Being a Teenager Can Really Suck…

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Does anyone make it out of adolescence unscathed? Forty years later, I still get an echo of that inner hollowness when two friends chuckle over a shared adventure from which I was absent. Or find myself swallowing an opinion for fear that someone will look at me cross-eyed. Am I hobbled by those long-ago days when insecurities were fanned by my equally self-conscious peers? No. As with most people, I have coping mechanisms that have allowed me not only to compartmentalize emotional upsets from those impressionable years but to view them in context. We were typical teenagers, with varying levels of self-doubt, teetering on the brink of adulthood and jockeying for a place on the social hierarchy.

I was a “popular” girl in high school. I had come up through the adjacent middle school with my social circle intact so by the time I hit the ninth grade, I appeared certain of my status. My outward confidence which allowed me to move through the hallways with ease was shaken if I did not have a trusted buddy by my side. Alone, the insecurities crept back in. Was I smart/cute/vivacious/cool/etc./etc. enough?

“Egocentrism” may be the most universally defining characteristic of this age group. I can still recall setting my alarm for an hour before needing to leave for school to give me enough time to shower, dress, style my hair, and apply my makeup to perfection because, of course, The World would think less of me if I dared walk out the door without each detail masterfully in place. Would Adrianne be on the bus with my seat saved, or would I look foolish having to scavenge for any remaining space? Did I have a friend in each class to whisper with and share a joke, or would I look like a pariah as I sat alone? What about in the lunchroom? Or, in the after-school sports activities? Did my home phone ring several times each evening, or were my friends too busy talking to each other to remember to call me? Were my Friday and Saturday nights booked, or would I sit home alone while everyone else was hanging out in Lee’s basement? If I wasn’t the life of the party would I be dropped from the next gathering’s guest list?

Our burgeoning identities at fourteen are shaped by how our peers treat us and fueled by raging hormones. Does he like me? If he doesn’t, it must mean I’m not smart/cute/vivacious/cool/etc./etc. enough. Who would ask me to the Homecoming dance? Should I go alone if no one did?

While my latent teenage anxieties are mostly forgotten, I was recently reminded of just how destructive that time in our lives can be. As with most kids that age, my feelings were central to The World. My own internal ecosystem was the core around which the bigger ecosystem, aka high school, revolved. So, I was interested to hear Lynn’s thoughts over lunch.

Lynn and I were in high school together a million years ago. It was a small college prep school where we all knew each other. I can’t recall the first time I saw her when she entered ninth grade. I remember her as being part of the “mini Mafia,” the group of cute boys reminiscent of Grease’s T-Birds, who swaggered through the hallways with their feathered hair and Italian horns dangling from gold chains around their necks. Lynn was one of three girls who hung out with them, and I think I assumed she had always known them.

I mentioned that I had told a mutual friend I was excited to see her. “While we were part of different groups back then,” I told our friend, “we all knew each other. I feel like Lynn and I can be good friends now, as adults.” That’s when Lynn’s eyes filled.

Our salads of arugula, mango, with a fruity vinaigrette sat untouched as I considered her reaction. I pinched pieces of Italian bread from the loaf in the basket between us and swiped them in the olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper. I fought my lifelong urge to “say the right thing” – to gloss over an uncomfortable moment with platitudes and niceties. Common sense told me to be silent and to understand the pain reflected in her tears.

 “When I started at that school,” she told me, “I just wanted to be friends with everyone. I never wanted to be part of a clique. The kids in the ‘mini Mafia’ were the only ones who would talk to me. None of the other girls would.”

By this stage of my life, high school self-absorption is so far in the past that my heart genuinely ached for her. This beautiful woman, inside and out, could still remember the loneliness that surrounded her when she started a new school.

Our conversation made me think about Anne who had been so tormented by the classmates who called her “fat” that she transferred after her freshman year. About Jeff who was so stigmatized for the color of his skin that he compensated by turning to beer and hard liquor, resulting in a struggle with alcoholism. About my own son who was targeted by a bully for being a vegetarian. About the “uncool” kids in my daughter’s class who did not receive an invitation to Julie’s party. It’s the age when anything “other” is scrutinized, picked apart, and ridiculed by the group in an effort to cement their own footing in the social hierarchy.

Once out of that environment – the artificially created ecosystem where we think how we do or don’t fit in is the most important thing in The World – we begin to develop a broader concept of self and deeper compassion for those around us. In other words, we grow up. Anne now sees herself as the beauty she is. Jeff has been sober for years and, now a pastor, runs a rescue mission to help men of color who have spent their lives being stigmatized. My son’s high school bully sought him out at their 5-year reunion to apologize for his behavior and ask for forgiveness. My daughter sees how hurtful excluding a handful of kids was from an otherwise class-wide celebration, whereas including them would have been a model of kindness for them all.

But what about Lynn? What was her “otherness” that left her scanning the lunchroom that first day for someone to sit with? Why giggling groups of girls didn’t widen their circle to include her?

A few years back, my lifelong friend and pen pal, Sue, provided me with incredible insight. Growing up, we saw each other during the summers but kept in touch by letter through the remainder of the year. And, ‘by letter’ I mean weekly accountings of every thought and action my juvenile brain could recount in twenty or more pages of detailed actions, dialogue, and thoughts. My youth, from childhood into my twenties, was chronicled on lined notebook paper the way some people keep journals or diaries. Eight years ago, Sue handed me a box filled with every letter I had written to her over the course of our friendship before email made communication instantaneous.

“You should have this,” she said. “This is your history.”

With a mix of excitement and apprehension, not to mention a hearty pour of Chianti, I sat down to revisit my past as told by an adolescent me. A rash of reactions hit me. I was simultaneously impressed with my love of storytelling, even at that young age, amused by my acerbic wit, and appalled by my judgmental attitude.

Buried halfway down the box was a letter that was particularly telling. In it, my young voice talked about the new girl at school. While there had been an influx of students at the high school level, it was clear that Lynn stood out. I described her in detail – her beauty, with the blond hair that effortlessly held the popular Farrah Fawcett style through the entire school day; her brilliant smile that made it impossible not to smile in return; her bubbly personality that added sparkle to every conversation. I grudgingly talked about how the head of every boy in that school, plus those of half the male staff, would whip around to watch her as she passed. It was evident in every long-ago written word that her presence had made an impression on me.

When I looked at Lynn over those exotic salads, I told her what it was that had caused the rest of the girls to snub her when she had started at the school. “We were all jealous,” I said. “It doesn’t excuse our behavior, but we were insecure teenagers and saw you as a threat.”

The elusive rationale as kids was simple from a middle-age perspective. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her at fourteen and that was her “otherness.” But, with her own adolescent insecurities, she questioned herself.

I hope that my explanation as to our behavior all those years ago provided some resolution for Lynn’s questions. Maybe there needs to be a built-in mechanism for repairing the damage left in the wake of the high school madness which, today, is amplified by social media. Like Step 9 in the AA 12-Step Program, it is healing for both the instigator and the victim to dust off past grievances, acknowledge them, and look for forgiveness.

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A Cheesy Story — Hold The Cheese

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My childhood during the 1960s and 70s in central New Jersey left an enduring impression on me. To this day, if I stumble across a metal Slinky on eBay, land on an episode of The Brady Bunch on Hulu, or find myself singing along to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the stereo, I’m twelve again. For some, the past is highlighted by visions of friends, parties, maybe boys. For me, though, my dominant memories surround food. Fantasies of Mom’s baked mac ‘n cheese casseroles and my brother’s fluffy popovers still make me drool, but nothing is as emblematic of that time in my life as pizza.

Pizza. A food so perfect, people have written ballads to honor it. Family pizza nights are long-standing traditions. College towns often boast multiple pizza joints to serve the demands of hungry coeds. It is the one food that everybody can agree on, from the pickiest to the most adventurous eaters. Anyone who has ever muttered the words “I don’t like pizza” must be one of two things: deranged or a liar. It is taste-tested, compared, and celebrated more than any other food I can think of. Food critics have written countless articles dissecting it, examining it, and rating it. There are numerous lists ranking it, from the best pizza in a given city to top pizza in the country.

