Once: A Whiter Shade of Pale in a Coppertoned World

The prompt in my writer’s book of days instructs, “Write about a chronic failure.” The slip of paper from my prompt jar (I’m greedy, I know: I always take two prompts, in case one is just awful) suggests “sun.” The two converge, and, I realize, this is the story prompted, needled out: that tale of a youth spent chasing a suntan.

*****************

This summer, for the first time in decades, I pulled on my granny bathing suit and went to the swimming pool.

I was visiting a dear friend, a swimmer, who lives in a town with a community pool. And that community pool has what I like to call a ‘maturity hour,’ from 5 till 6 PM, when everyone under 18 is ejected.  The ejection of children means the young parents leave, too, and the ejection of pretty young women means all the interested young men exit voluntarily, as well. What’s left is the senior contingent, a gentle, friendly, group, non-taxing in terms of fitness or fashion.

While there were some eye-rollers–like the saggy, 80-year-old scrawny man in a Speedo–in that group, mostly there were people in modest suits, people of indeterminate body shape, varied skin tones, and different degrees of outdoor exposure.  There were a lot of people, I was gratified to note, whose legs, like mine, shone pale and white when we climbed out of the pool and into the shaded Adirondack chairs as the youthful horde was re-admitted at 6:00 on the nose. It was nice to be in company with some proudly pale–nice, because it certainly was not always thus.

******

“Gosh, you’re WHITE. Don’t you ever get outdoors?”

Someone would say that, and my mother’s head would pop up smartly. She’d march over to where I sat in the comfortably fuzzy red armchair, reading, maybe, one of those little biographies of historical people, or the story of Mrs. Mike, or a compelling tale about Freddy the Pig. She would pluck the book from my longing hands and point me abruptly outdoors.

Somedays, I’d be able to smuggle a book outdoors with me. I’d read in the shade of the scrubby old tree by the old brown, rickety garage–positioning myself BETWEEN tree and garage, so if Mom looked out, she wouldn’t see that I’d just moved my activity of choice to a place with rough bark and biting spiders.

Somedays, there’d be a wiffle ball or a kickball game in full play, and I would be allowed in, allowed to join the game that took place in our backyard ball field, where the base paths and pitcher’s mound were irrevocably pounded clean of grass and dandelions–bare dirt paths, always, despite determined seeding.

Somedays, friends would come over, and we would venture into the fields out back, to a little rise we called “the island,” and we would act out stories from books–Swiss Family Robinson adventures, maybe, or the lives of made-up lady explorers patterned on people we’d read about in our aging geography texts at St. Joseph’s Catholic School.

But it didn’t matter. I could be outdoors from dawn till dusk, and the next day, a visitor might say it again.

“Gosh, you’re WHITE. Don’t you ever get outdoors?”

********
I didn’t care about my paleness until the summer after eighth grade  That year, I lost a great deal of weight. That summer I became aware of rules of attractiveness and attractivity.

That summer, in the waning years of the 1960’s, a time of Coppertone ads and aggressive tanning all based on the actual sun,–that year, I began to want a tan.

Back then, my red hair was natural, and I had a redhead’s pale, milky-blue skin. One of my brothers told me that I was actually a rare kind of albino–there are only a few, he said, that have red hair and pigment in their eyelashes; only a few, and they tend to die very young. Probably, in fact, he said, around age 14,–and I, of course, was almost 13 then.

As gullible as I was ashen, the knowledge of my doom kept me awake for about a week. Finally, tiredness etching purple circles even more deeply under my eyes, and my mother wondering if perhaps an emetic of some sort might be in order, I confessed to her my imminent demise. She went tearing through the house in search of my helpfully informative brother. Relieved to know my paleness didn’t signal an early death, I went back to yearning for a golden, sun-kissed glow.

It was not a time of SPF’s or sun-blockers; it was an era of baby oil and foil reflectors. We made the reflectors ourselves, covering torn chunks of folded cardboard boxes with aluminum foil filched from the kitchen cupboard (“PAMELA!!!!  Where is my foil???????”), holding them under our chins so the friendly sun would bounce up to warm our winter-white faces, intensifying the tanning purportedly taking place, unenhanced, every place else.

Maybe those foil reflectors worked.  Some of my friends had perfectly tanned faces. Some had batches of freckles (“the map of Ireland,” my father called those friendly spots) that intensified; they threatened to connect, they were so dense.

My face burned a bright vermilion. I would take off my glasses at night, and the shape of those glasses would still be there, crisp white lines etched perfectly onto the burned skin.  I would rub Noxzema lotion into my hot red cheeks.  Friends told me not to worry; their burns always morphed gently into tans.

Two days later, my face would once again be pale.  My legs remained resolutely white.

Someone suggested, or a book somewhere opined, that mixing iodine into the baby oil would call out a tan.  I used babysitting money to buy a bottle of iodine at West Drug, walking downtown one exciting morning on this quest.  I mixed my potion and placed my blanket down in the backyard–scrupulously regular, in those summers before working obligations messed with tanning time–between 11 AM and 2 PM each day.  I wanted the sun’s peak rays.  I wanted to evenly offer up both sides to the possibility of sun-kissed skin.

Sometimes, I imagined Looney Tunes vultures circling high above, squinting at my oil-soaked body and trying to decide if what they saw was indeed a giant slice of well-marbled bacon. I endured the visits of the boy next store, a nice guy with a unibrow (“He has a crush on you,” my mother insisted, but I knew he pined deeply for my dear friend Sandi), who always threatened to get the hose and soak me.

The iodine seemed, maybe, to increase my chances of burning. And I never seemed to get the equal toasting of each side correct.  Often my front would be raging red, while my nether parts were forlornly white. Sometimes my shoulders would burn so badly they blistered, and the wearing of dainty underwear was a socially necessary torture.

The summer before my sophomore year in high school, I discovered tennis. I became passionate about the game and about the nice group of people who hung around the tennis courts. They were mostly a year older than I; they were oh-so-nicely tanned–some had natural sun streaks in their flippy hair. They were mostly boys, cute and smart and funny. I spent hours on the tennis courts, falling in and out of love.

The courts were new. They glinted in the sun, reflecting its rays–someone told me they were an environmentally friendly mix of paving materials and ground up glass. A miracle happened: by the beginning of July that summer, my legs had warmed to a soft creamy beige. My friends still laughed as they stretched their bronzed limbs beside mine.  But there was color there–color like the hue of a teaspoon of coffee mixed with a cup of skim milk.

It gave me hope. See? I thought. If I just work diligently enough, sun-warmed color IS possible.

There followed years of foolish pursuit–of nights, in the college years, spent working at the ice cream factory, and days falling asleep beside my good friend’s swimming pool. Water, they say, intensifies the burning power of the sun.  I would wake up hours later, the baby oil baked away, in pain and howling. One side would be neon, with the other side looking like unbaked dough.  And then I’d rush home to pull on painful white polyester work clothes and go to the land of popsicle packing.

One night during that particular summer, after a long day of sun-sleep, parboiled and aching, we went to dinner, some of us, at our friend Polly’s.  Polly was a complete original, short and round and fearlessly magnetic. Long before it was a practice, she was living with her fiance, and too bad if her parents didn’t like it. You didn’t dare Polly, and you knew, if there was a new and dangerous thing to be tried, she’d be the first in line for the trying.

That night,–that humid, 90-degree night,–she had decided to cook a full-out turkey dinner in her stuffy upstairs, un-air-conditioned, apartment. And we, because being in Polly’s circle was so much fun, we trooped up to eat turkey, despite our sweaty trepidations.

I was especially taken by the stuffing, which had a zingy herbal shimmer, and Polly, glinty of eye, delighted in spooning more onto my dish.

We ate the dinner; we quaffed, unwisely, a chilly glass of wine or two, and we took it in turns to don our work clothes in Polly and Ken’s tiny bathroom.  And then Polly asked, moments before we trooped down the stairs to work our graveyard shift, just how we’d liked the stuffing.

“It was good!” I said. “It was different.  What kind of spices did you use?”

Polly beamed. “Marijuana!” she said. “I sautéed marijuana in the butter with the onion.”

I thought about the six or seven helpings she had scooped onto my plate.  A little bubble of panic rose.

“Ah,” I said.

And then the panic bubble softly popped. Behind it rose a cluster of giggles. We bustled down the stairs; we punched in at the factory floating a few inches above the popsicle-slicked floor.

“Ladies!” greeted our brusque, rough boss.

“Ah,” I replied softly and I positioned myself in front of the rows of marching popsicles. That evening I played those pops like a Fantasia symphony, flipping and packing them, gentling them beautifully into their boxy cardboard cradles. When people spoke to me, I smiled and answered with a whispered, “Ah.” The work shift floated by, and I went home to sleep, and then to wake with a horribly raging sunburn I hadn’t much noticed the wafty night before.

I  decided against repeating the pot remedy for sunburn  pains; I was smart enough, at least, never again to report for work, in that scary place of immense sharp chopping things, under that kind of influence.

At last I determined, instead, to try to fake a tan. Coppertone’s QT–that was the product then, guaranteed to turn legs a satisfying shade of beautiful bronze.  One rubbed it on; one waited a mere three hours. Color began to bloom.

Permanent and un-staining, the color was guaranteed to last a week.

Don’t do it! friends warned. It will turn your skin an awful shade of orange. And they cited sad examples.

I looked at the tube. I looked at the mushroom white of my uncooperative skin, and I thought that ANY color would be better than no color.

