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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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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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The quote for the day from my Franklin Planner is from Samuel Johnson:  “He that labors in any great or laudable undertaking has his fatigues first supported by hope, and afterwards rewarded by joy.”

For an Orthodox Christian, the divide between this life and eternity isn’t all that great.  Of course we can’t see them (though I sometimes wonder about those who are about to make that final journey, since they almost always seem to see people who have been dead for some time), but they are never far from our thoughts, and sometimes you can almost sense their presence.  That feeling is strongest for me whenever I attend a Liturgy; I have been at Liturgies where the only two people visible were the priest and me, and the church has felt packed to the gills.

Be that as it may, a person’s presence is most keenly felt in the days immediately following death.  You’re more aware of them at that time than at any other; even people you never knew personally, if they are close to someone you do know, hover at the edge of your brain.  This is currently the case for me with the father of a member of my parish, a man who was the very first priest of that parish and who is consequently known and loved by a great many members of it.

The other day, his daughter posted a note on Facebook asking for volunteers to read the Book of Psalms for her father.  This is a uniquely Orthodox custom, described in this way in the Orthodox Coverdale Psalter published by Holy Trinity Monastery (I think):  In the Orthodox Church, there exists the pious custom of reading the Psalter for one who has died.  The Psalms are read continuously, except during those times when a Memorial is being served, from the Rite Following the Departure  of  the  Soul  from  the  Body  until  the  burial  of the reposed, and in his memory after that.  This reading serves as prayer to the Lord for the reposed, comforts those grieving for the deceased, and directs their prayers for him to God.  Any pious lay person may read the Psalter for the reposed, and those who do so perform a good work.

I had not known that the Psalter continued to be read after burial, but having learned of the custom, I wanted to do this for my friend and her mother.  So I wrote for details.  Turns out there were several volunteers, and their efforts were coordinated by another member of the parish, whose family is something of a legend in Orthodox circles.  He organized a roster of the ten volunteers so that each of us would read one section of the Book of Psalms a day, and if possible, skip ahead ten sections and read that one, as well:  Thus, I began with Kathisma 8 (Psalms 55-63) last night, picked up with Kathisma 9 (Psalms 64-69) this morning, and hope to get into Kathisma 19 (Psalms 134-142) tonight.

(For anyone who is interested in this unique structure, here’s a link that goes into it more fully:  http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/typicon_psalms.aspx)

Because these groups of Psalms are interspersed with prayers specifically for the deceased, it takes a bit of time and effort to get through the whole thing, but not a great block of time; maybe half an hour to 45 minutes.  For me, the hard part last night was that I got the notice so late that I had a hard time staying awake to finish the task!  And because my husband is now home full time, finding a quiet space to work on this will be a challenge, too.

But, “He that labors in any great or laudable undertaking has his fatigues first supported by hope, and afterwards rewarded by joy.”  This is both a great and a laudable undertaking, first, in that it provides comfort to Father Laurence’s family, and second, in that it “picks up where he left off,” so to speak, in continuing the prayer that was such an integral part of his life, while his soul “makes the adjustment” from one world to the next.  I feel so honored to be able to do it.  I hope that I may complete it worthily.

One final note:  Often, when writing about people who have passed on, I write, “May their memory be eternal!”  Only recently did I learn the reason behind this phrase:  At the final Judgement, some people actually will find themselves in hell, those people who were not interested in God while in this life or who actively militated against Him – they are there, in other words, by their own choice.  For those who are welcomed into heaven, the realization that someone they had known and loved was not also there, would make them sad, and there can be no sadness in heaven; so they will not even remember the existence of those who are not there.  I can think of nothing more horrible, or sadder, than a mother who forgets her children, for example, or a husband who forgets the wife with whom he shared his whole life.

So, Memory Eternal, dear Father Laurence, and if my prayers are of any help to you, remember me also, when my own time comes.

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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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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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Having rashly committed to WordPress’s Post-a-Day program — which fell apart completely, in my case, by late January — I cannot resist their final topic for the year. printed below in its entirety:

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 Clearly I can’t count – what can’t you do?

