Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Our Lady of the Dashboard

I like maps. I don’t know when I first became enamored, but my affection was well established by the time I met Jon. During 30 years of marriage I have spent many happy hours in the car, with Jon driving and me navigating from the passenger’s seat, an atlas opened across my knees. During the B.C. years (Before Children), we drove the nearly 1400 miles to Key West with interesting side trips traced out by my finger on the Rand McNally page. We spent three weeks in England driving north to York, west to the Lake District, south to Chester, Shropshire, and the Cotswolds, and then on to Kent before heading to Heathrow. All under the tutelage of Britain on Country Roads.

Later we thought nothing of buckling the kids into their carseats and heading off, map on lap, to Savannah, Disney World, the Blue Ridge Mountains. When Jay and Annie were older we were off to France with Hammond International France Road Atlas packed in my carry-on. Renting a car in Avignon, we tooled around the south of France from the hill towns in the shadow of Mont Ventoux to St. Paul de Vence and back, with many villages in between. That’s not to say we never had an interesting moment or two. On the way from Venasque to Aix-en-Provence we came to a rotary. I knew which small town was our next destination, but there were many spokes off the rotary with many signposts with many long names. Not being quick in French, I couldn’t take in all the names on the first go ‘round. I couldn’t take them all in on the second time ‘round. By the third time ‘round Jay and Annie both looked up from their Gameboys and said, “Why are we going in circles?” By then I had conquered nearly all the place names, and on the fourth spin around I identified the correct signpost and off we sped to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

This was all before GPS gadgets, of course. When our friends started to acquire them, we resisted. We liked our method. But we were eventually worn down. The tipping point was when our friend, an Episcopal minister, spoke of how she had first been dubious, but when her GPS safely guided her through the unknown streets of Brooklyn to deposit her right at her son’s student housing quarters, she became a believer. Son Jay was about to move to Brooklyn, whose streets were unknown to us as well. We got a GPS, and we christened her “Our Lady of the Dashboard.”

Her big test was another trip to France – this time a lengthy drive from Aix-en-Provence up to Paris. She did quite well, although we found her French pronunciation trés amusant. And she did get a bit tangled up in Lyon, where she sent us back and forth over both rivers before we finally found ourselves in front of our hotel.

Sadly, we had too few times to take advantage of her abilities following our trip to France. One morning we got into our respective vehicles to head to work…and found them ransacked. The thieves had passed over the Motorola and iPhone chargers. They weren’t interested in our EZ Pass transponders. They found our spare change small change. They only had eyes for Our Lady of the Dashboard.

We had not been astute enough to purchase her with an American Express Card, so we had no avenue to get reimbursed for our loss. Some time later we bought another GPS gadget—but this time it was a substantially reduced Our Lady of the Dashboard.

From time to time Jon used Our Lady #2 to get to a client’s headquarters at an unfamiliar location. But her first real test came when we traveled to…yes, Brooklyn, to visit Jay. Unfortunately she did not live up to her predecessor’s achievements. Once we were in Brooklyn proper, she simply shut down. She had no idea where we were or where we should go. We eventually hit upon a GPS version of Restart. But by this time we had found Jay’s apartment using Google maps, had a lovely visit with Jay, and were heading back home to Philadelphia. Our Lady #2 appeared to have gotten herself reoriented. We plugged in the co-ordinates. The next thing we knew, she had us deep within Manhattan. By the time we had caught on to where she had led us, it was too late. Like poor old Macbeth, we were “stepped in so far that, should [we] wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go’er.” Trying to get ourselves out of the red wash of traffic and brake lights to get back to Brooklyn would have taken as long, or longer, than waiting out the inching forward to the Lincoln Tunnel.

Several months ago we went to Italy for a family event. We were told it would cost us hundreds to download the software to help Our Lady #2 navigate through Italy, and we were advised to get a GPS when we picked up our rental car at the airport in Rome. Well, in Rome the clerk sneered as he refused to rent us a GPS because we hadn’t reserved it when we reserved the car. A creature of habit, I had a Michelin’s Italy: Tourist and Motoring Atlas with me. We were back to our old ways. Over the course of the trip, the atlas opened on my lap, we wended our way up to Lucca via the coast; we visited Pisa and environs; we did the switchbacks to the Cinque Terre; we made our way east to Florence; and then we headed back to the airport in Rome.

And we didn’t get lost once.

Outskirts of Lucca, Tuscany. There is a road there...somewhere.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Death of a Cat

Gizmo. Gizmatron. Mr. Gizter. Gizzie. Adopted from the local SPCA, Gizzie was a black domestic short-hair cat distinguished only by his shape – 16 pounds precariously balanced on four dainty paws with a triangle for a face – and by his animosity toward strangers and his adoration of his family, marked by his heartfelt “head butts” which served for hugs.

Gizzie, with friends
Gizzie turned 13 in March of this year. You couldn’t tell. He still acted like a kitten, albeit a 16-pound kitten. He’d hunt down and snatch up an old catnip “cigar” that had been pushed around for eight years. All narcotic effect had evaporated, but Gizzie still found it intoxicating and would carry it into our bedroom with a deep-throated, gargled growl that said, “Look what I captured – and you’re not going to take it away from me!” He would leap from the dishwasher counter to the kitchen island with the arc and agility of a Lipizzaner stallion, only to sail to the other side by landing on a scrap of newspaper. He chased his tail, chased our younger cat, chased an errant untied shoelace. If one of us happened to lie down on the couch for a catnap, he would jump on our chest and settle in with a contented purr, not caring that his 16 pounds severely compromised his chosen beloved’s ability to breathe.

