growing up, Home

Touchstone: Sculpture

One of my dad’s favorite sayings was “watch the feet”, because, after all, talk is cheap, whereas my mother’s favorite piece of advice was “keep marching!” Mom was more proactive than Dad, especially when faced with adversity. He’d sit back, observe and eventually come to some conclusion he could live with, whereas she’d jump in and try to fix things with her bare hands, whether it was changing her own flat tires or replacing burnt-out bulbs in the exterior light fixtures atop her multi-story apartment house (she was acrophobic).

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As soon as she saw it, my mother HAD to have this sculpture. She’d spied it in a furniture store on the Berlin Turnpike and put it on lay-away, driving however-many miles round trip from Hartford. She got paid every two weeks and allocated $1.50 every paycheck for this piece – I know because I made the trip to the furniture store with her more than once.

There was an undulating white fake fur lounge for sale there, too – but the lounge was “dream-stuff” – something to be desired but never actually purchased, since it cost 10 times what the sculpture cost, and wasn’t what she really wanted.

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I think the sculpture only cost $20, but back in the late 1960s, that was a lot of money to my mother – hence the lay-away. I figure it took almost 6 months for her to get it. She never claimed to be a patient person, but this was special.

At the time, I didn’t understand the appeal of this piece; an old lady walking with a small boy, against a strong wind. It sure spoke to my mother, though – and she wasn’t one for tchochkes or keepsakes. She’d periodically purge her home of anything deemed unnecessary or frivolous. This sculpture was a rare exception. She told me she liked the set of the old woman’s jaw, the carefree gait of the little boy, the disparity in their ages, the intensity of the wind they’re up against.

A decade later, it burned up – along with a coffee table, a sofa she’d reupholstered (in white fake fur!) and the chair the sculpture’s occupying in this photo. The fire blackened the walls of her apartment and the smoke smell didn’t fade for many months afterward. Since I’m pretty sure the sculpture is one-of-a-kind, I’m glad I took this photo before the fire happened.

“Keep marching!”

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growing up, Home

Stand Facing the Stove

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The original edition of The Joy of Cooking apparently began with this instruction, the self-evidencial nature of which encapsulates for me the profound ambivalence I’ve always felt about spending time in the kitchen. While I have a great appreciation for well-prepared food, I also, like my mother, eschew most domestic duties.

She managed to put food on the table on a regular basis, but it didn’t come without a price; not just her iffiness about parenting in general, but a real ennui in regards to cooking. When she’d over-broil the 3 half-chickens for dinner, she’d laugh that “instead of Shake’n’Bake, we’re having Turn’n’Burn!” Unfortunately I adopted her habit of abandoning the kitchen in the middle of meal preparation and have scorched many a pot and burned many a pan of vegetables.

One evening when we were young girls my mother showed my older sister and me how to wash dishes after dinner. We did a pretty good job scraping, soaking, rinsing and drying, and then putting the dishes away, so I recall being surprised when our mother told us to do it again the next evening. “But we learned that already, yesterday!” Seeing the little smirk on my mother’s face, I was a bit horrified at the idea that I might be expected to do this every night for the rest of my life.

“Woman’s work is never done.” I think that was the hopelessness that pervaded my mom’s take on all housework – and one of the reasons she divorced my dad. She told me more than once that the moment she recognized that she was “done” with being married, she was on her hands and knees scrubbing the downstairs half-bathroom floor, realizing that, even though all of her daughters had weekly chores, nearly all of the daily domestic duties fell to her.

I recently purchased a new 6″ chef knife, to go along with my other knives – and I remembered that my mother never had ANY knives that look like these. And she never got the ratty old knife she DID have sharpened. She resisted housework tooth-&-nail, and could never bring herself to make it any easier – as if purchasing the right tools might be a show of weakening in her resolve to hate “woman’s work”.

I love my knives. They’re a gift I’ve given to myself. I’d have them even if I wasn’t married.

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Buying The Shoes

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“Happy Talk, keep talkin’ Happy Talk!  If you don’t have a dream…”

At 25, Bill was still living at home. This might not be a big deal nowadays, but back in the mid-1970s, it meant something for a young man who’d finished his schooling; he was “an artist”, a musician, a dreamer without enough money to afford his own place. (He sure liked the looks of mine – in fact, I wondered sometimes whether he liked my apartment more than he liked me!)

While I was brought up to respect, nay, revere  the arts, the importance of being financially responsible and paying one’s own way as an adult was also drilled into me from a young age. So I raised more than an eyebrow when Bill came over one day with a motorcycle helmet he’d just purchased for $80.00.  “Isn’t it GREAT??” No motorcycle, mind you – but he’s got a helmet!!!

Meanwhile I’m thinking about who’s buying the groceries (me), who’s worried about having enough money for the rent (also me), and whose quarters will be fueling the washing machine in the basement (mine). I let Bill move into my apartment when I had a 6-week gig at a gay bar in San Juan PR, but I made him move right back out when he told me his next gig was 2 months away and he didn’t have any money coming in until then.

Forty years later I checked him out on FaceBook and while he hasn’t yet been invited to play with his beloved Berliner Philharmoniker, he DOES apparently ride a BMW motorcycle.

