Archive for the ‘Autobiography’ Category

Back to the prompts.  Thank goodness – I’ve had enough of Depth for one week, anyway.

“What was the first candy you ever tried?”

Now that takes some mental exercise.  After all, we’re talking over sixty years of candy-sampling.  But I think I’ve got it.

As I know I have mentioned more than once, my mother was widowed very young – I was two – but as it turned out, she met her life partner at a cousin’s wedding, a month before my father was killed in a car crash.  He must have started coming around almost as soon as my father died, and because, to be frank, my mother had already begun to regret her first choice for a husband, and because she had a young child to support, she didn’t discourage the attentions of this second suitor.  In fact, they were married less than a year after my own father’s death, and that marriage lasted just over fifty years, ending with my mother’s death.

Dad – my stepfather – was nothing if not conservative and traditional, as most working-class folks are.  Flowers and candy were a de rigeur component of this courtship, and the candy came in boxes, with each piece wrapped in its own individual little piece of paper.  Each piece was chocolate, but each piece came with a different-flavor filling – I know there were caramels, and I suspect that a few of them were filled with brandy or another liqueur, because I was forbidden to touch the box on my own – my mother shared her candy willingly, but she got to choose which pieces I got to eat.  On rare occasion, she would give me my favorite:  chocolate-covered cherries, filled with a cherry liqueur.

In those days, before the Nanny State, it was perfectly permissible for children and alcohol to interact, to a limited extent.  At the numerous gatherings of my stepfather’s large Polish family, kids were always cadging “sips” of beer from the adults.  However, it was incumbent on the adults present to keep a close watch on who was giving in to the cadging, so I never actually got drunk, nor did my cousins.  Nor, for that matter, did the adults; although they might have gotten pleasantly snockered, I never once in my childhood saw an adult who was, as we used to say, “falling-down drunk.”  (That’s not to say there weren’t any, as I learned in adulthood, just to say that most of the family was careful not to let the children see them in that state.)  The purpose of a beer, on a hot summer afternoon, was to cool off, not to get drunk.  And although there was hard liquor, it wasn’t in plentiful supply; it was kept for special occasions, like toasting the announcement of an impending new baby.  (“Let’s drink to the baby.  Let’s drink to the crib.  Let’s drink to the carriage.  Let’s drink to the high chair.”  Etc.  Sometimes I think about that research relating adult drinking to fetal-alcohol syndrome, and I wonder if any of those researchers was remotely Slavic.  I’m betting not.)

Back to the candy.  I really loved those cherry-flavored candies, but usually got stuck – in more ways than one – with the caramels.  Hey, candy is candy.  My next-favorite part of the candy box, though, was bizarre, to say the least:  When all the candy had been eaten, I got the empty box of little papers.  I have no idea why the papers were returned to the box as the candy was eaten, but at the end of a week or so, I had a box full of empty papers, and I would shake it to listen to the rustle.  I called it my “pigeons.”  For some reason, a lot of men in post-war Brooklyn and Queens kept pigeons, Dad and his friend Steve among them, so from the time my mother began dating my stepfather, I was familiar with the rustle of caged pigeons in the back yard.  I should add that my mother hated the pigeons – in the early years, she and my stepfather had more arguments about those pigeons than about anything else – but Dad kept his pigeons until I was a teenager.  And when I was a very little girl, it was understood that those empty boxes of candy were my turf, a little girl’s “pigeons.”  It’s amazing how creative you can get when you’re poor.

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Really, when you look at the strange twists and turns that life takes, I don’t know how people can conclude that there is no God.  If, for example, my godfather and uncle hadn’t met and married a woman from New Hampshire when they were both in the Army, my family would never have dreamed of visiting them here.  I would never have concluded that New Hampshire was an infinitely better place to raise a family than New York City, where my family is from.  If my husband and I hadn’t moved here, I would never have gotten a job at one of those firms that develops and scores standardized educational exams.  And neither would my daughter.  And if she hadn’t worked there, she would never have met the man who became her husband, and they would never have had their two sons.  Two people now exist in this world who would never have come into being, if my uncle had not met and married this woman – who subsequently divorced him, anyway.  I have no idea why; I only know my family’s side of the story.

That’s about to change, I think.  This past April, my uncle’s son killed himself.  We weren’t close, but since he was family, I went to his wake, and there met his mother, whom I have not seen in over fifty years, this same native New Hampshirite whose brief marriage to my uncle brought us all here.  She was ecstatic, after so many years – and to be honest, I was happy to see her at last, too.  I really, really liked her when I knew her, and always grieved for the breakup.

Today, I took myself out to lunch.  I take myself out to lunch as often as I can, actually, mostly because I really hate making lunch.  I mean, once you’ve exhausted cold cuts, tuna salad, and peanut-butter-and-jelly (which I can’t eat anyway – I’m allergic to peanuts), what else is there?!  Not last night’s leftovers, not with my husband home all day and routinely saying, “What happened to…?”

(We once had a conversation about my odd lunch-out habit.  When he learned that I had always eaten lunch out, he was floored:  “Didn’t you ever pack a lunch?”  I thought about that for a bit – it isn’t as if my family was as rich as, say, the Kennedys, but then, who is – before I realized why:  Anything I had brought into the house to pack for lunch the next day would have disappeared overnight, down the gullets of any or all of my three younger brothers.  Nothing was safe in that house.)

So, I take myself out to lunch as often as I can.  I bring a book, and enjoy my own company and somebody else’s sandwich-making skills.  I had just sat myself down and was reaching for my book, when an older woman came up to my table and addressed me by my first name.  Now, not too many people in this town know me by my first name, which I loathe; many more know me by my middle name, and that’s how I like it.  So there was only one way a woman of a Certain Age could have known me by my first name.

