Documenting History, Personally

When I was a little girl in the early 1970s, I picked up a diary one day while at the bookstore with my mom. I chose that particular one because the cover had pink, fluffy fur, and it came with the requisite lock and accompanying key. After all, by the age of ten, I had deep inner thoughts that I needed to safeguard from my teenage brothers and, most importantly, my mother.

Sitting cross-legged on my canopy bed, I ended each day by pouring my profound musings onto those pre-lined pages. Mainly, I liked to gossip. I recorded all of the happenings at school and of the neighborhood kids. I kept running observations of who said what about whom, which boy I thought was cute, who started the fight on the playground and who won. As I got older, each day’s entry got longer as life became more complicated. I needed to comment on Lori’s new shade of eyeshadow or Lynn’s cool hip-hugger jeans or that Tammy played her new 45 “Beach Baby” a gazillion times or that Jackie stayed overnight at my house. These seemingly trite happenings were big to a young girl.

I’ve long since lost that diary, but even over forty years later, I remember what an essential part of my daily life it was. When my children were in elementary school, journaling was woven into the culture of their Quaker education. They learned to be still with their inner thoughts and record what was on their minds, even during extracurricular outings. I grew to understand the importance that the act of journaling provides for the individual. It allows reflection of the day’s happenings and the opportunity to put those thoughts in order. It is meditative — a time to force quiet into a busy world. And, it has the potential someday to be a glimpse into a way of life that expands past the historical name/date/place recorded in textbooks.

When my mother passed away in 2005, I was in charge of cleaning out her house. After I’d weeded through the usual piles of clothes, shoes, jewelry, and collectibles, I began to uncover the real valuables. Seemingly countless photos from every branch, limb, and twig on my family tree. Earnest correspondences from mothers to sons, daughters to fathers. Ardent love letters chronicling the courtship of my maternal great-grandparents. Deeds, documents, and journals. These were what interested me. These were irreplaceable. I had a veritable trove of history – specific to my family, yes, but also a view of society through the generations, dating back to the Civil War.

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John Pell Corsa, my 3rd great-grandfather, was born in 1830 in New York. His daughter, Jeanettie, was seven months old when he enlisted in the army and was sent to Fort Pulaski in Georgia. John would never see her again as he perished of an illness that spread through the encampment. After his death, he might have been reduced to name/date/place (John Pell Corsa/b. 1830, New York/d. 1862, Georgia) by this point in the 21st century, except that John wrote home regularly to his young wife while he was in the war. I have every one of those letters. They were filled with details of daily chores, military exercises, and the new friends he had made in his unit. More importantly, they narrated his state of mind. Early letters were filled with hope — “when I come home” and “give the baby a kiss for me.” As the months passed, his tone became more resigned as he reported on the death of yet another friend.

With those letters, I also have the only surviving portrait of my great-great-great-grandfather. Hand drawn with charcoal and pencil, it captured a serious young man with light eyes and a goatee, slicked-back dark hair, and a formal three-piece suit. The picture and letters from this man born nearly two hundred years ago were stored carefully in a leather folio that protected them through the decades so, by the time they made their way into my possession, they remained in near pristine condition. The heartfelt words and detailed portrait have immortalized John Pell Corsa/b. 1830, New York/d. 1862, Georgia as a three-dimensional, flesh and blood husband, father, and Civil War soldier.

As I sifted through the treasures that had remained buried in my parents’ home for fifty years, I found the most meaningful of all. Written in his recognizable handwriting were stacks of journals that my father had kept from his teenage years through his service in the army. I poured over them, riveted by words that came from his innermost soul. I learned that his lifelong passion for baseball began with the birth of Little League Baseball in his hometown of Williamsport, PA. Every statistic of every game was meticulously recorded, including every major league game he could tune in on his family radio. I learned about his parents and brother as viewed through his boyhood lens. I felt his frustration in wanting to leave behind the industrial town in which he grew up in search of higher education. From a poor, working-class family, his only route would be military service then college on the GI Bill. I read how he joined the army, his excitement of being stationed in Panama, and the camaraderie with his unit. I was scandalized to learn about the 19-year-old boy, who would later become my father, flirting with and dating the local girls.

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Dad passed away in 1989 and, although he will be alive as long as my brothers and I are, he could quickly fade into name/date/place when we’re gone. Those journals, though, will be passed to my children and niece who may have never known the man while he was alive but will cherish the words of the boy who became their grandfather.

