Sunday, November 30, 2008

the cheese stands alone

November 26

Today my mother died. Not TODAY, today, but on this date 12 years ago. My mind refuses to remember the exact date. Maybe that’s because it was “two days before Thanksgiving” and that’s one of those holidays that moves around. My body, however, always knows it’s coming. There is no way I can forget to remember. For a short time last week I panicked because I couldn’t find my dad’s old black Filofax (remember them?) in which I list such things. I was just about to call my Aunt Sally and shamefully ask, when I found it in one of my many shoeboxes of stuff.

The column I wrote after she passed, became one of my most requested and responded to. Years after I left the paper, I would run into people looking for a copy, or telling me how they had passed it along to their own daughters. In that spirit I offer it once again:

I have come down with a severe case of chronic terminal adulthood.

Two days before Thanksgiving, my mother died. With both my father and younger brother having preceded her, I have become the last standing member of the family in which I came of age. And frankly, this is one of those times when there is cold comfort in the knowledge that many others are being propelled through an identical emotional gauntlet.

So, I have become – in the words of self-help guru John Bradshaw – not only a “terminal adult,” but an “adult orphan.” To those who haven’t yet experienced the last of their parents’ passing, it may seem a bit self-indulgent to consider oneself an orphan when one is just shy of 50, but it really is an accurate description of what it’s like. There is something both scary and liberating about finding myself in this position. As Janis Joplin once sang: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Ain’t it the truth.

My father used to say that when he was a young man attending family functions, he was seated at a table near the door with his cousins. Then, one day he turned around and realized he was in the front of the room, with nowhere left to go and all eyes upon him.

In the month since my mother’s death, I have barely touched on the emotional work. With all the pressing, practical details, it’s almost easy to avoid the crushing realization that the parenthood fantasy is ended. Gone. There no longer exists in this world someone to whom I am all-important, someone to always be there, someone to willingly place his or her body between me and the grave.

Aside from terse financial realities, there is all that stuff. The stuff, not only of their lives, but also of mine. A melange of memories. Sorting through it bounces me back and forth in time – very unsettling.

The passing of seconds, hours and days are indistinguishable. I rise each morning and go about the rituals of life, but I am disconnected. The world spins freely without me. And that’s OK.

Oddly (or maybe not so oddly), the only place I approach wholeness is in the solitude of my mother’s house. It still looks, smells and feels as if she stepped out for a walk. I watch TV from her recliner, wade through a mass of papers on her desk and heat the last of her frozen homemade vegetable soup for dinner. Some nights, I even sleep in my parents’ bed.

For me, she will not really die until I dismantle her home, scattering her worldly goods. I begin, slowly and singularly, shaking off offers of help. I am not in a rush. In a weird way I savor the chores, perhaps as one last parting gift. I want to do it right – as if there is such a thing.

As many others of the Great Depression generation, she saved everything regardless of the logic. I found niches filled with folded paper bags of every description, a can of old twist ties, a collection of more take-out plastic food containers than a caterer would need, receipts more than a decade old, handbags with broken straps, an evening gown I wore at 17 to a cousin’s wedding – and so on.

I ask my children, extended family and her friends what they want. Their choices are surprising: a vase from my own childhood; a pair of wine goblets: a set of fruit knives, a tiny teddy bear. As for me, I can’t decide on what to sell, what to give away and what to keep. I am literally dizzy with indecision. What do I do with all those bowling trophies?

For the first week or so, the answering machine in the den hummed with innocent reminders of missed doctor’s appointments and confirmations of future appointments never to be kept.

The answering machine is quiet now; there is no blinking light announcing new messages. Well, almost no blinking light. I confess to dialing the number once or twice just to hear that familiar voice promising to return my call.

Monday, November 24, 2008

days of our lives

Hey, be of good cheer! It's the most calendar time of the year.