It was her, my long-lost aunt.  I probably would have invited her to have lunch with me, but she was already engaged with one of her daughters, so she contented herself with giving me her telephone number and exclamations of Let’s-get-together-soon.  I said we would – I really would like to – she went back to her daughter, and I returned to my book.

And then I went to pay my check.

And the waitress told me that the Ladies Behind Me had paid it for me.

“What is the sweetest thing someone did for you today?” is today’s prompt.  I know I covered this in the post I wrote this morning, but – that was yesterday.  This is today.  I am still floored, that getting together with me means so much to this woman.  After all, she’s from here, she has family here and a long, long history in this town.  She could have lunch with any one of a couple dozen people.  But she has just ensured that I will be getting together with her.

Don’t tell me there is no God.  He keeps breaking into my life in the most unexpected ways.

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As in, “Planet of the Onlies” and “Planet of the Apes.”

I was cutting up some leftovers to augment tonight’s supper of Shepherd’s Pie, and was reminded of recent conversations between me and my husband, having to do with meals and meal preparations.  I’d known, because he mentioned it many times, that his super-thrifty mother had a habit of purchasing a five-pound pot roast for Sunday dinner (for three people) because it was Cheaper to Buy in Bulk – then serving pot roast for dinner every single night until Friday, when, as good Catholics, they’d have fish.  MIL-zilla didn’t like to cook, so pot-roast-every-night killed two birds with one stone.

But recently, the subject of our own leftovers came up.  Often, my husband won’t finish an entire meal, so saves the scraps until they’re almost at the point of rancidity, then cooks up a stir fry or soup out of them.  This is something I cannot get my own head around – when he was working, I used to eat the leftovers for lunch, but now that he’s home, he wants them saved for his own concoctions.  I was commenting on the difficulty I have with the concept of leftovers when he innocently asked, “What did your mother used to do with leftovers?  Didn’t she make soup?”  And it dawned on me:  At our house, “leftovers” was an alien concept.  Five kids, three of them boys?!  If you weren’t careful, food would disappear off your plate while you were still eating it!

This isn’t the first time the differences between only children and a posse has come up.  Another time, I was talking about what I used to get for lunch when working as a secretary before our marriage:  “Usually a hamburger, or some kind of fish.”  And again the question, “Didn’t you used to pack a lunch?”  Well, no.  And that was a good question, because money was always tight at our house, and a packed lunch would have been much thriftier.  I thought about it for a minute before it hit me:  “Anything I had brought into that house to make for lunch the next day, would have disappeared by morning.”  Well, maybe not liver, and even I draw the line at liver.

Only children just don’t grasp this.  In the house of an only child, you put something down, it’s still there when you return for it.  Nobody else comes along and says, “Oh, hey, I was looking for a pen/a dish/five bucks,” and that’s the last you see of it.  Let alone food.  The first time we had this conversation was one evening when visiting the in-laws.  We had eaten dinner and put the baby down for the night, and that was when my father-in-law brought out his Ultra Special Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies (I like chewy better), and gave my husband and me two each.  As I was crunching mine down the hatch, DH put his at his place.  “We’re going for a walk,” he announced, “and I’ll have mind when I come back.”  This was too good an opportunity to miss.  “Boy, you can tell Jim’s an only child,” I remarked.  “He’s going to leave those cookies there, and he actually expects them still to be there when he gets back.”

MIL-zilla also having been an only child, she and DH exchanged puzzled glances:  Why wouldn’t they still be there?  My father-in-law, who not only had had a sister and a stepbrother but also had worked as a fireman, burst out laughing.  He knew!

Then there are the “luxuries” you can afford yourself, when you only have one child, not all of them material.  I’ve mentioned MIL-zilla’s super-thriftiness.  The odd thing about it was:  She and her husband only had the one child.  The house they lived in had been MIL-zilla’s parents’ – she grew up in that house.  She was employed as a nurse by the City of NY, and her husband, as I’ve mentioned, was FDNY.  As City employees, they had benefits the rest of New York could only dream about.  Yet – DH was convinced that they lived on the thin edge of poverty, because of all the cost-cutting measures she took.  The one that sticks in my mind was the washing machine, an old-fashioned wringer-washer that involved a lot of manual labor.  She hung onto it because It Still Worked, and her motto was, “Use it up, wear it out, make it last.”  You can afford luxuries like that with only one child.  If she’d had half a dozen, that washer would have been replaced by an automatic in record time.

And she would have had to be a lot more creative with dinner.  We never knew what pot roast was when we were growing up.  We ate a lot of meatloaf.  (A lot of meatloaf.)  We ate a lot of stuffed cabbage.  We went through a ten-pound bag of potatoes a week.  And vegetables, which were a staple on the “Zilla” table, were for rabbits at our house.  Who could afford them?!  DH used to talk fondly of the German frankfurters his mother would buy from time to time.  At our house, we bought the A&P Special – heaven alone knows what went into them, but Thursday night was Hot Dog Night at our house, and we were grateful for that one hot dog on a bun – now that was luxury!  (Eight hot dogs to a package, so one was “left over” – it always disappeared by morning, first come first serve.  I didn’t know food got moldy until after I was married.)

And the bathroom.  The “Zilla” household was unusual, in that it had two bathrooms, and for MIL-zilla, this was a necessity.  She could never fathom how seven people could live in a house with only one bathroom.  Of course – in the Zilla household, they could take their time shaving and brushing their teeth.  At our house, you used the bathroom for only the very basic necessities, and even bathing was something you rushed through; somebody was bound to Need the room before too long.  (When I’d had it up to here with MIL-zilla, I used to torment her with tales of when my uncle’s family lived with us for five months during the closure of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Four adults.  Seven children.  (Eight, actually, but one was still in diapers.)  One bathroom.  She’d turn white at the very thought.)