In fact, Gizzie spent his life not having to care, because we always cared for him. This was more than just providing Purina cat chow and water. We often had to save him. He was in our family for all of two weeks when he managed to scramble up over the barrier in the room in which he was sequestered, scuttle across the kids’ 2nd floor playroom floor and scoot right through the posts of the banister to begin his free fall onto the kitchen tiles below. I happened to be heading up the steps. I put out my right hand and caught him in my palm. Not many months later, we returned from work to hear a plaintive mewling in the kitchen. No kitten in sight, but we traced the sound to a gap between the kitchen wall and a counter top where lodged a heating unit. Gizzie had managed to get himself wedged into the two inches between the heating unit and the wall. I still can’t remember how we got him out of that tight spot, but I think it may have entailed Jon holding on to me while I half lay on the counter with my scrawny arm blindly groping for the kitten.

As Gizzie grew, he found different tight spots. Not realizing that he had outgrown one of his hiding  places, he once got himself under the hutch in the dining room only to find that he could not get himself back out. Caterwauling ensued. In this case, I think it was Jon who was the hero. Then there was the winter that Gizzie managed to get lost in the French drain system that ran under our old farmhouse. Naturally it was after a blizzard and snow was piled high. Again, Gizzie knew that we would rescue him. Once we realized he was missing, I went out and circled the house, calling his name. He answered immediately—from underground. Gizzie’s talkative nature saved him as his cries helped Jon pinpoint where in the French drain system Gizzie was located. Jon pulled out the grill from the closest spot, I called Gizzie, and Gizzie responded by coming within arm-reach of Jon, who hauled him to safety.

Gizzie also had two bouts with a classic neutered male cat malady, a urinary tract blockage. I won’t go into great detail. I will just say that the first time standard procedures were followed. The second time our wonderful vet completely reconstructed Gizzie’s innards, in essence making Gizzie's urinary tract that of a female cat. No more blockages. And then there was the time at the old farmhouse when a fox chased Gizzie up from a pasture. (At 16 pounds, Gizzie presented a mouth-watering morsel.) I was on the back porch and screeched like a fishwife to scare the fox away as Gizzie bounded onto the porch and then sauntered into the house.

All of these events occurred at our old house. In 2005 we moved to the new house and life with Gizzie became much calmer because he became an “indoor” cat. We settled in, and I thought we would have him around for at least 16, or more, birthdays.

In early August I noticed that Gizzie was not eating with his regular gusto. By mid August I was worried because it looked as though his chest contained bellows working at full force. I took him to the vet. X-rays were taken. Specialists were consulted. This time it was Gizzie's breathing that was compromised. He had tumors in his lungs.

If you were keeping track of the Gizzie events, you would have counted that we had saved him seven times. If I wanted to stretch the truth for literary purposes, I would have invented an eighth episode so that at this point in the essay we would be at nine lives. But I’m not going to invent. At event #8 we were defeated. We could not save Gizzie, or even lengthen his time on this earth. We tried. We got him a super steroid shot. We got him a special prescription to stimulate his appetite. We got him Fancy Feast Gourmet Chicken to accompany the prescription. Nothing worked.

On August 30, our wonderful vet came to the house. Even though Gizzie had spent four days straight on daughter Annie’s bed without budging, even though he next struggled onto our bed for what he could not have known was his last night, even though he could hardly move – when the vet appeared, he was still our Gizzie : snarling and biting and ornery with someone who was not family. And then Gizzie was gone.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Let There Be Light

As I write, Hurricane Irene is “churning up the eastern seaboard.” I borrow the phrase from the Weather Channel personnel, who have been talking at me from the television atop my refrigerator. The media have done a fine job of churning up our anxiety over the past few days. Usually an impending blizzard has them blustering, and usually they miss the forecast by such a wide margin that this could be a case of the boy who cried wolf. I think, though, that this time some wild weather really is threatening. So we have followed instructions and stocked up on bottled water and batteries for flashlights. And this activity has led me to contemplate light.

In a world of curtailed carbon footprints and careful energy consumption, and in my specific world of daughter Annie, who is co-president of a student organization known as Greening Princeton, turning on a lamp is a direct hit against Mother Nature. But I love to turn on lamps. Turning on the first lamp of the evening is the moment of transition from day, with its phones and errands and meetings, to evening. Time for a glass of wine or a martini. Time to pick up The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago. Time to enjoy the slanty light sifting through the copper beech leaves as the sun starts its descent.

But that’s not really why I like to turn on lights. I just like light. To me, nothing speaks more strongly of safe shelter than the glow, warm and golden, of lighted windows. The house I grew up in was always fully illuminated, in spite of my father’s imprecations to turn off the lights when we left a room. Once, when I was 16 and had had my driver’s license for about six months, I had gotten disoriented in a snow squall while driving our battered VW aimlessly around the outskirts of Altoona and environs on a late winter’s afternoon. When I finally turned onto Cypress Street, Hollidaysburg, and saw the windows of our solid brick house shining like beacons from a lighthouse, I was so relieved that I didn’t mind (much) the solid scolding I got from my mother.

On another occasion, when I was a graduate student making ends meet by serving as a resident advisor at a local boarding school and deeply unhappy about a number of things, I was charged with ferrying the girls' field hockey team to an alumna’s home for an InterAc championship celebration. It was a miserable autumn day. A cold, penetrating rain made the streets slick and sullen. I drove up an obscure Main Line lane and pulled into a courtyard. In the dusk, the fieldstone house, with its many-paned windows all lit up, radiated warmth and welcome. I wanted to hop out and follow the girls into the gathering.

Of all the houses that I have lived in, however, the one that excelled at beautifully beaming light was the farmhouse we lived in when our children were growing up.  I confess that, if I left the house in broad daylight but knew I would not be returning until after dark, I would go around and turn on all the lights. Few things made me happier than driving up our dirt road and seeing our house all aglow. I was home.

