July 25, 2012 § 2 Comments
I have always had a reputation even among those who do not know me well of having a calm deposition and peaceful demeanor. During my tenure in advertising I cultivated the unflappable satisfaction of a Madonna even amid the high anxiety of client presentations.
You can imagine my confusion and chagrin (which has nothing to do with smiling) when I found myself in heated discussions recently with two friends. Forsooth, to call them discussions is being disingenuous for my blood pressure was up, my face was pink and deep within my throat a growl was forming.
In one case I was ready to push back the chair from the table and flounce , which is fleeing in a bouncy manner, out of the coffee shop. In the other I was ready to press the red X key that would abruptly terminate a Skype conversation.
And the subjects of these two discussions? Why, politics and religion, of course. The two topics any wise hostess bans from the dinner table. In both cases these old friends slyly insinuated their favorite conversational hobby horses into our heretofore pleasant tete-a-tete.
The religious conversation combined elements of both metaphysical New Agism and extreme left wing do-gooderism. Now I have been at various times a New Ager and a do-gooder but that particular day I was not in the mood for the excesses of naïve idealism.
But it was not to be. I would be convinced and converted, or else. Finally, I noticed a triumphant look in her eye when a comment had drawn blood and I had heatedly responded. It was veni, vidi, vici all over again and we weren’t even in England! It was less a matter of dogmatism than the desire to sharpen her wit on my whetstone.
When our coffee date was over, she told me how much she had enjoyed our stimulating afternoon. “People just don’t want to discuss anything important anymore. How can we make the world a better place without conversation?” I agreed and staggered to the car, vowing never to cross (s)words again - although on the drive home I did come up with some real zingers.
Then other day I was Skyping with a friend when the subject of gun control laws came up as a result of the tragic Colorado movie theater event. He was strongly in favor of total gun control and a ban of weapons sales while I posited that it was the violence and insanity of our society as whole that was to blame, not the weapons. Before you could say ‘duck’ his ten-minute diatribe on weapons was underway.
I am still uncertain about both experiences. I do not like to argue. If two people have opposing or incompatible viewpoints, I am happy to put that topic aside in future conversations. Or, is that the coward’s way out? Am I afraid to disagree, or stand up for what I believe in? Or is it a matter of not wanting to take any position? Is it that I no longer believe in anything?
The older I get the less I enjoy confrontation and the less certain I am that I am even partly right. I would like the world to be a kinder, gentler place but have no idea how to bring that about except in one’s personal life. I don’t believe that the government, religion, philosophy or science can save the world; in fact, it more often seems to befuddle it – which is a wonderful word that combines the dazzle of being with the ambiguity of mud.
In the future I will head off any controversial topics with a quick thrust. I have decided on a verbal riposte that will flicker briefly on the tip of the tongue, then strike deep – “Sez you!” And failing that, pulling out the coup d’ etat of comebacks, “So’s your mother!”
July 22, 2012 § 1 Comment
She was in her mid-20’s when she met him, long past the age that her cousins and girlfriends had married and there was something knowing in the way that she carried herself that said she was no longer a virgin. She had red, Rita Hayworth hair and the low, sultry voice you got from too many cigarettes. Her roman nose was too arched for real beauty and her almond-shaped eyes had a yellowish glint that gave her small face a feline look. Her name was Jacqueline but she was called Jackie and worked as a beautician in an Italian beauty shop on the wrong side of the wrong town.
He was the youngest of four children and the only son in a first-generation Italian family. His mother and father were immigrant peasants who never learned to read or write. He had been drafted into the Second World War but due to the incessant prayers of his three sisters and mother had emerged unscathed from the conflict. Upon returning to the States, he got a job in the local steel mill and found girl friend at a local dance hall. But his strong-willed mother did not want a non-Italian, non-Catholic, daughter-in-law and eventually exerted enough pressure to wear down the young soldier as the war had never done. Finally, he relinquished his love and set out to find the kind of wife his mother expected.
Because Jackie fell in love with him right from the start, she never had a chance. She was the Rebound, the girl he got when he gave up the one he really wanted. And although she was Italian, it seemed her family was not from the right part of Italy. His family was from Roma whereas hers hailed from Calabria; and everyone knew they were the black Italians, crazy with their passions and jealousies and knives.