See – these are the things you don’t even think about when you get married.  You’re so wrapped up in a haze of Love and Happiness and Fulfillment, that it doesn’t even occur to you that such trivia exists.  Over time, it can be the stuff that drives a wedge between you, or it can be the kind of thing you shake your head over in wonderment that your Dearly Beloved actually came from a different planet – the Planet of the Onlies.  Or the Planet of the Apes.  When my nephew got married this past summer, our son asked, “Does Katherine [the bride] have any idea what kind of family she’s marrying into?”  “Nobody knows,” I said, thinking of the Zillas, but then added, “Just ask Dad.”  My husband guffawed.  Maybe he knew I was thinking of his parents, or maybe he was just agreeing that my background was hopelessly chaotic.

But this May, we will have been together for 43 years.  Obviously the planets found a way to align.

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My Funniest Valentine

Mother-in-law horror stories abound, I know.  And in the annals of MIL-zilla, there are worse than mine was.  That said, mine operated on the rules of commandos:  Slip in under cover of darkness, strike fast, and slip back out, all in record time.

Mind you, there was no way on earth to see it coming.  She had a way of getting people to talk about themselves, their secret hopes and dreams, even their deepest wounds.  Then, when you least expected it, she would pop up with a completely warped version of what you’d said, a bomb that she would drop in a setting where you couldn’t possibly defend yourself, and then slip away, leaving you feeling sandbagged and looking like the worst kind of liar.  I wasn’t the only one it happened to, although I was a favorite target, being not exactly what she’d had in mind for her only son.

I would have had no inkling of what I was in for, except that even commandos need to study the enemy territory thoroughly, and my mother-in-law had one fatal flaw (one I share, although I do my best never to be malicious):  It never occurred to her that people Know Other People.  She used to slip around the corner to the office of her best friend, who owned a monument company (Middle Village being in the middle of three large cemeteries, there was a lot of call for monuments), and she would complain bitterly about That Girlfriend of Jimmy’s, for hours on end.  The best friend had a secretary, a very efficient treasure whom she would never have dreamed of parting with.  What neither of them knew was that the Very Efficient Treasure was best friends with my aunt.  One day my aunt happened to say something about Mrs. L., and the Very Efficient Treasure gasped.  “Is your niece the one who’s dating Jimmy?  Oh, tell her to look out for Mrs. L.!”

Say what??   I thought it was an odd comment; I thought my future mother-in-law was one of the nicest people on the planet.  What I could not possibly have known was that MIL-zilla had someone else in mind for Her Jimmy, a fellow nurse whose father and brother were both doctors, and German, to boot (MIL was German).  And she was Catholic – so was I, but I was “Polish” (my stepfather’s being Polish was enough to consign me to the Untermensch category).  And she sang in the choir (so did I, but I was still “Polish”).

So when it got serious between Jimmy and me, MIL-zilla went into action.  There was the time she offered me the last Very Special Cookie – and when I took it, informed me with glee that whoever took the last of anything was doomed to be an Old Maid.  “Better hope that’s not true,” I said, “because the only way that’s gonna happen is if Jimmy dies.”  That was not a welcome thought!  There was the way she kept confusing my first name with the name of a young person she knew with a totally messed-up life – that lapsis linguae lasted till after the wedding.

And then there were the flowers.

My husband and I had the kind of courtship that’s supposed to end in disaster:  He was stationed overseas shortly after we met, and we conducted our romance almost completely by mail.  I flew to Germany one Christmas to visit him, and returned with an engagement ring on my finger; we planned our wedding for May, his favorite month.  Due to my family’s straitened circumstances, we planned to have only a small immediate-family reception, so the need to wait for A Hall and A Caterer was eliminated; we ended up having cold cuts and salads, the obligatory cake, and wine for drinks.  It was an offbeat and nerdy reception, but a completely traditional wedding, but not nearly the gala affair MIL-zilla had been hoping for (probably hoping for more chances to throw a monkey wrench into the works).

Valentine’s Day came in the middle of all this wedding prep.  With the prospective groom 5,000 miles away, the best he could do was to order flowers and write to me to be on the lookout for a Very Special Present for Valentine’s Day.  When the big day came, there was…nothing.  A card, yes, but no present whatsoever.  In the evening I got a telephone call from MIL-zilla, inviting my mother and me over to see her flowers.  And what a bouquet it was:  huge by any standards, with carnations and lilies and daisies and I don’t know what-all else.  We looked, we admired, and went back home, bewildered.  “Maybe the florist never got the order,” I said to my mother, but she thought it was tasteless of my fiancé not even to send a small present.

The wedding took place as scheduled, and we flew off to a new life in a foreign country.  I’ve blogged about that elsewhere, and in retrospect, I’m glad we planned our wedding the way we did; given MIL-zilla’s propensities for mischief-making, I’m not sure our marriage would have survived the first year if we hadn’t been 5,000 miles away.

It wasn’t until four or five years ago that I mentioned those flowers to my husband, and how odd it seemed to be invited over to admire his mother’s flowers.  “What about your flowers?” he said.  MY flowers?  That was when I learned that he had ordered a dozen roses to be sent to his mother’s house, and had written to her of the breakdown:  six for me, three for his mother, and three for my mother.  The bouquet that came was not roses by any stretch of the imagination, but there were plenty of flowers to go around three ways.