My hometown boasted a substantial Italian population, ensuring I was never without access to some of the tastiest pizza ever created. Before chain restaurants like Pizza Hut, Dominoes, and Uno’s rose in popularity, I had my pick of Gervasio’s, Mamma Rosa’s, Brothers’, DeLorenzo’s, Jojo’s, and Mannino’s, all within roughly two miles of my home. As a child, when I visited my family in Massachusetts and found myself in need of a pizza fix, I scoffed at the mushy dough slathered in watered-down ketchup with a rubbery cheese facsimile swimming on top and pined for a slice of authentic tomato pie from Papa’s.

Pizza is more than a food I love. It is an integral component of the backdrop of my childhood. It bonds me to the rest of humanity – other pizza fanatics, at least. So, imagine the pickle I found myself in when I decided to go vegan. At first, I was so excited by my new diet that bragging about my lack of animal product consumption was enough to override any cravings. But as the years passed, my sanity began to suffer due to lack of Vitamin Pizza. I yearned for the textural delights in my mouth, the orange-tinged grease dribbling down my chin, and the intestinal distress from over-indulgence. Those vegetable-topped, cheeseless slices that my local pizza joints triumphantly presented as their vegan option left me sad, unsatisfied, and frankly, lonely.

When my friend Jeanine, a food and travel writer, was assigned a story to research vegan pizza in Brooklyn, NY, I eagerly tagged along. Did a Land of Vegan Pizza really exist? Were there chefs who recognized that not all vegans found soggy, overcooked vegetables a suitable substitute for cheese? Could a two-day pizza crawl through the Greenpoint/Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn help me reconnect to my cherished memories of cheese-laden Utopia on the boardwalks of the Jersey shore?

I joined this culinary adventure with skepticism and a touch of hubris. I regard myself as a pizza connoisseur. The crust must be cooked perfectly – light, yet crispy. I want a red sauce that is seasoned so that I am not inclined to reach for a shaker of red pepper flakes or garlic salt. The mozzarella (or, in my case, “mozzarella”) must be fresh and fully melted. I don’t need toppings or novelty interpretations. I’m old school. I want a straight-up slice of cheese pizza, but it must be done well.

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Two Boots

Two Boots in Williamsburg offered only one vegan option by-the-slice when we visited, and it wasn’t the plain cheese that my tastebuds were craving. I glared in disdain at the mushrooms, roasted red onions, and artichokes, slathered with a generous layer of Daiya cheese, then drizzled with a red pepper sauce and basil pesto. Grudgingly, as I bit into the thin, crispy crust, I conceded that it was actually quite appealing. Somehow they made vegetables taste good and not like I was eating the consolation prize. The Jersey girl in me couldn’t bring herself to calling it “pizza” — it didn’t satisfy me like a cheese burn to the roof of my mouth did — but I couldn’t resist devouring the entire slice.

 

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Vinnie’s Pizzera

Next, was Vinnie’s, also in Williamsburg. NOW we’re talkin’! A cheery red arrow with “Vegan Town” printed on it pointed to several options for us. We sampled designer slices, from a mac ‘n cheeseburger to a barbecue chicken to a surprising favorite, eggplant parmesan, all with plant-based “meat” and “cheese” toppings. The owner, Sean, stood behind the counter of the traditional but wittily decorated (tributes to Tom Hanks abound) pizzeria. He proudly informed us that he was the first to bring vegan pizza to Brooklyn fourteen years ago and has perfected the simple cheese pizza that I crave. I could see that he understood the importance of pizza, even to those of us who willingly gave up cheese, and he wasn’t going to let us suffer.  I was starting to believe that maybe my pizza-loving days weren’t a distant memory.

 

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Adelina’s

For dinner, we chose a vegetarian/vegan Italian restaurant in Greenpoint that offers 12” oblong vegan pizza as one of their specialties. Given my esteemed background in pizza tasting, I would place Adelina’s pies into a category of their own. With a puffier crust, I’d call it a soft fusion of Sicilian and focaccia. We enjoyed an original, with sauce and NUMU cheese, one topped with sautéed mushrooms, and one with artichoke hearts and fingerling potatoes. These gourmet delicacies went down easily with some pinot noir. They were delicious, filling, and satisfying for a meal, but not quite what I was looking for. Would I come back another time? Absolutely. Would I come back when I’m craving my classic slice? Probably not.

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Screamer’s

The second day, we visited arguably the most famous vegan pizza joint in Brooklyn – Screamer’s. Offering only non-dairy options, their selection of pies is extensive, even by non-vegan standards. They offer the Green Scream and the Vampire and the Screamer and the Chorizo and the Hawaiian and the Grandma Pie and so many more. White pies, red pies, inventive pies. My stomach growled in excitement when I spotted the cheese pizza. Could my taste buds once again savor the beautiful blend of seasonings and textures? In short, yes. YES! I sampled some of the fancy pies, but that cheese slice almost brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. I wanted to jump to my feet and yell, “I’m home!”

As we strolled out of Screamer’s, Jeanine bubbling with excitement about the article she could write extolling the deliciousness of Brooklyn’s vegan pizza scene, I rubbed my satisfied belly, drifting on a sentimental haze. I thought it would be impossible to ever experience those tastes from my childhood that conjured up pictures of my parents. The distant sound of teenage giggles as my friends and I exchanged gossip while expertly folding our pizza slice in half. Youthful dates with cute boys, splitting a couple of slices and sipping our Cokes. But Jeanine informed me, we had one last place to visit.

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Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop. In my mind, I had accomplished my goal. I had found vegan pizza that wrapped its deliciousness around the child in me and embraced my fondest nostalgia. We had visited four shops that all touted their twist on an old favorite, and I could be content living the remainder of my days eating at any one of them. But the universe chose to bestow an unexpected gift upon me. Paulie Gee’s has elevated the craft of crust making to a level that surpassed anything I’ve ever had, even back in those authentic pizza joints in the 1960s. I opted for a thin cheese slice, plus splurged on a thick crust with sauce, roasted Vidalia onions, and a sprinkling of vegan parmesan. One bite and I heard the angels singing. Both slices were excellent – crust that is light as air and simultaneously crispy, well-seasoned red sauce, and make-me-forget-about-dairy “cheese” – but the thick crust, with its layer of sesame seeds on the bottom, has made me question my lifelong allegiance to the thin crust. I may be a convert.

I make no secret of my love of bygone eras, but I like to think of myself as a modern, forward-thinking kind of gal, too. Admittedly, I’ve wasted an excessive amount of time mourning the loss of the pizza from my youth. My recent pizza crawl through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn has taught me a valuable lesson. While what Thomas Wolfe asserted is true, You Can’t Go Home Again (…to your favorite pizzeria), it is possible for me to recapture those memories in a context suitable to my changing dietary needs. Many thanks to Two Boots, Vinnie’s, Adelina’s, Screamer’s, and Paulie Gee’s for allowing me to enjoy fabulous pizza that is close to, maybe better than, the pizza of my childhood.

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The Last Great Release

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When I was a kid, there was a stream running through the woods behind my neighborhood. My two older brothers would spend summers playing in those woods, building forts with fallen twigs and creating dams to redirect the water flow. Of course, I would tag along to help. And, by “help,” I mean busting my ass on a rock within fifteen minutes of the adventure and having to be carried home. My brothers distracted me from my self-sabotage by showing me the tiny tadpoles that squirmed in the gentle current and taught me about their development into adult frogs.

Those memories and my lifelong appreciation for nature may be what saved me this summer. My current home improvement project, scheduled to take two weeks but now going on eight, would have sent most people into a violent rage. We’ve had all the concrete around the pool, our basement entrance, and our deck ripped up and hoisted into three dumpsters. May turned into June and, because of weather delays, dragged into July. Through weeklong rainstorms and brutal heatwaves, the contractors hit numerous obstacles and countless setbacks.

Amidst the chaos and the filth, my pool lay waiting. While I bitched to my husband and complained to the masons, last year’s water remained untouched in the deep end. Since the pool could not get its new liner and filter until the other work was done, algae began to grow. Then, they came.

The frogs.

I grew increasingly aware of the chirping. Each night, they became louder and louder, competing to show off their machismo to the ladies. I waded through the mud and the unevenness of my construction site to commune with the nature happening in my very own backyard. I steered clear of the occasional snake; I mourned the two baby bunnies that my dog, Lula, thought were toys; I appreciated the bats that had moved into the house we made for them as I was seldom bothered by mosquitoes. But I loved the music of the frogs conjuring up nostalgia from my childhood adventures with my brothers or my idyllic summers spent in rural Massachusetts.

