More Than Treading Water

200258039If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you might remember a piece or two about my being a lap-swimmer. My swimming “career” did not have an easy start: “Woof woof,” my fellow summer-campers would tease as they were mastering freestyle and I was still doing the doggy-paddle. So the spring I was 9, anticipating another humiliating year at camp, I walked to the JCC on Raritan Avenue, back when kids could walk places alone, ambled up to the front desk, unfolded a 5-dollar bill and boldly asked if someone could give me private swim lessons for a few weeks. I didn’t want to ask my parents because I’d already talked them into piano lessons and budget-conscious even then was sensitive to asking for more financial favors. As it turned out, I got free lessons for two months: an hour after school every Tuesday and Thursday from one of the lifeguards, who’d been my camp counselor and took pity on me.

My swimming life had begun: first competing and then swimming for exercise. I prided myself as I passed more and more milestone birthdays that I could still swim a lap in under a minute, that I often swam faster than women 10 then 20 years younger could. Eventually, though, Nature enforced a reduced speed limit and that mile started taking longer and longer until last winter, when my life as a “lapper” came to a screeching halt. (Excuse the mixed metaphor.)

In the slow motion of my fall down our front steps on a black-ice morning, I saw my legs come up to eye level and my hand go to grab the handrail. And I did grab it, while also tearing my rotater cuff. The injury wasn’t bad enough to warrant surgery; injections were suggested, but I couldn’t reconcile how a shot could help a tear. Instead, I would wait for it to heal and choose new activities. I tried Zumba®, which I loved until I came down wrong and not only felt but heard my knee pop, injuring my lateral meniscus, which did heal after several weeks. And while it was healing, I attempted the elliptical trainer, but was bored out of my mind. Chlorine runs through my veins; I wanted back in the pool.

But my shoulder still hurt.

During all those back-and-forth years, I’d been watching them from beneath the surface: the women – and a few men – wearing light-blue flotation belts, bobbing around on their marionette legs in an aqua aerobics class. I told myself, That will never be me. I will always be a swimmer. But now I was crying uncle. My ego said, Are you kidding? But my body, craving the water, won.

Still the competitor, I joined an advanced class in the fall and chose to do the workout without a belt. But with a limited range of motion in my arm, while the rest of the class was doing upper-body strengthening with hand-weights, I treaded.

Well, it was more than just treading; I started deep-water jogging. It felt so good that I started showing up at the pool on non-class days and asking lap-swimmers, many of whom knew me, if I could hang out in the deep end and “do my thing,” working up from 20 to 45 then 60 minutes, huffing and puffing away, keeping my chin above the surface – with two or three 30-second rests and a sip from my water bottle left within reach on the deck. Ladies in the locker room, recognizing me now as “the pool jogger,” asked if they could join me. So today, the Y generously allows us a lane of our own from 10 to 11 am every Friday.

Fact: I am not as young as I used to be. Fact: Before my injury, I could not swim as fast I used to. Fact: I may never be able to swim a distance doing freestyle again. But here are my new facts of life: I am in better shape than I might be otherwise; I am still active, even though this is not my activity of choice. Best of all, I am still in the pool. That 9-year-old worked hard to become a swimmer, and this sunny-side-of-60-year-old honors her.

I know with certainty there will come a time when I can no longer do this. When that day comes, I’ll snap on the light-blue flotation belt and the lap swimmers can watch, from their sub-surface vantage point, my little marionette legs dancing away. And after that, maybe water yoga.

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Mom in Full Bloom

I held on to her small hand as we made our way along the path. About 20 feet ahead of us, a giant spider was walking with Scheherazade. “See, you’re not the only one who got dressed up,” I said. “Good thing,” she replied. “But I hope I’m the only wicked witch.”

This exchange took place on October 31, not with a grandchild, but with my 85-year-old mother as I helped her to the clubhouse where the Halloween party was about to begin.