An uneasy truce was declared between the mutual families when the six bridesmaid-wedding was held. Jackie wore an ivory ensemble of satin and lace with hand-sewn pearls and a tiny turban-like hat. In the wedding picture, the groom looked a little drunk as his best man stood beside him. In the background, his mild-mannered father was wearing his only suit and his mother had a dark dress with big white flowers in honor of the festive occasion.
After a two-week honeymoon at Niagara Falls, Jackie and her new husband moved into the second floor apartment in the family home his mother has prepared for them. Within a month, Jackie and her mother-in-law were fighting and within a year, the first and only child was born, a son, who was, of course, named after his father.
Soon her husband began drinking more and staying out later and Jackie suspected he was seeing his old girlfriend again. The famous Calabrese temperament that had been sleeping appeared and soon Jackie was following him when he went out. She cried, she threw things, she begged him to stay home, she scratched him with her long, maroon, manicured, nails. His mother called her a witch and said she was killing her son.
After three years of marriage, they divorced. Jackie went into a deep depression and was institutionalized. It was the mid-1950’s, so they gave her shock treatments to snap her out of it. After a few months, she returned to work at the same beauty salon that she left years before to become a bride. There was a haunted look at the back of her yellow eyes and tightness in her curving lips.
He continued living at home in the upstairs apartment of his parent’s home. He went to work at the mill every day, drank too much every night and saw his son on weekends if the child support was paid up. Since he was Catholic, he could never marry again without being excommunicated so the nice girls wouldn’t date him.
Although I had known Jackie most of my life and had, in fact, attended her wedding as a toddler, I got to know her better in my early teens when she and my uncle finally remarried. This time they bought a house in another neighborhood several miles from the domineering mother-in-law and Jackie used the downstairs rumpus room, as it was called then, to set up an at-home beauty shop.
I used to go there for haircuts and perms and every once in a while Aunt Jackie would talk to me about how unhappy she was. “I hope you never learn what it’s like to love a man more than he loves you, Marie. It’s like always being hungry,” she said one day. “No matter what I do, he never wants me like I want him.”
The continual battles they had were common talk within the family and my uncle, although a nice man was, like his father, a born victim. Everyone felt sorry for him because of “that woman” while overlooking his steady drinking and lonely eyes.
I remember one day when I was about 14 my uncle asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said that if I hadn’t been a girl I would like to be an archeologist or an architect. He told me, “You do what you want. Don’t listen to nobody. Don’t let them take your dreams away.” He never identified “them” or talked about which dreams he had lost, so I was left to surmise.
Within the next few years, first Grandma and then Grandpa died. When Aunt Jackie didn’t attend Grandpa’s funeral because of a fight they had had that morning the shaky marriage was over. My uncle went back to living alone at the home he grew up in.
One Sunday morning about a year later my mother stopped by to see why he hadn’t answer the phone. She found him still in his pajamas, sitting on a kitchen chair, dead of a heart attack- or was it a broken heart – at 42. When a family friend was informed of his death, the immediate response was “Did he kill himself?” Meanwhile his sisters blamed the shrewish wife for driving the beloved brother to despair.
Jackie took his death real hard because now he was forever out of her reach and took more and more medication to battle her depression. The son who had been named after the father eventually grew up and had a child and a divorce of his own.
Over the years Aunt Jackie attended all of the family parties and weddings and faithfully gave my children birthday cards each year with a few dollars in them. On these occasions she would arrive stylish dressed with hair and makeup perfect. After exchanging some pleasantries she would sit quietly in the corner smoking one cigarette after another, becoming more and more withdrawn as the tranquillizers kicked in.
Aunt Jackie lived alone in a tiny subsidized apartment on the wrong side of the wrong town until one day her son found her in bed partly conscious and unwashed. After being hospitalized for several days, she was taken to a nursing home where she patiently waited for a few months before rejoining her long departed husband.
“For one man is my world of all the men
This wide world holds; O love, my world is you.”
Christina Rosetti, Come Back to Me
July 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A man made of circles
He rolls into my life
A river through my valley
As I stand upon the shore
A witness to his flood.
Steeped in life’s deepest pools
Streaming from core scented wells,
He pours over me,
Running new courses
Through the bed of my body.
Obstacles pushed aside,
Washing all clean
And leaving behind
A fresh mown mind.
A man made of circles,
He rolls through my life.
Hooping round my heart,
In loops he dances
As he ever closer comes.
