Black and Blue

When close friends tell me I am stylish — which doesn’t happen that often, trust me — my first instinct is to disagree. I am not being humble. I consider myself more style-conscious  than stylish. I could live in sweatpants, quite frankly, but I am painfully aware of what I am wearing every time I leave the house. And that’s because I was raised by a mother with a highly critical eye.

Years ago, before Mom’s onset of dementia, she and I had a lot of watershed moments. When you both are fortunate to live long enough — and at this point she was in her early eighties and I was in my late forties — you get to apologize for unfortunate incidents. If you are lucky, they become water under the bridge.

“I’m sorry I was so critical of you and your clothes when you were growing up,” Mom told me one day to my surprise. “Years ago, Aunt Bernice told me that my criticism was making you a nervous person.”

I had to stifle an outburst. “And yet you haven’ really  stopped!” I wanted to say. But really, is it kind to fly in the face of a sincere apology? I always have believed in room for individual improvement, and I hope I always will.

“It’s OK, ma,” I said. “I hardly remember it.”

In truth, I did hardly remember it. I had blocked those painful incidents from my mind, even though they obviously had lasting effects.

The water under the bridge came rushing back at me during a visit to my daughter Veronica in college over a year ago. My two high school besties Cindy and Di  had made the trip with me, and during our lunch my daughter surprised me by asking them a question.

“Did my Grammy criticize my Mom a lot when she was growing up?” she asked. I stiffened for a moment, wondering if I had carried on my mother’s work by criticizing my own daughter overly much. But looking into Veronica’s eyes, I saw only concern. I relaxed, and realized that Veronica had witnessed many of my mother’s pronounced judgements about body shapes and clothing choices — many of them aimed at complete strangers,  especially TV game show hosts and the network news anchors. Even the New York lottery announcers weren’t exempt.

As Di prepared to answer, I found myself intrigued. Yes, that’s how well I had put it all out of my head. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat as my wise friend formulated her usual measured response.

“Well, it wasn’t an outright criticism as much as ‘Mary Ann, are you shuah you want to weah that sweatah?'” Di said in perfect imitation of my mother.

“Oh gosh,” Veronica said, and I nodded in agreement. Di’s pronouncement had unlocked a flood of memories, none of them palatable.

“I actually recall her saying, ‘Have you evah thought about looking at yawself in a full-length mirra?'” I said, and we all laughed.

Which brings me to this current and  terrific piece of irony. Mom is most “on” — and we are both happiest — when we are bantering and laughing. Our best and funniest conversations center on her thinly veiled, beat around the bush criticisms of you-know-who. I guess you never really DO forget how to ride a bicycle.

The other day I told Mom about our lease of a new car.

“What color is it?”

“Guess, Mom!”

“I can’t guess. I don’t even know what day it is.”

“OK. I’ll give you three choices. White, red, or black.”

“It’s not blue?”

“No, that’s not one of the choices.”

“But blue is pretty.”

“I know, but I did not buy a blue car.” (A mistake, obviously. Strike one.)

“Ok, then it’s red.”

“No.” (Strike two.)

“White?”

“No.”  (Strike three.)

Mom went silent. She did not even want to consider the possibility that I would be foolish enough to buy a black car. She and Dad had always said they were too hard to keep clean. So I had to come clean myself.

“It’s a black car!”

“Oh!”

“Well it looks nice.”

“Ok.”

“Don’t you like black cars?”

“Well, I don’t have to drive it.”

I paused for a second, defeated. But if dementia doesn’t teach you how to make lemonade from lemons, then you’re not paying attention.

“You’re funny,” I told Mom, which began a dialogue very much like the one between Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in the movie “Goodfellas.”

“It’s good to be funny,” I finally said to Mom.

“Is it?” she said.

“Sure!” I said.

“How would you know?” she answered, and I literally erupted in surprised laughter. Whatever had been  going awry with the neurons in her brain, they were presently doing a spectacular job of connecting at my expense. And frankly I was thrilled to still know that there was a spark.

“What’s going on up there?” John yelled, but I could tell by the unworried tone of his voice that he knew.

“Nothing that hasn’t been happening for years,” I wanted to say. But I kept laughing.

It just felt so good to laugh. And even better to have Mom laugh along with me.

 

 

Shifting Gears

I was the picture of calm as the skyline shone in the sunlight. John and I were on the ferry from Weehawken heading into New York City for the Auto Show. The couple next to us on the ferry’s bench was friendly and we shared some conversation and a few laughs. “Enjoy the show,” they said on our way off the platform. Me feet touched New York City asphalt  for the first time in a while, and had to remind myself not to get overly excited. Since I don’t get to the city as often as I’d like, I tend to make too big a deal out of these rare outings. Which would be fine, except that if everything about my “big day out” doesn’t live up to my lofty goals, I feel like I have somehow failed or been failed. As my friend Pat wisely said, “It’s all about managing expectations.” Bingo.

“It’s not a big deal, you’ll get here again soon,” I told myself as we joined the crowd crossing the wide street near the ferry terminal and heading toward the Javits Center. I hadn’t been to the NYC Auto Show since 1994. And with that sad fact in mind I had been fired up to make this day happen, looking up information about dates online and arranging for my Mom’s wonderful caregiver Carol Corbett to help us out. Surely if I’d managed to get us t the car show this time, I could do it again — if not next year, then the year after.