Throughout my life, I’ve intuitively turned to writing as a means of expressing myself. In recent years, I’ve learned how valuable that expression is in reflecting and recording the humanity behind basic facts. As I write this piece, the world is in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. No one knows what to expect when we come out on the other side of it. History will record the name/date/place of it all, but what about the human story? The comparison to this being like a world war isn’t lost on me, and I am reminded of how Anne Frank’s detailed and stark writing while in hiding from the Nazis brought a singular personal perspective to the Holocaust. Movies have been made, stories have been written, but it is her diary that remains the centerpiece of the Jewish experience from 1942 to 1944. With this in mind, I started my own journal for the first time since that pink fuzzy diary I had in 1970. It is a place for me to talk about my daily life – from the routine and ordinary to my worries and fears. My children are living in the epicenter of the crisis – New York City. What if they get sick? My husband’s business is mostly shut down – what will this mean to his employees and us financially? My cousin’s husband suspects he has the virus, but no tests are available to know for sure. He’ll likely be okay, but will others I know be affected? A week from now; a month from now. These are the types of questions that keep me up at night. Multiply this by millions of people, and we are all living through this frightening time with similar concerns.

Other friends have joined me in writing down their thoughts. I know poets who are putting their feelings into verse. An artist friend is releasing her anxiety through her paintings. On the internet, creativity is exploding through videos. Worldwide, drones are photographing empty streets in the most popular tourist destinations. Undoubtedly, people across the country and around the world are keeping personal records of their own experiences. My journal is just one tiny piece in this collective effort to record the history we are now living. Our ordeals will live more richly than merely the names/dates/places that will be relegated to the textbooks, because this is how those who came before us did it, too.

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Buying Back My Childhood

There on the shelf, buried behind a couple of decorative German beer steins, a barnyard full of glazed animal figurines, and a set of daintily flowered miniature teacups and saucers…obscured by an oversized porcelain cupid, the brightly colored vases, and hand-painted snuff boxes…nearly hidden by the carved witch with the warty nose and the antique wind-up mantel clock, I spotted my long-lost youth. A set of four glass tumblers, each with a different “Love Is…” cartoon stamped on it. A nearly identical set had been a fixture in the kitchen cabinets of my childhood home. That cartoon strip, a favorite in the Sunday funnies, is as emblematic of those carefree days of the 1970s as watching Dark Shadows and Speed Racer weekday afternoons and learning Chinese jump rope and Cat’s Cradle with an elastic cord on my elementary school playground.

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Without hesitation, I snatched those glasses off the shelf and toted them to the checkout counter at the antique shop. As I dug out my credit card and handed it to the cashier, I paused and turned to my mother. I suddenly wondered at my impulse purchase. I didn’t need any more glassware. That cartoon had never held any significance in my relationship with my husband. I doubted my small children, who had likely never seen “Love Is…”, would find the set to be as endearing as I did. So why this urgent need to buy them?

Mom, with that knowing smile on her face, stated with infinite Mom-wisdom, “You reach a certain age and you start buying back your childhood.”

Was that it? Had I reached that stage in my life when I would soon start sentences with, “I remember when…” or “When I was young…”? Had I become my mother?

I brought those glasses home, excited to share my pop culture find with the family. Even though my husband is from the same era as I am, he wasn’t impressed. He prides himself on not looking backward, the way he claims I do, but moving forward with the times. Was he right? Was I stuck in the past or simply sentimental? I had to admit that I tend to search the radio for the Beatles or Fleetwood Mac, singing along with dewy-eyed nostalgia to “Here Comes the Sun” and “Landslide”, while he’s bopping to the likes of Kesha and Justin Timberlake.

My children, on the other hand, thought those naked little characters were intriguing. Not because they felt the same pull toward times of yore as their mother. They were nine and six at the time and were developing a fascination with the birds and the bees. Nonetheless, I seized upon the opportunity to share the joys and wonders of my own childhood with my kids because, obviously, stuff was better back then.

My daughter Tara suddenly found she had inherited my old Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. I read her the accompanying books, including the one where they meet the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees, but within days, dolls and books were all relegated to a shelf and forgotten. I had loved my Mrs. Beasley doll until she fell apart, so Tara found a brand-new version under the Christmas tree one year. But, not having lived through the Family Affair age, Mrs. Beasley’s spectacles were promptly lost, and she was soon pushed into a closet with the door shut. I got Tara the Barbie and Ken dolls my feminist mother never allowed me to have, but instead of dressing them in their stylish outfits or taking them on a trip in the camper I bought, Tara only wanted to strip off their clothes and put them in the “jacuzzi.”

