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“How many languages can you speak? Do you wish that number were higher?”

This is another Plinky prompt, from way back in October.  I hang onto these things if they look interesting, and then, if I don’t care for the NaBloPoMo prompt, I have a few spares to choose from.  Today’s NaBloPoMo prompt was something about “talk about a time when you ran out of energy and were exhausted,” and that requires too much thinking – there were so many of them.

Languages.  First of all, define “speak.”  Fluently, conversationally, basic, “kitchen [fill in the blank]”?  “Kitchen” speech refers to the kind of thing you would use around the house, by the way, but not necessarily at work, or in a formal situation.  A perfect example of “kitchen speech” is the story I heard from a girl whose mother was Russian and her father Russian-American.  The father had learned Russian first from his grandmother and then from his wife, so “household Russian” was all he knew – and “household Russian” uses a lot of diminutives.  You would never say you were taking the bus, for example, you would say you were taking the “bussy” to work, or that you had seen a cute little kitty-cat on the way to work.  Well, whatever this guy said at work one day – probably something about making some itty-bitty copies – he got some strange looks from his colleagues, until one of them took pity on him and said, “We don’t talk that way here.”

So you might surmise from this anecdote that I actually speak Russian.  Put it this way:  If I can summon up the vocabulary, I can express myself grammatically, and if I listen in on the conversation of Russians, I might understand one word in a hundred.  But hey, I understand that word.

And come to think of it, that’s pretty much how I learned German, which I do speak fluently, to such an extent that one day, I was having a conversation with a member of the German Consulate staff in Boston, who asked me where I was from.  When I told him, “New York,” I thought his eyes would fall out of his head.  Apparently, he had been listening for regional clues in my speech, and not being able to pick up where exactly I was from in Germany, decided to ask.  Sorry, this is not a regional accent you ever heard im Vaterland.

Anyway, when I lived in Germany I had a neighbor who wanted to be able to practice her English, so we got to be friendly.  The only problem was, she soon cottoned to the idea that I knew a few words in German – I was taking college-level courses at night – and that took care of the English lessons; it was simply easier for her to express herself in her own language.  And I understood maybe one word in a hundred.  Until the day, maybe about a year after I’d landed at Rhein/Main Airport, when I was sitting in a German laundromat, waiting for my laundry to get done (the base laundromat being on the fritz yet again), and, bored out of my mind, picked up a German ladies’ magazine.  And I understood enough of it that when I got out of the laundromat, I stopped at a grocery store on the way home and bought my first foreign-language publication.  Once I could understand about half of what I was reading, the other half came easily.  And of course, being able to converse daily in that language was a great help, as well as the fact that we only listened to German radio (we liked the music better than Armed Forces Network).

So if I could do the same thing with Russian, I guess I’d get fairly fluent in time.  However, there really aren’t enough people to speak it with; I get to see my church family maybe twice a month, and they all want to improve their English (and who can blame them?).  As for reading…well…I can, if I take the time to sound out the letters.  But I don’t usually have the time to put into reading that alphabet.  Yes, I know, if I really wanted to, I’d make the time.  I guess I’m just comfortable with the idea that if I wanted to, I could, which is dangerous for actually learning anything.

This post is already long enough that I can only give a passing nod to my first foreign language, which was French.  I could speak that fairly fluently, when I was fresh out of high school, and if France had had the sense to stay in NATO, and we had been posted there, I would have been a  huge hit with the French:  As Henry Higgins put it in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what you do, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly.”  And thanks to my musician’s ear, I can get foreign words out with near native fluency, in any language.  I may not actually understand them, but I sound as if I do.

So…what’s the Girl Thing?  Think about it.  Don’t women have a reputation for talking people’s heads off?  Of course we do, and it’s not undeserved:  This post is already at about nine hundred words.  Now:  Imagine being able to do that in four languages.  Yeeeeaaaahhhhh.  /beatific smile/

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I was originally going to respond to the NaBloPoMo prompt, “Are you good at hiding your feelings, or is your face an open book?” but something else related to the topic of Masks has been on my mind lately, namely, do you hide from your roots?