We are in a different house now and, with those energy-efficient light bulbs that Annie insists on, the glow is a sickly green. And that is why as soon as Annie goes back to school I replace all the “good energy” light bulbs with good old Sylvania 50-100-150 light bulbs.

(Former) home sweet home...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bon Voyage, "Bon Appetit"

I am pretty good at saying “good-bye,” with a handful of notable exceptions, but I am very bad at throwing anything out. Not that I’m in danger of being a hoarder. I don’t go out of my way to collect things that then pile up in hallways eventually to fall on top of me, leaving my cats to circle around wondering why they aren’t getting dinner. With some things, though, I just have a hard time letting go.

This is a fault, and I am not wild about admitting to faults. (Just ask my husband and children.) So I have tried to counter my tendency. Let’s take magazines. And let’s start with the New Yorker. Like every other New Yorker subscriber I have ever known, I had innumerable back issues of the magazine accumulating in a lovely wicker basket, waiting for that day (or days) when I would get around to catching up on the literate world. What if I missed a classic Updike story? What if I missed the seminal essay on civil disobedience in Kurdistan? And what if I missed a great cartoon? But I came to my senses. I now keep only three months of back issues, and that’s only to have them handy if someone says, “Did you see the piece in the New Yorker about the turmoil over the new Archbishop of Canterbury? It was sometime last month…”

I’ve become more draconian with other magazines. Out they go when a new one comes in. If I haven’t clipped a decorating tip from Traditional Home in June, then I didn’t want a decorating tip from Tradition Home in June. And after reading Runner’s World for decades, I know that there are cycles to topics. If I toss out the issue on training for your first marathon, no matter. Marathon training will come around again. Same charts, different graphics. The trickiest, though, was my Bon Appetit collection.

Years of Bon Appetit issues filled shelves in my kitchen bookcase. In the waning days of the 20th century, I came up with a plan. I grouped the issues by month: 10 years of January, 10 years of February, 10 years of March, and so on. I then went through each group to see what to save. Features did not make the cut. Only recipes that sounded yummy, that would not be rejected by my family, and that were within my culinary skill set survived. I clipped those recipes, put them in folders labeled by month, and tossed the tattered remains of the magazines. I even entered each recipe into an Excel file by name of dish and category (appetizer, beef, chicken, and on down the alphabet). Plugging away at this while keeping an eye on several Masterpiece Theatre series got me through all the old magazines in a matter of months. I then had 12 folders of recipes just right for each month of the year. In the front of each file is a list of that month’s recipes, culled by using the filter function on the Excel file. When pondering what to cook in October, I had plenty of ideas just right for that month sitting tidily organized in a folder. I was way ahead of the “eat seasonal” movement.

The results were mixed. While my family was usually delighted with my reinvigorated attention to delivering delicious dinners, they sometimes got tired of Indian Lamb Chops with Curried Cauliflower in December, Short Ribs Provencale with Crème Fraiche in January, Spring Lamb with Tomato and Herb Vinaigrette in April. Once, my son said wistfully, “Couldn’t we just have chicken in mayo and Italian dressing like the old days?” And when old friends were with new friends in my kitchen, the old friends invariably said, “Kathy, show Linda all your recipe folders!” Sometimes I got the feeling that maybe the fame of my recipe folders bordered on notoriety.

Nevertheless, I have followed this system religiously for more than ten years now, and I have no back issues of Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, or the late, lamented Gourmet cluttering up my kitchen shelves.

What I do have is 12 very fat and frayed folders, each with hundreds of recipes that I will never get to if I live to be 112 and cook something new every night.

Some August recipes, typos and all

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On the Occasion of My Cousin Nancy’s 75th Birthday

While as adults we have always kept in contact through Christmas cards, my cousin Nancy and I have crossed paths in person only a handful of times that I can remember. This was a result of the unusual age differences on my mother’s side of the family. My mother Jane was 16 years (or so) younger than Nancy’s mother, Kathryn (after whom I am named). When my baby brain was not even conscious of a cousin, Nancy would already have been in college. My first memory of that side of the family features only my aunt and uncle. My parents had taken my younger sister and me on a very long car ride out of Pennsylvania and into strange lands. I remember a great gray building in Washington, DC, which housed the offices of my uncle--certainly a grander building than any in Altoona or Hollidaysburg, so I knew he must be a very important man. And then we drove to an area with tree-lined streets and cozy houses and it was named Something Park. What fun it would be to live in a park! Best of all, in her house my aunt had a dog named Skipper who could play the piano! It was a wonderful trip, filled with marvels--but I don’t remember a cousin being among them.

The next memory I have was a time when Nancy’s family visited with the Taylor family at the little place we called “the cottage,” about 40 miles south of our house in Hollidaysburg. I think I have the story right: that the cottage had been owned as a fishing retreat by Uncle Roy, Nancy’s and my great uncle, from whom my father had bought it. By the time of this visit I was in elementary school and Nancy was not only married to a very tall man named Gene but she also had two little girls of her own. This made things even more complicated, with the lines of relationship very blurred. The little girls were younger than my sister and I, but not by that much. Yet they weren’t our first cousins. They weren’t really our second cousins either. But we definitely were related to them! And the person who was my cousin was a grown-up, sitting in the rustic little living room with her husband and chatting away as equals with my parents while the four little girls played Po-Kee-No and Go Fish out on the porch. Not much of a real connection there.