Until he slakes
The desert of my soul.
July 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
From the slow opening curtains of the clouds;
Walking in beauty to her midnight throne.”
Scientists have confirmed that water has been found on the moon. This is amazing; it means … we are free to cut the apron strings of Mother Earth and drift across the face of the universe on the solar winds. We can now walk to the corner of our block to see if any cars are coming …and cross the street.
Diana, chaste goddess of the moon will now have men walking her pristine landscapes without reverence. Once the moon has lost its chastity can it continue to inspire lovers? Once observation towers spike its horizons will anything be hidden from man’s sight.
I wonder if the obelisk a la “2001” will be found on the dark side. Was Arthur C. Clark a prophet in this as he was with the communications satellite? Have our space brothers left their calling card there in some ice-encrusted crater? One good alien will do more to obliterate racial and ethnic prejudice than any law. Humanity will at one instant discover its brotherhood.
The religious ramifications on an alien existence are delightful and we will have to give the devil a new face and derivation. Heaven will require a new location. We will have to stretch our parameters of God. He will not only have to be the Father of the plants and animals and stars but of little purple men with suction cup mouths. Can we look in that face and call it holy?
Us and Them will have to be redefined. Once the language barriers have been breached, what we will learn of their myths. Did they also have a Garden of Eden and did a footless tempter dwell there? Did the female of their species also betray it and have they also been punished accordingly?
Did Christ and Mohammed and Buddha and Lao Tse live and die on their world, too? Is their God one of mercy or one of obedience? Is democracy their ideal or a hive-like caste system? What do they consider beautiful? Do they eat other life forms to survive or can they live on sunshine? Do they have a word in their language for guilt? Or regret? Do they enslave each other or have they created robots to be their servants – or have the servants won the war? Do they cry when they see a sunset? Have they seen the birth of a star? Are they our parents or our children?
July 8, 2012 § 2 Comments
The day started out innocently enough. My neighbor Gina, of the blond wig and tiara fame, phoned me to ask if I was interested in going with her to the local food bank that afternoon. This month’s budget had been crippled by the annual car registration fees, a smog certificate and unexpected medical bills so some extra help in the grocery department would be great. Sure, I blithely replied, and offered to drive.
By the time she knocked on the apartment door an hour later she had picked up another neighbor named John who also wanted to go. We trooped out to my car and I flipped the switch so all the doors were open. I left them to get in and settled while I took a bag of trash to the dumpster.
Twenty-three and one-half seconds later I was back and saw that Gina had made herself comfortable in the back seat. I heard her say to John in her Tweetie Pie voice, “She’ll open your door as soon as she gets back.” John, who had been ineffectually tugging at the handle of the front passenger door, looked at me over the roof of the car.
Hadn’t I already opened all the doors? Oh, well, I thought, then beamed a friendly smile at him. I ambled, which is like strolling only more roly-poly, to the driver’s side. I reached down and gave the handle a tug. Locked. I glanced through the car window and saw my purse and keys lying on the front seat.
“Gina, this door’s locked too. You’ll have to open the car from the inside,” I called.
“How do I do that,” she asked.
“On the driver’s door there are lots of buttons. Push the top one.”
She reached over the front seat and began poking the various buttons on the console. “They’re not working,” she said, a hint of agitation circling her voice.
“Don’t bother with the window buttons,” I explained calmly. ”Push the top button on the left side.”
“It’s not working!” she cried, her Tweetie voice going up to hummingbird level.
“Don’t panic, Gina!” shouted John, who was bobbing and weaving on the other side of the car and periodically tugging at his door.
“It’s getting hot in here!” Gina squealed. “I feel dizzy!”
“Gina, calm down and listen to me.” I thought my voice sounded very self-contained considering my teeth were clenched.
“Help!” cried Gina. “I can’t breathe!”
“Don’t panic!” shouted John. “You’re not going to die!”
I shot John a look that in some countries might be listed under Grievous Bodily Harm. I wondered if I could get away with a plea of self-defense when they found the bodies in the parking lot.
“Quick! Break a window!” Gina gasped, which is like breathing with your stomach.
“Gina,” I said as my hands twitched in choking motions, “do you see all the buttons on the door?”
“Call 911! I can’t breathe,” she said while draped over the seat back.
“Yes, you can. Now press the top button on the left side. It’s a toggle button and goes up and down. Press it up and down,” I said
“Ahhh,” she whimpered and stretched out a shaking finger.