There used to be an expression when I was young, “forgetting where you came from.”  It was used in talking about people with humble beginnings who had risen to great heights, like Donald Trump being from Rego Park in Queens, NY.  Rego Park is a nice enough neighborhood, but it will never have the same status as being from Jamaica Estates.  Or Gramercy Park in Manhattan.  One of the highest compliments anyone could pay such a person was that “he hasn’t forgotten where he came from”; to “forget where you came from” was despicable.

And it’s on my mind lately because I know two people who seem to have forgotten Where They Came From.  One of them is my own daughter, who has apparently decided that her parents are too ordinary for her to bother staying in touch with.  Or maybe it’s that our house, all 950 square feet of it, is too modest.  It may even be that she has unhappy memories of growing up among us, though that was never an excuse for blowing off Family.  Be that as it may, she recently acquired a hot-shot job with an international company that involves jetting back and forth across the Atlantic – I won’t say where – and other than apprising us of that fact (after telling her immediate world on Facebook), she hasn’t said a word to us about her life.  Or her husband, or their children.  The situation has gone on for so long that I’m not sure it can ever be repaired, and that’s not something anyone should be able to say about her children.

The other is an old friend of my husband’s from grade school.  These two boys were over at each other’s houses every day, and were as close as brothers.  They stayed in touch through high school and college, and even after military service, for a time.  But military service seemed to change things between them, as (despite having a college degree before enlistment) my husband was assigned to the enlisted ranks, and this other fellow became an officer.  After the service, he and his wife had us out to their home a few times, and we had them to ours; they lived on Long Island, in increasingly tony neighborhoods, and we lived in Queens, not too far from where we had grown up.  He went on to a career in nuclear physics, my husband went into occupational safety and health.  And one day, this guy simply stopped writing, and didn’t return telephone calls.  We never figured out why.

Recently, my husband went to some trouble to look him up on the internet.  He’s now living in the Southwest – I’m being deliberately vague – but he has an important position in his community, and is very obviously among the ranks of the Successful.  My husband got an address for him and sent him a note, together with his e-mail address and an invitation to renew the friendship.  That was three weeks ago, and he hasn’t heard a thing.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, I’ve reconnected with a number of people who are cousins, or friends of cousins, from the old neighborhood.  It’s so much fun to talk about the old haunts, to catch up on one another’s lives, to see what we all look like now – you can see the resemblance to who they were 40 years ago – just to reconnect.  When we are “together,” even via the internet, the masks come off, and we are still pretty much the same group who enjoyed laughs together, and shared the torments of Catholic school (about which we laugh, now).  Every once in so often, one or another of us will reconnect with yet another branch of the family, and the fun starts all over again.

I feel sorry for my daughter, and for my husband’s friend.  Sure, it’s nice to have the toys and props to impress your new friends – maybe – I mean, aren’t you always on display?  Don’t you always have to wear that mask?  When do you get to be yourself, to slip and say “cawfey” when referring to your morning beverage, instead of whatever pronunciation of “coffee” is locally acceptable?  Or talk about what it was like to move from a four-room railroad flat in Ridgewood to a single-family house in Maspeth?  (A railroad flat is an apartment with rooms just like a railroad car – you have to walk through all the rooms, even the bedrooms, to get from front to back.  A lot of Brooklyn and Queens apartments were railroad flats.)

Home has a lot of definitions:  Home is where you hang your hat, home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in, home is where the heart is – my favorite came from the German author, Max Frisch:  “Home is where we understand the people, and they understand us.”  Home is where you can take the mask off.  Home is where you came from.

Don’t forget where you came from.  The loss is permanent.

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“Frank Lloyd Wright said, ‘TV is chewing gum for the eyes.’  What are your favourite shows to chew?”

First:  This should be my last post on the subject of vision, at least under the prompts of NaBloPoMo (National Blog-Posting Month).  Tomorrow, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is visiting my parish, and I plan to be on hand for that.  Readers who are Orthodox will know what a Hierarchical visit entails, and I fully expect to be gone all day.  (And for anyone reading this blog who thinks, “Oh, goody, a chance to break in and steal stuff” – nice try. My husband isn’t Orthodox, hates driving in Massachusetts, and won’t be coming with me.)