I was doing fine with my “zen” attitude until we passed the trucks. A lineup of 18-wheelers was standing along West Side Highway, ready to transport the show vehicles to wherever they were needed next as it was the show’s  final day. My heart began to race with the realization that soon I’d be getting a gander at all the spanking new cars that had been delivered by those massive trucks.

A snafu at the ticket gate dampened my enthusiasm and delayed our entrance by ten minutes or so, and I managed to calm down again. I reminded myself of what my friend Carol had said days earlier — “Cars are no big deal, they depreciate in value as soon as you drive them off the lot.” I had heard this before, and it used to annoy me when people pointed it out.  My Dad was a car enthusiast and we attended the show together many times, beginning “back in the day” when it was held at the NYC Coliseum and ending with the first year it was held at the Javits Center. “It’s just not the same,” Dad said about the Javits show. And that was that.

So I had started dragging John along, but it just wasn’t his “thing” as much as it was Dad’s. Still, on this day, he seemed even more enthusiastic than I was. “Where do you want to start?” he asked as we entered and faced the escalator. “I don’t really care,” I said, and I was surprised at how effectively I had tamped down my excitement. Or had a dose or reality replaced the “car aficianado” dreamer that I had been years ago?

We headed toward the first exhibit we saw, and I checked out the sticker prices on the Honda models. I drive a leased Accord, and I am thinking about handing it back. I am craving something a bit sportier. Or is it myself I am dissatisfied with and want to change? I was reflecting on this when I hopped into a Honda HR-V that was on display.

“Wow,” I said immediately. I hadn’t sat in the driver’s seat and grabbed the steering wheel of a car at the auto show for years, and yet it felt like I’d just done so yesterday. “Do you love it?” said a woman who had hopped into the passenger seat. “I guess,” I said cautiously. The interior of this particular model seemed a bit “bare bones” to me, and I felt encased in hard black dull plastic. But my partner in crime was beyond excited about the foldaway back seats and cargo room and small size of the car. “Ah, I’ve got her pegged,” I thought. “She’s a New Yorker looking to make the most of her limited parking space.” I assumed that she didn’t drive all that often, perhaps just to grocery shop or visit relatives in the ‘burbs. You don’t need “fancy” to do that. In fact, maybe fancy is a turnoff to native New Yorkers, who have to worry about theft. Was that why Honda decided on this particular model for the NYC auto show? If so, they’d done me no favors. I was beyond disappointed, having had high hopes for the HR-V. “Do you like it honey?” she asked her husband, who peeked into the driver’s side window noncommittally. He probably wanted to get behind the wheel but I wasn’t budging just yet. I was too entertained by his wife and I was waiting for her to find something not to like about the car. Its boring interior? Ho-um color?  But her enthusiasm didn’t wane. “Well it figures,” I thought. “She’s living a fulfilling life in the greatest city in the world — she doesn’t need a car to make her happy.” I had to admit to myself that there was a strong possibility that I did.

I exited the car and I was happy to see a “souped up” Honda Civic on display. It was electric blue with “the works” as far as sporty accessories such as spoilers. Could this be “the one?” “Ow,” I said as I strained myself to fold into it. I had John take a photo of me next to the car, and I was dismayed by what I saw.  I appeared a bit long in the tooth to be driving that snazzy car. Was my functional L.L. Bean coat causing my proximity to the car to appear almost inappropriate? Or had I “aged out” of having a fun driving experience that I could actually afford?

“Does this car make me look old?”

After that I muddled through the displays, once again checking sticker prices to avoid falling in love anything I couldn’t afford. “Do you want to look at the Audis?” John asked, and I agreed although my heart just wasn’t in it.   I was actually getting restless. I was dismayed by the lack of flashy and substantial brochures like the ones I had collected while attending car shows with my dad. I had cut my teeth as an advertising copywriter on the ones I kept for months and cherished — all extolling the virtues of the latest models and technology. The Pontiac GTO. The Cadillac Seville. The Lincoln Town Car. The Chevy Impala. And, lord help us, the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega.

By devouring the words and photos, I had become somewhat of a car snob. Truth be told, I once broke up with a very nice guy because he owned an AMC Hornet. At the time I was driving a two-door 1970 Pontiac GTO with a 350 V-8 engine. Yes, for once I was out of someone’s league. Surprisingly, I soon found myself dating John and forgiving him for his light-yellow Dodge Dart with the camel-colored vinyl roof. “My Aunt Marion willed it to me,” was his excuse. Little did I suspect that John was dating ME partly so he could drive the GTO.

I pulled a tiny brochure about the Hondas out of my purse, lamenting how much things had changed. I had changed as well. When had I stopped getting excited about the car show? Well, most likely when the prices starting hitting tens of thousand of dollars. I sighed, and then a young man passed by mid-conversation with his friend.

“You know what I love about this show? It makes me believe in potential.”

I had to smile. Something about what he said reminded me of my dad. He’d always dreamed of owning a Cadillac, but never did and settled happily for Fiats most of his life. Not that he didn’t love the finicky little cars. He surely did. “You’re crazy,” people would say every time he traded up for a new model. But Dad apparently believed in potential. His, and the Fiat’s.

