Friday, December 30, 2011

Fire

Happy 2012!  I'm not one to make resolutions, but I do resolve to confront things that are obstacles in my life and to focus more on what brings joy. A fire, the ocean, trees…these are all things of great comfort to me.
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I didn’t grow up in a family sitting around a fire, but I know how to tend one.

I had my first exposure to a fireplace in 8th grade, when, much to my fury,we moved.  I was just starting to notice boys (and maybe one noticing me), when they made me move. I had refused to go on the house-hunting trips, and if forced, refused to go in.  I had gone on for months, not-so-silently kicking and screaming, but even after all my protesting,and all my belligerence, in spite of it all, today was moving day. We were moving to a place where it was green and trees and lawns and swimming pools; a place where they didn’t  have public transportation. 

When we got there it was a very nice house at the end of a cul-de-sac (or keyhole or dead end or whatever it's now called by realtors) with a huge green lawn, a wood-paneled den with, unbelievably, a fireplace, and the thing they were really counting on, a room of my own. They ushered me in, beaming.   


They (and when I say “they” I mean my mother and sister) had filled the room: a full bed covered with a miniature yellow-flowered bedspread and a Colonial headboard and footboard.  Opposite the bed was a dresser, a corner desk, a chair, and another set of drawers with an attached mirror. I had never had a room of my own.  It was awful.

Though the room was a place of privacy (a first) for me, the saving grace of that house was that there was a fireplace, though I hardly remember it ever being used.  At times when I was alone, I would ball up paper and light it, but I don’t think I was allowed to actually make a fire. Many winters my father insisted we keep the pocket doors to the den closed to seal off the big room and save on heating. One winter when he wouldn’t allow us to dismantle the Christmas tree until April, my mother was terrified it would catch on fire and burn the house down, so that winter the fireplace was totally off-limits. My fire-building skills weren’t learned there.

Most people crumple up the paper to start. I twist mine into little sticks and make believe that I’m struggling through The Long Winter with Pa and Ma, Mary and Laura.  Next, put the bundle of kindling on top of the paper and then stack your logs crisscrossed with room for air to rise up in-between and fuel the fire.   

Striking the match and lighting that first piece of paper, you hold your breath to see if it all catches. If it does, you can sit back---feel the warmth and let yourself be mesmerized by the play of flames as they consume the paper, twigs, kindling, and if all goes well, the edges of the logs.

You want to relax and just feel the fire, enjoy the crackle and the heat, and you should. You need to leave the fire alone so that it establishes itself and has a chance to burn.  But there’s always that urge to mess with the fire. To poke the logs and rearrange them and try to get the fire burning even brighter.  If I curb that instinct, I can keep that fire burning night and day.

When we were looking for our house, a fireplace was non-negotiable. People said, "You won't use a fireplace that much down here!" but I was adamant.  It's been so unseasonably warm this season, that we've had a fire ready to go for weeks and weeks.  Still,it makes me smile to know that the joy of watching the fire burn is only a match away.




Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thrift

No matter how much I enjoy cooking, I could never cook on TV. It just wouldn't work because of the time and the waste. When TV cooks are cutting their vegetables they thoughtlessly strip off leaves, chop off a huge amount at the root and tops, and pitch them all in the garbage…no precise measure or thought of what CAN be cooked and what CAN be salvaged to use for stock and finally, most minimally, what IS to be tossed.

When these celebrity chefs transfer what they’re cooking from one vessel to another, they leave SO much behind in the pot! I often spend two-three minutes just scraping out the pan to get every last bit. It drives my husband (or whoever is holding the pot for me) crazy! Definitely not good in terms of TV time.

When these television masters wrap something up, they yank off a huge piece of Saran-wrap or foil and slap it onto the container; I’d be forced to slowly position my bowl so I could exactly judge exactly how much wrap was needed without wasting—because if I didn't  my father would be yelling at me.

If you've grown-up in a depression-mentality household you’d know: No waste allowed.


This thrift can often seem counter-intuitive when it comes to buying on sale.

If it’s on sale BUY IT NOW and BUY IT IN MULTIPLES.

As a child I often didn't fully understand this principle. “But Daddy, why do we need twelve laundry baskets?” “Daddy, we already have two dozen cans of peaches!” Or fruit cocktail or tomatoes or baked beans or something named “Kadota Figs.” The cellar of our house was lined with metal shelving and wooden bookcases crammed to the edge with canned, boxed and bottled goods. Cereals, pastas, paper products, anything you could imagine. My friends referred to our basement as “Shop-Rite Annex” or “The Bomb Shelter.”

Once when my father spotted a box that flew off a truck onto the highway, he stopped the car, risked life and limb (his and ours) to get out and rescue that box. When we got home and he opened his prize, it turned out to be 24 sets of pink plastic cookie cutters in the shape of clubs, hearts, diamonds, and spades. “But Dad, we don’t make cookies. What will we do with a case of cookie cutters?”

Growing up in a family of five with five refrigerators and a full freezer, all stocked with food, at the time, didn't seem so crazy. But once we’d all moved away and it was just the two of them, it seemed completely bizarre. “Daddy, there’s no way you and Mommy can eat 50 pounds of onions before they rot—it’s WASTEFUL!” I tried to reason. “That’s alright,” he replied. “I figured out that even if half of them go bad, it’s still cheaper per pound than buying less.”

