Archive for the ‘People’ Category

“Do you agree with Nietszche’s quote: ‘Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes’?”

Oops, I missed a day.  Oddly, it was a day on which not a lot was happening.  Go figure.

First, let me say that I really hate that I do agree with Nietzsche’s quote – I hate agreeing with Nietzsche about anything, developer of Nazi philosophy as he was (and yes, I’m aware that he was unaware of that himself.  But from him we have the idea of Superman (Uebermensch) and Untermensch, sub-human, and, well, we all know enough about Nazism for me to need to go into it more than that.  Eww).

But I’ll make an exception in this case, because frankly, there’s nothing like long-term marriage to convince you of its truth.

You know how it is when you fall in love.  The one you love can literally do no wrong.  People who fall in love with abusers will make all kinds of excuses for their abominable behavior, and even those of us who fall in love with perfectly reasonable human beings think they are just the most perfect people who ever walked the earth.  Even when that becomes pretty obviously not the case, a certain element of it remains through courtship, engagement, and marriage.

It doesn’t take long for reality to set in.  A happily-married couple I know was talking about a party they had attended, where someone asked the husband, “How long have you been married?”  The husband responded, “We’ve had nine wonderful years together.”  After they left the party, the wife said, “Dear, have you forgotten that we’ve been married ten years?”  And the husband responded, “Dear, have you forgotten that first year?  That was not wonderful.”  The wife, laughing, went on to explain that when they got married, she had been living at home with her parents (college having been within commuting distance), and he had been living in a frat house.  It’s been over 25 years and they’re still married, so I guess they worked that one out.

Elsewhere on this blog – I think I called it “A Tale of Two Planets” – I’ve talked about the disparity of an only child’s being married to someone from a large family.  We both had some adjusting to do, and have had to make adjustments throughout our marriage, even now, in retirement.  Retirement can be stressful for both partners; one or the other is suddenly cut loose from the moorings of a lifetime, and the stay-at-home spouse, if there was one – I was – has grown accustomed to a certain routine that suddenly needs massive tweaking.  It’s almost as bad as having a new baby in the house, except at least this new “baby” can speak up.

After 43 years of marriage, such as we have had, you simply can’t close your eyes anymore, especially not to the fact that the person you married so long ago has grown old.  There’s no way around that.  But there is a way through it, and through all the other vicissitudes of the unique Friendship that a long-term marriage is:  We laugh.

By now, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that it’s impossible for my husband simply to walk out the door, if he’s going anyplace.  He needs at least fifteen minutes’ worth of separation time, from the time he says he’s leaving until he’s actually out the door and on his way.  When it gets too exasperating, I’ll start to laugh, and make some kind of comment about Poky Little Puppy.  He shakes his head in embarrassment that I know him so well, and moves a little faster.

By now, he’s grown accustomed to my woolly-headedness.  I’m not exactly scatter-brained, but from a lifetime of dealing with kids and their simultaneous needs, I usually have at least four separate trains of thought running through my head all at once, and will jump from one topic to another with the ease of the Flying Wallendas.  And he starts to laugh, and makes a comment about my sheepish wool-gathering.  Sometimes one or the other of us makes such funny observations that we both collapse laughing.

It’s a unique way of closing your eyes to the “faults” of the other.  It actually opens your eyes to your own “faults” – and helps you realize that those “faults” aren’t faults at all, just idiosyncrasies that make the person you love – the person you love most in the world.

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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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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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Who in your world is made of sugar and spice and everything nice?”

Not very many people, that’s for sure.  Most people I know are made of lemonade:  tart enough to make your mouth pucker, but not too tart to keep around.  And very refreshing, as lemonade is supposed to be.  My own dearly beloved sister, who would have been a candidate for Sugar and Spice thirty years ago, has ripened into…let’s see…”gourmet lemonade,” and I love her all the more for it.

I don’t generally like overly sweet people, anyway, especially not the women with soft, little-girl voices and an attitude of, “I don’t need sugar in my coffee ’cause I’m sweet enough.”  Barf.  People like that are usually so sweet to your face because they’re busy sharpening their knives behind your back.