Then, one night, my husband and I arrived home to discover the melody had become a symphony of croaking. We grabbed a flashlight and shone it around the pool area, expecting to find a mob of amphibious types staring at us with those bulging eyes. Instead, I found one lone pair of frogs. And, they were doing it. Froggy style!

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Now, I’m generally too private to discuss my sex life but, let me tell you, lying in bed, night after night, listening to them playing dirty leapfrog, I admit to being a little envious. I’d heard that manly warbling and witnessed his triumph at having gotten the girl. Now, he was just showing off. For hours!

As the pool algae flourished, so did the eggs from the fornicating frogs. Next came the tadpoles. I mean thousands of tadpoles! My mother instincts kicked in as I watched those slimy heads with tails swimming happily in the putrefying water. My new babies. I tried to give each one a name, but after mistaking Becca for Tommy too many times, I decided they were all named Sasha.  I began taking pictures of them and telling my friends about the ecosystem I was now in charge of in my very own backyard. “Maybe I’ll just leave the pool as a huge pond,” I joked.

Until Pool Guy came by to check on the masons’ progress and let me know they’d be taking out the old liner in preparation for the work on the pool. “We’ll throw some bleach in,” he said, “then we can get started.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, reality settling around me. “The bleach will kill the tadpoles!”

He laughed. “Well, is it a pool or a pond? If it’s a pool, they have to go.”

“No bleach,” I told him. “How long until you need to pump out the remaining water?”

“A week.”

“Then, I have enough time to Save The Tadpoles!”

I knew I could never get every last one of them. But I could do my best to save as many as possible. So, the process began. For hours every night, my husband and I took turns with the pool net and scooped. We dumped our haul into a large pot and went back for more. Once we couldn’t fit any more into the pot, we’d take them to the nearby stream and release them into their new home.

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It became a game to us – a quest. ‘Save The Tadpoles’ was our rallying cry. The masons worked during the day; we scooped during the evening. At first, it seemed futile. Finally, the horde began to thin. We got hundreds of tadpoles a night. We rescued a few dozen full-fledged frogs, and many, many that were at various stages in-between with legs and a tail.

Our friends and family learned what our immediate priority was. “Do you want to go to dinner tonight?” “No, we have to scoop tadpoles.” “Can you come to visit me this weekend?” “Sorry. Tadpoles.” They began to pitch in, eagerly taking the rescues to populate streams closer to their own homes.

At last, the day came for Pool Guy to throw in his pump and drain all remaining water. At 7 AM, I stood at the edge of the pool and calculated. There were still some stragglers bobbing around the edges. Could I get any more before the remaining water was removed? I could sure try! ‘No Tadpole Left Behind’ became my new cry. I scooped. Through the remaining muck and silt, I thrust in the netted pole and rejoiced at every silvery body I caught. They evaded me, but I persisted. With sweat dripping in the 90° morning, I was determined to save as many as possible.

Triumphantly, I took that stockpot with upwards of another 350 tadpoles, plus eight tiny frogs, and placed it gently in the passenger seat of my car. We drove to the nearby stream, and I hiked the distance from the street through the woods. I needed to get close to the water, right up to the edge. Unlike the frogs I released there with some regularity who could hop the rest of the way, these little guys needed to go right into the water. And, that’s what we did. As I stepped to the edge of the creek, the ground gave way beneath me and in I went, stockpot and all. Somehow, I managed to keep my charges upright as I landed knee-deep in mud and busted my ass on a rock. I dropped the lid and released them into the water. Little frogs hopped off, and big-headed tadpoles wriggled into their new home.

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As I extracted myself from the quicksand-like suction of the sludge, I eyed the piles of beer bottles and cans that lay strewn around the woods. Instead of allowing someone else’s casual disregard of the environment ruin my celebratory mood, I picked up my stockpot, stomped off as much mud from my feet as I could, and began cramming that trash into my pot to take home for recycling. Sighing with satisfaction, I looked one more time toward the last great release. A snowy egret was soaring low above the surface of the stream.

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A Sniff Down Memory Lane

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I was at a grocery store the other day – one of those upscale, bougie places that sells snobbish $5.00 bottles of enriched water and pompously superior organic/all-natural/sustainable/ethically-sourced…everything. My kind of place! As I strolled through the aisles, I was seduced by a display of colorful handcrafted soaps. Always in search of new scents to brighten my shower time, I paused to sample the goods. Two- and three-toned soaps; delicately swirled soaps; soaps with flowers embedded in them. All had precisely cut sides except for one deliberately rough edge, some left raw, some artfully pressed in lavender buds or dried rose petals. I breathed in intense gardenia and jasmine, calming chamomile, invigorating peppermint. There were clever names, like “Purple Haze” and “Volcanic Vanilla.” As I sniffed my way through the piles, I picked up one called “Sand and Sea.” I had a rough expectation of a salty ocean aroma, but, instead, I had a flashback so vivid and powerful that I closed my eyes and found myself transported in that memory.

That’s the funny thing about our senses. A taste, a sight, a sound, and particularly, a smell, triggers an association locked deep in our brains that can spontaneously return us to a specific time or place. The sweet fragrance of summer rain pattering on my roof and I’m eight-years-old, seated cross-legged on my front porch with my current Bobbsey Twins book open in my lap, fingers oranged from the Cheetos I wash down with cherry Hi-C. Protected by the overhanging roof, the driving blur of the downpour hypnotizes me. When the storm slows, I’m lulled into dreamy tranquility as I return to the adventures of Nan and Bert, Flossie and Freddie.

The crunch of dried leaves beneath my feet and I’m among the throngs of trick-or-treaters scuffling up and down the sidewalk. Shivering in the late October chill under Wonder Woman costumes or white sheets with eyehole cut-outs, it didn’t occur to us to ruin the effect with a heavy jacket. After a week of decorating the elementary school classroom windows with construction paper jack-o’lanterns and witches, our anticipation is at its peak when October 31 finally arrives. My friends and I, giddy with excitement, don our costumes in preparation for the school-wide parade along the main street, parents gathered to oooh and ahhh, passersby in cars honking in appreciation. After dinner, with pillowcases in hand to carry our haul of Hershey bars and 3 Musketeers, we join scurrying neighborhood ghosts, ghouls, and superheroes in the crisp, autumn twilight.

Coconut oil and it’s spring break in Florida. On crammed beaches with hordes of other college students, my friends and I sizzle all day until our skin looks like aged cognac. Nights are spent jammed in smoky clubs, shouting to hear each other over the music while flashing flirtatious smiles at cute boys. Stumbling back to our rented house at three in the morning ensures fuzzy, aching heads when we awake a few hours later to repeat the previous day’s schedule – coconut oil, sizzle, party.

The taste of almond paste and I’m watching my grandmother’s delighted smile as she opens her gift of colorful, fruit-shaped marzipan. The scent of Tabu perfume, and I see my aunt at twenty-five, sashing across a parking lot while every head turns to admire her youthful beauty. The syrupy smell of cotton candy and I’m strolling through the State Fair where I buy my first guinea pig. “Freebird” and I’m in early adolescence feeling the heartache of my unrequited crush on Eduardo.

The day I revisited when I smelled the “Sand and Sea” soap was a family trip to Cape Cod. I was four, maybe five, so too young to have clear memories. More just fleeting images. That’s why the impact of the aroma from the soap was especially startling. The impression was buried so deep that it was at an almost primal level. As I stood in the Health and Beauty aisle with eyes closed, I feel the rocky sand beneath my feet, very different from the smooth beaches I was used to in New Jersey. I’m wearing a floppy beach hat to protect my eyes from the burning sun while my skin is sticky with Coppertone. My older brothers have built a sandcastle nearby and are desperately digging a moat around it as the tide comes in. Mom and Dad are more relaxed than I ever remembered, lounging in metal-framed beach chairs with basket weave nylon seats – the kind that leave red crisscrosses on the back of your thighs – while keeping one drowsy eye on their three lively children. Every evening during that trip, I strip down in the outdoor shower to discover that my droopy bathing suit bottoms have carried back half the beach. Why did this bar of soap take me to that singular trip to Cape Cod instead of the countless excursions we made to the Jersey shore? There must have been the slightest nuance that evoked one memory over the others.

