by Naomi Rayman

Rhythm Method

Posted on December 28, 2018

Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Russian-born composer who died in 1943, was reputed to have enormous hands. Helpful, these mitts of his were, when sitting down to play the piano.  Many consider him to be one of the greatest concert pianists of all time.

It was said that Rachmaninoff could hold out his right hand, palm side down, and reach his thumb under his four other fingers to extend his thumb about four inches past his little finger.  Try that at home, if you wish.  I dare you.

My mom relayed that piece of piano history as we were driving to lunch following another one of my tortuous Saturday piano lessons.  I was about 9 and drank a lot of milk.  That latter fact may seem incongruous in this context except that because of my insatiable desire for milk, each week our milkman delivered five quarts of milk.  As it was my weekly chore to rinse the bottles and place them on the front porch for pick up, I devised a Rachmaninoff maneuver of my own.  Each finger of my right hand would grab the inside lip of the bottles and carry them out to their metal-box container. The tinkling of the glass bottles against one another was sonorous; the pain was nauseating.  The desired result, to be a better piano player, was negligible.

My music lessons began in kindergarten at the home of Mrs. Reynolds where we little tykes were shuttled from the schoolhouse to the musty, flouncy, chintz-and-fringe adorned living room that housed two baby-grand Steinways, placed back-to-back…á la Ferrante and Teicher.  It would be a couple of years until I was given the nod to sit as a student at one of those behemoths (the piano, not Ferrante nor Teicher).  First, one had to master Rhythm Band.

Upon arrival at Mrs. Reynolds’ house, we gaggle of tots sat with our scrawny legs crisscrossed and merrily anticipated the ritual of lugging around the basket of instruments.  It was a very good day indeed when I foraged and retrieved a triangle.  More useful than one would think, the triangle added a delicate, nuanced ding to an otherwise clamorous, overblown cacophony of drums, cymbals (my backup choice), kazoos (too complex), and rhythm sticks.  That’s a lot of percussion if you ask me.  But, kids like to bang drums and not too slowly as it turns out.  I would wait for Mrs. Reynolds’ conducting cue (the drop of her arm on the downbeat and the subsequent ripple of her upper-arm flab) and lighten up the band’s din with my ding.

Not everyone continued with postgraduate Rhythm Band enrollment.  But, Mrs. Reynolds was the obvious choice for those parents who thought piano lessons were the one and only extracurricular activity worth their time and money.  Her students were a prodigious mix of boys and girls, youngsters to teens. My parents, neither of whom were skilled at the art of piano playing, looked to Mrs. Reynolds for their little girl’s musical education.  What a mistake.

At some point after Rhythm Band but before the piano lessons formally began, a lovely piece of mahogany furniture was delivered to our home.  This instrument was carefully placed against a wall, as it was an upright piano, not too close to the front door and away from any sunlight that might beam its deadly rays on that virgin, lustrous wood.  Although, there’s no way an upright can win a beauty contest if there’s a grand or even a baby-grand piano on the runway, the tonal quality of a fine upright piano is not to be dismissed.   As a matter of fact, Hoagy Carmichael, I read, composed and played on an upright piano. So too, Scott Joplin. Even more significantly to me, our son.  He went on to graduate with a degree in music composition, and he would sit for hours composing melodies that were ominous and dark or lyrical and snappy. Most enjoyably for me, the wafting notes emanated just steps away from where I was preparing dinner.  I could hear his state of mind without his speaking a word. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

If my weekly lesson at Mrs. Reynolds’ went well, I anticipated receiving either a gold (“Grandioso!”) or silver (“Reprise!”) star if both my practice log entries and my performance in class were deemed worthy.  If I were distracted by Mrs. Reynolds’ stunning and shimmering colored-glass or rhinestone jewelry, I would have my knuckles swiftly swatted by her 12-inch wooden ruler.  Undaunted, like brushing off a bad habit, I would involuntarily swoon over the way the sun’s rays would illuminate those burgundy-toned jeweled clusters on her ears or the emerald glistening facets on that one enormous brooch. But that ersatz sapphire pendant? Mesmerizing.


I would collect my book of scales, my sheet music, and my spiral steno pad—the one with my weekly lesson plan—and collapse into my mother’s car.   My mom might notice my bruised knuckles and offer to buy me my own faux-bejeweled necklace.  Ha ha. She laughed.  Litigious days were yet to come…as was an awareness of the inappropriateness of corporal punishment.  Placated by mom’s humor and ever hungry, we would head for a slice of heaven in the form of a sandwich–the weekly repast at the upstairs ladies’ café, Phairs, where I always took a menu to act like a grownup but never for a second looked it over.  My lunch was tuna on white bread and chocolate milk and my companion was my best friend, mom.

My mother played only one tune on our piano.  She couldn’t read music but somehow she learned this piece and played the same 12 measures of it. Nola became her theme song.  Unlike her, though, I had scores of music I could play, not any of it well, and I could read music (very slowly; those bass notes were sheer torture to decipher).  I had an uncanny sense of rhythm for which I credit my triangle virtuosity as well as that damn metronome, in matching mahogany, that sat atop our piano and peered down in ridicule from its aloof triangular-shaped housing if my playing slowed down, sped up, or if I paused for any length of time to plead with my mother to let me stop practicing because AN HOUR IS TOO LONG.

My father agreed with me. An hour of listening to Bach, Schumann, Mozart, or even Chopin (who doesn’t like Chopin?) was too long for him. It was time, he told me sometime in the 6th grade, to play popular music.  He was going to talk to Mrs. Reynolds.  I couldn’t have been happier with this turn of events.  Mrs. Reynolds, who by now my best friend and frequent duet partner, Hallie (Teicher to my Ferrante), and I referred to as Renny, was onboard.  And, that is how in 1961 the popular piano pieces I was now given to play were not on the Billboard charts as were Ricky Nelson’s, “Hello Mary Lou,” or Chubby Checker’s, “Let’s Twist Again.”  Instead, I left my Saturday lessons with the Jerome Kern songbook in my zippered music binder. First assignment: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.  I must have branched out from there because what has become my own personal “Nola” moment after 57 years is Tea For Two.  Unlike my mother, I can’t summon up more than 3 or 4 measures at most…for which my own children can thank me someday.

