Let Everyone Play

In 1984, many of us remembered Sally Fields holding onto a coveted Oscar for her role in “Places in the Heart” and declaring, “You like me. You really like me!” In actuality, what she said was, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me.”

Like most of us, I’ve come to hold onto the first quote as the real one. For me it has accurately summed up my need for belonging and acceptance over the years, and explains why I felt so giddy last month after receiving my yearly t-shirt and hat from the Veteran’s Senior Center of Northern Ca.

I felt like some smilin’ 5-year-old, that day, who lost her first tooth and was eagerly awaiting a visit from the tooth fairy. And if the truth be told, I continue to feel that way.

You would think at this age that I’d be able to buy myself as many blue t-shirts and baseball caps as I wanted, and technically you’d be right. But there’s something that makes me cry with happiness when I think about what the shirt and cap mean. There’s something that’s so deep and primal about what those two items represent, that in one instance it overwhelms me with an unbridled joy and a feeling of unconditional acceptance and love. And in another instance, I travel back to my childhood, and am engulfed in a down-to-my-toes sorrow and a feeling of exclusion and dislike.

No matter how old, how rich or poor, how educated or uneducated we are; where we were born, or the color of our skin…we all have the need to belong and be accepted.

When we’re young, having friends is so important to our development and well-being. But maintaining friendships as we age sometimes becomes difficult. Our careers, family demands, and health restraints – all pull us in different directions – all pull us further away of what is truly important; truly valuable to our survival.

As a child, I keenly remembered being left out of play groups and study groups. According to a group of neighborhood kids, my family was poor and our father was crazy. So, it gave them a reason and justification to exclude me from playing kickball and hide and seek in the Cherry Street Park on those sultry, Adirondack nights as the lightening bugs dotted the sky.

“No newcomers,” Rosemary yelled as I rounded the corner from Orchard Street to Cherry, smiling with the anticipation of a naive 10-year-old who just finished her household chores and was ready to play. “No newcomers,” she yelled as I innocently looked behind me until the reality of her comment struck home.

Slowly my smile faded, ever-so-slowly my pace slackened. I was crushed – my spirit deflated – my self-esteem kicked in the stomach. But I knew then, as a 10-year-old that those kids weren’t going to get the best of me. So, I smiled even broader, straightened-out my young shoulders and walked right by them ignoring their jeers and taunts because I knew who I was – even as a 10-year-old – and I knew that I was better than their insults and abusive remarks, and I wanted nothing to do with them or their unkind ways. Or at least that’s what I told myself, as I walked around the block and went straight home to curl-up in my closet and sob myself to sleep, comforted only by the quiet and darkness of a long, summer night.

The fact remains: we were poor and our father was crazy. Killing guys on Pork Chop Hill during the Korean Conflict and leading men into a battle that took many of their young lives can do that to a person. There’s no doubt in my mind that my dad suffered from PTSD; no doubt in my mind that his self-imposed isolation and sitting for hours playing basketball with a small plastic, hand-held toy after he came home from the war were both signs of a mentally unstable young man; a man not able to appropriately parent four children and be a good husband to Mom. His demons were many and all went untold. So he’d thrash-out at my mother and beat-up on us kids and the more I’d watch shows like, “Father Knows Best,” and “Leave it to Beaver,” the more I thought something’s not right with this family, something’s not right in our home. But my mother would feed us, iron our clothes and try her best to keep smiling between my dad’s constant blows.

My mom would divorce him and eventually he died young – died alone and on vomit from an illness unknown, and I and my siblings went on with our young lives and turned into good people in spite of our poor start.

We had something more than money could buy – we had something more than fashionable clothing and all the newest toys – we had a mother who loved us and believed in us and taught us to be compassionate and fair. We had something that no one could give us or take from us; we had something undefined.

Our survival as a community, a nation, a world and a species, all depends upon our ability to make friends and play nicely together in the sand box that we call life. No matter who wins this election come November, may we all go forward and graciously let everyone play, because it’s necessary and it’s needed and it’s the right thing to do.

And in the meantime, I have a nifty new cap and a pretty blue shirt and I’m hoping that someday that everyone does, too. Have a great day, and I’ll catch ya the next time, looking at life from my shoes.