This was Mom’s first social event at the center. Having moved only three weeks earlier from New Jersey, she was slowly adjusting to “cluster life” (each group of cottages is called a cluster) at the independent living community close to me and my family. Once upon a time, Mom was a policewoman. Then she was a mayor. Then she sat on a state planning commission. There were parties, speaking engagements, press. But over the past few years, since my father died, we’d seen Mom growing more and more isolated as her friends either moved to be closer to their children or, sadly, passed. Her afternoon catnaps turned into slumberfests, causing her to often miss dinner altogether, sleeping clear through to noon the next day. Most of our conversations were about the last movie she saw on TCM. And she was often “just not myself today.” My brothers and I presented reasonable arguments until she finally agreed it was time.

The morning of the move from our longtime family home, she was doing laundry, unwilling – we all believed – to watch what was remaining carried out of the house. Because during the two months before, she and I had excavated every inch of space and evaluated every item in closets, on shelves, in storage bins, throwing out what was of no use to anyone, like 3 bags of faded Mexican flag cocktail picks for a Cinco de Mayo party, and donating what she couldn’t use anymore, like the gown she wore to my first wedding in 1988 – along with the matching satin shoes. She did insist on keeping 4 of the 13 cheese plates I uncovered “just in case,” and bravely watched as I wrapped up beloved family heirlooms, too numerous to display in her new 3-room unit, for the older grandchildren.

But what, we wondered, would become of Miss G?

Miss G is an August Beauty gardenia, blooming its fragrant linen-white flowers, which will yellow to the softest touch, in late spring/early summer. Dad brought Miss G home in a pot in the early ‘70s, and year after year, from late March to the first frost, she lived outdoors until moving into the basement under a grow light – the suggestion for a gardenia’s winter care in the Northeast.

At 5-feet tall and 4-feet wide, there would certainly be no room for Miss G on Mom’s small patio at the cluster, but there would be plenty of space at our house in the country. In early September my brother and husband gingerly loaded and secured Miss G in our company’s work truck and headed for the highway, her journey ending under mottled sunlight on our backyard patio from where she could survey the dale and hilltop beyond. But after more than 40 years in one spot, we were all afraid she would not survive her move.

Well, of course Mom wasn’t the only witch at the Halloween party; however, she was the only blue one because I’d waited too long to get green face paint, a commodity at Halloween time.

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Since then, she’s developed a circle of friends she dines with nightly, has attended a number of Wednesday night musical events, is on back-to-back telephone conversations with her neighbors who are on the community expansion committee, and is considering an audition with the drama troupe. Whenever I ask her if she wants to come to our house, she replies, “Let me check my calendar.”

As for Miss G, she took an immediate liking to our yard, thickening and filling in her voids, until moving her indoors till next spring. And while we’ve been warned that as a result of the move she may not bud this year, we believe the flowers will come.

And then there’s Mom, who is already blooming this winter….

Turkey: 2 – Me: O

At least there was still daylight.

At least there was still daylight.

For more than three decades I managed to escape cooking a Thanksgiving meal. Twenty of those years were always spent with the Silvermans, my former in-laws because, if you notice my middle (maiden) name, and their last name, the Christmas holiday was never an issue. Even after Ken came into my life, I continued to claim Christmas Day; so we spent our first four Thanksgivings together at his brother Fred’s home, where Fred honored the family’s vegetarian/vegan tradition of serving borscht and fruit-and-grain-stuffed gourds. For dessert ice cream for everyone, except for the vegans who ate more fruit. When Fred became ill, our last Thanksgiving with him was catered. Then with his passing, the holiday baton (or, rather, baster) was passed to me and my side of the family joined us.

During my first marriage, I often prepared Passover and when I did, always ordered a cooked chicken from Wegmans. No one knew because they arrived early evening for our Seder. But everyone was coming for this first Thanksgiving DAY, and there was no opportunity for deception. I poured over cooking techniques and decided to do a traditional lower-temperature roast, the wonderful aroma (although not to my vegan brother-in-law and two vegetarian stepdaughters) wafting through the house as one football game gave way to another. Time to eat! All the sides were on the table, and after setting down a colorful plate of dressed-up meatless “turkey” patties, I returned to the kitchen for my small and rested Tom Turkey, which collapsed in on itself like the doused Wicked Witch when my older stepdaughter’s boyfriend, Sam, began to carve. Okay, not really. But it was pretty dry.