Guess you’ve gotta buy the shoes, after all.

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growing up, Home

The Japanese Garden

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One of the advantages my generation enjoyed was being trusted when we were kids, to go out in the world by ourselves. Of course, with instructions to “never take candy from strangers” and “don’t get in anyone’s car that you didn’t know” – but mostly we were encouraged to explore the world of our neighborhood and trusted to know when to ask for help, who to turn to (“the policeman is your friend!”) – to look out for your friends, family, fellow classmates and neighbors.

Tonight while walking the dogs around the block before bed, we saw a SUV with its lift gate left open. We tried to pull it down to shut it but backed away when the hinge made a screeching noise, thinking aloud, “don’t want somebody to come out here and point a gun in our face!”  That kind of litigious thing was unheard of in the 1950s and 60s. But back then, families left their cars unlocked, with the windows open overnight during the summer – I remember having to run out to crank them closed when a sudden rainstorm would hit.

For years I’ve had dreams about walking to a Japanese garden when I was 10-or-so years old. But I couldn’t recall exactly where or when this was. I knew it was within walking distance, because my older sister and I had to share one bike between us, but I couldn’t recall exactly where it was.

She remembered – and it’s still there! Even expanded over the years! It’s probably covered in snow right now, but in my mind it will always be a cool respite from the overly warm summer of 1962, when we could buy a Coke at the corner store and escape from the chaos and noise of younger sisters and our forlorn mother, stuck sweltering at home. My father used to refer to East Hartford, CT as “the armpit of the world” – but he didn’t hang out much in the Japanese Garden of Wickham Park!

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growing up, Home

House Of Hate!

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“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Leo TolstoyAnna Karenina, Chapter 1, first line

Our family lived in garden apartments most of the time I was growing up – little 2 or 3 bedroom places on 2 floors, with ivy on the outside walls, trees and grass in the front and back yards that someone else mowed and tended to, and casement windows that leaked like a sieve when winter came. After a bleak 4-year sojourn as homeowners in Cicero, NY, my mother appreciated finding friends among some of the more educated and sophisticated women she met once we were left suburbia and my dad really liked the fact that he didn’t have to rely on his somewhat temperamental jalopies to get to work – he could take the city bus to his office in downtown Albany and in Hartford, he could easily walk to his job from our apartment.

We kids also enjoyed the more cosmopolitan environment and watched with interest as new neighbors moved in from time to time.  Dr. Bill and Harriet Miller were next-door neighbors and their daughter Shirley became my best friend until we moved from NY state to Connecticut.   At one point Hazel and Roy lived next door – they were a Chinese couple who liked us and even invited us over for a real homemade Chinese dinner once!

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Then came Marrrge & Bob – a couple from Scotland who brrrristled whenever we encountered them. We couldn’t figure out what the trouble was until one day Marrrge came over and screamed repeatedly at us that ours was “a house of HATE!”  We were so stunned to hear her opinion and couldn’t fathom what would make her think that?  We LOVED each other!!  Sure, we made a lot of noise bounding up and down the stairs which were directly on the other side of the wall from THEIR stairs – and we hollered and teased each other, like kids will do.  We had 2 adults and 4 kids packed into 1000 square feet and we WERE a bit rowdy from time to time.  But HATE?  Marrrge and Bob moved away shortly thereafter and we just laughed at how mistaken they were about our loving family.

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Decades later Mark and I rented a spacious luxury 2 bedroom place on the Gold Coast of Chicago – just the 2 of us, with our dog Dunkel. Each floor had just 2 apartments. The first night at 3 AM we were awakened by yelling, screaming and crockery breaking from the apartment across the hall.  When we asked the doorman what was going on, no one seemed to know.  Eruptions occurred on a fairly regular basis and poor little Dunkel would just shudder, like he did when thunderstorms rolled in from Lake Michigan.

It wasn’t just fights that woke us; the man would throw the family’s trash down the chute in the middle of the night and more than once I spied him doing so au naturelle. One night he locked his wife, dressed only in her nightgown, outside in the hall and wouldn’t let her back in, no matter how she pleaded and begged. These folks acted like they were the only people on the planet, totally oblivious to the disruption they caused. We later found out that the father was high up in the police force, so domestic disturbance calls never made it past the thin blue line.  Apparently most of the other residents had assumed that the noise was coming from OUR apartment, since we were known to be musicians, and we all know how rowdy and disruptive THEY are!!?

We never found out what, if any, mitigating circumstances were in play in that household.  I wonder how Marrrge and Bob would have handled being their neighbors!?

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Little Gold Chevette

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I didn’t learn to drive until I was 25. I always figured that I’d never need to, since I moved to NYC after college and planned on living in Manhattan for the rest of my life. Having a car in New York was an impediment and extremely expensive, unless your idea of a good time was driving around the block for hours looking for a parking space that would only be good for a day or two when you’d have to repeat the process all over again.  My friend Rick Cummins called this “walking the car”, like “walking the dog” only a lot more time consuming with none of the canine companionship benefits!

