Room With A View

Rockwood Hall State Park, Sleepy Hollow, NY. (The Tappan Zee Bridge in the background.)

Thursday, a warm and sunny post-snowstorm day, while visiting my daughter and her family in Tarrytown, New York, I’d asked her if we could maybe take a walk along the Hudson. Her  eyes lit up: “Oh, yes,” she said, clearly excited to share yet another feature of her still-newish community (She and her family had moved to Tarrytown about a year and a half ago), “we can definitely arrange that.”

Ever since the UN report re climate change and how little time we have left, I am devouring books like The Overstory and Braiding Sweetgrass. My prayer life has expanded to include prayers, gratitude for all living things—especially trees. As much as I can, given winter weather and my urban surroundings, I’m walking through this precious, natural world as if both loving all I see and already mourning its loss. So I was psyched!

Land along the Hudson being prime real estate, I’d imagined our riverside walk would be maybe a mile or so long, on a wood-chip path through some overgrown vegetation, and end at some high-end development. So was astonished to find myself on the sculpted grounds of the Rockwood Hall State Park, perched above the Hudson, with magnificent views and wonderful, paved paths to explore but also, the beautifully designed landscape of a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park. (It was my daughter’s father who’d first taught me how to recognize Olmsted’s eye-catching tree placement. On the campus of Vassar College. “See how your attention moves from this tree to that one and then to over there?” he’d coached. Yes. I did. Still do.)

But, wait! What’s the story behind all this magnificence? Who’d preserved these eighty-eight acres? Who’d made possible all this room with a view? Who’d hired Olmsted? The answer is: William Rockefeller. The brother of John D. Rockefeller and co-owner of Standard Oil Company. (I can still remember how brilliant I’d considered myself at eight or ten when I’d figured out that Esso, as in the name of the gas station—now known as Exxon, of course—was actually  S. O. As in Standard Oil.) He’d built Rockwood Hall; its foundations still stand although the mansion is gone. And, eventually, his vast estate—less than half of it anyway—became a state park.

Oh the irony. That our magnificent view, those perfectly-placed oaks and firs and sugar maples and sycamores, our excitement to watch soaring red-tailed hawks and a bald eagle, that glorious walk could have only happened because of the enormous wealth derived from a fossil fuel! A commodity which, like coal and natural gas, will make this planet unlivable for many, many species unless something truly miraculous happens.

Egad.

 

 

How It Ends

After listening to WellingUp.net’s podcasts, my daughter questioned an important, fundamental decision: “Why did you begin the story with Rocco’s death,” she wondered. “Wouldn’t it be better to tell the story chronologically?”

“No,” I answered. “I don’t think so.” And recalled a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. biography I’d read that begins with King’s assassination. “I felt like the book was way more powerful because I’d been reminded from the git-go that this wonderful man would be murdered, ” I told her. “And besides,” I continued. “This story is another version of the Jesus and Mary Magdalene story. And what do most people seem to remember about Jesus? How he died!”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation this past week as I read over my 2018 journals, a sobering, humbling end of the year/beginning of the year ritual I’ve performed for a few years, now. What? I did that stupid thing again? And again? And . . . Jeez! Every mention of my mother, who died in October of 2018, leaps off the page. Every conversation. Every health concern. Every interaction with a staff person at her long-term care facility. It’s all so precious.

So many excerpts I could share but here are few moments I’m so glad I recorded:

May 24, 2018 . . . Had a wonderful moment with Mom when she talked about dying and how it won’t be hard because she’s had such a wonderful life—and I told her how lovely it is that she told me that because her leaving will be less painful, knowing that. A sweet, lovely, who-would-have-predicted moment . . .

May 26, 2018 . . . Took Mom down to Black’s Nook where pond life is beginning to thrive. Water lilies, a frog, lots of birds—but no heron or geese—and Mom was pretty lively, herself. Reached over to touch a young man’s arm so she could look at his tattoo more easily. I teased her about touching strange men and she said,”If he’s brave enough to have tattoos he should be able to deal.” Or words to that effect . . . .

June 16, 2018 . . . Mom had lots to say about “A’s” [another resident she’d disliked] sudden death. Guilt, maybeWe talked a little about how, maybe A really was in a better place, not heaven, necessarily, but not in pain or angry or frustrated any more. A talk I again appreciated having with my mother. 

