streets lined with historic homes and centuries old walls, not that I notice them.  And when he gets in my car, Dave is always surprised that the same CD plays for months before I change it.  To his raised eyebrow, I’ll say, “Don’t even hear it, Hon. I’m inside my head.”

Truth.  Too often, I’m on auto-pilot and my faithful cars get me where I’m going.  Oh, I’m watching the road and obeying signs, but it’s amazing what one can see and hear without actually perceiving.  I can say the same of walks in the woods or even a busy day; my focus is inward and my senses serve only to keep me on track. 

In her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen recalls an old prayer: “Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightening, illuminates the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder, “How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it.”

Spring has been generous over the past few days.  The air is rose-scented, soft, and warm on the skin.  Warblers astonish with their range of showy trills and melodies.  God’s roadside gardens bloom with wild daisies, purple phlox, and clover.  It is a season that caresses, and as I walk, or drive, I do so more slowly, smiling at the bounty of gifts.  Maybe I owe thanks to the cop and student driver for the reminder to pay attention.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Doin' It Seven Ways

Dave and I are in Florida, although we’ve brought New England’s weather with us.  It has ranged from sunny with wind and cool temperatures, to overcast and drizzly, to foggy.  Ah well.  

For beach reading, on the days we have braved the beach, I’ve selected Carl Hiassen’s Tourist Season.  The man cracks me up with his vicious wit, quirky characters, and circuitous plots.  As a Florida native and journalist for the Miami Herald, Hiassen writes about rapacious politicians and developers who bulldoze cypress swamps to create condos and golf courses, habitat alluring to cash-bearing tourists.  In his books, the bad guys invariably meet a gruesome, but satisfying end. 

While ensconced in a rented chair, faded baseball cap low on my brow, skin shiny with successive layers of sunscreen, legs swathed in the Holiday Inn’s threadbare yellow beach towel, I have chuckled in reading the efforts of Hiassen’s villain to scare off the tourists over-running his beloved state.   A conservation zealot, the desperado kidnaps Shriners, tosses cranky retirees to a crocodile named Pavlov, and plots against the Orange Bowl queen. My chuckles are sheepish, however, as I am well aware that I am potential croc fodder given my vacation Visa.

I’ve tried to think of reasons to exclude myself from the pool of unwanted visitors upon whom Hiassen’s band of revolutionaries open season, but alas, I fit their Most Wanted to perfection.  Pale of skin.  Seeking sunshine.  Temporary resident at the Holiday Inn.  Toenails red with Revlon Cherry Crush.  Coppertone scented.  Yes, I have purchased a pukka shell necklace.  Yes, I have snapped an excess of pictures of pelicans.  Yes, I have partaken of numerous rum drinks at palm-roofed Tiki bars.  Thankfully, Dave and I have not golfed at any of the countless courses that have scoured the coast of anything vaguely natural to that landscape.  Hiassen is, in my view, rightfully prickly about that. 

In 2001, when Dave and I chose Florida as our spring vacation destination, I was in full conservation mode in my town.  As a member of the Conservation Commission and Citizens for Easton, I was on the alert for white perc pipes or stakes with pink ribbons, and heartsick at hearing of plots to clear trees and level ledges for high density housing.  I was not impervious to those stakes and pipes in Florida, but permitted myself blinders, thinking, “I am on vacation.  This is not my fight.”  Hiassen would have been disgusted.

Anyway, this March, on the afternoon of our arrival, while savoring crepes at C’est La Vie, and sipping sauvignon blanc, the glasses perfectly chilled and translucent with condensation, we learned of Saturday’s farmers’ market and craft show.  Tourist heaven. 

I love craft shows, although Dave is not as enthusiastic.  Still, when Saturday dawned overcast, browsing booths along Sarasota’s Main Street seemed a happy diversion.  Dave discovered a music-loving soulmate in Kerry, a former drummer for the Hoo Doos and husband of a vendor selling silver beaded jewelry.  The men compared favorite bands and beloved guitars while I tried on countless bracelets, finally narrowing them down to purchase ten.  Yes, ten.

Dave is always drawn in by photography displays, and while I enjoy a quick look, my husband likes to settle in and chat with the artists, so often we separate.  “Check out the seven-ways dress,” he called as we passed each other at one point.  I was scrutinizing some shell-encrusted pottery and he’d glimpsed a booth of vibrant, splashy paintings.

Before I left for Florida, I’d been re-reading my daughter’s blog about her four months in South-East Asia. Her triumphant bickering at the night markets was fresh in my mind, so the sight of flowing silk-screened dresses  - seven-way dresses, as it turned out - lured me in.  

They were no bargain, but the vendor was friendly, cool, and comfortable, swathed in billowy turquoise.  Her skin was bronze, hair black, teeth white in a broad welcoming smile.  I slipped a black dress with coffee brown spirals over my head.  Despite the lovely material, I looked…lumpish.  “Ohhhhhhh,” she said.  “Allow me!”  So I wasn’t just being hard on myself; clearly she thought I looked lumpish too.  A lumpish tourist.  I could almost feel the steely eyes of Pavlov the crocodile, appraising me for succulence.

