Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Beautiful Story

With one hand upraised, palm up, the woman burst into song.  Maybe she’d intended to give us a small sample of this traditional hymn from her native Puerto Rico, but the lyrics and its memories carried her from slow start to crescendo, and we all smiled as she continued to sing, wavering at the high notes, but finishing strong and proud.

Another woman, from Nicaragua, closed her eyes in bliss while reminiscing about the foods served at Christmas in her family home.  Then, a Nigerian woman, Taiwo, shimmied in her seat as she laughed with pleasure, emulating the dances she loved during the holidays in Africa.  Someone else, a lovely Mexican with cocoa skin and long black hair pulled back in a braid, spoke of the joys of family and friends celebrating together, then paused and said wistfully, “I miss my country.”

With my two students, Taiwo from Nigeria and Mary from Congo, I had joined the gathering for Mercy Learning Center’s (MLC) annual Holiday Tea.   Located in Bridgeport, MLC serves over 800 women with programs in life and computer skills, ESL, reading, math, writing, and GED training.  The center’s motto is: “Educate a woman…Educate a family.” 

As we sipped tea and nibbled Christmas cookies and sandwiches, Jane Ferreira, MLC’s director, encouraged the women to speak of the distinctive foods and traditions of their native lands…and then it was time to sing. 

With handouts to guide us, we launched into “Jingle Bells” with jaunty enthusiasm, winding up with a gratifying flourish.  Jane took a moment to review vocabulary -  “sleigh” and “bob-tail” - before indicating that the next song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a very important song.  “Important?” I thought.  Hmm.  Not the word I’d use.  Annoying would be the word I’d use.  Across from me, Taiwo was nodding as she read the lyrics before her.  “This is a beautiful story,” she said. Beautiful?  Are we all talking about the same song?       

With Jane in the lead we sang in chorus, belting out the verses, and for once, I paid attention to the message.  Rudolph was different, and he was mocked for his shiny red nose.  The other reindeer resorted to the weapons of all bullies; they laughed at him and called him names.  But then came the moment when everything rested on that difference, and Rudolph’s shiny nose was the only way out of the fog.

Differences. They make us wonderfully unique, but separate us if we let them…and out there in the world, we have let them.   We need a way out of the fog.  Often, it is surface differences that cause discord, when at heart, there is far more that unites us: love of family and friends, music, dance, and a hope for peace and security.  At the MLC Holiday Tea, indeed, during the holidays themselves, the fog clears and those bonds shine through.   And that is a beautiful story.       

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Remembering Rome

Rome is not a foliage destination like New England, but the sycamores along the Tiber River turn yellow in the fall, and a walk along the banks has the same rustling crispness.  The chestnut vendors return to street corners to roast their wares, and the scent of smoke and sweet mingles with the city-hint of diesel.  The vendors split the nuts’ burnished brown shells with a swift knife stroke and slide them into a horn of rolled paper.  Heaven. 

In the fall of 1973, I was appreciably rounder than I’d been when I boarded the plane for Rome at the end of August.  With some effort, I could still button my Dentyne pink corduroy blazer, but the strain on the fabric was evident.  Who knew when I would return to Italy?  Who knew when I’d again eat pasta so incredibly good?  Of course, I had to take advantage at meal-time!  I knew my mother would be horrified, but when the nuns came round with refills, I was ready for them.

Nuns?  Yes.  Having never before left the shores of the U.S., I was in Italy for Trinity College Rome Campus with close to forty other students, all housed in a convent, just up the Aventine Hill from the Circus Maximus. There was a crucifix on the wall of every cell-like room, and in the bathrooms, the shower nozzle thrust from the wall without benefit of curtain or stall. Unfortunately, it took more than one sodden towel to remember to remove linens and toilet paper to avoid the water sprayed on every surface within reach.  A new world. 

I was twenty years old, in Rome for four months with some of my best friends and my boyfriend.  My career goal at the time was to be an Egyptologist:  yes, I know, wrong country, but I loved ancient history in general, and the ruins I’d studied since seventh grade were within walking distance of the convent. From my current vantage point at age sixty-one, I could weep with envy at the good fortune of that young girl.  Thank you, Mom and Dad.