 

 

A Silent Drive Home

I’ve come to the inauspicious conclusion in life that old age doesn’t kill us – loneliness does. On a recent trip home this fall to visit my family members and friends in the heart of the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, I had the unmistakable experience of seeing firsthand what isolation does to people when they’ve been indiscriminately placed in elder care and then unintentionally ignored over a period of time.

I went home to see my mom and help out with some day to day activities of shopping, cleaning and cooking to lighten her workload and visit with her while we did our routine activities every day. What greeted me upon my arrival was something totally and completely unexpected: my uncle (her youngest brother) was hospitalized and subsequently placed in a nursing home, and my mom was depressed and not eating or socializing.

When I travel back to my childhood home, I expect to be emotional about seeing people and places that I haven’t seen in a long time – it’s part of what makes me, me. What I don’t expect, though, is to be so completely and totally inundated with feelings of powerlessness in situations that I have no control over – I don’t expect to be so thoroughly overwhelmed when I looked at faces long lost to any semblance of hope or redemption.

Every day I taxied my mom to and from the nursing home to see her baby brother. Every day my uncle’s strength improved, my mom’s resilience did, too. Where I once saw helplessness and desperation in mom’s eyes, eventually I noticed a life-force slowly coloring her cheeks and soon after an appetite for food and activity.

In November 2015, I read an article in the New York magazine that described a study on relationships called, “The Widowhood Effect,” and how when one spouse dies, the likelihood of their partner dying increased significantly. My mother and uncle aren’t “partners,” as such, but have had a close relationship since their youth, and I seriously began to wonder if my mom’s passing would mirror this study. She certainly was not doing well when I first landed, and I began to wonder if instead of a visit with friends and loved ones, I’d be attending a funeral for a favorite uncle and soon after a wake for my mom.

Allowing myself a brief time to deal with the emotions of the situation, one day a flicker of life suddenly appeared in my mom’s sweet eyes; and I decided that this little, gray-haired Italian passerotta (term of endearment for sparrow) still had some hell-raising left to do, and so I set out to make changes as needed.

Operation passerotta started and soon after success came as gradual and beautiful as the leaves changing colors on the hills of the surrounding Adirondack mountains.

She sat in silence. I sat quietly nearby.

I cooked and ate. She eventually started cooking and eating.

And very soon after, I became my funny, wise-cracking self, and she became her feisty rompicoglioni (pain in the butt) self.

Her brother’s physical therapy started working, and soon we started doing other things besides trips to the nursing home. Shopping at the dollar store, picking up a few things at the local grocery store – all things she routinely did before her brother’s ill health – slowly began to be part of her daily agenda; slowly began to blossom.

What amazed me each day, though; what never seemed to be missing with mom was her unconditional kindness and unwavering love for others.

Every day she dressed and put-on a little makeup. Then she walked down her apartment’s long hallway, deliberately grasping the handrails to guide herself toward the apartment steps that she took one at a time; careful not to fall or trip on her way out to her rusted, but reliable Flintstone car. And off we’d slowly drive over familiar roadways, past familiar homes.

“Take a left here,” she reminded me. “Go straight over the Meco Flats,” she continued.

“Make sure you watch for that pot hole on Easterly. I think it’s right there. Stop at the stop light and drive slowly. We don’t want to miss the turn-off,” she gently guided me as if carefully reminding herself.

“Why are you smiling?” she’d ask and continued before I responded. “Wait ‘till you get old. You’ll soon be doing the same.”

I sighed and kept smiling and went on with the drive until we reached the nursing home. Every day she walked into the place, she left a little love: a little kindness.

“I see you.” She said to the wheel-chair-bound woman sitting in the entrance hallway. “I see you,” she continued as she bent closer to her face and gently cupped her cheeks between her hands. “And I love you,” she whispered into her ear, as she smiled and kissed her cheek.

“And God bless you, too. Have a nice day.”

And down the hall she’d shuffle, taking a moment or two to acknowledge most everyone she’d pass.

Every day, we’d do the same thing. And every day she’d acknowledge the living and honor their spirit, and on the last trip to the nursing home – the last trip to my uncle’s temporary abode – we rounded the hallway’s corner to walk down one last time to sign him out and escort him home, and life hit us head-on.

I know my mother saw it. There was no mistaking it. What once was a life force, a life fully lived; was a being no more, was a soul for the heavens. A person of substance, now an inanimate lump. What once was a human, was vaguely hidden from view, by a flimsy, gray sheet on a one-way-wheeled stretcher; a stretcher of eternal rest.