After that I was fired up, and to John’s surprise I insisted on revisiting some of the exhibits. I stopped looking at sticker prices so much, and focused on innovative styling and plush interiors — just as in my days at the car show with Dad. I started chatting up strangers excitedly — “Oh, this is SO your car you look great in it,” or “What do you think of this dash because I just LOVE it.” I was behaving like Will Ferrell in Elf when he discovered the World’s Best Cup of Coffee. Sure, some of my “victims” looked a bit frightened. But I was unstoppable. It was as though I was eight years old again and holding Dad’s hand.

“I wonder where the Fiats are?” I asked, but deep down I knew. In the basement, as always. With the monster trucks and heavy duty vans. Being disrespected. “I’ll save you, little ones!” I thought as we headed down the escalator — me excitedly, John reluctantly.

“Oh my goodness!” I said upon seeing a tiny confection of a two-door Fiat convertible. The color — a mint green that managed to be subdued and classy — took my breath away. (Fiat ALWAYS has had it all going on in the way of color, you can’t deny it.) “Sit in it,” John urged, and I did after it was vacated by two little girls who actually looked to be the perfect-sized drivers for that vehicle. I almost cried upon seeing the dashboard with the familiar Fiat logo and the stick shift. My Dad and my Aunt Bernice drove Fiats with manual transmissions long after everyone else had jumped ship in favor of automatic. I haven’t driven a car with a manual transmission in years, and am frankly itching to do so. I long for the familiar sound of gears shifting and the engine slowing and then humming back to life as the clutch is depressed.

“Oh, I could sit here forever,” I said.

“Well, you may be in luck,” John said.

“Really?” I said, my heart racing again. I never thought John would consider buying a Fiat. For better or worse, my Dad and I were blinded by our love for the Fiats and told ourselves that reliability was overrated. I never in my wildest dreams thought that John would hop onto this bandwagon.

“Yes, because I can guarantee that none of the Fiats is going to start tonight,” he said. And I had to laugh.

Because that’s the kind of day it was. For enjoying. For remembering. For laughing. And for once again believing in potential.

I will get myself back to that car show. Even if I have to drive a Fiat to get there.

 

 

 

 

“I’m Tired”

There is a song that Madeline Kahn performs in the movie “Blazing Saddles” that never fails to crack me up. The incomparable Madeline, as a character named Lili Von Shtupp and in a spoof of Marlene Dietrich, sings about being worn out by unsatisfying romantic liaisons with men.

“I’ve been with thousands of men, again and again, they promise the moon.”

Here is my version of “I’m Tired” sans the sultry look and sexy ensemble –

I’m tired of never finishing my second cup of coffee because Mom is up and needs breakfast.

I’m tired of Mom asking where I am going every time I leave the house for a walk, grocery shopping, exercise class, coffee with a friend, or other diversion.

I’m tired of trying to balance Mom’s needs for in-home comfort with John’s needs for out-of-the-house socializing.

I’m tired of not being able to hop in my car and take a day trip, or an overnight to see either of my children who are in different states.

I’m tired of telling acquaintances that I am not technically an empty-nester when they ask if my house is quiet with the kids gone.

I am tired of Mom not being able to follow more than one direction at a time, and having to repeat even that single direction.

I am tired of Mom flinching and complaining every time a curse word is uttered during my favorite TV shows.

I am tired of not traveling when in fact this was the long-anticipated time when my husband and I figured I could finally accompany him on business trips.

I’m tired of spending limited quality time both inside and outside the house with my husband.

I’m tired of those moments – once rare but increasing in frequency — when I wonder how much longer I can do this.

Let’s face it. Like Lili “I’m pooped.” But here is the other side of the coin. Or — as my neighbor Debbie said after spending some time here – “Life is good in “The Josephine Zone.’”

Debbie was right. Life can be good in “The Josephine Zone.” For the first time in my life I am watching movies all the way through and getting “lost” in them. I am learning the satisfaction of preparing satisfying home-cooked meals more often rather than paying a small fortune for weekday takeout dinners. I have learned the art of “cocooning” and shutting out the rest of the world. I am playing along to “Wheel of Fortune” and impressing Mom with my puzzle-solving skills. I have learned to make the most of my limited time for social events and outings – enjoying them more and not worrying so much about how I look and act. I have tackled the crocheting and sewing and writing projects I had thought about for years. And thanks to my mother’s enduring love and appreciation, now so simple and pure, I have begun valuing myself more as a person in my own right and not a conduit to someone else’s happiness or success. I am finally laughing more and crying less.

Be productive. Be helpful. Be nice. Be proactive. Be better-informed. Be spontaneous. Be a planner. Be creative. Be supportive. Be reliable. Be sociable. Be useful. Be the life of the party.

Finally I know the truth.  All I ever really need to do was “be.”

 

There Goes My Hero

Dad was not warm and fuzzy. My mother sometimes referred to him as the “cold German” and yet she managed to convey love, admiration, and – naturally — some resignation in those words. There was a part of my beautiful yet deeply insecure mother that simply could not believe she was married to such a handsome and “good” man.