He was mortified.  He was horrified.  And I…burst out laughing.  MIL-zilla had struck again!

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By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and we wept when we remembered Sion.

Upon the willows in the midst thereof did we hang our instruments.

For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song.

And they that had led us away asked us for a hymn, saying:  Sing us one of the songs of Sion.

But how shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?

–Psalm 136, LXX/137, Masoretic

In liturgical churches, today is one of the preparatory Sundays of Lent.  For most of those with which readers will be familiar, Ash Wednesday is this coming Wednesday; some traditions, such as Catholic and some Lutherans, will have ashes rubbed on their foreheads while the priest or minister says, “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  In my own tradition, Eastern Orthodox, it’s a little different.  We won’t begin “Great Lent,” as we call it to distinguish it from other fasting periods, for another two weeks.  But we do have three Sundays of preparation for Lent, and today is the second of those three.  Russian Orthodox churches will have sung the Psalm above during Matins.

It’s one of my favorites because it describes pretty much my whole life:  singing, in a strange land.  I’ve been singing for over sixty years now, first as a tot and then as a child who just loved music.  My first “formal” setting for singing was the Glee Club of the high school I attended, and after that, I sang in a variety of church choirs (and two secular choirs, when living in Germany).  And always…feeling like a stranger, literally or figuratively.

Singing in Greek, when I attended Greek Orthodox churches:  It doesn’t get much more foreign than that.  The words, the alphabet, the music itself, are so very foreign to the Western ear!  Greek music uses quarter tones – if yout ry to sing do, re, mi while “sliding” up the scale, you will hit a variety of pitches in between do and re, between re and mi, and so on.  Those are not only quarter tones, but also micro-tones.  I’m told there are about sixteen of them.  Greek music doesn’t use them all, but I’m sure it’s not for want of trying.

Singing in German, when living in Germany:  I didn’t speak German before I moved there.  Don’t have any German blood in my veins.  But, married to someone whose mother is German and who spoke German, it was a given that we were going to experience the full culture to the best of our ability, and in retrospect, it was a good decision.  The richness of German musical tradition does have to be experienced to be fully appreciated.  There is, of course, the classical-music aspect, but there are also folk songs that are simply charming in the way they touch on every aspect of daily life.  We know too little in the United States about the folk-music traditions of our European ancestors, and we are the poorer for it.

Singing in a Catholic choir should never have felt foreign.  I grew up in the Catholic tradition.  But it was the pre-Vatican-II tradition, with Masses by the classical composers, Palestrina, Mozart, Fauré, among many, many others.  By the time I was out of high school and singing in choirs, though, all of that was passé, and we were singing music best described as “liturgical folk songs.”  Not that they were real folk songs.  They were songs composed in what their composers fondly imagined to be folk style.  For a lover of classical music like me, this was sheer torture, and I think I never felt more like a stranger than when I was trying to make Catholic choirs work for me.

Even the Glee Club:  High school is either the best time of your life, or the worst.  For me it was the absolute worst.  The nuns were different from the Dominicans I had grown up with; the girls were from all over the Diocese, all from different parish cultures; the subject matter was of absolutely no interest whatsoever.  (It was an Academic curriculum.  In grade school, I had been encouraged to pursue an Academic curriculum.  In retrospect, I should have gone to a commercial school and taken a Business curriculum, but there’s no way to know that when you’re thirteen.)  The only thing high school had going for it was Glee Club – and I didn’t even pass the audition the first time I sang for it. (I’m sure the sprained ankle didn’t help.)  The second time was the charm, and for the last two years of high school, Glee Club was the highlight of the week.

I learned so much about proper singing in Glee Club:  How to open your mouth wide, how to make a sound chamber out of it, how to pronounce words so that they could be understood by an audience – singing diction feels ridiculous, but if you sing the way you speak, you swallow half the sound – correct posture to open up the lungs, breathing from the diaphragm to increase your breath capacity, things that were reiterated in every subsequent choir I sang with.  My overall high-school education was worth very little; Glee Club taught me everything I’ve ever really used in life.  But it was probably the strangest of all the strange lands I’ve sung in.

The Psalm “By the waters of Babylon” is, at its root, a song of exiles, a song written for people who are in a place utterly foreign to them, with strange customs and a strange language, and a way of life so strange that the people who have been taken captive can’t even sing when requested to do so by their captors.  I wonder how many of us feel that way at different times in our lives, looking around and saying, “I absolutely do not belong here, and I have no idea how to get where I do belong.”  I’ve felt that way for most of my life.

Except when I’m in a Russian Orthodox church.  Many Russian churches do use English in their Liturgies, but many others still use Church Slavonic (best described as “Church Russian”).  If you’re in a parish that uses Church Slavonic, the music will be written in the Russian language, an alphabet derived from Greek.  It will not in any way resemble Byzantine chant, but it’s also different from the music common to Western churches, even from the classical music that used to be such a common experience in the Catholic Church.  It’s…mystical.  It makes you think, “This must be what heaven sounds like.”

And when I sing it – I’m no longer in a strange land.  I’m home.

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When I came home from school that day, my mother and her sister were arguing in the kitchen.

“It’s supposed to snow later,” said my aunt.  “What if there’s a blizzard and you can’t get there in time?”  My aunt holds something of a neighborhood record in the Worrywart category, which, considering that we lived on the only Gentile block in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, is saying something.

My mother waved her hand.  “It’s just twinges.  I’ll get there and they’ll send me home, and I’ll look ridiculous.”

I didn’t really pay too much attention.  I was a sophomore in a Catholic high school, and had a mountain of homework to get through.  I left them to it, and holed up in my bedroom.