We continued our walk until we reached my uncle’s room. It was time to go home and he was eagerly waiting. It was time to live life and continue what God planned.

Papers were signed, brief wishes exchanged and out the door we headed; out the door he was wheeled. Conversations were limited and emotions were raw; one last look at the stretcher-one last look at life stilled.

I looked for the wheel-chair lady. I know my mom did, too, but nowhere could I see her; nowhere was she found.

We drove home in silence – overwhelmed by the day. I remember the bright sun and blue sky and the rolling lush hills, speckled with the hint of color from a few frosted evenings, touched by the Adirondack cool air, and I silently thanked God for my car-mates and said a quiet prayer of gratefulness.

Life is precious.

Be kind to each other, People, and I’ll catch ya next time, looking at life from my shoes.

 

 

Lost Child

I never quite understood my affinity toward kids and their quaint, multifaceted peculiarities, but I learned years ago that their thought processes and actions totally fascinated me. From the moment I asked our neighbor’s kid why he had to splash every puddle in front of him on our walk and he answered, “’Cuz it makes my feet feel crunchy and my socks fit better”, to the more recent Little Miss Grumpy cat’s comment of “Mommy, this lady’s smiling at me. Tell her to stop smilin’ at me”, I’ve always been enamored with little people.

Kids have an innocence and naiveté that quickly dissipates with age and sophistication, and it’s their total and blatant honesty that I’ve always admired and tried to emulate. The problem is that with age and sophistication, we’re supposed to develop a certain editorial edge in order to maintain relationships – familial, professional and friendly. The difficulty for me is that while I’m juggling all these half-truths and inaccurate stories, I’m cluttering my already garbage-filled, aging memory with rubbish and crap that with time and repetition begins to cement in my brain as the honest truth. And if I repeat the story enough times to enough people, I’ve got a totally jaded version of what really, actually happened – what really, actually is the truth. And therein lies the dilemma – the edge has inadvertently created a dishonesty of sorts.

Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me that likes directness and honesty. New Yorkers are blatantly truthful people – mostly. If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask a New Yorker. I remember a clueless reporter shoving a microphone into the face of an obviously distraught New Yorker on the day of 9/11 and asking him how he felt, and how the incredulously New Yorker looked back at the reporter and bluntly said, “How the f–k do you think I feel?”

Simple. Direct. Honest. No game playing. I knew exactly how the guy felt. He didn’t have to elaborate for me. His world was crushed. Life as we knew it was now history. In the blink of an eye, our lives were transformed, and this stupid reporter asked him how he felt?

I don’t even know how to respond to stupid people like that. Kids don’t, either. Try asking a stupid, illogical question of a kid and I bet’cha they answer with a blank stare and silence. Either that or they totally ignore the question and start talking about a completely unrelated subject. They have an innate genius to sniff-out stupidity.

Maybe my affinity toward child-like honesty was learned. Mom brought us up to tell the truth and always, always be honest in your dealings with people – both professionally and personally. Doing this honors them and you and speaks volumes for your sense of integrity.

One of my former classmates from Estee Middle School ran into my mom a few years ago and asked about my well-being and then told her a story about me that made her proud to be my mom. Tommy told her how he tried to help me pass a test in our 9th grade Asian History class and how I refused to take his help because it was cheating, and I would not cheat. I was studying my butt off and trying like hell to pass the class, but was failing miserably. Allowing me to peek over his shoulder and copy the answers from his test, though, was not cool, despite the fact that I was well-aware that many in our 9th grade Honor’s History class were cheating at the time. It was dishonest, plain and simple, and I was not going to do the same.

Tommy was a young man of morals and principals, as well. He had a terrible sense of fashion – liked to wear plaids with stripes – and he wasn’t exactly  Mr. Popularity  among the Freshman class, but he knew that I was trying hard to succeed and keenly aware of the fact that a lot of our classmates were successful because they were cheating. He just wanted to even the playing field, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

Momma Benedetti always taught me better, though, and I couldn’t disappoint Momma. I’d settle for an honest “D” that I earned with a lot of extra credit assignments, rather than cheat like the others and have a higher grade that I didn’t honestly earn.