Topic #347:

As the number above points out, my skills at counting leave much to be desired. As there are 365 days in a year, I’m 8 topics short for offering you a topic a day for the entire year How lame – I’m hanging my head in shame right now (Before you tell me it should be 9, remember there’s one more for tomorrow).

But this does offer us a good topic for the day: what ordinary skill are you bad at? Maybe its tying your shoelaces, or parallel parking cars, but we all have something very simple that we just don’t do very well. Write about yours.

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As a putative accountant (having earned my degree late in life, I never actually got to practice accountancy), I can’t claim to be bad at numbers — I had better not be!  But there is one skill I have often wished I could cotton onto, let alone acquire skill in it, and that is…tact.

How do people Do tact, anyway?!  Without exception, every time I fall all over myself doing my very best to be Tactful, people tell me not to be so blunt!  I once worked for a man who had Hodgkin’s disease (lymphoma), and thinking I was being sympathetic, I commented on how tired he looked — and he blew up at me:  “I don’t need to hear how awful I look!!”  OK, but when I look like death warmed over, I personally appreciate hearing about it — it confirms for me that I really do look as awful as I feel.  Clearly, “Do Unto Others” doesn’t always work.

About ten years ago, I finally decided that there was no point in my trying to figure out the Tact thing, and I thought, “They think this is being blunt?!  I’ll show them blunt!”  And I started saying pretty much what was on my mind.  Not as crassly as, “Geez, where did you dig that thing up?!  It adds fifty pounds to your face alone!” but, “It makes you look washed out/it’s not your color/it doesn’t do anything for your [name best feature].”

Somehow, I don’t get the Blunt comment anymore.  I don’t know if my bluntness shocks people into silence, or what else might be going on, but these days, nobody tells me not to be so Blunt anymore.  Which is a good thing because, face it — I’ll never get the Tact Thing.

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A few years ago, responding to one of those “getting to know you” memes, I listed the ten most influential people in my life.  One of them was Peter Bochow, the man who taught me German.

A few people contacted me after that.  It seems that like me, they had Googled his name, but unlike me, they had  actually found an online reference to him —  my blog — and to a man, they wanted to know if I had heard anything more about him.  Mind you, this man was a remarkable teacher by any standards, so I’m not surprised that people who had also learned German from him, as I had, would remember him after all these years.  Who could forget his memorable demonstration of when the verb “to go” takes the accusative, and when it takes the dative?  (To illustrate, whenever you told him to go to the blackboard using the dative, he’d start to climb on top of the blackboard.)  Or the “pretty little green car” (a Matchbox car) that he used to illustrate how adjectives work in German?

He was as remarkable a person as he was a teacher, broadminded to an extent unknown in the world at that time.  His English was practically flawless; it took me over a year to decide that he was, in fact, a native German, and not just an American who spoke German very well.  Over time, a sort of friendship developed between him, my husband, and me, and we would meet regularly even outside of class for a beer and conversation, in German, of course.  He would tease me relentlessly about the sole glass of milk I had drunk one evening before class (“Milch?!  Pfui!”), and in retaliation, my going-away present to him when we left Germany was a milk can.  He never spoke much about his youth, but there was one memorable class when he talked about his “open-air classroom” when he was ten or eleven — that was in 1945, and the “open-air classroom” was a school that had been bombed to smithereens.  I learned when his birthday was (today), I remember when he met his wife, and I remember when his children were born.

Over time, as too often happens, we lost track of one another.  He had children and a couple of jobs, teaching not only for the University of Maryland but also for IBM in (I believe) Wiesbaden.  We had children, and moved fairly often with my husband’s job, and in one of those moves, lost our address book.  It happens.  But when all these inquiries came my way after my blog post, I looked up first him, then his family members, and found an address for his daughter.  I sent her an e-mail, explaining who I was and what my interest in him was, and asked if she could bring me up to date on his life.  She wrote back, rather coolly, and told me that he had died in 1996, and hoped that the information was what I was looking for, “even though I don’t know you.”  Well, no.  But I knew you as a baby, Toots.  I did write back to request his date of death so I could commemorate him, but never got an answer.