But a genuinely sweet person is like a refreshing breeze on a day in May, with just a hint of lily of the valley to make you wish this day would never end.  I only know one woman like that, and she’s a member of my church.  If I were just starting out as an Orthodox Christian, this is the woman I’d ask to be my godmother; her grasp on how to live a truly Orthodox life is that good.

She is not a Church Lady in any sense of the word, not one of those Dana Carvey caricatures.  Her whole manner is gentle, and when she smiles, the smile lights up her eyes, too.  When she stands in church, you can see that her whole attention is focused on the service, but she doesn’t have one of those phony pious expressions on her face; she’s really absorbed in what’s going on around her.  Her voice is soft, but pleasantly low, and only from the fine lines around her eyes can you tell that she has seen some hard times in life – and risen above them, by the help of God.

In her “day job,” she’s a nurse at an assisted-living facility.  I once said something to her about the difficulty of her job, and her face crinkled in a genuine smile:  “Oh, it’s not nearly as bad as it would be in a nursing home.  People in assisted living are still able to help physically with their care, so it’s really just making sure they have the medicines they need, and the rest is just companionship.”  Unfortunately for me, she’s only about ten years younger than I am (though she looks much younger than that, she has a grown daughter); if she were as young as she looks, so help me Hannah, I’d wangle my way into assisted living just for the pleasure of this woman’s company.

And the best thing of all about her is that she doesn’t read my blog, so I can talk about her without embarrassing her.  I am so glad I know her.  She reminds me not to dismiss sweet people out of hand.

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The Candy Man

“What was the last piece of candy that you gave someone else?”

Candy isn’t something I give to other people.  I rarely buy it for myself, so it would never occur to me to give it to other people.  Not even Easter candy – we never actually did the Easter-Bunny thing in our house.  When you have the sumptuousness of a Russian Orthodox paschal meal – the kielbasa! the kulich! the pascha! – who needs candy?!  (For the uninitiated, “kulich” is a sweet bread baked in a high cylindrical form, and “pascha” is a very rich cheese concoction made of farmer cheese, heavy cream, butter, and almonds, among other things.)

But I did once work with a man who would distribute mini-candy bars at break time, and he was a character.

When I started out with this company, they had just expanded from twelve workers to thirty-six.  We all sat around long tables, ten or twelve of us to a table, and we read compositions written by fourth-, eighth- and eleventh-graders.  Or we reviewed their efforts in Math, Reading, and Arts and Humanities.  Yes, I worked for one of those firms that does standardized educational testing for a variety of states, and I can tell you, that work is both entertaining and phenomenally boring at the same time.

There was the Best Friend of the Year Award prompt:  “Nominate your best friend for the Best Friend of the Year Award.  Be specific.”  The goal was to make sure they could put together a coherent composition in standard English.  After awhile, “She brings me up when I’m feeling down” and “He’s always there for me” become so routine that you find yourself dreaming about them, and well-written but unimaginative compositions begin to look like they were written by William Faulkner.

We had three breaks:  two 15-minute breaks, and half an hour for lunch.  Half an hour for lunch isn’t much, but you would not have wanted to combine all the breaks into a one-hour lunch break; your mind really needed to relax from so much mediocrity.  Coffee worked for the 10:00 a.m. break, but by 2:00, you were at the climbing-walls stage.  This is when George would bring out his bags of candy, and distribute miniature Snickers or Three Musketeers bars to each of the scorers.

George was a short, very thin man; over time I learned that he had picked up celiac sprue in his travels around the globe for an Unspecified Government Agency, and was unable to eat anything with wheat.  He spoke a number of foreign languages, including Arabic and Farsi, and was very well read in all the languages he spoke.  It’s tempting to ask what on earth such a man was doing at a job like ours, but the thing about this job was that it wasn’t steady work, and if you were unable to show up for a project, you had the freedom to turn it down – or to leave in the middle of it, as George did during the Gulf War of 1991.  Hmmmm.