Frank Lloyd Wright was, as all good architects should be, something of an artist.  He appreciated that all media should have, as its goal, the ability to move a person onto another plane, to make one think beyond one’s usual pathways and parameters, to expand one’s experiences, even if only vicariously.  For him to comment on television as “chewing gum for the eyes” strikes me as a profound statement, for after all, what is chewing gum?  It’s nutritionally devoid.  It’s worse for you than ice cream, which at least has some dairy content in it, in addition to all that sugar and fat.  Chewing gum has nothing.  I guess it stimulates salivary glands, since I see people chewing it everywhere nowadays – I think the last time I had a piece of chewing gum, I was thirteen years old – but I know that when I see people chewing mindlessly, I don’t think much of whatever is going on in their heads.

And the same with television.  It doesn’t have a lot going for it, especially nowadays, especially in the USA.  That said, there’s really only one show I will only give up during Lent:  NCIS.  I got into it because I once worked for someone who had been an investigator with the old Naval Investigation Service (now Naval Criminal Investigation Service).  I’m well aware that the television show bears very little resemblance to the job my old boss did, and not just because of all the high-tech gadgetry; it’s television, it’s supposed to be escapist and unrealistic.

But there are a number of cultural gags that I just can’t resist.  Primary among them is the “family” aspect.  The show is billed as being like “one big dysfunctional family,” and that about describes my family, too.  Abby is my little sister to the life (except for being a goth).  McGee is just like the oldest of my younger brothers, and Tony is definitely my nosy middle brother (the now-retired Treasury agent, so at least his bratty nosiness did serve a useful purpose n his life).  (In case you’re reading this, Donald, that was a compliment.)  Jimmy Palmer, the assistant medical examiner, is a lot like my youngest brother, who also has a very weird sense of humor, and to whom I owe my use of the word “distructions” as a cross between “directions” and “instructions.”  Ziva is me.  Definitely.

One of the other, really funny, aspects of this show is the generation gap.  Every once in so often, they’ll run a show where the electricity goes out in the building, and all the high-tech gadgetry fails.  The young people will start talking about “where will we find a dinosaur to figure out how to do this” – and up pops their boss, who not only knows how to get the job done, but also how to operate the ancient equipment that people of my generation always used.  And in his ability to pop up seemingly out of nowhere, especially just as a young staff member makes a rude observation about him, Gibbs is just like everyone’s dad or mom, with the eyes in the back of his head.  Ducky, the medical examiner, is like a kindly old grandfather with an endless well of stories, all delivered in an inimitable bumbling-old-Scot style – but his job expertise is unparalleled, and his knowledge of and comments on the dark recesses of the human mind, which result in the necessity for his job, are trenchant.

I miss that kind of family, all arguing with each other endlessly, tormenting one another with truly stupid gags, but all pulling together to get the work done.  And caring about one another – that comes through very clearly, episode after episode.  When one has a crisis, all the rest rally around him.  When one is in danger, all the rest go all out to rescue her.  Last season ended darkly, with the destruction of  NCIS headquarters, and this season, the office “mascot,” Abby, is having trouble getting back to her usual upbeat self – I was reminded of the trauma so many of us felt around 9/11, and I wonder if this season will be a way of exploring that and helping people to find ways to slot it into perspective, so that we never forget – but can still go on with living.

So for me, this show has depth and perspective, definitely not chewing-gum material.  It feeds a part of me that would otherwise go neglected, the point in time where my brothers and sister and all our cousins lived within a few blocks of one another, the part where we were Together.

There are other shows I watch – All Creatures Great and Small, primarily, Mystery! occasionally, and I do wish that the British television series around the Miss Read books would be imported, as that would be nourishing in a different way.  But to get back to my Roots – NCIS, every time.

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“Do you prefer to have still photographs or videos from important moments?”

That’s a no-brainer:  stills, every time.

Sure, they’re posed, and they aren’t “spontaneous,” like that’s a virtue.  But let me tell you about photos.