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Generally, these sensory nudges pleasantly lead me through the photo album of my life, flipping through memories with wistful nostalgia. There are others, however, that arouse a more painful response. I can’t buy poinsettias anymore because, as they were my mother’s favorite flowers, I bought out the nursery to decorate the church for her funeral. I’ve never watched my wedding video because it was the last celebration I shared with my father. My heart aches when I see swarms of dragonflies as they were the favorites of my college roommate Samantha. Every time I pop open a Miller Lite, I hear my recently departed friend Steve chortling for the umpteenth time: “Less filling, tastes great!”

Why some sensory memories bring a smile to my face while others bring a tear to my eye is something I can’t explain. It’s a visceral reaction, devoid of thought or intention. It must go back to that place deep in the brain where those responses originate. While both of my parents are gone, memories of them conjure different feelings. I don’t purchase poinsettias or watch movies of my father, but the image of innocent bliss conjured up when I smelled that “Sand and Sea” soap is equally linked to my parents. I felt such serenity as I stood there in the store, eyes closed, holding the bar to my nose, that I bought that soap. Then, I returned a week later to buy three more bars.

Lifelong Friendship – A Return to Diapers and Bibs.

My earliest memory of Lori is faded and worn, much as most photographs from the 1960s. I was a tiny thing – I maintain that I was three while Lori insists we were five (we squabble over that detail to this day) – and can still feel the searing in my eyes from the noontime mid-summer sun. Stubbornly, I persevered through my headache because I couldn’t care less about the pea green chairs and brown plaid sofa being unloaded from the moving van. I had one interest and one interest alone as I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house four down from my own. Did the new family have a girl for me to play with?

Those early years with Lori saw hours of hopscotch, chalked with precision on her driveway under my exacting eye. We played Chinese jump rope like pros as I insisted that we practice to perfection. In the fall, we arranged piles of leaves into floor plans for our dream home, arguing over how many bedrooms there’d be. In winter, we built igloos and had spirited snowball fights. In spring, we’d eyeball each other’s new Easter dresses and bonnets, each secretly assured that our own was the prettiest. In summer, we swam in her above ground pool or pumped our legs hard, until the poles of her metal swing set lifted out of the ground, competing to see who could soar highest. And, somewhere along the way, Jackie, who lived around the corner from us, seamlessly joined our adventures and we became a trio.

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Half a century later, I joined my two lifelong compadres for one of our time-to-catch-up dinners. Over the years, we’ve drifted in and out of each other’s lives as our days were commandeered by the usual marriage/kids/careers frenzy that puts all else on hold. Somehow, like a homing device that leads us back to those who knew us in our simplest incarnation, we intuitively convene over food and Pinot Grigio when one of us has hit a life obstacle. What is it about those friendships formed in childhood that we gravitate toward knowing no explanations will be required?

It’s like slicing a baseball in half. At the core, at the very heart of the ball, is a round cork. This is how I picture old friends – stripped down to their authentic selves before life’s demands and responsibilities begin building layers around it. The ball’s center is covered by two sheets of rubber, then four separate layers of tightly wound yarn. Next comes a coating of rubber cement before two coverings of cowhide are applied and stitched into place. Through our lives, we add layers to the raw center of who we are, creating facades, wearing multiple hats, and building an image as we meet our parents’ expectations, peer pressures, career demands, and become upstanding members of society.

baseball

I’ve known Lori and Jackie since we were cork. I don’t have to wonder about their upbringing or life events that have made them the resilient, polished women they are today. I don’t have to question why Jackie’s children have been openly and unabashedly showered with her love since they were born. I know without asking why Lori is fiercely loyal yet emotionally delicate. And, in turn, they understand why I am demanding and defiant.

As we raised our glasses to toast fifty years of friendship, I realized that I never notice our time-worn faces, professionally enhanced hair color, or crow’s feet. Age spots on hands go undetected. Softening abdomens and saddlebags disappear as these friends are forever youthful through my retrospective lens. I see three little girls with flowing blond hair; I hear Lori’s infectious giggle; I picture Jackie’s open and engaging smile; I recall my endless rebelliousness.

As children, a favorite pastime was slapping metal roller skates onto the bottom of our sneakers and racing to Schmidt’s Corner Deli to peruse the shelves of chocolate and jars of penny candy. We’d pool our money – allowances or loose change dug out from under sofa cushions – then calculate what we could get when divided by three. Candy cigarettes made us look cool. Wax lips were both entertaining and tasty. Often, we’d settle on candy necklaces because who wouldn’t want edible fashion? After we made our selections, we’d hang out on Schmidt’s porch and greet other friends who came and went until I had to leave for my afternoon schedule of homework and piano practice, followed by an hour of baton twirling.

            Them: “Why do you have to do this every day? You never get a break!”

            Me: “You don’t get really good at something unless you work at it.”

            Them: “Yeah, but we want to play, and you’re always busy.”

            Me: “If I don’t get straight A’s and practice piano and baton, I’ll get in trouble.”

And, off I’d go, conflicted. I was sad to think of my friends having fun without me, and nearly tempted to stay a little longer, but I was more afraid of my mother’s reaction if I disobeyed her.

By the time we hit our early teens, my friends were used to the demands on my time, and I had learned how to game my parents’ system. As boys became more important to me, I spent less time procrastinating and became efficient in accomplishing my chores. Also, I’d learned to remove the screen from my bedroom window so I could sneak out whenever I pleased. Our favorite place to hang was a nearby busy road where carloads of teens would cruise up and down. We perched ourselves there on the split rail fence in front of the motorcycle dealership and waited for the ego-boosting honks of appreciation. Often missing from those adventures was Lori.

              Lori: “I can’t make it. I have to do the laundry and vacuum.”

              Us: “How about when you’re done? Meet us then.”

              Lori: “I can’t. I have to watch my little brothers and sister.”

              Us: “How about when your parents get home?”

              Lori: “They won’t be back until really late. Go without me.”

A huge milestone was when I was the first of us to get my driver’s license. We immediately gained the freedom we’d been craving since watching older teens cruise past as we waved from the wooden fence. Soon, we were driving with the rest of the group, stopping at a 7-Eleven for a Slurpee with me showily twirling the car keys around my index finger. That summer we cruised back and forth to the Jersey shore several nights a week just because we could. My parents thought they’d curtail my roaming by denying me access to their cars. No problem. Jackie’s mom let me drive hers so off we went. For hours we cruised, often with no destination in mind. When it was time for Lori and me to get home, Jackie would usually go with one or the other of us.

              Us: “Don’t we need to get your mom’s car back?”

              Jackie: “Nah. She doesn’t care.”

              Us: “Well, you should call and let her know you won’t be home tonight.”

              Jackie: “It’s okay. She probably won’t even notice.”

Fifty years of friendship. We’ve been each other’s cheering section, best audience, and most honest critic. We’ve been there through it all. First kisses, first loves, first heartbreaks. Family history, family dynamics, family secrets. Marriage, children, divorce, death. We’ve argued and hurt each other’s feelings and always moved beyond. We do more than listen and sympathize. We know. Know, only in a way possible because we’ve been together from the time we were cork.

Today

Our recent dinner was both a celebration and the mourning of Lori’s impending move to South Carolina. For numerous reasons, this is the best decision for her family, and we are excited for her. For selfish reasons, Jackie and I will miss the easy camaraderie that comes with our lifelong friendship. Always sentimental after a couple of long pours of wine, I lamented that it’s hard to break up a trio that’s been together practically since we were in diapers and bibs.

“But,” I said, thinking about buying Depends from the smirking teenager at Walgreen’s (long road trips can be tricky and sneezing fits are a big mess), “I guess we’ve been friends so long that we actually need diapers again.”

Jackie looked pointedly at the blob of salad dressing that had landed on my chest and said, “And bibs.”

Lori laughed that infectious laugh and said, “I guess when you’ve been friends as long as we have, you come full circle.”

 

Still Looking For My Zen

Another birthday, another delightful opportunity for me to take stock of my life. I get to weigh my successes and failures, laid out before me like a Balance Sheet or Profit and Loss Comparison (it’s tax season as I write this so you can guess where my head is) and assess my level of accomplishment. As I turn fifty-seven, I’ll be evaluating the degree of Zen I’ve managed to achieve, as that has been this year’s gift to myself. I’m up to ten minutes of meditation at a time. I perform my Downward Facing Dogs almost daily and haven’t faceplanted during Tree Pose in weeks. So, as I approach this next birthday, I’ll be celebrating my newfound ability to release negativity. I’m finding my truth; what is worth getting upset about and what is not. In other words, I’ve learned to let go of things I no longer give a shit about.