Dad had three equally attractive sisters – Gladys, Bernice, and Betty, aka “The Mandrick Girls.”  They were friendly and kind and sharp-witted. And, like Dad, not warm and fuzzy. I still laugh about the time my husband John became confused about how to greet my German/Dutch aunts – no kisses on the cheek and no hugs, as opposed to my mother’s Italian side where these were pretty much required. So there was poor John, rushing up to my Aunt Betty and smooching her on the cheek as I watched in horror. My aunt’s 5 foot 8 frame stiffened and John realized his mistake. He backed away slowly, mortified, as the color slowly returned to her slack-jawed face. Aunt Betty was graceful in her recovery but it took a minute or two as a recall.

My parents, aunts and uncles. Gladys and Bernice are in the front row, Betty is in the back.
My parents, aunts and uncles. Gladys and Bernice are in the front row, Betty is in the back.

“Your grandfather was very strict and not affectionate,” my mother told me in explanation of the Mandrick aversion to physical contact. In truth I have very warm memories of my grandfather. But these come courtesy of moments shared and activities enjoyed together. Trips with my dad and my cousin Tom to Keansburg, for example, where my Dad and Grandpa would enjoy beers together in the Heidelberg restaurant while Tom and I took endless turns at the wheels of chance and rides on the ferris wheel overlooking the bay.

Tom, Dad and me on an adventure -- this one at Snipe's in Secaucus.
Tom, Dad and me on an adventure — this one at Snipe’s in Secaucus.

When my in-laws Dolly and Otto passed away far too young, I was able to console myself by recalling long conversations with them at the kitchen table in their cozy home in Fair Haven. I had memories of the bear hugs Otto used to give to all of his “kids,” myself included.

But my Dad was not a hugger nor was he one to just “sit around and talk.” Unable to recall the same types of scenarios with my dad as I had with my in-laws, but looking to be consoled by memories after he passed away in April 2013, I decided to visit the places that reminded me of him.

I started with Atlantic City, naturally. When I was still in college back in the late 1970s, my father and mother joined his sisters in making bus trips to Atlantic City. Resorts was the only casino open at that time, but that was more than enough for them. Excited beyond reason about the fact that they could pay twenty dollars for the bus ride from Secaucus and get ten dollars back in quarters for slot machine gambling, they managed to always have a blast. My Aunt Gladys and my dad especially could be counted on to win a jackpot of a few hundred or sometimes over a thousand dollars, usually just before leaving to catch the bus. I would return home from college to be regaled with tales about the boardwalk, buffets, and beer.

Years later, after Bernice and then Gladys had passed away and my Aunt Betty could no longer make the trip, the highlight of Dad’s “golden years” became car trips to Atlantic City with my mother, John, and me. Robbed of most of his eyesight by macular degeneration, Dad could no longer read the newspaper or tinker with his model trains. Atlantic City became his only hobby, and he counted the weeks until I could arrange for a visit to his “favorite” slot machine. (Always one featuring the number seven, and always a quarter machine with three quarters as “max bet”). John drove back and forth from Long Branch to Atlantic City uncomplainingly, and Mom could be counted on to pile my father’s plate high with a smorgasbord of gastronomically incompatible foods at the Caesars Casino Buffet. All the poor man wanted was shrimp and beer, so John and I would make that happen. Mom would end up sampling the plate she had lovingly made up for Dad and then announce that it was a “terrible combination” — as if someone else had put that mess together.

My first trip to Atlantic City without Dad – and in search of memories — was during the summer of 2013 a few months after he had passed away. I was relieved to be supported by my husband and our dear friends Ann and Roger for what I called my “maiden voyage” to Caesars.

Surprisingly I was mostly fine. My eyes did well up with tears when I visited Dad’s “lucky spot” – on the main casino floor near the boardwalk in between both entrances, if you must know – but happy memories and the excitement of playing the slot machines and hoping for a jackpot overrode my feeling of loss.

There in Atlantic City, Dad was alive in my memory. I could stroll along a passageway or on the casino floor and think, “Dad walked here.” I could look at the ocean from the boardwalk and recall his sisters urging him to take a rare “breather” and enjoy the view from a bench with them. And when I looked in my wallet and saw my bankroll dwindling, I was reminded that whenever Dad hit a jackpot of over a hundred dollars he would send Mom – ever at his side, dutifully playing the machine next to him — to look for John and I and deliver a one-hundred dollar bill to keep us going.

I continued to make infrequent but regular trips to Atlantic City, enlisting not only John but willing family members and friends. Each time it was fun and exciting and filled with memories of my Dad and his family. A couple of times I would even encounter older ladies and gentlemen who sat on nearby machines and wished me good luck – just as Dad and his sisters used to do for strangers sitting nearby whenever they arrived or left a slot machine. I saw my beloved “Mandricks” in each of their faces.

And then, on a visit for my birthday in December 2016, something changed. I no longer felt the memories or the warmth or the excitement. It was as if, like Elvis, Dad had “left the building.” I felt lost.

A few weeks later I had a conversation with my Aunt Gladys’s son Tom that proved illuminating.

We were reminiscing about the good old days, naturally, and Tom brought up something that I had forgotten. “You know, your mom and Aunt Betty were the homebodies, always ready with a clean house and good food,” he said. “But my mom and Aunt Bernice and your Dad were always herding us into a car, ready for adventure – I remember Aunt Bernice’s red Fiat and your Dad’s blue one like it was yesterday.”