My Aunt Mary, whom I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog, was the de facto Family Archivist.  If there was an important event in my mother’s family, Aunt Mary kept a record of it.  She must have had a photo album for every year of each of her children’s existences:  Birthday parties, graduations, First Communions and Confirmations, and then she had pictures of all the wedding and baby showers she hosted over many, many years.  If relatives came into town to visit, she had photos of those visits.  Every photo was put into an album, with those black gummed tricorner thingies that were once ubiquitous – you could buy them at any stationer’s – and the black pages, the consistency of blotter paper (for any of you that use fountain pens), had the name of the event and the names of the people photographed written in in special white ink that wouldn’t bleed on the paper.

They were works of art, those photo albums, and on rainy summer days, when we kids had nothing better to do and my mother and her sister didn’t want to have us underfoot, Aunt Mary would take out those photo albums and we’d sit poring over them for hours, reminiscing about the happy times we’d had.

Seven years ago, Aunt Mary died.  My sister, who cared for her in her last illness, was one of the ones to clean out the house.  We knew that the photo albums properly should go to her sons; what we didn’t know was what would become of them, and of the memories in them.  So she took one, filled with the events and people she remembered, and I took one, filled with the events and people I remembered.  Since we are literally a generation apart, there being fifteen years between us, we felt we had a fair representation of family history; and the other albums went to the people they properly belonged to, her sons and their children.

Now I look at those albums and remember.  “There’s Aunt Clara!” who’s been dead for nearly 50 years.  And, “Oh, my goodness, there’s Grandma Carey!” – my great-grandmother, surrounded by her four great-grandchildren.  And, “I remember when Aunt Loretta and Uncle Bob came in from Buffalo,” or, “…when Aunt Gerry and Uncle Richie got married.”  I even found a photograph of my cousin’s first military ball, him in his Junior ROTC uniform with his date – me – at his side.  Hey, when you’re fourteen years old and Catholic, girlfriends are in short supply.

Our own photographs are not nearly in such good order, mostly because I just can’t stand the thought of putting them into those soulless plastic albums.  Recently a local craft store began carrying scrap-booking supplies.  I like the dedicated pages – you know, the ones that have “Generations” watermarked onto them, or “School Daze,” stuff like that – and the fact that you can put together a unique document of your own memories.  I even like the funky little decals you can buy to decorate the pages.

And it was in among the funky little decals that I found them:  tricorner photograph thingies.  They aren’t gummed anymore; they have backing that you can peel off, and they’re self-stick, which is a vast improvement over that vile-tasting gummy stuff.  And they come in a variety of colors, not just black.  But – tricorner photograph thingies.  And pens in many more hues than white.

I think I know what I want to do, come winter.

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Question:  ”How much of the world have you seen?”

Answer:  Not as much as most people.  I mean, one of my brothers has been to both Germany and Ireland – his wife has relatives in Germany, and his son was doing an internship in Ireland, so both visits weren’t as expensive for him as they would be for us, since he had family to stay with.  Another brother was in the Navy, so he did get to see a lot of port cities.  My daughter travels regularly to Israel, now that she works for a company based there, and trust me, the Middle East will never be on my bucket list, so I don’t envy her.  My father was also in the Navy, but that was during the Second World War, so I don’t imagine he got to see much of anything, and my stepfather was in England and France during that same event.

But my third brother, my sister, and my son have never been outside this country, and although my mother lived in San Francisco for a time, she never left these shores, either.  Whereas I, as most people know by now, lived in Germany for three years, along with my husband, and I must say that although we never travelled outside that country, we did cover it top to bottom, and in retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t do the Tourist Thing.  There’s nothing like actually living in a foreign country to broaden your horizons; not only do you have to learn to get around foreign streets, which is true any time you set foot outside your hometown, but if you’re going to live there for any length of time, it’s a good idea to learn the language and the social customs; and once you do that, you’re never the same person you were.

It’s true that I would have liked to see Amsterdam.  And, since I spoke French at the time, it could have been fun to travel at least to Alsace-Lorraine, where some of my ancestors came from.  Someday I would dearly love to see Russia, and that part of Germany that was behind the Iron Curtain when I lived there, especially Eisenach, the birthplace of my bud, J. S. Bach.  And I’ve always wanted to see Japan; I love Japanese culture.  Here’s the thing about Someday, though:  Your world does necessarily shrink as you grow older.  You just don’t have the stamina you did at 30 or 40.  So the likelihood of my going anywhere outside the country dwindles with every passing year, and frankly, at this point, I’m just as glad to skip the horrors of the TSA.  Domestic travel is tough enough.

