My grandparents lived in a two-bedroom, one bath, California bungalow, built in the 20s. The 1920s. Pastel green stucco with three large arched windows across the front, and creamy white trim.
Their spotless bathroom sparkled with white fixtures and small white octagonal floor tiles. The old tank on the toilet was huge when compared to today’s, six or seven gallons of water that made a mighty woosh when flushed. We grandkids were still adept at clogging the plumbing causing an Italian uproar when Grandpa was called to fix it.
There was an obscured glass double hung window with a deep sill next to the commode. Through it I could see the swaying shadow of large hydrangea blossoms outside, and the outline beyond of the house next door. Fresh air flooded the room from the window’s lowered upper pane. In the center of the room was a flat, white cotton rug. Utilitarian and pristine, reflecting the values of its owners.
Out in the hall next to the bathroom door was an identical door. It opened to reveal a large linen closet. The closet could be accessed from inside the bathroom to grab a towel, or from the hall. When the bathroom door was open, the inner closet door was hidden. Only when inside the bathroom with the door closed could one see the other door. We called the closet the “Hi, Guy!” as we could open both doors at once and amuse each other, which didn’t take a lot as children.
“Hi, Guy!” came from a Gillette Right Guard deodorant TV ad where someone opened a medicine chest to see the neighbor next-door also opening his, an apparent shared cabinet. The greeting was, well – you know. My brother and I thought it hysterical to each open a side of Grandma’s closet with an enthusiastic, “Hi, Guy!” salute.
When we grew taller we discovered one could open the hall side, climb the lowest shelf, reach across the tablecloths and napkins, over the sheets to the towels and twist the interior doorknob to push open the bathroom side without the help of a partner in the bathroom. Unlimited possibilities.
I don’t know what brought this memory back so vividly and I’m not an able enough writer to accurately describe the hilarity of my brother or me quietly creeping into the closet to scare the crap (no pun intended) out of the person (usually Grandpa) sitting on the toilet. Grandpa, with his little bald head and messy morning comb-over, who seemed about 150 years old to us, enjoyed a quiet sit in that gleaming old bathroom. He’d have his tazza di caffe on the window sill, a neatly folded copy of the San Francisco Call Bulletin in one hand, and an unfiltered Camel in the other. As smoke lazily rose from his cigarette, he was undoubtedly perched peacefully and unsuspecting until the bathroom closet erupted. My brother and I stayed only long enough to hear the string of Italian cuss words and spy his near fall from the commode as he scrambled to cover himself while manacled by the long johns gathered at his ankles.
Whatever else happened I can’t say because the two of us beat feet out of there. There were a limited number of children in the house on which to blame the deed but if the escape was clean there was no way to know which devilish one was the culprit. We’d crumple to the floor with laughter in a far-off locale.
This story is long ago in the rearview mirror yet every time I attempted to capture it in writing, or retell it to loved ones, I had to stop for a round of giggles so brisk I nearly wet my pants.
The day I recalled the Hi, Guy! escapades I texted my brother at home in TX. “Do you remember when we’d push the Hi, Guy! open and scare Grandpa off the throne?”
Standing alone while typing my message put no damper on my laughter. I awaited a rousing response from my long time accomplice as I attempted to regain composure. Disappointed I received only an “I’m driving” auto-reply. I was revived shortly after when he parked and transmitted his simple answer. “YES!”
I’m pretty sure it really doesn’t matter how far away a location is in our rearview mirrors. If it contains kids pranking adults (especially Italian nonnos) and a sprinkling of toilet humor, it never loses its magic.
I have been encouraged by some to publish this piece written about my cousin, Paula, her life and death and their meaning in my life. It is truly a rearviewmirror story as she is among my earliest memories.
Inasmuch as posting this will automatically trigger its publication elsewhere, too, I have not mentioned living persons by name to preserve their privacy. You all know who you are and how Paula loved you. That gift is ours forever.
My Other “P”
In the time of Covid someone can slip away without being noticed. In a house. In a hospital. Long-term care facility. Who knows where. In the time of Covid.
Some have evaporated without a good-bye. Or even hello. So I am saying hello and good-bye to my cousin. Out loud. Where I can hear it.
She was my oldest and only girl cousin; it is because of Paula, partially, that I am a “P”. My parents decided not to give me a family name but an American one. Paula was the baby who made them an auntie and uncle. They adored her and showered her with affection during her early life. And they gave me a name to go with hers. Paula and Pamela. That’s where our story begins.
There were six years between us which made a huge difference when we were young. There were times we didn’t see each other at all. When we did she was on her way to teenage fun and I was in elementary school. I longed to go with her friends and her. Wanted to be in on her secrets. To make her laugh. Her lyrical laugh. A laugh like no other.
I was eight or nine when I found out, by accident, how babies are born. I snuck up on Paula and her girlfriends huddled and giggling over a big picture book, a big black and white photo of a newborn emerging from its mother. She snapped the book closed quickly. I ran horrified.
My uncle, my mom’s brother, was of modest means and irresponsible with the money he had. He was a dandy and his paycheck was gone before it ever hit the bank. Sometimes Paula’s home had power, and sometimes not. They didn’t live in a safe area. Paula had folded newspapers inside the bottoms of her shoes to protect her feet from the holes in the soles. When Paula had new shoes or clothing it was usually purchased by our grandparents, Fanny and Pete.
Her mother became ill when she was a child and died when Paula was about 11. I was in kindergarten. I barely remember Marguerite but she was petite like Paula. I don’t remember her laughing. In memory I see a serious face, tight dark brown waves around her face. And very thick eyeglasses.
My parents considered adopting Paula and her brothers, adding to the three children they already had. I vaguely remember overhearing the discussions between them and my grandparents, whose financial help would have been needed and gladly given. Later I was told that it was my grandmother who stopped the conversation. She thought keeping his own children as a single parent would finally push my uncle into responsible adulthood. Certainly he would care for his three grieving children.
He did not.