It was then that it dawned on me. I was no longer satisfied with “Atlantic City” Dad. I needed more. I needed the Dad of my “car” dream.

I almost always remember details of my dreams. In a recurring dream that I have had since childhood – but one that went away after Dad’s passing — Dad and I were driving over a bridge in his blue Fiat. Of course Dad was always behind the wheel in this dream, driving in his careful and skillful way. Almost one hundred percent of the time, this dream preceded a major event in my life. And the dream was reassuring, because if there was anyone I trusted to steer with absolute certainty it was my dad.

My conversation with Tom about the Fiat reminded me that I hadn’t had my usual dream – or any dream — about my father since he had passed away. Even in the dream I had a few days before died – in which my Aunt Bernice pulled up in her trusty but long-gone red Fiat and urged my father to get in, just like in the good old days – Dad walked right past me as if I wasn’t there and never turned my way.

Being who I am, I saw this lack of appearance by Dad in my dreams as an indictment of my current care for my mom. I don’t feel the need or the desire to provide a “laundry list” of missteps on my part. Rest assured, I am no saint and I mess up. Not in big ways, but in what seems like a million small ones.

Shortly after my visit with Cousin Tom, I added another request to my usual bedtime repertoire.

“Please God, I just need to see my father’s face again,” I said. “Maybe in that dream about the bridge?” I added hopefully.

A few nights later, I had a vivid dream about my dad.

In the dream, I was very agitated and was standing in the street facing my parent’s former home at 68 Overlook Avenue in Ridgefield Park. In the driveway facing me was Dad’s white Ford Maverick. We owned that car for a good ten years beginning in the 1970s, and Dad had taken great pride in keeping it clean and waxed.

In the dream I saw my Dad – my Dad — remove something from the trunk of the Maverick. In a second he was standing next to the front driver’s door of the car and facing me.  I saw a snow scraper in his hand, and realized that this was my dad of the “Maverick” days – still over six feet tall and regal looking, with his almost-black hair just starting to grey at the temples. I took a breath, reminded of what a striking and even formidable-looking figure he made at that age. Like his father before him, he was nonviolent but somehow you knew not to mess with either Joe Sr. or Jr.

“I have to pick Mom up and get her to the train station by three,” I yelled, pleading. I was willing him to hop into the car and offer to drive me to wherever Mom was. In other words, take matters into his own hands as he often did for me. Take the wheel. In the street, snow had fallen and was sparkling as though bits of diamond had fallen from the sky. Dad was nonplussed, as he always was in real life. Maybe even a little irritated. He disliked what he called scenes, and he despised yelling. He did not take a single step toward me, and I was dismayed.

“I know,” he said, as he began to wipe the snow ever so carefully off the car’s front windshield. “I’m helping you”, he continued in the same even voice, as though I really should have known this.

I woke up with a start. “I’m helping you.” I rolled those cherished words over and over in my head, reveling in the sound of them. I had forgotten what a “doer” my Dad had been, always working to pave the way for me and keep me safe.

I have to say that it is sort of strange to mourn someone who passes away at the age of 95. Part of me realized that I was lucky to have him for that long of a time. But a bigger part of me thought that he would live forever.

Even though he reached a ripe old age, I still miss my dad every day. I miss him awful. I miss working to earn his tacit approval, and I miss knowing that he considered me capable of just about anything. I thought that by allowing him to live to the age of 95, God had given me enough of him to last my lifetime. I was wrong.

But my dream made it clear. It’s time for me to grow up and stop looking for Dad’s approval, or for him to keep me safe and reassure me that I am capable of better things; or even to keep me happy. It’s time for me to take the wheel.  As Dad would say almost jokingly in stressful situations when he could see me struggling with what to do, “Hop right in, the water’s fine.”

I feel like I no longer have any excuses for not doing just that. After all, Dad was thoughtful enough to clear the windshield for me.

Dad and our 1974 Ford Maverick, with 68 Overlook in the distance.
Dad and our 1974 Ford Maverick, with 68 Overlook in the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reality Check

If the process of caring for my mom has gone a bit more smoothly than expected, I can thank past experience. In other words, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo.

My grandmother moved in with us when I was just beginning high school. I was beyond excited. I adored my Grandma, even though she never tired of telling me that I was “too skinny.”

The biggest issue was how to fit her into our little house. We had five rooms, including two bedrooms. The answer was to give grandma my bedroom and arrange for me to sleep on a borrowed cot-style bed in the living room. So grandma became the “purple princess” in my “lavender kingdom” and slept on my prized “gold”-trimmed twin bed from Sears. My grandmother was all of four feet and eight inches tall with creamy white hair and sparkling brown eyes. The whole set-up suited her.

Me, not so much. Cramming my five feet and seven inches onto that cot and trying to get a full night’s sleep was a challenge. My feet hung off the edge of the mattress, and rolling over meant that I would most likely fall onto the floor. After kissing the linoleum a few times, I became an expert “spinner” — and still am, to this day.