Once while my parents were away for ten days, an upstairs water pipe burst and the house slowly flooded — first the basement, then seeping up to the first floor. His stash was destroyed. The insurance company sent out an investigator because they didn't believe the list of contents he reported damaged: 72 rolls of toilet paper, 48 rolls of paper towels, 60 boxes of tissues, among a hoard of other things…you get the picture.


When my father died in 1999 we discarded the evidence of his lifelong addiction to thrift. Three drawers in the kitchen were filled to the brim with those wire and plastic ties to keep bags closed. The freezer and five refrigerators (one in the kitchen, two in the basement and three in the garage) all had to be emptied of their old, sometimes indistinguishable, often, freezer-burned contents. And in the garage we threw away the 36 boxes of macaroni and cheese that had expired in 1975.

Must have been some sale.                                                                              



Monday, December 26, 2011

It's All About the Tree

For me, Christmas is all about the tree. It’s the focal point that’s the fairytale of the holiday.  When I was in 6th or 7th grade, I bought my first ornament for my-some-day-Christmas-tree. It was a Santa covered in a flocked paper with gold foil decorative trim. It was a dollar, which was a lot to me.  That ornament was the symbol of another life; a fantasy landscape of a future where I would have a happy home with a husband (who would be a loving father) and kids and a beautiful tree with presents and nothing to hide from. I would buy one special ornament each year and by the time I was old enough to get married and have a tree of my own I’d have my ornaments ready to go. 


The next year, I bought a gold tinsel bell with a hanging red ball for the ringer. And the year after, an angel cut and hammered from tin, painted in Mexico and angelic in an indestructible way. I don’t remember what came next.  As time went on, people began buying me ornaments, most quite wonderful and some not.  Over time the collection grew and grew and grew and each year when I dragged them out, I saw them as exquisite treasures; the building blocks of a happy holiday future.

The collection of ornaments fell into different categories: those purchased as a keepsake (a pair of shapely white angels from the WBAI crafts fair); a series (the wooden Twelve Days of Christmas from my friend Barbara,  six ceramic characters from Alice in Wonderland from my friend Mike); the handmade ones (the two over-sized Styrofoam balls covered in a piecework of men's ties found at a yard sale; a tree in an eggshell diorama made by my 8th grade friend Susan--it took her nine eggshells to succeed!) 




and of course, those wonderful, wonderful made-in-preschool-kindergarten ornaments out of clay and cardboard and pasta and foil...thank heaven for those teachers.


Year after year throughout my adult life, true to my dream, my trees, bejeweled with an unusual collection of ornaments (see the cat-in-the-MEOW-box?)  the highlight of the holidays. I've typed up an ornament scavenger hunt for children to hunt for all the felt sewn and embroidered Sesame Street characters, the copper kitchen utensils, various vehicles, or articles of clothing (Find the sweater, dress, three high heels, suit of clothes, mitten, evening gown, felt slippers and black glass ballet slippers).

Now numbering over 400, virtually each ornament is special to me. When I don’t hang them all, I feel as if I’m offending those left out. The past few years I keep trying NOT to purchase any more ornaments but there they are, calling out to me. This year alone there was the perfect trowel (in a shoebox-coffin for ornaments) marked 25 cents; an elegant cream and gold metal penguin hanging from a thrift-store artificial tree limb (49 cents) and this hand-forged probably one-of-a-kind metal snowflake. These are three of the six I found this year.




My fruits and vegetables started predictably with an apple or two, and then a lemon, a peach, different colored pears, two darling carrots, an eggplant, and a pomegranate that's gone missing this year. Last Christmas, I was missing my sister (as I especially do around the holidays) when my friend Nancy asked, “Do you have any corn? You really need to find an ornament that’s an ear of corn…” and I smiled. Couldn’t remember ever seeing a corn cob ornament. About a week later I was in the attic searching for tissue paper and empty boxes and there was a small five-inch square red and gold patterned box. Great for a present.  But when I turned it over there was a Christmas tag stuck on the back (thoughtfully so it wouldn’t mess up the top) written to me in my sister’s artistic handwriting, and inside, in green tissue was a tin corn on the cob. My sister had been gone six years. Once in awhile, the ornaments find me.  


HOPE YOU HAVE A WONDERFUL HOLIDAY AND WILL ENJOY A HAPPY AND HEALTHY NEW YEAR!


the flying dutchman
the kitchen hutch


the hatboxes



the diner







Thursday, December 22, 2011

Emeline

When we’d moved to North Carolina, I knew we were in the South when the house we’d rented was sandwiched between Emeline on the left and “Miz” Lyons on the right.  Unlike the anonymity of our condo parking lot in New Jersey, here pulling into our shared driveway, Miz Lyons would always be sitting on her porch. She was old and sweet and well cared for by a trio of women — Ella, Exibelle, and Ida — who rotated in and out of her house round the clock.  When the kids would get out of the car, Miz Lyons (and caregiver) would beckon them to her porch and surprise them with plums, hard candy, or maybe pieces of chocolate pressed into their little hands. 

Emeline and Lawrence were the other end of the spectrum. Larry was a classics professor at Duke University, working on a book about the topography of ancient Rome, while Emeline was researching the Etruscans.  I loved being next door to them because the world they lived in was so erudite and far, far away from having two-and-a-half year-old boy-girl twins underfoot. Getting to know Miz Lyons and Emeline helped soften the pangs of being away from family and friends.

Getting used to being in the South (with a capital “S”) would mean getting used to these distinctly different southern names, southern sensibilities and more unsettling, the southern landscape and the fact that coffee shops and delis were not part of this terrain.