I slathered my legs with QT, and I waited to orange up.

Three hours later, my legs were the same sheltered shade of white they’d been when I had started.

It was time, I finally realized, to give up. I was never, by any means, going to achieve a glorious golden tan.

And then the connection between skin cancers and overtanning became widely evident, and I could feel a little justified in my white, white tones.  I cultivated gauzy, soft, pants; I explored floaty shirts with three-quarter length sleeves.  I swam, of course, with kids and students and at family get-togethers.  I swam, and then I covered up.

And then the vortex of the middle-aged years swept in, and even family swimming in the midst of busy summers ceased happening. Reasons to be abashed by my whiteness in a sea of healthy tans just up and disappeared.  The quest for even a pale, fine tan: it fizzled out and faded away.

Until this summer, when swimming in the company of other unconcerned people brought those memories roaring back.

**************

It is good, I think now, good to be at an age when I can gently laugh at my young yearning for some kind of physical perfection,–something, of course, that is always out of reach. How nice–how wonderful–to be so far beyond those days that the things that were the underlying pleasure–like the splash of chilly water on a muggy, scalding day–can be appreciated without self-consciousness.  Enjoyed merely because it’s refreshing–and not because I look good doing it.

What I had then, my friend, was a failure to tan, and an unwise worship of an unrelenting sun.  My quest was always doomed to failure.  I think I must have learned something from it, something about individual style and being happy with who I was–and something about always asking Polly for a list of ingredients before eating anything she fixed.

Now I enjoy my outdoor times early in the mornings and in the last warm glow of summer nights. I can sit and listen to the cicada harmonies and smell the spice of Ohio outdoors after a lovely summer rain; I can stretch my long, white, battle-scarred legs, propping my feet on the coffee table Mark made from an old swinging door, and I can be content. I am who I am; we glow how we’re made. It’s enough.

************
And anyway. I’ll always have  that one, glorious, tennis-playing summer when I, actually and proudly, achieved beige.

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The Cat Came Back (He Never Was A Goner)

maxie 2

“Is that,” Mark says, putting down his hot cup of tea and moving the curtain so he can see better, “MAX????”

I join him at the window and we stare across the street.  A mostly black cat sits on the brick stoop at Barbie and Ken’s–a cat with a triangular white fur bib and a head like a squashed softball.  THIS cat, though, appears to have a smear of white on his nose. Did Max have a smear like that?

We can’t remember.

We don’t think so.

But.

Mark goes out to check, to see if this porch-snuggled visitor might really be our intrepid buddy Max.  The cat disappears.

That’s un–Max-like.

But.

***********

I grew up in middle America in the 1960’s,  when neighborhoods were static things, and a move out or a move in, a major event.  In fact, my family constituted the event more than witnessing it–we moved three times between my fourth grade year and the start of high school, moved so much that other people raised their brows in alarm at our rootless ways.

Most people we knew stayed put, sent down roots, raised a family in a place where the kids’ “2 years old” heights were marked off on the same basement pole as their “16 years old” heights.  That dent, a friend might say, pointing, is where Dickie fell off his bike and his noggin hit the porch.  The accident might have been ten years past. Houses, back then, held family histories within their architectural quirks.

But today, neighborhoods are more fluid things, with some stay-ers and some move-ers making a constant ebb and flow.  People buy starter homes when kids are little, planning, by the time those little ones hit junior high, to be in a bigger house, with more bathrooms and more yard, and maybe, just maybe, a paved drive and a basketball hoop.

And so the cute little house across the street has seen changes in tenants in the almost-five years we have been here. First it was Kim, who rented.  Then it was Julie, who bought.

Julie moved out and her tenant, a very nice person named Ann, moved in, and therein ties the tale of Max.

************

Kim, who was tall and lean and tanned and had that kind of curly hair that peaks at a high point above the middle part of her head and fans out just above the shoulders (a Triangle Do, I call it), whose age was impossible to guess–she could have been thirty, and she could have been sixty,–had been a fixture in the neighborhood long before we moved in.  She introduced us to Shirley, and Sandy, and  to Colleen and Terry, and to Phyllis, and to Pat.

She invited us to throw the branches and leaves and twigs piled up after vigorous gardening down the steep bank behind her house.  Natural mulch, she theorized.

She showed us her beloved Corvettes, which she kept in a garage behind the little white house she’d rented. She toured our house after the workers had transformed it from a highly floral wallpaper palace to a calmer venue with less vocal walls.  She pronounced it good, and heartily approved the placement of a half-bath in the storage room by the back door.

And she discovered that the little white house she’d rented for twenty years or more was shifting on its foundations,—was in danger, in fact, of sliding off and down that steep, mulchy bank. When the long-term landlord wouldn’t fix things, Kim up and moved away.

As new as we were, we could tell something intrinsic to the neighborhood culture left with her.

**************

And then the little white house stood empty for a couple of seasons, before some flippers with construction skills came in, lifted the thing right off its foundations, and fixed its sliding woes.  They put it on the market then, and Julie–pretty, dark-haired Julie with her mini-me dark-haired daughter named Natalie–bought it and moved in.

*************

Julie worked at the hospital, and we would encounter her in her colorful scrubs running to her SUV at odd hours, heading off to work.  Often her inside cat would sit in the picture window while she was gone, curled up on what was surely the back of a couch, patient and waiting.  That cat never came outside; it was only noticeable popping up in excitement when Julie’s car moved up the street.

Then Natalie added a new cat friend to the household. That cat was Max.

Natalie’s best friend was going off to college, and Natalie’s friend’s father was NOT a cat-lover.  He was a hunter, though, and he matter-of-factly informed the friend that, as soon as her car was out of the drive, he was getting his gun out to kill her cat.

The friend was horrified and broken-hearted; Natalie was pro-active.  She grabbed Max, threw him in her old white jeep, and brought him home to Julie.

And so Max, with his squashed-looking head and loud vocals, his white-toed feet and insistent manner, came to adopt (and rule) our neighborhood.

**************
Max preferred the outdoor to the in, probably to the vast relief of Julie’s indoor cat, with whom Max communicated through the window.  Max would sit on Julie’s porch table; Indoor Cat would be on the back of that couch, and they would stretch and paw and bat at each other.  All the while, Max would be warbling, telling his long sad tale of woe (“Can you believe that dude was going to SHOOT me???”) to his indoor kitty counterpart.

We could, of course, not hear the reply,which was probably something like, “I’m glad my food dish is INDOORS and yours is out.”

Max only went inside Julie’s house when the temperatures were so cold he would literally freeze to death if he stayed out.

But he loved going inside Barbie and Ken’s.

****************

Max, once arrived, immediately started working the neighborhood.  He scored a bed in the window well at Shirley’s house. Shirley, who thought he was a stray at first, put food and water out for him everyday.  That practice didn’t end when Shirley met Natalie and discovered Max was ‘homed’ but thoroughly independent.  By then, Max’s morning breakfast was part of the routine of Shirley’s AND Max’s lives.

Max sat in Sandy’s yard sunning himself while she gardened, and he tormented her excitable little dogs, resting just beyond their chained reach.  He would calmly inspect his sharp pointy claws while they jumped and strained, choking their little selves in their anxiousness to pounce at him.

We often thought we saw cartoon thought-bubbles floating above Max’s head.  In Sandy’s yard, when the dogs were yipping and straining, Max’s bubble  contained the words, “Ho hum.”

Max adopted Mark, who is NOT a cat-lover, running up the driveway warbling his sad tale of woe whenever Mark embarked or arrived.  Mark would stand and wait for his cat-buddy. Max would twine around Mark’s legs, often leaving hairy evidence of a black kitty neighbor on lawyerly khaki pants.

Mark would usually run back into the house to snatch a bit of frozen turkey from the freezer, offering it to his cat friend.  Max preferred his meat defrosted; he would bat the tidbit away, complaining (Thought bubble: What? You don’t have a microwave???), and then come back later to eat it.

When the weather got cold, Mark the Great Cat Hater took my old fishing basket and lined it with a snug, worn rug, and slid it under the bench on the porch–a refuge from wind and snow.  Just, you know, in case.

Often, there was evidence that something had slept there.  (We may have been sheltering neighborhood raccoons, but it was relieving to know there was shelter from the storm for our buddy Max, if he needed it.)

**********
But when Barbie and Ken moved in across the street, right next door to Julie, Maxie fell in love.  One of their trucks would pull into the drive and Max would come bounding from wherever he was in the neighborhood, yelling.  He’d leave Mark, mid-warble (“Chopped liver, that’s what I am,” Mark noted, sadly), or he’d stop stalking the mouthy black squirrel in the tree down the street, and he would bolt to see those new neighbors whom he idolized.

Once we watched the crazy cat leap into Ken’s arms, a feline rocket so big, so heavy,  and so fast that Ken, a hefty guy, staggered backwards.  But he held on–Max’s affection was completely requited by Ken and by Barbie.

They would crate their dogs, who wailed, and let Maxie in, and Max would make himself at home.  He knew, Max did, that he lived at Julie’s; he returned there time after time, but Barbie and Ken’s house was his favorite place to be Inside.

***********
Most of the time, though, Max ruled the neighborhood and beyond.  We would see him wandering far afield when we drove home, doing his rounds, Mark said.  Julie, not wanting to be responsible for a world populated by second and third generation Maxies, took him to the vet.  There, Max’s manly valves were permanently wrenched into the ‘off’ position.