My father was sublimely happy.  After all, Saturday nights were not complete unless we watched “The Lawrence Welk Show”. If Liberace had a guest spot, even better. Weeknights, though, I was held to a full hour of practice time because as he sat couch side, reading the evening paper, it was akin to being at his club sipping his Chivis Regal on the rocks listening to the night’s entertainment. All I needed was a tip jar.

He sat back, listened to my unpolished version of some of his favorite melodies and said, “If you can play the piano, you will always be a hit at parties.”

If only it were that simple.

With my classical training, I was better prepared by Mrs. Reynolds to perform for a debutante ball or to play the harpsichord for Mr. Darcy in the salon after dinner.   I straddled the 19thcentury parlors of my piano teacher’s imagination and the 1950s supper clubs of my father’s dreams.

My duet partner, Hallie, was a masterful pianist.  Gifted with perfect pitch, she was slumming it when she played with me.  I didn’t fully appreciate her talents at the time because I was more concerned with what new dress my mother would buy me for our required piano recitals at the Berkeley Piano Club.  It was clearly a bribe from my parents, but it got me to sit on that unforgiving piano bench in front of some extremely talented students and their proud parents and play, from memory, the classical repertoire that I was held to in spite of my father’s protestations.  When I performed my solo, it was a terrifying experience; but back-to-back (literally) with Hallie or the delicious few times we played four-handed duets (scrunched together on the same piano bench—she kindly taking the lower octaves), I was able to soldier through.  Undoubtedly she covered for me time and again.  And, it was she who became my piano teacher when I paid for the lessons myself in my early 20s.  By then, she owned a beautiful grand piano.

Everything is better when you have a partner.  In high school, Hallie and I would play duets to entertain ourselves.  We would cull music stores’ racks for vintage sheet music that had lyrics.  We discovered perfect ditties like, My Blue Heaven or our favorite and the theme song from the movie, “Razor’s Edge,” Mamselle.  Stoned or not, we laughed until we fell off the piano bench.  My father was right.  I was a hit at my own party.

My childhood piano moved as I did.  Once my mother died, my father and I were a duet careful to not cause dissonance in one another’s lives.  We mastered the skill of modulating keys based on what was happening to each of us. Eventually, we had to solo but my dad offered to store the piano so I could retrieve it when it literally could fit into the space I would find myself living.  So, the piano took its own journey.  We loaned it to my friend who had an outtasight rock band.  They lost the needlepointed piano bench, but you can’t really blame them for that, right?  I retrieved the piano and moved it from post-college apartment to apartment at great cost (especially the time the mover punched a hole in the stairwell wall with the side of the instrument).  The last location, before I finally sold it, was when I lived in the Mission District and was active in a women’s political collective.  Deemed too bourgeois and classist to indulge in “the man’s” forms of commercial entertainment, we entertained ourselves in our own apartments with talent shows.  With another duet partner by then, we performed our rendition of Body and Soul to great reviews.  Of course, we had a captive, if underserved, audience.

Hallie onetime told me, I think we were listening to the Cream album, “Disraeli Gears” at the moment, that she could feel music all the way down to her toes.  I understand now that music passes through each of us in different ways; some of us tap our toes or nod our heads or close our eyes or sway by ourselves or in the arms of another.  A favorite piece of music is to our sense of hearing as umami is to our taste buds—that special something.  You know if it is missing.

I am dedicating this blog to Hallie; she’s going through a rough patch at the moment.  She finds her true north, I’m sure, when playing her harp or sitting at her keyboard, or as part of her local symphony’s audience.  I picture her there, in fact, without her shoes on just so she can feel that music when it reaches her toes.

This one’s for you, Hallie.

Name that tune,

Play Through

Play Through

Posted on May 22, 2018

I grew up in a golfing family. By family, I mean my parents who both played the game. I, however, preferred amusing myself with my Barbie dolls any chance I could get. This included bringing Barbie, and often a reluctant Ken, along in the golf cart when I was made to accompany my mom and dad to the course. On the very rare occasions I was allowed to remain at home, which was during their rounds of twilight golf on Friday summer nights, I not only was left to play with my dolls but also to enjoy my favorite meal of all: Swanson’s fried chicken TV dinner.

I loved Friday nights.

On Sundays, however, our family time was spent on the golf course. Our family vacations revolved around visiting and playing golf courses up and down the state of California and the very rare excursion to Hawaii. I was always encouraged (nagged) to pick up a club, be it wood, iron, or putter and play a little. Word had it, according to my father, that I had a natural swing. I’m not sure how natural it is to try and wield in any semicircular shape a bottom-heavy, adult-sized club, but I apparently was pretty good at it. And, I could see how much pleasure both my parents derived from this sport. But no matter how much swinging and swaying, or even exuberant raking in the sand trap after someone’s ball took a bad turn and ended up in said bunker, I couldn’t fathom the sport’s appeal. As soon as we arrived home again and congratulatory cocktails were mixed and poured for the adults, I would head back to my room and pick up my dolls to once again inhabit my magical world—a universe where I was in complete control. Here I pretended I was the adult. An adult who had no desire to play golf. My Barbie Dream House was irresistible and Barbie was the flawless denizen in my neighborhood of make believe. It’s hard to compete with perfection especially as I imagined her to be.

The fresh air, the verdant and soft-squishy grass carpet underfoot, the sounds of metal cleats treading on the pavement around the pro shop, the myriad of golf-bag zippers being dragged opened and closed, that luscious wet suction sound of the ball cleaner gizmos found on so many holes all were diverting but never as exciting to me as what happened inside the clubhouse. That was where I could understand what all the fuss was about. It was inside the ladies locker room, for example, where I met the three B women who became for me the most significant women in my life once my own mother had died. Mrs. Burton, Mrs. Brenesell, and Mrs. Barnett as a triad embodied the characteristics of my ideal and, unlike my Barbie doll, very real woman.

