detour

house

So as I’m stopped in front of his house, a guy about my age comes out onto the front porch. He looks at me, curious, about to say something.

I get out of the car. Buenos tardes, I say, and ask him how long he has lived there. He says one year, but the people downstairs, who own the house, have been here awhile. I tell him that I was in the area and I wanted to drive by and see the house where my Nana and her twelve siblings were born and raised.

He says, Wow–thirteen kids, on which floor? and I tell him that it was not divided into apts, it was all one house—until probably the 1940s. Thirteen kids in this house and thirteen kids next door, in that house. He shakes his head and says that is a lot of kids.

I tell him that until the 70s, English was not the first language in the neighborhood then, either–everything was Italian.  He says, Yeah, there’s this sort of monument thing just down the block and you can tell it’s some kind of Italian thing.  I tell him that that is what is left standing of the original St. Bartholomew’s Church. This entire neighborhood was baptized and married and buried there. He seems a little bit surprised to hear this, and only semi-aware of just HOW Italian Silver Lake was, and not at all aware that its residents came from just a handful of neighboring Italian towns. It has always been Latino since he has been here, he says. It’s a nice neighborhood—everything very nearby, people pretty cool.

St. Bartholomew's Church

St. Bartholomew’s Church

I tell him that I spent so many holidays, so many Saturdays just hanging around, so many good times, in that house.

Ahh, que buenos recuerdos, he says.

Si. Que bonita, esta familia, I answer.

And then he switches to near-perfect English, after an entire conversation in Spanish. I am embarrassed and apologize for my assumption, and he says, Of course not! No worries! And we laugh.

Still there: the black, wrought iron fence that looked so menacing then, that I would look down on from the second floor porch, stepping around window screens with tomatoes sun-drying on them, and imagine being impaled if I fell.

Probably still there: the little backyard, once with round table and yellow umbrella, where Uncle Charlie and his best friend, Gino, on one of their summer visits from Switzerland, sat and drank coffee and ate wine biscuits and sang to me, “Che la Luna” and “La Donna e Mobile” and other songs I didn’t know. And where Uncle Archie’s June birthday would be celebrated every year, all of the siblings in attendance, with a strawberry shortcake, with strawberries that Auntie picked at Schartner’s, made with love, for her brother. And where thirteen children, and many grandchildren, somehow played and didn’t feel crowded.

Still there, but only in our collective memory: The side entrance with the music box which would play whenever the door was open, and automatically stop when the door closed, the tune some variation of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star,” with a tick-tick sound keeping time; the fantastic smell inside, which I remember vividly, but can’t put into words; the stairway to Uncle Archie’s second floor apartment, both stairway and apartment covered with original art by Uncle’s daughter, Cousin B (who left for Europe for her junior year abroad and never come back, eventually settling in northern CA and changing her name and embracing the hippie life for good. Auntie and Uncle were so crushed by her departure, both from their daily lives and from all sense of what they knew to be Normal Life–but they were also very proud of her art, and the stairway showed it. But I digress); Auntie Livina’s first floor kitchen–modest, spotless, where magic was made and gold was spun, without any help from Kitchen-Aid or Wusthof or Cuisinart; the dishes of candy, Peanut Butter Cups and mini-Snickers and M&Ms, just waiting for my visits; the rosary blessed by the Pope; the framed photo of me on the sideboard in the dining room.

Still there, but only in stories that predate any of us: the dining room, where this huge family somehow ate very well, and where there was always room for one more, even the occasional hungry stranger during the Depression; the basement, where chickens and turkeys and possibly other non-pets ran around until they became dinner (a fact of life accepted by all except Auntie Jean, who was upset by the whole thing as a child, and who might have briefly gone vegetarian over it); the living room floor, where a pushy vendor once spread out his kitchen supplies and would not leave until my great-grandmother pointed the shotgun at him and told him that she’d blow his head off if he didn’t get out of her house (apparently, she didn’t need that fancy kitchen shit either); the parlor, where the deceased were “laid out” and wakes were held; the dining room table, where the whole family, with the exception of a teenage Uncle Archie Elmo, was treated to his contraband pies, after he hid them under his bed in an effort not to share them with is siblings; the street outside, where Auntie Evelyn (ever the tomboy) sped off on her brother Charlie (ever the fancy-man)’s closely guarded Italian racing bike, and was promptly hit by a truck.

italian house

Also still there: the home of the Last Italian, a few doors down, with the flag flying and the theme both nautical and religious.