Growing up in an Italian household, I do pasta to perfection. I have a flair with fish. My osso buco is awesome. And if we’re doing any poultry, I buy breasts and thighs, and a la the Food Channel’s “Chopped” (using ingredients that don’t seem to go together but turn out yummy), create a super surprising savory sauce. Although I will admit to a recent breakdown I had while preparing my signature Chicken with Chorizo for company. We live in the country, so there was no choice when at a critical cooking moment I realized that I did not have Madeira, or any other red wine in the house – only Burgundy, which turned the stew into a purple mess, looking like something Grover from Sesame Street had coughed up. My husband joked over dinner that if everyone came back a week later, I might cook something blue.

Anyway, the following Thanksgiving (last year), I decided to do a 20-hour brine and a high-heat start…and after nearly five hours – which included an hour of overtime cooking – I ran out of piercing sites. The juice was not running clear, so I took out the bird, split it, and put it back in. This was all performed in front of 12 people with their forks and knives at attention because when we remodeled our home, I wanted an open floor plan – which I now regretted.

“Maybe it wasn’t thawed enough,” my brother said. (It was a fresh turkey.)

“Maybe a brined turkey takes longer to cook,” my husband offered. (The opposite is true.)

“Does your oven need to be recalibrated?” my mother asked. (I had baked dessert that morning without incident.)

“Maybe there’s a vegetarian gremlin fiddling with the propane tank,” my stepdaughter remarked. (I was considering that as a possibility until…)

“This happened to me once,” my sister-in-law said. “Sometimes turkeys just don’t cook.

Say what? Turkeys that don’t cook? So the next day I googled Why didn’t my turkey cook? I think my sister-in-law was just being kind because all the answers I found among various cooking sites were the same possibilities that had been posed by my family the night before – except of course the gremlin one.

Autumn is my favorite time of year, but now it brings with it a specter much like The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. On one hand, I am hoping one of my sisters-in-law is kind enough to end my misery and host. But on the other, I am on a mission that must be accomplished. And that they even want to come here again is testament to their love for me – or their sick desire to watch me suffer.

Speaking of Christmas, Mom is moving into a small independent living apartment nearby so that dinner is now all mine too. And I will carry on her long-standing tradition of ordering a Vermont cured ham, prepared and delivered, like a gift from Santa, by the US Postal Service.

You Cahn Get Thay-yah from Hee-yah

On the last leg of our journey up the coast of Maine for our vacation, my husband and I stayed in a hotel south of Portland. During breakfast, we struck up a conversation with Billy, a Mainer who didn’t have to travel too far for this year’s national Corvair convention just around the corner. An hour later, we were peeking into brightly colored coupes, sedans, station wagons and vans.

“Nobody up hee-ya e-vah cahed about the cah back in 1969,” Billy told us, waving at the sea of classics, until General Motors decided to stop its decade-long production and the allure of owning one skyrocketed.

“I remem-bah being ten at my grandpa’s cahd game. Doc-tah Bischofbur-gah – he was Gahr-man – had his cahds fanned out and lookin’ o-vah the rim of his glasses, and he says, ‘if I’m gonna have a Cah-vair, I want a blue one.’ So Doc-tah Bischofbur-gah goes to the Chevy gah-rahge in Augusta, but they didn’t have a blue one. They only had a green one, and he says, ‘But I don’t want a green one.’ He settled for a red one that he found in Paht-land, and his friend Paul Shah-man in Wiss-cah-sett bought that green cah. But he wanted a red one.”

A decade later, Billy would follow Dr. B. and Paul Sherman when he and a friend stole into a junkyard and pushed out a powder-blue station wagon, the first of almost 30 Corvairs he’d come to collect – and the one my husband and I were standing alongside side of as we said our goodbyes. “You spin a good yahn,” I joked, shaking Billy’s hand and wishing him well. But the story of Billy’s life-long yearning intrigued me.

There’s something about our first car, whether we fall in love with its look or the culture surrounding it, as Billy had, or whether that love grows…. The first car I owned was a red 1974 Celica ST, which I bought from my aunt when I was 17 because she needed to unload it (and I got a “family deal”). But the first car that was mine was a black 2008 Subaru Impreza, which I had “growing up.”

