Saturday, December 31, 2011

Memories in a Box

Devil Dog - 1977

When my granddaughter was born in 2004 I joined the baby paparazzi.  I captured every imaginable expression Skylar made and once she started to smile, my camera seemed to deliriously snap away on it’s own.
Back then, the latest batch in my memory card would send me flying upstairs to crank out the photos on the brand new grandparent edition of the Canon printer.  Then, after an impatient drying time I would practically leap downstairs to show Jimmy.  He was thrilled and confused – I was never a ‘baby person.’  I guess, I hadn’t fallen in love with one yet.  Often he would look at my face flushed with affection for Sky and he’d say, “What have you done with my wife?”
Fast forward to now and I still take photos practically every time Sky and I are together – but this website is not The Grandma Show.  Shortly after it was live I intended to fill in the ‘photos’ section to highlight myself as an author and speaker and also show bits of my life.  Because POOR WIDOW ME is so personal, I assumed that that a reader would want to see a glimpse of the ‘players’ I write about.  I know I would.  I hope you do.
This forced me to go through my life in pictures.  I put it off until today.  It’s easier for me to go forward than backwards.  Just ask my shrink.  Plus, most of the pictures from the early 70′s and decades following are in the basement haphazardly thrown into big cardboard boxes.  On a full moon or some weird star alignment, I had put together an album or two, but mostly I’d be diving.
Many photos in frames are strewed throughout the house and because they have sat in their place for so long, they don’t jump out at me anymore.  They’re like a coffee pot always there on the kitchen counter.  Needing contenders for this web site, I methodically viewed each one, choice photos to begin with, took some out of their frame and lined them up as if they were competing in a beauty pageant.
And, then there were the photos from Jimmy’s wake.  Boy was I lucky that my kids had selected so many pictures of their Dad at various times of his life and had taped them on oak tag under plastic for the funeral parlor to frame for viewing.  Those were still in tact and I went through them…with a magnifying glass and a glass of Cabernet.
We were so ridiculously young; in many, we were even younger than our kids are today.  I saw the parade of my hairstyles that my son Doug says he is going to dig out and display at my wake.  I guess, it’s good to have a project and something to look forward to when your mother dies.
The clothing styles were silly, like costumes from an 80′s movie and some were costumes from Halloween parties – some at our house – In the background was the wall we painted neon yellow thinking it was cool and there was the organ that I mentioned in an earlier blog entry – the one that just couldn’t play ‘Old Lang Syne.’
One year I dressed up as a dog and Jimmy went as a Devil.  We sent our ‘Devil Dog’ picture (in the costume pictured above…but a different photo) to Drakes Cakes hoping they would use us in a commercial or at least send us some Devil Dogs. We never heard from them.
There were hundreds of photos of the kids at various ages, that recorded the normal Kodak milestone moments.  When parents say “it goes so fast” it’s because it goes so fast.
In many shots I was still wearing shorts.  I don’t remember my legs looking that good. Those days are over, but as I sat on the floor telling myself I really have to stop this reunion, I noted that I still look pretty good, not old yet…until I struggled to get up.
I stared at pictures of my friend’s son Joey, some as a little boy and in others he was teenager.  Just two days ago, he became a father.  When I congratulated him yesterday, I still called him Joe-Joe.
I braced myself each time I came across a little booklet of black and white photos knowing they were from the 1950’s, my childhood.  I threw them back in the box and out of my head.  We all heal and deal differently, right?
Many pictures were of old friends, some had died and others I had lost touch with.  We seemed to be laughing hysterically about something in every one.  And, practically everyone had a cigarette in his or her hand.
In some photos, I am the only one alive.  I sat and pointed, dead, dead, dead, dead, me. Family members – out-laws -who I no longer speak to looked happy, having fun with us at a barbecue or celebrating a holiday.  There it was – proof that we used to like each other and in some cases love each other.  Where did that go?  Where did theygo?
There was Fanny, my mother-in-law, now almost 94, young, animated and clear eyed and strong.  With each picture of Jimmy I checked the date and calculated how much longer he was going to live.  I’m not sure why I did that.
Couples who later divorced gave nothing away in these old photos.  They seemed devoted and loving.
Sometimes Jimmy and I smiled for the camera, a knee jerk reaction to a “Say Cheese” even though we were in the middle of a fight.  Of course, usually when we didn’t want to talk or touch or we were trying to find a creative way to say “I’m sorry” – there were no photos.   People don’t take a pictures during the miserable times unless it’s these days and you’re on a reality show.
The camera isn’t rolling when you’re fighting or crying as you put your dog to sleep or just eating a normal dinner and telling a wacky story about your day.  No one takes a picture of you making love – unless you’re Kim Kardashian.
So, I’m discovering that photos don’t really tell our story at all.  They jar our memory, but still it’s incomplete.  Even so, I’ll be filling up the ‘photo’ section on this web site soon.
I guess these snapshots to viewers will be similar to the ones that most of us post on Facebook hoping someone will care enough to notice that we still exist, that we’re not only a memory in a box.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Fresh Starts