Tastes Like Chicken

On Easter Sunday, 1986, Nana served chicken.

After weeks of wringing her hands and asking, “….but what does he eat?” and “….what shall I make?” she appeared around the corner, into the dining room, with a huge platter filled with chicken. After the soup, after the celery dipped in olive oil and pepper, after the antipasto of proscuitto and cheeses, vinegar peppers, olives, after the pasta, was the Chicken Course. So plain, the skinless chicken drumsticks, roasted with just some olive oil and garlic. Too many drumsticks to count. She went back to the kitchen and reappeared with an equally large, shallow bowl of roasted baby potatoes. There had to have been a ham on the table, and an Easter omelet and a bunch of side dishes, but I remember nothing but the heap of chicken and potatoes.

The usual suspects were assembled around the table. Auntie Livina, having arrived early with her gallons and gallons of soup and her Easter breads, Auntie Amelia, with her pink pantsuit and her white hair and papery soft hands. Uncle Archie, Aunt Connie, who was so high strung that you could take off your shoe and graze her leg under the table (or in earlier years, just go for it with a rubber snake) and watch her scream in horror. Dad, quiet. Uncle Bob, stealing ice cream before dinner and planning his next prank. Nana, presiding over the whole thing, timing dishes perfectly in her two ovens and getting them to the table, serving us seconds before we could protest.

This was the year I brought my Jewish boyfriend home for Easter dinner.

This was after we had dated for a few months, after I knew him pretty well, but before that time when I said to him, “Oh, you’re such an atheist? Then eat this bacon!” It was after I had met his mom and his sister and his high school friends in Michigan, visited their home and saw Detroit and heckled his prominently displayed bar mitzvah portrait, but before I broke his heart and spent six miserable weeks without his friendship and then reunited with him with letters crossed in the mail and were the best of friends. It was after that winter of him being smitten with me and me being madly whirled by him. Going to New York and Boston and driving without destination, going to movies and plays and music venues, slipping on the ice and snow, eating all of the hamburgers, all of the ice cream.

The first time Nana met him, around Thanksgiving, we stood in her kitchen. She was charming and kind as always, but her hands fluttered as she said the inevitable. “So you’re…Jewish?”

“Yes!” he said, making devil horns on his head with his fingers. “And I’m going to burn in hell!” he added. I nearly fell on the floor laughing.

Nana followed with the most logical next question about their religious differences. “So you….don’t eat pork?”

There should have been nothing exotic about a Jewish friend—Nana’s neighbors were all either Jewish or Italian and she had Jewish girlfriends to meet for coffee and take exercise walks with. It was equally weird that he found my folks in any way out of the ordinary. I realized that beyond seeing Moonstruck, he had not been in contact with many Italian-Americans, ever. We had a lot of good laughs about this.

green eggs

By Easter, Nana knew that this poor soul did not know from food, particularly Italian food, and she wanted to make him something special. Something that was not ham. She could not fathom a more picky eater than I was, and yet here he was. Would he like baked macaroni? Omelet? Veal cutlets? No. Would he eat salad? Marinated mushrooms? Fish? We had a full blown Green Eggs and….well, Ham situation going on. Finally, I said, How about those little potatoes from the can [full disclosure, they were my favorites]? And some really plain chicken? Like, just pieces of chicken? No, not with rosemary, just chicken. She was baffled. How could she serve this to him on a holiday? This was not right.

Everyone looked expectantly at him. Even I didn’t know if he’d like the chicken. He didn’t eat anything but plain hamburgers sprinkled with (even more) salt, and maybe pizza. I had told Nana to just keep it simple and very plain. He took some to be polite, added salt, and then, before a table of beaming Aunties, devoured so many of the drumsticks and so many of the potatoes, and even tried some rice pie.

Somewhere in Heaven, Nana is following Mike around and asking if he has eaten, offering him various foods,and he is politely declining–then trying some and having to admit, “I do! I like them, Nana-I-Am.”

Halftime

clear eyes

This is a post about Middle Age. Will it end with despair and defeat and resignation, or will it end with a renewed sense of purpose and a burst of energy and maybe a red hat? At this point, not even I know that.

The other day, Stretch (now almost 17) said to me, out of nowhere, in the car, “You know, Mom–you’ve literally lived more than half your life.”