Delis were the source of pastrami, Reubens and potato salads — and the supreme potato salad was from Schreiber’s in Oradell, New Jersey  —  potatoes sliced wafer-thin, rich with cream, sweetened with sugar.  In our extended family if anyone was going all out for an event, they got the potato salad from Schreiber’s.  People would actually ask on the way to someone’s home, “Are they having Schreiber’s?” 

I’ve tried recreating it, getting close but not really there. Late one night, homesick for the taste (and now savvy about foodtv.com and epicurious and recipes from the universe that is the web), I Googled Schreiber’s potato salad and found someone who’d written a review with the heading “Potato Salad worth traveling 2500 miles for…”  and this guy said “It's the best I've ever had. I wish they would share the recipe, but every time I ask, they just smile and fill my order.”  Out there was another mouth yearning for the taste of Schreiber’s.

I never thought I’d enjoy another potato salad as much as Schreiber’s but my mother-in-law’s is pretty terrific.  Very much the opposite, it’s German-style with almost no mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, pepper, lots of oil, and (to my husband’s delight) chopped raw onions. She insists on making it days in advance so she can “turn” it in the frig two or three times a day to make certain the oil permeates all the potatoes.  Like Schreiber’s, Helen’s potatoes are sliced thin and once you taste it, it’s simply addictive. 

Potato salad in the South was made with pickled sweet relish or chopped sweet pickles, hard-boiled eggs, celery seed and yellow mustard.  It did not excite me.

Luckily, Emeline was a fabulous cook and often shared samples of her culinary arts. Once for a “simple luncheon” she served us the most delicious potato salad with egg — surprisingly different from anything I’d had before and definitely not Southern.  

“I call this Pompeian Salad because we were in Italy when Larry left me for a three-day conference and I was stuck in Pompeii with nothing but a few potatoes and eggs in the kitchen and that was all I had!”

Long after we’d moved away from that rental to a bigger house in another neighborhood, Emeline contracted a long and debilitating illness that eventually robbed her of the ability to digest food.  When I last visited her she was hooked up to a stomach feeding tube, happily ensconced in the sunroom watching cartoons under the watchful eye of her caretaker.

After she died, making caponata was my way of re-visiting Emeline. She taught me how to make the Italian “relish” in an absolutely easy and foolproof way—baked in the oven!  She simply diced her eggplant, onions, tomatoes, celery, and olives and added a quarter-cup olive oil, some balsamic vinegar, and that was it — slow and low in the oven until all the vegetables were softened and the flavors melded. 

One day, missing Emeline, and eggplant out of season, I thought I’d try making her potato salad.  It seemed simple enough: potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, oil, vinegar, salt & pepper.  When it was done, I tasted it eagerly but clearly, something was missing.  The next attempt, I added tuna and olives, thinking it was sort of a Ni├žoise-version of potato salad, but that didn’t taste right either.

Over time I continued to try and fell short every attempt.  Finally, I thought of visiting our old neighborhood and looking in on Larry.  There he was hunched over and tinkering among his magnificent stand of beautiful, beautiful rose bushes.  Gracious as ever, he invited me in.

“Larry, do you have Emeline’s recipes?  Would you mind if I looked through them?  Copied some down?”

“Sure” he said heading into the kitchen.  He grabbed a ledger book, over-sized and filled with handwritten recipes and recorded dinner party menus complete with what she’d served, the dates and the guests.

“I’m trying to make her potato salad and I can’t seem to remember all the ingredients.  She served it for lunch one day and it had hard-boiled eggs…”

“Pompeian Salad — that’s what you’re looking for. Here it is,” he said pointing to the recipe he’d paged to:

Pompeian Salad

Potatoes                                Eggs
Oil & vinegar                          Salt & pepper

“Hmmm.  Nothing else?”  I asked him.  “Was there tuna?”   

“No. No tuna.”  

“Capers?  Olives?”

“No, nothing else.   Just potatoes and the eggs.”

I was stumped.  I couldn’t imagine what was missing. 

“Larry?  By any chance do you still have the oil and vinegar Emeline used to use?” 

“Yes.”    

“Would you mind showing them to me?”

And there was the answer: Bertolli olive oil and tarragon vinegar!  




There was the missing taste — tarragon.  An herb I rarely had and never used, so I hadn’t a clue what it tasted like!  I couldn’t wait to get some and try it out. 

“This is delicious” my husband told me as he downed forkful after forkful of Emeline’s creation. It would never best the potato salad of his childhood or mine, but down here in Durham, it was a trip to a deli by way of Pompeii.                                

Monday, December 19, 2011

No Place Like Home

Moving south was a huge step for us.  It was entering a world that was almost foreign.  In the beginning I couldn’t even say we spoke the same language because the way things were pronounced was decidedly different.  I said “CAW-fee” and “dr-AWE” and my students said all one-syllable words as two [ FLA-OOR, DUH-OOR] and “pin” and “pen” were indistinguishable.  “The PEN is on the desk and the PIN is in the hem,” I would iterate and my little first-grade towhead Joanna would say, “I know Miz James, that’s what I said, “puh-INN” and “puh-INN!”   I was soon to find out that language wasn't the only difference.
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It's been months since we moved to Durham from New York. It was a good move that neither of us regrets. I already had a best friend here, our kids have adjusted well, and family members have made a point of visiting (even if only for a 24-hour stopover). All in all, this major transition has been pretty painless for the four of us. But heading back home (New York is still "home") for the first time in six months, while the kids were asleep in their car seats and my husband was driving, I kept hearing the question that people have asked me since we moved: "What do you miss the most?" I hadn't yet been able to put my finger on the answer.


