Not About Gratitude

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My friend is 95. She is dear to me, a sweet woman who is frail but feisty. Can you be both? I think so. She is kind and hospitable when I come to call, and offers me food: an apple, an orange, a cup of tea. The feisty part comes out when she argues with her caregiver about what to wear, and when to stop talking and get dressed. Over the last year, I have seen her mental sharpness fade. On the phone, she asks me over and over what time I am coming. She cries easily, missing her husband who died years ago. She talks to a life-sized photo of him propped on a chair in her living room, facing the couch where she sits. I know it’s not him, she says with a smile, but it makes me feel better when I talk to him.

I bring food because it gives us something to do together, and is easier than trying to hold a conversation as she repeats herself, asking me the same question over and over, and generally making me crazy. I bring two cups of coffee and bagels with cream cheese. She enjoys them after she gets up and down for sugar, milk, and paper napkins for us both. I give up trying to get her to settle down and just wait her out. She’ll get there.

We had a visit scheduled for the morning after the 2016 presidential election. She had the TV on when I walked in. How can Donald Trump be president? she screeched. I was in tears but she didn’t seem to notice, or maybe she did and understood.

She likes to tell me about her childhood, growing up black in New Jersey. I asked her how she could stand it, being always put down, even by so-called friends, and told you were second class. She said you have to decide you’re not going to be angry all the time.

I think a lot about what she said. I’m a little bit angry every day since the presidential election. I hate what I see – the incivility, the overt racism, the ugly nationalism. In my youth, there was hate and violence too. But I was white, and young, and sure the country would get better, more egalitarian. More compassionate. It did, for a while. I worked for the state government in the Great Society; I was a bureaucrat in the War on Poverty during the Lyndon Johnson administration. Sure, there was waste, and too many rules. But now, the subject of poverty hardly comes up in the public sphere, and not because poverty is gone. 

Some days, it’s hard holding on to hope. I’m older too. Will I live to see a better day? My friend is getting ready to leave this life, and talks about where she’s going next. She’s not angry, that’s for sure. I almost envy her.

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Do you have hope for our country? How do you hold on to it? Comment below under “leave a reply” and you might win a copy of Old Friend From Far Away, a book on memoir writing by Natalie Goldberg.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Carolyn Ferris Gombosi. She gets a copy of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, a beautiful story of grief and resilience. Congratulations, Carolyn, and thanks for sharing your thoughts here!

 

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Big Girl Pants

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It was raining lightly when I got to the Borough Hall Station. I saw the sign on the street; all I needed was to find the entrance. People walked snappily by, like they knew where to go, and I wanted to look that way too.

When I was young, New York City was my dream place to live and work, the apex of my career girl life. In the 1960s, we called grown women girls and didn’t think anything of it. You could count the career girls in my upstate New York mill town on two hands: teachers, nurses, one doctor. Was a “private secretary” a career girl? My parents wanted me to go to Mildred Elley Secretarial School in Schenectady. But like Richard Russo’s mom, who lived in a nearby town, I longed to be Elsewhere.

It took a while. After college, there were business trips to midtown on the train to and from Philly, and whole days in big convention hotels with other librarians. Post-career now, I write and teach. I want to write well, to learn how it’s done, and so I travel to writing conferences in the literary city, sophistication town, like the big girl I want to be.

Sometimes I’m still the scared Catholic schoolgirl inside, remaking herself late in life. After two times crossing the street in drizzle, I found the subway staircase from the street. A young black man held a door for me as I deliberately stepped down. I thanked him, pleased that of all the busy people, he stopped for me, because he saw me looking uncertain. My son who lives in Brooklyn said, take the 2 train uptown, it’s best, to Times Square, then the 1 right across the platform to 50th Street. On the 2, a young Hispanic woman offered me her seat. I smiled no thanks, then saw the sign: Please give seat to the elderly or disabled. Okay, fair enough. I feel slow, unsure, and frazzled by the rain, the confusion, the tangle of people in every direction. My son was right; I got off the 2 and the 1 was right across from me, waiting. It all seemed to work for me that day. It has to, my son’s girlfriend says, in a city this big you have to be civil.

At 50th, I walked upstairs and took out my foldout laminated map, walked to 6th between 53rd and 54th  and laughed as I spotted my conference hotel.

People around me paid no attention. Cars, buses, and taxis clattered by. Storefronts glittered, the rain stopped, and my heart lifted like the red one on the T-shirt I refused to buy because it’s too tourist hokey. I heart NY. I really do.

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Have you done something you were scared to try? Big or small, share it in the comments and I’ll put your name in the hat for a copy of Styx and Stone: an Ellie Stone mystery by James W. Ziskin. Ellie is a career girl in 1960s New Holland, New York, a thinly disguised version of my home town of Amsterdam, who travels to New York City.

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The winner of this month’s drawing is Cheryl. She gets a signed copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s By Invitation Only.  Visit her terrific blog, Mind Kind Mom. Congratulations, Cheryl, and thanks for your comment last month!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking About Writing

This afternoon, I drove through rainy Bucks and Northampton Counties to Westminster Village, a retirement center in Allentown, PA. The activities people invited me to talk to residents on National Letter Writing Day about The Healing Power of Writing.

A small group of women had spent the morning making greeting cards with scrapbooking materials. I talked to them about the health benefits of writing their life stories, a bit about Off Kilter, and then had them do a short note-card exercise about someone they loved.

I’m always amazed at the energy in the room when I do these talks and classes. You can almost see the words travel from their brains (or hearts) down their arms and through their pencils onto the page. People go from staring at me expectantly to becoming completely absorbed in self-reflection. Watching them continue the conversation over tea and snacks made my heart sing.

An afternoon well spent, I drove home, through the rain, with that ‘good tired’ feeling, soft and open.