He had Sources for any number of things; many of us bought stamps from him in rolls of 100, for example.  Hey, it saved us a trip to the post office.  If we’d been working in Russia, I’d have suspected him of being a black marketeer.  But his specialty was candy.  I don’t know where he got those bags of candy from; it can’t have been the supermarket, or he’d have gone bankrupt.  I mean, every afternoon there was a candy bar at each place, and you’d see him wandering around, distributing it.  We’d make pro-forma protests, for the sake of our Girlish Figures (!); but we knew, and he knew, how desperately a sugar burst was needed to get us through that last ninety minutes till the end of the work day.

George passed on some time ago; I guess all his adventures caught up with him, and he is now beyond needing to read empty-headed compositions written by children who would rather be doing anything else.  I picture him standing at the pearly gates, bag of candy in hand, scanning entrants for small, bewildered children and handing them a treat instantly recognizable as the one guaranteed consoler of small, bewildered children:  candy.

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Talk about a memory tied to a certain candy, especially if it involves another person or a place.”

Oops, looks like I pre-empted today’s prompt yesterday.  I guess that’s what happens when you take things day to day, as I tend to do now that I’m retired.

But, especially now that I’m halfway through my seventh decade of life (did I just write that?!), I do enjoy sharing memories of a time increasingly distant, and since part of this prompt mentions memories tied to another person or a place, I’d like to run with that.  It does mean getting off the Sweet topic, but sweets really never were a big part of my life.

It’s August now, hot and humid, and every year around this time the memory of my grandmother’s yard surfaces.  As I’ve mentioned, my stepfather was Polish, and his mother was a farm girl from the Old Country; she never did learn to read or write, but there wasn’t much she didn’t know about growing things.  The part of her yard that fronted the street was a riot of flowers, a plot at least 10 x 20, and things grew there all summer long.  I don’t know what they were; I doubt she knew their names in English, and since she was the only gardener I knew, there wasn’t a hope of my knowing what they were, either.  Nor was her garden laid out in tidy beds, so that you could point to a flower and ask, “What’s that?”  Grandma’s flower garden looked like she had taken packets of seeds and broadcast them into fresh-dug earth, and then she tended whatever came up.  It certainly flourished.

In the back of the yard (which was really the size of a house plot) was where she kept her vegetable garden.  Those beds were tidier, and it was easier to recognize what she was growing there.  She had peppers, onions, beets, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, peas, green beans, and she must have grown her own horseradish, too, because she certainly made her own horseradish every Easter.  I don’t know how she did it.  It was the best stuff to eat, but grating it must have cleared out her throat and lungs for the rest of the year.

Early in my childhood, she also kept chickens, but two of her sons lived in the same house as she did, and as their families grew, I guess she felt that the chickens weren’t safe among so many little savages, because they disappeared by the time I was ten.  One of my uncles had six kids, the other had nine, and then there were the grandchildren who didn’t live there but visited regularly; we probably terrified the chickens by our sheer numbers.  The rest of the yard, and this is why I refer to it as a “yard” and not a “garden,” was given over to play equipment for the hordes of savages:  swing sets, slides, eventually a huge above-ground pool where my cousins disported themselves all summer long.

I guess I was 20 or 21 when I paid my grandmother a visit one hot August afternoon.  I’m not sure where the cousins were, but I do remember that it was uncharacteristically quiet that day.  My grandmother was watching soap operas, but she turned the TV off so we could visit, and we spent a bit of time chatting in the cool of her basement apartment.

“Come out into the backyard,” she said suddenly, and rose, shuffling the length of the house from front to back; she had terrible arthritis.  She made her way up the steps from the cellar into the yard with a pot in her hand; I assumed she was planning to dig up some vegetables for her supper.  Instead, she began pulling up grass by the handful, long stalks that grew next to the fence that bordered her vegetable garden.  I offered to help, but she was content with her grass-pulling, so I just sat and watched her.

When she had filled the pot in her hand, she hobbled back into the kitchen of her apartment, rinsed off the grass, chopped it, filled the pot with water, and began to cook it.  To say I was floored is an understatement.  It would never have occurred to me that my grandmother might be senile, especially since we had just been conversing lucidly, but – cooking grass?!  Where was she going with that one?!  After half an hour or so, she turned the flame off and ladled the grass soup into two bowls, and set one before me.  Yikes.  But what could I do?  She was the only grandmother I had, and I loved her and didn’t want to offend her.  So I picked up my spoon and ate.