Come November, calendars are as ubiquitous as Christmas carol Muzak filling retail stores. Long gone are the days when calendars were primarily given away by gas stations and other local businesses. Some years ago, an enterprising calendar manufacturer obviously had this thought: People are going to need new calendars anyway, so why not market them as Christmas presents?

It's one of those brilliant marketing strokes that's multiplied like those notoriously fecund tribbles on that famous original Star Trek episode. And much like the tribbles, calendar displays threaten to devour many a book or stationery store.

There are animal calendars, famous dead people calendars, famous artists and photographer calendars, baby calendars, ecological calendars, verging on the pornographic calendars, funny calendars and pious calendars, to name a few. Just about every self-help book has found its way into a calendar of its own.

Like most folks, I pause at the displays, weighing my choice for the approaching new year. I tend to go in cycles. For several years, I purchased Ansel Adams calendars, with the intention of framing the photos once the year expired. I didn't, of course. Most recently, it's been a series of Marilyn Monroe calendars -- same intention, same result.

So what happens to these outdated calendars? They're tossed out, right? Wrong. They are addedto the growing pile in the corner of a closet. I can't throw them away. Now, I'm not just talking about those with fancy artwork. My repository includes all manner of date books.

I used to think I was the only weirdo who has trouble throwing out old calendars, but an informal poll of my friends has turned up others afflicted with the same malady--although they insist they're only saving the prints of famous photos or great paintings and the like. Donkey dust.

I don't buy it.

Every few years, I stumble across my yellowing collection of bygone days and try to toss 'em. I can't. In thumbing through the pages, I'm struck by how the most mundane list of appointments floods me with memories. Discarding them would be like disposing of those years of my life. Silly, huh? After all, I do keep a journal. But it's just not the same.

Unlike journal entries, calendar notations are impromptu and therefore more revealing. There is something about the ordinariness and periodic repetition of calendar entries that evokes the rhythm of the days. And the form of a monthly calendar visually spreads out time before your eyes, encouraging a different perspective, uncovering growth or lack of same. It's almost impossible to avoid noticing crowded weekdays and lonely weekends, for instance.

As time goes by, not only do the details of our days pale, but often events blur and we tend to confuse the order or length of a particular incident. This jumps off the pages of distant calendars, much to our surprise.

Did I really spend so much time working on that project? Why did I stop at the cleaners so often? Boy, my allergies must have been driving me crazy. How did I find the time visit the gym so frequently? Has my brother really been gone so long? Gosh, I could have sworn Tom and I danced away that New Years Eve, etc.

Of course, it's quite possible that I'm especially sentimental, and all of you view old calendars simply as objects that have outgrown their usefulness, but I doubt it. So, who has trouble throwing out those little phone directories after you've bought a new one? Let's see a show of hands, please.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Over the river and through the woods to Boston Market we go?

So it's not exactly grandmother’s house. But it’s the closest many of us get these days. And they do serve up one tasty traditional Thanksgiving meal. Since moving to Sarasota, seven years ago, I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to indulge myself in their holiday meal, at times inviting another single life traveler with a tray to join me.

A time or two, I’ve been welcomed to a so-called orphans' Thanksgiving, where kind souls gather up a few of us strays and open up their home for a feast. Always a pleasant and comforting way to spend the day. As the song goes: if you can't be with the one you love; love the one(s) you're with. I invest in an outrageous desert to up my chances of being asked back.

When I am most lucky--as I will be this year--my close friends fly down from New Jersey to their condo in Fort Myers Beach, and I joyfully make the 4- hour round-trip to spend some quality time with “family” as my two offspring are flung far and world-wide.

That’s not to say I don’t miss my family, those still here and those long gone. Especially now. Thanksgiving has always ranked as my favorite holiday for several reasons:

It’s a uniquely American holiday. Regardless that the story isn’t the fairytale we were fed as children.

It never hurts to focus on that for which we chose to be grateful.