Mrs. Burton, also named Evelyn as was my mother, seemed unflappable and composed. She could deflect her disappointment of an upsetting score on the course with a modest giggle and the sweep of her hand. She also had covetable earrings in the shape of sea scallops. Obviously, she had a flair with accessories. And, she was the one I would choose much later on–in high school–to show up at school when events required the presence of one’s mother: the occasional tea or fashion show come to mind. Evelyn also had a son, five years older than me, whom I was certain I would marry. My imaginary narrative spun this tale: Marriage to her son would cement my relationship with Evelyn assuring me that she would remain in my life forever. She was the kindest woman I had ever met. I was not going to lose this Evelyn.

Mrs. Brenesell, Vera, was the genius of the group. She tutored me in math and science and her home was ultra modern by 1960 standards. Split level with teak floors and a dining table set with Heath ceramics (even at Passover Seders!), what she lacked in fashion sense she made up for in home décor. Her vibe was cool and austere. She was logical and humorless but her refined, buttoned-up demeanor and unusual, halting speech patterns reminded me of Katherine Hepburn without the flared trousers. Tuesday night tutoring in her Berkeley home was a weekly occurrence that helped me progress in math and, more critically, gave me a few hours of womanly companionship and oddly intellectual stimulation that I could depend on. She was steadfast and committed to my growth and development as well as my grade point average.

Ellen Barnett, I always thought, was my mother’s best friend of the bunch. Her voice was froggy like Blythe Danner and her hair, loose salt-and-pepper strands unsuccessfully held in place by tortoise-shell combs, replicated the 1960s vibe with its loosening of waistbands, bras, and mores. On her wrists were clunky, Bakelite bangles in tequila-sunrise shades of reds, oranges, and ochers that she nervously toyed with by pushing them up toward her elbows or down toward her wrists. She seemed unconcerned with her jewelry banging into the pots and pans while cooking; she wore them while she weaved her magnificent wall hangings that included not only fibers of differing origins and colors but incorporated utilitarian items like wooden spoons and chop sticks or decorative adornments of feathers and beads. Her loom sat inside her craft room that had cathedral ceilings with wooden beams and a burnt-sienna-colored shag rug on the floor. She was the artist, the bohemian, the renegade whose house sat on a gnarly boulder the size of an army tank. It was Ellen whom I called first the night my mother died.

My father, however, introduced me to the pleasure of making friends. He could work a room like a master of ceremonies at a Friar’s Roast. He had a joke for every occasion and a personalized one for nearly every guy at the bar. He was happiest when he was at the club and happier still when he found the golf club that epitomized his having made it as an assimilated American Jew. A gifted and coordinated sportsman, who at one time paid for his education by playing professional baseball, he was now a paid-in-full and dapper member of the landed gentry. Or, at least he liked to think he was.

We lived about 3 miles from a gorgeous, stately course surrounded by fabulous homes with picturesque, well-tended gardens and long, gravel-strewn driveways. Driveways that were circuitous and inaccessible to folks like my family. The country club was restricted, which was code for: No Jews; No Blacks. Probably “No” to a lot of other folks, but those were the two groups of possible infiltrators whom people seemed most worried about at that time. Not being allowed to join the nearby course was one reason my parents became members of a club much farther from home. Eventually, a new club would be built nearer to our home, and it was there that I witnessed my father’s sheer joy at having a place feel as comfortable to him as his house. After my mother died, he and I would go to his club for dinner twice a week; he would see that I was sequestered in the clubhouse or at the pool while he finished a round of golf. Then I would do my homework in the clubhouse lobby while he had a drink with his friends or took a lesson from one of the club’s pros. The caddies were all cute boys from high schools other than my own, and so there was the added advantage of honing what pathetic flirting skills I had while not suffering the repercussions of being rebuffed–which I usually was. I always completed my schoolwork because I saw little action as a result of my listless feminine wiles.

As a teenager, I took great pleasure with my friends in tearing up the fairways of that anti-Semitic club close to home—the one that refused membership to my father and his ilk. Friday or Saturday nights a group of us would purchase blocks of ice, wrap them with towels and ice slide down the velvet, tractionless swaths of green grass. Dodging healthy doses of water from automatic sprinklers while inhaling other forms of grass or imbibing grain-based beverages, we slipped and slid and occasionally dodged the police when they were called about the rowdy, disrespectful kids. I once mentioned this activity to my father assuming he would find it fair retribution for his being ostracized. Instead, he found my actions reprehensible and unsportsmanlike. From then on, I never divulged to him my participation in anti-war protests that I was attending with more and more regularity. No ice at those assemblies but plenty of grass.

My father, a dentist by profession, had a penchant and a real talent for writing poetry—more specifically rhymes. His work defied classification because the work had the passion of an ode and the humor of a limerick. The poems were always personalized; my father would write about Joe or Joan, who recently broke 100 on the course. Or, as a man of his time, he would rhyme about how his wife neglected her homemaking duties to beat him at a game of golf. His favorite subject, however, was himself. He would preface a poem’s recitation by saying something about his golf game never improving; it only got verse. He wrote hundreds of these and he frequently published them in the club’s newsletter or he recited them at the scores of social events held at the course – a tournament, a round robin, a crab or spaghetti feed. The poems were so popular and so plentiful that my dad engaged the work of a cartoonist to illustrate the words and created a book (which remains unpublished not for lack of his trying) for his own amusement. Incidentally, he did the same with a book dedicated to bowling (!) and one for tennis. My own lack of enthusiasm at the time regarding this tome had to do with the countless hours I spent typing and retyping and then typing once again each and every poem. Every time the poem was adapted to commend someone else shooting par or commiserate about missing a putt or losing the ball in the rough, there were no cutting and pasting. There wasn’t even white-out. The poem was retyped. His secretarial support consisted of me, our typewriter and two white sheets of bond sandwiching a piece of well-worn carbon paper. There was always a last-minute deadline that had to be met. As my father’s girl Friday, I was behind the scenes and the silent but always reliable assistant. He was forever grateful for my skill set and what he supposed was my enthusiasm. I did it because it made him happy. And, if I finished typing them quickly, I was even happier.