Two or so hours later, it seemed to me that supper should be about ready, so I poked my nose out.  Dad was home, making potato pancakes, standard Friday-night fare in our house.  Mom was nowhere to be seen.  “She went to the hospital,” he said.

Oh.  So the baby was finally coming, and about time; it was due on Valentine’s Day, and this was February 16.  The usual bickering of four children, ages six to fifteen, was a bit subdued that evening as we consumed our pancakes.  All of us wondering when our new brother would be born.  Not that we actually knew it was a boy.  Back then, there was no way to tell what the sex of your baby was until you held it in your arms.  But after four boys, it was a pretty safe bet that #5 would also be male.

The telephone rang around 7:30, and being the closest to it, I picked up.  A male voice asked for my father, and I handed him the phone.  “It’s Dr. Manzo.”  Dad listened for a minute, glanced over at me, then said, “OK, thank you, Doctor,” and hung up.  Then he turned to me, to all of us, really.

“What’d he say, Dad?” I asked.

“He said, ‘Mr. Smith?  You hear your daughter crying?'”  Then Dad broke into the biggest grin I’d ever seen on his face, as the import of his words sank in.

She’d had a girl.  I had a sister.  A sister!  I was fifteen years old, and I finally had a sister!

In those days, they kept you in the hospital for five days after a normal birth, close to two weeks for a Caesarean.  This having been my mother’s sixth child – her last pregnancy had ended tragically, when the fourth boy died the day after he was born – she’d had a ridiculously easy birth.  I found out about it when she arrived home:

“I was so surprised,” Mom kept saying.  “I never thought they’d keep me.  I got into the lobby and I kept saying, ‘This is ridiculous, I’m not in labor,’ and the nurse put her hand on my belly and yelled, ‘Get this woman up to Delivery!’  I couldn’t believe it.”  The “twinges” she had been experiencing had been real labor.  And she’d had no clue.

Right from the get-go, my sister was a different proposition from anything any of us had ever known.  My brothers each had a personality:  The oldest one cried nonstop for two years, the middle one was always observing, the youngest of the three was so laid back we weren’t sure if he was normal.  (Intellectually, yes.  Emotionally, yes.  But “normal”…well…I don’t know too many minds that could effortlessly combine “directions and “instructions” into “destructions.”)  My sister, though, was born with a twinkle in her eye, and a limitless capacity for affection.  You’d pick her up to change her, and she’d turn it into a game.  And just when you began to get annoyed, she’d throw her arms around you  and land a kiss on your neck.  It would be time for bed, and she couldn’t settle down until she’d made the rounds of every member of the family for a hug and a kiss.

People have always fallen in love with her, women as well as men, children, adults, puppies – puppies, my sister is and has always been the biggest fan of dogdom on the planet.  These days she’s a Town Clerk and Tax Collector for a small New Hampshire town.  How many people do you know who love their Tax Collector?!  True, she takes plenty of abuse on the telephone.  But the townsfolk who come in to pay their taxes (saving a stamp – that’s the New Hampshire way) all want to spend a couple of minutes chatting with her, joking with her, waiting for her infectious laugh.

The thing is – until my sister came along, we were just surviving every day.  Every day was some kind of battle for domination, of the television, of school supplies, of the chores (as in, who could you fob them off on), of boy toys, of my mother’s attention, and good luck with that one.  Once my sister entered the house, the fighting became almost a game, a way to sneak an extra hug out of the Baby of the Family.  To this day she doesn’t fully realize what she did for us:  She took a motley crew of people who had been thrown together, and turned us into a family.  She’s the one who stays in touch with all of us.  Hers is the house my brothers stay at when they’re visiting from out of town.  She’s the one my parents turned to as they grew older and feebler, and she’s the one who cared for them in their last illness; not that the rest of us wouldn’t have, but she was the one they wanted.  She’s the one I’ll brave snow, ice, slush, gale-force winds for, just to have breakfast on Tuesdays – at 6:00 a.m.

On February 16, she turns 50.  Fifty years of blessedness.  Fifty years of the sweetest smile, fifty years of the laugh that no one can resist, fifty years of love, fifty years of feeling, at last, like a family.  We’ll throw her a party, and my brothers will make snotty cracks about being over the hill.  And she’ll give as good as she gets; always has.  And when I meet her for breakfast the Tuesday before the party, I’ll give her a card that tells it like it is – a card that tells her what a blessing she is to me.

God bless my sister Anne.

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On Tuesday, responding to a NaNoBloMo prompt, I wrote about my eighth-grade teacher.  Which is what you get for being too literal:  Like most people (I hope – I’d hate to think I was that dense), I was thinking in terms of schoolteachers.  In fact, there were two teachers who made the single biggest impact on my life:  One was my German teacher, about whom I blogged last November, and one was the poor soul who made his living casting the pearls of music before the neighborhood piglets.

I had wanted piano lessons ever since watching Liberace’s television show in the 1950s.  Of course I had no idea of the effort involved in learning piano, but just to be able to make those sounds…!  But with Dad earning $35 a week and our family growing by leaps and bounds, that was never a possibility.  At some point, however, my aunt got wind of a man who taught accordion in people’s houses; I guess he was teaching the son of one of her neighbors.  She got accordion lessons for her son, and then, I suspect, paid for lessons for me, as well, since there was no way my mother could have carved lessons out of her budget.

Now, accordion-playing wasn’t as nerdy back then as it sounds now.  For one thing, this was New York City, the Land of a Thousand Ethnicities.  Many of them were Eastern European, and the accordion was enshrined as the instrument of choice for polka music.  (It was pretty nifty for klezmer music, too.)  Then there were the Italians in the neighborhood, who simply adored hearing Italian music on the accordion, including, bizarre as it sounds, opera arias.  I guess they were desperate for a little culture.