He already had a girlfriend whom he’d been dating during his wife’s illness. He’d lost his job when his employer found out he was a blatant adulterer. Back in the day, a no-go. The 1950s. My parents had seen my uncle and his paramour at a movie theatre. My dad never warmed to my uncle after. I didn’t know why from earliest memory Dad was distant with Uncle Frank. Usually had a particular scowl.
My uncle quickly remarried after Marguerite’s death and Paula was in charge of her two younger brothers. She went to school, cooked and cleaned, did the laundry and shopping.
It was much later when I was told that Marguerite, as she lie dying, secretly confessed to Paula that my uncle was not her father. She did not tell Paula who her father was, only that Marguerite’s older sister, Rose, knew him and would reveal him “one day”. Apparently my uncle was privy to this conversation which gave a self-centered man reason to be more so. It was easy to distance Paula, to make her the family maid.
By the time she reached high school my uncle had Paula paying rent because along with her other duties she also had an after-school job. Her maternal grandmother had left money in trust for her college and Paula saved her wages to add to it, hoping one day to leave home and complete higher education. Because my uncle demanded so much of her time, and then payment for a place to live, Paula moved to the home of a high school friend where she stayed until graduation. It was while planning for college that she found my uncle had spent her trust fund.
There are details about going to medical assistant school, our grandmother’s death, but the significant occurrence is that Paula fell in love and married at the age of 18 or 19. I was 12 or so and only remember the excitement. I met her fiance and he seemed nice enough. At my age, it was all very romantic. I mostly recall my parents being happy for her. There was no talk that she was too young and should wait. She’d seen so much. Been through so much. Everyone wanted her to be happy.
By then there were whispers that my uncle was not her father. Or perhaps it was then I became aware of them. I heard my grandfather and my mother talking. My dad and mom.
Paula was quickly pregnant and didn’t tell anyone that her husband beat her. Hit her often, pummeled her belly and when the boy was born he had seizures. Seizures so severe they significantly affected his development. It wasn’t long before Paula left her husband, her ill baby boy in tow, to make their own way. She told my parents all that had happened.
Paula remarried within a year or two, a sweet man named Ray, and two more children were born. Girls. First, to much joy, baby Lisa, and then Tami. Lisa was perfect. Tami had a genetic defect that would keep her a child for life. Paula then had two children with disabilities. Her boy was growing and growing violent, still seizing and now a danger to Paula and the little girls. An anguished Paula allowed him to become a ward of the state, to be cared for in a group setting where he and others would be safe, while she spent as much time as she could with Lisa, and much of her time caring for Tami. This while she helped at her husband’s restaurant and had a full-time job in banking. In the beginning she visited her son often but with her presence he became agitated and more inclined to violent episodes. Paula was asked to stay away.
Paula was tiny like her mom. I always called her little cousin which made her laugh because she was the elder. “Some respect! Show some respect!” Tami grew bigger than Paula. No longer could Paula lift her into the bathtub and dress her. Lisa, an adolescent, had begun to bridle at the time her mother was unavailable due to her sister’s disability and again Paula made the excruciating decision to put a child into a group home. She and Ray kept Tami nearby and brought her home on weekends when they together could manage her care.
I was in high school and college as this played out, unaware of the mounting sadness, pressure, sheer adversity each day brought Paula. Unaware that the whispers were now a roar as Paula searched for her father in a time before DNA testing was available. She asked questions. Who did her mother know? Who did she work for? Did our grandparents notice anyone around? What did my mom see? And Aunt Rose. Would she tell Paula as her mother promised? An old man showed up at Ray’s Café one day. He asked for Paula and left without leaving a name or contact information when Ray said she wasn’t there. Was it her father? Would he come again?
Aunt Rose stalled. Gave reasons not to tell Paula who the man in the café might have been. Paula loved Aunt Rose as her only living blood relation from birth, and rather than allow a wedge between them, Paula backed off. Elderly Aunt Rose promised to write the name in a journal which Paula could have but said Paula would need to wait until her death to see it. Paula didn’t push.
Though the background music of Paula’s life contained two themes, tragedy and search for answers about her father, the Paula we all knew was funny, a prankster, talented, quick-witted, hardworking and devoted to the family she created. Rarely did she let her past spill into her present such that it overtook her mood, when I was looking anyway. She plodded forward with the belief she had purpose and giving into sorrow would impede it. If she complained it would be about hot weather, the high price of goods, working too much, husbandly messes, getting gray hair and wrinkles, squirrels messing about in her vegetable garden, and finding pants for someone as short as she. There was no complaining or massaging significant issues.
Her melody was sweet and lighthearted; the undertones bass violin.
The intervening years I believe were her happiest. Lisa married and had three children of her own. Paula and her husband lived on a huge property in the country where Paula plied all the gardening knowledge she’d learned from our Italian grandfather. She grew fruits and vegetables, canned and cooked and shared it all. Tami still came home on weekends and loved the country home. Paula often had the grandchildren there and enjoyed them immensely. She achieved success in her profession managing a credit union branch. She worked with people she loved and respected who remained her life-long friends. Life had leveled out into a hum of satisfaction and pleasant ordinariness Paula had never known.
Loss intruded. Our grandfather died. Her husband died. She left the country house alone for something small and manageable in town.
Her Aunt Rose died. Rose’s son George gave Paula the promised journal. In the midst of losses there would be one gain to be found in Aunt Rose’s notes. Instead there was nothing. Page after blank page. Empty. Not one entry. Her aunt took the name of Paula’s father with her.
As we aged, Paula and I in our 40s and 50s, the six years between us no longer had meaning. We were both widowed, me with a teenager, her children settled into adulthood. We kept in close touch and I was there for the surrendering of the empty journal. The sadness. Disappointment. Reconciling the likelihood she would never know who her father was.
Paula’s one healthy, beautiful child had divorced. Lisa had a secret, too; she tried to keep it from her children, and her mother. Her ex-husband knew but in his love for Paula, his mother-in-law who never became an “ex”, he kept it until he could no more. Lisa was a drug addict. A drug addict with many arrests; her ex-husband filed suit for sole custody of his children. He hoped this would be enough to shake Lisa out of her situation but if it were not, he was prepared and willing to take total responsibility for his children along with his new wife.