And, then, one day about 5 years ago a new friend came into my life. She grew up in a house adjacent to my father’s country club. Her parents were also members of this golf course, and we suspected that our parents must have known each other. All of them, her parents and mine, were gone now but she had retained oodles of memorabilia from those days of their membership; I had not. She brought me a newsletter that had a photo of her exquisitely attractive parents on the cover and inside there was a poem by my father. The pleasure it brought my father while he was writing that poem, the happiness I felt typing it for him, and remembering his glee when he saw the poem published was not unlike the pleasure I have sending out this and every blog I write. I even get to type it myself–without having to insert a sheet of carbon paper in the printer.

It’s not about the love of golf that my dad imbued in me; he allowed me to witness the pleasure of making others happy and how satisfying that can be.

That’s the sweet spot,

Forty Winks

Posted on November 10, 2017

I read that Martha Stewart gets by on 4 hours of sleep. Lapses in judgment about stock shenanigans and the frequent berating of her underlings notwithstanding, she does all right on just a few hours of sleep. Nocturnal omissions can also be said of Jay Leno, Tom Ford, Kelly Ripa, and Donald Trump. If there ever were an argument for the benefits of getting a full 8 hours of shut-eye, let the latter individual prove my case.

I’m not sure when my own inability to sleep through the night began. I’ll blame menopause for the first wave of insomnia. Once that ditch was dug, it was quickly filled in with worries about money, children, their children, and nuclear war. Like a rubber mallet to the knee, once a reflex is stimulated in the monkey-mind quadrant of the brain, there’s no relief. Where there was once rest, there is now torment.

As a teenager, I would toss my adolescent bones out of bed on Saturday midmorning and drag myself to the kitchen cozied up in my fluffy powder-blue slippers and Lanz floral nightgown. There at the Formica counter, I would fix myself a satiating breakfast of a Pop Tart or two and a 16-oz glass of whole milk. Finishing my meal, and making sure the toaster was once again unplugged, I would shuffle back to bed for brief and indulgent nap hastened by both a sugar crash with a carb chaser.

Now, and mostly only when I travel across time zones landing in foreign lands and beds with pillows that either feel like cement slabs or foam-covered bowling balls, I require pharmaceutical help. A small dose of something prescribed can get me through the night. The downside is that come morning when clouds part and bluebirds chirp, I languish in a depressed mood over my morning coffee longing for the addition of a Pop Tart.

Recently, a friend offered a bit of THC in the form of a piece of paper to put under my tongue. That made sense because the thought of lighting up a joint in the middle of the night seemed like maybe I had gone rogue. And, enjoying an edible with cannabis tucked in like so many chocolate chips might be difficult to assay or at least to rely on in terms of an accurate dosage.

This gift coincided with spotting of an SF Muni bus whose entire side was plastered with a brightly colored ad reading: Marijuana is Here! Seeing it once was ironic but passing another bus festooned in the same manner a few hours later that same day was as weird as a scene in a Ground Hog Day loop. I would file this experience under, “If you live long enough…”

Long before there ever was a motif identified as a Ground Hog Day loop, I was going to occasional Saturday night parties held in the all too frequently parent-free suburban home of one of my friends. Invitations to soirees such as this increased once the word was out that you had scored some grass and were bringing it along. The misguided kid who brought his own Ripple in a bota bag slung over this shoulder like a Basque shepherd may have thought he figured out the key to popularity but he lost out to his classmate who had a Ziploc bag of seeds and stems…and rolling papers. If I were able to wrestle a joint from some bogarting pal, and I inhaled, I found that my shyness and my insecurities evaporated in that sweet-smelling smoke. I could imagine myself as the life of the party. I doubt I actually was but everyone else was so stoned, who could tell…or care?

Just a few decades later, and through the miracle of science and especially grow lights, the essence of marijuana could now be titrated to the exact nature of the result you wished to procure. So that is why on my nightstand of today, I have little squares of paper with a whisper of THC that can target the sleep-deprived neurons longing for relief. On my nightstand of yesteryear were my pink princess phone, an AM/FM transistor radio and a half-eaten Pop Tart. It’s hard to keep up…

Here’s something else that has been suggested to me to alleviate sleep deprivation: napping. However, I have strong feelings about giving into sloth; napping, be it of the power variety or not, has no appeal to me. My association with naps is a complicated one.

My mother was a napper. She was told by her cardiologist that she had to nap. Compliance was the only option for her as it held the promise of life itself. But, as if to thumb her nose at the viability of such an innocuous prescription, she chose to nap on the living room couch and never in her bedroom. This inconvenient truth was barely tolerated by the other members in our household: me, my dad and our dog, Bonnie. Truth be told, my dad wasn’t around very much during mom’s naptime but Bonnie certainly was. I must have been in school most of the time, as naptime certainly coincided with those afternoon hours. The memories I have of her lying on the pumpkin-colored three-cushion, button-tufted sofa were probably those belonging to the waning hours of the day when I was just home from school. And, always on the weekends.

It was during her naptime where I learned varied and valuable lessons. This was education not possible in the classroom or on the playground but essential training and preparation for my emerging adolescence and eventual adulthood. I am not at all certain that my mother chose to recline in the center of our home as a kind of ruse—we thought she was sleeping but she was more than likely surreptitiously observing us (Bonnie and me). This would be my forever-way of imagining her looking down on me after she died…which she did not too long after this ridiculous form of health care failed her. Failed us. Her head always rested on the end of the sofa farthest from the front door so that she was able to face both the door and the entrance to the kitchen. Both were the portals that a teenager and her dog were likely to pass through at any given moment.

