mommies, stories worth repeating, thoughts, writing

In Africa…

My grandma is blessed with the most excellent, innate, and timeless style of anyone I have ever known. As I tried on a red knit hat with an oversized flower that I got as a holiday gift this year she said, “It will look better with your hair down.” And it did, of course.

At ninety, my grandma has Parkinson’s disease, and very serious memory loss. Sometimes, she cannot remember what has happened in the prior sentence, ending one definitive statement about something with a question about what has just happened. “It was so great to see them,” she says. “Is it just us here today?” She will often remark on the darkness of the night. Again and again. The darkest night she has ever seen. What day is it? Isn’t it dark tonight? What day is it? Isn’t it dark tonight? This is the darkest night I have ever seen.

I modify and streamline my answers until my response is honed and perfected. Yes, the darkest night on the longest day in December. She nods. Isn’t it dark tonight?

Some number of years ago, and before it came back into fashion, my grandma suggested I purchase a white shag rug for my living room. That was a year or so before everyone started doing it. Her apartment still looks modern, although now some of the paint near the top of the 13 foot ceilings show their age. The rugs are slightly worn, but still lively with color. But the chocolate brown wall in the dining room is still perfect.

My grandma has never really worked, she but was the daughter of an immigrant who did. My great grandma was a single mom, before the term had been coined. She owned and ran a successful business when women were thought incapable of it, and later, she bought and managed real estate properties, and her son joined her in the business. Not her daughter.

She raised her daughter very carefully. My grandma was excellent pianist, careful not to to play tennis so as not to damage her hands. She was charming. She elevated conversation to an art; you were lucky to be seated next to her at dinner. She knew just how to go to lunch, buy the best presents for friends. She gave lovely dinner parties, dressed beautifully, shopped creatively, wore her hair just right. She was current on art, music, theater, ballet, opera. I still have and love Japanese flower scissors she bought for me from Takashyimaya on 5th Avenue. They are beautiful.

She always knew what color to paint the walls. You would still choose the same wallpaper she has in her den (if you could find it) even 42 years later. All this is not to say she was perfect, that she did every thing right, that she didn’t struggle with not having a career, or never becoming a concert pianist, or raising her three children. She was human. I know many people feel that, especially for women, pursuit of excellence in the aforementioned areas is considered worthless, or even demeaning, but for my grandma, it was a life well lived. She seems to be the last of certain kind of person. Her life was her art, and she, the maestro.

“It is not easy being a woman in Africa,” says Issac Denison in Out of Africa (played by Meryl Streep). Or any place else for that matter. And the rules of womanhood, femininity, equal rights, equal pay, stay- at-home-moms, right-to-life, when to get married, and many other issues will not be settled anytime soon. I am not convinced anyone knows, well enough, the answers to these questions.

When I was 13, she gave me just the right length pearl necklace for a girl that age, with an extra strand to add when I turned 16. You may not have known that there is an  appropriate length necklace for a girl that age, but there is. And it does not change with fashion or time. Before she lost too much of her memory, she gave me another set of pearls that had been hers, the grown-up version. She knew many secrets in that magical process of turning a girl into a woman. They have not been lost.

She is a kind, wonderful, lovely person, even now, even though she is not who she was. There are still the same moments of grace and kindness and charm in her. When I am in her apartment, there are many memories. Opening the medicine cabinet in the guest bathroom, I remember, many years ago, when I accidentally broke an expensive bottle of perfume. I was horrified, but she didn’t get angry, she didn’t even seem upset. She just wanted to make sure I wasn’t hurt. She got married at 22 and has been married for 68 years. My grandfather is with her still, taking care of her, making sure these final years are okay.

A friend of mine told me recently that if you go to a foreign country and teach a man English, the language will be lost in one generation. But, if you teach a woman, the language lives forever because she will teach her children, and so on, and so on…

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thoughts, writing

getting your story straight

I like the sound of getting your story straight.

Aside from the criminal implications, telling a “straight” story is an interesting idea. Is that the truth? The facts in order? A narrative that makes sense historically or emotionally?