“Um, what?”

“I’m just saying. You’ve already lived longer than you have left to live. I’m not trying to be mean. I’m just saying. It’s literally true.”

(Yeah, if I’m fortunate enough to live to be 92, kid. Literally.)

I suppose she’s right, though I’ve never once thought about this. I’m not usually given to existential thoughts. The Passage of Time, how it flies? Yes. I get pretty fascinated by that, as it pertains to other people, mostly my children. But my own mortality and the march toward it? Never. But she’s right, even if it did come from a place of smug, youthful ignorance that I remember all too well.

It’s Halftime.

BRADY

And here is a completely gratuitous photo of Tom Brady.

It’s a pause between the grueling, thrilling, nail-biting, sometimes up by ten and sometimes doomed, first half, and the unknown second half. It’s a pause for some entertainment, some reflection. A pause for an inhale, a long drink of water, a gathering of strength, a making of a plan. It’s a Halftime speech from one of a small number of  coaches whom I’ve enlisted to support me in my efforts–a Board of Directors who have my back and support and push me as needed. It’s a pep rally, fueled by a gang of fabulous cheerleaders who I call friends and at whose pep rallies I  will cheer like crazy.

rockne

I played much of the first half wearing a Cloak of Invincibility. Because no way would anything bad ever happen to me or mine. Don’t be ridiculous, everyone was going to be just fine. After a few horrible losses, this cloak wore thin, and after having children, I became hyper-aware of so many of the possible ways harm can come to my loved ones. Now, I get emails from my mother, letting me know what new heath issue I might be at risk for (“I’m a diabetic now. As you know, diabetes runs in families. Also, I have an eye condition that can cause blindness, and you have a 50/50 chance of getting it. Have a nice day!”). And I text my younger brother and tell him (as if he hasn’t received the same email) that he is at risk, and while call it The Diabeetus and send him a photo of Wilfred Brimley, I’m also very serious, because I remember that there was that one cousin or god-person, whose brother dropped dead of a heart attack at 42 years old.

I played too much of the first half on the bench. Watching the action, contemplating the action, dabbling in the action, but not being all in. Smart, but also stupid. Not looking, or being prompted to look, at the bigger picture. I squandered time, resources, talent, opportunities, advantages. I could have finished the first half up by a lot more than I did. If I was keeping score.

coach taylor locker room

“Don’t just stand by and watch it happen.”

I played most of the first half with a pretty good helmet and pads, and I’ve needed them. I’ve been able to take a lot of hits, some of them just the basic stuff of life and some of them flagrant fouls that go way beyond an illegal hit or a (God forbid) deflated ball. I’ve been resilient and stubbornly optimistic, and when I haven’t, the black hole has at least been temporary.

I played the first half in a couple of different positions, shifting every few years to accommodate. I’ve played offense and defense, and flipped between the two at a moment’s notice. The latter part of the first half was all about supporting others. Schlepping the kids to school, soccer, baseball, basketball, track, more soccer. Some more soccer. Managing and micromanaging and backing off, accepting things at face value and being a private investigator. Going from the preschool to the playground to the kitchen, being the Mom, the whole Mom and nothing but the Mom. Working, not working, pursuing things I cared about when I could, around the edges.

The first half was alternately brief and endless, self-absorbed and selfless, painful and blissful, apathetic and passionate. If I could, I’d tell my young self not to sweat it–but also that you only get to do this once, so don’t fuck it up. Most importantly, don’t just let it go by, realizing only too late that it’s half over. And that last part would fall on deaf ears.

Let the Halftime Show begin.  There will be music. There will be dancing. There will be shenanigans. There might be a wardrobe malfunction. There will be a coaching staff, delivering much needed words. There will be renewed purpose and grit and passion. There will be reminders that I know how to fight like a gladiator and that I’ve got this.

And Reader, if you see me in public wearing a red hat, please punch me. That is not  permission, that is a request.

play like a champion

 

Things I Saw at the New Market Basket Store Today

Me, after my return home. One trip!

 

1. Nothing short of Psychedelic Pandemonium. So many people.

2. People speaking ALL of the Languages

3. A woman in the produce section, asking me in broken English, with an accent I couldn’t place, if I knew what to do w/this thing. I asked her what it even was, and she said, “turmeric.” Huh, I said. I’ve never seen it like that (roots, like ginger). I only have it dried and ground. But all the cool kids are making smoothies with it. She said she heard it was good for the immune system.