Oh, yes!

Muscle Memory

[Patsy Cline’s salt and pepper collection, Patsy Cline Museum, Nashville, Tennessee]

A wonderful surprise happened in 2018: I made two new, wonderful friends, both in their seventies, too. Over tea last week with one, a fellow peace activist and feminist, we discovered that although we’d grown up in very different parts of the country, our families’ respective religions differed, and she’d grown up with more siblings than I, in one respect, her parents and mine were exactly the same. She and I, who’d both grown up in the fifties and early sixties, had both taken piano lessons. And ballroom dancing!

We snickered. And agreed that learning how to waltz or foxtrot was not something young people ascribed to anymore. She quoted that famous line: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—only backwards and in high heels.” And I shared a story from my thirties, when my then-husband and I—probably chemically enhanced, shall we say?—had crashed a big, fancy, neighborhood party one summer night, a party held in a tent and with a live band. Boldly I’d invited a neighbor I really, really admired to dance with me. Kind of shy, not a dancer, he’d hesitated: “Don’t worry, darlin’,” I’d assured him. “I’ll make you look good.” And I did. Because from my ballroom-dance classes, I knew how to balance my weight on the balls of my feet; how to lightly rest my left hand on my partner’s shoulder in order to sense whatever direction he would go, and in a split-second, feet poised to respond, to accommodate that movement—wherever!

What a dated, horrifying story! But it begs me to wonder: Do I still do that? Do I still, in ways I don’t even realize because it’s just what I was trained to do, do I still wait, poised to move in response to someone else? Do I accommodate? Dedicate myself to making someone else look good?

Hmmm.

 

 

My Public Charge Letter (First Draft)

[Information re Public Charge]

To: Samantha Deshommes, Office of Policy and Strategy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, 20 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, D C 20529-29140

[Link to submit comments online]

Re: DHS Docket No. USCIS-2010-0012

I am writing to express my opposition to this proposed rule change.

[Okay, fine. That’s the standard stuff. But what should I say? “Write from your place of strength,” an immigration advocate coached a group of us letter-writers recently.

What’s mine? Do I note that because of the fear these proposed changes are causing, providers of greater-Boston health care services note a 5 to 10% drop in people coming to their clinics? So, for example, people aren’t getting flu shots? And how that makes me very nervous to get on public transportation or shop at my neighborhood supermarket? Or how I am fearful how these changes, designed to instill fear and insecurity,  will adversely effect the wonderful, upbeat people, most of them from other countries, who work at my mother’s long-term care facility?

Absolutely not! Public Charge isn’t about white, privileged me or my white, privileged family! It’s about the Trump Administration rewriting Emma Lazarus‘s poem to read, “We only want you if you’re young, healthy, wealthy, and speak English.”

No, my place of strength is the same place as so many of those who these proposed changes would exclude: I am a grandmother. I know how my family needs me. I know how my family relies on me. I know how the stories I tell my grandchildren, my “These are some of the men and women who came before you; here’s what they thought was important” narratives anchor my family. I know how grandparents’ (free) childcare makes it possible for both parents to work. Grandparents cast a long shadow in ways I can speak to. Grandparents make this country work in ways few understand or acknowledge.

But I better get to work. These letters, which can be as short as 250 words, are due by December 10, 2018.]

Can We Hold All Of It?

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, CA; November, 2015

Can we hold all of it? Can we both honor the war dead and wonder why, dear God, are we still engaged in endless war? Can we both use words like sacrifice and courage and service with conviction and sincerity and compassion while asking ourselves, are there other words I could be saying, too? Illuminating words? Game-changing words? Words that come from a deep and wise and loving place? Can we both grieve and resent that we are?

I’m trying to. And have come to realize that since the death of my mother a month ago, I’ve been practicing this spiritual balancing act. Because, yes, I mourn, yes, I miss her every day, yes, I’m sad, yes, I am grateful for all she imparted; how she’d modeled so many ways to be a strong, fulfilled woman. (Just writing fulfilled, a word she used all the time, makes me smile.) And yes, my relationship with Pat Wild was—and is— the most rich and complicated and challenging relationship I will ever have! So, yes, I am learning to hold all of it. Slowly. And sometimes failing, falling.

Meanwhile: The world just noted the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of “The Great War.” (aka “The War To End All Wars.”) Meanwhile: Veterans for Peace just reclaimed Armistice Day. Meanwhile, my mother’s unambiguous, clear, firm, posthumous message to me: be grateful.