But it was all worth it. My grandmother had always been a loving presence and guiding force in my life, and the sound of her frequent laughter in our house was music to my ears. Some of the best times of my life occurred when my father’s sister Bernice came to visit and everyone sat in the kitchen telling stories and just feeling loved. Like everyone else, Aunt Bernice enjoyed my grandmother’s company immensely. Having two of my favorite people in our cheery yellow kitchen and sharing “coffee talk” with them was an experience beyond compare.

There were challenges, to be sure. A short while after Grandma moved in it became apparent that along with her limited mobility (due to arthritis) were some mental challenges as well. She began yelling out in her sleep at night, frightening me and infuriating my dad. Her diabetes worsened, resulting in some health challenges. As time went on, the tension between my parents became so high that I feared that they might split up.

“Are you getting a divorce?” I once asked my them. “We can’t afford one,” they answered in unison. How reassuring.

After a few years, Grandma ended up in the hospital and was sent directly to a nursing home. I recall my mother’s tearful days during that time, and her sadness and self-blame. To her credit, my mother had up to that point kept her full-time factory job and basically run a nursing home – albeit for a single resident — at the same time. This came with an unfortunate side effect, a “disconnect” on her part when I needed her most.  And even though I was able to reclaim my mother and my bedroom, I missed my Grandma terribly when she moved into a nursing home. To this day I de-stress by allowing myself to recall the peace and contentment of sitting with her in our small living room and enjoying “The Mike Douglas Show” and the line-up of afternoon mysteries and detective shows. (Often my mother would arrive home from work just in time for “McMillan and Wife” with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, and she would say that if she had Susan Saint James’ body she would wear just a t-shirt to bed as well – EVERY SINGLE TIME. And my ultra-conservative Grandma would pretend not to hear).

My mother often brings up the fact that I helped out with my grandmother, but in truth she gives me way too much credit. She was the one doing the heavy lifting.  

And, like my mother, my grandmother ended up giving us a lot more than we gave her in terms of unconditional love, kindness and sheer joy.

Now that I am caring for my own mom with dementia, I do find myself marveling at the endless stores of patience I had when dealing with my grandmother. You want another sandwich? No problem. Change the channel? Sure. A cup of coffee? Coming right up. Sit and chat with you instead of running out the door so much? That’s fine, too.

I try to be patient with my mom, but some days are tougher than others – especially when there are a bunch of other stressors thrown my way. Obviously I am much older now. But what happened to the optimism and “we can do this” attitude that I had enjoyed only a few short years ago?

The answer that I have come up with is this. When I looked at Grandma, I did not see my future. When I look at my mom, I surely do. And frankly it unnerves me.

I confessed this to my husband and a few close friends recently at a holiday party. “My fear is that I will get dementia like my mother, but I won’t be as adorable and pleasant as she is.”

“You could never be as adorable as your mom is,” one of them said, adopting a menacing pose and nasty expression. “You’re gonna be a cranky old lady yelling ‘Hey you kids, get off my lawn!’”

We all laughed. It was a relief, frankly, to put one of my biggest fears “out there” and then end up being teased by my always funny friend.

As we toasted the New Year later that night, I gave a silent prayer of thanks for people who make you laugh. Crying is overrated, and so “last year.” I hope.

 

The adorable trio of my great grandmother, my mother, and my Grandma.
The adorable trio of my great grandmother, my mother, and my Grandma.

 

 

 

The Slow Work of God

My daughter attends Loyola University, which is a Jesuit school. I usually don’t really read Loyola magazine — I browse through and look at photos and maybe headlines and captions —  but when this latest issue arrived something compelled me to open it and look through it more carefully. I am glad I did. This piece of writing really struck a chord with me. It might do the same for you, as we enter yet another new year and feel compelled to saddle ourselves with resolutions and other thoughts that fool us into thinking that we are in charge of our own destinies — or, in my case, that I must have done something wrong to deserve difficulties and disappointments that present themselves.

 

“The Slow Work of God”

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are, quite naturally, impatient in

Everything to reach the end

Without delay.

We should like to skip

The intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on

The way to something unknown,

Something new,

And yet it is the law of all progress

That is made by passing through

Some stages of instability —

And that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.

Your ideas mature gradually —

Let them grow,

Let them shape themselves,

Without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

As though you could be today

What time will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit

Gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

That His hand is leading you,

And accept the anxiety of

Feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

 

 

 

 

 

Change of Heart

“I picked the wrong line,” I muttered aloud as my fellow shoppers did their best to pretend they hadn’t heard. I had gone to the Monmouth Mall to exchange an item that I had purchased as a Christmas gift for my son. The Christmas shopping crowd at the register in the men’s department had somehow convinced me to head to the other end of the store.

But the line there was just as long, and then I heard the cashier extolling the benefits of the JC Penney credit card to the woman currently checking out. “15% off this purchase, which amounts to $45, plus more savings throughout the year – and you can cancel at any time,” she said as the customer nodded. “No!” I cried out in my head, but the woman was sold. “I need your license,” the cashier said as she began what would surely be a drawn-out process. I frowned and eye-rolled and sighed, and then muttered something about “not enough cashiers on, as usual.” The young woman directly in front of me on line was clutching a box containing boots and lobbing snarky remarks to the unlucky person at the other end of her cell phone. “Is she still using those crappy heated curlers? Oh, she bought new ones? There goes that idea. Well this conversation has been spectacularly unhelpful, I still have no idea what to buy her” she said. “Where am I now? I’m at Penney’s, buying boots for myself! Why? They’re on sale for like 70% off!”