4. A young employee pushing a cleaning cart, clearly on that learning curve of First Job, because he was visibly annoyed and showed it way too much when a customer bumped into him w/her cart, and had no idea what to tell the next woman who wanted to know where the tomato sauce was. Hang in there, lil fella.

5. The miniscule (and I mean microscopic) Italian products section lumped in with the Greek products. The way all Latino foods (Mexican! Dominican! Colombian! they’re all the same!) have been considered one thing–“Spanish Foods”–for years. At least they didn’t locate the Italian products with the Chef Boyardee.

6. A guy working at the meat counter, noticing my meat purchase and telling me how much he loves braciole, and how when his grandmother would come home with a veal shank, he knew he was in for the best sauce. We had a little Moment, this guy and I. I wonder if he laments the miniscule Italian/Greek foods section in his store.

7. A woman looking at olive oil at the same time that I was, and choosing some awful schlocky oil. I resisted delivering the olive oil lecture.

8.  A man in a Patriots hat, meeting my eyes and totally catching me, silently mouthing my favorite 4-syllable profanity as I pushed my full cart in the rainy parking lot and spilled my coffee.

Overrated

photo credit to ToastWizard

Last month, I ran into someone who Did Me Wrong a few years back. We had a falling out of sorts. He was upset about something he thought I did, and believed someone else’s self-interest driven, gossipy untruths, so he angrily confronted me when I was (unbeknownst to him) having a very difficult time. I mustered the strength and calm needed to go back at him without completely scorching the earth.  He then went about having a childish mini-campaign against me. He made it awkward for me to keep engaging in something I had previously enjoyed so much, and his shenanigans even extended to LittleMan and his participation in sports. Not in any dangerous or overly traumatic way, I should add–or else I would not have reacted to him with the maddening cheerfulness and continued (surface) good will that I did, and I might not have minded scorching the earth. But still, he caused discomfort to me and mine, and appeared to get away with it.

And yes, even as he later had continued, all-positive contact with Stretch and I had continued cheerful, if clippy, interactions with him, I did harbor a little wish to see him miserable. To slip on one of life’s banana peels and have a spectacular fall, and spend some time in awkwardness and discomfort and be humbled and know that it was because of his crappy treatment of me. Weak threads of this wish continued on for some time, I’m ashamed to say.

In recent months, he did slip on one of those peels, and he lost a lot, in a very public way. I heard through the grapevine things that I had no business knowing about his situation, about his family. I think it’s accurate to say that he fell hard and was, and is, bereft.

When I ran into him last month with Stretch, there it was–that moment of schadenfreude that we all imagine. There was a bear hug and a “you looked great in that game” and there were updates about our kids exchanged.  The banana peel was never mentioned, but he knew that I knew. His demeanor was humbled, and he looked like it was an effort for him to be upbeat.

This was the moment to snicker inside and think, “ha-HA! You dissed me and were awful to me in 2009, and I see that what has gone around, has come around, my friend, praise be to karma!”  But instead of some yahoo karmic victory, I just felt sad for the guy. I said goodbye and was siezed with nothing but compassion and a desire to make him a big pan of baked ziti or something. Any wish to see him suffer a bit was just hollow. I hope things improve for him and his family soon.

I discovered that I don’t have the stomach for this schadenfreude thing, though I think I may need to be tested a few more times, just to be sure.

Just Can’t Wait

Last summer, I begrudgingly entered one of the souvenir (and Big Inflatable Thing) stores on rt. 6 with the family.  They had succumbed to an urge for hooded sweatshirts that said CAPE COD on them, and a need to putter among the fridge magnets before we headed back to real life.

I picked up a white coffee mug, with the Wellfleet, MA sign on it, for myself.  Hot coffee season was still many months away, but I knew that a day would come, in the middle of winter, when I’d want to be reminded of the most heavenly place on earth. I went outside and stole a few minutes with a book and a beach chair while the Mr. and kids browsed the tchotchkes and paid for the tourist merchandise.

Well, that day has come.  Not for the first time, to be sure–but this was the kind of day that I had in mind when I bought that tourist coffee mug.