Newly separated from my first husband and unable to afford to buy at the time, I leased the Impreza while living in Nutley, New Jersey, from where I drove maybe 20 miles round trip to my teaching job during the weekdays and pretty much not at all on weekends. I called the car “Baby,” having been the first car selection I’d ever made on my own. She wasn’t my first pick, nor was black my color choice. Still, the summer day I drove her home from the dealer, I stopped and bought her first outfit: color-coordinated seat covers and little black “booties,” which my friends kidded were floor mats for the floor mats. I wiped away her first tears when a group of my students (in a rare moment of synthesizing information) made fun of her name, her license plate being WCH. “It’s better than BCH,” I soothed. And when a bully threw a first punch (in reality, a man backed into her in a parking lot), I fixed her boo-boos.

A lease had been a smart move, I’d thought – until I married for the second time and moved to the country, where the closest grocery store was 13 miles away. With the prospect of paying over-mileage when I turned her in, we bought a knockabout car and sidelined Baby until trading her in would make financial sense.

Subaru Impreza

Trading-In Day

Baby was the only car I’d named since the Celica, which I called Magoo after a fender bender caused, I explained to my father when I got home, by nearsightedness: the car’s not mine. Since Magoo, I’ve been a co-owner of more cars than I can remember, but Baby represented an independence and empowerment I hadn’t known in years.

Once upon a time, I put her to bed in a driveway of a home that was mine alone and where I was, for the first time since my first marriage, on my own. I needed – and did – rise to the challenge. Whenever I am asked where I’m from, I always respond, “I was raised in South Jersey, but I grew up in Nutley.” That’s why I cried the day I finally turned her in. While many of us surely have sentimental connections to inanimate objects, like books and jewelry, there’s something about out first car. Maybe that’s because we drive them…places. In them we move. Or, in my case, move on.

The thing is, you can go home again. And the fastest route, for many, is by car.

A Marvelous Night for a Moondance

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It’s the dead of night on a city street. I am standing at a window, mesmerized by the spinning light of a police car, its colorful orb pulsing in the dark. Someone is in trouble and has called for help. I am several stories above the sidewalk and feel powerless. I should do something, but what? My temples are throbbing; my heart is racing…

My eyes snapped open to the soft silhouette of my husband, his back to me in sleep. I rolled over and in the half-moon light, took sleepy inventory of our bedroom: the outlines of the sepia photos on the wall, the ghost-like cedar branch leaning in the corner, the plant I kept moving around the house for better exposure. And then I saw a flash of pale green low to the floor in the dormer.

On…off. On…off. On…

I sat up with a start. My first thought: an outlet is sparking. An anvil of terror crashed into my chest as I envisioned the house bursting into flames. I leapt out of bed and drop to my knees for inspection, my eyes now fully adjusted to the dark.

I have a memory of being six or seven at Mitchell Gold’s house on summer evenings. The Golds lived around the corner from us, and after dinner all the neighbors descended onto the property, traipsing through the yard, the adults with a lawn chair in one hand and a cocktail in the other, the kids falling away to the corner by the shed. In my mind’s eye, I can see our parents’ faces softening then blurring as dusk deepened to darkness, nights illuminated by some phase of the moon, the orange glow of cigarettes and the on-again off-again sparks from the lightning bugs. The Golds had a monument of an evergreen in their yard, and as the lightning bugs flew in and around the branches, I’d imagine it was a most splendid Christmas tree, something out of a Disney movie, with dancing luminaries and sparkling ornaments come to life. We challenged one another to collect as many as we could in jars with holes “humanely” punched in the top, then see who could “go longest,” retreating back to the shed, inhumanely imprisoning them until, one by one, their lights went out.