My son Avery was soon the proud owner of every matchbox car I could lay my hands on, from sporty race cars to hippie-style VW buses to backhoes to frontend loaders. There were Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. We had vintage Legos and spent hours building entire cities for those matchbox cars to explore. He was more receptive to the toys and influences from the “olden days” and loved my metal jack-in-the-box with the jester painted on the side. We bounced down the driveway on a Hippity-Hop inflatable ball and made beautiful pictures with Lite Brite and a Spirograph. I taught the kids to use a pogo stick and how to throw their voices while entertaining with a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll. We played Candy Land and Mouse Trap and Operation and Twister and Battleship. And, happy was the day when my son decided he was a fan of two of music’s greatest – The Who and Eric Clapton.

Was my insistence at introducing my young impressionable children to the treasures of my youth solely because I’m suspicious of all things post-1970s? Actually, I realized that I was doing precisely what my own parents had done for me. I grew up with their youthful interests swirling through our house, unconsciously influencing my biases. From music to the brimming bookshelves in every room and hallway to their television program choices to art projects to the toys and games we were given, my parents’ leanings were fingerprinted everywhere. After they passed away, I cleaned out their house with its lifetime of hobbies, passions, and memories and got a clear understanding of how family traditions are perpetuated. I sorted through LPs and 78s, overflowing with the musical social commentary of Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul and Mary; the political satire of Tom Lehrer; and, the complete collection of Shakespearian plays theatrically narrated and recorded long before audiobooks were even a thing. I found Dad’s collection of political pins, from Harry Truman to Walter Mondale, and Mom’s handmade wooden Christmas ornaments that she’d painstakingly decorated with oil paints and colorful sequins.

Pop culture, social attitudes, and holiday traditions are one thing, but my favorite ritual passed from my parents to me and now to my children is a love of live theater. As a child, I became a fixture in the local venues and some of my most cherished memories are cemented there. I grew up with the classics – staged versions of Mary Poppins, Camelot, and West Side Story. I saw countless Shakespeare productions – comedy, tragedy, and history – and when rock operas rose in popularity, I saw Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar. There were yearly Christmas showings of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. But my favorites were the comedic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m familiar with all fourteen, have watched most, and have seen a few multiple times. I can recall the side-eye I’d receive when standing on the sixth-grade playground belting with gusto, “I am the very model of a modern Major General.”

Imagine my excitement when perusing this year’s offerings at our regional theater and found The Mikado as a featured performance. It was a novel Victorian-era twist on a classic set in Japan and every bit as wonderous as I remembered. As the lights in the theater dropped and the audience fell silent, I could picture my mother sitting on my left and my father to my right. In my mind, I could hear my father’s gentle laugh at the silliness of the plot and imagine my mother softly humming the melody to herself. By intermission, I was high on the experience and turned in excitement to discuss the first act with my husband. His glazed-over eyes and telling yawn indicated that he wasn’t as enthralled as I was. How could he not love it? He hemmed and hawed, unable to articulate why he wasn’t connecting with the musical, and it hit me. Did I love it on its own merits, or was the show so intricately woven into the warm memories of my childhood that I was unable to separate them?

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I don’t care. I may be “in a rut” as my husband claims, or start too many sentences with “I remember when…” There’s a richness in holding dear those meaningful influences of our youth – the ones that transport us to a special place or a time of innocence. So, if I buy a couple of dusty glasses with cartoon characters on them…if I encourage my son to browse through the classic rock section at the local record album exchange…if I point my daughter toward books by Louisa May Alcott and the Bronte sisters…if I turn on my lava lamp at night so I can find my way to the bathroom at 3 AM…if I drag my husband to a Paul McCartney concert…so what? If I dance around the house singing “A Wand’ring Minstrel I” after seeing The Mikado, does it make me old and stuffy? Isn’t this how future generations learn about and honor the past? So, in my mind, I’m not a fuddy-duddy; I’m a pop-culture anthropologist.

 

 

 

…The Worry List

I was about seventeen when I first learned about my grandmother’s Worry List. I had been asked to help following Gammy’s cataract surgery and, after preparing lunch (a.k.a. placing an order with the local pizzeria) for her and Gampy, I found myself puttering around their apartment. I dusted some shelves, lingering over the hardcover collection on the history of the British Royal family, complete with full-color photos of the Queen’s massive compilation of jewels. I washed plates by hand, the blue fluted Royal Copenhagen china that I had long coveted, and gently replaced them in the cabinets. While my grandparents napped, I amused my cynical teenage self by taking inventory of the stash of canned goods they hoarded in a spare bedroom, remnants of Depression Era food-insecurity. But nothing fascinated me more than the pile of handwritten lists I discovered on the table beside Gammy’s recliner in the living room.