My father-in-law, Charlie used to say that New Year’s Eve is for amateurs. People who rarely go out during the year “doll themselves up” to let loose. “What’s all the fuss about?” he would shrug. “It’s just another day.”
Each December 31, we would quote him, and obviously, I still do, but I love New Year’s Eve so, of course, we’d do something fun to celebrate.  Jimmy was enthusiastic, too.  He would say, “I always get the last word, “Yes, dear.”
For me, it’s not just New Years that’s exciting. I even get a tiny surge as I turn the calendar to a new month. Starting fresh with a clean slate is wide open to possibilities.  And, Mondays, also – most dread Mondays.  Not me.
Of course, I don’t have a 9-5 workweek.  I don’t wrestle with that kind of stress.  I’ve heard that the most common day for a heart attack that kills you is Monday at 9 AM.  This is why I chill out Monday mornings and stay in my pajamas as long as possible.
Over the years, our New Year’s Eves varied and like everyone’s lives, some were memorable and others not.  Still, wherever we were for that launch of the new year, it was always a thrill to countdown from ten to zero and sing along to Auld Lang Syne.
We even bought an inexpensive organ one year and I practiced for weeks to learn how to play that song.  I finally sort of got it but it would have taken an awful lot of notes for any one to guess it on “Name that Tune.”  That stupid organ must have been broken.
There was nothing ho-hum about New Year’s Eve 1980.  I went into labor with my son and he was born on New Year’s Day.
Two years later, my father-in-law died on December 29th and ironically the family spent New Year’s Eve at his wake.  It certainly wasn’t “just another day.”
The world didn’t end and computers didn’t even crash as 1999 ticked to 2000 and, of course, everyone’s got a ‘where were you when’ story. Mine isn’t worth more than a  mention. We were on the Las Vegas strip feeling that scary Times Square squash from the crowd.
Fast forward to 2005, our last New Year’s Eve together.  We went to Atlantic City with with another couple.  Since it was the day before our son’s 25th birthday I asked him, “Doug, do you want what’s in the envelope or half my winnings?”
He hesitated because he knows that nine out of ten trips I lose.  Still, he grinned and said, “I’m going to go with ‘The Mouse.” (He calls me ‘Mouse.’)  He obviously inherited his parent’s degenerate gambling gene.  BUT – late in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve day when the others were napping I won $2700 in some silly slot machine that called my name.
The years keep passing, the calendar keeps flipping, and, yes, I have had some good times, even a meaningful one on a New Year’s Eve since then.
Next week I have no plans and that is fine with me. After mid-night, it will still be January 1st -  another fresh start.
Happy 2012 everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rain Woman