Maxie came home, spent a single day recuperating, and was back on the prowl.  His amorous instincts may have been permanently dulled, but the cat remained a mighty hunter.  Mark was forever knocking on the front window.

“MAX!” he’d yell.  “Put down that baby bunny!  Put it DOWN!”

And Max, who knew when he was being chastised, would turn his head toward the window.  His face would be all innocence.  The thought bubble would read, “Bunny?  What bunny?” even as the wretched baby twitched its last in the cat’s iron jaws.

Julie and her new boyfriend, a funny, wonderful guy named Terry, would smack their heads.  Mark would wander over to commiserate with them, where they sat on Julie’s front porch, enjoying a brewski in the evening cool.

“What are we going to do with that cat?” one of them would say, but acceptance and vast affection swirled with the chagrin.

The neighborhood rodent population sank rapidly.  Squirrels became wary tree-toppers.  Bunnies poked their noses out to their own peril.  We never saw a chipmunk while Maxie roamed the streets.

**************
And then, their relationship having deepened and matured, Julie and Terry decided to throw their lots together and form a new household.  They would move to a home out in the country, surrounded by nature’s beauty.

“Max the mighty hunter will love THAT,” we agreed, a little sadly. We wondered, though, about Max’s tendency to hunt down people to talk with as well as rodents to terrorize.  We wondered about his love affair with Barbie and Ken.

But, just shy of Memorial Day, the UHaul pulled up, and Julie and Terry and Natalie and a vast and varied crew of helpers took Julie’s household apart and put it into the truck.  There was a pile of junk at the curb; there was a cat in Julie’s SUV. And there was Max, looking unhappy (Thought bubble: What the…????) in the front seat of Natalie’s jeep.

They waved, vigorously.

We waved back.

Silence fell into a little, lonely vacuum.

“I’m gonna MISS that cat,” said Mark sadly, as he turned to go into the house.  He paused.

“And Julie and Terry and Natalie, too,” he added, “of course.”

****************
Ann, who is very nice, moved in with her quiet teen-aged son, and the neighborhood settled into its post-Max persona.  Chipmunks returned to Normandy Drive, and the squirrels climbed down their trees and frolicked in the yards, boisterously.  The bunnies grew bolder; on Sunday, Mark and I stood by the window with our steaming morning beverages and watched two of them alternate clover-munching with a gleeful game of rabbit-run tag.

Later, I walked the dog, who snuffled in Shirley’s ivy and scared off a couple of tiny black-furred moles.

The rodents didn’t miss that cat. But everybody else did.

***************
And then this morning–the black cat on Ken and Barbie’s porch.  That nose, though, that smear of white…I pulled up a photo of Max, and we compared:

Head: check.
Bib: check:
Nose smear: UNcheck.

I walked out the back door to see if I could spy that kitty, and my eyes lit on the plastic bowl where I’d been soaking a white-paint brush in cold water.  The water was completely and thoroughly gone. I had a vision of a cat lapping up the water and rubbing his nose on the painty white brush.

“OH, my gawd,” I said.  “Mark!  Do you think he drank…?”  I ran to cross the street and check the cat–couldn’t ingesting latex paint make a kitty badly ill? But as I hurried out into the yard, Barbie’s white truck pulled out.  Inside, I was sure I could just see the swishing tip of a black tail, and a floating thought bubble that read, “REALLY?  Paint in my water bowl????”) I imagined him purring, reunited with his beloved Barbie. I imagined her driving him the five miles to Terry and Julie’s house, returning him to his family.

***************

By lunchtime, the rodent population of Normandy Drive had breathed a collective sigh of relief and were frolicking on the lawns.  But I wonder if they’re not a little premature.  That cat’s smart and he’s intrepid. I bet we haven’t seen the last of our friend Maxie.

The Voice From the Someday Basket

 Eva stuff

 I feel, somehow, as if I really knew Eva, at least a little bit.

Fifth Grade Fire; Fifth Grade Ice

Schoolwork

Tales Told By Friends

February stumbles into March. Things are up, and things are down.

Sunday afternoon, the sun shines. It’s 60 degrees; we shed our jackets on our walk.  Crocuses bloom and daffs push up, and the world seems washed and ready for newness.

The next day, the sky pushes close, gray and glowering, and snow begins to fall. The heat churgles back on, the heavy coats come back out, and it feels just as though an opened door has abruptly slammed shut.

Then there are changeable days of pouring rain, of gentle shine, and of wind that rattles the stubborn brown oak leaves.  It’s an unsettled time, and it’s a time of concern. People are sick.  Deadlines loom.  There’s stress, and there’s pressure, and there’s uncertainty.

And then, into this uncertain, late-winter mix, slid beneath the doorway of fret and worry, three stories arrive.  They are stories from friends:

–Linda–a friend from the early times–all the way back to grade school and high school years.

–Sharon–a friend from the after-college days, those heady days of young adulthood and claiming identity.

–Larisa–a friend met through the place I work now, and a friendship forged through such adventures as trudging half-marathons together.

Their stories speak to me of  bravery and endurance, of answering calls for help even in the darkness, of the spirited embracing of life. Their stories ground my thoughts and remind me of things that are important. Linda and Sharon and Larisa are generous with their stories, and I know this: these stories are things to be shared.

***********

Linda’s Story: Al’s Boots

Al's boots

Al went through a lot of steel-toed boots, Linda says, during his years with the railroad.

He was only 22 when the railroad took him on. They must have been glad to get him: a big strong kid, a hard worker. And, young as he was, a family man.  Al and Linda–she was such a pretty girl: red-haired, bright, and lively–got married in 1972, the year he graduated from high school. Their daughter Tracy was born in March 1973; Linda picked up her high school diploma that June.

They lived in Dunkirk, their hometown.  Scott arrived in October of 1975. The next year, Al laced up those steel-toed boots and joined the railroad. They hired him as a laborer; he’d barely worn out his first pair of boots when they made him a welder.

The railroad moved Al and the family to Geneva, Ohio, in 1978.  He broke in another pair or two of boots before the railroad made him a foreman.

Linda turned her gift for nurturing into a vocation; she provided daycare for other families’ children in her home.  She was good at it, and popular, and, in 1986, she and Al became the proud owners of We Care Day Care.

Linda ran the business for seven and a half years; Al traveled for the railroad most of that time. His boots touched down in a lot of different places, a lot of different states.  He rode from Boston to Chicago to Miami, and to a lot of less well-known places in between.

The railroad made him a supervisor. He went through more pairs of boots. He worked a lot of 16 hour days.  He took good care of the gang he supervised; they knew they could count on Al having a bagful of roasted shelled nuts for them and a cooler full of drinks and snacks.

Al talks about watching Amish children playing in green fields as the train sped by; he remembers street corner entrepreneurs hawking their wares.  He ate at a lot of mom and pop diners and restaurants.  He had a lot of rich and interesting conversations with strangers; he met a lot of strangers who became his friends. He remembers those he worked with, the people who worked for him, with a great deal of fondness.

The railroad made him a manager.

Kids grow; boots wear out; careers careen in unexpected directions.  In 1999, the railroads merged, and CSX sent Al and Linda, empty-nesters now, to Scherville, Indiana.  They stayed there for two and a half years…long enough, just about, to wear out another pair of boots.

Al bid out in 2003, and, writes Linda, “We say we’ve come full circle.” They moved back home to Westfield, New York.  Their home town, where they graduated from high school, is about 15 miles away.

When Al retired, he took off his steel-toed boots for the last time, and he told Linda to throw them away.  He went out and got himself some comfortable gym shoes and he started wearing those.  He even, recently, bought himself a pair of walking shoes, and when the western New York snows melt this spring, maybe he and Linda will go walking on some of the local woodland trails or explore some of the tree-lined streets.

But Linda couldn’t bear to throw the boots away.  There has to be something, she mused to herself, some way to use them.  And–gifted with taste, and an unerring eye–she found just the thing.  When they celebrated Al’s retirement, those boots held place of honor, filled with flowers: a steel-toed tribute.

How do you show the measure of a man?  Maybe using boots that symbolize his dedication is not such a bad way.  During his years with the railroad, Al and Linda raised a family, moved that family, and worked hard for their family.  Al grew into management.  He grew into manhood.

You know the times weren’t always easy, but Al and Linda were not the ones to give up, to wish for the easy way out. The boots wear out, you get a new pair.  You lace them up and you get out there and you work.

It’s what Al did, Linda says, every day of his life with the railroad.  He laced up his boots, he showed up, he did more than a day’s work, and he did it unfailingly well. And he did it healthy, and he did it sick, and he did it even when he really didn’t want to leave his family and his warm home.

All those years, says Linda, and never, not even once, did Al miss a day of work.

***********

Sharon’s Story: The Curious Incident of the Whisper in the Night-time

It is 3 AM [Sharon remembers], a deep November night, and she is suddenly–as if summoned–wide awake.  She lifts the shade of her bedroom window, and sees that, in the pouring rain, some sort of large animal prowls the backyard. ‘Coyote!’ is her first thought, but this wet beast is bigger.

She pulls on a robe and hurries downstairs.

Sharon manages the estate of a well-known Harvard professor. She lives in a jewel-box of a home on the grounds.  From her front door, she can survey the pool and the rolling yards.  There are security lights that shine all night long.

The pool at night

She watches the animal approach in the glow of those lights.  When it gets close enough to activate the motion sensor on her porch, more light floods on. Sharon sees this is a dog–a big dog–one with a collar.