For three decades I lived on top of, below and squeezed among lots of other people. The fallout of urban living: a bug “problem.” For me, one bad bug did spoil the whole bunch. I was undiscriminating in my pursuit, capture and execution of anything that winged or crawled its way into my space. Oh, except for ladybugs, because that’s what my dad used to call me and they are considered good luck. Anyway, please know that before the swat, slap or whack of a newspaper that left its inky scar on a wall or counter, I always apologized. But something started to shift when I moved to the country, getting more up close and personal with the furred, feathered and hooved. I was finding it more and more difficult to say, “Yes, that groundhog munching the grass is pretty darn adorable, but the daddy long legs in the bathtub has got to go.” I mean, where do you draw the line? Does it come down to cuteness? What’s cute? Something with fur? Not always. I mean, have you ever seen a wolf spider? Speaking of wolf spiders, if an insect can be harmful, that’s another story. But generally, in the majesty of this area, I have discovered a respect for the tiniest, peskiest creatures that make their way into my home. I have cupped countless stinkbugs in my hands, coaxed all kinds of shy squirmy things onto sheets of paper, depositing them outdoors, and copiloted frenzied flies through an open screen door – while hopefully not letting any more in.

On…off. Off… Off.

Tonight, I would make meaningful restitution.

Still on my knees, I reached for the windowsill, dumped the tea candle from its crystal votive and gingerly lowered it over my charge. Then padding down the steps, I carried the encased magical treasure – my own ailing Tinker Bell – through the house and flung wide the door. “Live!” I commanded. It flitted a bit, as if regaining its senses, then hitched a ride on a breeze, its waning glow brightening against the gaining light.

On behalf of the long-ago kids from Grant, Lincoln and Lawrence Avenues, I dedicate this to all who died on those soft summer nights.

Betchyer Bottom Dollar

 

When I was a young thirty-something, my then-husband and I had a summer share with friends on Fire Island; and as most do, ours began on Memorial Day. Every Friday of that long weekend during those five or six thirty-something years, it rained on the ferry ride to Fair Harbor; it rained while we sat with our morning coffees at the kitchen table instead of out on the deck; it rained as we sat around that same table playing cards instead of Frisbee. It got to the point, during those five or six thirty-something years, that come Memorial Day, we came to expect the rain, even when the forecast said sun.

My grandmother used to say, “If you want to know the weather, stick your head out the window.” When I lived in New York City, one of the local stations – and if memory serves, it was NBC Channel 4 with their Live Doppler Radar – scrolled tickers at the bottom of the screen with moment-by-moment updates as to when a storm would hit your neighborhood – even your very street! Fort Tryon – 7:05………..…Broadway and 125th St. – 7:09……………309 East 89th St., 1B (the apartment in the back with the garden) – 7:11. To check, I would stick my head out the window.

Weather forecasting used to be like furniture delivery: Customers would get an idea of when the truck might show up, but no one really expected them to be on time. I recall the Blizzard of ’96, which dumped an average of two feet of snow in and around Manhattan. One of the local tabloids did a tale-of-the-tape on the city’s top TV celebrity forecasters. Below their glamorous and debonair headshots the paper had printed their way-into-the-six-figure salaries, followed by their percentages of accuracy so far that season. Not so good.

To be fair, that was a generation ago, and there’ve been lots of technological advances when it comes to predicting the weather. A good friend of mine is a storm-chaser (really!) and now I understand that meteorologists have all these variables to contend with, like wind shifts and temperature changes and air pressure disturbances, that affect storm tracks and precipitation totals. This past winter, the forecasters were pretty accurate as the Polar Vortex expressed its way down from Canada and across the eastern seaboard. So they may have been off by a few degrees or inches, like instead of being 5 it was -2. Or instead of 12 inches of snow we got 16. Cold is cold. Must-shovel snow is must-shovel snow. No matter.  

Back to Fire Island. During the decades that have passed, we have weathered many lousy days we’d hoped would be sunny. And as Annie promised, that big yellow orb did come out tomorrow. We worried about our children, who did just fine and are now worrying about their children. Industries failed; jobs were lost. Marriages failed. We reinvented ourselves; we moved for new careers. We moved for new love.

Four years ago, after moving for new love, my husband and I put an addition onto the house, and at the point where the two roofs met, the ceiling leaked. Our contractor ate all the expenses as twice the roofers tore and hammered away and as twice we put up drywall and painted. We thought it was a done deal…until Sandy. Thankfully, she only trickled in. But this time, after our contractor had the roof fixed, we decided to leave the ceiling open…to make sure. We waited through what was a cold but mostly snowless winter. April showers were gentle. By summer’s end, eager to have overhead lighting once again, we closed up the ceiling just before this season’s frigid temps came.