All my life I’ve been an idiot savant with dates. For some ridiculous reason if I hear your birthday once, I never forget it.
Some call me Rain Woman, although Dustin Hoffman’s bit with the toothpicks is out of my league.  I’m merely a single threat.  I do dates – nothing else.
Not long ago I ran into a family I hadn’t seen in years.  I had been fairly close to the wife, husband and their three kids.  I rattled off each of their birthdays — because I could.  One by one, they backed away.
My memory for dates doesn’t have a pecking order.  It can’t distinguish between people I love and a cab driver who possibly looking for a bigger tip announces, “Lady, today is my birthday!”
My 7th grade homeroom teacher, Miss Fine was born on February 9th.  I can’t get that out of my head.  I worry that data about a teacher long dead is using up space in my brain that I might put to better use.  In 1963 I resented Miss Fine for failing me in French all three marking periods and now I blame her every time I wander row after row in a parking lot searching for my car.
Just this past Sunday I was at a holiday party talking with my nephew’s live-in girlfriend.  I’d met her twice and if someone had a gun to my head I couldn’t tell him if her name was Alicia or Elise.
As I stammered with her name she was obviously put off until I said – “Okay, okay – I may not remember your name but know that your birthday is March 2nd.
She gasped.  I think I really impressed Alicia…or Elise.
I may not be able to fill in “Dear____” on her birthday card, but at least she’ll get it on time.
Trade-offs.  Life seems to be a series of trade-offs.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Is Writing Obituaries a Dead Art?

I read the obituaries every morning.  Unlike the news which is depressing – these half page mini biographies are entertaining – if you read between the lines.  After all, it takes a skilled writer to transform an ordinary life to an extraordinary one.
My fascination with and appreciation of obituaries began when a million years ago I worked side by side with ‘Sandi Beach’ at a small Long Island radio station.  How small was it?   Fiddling with the radio, I couldn’t get a clear signal for the station until I was in their parking lot.
The phones rarely lit up with callers and when they did we would panic certain that the building was on fire.
Anyway, at the time I had a column in the Fire Island Tide and the paper and the station I believe were owned by the same people.  Sandi was dying (literally) and they brought me in to be a familiar voice when she left the building (literally again)
Sandi was so boring I actually thought she was kidding.  I cringed each time she read the ‘doings’ on Fire Island and ended with ‘be there or be square.’
I put on a pleasant expression because I’m a sensitive person aware that she probably wasn’t thrilled to see me sitting beside her just waiting for her to keel over and catch her headphones.
Her obituary in Newsday was glowing.  Without making stuff up, the writer wove a story of this woman’s life that could have been compared to Eleanor freakin’ Roosevelt.
I was aghast (odd word, but accurate) and I remember saying to my husband, Jimmy,
“If I died today, even with my minuscule accomplishments in the right hands my obituary would read like a life I wish I had led.”
Together we decided to save the clipping to call on that writer “when our time comes.”
And, then, when Jimmy did die, I was incapable of posting anything but a ‘notice’ – the hard facts, born, died and survived by.  I regret I didn’t give him a Sandi Beach send-off so I tell myself that for Jimmy there wasn’t a need to boost his life in the newspaper because he was extraordinary.
But, there is still time for ME!  Here I am getting older and a new year is just weeks away. New beginnings bring to mind endings and that I may need a little help for my life story. So, now each morning as I read the obituaries I’m going to make a note of who puffs up the dead person best.
Is this similar to financial planning?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

My Teeny Tree 

On our last Christmas in 2005 Jimmy gave in and we got an artificial tree.  This was a huge moment for a man who had insisted for 33 years, “If we have a fake tree, what’s next? Fake food?”
Not only did the tree have to be real – it had to be gigantic – wide, full and tall, like a plus size woman with branches.  Our first two Christmases were in our studio apartment with an average ceiling height so we made up for it with a tree so wide that when we opened our sleeper couch each night the needles hung over our feet.
It took us years before we had a house that fit the tree and I have to admit that when we finally maneuvered the tree to just the right viewing angle it was magnificent.  It made a statement. And, the statement wasn’t ‘I have a small dick” believe me.
It was “I love this holiday because it represents family, food and friends and as Jimmy would say abbondanza! (Italian for abundance) He couldn’t get enough of all three.
It was a tradition for our family to go to the nursery together to pick out a tree and each year we looked forward to it being playful, joyful, and filled with eggnog delight.
I have no idea why that Norman Rockwell picture kept reappearing in each of our heads because the reality was that every year Jacki whined it was freezing and Dougie ran ahead and tripped over the tree stumps and Jimmy and I fought and shouted,’ let’s just pick something – anything  and get it home already!”
But, now in 2005 with the kids on their own and our little granddaughter just 20 months old, we found ourselves agreeing, You know, the fake trees today look real.  Maybe, 30 years of our feet finding a needle in May still buried in the carpet has been enough fun for us.
So, there we stood side-by-side in the now defunct Fortunoffs staring at rows of plastic trees decorated right out of a page of Home & Garden.  The piped in Christmas Music played and we hummed and mumbled some of the words here and there, aware, very aware that an era was over.
We questioned whether it was the trees on display were that gorgeous or was it the fabulous ornaments that the store decorator had used.
“If we hung these Lalique ornaments on my ugly Aunt Josephine and dressed her in green with her arms spread out even she would look Christmasy and beautiful too” Jimmy said.
We bought one, anyway.  It came in three pieces complete with stand. Easy breezy. When New Years rolled around, we put it back in the storage bag and there it sat waiting on a shelf in the garage for the next holiday season.
But, when the next Christmas came and my husband was gone I couldn’t put up the tree.  The following year I did, grateful that we had bought it together.  I didn’t have to buy the fake one and break our tradition alone.  It’s so silly what we think sometimes because by then, so much more, of course, was broken.
It’s year six this year and today I took out some old decorations and bought some new ones and placed them in different parts of the house and since neither Christmas Eve or Christmas Day will be here I put up a teeny little tree (pictured above)
I told my dog Tony “You see this tree, Ton?  That used to be the size of our top.”  Then, I scooped him up and even though Christmas music still stings a bit we danced together to I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Psychic in the Family