She tries to decide what to do.  I could go out, she thinks, and bring it in out of the rain, make some calls, and try to find its owner. 

But this is a strange, large dog.

It could be mean.

It could be rabid.

While Sharon ponders, the dog explores the edge of the pool, which is coated, in that November darkness, with fallen leaves. In the slickery rain, those leaves may have looked like a solid surface for walking.  The dog puts out a paw, shifts its weight, and falls abruptly into the water.

Sharon is galvanized.  She calls 911 and she grabs her raincoat and a flashlight. She runs out to the pool where the dog is thrashing and crying–really, heart-breakingly, crying.  And Sharon knows that she has to go into the pool and get the dog.  By the time helps arrives, it will be too late.

She says a prayer, and she is in the water.

She grabs the dog’s collar and then it’s like unseen hands are helping. Sharon feels as though the dog, which stops thrashing, is LIFTED from the water.  It puts its paws on the pool’s edge; Sharon pushes gently. The dog is out of the pool. It shakes itself off, and it follows its dripping savior gratefully into the dry garage. Sharon rubs it down as best she can, and she discovers the trembling beast has tags with not one, but three, phone numbers to call if found. Someone, she thinks, really loves this animal. She reassures the dog that all is well.

Sharon leaves the dog in the dry garage, and takes her flashlight out to the top of the hill to flag down the police.  They arrive quickly; they call the owner; they bundle the shivering dog into the back of the patrol car.

Sharon–soaked and freezing–hurries back into her house. And she thinks: What woke me at that moment in the middle of the night? 

*****
Another minute, the next day, and Sharon would have missed her.  The dog’s owner pulls into the long drive just as Sharon is leaving. She is, the owner, a middle-aged woman with an armful of flowers, two ecstatic cards declaring Sharon a hero, and a special needs son, waving from the car. The dog is the little boy’s devoted companion. The dog, the owner tells Sharon, is a rescue dog itself.

There are teen-aged siblings in that household; one, the mama thinks, left a door ajar, and the dog was just bound to explore.  There are busy highways to cross on the route it must have taken to get to the pool by Sharon’s home. Something kept it safe. The next thing it knew, it was five miles from home and drowning.

Except that Sharon heard a voice in the night, and she listened to its call.

A rescue dog, a child in need: Sharon figures a whole army of guardian angels were at work that night, and one of them woke her up.  That angel must have known that Sharon would not hesitate; that angel must have known she was another rescuer waiting to help that child, ready to save that dog.

************

Larisa’s Story: Mimaw Gets Some Ink

Larisa, the youngest of nine grown siblings, balances between two dear women at thresholds.  Her mother, Janette,–she’s Mimaw to the kids–,will be 90 this year.  Larisa’s daughter, Cassie, just turned 18.

They are close, Cassie and her Mimaw, who now lives in an assisted living situation–a nice place, but not the family home where Janette raised and launched her brood.  Larisa and  her husband Aaron built their home right next to Mimaw’s.  Their kids were in and out, every day.

Janette misses that.

But they visit, all the time.  When Cassie comes, she and Mimaw talk about birthdays, and Mimaw wonders what special thing Cassie would like for her special day.

Cassie confides that she wants a tattoo–something her parents have told her could only happen when she turns 18.  Mimaw gets interested.

When she sees Larisa alone, she confides that she’d like to be a part of that.  Maybe, suggests Janette, she and Cassie should get tattoos together.

WHAT?????

Larisa is shocked at first, but the idea flutters down, settles gently in, and takes root.  Maybe, thinks Larisa, they could all get tattoos.  But first she calls her mother’s doctor, who is intrigued.  Ninety-year old skin IS different, the doctor agrees, but it could work.  The artist would have to thoughtful and gentle and observant.  The design would have to be simple and monochromatic.

Larisa calls her siblings.  Some share her shock, at first, and some seem disapproving, and Barb signs on to get a tattoo, too.

They research designs and take them to Janette, who selects a simple heart that weaves into the word, “Family.”

They research tattoo artists and find Six, a local legend (Six is, students tell me, the rock star of tattoo artists in our county.)  Six is not fazed; he has known older folks who wanted tattoos, and he knows how to proceed.  They will do a test dot first and see if Janette’s skin will take the ink, or if the ink will run or smear. Or–it might just hurt too much. If any of those things happen, Six assures Larisa, they will abort this mission.

There are four of them at the tattoo shop that day, and the thing goes off without a glitch. The four women leave the parlor with tasteful hearts on their arms, permanent reminders that family is what’s important.

The staff at the assisted living facility waits for Janette to return from her foray to Six’s domain.  Many of those caring souls have ink on their arms, too.  Janette, on her arrival home, gets a standing ovation .

But Larisa worries about healing, so she visits the next day.  Everything is fine, her mother says, and she’s glad she got the tattoo with Cassie as her granddaughter celebrated her 18th birthday.

Now it’s time, Janette tells Larisa solemnly, to think about her own milestone, that birthday coming up in a couple of months.  She’s thinking another tattoo might be in order.  What does Larisa think about…hmmm…maybe a butterfly?

The artists and his subjects

*************

I think about the different kinds of bravery owned by these three women I’m lucky enough to call friends.

I think about Linda and Al, and their dedication and devotion.

I think about Sharon’s unflinching response to a mysterious, inconvenient, challenging call.

I think about Larisa, the connecting link in a chain forged by love of family and a spirit of adventure.

Gratefully, I take their stories and I hug them close, and I push, past puddles skimmed with ice, out into this particular March morning.

…That’s the Way I Spell ‘Success’

(Because I haven’t reached out to the folks or their families, and because the information here’s a little bit personal, I’m altering the names of the real and wonderful people about whom I write.)

*****

My mother, when I was growing up, had herself a frienemy.

Oh, of course, we didn’t call the relationship that then, but that’s what they were, my mom and Thea–frienemies.  I have to think they really, deep down, loved each other–why else would they keep calling, keep visiting, keep plugging away at a relationship that seem to chafe them both?

Thea’s kids were all around the same age as my mother’s own darling offspring, and they were all–sigh–so much BETTER.  They got good grades, and they didn’t get rides home in police cars, and they didn’t rip their pants climbing chain link fences to get out of places where they shouldn’t have been in the first place.  They didn’t roll their skirts up to mini length as soon as they were out of sight of the house. Their breaths didn’t smell suspiciously wine-y or malt-y, never mind a thick overlay of sweet spray mouthwash, after Friday night football games. And they didn’t provoke evening phone calls to parents from school personnel, unless the call was to tell Thea and her husband that their child had earned yet another scholarship, award, or academic kudo.

When the school called our house, the room quickly cleared. My older brothers–oh, they were unfeeling!–would send one of us younger ones back in as sacrificial scouts after the receiver banged back into place.  If the canary stopped singing, those bad boys would stay out of the mine a little bit longer.

****************

And, the next day, maybe, Mom and Thea would wind up chatting on the phone, again.  Comparisons would commence.

Thea would call Mom, say, to tell her how wonderfully well parent conferences went, and then she’d ask, with gleeful concern, how Mom had enjoyed hers. Of course, when Thea talked to teachers, she heard things like, “A joy to have in class!”

When my mama went to conferences, she heard…

…Not working up to potential.

…More interested in socializing than in schoolwork.

…Messy.

…Missing work.

…Attitude needs adjustment.

The Mom/Thea kid-comparisons lasted until well after we all left school.  Some of us bumbled around, discovering ourselves.  Some others charted a course, followed it, and quickly secured career advancement.

I leave it to you to guess whose kids did which.

One day–I was teaching middle school at the time–I stopped in to visit mom and interrupted her on the phone with Thea.

“Well,” my mother was sputtering, “well, maybe my kids aren’t all successful.  But at least I think they’re HAPPY!”

She slammed down the phone and turned and smiled at me.  “Coffee?” she asked.

***************
I certainly didn’t debate it with my mother at the time, but her statement has stayed with me all those years.  What IS being a success, after all, if it isn’t being happy?

But happiness shouldn’t be a contest, and, I’m thinking, neither should success. This whole line of thought gets me to pondering the people I’ve known whom  I can honestly and unequivocally call successful.  The trappings that society considers requisite for success don’t really apply.  To be successful, I think, you have to set goals and meet them–or, have the wisdom to know your goals are wrong and change them.  To be successful, you have to be willing to try and fail and try again–and know that failure is a real and potentially permanent possibility.  To be successful, you need to know yourself and to have the courage to stay true to whatever it is that means.

It’s the rare person who does all that consistently.  I don’t always, or even often, reach all those high notes.

But I’ve known folks who have, and did, and do.

***************

I knew, for instance, Dan and Jessica, who never bought a single thing on time.  They had seen the world–Dan had been in the service and stationed in Europe. I was so impressed that the little downstairs powder room in their lovely house sported a wooden sign that read, “WC.”

Ah, that’s class, I thought: who in the States calls their half bathroom a water closet? Dan and Jessica had traveled. They’d been there.

They had a houseful of books, a houseful of music, a houseful of art, and a house full of rich conversation.  Dan was the maintenance guy at the little private school where I taught; he was a gifted ‘fixer,’ but never too busy to put down his tool belt to discuss the merits of a poem I’d just lettered on the bulletin board in the hallway.  He was a poet himself, and he crafted odes to celebrate all kinds of events–entries and exits, commencements and commemorations.  I remember his poem to celebrate the first time a goat visited the school, and I remember its historic refrain:

There’s goat doo-doo down in the hall.