And, as she napped, at least in the spring of 1965, she listened to the radio that was always tuned to Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges as they announced the SF Giants game. Her radio was a Mother’s Day gift from us and found its permanent perch—despite its portability–on the mantel on the opposite side of the room from the squash-hued couch where my mom reclined. The radio was a trifold battery-run elegant and modern device; the radio bits were housed in the middle and the tweedy-upholstered speakers flanked the controls.

AM radio was the means by which the Giants stayed in our hearts and in our house. The cries of “Bye Bye Baby,” were the only times my mom would bolt from her supine-ness and applaud. Like a little girl receiving her favorite ice cream cone at the fair, she was ecstatic. The announcing would subside in volume and excitement, and she would again take to her reclining position just like a balloon losing all its air and floating back down. Lon and Russ were the nearly daily visitors she invited in and their presence kept her company and filled the room with life just as her own was seeping away.

My mother’s naptime was also the first time, but certainly not the last, I discovered the power and the glory of civil disobedience. It was in that very living room, alongside the orangey settee where I first went on strike in a picket line of my own making.

I had my limits and my dignity and both were being stretched beyond endurance. Unfair practices were being lobbed in my direction; demands too unpalatable to rectify in more familiar ways had reached their tipping point. Simply said, I refused to go to 7th-grade Cotillion. This rite that suburban aspirational mothers hoped would teach both their sons and their daughters how to ascend the rickety, unreliable rungs of social mobility was a sham and a degrading experience for those of us whose thick waists and badly cut hair ensured a sure-fired plummet off the ladder of popularity. Nobody ever asked me to dance. I wasn’t going to subject myself to this humiliation again. Did I mention we had to wear gloves? Enough was enough.

Taking a coat hanger and straightening it so that it could be used to stab and secure a piece of paper on which I printed in HUGE BLACK LETTERS: “I WON’T GO. I WON’T DANCE WITH A SCHMO.” That was on one side. The other side was more clunky, I think, in retrospect: “THERE IS NO WAY I WILL DO WHAT YOU SAY.

I know. Harsh.

I paced while Lon and Russ called the game. Back and forth, in my silent protest, I trod the carpet hoping that my mother’s weak but always sympathetic heart would take pity. She, of working class upbringing. She, a democrat. She, a northerner not from the country club set but from an army-base background. In my tortured and desperate mind, she would surely give in to my demands. Instead, she complimented me on my rectitude and told me that if she didn’t get some rest, the doctor (and my father) would be upset with her. And, therefore, with me too.

It wouldn’t be the first time that guilt proved to be an effective means of altering my behavior.

During one afternoon nap, I was traversing the well-worn route from my bedroom to the kitchen in search of a snack…could have been another Pop Tart for all I know…and my mother’s pillow and rumpled coverlet lay on the couch but there was no trace of her. The ballgame wasn’t playing on the radio, and Bonnie appeared too comfortable to be at all interested in the whereabouts of her usually dozing companion. Alarmed, I walked around the house calling out to my mom and hearing nothing in response. And, then I heard the twinkling of the garden gate’s bells that had been tied to the picket post to alert my napping mother when the mailman came down the path to deliver the mail. There in the inky blue outdoors of the late afternoon skies, my mother stood next to the bells—shaking them as she leaned against the gate. Alarmed, I ran to her watching her literally fade before my eyes. She said that she didn’t have the strength to walk back inside by herself. Nor, it seemed did she have the power to call for help. Could I help her, she whispered. We walked arm in arm, my mother and me, and I helped her assume her familiar position on the couch as I gathered up the coverlet and tucked it around her thin frame.

Even as a young girl, I knew that she knew something that was impossible to say with certainty. She tried, though, and I will be forever grateful for that. As I gathered the folds of the blanket around her she softly said, “It’s not time yet. You still need me.”

By the next summer, it was just Bonnie and me who would listen to the Giants when my dad reminded me that there was a game on. He had moved the radio to the sun porch, and the dog and I would bathe ourselves in shafts of warm light as Lon and Russ announced the game. Their voices seemed to cut through the fog at Candlestick Park as they broadcasted Jesus Alou catching a high fly–dropping out of the soup that was the grey, goopy sky there.

My dad was too preoccupied to even think about enrolling me in another round of Cotillion; my etiquette lessons from then on were to be ones I copied from my betters—or at least from the more popular girls. On the other hand, as the 1960s rolled on, my early training as a protester, did come in handy. I doubt I would have had the social life I did at Cal Berkeley without my flair for making provocative and rhyming anti-war signs. Who do you think came up with: “HELL NO. WE WON’T GO!

But, napping is something I cannot bring myself to do. Cat naps, power naps, caffeine naps, polyphasic sleeping, shut eye. Not for me. Not even shutting one eye. I try my best to remain vigilant hoping to hear the promise of those twinkly bells on the garden gate.

It’s exhausting to keep watch–I can tell you that.

Eyes wide shut,

P.S. This week in à la mode, learn all about Snappy Marty, my husband’s new photography blog that showcases his talent at capturing the big story, the small irony, the grand gesture, and the tiny detail.

Working It Out

Posted on September 1, 2017

Albert Einstein was once asked how he would spend his time if he were given a problem upon which his life depended and he had only one hour to solve it. He responded by saying he would spend 30 minutes analyzing the problem, 20 minutes planning the solution, and 10 minutes executing the solution.

I operate in a completely different way. This is one of a myriad of ways in which I am nothing like Albert Einstein. Except for my hair, which can resemble his, when I wake up.

In other words, I jump to conclusions and operate at about a 75%-success rate. This gives me the confidence to think that, in most circumstances, I have a better than 50/50 chance of figuring out stuff.

Unless I can’t. Like last month, for example.