Paula was stunned at the news. She did all she could to help her daughter who pleaded and promised she’d do better. On occasion Lisa was able to gain sobriety but she couldn’t maintain it. Paula pledged her support to the man she held as her son and took his side in the custody issue. The bitterness Paula withstood from her daughter was as painful as the losses she’d already endured. She watched her daughter devolve into drugs, steal to pay for them, and engage in behaviors to ensure continued access.
Paula’s life soundtrack now became the white noise of constant worry for the well-being of her grandchildren who missed their mother and the knowledge that the phone could ring any moment with news of Lisa’s death. Most of the time Paula was unsure of her daughter’s whereabouts.
Lisa died from a treatable cancer left untreated secondary to her addiction and life on the streets. Though mother and daughter were reconciled in the last weeks of Lisa’s life and Paula spent many days with her at the hospital, Paula never shook the guilt of having distanced Lisa in order to both self-preserve and refrain from enabling. Of all that Paula had experienced, this pain was her greatest.
Simultaneously Paula was treated for breast cancer with a grueling course of chemotherapy. Her beloved son-in-law and his wife walked with her through it all. They lived close by and made themselves unflaggingly available to her. Even his new wife called Paula her mother-in-law. Paula adored them both and felt grateful to have such love and devotion in her life. Rarely had she known it though she gave of it freely.
Through it all Tami continued to spend some weekends with her mother. Though Paula’s chemo had weakened her substantially, and she couldn’t take Tami on the same schedule, she called Tami her “ray of sunshine” and drove to pick her up as often as she had strength. Tami was then 45 years old. A year after Lisa’s death, Tami, who had long outlived her life expectancy – who had a joyful life at her group home and equally so with her mother, died unexpectedly of an aneurysm. Paula had been prepared to lose Tami much earlier, but once Tami lived into her 40s all of us had forgotten this could happen. It was a shock.
The state was Tami’s conservator yet as any mother would, Paula wondered how Tami would fare if Paula predeceased her. What would she think if her mama didn’t come to get her on the weekends? Now Paula’s reason for being was gone.
Tami died on Paula’s 72nd birthday, the Saturday before Easter Sunday, two years ago. It was the end for Paula.
Paula cried in my arms when I came to visit, usually right after I entered her home in the midst of our hello hug. She was tiny and I so much bigger would wrap myself around her. After a few minutes allocated to tears, she’d push away, blow her nose, wipe her eyes and say, “Let’s go to lunch.”
She always ordered a patty melt. Me, too.
She rarely revisited these events in conversation and certainly didn’t dwell on them. She believed that one puts a foot in front of the other and marches into the future expecting the best, prepared for the worst. That’s what she always did.
Paula lived for two years after Tami’s death but was markedly different. Her health failed and she didn’t put up a fight to save it. She took her medications and participated in physician conferences but her commitment to seeing her future dissolved.
During our last few years together 23andMe came into being and confirmed what Paula’s mother had told her more than a half century earlier, what our family had whispered about, my uncle was not her father. Paula and I were not related. Paula wasn’t one cell Italian though every meal she made reflected our Italian upbringing, the flavor of our childhoods.
A half-sister bubbled to the top of genetic relations and they made contact. The sister didn’t know her father either. They couldn’t help each other. Apparently Paula’s father had gotten around… She would never know who he was.
Paula said it didn’t bother her that we weren’t really cousins but our Italian grandparents, Sunday dinners at their house, being chased in their vegetable garden and orchard, pasta al fresco in the summer lath house – these were the seeds of our memories together. Our grandparents were no longer “ours”. I asked if she needed anything from me. If she still felt like my cousin. Cousin to my brothers. If we were okay. If she was okay. It was different seeing it in black and white, she replied. She had wondered why her mother had taken her past from her with the confession. But seeing the test result, a future Marguerite could not have imagined so many years before, Paula was glad it hadn’t come as a shock. Merely a confirmation.
Nothing had changed for me. She was my other P. Paula to my Pamela.
We both said we were the same, and it was true. Mostly. In the months that followed she bundled the items that came from my family and one by one gave them back to me. Our grandmother’s gold signet ring from Italy was first.
Paula gave her granddaughter some family heirlooms and I loved that she did. I loved that our family’s heart held in the tangible was more important than blood. Dishes from Italy, wedding gifts to our grandparents moved along with Paula’s history to someone she loved and fiercely protected.
Every bit of this story is true as I know it, but some of the memories are over a half century old and that of a child. There are details of sorrow and loss I haven’t included because truly, no screenwriter could’ve imagined sadder. Betrayals and deaths, some similar to what most of us experience, others too much to absorb. I omitted them because this is enough, too much.
One cannot say a proper good-bye to Paula without understanding to whom hello was said. That her smile and laugh, generosity and devotion – all real, never a façade – emanated from the deep belief that we create our lives. That nothing can stop us from building a satisfying one, from being good and loving people generating joyful opportunities. Only we stop ourselves from doing that.
When she couldn’t live by her own tenets, she asked to be put in hospice care, to have life-saving meds withdrawn, to maintain only comfort care, to quietly say good-bye. She thanked those she loved, each of us in a different way. Then she slipped away from us leaving the sound of her laughter, that special laugh, echoing in memory, and her example of backbone. A commitment to live and love, to stand tall no matter one’s physical stature.
I haven’t been able to shake the anger that permeates my sadness. In the time of Covid there was no formal good-bye. No memorial as she had asked for. With the “people and food I love most” as she had written into her will. She was buried alone, tucked into eternity next to her husband, Ray. We who loved her texted, called, emailed and Facebooked our grief at having to go on without her.
I have lost my other P who was cheated in life and then in death. She asked for a lemon meringue pie which I so gladly made for her while alive and would do so again for her friends, fulfilling a last request. She asked for simplicity. Nothing grand yet even that was denied.
