Whenever we need a quick meal — but especially when we need to provide Mom with sustenance before we prop her in front of the TV and head out for an hour or two — I find myself heading out to our favorite sub shop.
A few nights ago I was prepping for a night out by getting Mom’s favorite — the Italian — while making conversation with the nice young men behind the counter.
“I think I am your most loyal customer,” I said jokingly.
The two young men stopped smiling.
“Actually, you ARE our best customer,” one of them said seriously while the other nodded.
“Wow,” I replied, trying to think of something — anything — to say in order to convince them that not only was I not addicted to cold cuts but, more importantly, I was not a stalker.
Here is a tip, and you can thank me later — when in doubt, throw the little old lady under the bus.
“Actually, it’s my mother who loves your sandwiches and insists that I get them here,” I said. “She’s sitting in the car waiting for me right now.”
“Aw, that’s so nice,” they replied. “How old is she?”
“88!” I announced proudly, as if I had something to do with it.
“88, that’s wonderful,” they said. “Well, you tell that sweet little lady that we hope she lives forever!”
I actually gasped, and began to sweat profusely, but soon recovered.
“Will do,” I said, forcing a smile, as I grabbed the bag of sandwiches and tried to hide the fact that I was twitching like Herbert Lom as Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies.
Our cat Junior — AKA my mom Josephine’s best friend — is an amazing cat, but even I have to admit that he is not quite so amazing as people believe he is.
No matter how many times I try to tell folks meeting him for the first time that we get him professionally groomed, they often want to believe that he somehow achieves the “Lion Cut” all on his own — magically sprouting a lion’s mane and a poof on his tail. Sort of like a chia pet.
A typical exchange occurred with an exterminator named Steve who came to the house today —
Steve: Wow, what a cool-looking cat. Is he a Persian?
Me: Yes, part Persian and part Maine Coon.
Steve: I can tell by the eyes. And how cool is that lion’s mane?
Me: Yes, we get him groomed that way.
Steve: He is really something. He even has a poof on his tail!
Me: Yes, we get him groomed that way.
Steve: Really cool. And I can’t get over the lion’s mane.
Me: Yes, we get him groomed that way
Steve: And the poof! Just amazing! He is one cool-looking cat.
Me: Yes, we … You know what, you’re right. He’s amazing.
Aunt Bernice, one of my dad’s three sisters, lived a few blocks away from us for most of my childhood in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. This was a blessing, as Aunt Bernice was one of the most fun-loving and kindest people you could have the pleasure of knowing.
Visitors were always welcome at her dark green colonial-style home on Overpeck Avenue, which she shared with her husband Paul and my cousins Bobby (three years older than me) and Nancy (three years younger than me). The home, with its huge wraparound porch and view of the meadows — and with its large above-ground pool with a deck — was the scene of many boisterous gatherings filled with uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends. But my favorite holiday – everyone’s really – was the Fourth of July.
Ours was a very patriotic family, and my father and my Aunts’ husbands were all WWII veterans. My Aunt Bernice was born on the Fifth of July, so we celebrated not only Independence Day but the almost-birthday of everyone’s favorite aunt.
The great time we always had on the Fourth of July included that morning’s enjoyment of the largest and longest-running Fourth of July Parade in our country’s history — courtesy of the Village of Ridgefield Park – and an after-dark fireworks display in Veteran’s Park in town, to which we could easily walk from the big green house. Filled with memories of fun in the pool and with Uncle Paul’s delicious food (including his famous macaroni salad) we would drag blankets and coolers and boxes of sparklers, joining the crowd streaming down Morningside Lane into the park for what seemed like a never-ending fireworks display.
It was always a memorable and wonderful experience, and one that for many of us has never been equaled. My Aunt Bernice and Uncle Paul, although inundated with guests every Fourth of July, were the most relaxed hosts imaginable. One of the best Independence Day memories I have is when my Aunt’s neighbor Ty Brewster, who had actually cut a vinyl record of himself singing God Bless America, climbed onto his roof and belted out the song for the benefit of the entire neighborhood. I remember all of us stopping whatever game we were playing at that moment in the pool and placing one hand over our chests as he sang, and applauding wildly at the conclusion. My Aunt Bernice had always shared her belief that “nobody sings that song like Kate Smith” – but that day, Ty Brewster was named a close second.
[Ty was known in town as a bit of a character, and in truth so was my Aunt Bernice. But in terms of eccentricity, Ty definitely had the edge. Years after Ty’s rooftop performance, I was at a party when a nice-looking guy began chatting with me. I learned that he had grown up in Ridgefield Park, I asked him if he had ever heard of Ty – whom I called a “crazy eccentric’.” “Yes, he’s my uncle!” he said and walked off angrily. Mortified and horribly upset, I spent the rest of the evening chain-smoking and then wrote in my diary as soon as I arrived home … STOP TRYING TO BE FUNNY – IT’S CLEARLY NOT WORKING!!!!!!!!!!]
