Archive for the ‘People’ Category

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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Well, that didn’t last long – my resolve to post every day, that is.  In fairness, I was gone for most of yesterday, and also, yesterday’s prompt – ” What is the sweetest thing someone said to you today?” – wasn’t the most inspiring.  People aren’t given to saying sweet things to people my age.  However, today’s prompt –  What is the sweetest thing someone did for you today?” – actually works.  For yesterday.  Today is still too new for me to address anything besides breakfast, which I have yet to eat.

My mother was unimpressed by words.  “Actions speak louder than words” was her motto, so when you’d say, “Mommy, I love you,” she’d snap back, “Deeds, not words,” which meant, basically, “So get off your duff and do something around the house, if you love me so much.”  The trouble was, in a household the size of ours – five kids – there was always so much to do, that no matter what you did, it didn’t make all that much of a difference.  Eventually, I was able to take on the mending, so at least that helped a bit; I was hopeless at ironing.  I always managed to iron creases into shirts.

Anyway, back to the present.  The weather has been very hot and humid lately, so any housework that needs to get done, needs to get done no later than 9:00 a.m., or it’s a lost cause for the day.  (Laundry excepted.  Cold rinses always work on a hot day.)  Yesterday, I got all my housework done by 9:00 a.m., except for an errand to the post office, and I was planning to do that by car, on my way to somewhere else.  My husband, knowing that I had a long drive ahead of me, stepped up to the plate, and offered to walk my parcels down to the post office for me.

Big deal?  Yes, actually, it was.  The parcels in question really mattered to me, but only to me, not to him; and he had his own plans for the day, which included a good bit of gardening, shopping for groceries, and an afternoon swim at a lake about twenty miles from where we live.  In other words, his day was already all planned in his mind.  But to those plans, he added my errand, which meant that I was able to take off for my “church gig” unencumbered by more chores.  (“Church gig” = a drive of 40 miles/75 km, one way, to hang out with a group of senior citizens at one of the two churches I attend regularly.  I do this once a week.  The old ladies are a pip – I can always count on them for a good laugh and a lot of good stories.)

As Mommie Dearest used to say, “Deeds, not words.”  In the case of my husband, I get both.  I am truly blessed.

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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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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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