Jessica taught; the two of them entertained; they continued to do some traveling; and together they raised three wonderful children.  The first time they ever took out a loan was when the oldest one went off to college. And you can bet those bright, funny, hard-working kids worked their butts off, got and maintained scholarships, and paid back, in giant ways, their parents’ faith in them.

Long after we moved away, we learned that Dan had died, much too young.  But what a lot of living he and Jessica packed into their years together–what integrity and passion.  What laughter, and what fun.

In the Dictionary of Pam, when you look up ‘success,’ you’ll see pictures of Jessica and Dan.

*************
I knew a man named Luke who had absolutely no reason to be happy, and yet he was. Luke was dying from AIDs by the time I met him; he dragged a long and hurtful past behind him.  He’d made mistakes; he’d learned some big things–bigger things than most of us ever have to tussle with.  He’d forged a fierce authenticity in a fire that had raged overly bright.

We met at a soup kitchen run by our church.  I believed in organization and lists and volunteers signed up for shifts.  I believed in meal planning and smart shopping and counting the cost. I believed our hands were the only hands God had on earth–and that we had better keep them washed and busy.

Luke believed–he really, really did–that God would provide, and that a spirit of radical hospitality was more important than counting out the chicken breasts.  It was all, he would assure me, going to work out anyway.

The two of us worked the kitchen together for a couple of years.  We drove each other crazy.  We disagreed on lots of things–but never on the dignity of the people whom we served.

It worked out, as it turned out, really well.

Luke had a tiny apartment a block or so away from the church, which was good because he had no car. He had thrift shop clothes and hand-me-down furniture and he could tell you stories about winters, back during the time he lived in New England, when he couldn’t pay for heat and there was truly and literally nothing to eat in his house.  He hadn’t acquired a whole lot of material goods since those days, but he had learned a deep and abiding faith, and he had come to accept himself. He kept a prayer wall, Luke did, where he wrote, in Sharpie, the names of everyone he cared about and everyone who needed prayer and all the causes he just ached to see resolved.  He could see the lists from his bed; when he felt too sick to get up, he would stretch out and read the names and send up prayers.

And then, a day or two would pass, and Luke would feel better.  He’d get up and come back to church and tell me I was too fussy, the way I peeled potatoes.

Luke bounced back so many times that I just knew, deep in my knowing, that he was going to be around a long, long time.

But of course, he wasn’t.  He died way too young; he died way too soon.  And he died having made a far-rippling impact.  He taught a congregation about acceptance and grief and a kind of hospitality that says I don’t CARE how badly you smell or how funny you talk or whether your filters aren’t firmly in place: it just doesn’t matter. You are welcome here, my friend.

Luke lived his beliefs, stayed true through pain and neglect and deeply wounding sadness, found faith, built family, left us way too soon.  Luke, too: success.

**********

Successful? Hey, I know people.

I know someone, for instance, who works to reunite broken families.  Her methods, which are creative, maybe a little unconventional, are sometimes frowned upon by a canon-bound establishment. But they are compassionate methods, and ones that keep people safe.  They are methods that work. She often celebrates success.

I know a woman, born to wealth, who spent her career educating people to go out and build themselves better lives, and who, in retirement, insures her family’s funds help others.

I know a man who yearned, despite Fate’s other plans, to go to law school; he passed the Bar the week that he turned 50.

I know a school counselor who never gives up on her students–who pours her heart and soul and being into getting them on the path to success.  Sometimes, she has to testify in court. But often, she is dancing at their weddings.

I know a woman who happens to have Stage Four cancer but has never–not for one day–let that define her.

I know a mother who survived the unthinkable suicide of a child; she now works to promote better understanding of mental health issues in young people.

I know a person who, deprived of the opportunity to have a traditional family, opened his arms to lost sheep and lonely souls. He built a family, person by person, heart by heart. It is one of the strongest, most loving family groups I’ve ever seen.

I know people who reach deep into the pits of their gifts and talents, and who bring up treasures clutched in both hands.  They use their words, their music, their ability to teach, their compassion, their parenting skills, their creativity, their movement, their awareness.  They have wrestled with the Meaning Demon long and hard.  They have been victorious.  Their words and sounds and touch and thoughts enrich the lives of those they reach and nurture and respond to.

Still wrestling with the Demon myself, I am blessed with all these role models.  I hope to reach that plateau, that victory platform, where I can join them and say, at last, “Success!”

Right now, I can say, “Working on it.”

But my mother was right. Mostly, and blessedly, I’ve been happy.

*********
I know some other people, too, ones for whom the whole idea of wrestling was too much–the ones who turned away, who settled, who–it seems to me, anyway–gave up.  They are not happy, those ones.  But neither are they doomed.

I firmly believe this: it is NEVER too late. And there is always something you can do.

Success is understanding the hands we’ve been dealt and looking at all the options of playing those cards.  Then it’s picking the option that matches what we know of ourselves and our gifts, our values and our yearnings, and committing ourselves to playing that game, whole of heart and single of mind.

It has nothing–success doesn’t–to do with money or clothes or cars or trappings.  But you can have those and still be successful.

**********

Mom is gone.

Thea is gone.

I stay in touch with one of Thea’s kids on Facebook; she’s out West, but we keep each other informed.  So I know that, in her siblings’ lives, there have been divorces and estrangements, disappointments, arraignments, and muddles.  But they have all come through okay. Their lives might not look exactly like the triumphs they’d envisioned back in the day when Thea and Mom compared notes.  But they are all, my old friend tells me, true and strong and happy.

Ah. So. Competition over.  There is plenty of room on the victory platform, plenty of space for each of us to climb up and grab those sashes and slide them over our heads. The music will pulse; we’ll all be bouncing, hands flailing joyfully, the silky word ‘success’ flared across our chests and bellies.

It’s crowded, that platform, with successful people; they dazzle me with their grins and their dance moves. They inspire.  Wait for me!  I call to them. I think  I’m getting there!

And then I go back to the wrestling.

Missing Burnt Umber (But Mixing My Own)

Coloring 2

Even the dog has given up and gone to bed. It is 1 AM, January 1st, 2016, and I am sitting at the dining room table, under the one light burning as the house sleeps.  I have sprawled my crayons, my colored pencils, and my markers across the shiny wooden tabletop, and, in the quiet of the year-changing night, I am coloring.

I am coloring a floral design from a book called The Enchanted Forest, a gift from my stepson Matt, his lovely wife Julie, and Alyssa and Kaelyn, their two beautiful daughters. It is a thoughtful gift on so many levels:  I love fantasy, and there is a fantastic story that undergirds these intricate visual designs.  I love puzzles, and as I color my way through the book,  I will find little clues hidden in each picture–clues that add up to a key. The key will unlock the castle door, and then I will know the secret.

I love knowing the secret.

But mainly, hugely, historically, I love coloring.

**********

My very first memory has to do with coloring:  It is my third birthday, and I am unwrapping a stack of same-shaped gifts.  In my memory, the stack is at least twenty gifts high; I suspect, given family finances and a mother with frugal tendencies in the best of times, the stack might have been about half of that.  But still.  Each carefully wrapped gift was a coloring book.  With the stack came a box–16!—of Crayola crayons.

Even at age three, my predilection for coloring was clearly noted. And my mother had strong opinions on the tools required.

She liked the idea of us coloring, but she was picky about coloring books.  The ones that featured popular characters, back in the early 1960’s, did not always have the best art.  So I might find a coloring book in the supermarket that featured a popular doll  (a doll, it might be added, which I did not own. There was no point, my parents felt, in toys that played for you.  YOU make your dolls walk and talk, they said.  What do you need batteries for?  Use your God-given imagination.) I’d show that book to my mother, who would flip through the pages and snort.  “That’s crap!” she’d say.  “Look at these lines!”

And she’d show me where the hasty artist hadn’t bothered to finish a drawing, left a shape incomplete, or inked eyes flatly lackluster.  On a good day, she’d put that book back and take a moment to sort through the other offerings, finally selecting a book for me that met her standards.

On a bad day–or maybe on a week with not so much overtime in the paycheck–we would move briskly along.

“You’ve got paper at home,” she would tell me. “You can draw your own pictures.”

We did have an endless supply of newsprint, bought at the local newspaper office.  The staff cut the leftover paper into 8-1/2 by 11 inch pages and sold it by the pound, cheaply.  My parents kept a deep stash on hand.  We were encouraged, when the weather did not support outdoor play, to gather at the dining room table to draw and color.

We had the newsprint.  We had an array of coloring books, shared among us.  You put your name on a page to lay claim to it.  I tried, sometimes, to savor a book, to keep it all to myself, but it was never possible.  If I hid it, Mom the super-cleaner would find it, and put it back with the stacks in the dining room, and then anyone could lay claim to the best pictures in the book.

I particularly liked panoramas–those drawings that spread across two flattened out pages, and it made me sad when another person colored in half, necessitating a creative reach to match their style and complete the vignette adequately.

We had a three-pound coffee can filled with crayons. A crayon was good until it was too small to hold–full value all the way down the waxy stick, although coloring with pristine crayons that still had their points was an undiluted pleasure.  To find a color, one dumped the crayons out on the broad, dark wood table and spread them out. Once the wrappers had been peeled away, it was a challenge to identify black, which was always the prime, most-needed, crayon.  Purple looked like black; so did navy.  It was good to have a testing sheet of that reliable newsprint at elbow; we had sheets and sheets of paper with scratchy little scrawls on them–scribbles of dark colors, blue and indigo, blue-violet,–until one hit paydirt: BLACK.