I’ve got a story that I want to tell. And I want to tell it straight, how it will have the most impact. I think a lot about where that story starts. What is the beginning of it? Here? No, here. No, here! And when I start to write it, I always ending up cutting back in time. And digressing. Knowing something about the past makes the present make sense, and sets up the outcome. Chekhov and the gun in act one that has to go off by act three and that.

Which should say something about the outcome of our lives. As, at least mine, has been sufficiently set up. Except that life isn’t a straight story. The story is just the thing we make out of it, tell about it, craft out of the non-linear trajectory. And yes, it’s my birthday today. But I digress…

Uncategorized

Ships Unmoored

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Dad lately. September is the anniversary of his death, so he’s on my mind more than usual during the fall months. While he was fighting cancer, he said to me: sometimes, ships unmoored come safely home.

When my Dad was alive, I could have asked for the reference directly (although I didn’t at the time). So I hit the Internet looking for the source. I thought it might be Shakespeare, but I couldn’t find it. I actually have the vague memory of looking up the quote some time ago and finding it and realizing that the quote wasn’t quite right and thinking, how beautiful: “ships unmoored.” Or maybe that was now, I love the idea, the phrase, ships unmoored.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to come safely home. How you can walk up your 12 steps and turn the lock with your key to that satisfying click, get the somewhat stale whiff when you walk inside to closed windows as your eyes go first to the couch to check and see if the cushion is turned in the way that hides the still mysterious medium-sized green stain (what was that?!). Or if safely home is really about that magical home in the sky home, where you don’t even believe it exactly but you’re hoping in some way when you die, whether you actually go home or you just feel like you go home, something (God, brain, death hormones, something) gives us the feeling that we are on our way safely home, going home, or just home.

I guess if my Dad had meant the latter, he could have said: ships unmoored always come safely home. But then he wouldn’t have been the same guy who got a good laugh out of his idea for a bumper sticker: Visualize my ass.

Near the end of his life he told me, he wasn’t scared to die, just curious. I don’t think he was worried about coming “safely home” although he did want to come home to die and he did. He also wanted to see the place where he’d be buried before he died. I’ll never forget the drive home from the hospital, maybe a week or so before he actually died, which included a drive by the lush, green graveyard. My father, leaning way back in the seat of the car, painfully sat up, looked out the window and nodded.

A few years after my father died, I wrote something about him for a class taught by the indomitable Daphne Merkin. The essay, she thought, was overly sentimental and over filled with positive adjectives (for starters) but, she said, the piece had really given her pause, and made her wonder what her own life would have been like if she’d had a father like my Dad.

Needless-to-say, I still haven’t trimmed much sentimentality out of my writing when the topic is my father. It’s probably not going to happen, so let me end, unashamedly.

My father taught a lot of classic Greek texts including The Odyssey. When I typed  “sometimes ships unmoored” into Google, it linked me to The Odyssey, book 13:

Then for Odysseus they spread a rug and a linen sheet on the deck of the hollow ship at the stern, that he might sleep soundly; and he too went aboard, and laid him down in silence. Then they sat down on the benches, each in order, and loosed the hawser from the pierced stone. And as soon as they leaned back, and tossed the brine with their oarblades, sweet sleep fell upon his eyelids, an unawakening sleep, most sweet, and most like to death. And as on a plain four yoked stallions spring forward all together beneath the strokes of the lash, and leaping on high swiftly accomplish their way, even so the stern of that ship leapt on high, and in her wake the dark wave of the loud-sounding sea foamed mightily, and she sped safely and surely on her way; not even the circling hawk, the swiftest of winged things, could have kept pace with her. Thus she sped on swiftly and clove the waves of the sea, bearing a man the peer of the gods in counsel, one who in time past had suffered many griefs at heart in passing through wars of men and the grievous waves; but now he slept in peace, forgetful of all that he had suffered.

stories worth repeating, thoughts, Uncategorized

the thing that made all the difference…

Reading Erica Goldson’s impressive valedictorian speech, which included a scathing and truthful critique of the state of this country’s education system, got me to thinking about how there’s not usually a lot of follow up with these people. We get to hear the, let’s go get ’em speech, but unless they hit the big time, we don’t get to hear what all those valedictorians think after they been around a while. That could be interesting … or not.