The vendor knotted folds here, asked me to slip my arms there. Curled a section over each of my arms.  Had me turn…more knots. I tried to angle the tiny hand-held mirror so I could see more than a square foot of myself at a time, but it was a brilliant marketing strategy, that tiny mirror, for I had no idea of the overall effect. Dave had shown up by then and grinned appreciatively.  “I like it!”  he said.  “Let me buy it for you.”

Maybe it was the vendor he liked, for my sense, as I looked past the perky knot tied above my boobs, was still… lumpish.  Dave and the vendor discussed the 5% donation she made to the Harry Chapin Foundation with the purchase of every dress.  “Money to the food bank of my choice.  A wonderful cause,” stated the saleswoman as she folded the dress and tucked it into a bag. 

Indeed, a wonderful cause, but my self-help books have been clear about buying only clothes I love.  Why harbor a closet full of rejects that don’t make me feel my very best?  Damn that tiny mirror!

Now, it is late afternoon.  The sun emerged around mid-day, and as it sets, we are basking on our balcony.  Dave has made me a tasty, lethal combination of mango and cranberry juices, Captain Morgan’s spiced rum, lime, and a sprig of mint.  Gorgeous.  The drink is.  I am not…for I look like a Russian refugee in my seven-ways dress, knotted and tied and lumpish.  Carl Hiassen would be laughing…or feeding me to a crocodile.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Enjoy the Endeavor

Soft air, fresh, but not yet perfumed by blossoms still tight and pale on just-green stems, breathes through open windows. Forsythia and daffodils shine yellow against gradually greening grass.  Magnolias have burst into clouds of purple-tinged white, the petals already wilting and tumbling like a snowfall. 

Sure, I’ve taken moments to sit on the stoop, to steep in the glory of the season’s makeover, to mark even the jerky dance of myriad gnats, flecks of living dust dancing at the first hint of warmth.  But, for twenty years, I have coordinated Eagle Hill-Southport’s spring benefit, and the event is a week away.  If I do not direct myself consciously to look, listen, and feel spring’s scents and songs, it would pass, a backdrop, barely perceived, to my mental whirl of details, to-do’s and “don’t-forgets.” 

Order an extra tablecloth for the photo booth prop table.  Remind the caterer to tell the bartenders not to open too many bottles in advance.  Pick up flowers for the program chairs!  Should we order 20 more forks?  Re-print the winners’ letters with changes noted.  Get 5 X 7 frames for the prize lists.

At 3:13, or 3:27, or 3:56 AM, my eyes fly wide in the dark.  Talk to the caterer about adjusting the number of servers.  Confirm the psychic and DJ.  Who will man the wine raffle table?  

None of this is new; I know my frailties.  Worry, guilt, and anxiety can rock me, so, I have routines, prayers, readings and writings (and a very dear husband – goes without saying) to bolster me.  My current book-friend is The Art of Growing Up by Veronique Vienne.  Some might snort at my wish to read a book with that title, and I wouldn’t blame them.  At sixty years old, should I need guidance in this art?  Apparently so. 

A few days ago, butterflies had taken up their accustomed residence in my stomach, a feeling I’m used to, but dislike.   During my morning reading, Veronique offered, “Enjoy the endeavor and good fortune will follow.”  

I’m one of those people who read pen in hand.  I underline, dog-ear, star and comment-in-margins when a passage strikes me.  I’ve read many of my favorite books several times, and my life’s phases are reflected in the different words that have moved me.  I will come to a page clean of Lea-ink, seemingly without interest given the absence of notation, but then a sentence breezed over before will capture my heart and bring tears to my eyes.  It will comfort and inspire, warranting a flurry of stars, underlining, and comment. 

“Enjoy the endeavor and good fortune will follow.”  Unnoticed before, this time, the line prompted consideration.  I thought about all the meetings, all the emails and discussions.  I thought about the women who have given countless volunteer hours on behalf of the school and our students.  I thought about the friendships that have evolved through the process, for I’ve not been alone in my lists, worries and three AM musings. In meetings with the parent benefit chairs, each has reported her own list of mid-night mind-storms. And other staff too, the directors of development and maintenance, have chipped away at their lengthy checklists.

Responsibility for this event weighs on me heavily - as does everything in which I play a role, or feel I should play a role - but Veronique helped me remember how much of that is shared, how willing others are to help; how much I’ve enjoyed the brainstorms, laughter, and even shared frustrations.  She led me to recognize how much I’ve enjoyed this endeavor. 

After reading Veronique’s wise words, it seemed a switch had been thrown, the butterflies flew, and I felt almost giddy.  I went to school buoyant, with a full heart, because I realized good fortune is not just a hoped-for end product; good fortune can be the joy of the endeavor itself.