Several weeks ago, I moseyed into a neighborhood-clothing store for their promotional wine, cheese, fruit and cookies.  Who can resist a snack?   And, who doesn’t need a new-something-something?
God knows how many outfits I ruined trying them on with sticky fingers, (not the shoplifting reference) –  The owners had not thought this through. Retail is tough enough without adding on the potential for chocolate stains on garments that go over your head.  I felt guilty so I bought two tops.  Naturally, not the ones I tried on.  They were a mess!
Next to the dressing room, I noticed a sign up sheet to have your palm read, tarot cards, head scratched – you name it.  I peeked in the room. Two young girls who looked vaguely familiar – they probably went to high school with my kids.  They may have been part of the ‘study group’ who came over to our house while Jimmy and I were away, got drunk and threw up all over the carpet.  Now, they wore swami scarves and called themselves “Psychic Samantha” and “Telepathic Tiffany.”
I couldn’t resist. “Psychic Samantha” was adorable.  I sat opposite her and she began “Do you want your palm read or the tarot cards?” I chose the cards because I hadn’t washed my hands yet.
She looked deep into my eyes and all of a sudden, she was all knowing. She was no longer an entitled kid who got a brand new Mustang for graduation even though her grade point average was the speed limit.
“Do you want to know everything, good and bad?” she asked me in a creepy voice.
“Sure” I answered even though I wasn’t sure I was sure.
“You really must see a doctor.  Something is going on with you that needs immediate attention. I’m not kidding” she said.
I didn’t think she was kidding. Why would she kid about that, but none the less, she certainly had my attention.
“It’s probably something you can fix with medication, but I see you going from doctor to doctor.  I see it being a problem with your bones.  I feel it in my bones. She giggled. Check it out, okay? Mrs. Scibelli.”
“Sammy?  Is that you?” I thought it was you, but with the scarf and all…” I said.
We chatted a bit and I told her that my son Doug was still single, gave her his e-mail address and I briefly fantasized that Doug would marry her and at the wedding I would give a toast saying that my new daughter-in-law saved my life.  If not for her wise warning, I would be a pile of bones by now.
So, I immediately had a mammogram, a pap smear, a colonoscopy and a bone density test. Bingo!  All things clear but the bone density.  Not major, but Sammy nailed it with a result of BMD (bone mineral density) that is Osteopenia which is in between normal and Osteoporosis.
I just have to take vitamin D (that’s not really “medication”) and come back two years. The doctor could have checked off one year, so it’s really not anything.  But, somehow that gives Sammy even more credibility – she picked up something sorta kinda festering.  And I did go “from doctor to doctor” although, in truth I went to all these doctors because she pushed my panic button.
Oh, are Doug and Sammy dating?  Not yet, but doesn’t Samantha Scibelli have a nice ring to it?  And, how cool would it be to have a psychic in the family?  It could happen.  I think I feel it in my bones.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Happiness is Being Able to Write it In My Blog