Jane and Nancy in the center (5/29/93)
It was decades later that the real connection was made. In late May of 1993, the Taylor family threw a big weekend party to celebrate the 75th birthday of my mother, by then a widow for 23 years. At the time, my husband and I lived on an old farm property of his family. We were able to house all of the guests for the birthday celebration between our place (which had been a livestock barn) and what we called “the main house.” The four children of Jane Taylor were there, with their spouses and offspring--and Nancy was there, too. To have a whole weekend for cousins of all ages to get acquainted and reacquainted was a wonderful luxury. At that point, I was 40 and Nancy was 57 – and miraculously the intervening decades had demolished the age barrier. We found our connection: writing. Specifically, writing from memory. I remember sitting around the green wrought-iron table under a tree, talking through the afternoon and evening about writing and writing classes. Nancy later sent me a lovely gift: a book entitled “Court of Memory” by James McConkey.

Now it is Nancy who is celebrating her 75th birthday, and I am about the same age she was when we last were together. So much has happened, and so many are no longer with us--including my mother, who had tied us together. Following my mother’s death, Nancy again gave me a lovely gift: a letter in which she shared her memory of my mother as a young woman, barely more than a girl. A glimpse of a side of my mother I could not otherwise have known. And I am so grateful.

Happy 75th birthday, Cousin Nancy.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

This Old Face

Several years ago, I looked in the mirror and a strange face looked back.  Sallow and as dry as crepe paper, with wrinkles around the eyes and creases around the mouth. Odd little bumps dotting a bony ridge of nose.

A 50-something face.

How could I make that face go away? My skincare routine consisted of deodorant soap followed by a slathering of whatever lotion was on sale at the grocery store. Clearly this wasn’t adequate.

The next day I surveyed the racks at the newsstand and bought a magazine whose cover girl looked more like a covered woman.  I began to leaf through the pages…and there was the answer: Two Steps To Youthful Skin. After 2 days, skin will glow with improved luminosity. After 2 weeks, fine lines will disappear. After 2 months, overall complexion will be radiant.

I tore the page out of the magazine and went in search of this solution.

Clutching the glossy ad, I ventured into the local department store’s cosmetics department. Chrome and glass gleamed. Glittering green packages seemed to tumble off the counters. Everywhere I turned, 400 choices of lip color, 300 choices of eye color, and 200 complementing shades of blush greeted me.

Where was the product in my ad? I walked around and around, squinting, peering. It wasn’t there. But I had come this far. I wasn't going to leave without a way to get rid of that face in the mirror.

Then the title of a brochure beckoned. Newsome skin is young skin. This line of products had a two-step process, too! Only, the first step had three phases. And the second step had a choice of creams, depending on whether you wanted to reverse the aging process or just slow it down.

Which did I want? How far gone was I? I needed professional help. And lo, “Cheryl” appeared before me, in her smart black smock. “What are you looking for?” she asked as she grasped my face and held it to the light for a clinical examination. “Umm…Not too bad.”

"Cheryl" proceeded to pull out pots and tubes and jars and jellies. Moving them around faster than a con man with a shell game, she grouped first two, then three, then one, then four. If this, then that. With that, none of this. This one once a day, but the other twice a week.

Math was not my best subject. “But what about this system?” I pleaded, pointing to the brochure.

“Oh, I wouldn’t waste my money on that.” She returned to her configurations.

I backed away quietly and headed for the exit, with a lingering glance at the counters on either side. I stopped to read one more display, to find that it didn’t address aging skin at all. Only bleeding lipstick. My disappointment must have been palpable, for I heard a gentle voice say, “May I help you?”

Across the aisle, against a backdrop of brown and orange — “The Colours of the Harvest” — was a pleasant young lady (“Karen”), wearing a cream-colored (or is that “creme-coloured”?) blouse with a Peter Pan collar.

“I’m searching for a system to make my old face go away.”

“Ah, we have the very thing.”

She produced a tidy little bag trimmed in green. “In here is our daily three-part system to Purify, Activate and Restore.  I can let you have this collection for $22.50 with a purchase of $30.00 or more of other merchandise.”

I quickly bought mascara, lipgloss and some hand cream. I was anxious to get my system home, to put it to work in restoring my youth.

It worked even faster than “Karen” could have imagined. For as soon as I squirted the first drop of Moisture Intensifier into my hand and smelled that sweet chemical smell, I was twelve years old again.

That was the year I was interested in make-up. From the pages of Teen Magazine  I had ordered the COMPLETE COSMETIC KIT. Cleansing Crystals. Milky Moisturizer. Firm Foundation. Lilac Lashes. Silky Shadow. Ruby Rouge. Luscious Lipstick. All for $6.99.  The package arrived in the Saturday mail and I immediately applied it all. When I went downstairs for dinner, my mother took one look at me and said, “No daughter of mine is living in this house looking like that. Now go wash your face before you come to the table.”

As I massaged these new lotions into my cheeks, I half-expected to hear my mother’s voice: “Kathy, what are you doing in that bathroom?”

Five days passed in using my new system, and all was quiet. My husband and children didn’t complain about any funny smells. And I believed I could already see a difference in my skin’s texture, elasticity, and color — I mean, colour.

So if you happen to be in the Philadelphia area and you spy a slightly graying woman surrounded by a luminous halo, that’s just me, radiating with the freshness of youth.

This old face...


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Great Expectations

       I have always believed in being prepared. And over the years, I've found the best way to be prepared is to buy a book.
       Books tell you what to expect. What to expect when you plan a wedding. What to expect when you join a corporation. What to expect when you buy a house.
       What to expect when you become pregnant.
       From the first positive blood test, I methodically worked through chapters and checklists. I was prepared for an April 6, 1986, due date.
       My water broke on February 14, a decidedly unexpected diversion in the middle of a business meeting. Jay arrived 10 hours later and seven weeks early. The books had not prepared me for a number of things.