Domestically, my life has been pretty much limited to the East Coast, although I did spend three unforgettable years (hard though I’ve tried to forget them) in West Virginia.  New York is on most people’s bucket lists; I was fortunate to have been born and brought up there, so I spent nearly thirty years “wak[ing] up in the city that never sleeps.”  There actually are portions that do sleep, by the way.  Some people claim that Queens County, where I grew up, never woke up.

But we’ve lived in New England for over thirty years, now – first Boston and now New Hampshire – and although it will never be Home in the sense that New York is, I’ve been happy here (especially in Autumn).  However, the most interesting aspect of living here has been the cultural differences; despite its still being on the East Coast, and only 300 miles from New York City, some of the cultural norms are frankly bizarre, by New York standards.  One idea that floored me when I came across it was the notion that it’s somehow “racist” to ask people where their ancestors came from; in New York, everybody wants to know where you’re From, and I know people who can recite every iota of their ancestry (me being one of them).  Another one I’ll never get used to is this Tailgating thing; apparently, according to my aunt who was a native Mainer, people actually get on your bumper for a reason:  They’re  hinting that you should speed up.  In New York, tailgating is rude, and I’m considering a bumper sticker that would read:  ”WARNING:  I brake for tailgaters.”  (Not to mention the other, and apparently more common, meaning of tailgating, partying out of your car at a sporting event.  I’ll never get used to that one.)

And the ubiquitous bumper stickers/car decals, “Yankees Suck.”  Um, I think the problem with the Yankees is that they don’t “suck” – there’s a reason they keep defeating the Red Sox.  Nevertheless, I do understand the sentiment, and even sympathize with it, being a Mets fan.  New Englanders have been without a National League team ever since the Boston Braves pulled up stakes and moved to…where was it, anyway?  I know they were the Atlanta Braves for a time, but they moved from someplace in the upper Midwest, then moved back there after Atlanta.  Anyway, somehow, it’s inconceivable for New Englanders that you can be from New York and not be a Yankee fan, and I have a lot of fun with that.

Bottom line:  No, I haven’t seen that much of the world.  But I’velived every place I’ve been.

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Bob Marley asked: ‘Open your eyes, look within. Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?’  How would you answer him?”

First off, I have never been a fan of Bob Marley.  There seems to be a fascination among listeners of rock ‘n’ roll with people who have rough singing styles – I’m thinking particularly of Bob Dylan, as well as Bob Marley – and that is not a style I admire.  So ordinarily, I would have given this prompt a pass.  However, not only is it an intriguing question, but I happen to know about Bob Marley that in the last year of his life, he became an Orthodox Christian.  So clearly, there was some depth to the man that I missed entirely, which isn’t difficult to do if you blow off people on the basis of their appearance.  (Note to self:  Stop judging books by their covers, even if the cover often does prove to be of particular relevance.)  And therefore, this question isn’t just a throwaway question, of the kind that rockers so often put into their lyrics and then dismiss entirely by their personal example.

So.  The answer.  Well…it probably isn’t really fair to answer this question at my age.  Are there really people in their sixties who are dissatisfied with life?  I mean, couldn’t you have figured out long before now that something was missing, and at least begun to do something about it?

I love the life I live.  And I look back, and see that even the mistakes I made were worthwhile, and led to the life I now live.  But I hasten to add:  Under no circumstances could I remotely call my life “self-actualized,” a term a feminist once used.  She told me I was the most “self-actualized” person she had ever met, and I often wonder, as I did at the time, what she would say if I told her that there was nothing self-actualized about my life; since my first encounter with the living God at the age of 21, it has been entirely a God-actualized life, and that is what has made it so worthwhile.

Even my marriage.  The priest who hears my confessions once said to me, “Nobody held a gun to our heads to make us get married.”  When I responded, “Welllll…” did his eyebrows shoot up!  No, nobody held a gun to my head; but neither was it anywhere in my game plan to get married.  I wanted to be a nun.  Thing is, when you give your life into God’s hands, the only thing you can do is sit back and hang onto your hat, because the ride gets really wild from that point on.  Roller-coaster wild.  Terrifying, heart-breaking, ecstatic, jaw-dropping wild.  And when the thing finally slows down and comes to a halt, you look back over the mountains and valleys and think, “I gotta do that again!!”