All lights go out, eventually, but this is one that truly grieves me.  He was a smoker when we knew him; I guess it got to him eventually, even though he did give it up, I hope permanently.  I don’t know if he was remotely religious, or if he even believed in God; but clearly, God believed in him enough to give him a gift for language and teaching, and in terms of the parable of the talents, this is someone who took his five talents and made fifty out of them.  I hope he is parked at Bach’s feet, enjoying The Art of Fugue as it has never been heard this side of eternity.  Lacking a date of passing for him, I can’t commemorate it; but on this day that would have been his birthday, I offer this prayer:  May your memory be eternal, Peter Bochow!

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Between the annual income-tax burden, the beginning and middle of Great Lent (as opposed to the lesser fasts observed by the Orthodox Church), and the final illness of my stepfather, life has been unimaginably hectic.  I didn’t do this much running around when I had teenagers in the house.

So, having gone into a decline on the last Monday of March, only to “rally” in time for his 96th birthday on April 1 — by “rally” I mean that he returned from near-death to a more stable state of vegetation — my stepfather slipped away last night, April 6, before anybody really realized what had happened.  My sister said that he was in exactly the same state as he had been since last Friday, just breathing but not in any sense alive…his breathing slowed…he took one last breath — and was gone.

The hole in my life is a revelation to me, since, after all, the man was my stepfather.  I didn’t even feel this empty when my mother died.  But then, Dad was a unique human being; I’ve never known anybody with as much innate talent as he had, who actually, seriously, thought of himself as Nothing Special.  Of everybody in his family, he was the greatest of them all:  supported everyone after the death of his own father, patched DC-3s together over and over and over during World War II, even flying them on occasions when the flight crew was wounded; ran into a burning plane, again and again, to rescue every man aboard, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star (and never spoke about it till the end of his life, when he was interviewed by my niece’s boyfriend for a school project).  And he married my widowed mother, at a time when a single woman with a child was suspected of being Loose, since anybody could say she was a widow.

He dropped out of high school when he was 16, and spent his life creating tools and the dies for them — nowadays, boys get two-year associate degrees in tool-and-die making, and call themselves mechanical engineers.  He could make anything and fix anything, and while it wasn’t much to look at — it worked.  And the fix was usually permanent.  He spoke two languages fluently, Polish (his first language) and English, which he only learned upon entering public school in second grade — and he learned it at the expense of his idiot teachers calling him “stupid” because his English was so broken, so all his life, he thought of himself as “stupid.”  And by the way, his English  was so fluent that while you knew right away he was working class, you would never have guessed he hadn’t uttered a word of it till he was seven years old.  This is what shaped my life; these are the shoes his children have to try to fill.  Forget it.  That’s a truly hopeless task.

The last 2 ½ years of his life were spent in a nursing home, courtesy of falling and breaking a hip.  The surgery to repair it messed with his mind, and although he had physical therapy, he became afraid of walking, so that he lived in a wheelchair and had to put up with the indignity of other people taking care of his bodily needs.  Typically, he saw it as something he just had to bear, so he never complained about it.  I don’t know if I could be that humble if something similar happened to me.

And that brings me to the point of this post.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition, we are taught that humility is the key to open the gates of heaven.  Yes, baptism is a part of it, but it’s not the key; it’s the beginning of your life in Christ.  How you live is just as important as being baptized, since how you live shapes how you die; in other words, you can take the gift of Baptism and use it, or you can take it and throw it away.  If you throw a gift away, what good is it?  But if you use it, eventually it brings you to humility.

Dad was, hands down, the most humble man I’ve ever known, in the sense that he never tried to be what he was not, he knew his faults and accepted them, and downplayed his virtues, which were many.  He let his works speak for him, offering advice when it was asked for or necessary, not holding it against us when we refused to follow up on it.  He didn’t try to be A Dad; he just was, in his acceptance of what we were as we navigated the usual changes of life.

In notifying family and friends of his passing, I made the statement, “If humility is the key that opens the gates of heaven — Dad owns it.”  I’d love to have seen the look on his face when those gates swung wide to welcome him home, judgment-free.  In accordance with Orthodox tradition, I’ll pray for his soul; but in my own heart, I’ll also be asking for his prayers for us.  May his memory be eternal!