My language, since I’ve brought it up. I’m a verbalist. I express myself through words. And, if I throw in a sailor-worthy swear word for emphasis and someone finds it offensive, I don’t give a damn. With a cleansing breath in through my nose and out through my mouth, I mentally pardon them for not being as evolved as I am. Also regarding word choice, I no longer get that twinge in my heart when I use the expression-of-the-moment, and my children roll their eyes. As they unsuccessfully hide their smirks behind their hands, snickering at the Old Lady’s use of trendy phrases, I refuse to let them harsh my mellow. I offer a tranquil smile in response because deep in the cratered recesses of my mind, I’m still that groovy chick who can boogie down with the best of them. So, do me a solid and take a chill pill, ya dig?

I used to torture myself by succumbing to the advice of those opinion pieces, like “40 Things No One Over 40 Should Ever Do.” No more. At this Zen stage of my life, I no longer give a second’s credence to those articles written by snot-nosed prepubescents imperiously dictating age-appropriate behavior and fashion tips. If I want my knobby, 57-year-old knees on full display below the hem of a mini-skirt, I will not be age-shamed. My knees, my choice. And, while I’m at it, if I choose to wear a skirt cut all the way up to my nether regions, again, my choice. Just like it’s that Vogue-Editor-in-Chief-wannabe’s choice to look. Or not.

There was once a time when I wouldn’t step foot out of my house, not even for a quick trip to the grocery, without a full face of makeup and a lengthy session with my curling iron. I mean, what if somebody saw me, for Chrissakes? Now, when I need my chocolate fix, I don’t bother to change out of my flannel pajama pants, brush my teeth, or clean the crusties out of the corners of my eyes (please don’t think I’m totally gross) before racing out the door. You see, I have transcended my need for approval from others.

I admit there was a time when I performed random acts of kindness as much for the attention it garnered me as for the intention of helping someone. Now, with a more modest approach to altruism, I take quiet joy in offering support or coming to someone’s aid. I don’t need credit when I’ve graciously corrected someone’s toilet paper if it’s hanging the wrong way, trailing down the wall from the back of the roll. With a serene smile to myself, I switch it so the roll leads from over the top. The only reward I seek is the knowledge that I’ve set things right in the universe.

Once upon a time, my blood pressure would soar when I’d engage in the age-old battle of which is the best band of all time, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. No more. I accept that people have different tastes. We all have our associations with this classic music, certain songs transporting us back to an early love or a past heartbreak. I enjoy both bands, and their lyrics and melodies are part of my constitution. If asked to choose, I assert with unwavering confidence that the Beatles are the greatest. But I’ve reached new heights of enlightenment and am no longer rattled when someone disagrees because I now recognize that they are entitled to their incorrect opinion.

I believe that good manners are the cornerstone of civilized society. As my children were growing up, I strove to model good behavior, often “rising above” someone cutting in line or speaking out of turn. With my own growth in mindfulness this past year, I’ve realized that I may be stunting the growth of others if I allow myself to be victimized by their bad behavior. Recently, I had the opportunity to explore my guru potential when I encountered a particularly teachable moment. I had just left a club in New York City and was standing on the edge of the street, hand raised to hail a cab, while carefully (and politely) avoiding interfering with other passing cars. As the yellow taxi careened toward me, a drunkenly raucous young woman in a skin-tight Spandex micro skirt, with her gazelle-like, perfectly tanned legs on full display, glanced at me as she pranced toward the car I’d successfully flagged. Oh, hell to the no! As she staggered, laughing at my stubby legs peeking out like sad little ghosts from beneath the bottom of my mid-thigh length dress, visions of Kathy Bates from Fried Green Tomatoes flashed through my head. I scurried toward the car handle, pushed her hand away, yanked the door open, and hip-checked her as I slid into the back seat. “You may be younger and faster, but I’ve been a bitch a whole lot longer.” As I chuckled over the memory of the incident afterward, I realized that I might have some work to do on my inner guru.

Restaurants have become the bane of my existence. Recently, however, I’ve tapped into my Zenness to reclaim my enjoyment of eating out. I recognize that it is my duty as a patron to help the wait staff understand my little idiosyncrasies. I know they are trained to maintain the illusion of “fine dining” by whisking away my plate to some magical place behind closed doors to pack my leftovers into foil containers. But I need to make sure every last drop of saffron sauce is scraped into that container. I have to tightly roll up a paper napkin to create a divider between leftover pad Thai and the sugar peas. I must make sure that those nasty chickpeas I’ve carefully extracted from my loaded quinoa salad don’t accidentally end up going home with me. So, while they graciously and firmly tell me, “No, no, it’s no problem…I’ve got it,” I just as graciously and firmly place my hand on the plate and say, “I insist.”

One of my greatest anxieties in restaurants had become the constant hovering of the table clearers, eying me from across the room, ogling my every move. If I dared rest my fork to take a sip of water, I’d feel the rush of air as one swooped in to grab my plate away. When did the notion of “good service” devolve into forcing diners to gulp down their meals? The day I discovered myself hunched over my lunch, both arms protectively placed around my dish to nonverbally indicate that I was still actively engaged in eating, I snapped. I’d made the fatal error of thinking I could put down my utensils momentarily when the busboy grabbed my plate. “No! I am NOT done!” I yelled at the poor child, physically yanking back the half-full plate he had snatched. At that point, my Zen was nowhere to be found. These days, I try to ignore them as they drift about, poised to spring into action if I dare chew my food thoroughly. At the first sign of infraction, I place my fingers on the rim of the plate, draw a meditative breath, smile, and calmly inform them that I am a slow eater. Placing my hands over my heart chakra, I repeat myself. I am very slow. Bring-the-rest-of-the-table-their-dessert-while-I-finish-my-meal kind of slow. I will let you know when I am done.

Let me wrap up my restaurant rant discussion by saying that Sally from When Harry Met Sally has nothing on me. I understand that chefs are proud of their creations, thoughtfully combining flavors and textures to entice their customers. Unfortunately, I have dietary restrictions, not to mention an eccentricity or ten, and used to get stressed at the thought of customizing my order. I would pick out the components in my salad that I didn’t like or couldn’t eat because I didn’t want to be deemed “difficult.” Now, I get my salad precisely the way I want it. No cheese, egg, or meat. Dressing on the side, and is there any dairy in it? If so, just bring me oil and vinegar. Add olives and extra tomatoes, unless the tomatoes have been refrigerated or are underripe, in which case, leave them out altogether. Add walnuts, if they can be toasted; if not, add almonds. I like my carrots shredded, please, not diced or julienned. No spring mix – substitute Romaine and arugula instead, thanks. Could I more easily make my own salad at home and maintain my hard-earned tranquility? Sure, I could. But, as adorable as my husband is, I’m not immune to the eye-candy in the form of the thirty-something waiters at Maggiano’s Little Italy.

With age and wisdom comes Zen. At least the semblance of Zen. With nearly six decades under my belt, I am less concerned with how others view me and more comfortable in my own skin. I may decide to color my hair purple. I will continue wearing the jeans I love, possibly graduating from bell bottoms to bootcut, if the spirit moves me. I won’t worry about whether I’m “ladylike” when I let a string of obscenities fly at the reckless driver who nearly sideswiped me or when some little shit tries to steal my taxi. I refuse to count calories because I enjoy great, fully customized food. I laugh out loud and unabashedly. I’m giddy when I’ve indulged in a strong drink or glass of wine. My family, friends, and animals are the center of my world. Most significantly, however, as I reflect on my advancing years, I am deeply salty (cue my children’s rolling eyes) about the disco ball ring, inarguably the greatest women’s accessory ever designed, no longer being in fashion. Namaste.

* * * * *

Holiday Traditions

 

My mom was big on holiday traditions, especially the Fourth of July and Christmas. Her closet was filled with bedazzled American flag t-shirts and a collection of ugly Christmas sweaters that were the envy at every holiday party. Each year, on the day after Thanksgiving, Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas” on the stereo console, repeating “treetops glisten, and…treetops glisten, and…treetops glisten…” until Mom moved the needle past the scratch in the album. Dad was no slouch in the holiday celebration arena, either. Just twenty hours after downing copious quantities of turkey with stuffing and all the trimmings, he was covered in cobwebs in the crawl space under the house, dragging out tattered cardboard boxes filled with ornaments and our artificial Christmas tree frosted with semi-realistic looking snow.