I couldn’t go another day without chronicling the stamina of spirit I witnessed in one small being who built her life by herself from such a young age. She was buoyed by those who loved her and whom she greatly loved. She cherished lunches with friends, art classes, Mexican Train afternoons, [patty melts] and her family. Her “son and daughter-in-law” and her grandchildren. Many of us don’t distinguish between close friends and family. Paula did as only someone could who spent a lifetime seeking the people from whom she came.
She appreciated every little goodness in life. It’s small wonder she could so clearly see them in contrast to their opposite. It is however a miracle she could celebrate each as she did.
In the time of Covid, we wait. We wait until there’s a time when we can celebrate her as she deserves. Until then, I try to emulate her and walk into my future, creating as I go. Like my other P.
My grandmother, Vivian, grew up in a Jewish orphanage in San Francisco, sent there with her sisters by their father after the death of their mother. This, my great-grandfather assessed, was the best he could do for his girls. The women in charge would do better for them than he could. He was a struggling haberdasher nearing the end of the first decade of the 1900s.
My grandmother didn’t like to talk about her time in orphanage. The youngest of the three girls she was left behind when the other two married early to escape. She made a few intermittent stops but by the end of 1930s she was settled in Redwood City, CA, then a small town on the Peninsula, south of the big City. A place that boasted “Climate Best by Government Test”, as well as the oldest and largest Independence Day parade in the state.
I have no actual evidence that either statement is true but when you’re homegrown, you go with it. I grew up there and never missed that parade. Each year my dad took us downtown to see the marching bands, baton twirlers, mounted regiments, floats, veterans, scouts, and color guards strut proudly down Main Street and Broadway as we wriggled through the crowd for a better view. As long as my grandmother lived in Redwood City, we stopped at her place to take her with us.
She was an old-fashioned patriot. She could be moved to tears at the playing of the National Anthem. For one who saw so much pain in her early life she told me many times her saddest days occurred at the news of the murders of John and Robert Kennedy. I saw her cry with grief, outrage, and defeat when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Heinous acts committed against patriots, men who died for their country. She considered these the darkest days of the nation because they were “inside jobs”. Americans killed by Americans.
Each time the flag would pass our outpost on parade day, my grandmother would stand, remove her hat, and put her hand over her heart. For every bar of the Star Spangled Banner she stood, posture erect, until the last note had rung through the crowd.
Not to make light, but imagine how many times at an Independence Day parade the flag would pass and the anthem play. My grandmother was a human jumping bean. Amazing reflex action for an old woman. My dad, her son, and my brothers and I all followed her lead, without question, because it was proper. With her on that day, we were all patriots, thanking the men and women everywhere throughout the years for the gift of freedom.
No doubt this daughter of eastern European emigre, born the year after the big quake of ’06, raised in an orphanage, having survived the Great Depression and two world wars, understood better than I ever will the meaning of the day. She understood the depth of courage and decency, resilience and devotion to freedom that parade represented, and all the parades throughout the USA, in cities and townships, villages and suburbs. On floats and in wagons. Fancy and not.
She didn’t live long enough to meet my son. Had she, she would have seen us walk from our house to downtown on July 4th each year. She would have witnessed him skating the parade route selling Boy Scout flags to bystanders, the fourth generation to carry out our annual tradition at the state’s largest and oldest parade.
I now realize that what I have held as a family event, is a trek which renews our ties to each other and our tradition, and also to our community, city, and country. In the generational repetition the lines have blurred between personal and national history. They are intertwined.
The little girl from the orphanage created the family she longed for and the tethers she craved. Each time the flag passes before us in the city where (apparently) climate is best by government test, we will stand as though no other possibility exists as we will again for the National Anthem. Many, many times. We will stand for the patriots who came before, and for my grandmother.
What are your family traditions? Stories? Menus? Rituals? Just please don’t tell me your parade is larger or weather better. You know it would break my heart.
Enjoy your holiday weekend. Be safe. Please remember those who sacrificed all for all we have today.
“Climate Best by Government Test” is what they say about the town where I was raised. At some point Redwood City had a weather station. Based on a pre-WWI study the claim was its weather was similar to the Canary Islands and tied for best in the world.
It’s pretty good weather, I’ll admit, but the sign should say, “Climate Mostly Best…”.
When weary winter morphs into spring’s mid-90s temps, it feels pretty danged hot but a welcome respite from rain and drear. The heat sets fruit on budding trees, swimming pools beckon, and students revel in the knowledge that the year’s final school bell isn’t far away. But in September and October when the kids of summer have been shoved back into their stuffy classrooms and temps again reach the century mark, climate doesn’t feel best by anyone’s test. It’s a mostly situation.
I’ll come back to the weather in a moment.
Growing up an engineer’s daughter was a mostly proposition as well. Mostly great when a hair dryer blew for the last time before blowing up, or a toaster wouldn’t toast. Especially if one’s old Karmann Ghia suddenly went kaput when heading out for school or work. Being an engineer’s daughter was a downright blessing on those occasions.
Not so much on Christmas morning though when at eight years old my new Chatty Cathy was requisitioned for scientific observation. How does she talk?
I don’t know, Dad, but please give her back!
Three things called to my dad’s engineering spirit – curiosity, necessity and whimsy. Chatty Cathy? Curiosity. A two-sided jack-o’-lantern affixed to a BBQ rotisserie motor, rotating fright and fierce on one side, glee and gladness on the other? Novel whimsy! Even better. Hero to neighborhood kids as well as his own. SCORE!
It was a long time before we had a new car. My parents waxed poetic about their brand spankin’ new 1950 Plymouth purchased soon after marriage. I found photos in Mom’s albums, Betsy the green Plymouth all shined up with young Dad standing proudly at her side. But after I was born and two boys followed, used cars in varying condition became the norm. The old Plymouth, no longer reliable transportation, was sold to make way for a station wagon, good for carpooling.