Special Delivery
By the Book: Check out the parking regulations for the maternity wing a month before your due date and be sure to keep your car in good working order with plenty of gas in the tank. Several weeks before expected delivery, pack your “hospital bag,” remembering to include your breathing instruction sheet, hard candies for you, and a snack for your coach
       When my water broke I was on the 37th floor of the Mellon Bank building in downtown Philadelphia. My husband, Jon, was on the 33rd floor of the same building. Our car, however, was 20 miles away, parked in the lot of a commuter train station. We rendezvoused in the express elevator and flagged down a taxi.
        As I maneuvered over the cracked vinyl seat, Jon gave directions to the doctor’s office and explained why there was some urgency. Chomping down on his cigar and stomping down on his accelerator, the cabbie sent us careering around City Hall Square so fast that the centrifugal force threw me against the door. We made record time.
       My doctor confirmed that I was in early labor and called the hospital to alert them that we were on the way. Our taxi was long gone. We walked the three blocks.
       Once in the labor room, we longed for our props. The only bags that had made the trip were our briefcases. Three files of financial reports and a supply of business cards didn't help much when the contractions were two minutes apart, my mouth felt like an ashtray, and my lower back seemed to have a bowling bowl sitting on my spine.
Blissful Bonding
By the Book: Immediately after delivery, the nurse will place your baby on your chest. Notice the deep blue of the infant’s eyes and the strength of the tiny grasp around your own fingers. Later, when you are back in your room, the nurses will wheel in your newborn. In those moments of peace, examine the minute yet perfectly proportioned fingers and toes.
       Jay’s early arrival ruled out any lingering in the delivery room. Faster than a quarterback could call the signals, Jay was hiked to the nurses, who bound him tightly in a yellow blanket, pulled a blue stocking cap down to his eyebrows, and waved him under my nose before passing him to the NICU staff. He was gone before I could see the color of his hair, let alone the color of his eyes.
       Several hours after delivery I found myself gingerly positioned on a doughnut cushion while Jon wheeled me to see our son.
Jay, at 3 days old
       There through the glass was Jay. Not snugly swaddled, but splayed on a platform with needles dangling from his tiny foot, wires snaking around his tiny chest, and tubes running into his tiny nostrils. Granted, his fingers and toes did look in proportion.

       At Home
By the Book: To avoid overstimulating the baby and exhausting yourself, limit the number of visitors during the baby’s first weeks. Eliminate trips back and forth to the nursery by setting up a pretty bassinet in the corner of the living room.
       Even if we had had visitors, they wouldn’t have found us at home. We spent the first month of Jay’s life wearing out the road to the hospital. We jockeyed for parking spots with the rest of the 7 AM shift. We learned the three different ways to get to the Pediatric Nursery while avoiding the Visitors’ Elevator. We became connoisseurs of the cheese fries in the hospital’s cafeteria.
       Receiving guests in the comfort of our living room? Jay received us, but only after we had donned geometric-print hospital gowns and scrubbed up with soap that smelled like Lysol. We did have company in the Nursery: a couple named Tony and Maria murmuring over their daughter Angela. We barely exchanged nods with them.
       Around the Nursery, machines graphing pulse rates whirred and apnea monitors went off with high-pitched beeps. In the hallway, the intercom system crackled, “Dr. Tomlinson. Dr. Tomlinson. Please report to OR.” At night, Jay slept with a flickering TV screen for a nightlight and, for a lullaby, the all-news radio station.
Determined to have Jay distinguish us from the high decibels and distraction of the hospital, we read to him every evening from one of Jon’s childhood favorites, Ozma of Oz. I would rock Jay next to his monitor while Jon would read until his throat became dry.
Jay, at 23 years old
       One evening the Nursery grew unusually quiet. The monitors seemed inattentive, and the new shift of nurses had not yet turned on the television. Even Tony and Maria had paused in their conversations with Angela. The only sound in the room was Jon’s voice: “Just then, Ozma reentered the room, leading Dorothy by the hand and followed closely by Princess Langwidere.” A bit self-conscious, Jon shut the book.
       “Hey, you can’t stop now!” Tony turned in his chair to face us. “What happens next?”
       The four of us pulled our chairs into a circle. As our tiny infants slept in peaceful defiance of lunar charts and Estimated Dates of Confinement, we listened to Jon continue with the next chapter, “Ozma to the Rescue.”
       I guess a book came in handy after all.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Horse Is a Horse, Of Course

           “My kingdom for a horse!” cried Richard III.
            Well, I had no kingdom, but I frequently cried for a horse. Cried. Coaxed. Cajoled. I begged Santa for a sorrel pony. I begged my parents for a palomino. Every Christmas. Every birthday. Every year. “Please, puh-leese, could we get a horse?” Answer: “No, the backyard is not zoned for livestock.”
            Then I got married…and got my own backyard. From the bedroom window I had an unobstructed view of a barn and, just beyond, the fences of three unused pastures. I could get a horse.
Ollie, in his prime
            Two months later, I led my new horse, Ollie, out of a rented trailer and introduced him to his new quarters. Ollie, in turn, introduced me to some key facts about horses, things you don’t learn until you actually own one.

Horses aren’t cats. Cats eat tuna (which at that time cost 25¢ a can and still can be prepared in 60 seconds). Cats don’t mind if you go away for five days, as long as you leave behind a big bowl of Gourmet Kitty Crunch. Cats have litter boxes, measuring 14 inches by 24 inches, which you need to clean once a week.
Horses have stalls, measuring 10 feet by 15 feet, which you need to muck out once a day. When Ollie first arrived, I thought it an adventure to rise at 5:00 a.m., pull on old jeans, slip into my L. L. Bean duck shoes, and head off to the barn. I would watch my breath vaporize in the crisp predawn air and relish the pungent smell of hay, oats, and manure as I pitched the old straw into a wheelbarrow. Then I began to notice that not all dawns are crisp. Some are soggy. I started to skip the mucking out a day here, two days there…five days. Finally, I sensed Ollie’s longing for the fresh air of the open pasture. We stopped using a stall.