Dad’s job was outdoor Christmas decorations. What should have been a two-hour endeavor achieved with holiday cheer inevitably stretched into an entire Friday of swearing and grumbling. He pulled out string after string of outdoor lights, the extra-large, opaque kind in red, blue, green, and white, that somehow were a tangled mess despite the care with which they’d been stored the previous year. I loved watching him stretch the strands across the recreation room floor to check for outages, replace the faulty bulbs, mutter under his breath when those didn’t work either, then beam with accomplishment when everything lit up properly. Just as eagerly, I’d watch his frustration as he’d drape them around the 18’ White Spruce he’d planted by the front door the year my parents bought the house. Inevitably, as soon as he’d reach the top of the “A” shaped step-ladder, an entire section of lights would suddenly go dark. The stream of curse words that accompanied his up-and-down the ladder to locate replacement bulbs and twist them into the sockets put me right in the festive spirit.

Mom was one of those crafty types whose projects adorned our house year-round. The blown-eggs at Easter time were painted with artistry and care, then arranged in our table centerpiece. In the spring, tissue paper flowers bloomed in the living room. Or, flowers constructed from wire shaped into petals, dipped in some sort of goopy molten plastic, dried, then twisted together to make tulips and irises. Even Mom’s paper dolls were works of art. Christmas was when she pulled out the big guns, though. She’d start in September, buying pre-made kits of wooden ornaments that required the painting of her steady hand to bring them to life. Or, the satin balls that she’d embellish with ribbons, cords, beads, and sequins. Then, there was the year of the intricately nipped and cut snowflakes created from high-quality vellum paper that she’d sprung for at the art boutique. Our tree always carried the traditional glass ornaments that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but each year’s theme was based on Mom’s creative whim-of-the-moment.

My two older brothers and I were assigned the yearly job of finishing the tree with shimmering silver tinsel. I remember waiting for Mom’s signal, telling us it was up to us to put on that finishing touch. My stomach got a tingly excited feeling, knowing that with this final act, the Christmas season was officially ushered in. Every year it was the same. I gently lifted the tinsel, delicate strand by delicate strand, to hang them individually over each branch. My brothers grabbed handfuls of the stuff and threw it in the general direction of the tree, hoping some would stick. I’d scream at them. They’d laugh and tease me. I’d burst into tears. They’d call me a crybaby. Mom would yell at them to knock it off. I’d hear my father somewhere downstairs, cursing and swearing. I’d scream louder. Mom sent my brothers to their room, which was precisely where they wanted to be anyway.

As the actual day approached, pots of Mom’s favorite flower, the poinsettia, would appear. They took over the recreation room windows; they inhabited every open table surface; they even crept up the base of the railing on both sets of stairs. Reds, pinks, whites, mixes of all. Food for the holiday began appearing in the kitchen with notes reading “For Christmas – do NOT eat!” taped to it. Every year, the menu was the same — a glazed ham; baked, New England-style macaroni and cheese based on the recipe Mom had received from her late grandmother; green bean casserole with crispy, fried onions on top; canned cranberry sauce; fresh from the oven Pillsbury dinner rolls. My grandparents would show up about noon, my aunt and uncle soon after that. Following our feast, the grown-ups would loll on the couch, my brothers would disappear to play with their new Major Matt Mason toys, and I’d be left to entertain with a magic show. Through the years, my tricks became more complicated and my theatrics more absurd, but how I loved donning that top hat, whipping out my magic wand, and dazzling my snoozing family with the jug that endlessly poured water.

Christmases of my childhood were magical. As I got older, some traditions fell by the wayside; some were altered to adjust to changing times. Mom lost the stamina to create complete sets of ornaments each year, so she began reusing old ones. Dad compromised with the outdoor decorations by purchasing fully-assembled manger scenes, reindeer cut-outs, and life-sized Santas secured with stakes. My brothers were “too busy” to help with the tinsel, so the tree trimming fell to me. I loved the newfangled sparkly garland that I could put up in minutes, allowing me to hurry back to spending hours on the telephone with my girlfriends. Late night church services interfered with my social life, so I’d cajole Mom into going to the 7:00 service, instead. We cut back on the poinsettia overgrowth when Mom learned that they’re poisonous to cats. One thing that remained through shifting family dynamics – marriages, divorces, deaths – and changing times was the macaroni and cheese. That was always Mom’s secret weapon to ensuring she could get us all to the Christmas dinner table together.

When I started my own family, and the building of new Christmas traditions fell to me, I reached back into my childhood for inspiration. The weekend after Thanksgiving, we brought the bins of decorations up from the basement. I assigned my husband the responsibility of adorning the outside. I’d even searched out those retro extra-large bulbs in red, blue, green, and white. The kids helped put up the tree. Since I didn’t inherit my mother’s gift of craftiness, we started our version of collecting ornaments. We’d brave the mad rush of shoppers to find our yearly Hallmark ornament for the family, and each of the kids would pick out one for themselves. I began collecting nutcrackers, displaying them on the tall staircase in our foyer, lined up against the banister going all the way up, just like Mom used to do with the poinsettias. I created a tree skirt and, every year, would trace my children’s hands on felt, cut them out, then glue them to the skirt, marking whose hand it was and the year. I’d long since given up meat, but I continued making Mom’s New England-style macaroni and cheese for our Christmas dinner.

Christmas skirt

My children loved and anticipated Christmas the way I always did. So much so, that their excitement would wake them up by 2 AM, cause them to sneak downstairs to see if Santa had come, then grab their stockings and race back to their rooms to open the only gifts they were allowed until their parents got up. Unfortunately, that meant they’d be waking us up by about six because they could no longer contain themselves. You’d think they’d have learned over the years that a sleep-deprived mother makes for a lot of the same cursing and grumbling I learned from my dad. But, no. Cranky Christmas Day Mom became part of our family tradition. And, that sibling teasing from my youth was passed down, too. It began the year my daughter, about five at the time, slipped on the top step. What we heard from the family room below was a series of boom-boom-booms, accompanied by clackety-clackety-clacks that seemed to go on for hours. When the noise finally stopped, and we were no longer frozen in shock, we leaped to our feet and ran into the foyer to find Tara laying on the floor surrounded by an army of nutcrackers. She had fallen down the full flight of stairs and wiped out the entire line of nutcrackers on her way. My son, being the concerned older brother, made sure she was uninjured before whooping in delight about the “glorious sound” that Tara had created. To this day, Avery gleefully recalls the “glorious sound” of those nutcrackers crashing down the stairs with his sister.

My mom passed away several years ago, just before Christmas, and knowing her love of poinsettias, I bought out the local nursery to bedeck the funeral home for her service. Since then, I have given up decorating with poinsettias for the holidays as those flowers now hold painful undertones for me. Many of the other traditions have evolved, as well. My children’s hands are no longer growing, but I continue to use the tree skirt with their handprints all over it. They each have bins of their own ornaments that we collected as a family since they were babies. We don’t put them on the tree at our house, but my son and daughter have them for their own homes, now. The kids still return home for the holidays, still expect their stockings to be filled, but now stay up until 2 AM to sneak down the stairs to grab them before racing back up to their old rooms.

This year, traditions continue to evolve. I still make Mom’s old New England-style baked macaroni cheese but now include a non-dairy version, too, for the vegans in the group. Also, my son’s girlfriend will be joining us and, since her religious background is Muslim, it will be fun to have her experience Christmas for her very first time with us. I hope she enjoys the traditions we’ve built; I hope she likes the macaroni and cheese that’s part of our heritage; and, I hope I get to sleep past 6 AM.

* * * * *

Halloween 1999

  Baton 1             Baton 2

My mom sewed. I was her living mannequin, not to mention pincushion. When I became a competitive baton twirler, she sewed all my costumes. We spent hours at Raymond’s Fabric Store, selecting soft velvets and stretch fabrics, and perusing Simplicity patterns. We chose elaborate rhinestones and cabochons, beaded and lace appliques, braided trim and metallic twisted cord. Those costumes represent so much love and hard work that, over forty-five years later, I still have my treasured favorites.

Mom made some of my regular clothes, too, but the highlight of her year was Halloween. While my classmates put on their flimsy K-mart costumes-in-a-box and chintzy masks, I’d proudly don the beaded headband and moccasins of my hand-sewn faux animal skin Pocahontas costume. Or, my snuggly gray mouse costume, complete with pink belly, matching mittens, and a long tail that forced others to get out of my way. While I trick-or-treated in warm comfort in late-October New Jersey, my friends shivered under thin plastic while trying to breathe through their Wonder Woman masks. I wore those works of art with joy and a dash of hubris.