In 1964 Dad bought Mom the car of her fancy, the first new one since Betsy. It was ordered in a special color and she impatiently awaited its delivery. A 1965 Pontiac Le Mans coupe in “Iris Mist. ” For the unfamiliar, that’s metallic lavender. She asked for white interior. A real lady’s car, or maybe a lady of the night? Never mind… We kids perfected a contortion act to first fold ourselves into the back seat and then stay put, fighting about whose turn it was to sit the middle with no room for legs.
Mom’s pride. Our torture.
Why Dad chose to go rogue with engineering creativity in her car I have no idea, but he did – to the delight of his kids, the annoyance of his wife, and a red light and siren pull-over by law enforcement.
Silly Putty came in different containers, most frequently the Silly Putty egg. At holidays there was novelty packaging. For instance, a skeleton head at Halloween.
A little drilling was all it took to add small red bulbs as eyes and a bit of wiring to connect the plastic head to the brake and turn lights of Mom’s fantastic machine. The skull sat happily on the back deck behind the seat, its luminous eyes beaming, blinking, and braking the driver’s intentions.
Texas State Police weren’t impressed by Dad’s automotive innovation, but we were ecstatic. Rear seat crowding was overlooked in order to be closer to his invention.
Did Mom alert law enforcement? A mystery. Also an effective take-down notice.
Definitely Dad whimsy.
Back to the dog days of Redwood City’s long summer turned autumn. I think of scratchy, itchy pleated wool uniform skirts that rubbed against my perspiring, sticky legs while seated at my desk. A hot September school day.
After a roasting afternoon of classes my brothers and I arrived at home (in the city with Climate Mostly Best by Government Test) to find a wooden painting ladder standing in the entry hall. Atop the ladder was the huge aluminum pot my mother and grandmother used for boiling gnocchi. Inside the pot was a block of ice sitting in water. Hanging from the ceiling above the pot was a kitchen tea towel just long enough to touch the icy slurry. The ladder was placed in front of the cold air return of our forced air furnace. The heat was off but the fan was on, sucking cool moist air from the towel into the return and out vents throughout the house. Dad swamp cooled the place with his ladder, ice, a towel and a pasta pot. A bit of whimsy. Mostlynecessity.
I live a couple of towns away now, slightly cooler and nearer to the beach. There aren’t as many sweltering days but when they arrive as they did this week, they seem all the warmer because of their rarity. It’s then I remember again the ladder, the towel, the icy pasta pot, and my dad. The man who could fix anything, or violate it depending on point of view.
Climate Best by Government Test? Today there’s some dispute except by those who were raised there like Dad and me, or live there still where the original sign proudly announces your arrival to downtown.
Some would argue, mostly.
But there’s no arguing about Dad, our mostly perfect engineer, whom I miss mostly every day. I miss the usefulness and the whimsy, the imagination and innovation of his engineering mind, his dad jokes and his dad laughs. His dad engineering evaluations of purchases large and small, from can openers to cars.
I mostly miss his dad smiles, and dad smell when collecting dad hugs. There was no mostly about how he loved us, especially Mom. That he did completely.
Thinking of you today, Dad. Happy Father’s Day. I miss everything about you.
Mac Rebennack’s death last week brought a recollection of having had a chance meeting with him several years ago. I committed it to a few Facebook lines and sent a longer version to an old friend to whom I was writing.
My friend suggested that it’s a Rearview Mirror story. He’s right. I needed his prodding to see it.
I also came to understand in my own way and time what those pithy quotes and clichés mean – life is a collection of moments. It’s not always the big, splashy vacations (though my first trip to Paris with a bestie remains unmatched) or huge events like childbirth and marriage (though definitely significant). In retrospect, the stories I have fun telling and others enjoy listening to and reading generally involve the ordinary, and some degree of happenstance.
And so it was the morning I met Mac…
In the “olden” days – which for me means pre-9/11 – there were flights from SFO to JFK leaving hourly on week day mornings. I always booked the 6AM which had me arrive dead tired at roughly 3PM eastern time. To make that flight the alarm sounded at 3:30ish, and I left the house at 4:30 to arrive at the airport by 5. I was so tuckered by the time I got to my hotel in midtown Manhattan that I could fall asleep on local time with minimal problem.
Boarding took place a little after 5, while still dark outside, and I would nestle in my seat for a little pre-take off shut eye then keep myself awake for the remainder of the trip. I took these flights frequently and flight crews often recognized me. They were kind enough to put aside my favorite breakfast. This mattered to me. I’m not a morning person. Correction – I am a morning person, just not a smiling, talking one.
This particular morning I noticed someone boarding a bit ahead of me in the jetway. A man. Tall. A hat with a feather and a long grayish ponytail down his back.
The 60s and early 70s are a time I don’t glorify. They were unique no doubt. The music unmatched. They changed the culture of our country in ways large and small from integration and abortion, to recreational drugs, even school dress codes for girls morphed to accommodate pants, and of course, the Vietnam war. The first time I’d seen a national issue turn father against son.
I like my 60s kept in the 60s. I’m not wistful about them nor do I pine for the summer of love. Therefore the sight of a man at least my age with a ponytail irked me. I wanted to say, “Excuse me, sir, do you know what year it is?” and jettison him out of hippie nostalgia.
That morning the not a smiling, talking morning person saw the offending man settle himself in the window seat next to mine on the aisle. He would be my seat mate. For six long hours.
In the days before iPhones and earbuds the best way to avoid all contact was to immediately cover up with a blanket and feign sleep which I did after stowing my belongings. Then the pilot announced a take-off delay of one and a half hours. I surely could not doze for seven and a half hours.
In the pre-dawn hours it was easy to fall asleep in spite of feeling annoyed by the presence of my seat mate and the delay, until I began to feel the rising sun’s rays on my face. It was then I heard a honeyed, raspy drawl say, “Let me pull the shade down for you.”
A voice at once familiar and not, unlike any other. A growl of sorts with a musical lilt, a hoarseness with a lazy twang.
