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Posts Tagged ‘Back there where the past was’

Weekends being for free-writing in the NaBloPoMo world, I thought I’d take the opportunity to update folks on our latest home-improvement project.

Now that the kids are out of the house, we have been able to upgrade our property gradually over the past several years, adding porches front and back, updating the furnace, and most recently, putting on a new roof and upgrading the bathroom.  Thanks goodness for home-improvement loans.  All of these, I might add, were actually necessary upgrades; now that we are in our sixties, falls are much more of a concern, so the old back steps and front porch had to go (being made out of stone).  We have already seen significant savings in our heating bill from the new furnace – not an easy bill to trim in northern climates – and our roof would not have withstood another winter.

The bathroom was another matter, and not strictly speaking necessary.  What occasioned its remodel was the caulking around the tub, where it abuts the wall – the caulking was impossible to keep clean, and the hubster was constantly having to refresh it.  So when we contracted to have our roof repaired, he asked the contractor if he could do something about the caulking around the tub.  And the answer was…you should think about a new bathtub.

In “thinking” about a new tub (for all of five seconds), the hubster decided what the heck, just have the whole bathroom remodeled.  It’s only 6 x 8 feet (very roughly, 5.5 meters x 7 meters) – the house was built in the 1950s, when large and luxurious bathrooms were the province of Hollywood stars.  So we knew it was a project we could afford.  The real problem was that everything was going to have to come out and be replaced, and we only have the one bathroom.

The contractor was phenomenal.  He cut the bathtub out – I still don’t know how he cut porcelain into thirds – and the new tub was installed the same day, which was the first day of the project.  The new “surround” – a special wall that resists moisture – went in at the same time, and I could see why he had recommended replacing the tub:  There’s a “lip” that curves up around the edge of the tub, and the surround slots into that lip, eliminating the need for caulking altogether.  Twenty-first-century bathing.

Every evening before he left for the day, he would reinstall the toilet so that we had something we could use.  The bathroom sink, well, that was another matter; it sat in our kitchen for the entire three weeks of the remodel, and we had to brush our teeth at the kitchen sink morning and night, which gets real interesting when the kitchen sink comes up to your chest (as mine does on me).  For shaving, my husband had a small hand mirror that he would prop up against the kitchen window.  The last time we lived this way was when we lived in a third-floor cold-water flat as newlyweds in Germany, and even then, he had a mirror in the bathroom for shaving.  (I used to pour hot water from the kettle into the sink so that he had hot water for shaving.)

The walls came out, too, in a complete gutting of the bathroom.  Fortunately, the weather stayed warm so that we didn’t need insulated walls – we’d have frozen, otherwise – and the electrician hooked up one light bulb so that we weren’t showering in the pitch dark.  Using the bathroom in the early morning, however, was another story; who wants to turn on a light bulb at 5:00 a.m.?!  And that’s where flexibility saved the day.

When he was finished showering in the evening, my husband would drape his towel over two nails that had been hammered into the frame around the window, and that served as our “curtain” so we had a modicum of privacy in the evening.  Before we went to bed, we’d remove the towel, which left the light of a street lamp shining onto the white surround, and provided us with just enough “light” that we could see what we were doing before sunrise.  Really, I don’t know how people managed before electricity – how did you see what you were doing when it came time to light the fire in the morning?!  I mean, even a nighttime candle would have burned down overnight, no?

We did a lot of laughing over these three weeks – we laugh a lot anyway at the vagaries of life, but when everything is topsy-turvy, it really helps to keep your sense of humor.  We did a lot of reminiscing, too, about our newlywed experiences, and my husband recalled the winter morning when he was shaving in that cold-water bathroom and looked up to see…snowflakes drifting down through the closed window in the roof.  (It was a rooftop flat.)  Compared with that, our current state of affairs was almost luxury.

But I won’t pretend I wasn’t ecstatic when the bathroom sink was finally hooked back up and I didn’t have to stand on tiptoes to brush my teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s pouring rain this evening, the good kind that signals Summer’s end, a real downpour of several hours’ duration.  Surprisingly, there hasn’t been too much thunder; it was certainly hot enough for it all day, but regardless, it’s been raining steadily for awhile now, and after this exceptionally hot and dry Summer, much needed, and therefore, greatly welcome.

As a rule, I like rain.  I mean, after three or four weeks of nothing but rain, I do get a bit tired of it, but generally speaking, I do like rain.  When I was younger, I even liked walking in it; a good raincoat, a good umbrella, and good footwear, and I would walk for hours in it.  The only reason I don’t still like walking in it is that walking in any kind of weather has become extremely painful.  Old age has its drawbacks.

But one of its advantages is the memories.  I have my share of unhappy memories – most of us do – but much more than my fair share of happy memories, and when it rains, especially when it rains heavily, I am reminded of the first time I discovered the joys of walking in the rain.

It was our first wedding anniversary.  Both classical-music geeks, and living n the land of Beethoven, we had promised ourselves a trip to Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn – the house is a museum, located on a tiny street right in the center of town.  We found a bed-and-breakfast right on the street, about a block away from The House, and booked a room.  Our first anniversary, one of our favorite composers – and this in the 200th anniversary-year of his birth – what could go wrong?