But then I took a vacation to California the summer of 1977 and I KNEW that I’d have to learn drive at some point, since L.A. is a car culture place even more so than the rest of our country. So I wound up at the Automobile Club of America, with supplementary driving practice from ever-patient friends. (Thank you again, Jim Suitor and Rick Cummins!) And eventually I got my license. No car, but I was street legal.

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Not owning a car, I didn’t have many opportunities to exercise my new skills while living in New York.  My dear friend Mara Purl let me drive her Ford Pinto to Baltimore and back – in fact, we were going to share the costs of the car until it got damaged while “safely” parked in a city lot.  I rented a car for special trips on occasion and my mom let me drive her Fiat Spider when I’d visit her in New Haven, but a lot of time went by when I wasn’t behind the wheel.

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Then Jim Cantin took a road tour gig and asked us to look after his car while he was out of town. He kept it parked in a lot ½ mile away and we needed to dust the snow off and turn the engine over every week, but it was SO cool to be able to escape the city!! We took Jim’s car to Connecticut to visit friends and family and for a premiere of our YOGURT VARIATIONS with the New Britain Symphony, to Long Island to see my teacher Hale Smith – the freedom to get around without using public transportation…. bliss!

Even maintenance was an adventure; since the closest Chevrolet dealership was on Staten Island, we got a ride on the ferry to get the side mirror replaced (another parking garage mishap when the attendant was moving the car around).

But the most fun was grocery shopping trips to Paterson, NJ.  Our pockets bulging with coupons and a list a mile long, we’d hop in the Chevette, cross the bridge that Chris Christie made famous and before too long be at PathMark, home of huge bargains (and double coupons!)  We’d fill the oversized cart with tons of non-perishables, stocking up on canned food, TP and paper towels like the end of the world was coming. It was always an adventure to be in a real, honest-to-God suburban supermarket after squeezing thru NYC bodegas and tiny grocery stores. The variety! The new products! The SPACE!!!

At the end of several hours’ shopping, the trunk and back seat of the Chevette would be so crammed full of stuff, we could barely see anything in the rearview mirror. With the double coupons and lower NJ prices, a $200 grocery bill would be slashed to $80 some times!  (These are early 1980s prices I’m talking here!)  Being an inveterate bargain hunter, this thrilled me no end.

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Jim has always known how to live; he was the only person I knew in NY who had both a clothes washer and dryer in his apartment – he’d found them at a yard sale, fixed what was broken and… voila! Truly civilized city living!  Jim is amazingly talented in many areas; in addition to his prodigious skills as a musician, vocal coach and songwriter, he’s a skilled woodworker, designer, collector, teacher, computer expert, piano rebuilder, photo restorer… there’s very little that Jim can’t do.

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He’s also very generous. Thanks again, Jim, for letting us take care of the Little Gold Chevette!

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Gifts That Keep On Giving… and Giving BACK

I’m of the opinion that some of the BEST gifts you can get (AND give!) are practical things such as kitchen utensils, pots, and the like.  Back in the mid-70s one of my songwriting collaborators moved to L.A. from NYC and gave me a bunch of kitchen stuff she didn’t want to move out west:  a food mill that I somehow lost track of, a DANDY slotted spoon and 2 pieces of square Corning Ware with one glass top that fit them both.  I still use the slotted spoon, even though the handle broke off at the end, and I use the Corning Ware every time I make something bake-able, like zucchini-lasagna or chicken divan – that I can bake one for “now” and put the other one in the freezer for “later”.

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And I think kindly of Sally every time I use these items – which is pretty much every day. I think, “bless her heart!  Sally gave me this nice slotted spoon I’m using at this very minute – which I’ve had for… 35+ years!  SHE thought its number was up, but I keep using it every day!!”  (note: they don’t make spoons like that any more – I’ve bought plenty of slotted spoons over the years, thinking, “I’ll just get rid of that beat-up, ratty-lookin’ spoon of Sally’s and replace it with THIS shiny new beauty!” – only to have the new spoon fall apart, not FEEL right, or whatever.  Back to Sally’s I go.)

So I think kindly of Sally.  Just as I think kindly of my friend Larry practically every single day.  “BOY, do I like having these Rubbermaid containers!  What a great friend Larry was to give them to me. They’re the PERFECT size for these  (fill-in-the-blank) leftovers.”  (Leftovers ARE my second favorite thing for dinner – second only to Reservations!  Sometimes they’re FIRST, OVER Reservations, because you don’t have to leave the house – just reheat what you’ve already got!)

I have few regrets in life – but one is that, after loaning a friend in Chicago an extra 1-quart Revere-ware saucepan with lid I had, when he was getting settled in to his first place and learning to cook, I took it back when he moved to North Carolina.  I don’t know WHAT I was thinking – I didn’t really NEED the damned pan – he’d had it for YEARS and I never missed it, but when he asked if I wanted it back, I said, “yes” – and now it sits collecting dust at the back of my pantry.  I NEVER use it.  And judging from the shape it was in when I got it back, I’m pretty sure he used it a LOT.  Just think of all the good vibes I forfeited from my lack of foresight!  He could have been blessing MY heart all this time!

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