Most mornings, I wake up early and head out for a hike by daybreak. I have to drive to the trailhead, and there is only one route to take. So, I drive the same few blocks, listening to the same world-weary NPR newscasters trying to voice a smile as they deliver the daily bombshells of what I consider to be real and mostly depressing news. During the summer, as it is now, my suburban streets are even more quiet than usual as my neighbors head out to their summer homes or other envious destinations. In any case, I’m awake enough to be behind the wheel, sufficiently caffeinated to be headache free, and greased up with enough sunscreen to leave traces of the stuff on my steering wheel.

Then, I see him. He’s an old man, and by that I mean even older than me. He has a lovely straight back and his head is topped with a thicket of grey curls. He is not wearing a hat, but a fashionable hoodie. He looks to be a denizen of the neighborhood, comfortable in his surroundings, owning the moment, heading on his way and staying on the sidewalk. Jaunty. A morning guy.

Although his countenance was intriguing, he caught my eye for another reason. He was, at this hour of 6:50 a.m., eating (and relishing) an ice cream cone. It was not the ice cream cone that comes wedged into a box of six. Nor was it the single cone that one might find languishing among the yellowed ice chips housed in the liquor store’s freezer—the kind of cone where the paper is stuck to the contents either from moisture or staleness, or both. The morning guy is eating a bona fide cone. You know the kind: An ice cream cone with a scoop of the creamy, cold stuff that has been shaped by an ice cream scooper. An ice cream scooper that presumably was held by a real, live person doing the actual scooping. But, where did he get an ice cream cone at this early morning hour? I have lived here for almost 40 years. I know of nowhere he could have purchased this. Furthermore, it seemed as though most of his treat had yet to be devoured. So, I further deduced that it couldn’t have come from a distance away.

By now, I’m way over my Einstein goal of a 30-minute analysis of the problem. I’ve been obsessing over this for weeks now.

I see the man again, with his exquisite ice cream cone, on the next two consecutive days. But, despite my daily hikes, I have never seen him since.

I wonder if Einstein knew how to spell conundrum without having to look it up.

I love doing crossword puzzles because they offer such a satisfying way to find solutions. Completing them (or not) is my way of appreciating how the world works, and that offers me some comfort. The life-lessons I’ve come to rely on include:

  • Don’t force it.
    Here’s an example: In today’s puzzle, the clue for 21 Across was a four-letter word for “One of the friends on “Friends.” I had it as Joey. It wasn’t until 3 hours later when I revisited my still incomplete puzzle that I realized it was Ross.
    As a result of my epiphany, I filled in 21 Across and every square that butted up against those 4 little squares then fell so gratifyingly into place. Smooth and satisfying. Not to mention that I found reassurance knowing that it only took me 3 hours to remember all the main characters on “Friends.”

    Whatever happened to Chandler, I wonder?

  • Come back often.
    Except for the Monday New York Times crossword puzzles, which I can do in one sitting (again about 75% of the time, which is equal to my above-mentioned jumping-to-the-right-conclusion success rate), if I just get up and move around and come back to the puzzle, I see things entirely differently. Also, I remember that I need to actually get something else done. The dishes, for example. A shower is important too.
  • Commit.
    Do the puzzle in ink. Take a stand; fake it until you make it. These adages give me confidence. I can feel both puffed-up and proud of my 75% accuracy. Also, pencils are for perfectionists. If you need the reassurance of an eraser, you need to get out more. It is also true that a writing implement deemed a “lucky” pen can help one’s crossword-puzzle-solving acumen. This theorem is 100% accurate, by the way.
  • Seek help.
    Don’t be afraid to ask your spouse or your neighbor or the guy sitting next to you in the coffee shop for assistance. Just the other day, for example, I asked my husband, Marty, for help with 15 Across, “Charles or Ray after whom a chair is named.” Marty offered Barcalounger. I’m not sure if he can’t count or if he was giving me a hint for his upcoming birthday. Charles Barcalounger? See Rule #1 above.
  • Find an App.
    When all else fails, the Internet won’t let you down. My favorite go-to is because you not only find the answers to the puzzles that you’re pulling your hair out trying to complete, you learn so much more from Rex, who is a genius. I know this because he says he is. Additionally, you discover by reading the comments of others that you are not alone in your ignorance. Be strong, though. You also learn that a ton of people are a lot smarter than you.
  • Enjoy being alone.
    It’s the only way, really, to get through a crossword puzzle. It might be nice to get cozy in your husband’s Barcalounger and find yourself that lucky pen, remembering to have your device handy to access your App. You can convince yourself that you really are adept at figuring out things. Who’s going to know (or care) otherwise? I doubt Einstein was a sharer.

And, when you do figure things out, make sure you gloat on line, and go get yourself an ice cream cone…at any time of day.

M (OM) A

Posted on August 11, 2017

When I travel to New York City, which is quite often for someone living in California, I pack the usual necessities along with a few luxuries and a lot of cute clothes for my young grandchildren who live there. Also, it’s critical to bring the most stylish but comfortable shoes I have in my closet. This last item being a nearly impossible feat, if you will excuse the pun. Comfort can be diametrically opposed to style especially where footwear is concerned. Boot season is, therefore, my favorite time of year to hit the streets of Manhattan. It’s hard to go wrong with galoshes.

Regardless of the weather, the most important item on my packing list is a New-York state of mind. From the minute the eastbound flight attendant asks me if I want more cawfee, I start to ratchet up my mindfulness quotient. I become more present, more aware, and more attuned to my surroundings. So, by the time I’m collecting my luggage from the baggage-claim carousel, I’ve managed to wedge myself in between two Hasidic men who are poking each other’s lapels and arguing in Yiddish. I’ve pushed away the SUV-sized stroller (baby being held by mom… what am I, an animal?) belonging to an oblivious family of four, and jockeyed my way to an enviable position at the rotating belt of bags. With both hands on my hips, my elbows define my wingspan like the raptor I’ve become.