I opened my eyes and turned my head toward the seat mate. He smiled. “Hi, I’m Mac Rebennack.” Stunned, I said nothing. He added after a pause, “Some people know me as Dr. John.”
Of all the seat mates this blues lover could ever have. Better than riding with Carly Fiorina and Senator Feinstein, Bill Russell, or even Tyler Florence (who, by the way is pretty danged good lookin’), I was seated next to the Night Tripper.
Mac talked. And talked. I didn’t mind. I listened. When it was clear he wanted or maybe even needed to talk, I asked questions. His body man was on the flight sitting a few rows behind us I learned when he approached and inquired if Mac would like to switch seats. I believe he thought I’d been bothering Mac. But no, Mac was planted; I was his audience. He was in full storytelling mode. No seat switch would happen.
We gabbed and laughed and when we got close to New York he suddenly became bashful and slightly embarrassed realizing he’d told of things both professional and intimate, “You’re not with the press or anything, are you?” Nope. “And you won’t tell everyone, will you?” I won’t. “You’re easy to talk to and we share some interests. And I like your kicks.”
Kicks. The first time I’d ever heard that expression. Over 20 years ago. Mac liked my kicks.
As we landed he offered a ride to my hotel. His car would be picking him up. Famous or not, secrets shared and all, I did not know Mac Rebennack. I didn’t want to be rude and I didn’t want to accept a ride not knowing what it might indicate to him. I leveraged what I knew to make light of the situation. As one product of parochial school to another I believed he’d understand. “Thank you, Mac, but a good Catholic girl can’t accept a ride from a stranger.”
“You’re right. You can’t,” with his deep chortle. He took out the business card of his manager and on the back he wrote his home number. “If you ever need anything, you call me or my wife, Cat, and if we don’t answer, call this man. He always knows where to find me.”
He handed me the card.
I thanked him. It seemed only fair to confess that I tried to stay undercover, so I didn’t have to talk to someone I thought was lost in the 60s. “That’s okay, I thought you were bitchy.”
Perfect. It was a draw.
I never used the card, didn’t call the number. I was always curious if I was one of many holding something similar, or someone special. But it didn’t really matter for the flight was special enough.
I kept his number in my wallet for years occasionally pulling it out, turning it over to find his handwriting, and recalling the story to myself. I’d wonder if I made the whole thing up. Then I’d remember the sound of his voice. “Let me pull the shade down for you.”
It was real alright and signaled the beginning of seven rapt hours.
Good night, Mac Rebennack. Thank you for the ride.
Years ago I met a special band of people who had all endured wrenching losses. Holidays tended to bring them to our group where they felt safe to talk about how difficult seasonal festivities were for them. They could be blunt. They could be angry. They could be raw and share random shocking thoughts and language without the burden of shielding loved ones unprepared for their shattering grief. In the vernacular, when we came together we could be “real”.
Christmas was especially difficult, as one might expect, with some also having anniversaries and birthdays wrapped around the holiday. And just when they thought they were out of the woods, the worst having passed, January snuck by and turned into Valentine’s Day. Red hearts blaring “LOVE” decorated every grocery, drug and department store, as ads on television and radio prodded gift giving, and painfully reminded us all of a time when we were recipients.
My late husband had loved Valentine’s Day and had exquisite flower bouquets created for me. White. Freesias, tulips, roses, Oriental lilies. Each flower visual perfection, sturdy stems of lilies and roses mingled with the gentle bends of tulips and freesias, the stamen of each bright against the cream and white colors. The collaboration exuded a heady fragrance; the freesias always had the last say. When he was gone the pain left in his place crowded out happy memories of Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day had become so serious. It hadn’t always meant I had a sweetheart. Didn’t always hail a marketing frenzy for the retail sector. In my childhood world those cheerful red hearts heralded fun. And treats! Friends, a classroom party, crafts, delights from Mom’s kitchen. Bee (buzz, buzz, buzz) mine.
I know some people don’t like Valentine’s Day on principle. They think it’s a Hallmark invention. Madison Avenue strikes again. Then there are those without mates who yearn for one, and others who had a lifelong love but life was so much shorter than they imagined.
Valentine’s Day coaxes me to my rearview mirror to see all its presentations over the years, and reminds me of those I have loved.
There are memories of white paper bags decorated with crayons and construction paper, taped to desks at school. Corny cards stuffed inside I couldn’t wait to open. Conversation hearts in little boxes. Mom’s heart-shaped spice cake made before Wilton had a heart-shaped pan, her waxed paper template placed atop each layer as she carefully trimmed around it, then frosted it with pink icing, and finished with a border of red cinnamon candies. Made with love for my dad, this was her annual gift to him and lucky for us, he always shared (because we always hovered).
I keep a long-empty velvet heart candy box given to me by my then 11-year old son on the first Valentine’s Day after his dad died not three weeks before. So many miles ago in the rearview mirror, I can imagine how Mom must have taken him shopping for it and how he carefully chose it.
On years when I’ve been sniffling with a cold, tissues and cold medicine littering the bed, I’ve still managed to wear my sparkling diamond earrings, Rick’s gift to me on our first married Valentine’s day, 20 years ago. He handed them to me disguised in a brown grocery bag while apologizing for not having had time to shop. It was a ruse as I lie on the sofa, watching Oprah, recovering from a double mastectomy. He delighted at his successful surprise with the help of a friend, Judy, a jeweler and no doubt gleeful co-conspirator. She’s gone now, too. Each year when I put those earrings on, see them glitter and dazzle as I open the box, the memories dazzle, as well. Today Judy’s face will come to life in their light.
Valentine’s Day is a bubbling cauldron of memories; joy and laughter, grief and loneliness, hope and love. Sorrow and sweetness. It’s a remembrance of those we love and have loved wherever they may be as they linger in our rear view mirrors. The best part is, today is about love. One day on the calendar dedicated to nothing but love. The silly red paper heart kind, the mournful lost-to-us-forever kind, the warm I-can-count-on-you-my-Pal-entine kind. The snuggly pajamas with my cat kind, the sticky-handed little kid kind. The I-did-the-best-I-could-kind. The “I will love you forever” kind.