 

Was it The Light?

My mother died a week ago.

So many, many things I could and want to say about her; I am moved, this morning, however, to tell this story:

About a week before she died, in terrible pain, she’d said, “I feel as though parts of me are flying away.” Which, as a dear friend no stranger to grief pointed out, is a lot like a wonderful song.

For the past week, much to my sorrow, unlike the sense of my father’s loving and abiding presence after he’d died, I have felt A Huge Void. As so poignantly described by Kathryn Schultz in her New Yorker essay about her father’s death. 

But, yesterday, in Boston’s Museum of Science’s butterfly garden, surrounded by fluttering, beautiful creatures, I felt my mother. I felt a powerful—how to describe it? An energy exchange? Her presence? Her essence? Her soul?

Was it the light? Or The Light?

Why ask.

Backlit

Having a loved one receiving “comfort care” is like being stoned—minus the munchies. Sometimes I forget and become absorbed or distracted or caught up in mindless routine but, mostly, my life glows, now, as if backlit. Ever aware that someone I love approaches death has imbued everything around me with such wonder, such preciousness, such gratitude!

Which, not for the first time, brings me to that wonderful moment at the end of “Our Town”:

“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”
Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Saints and poets, maybe—and those whose loved ones approach death.

“Unidentified Artist”

Detail from “Pieta” by an unknown artist, circa 1470, School of Avignon, France.

My mother isn’t doing well. Despite pain meds and massages and ice packs and the tender, loving care she receives from her long-term-care facility’s excellent staff, she suffers. She weeps. She’s horribly confused. Sometimes she’ll tell me about her conversations with my father (he died in 2010); sometimes she perseverates, “Who’s taking care of him? He’s over a hundred, you know.”!

For most of my life I’ve had a complicated, fraught relationship with my beautiful and brilliant and, until late in her life, unrealized mother. “You know,” she told me years ago; she might have been drinking.”You should have been my mother.” Over time I came to understand why this crazy-weird impossibility was so tragically true. Therapy helped. Al-Anon helped. Having four daughters of my own helped. Getting older—both of us—helped. And for the past three years, being able to drive fifteen minutes to visit her in her private, sunny room surrounded by her own paintings and photographs and books helps. That she receives meds to ease her lifelong anxiety and depression helps. (She pays a pretty penny for this care; an obscenely huge amount. Which she can afford. Until she won’t.)

Yet even on the best of visits, when we’ve “walked” along wheelchair accessible pathways to see how the community gardens’ tomatoes fare, or strolled down to a lovely, little pond to watch turtles and fish and, sometimes, a blue heron; even then, I’d come home and take a nap!

So, last night, worried about her and wiped out by another too-hot, terrifyingly unseasonal day, I lay on my bed, AC valiantly chugging along, and, headphones on, listened to music. I didn’t curate my selections; I just listened to what I love. (Or so I thought.) Like Maria Callas’s “Casta Diva.” Or Faure’s “Requiem” which, the first time I heard it, on my car radio on the way to work, triggered a peak religious experience. Yes, triggered. For having just experienced The Whole, That Which Is Beyond Words, Spirit’s Transcendent Love, all I could think of was “Well, this is highly inconvenient! Right here on Mass Av in Porter Square? Couldn’t I have been in a forest?”

Oh, right, I realized, listening to Faure’s gorgeous mass. Requiem! Ummm, as in death? As in my mother’s tears of pain, certainly, but also her tears of shame and sadness that she’s so helpless and weak; as in her dim understanding of what, possibly, is happening to her? As in, perhaps, that the veil between the living and the dead begins to thin for her; she’s catching glimpses of what I cannot see? Like my father? As in that I am in mourning for my beautiful and brilliant and realized mother; I am in mourning for a Mother Earth who is much too hot, now. (Jeez.)

And that, again, mysteriously, an Unidentified Artist some call Spirit loved me, guided me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Grammy

Reading “The Granddaughter Necklace” at Grammy’s house, August, 2018

For the past week I’ve been “Grammy.” That this delightful grandma-derivation is both something my beloved granddaughter began calling me one day, but can also mean prize-winning musicality, makes me very happy. Being Grammy makes me very happy— in the same way I feel whenever I am doing what is truly asked of me. Why is that?