It was delicious.  I’ve never tasted anything like it, before or since.  I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Dad about this wonderful stuff his mother had made.  “Oh, yeah, schav,” he said, when I told him.  “Do you make it from just any grass?” I asked.  “No, you need sorrel grass,” he said.

I’ve never eaten it since that summer.  Never found sorrel grass to grow, and frankly, I’m not sure it would grow for me; I have the blackest thumb in the neighborhood, if not in the entire Northeast.  Once I looked it up online and found that a couple of Jewish food companies actually sell it prepared, as they do borscht; but it doesn’t appear to be for sale anywhere but in the New York City area, and even though I’m from there, I haven’t been back home in over twenty years.  I’ve long since lost my taste for city living.

My grandmother has been on my mind a lot lately, probably because lately I find myself hobbling more and more the way she did, as her arthritis progressed.  It’s a little strange to think of myself as being as old as my grandmother, especially since she had so many skills I’ll never acquire.  Like making schav from scratch.

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“What candy did you eat once that you wish you could get again?” is the prompt from NaBloPoMo, and in the meantime, WordPress’s Daily Post has issued a challenge:  Going from Mundane to Meaningful.  Goodness, two tasks.

As strange as it sounds to me – I can’t think of a single candy I would wish to eat again.  Not even the handmade chocolate bunnies that my mother used to buy at Easter, from a candy shop owned by an in-law of her father’s.  I’m sure it was excellent candy, but like pearls cast before swine, we little piglets just wolfed it down (so to speak), and I can’t even remember what it tasted like anymore.

Not even the fruit bonbons that my grandmother kept in a dish on her coffee table, desirably mainly because if we had touched them, we would probably have lost a hand – my mother somehow had this idea that Other People’s Candy was out for show only.  Maybe it was.  But over the decades, the appeal of hardened sugar water, or whatever candy consists of, has waned.

No, wait a minute.  Come to think of it…I actually do have a good candidate.  The year I was fifteen, my grandfather came to New Hampshire to visit his son, and I was spending the summer with that same son, who happened to be my godfather.  My grandfather, a great lover of walks, invited me for a walk with him, and as I also loved a good long walk (before arthritis caught up with me, anyway), I accepted gladly.  We ambled down Central Avenue together until we came to a candy shop – not one of those places where they sold candy like Snickers and Three Musketeers, but the kind of place just like where my mother used to get those Easter bunnies.  All their candy was home-made.  He bought a couple of pounds of good milk chocolate, then said to me, “How about some white barque?”  I expressed my ignorance on the subject, and was I surprised to learn that it was white chocolate.  White chocolate?!  Who ever heard of such a thing?  But he bought a pound, and I had a sample, and – yeah, I was hooked.  It was really good.  It had almonds in it, and even though it was high summer, that chocolate hardly melted at all.

For years and years afterward, I lusted after the memory of that chocolate.  Shortly after that visit, the candy shop closed for good; it’s now a bar.  How things change…I mean, the juxtaposition of the innocence of candy versus the kinds of things that go on in bars just seems to smack me in the face, as I’m thinking about it.  And to top it all off, the Food Police have us all convinced that Candy is Bad, and they’re strangely silent on the subject of booze.  The FPI – Food Police Investigators – do give a grudging nod to dark chocolate for its reputed Health Benefits, but I think they’d be just as happy if it too disappeared off the planet.  People tend to feel too darn good after chocolate.

Recently, I’ve discovered that there are producers of candy who offer white chocolate.  These tend to be either smaller manufacturers of “organic chocolate,” or manufacturers of high-end chocolates, like Lindt; in any case, the chocolate is mass-produced, and it doesn’t include almonds (from what I can tell, nuts are what set barque apart from plain ol’ white chocolate).  I’ve tried it; it’s good.  But it’s not homemade.

And it’s not the gift of a grandfather who wasn’t all that affectionate and not at all good with words, but who understood very well what children, even teenagers, like.

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