Now, here’s how the conversation went on a mid-February Sunday night – four days after that last, biggest snow of the season – as we sat in the darkened living room, watching “Downton Abbey.”

Me: Is that a pucker in the ceiling or the way the firelight is hitting it?

My Husband [pause]: That’s a pucker.

Me: Aren’t you upset?

My Husband [eyes sweeping the entire ceiling]: Not really. I’m more upset about the drops already falling over there. [pointing to another spot on the ceiling]

Within a half hour, we had saucepans and Tupperware strategically placed around the living room, and the lobster pot under our overhead lighting – yikes! Two words: Ice dam. Two more words: Insurance adjuster.

So as spring weather (finally) arrives, remember if a storm unexpectedly rips open a hole in your life, you can fix it. When it’s the right time, even if it’s for the fourth time. And if you’re reading this as Memorial Day approaches, Happy Unofficial Start to Summer – no matter what the sky does.

 

 

Putting a spin on another passing year

When my husband’s older daughter, T, moved into her own place nearby, to help her save money – and to help us get ready for a yard sale – we invited her to “go shopping” throughout the house. After exhausting the two living floors, from the kitchen I heard boxes in the basement being moved, torn open…and then a squeal. “A record player! Does it work? Ahhh! And all these albums! Albums are making a comeback! [long pause] Wow, look at all this old music!”

I had relegated the stereo system to the underworld when I got my first CD player, during my “old life” and a few years before T was born, so even after I joined the family, she never experienced life with my 33 and a 1/3s. “First, not old, but classic,” I called down the steps. “Second, you can take it all for now, but this is only a loan. I fantasize about playing those albums again, so bring everything back…sometime.”

Sometime came a few weeks ago when I came home to find six crates, a box of wires, and four pieces of equipment. She was downsizing in preparation of moving away, and while I was sad, I have to admit I giggled in delight, surveying the cache before me like a conqueror. I didn’t even bother taking off my coat before collapsing to the floor, pulling out the albums and creating piles alphabetically. How many times had I performed this same task over the almost 50 years of my listening life? I wondered. Well, with every move: dorm room, student apartment, shared city apartment with friends when I was poor, my own apartment when I could finally afford one, our first house… I chuckled at how my signature had changed over the years, having marked my albums before leaving for college, and then scribbling my name on every new purchase, many made on Sundays after having turned to the Arts and Leisure section of the Times to see what was on sale at Sam Goody or Tower Records.

And I have to say, listening to this music has taken me on, to echo the title of a Neil Young album, a journey through the past.
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I’m 13 and just bought James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” with babysitting money. I’m 18 and lying on the floor of Steinbright 118 with my first roommate, singing “Landslide” along with Stevie Nicks and crying about growing older – as if! I’m 24 and playing Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds” over and over, wallowing in heartbreak that will last another day or two. I’m 29 and sitting among an explosion of LPs, choosing favorite songs for the band to play at my (first) wedding. I am laughing at memories, laughing at the melodrama of youth. Laughing at my contentedness of a life lived well and, I was soon to realize, of the life to come….

After a few glorious days of living la vida retro, I realized I hadn’t seen my collection of show tunes, so I suited up and descended into the bowels of the basement, finally extricating a wayward box of records covered in an inch of blech. And now, I am sitting on the floor, holding the just-dusted dust jacket of my favorite musical of all: “Fiddler on the Roof.” I have cherished memories of seeing the show with Zero Mostel (!) back in the ‘60s with my grandparents, after which they bought me the soundtrack. I used to listen to it again and again, pretending I was Tevye’s middle daughter, Hodel, because she sings a really beautiful song toward the end.

Anyway, I place the album on the turntable, watching the needle undulating on the slightly warped disc and singing along, but I feel absurd belting out a teenager’s part. In fact, even Golde the mother’s songs feel silly to take on because, frankly, the story is set in Tsarist Russia when mothers of teenagers were in their 30s. I realize with a start that I am the age…of Grandma Tzeitel!

I laugh. I smile. I am ready for my next “musical movement.”

However, when the arm returns after the last song, I’m queuing up Aerosmith. Rock on!