Wonder woman

When I became a parent, I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps – scratch that. I felt compelled to live up to her example. No. That’s not it either. The truth is, I wanted to make bigger and more elaborate Halloween costumes than even my mother had produced. My son, Avery, was the lucky first recipient of my determination, competitiveness, and maternal love. He was a plump pumpkin with an orange hat and green stem perched above his cherubic face. If you looked closely, you could see several blood stains that erased any doubt that it was homemade. The next year, he was a clown, with a shimmery multi-colored outfit and matching pointed hat.

Clown

When my daughter came along, it seemed prudent for her to wear her brother’s hand-me-down costumes until she could put in a request for her own look. At four, she made an adorable bunny.

IMG_20181015_161420

At five, when I suggested recycling a 1950s style sockhop outfit, complete with a handmade poodle skirt, that she had worn to a birthday party, she stomped her stubborn foot and demanded to be a fairy. Well, if Tara wanted to be a fairy, Tara was going to be the most elaborate and beautiful fairy our town had ever seen. There was a delicate pink fleece involved. And, some silver thread infused organza in multi-colored pastels. I think there may have been some stiff tulle, too, probably to keep the skirt just so. I made wings, shaping the wire and covering them in that same organza. For weeks, I spent late nights cutting, scrapping, recutting. One morning, I woke up to find my face pressed into a pair of scissors and my back sore from sleeping bent over my work table. I mastered the zig-zag stitch and the multi-stitch zig-zag. I learned to install a zipper. I did fittings on my tiny model, taxing her patience with my perfectionism. The entire month of October was lost in the frenzy of making my baby girl happy. Thankfully, that was the year my son’s obsession with Star Wars began, so he insisted on being Anakin, a costume he found himself on one of our frequent shopping trips.

The final week before Halloween of 1999, I was applying delicate crystals until well after midnight and fashioning a sparkly headpiece to top my little fairy’s head.  By the time Halloween finally arrived, I was exhausted and achy but, oh, had I produced a masterpiece! I could barely wait until the time to present my daughter with her heart’s desire. My mother arrived with her camera to document my success. First, I dressed Avery. Then, I applied sparkly powder to Tara’s face and styled her hair in bouncy, corkscrew curls. At last, I pulled the fairy costume from hiding in the closet and unveiled it in all its splendor.

Tara gasped as her hazel eyes grew wide; my heart filled with excitement. Her mouth dropped open as she took in that showstopper. At last, she exclaimed, “I’m not wearing that!” and snapped her face away from having to look at it.

My heart stopped, then dropped to my stomach. Surely, I had misunderstood. “What?” I wheezed.

“I. AM. NOT. WEARING…THAT!”

I covered my eyes with my hands. My hands that sported several Bandaids on fingers that had cut, stitched, and decorated until they were covered in lacerations and sores. I drew a long breath, holding back the fatigue and disappointment until I regained a measure of control. Looking up at my mother, I moaned, “What do I do now?”

Mom looked at my grief-stricken face, then turned to her pouting granddaughter. She picked up the fairy costume and said, “Go get yourself ready. I’ll get her dressed. Because, young lady,” she directed at my little brat, “you are wearing this!”

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. My husband Guy came home and got himself dressed in a red flapper dress and long, brunette wig. I applied prosthetic skin and heavy make-up, a gray wig, baggy pantyhose, and granny shoes. When we convened as a group for Mom to take pictures, Avery was confident and brave as Anakin. Tara, with tear stains streaking her face powder but looking deliciously adorable, laughed when she saw her father oddly resembling his older sister. But, when I entered the room, bent over a wooden cane, she screamed in terror. Just about at that time, Mom snapped the picture that would go on to grace our Christmas card that year.

By the time next Halloween approached and the topic of costumes came up, I was still smarting from the whole fairy fiasco. I was inclined to throw in the creativity towel, but Guy offered to pick up the mantle. While my productions had leaned toward the intricate and ornate, Guy’s handiwork embraced one-of-a-kind, enormous scale construction. There wasn’t a chance that my kids would run into anyone who could compete with Soap-on-a-Rope, Mr. Potato Head, or Fuzzy Dice. And, never again, did Tara turn her nose up at one of her homemade Halloween costumes.

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The Image Stuck In My Mind

 

My great-grandfather, John C., passed away when I was eight years old. Throughout my life, I’ve seen pictures of him as a child, as a schoolboy, as a young husband and father, as a middle-aged professional. But, when I think of him, the only image seared in my memory is that of a frail, ninety-year-old man in his nursing home bed. This freezing of someone in time in one’s head is common. Friends that I’ve reconnected with after over thirty years have the benefit of The Picture of Dorian Gray phenomenon – they’re forever adolescent in my mind. A person stuck in time this way is “foto stecken,” derived from the German meaning “stuck picture.” (Okay, I just made that up, but I’m copyrighting it.)

After my mother died, I found a collection of family history records that she’d been gathering to pass along to my brothers and me, and I spent the next two years completing the genealogical project she’d begun. She’d scanned photographs, put together birth/marriage/death certificates, land deeds, and military enlistment records. Included in it were her own stories and childhood recollections as well as several written by John C. in 1961. The memories about his young uncles particularly captivated me because those rapscallions were wild and raised hell at every chance. Had we been contemporaries, I imagine we’d have been friends.

John’s first solid memory of his uncles was when they set him on fire at his grandfather’s farm. They didn’t mean to set him on fire. They were just engaging in a little tomfoolery. They wanted to scare their five-year-old nephew while he was seated in the yard, so sneaked up behind him and lit a string of firecrackers. The child screamed and leaped to his feet but, Webster, fourteen, and George, thirteen, were paralyzed as they watched his shorts smolder and flame. They argued – while John continued screaming – about whether to dip him head- or bottom-first into the rain barrel. Grabbing him, they were about to hoist him in when their older sister Charlotte raced from the house and patted out the fire. No permanent scarring resulted, John recounted in his memoir, except for his lifelong revulsion of July 4 celebrations.

That little firecracker mishap might have scared straight those of lesser fortitude, but Webster and George thrived on a symbiotic competitive relationship. As with many teenagers, the fascination with explosives drove them to devise bigger, better, and more exciting ways to blow things up. They needed a cannon. Somewhere, they found an old piece of a gun barrel and managed to attach it to a wood block and plug up one end. Next, they put a hole in the barrel for a fuse. They had a powder horn full of gunpowder. They were set. Each took turns ramming shrapnel into their weapon to see who could create a bigger eruption. Wadded paper produced nothing more than a sizzle. Pulverized brick and small stones were more satisfying but still too tame. Webster was delighted to remember where he’d seen some ball cartridges and soon lead balls were flying out into the fields. George wanted a target to see how good their marksmanship was, so they chose the newly installed outhouse. This was no ordinary outhouse. At that time, the Chick Sales House was the Cadillac of outdoor toilets, decorated with fancy stars and half-moons. And, it was a two-seater! My great-grandfather recalled that for as long as they owned that farm, one could take a jackknife and pick out lead balls from the side of the outhouse.

In late 1800s New England, Sundays were devoted to church: preparations for service, attendance, then a large family meal or community picnic would follow. A full day of solemnity was too much to expect of the young scallywags. When they weren’t pestering the younger children seated in the pew in front of them, Webster and George would surreptitiously disrupt the worship by making noises or using a piece of glass to reflect the sun into the pastor’s eyes. It seemed God had a little light-hearted retribution the Sunday afternoon the boys went swimming in the grove behind the church picnic area. While all the congregants, including some comely young ladies, were lunching, George hobbled yelling from the water with a crab attached to a toe.

Another favorite pastime of Webster and George was damming up the nearby streams. What began with leaves and sticks morphed into boulders and fallen trees. The goal was to create ponds to play with the marine life trapped there. This sport created an additional perk for the boys. Early one fall morning, after several days of heavy rain, the banks of the streams overflowed. Their father went to the cellar – accessible solely by an outdoor ramp – to fetch an armload of firewood only to find himself waist-high in water. When word got out, Webster and George were jubilant. They grabbed a skiff and launched it down the ramp into the pool where they paddled happily collecting floating wood and any other trinkets they could reach.