Of course, the street-life of New York isn't here. I've had a taste of the local version at CenterFest, but in New York it's constant. You don't have to scan the papers to know what's going on, you just walk outside of your building. There it is. Pulsing past you. It may be the regular, everyday throng of people and bikers and honking cabs and stop-and-start buses, or it may be an orchestrated fair closing off Third or Lexington Avenue or Hudson Street, where the sidewalks are jammed with people searching and pecking and meeting and talking and finding that unbelievably perfect thing for their living room, bathroom or house somewhere else.

I do miss the constancy of that street-life, but I'll live without it. In fact, massive doses of the barrage of bodies and smells after a while get to you. I remember my neighbors at 24th and Second vacating their apartment for the entire weekend during the Second Avenue Fair, nauseated by the smell of sausage-peppers-and-onions cooking under their window from morning till night. No, street fairs weren't the crux of what I was missing.

Nor was it the bike messengers who whiz by wearing metal-spiked fingerless gloves, ready to whack any offending passersby or taxi. And certainly it wasn't the constant smell of urine or the perpetual honking of horns. I swear, in nine months here in North Carolina, I have yet to hear someone honk a horn in anger. A red light changes, the first car doesn't move, and no one honks! As if everyone understands that the driver has a good reason for not moving, so they just wait — quietly and patiently.

I was thinking about that question again through the cacophony of horns the day we were leaving New York to return to Durham. We were in a mad race trying to get errands done. We were making good progress — already having picked up our taxes from the accountant on 39th and Madison (we'd had to file extensions in three states), dropped off a package at 52nd and Broadway and sped down to Kiehl's Pharmacy on 13th and Third. And we still had about 40 minutes to make it to 76th and the River.

It was my husband who remembered we'd wanted to buy two more chairs for our kids' table set. The place was all the way down on First and First (or so I thought), so we decided to worm our way downtown. Some things in New York never change. The streets are in terrible disrepair and/or they're being repaired and traffic is chaotic — potholes, double-parked cars, gridlock — all mainstays of city driving.

To our delight, 14th Street had been turned into an eastbound one-way, and we were able to drive more than a block or two without hitting a light. (I know this doesn't mean much to anyone who doesn't really know traffic, who hasn't spent 45 minutes-on a good day getting through the Lincoln Tunnel.) Breezing along, we finally turned up First Avenue. The place wasn't there where it was supposed to be. Neither of us remembered the name of the shop (he thought it was Abe's or Rose's; I was sure he wasn't even close), so we couldn't look it up in a phone book, if we even could've found a phone book in New York. Suddenly I had a feeling it was on Avenue A and First, so we cut around and there it was…Schneider's Furniture.

I hopped out and went into the store. Now if only they had the chairs in the colors we wanted, an orange and a blue or green. There was the set displayed in the window, but with the ugly brown and the boring off-white chairs.

"Hello," I said, trying to sound breathless and in a hurry. "Do you have the children's bridge chairs in orange and blue?"

"Lemme see. We got yellow, brown, white, red, blue and — lemme see what else they come in," the owner said, slowly rising from his seat.

"Orange?"

"Oh yes, orange-yeah, we got orange, we got 'em all. Whach you like?"
"I'd like a blue and an orange, please.”

"Benny, bring me the Stakmore in a blue and an orange for the young lady."

"How much are they again?"

"Thirty-nine dollars."

''Thirty-nine? Each! Wow, they went up!"

"No,” he said shaking his head, “much-how much you pay for them?"

''Twenty-five.''

"Twenty-five dollars? Never! Never!”

"Yes, I did.  I paid $25 each."

"Maybe 10 years ago. Ten years ago, maybe you paid $25."

"No, it was last year, about this time. In this store I bought two chairs and I paid $25 each."

"Bring me a receipt-bring me a receipt for $25 and I give you the chairs for free!"

"I don't have the receipt with me, it's in North Carolina-but how much was the table? I mean, how much did it used to be?"

"Seventy-five — the table was $75 and now it's $85."

"Well then, that's right because 1 paid $125 for the table and two chairs, so if the table was $75 then the chairs were $25 each.”

"Oh, you bought the table and chairs! You bought the set. That's different — special price for the chairs in the set. The set was $125. Now it's $135, only $10 the set went up. But the chairs, the chairs are $39."

"Gee, I don't know if I should spend $40 each on the chairs."

''Thirty-nine dollars you can't find a better chair! I got junky chairs here, junky chairs you can have them for less, but this chair is worth $39. My wife sits in these chairs. If my wife can sit in these chairs, you know you got a good chair!"

"I think I should check with my husband first; he's right outside,"

"Sure, check with your husband, but you never find a chair like this for $40 — my wife sits in those chairs!"

My husband is outside surveying the neighborhood, how it's changed. He says to go ahead and get the chairs. I run back inside. The clock is ticking.

"Okay, we'll take them. Do you take American Express?"    

"Only Visa, MasterCard, and cash."

"You won't take a check from me?"

"I won't take a check. My customers taught me that. My customers taught me that last year. I won't take a check."

"Well, I'm not sure we've got enough cash."

"That's all right, take your time," he said, sitting back down again.

I run out and ask my husband for all the money he has. I have about $63 and he has $27. We both go back in.

"OK, we'll take them."

"You'll never be sorry, never sorry with those chairs."