Horses aren’t avid readers. During my formative years, my shelves bulged with books about horses. Black Beauty. My Friend, Flicka. Misty of Chincoteague. The Black Stallion series. All dwelled on the tender relationship between horse and owner. The horse would greet the owner with an eager whinny and a warm nuzzle against the nape of the neck. The resulting bond transcended time and place. Even after returning to the Arabian desert, separated from his master for several years and by more than 6,000 miles, the Black Stallion responded immediately to Alec Ramsey’s whistle.
Unfortunately, Ollie wasn’t familiar with this literature. He didn’t know that he was to return my care for him with an affection that should know no bounds. In fact, he didn’t seem to take much interest at all in me or my whistling. Each time I appeared with mash bucket or curry brush in hand, those liquid brown eyes would take on a quizzical look: “What, she’s here again?”

Horses aren’t adept at personal grooming. A bird can clean its entire body with its beak. Even a five-year-old boy can brush his own hair. Horses have tails…and that’s it. Occasionally they swish these tails against their withers in a half-hearted attempt at dusting, but the rest is up to you. Bathing. Brushing. Combing. Scraping crud out of hooves. Mixing and spraying thick white fly-repellent spray in the summer. Forcing down a dose of cod-liver oil to keep the coat shiny in winter.
And yet, these activities were only glimpses of a greater truth.

Horses aren’t Boy Scouts; they are never prepared. It takes four seconds (at most) to snap leash to collar when you take a dog for an afternoon’s walk. It takes 40 minutes to saddle and bridle a horse for a 20-minute trot. Guiding the slithery bit into the horse’s foamy mouth, fingers frantically trying to remain three-dimensional, can take 15 minutes alone. Add to that lugging the saddle from the rack, heaving it over an equine back eight inches above your head, and tugging with all your upper body strength to tighten the girth properly. You’re exhausted before you’ve even put a foot in a stirrup.
At one point, I thought I would take a shortcut and ride bareback. Within three minutes I had slid off his other side onto the gravel and was lying on my back. Ollie slowly turned his head to look at me, clearly thinking: “What are you doing down there, you fool?”
Leading me to grasp the final fact.

Horses aren’t compassionate.

I, however, am compassionate. After 18 months of life with Ollie, I read about a local riding school’s therapeutic work with physically disabled children. Compassion welling up inside me, I called the director and offered to donate Ollie to this worthy cause. The director was thrilled and made arrangements to pick up Ollie the following week. As the school’s trailer drove out the lane, I waved good-bye, cheerful in the knowledge that I had done a good deed.
Now, if only Richard the III had been around…

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Legacy: A Princeton Story

(Previously published, in a slightly different form, in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Dec 25, 1996.)
 My six-year-old daughter has put her head on my lap, her pillow made from two programs for Princeton University’s Charter Day Convocation in celebration of its 250th anniversary. The warm October sun and the rise and fall of voices from the podium 100 yards away in front of Nassau Hall have put her to sleep. My ten-year-old son amuses himself by crushing leaves.
Jay and Annie are not impressed with thoughts of Princeton in the next millennium. They are tolerating the constriction of the Convocation because they’ve been promised great treats: free Cokes, a Sheryl Crow concert, fireworks. That’s the Princeton they know. The fun Princeton. The place where they come to scream during football games, to play frisbee in Little Courtyard during Reunions, to visit the dinosaur in Guyot after hamburgers and french fries at PJ’s Pancake House.  They’re not interested in big numbers like 250 or even that 90 years ago my grandfather, Class of 1910, first arrived at Princeton as a student or that 80 years ago my father, Class of 1939, was born or even that 30 years after my graduation my son might just be arriving. They don’t care that they are part of a continuum, not only the public continuum, but a family continuum as well.
But I care. I listen to the speakers recalling memories, colonial and current, and I ache for the memories that I don’t have of Princeton. For, though my grandfather and father were there before me, they were both gone by the time I arrived in the fall of 1970. My grandfather had died when I was seven years old. I hadn’t anticipated sharing Princeton with him. I had anticipated sharing Princeton with my father.
 I remember seeing on my father’s desk the envelope, stamped and ready for the mail, in which he had declared his support for coeducation. I remember sorting through the application forms with him. I remember his delight when I had been accepted. Materials started arriving at our house—the course catalog, the Daily Princetonian, the calendar with football games, Parents’ Weekend, Alumni Day. So many chances to be at Princeton together. Further down the years, we would have Reunions together, 1939 and 1974.        
Princeton Commencement, 1967
Two weeks after my high school graduation my father died of a heart attack.
In fact, my father and I were together on Princeton’s campus only twice. The first time was for my older brother’s graduation in 1967. A family photograph shows us all lined up at the bottom of Blair Arch steps. Standing wedged between my mother and my younger sister, I am wearing a boxy beige suit my mother thought appropriate for a short, skinny 14-year-old girl to wear to a college graduation. My bangs are in my eyes and, though I am smiling, I look a bit impatient. At the other end of the group next to my brother, who is wearing his cap and gown, stands my father, beaming.
The second time that my father and I were on campus was two years later—when he brought me for my interview. That too was an afternoon in October. The day was raw. A cold drizzle had been falling and I felt damp and disoriented. My father wouldn’t come into the Admission Office, but waited outside for me. He said it was important that I do this on my own. I sat trying not to gnaw at my thumbnail until a young man collected me and took me back to a cell furnished with a desk and two chairs. He looked down at my folder, looked up at me, and said with a barely concealed sneer, “So...I see you’re a legacy.” I felt on the defensive. Afterwards I told my father that the interview hadn’t gone well and I wondered, “What’s so bad about being a legacy?”
My dad put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s good to be a legacy. The interviewer probably just had a rotten day and he said the wrong thing.”
           We ruled out an Orange Key tour. The drizzle had turned to rain and we had a long drive. Anyway, we would have plenty of time for him to show me around the campus if I got accepted.
We didn’t have plenty of time. And so my lasting memory of my father at Princeton is like an old photograph. In that late afternoon permeated by shades of gray—the lowering clouds, the stone buildings, the gravel edging the walks around Cannon Green—in front of Clio in his gray overcoat stands my father under an orange-and-black umbrella. He smiles when he sees me come out of West College.
More than 25 years later I brush a yellow leaf from my daughter’s face as the gold autumn light brings out the amber of Nassau Hall on a day celebrating a five times golden anniversary, and I realize that my father had shared Princeton with me. His classmate Fred Fox kept an eye on me for my four years as a student, inviting me for home-cooked meals at his house in Princeton. His roommate Walter Lord had just recently written to me, enclosing a photograph of my father with his 150-football team. And during the P-Rade my heart pounds and my throat catches as the Class of 1939 goes by: these men knew my father and something of my father’s Princeton life still lives with them.
           The interviewer 27 years ago did say the wrong thing, but not quite in the way my father meant. I am not the legacy. Princeton is the legacy my father left to me.
I hear Reginald Gibbons '69 read the last lines of his poem commissioned for the 250th Anniversary...”my father’s hand,/ which had come from some remote labor to clasp my hand as I said good-bye.” I never got to clasp my father’s hand to say good-bye, but I remember my father’s hand on my shoulder on that other October afternoon.
Yes, it’s good to be a legacy.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Harry Goes to Hollywood