It was a stack of linen stationery, seemingly identical until I looked more closely. Each was dated and placed in chronological order, today’s date on top. As I studied the first, I realized that Gammy had listed each of her family members, beginning with her brother, her children – my mother, my aunt, and my uncle – followed by their spouses, then each of her grandchildren, arranged by age. Next to each name was an illness or personal crisis or desired goal. It looked something like this:

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The second sheet of paper, dated October 9, was structured identically with slight variations in the concern after each name. Different on this sheet, however, was the tick mark (✔) after every entry. The third, dated October 8, also with tick marks, was, again, similar but with tiny modifications. I leafed through the rest of the heap and found they dated back to the beginning of September.

I had no idea what this represented. An itemization of our family’s woes? An inventory of our shortcomings? Emotional self-flagellation for our inadequacies? I could barely wait until I was off duty to speed home and interrogate my mother about Gammy’s bizarre accounting of our family’s failings.

“Oh,” she told me casually, “that’s Gammy’s Worry List.”

“Worry List?” I demanded. “She worries so much that she makes a list of it?”

“Pretty much.”

“But…why?” To me, this practice seemed more worrisome than anything she’d written next to our names.

“It’s quite efficient if you think about it,” Mom said. “She’s a born worrier – you come from a long line of worriers, so it’s in your genetic make-up—”

My teenage arrogance cut her off when my eyes rolled around in my head.

“Face it,” she said. “It’s inevitable. Anyway, she used to spend a lot of time and energy worrying, and, as the family grew, she found herself spending all of her time worrying about everyone. So, she developed the Worry List. She writes down everyone in her family, jots their current concern next to the name, then limits her worrying to 5-10 minutes for each one. As she moves down the list, she checks it off. She doesn’t need to worry about it anymore that day. When she gets to the end, she puts the list aside until the next day when she updates it. Where she used to spend all of her time swallowed up in her worrying, now she is done in about 3 hours and can get on with her life without obsessing about everyone else’s problems.”

“Gammy needs to chill out,” I said smugly. “What a waste worrying is. It doesn’t change anything.”

“Someday you’ll see.”

Well, someday came. As my responsibility-free teenage years morphed into my twenties, events occurred that changed my never-worry attitude. Loved ones passed away. I had children of my own. Financial concerns became a reality. I started to watch the Evening News and read local and national newspapers. And I began to worry.

When my husband was sent to consult with a cardiologist, I was haunted by my father’s death of a heart attack. When my son played at a friend’s house whose dad was a hunter, I recalled news stories of children being accidentally shot while playing with a parent’s gun. When my daughter struggled to fit in at her new high school, I flashed back to the time I had found her sobbing on her preschool playground because she was being bullied. I worried about my mother’s decline and dependency on me when she was diagnosed with cancer. I found myself worrying so much throughout the day that it spilled over into the night when I would lie awake, worrying.

As my children grew up and moved into New York City, I’d scour the internet for current crime rates. I sent them articles about being aware of their surroundings at all times and never going out at night alone. I became obsessed with their safety and their happiness and their health. The more I worried, the less I slept, and the more irrationally worried I became.

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“You need to chill out,” my husband said, echoing my long-ago mindset. “Worrying doesn’t change anything.”

That’s when I remembered Gammy’s Worry List. What had once appeared to be a silly exercise now showed itself to be a brilliant solution. At the same time, my family had grown accustomed to my idiosyncrasies and did its best to appease me. Now, my husband exercises and sees his doctors regularly, so I stop envisioning him keeling over behind the wheel and causing a forty-car pile-up. My son contacts me by text or by phone, at least twice a week, so I don’t think his lack of communication is because he’s been the victim of a Mafia hit and thrown into the Hudson River wearing concrete shoes. And, my daughter graciously allows me to have access to her location via Snap Chat, so, just in case she’s been roofied, kidnapped, and held hostage in a storage unit in Queens, I’ll know how to find her. These accommodations have allowed me to whittle my Worry List to the barebones, looking something like this:

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Thankfully, my worrying has become so streamlined and efficient that I only need to devote about an hour a day to it. My sleep is better, my blood pressure is normal, and I have time to do far more amusing things, like writing about my worrying. At least I’m not as bad as my grandmother was. I’m not spending three hours on my List. Because that would be insane.

* * * * *

To Dream the Impossible Lottery Dream

I won the lottery. The 200-million-dollar lottery, to be exact. After the inevitable taxes, the gifts to friends, and trusts established for family, there was still an obscene amount of money left. Too much for my husband and me to spend in our lifetime. So, I purchased thousands of acres of property and established an animal sanctuary.