I want to get into the car and head for the Wellfleet of summer—with its sun and sand and breeze; with its tides that rise and cut off access to places (sometimes while you’re in those places); with the racing over to Moby Dick’s for an early dinner before the gargantuan line forms; with the Drive-In movies and the requisite Burning Hot Flea Market Afternoon, when we all begin to turn on each other; with the TVs that have the most basic of cable, if that;  with an obscene number of books to be read;  with the many walks on broken clam and oyster shells;  with its uncrowded beaches and protected seashore;  ….and with, of course, duh–the sweetest sounds, which brought us there in the first place.  Where I get to be away, but still, in a way, at home.

 

But in leiu of the Wellfleet of summer,  I’d happily take the Wellfleet of right now. I can handle it–I’m a New Englander. I know how to hunker down in a storm and read by candlelight when the power goes out.  I’d discover the Wellfleet of winter, when all of the summer places are closed and the population shrinks and things are a lot quieter.

I just want to get back there, and soon.

Even If Your Voice Shakes

There was the boss who had probably been good at this gig at some point, a long time ago. At first glance, it would seem that there was nothing to be learned here.

NOT a recommended hair removal method

I mean, what do you take from someone who comes into your office, and in the middle of your discussion, the building maintenance guy pops in with a quick question, and she asks him to go and get the blowtorch please, and the next thing you know, he’s using the torch to singe the hair off her arms, while you sit there, dumbfounded (no. I am not. making this up).

But she did tell me a story once, about how,  when she was put in charge of a fairly large organization, the first thing she did was ask the Board to send her back to school part-time, to take classes in Human Resources and Management, because she lacked this kind of experience. The lesson was a good one:  recognize your skill set gaps and ask for help in closing them. Not as entertaining as the Blowtorch Story, but valuable.

There were the bosses who did not inspire, lead or teach–but provided me with at least some little gems, nonetheless.

A favorite font;

a great fragrance;

I'll find something, doggone it!

There was the boss who, despite my best efforts to find something of value–even something superficial–to emulate, brought nothing to the table. And that’s saying something, because even in the most dysfunctional of sweatshops, there are always little gems to add to our toolkits.  Leadership qualities. Good habits. Favorite office supplies. Something (and a How Not to Do Things list doesn’t count). You have to dig for them, but those little nuggets are always there. And the spirit of always learning something that you can take with you is one that I’m glad to have cultivated. So, to come up empty handed, well, that’s bleak.

...but all I got was this "What Not to Do" t-shirt

But I digress.

And there was the one who brought so much. To the program that she led–which was so much more than a “workplace.” To her family, to her friends, to her community, to the world. It’s difficult to describe how far her hard work and influence has reached, and impossible to quantify.

How many children and youth  are now receiving an education that is not “one size fits all,”  but planned according to their needs, because of her tireless fight for their rights–and the seeds that she planted in so many others, who continue to advocate? How many incredible professionals have been mentored and shaped by her, and now mentor and shape others? How many friends gain strength to face their own challenges, because of having seen her courage in action?  How many family relationships are strengthened by knowing the bond that she had with her own child? Tens, hundreds?  Impossible to know.

I miss her, and I think that “unfair” is both a cliche and an understatement, but there it is.

I take comfort and pride in having absorbed from her what she so generously gave: the tenacity to not let go and settle, when a child’s education or well being is at stake;  the unashamed mother bear instinct (which she had, long before becoming a mother, and once she did become a mother….well, I pity the fool); the delight in embracing differences and the respect and loyalty for her team, her tribe; the ability to conjure up that humor (sometimes silly, sometimes dark, always smart) in the face of the difficult stuff; most of all, the ability to lead by example, and be the best example any of us can hope to have.

I hope that I have taken the qualities of leadership, building of team, managing and mentoring at its absolute finest.  I hope that when I find myself in a position to manage others, I will lead and inspire half as well as she did, giving feedback that brings out people’s best work, knowing their strengths and striving to improve on their weaknesses.

Not long after she died, I read an article that described how she saw evidence that her daughter had internalized an important lesson:  to speak up, even if your voice shakes. This lesson practice embodies how she lived her life. I don’t doubt for a second that the ripples of her influence are alive and well in her bright and talented daughter.

I resolve to not squander those of her gifts that I may have underused or forgotten along the way.   To never stop trying.  To keep my eye on what matters. To never stop learning, and wanting to learn.  To go forward with humility and courage.  To speak up, even if my voice shakes.