A number of sermons this priest has recently preached have brought home to me that if you lead a God-centered life, you find, eventually, that you become more genuinely you.  People think that giving your life to God means you can’t have any more fun; I keep thinking of that line from Only the Good Die Young, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints – sinners have more fun.”  Maybe.  But sooner or later, every person I’ve ever known who was dedicated to a life of Having Fun, or Having It All, came to a point where he asked, “Is that all there is?”

And – no.  That’s not all there is.  There’s a whole You left unexplored, the You that you were created to be.  Life in God means becoming more authentically You, uncovering your greatest skills and talents and learning how to use them for your own enjoyment and the benefit of those around you.  And, in the process, finding other skills and talents you had no idea you possessed, and developing and using them.

As my life winds down, I look back, I look within – and I look up.  With tears of wonder and gratitude in my eyes, and an enormous smile on my lips, and a song of thanksgiving in my soul, I can say:  I am more than satisfied with the life I lead.  I am grateful.  I hope that Bob Marley got to that point, too.

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Splitsville

Goodness, a whole week without having posted.  For awhile there, I felt as if I was shooting for a whole year.  Anyway, “back to our sheep,” as I’m told they say in Russia:

What is the best thing you ever had for dessert?”

Let’s see, I’m in my seventh decade of life, and the question is, what is the very best dessert I’ve ever had?!  Scanning…scanning…scanning (back over 60+ years)…  Got it.  Believe it or not.

A banana split.

Nobody in my mother’s family was very demonstrative, but her older sister was especially close to my mother and to all us kids.  Mind you, I’m sure my brothers would have been very happy to have her farther away:  She lived around the corner from us when I was growing up, and my mother babysat her kids while my aunt went out to work, so on the rare occasions when my mother needed a babysitter, Aunt Mary was It.  And when it came to concocting scenarios of disaster, Aunt Mary had an imagination that made the legendary Jewish Mother look like a rank amateur.  My brothers still talk about the day she tied them into chairs – I find that hard to believe, but it is just possible, considering that my aunt’s explanation was that she was afraid Something Would Happen to Them.

I myself never experienced this side of her personality.  On the other hand, I could be relied upon to disappear into my cousin’s bedroom and not come out till it was time to come home, due to the fact that my cousin, her older son, had the largest collection of comic books in our entire town.  I think he had a charter subscription to Mad Magazine.

Anyway, back to dessert.  When I was sixteen, I met my aunt on the main street of town for a reason long lost to the mists of Time, and she invited me into a local candy store for a banana split.  I had heard of these concoctions, but had never had one; they were expensive treats, and I had more important uses for my allowance, like books and classical-music records, which were also expensive.  So I said I’d love to, more out of curiosity than for any other reason.

WOW.  That’s all I can say about it, just – WOW.  All that whipped cream!  All that ice cream!!  Bananas, and a cherry atop each peak of whipped cream!!!  And I didn’t even have to share it; my aunt bought one for herself, and a whole ‘nother one just for me.  If I had been hit by a car on the way home, I’d have died a happy girl:  I’d finally had the famous, infamously caloric, legendary Banana Split.

I had one other banana split in my lifetime, interestingly also in my aunt’s company, and I was somewhere in my forties at the time.  My girlish figure was long gone, due not to an excess of banana splits but to early-onset menopause, and I probably should not have been indulging.  But my mother, my aunt, and I had gone out to lunch, my aunt had seen it on the menu and pounced – it turned out it was her favorite dessert – and as she did so, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t enjoyed that treat since that long-ago winter day when I was 16, so I joined her.  And it was just as good the second time around.

I haven’t had one since.  At this point in my life, I doubt my elderly insides would be able to handle all that richness.  But the memory of that slushy winter day, all holed up in a candy store on the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and 78th Street, with my favorite relative, spooning up a banana split all to myself – that still stands out as the best dessert I ever had.

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