growing up, Home

Mamala’s Last Week

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In the early 90s I had a steady gig on the 15th floor atrium lobby of the Merchandise Mart Holiday Inn in Chicago and one evening while I was on a break, (hiding in the Ladies Room reading a book,) the concierge burst in, in tears. She began telling me about her mother’s cancer treatments, and how all of her siblings and their spouses were taking care of her, staying with her every night, cleaning up after her and keeping her as comfortable as possible. And something told me to pay attention! You will need this information later.

The concierge was a lovely woman in her 30s, whose face stayed calm and beautiful as the tears slid down her cheeks. She told me how her brothers and sisters all lived nearby their mom, in a downstairs apartment or 2 doors away down the street. How it wasn’t a sacrifice for any of them to be there, tending to their beloved mother who needed them now so much. How they’d worked out a schedule so that no one was overwhelmed by the burden of being a caregiver. How easy it actually was to clean her up after she’d soiled herself, and how grateful they all were to have one another, and the time to talk to and comfort each other and pull together at this time of crisis.

It wasn’t easy to return to the piano after that break. I didn’t really know the concierge and I felt humbled that she shared so much of herself with me. I treasured the idea of a family who lived that close, who trusted one another so deeply, and who could come together so solidly for their mom and one another.

My only experience with death in the family had happened suddenly a couple years prior to this, and the memory still haunted me; how words had been said and feelings had been hurt, how family members had become estranged. It wasn’t just that we hadn’t had the chance to say “goodbye”, altho that did factor into it. I think it was more that we weren’t prepared and were unable to muster our “best selves” consistently. It didn’t help that the clergy hadn’t brought their A-game, either.

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, she seemed almost giddy as she called to tell us; “It’s Sayonara, baby!” She’d made arrangements decades earlier to donate her body for scientific research and she opted for the barest minimum of treatment, in an effort to remain mobile and not become a burden. On one visit to NYC I accompanied her to the hospital for a treatment and since we couldn’t catch a cab back to her apartment in the drizzle, we slowly walked home down 5th Avenue and across 57th Street, stopping to warm up in the Steinway Building, where I commandeered a grand piano and showed her my latest song. In hindsight, it might have been better to wait for a cab, but she’d always seen herself as a very sturdy person, and she didn’t complain. And I had really wanted her to hear that song!

After a few months, it was obvious that her body was failing rapidly, and my sister and I were summoned from California to help our other sisters care for her in her final week.

We stayed in a hotel down the street from mom’s apartment and traded off every 12 hours, so that our mom was never left alone. For the first few days, she was fairly lively, receiving visitors and phone calls, showing interest in conversations, food and music. But as her body began to run out of steam and the pain worsened, she napped more and more of the time. The last few days when she’d wake from a nap, she’d be so pissed off that she was still alive! But then she’d heave a resigned sigh and settle in.

She gave me a profound gift, letting me care for and be there for her and my sisters that final week of her life.

I think of you and miss you every day, lovely Mamala.

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Home, politics

My Undumpy White House

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As accustomed to the frequent barrage of BS from the current administration as I’m becoming, I confess to being more than a little taken aback by #45’s critique on Tuesday of his current digs; “That White House is a real dump.” Over the past 196 days, #45 has said and done some doozies, but something about dissing The White House itself, a spectacular home which is paid for by our taxes, just boggles my mind. I picture him leaving his dirty socks all over the West Wing, littering the White House with greasy fast food wrapping, the way he’s been littering our country with trashy hate-filled speech and Twitter tweets.

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The comment kept coming to mind the past couple days, until it occurred to me to consider my own concept of “home”. And I realized with a start that MY home is my body – where I live, the physical manifestation of my being – and that in the past I have been treating MY White House as “a real dump” – every time I don’t take care of it. Every time I overindulge in food or decide to stay up too late or make myself jittery with too much coffee. Every time I blow off exercise and fritter away hours window-shoppping and doing stupid puzzles online. I’m offended at #45’s lack of respect for his home because I’ve been disrespecting my own home.

I’m actually grateful for the wake-up call. I can only hope that #45 will tune in and hear himself as clearly as I am hearing him now. Because where we live is NOT a dump, unless we make it so. You don’t have to be a billionaire to figure that one out!

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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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Home

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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