Benny brings up a box with the two chairs packed inside. I take a quick look to make sure about the colors and he tapes up the box. As I put the money on the counter I turn and whisper, “I didn't check them. I didn't take them out of the box and look them over."

"Like a diamond! Like a diamond those chairs come in! I never had a problem, never had a problem in 20 years! Like a diamond!

With a smile on my face I pick up my change and pocket my receipt. 1 realize this is what I miss most of all. This is what I have to come to New York for.

[Originally appeared in The lndependent Weekly July 1992.]

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thunder and Lightning

Unlike my father, my mother came from a loving, close-knit family unit and knew the value of being loved. Though her life married to my father was tough and far from what she might have imagined it would be, she tried to pat us on the head, hug us, kiss us, and tell us we could be anything we wanted to be. Even President of the United States! This was quite remarkable and confusing because coupled with this message there was my dad often exploding in rage, hollering “You bums! You’re all three nothing but BUMS!” so I had a hard time reconciling which I was. I would say to my mom, I couldn’t be anything I wanted to be. If I wanted to be a brain surgeon, I couldn't cut into someone, so there were limits to my capabilities. But she would just shake her head and say, “You could if you put your mind to it.” This made me feel that my mind was the all-important instrument I had. No one in my family had attended college but from the time I can remember, maybe beginning in 3rd or 4th grade, my mother always talked about me going to college. It wasn’t a question of “if,” it was a statement of “when.” Years later, as my mother deteriorated from dementia and multiple strokes, it was hard for me to accept that she wasn’t the pillar I had always known. Our roles had reversed and being the pillar was now up to me.
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I peeked into the darkened room amid the thunder and storm and saw my mother huddled into a tight ball in her bed. I waved as she didn’t have her hearing aids in and I knew she’d do better “reading” my message. “Hi Mom” I mouthed,” Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she replied, looking at me cautiously. “I’m fine.”

“Can I get you anything? Do you want me to turn on the fan?”

“No. I’m scared,” she answered.

“Scared?” I asked surprised, “Of what?”

“The thunder. I’m scared of the thunder.”

I knelt down beside the bed and squeezed her hand.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s raining hard and lightning, but it’ll pass.”

Wide-eyed, my Mom began to talk. “I was always afraid of the thunder. I would tell my mother and she would say, ‘Don’t worry hokess (an Armenian word meaning sweetheart) I won’t let anything get you. I’m here. You’re safe with me.’ And she would climb in my bed behind me and put her arms around me and hug me.”

At 83, my mother was not a child but her dementia made her very childlike. As I frequently had done with my children, I tried to put myself in her place, tried to imagine what it must be like looking at the world through her eyes, but in this case, that was very difficult. With my children, I too had been a child, had been looking to my parent for love, guidance, help. But now, with my mother as the one who needed me, I couldn’t picture what she must be feeling because I had never known her to be afraid.

My mother had worked until she was 81; the last twenty years in a department store, four hours a day, five days a week. Even as a part-timer, she always outsold the full-time help. Maybe it came from years of running her own business, maybe it came from her intuition about when to pursue the customer and when to withdraw, maybe it came from her extraordinary sense of customer service — whatever it came from, she was a terrific salesperson.

Customer service was something my mother taught me starting at the age of 10 when I graduated from working in the back of our drycleaners to working in the front. I was eager to learn because I hated the back of the store with all those dirty clothes and all that steam and the hangers and plastic bags….besides, the front of the store was the only place where there was air-conditioning. The rest of the store could rise to 110 degrees in the summer with all the pressure from the steam pressing machines. Waiting on customers in the front of the store was a huge step up.

“As soon as they come in, take the clothes from the counter and begin sorting: ladies, men’s, pants, shirts, skirts, dresses.”

“Make sure you put suits together — it’s cheaper for the customer to pay for a suit than separates.”

“Ask, are they pick-up or delivery?”

“If you can’t remember their name, ask them, ‘Would you please spell your name for me?’ that way they won’t know you forgot. Write clearly in all capital letters so it’s easy to read when they come to pick-up.”

"Remember, there are five drycleaners in this town; the only reason they go to one over another is customer service. Our prices are about the same, our cleaning is the same, but it’s how fast you can get them out of the store that they appreciate. Stopping at the cleaners isn’t something they want to do — it’s something they have to do. Either racing to work or racing home or racing to pick up their kids, we’re always just a stop on their way to something else. The quicker you get them in and out, the happier they’ll be.”

I listened carefully but what she made sound simple didn’t seem simple at all. We had over 400 customers and whenever they came in the door somehow, my mother knew everyone’s name and she always seemed to know exactly how and when they wanted their cleaning.

“Hello Mrs. Shapiro, how are you today? Will you be picking up next Tuesday? I’ll make sure the shirts get heavy starch.”

“Good morning Mr. Turner, we can deliver on Thursday and the shirts will be on a hanger, no starch.”


As I counted and marked the clothes to throw in the basket for cleaning, I felt sure I was getting the hang of it. I carefully checked the pockets and put anything I found in a small pay envelope that got attached to the ticket to be returned to the customer upon pick-up.  

Once I found a beautiful pair of earrings in a man’s pants pocket; but my mother surprised me by removing them from the ticket. At the time I didn’t understand. I watched as she checked her files for the man’s work number, called and I listened. She told him I’d found them and did he want them attached to the suit or did he prefer to come pick them up himself? When he arrived within the hour I got a ten-dollar tip for finding them…ten dollars! That was a fortune to me. Still I didn't understand why she'd called him.