She was not given to indulgences, my mother, but she would not buy cheap crayons. We always had Crayolas, but we rarely had more than the eight-pack.

“You don’t need someone else to mix your colors for you,” Mom would say.  “You have all the basics right there; make your own colors.”

She didn’t believe in big fat crayons for little hands, either.  In the first place, none of us was that tiny; we were tall, sturdy children with big, capable hands from a pretty young age.  And in the second place, she felt that providing some sorts of support tools–fat pencils, fat crayons,–put a young child at a deficit.

“You learn to use the fat one,” she’d say, “and then you just have to unlearn that when you get the thin one.  Why not start as you mean to go on?”

It was a rare treat to get a box of sixteen virgin Crayolas; it was unheard of to get the 96 box.  One memorable Christmas, I got the 96-box WITH A SHARPENER.  That was as close to perfection as I could imagine.

***************

In the 1970’s, a phenomenon called the ‘anti-coloring book’ surfaced.  It was a book that didn’t provide pictures; it provided activities.  So, instead of a picture of a dog, there would be a blank page with a prompt.  Draw, it might suggest, the most wonderful pet in the world.

The anti-coloring book was supposed to encourage creativity, which, the theory had it, the regular coloring books inhibited. But I never found it to be so.

Encouraged, perhaps egged on, by parents and brothers, I felt free to ignore expectations and to build surprises into my coloring book forays.  So, despite the fact that my friends informed me Cinderella’s dress was a beautiful sky blue, I made it rainbow striped.  I had purple trees.  I gave things auras.

We paid attention to coloring in the backgrounds of pictures, and I learned early on that the sky reached all the way to the ground. But it didn’t, necessarily, have to be blue.

A big discussion, when coloring with siblings, was whether or not to outline.  Most of us thought outlining was GOOD; you traced the picture with your crayon, and that created a waxy barrier that kept vigorous strokes pretty firmly within the lines.  Parents did not outline; perhaps, I thought, it was an age thing.  My father colored very lightly, I noticed.  I liked to hit the paper so heavily the waxy residue shone.

*****************

Perhaps coloring is usually a past-time of childhood, but I never left it behind.  In middle school and high school, I drew and colored pictures to illustrate popular lyrics. I might have an elongated figure about to step off a surreal lemon and orange colored rock structure, high above the burnt umber earth. (How I loved burnt umber!  How I mourned when it was retired in 1990!)  In Flair pen, I would write below the drawing: I’ve got the answer.  I’m going to fly away. What have I got to lose?  and credit Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I decorated my lockers and my notebooks with such flights of fancy.

I bought permanent markers with my babysitting money and created intricate two-color grids for myself and my friends.  We called them ‘op-art’, and we swore we got high on the strong alcohol smell of the markers.

I had an early job at a bookstore where we carried coloring books for grownups-books that had intricate symmetrical drawings; coloring them could pluck out patterns and create illusions of three  dimensions, or of movement.  I always felt good about supporting my store by buying those books.

And then my brothers began to get married and to give me the wonderful gift of nephews and nieces–little people with whom to color, enthusiastic little souls for whom I could buy Crayolas.  There was never a lag in reasons to color; after college, I fell into teaching at a K-8 parochial school, starting out in the gym and in the art room.

“I’m a teacher,” I could argue. “I must have crayons!”

Stepmama.  Mama. Home day-care provider.  There was always a need for crayons and coloring books, drawing paper, colored pencils, washable markers, in the house. Mark took to buying me a 96 pack of crayons every year for Christmas until I had such a supply that it became ridiculous.  I grew very attached to certain colors–burnt umber among them: sigh.

I rejoiced when burnt sienna was saved by popular vote in the early 2000’s. (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1000466/posts )

I discovered other people were as fascinated by coloring as I am: Ed Welter did a whole history of crayons, and has his own website on the subject–a wonder to explore. (http://www.crayoncollecting.com/) Crayola tapped into that lifelong fascination with coloring and called for user input to name new colors.  A five year old named ‘Macaroni and Cheese.’ An 89-year dubbed a special shade of violet ‘Purple Mountain’s Majesty.’  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/22/crayola-crayon-color-history_n_7345924.html)

There is, clearly, no age limit on coloring.

***********
So.  Solitary, absorbed, 1 AM, I color in my new coloring book.  The process relaxes and engages me; it taps into that other side of the brain, takes me out of official time into another realm, floats me down a restful stream away from mundane cares and worries.

I am NOT too old to color; no one is too old to color.  Publishers have sussed that out; every retail space, this year, has offered its variation on the adult coloring book theme.

I am delighted with mine.  I love the colored pencils Matt and Julie gave me; I’m using them and just them–eight color options which I blend and combine; thank you, Mom–to mimic the colors in my dining room curtains.  I will search out gently used picture frames and use my new matting equipment, and I will frame and hang this picture, once I’ve completed coloring the whole book.

And when I’ve completed this picture, I’ll add crayons and markers to the mix; I’ll experiment. I’ll play.  Playing is something, I’ve become convinced, we all, age and dignity notwithstanding, need to do.

So. Mark will call home to chat with Jim on Mondays (my day off), and he’ll ask, “What’s your mother doing?”

Jim will sigh and respond, “You know. She’s COLORING.”

And it will be so.  Relaxed, engrossed, not a whit repentant, I’ll be at the table on my day off. My duties done, I’ll have Crayolas rolling across the shiny surface: I’ll be bringing a lady bug’s glossy shell to life.

Oh, it’s a true, true pleasure. You should join me!

Four Visits

I hear her high heels tapping down the polished hallway.  She had an intermediary call me to ask if I knew of any people in need; I mentioned a longtime colleague, retired and alone now, with some serious health problems.  There was, the intermediary said, someone who wanted to help a person just like that this Christmas.  That someone would stop by with an envelope, and she would be grateful if I would just address and mail it.

It was an easy task to agree to do.

I am thinking this must be a seasoned benefactor…someone comfortably settled, perhaps with children established and in no need of mama’s money.  But the heels belong to a young person who is far from rich. She is, though, smart, clever, and thoroughly professional; she and her husband came unexpectedly into a tidy sum, and they decided to split it. Half goes to someone he found who is in need, the other half to someone she identifies: that’s their Christmas gift to each other.

She hands me a thick envelope with a name etched on it; her joy at perpetrating this unacknowledged act of giving is boundless.  She swears me to secrecy, wishes me a merry Christmas, and taps away.

I address and stamp the envelope and slide it into the mailbox across the street.

********

Ducking her head, eyes hidden beneath a long bang, she hands out hand-folded boxes to each of the board members.  Open them! she urges. We do, and are amazed at the painted ornaments–with snow-covered pine trees, fat red cardinals perched on snow-dusted branches, beaming Santas and frolicking snowmen, rigid nutcrackers and graceful ballerinas, gracing their tender, curved glass sides.

We gasp; they are exquisite.  She laughs delightedly.  She grasps her hands and bobs a bow.  She is so proud.

She is a recovering addict become an artist, someone who wanted to say thank you to the board that okays the funds that support the program she first went through and now works for.  She teaches others, now, to paint; she donates paintings to be auctioned off to raise funds for the program.  She has worked through a long, bad tunnel, and she has emerged into the light.

Beet-red, triumphant, she slides out of the conference room, waving a merry Christmas to all.

**********

We gather around the table–eight old friends missing two more who are at a different gathering that day,–two who are mourning a loved one lost too soon.  The candles glow, Keith invokes a warm and personal grace, and we tuck into herbed rolled pork, potato pancakes and applesauce, crusty homemade bread, a savory slaw, and Larry-made pies.  It is a meal as delicious and unique as the home in which we gather.

The long table sits on polished concrete floors; whitewashed beams gleam high above us.  This was once a gas station; it now is Kay and Brian’s home, with a sleeping space defined by walls cleverly constructed of three-deep packing pallets strung with twinkle lights. The kitchen is a tiny marvel of high-tech efficiency, the bathroom small and snug and wonderful.

Kay has her studio; her paintings enliven the walls of the whole space–new paintings, larger, growing evermore strong and bold, like her amazing and constantly maturing talent. Brian has his work-space.  Together, they have stories to tell of mishaps and triumphs, but it has been worth the trek: their vision of this extraordinary home-space is realized.

Kay and Brain live at a midpoint; after that wonderful meal and a chance to really visit, we reluctantly move outside.  No parking problems in a former service station: we linger by the cars. We listen to the gentle burble of the fountain Brian constructed, and which is, in this oddly warm winter, unhindered by ice.  Finally, with hugs and plans to meet again in 2016, with shouts of “Merry Christmas!” we climb in our cars and pull out, headed north, south, and west, into the darkness, strengthened by the rekindling of that friendly warmth.

**********

Jeff is the counselor who organized and oversaw a wonderful program Jim took part in several years ago.  Jeff keeps everyone connected with email updates and invitations to reunions and notices about who’s graduated, who’s gotten a job, and who might need a little support.  This week he emails that a young man from the program is alone this Christmas.  He wonders if anyone would like to spend an hour or two helping the boy celebrate.

I mention it to Mark and Jim, and both of them, without hesitation, say, “Of course.”  Tight-throated and misty, I email Jeff to confirm.