So every Tuesday for three years, John Livio came to our house and taught accordion.  From him I learned to read music, the functions of G-clefs and bass clefs, harmony, musical structure, fingering – all the basics of  instrumental music for a keyboard instrument, not a few of which stood me in good stead in high school when trying out for Glee Club.  I practiced for an hour each day, frustrated because I just didn’t seem to be achieving the fluency of professional players; I had no idea, and no one told me, of the hours and hours the pros put into it.  That kind of time would never have been available to me, anyway, with six kids running around a four-room house.  And I had my regular studies to contend with, which, let’s face it, were incredibly boring compared with music.

But the lessons were contingent upon my maintaining good grades, and I probably convinced my teachers that I was far brainier than I actually was, because I was such a Good Student.  Amazing, the price you’ll pay for what’s valuable to you.

The lessons came to an abrupt end the day he announced he was going to teach me “Flight of the Bumblebee” – I took one look at all those hemi-demi-semiquavers and said, “I don’t think so,” or whatever the 1959 equivalent was.  I had a week to get used to the idea, and over that week I thought I might like to give it a shot.  I’m sure he would have been pleased to hear that, except…he never showed up.  Maybe he was sick, we thought, but he was MIA the next week, too, and the week after that.

I kept up the accordion, anyway – I did enjoy making music on it – went on to high school and Glee Club, then, in adulthood, to church-choir singing.  Over the decades I developed my voice by listening to good singers and paying attention to the various choir directors I had.  Eventually I directed the choir in my own parish church, then went on to obtain a certificate in choir direction.  When I got that certificate, I took it in to my dad’s sitting room, where he was watching television, and thanked him for shelling out for the accordion lessons, since I don’t actually don’t know if it was my aunt who paid for them.  He looked surprised, delighted, and not a little confused; I don’t think he got what the certificate was about.  But I thought he should have the satisfaction of knowing that the music lessons he was so opposed to hadn’t been in vain.  The one I should have thanked, I was never able to, so here it is:  Thank you, John Livio, for the lessons you taught.  Both musical and otherwise.

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I think I’ve always had knitting in my bones.  It’s the only reason I can think of for the fact that essentially, I taught myself how to knit.

Living in Germany was a great help in that regard.  When I was living there, I think every woman in the entire country knitted.  You’d see them everywhere:  in the train station, on the train, in the park, sitting at picnic benches in the forest, at the laundromat, knitting, knitting, knitting.  I knew how to crochet; crocheted granny-afghan squares became very popular when I was a young teenager, and even my mother, who hated needlework of any kind, learned to knit those.  I made my first afghan when I was twenty.  But nobody in Germany crocheted, that I could tell; everyone knitted, and as I had always considered crochet a poor substitute for knitting, I wanted to knit, too.

On one of my rare forays to the Base Exchange (the Air Force equivalent of a department store), I spotted a magazine, Somebody-Or-Other’s Fall Knits.  (I don’t think it was Vogue.)  The front-cover pattern was exactly what I was looking for, a matching cape and skirt in a rich autumnal brown color.  And it looked like a fairly easy pattern…if only I knew how.  I picked up the magazine and browsed through it, and there in the front were…instructions.  Oh, heaven.  I bought that magazine on the spot, and the next day, went to the yarn shop in town and bought several hanks of rich brown yarn and a pair of suitable knitting needles.  And when I got home, I taught myself to cast on.

Now – knitting takes patience.  Lots of patience.  Casting on, the means by which you get the foundation row of knitting on needles, is especially tough to learn.  I didn’t even know how to make a slip knot.  And of course, what I cast on was so tight that there was no way to get another needle into the loops to form a second row of knitting.  I must have ripped that thing out a dozen times before I got a selvedge I could work with.

Then there was purling.  Knitting was pretty easy, once you got that first row onto the needles; you stuck the working needle into the stitch from front to back, wrapped the yarn around it, and pulled through.  It was just a question of getting the yarn to stay on the needle until it pulled through.  Did I mention that knitting takes patience?  But eventually, there was a fairly tidy second row of knitting on my needle.  And then came real hell, because I had to stick the working needle into the stitch from back to front, wrap the yarn around it, and pull it through again, and this time, that yarn would not stay on that needle!  This is where an experienced knitter would be jumping up and down, saying, “Garter stitch!  Garter stitch!” meaning, you knit every row.  I thought about it.  I think I actually did it.  But need I point out that garter stitch looks nothing like stockinette stitch?  I wanted stockinette stitch.

So I persevered, and after probably about two weeks, I finally had a row of purl stitches on my needle.  Turn it around, knit another row, yay, I get to knit.  Turn it around, phooey, I have to purl another row.

Believe it or not, I actually did finish my skirt and cape in time for winter, and wore them with great pride.  I’m sure they looked as if they had been knit by an amateur; after all, they were.  But I did it.

That taken care of, I returned to my first and favorite needlework, cross stitch, and didn’t pick up knitting needles until five years later, when my daughter turned two.  Just the thought of little fingers and eyes around sharp scissors and needles was unbearable, and there was this cute jacket pattern I had seen in yet another magazine, so I packed away the cross-stitch stuff, bought gorgeous pink yarn, and cast on again – much more smoothly this time.  And this time, I didn’t stop knitting for 25 years.  Sweaters, dresses, socks, I made ’em all.