“They weren’t his wife’s.” my mother told me.

Through my life there was nothing she didn’t know, nothing she couldn’t do, and yet here we were. As the thunder clapped in the distance, I climbed in beside her shivering body and soothed, “It’s alright, Mom. Nothing can get you. I’m here — you’re safe with me.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Father Didn’t Know Best

I suppose the softness in my heart for children came from a place of unmet need, a great emotional hunger that seemed never to be satisfied. I don’t know that you could say I was deprived. I had a mother and a father; I had a roof over my head and food to eat; I had clothes and relatives and gifts at Christmas. But I also had a life with turmoil always swirling all around. It made me afraid. It made me insecure and it made me doubt I would survive. However disloyal it may seem to some, my father was a large source of my insecurity. His life was one of deep disappointments, hurts, and humiliation but that was no comfort to me. Even as an adult, when I learned of the beatings, the abandonment, the physical trials and the financial setbacks he had to overcome, it made little difference. While I understood it intellectually, I didn't emotionally. I needed him. He was never there for me.
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Sitting at my friend’s table, admiring her newly renovated kitchen, I noticed a beautiful hand-colored drawing, but without my glasses I couldn’t quite make out what I was seeing.  “It’s an onion,” Esther said, “a red onion. A friend of mine did it for me because it’s my favorite vegetable.” I was stunned. The dreaded onion... nemesis of my childhood. In that instant, I was transported back forty years to a very different table.
My father had some very fixed ideas about what was beneficial for his children. Without scientific back up or any documented proof, he dictated maxims for our growth, convinced he was doing what was best for us. Too many to outline, here are a few of the more questionable.


You must write right-handed.
To him, there was something wrong with being left-handed. My sister was left-handed and my father labored over correcting her of this defect. She was doomed to practice a hundred times everyday after school, “I will write with my right hand.” “Daddy,” I tried to explain, “being left or right handed isn’t a bad thing, it has to do with something in your brain. Look, here it is in my science book,” I pleaded. But he fumed at my textbook and me. “I told your mother not to put the high chair on that end of the table! She was always handing her things from the left side THAT’S why she’s left-handed! But would she listen to me? NO! And what have we got? SHE’S LEFT-HANDED — THAT’S what we got!” It was said as if my sister had leprosy and the blame was all my mother’s.


Musical talent could be instilled.
To that end, I was given an alto saxophone in the fourth-grade because he wanted all his children “to be musically inclined.” Never mind that it was almost as big as I was and clearly not an instrument your typical 4th grader would play. But for all his dictums, nothing equaled the terror of onions for me.


Onions are good for you.
Each night, along with our dinner, we had huge bowls filled with salad. (“Salad is good for you, you need your greens.”) And along with a need for salad, onions held some magical property for your well-being and digestion. The salad was always punctuated with thick slices of raw onion, drenched in dressing. Biting, rings of crunch that made me gag. I loved salad, but hated onions. I would eat my way around the onions until inevitably everything was gone but them. Covering the bottom of my bowl in a sickening layer coated with Good Season’s Italian Dressing, I stared at those onions willing them to disappear. I was not allowed to leave the table until the onions were gone. Presumably (my father believed) until they were eaten, but I spent my childhood finding ways to dispose of this vegetable I despised.
At first, I employed the simple tricks. My father would leave the table and I would dump a good deal of the onions back into the serving bowl or onto a sympathetic someone’s plate.  What onions remained required nerves of steel to swallow, sometimes whole, just to get them off of my plate. The nights when my father sat there with me and I had no chance to unload them, I would sit, tears streaming down my face, until the light darkened outside the dining room windows and it was time to be sent to bed.


When I did eat raw onions, they caused me to choke and it was a struggle not to throw up the rest of my dinner right then and there. Onions permeated every family mealtime and I worked to escape them. Chewing, putting my paper napkin up to mouth and slowly coughing them into it was only good for a mouthful or two. The masticated onions created too much of a mess for the napkin and my pocket. Summer was a good time for me because we used these white plastic glasses set in yellow lattice holders that were perfect for hiding onions. I would pretend to take a drink of water but actually spit the onion inside. These plastic glasses provided hidden transport for the unwanted slices and were a godsend to me until the day my unsuspecting mother, who was “tired of drinking out of plastic,” threw them away.


I couldn’t imagine why night after night, sometimes until nine o’clock, he would torture me so. The onions triggered a hate for my father that rose like bile in my mouth every dinnertime. It seemed cruel and unusual punishment and my ten-year-old mind schemed to have him tried in court in for what he subjected me to.

To this day, I cannot eat raw onions, scallions, chives, or anything remotely resembling them without gagging. If I unknowingly eat something with uncooked onion, an acidic secretion rises from my stomach and I have to abandon the food just to settle me down. An emotional wave comes over me and I am brought back to that dining room table — clenched fists below the surface and visions of hate filling my head. It is not how I wish to remember my father, but it is the legacy he has left me.