Looking for a distraction from this negativity, I glanced at the Sephora display – nothing new there, really – and then toward the nearby jewelry department. A woman walked into my line of vision and stood at the counter. She was nicely dressed with blonde layered hair and a kind and pretty face. In a word, she was classy. They say that everyone has a double, and in this case – I realized after a few moments — this woman had a great resemblance to my sister-in-law Robin’s Aunt Doreen. I just love Doreen. She is lively and generous and a lot of fun. Doreen was raised in New Jersey but now lives in California – still, she and Robin have been able to maintain very close ties.

As I looked on, the woman at the jewelry counter was joined by another woman who appeared to be in her thirties or forties. There was a resemblance between them, although the younger woman was much taller and had curly hair. She too was tastefully dressed and appeared to be a very pleasant person. I noticed the two ladies commiserating over a piece of jewelry as a sales clerk looked on. The three of them began engaging in conversation, and – in a nice change from all the hustle and bustle going on around them – they seemed to have all the time and not a care in the world. I figured that they were most likely an aunt and her niece. There was an ease about them that I couldn’t attribute to mothers and daughters. (Even at the ages of almost 90 and 58 respectively, my mother and I can’t fully eradicate what I call the “hex” factor – the air of mild tension/power struggle that hangs over us whenever we try to shop or make other important decisions.)

The aunt was trying to make a choice, and her niece was giving her all of her attention and appeared very happy to be doing so. It made me smile, and I realized that this must be how Robin and Doreen appeared to onlookers  when Robin visited Doreen and her family California. It gave me a warm feeling, and a renewed hope that perhaps I too could manage my stress levels and try to enjoy the Christmas season a bit more than I usually do.

The shopper at the register was finally approved for her JC Penney credit card, bringing to joy to the cashier who had upsold her and relief to those of us waiting on line. I realized in that moment that my mood had changed since I first entered the line. When I focused my attention toward the women at the jewelry counter, I had been rewarded. I had witnessed kindness and patience in action. And it had turned my thinking right around.

There is plenty to be negative about this holiday season. But there will be bright moments as well. We just need to look for them. Or even better, like Robin and Doreen and the ladies at the jewelry counter, we need to step up and make them happen.

 

 

“This Chair Rocks”

I’m sure you are familiar with the saying “Youth is wasted on the young.” Sure, it’s often true. But a recent experience made me realize that in some cases “Getting older is wasted on the aging.”

A little over a week ago I had the pleasure of presenting a breakout session on blogging at a one-day Conference Event –“Your Second Act: Retirement Reimagine

I arrived at Brookdale Community College on a crisp morning and was warmly greeted by my wonderful friend Mary Chiarella (who had arranged my appearance) and my fabulous mentor Jamie Sussel Turner. Jamie, a former Principal at our local grammar school, would be presenting a breakout session that day as well, entitled “The Less Stress Path to Your Next Chapter.” Jamie is smart as a whip and has always been one of my biggest cheerleaders. Starting my day by chatting with her and Mary eased my anxiety about presenting. This was a very good thing, because there were a LOT of attendees at the conference.

My breakout session – “The Fearless Blogger” – was well received, due in large part to the enthusiasm of the attendees. I was surprised to learn that many of them had no immediate plans to start a blog – there were just curious about my blog and the process. My audience was inquisitive, thoughtful, bright, and funny. Thanks to them, I enjoyed the experience a whole lot more than I had expected to.

Continuing on this high note, and frankly relieved that my “maiden voyage” was over, I headed to the large conference room where all of the attendees would gather for one of the featured speakers. Ashton Applewhite is an activist and the author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.” Ashton was everything I had hoped for and more — “hip” in her appearance and also the epitome of cool, calm, and collected. She presented facts and very funny asides and true stories to dispel harmful myths about getting older – including projected lifespan, illness, the odds of getting dementia or Alzheimers (thankfully surprisingly low), and so much more. Ashton confidently ticked off and disputed a laundry list of the items that often cause “hand-wringing” among us Baby Boomers. The large audience of conference attendees laughed eagerly and nodded knowingly while getting fired up about the subject of ageism. I could tell that they were likely to become activists as well – if they weren’t already. Unlike my mother, who is aging in place, these folks were all about “aging in motion.”

As Ashton continued to entertain and enlighten us, I found myself really starting to relax. Which was helpful, because what my friend Jamie would call an “AHA MOMENT” was headed my way.

“Why do we call it a Senior Moment when we misplace the car keys?” Ashton said. “When you were in high school, did you call it a Junior Moment?”

A light bulb went off in my head. I realized with alarm that when I make missteps in my work as a press release writer for the local schools—and in other areas of my life – I often attribute them “senior moments.” This is not as funny as I would like to think, as it has led to my fear that I will soon “age out” of my job. But Ashton the activist, the woman who was railing against ageism, was 100% “right on” (as we used to say back in the day). I had finally seen the light. My missteps were just that. They were not an indication that my age was making me unsuitable for my job.