What is it about being a grandmother that feels so “in the place just right”? For starters, spending time with the children of my children is a non-stop intimation of mortality! As Grammy, I am ever-aware that, yup; I am going to die. I. Just. Always. Am.

This fundamental realization immediately prompts a couple of questions: Okay, then, Grammy. So how do you want to spend this time with this child? And what do you want this child to remember about you?

So, yes, I am probably My Best Self as Grammy but, honestly? The role—which, for me, blessedly, also means being retired—allows that. Having cleared my calendar of all but the most essential duties and responsibilities when my grandchildren come to visit, Grammy time is pretty leisurely. You want to dawdle over breakfast, spend all morning in your jammies? No worries. (I could go on and on about this! But won’t.)

And what do I want this child to remember about me? My stories. Stories about when this child’s mother was a little girl; yes. Of course. But stories, too, about when I was a child; how different the world was, then. For I learned from my own, gifted, story-teller Grandma what a blessing it is to look at one’s own life as the next installment of an ongoing, mysterious, amazing story. To understand how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

And, yes, looking into the eyes of my beloved grandchildren, I know I am looking into The Future. And ask myself: what am I, Grammy, called to do?

 

 

 

 

“Fallen On Hard Times”

So many stories here.

Once upon a time, my beloved grandmother, Florence Moulton Mirick Wild, born in 1877, lived at 130 Beacon Street, Worcester, with her large, extended, closely-knit, and well-to-do family. My brother and I grew up listening, saucer-eyed, to her adventure-filled childhood stories; she was a gifted storyteller of the Always Leave A Story Better Than You Found It School. (When she got to a good part, like the time she almost got trampled by Mr. Jones’ horse and sulky when she’d run into Beacon Street without looking, she’d clutch her pearls. Literally. Not in horror but in sheer, unmitigated excitement!)

Friday I spent a few hours exploring my grandmother’s childhood neighborhood—which, like so many neighborhoods in so many American cities, has “fallen on hard times.” So this will not be a story about my beloved grandmother.* This is a story about brokenness.

View of downtown Worcester from Beacon Street

This is also a story about how you tell the story. For as I learned at my grandmother’s knee, language matters. Specificity matters. Facts matter. For example, little Florence didn’t just willy-nilly run across Beacon Street. No, she ran into the path of a speeding horse—who, by the way, always sped down Beacon Street—because Mrs. Doane across the street had just invited Florence to come have ginger cake. Of course that little girl, looking like a Kate Greenaway illustration, just “dashed into the street!”

So let’s get real. Let’s tell real stories of real people who’ve lost their jobs. Let’s use concrete language when we talk about poverty, when we talk about the bottom-line decisions to close down factories or to move them elsewhere; let’s admit there’s nothing benign about neglect! Let’s not say “Fallen on hard times,” okay?   As if that neighborhood—known (ironically) as Beacon Brightly—had accidentally, clumsily stumbled when, in fact, it was pushed.

An interesting development: Right around the corner from my grandmother’s house, where a spacious and elegant home—maybe two?— once stood, there is now YouthGrow Farm! Where youth from that neighborhood can learn about urban farming, leadership skills, teamwork, and so much more. And are paid to do so.

Hallelujah!

 

 

*As a sign prominently displayed in an antique store wisely advised, “The only person interested in what your grandmother had was your grandfather!”

Cognitive Dissonance

Shoes on a bowling alley rug, Malden, MA, 2017

Lots of blather, post the Cosby verdict, re “cognitive dissonance.” Male blather. So, guys, let me spell this out for you, okay?

Short answer: Those of us who identify as female know all about cognitive dissonance. Indeed, most of us have grappled with this profound and confusing and dizzying disconnect our entire lives. (We know about gaslighting, too. But that’s another story.)

I’ll elucidate: When you’re female, i.e. perceived as prey, it’s open season. No matter how old you are. Because hunters hunt. Hunters prey. Stealthily. With winks and whispers and sly smiles. Tragically, horrifyingly, these unwanted advances can be sexual; bewilderingly, they can also be simply a form of male muscle-flexing. But, nevertheless, still unwanted, still creepy. Believe me when I tell you, guys—believing women: talk about muscle-flexing!—that most females on earth have, in a private and secret and secluded moment, witnessed a well-respected member of our family or community being creepy. To us. Alone.(“Wink, wink.”)