(First published, in a slightly different form, in the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine Jan 16, 1994.)
            It was a bit disconcerting to have my high school boyfriend smiling down from the cover of People magazine as “The Sexiest Man Alive” while I was maneuvering a shopping cart in the checkout line, rummaging for my wallet and grappling with my toddler over the candy display.
            My old boyfriend is Harry Hamlin. Although I hadn’t spoken with Harry in more than 20 years, I’d certainly heard about the milestones of his life. Tabloid headlines shouted them at me. “Italian Goddess Has Love-Child with Toga-Clad Co-Star!” “Kusak Quits, Leaves L.A. Law in the Lurch!” “Harried Harry: Nicolette Bolts for Bolton!”
            I have to say, I didn’t think Harry was happy.
            But then again, how could he be? After dating 17-year-old Kathy of Hollidaysburg, PA, president of the Baldwin School Chorus, wouldn’t everything else fall short?
            A chorus concert brought us together. It was the spring of 1970. I was a senior at the Baldwin School (for girls) in Bryn Mawr; Harry was a senior at the Hill School (for boys) in Pottstown.
            Between renditions of “Sentimental Journey” and selections from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, I had a solo. Alone on the Assembly Room stage, I sang a plaintive piece by Donovan, wearing my chorus-issued straight black skirt and white blouse, with my Martin acoustic guitar slung across my 5-foot-1 frame and my brown hair hanging down my back.
            Finding me irresistible, Harry asked me to dance after the concert. From that point on we were together. Well, as together as two kids can be when they attend boarding schools 25 miles apart. We did have the combined rehearsals for the annual spring Humanities Concert, when the Baldwin School Chorus and the Hill School Glee Club performed a choral masterwork.
            The campuses of our schools didn’t always confine us. Spring-term weekends were free for seniors—to go home. Harry’s family lived in Pasadena, almost 3,000 miles from the Hill School. Hollidaysburg was only a three-hour drive. Harry came to Hollidaysburg.
            Upon first arriving, he presented my mother with a hostess gift: several jars of homemade jams bound up in blue-and-white gingham bows. Satisfied that Harry was a young man of good manners, my mother proceeded to fill him with food. “More leg of lamb, Harry? Kathy, pass Harry the mint sauce. We have plenty of mashed potatoes in the kitchen.”
            My father, on the other hand, was interested in the intellectual:
            My dad: “Tell me, is Dr. Groten still conjugating verbs in sixth-form Latin?”
            Harry: “Yes, sir.”
            My dad: “Ah, good. Kathy’s brothers had him. A fine teacher, a fine teacher. And Mr. Brown—have you enjoyed his chemistry classes?”
            Harry: “I’m sorry, Dr. Taylor. I don’t take chemistry.”
            My dad: “Too bad. A fine teacher, a fine teacher. I understand you’ll be attending Berkeley. Isn’t that the school with all the hippies?”
            Harry: “There are some hippies, sir, but I believe they’re a minority.”
            My dad: “I hope Kathy’s going to show you the Horseshoe Curve. A true feat of engineering.”
            After spending weekends with my parents, Harry would surely find any future in-laws disappointing.
            If not disappointing, Hollywood would be disturbing after Hollidaysburg. Think of the smog and congestion alone. The 6,000 people who made up the greater Hollidaysburg area didn’t create much of either. Oh, on some days a sour smell that made your eyes water would drift over from the paper mill in Tyrone. And when I was young, traffic leaving Hollidaysburg on Route 36 sometimes got backed up at the train tracks at Bakers Farm Stand. By the time Harry visited, though, the paper mill had been closed down, and Mr. Beegle’s construction company had built the Route 36 Bypass right over the train tracks.
            Air travel would have been more pleasant than at L.A. International as well—as long as you didn’t mind that the airport was in the middle of a cornfield and that there was just one gate, one flight a day, to one place: Pittsburgh. The person who took your ticket at the counter would later greet you at the steps of the plane. Sometimes the pilot helped load the luggage. A group effort.
            Of course, some things weren’t considered appropriate for groups. Necking, for example. I’d read that Harry had been spotted “necking” in the light booth at an Elton John concert. At least in Hollidaysburg, Harry had some privacy. The light was the flickering late movie, broadcast from WJAC-TV, Channel 6 in Johnstown, and the sole witness was my cat, Sparky, who never reported anything to the papers.
            Then there were Harry’s audiences. I suspected that they didn’t appreciate him as they should.
            My introduction to Harry’s dramatic talents came during graduation weekend at the Hill School. On Saturday evening, June 6, 1970, the Dramatics Club presented The Fantasticks. Memorial Hall with its dark-paneled walls was packed with parents and guests, faculty and underclassmen, all eager to watch the final production of the Class of 1970.
            The lights dimmed and we became silent. The spotlight came up—and there was Harry, the Indian. Around him, sparse furnishings made up the set: a few slat-backed chairs, a clothesline, a large trunk. On this nearly barren stage, Harry and his classmates conjured up a magical performance about The Boy and The Girl and their ripped and rewoven romance.
            At the final curtain, the audience rose to its feet in wild applause. I can remember smiling and clapping so hard that my jaw and my hands ached.   
After our graduations, I went back home to Hollidaysburg and planned for college on the East Coast. Harry went back home to Pasadena and planned for college on the West Coast, Our letters and phone calls across country dwindled over the summer—and then we lost touch. Harry went on to star in plays, films, telemovies and an acclaimed series. I, on the other hand, went on to teach Hamlet to seniors at the Baldwin School (for girls).
            Poor Harry.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Strains of Music