I get to the airport’s taxi stand with my Google maps already pulled up because I know I have to implore the driver to take Atlantic Avenue instead of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway so that I can keep the meter under $60 as we drive to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He feigns any knowledge of English, but I’m on to him.

This is all to say, I’m geared up. My circuitry is sufficiently wired; my attitude is what I would call vigilant. Bring it on, New York.

On my most recent visit to New York, however, I was not staying in Brooklyn; I was not visiting my grandchildren. Instead, I went to rendezvous with an Australian friend of 40 years who was meeting me there. My friend and I had planned many activities that included events I usually cannot avail myself of due to time constraints or impossible subway commutes during rush hour. Even my pointy elbows are of no use when the trains are packed like staples housed in their brand new box.

At the Museum of Modern Art, on the first Wednesday of the month, the museum opens at 8:30 a.m. to members. Naturally, for us members the admission is free–the only catch is that in order to be the first one in the galleries at 9:30, there’s a pre-admission requirement to attend a class led by a knowledgeable, often renowned meditation teacher. I know! This was blowing my mind. Guided meditation in MoMA along with a few other intrepid souls early on a weekday morning? A small price to pay to be in a gallery filled with the artist Robert Rauschenberg’s enormous and startling paintings and sculptures. I’d have the place to myself, relative to any other time of day at MoMA. And by myself, I mean with only about 75 other people. In New York numbers, that’s empty.

For those of you who visit Manhattan, you know that unlike leaving your house and walking, say, 50 feet to your car, where you presumably take complete control of the auditory pleasures of your radio or your phone and where you can adjust the temperature to your own taste, when you leave your hotel or your apartment in New York you leave behind your autonomy too. There might be a crowded or at the very least a forever-in-arriving elevator to the lobby; perhaps a polite doorman or maybe no doorman but an annoying neighbor who doesn’t hold the door for you. There’s a cab to hail, a Lyft driver’s progress to keep tabs on, or a subway seat to vie for on a delayed, airless subway. If the latter, like it was for my friend and me on this particularly humid, summer’s day, there is also an 8-block walk just to get to the subway station. So humidity be damned, you’ve got to hustle.

There were another 8 or so blocks to get from our arrival station to the museum itself. And, so, naturally we hadn’t allowed enough time for all the commuting malfunctions that inevitably occur. Incidentally, if you DO allow enough time for shit to happen, it never does and then you arrive too early and have to find a place that makes a reasonable cappuccino in order to kill time. Personally, I find $10 for a coffee and pastry worth every cent if the air-conditioning is working and there’s a place to sit down inside the café.

Overheated, overwrought, and late, we scuttle through the museum’s revolving doors and I flash my membership card at the receptionist. The art museum is oddly quiet and anyway, we’ve entered through a portal that is not the usual one for its daily admissions. I find myself disoriented and trying desperately to retrieve both my confidence and my curiosity in order to not bail. After all, I’m sweating and it’s only 8:40 a.m. But, I remember that I’m headed to fuckin’ meditate. So, let’s do this.

Then, I hear it: Gongs and chants played through a loud speaker. And, like any good musical arrangement, the bass line was there too but in the form of deep murmurs from people situating themselves. My friend and I drift through security (yes, security) as we follow the mystical breadcrumbs to find our location. There in the atrium—the same atrium that hosts preposterous performance art or enormous sculpture exhibits, or even tables set for the occasional evening’s donor dinner—are about 450 little butt hammocks filled with rear ends of all sizes. These portable seats are reminiscent of those perches people bring to their child’s soccer game: small and clever roosts than allow the audience to refrain from sitting on the floor. Huge speakers are pendulously hanging from the ceiling, and I see these are the source of the auditory bombardment. There are a few big screens, too, that make the space feel like part sports event, part Beyoncé concert. A pragmatic usher points to a couple of empty chair slings and thus our butts, too, are planted in position along with the rest of the atrium’s humanity.

Suddenly, the music and chanting cuts out and in its place, I hear our speaker introduce himself. Now, I am grateful for those oversized screens because I can see our leader—a handsome, early-50ish-aged man in a dress shirt and navy blue puffy vest. The first thing he says is this: “I apologize for the chanting over the loud speakers. If they had asked me about it, I would have told them no way in hell do I want to hear that.” Or, something to that effect. In any case, I was in love with this guy. Dan Harris, my new crush, goes on to tell his story of what led him to meditation. At this point I refer you to his podcast: “10% Happier with Dan Harris.” I promise you’ll learn more. He then introduces his own meditation guide and teacher who proceeds to lead us in our Quiet Morning meditation.

And, this is where I start to hope that something more entertaining—like Beyoncé—will appear on those large screens and divert my attention. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve groomed myself for this trip to New York and now as I sit in this butt sling in the middle of a cavernous, iconic and familiar space smack dab in the middle of Manhattan Island…a place that took me 16 blocks and one jostling subway train to arrive at…a room filled with heavy-breathing strangers in an array of fashion statements from black business suits to blacker yoga pants, I am beyond distracted. I’m ferklempt.

And, I drift. With the help of my breath, as suggested by our meditation guide, I’m following my inhalations and my exhalations. I’m being told that I’ll notice my mind wandering and not to admonish myself. I’m encouraged to close my eyes and to simply be. I’m being asked to notice…and suddenly I do notice! I notice that it’s 1969 and I’m in the funky yet oddly welcoming, shingled two-story house somewhere near the UC Berkeley campus with a rose on my lap and a white handkerchief in my right hand. I’m seated on a large, poofy cushion that is situated on an Oriental rug of many faded colors. There are wispy puffs of incense streaming from two wooden sticks stuck in a brown-and-green hand-thrown ceramic mug that has been placed on the dusty windowsill to my right. In front of me is my personal guide, a bone-thin young man—older than me by maybe five years—shirtless, shoeless, and underpantless beneath his linen draw-string pants. And, in my left hand, all wadded up, is my $75. Cash.