When first we arrived, the city was in the midst of a cholera epidemic; our parents must have loved sending us off into that.  We’d been vaccinated, and were cautioned to avoid seafood when eating out, but what did we know of the words on the menus?  Not enough, and our sign language must have been poor, for Frank’s first restaurant dinner was a heaping platter of fried fish.  Perfect.  We worked hard at improving our restaurant-Italian after that.     

This was a school semester, let’s not forget, and I was in Italy to study, so in addition to eating as many bowls of pasta as I could comfortably consume (really, I’m not exaggerating), I joined my friends on motorbike excursions along the Appian Way: in explorations of Hadrian’s Villa, Pompeii, and Ostia Antica; and in scrabbling the slopes of Monte Testaccio in search of sizable pottery shards.  While watching black and white films in Italian Cinema class, we pondered the craft and dark themes of “neorealismo.”  In art class, we took to the streets of Trastevere with paints, canvases, and easels, and wandered the Forum and Colosseum for “Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome.”

On one memorable weekend, we went to work on a vineyard in Tuscany.  As we clambered from the bus, all so young, strong, and eager, the vineyard owner probably thought he’d gotten a great deal in free labor.  Mm, maybe not so much, as it turned out.

Warm, yellow sunlight bathed an expanse of gently rolling land neatly striped with rows of vines. Clippers were distributed, and we were released to the harvest.  Throughout the morning, we bent beneath curling vines heavy and fragrant with purple grapes, plucking some to snack on as we cut bunch after bunch to load into rustic wooden carts.  

After hours of snipping and wiping sweaty brows, we were invited to feast on sausages, cheese, bread, and wine.   With that, the industry of the morning fled.  A grape fight erupted while Bons, Ozzie, and FaPoco did yeoman duty, volunteering to shed their shoes, leap into the cart, and stomp grapes.

Recently, some of my fellow Romans decided it was time to get together.  Last year Bart arranged a lunch in Boston’s North End.  This September, Donovan scoured the Internet and enlisted Trinity’s alumni department in an effort to locate as many of us as possible, and invited us to gather at his place.

It is the way of long-awaited reunions that one enters a room filled with strangers, strangers with expectant faces, hesitant smiles, and eyebrows politely raised.  And then, there’s a shift, a dissolve, just like we learned in cinema class.  Something about that person’s smile, or the sparkle in the eye… and there they are!  Despite hair longer, grayer, shorter, or absent.  Despite weight added or taken away.  Despite those glasses, nearly ubiquitous, there were our fellow grape-tossers and ruin-scrabblers.  And as our day in Donovan’s backyard unfolded, our collective memory helped restore the magic of that semester together, a semester immersed in antiquity, art, opera, cinema, wine, and plenty of pasta.

We recalled the scratchy, screechy hall intercom.  Menzies in his blanket.  Fried artichokes at “Vecchia Roma.” Breakfast rolls with Nutella.  Primavera.  Lucchesi’s portrait of Bonnie.  Prostitutes luring customers (none of our group, mind you, at least not to my knowledge…) to the brass bed hidden in the shrubbery along the Circus Maximus while the boys played football… And beyond specific incidents and experiences, a new sense of a world to be explored and our own desire and ability to do so.

Thank you, Donovano, so very much, for bringing us all together.  Thanks to Pam for flying in from California, Jonny from Cincinnati, and Vicki from Cleveland. It was a joy, beyond words, to laugh, reminisce, and re-connect.

For me, fall will always smell a little like Rome.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ava and the Witch

As she sat in our bedroom gazing out the window, her straggly hair tucked in a shower cap, the witch looked anything but frightening.  But when Ava, at age three, saw her last year, the old crone was in her glowering glory, hunched by the fireplace, her potions, Ouija board, and broom within reach.  So it wasn’t surprising that our grandniece was hesitant about visiting our house this October.  For months after her prior encounter with Witchy, she responded to any mention of “Dave and Lea” with a shudder and “Oh.  The Witch.”

I confess to a certain satisfaction in hearing her make that connection.  I want Ava to be happy and comfortable at our house, but I have ancestors on both sides of the 17th century Salem Witch Trial travesty and an extravagant enthusiasm for Halloween, so Lea-equals-Witchy?  Kind of like that.