Wiggle, wiggle, pop! I pulled that door handle like a parachute ripcord at 1,000 feet.
“Good going, Gina,” I said, grabbing the car keys in a sweaty hand and collapsing into the front seat.
John got in and as he buckled his seatbelt turned to Gina and said, “Boy, you sure get upset easy!”
Twenty minutes later we were all seated on metal folding chairs at the Baptist Church, the location of the area food bank. Now as fully recovered as she would ever be, Gina chattered about her dietary requirements and how she hoped they would give her lots of vegetables as she was a vegetarian.
“I eat a lot of celery,” she said. “It’s real good for your nerves.”
“Maybe you should carry a few stocks in your purse in case of emergencies,” I offered with some asperity which is like vinegar but more bitter.
While we were waiting, Gina regaled us with the highlights from her recent colonoscopy ending with the statement, “John had one too only his polyps were bigger,” to which John responded, “Thanks a lot for sharing my personal information,” and turned his back on both of us.
I was circling the edges of hysteria when my number was called – which is better than your number being up. An hour later with the adventure over and the time for reflection at hand, I felt grateful, not only for the generosity of the food bank but for the delightful people I continue to meet on this journey.
July 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
Back in the old days, when families were having trouble making ends meet, they might take in boarders who would rent a bedroom, share the bathroom and take meals with the family. I remember when I was a real little girl we had two borders who lived with us. Both of them were Italian, of course, had steady jobs at the local steel mill, were middle-aged bachelors, and didn’t drink, smoke or gamble to excess.
The first was named Rocco. He was a short, boxy, silent man with fair skin, light reddish hair and a huge handlebar moustache. His room was the small one at the top of the stairs; the same room that I would occupy many years later after my divorce. The room was seven feet wide and ten feet long so you felt like you were living in a railroad car. You almost had to walk sideways to get from the door at one end of the room to the closet at the other.
Rocco was a curious sort of guy; he had a retiring disposition and had no inclination towards society. While he slept upstairs in the bedroom, the rest of the time he occupied the cellar. I remember going down those treacherous cellar stairs, past the old coal furnace that sat there like some demon from a Buddha hell, and peeking into the back part of the cellar where Rocco would sit in a wooden rocking chair beside a scarred wooden table illuminated by the light of a metal floor lamp with a stained yellow silk shade.
I don’t remember him ever eating with the family, preferring to use the old gas stove that my mother had in the cellar to use during the Pennsylvania summers when it was too hot to cook upstairs. I seem to remember him frying liver and onions frequently but maybe I am making this up and just think I am remembering. Anyway, when Rocco cooked he always shared his meals with his cat, a big orange tiger that looked very much like him. Except for the fact that the cat was shorter, they could have been brothers.
Rocco revealed an interesting sidelight to his own character by naming the cat Garibaldi who was leader of the nationalist party in the struggle for Italian unification. Why did the short, silent, red-haired laborer name his equally taciturn cat after a firebrand revolutionary, I speculated in later years. What was there about Rocco’s temperament, perhaps his past that was unrevealed? I never found out.
I loved Garibaldi with the passion that little girls reserve for large, orange, furry cats with long whiskers and difficult-to-pronounce names. In fact, I could not call him by his proper name, Garibaldi, and had to resort to calling him Kittybald. He shared his master’s infinite disdain for society, particularly of the feminine kind, but this did not deter me. It lit my fires and I longed to make Kittybald my own.
Since I didn’t have any brothers or sisters and was born in between generations in my family, and because I was too little to leave the block or cross the street, Kittybald, by default, became my best, indeed, my only friend. In those days, my favorite game was playing dress up the dolls. I had my own little baby buggy with the fold down convertible top and after dressing my dolls up in their most beautiful clothes I would take them for rides in the buggy up and down Ridge Avenue. But dolls are boring; they never talk back, they never hug you and they never meow.
So my most favorite game became playing dolls with Kittybald. I would capture that old cat when he was sleeping, dress him up in doll clothes and after tucking him under the covers, take him for rides in my baby buggy. It was quite disappointing to me that he never seemed to share my enthusiasm for this most entertaining pastime. In fact, when he saw me driving up with my buggy, he would often bolt across the yard, dive into the garden, zig through the forest of staked tomatoes, zag between the peppers and zucchini, then wiggle out under the privet hedge.