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“Describe the worst teacher you ever had.”  Now, would that be in terms of the meanest, or in terms of a teacher I had who couldn’t teach the alphabet to a collection of Ph.D.’s, or some other definition of “worst”?

The worst one, in terms of not being able to teach, is actually a tossup among three of them:  two French teachers (one high school, one college) and an Accounting prof who was a real personality kid, and probably a good accountant, but who couldn’t get his point across to save his life.  I can remember sitting in his class at Week 6, bored out of my socks and tired because this was an evening class and I’m a morning person, and at some point I had had it with his ineptitude and burst out, “So [whatever the topic was] is [whatever he had said that was so obvious, even I could understand it]!  BFD!”  And the whole class erupted in laughter, except these three Very Good and Pious Christian Ladies who had never heard the term “BFD” before — it was left to a very red-faced former Marine to explain it (who was also on the floor laughing), and who did so using the euphemism for “F”.  I guess no one ever dreamed that I knew the term existed, either.  At least the class was memorable for the laughter, since I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what the topic of it was.  There’s a reason I don’t practice accountancy.

As for the French teachers — I’m sorry, what is it about French teachers?  Everything I’ve ever read about them suggests that they can’t control their pupils, and since that assertion is borne out by my own experience, I have to conclude that it’s something to do with the subject itself.  The one I had in high school used to stand there and whine ineffectually, “Girls!  Gi-irls!  Now I’m really going to get mad!”  To get the full effect, you have to recall the whiniest voice you ever heard, then lower the deciBel level by half. 

The French teacher I had in college was equally soft-spoken, and whatever I learned in her class stayed with me right up until the final exam, when it all flew out of my head for good.  That class never once stayed on topic because it was so easy to get her rhapsodizing about France and French life in general, that she forgot she was supposed to be teaching us the language.  I speak better Russian than I do French, and French is a much easier language.  And I studied it longer.  (I also speak fluent German, but that doesn’t count — I lived there for three years.  If you’re studying a language while living in the country where that language is spoken, I don’t think it’s possible not to come out speaking it fluently.)

But I have to close this post with a note about one of the “best” teachers I ever had.  The word “best” is in quotes because for the life of me, I can’t think why I liked this teacher so much.  And I’ve actually had better teachers.  But this particular one was built along the lines of Chester Nimitz (unfortunately, because she was a woman and a nun) and had the patience of a saint — and the sense of humor of St. Teresa of Avila, who famously once told God, “No wonder You have so few friends, when you treat the few You have this way!”  (In fact, I think I got the story from her.)

She was just a nice, nice person, and considering that her pupils were eighth-graders, and she could actually laugh at some of the off-the-wall things we came out with — I have to give her credit.  And I have to hope that her years of effort with her eighth-graders paid off for her, and that she is enjoying a good laugh with St. Teresa — today is the thirtieth anniversary of her passing.  I’d appreciate prayers for Sr. Agnes Therese, in this world Madeleine Fleck.  She wasn’t my all-time best teacher, but she was a great example of how to live life.

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“Could you live without the internet for a week? For a month?”

This prompt reminded me of an essay I read once that began, “All my friends are in a little box.”  The essay was, of course, referring to internet friendships.

Sad to say, many of my friends also live in a little box.  I’m not sure if that’s because we are all (or mostly) by nature introverted, or whether it’s because the people who occupy space around us are all so busy with their own lives that no one has any time for visiting anymore, but there it is:  With the exception of immediate family, all my friends live in a little box.  Physically, they live hundreds and thousands of miles away, the exception being people I know from church, who also live several miles away and have busy lives of their own.  I can only sympathize; I remember very, very well what it was like to be running a household with small children in it.

But now, at the other end of life, it was my friends in the little box who kept me from losing my sanity when the kiddos grew up and moved out.  It was my friends in the little box who helped me hold it together when “routine” surgery spiralled so far out of control that I nearly ended up on the other side of eternity.  (Interestingly, at that particular time, people who share the same geographic space with me were, without exception, too busy to fix a meal or come over and help with the housework.  Thank God for the Family Leave Medical Act, and for teleworking; we would have been up the creek otherwise.)

Could I live without the internet for a week, a month, or even a day?  Can you live without friends?

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