Ava is four now. During the spring and summer, while Witchy was safely out of sight in the attic and our activities centered on the backyard, Ava helped Dave plant potatoes in a weathered wooden whisky tub and returned months later to harvest them.  She flew a kite with Tucker and blew bubbles with Dave.  She picked raspberries in our thorny patch and peered through low-hanging limbs to inspect a nearby swamp.  Best of all, our neighbors took in a pregnant feral cat, and Dave and I got credit for Ava’s cozy cuddle with the resulting kittens.  According to Lisa, Ava’s mom, we now represent nature, kittens, and intriguing explorations as well as Witchy.  Progress.   

I’m not sure how she went about it, but Lisa had been gearing Ava up for an encounter with our witch.  So, when rain prevented a planned visit to Silverman’s Farm to pick apples and pat farm animals, I suggested Lisa, Ava, and Trevor come to help decorate our house for Halloween. Maybe if Ava unwrapped the witches and skeletons at rest in their tissue shrouds, she’d recognize them as resin, porcelain, and fabric only. 

So I dragged out fake tombstones, glycerin-infused oak leaves, pumpkins, and bins, but left Witchy upstairs, glum in her tattered summer garb and shower cap, until Ava’s level of tolerance was established.

Ava arrived grinning with good spirits and eager to face what had once been a source of fear.   Dave and I had not been around for Ava’s birthday, so we won points, early in the visit, with gifts of Rapunzel, Elsa, and Anna, the Disney girls, and knew they’d provide a cheerful refuge if need be.

My sisters and friends know of my penchant for this season and often Christmas and birthdays reap a fresh slew of spooks.  So it’s always a fun surprise when the tissue paper parts to reveal a new witch or black cat.  As Ava delved into the protective layers of white, orange, and black, and hollow eye sockets and spectral limbs appeared, I’d whisk aside skulls and skeletons I’d judge too eerie.  My taste does tend toward Victorian ghoulish, I guess. 

But Ava’s exposure to the bizarre has been minimal, and she took most of these revelations in stride.  When she uncovered a key chain from which dangled a miniature, but very realistic, skull, she gleefully pulled it out.  “Aww.  Cute. So tiny!” She squealed happily as she hung it from a wrought iron hook on a lamp, as gratified with the effect as if it had been an ornament on a Christmas tree.

Every so often, Lisa would say, “Are you ready to have Witchy come down?” 

Despite her relative comfort with the bins’ contents, Ava’s hesitance about Witchy had returned and her “No” was decisive.  In fact, she was steering clear of the stairs for good measure, just in case Witchy took it into her head to make an appearance unbidden.  Maybe I’d personified this concoction of hand-me-down clothes, wadded newspaper, and polyfil too much.

As witches continued to emerge from cupboards and closets, occasionally Ava would shrink away at first glimpse.  “Real or fake?”  Lisa would ask. 

“Fake!” Ava would assert with spook-banishing assurance.

Some of my witches, mostly gifts from my friend Kate and sisters Rita and Francie, are quite lovely actually, and Ava cooed at a charming, pleasant-faced, bat-winged wonder and declared her a fairy witch.  Rita also gave me one of my treasures, a Franklin Mint Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz.  She’s as green and dangerous as Margaret Hamilton’s character, so I handed Ava the flowing gauzy cape, hairnet, and broom before removing the bubble wrap over the doll’s face.  “Ooooh!” exclaimed Ava once the witch was bedecked in her finery.  “She looks like a princess!”

I really do have a lot of witches.

As we girls alternated between cautious bin-unpacking and breaks to play with Rapunzel and Frozen figurines, Dave and Trevor threw a football outside while waiting for Dave’s dough to rise for his weekly batch of bread.  Much of the magic at our house is more about Dave’s kitchen wizardry than anything Witchy dreams up, and the slow pouf of yeast, flours, honey, and eggs cast a different kind of spell once the loaves went into the oven and their aroma wafted through the house.

But the afternoon was lingering toward dusk and Witchy was waiting.  “Would you like to wear Witchy’s cape?”  I asked Ava.  “It’s soft and cozy. And maybe her hat?”

Swathed in black velvet and peeking from beneath the wide brim, Ava took a few twirls while I set out a chair and table by the fireplace.  I rummaged in the dining room for black candles to set in a web-draped candelabrum, unearthed some antique bottles and a tea caddy so Ava could arrange Witchy’s potions, and then went upstairs to fetch the grand-dame herself.

I carried her down in my arms, a time-worn dummy in an old skirt and shirt, her face a grumpy mask crafted from cast-off stockings.  I laughed with over-the-top exuberance as I carried her into the front hall and said, “Just like a big ugly baby, right?”