I remember one day in particular that he zigged when he should have zagged and I caught him by his rear legs just as he was slipping through the hedge. I reeled him back in like a tuna on a line while his claws made furrows in the dirt. But no matter what I did to him, Kittybald never scratched me.
He loved to sleep on the banister of the back porch, particularly on a sunny day. One day I was watching him nap when during one of his cattish dreams he must have been leaping after a bird because his feet wiggled and his whiskers twitched and before you knew it, he had rolled over and fallen off the banister into the bushes four feet below. As I peered over the banister to see if he was all right, he gave me a most indignant stare, apparently blaming me for his fall from grace. How I loved that cat.
When I was about four years old, I was big enough to have my own bedroom and by that time Dad was making more money working as a bartender down at the Sunrise Inn – dining and dancing seven nights a week – and we didn’t need two borders any more. One would do. So it was decided that Rocco would move over to Mrs. Baggiocci’s place. It didn’t take long to pack his two suitcases and I don’t remember saying good-bye to him.
But the same day that Rocco left, Kittybald disappeared. He didn’t go with Rocco because Mrs. Baggocci didn’t like cats. Later on, I saw Kittybald a couples times down the alley but he never came when I called him. I cried so much that mom even phoned Rocco to come over to see if he could coax the cat home. He came and Kittybald let himself be fed that one time but he disappeared again and I never saw him after that. For that matter, I never saw Rocco again either.
July 5, 2012 § 3 Comments
I go to the library at least once a week for I am addicted to reading. Unlike many people I do not spend time relaxing in the big chairs or perusing the latest magazines. I investigate the special display of new books and then trawl up and down aisles of shelves waiting for something to catch my eye. When my book bag is full, I leave.
As I mentioned in a post last year, In Praise of Little Books, I am much attracted to the slim volumes for I know these writers will usually get to point, tell their story and finish. I no longer have the time or patience to slog through 300, 400 or 500 pages of introspective musings or stream of consciousness descriptions – but that’s just me.
But when I went to the library last Saturday I even surprised myself at my book selection. Among the 8+ volumes I stuffed into my book bag was a book of romantic short stories by Maeve Binchy. As far as I can remember the last time I read a ‘romance novel’ was in the 1960’s before I was married.
Now it is time to admit to a personal prejudice that certainly borders on a character flaw. I have over the years turned up my nose at romantic novels, particularly the boy-meets-girl/they fall in love/ part/and love again story lines. My experience was more boy-meets-girl/love/fight/goodbye. I wanted to read about real life not a romantic fantasy.
This is coming from a person who has no problem reading cozy mysteries a la Agatha Christie, locked room puzzles by JD Carr or mysteries featuring commentaries by cats. In my defense I must add that I do draw the line at mysteries containing recipes for muffins, directions for knitting or police procedurals that reconstruct dead bodies. Even I have limits.
Anyway, my disdain for romance stories has been longstanding and I once heard an explanation. “People who read romance stories believe in love and people who read mysteries believe in justice.” I have pondered that observation over the years and must admit that it may be true, at least in my own case.
Justice seems to me to be a possibility in life whereas love has proven more elusive. The early boyfriends, the husband, the later lovers have all been found wanting. Some times I have attributed that to not making good choices which made me question my own judgment; sometimes I had to admit my own ambivalence towards commitment.
But eventually I recognized that it was my definition of love that needed scrutiny. It is easy to mistake the euphoria of infatuation and passion as indicative of real love, especially when young. The jealousy, drama and possessiveness that can be found in adult relationships might lead one to believe that the emotion being experienced is love.
But one day I realized that love wasn’t an emotion, it was a quality. The intellect can trigger the emotions, whether for good or ill, but love isn’t a result of thought nor of the emotions per se. It is a spiritual union that is far deeper than thinking can ever be.
I discovered that when I was considering why I find it so easy to love animals, especially cats and dogs, and small children. In both cases, there is no risk of humiliation, domination or rejection (unless there has been abuse). Animals and children don’t play mind games or project past negative experiences on the present.
It is their innocence and acceptance of me, without make-up and without pretense that arouses my capacity for love. With children and animals I am as natural as I am when I am alone. That allows me to love them without fear and in loving them I am free to love myself.
After all these years I think I am finally old enough to read romances without cynicism and to believe in the possibility of love as well as justice.