My favorite story about Webster and George took place the day their older sister, John C.’s mother, was getting married for the second time. Her first marriage, to John’s father, ended in an acrimonious divorce and the family was thrilled when she found happiness the second time around with Matthew. Described as a bit of a dandy, Matthew was particular about his wedding outfit as he prepared for the ceremony at the local Unitarian church. His frustration mounted when he couldn’t find his newly purchased bowler hat and ascot. Finally, he had to settle for an old hat and necktie as he set out to meet his bride. A wedding luncheon for fourteen was spread for the newlyweds and their family. Upon returning home from the service, the groom was greeted by the family dog, nattily dressed for the occasion with a black bowler hat affixed to his head with a striped ascot. Conspicuously missing from the welcome party were the bride’s young brothers, Webster and George.

 

Even though I’ve read the humorous tales of my great-grandfather’s childhood and am aware of his celebrated career as a city planner, in my mind, I picture a bedridden elderly man. Sort of like when I show up at high school reunions, and I can’t reconcile the reality of my middle-aged peers with the teenage classmates of my memories. Webster and George lived to be men in their late sixties/early seventies. My own family tree search has traced them through decades of censuses and, while Webster never had children, many of George’s descendants still live in the New England area. Even with that knowledge, Webster and George will forever be foto stecken as impish young teenagers who relished leading their young nephew astray.

…Does My Twenty-Five-Year-Old Son Make Me Look Old?

Avery 25th

Our son, Avery, just turned twenty-five. Twenty-five! Two and a half decades! I still have vivid memories of that towheaded, blue-eyed toddler, with the ever-present grin, who was running as soon as he could walk. He called me “Mama” and displayed clever wit from the start. At eighteen months, his favorite toy was a Playmobil firetruck complete with a bucket ladder that could go up and down. There were firefighters and a Dalmatian that fit into the bucket. One day, I put the dog into the ladder in the down position, and said, “Look, honey, a Dalmatian. Dal-ma-tian. Can you say that?”

Avery didn’t miss a beat. He put the ladder, complete with dog, in the up position and said, “Upmatian.” He grinned, waiting to see if I got the joke. When I did, I spent the next several weeks – or couple of decades – bragging about my son’s sense of humor.

Twenty-five years. All those milestones and goalposts that he’s hit. The physical growth – he’s six feet tall; the personal growth – he no longer regards himself as the expert on a given topic as he knows there’s always more to learn; the academic achievements and strides in his career; the ease and confidence that come with maturity.

So, while Avery has spent the past twenty-five years growing into this fine young man, let’s focus on the important question: does my twenty-five-year-old make me look old? Because, let’s face it, in my little world, isn’t it always about me?

Do I miss the infant I used to cradle in the sleepy hours of the morning or the pudgy little hand in mine as we crossed busy streets? Of course. His sports teams that became part of my life. His church classes that meant I became an instructor. His school field trips that I attended as a chaperone. I was his chauffeur, his organizer, his chef, his doctor, his teacher, his cheerleader, his comforter. I was his everything. So, what happens to me now that he’s all grown up?

First, I had to get past the notion that he was “mine.” He is my son. He has never been “mine.” Instead, I focused on the burgeoning adult and consciously shifted my approach to interacting with him. I gave him space to develop a sense of autonomy. I listened with respect to his thoughts and plans before offering advice. Did he always take it? No. But, he learned to appreciate me as someone equipped with experience, unconditional love, and genuine interest in his well-being.

Second, I rediscovered what I like to do for myself. I heard all the suggestions. I read all the articles. So, I started to focus on my writing, giving it the attention that had been back-burnered while the kids were little. Also, I joined a gym and began having regular facials because, let’s be honest. While I’m proud of my twenty-five-year-old son, I don’t want to look like I can have a child that old.

Our son, who was born with a need to always be on the go, returned last year from a graduate program that allowed him to study in Africa and Abu Dhabi. During that year, he indulged his wanderlust and visited several countries, including Thailand, Australia, India, Portugal, and Spain. Upon his return from Seville, Spain, he informed us that his new life plan included moving there. He’s had some random and far-fetched schemes over the years, but this one seems to be sticking. So, when he said to me, “Hey, I’m going to Spain for a couple of weeks. Wanna go?”, of course, I said yes. Truthfully, I felt a little honored that he invited me. I’m sure he had ulterior motives, like convincing me that his latest plan has merit (and that I’d foot the bill for food and entertainment, at the very least). But, still.

I’ve traveled with Avery throughout our lives together, but this trip was different. I was not in charge. He made all the plans, from the airplane and accommodations to leading me on sightseeing tours through both Barcelona and Seville. He’s visited those cities before, while it was my first time. He’s fluent in Spanish, while my anxiety causes me to spit out bad high school French in a pinch. He eagerly showed me ancient relics and regaled me with detailed Spanish history, while I learned from him with mixed fascination and pride. He strode with relaxed, cosmopolitan confidence, while I fretted over figuring out which subway line to catch.

In Barcelona, we watched the World Cup Finale of football (a.k.a. soccer) on tv in a restaurant. We walked the usual tourist spots, from the magnificent Arc de Triomf to the endless stalls of La Boqueria Food Market, to the quirky tiled intricacies of Antoni Gaudi’s Park Güell. We dined on paella and strolled the Rambla, down to the marina. I scurried to keep up with my long-legged companion, reminding him with frequency that, “I’m not doing too badly for an old lady, right?” as we crammed a week’s worth of sightseeing into two days.

We hopped a 90-minute Vueling flight to Seville, during which time Avery squirmed in anticipation at returning to the city he’d come to love. I forced a smile on my face every time I cracked my knee on the seat back in front of me while crossing my legs. I maintained a serene expression while furiously elbow wrestling with the man-spreader on my other side. By the time we arrived in Seville, I was suppressing fatigue from my tribulations and irrational annoyance with the country at large.

One look at the city of Seville acted as a balm on my angst. It was every bit as beautiful as Avery had described. Within three days, I was in love with it, too. Less international than Barcelona, Seville gives a more authentic sense of Spanish culture. I became very adept at day drinking sherry, beer, and wine with my tapas, accepting the more relaxed rhythm of the Sevillian life. Still, we saw much of the Old Town, from its modern structures, such as the wooden mushrooms, as Avery coined the Metropol Parasol, to the ancient ruins, Antiquarian, dating back to ancient Roman times. I feared Avery would be impatient, dragging his old bag of a mother behind him, as I begged for occasional breaks in a park or tapas bar to rest in the 100° weather. But, he wasn’t. He seemed to enjoy sharing the city with me.

We managed to squeeze in a walking tour, combining history with the culture of tapas. We hit roughly ten tapas bars while we were there, loving the lighter, more frequent meals. We saw the Spanish royal palace and gawked at the magnificence of the Seville Cathedral. We spent hours roaming the Plaza de España in Maria Luisa Park, expressly designed and built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. Everywhere we walked, in every direction we looked, we found ancient buildings with rich history. All the while, Avery chatted happily, explaining the influence in the city from the Romans to the Moors and through the Christians.

We spent five days together in Spain, just Avery and me. I kept waiting for hints of him wishing I could attend a free midnight flamenco dance show instead of paying for the 7:30 PM version. I expected that he’d laugh at my goofy hat designed to keep the scorching sun off my face. Instead, he offered me sunscreen for my nose. I apologized for my (comparatively) early bedtime of 11 PM, but he insisted that he needed to catch up on his sleep, too.

Then, it struck me. Avery hadn’t simply grown up. He was an adult. We’d moved through all those wonderful moments of childhood where his every decision relied on me. We’d survived the turbulent teenage years when sarcasm reigned supreme. And, we came out the other side as two people who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

Our son is twenty-five-years-old. A quarter of a century. He remarked to me that the milestone was a startling realization of his advancing years. My knee-jerk thought was, “Well if you think that makes you old, imagine how I feel!” Instead, after I bought myself a new advanced skincare line, I basked in the recognition that, while our dynamic has changed, I am still every bit as relevant in Avery’s life as when he was a child. He may no longer need me to hold his hand while crossing the street, but he values that I’m still eager to cross that street with him. He’s no longer pulling away from me, as he did his first day of preschool, racing to explore the world. Now, he’s inviting me along for the ride. One thing hasn’t changed, though. At my insistence, my twenty-five-year-old still calls me “Mama.”