While Ava’s smile froze at our entrance, it broadened almost immediately.  Nothing scary here!  She helped me settle the witch onto the chair and arranged the cape while I tucked a pair of boots into place under the skirt.  With a flourish, I removed the shower cap, combed Witchy’s squirrel-nibbled yarn hair over her shoulders, and set the tall peaked hat low on her brow.

“She looks angry,” said Ava with a trace of concern.

“Not angry, just wrinkled.  She’s happy, actually, to be out of the attic and ready for Halloween.  And you helped get everything ready for her!”

It’s easy to dismiss a little girl’s fear over something we know to be harmless, but for Ava, that witch was a threat, a powerful, perhaps magic, threat, yet with a little coaxing, she met her head on.  How many of us could do the same? 





Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Together on The Block

Tangled brown tresses tumble from the blond woman’s rolling bag.  A wig, I figure, but a closer look reveals a head.  A mannequin’s head, mind you, but with its lifelike face and all that hair, it is…well, unnerving. 

“Traveling with a head?”  I comment.

The woman glances down at her bag and laughs.  “Yeah.  I have a wedding tomorrow.”

Oh.  That explains it. 

My husband, Dave, is parking the car while I wait with our friend Joanie - plus Dave’s guitar, our backpacks, a cooler, and bikes - for the ferry to Block Island.  It is September, and as we have for years, we are meeting dear friends for our annual gathering.

The drive from home to the ferry, as always, was tricky.  As a rule, on this weekend, Dave leaves work in Greenwich around 3:00 PM.  He then sits, stews, and grumbles in traffic while Joanie and I pace, anxiously glancing at the clock, waiting for him to pull in at home to pick us up.  When he arrives, he unfolds himself gingerly from his seat, adjusts his back, and walks as briskly as possible to the house.

We girls strive to be upbeat, feigning calm, once Dave sets to work hefting the bikes on top of the car and strapping them in as the minutes pass.  Joanie, ever optimistic, gives a “Whoo-Hoo! We’re off!” kind of cheer as we plunge back into the sluggish current of Friday afternoon traffic.  Under ideal conditions, it’s two hours and fifteen minutes to the dock in Point Judith, our preferred place of departure.  The last ferry of the day chugs out at 7:00 PM. 

We all love Point Judith, but for Dave, it’s an integral part of this Block Island weekend.  After the frenzied ride, he likes to browse at the sweatshirt shop, then stop in next door to pick up a steamy cup of Rhode Island clam chowder, with it’s salty gray broth and potatoes, no cream.  Around the docks, the stench of fish and motor oil pervades.  Gulls cry as they dart and wheel around hoary fishing boats bristling with lines and rigging. Engines grind, chains clank, halyards whack against masts, and somehow, it all seems charming.

But it was well after 4:00 when we left home today, and I had to seal my lips shut to maintain the fantasy, for as long as possible, that we might make Point Judith in time.  We were passing the exit for Waterford when Dave asked how long it would take to get to the Point.  “We’d have maybe ten minutes to spare if we don’t hit any slow spots,” I said, trying not to embellish, whine, or coerce.  

Dave is a master at maintaining an animated public face, but he had spent too many hours in traffic this week, and could not mask his disappointment.  “So I guess it will have to be New London,” he said. 

There is nothing wrong with New London.  The downtown boasts lovely Victorian buildings of aged red brick, but the transportation center is a utilitarian ferry depot, and we would sorely miss the joy of our accustomed ride over with our friends, Hallie and Buck.  Still, decision made, we are here in plenty of time to catch the ferry along with the woman and her extra head.

Once Dave joins us, we board the ferry, climb the metal staircase to the upper deck, and take our seats.  Dave is determined to be content and heads for the bar.  He returns with potato chips, two plastic cups of merlot, a beer, and a smile.  We click our drinks in a toast as the ferry churns out of the harbor.  Too bad my husband chooses to set his beer down, for he kicks it over, sending a cascade of golden brew toward our assembled belongings.  Argh.

An hour and a half later, it doesn’t matter, for we are encircled by friends at Dead Eye Dicks on Block Island, ordering swordfish, crab cakes, lobster rolls, and shrimp.  It’s the perfect spot for the first night, right across the street from our hotel, The Narragansett.