At The Laughter For Life Club

So there I was yesterday driving to Bridgeport, Connecticut singing to the radio and looking forward to a speaking gig at The Laughter for Life Club, also referred to as the Happiness Club.  What could be bad?  Happy people are easy laughers and I was prepared, actually extra prepared because my expected audience (I was told) of 80 or so people were not widows.
Time spent varying my talk to fit these happy folks was well worth it.  Certainly other opportunities would come my way and now I am ready.
And, the process of preparing made me consider what made me, personally happy and what made me unhappy.  There were no huge surprises there, but it was interesting to re-look at my choices and wonder if I always chose happiness and if not, why not?
Having happiness on my mind, I asked Skylar, my 7 and a half-year-old granddaughter, “What do you think makes grandma happy?” Without a blink, she answered, “Seeing my face.”
Oh, God, just let me stay alive another five years to make that stick to her and then I can die HAPPY. 

As I pulled up to the address in Bridgeport, I saw a large apartment building beyond the security gate.  I asked the guard, “What kind of place is this?”
“Assisted living” he said.
I immediately texted my kids,  Is this an intervention?  Are you hiding here and going to pop up and sign me in?
I parked the car.  The light rain that had felt cozy along the way was now a downpour, a sign of doom and an extremely unhappy situation for hair at the tail end of a Brazilian straightening.
I was early for the 2 PM event although in this facility I was probably late for a nap.  I maneuvered myself around the wheelchairs and walkers and I hid in the Ladies Room. I passed the time  looking in the mirror, shaking my head and making a mental note to make sure my long term insurance was paid up.  A young woman walked in and for a moment I was excited until I realized she was someone’s aid.
Finally, I came out of hiding and looked at the spot I was to speak.  It was a pleasant enough open area, sort of like a big living room with nice bookshelves and couches.  Folding chairs were added on like you’d arrange if you were expecting company except all the furniture was facing a podium.
It was ten minutes to showtime and the room was empty.  The Laughter for Life Club has a speaker the first Tuesday of each month and I found out later that  the advertising for me had said, Tuesday the 4th and it was the 6th.  Naturally all the people from the ‘outside’ were confused.
Soon one couple did show up.  Grateful for an audience, I greeted them like old friends.  It was their second marriage. They told me that they he had been married for 60 years and she for 50 years and together they were married for 8 years.  I did the math quickly and they each had to be 140.
As the three of us sat there, at least I got to tell them the moment from my book called “Growing Old Together” about the couple in their 80′s who I envied because I assumed they were together since birth until the woman corrected me with, “Honey, we’ve only been married for 3 years.”
This lovely couple listened and smiled at me politely. Then, they looked around the room at all the empty folding chairs and couches and back at me with eyes that spoke the familiar, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I left them for a moment to stand at the podium and asked the young woman setting up the cookies and lemonade if she would please take my picture, the one posted at the start of this blog. Hey, a photo opt is a photo opt.  In truth, I didn’t give my talk at the podium.  As the residents dribbled in and the room filled with twelve people, I turned one of the couches around to face them and be closer, still holding the mike. (necessary)
I began by saying how this set up is so similar to FDR’s ‘Fireside chats.’  Their long-term memory nodded knowingly and we were off to a steady start. I got a few laughs and I couldn’t help but think of the wonderful comic Mickey Freeman who died recently – He’d play all the nursing homes and say, “I killed. there wasn’t a dry seat in the house!”
Much of what I had planned to say was not going to go over well and as I briefly turned over each index card, I was tempted to toss the inappropriate ones in the air like David Letterman does.
I intended to close with number five from something I found on the internet – the deathbed regrets confessed to a hospice worker.  Obviously, that was a card that would have burst into flames had I read it to them.  I had chosen it originally because number five was about choosing to be happy.
I want to share it with you – just because.  To read all five:
This was written by hospice worker Bonnie Ware.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have sillyness  in their lives again.  When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
All in all, the hour passed surprisingly fast and luckily none of the residents did.  Some stayed for cookies and we talked a bit.
But, what made the day all worthwhile was the woman who pushed her walker towards me and said, “I’m sorry I fell asleep, but what I heard I liked very much.”