Not About Gratitude

selective focus photography of left hand on top of right hand on white pants
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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lipstick Print on a China Cup

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Coffee doesn’t like me anymore. It upsets my stomach. But whenever I see someone walking down a city street, lidded paper cup in hand, I want one.

In my early 20’s, coffee and a cigarette started my day. On the way to work, I stopped in the lobby of the Erie County Welfare Department to buy a coffee and a buttered roll before stepping into the elevator. In college and away from home for the first time, coffee made me feel alert, ready for anything. Safe. An anxious kid, holding and sipping that hot dark cup of Joe made me feel sophisticated. Like I belonged to the tribe of grownups.

This thread winds back to my two aunts at our family’s Formica kitchen table, talking and laughing. Their coffee was light and creamy, and the rims of their cups held the print of their red lipstick. Cigarette smoke plumed from an ashtray. They cared about me and I loved them back.

Follow the thread even farther back to an open house at Bigelow Sanford Carpet Mills, my Uncle Clarence standing beside a loom so high it reached far above his head, or so it seemed to me. Laughing, he offered me a cup of coffee and I was mute, serious. My father said it was a joke, my uncle was only kidding. I was too young for coffee, for sophistication.

I grew up to love the bitter taste of strong black coffee, but now it bothers my stomach. I switched to decaf then tea in the morning. I thought I’d build up a ritual with tea, evoking England, gentility, scones….

But old habits are hard to break. Once or twice a week, at coffee hour after the church service, or during a morning of writing, I treat myself to a cup of Joe. Because I’m forever captured by the image of red lipstick prints on the rims of china cups. The stamps of women who loved me when they were younger than I am now.

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What about you? Is there a habit you can trace to your childhood? Comment here and I’ll put your name in the drawing for a copy of The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory. One of my stories is included in this beautiful anthology of stories for the memory impaired (or the short of reading time!)

The winner of last month’s drawing is Marielena Zuniga. She gets a signed copy of Anna Quindlen’s novel, Miller’s Valley. Congratulations, Marielena!

 

 

When Things Were Not So Different

The following is a blog piece I wrote last year and never published. I think it’s time to let it out into the world.

Today I went to a life celebration for one of my memoir students. Lee was 93, a sweet and gentle man who smiled at his own frailties and took seriously all my suggestions to make his writing better. The gathering was small but filled with love and laughter as his family recalled his attention to detail and his endless storytelling.

It’s been a tough week here in the U.S. of A. Another mass shooting, angry ranting in the media, social and public, about the merits of gun control and the true tenets of a religion whose extremist members are suicidal would be killers.

Added to that is the ever present fact that I’m not getting any younger. No moisturizer or beauty sleep will iron out the wrinkles on my face. No amount of zumba or chiropractic will stave off forever the aches in my back and knees. I feel the pressure of time. Enjoy life, now, while you can, I tell myself. Use each moment to live your best life, there may be no tomorrow.

How can I reconcile my desire to accomplish certain things, to savor each moment, and to rewire my brain for happiness with the outside world and its horrors?

Can I stop watching the news? Cut off my social media? I’ll know it’s there anyway.

Hearing about Lee’s long and full life, at the funeral home this morning, at the lunch the family hosted afterward, and in his stories in my memoir class, I understand why this man was so loved. He was kind, he was gentle, he was tender. He lived through another horrific time: the Second World War, and worked as a young scientist on a secret project in the desert, far from home. And went on to establish a family and a network of friends, a home and a lifetime of useful work.

My mother once told me of the sad and lonely wartime Christmas holidays, for three or four years in succession, when she missed her husband and three brothers, all of them in mortal danger, knowing she’d only hear from them weeks after a letter was written, hopefully always by them and even then not knowing for sure they were all right.

We’ve been through tough times before. The world is like that. This is our time, and we can hide from that truth or use our time here to make our patch of earth and sky, the place from which our light shines forth, warm and suffused with love. A comfort. Like Lee.

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A Phone Call Brings a Nice Surprise

 

St. Stan's Elementary School in Amsterdam, New York
St. Stan’s Elementary School in Amsterdam, New York

Recently, my friend from kindergarten called. I hadn’t heard from her in several years, and we had a nice long chat, exchanging addresses, emails, cell numbers and news. Her name is in my memoir, Off Kilter, in the chapter about a field trip to the Shrine of Martyrs. As we talked on the phone, a few hundred miles apart, we remembered, together, our emotionally fraught upbringings. Neither of us could talk to our parents, and our teachers were strict and frightening nuns. Maybe not as bad as the ones in the movie, Philomena, but you get the right idea if you picture them.

Was there something in my horoscope about “women from the past” contacting me this month? I’d believe it. It was so nice to talk to someone who knew me when I was five, who remembers what my world was like back then, who shared that world. There is nothing like it. And for just about an hour, a part of me was back there, five years old again, with someone who wanted to hear everything. Who wanted to tell me everything.

Is there someone you have known since kindergarten? Are you still in touch? What if you gave them a call? Like, right now?