It’s all about the food, my favorite expression of abundance. Whether one chooses turkey or tofurky, the meal’s the thing. And there is NOTHING about the food I'm not nuts about, especially since everyone has gone poultry skin phobic, and I claim more than my share from the dog.

My memories of the time are such mellow ones. I come from one of those large loud families stuck in their childhood roles. In other words, my adult aunts and uncles waged their childhood wars their whole lives, putting any extended family gathering in jeopardy of imploding--except for Thanksgiving. I guess I’ll never know why. Not that it matters much anymore.

So among the things I am grateful for on Thanksgiving are the warm feelings I carry into this brief respite from the everyday. The chance to share it with those I cherish is a bonus.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Quick takes

I thought I’d never live to see the day…

How often have we heard that in the last few weeks?

I can recall the first time I said that out loud. It was the eve of Gulf I, and I was covering a council meeting, in which no one was interested in the town’s business. We heard the news from a clerk it had begun. Back then, I never thought I’d live to see the day we would go to war without a direct attack. That was what the other guys did. You know, the BAD guys.

So I’ve taken to noting a few other things I thought I’d never live to see, in no particular order. (That’s just the way my warped mind works. Once it finally get rolling it just keeps going.)

I thought I’d never live to see the day ...

Odd black hairs would appear on my chin.
We would engage in another offensive war courtesy of Bush 2.
My mothers face looking back at me from the bathroom mirror.
A modest car would cost more than my first house.
We would decisively elect a black president.
I would need easy open pill containers.
My children would finally leave home.
Renewable energy being taken seriously.
Organics go mainstream.
We would elect a black president with al qaeda sounding name.
Gas prices at $4 a gallon.
Gas prices dropping like a stone to half that.
Americans bringing their own bags to the supermarket.
My son tucking a $20-bill into my pocket, while solemnly instructing me to ask the conductor, “Does this train go to Grand Central?”
I would have another “Kennedy” moment.
Americans working as “health care slaves”.
My tush falls out of the back of my shorts.

Last one for now:
I never thought I’d live to see the day...
One of my people making the national political stage and almost capturing the prize. By my people, I mean Hillary. Not because she’s a woman. It’s her “big guffaw” of a laugh. She’s one of us. Mine is sort of like a hysterical machine gun, a derivation of my mom’s embarrassing big belly laugh. A friend once threatened to have it surgically removed. We have really come a long way baby.

How ‘bout you?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Burning bright: the column

Ok people, I apologize.

In the last post, I referenced a column I had written in my journalist days immediately after the death of a much younger lover, a column that became my first book, Moonshadow. I know, I know, a more knowledge person would have simply inserted a link for those of you who wanted to actually read it. But I couldn't figure out how, and frankly, didn't want to bother my daughter again. So here it is:

He drove a battered white Plymouth Duster, complete with the tiny red devil painted on its rear. I was 28, separated from my husband, juggling two kids, college and a weekend job as hostess at the Ocean Bay Diner, Point Pleasant, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. That’s where I first saw him one hectic Saturday night among the bar crowd. He sauntered by as only a 19-year-old male can.

There was no doubt about it, the kid was obnoxious. Seriously good-looking, but obnoxious. He flirted with me, I think, to impress his friends. I gave as good as I got. Sometime in the weeks that followed, we left banter behind. He came to dinner. Then he came to stay. What an uproar. My folks were appalled. As for his parents, I can’t be sure, but since I was only 11 years younger than his mother, it wasn’t hard to imagine.

Nobody, though, was more surprised by our relationship than the two of us. I was mesmerized by his manner, his mop of shiny black hair, brown eyes you could bathe in and the most exquisite hands I have ever encountered. He was as affectionate as a puppy.

As intense as the physical relationship was, it paled alongside our growing love and admiration. We talked and laughed for hours over coffee, didn’t leave the house for days on end, even shut off the phone.