It was in 1982 that my knitting life really took off.  That was the year when, living in Massachusetts, I walked into a yarn shop in Lexington and found Knitter’s Almanac, by the doyenne of the knitting world, Elizabeth Zimmermann.  I wasn’t really sure I wanted to buy this book; it looked so Advanced, with no real patterns in it, not like anything I could do.  And we really couldn’t afford it.  But there was a chapter on Nether Garments (September), for knitted leggings.  “I first saw this practical garment in Germany,” wrote the Master (Mistress?), and I was hooked; that’s where I first saw it, too.

I never did make the Nether Garments, but – well, have you ever read anything by Elizabeth Zimmermann?  The woman is impossible to resist.  She charms you into thinking you can actually do this stuff, design your own patterns and make things without magazine patterns, knit in the round instead of flat pieces that you have to sew up, actually do math.  The scary part is – you can.  I did.  Fair Isle vests, Aran pullovers – argyle socks! – Icelandic pullovers, you name it, I did it.  Despite what people have been led to believe, federal civil-service workers actually don’t make megabucks, as I know from personal experience, and one of the ways I stretched a buck was to purchase one skein of sock yarn, cut the worn-out feet off my husband’s socks, and knit new feet onto them.  I still have some of those socks.  The yarn was pretty horrible – it pilled like crazy – but they are still wearable.  I wear them now.

My crowning achievement was my daughter’s wedding veil.  This was not without struggle.  I knew what I wanted to make; I had the pattern for it; I was able to purchase lace-weight wool; but never, repeat never, try to tell a non-knitter that you are knitting a wedding veil.  They can’t conceive of such a thing.  Both my mother (the needlework-hater) and my daughter’s future mother-in-law thought I was knitting a granny afghan!!  And it took me a year to knit the Shetland shawl I had envisioned; but she looked lovely in it, and it made a wonderful christening blanket for her two sons.

After that, I put my needles away and got back into cross stitch.  Until my son, who had only ever seen me knit, suggested to his then-girlfriend that something knitting related might make a good Christmas gift.  The girl bought me the Never Not Knitting calendar by Stephanie Pearl McPhee, who should seriously consider changing her middle name to “Purl” – it was like the rebirth of Elizabeth Zimmermann.  The woman literally laughed me into picking up the ol’ needles again.

I still cross stitch, in the daytime, when the light is good.  At night, with nothing but artificial light at my disposal, I take out my knitting.  In the past two years, I have knitted two Aran sweaters and a hat (and I swear I will never make another Aran again), and am currently engaged in a pair of socks for my husband.   The next pair of socks is for me.

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A couple of Sundays ago, my husband and I were chatting with the wife of a now-retired priest, and reminiscing about our early married life in Germany.  My husband was talking about the cold-water flat we lived in, describing how we used to move the space heater from one room to another in order to warm up the next room we would be occupying, and she said, “But then, why did you like it so much?”

Her question brought me up short, because actually, why did we like it so much?  Why do we still talk about those three years in Germany as the best time of our lives?  Because actually, our living conditions were primitive, by modern standards.  We did have running water; at least we didn’t have to use an outhouse.  But cold water was literally all we had, when I wanted to wash dishes, or when my husband wanted to shave.  For bathing, we did have a five-gallon tank that hovered over the bathtub.  At night, before we went to bed, I would set the timer on the tank heater, and in the morning it would be just the right temperature for *one* of us to have a bath (no shower).  While my husband washed, I would fill up a teakettle and boil water; it was done by the time he was done, and he had hot water for shaving, while I made coffee.

When we rented the apartment, it had an electric “stove” that was supposed to heat the whole place.  Unfortunately, it died on us within the first two weeks of winter, so we went out and bought a space heater, a little thing that we could (and did) carry from roon to room.  The worst was in the morning, when the whole apartment was cold; I’d move the thing into the kitchen and get it going to warm up, then turn it off while I went out on my daily errands.  In the afternoon, it kept me warm in the living room; around  4:00 p.m., I’d move it into the kitchen to warm up that space again, so it would be toasty when my husband got back from the base, and while we ate supper, the space heater warmed up the living room.  While we decompressed from the day, the space heater warmed up the bedroom; and so it went, all winter long.

The whole time we lived in Germany, I didn’t drive, at my husband’s request; German drivers really are wild, and he feared for my life.  But that was, and is, a country where bicycles and trains never went out of style, so getting around wasn’t a problem.  The supermarket was around the corner, the base only a couple of miles through a bike path in the woods; my husband and many of our neighbors cycled to and from work every day, and if I needed to get on base for any reason, so did I.  The forest was so beautiful!  Germans love their forests, and the Town Forester kept the path clear of branches, and soft with a good bed of pine needles.  Throughout Germany, hiking trails were not only maintained and clearly market, but labeled with the amount of time you could expect to spend on them; they had fifteen-minute trails, half-hour trails, trails that could take as long as three hours to hike the whole thing, and all the trails were marked along the way, too, via different-colored markers, so that you would end up back where you started.  You couldn’t get lost.

And yes, we could have bought provisions on base.  We could have washed our laundry on base (when the laundromat worked; it was frequently closed for repairs).  We did that, for the first year we lived there.  Then I learned to speak German, which my husband could already speak.  We were already going to weekly Mass at the church in town, so we were a known quantity in the community; after that first year of learning German, we began to live German.  And what a difference it made, to see my neighbors at the supermarket or the hairdresser’s, to buy our breakfast rolls and coffee at the local bakery, to cycle to the laundromat on laundry day, as all my other neighbors did.