Tommy went on to be a highly regarded pediatrician, and I have no idea if his fashion sense improved, but I certainly hope so, for his wife’s and family’s sake. What his casual disclosure to my Mom validated with me, though, is that the respect and honesty that I value so much today, were traits that I honed as a child and were actually acknowledged by others way back then.

Thank you, Dr. Tom. Thank you for remembering and acknowledging that and letting my mom know that what she taught me stuck with me and is still an active part of the woman I am today.

Years ago, a highly regarded professor of mine once said to me, “Lucie, whatever you do in life, don’t lose that child-like quality of yours. It will serve you well, if used correctly, but be your downfall if abused by others.”

I never really understood what she meant. Today, unfortunately, I do understand – understand all too well.

I miss the kid in me and wonder if I’m aging because I’ve lost her or lost her because I’m aging?

Therein lies the paradox.

Until next time, People, be kind to one another and I’ll catch ya the next adventure, looking at life from my shoes.

Sometimes Ya Hafta Look Hard at a Person

Two weeks ago, I decided that watching “On Golden Pond” was a better choice than doing my taxes or for that matter, cleaning my toilet.

I’ve only watched that film a bazillion or so times, but that day was “tax day” for me and I needed to watch it one more time before I could do my yearly tax tantrum and organize myself.

You know the tantrum.

The one that each of us does every spring in preparation for that time of year when we sit in front of a stack of papers and break out in a cold sweat wondering if our new born child’s (or grandchild’s) future has to be ransomed to pay the government even more money, or if (per chance) we’ve actually fed the beast enough to break even for the year.

So I asked myself, “Prepare my taxes or watch ‘On Golden Pond’?”

Such a dilemma.

At the time, cleaning my toilet sounded more enticing than sitting down and organizing my shoe box full of tax documents, but watching “On Golden Pond” seemed the more pleasant of the two, so “On Golden Pond” it was!

And watch I did with a mixture of pleasure and disquieting nostalgia.

From the opening scene of the summer sun sparkling on the lake with wailing echoes of a loon and its mate in the background, to the closing credits with the autumnal sun setting on a lake much colder and foreboding of winter months to come, I found myself transported – transported home to the Adirondack Mts of upstate New York and a time period I willingly (and at other times, not so willingly) traveled.

I wish I could say it reminded me of a simpler life; a life filled with special fishing adventures and diving lessons carefully taught by a loving, involved care-taker, like Billy, Jr. from the movie. But, life wasn’t that idyllic for me at age 13.

I had responsibilities and younger siblings to take care of – there was no time for fishing or boating or leisure reading and discussion of “Treasure Island” or “Swiss Family Robinson”.

Mom had to work and I had to help her help us. There were dinners to prepare and hung laundry to take down and fold. There were floors that needed mopping and diapers that needed changing; and on those rare occasions that we’d head-on up to “the lake” for a quick evening dip or Sunday afternoon swim, I remember the feel of the sand slowly oozing through my toes; and the cool, fresh mountain air that came from unpolluted Adirondack lakes and how the setting sun sparkled on the waves lapping at my feet, as I solemnly gazed across the lake.

They were special times. Carefree times. Times that came infrequently, but times that I cherished and fondly remember.

When I was younger, I was drawn time and time again to the movie’s physical location and the film’s portrayal of the relationships with the Thayer’s and Billy, Jr., their 13 year-old summer charge.

Over the years, though, I eventually found myself drawn to Norman’s and Ethel’s relationship.

Norman, the retired, witty college professor – staunch disciplinarian – highly regarded teacher and husband. Ethel, Norman’s happy, out-going wife who is several years his junior – grounded in her identity, but deferential to Norman’s “larger than life” personality and opinions.

Each different in personality and psychological make-up, but each suited to each other to make each other whole; to make each other “safe”….

Norman’s “flirtation with senility” in the opening scenes of the movie when he goes berry picking and finds himself lost on his property really hit an emotional chord with me; really made me wonder if I, like Norman, was “flirting with senility” at a much earlier age than he.

Like Norman, I find the comfort of my partner safe and validating when I find myself outside of “my bubble” and overwhelmed with life’s demands. It is she that brings me “home, again”, and she that calms my fears when the world is spinning and everything seems undoable.