So maybe now’s the time to roll out that useful F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Yup. So here’s a Fun Fact: most females possess first-rate intellects since we’ve grappled with This Crap since childhood. Makes you think about Zelda’s mental health issues in a whole, new light, am I right?!

My own story? To my knowledge, I was never sexually abused as a child. Thank God I’ve never been raped. (My novel’s Jewell was, though.) Since childhood, however, I have had countless creepy, bewildering experiences with men. Overly-attentive men. Family members, neighbors, members of our church community. Often, alcohol was involved. (Child of the fifties, I passed around lots of canapés at my parents’ cocktail parties.) Pretty sure that one incident, alone in our rec room with a “Visiting Fireman,” who’d come to our house for drinks and dinner, was egregious enough that my mother and father asked the next day if “something happened.” No, they didn’t elucidate. They didn’t provide useful language, offer guidance about boundaries, touch. But by simply asking that (too-broad) question they tacitly expressed disquiet. Which matched my own. Confirmed my own sense of creepiness when a grown man with Scotch on his breath ardently whispered how pretty I was, how I’d break a few hearts, some day, while my parents were out of the room. (I don’t think he touched me.) My parents’ bumbling question allowed me to begin to trust my own disquiet, my own, wordless Ewww!  (As the mother of four daughters, I’ve schooled them to trust their intuition and if something felt creepy, get the hell out of there!)

To drive home my point re perceived prey, I want to end this with another useful quote, this one from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There You Have It!”

Pies, Arnold’s Country Kitchen, Nashville, Tennessee.

For decades I’ve been following a “kamish broit” recipe I got from an ex-husband’s step-mother, Sarah Lohman. (Got that?) These walnut biscotti are delicious and ridiculously easy to make. So, Friday, company expected and running late, I automatically pulled out Sarah’s recipe.

Sarah, I suddenly thought, grinding a half a cup of walnuts in my mini-cuisinart. (Which, with a couple of taps of my index finger, reduces the nuts almost to a paste—although her recipe merely calls for “chopped walnuts.”) Who was she?  When I was married to her stepson, I never once asked her anything about herself; in my self-involved twenties, I wasn’t interested.

I am, now. A Google search produced a skimpy outline. Her maiden name: Axelrod. Her birthplace: Odessa, Ukraine.  The whiff of a story: At age nine months, she and her mother, Ida, arrived in Quebec on June 2, 1907, and moved on to Toronto. (I’d actually remembered she’d grown up in “Canada.” Period. Canada.)   And a picture:


So many questions I’d love to ask her. Did your father, Abraham, join you and your mother? (Well, she had two sisters so maybe he did?) Did you experience anti-semitism in Toronto? Tell me about that hat you’re wearing in this picture; what you’re wearing around your neck! What brought you to New York City and The New York Times? (Where she met and married Sidney, my ex father-in-law.)

But here’s another discovery unearthed by keywords and links: The words kamish broit tell another story. After the Diaspora, after years of migration, Jews who found themselves in Italy learned about twice-baked/biscotti. Subsequently, Jews in Eastern Europe made mandel broit or “almond bread”; Jews in the Ukraine made kamish broit or “rushed bread”—but it’s the same recipe! (Well, okay, as you can probably guess, mandel broit is usually made from almonds. Which I will certainly try the next time I’m rushing and company’s coming!)

So when Sarah served kamish broit every time my ex and I visited, she replicated a regional recipe from a country she never knew. I find that strangely touching. And other Jews now in the New World are making basically the same, well-traveled mandel/kamish recipe. (There are many such recipes on the Internet: word for word, Sarah’s follows.)

So when I next dip a kamish broit into milk or coffee, I will both thank Sarah Axelrod Lohman—whose parents’ names I now know—and consider the long journey that biscotti has taken!

Kamish Broit

1/2 cup oil

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 tsp. salt

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

2 cups sifted flour

Combine ingredients in order given—flour last. Divide into two loaves [meaning two round, patted-down mounds about a quarter-inch thick each] and bake on cookie sheet in 350 degree over for about 25-30 minutes. Light brown color. Remove, slice while hot [meaning quarter-inch slices, top to bottom. You could make an equator slice, too, but my family likes their kamish broit long.] Put back into hot oven (turned off at this point.) for about 15 minutes. There you have it!