To everyone, in every way, celebrate this day of love. Celebrate with cupcakes, and hot cinnamon hearts, and cards made with white paper doilies pasted on red, lettered with crayon. There is love in the world. Maybe not just the one we’d like right now, or maybe one so perfect we’re afraid it might go away. Today it’s here. Take a deep breath, open eyes wide and see the love that surrounds us every day in every way.
Have fun! Eat red jelly beans. Tell those you care about how special they are to you. I hope the paper mail bag taped to your heart is stuffed with notes and cards from your loved ones.
This is mine to you.
For Riley Hayes. The King family’s newest little Valentine.
Out back was a yard that stretched fully from the house to the street behind. It was a very deep lot that first had a paved tar and gravel area for play and drying clothes, and an entrance to the cellar under the house. Then there was a step up to a large cutting garden for flowers and herbs, and abundant vegetables. Through the last gate was a fruit orchard with apple, peach, black and white figs, walnut and loquat trees. Down the center, dividing the orchard ran blackberry vines. Among the tools left from tilling and trimming was a rusty oil drum used for burning paper trash before its ash was turned into a compost heap at the furthest point of the yard.
My grandfather was in charge of the garden. A little bull of a man, immensely strong, short and compact, hairy golden arms and chest, a gray-blonde comb-over, light skin and blue eyes. His stature was exactly what one would expect of an older Italian gentleman while his coloring was the opposite. One of his jobs was to ride herd on the grandchildren and keep order in the yard. With our unwanted help horse beans grew in the daisy and gladiolus beds, and avocado trees (launched from seeds on the kitchen window sill) sprouted almost anywhere. None of this made Grandpa happy.
On the first level where the grandkids played (and Grandpa sought to contain us) was the lath house. Set on a concrete foundation it was a rectangular structure covered with wooden, white diagonal lattice on three sides and a large stage-like opening in front. It backed up to a thick hedge that created a border between my grandparents’ yard and the Bonaccorsi’s, next door. Sometimes the vines in the hedge played a weaving game, tangling with other greenery then poking through into the lath house. Pink and red climbing roses grew at its sides among blue hydrangea bushes. Nature provided all the adornment needed against the crisp white back drop of the lath house.
The lath house sheltered a long table my grandfather had built, with benches running its length on each side. During the winter the table was covered with newspapers and screened racks for drying walnuts and fava beans in their variegated pods. As warm summer days slipped into chilly late autumn, walnuts dropped from the orchard trees. The nuts spent winter drying in the lath house and those not carried away by the squirrels made their way inside for shelling, sorting and storing.
The table had other uses for the children. It provided not-so-secret shelter for games of hide and seek, and easily became a fort with the addition of a worn green, woolen Army blanket found in the old garage. Sometimes little bodies hidden below it stretched arms high to the table top and puppet shows were born. When school was out for summer, the lath house served as a stage for fledgling performance art, while Mom and Grandma served lemonade to the cheering local audience who arrived on two and three-wheel bikes, dressed in their finest flip-flops and ribboned pigtails.
In the rearview mirror nothing seems more important in lath house lore than its ritual spring purge. After all, its real purpose was to seat the entire family for outside summer dinners. As days began to lengthen into spring, holding promises of future al fresco dining, the last of Grandpa’s cool weather bounty was harvested and the lath house was emptied of its winter work.
I believe calling it merely spring cleaning would be to understate the energy and enthusiasm poured into lath house purification. All furniture was removed as walls were swept clean and spiders left homeless. The tangle of vines and webs and crunchy fall leaves trapped between them was removed from the lattice. Debris was broomed from the roof, the concrete floor mopped and rinsed with the hose. The table and benches were scoured before being returned to the lath house.
Grandma, Grandpa, Mom and kids participated in the event though I can’t say the grandchildren were much actual help. I wasn’t. The idea that soon the table would be covered with lively print oil cloth and set for a family meal invited excitement on par with Christmas dinner. Memory of summers before, Grandma emerging from the back door and down the steps with a platter piled high with steaming pastasciuttafomented the fervor.
In the lath house we could be a little messier without Dad’s evil-eye, we could be a bit noisier without a stern shushing. Unnoticed we could linger a tad longer after dinner listening to adults moving between English and Italian, switching to the one we couldn’t understand when they talked about us. There they would drink Zin from small juice glasses, and have after dinner tazze di caffè. The lath house represented summer. And family.
As dusk tip-toed into sundown my brothers and I slipped away from the table to ride bikes in the paved area between the house and lath castle, to run and chase away the day before being loaded into the family car and taken home for bed. There were evenings of Pinochle, wine, whiskey shots in strong caffè, Italian cigars and desserts of fruit and cheese, but we were left out of those; only sometimes were we lucky enough to spend the night at Grandma’s where we could hear grown-up laughter on the breeze through our bedroom window not knowing then that these memories would become so vivid in the rearview mirror.
The lath house no longer stands behind the home on Myrtle Street. A snoop on Google Earth revealed it’s been replaced by a Victorian-type gazebo. In my dreams I buy the little bungalow back for our family, my brothers and me, our children and grandchildren; we erase all evidence that it ever slipped from our hands, or that time has passed. There the lath house stands tall, awaiting the spring flurry that brought summer and stories of clinking glasses, shouts of Salute!, laughter and love. As it is in my rearview mirror, the lath house never ages in my dreams. Instead it provides the tales future generations will tell.
Peanut butter sandwiches with Olallieberry jam and a little mac salad on the side. Daily lunch when staying with my grandparents during the hot summers in Santa Rosa.
My grandmother, Vivian, made her jam and pies during the first weeks of June, the only time Olallieberries are available.
Grown almost exclusively in the moderate climate of the northern and central California coast, they came from Corvallis, Oregon. Kissed by morning fog and cooled by the nearby Pacific Ocean, they flourish in California. But when warm weather comes, the berries are done. There’s less than a three week window in which to grab them. Then a long year before another chance arrives.