I allowed Tom to step out with relative safety into the world away from his close-knit family. I offered him a sort of physical and emotional halfway house between childhood and adulthood. Tom allowed me to live out my young adulthood, cut short by marriage at age 20. He introduced me to Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull and the bump. He had an acid wit, a sensitive, brooding intelligence and insight that often belied his years. He loved my poetry and hated my singing.

He adored my children. The oldest of four siblings, Tom had an easy way with kids. He taught my son to use the bathroom in, shall we say, a manly way. He hung shelves in my daughter’s room to make it comfortable.

He was my lover and my best friend, more of a husband than I would ever have; more of a father to my children than they would ever have. If not the love of my life, he came close enough to make such a love possible.

As with many passionate relationships, though, ours was turbulent. The gap in our ages only compounded normal conflict. It was fire and ice. When it was good, it was beyond extraordinary. When it was bad, it was beneath hell. I was unaware the, however, that his acts verging on cruelty were fueled by alcohol.

Still, when it ended, it was years before I could hear his name without my heart missing a beat. He drifted away, marrying and divorcing twice. I heard he was living on the West Coast, estranged from his family and still battling the bottle. We didn’t exchange a word in 14 years. But I never doubted we would see each other again some day, although
I was certain he could generate no more tears.

I was wrong on both counts.

On April 23 his brother called. Tom had died the day before of a heart attack, two months before his 40th birthday. He was alone in a California motel room, a bottle of vodka at his side.

The pain was overwhelming. It was as if he had been ripped that very instant from my arms. I had never really said goodbye. And now I know I never will. You see, it was Tom, himself an aspiring writer, who recognized in me an ability I never knew I possessed. He awakened me to the joys of writing, encouraging me to keep a journal.

So each time I pick up a pen or face a computer screen, he is there, watching my struggle, murmuring in my ear: “Come on, woman, there is nothing you can’t do—except sing,

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The wind of my soul

I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul.

Great stuff. Unfortunately not mine. The words and phrasing belong, of course, to a storied British singer-songwriter. There is no artist “like” Cat Stevens, nothing derivative in his musical DNA. And to twist a well worn phrase, his work is the soundtrack of my love.

The other day, covering a break in the music department at Barnes&Noble, my day job, my eye catches his name in the bins. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say the name reaches out and grabs me by my ears like one of those loony animated cartoons. Against my better judgment, I thumb through the familiar cds, my hand resting on a strange one, released in 2006 and called An Other Cup (a clear reference to his Tea for the Tillerman best seller of the 1970s.) This is decades after our relationship comes to a crashing halt. And by relationship, I include the young man who introduced--or should I say seduced--me with his music.

Back in those 1970s, that relationship is considered way out of line. Even today, when older women/younger men couples are more common, ours likely wouldn’t make the cut--with me a 28-year-old single mom and him a 19-year-old still living at home. Naturally, it flames out.

However, my intense and passionately complex relationship with this young man alters my life’s course, leaving me ragged and raw. At least I still have Cat Stevens, his musical alter ego. Then Cat abandons me, also. Converting to Islam, rejecting his musical gifts, selling his instruments and awards, and adopting the name Yusuf. Silly as it seems now, I take it personally. And when he supports the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie, I can no long bear the sound of his name (s).

The world turns and turns and turns. Word reaches me that my former young lover has died. He is only 39. My stomach turns and turns and turns. I immediately take refuge in Cat Stevens’ voice. Driving home from the funeral, I am compelled to write about us. A newspaper column is followed by a novel, which is really a memoir wrapped in a tissue paper of fiction. Cat Stevens is my constant companion during this time. His songs provide the chapter names and the title, Moonshadow.

I move on.

As the saying goes: Change is mandatory; growth, optional. I sample cuts from Yusuf‘s 2006 album on the store‘s machine. The voice remains smooth and rich, the lyrics compelling. Yet it is this blend of Cat Stevens and Yusuf that I now hold dear. If I ever run for office, this would be my anthem: Peace Train