(First published in the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine Sept 27, 1992)
 The lights in the Academy of Music blink a warning, making the crystal chandeliers sparkle and shimmer. The hall buzzes with sounds. Orchestra members are tuning up. Ushers hurry people down the aisle, while the rest of the audience fusses with wraps and fidgets with programs. Then the lights go out. The maestro steps up to the podium and invites us to rise to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As the final chord fades, my five-year-old son Jay says, “Mommy, can we go home now?”
So begins another season of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s children’s concert series. And so begins another season of leading my son to culturally correct activities.
The morning itself had begun in moans. “Mom, why can’t I wear my jeans and a T-shirt?” I am trying to locate a sneaker when we hear the bleat of a car horn in the driveway. Jay rushes out to greet his friend Susie, who has leapt from the mini-van to model her floral sweatshirt from the Gap. Susie’s mom herds the stragglers back to the van while I clamber over the collection of Barbie dolls and old gumballs.
Finally we are strapped up and making our way toward I-95 for the 30-minute drive to Broad and Locust. With the sounds of kids and KYW swirling around me, I stare out the window at the gray clouds over Tinicum Marsh and recall my own trips to “the orchestra” 30 years ago.
Hollidaysburg, PA, did not have an orchestra. Altoona, the closest city, could muster only a community ensemble. To hear a real symphony orchestra required traveling 100 miles west across the Alleghenies to Pittsburgh. My family did this trip with me once a year, and it was a Special Occasion.
On the day of the concert, my mother would pick me up from school at noon, for we needed plenty of time to “get dressed.” For me this meant a maroon velveteen dress with embroidered smoking, white anklets, black patent-leather shoes and a small matching bag, into which my mother would tuck a comb and a handkerchief.
At 4:30 my father would pull into the driveway, gallantly sweep open the car doors, and off we would go to Pittsburgh.
Several hours later, my fingers would grip my father’s hand as we stepped down the aisle. Once securely seated, I would watch the musicians begin to appear from the curtained wings, starkly elegant in black-and-white evening dress. Finally the hall would become still. The conductor would stride onto the stage, acknowledge the audience with a curt nod, raise his baton—and I would be surrounded by Beethoven, full and vibrating, not tinny and flat from the brown box we called the record player. I would almost forget to breathe until intermission.
Jay has never had the rapturous experience of my childhood. For when we arrive the scene at the Academy of Music resembles the gym on the first day of school. Mothers hold on to toddlers with one hand while scanning the crowds for their second-graders. Dads in corduroys and suede bomber jackets try to find the Parquet Circle without having to ask for directions. A little girl cries that her new boat mocs are ruined: “The kid behind me in stepped on the heel and squashed it!”
Somehow, the lovely interior of the Academy of Music loses its glow in the daytime, like a movie star without her makeup. Even the orchestra members are no longer out of the ordinary. In their street clothes, they seem like anybody else, a teacher, a neighbor. In fact, we know one of the viola players. “Hi, Mr. Filosa!” Jay shouts and waves as we struggle into our seats with all our gear, including a full supply of raisins, pencils, and drawing paper to help Jay get through the next 60 minutes.
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time something will grab Jay’s attention. The chorus from one of the magnet schools. The young ballet students from Swarthmore. The ten-year-old pianist from Cherry Hill.
My daydream evaporates with one look at the seat beside me. Jay isn’t listening to the Brahms. He is hunched over, carefully making a caterpillar out of a string of C’s all around the edge of the program. Then he tries to draw a chipmunk, and I know he would rather be home watching Chip ‘n’ Dale, Rescue Rangers. I also know that Jay will like the orchestra only when he’s ready to like the orchestra, if ever.
That night at dinner, I tell Jay that he doesn’t have to go to any more orchestra concerts. Our five-year-old veteran of not only the Philadelphia Orchestra but also birthday parties at the zoo, the Academy of Natural Sciences, “play dates” at the Franklin Institute and Christmas at the Brandywine River Museum, puts down his milk. He looks at me, then at his dad, then at me again and says, ”Does that mean we can all stay home and talk together?”