So there I sat, yet another a victim of ageism, and at my own hands. Because I felt that it was expected, I had begun viewing myself as someone who was surely “going soft” and would eventually fade away. Instead of embracing the eccentric “crazy me” and my inner gypsy/warrior, I was picturing my future self as a more grandmotherly type. One who had selflessly filed away all of her hard edges to make herself more lovable and acceptable, and would surely go softly into that “good night.”

Oh wait. That was my grandma. I adored her. That doesn’t mean I have to be her. The “second act” isn’t about making yourself smaller and more palatable by shedding things – opinions, outspokenness, dreams, plans, or even material objects.  It’s about embracing what you’ve been given and continuing your life journey without hesitation, embarrassment, or apology. It’s about choosing your own path, without being defined by what others think. How refreshing.

I returned home later that day feeling enlightened and energized — full of “piss and vinegar,” as my dad would say. Apparently it wasn’t, as I had feared, time for me to hang up my dancing shoes and let the younger women have the floor. It wasn’t time to “give up”; rather, it was time to “get up and fight.”

I often joke that I must be delusional to think that a shopping spree at Ulta or Sephora will magically transform me into a better version of myself. But it makes me hopeful, and it makes me happy. Sure, my grandma would spend that hard-earned money on the fixings for lasagna – which she would make and share with the neighborhood. But she was who she was, and I am who I am. No apologies needed.

My new manifesto, signed by the author.
My new manifesto, signed by the author.

At the conference I purchased a copy of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.” And I am finally allowing myself to envision my second chapter, the way I want it to be.

I haven’t yet ironed out the details. But I’m fairly confident that it will include a healthy amount of zip-lining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Full Circle

When I tell people that high school was a life-changing experience for me — in a good way — they seem surprised.

Perhaps they assume that I was somehow “setting the world on fire.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I was average in every way. What made high school so special was that after four years of being tortured in grammar school (I’ll spare you the details) I finally found myself accepted by a wonderful group of friends. And this would never have happened if not for one life-changing event.

I was frankly terrified to begin my freshman year of high school. If I had suffered at the hands of my Catholic School companions, I imagined that I would be irresistible bait for those scary public school kids. Sure, all my friends in the neighborhood went to public school and frankly I wished I could have as well. But only one of them was in my grade. I knew that some of the “tough” girls a few blocks away would be my high school classmates. And I knew that I could never stand up to them.

I remember getting through the first few days of classes, the half-days, okay. Meaning that nothing horrible had happened. But I certainly hadn’t really spoken more than a few words to anyone except my familiar grammar school friends (all three of them). And then on the first full day of classes my worst fears were realized. A trio of girls confronted me in the hallway and one of them accused me of flirting with her boyfriend.

I racked my brain trying to think of how this girl knew me, and who her boyfriend could possibly be. The words “set-up” never entered my brain. Truth be told I was a flirt, for sure. But never a man-stealer. As the girls continued to stare me down and move closer, I thought my knees would buckle. I eyed the exit door behind me, planning a possible escape and not caring if I set off the fire alarm. Suddenly another girl that was standing behind the group stepped forward.

“Mary Ann is my friend,” she announced. “And if you want to mess with her, you’re going to have to deal with me.”

I was shocked and so relieved I could have cried. I recognized the girl, and knew her name was Diane, bot other details were lost on my fog of anxiety. The group of girls dispersed, angry and disappointed. And suddenly I knew who Diane was. She was my hero.

Empowered by Diane’s support, I reached out to other students and became friends with a terrific group. Diane and I remained friends throughout high school, and my heart swelled with pride when she became the first female police officer in our home town. I was thrilled to know that I might have been one of the first people to benefit from Diane’s caring and protection — but I certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Diane and I reconnected recently on Facebook, and then through this blog. As it turns out, Diane’s mom lives with her in a similar situation. Diane’s supportive comments and appreciation for my work reminded me of why she is such a special person.

I recently attended my 40-year high school reunion. For some this is a stressful experience, but I knew that for me it wouldn’t be. I was blessed with a terrific graduating class, good friends, and people who always had my back — like Diane, who had started it all.

The first person I saw was Kevin, with whom I had gone through grammar school. We embraced warmly — as all of the St. Francis graduates tend to do at the high school reunions —  like the survivors that we are. And then, suddenly, there was Diane.

“You are my hero,” she announced. I was shocked, since I had always thought of her in that way.  I knew that Diane’s thinking of me as a hero was certainly due to the blog. But had I ever told her that she was MY hero? I tried to recall, but came up blank.

The reunion was a blur, with all of us dancing and talking and trying to fit in 40 years of memories in about a three hour time span. But it was fun, and friendly, and fabulous. “It felt like no time had passed” was a frequent follow-up comment.

With all of the conversation taking place that night, I never managed to remind Diane of what she had done for me. She had changed the course of my life with her actions; and when in the course of my work for the schools I attend anti-bullying talks and presenters speak about “standing up” for someone else, I always think of Diane.

As we were walking out of the reunion, Diane had another surprise for me. Not only does she read my blog, she reads every entry to her kids.

People sometimes tell me that my blog posts bring tears to their eyes. I get that. I become emotional as well, when writing them. But honestly, I have never felt so emotional about a post as I have about this one.

I really needed Diane to know this. And now her kids will know as well.