But the Fourth of July celebration I recall most clearly occurred in the summer of 1972.
At that time my cousin Nancy was a somewhat awkward ten year-old who was showing few signs that she would soon blossom into a raving beauty. I was a very skinny fourteen-year-old sporting coke-bottle glasses, a biggish nose, frizzy hair and acne.
Luckily, we had some eye candy to distract us from our worries about shortcomings in the department of feminine appeal. A popular cousin is bound to have at least a few good-looking friends and at least one “standout”. In Bobby’s case, the standout was Ronnie.
Ronnie had a totally disarming smile and sparkling brown eyes. He looked like he could be on the cover of a teen magazine. Nice body, good hair. What more could a girl possibly want?
Ronnie was polite to both Nancy and I and actually said “hi” to us a few times, which of course we translated to “he wants either or both of us very badly.” We were careful not to do anything that would make us any less desirable to this teenaged marvel of anatomy. So most of our behavior consisted of trying to spy on him whenever he was around, and grinningly stupidly and backing away if we happened to catch his eye.
If I had any chance with Ronnie — and in retrospect I most certainly did not – it was blown during that year’s Fourth of July celebration.
Besides the promise of plentiful drink and food and fun in the pool, another “given” at my aunt’s annual bash was that her niece Mary Ann, a guitarist and vocalist of minimal talent, would perform what my aunt claimed was her favorite song — “Yellowbird.” “Yellowbird” is sort of goofy song saved — sort of — only by its cool Caribbean vibe. At the age of fourteen I was getting a bit weary of performing it. And I am certain that most of my aunt’s guests were tired of HEARING it.
But who was my favorite aunt, and everyone’s favorite hostess? You got it. So once again I arrived with my guitar in hand, prepared to master the calypso strum. (For the uninitiated, it is down-down-up-down-down-up-down-up). And Aunt Bernice had once again had the foresight to make at least one hundred copies of the words to “Yellowbird” so everyone could sing the lyrics, which included these memorable lines —
“Did your lady friend leave the nest again,
That is very bad, makes me feel so sad”
The only wrinkle this year was that as I was about to address the yells of “We Want Yellowbird,” all encouraged and orchestrated by my remarkably proud and excited aunt, my cousin Bobby walked into the yard with Ronnie. I did a double-take and gripped my guitar in abject fear, as Bobby grinned and stopped in his tracks. He had figured out that I had a mad crush on Ronnie, and he simply could not believe his good timing. He started screaming “Yellowbird” at the top of his lungs, the same way some people screamed a “few” years back for “Freebird.” — at which point the rest of the crowd, some of them warmed up for my act with a few too many cocktails, started yelling even louder. The ensuing ruckus may have even frightened Ty Brewster a few doors down. My cousin Bobby began laughing, and I felt like running out of the yard and down the hill to the safety of my own home. I was beyond mortified.
I nevertheless managed to step forward onto a flat piece of flagstone and address my large captive audience sitting expectantly on the large patio. Some (my mom and wonderful aunts) smiled eagerly, others (the infamous Tuzzio boys, who were nine-year old twins of my aunt’s best friend) looked like they would rather be anyplace else on the planet. I took a breath, trying not to cry. Somehow I managed not to – which was a blessing not only for me but for everyone else, considering the fact that “Yellowbird” sounds bad enough performed by someone who is NOT bawling. It is a sad sort of song, but really. I needed to get a grip.
It took everything I had in me to play the entire four painful (for all involved) verses, with everyone singing along. I was pretty sure I had mangled the song. Or had I? When I glanced his way after finishing my performance, I saw Ronnie smiling at me. Not a huge making-fun-of-me grin, but a quite pleasant one. And with that he and Bobby ambled out of the yard, in search of a much better party not involving relatives.
Although Ronnie and my audience had been polite, when I looked Nancy’s way her Cheshire Cat grin said it all. Yep, I had messed up the calypso strum and made a fool of myself. But Ronnie had been nice enough not to show it.
At some point that later that day my cousin Nancy decided to cheer me up with the offer of an instant pudding that was popular back in the day. Called, unbelievably, “Shake A Puddin,” it was created by placing the mix and milk in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid that you basically shook around until it became gelatinous. Yum. But I appreciated the effort.
Especially when Nancy attempted to shake the container over her head, as they suggested in the TV commercial, and the gooey contents spilled all over her thick blond hair. “Mooommm,” she cried. “Hahaha,” I laughed gleefully.
Nancy and I both learned three important lessons that day.
Not all good-looking guys are jerks.
She who laughs last does indeed laugh best.
It’s really difficult to get partially congealed butterscotch pudding out of your hair.