Well, of course.   The rain.  It was relentless.  The drive took most of the day, since we took the scenic Rhein River route (it’s only “Rhine” if you spell it the French way), and all of it in the pouring rain.  We got to our destination wet, cold, and hungry; fortunately, there was also a restaurant just a couple of doors up, on the opposite side of the street:  “Zum Stiefel,” “At the Boot.”  How appropriate.  I forget what we had to eat, but, as befit two newlyweds, it came at a modest cost, and we hit the sack early.

It rained all night, and all the next day.  We woke up, had breakfast, went to church a couple of blocks away – in the church where Beethoven had been christened – came back, and ate a picnic lunch in our hotel room.  We had missed one important calculation:  It was Pentecost, and in Germany, not only is nothing open on Sunday, but for major feasts like Pentecost, everything is shut tight the next day, too.  A visit to Beethoven’s house was out of the question, since we had to head for home on the Monday.  And if we weren’t visiting Beethoven’s house – there was nothing else to do.

Cooped up in a tiny hotel room, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, on a day that should have been purely wonderful, with our major plan for the day shot to blazes.  Finally, my husband said, “Let’s go for a walk!”  “In the pouring rain?!” I shot back.  “It’s better than hanging around here.  Just a short walk,” he wheedled, and because there was literally nothing else to do, I gave in.  “A short one.”

So we got out the raincoats and umbrella – being newlyweds, we shared an umbrella – and made our way to the town square, just up the street from our hotel.  When we got to the corner, we stopped and stared:  It looked like half of Bonn was out for a Sunday-afternoon stroll, good burghers and hausfraus strolling arm-in-arm under umbrellas, round and round the square.  We looked at each other, astonished smiles on our faces, and joined in the apparently national pastime.

After that day, we took many strolls in the rain.  Sometimes there were others on the street, other times not, especially if it was a weekday evening, and we were just out for the sheer pleasure of it.  Nowadays, when it rains, I am reminded of all those times when we were young and in love, and gradually making ourselves at home in a land and culture that has never really felt foreign since then.  I don’t think I have ever felt so at home, before or since.  Certainly I lost my feeling of being a foreigner in a foreign land that day; I turned more than the corner into the square on that rainy Sunday afternoon, as my husband’s ancestral culture finally “clicked” with me.  Everything that has made my life more than mere existence – my ever-deepening interest in classical music, my needlework, my knitting, my complete fluency in a foreign language, my habit of shopping daily for the freshest groceries, my firm and absolute belief in train and bicycle travel as the most efficient means of transportation ever devised – all that, and so much more – dates back that afternoon, when my husband refused to let his actions be dictated by the weather.

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What is the coolest thing you ever saw?”

I had to think about this one.  I am about as far from “cool” as it’s possible to get, in the sense of “hip” or “with it” (are these terms even still around?!  The fact that I can both use such terms and ask if they are still around should give you some idea of just how un-cool I am).  Then I thought about “cool” in terms of temperature – and I had it.  Both in terms of temperature and in terms of culturally cool.

It was a frosty December evening when  my husband and I went out to dinner in the small German town where we were living.  We had been living in Germany for nearly three years at this point, both of us were fluent in the language, and had adopted many of the cultural norms of our neighbors; so we walked the mile or so to the restaurant, had a pleasant, quiet meal, then headed out for a stroll home along the main street of the town.  As I said, it was frosty, but not unpleasant; the stars were out, the railway station across the street was bathed in light.

Suddenly we heard a piping voice:  “Nikolaus!  Nikolaus!”  “Look!” said my husband, and pointed to the railway station, in front of which stood an old woman, bent with age, and…St. Nicholas.  As we watched, the two greeted each other affectionately.  “Bist du ein gutes Maedchen gewesen?”  asked St. Nicholas.  “Have you been a good girl this year?”

The old woman giggled.  “O, ja, ja!  Yes, yes!” she replied.

“Also, dann,” said St. Nicholas.  “Well, then.”  And he reached into his sack, pulled out a small gift, and gave it to the old woman, who responded with another giggle and high, thin cries of, “Danke!  Danke!  Thank you!”  And the two parted ways.

Of course.  It was December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas.  Children all over Europe were being visited in person to find out if they had been “naughty or nice”; the nice ones, and I’m sure they were all nice, got small presents, cookies, and fruit.  But for us, the unseen witnesses, the exchange between the old woman and whoever had dressed as the saint was pure magic.  I’m sure we both had stars in our eyes as we made our way home.

In later years, our children would leave their shoes in the kitchen on December 5, and wake up on December 6 to find them full of cookies and fruit.  St. Nicholas, we would tell our kids, had to visit all the German children personally, so he only had time for a quick overnight stop on his way to Germany.  “And we actually saw him when we lived there!” we’d tell the kids, “so he’s a real person, not like Santa Claus!”

Was it a stretch?  Yeah, well.

Maybe not.  After all, it was his feast.  And saints can do whatever they please. How do we know it wasn’t St. Nicholas?

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