My mother was beginning the task of emptying out her home and trying to sell the house they lived in for almost twenty years. I am getting the dining room set. I have always loved the buffet and the ornate Old-World metal pulls that accent each drawer and cabinet door.  But I wonder if the memory of those onions will rise up each time I seat myself at his table.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Miss Kimble

I’ve always wanted to write. Even as a fifth grader, I tried my hand at expressing what I was feeling through words on the page, desperately hoping that someone, anyone, would read and understand and throw me a life preserver to keep me from being sucked into the vortex of my family’s saga. Whenever I felt as if I was going under — it was always a teacher who saved me.
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Back in fifth grade, when I must have failed my vision test before the start of school, I had to get my first pair of glasses. I remember the diagnosis was astigmatism. And though I didn’t know what that meant, I was absolutely clear that I did NOT want glasses. My father, on the other hand, was clear: I was getting glasses. He took me to Sears or some such place and I was forced to choose from the frames that were on sale all of the choices completely awful. Even if you’ve NEVER worn glasses, you’d recognize the frames I ended up with truly hideous, white with silver flecks, sweeping upward at the outer edges…butterfly glasses, they were called; can you picture them? And as if the torture of having to wear glasses wasn’t bad enough in my fragile fifth-grade life, it got worse when I met my new teacher, Miss Kimble.

(these are much nicer than mine were)


Miss Kimble (the only horrible teacher I have ever had well, with the exception of Mr. Burson) came to Washington Elementary School that year and on the very first day, the very first five minutes of class, she instructed everyone to take out their marble composition notebooks, open to the first page, and copy what she had written in cursive on the board:
“Miss Kimble is great on neatness.”
I can still hear her booming voice echoing those words, “Boys and girls? Miss Kimble is GREAT on neatness. Class, write that in your notebooks and when you go home today, I want you to tell your parents: Miss KIM-ble is g-RRReat on neatness.” Between the gawky eyeglasses and Miss Kimble, my ten-year-old life was in ruins.

From that very first day and every night thereafter, I’d complain about Miss Kimble and her dictatorial ways. Everyone had to place their books on the left side of their desks
neatly; everyone had to write the same story about the same characters; Miss Kimble even made everyone go to the bathroom at the same time! Though my parents exchanged silent glances, my father warned me not to talk against my teacher. In his mind, the teacher (like the customer) was always right. Still, they looked concerned. Unlike my entire school experience to date, for the first time, I didn’t want to go to school in the mornings. Sullen and depressed, I got ready, dragging my feet as I walked slowly out the front door each day. I felt doomed. The glasses only made things look worse.

Though the school day is five hours long, after her horrific opening statement, I never heard much else the dreaded Miss Kimble said. Her introduction remains the only thing I remember about my fifth-grade experience at Washington Elementary. But to be truthful, my stay there only lasted eight days. On day eight, my prayers were answered.

While Miss Kimble was droning on about something or other, a note was delivered to her which she stopped to read and report to the class: I was to gather ALL my things, she said snippily, and report to the office. I was being transferred. I couldn’t believe my ears! I was escaping from the clutches of Miss Kimble! I felt incredibly lucky as I packed my notebooks and papers. Smiling with pity at my classmates, stuck behind in Miss Kimble’s neatness, I left the room. For years after, through all sorts of childhood resentments and hatreds, whenever I doubted that my father loved me, I held on to that rescue. In that moment, ugly eyeglasses seemed a small price to pay.

At B.F.Gibbs, Mrs. Tworsky was everything Miss Kimble was not. From the second I entered her classroom she smiled and was encouraging. Everything about her was wonderful. She made the opening of each book seem a treasure, waiting to be discovered. Her writing assignments were adventurous explorations for my mind. She sounded and looked gentle and kind, even soft. She was exactly the presence I needed in my troubled life. My transfer into the arms of Mrs. Tworsky was a return to the sheltering, nurturing world of school I had always known. Once again it became the haven I had always known; a place where I could freely expressed myself. In her class, I began writing and under her guidance, I wrote my heart out.

I never questioned why Mrs. Tworsky kept me in at recess to discuss what I had written. I simply thought she was interested in my stories and what I had to say.

“In your story, you have the characters living in a domed city on Mars,” she recounted. “It seems a very desolate, barren place you describe. I liked that you had their water supplied by plants growing water-filled pods. That was an interesting detail. Now tell me again, what was outside the dome?”

“Nothing,” I replied, “an empty atmosphere with no oxygen.”

“And at the end of your story, the girl leaves the dome. Is that right?”
“Uh-huh.”
“Why does she do that?”
“Because she wants to die,” I explained matter-of-factly.

Years later, after working in the business world, I fulfilled a dream that Mrs. Tworsky seeded. I became a teacher. As I faced my first class, thirty-one strong, scared that I wouldn’t be able to manage, that I was in way over my head, I tried to be what all my former teachers had been: challenging, caring, dedicated to standards, expecting the most. In the days ahead, I pulled on the lessons taught to me by my many teachers. Finally, months into that first year, as I surveyed my class working excitedly on our first newsletter, complete with school wide surveys on the worst cafeteria food, interviews about our planned field trip, even an original comic strip by a boy named Jabbar, I smiled.

Looking around, there were kids scattered everywhere: at tables, under tables, and hunched over tables. Boys were bunched in a corner struggling with layout; girls were arguing over words and subheads. The noise was at times overwhelming but the appearance was one of controlled chaos swirling around me. From kindergarten through fifth grade, I had gotten a lot from my teachers. Now that I’m older, with or without glasses, I could see that Miss Desmond, Miss Lubelle, Mrs. Baummeister, Miss Swinburne, Miss Micklis, and of course, Mrs. Tworsky, would have been proud
because after all, neatness was never my forte.
[The names in this piece have NOT been changed; I want to applaud the innocent and disgrace the guilty.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

this journey...

well, i hadn't really known what i was getting into when i started this but i did know that i would be putting myself on the line, exposing what was important and visceral to me, and with luck, connecting to both those i know and those i don't.

so far, some of that has started happening... and surprisingly, this blogging is a bit addictive! ever since i hit that "publish" button monday night i have been checking the site, drawn to post more, seeing if i have any followers or comments.

many of you have been generous with your feedback (sent to my email), but i know i have a long way to go in building this connection as well as learning the mechanics of this venue. do i post comments to all the posts? do i email everyone every time i post? i'll learn, but in this initial stage, please bear with me.

so, if i'm just sharing (as i am now), i'll post in italics with the title "this journey." if it's a piece of my real writing, it will appear as my first post did with a unique title. now i'll try to fulfill my end of the bargain by posting (probably sunday and thursday nights) what i hope will resonate with readers and explore the inside; and for your part, if you are interested in this exploration, then you must sign on to follow and post your thoughts!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Tales From Denise James...