We pack up cookies, write out a card, grab a game, and bundle into Mark’s car for the ride to the city at 11:30 or so on Christmas day.  We arrive at the boy’s house just a shade early; he is standing out front, tall, bearded, and gangly limbed–sort of Abe-Lincoln-y–yelling into a cell phone.  We park and approach and he looks at us, a little frightened, and yells into the phone that he has to go, there are PEOPLE here!

Jeff pulls up at that moment and we usher into a small, tidy apartment, with sparse furniture, white walls, and hardwood floors.  There is a little fabric tree; there is one present underneath it.  Jeff, Mark, and Jim lug in folding chairs.  Our host pulls chicken nuggets and french fries from the freezer; we locate one baking sheet and make chicken and potatoes share.  Jeff produces a veggie lasagna; he figures out the intricacies of the oven.

People start to pile in, three more families with kids from the program.  The table groans with drinks and cookies and fudge and a frosted cake–turns out, it’s not just Christmas: our young host has a birthday today, too. A pile of presents grows beneath the tree. The kids talk about Star Wars and superheroes and debate DC versus Marvel; a young artist passes around her cell phone to share her truly incredible artwork.  A young guitarist shows us his band’s professional calling card.  The food is hot; people grab plates,and our host sits in the place of honor, munching and beaming.

This was a group of strangers for mere moments.  Now we pass presents to the birthday guy; we take pictures; we cheer and exclaim.  Excited, he runs upstairs to change into a brand new shirt and, when he emerges, he gets a round of applause.  We eat cake and those frozen ice cream cones with the tops dipped in chocolate and nuts.  Jeff tries to get some singing going, but the attempt crashes and burns amid laughter and groans.

In the kitchen, gathering up, Mark and I talk with a young man (call him Matt) who’s a staff member, someone who works shifts in this little apartment so the birthday guy can successfully live on his own.  Matt tells us he’s actually off-shift, but he couldn’t stand the thought that our guy would be alone on the holiday–on his BIRTHDAY.  Jeff, Matt says, is amazing; this was probably one of the best Christmas-birthdays his young charge has ever had.

Jim shakes a lot of hands; the young people trade info; they promise to write and email and keep in touch.  We all take information about a zoo-lights expedition coming up the day after New Year’s. We part with hugs and laughter and hopes to see each other soon.  The ride home takes less than an hour; in 90 minutes, the oven is heated and the rib roast is scenting the house. The roads were great, the trip was no big deal–but the gathering was pretty major for a young guy who expected only to be alone.

***********
Such gifts this holiday season: of generosity, of artistry, of creation, of gathering and goodness.  Dark falls shortly after we arrive home, but it’s no threat. There is light.  In this season of darkness, I know there is light, there is warmth, and there is great, great hope.

62 Years of Sauce

This year, my mother-in-law Pat gathered her grown children around her Thanksgiving table. They came from small cities and villages within her western New York county; they came from the west coast and from the Midwest.  They came to eat the first Thanksgiving dinner not cooked up and served up under the discerning eye of their father Angelo; he died in the dawning of 2015.

Ironically, Pat and Ang’s 62nd anniversary fell on Thanksgiving day itself this year.  The marriage spanned 61 years of growth and change, war and détente, peace, turmoil and resolution, births and nurturing, work and respite, loss and renewal–in the world, and in their lives.

That’s a lot of years together.

That’s a lot of spaghetti sauce.

**********

I ate spaghetti, growing up, and I liked it, but my Scottish mother’s version was not like ‘regular’ spaghetti. The sauce was thin enough to be translucent. Early on, she rebelled against shaping meatballs; instead she’d brown a big chunk of burger in the sauce pot.  One of my brothers had an aversion to the texture and sight of any kind of stewed veggies, so Mom would clamp the big metal grinder to the countertop and run an onion through it.  The grinding reduced the onion to mush; Mom would stir that into the cooking beef.  (She always cleaned out the grinder by running stale bread through it, behind the onion; often there’d be ground bread in the sauce, too, which didn’t bother anyone.)
She would pour cans of tomato sauce and tomato paste into the pot.  She would double the bulk with water, and stir in oregano and basil flakes.  She would simmer it all together and cook up two pounds of thin spaghetti.
We ate it all with no complaints; it was hot, flavorful, and filling.

It wasn’t, though, traditional Italian spaghetti sauce. When I married Mark, I would really begin to learn the intricacies and variations involved with cooking a wonderful, thick, bubbling pot of what his family called, in Italian, “soukup.”

*****

Angelo was the son of Sicilian immigrants Joseph and Mary–called Ma and Pa by their children and extended family. They married in the States in the early part of the twentieth century; they built a life in western New York, where they had seven children and Pa worked on the railroad. Ma was a stay-at-home mom; on Saturdays, Ang recalled, she would cook up a huge pot of sauce and bake enough bread for a week. Ang was always interested in cooking; he learned the secrets of sauce by watching Ma and helping her.

He brought those secrets, those tasty techniques, into his marriage with Pat, who was not Italian, but quickly learned the ins and outs of Italian cooking.

Sundays were family dinner days.  In the early years of their marriage, Ang and Pat lived in an apartment above Ma and Pa, and, after church, they would gather downstairs around a huge and groaning dining table. Several of Ang’s siblings would arrive with spouses and kids; a special table would be set up for the young ones.  Bowls and platters of pasta and sauce would emerge steaming from Ma’s kitchen, and the family would dig in with gusto.

When Ang and Pat bought their own home, that big table came to roost in their dining room, and the tradition of Sunday pasta dinners moved with them, too.  They had five children in all, four active boys, and then, ten years after Thomas, the youngest, was born, the lovely surprise of a baby girl.  Mark and his brothers brought friends home on Sundays; leaves extended the table to its utmost. Extended family might drop in. When the boys began marrying and grandchildren arrived, the practice of the children’s table had to be reinstated.

But the wonderful quality of the sauce never wavered.  When I first knew Pat–I was in college and we worked together at a bookstore–she canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, and the pasta sauce was simmered from ingredients mostly home-grown and hand-preserved.  A long simmer, the right seasonings, a little sweetness to cut the acid…attention to detail and patience were the most important qualities.  Spaghetti sauce was a delicious and inexpensive way to feed a hungry mob.

The sauce that Pat simmered up in the kitchen of her lovely hundred-year-old home was far different from my Scottish mother’s.  Pat and Ang served sauce that was thick, rich, and fragrant.  (Their sauce was to my mother’s what robust stew juices are to thin soups–both valid, of course, but mightily different.  I understood after first tasting Ang and Pat’s pasta why some Italian families call their red sauce ‘gravy’.)

Unless it was a Friday, or Lent, the sauce could contain many different kinds of meat–usually an abundance of meatballs, often Italian sausage, and sometimes pork or chicken.  My father-in-law was partial to putting pig trotters into his red sauce; I didn’t doubt that they sweetened the sauce. Those seemed, though, blatantly anatomical steaming on the plate of meat which Ang would strain from the sauce and place in the middle of the table. He and Pat would put little bowls of sauce at intervals; there would be grated cheese and crusty bread and greens to make a salad.  And two huge bowls of pasta with scoops could be easily reached from all seats.

A lot of sauce was ladled at that table; the sauce fueled conversation, discussion, and camaraderie.  As years went by, Pat’s methods changed; the proliferation of good, economical, high-quality canned sauce made the hard work of handpicking, peeling, juicing, and canning tomatoes unnecessary.  But the canned sauce was only a base for the magic that Pat and Ang worked in their kitchen.

Along the way, Ang discovered a recipe in his local newspaper; it was Dom Deluise’s mother’s meatball recipe, it was darned good, and we use our adaptation of it to this day. I imagine the sauce being shared around tables for generations to come–feeding hungry families, complementing joy and struggle.

So here, in honor of Ang and Pat’s long partnership, and of the first anniversary, just past, they’ve spent apart, here is the method for that long simmered sauce….

*************

We use (to feed 4-6 people):
–one 6-ounce can tomato paste
–one 8-ounce can tomato sauce
–one 24-ounce can of spaghetti sauce, traditional or meat flavored
–a portion of a recipe of Dom’s Mom’s meatballs
–three links of Italian sausage
–one onion
–one clove of garlic
–olive oil
–oregano
–basil
–rosemary
–a bay leaf

–one quarter cup of sugar

Coat the bottom of a heavy stock pot with olive oil, and heat that over a medium flame. In it, sauté chopped onion until almost translucent, then add the garlic clove, crushed.  Stir until the veggies are sweated and soft, then add the tomato paste and sauce and spaghetti sauce.  Fill the empty sauce jar with water, twice, and stir into the pot.  Add the spices and sugar and bring to a simmer.  We cook and stir, simmer and steep, for at least three hours.

Meanwhile, bake the meatballs (recipe follows) and parboil the sausage. At least an hour and a half before serving–and you can do this well before then–add the meat to the pot and let everything simmer so the flavors will meld and blend.

As the acid bubbles to the top of the sauce during the early simmer, skim with a flat spoon.  You can sweeten the sauce in several ways.  We usually add at least a quarter cup of sugar; I know people who add a cup or more. We have a good friend who peels a carrot and halves it and throws both halves into a steaming sauce pot. Pork bones also seem to add sweetness and cut the acid; we save the bones and leftover meat from a roast, and in they go.