My dad used to say God must harvest them himself, so beautiful and delicious are they.
Years later when I lived on the coast in Montara with a child of my own, blackberries and raspberries grew wild in the empty lot behind our house. Long pants on to escape their stickery brambles, Mom and I would pick until our colanders were sufficiently full to fashion a pie. But they weren’t Olallieberries, that special cross of a Youngberry and Logan blackberry.
God’s hand for sure, Dad.
My grandmother was raised in an orphanage and I’ve wondered who taught her to cook and bake, and she was good at both. Questions we think of too late, when there’s no one to ask.
She left few recipes, mostly those that belonged to others. No recipe for her Olallieberry pie or jam, or macaroni salad, leaving me free to remember and create on my own.
Just like her. A free spirit and free-thinker in a generation unfamiliar with and unwelcoming to either quality in women, as if it weren’t difficult enough to be Jewish and raised in an orphanage. Or, maybe because of.
I’m sure her flaky crust came by way of lard or Crisco because that was the way of the day. When I first set out to re-create an Olallieberry pie I started with my mother’s recipe for pie dough. I didn’t succeed even with Mom by my side. There was something about that particular dough which wouldn’t come together for me, or even for her if I were around. The dough and I were not friends.
Then came the Silver Palate Cookbook and the one pastry dough recipe that loves me. A good start to my Olallieberry memory.
I combed recipes from here and there; I searched the internet and old cookbooks going back to Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School. Then I found a recipe in a McCall’s cookbook I’d been given in 1975 by my cousin, Eva. “Fresh Berry Pie”.
Can you taste things with your imagination? Read an ingredient list and with each addition have the mouth in your mind follow along, adding flavors until a taste takes shape?
The recipe read, “Dash ground cloves”.
I knew. I could taste it. Dimension, another layer of flavor, depth without sweetness. Unexpected. In a berry pie, or in the cookbook falling apart high up on the shelf in my kitchen cabinet.
I used Silver Palate dough for my crust, four pints of beautiful Olallieberries snagged during their way-too-compact-early-June season, and from deep in my cluttered baking drawer, Vivian’s pastry cutter to pink the lattice ribbons for the top.
Did its baking fill the house with a scrumptious fragrance? Did it look to tempt the devil himself? Was it torture waiting for it to cool? Did I remember to slide a little a la mode next to it on the plate? Did I savor every bite?
You don’t really need me to answer, do you?
Right out of a 1950’s diner. Lava-like juices had bubbled through the lattice and cooled around the rim to a shiny, luscious deep purple. Flaky barely sweet pie crust, each bite filled with Olallieberry goodness.
As tasty as it was, delicious as the day was long, it was this memory that filled and warmed me, reminded me of who I am, the people and stories that came before me. The joy wasn’t as much in consuming pie as it had been in pursuit and capture of summers five decades ago. Summers filled with sunshine, and love, and berries “harvested by God’s hand”, then baked by my grandmother into an Olallieberry memory.
My mother rarely cried. Unlike her daughter, a veritable fountain on the verge for any occasion, Mom wasn’t given to showing sadness. Anger yes, sadness no.
It might be an Italian thing.
I was 12 years old making yet another trip from my bedroom to the kitchen for a snack after school when I heard my mom in tears at the front door speaking to a neighbor lady who was her good friend. In hushed voices there was only their mumble but I could make out my mother’s distress. Laverne said, “I’m so sorry, Ann. I’m so sorry.”
At 12 what does a kid do? I was afraid. I was curious. I was upset. I was in distress for Mom. I retreated to my room until the front door closed and the voices fell silent. I emerged to find Mom wiping her tears. I stuttered. I asked what happened.
She hesitated and didn’t want to tell. She was unable to quickly create a cover story for the incident and I think that’s the only reason she told the truth.
My grandmother was dying. She was diagnosed with an advanced and untreatable form of leukemia. In disclosing to me, my mother sagged and melted into tears again.
That was over 50 years ago yet I can see every detail in the rearview mirror. Of that day and those after until Fanny died in early December of 1964.
At school the next day I couldn’t concentrate and when lunchtime came, I told my teacher, a sweet, ancient, tiny nun. I described all that had happened the day before. I had some fearsome faith back in the day. I probably thought she could pull up some Catholic mojo and make my grandmother better. I could barely get the words out to explain what I knew, what would be the undoing of my little family. Fanny was the light at the center of everything.
She told me if I prayed hard enough and if I was good enough, God would save my grandmother. I pulled myself together to execute.
I was not only good. I was excellent. I spent hours praying. Days. Nights. I prayed to God. To Jesus. To Mary, His mother.
At school I made As on my lessons. At home I cared for my brothers and my dad so Mom could be with Grandma. I cooked (poorly) and cleaned the house (like a 12-year-old). My mama wept for her mama and I toiled and prayed some more.
Then, my grandmother died.
That first Christmas came three weeks after her death. I prayed even harder to the baby Jesus tucked in his tiny manger under the watchful eyes of His parents, nestled in the crisp white sheet at the bottom of our Christmas tree. With twinkling lights and shimmering tinsel, ornaments reflecting its surrounds, our tree stood tall and alone in the corner of our living room. Each evening in the quiet before bed I knelt before the tree. I prayed to atone for Fanny’s death. I hadn’t been good enough in God’s eyes to save her.
I didn’t realize until well into adulthood that I carried that memory deep within, that I operated believing I wasn’t good enough. The ultimate judgment had been rendered and a life was lost. I saw it all in the rearview mirror and was shocked by the depth of the belief, the decision made as young girl based on a teacher’s words.
I never told a soul. I was ashamed and guilty. To whom could I unburden myself and confess this murder? God already knew.
You know what I know now? Whether there is or isn’t a god doesn’t matter – children are always good enough. They’re born good. And if you tell them they’re good and lovable, even if sometimes they’re naughty, they will grow into good and loving adults.
Children aregood. It’s immutable. Tell the children around you how lovable and good they are. Tell them every day.