There were dozens of barns and quarters for everyone from retired racehorses and rescued cows to elderly dogs and feral cats. Pigs had their own yard fenced off from their neighboring goats and sheep, complete with troughs and mud pits in which to luxuriate on sweltering summer days. An alpaca might stroll past chicken coups while peacocks kept dozens of watchful eyes on the operation. A venture of this magnitude required a sizeable staff, including three veterinarians, groundskeepers, a business manager, and multiple caretakers to feed, groom, and oversee the comfort of the residents. High school and college students could earn credit by mucking stables and snuggling lambs.

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This lifelong dream of mine was exactly that…a dream. In 1986, the dream was so vivid that, upon waking, I could recall minute details and conjure up sensory cues as specific as the annoyance of the buzzing flies and the pervasive aroma of manure. I could see the rolling pastures with happily grazing animals who would peacefully live out their lives under my indulgent care.

The following morning, I strutted right into my boss’s office at the newspaper where I worked. “I won’t be in tomorrow,” I informed him. “Why not?” he asked. “Because I’m winning the 200-million-dollar lottery and starting an animal sanctuary.” With that, we shared uproarious laughter. It wasn’t only because of the confidence in my assertion. It was because, in 1986, lottery jackpots topped out somewhere around the 10-million-dollar range. The very thought of a 200-million-dollar prize was unimaginable.

Through the decades, as the lotteries grew, I never forgot about that dream. I began scouting properties that could accommodate the number of animals I intended to rescue. I convinced my niece that, once up and operational, I wanted her to manage the overall business. Now, every time the Mega Millions or Powerball creeps toward that 200-million mark, my husband, or son, or daughter, calls to remind me to buy tickets. I firmly believe that, since it was my vision, it has to be my purchase.

A pipedream, you say? Superstition? I don’t think so. I was raised to believe in the supernatural – unexplained events and a connection to the otherworldly. How many times have I started humming a song that suddenly popped into my head, just to immediately find it blaring from the radio? Countless. I’ve often been viewed as a good luck charm at casinos as my intuition during Blackjack is unparalleled. I’ve bought dinners – paid for vacations – because my gut has told me when to double down and when to stand. Or, what about when a long-lost friend calls me for the first time in ages to find my lack of surprise disconcerting? After all, I’d had a “hunch” I’d be hearing from her.

I know, I know. You want to call these “coincidences.” Occasional nudges from the universe that aren’t much more than a fluke. I beg to differ. My mother was always surrounded by tarot card readers, astrologists, and mystics so, growing up, I took for granted her psychic abilities. I never thought to question her when she adamantly professed that spirits of her loved ones had visited her through her life. I grew up assuming that everybody believed in ghosts. Imagine my dismay the first time a classmate said, “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” Had Mom lied? Couldn’t be! Obviously, my peers were simply uninformed. I saw firsthand when Mom and her sister received profound answers to the questions they asked of the Ouija board. Even after my mother died, her ability to communicate across the life/death threshold continued when she contacted my aunt. Imagine my aunt’s shock when she was playing Farmville on her computer and an instant message from Mom’s account popped up declaring, “I’m flying through the stars!”

I’d like to think I’ve inherited intuitive sensitivities. I’m in awe of those who have mastered this skill. I’ve dropped a hefty amount of money visiting professional mediums, from locals to the esteemed John Edward. While I’ve never received a personal message, I’ve watched in amazement as those around me dissolved into tears at a meaningful word from a loved one. After my beloved dog Clifford died, my depression drove me to reach out to Sonya Fitzpatrick, the famed pet psychic from Animal Planet. I was a tad skeptical that my dog would be able to speak with a person. By phone, Sonya described details of my house that would have been difficult to guess. A room with a wooden floor and rug covering part of it made Clifford nervous; he was afraid he would slip and hurt his painful leg. She said Clifford had appreciated when, near the end, I would lie on the ground with him and give him pieces of ice. I was confused, though, when she went into great detail about the blue blanket that I always covered him with at night. His blanket was a multi-colored quilt. When my daughter came home from school and I mentioned this inaccuracy, she went to the blanket and turned it over. The back was solid blue. My skepticism vanished.

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So, scoff all you want as I eagerly check to see which lottery is close to the 200 million mark. If you want to get in on the action, though, you’ll need to let me buy the tickets. Since it was my dream, I have to be the one who actually makes the purchase. Then, join me on my animal sanctuary where all residents live comfortably and peacefully. Where rescued horses and lambs and calves and rams and puppies and piglets play from dawn to dusk. Where bluebirds sing joyfully as they drape me in the pink gown that they helped create with the household mice. Where unicorns frolic in vast meadows under a hundred perfect rainbows. Fantasy, you say? I call it a prophecy.

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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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

 

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.

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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.

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