Chicken, also, cooks down into tender strands in the sauce and adds a wonderful flavor; I don’t recommend putting pieces of chicken in the pot with bone intact, though.  The tiny bones come unglued and separate into the sauce, and unsuspecting diners crunch down on bits of hard bone.  Much better to remove the flesh from the bones and throw just the tender meat into that simmering brew.

We like to serve this with a tossed green salad, grated parmesan, and a loaf of crusty bread.  Of course, a bold red wine goes nicely too.

It’s easy to double or triple this method for a crowd, and you can be daring with add in’s.  We love the sauce with fresh zucchini cooked into it, for instance. And in Lent, Mark’s dad always omitted meat and added sardines and chopped hard-boiled egg.  In those times, instead of topping the sauce with cheese, Ang would heat olive oil in his cast iron skillet, and brown up  a big batch of bread crumbs. The family would use them in place of parmesan, and Mark still loves his sauce topped that way.  And of course, vegetarian possibilities are endless, too. A neat trick Pat taught me was to add dried fennel to the sauce; its taste evokes Italian sausage, even when there’s none to be found in the freezer.

Leftover, this sauce makes a dynamite base for a thick, spicy chili.

********

Our version of Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs

2 lbs. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork (ground turkey works, too, as does ground chicken…)
2 cups Italian flavored bread crumbs
4 eggs
1 cup of milk
1 cup of fresh parsley, chopped (or–I often use 1/4 cup of dried parsley)
1/2 cup grated cheese–our favorite is a romano/parmesan blend
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 minced onion
***Optional: 1/2 cup pine nuts

Mix all ingredients; let stand for 1/2 hour.

Shape into meatballs.

Fry gently (to brown), or bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Add cooked meatballs to sauce and simmer.

A Day All Pies Would Fly

This week, WordPress’s daily challenge (http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/pie/) was to write about pie…That and the upcoming holiday remind me of a story my youngest son used to demand over and over again. It is a true story, but I told it to young James so many times that memory and embroidery morphed and blended.  I got so I wasn’t sure what was real, and what I’d added–but Jim, aged two, knew every  told detail and would brook no changes. Others who were there might argue things happened differently…and they might just be right.  But…here is my pie story.

******

I put the Tom and Pippo book on top of the stack.

“That’s it,” I tell my almost three-year-old. “Seven books. Time to sleep.” I am aching for that half hour, the time when the boy is asleep and there is absolutely no pressing work to be done, when a book or a TV show is a beacon at the end of the day, a luxurious choice.

But.

He looks up at me with big brown pleading eyes—beneath eyelids that are not in the least bit heavy. “Tell me a story, Mama,” he pleads.

I sigh–a martyr in the making–and say, “What story would you like? Pete Pete with the Stinky Feet?”

“Tell me,” he says, “about when the pies fly.”

Again. Ah, me.

I squelch another mama-martryr sigh and begin.

“It was Thanksgiving day, and your grandma–the grandma who’s in heaven now–had been cooking all day. There were stacks of cutout cookies shaped like turkeys and autumn leaves on one counter.”

“With sugar topping,” murmurs my boy.

“That’s right,” I say. “The cookies were frosted and sprinkled with colored sugar–orange and red and yellow: autumn colors. And next to them were two big beautiful pumpkin pies. They were a rich orange-y brown; there were little beads of moisture clinging to their shiny surfaces. The crusts were just that right kind of gold-y-brown, ready to explode into buttery flakes.”

“You didn’t like it.”

“That’s true–not all of us liked pumpkin pie, but the ones that did,–well they couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving to come when they could eat one, two, three–maybe even four!–pieces. The house smelled wonderfully of turkey roasting and other good things, and we pottered around in the living room, watching the parades on TV, playing games, reading, until finally Grandma called me to set the table.”

“There was a tablecloth,” he prompts.

“Yes, there was,” I agree. “There was a lace tablecloth the color of pale, weak tea. We used the special plates, the ones with fluted edges and old-fashioned scenes on them–Cousin Shaynie has those plates now, and she still uses them every Thanksgiving.

“We put water glasses by each plate. We used the fancy salt and pepper shakers, the special platter with a turkey painted on it, and the big people–Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Dennis–had wine glasses by their places.

“For the Duck,” he says, knowingly.

“Yes! Cold Duck was what Grandma thought, back then, was a really special drink, and she bought it every holiday. So there’d be TWO birds on the table,–a turkey and a duck.”

He nods. “What else?”

“There was a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, white and piled up like soft mountains. There was a pat of butter melting on the top. There was another big bowl of stuffing, straight from the bird; it smelled like celery and onion and sage, turkey and bread, all jumbled up.There was a sizzly casserole of orange sweet potatoes. There was a bowl of steaming peas—”

“CORN,” he corrects, impatiently.

“Ah, you’re right,” I agree. “It was corn. That had butter melting on it, too. And there were two baskets of crescent rolls; that was the only time we ever got those, and we thought that was a really big treat.

“Grandpa came in from his half day at work at the power plant; he washed up and changed, and came right down and carved the turkey. Your uncles started drifting in from the living room or their bedrooms or wherever they were, and Grandma made people pour water and wine, get the cranberry sauce from the fridge, and put serving spoons in all the good food. It was time to eat.”

I look at my boy. He is quiet now, but bright-eyed, waiting for the good part.

“We said our grace and Grandpa passed the turkey, and we loaded our plates with potatoes–making a little hole in the middle so we could pour in a lake of turkey gravy. We dug in to corn and stuffing.”

“But you didn’t eat the sweet potatoes.”

“I didn’t. Back then I was a kind of picky eater, and I didn’t eat sweet potatoes. OR the cranberry sauce.

“We cleaned our plates and we filled them again, and we all said how good, good, good everything tasted. And when we were done, we helped clear the table. The tablecloth was splotted with gravy, and I bundled it up and tossed it down the cellar stairs. Grandma would wash it the next day and iron it and put it in the cabinet drawer until the next feast at Christmas. And we helped with dishes.”

“Uncle Dennis washed,” he says.

“Yes, he did,” I agree. “And Uncle Mike dried. Your Uncle Sean and I put away, and Uncle John helped Grandpa take the trash out. Grandma, for once, got to sit and read.

“Pretty soon, all the mess was cleaned up, and everyone drifted…some went for walks and some watched football. I drew pictures at the kitchen table. Grandma read her book.”

“An hour passed, or maybe two,” he whispers, the cadence of the tale memorized.

“Yes. Time passed. Grandma put her book down and came out to the kitchen. She plugged her little handmixer in, and she took two little cartons–they looked like little houses–of cream from the fridge. She poured those into a big metal bowl–a bowl that had a little ring to hook your thumb through, so it wouldn’t fly away when you used the electric mixer. She added a capful of vanilla and a couple of heaping spoonsful of powdered sugar, and she beat up frothy peaks of whipped cream. It was beautiful.”

“It was time for pie,” he says, a grin beginning.

“Yes!” I say, “and everyone was ready. Your grandpa came out and put the two pies right in the middle of the table. Grandma handed him the bowl of whipped cream, and he joked that maybe he’d just take a spoon and eat the whole bowlful. ‘No!’ everyone yelled. Grandma got out the knife and the pie server, and the little dessert plates, and she cut pieces of pie for everyone but me and Uncle Sean.”

“He didn’t like pie either,” says my boy, and I hear in his voice, at last, the edges of sleep tugging.

“He did not,” I agree. “So Grandma cut pieces for everyone else, and plopped little clouds of whipped cream on top, and put a fork on each plate, and when everyone had a piece, they each picked up their forks, sliced down to cut off a big bite and they raised the forks to their mouths, closed their eyes, and tasted…”

“And it was awful!” he crows.

“It was! There was no sugar in that pie! Grandma had been in a hurry and she mistook her big bag of salt for her big bag of sugar and those pumpkin pies were salty, salty, salty.

“There was a huge and deafening silence. My brothers and my father were frozen. They did not want to hurt Grandma’s feelings–but they sure did not want to eat that pie.”

“And then GRANDMA said–” he nudges, hurrying toward the good part.

“GRANDMA said,” I continue, “‘Dennis, I know how you love pumpkin pie. Here. Have mine.’ And she scooped up the piece of pie–the piece with one bite missing–and she threw it at your Uncle Dennis!

“Uncle Dennis froze in shock, and the pie hit him on the side of his head, right above his ear!

“There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Uncle Dennis recovered and said to my mother, ‘I could never leave you pie-less. Please. Take mine.’ His pie flew through the air at my mother, but she was quick and ready, and she ducked. The pie hit the wall, quivered for a moment, and slid.

“And then it was flying pie day. Your uncles and your grandpa threw their own slices of pie, and then they grabbed the pies left on the table, and the battle was on. I ran out to the living room–I didn’t like to eat it, and I didn’t want to wear it–and I hid behind the ottoman while the laughing and the splotting went on.”

“Finally it got quiet.”

“Yes, it did,” I say. “In the kitchen they couldn’t stop laughing, all those crazy pumpkin-covered people. But when they finally did, they took turns in the bathroom, washing the pumpkin off themselves, and we all helped clean up the kitchen. And then Grandma made a pot of coffee and we all sat down and ate those wonderful sugary cookies.”

“It was the day of flying pies,” he says, satisfied.

“It was the day of flying pies,” I agree. “And now it is the night of sleeping boys.”

He yawns at me and grins, too tired to argue. The eyes flutter closed, and I escape into the living room, where I pick up my waiting book,–and fall instantly, soundly asleep.