For entertainment…oh, for entertainment!  We belonged to two music clubs, one a semi-professional concert choir and one a folk-music choir that was an extension of our church choir, to which we also belonged.  Did you know that despite the devil’s many arts, he can’t sing?  Did you know that every morning, “white veils of mist appear to herald the morning sunrise before it breaks through the clouds”?  Or that the “golden sun is full of joy and wonder”?  Those are just three of the folk songs I learned; there were so many more, full of the joys and miracles of everyday living.

Then there was the concert series at City Hall.  We paid the equivalent of a dollar to hear student musicians play music that stays with me to this day:  Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schubert, Handel, to name just a few.  These were serious musicians, who took their art seriously, and whose education was completely funded by the State of Hesse, where we lived; presumably, the other states of the Federal Republic of  Germany had similar programs for their young musicians.  We had no television; we didn’t need one.  We had books from the library and light classical music from Hessischer Rundfunk, “our” radio station (there were three.  One was talk, one was rock, and then there was Hessischer Runkfunk).  We had no telephone; who were we going to call?  We wrote letters home once a week, and received letters from home.

It was, all in all, a good and quiet and very low-key way to begin married life.  We had time to adjust to each other, unhampered by the storms of anti-war movements and feminist rebellion that rocked the rest of the country.  I think I was back in America for three years before I learned that the Beatles had broken up.  Because everything was so new – nothing in life was anything like what we had known – I think we absorbed the shocks of married life better than other newlyweds.  Our expectations were minimal, our horizons limitless.  We had the greatest gift of all, time to meld into a single united entity, which stood us in good stead when we did return to the USA and had to weather our families’ expectations of who we were – so different from who we had become.

(By the way, anybody familiar with military life will surely be asking by now, “Why weren’t you in base housing?”  Simply put, enlisted personnel who weren’t career military didn’t qualify for base housing.  And my husband’s college degree, not being in a “critical field” like engineering or flight, wasn’t considered sufficient reason to grant him officer status.  It should have been, but it wasn’t.  You want to talk about government waste?  It’s nothing new.)

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NaBloPoMo prompt:  “Tell us about your first teacher who was important to you.”

The most important teacher in my life, Peter Bochow, used to say:  “He who can, does.  He who can’t, teaches.  He who can’t teach, teaches teachers.”  As he was, at the time, engaged in teaching teachers, this was a shot at himself, and very funny he found it.  I have blogged elsewhere about him, and he will forever be enshrined in my mind as the most gifted teacher I ever had.

But the first one who was important to me, aside from the obvious “first teachers” of parents, grandparents, and the whole broad scope of relatives, was my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Agnes Therese.  Isn’t that sad, that no teacher really touched my life until eighth grade?  But I blogged recently about the Catholic-school experience and its attendant horrors; although Sister Agnes Therese wasn’t the only one, or even the first one, not to engage in wholesale abuse, the others just didn’t have the same impact on my life.  For Sister Agnes Therese had three things going for her:  She was built like a tank; she was absolutely unflappable; and she had a phenomenal sense of humor.

When I say she was built like a tank, I mean just that:  tall, square, shoulders like a linebacker, she looked like she belonged on a farm, hefting bales of hay or rassling with cattle.  I remember telling my mother, on the first day of school that year, that she looked like an admiral.  In other words, she was perfect for the sixty eighth-graders she taught; you’d think twice about messing with her.  Yet…there was just something about her mouth, as if she could barely contain an inner bubble of laughter that was fed by her rambunctious crew.  When we got to be too much for her, she would just shake her head.  “You people,” she would say, in a resigned tone that settled us right down.  Or, “Boy, oh man.”  (I’ve heard of “Boy, oh boy,” and “Man, oh man,” but that particular combination was hers alone.)

She also contributed to my vocabulary a phrase that I use to this day:  “Use your head for more than a hatrack.”  It was classic Brooklyn English, and much more effective than screaming, “Do you people ever think?!” as our seventh-grade teacher used to do.  “Use your head for more than a hatrack” is something I passed on to my own two children, and they understood it as I did:  Someone whose brain was functioning on auto-pilot, or who wasn’t exercising “the little grey cells” up to capacity (hat tip to Agatha Christie and her fictional character, Hercule Poirot).

Eighth grade is a horrible time of life anyway.  Female hormones have half the class in a grip, while male hormones are still blissfully unaware of the opposite sex, and boys think that an acceptable way of telling a girl she’s “all right” is to put slimy things in her desk, or pelt her with ice balls on the way home from school.  I can’t imagine trying to cram any kind of knowledge into the brains of eighth-graders, and truth to tell, I can’t recall a single thing I learned in eighth grade; it was mostly a refinement of things we had already learned, polishing our grammar, adding details to whatever we knew of history and geography (which at the time had yet to be morphed into “Social Studies”), preparing us to go into the wider world as good (Catholic) “soldiers of Christ.”  Science was never a strong point of Catholic schools, so that wasn’t even on the radar screen, though I do recall a bare-bones introduction to physics.  Forget math.  It was definitely taught, and probably there were new things taught, but the whole notion of numbers was so intimidating to me that it wasn’t till I was forty years old that it began to occur to me that I might actually be able to handle accounting – since all it is, is addition, subtraction, multiplication, and the odd bit of division here and there.

So why was Sister Agnes Therese so memorable?  Probably because, in an atmosphere that can still strike terror into an entire generation of Catholics, she never once resorted to terror.  Her weapons were Calm and Humor, an unbeatable combination.  I never got the chance to tell her so; she was out of my life as soon as I left that hellhole, and by the time it began to dawn on me just how much of an impact she had had on my life, she had passed on to her eternal reward.  I hope it is free of horrible little eighth-graders.  I hope she is enjoying many fruits of her life as a Bride of Christ.  May her memory be eternal!

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