And like Norman, I sometimes find myself “yelling at life” and wondering how the hell I got so old, and then I remembered what Ethel lovingly told Billy after Norman yelled at him for putting out the fire that Norman accidentally started one evening in the living room when he attempted to start a fire in the cabin’s fire place…..

“Billy,” she gently begins.

Sometimes ya hafta look hard at a person and remember that he’s doing the best he can. He’s just trying to find his way – that’s all. Just like you.”

Yep.

That’s me these days – gracefully (and some days not so gracefully) “trying to find my way” as I sail through some rough seas and other days, calm seas – as the Captain of this ship we call aging.

I’m older, fatter, grayer and not so nimble in my dancing shoes these days, but it’s ok. I’m also wiser, more content, definitely “gayer”, and more importantly – I’m alive and evolving – and becoming more and more my authentic self every day.

I may not be “fully evolved”, yet, but I believe in Aibeleen Clark’s statement from the book, “The Help”, that “I is smart. I is kind. And I is important.”

And on those days I’m not feeling so kind and so smart and so important, I have my Princess to remind me that I am.

(And on those days that I’m feeling too smart and too important and too full of myself, I also have my Princess to remind me that I am….)

May each of you be blessed with a special someone in your life that reminds you, that, “You is smart. You is kind. And you is important.”

Have a great day, People, and I’ll catch you the next time, looking at life from my shoes!

 

 

My Mother’s Call

I called my Mom this morning.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

I do most mornings to check on her.

I knew when she answered the phone that she was having a “down day” – her voice was low and her words came slower than normal and with little emotion.

“I just got some bad news a half an hour ago,” she slowly started.

“My friend Carmie died a week or so ago. Her daughter called me this morning and told me. Remember Carmie, Lucie? I used to go to the state fairs and meet up with her and her husband in Auburn. Remember?” she quietly asked.

“Yeah, Ma, I remember you telling me what a great time the three of you had, but I don’t really remember that much about her,” I answered.

“Was she one of your school friends or someone you met after I left NY?” I asked, lowering my tone of voice to match hers.

She told me that Carmie was a school friend that she had known for many years, and they had kept in contact with each other as much as opportunity and time would allow. They had reconnected with each other after Mom’s divorce, and she really enjoyed the reminiscing and fun that they had every time they saw each other.

“We didn’t see each other much,” she continued. “I couldn’t drive that far and her husband stopped driving up here years ago because of his health, but boy when we did see each other, we had such a good time – such a good time…” and her voice suddenly trailed off.

The phone then went silent for longer than usual with my Mom, and I could hear her let out a deep sigh, as she composed herself for what she had to say next.

She then quietly continued, “I know it’s our time to go and there’s really nothing to be sad about, ‘cuz she lived a good life, but I’m losing a lot of my friends these days and I feel kinda bad today, Lucia. To tell you the truth, I feel a little sad.”

She hesitated again and in a voice laden with sadness and a hint of regret, continued.

“I knew when I called her at Christmas that things weren’t going so well for her and Bruno,” she said, “and I just felt something was terribly wrong for the last couple of weeks and wanted to call, but didn’t want to bother them.”

“Isn’t that weird, how I just knew something was wrong and then her daughter called me this morning and told me that she died two weeks ago?” she continued.

“No, Ma, I don’t find that weird at all,” I answered. “You were close friends and sometimes close friends and loved ones sense things about each other. I don’t find it weird, Mom.”

She quickly changed the topic of conversation and we chatted for another few minutes and then she told me that she needed to take her walk before it got too cold outside.

So, we hung up and both went on with the business of our days.

Only by this point, I was also “feeling a little sad, to tell you the truth” – feeling a little sad that my Mom was alone in her grieving.

What struck me even sadder, though, was the reality that my Mom is at that age when I think she’s wondering if her time may not be so far away, and that the infamous phone call that Carmie’s daughter made to her, will be made soon by one of her own children to some of her remaining friends.

It’s a topic that I really don’t want to discuss, but one that I firmly believe is necessary and important for her to express and get off her chest.

We know where her plot and headstone are and we know where all the important papers are, and we know that she wants to be cremated.

But maybe, just maybe, we need to know if there’s anything on her heart that she wants to say before she goes – if there’s anything that she needs to express to us before she joins Carmie and all of her good friends for that final and eternal pitch game in Heaven with God?

Hm…

I think I’ll make an important phone call today, People, and catch ya next time, looking at life from my shoes.