My father was the valedictorian of his high school. I never heard or read what he said in that speech, although he did say later that if he had it to do over again, he would have said something different. He was also the valedictorian of his University (okay, top 1%, they didn’t have only one valedictorian). That time he didn’t give a speech but I’d like to share what he wrote about his life for the alumni book 25 years later.

“The thing that made all the difference was doing what I knew was right even though I knew it meant losing my job, which it did. Everything fell into place after that.”

Dr. Donald Finkel

1965 Twenty-Fifth Reunion Class Book and Directory, Yale University

Stories worth considering, Uncategorized

The Fairy Tale Ending; the beginning of the end?

bachelor

I have to confess, I have wasted somewhere around 12+ hours watching The Bachelor this season on ABC.  Why? Well, good question.

Ostensibly, the show is about watching one man search through 25 “beautiful” (which really starts to make you question the meaning of that word) women, to find true love ending in the ever lusted after “proposal.”  At least that’s what the women lust after: their fairy tale ending.

This phrase is batted around The Bachelor with careless and casual abandon, almost exclusively by the women. Often through tears in the back of limo after being “sent home.”  Noticeably, many of the women on that mournful journey say the same things:  Why is this happening to them?  Why are they getting rejected?  What’s wrong with them? When is their time going to come?  Where is their fairy tale ending?

Endings are important, and we do like the good ones. Kind of. The show ends with the chosen woman finally getting to hear the Bachelor confess his love.  Ahh, it could be us.  But part of the appeal of the Bachelor is not only the so called happy ending, it’s the recognition that all of us, no matter how beautiful still get rejected, and it just so happens, it is kind of about our failings.  We’re boring, we’re self-absorbed, we’re dull, we lack talent, humor, the willingness to go bungy jumping in New Zeland, and frankly, we don’t look that good in a bikini.  But even if we did all those things, even if we were that “beautiful” the Bachelor would still probably reject us. Statistically speaking.

It was a happy moment for Melissa when Jason Meznik chose her at the end of this season’s show.  She finally got her fairly tale ending.  Until six weeks later when Jason, ambivalent and weepy, unable to find the, well, balls to either “fight for the relationship” with Melissa or forget about Molly broke up with Melissa on national TV.

The most hated Bachelor in television history, the tabloids claimed the next day.  You’re a bastard, said Melissa during the breakup, in a moment of utter candor.

Ryan and Tristan are a still married couple from an early season (maybe the first) of The Bachelorette.  “I got my fairy tale ending,” said Tristan, barely finishing the sentence before her husband cut her off.

“Well,” he said, “the end of the show was really the beginning of our real relationship.  We have to work to make it work.”

Melissa’s fairy tale ending ended as most fairy tales do, at the beginning of something real and something tough. Unfortunately for her, she was trying to do the work with a guy who didn’t have it in him.  And “he’s making a big mistake” Molly, of the big beautiful eyes and the shocked smile when Jason asked for her back; Molly won’t put up with his bull for long, I suspect.  “What about Melissa,” she asked with a shake of her head.

The best endings resonate in ways that both satisfy and satiate.  They find that illusive spot and tug.  There is usually little of fairy tale about them.  And endings, at least for the characters living them, are the beginnings of something else and thank goodness for that.

In the limo, on her final tearful ride home, Melissa said, “I don’t understand why this happened, but I’m sure that someday, I’ll be able to look back and I’ll say, okay I see why this happened to me.”

It turns out that tonight, there is an After The Final Rose part 2, where we get to check in with Jason and Molly. What happened? Did Molly take him back?  Did they rekindle their love?

How does it end?  I won’t be watching.

Note:  Quotes from the show are paraphrased to give the gist but are not exact.