In the beginning, the “Race Around the Block” was the incentive for this island weekend.  Dave’s brother, Steve, would run the course, sweating, pumping, and panting, while the rest of us relaxed in the warmth of the afternoon sun at the finish line, sipping tasty mudslides and admiring the view of New Harbor.  The tradition has continued because increasingly we recognize how precious is this time together.

Last year we celebrated Janet and Art’s daughter’s wedding and Steve and Debby’s 40th anniversary, although we were saddened to learn of Moo’s son’s divorce.  The year before that, Len had just retired, good reason to indulge in an extra mudslide.  Three years ago, we learned of Nelson’s Parkinsons diagnosis, and in 2009, I trudged off the ferry wearing a scarf, newly bald from chemo.  Dave had thrown out his back the morning we left for that visit, and this year, Joanie's the one wearing a back brace. But Moo’s husband Cisco has joined us for the first time; Art and Janet’s daughter is pregnant; Mary’s daughter just got married; Tucker got a job at Google, and Casey’s boyfriend, P.J.  got a job at IBM.  So we celebrate and support, depending on what’s called for.  “Peaks and valleys,” says Nelson’s wife, Anne.

Our topics, activities, and props have changed.  There is more emphasis on stretching before mounting our bikes, and the question, “How did you sleep?” is not idly made.  While none of us felt a need to bring a head in a bag, everyone carries a phone.  As we catch up and crow while poring over the photos stored in those phones, most reach for their reading glasses to do so.  Despite these signs of our aging, Block Island restores us.  Deb says, “As soon as I see the island come into view from the ferry, the weight lifts from my shoulders.  Here I can be a kid again, silly, and free-wheeling.”

Saturday night, after dinner at Dead Eye Dicks and a day of shopping, beaching, and bike rides, we gather in the living room at The Narragansett to sing.  A couple, Karen and Peter, gray-haired and about our age, are reading quietly on the couch.  I don’t give them much thought, but with a friendly smile, Joanie goes over to sit with them. Meanwhile, Art goes to the bar to buy them a drink, a kind gesture to offset our disturbing their peace.  I file away their lessons in courtesy, and am proud of my gracious friends. 

As everyone settles in, Dave strums his guitar, starts and stops a bit, trying out a few possibilities.  I think he’s crazy to bring the guitar over to the island.  He has to lug it around in addition to his backpack, and grapple with it while riding his bike.  I’d never bother, too much of a pain, but where I give up on something that seems like too much trouble, Dave is willing to deal with the inconvenience if it’s going to make a difference in the end.

And it does.  Would we have gathered on the couches and chairs at The Narry to sing if Dave hadn’t brought his guitar?  We limp through “Sloop John B” and some Simon and Garfunkle numbers, straggly and short on words.  Then the phones and reading glasses come out as Mary, Len, and Karen locate a lyrics site so everyone can lean in close to see the words.

Beatles songs seem embossed in our sixties-era souls and everyone belts out “You Won’t See Me.”  As we move on to “In My Life,” a few voices quiet as eyes fill with tears.     

All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all.”

Once just a pretty song, the lyrics now strike a poignant chord.  While every one of us has lost a loved one, this weekend at The Narry is a joy-filled moment, alive with laughter, friends, and memories in the making.

As we warble though Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” I reflect that ours was the youthful perspective when that song was popular.  Now, we are the wistful parents. Okay.  Enough of that.  Getting maudlin.  Time to ramp up the mood.  Nelson takes over the guitar for a while, then back to Dave for some Jonathan Edwards and our favorites, “Don’t Cry Blue” and “Shanty.”  Usually, we count on Steve’s harmonica for these two, but he left his guitar and harmonica at home.  No one gives him any grief about that though. Hmm.  He does not disappoint, however, and amazes us with a convincing vocal “harmonica” accompaniment.

It’s getting late, and even with the help of eyeglasses and cell phones, the tempo is slowing down.  I look around this circle and marvel at the decades, experiences, and life phases we’ve been through together:  our own graduations, weddings, pregnancies, job changes, and kids…not to mention, many birthdays.

This morning, while browsing the shops in town, I noticed and bought a greeting card, a vintage photograph of a line-up of little girls, each holding the waist of the child before her.  Audrey Hepburn was quoted in the caption beneath the picture, her words so apt, so true:  “The best thing to hold onto in this life is… each other.”