Just to get us started on the right foot, I’m using a pseudonym because I want to be perfectly honest with you. Honest about my life, my feelings, my troubles, my happiness, my dilemmas…and if I’m going to be honest, then I’d rather do so behind a veil.  It will make things easier. Easier for me because I won’t have to worry about hurting those whose life stories are inexplicably intertwined with mine.  Easier for you because you won’t have to worry about reading your life story in print...I may give you all pseudonyms as well. 

Why hide?  Well, everyone’s life has its ups and downs but not everyone wants to have their sagas open for public scrutiny.  Why do I?  Because I think that when we have our moments, dark and terrible or joyful and uplifting, these are experienced by so many of us — and yet we never seem to have time to talk about them.

Not to say that our society doesn't do a lot of talking — good God there’s so much talking — frivolous, insignificant, harmful talking that we do (in person, over the radio, on television, through Facebook and Twitter and IM-ing) but that’s not the kind of talking I’m talking about.

It’s been difficult to zero in on just what I should share first with you in our conversation, but I think my father’s death would be appropriate.  My father and I had a distanced, stormy relationship at best.  His was a life of childhood poverty, loss, and abuse that created his violence and bitterness.  I stayed out of his way mostly and being the youngest, my siblings took the brunt of his anger and rage, but they also enjoyed his occasional merriment and were part of his conspiratorial pleasure in the pranks he played.  There was irony in the fact that as the least favorite of his children, I was the one with him the last week of his life.

I was going to stay with my dad while my mom traveled west to be with my sister.  We’d kept my sister’s health crisis a secret.  Secrets were common in my family and though they annoyed me, they seemed an inevitable part of my past, present, and, I’d supposed, future.  Due to my dad’s unwellness, my mother was unwilling to leave my father alone for ten days, so I was coming for seven of them.  I arranged an enjoyable week for my own family and planned to care for my father while maintaining the secret of my sister’s illness.

I’d already created a fantasy that my father and I would spend the time connecting: talking, sharing, cooking and eating (two of his favorite things) and laughing about what was good in our family’s past.  Perhaps I’d already composed the fairy tale of his finally giving me what I’d always longed for and never gotten — his unconditional love.  Though it had never been a part of our “relationship,” even at this late date, it didn't stop me hoping.  I went with an unspoken and enormous expectation.

My dad was in the hospital for yet another episode in the story of his failing health  heart attacks, chronic lung disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes, now acid reflux.  I even felt a bit relieved thinking that the main responsibility for his care that week would not be mine.  Surely the hospital was the best place for him to be, while my mother was away.  His hospital stay actually seemed to be a good thing on the eve of her departure.  But she told me she was not going to leave; after 56 years of marriage, she just couldn't go and leave him.  I believed she was being foolish and losing her chance to escape and to help my sister.

The next day brought a diagnosis of advanced esophageal cancer and with it, little hope for any recovery, given his declining health.  The only “remedy” would result in his inability to eat real food at all and given my father’s love for food, it seemed a particularly cruel way to live out the short remainder of his life.  When the choice was put to him, he insisted on being taken home, with no treatment of any kind.  He wanted out and he wanted out right then and there.  It was up to my mother and me to get him home.

I could spend another column covering the details of his last days, but for this story those details are not what’s important.  What’s important for me is that after getting him home, hospital bed and hospice in tow, my father died four days later and we had no conversation at all.  No reconciliation, no shared love, no wistful expressions of how we wished it could’ve been between us.  We existed those last four days in much the same way we had lived our relationship, avoiding any intimacy. 

Here we were, at the end of his life, still holding back whatever might lie inside, not giving a thing to the other.  I felt it was HIS responsibility.  He was the father; he was the adult.  He should have been the one to open the door to closure. 

Why didn’t he?  Why did he die in the same way he lived his life, not inviting me in?  Why couldn’t he have given me that which I so longed for — his love, his affection, and his pride in who I was and what I had become? 

It’s years since he slipped off into congestive heart failure, a peaceful kind of drowning of him.   As it happened, I sat and watched and did what the nurses had instructed me to do, but ever since, reliving and rethinking and rehashing those four days, I’ve come to understand something awful about me. The opening of doors was as much my responsibility as it was his. I could have said what I wished to hear.  I could have given up the fantasy for the reality in front of me:  that he was incapable of giving me more than he did, that his life was troubled and his psyche flawed,  that if I wanted to get something, there was something I had to give.  The forever-missed opportunity to have that final closure was more a failure of mine and less of his. 

I live uneasily with this knowledge   that my lack of generosity and my childish stubbornness left me closed to what was right before me — an opportunity to say what needed to be said.  
He was my father:  I hated him, I loved him, and I wanted to know that he loved me.