The Transcendental Meditation House was where my best friend and I were introduced to the concept of meditation. Our first gurus probably were The Beatles who met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of TM, in 1967 and then in 1968 traveled to India for further enlightenment. My friend and I, however, were more limited in our abilities to seek spirituality especially considering we each had to borrow the $75 from our highly skeptical parents.

On the pillow, in front of the half-naked cute guy, we were given our own mantra. Our secret, personal password to nourish us and enable us to go deeper into our minds. You know: relax and float downstream, etc.

I was then instructed to place the rose I was now clutching near the incense. I did as I was instructed. The mug holding the incense sat adjacent to a framed photo of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Furthermore, I never ever breathed a word about my secret mantra. To do so seemed to violate all tenets of meditation etiquette. Besides, we promised. And, after all these years, I cannot tell you what the purpose of that handkerchief was. I am fairly confident, however, that the $75 went straight to the cute guy. And, I’m absolutely positive that I never paid back my father.

Opening my eyes again, I see with some relief that I’m still in New York and that my purse is still by my side. I watch the big screen and notice that some people are beginning to stir while others are snoring; I glance to my left and observe my friend as she sits in her mini-chair with Pilates-perfect posture. To my right, a woman is checking her texts. Her posture is lousy, and it makes me sit up straighter.

A gong is played. The guide encourages us to gently open our eyes and find ourselves in the present moment.

I’m so past the present moment, I’ve collected travel miles. Time travel will do that. I’m already anticipating how I’m going to get my friend and me out of this holding area and into the Rauschenberg exhibit in the most expeditious way. I am beginning to feel like I need a cup of coffee, and I’m wondering if the museum’s café is open yet. I’m also worried that I might need to figure out how to collapse the butt sling.

But before I leave the atrium, I text my old high-school, Berkeley-meditating friend to see if she can remember her secret, personal mantra given to her all those many years ago. Because, and probably due to the 20 or so minutes of quiet meditation I had just experienced, I suddenly remembered mine.

On the way out of the museum’s atrium, I hear my phone’s ping indicating she was responding to my text. As it turns out, we both had both been given the exact same mantra.

The present is a gift, but do you still need to write a thank-you note?

Face Off

Posted on April 21, 2017

I recently visited New York and was so busy there with my super-sized days, I didn’t have a chance to see the recently opened Broadway show, “War Paint.” The production tells the story of the rivalry between the cosmetic magnates, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. It’s on my ever-growing to-do list for the next visit.

Nevertheless, reading about the musical triggered memories of my own connection to the world of makeup or lack thereof. As I rode the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan one soggy morning last week, there to my left and across the pole-pierced corridor that separates the bench-style seats on the subway sat a young woman deftly applying her mascara.

Recalling my own makeup application that very morning, complete with magnifying mirror, Q-tips, glasses on to see/glasses off to swipe, and the resulting mediocre results, I was captivated by both the young woman’s steady hand and her lack of shame. Her proficiency with the mascara wand while seated in a lurching, swaying subway car (not to mention the jostling seat mates) resulted in not one single smudge on her flawless porcelain cheeks. Then, she applied her lipstick. To both lips. I emphasize this point because, sporting only one skimpy lower lip, I’ve long coveted a full-mouthed face. My upper lip always had a predisposition to thinness, but as I’ve aged the thing has faded into oblivion as much as it has into memory–like so many other formerly desirable and fully formed body parts: perky bosoms, for example. Or, slender thighs without roadmap-resembling spider veins. Did I mention that my fellow passenger applied her lipstick without a mirror? I was awestruck.

I grew up at a time when watching my mother dress, I counted the days, weeks, months, and years until I too could hook my stockings as she did—a nimble one-handed technique that latched her hose to her garters. She wore a white suit of boned armor under her shirtwaist dresses called a girdle that sucked her bits up and in, compressing her intestines to her spine. And, in her handbag she carried a jeweled compact that seemed like something Cinderella’s fairy godmother would have included in the swag bag along with the glass slippers. This dainty but indispensible item had a rhinestone sparkly top and a smooth, silver bottom. When opened, the peachy-colored pressed powder within lay beneath the teeniest and most delicate powder puff. The sound the dainty accessory made when my mother closed it (again, with one hand) had a satisfying click that indicated all systems go: bridge of nose powdered to remove the shine, teeth free of debris and lipstick. Then, she attended to her lips by first examining the remains of color before beginning her artful maneuvers. The gold-and-black tube, fished out from her often enormous–other times uselessly demure–handbag, was opened by pulling the top off with a satisfying thwump. Starting in the center of her taut upper lip, she drew the stick up and over to the left corner; then, she repeated this to the right corner. Application to the bottom lip was more of a back-and-forth swipe—a couple of times. Before closing the compact, there was a pressing together of her lips with a kind of rolling motion to ensure that the waxy product was in place. Further insurance was often necessary in the form of a nearby napkin, which was sacrificed for blotting. Teeth were once again bared like a lioness as my mother did her final mirror inspection. Her compact was then snapped shut and replaced in her purse. Lunch or dinner was now over. It was time to go.

Incidentally, this routine was repeated in our home when my mother heard my father’s car drive into the garage at the end of his workday. Instead of the purse compact, the hall mirror was used. The crooner and housewives’ heartthrob, Jack Jones, captured her nightly ritual perfectly when he sang, “Wives and Lovers.” While the lyrics might make you renew your long outdated subscription to “Ms. Magazine,” it was middle-class reality in the suburbs of the late 1950s. Perhaps, this explains the high rate of alcoholism among the women in my neighborhood.

My mother’s favorite lipstick was Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow. Who knew, upon research for this blog, that this too was the go-to choice for the author and eventual suicide victim, Sylvia Plath? No matter how intellectual, or despondent, or both, I guess, lipstick was her hope in a tube. She also reportedly had very full lips, but I digress…

About once a month, my parents and I went to visit my father’s eldest sibling in Oakland. My Aunt Rose was the first of 5 children to arrive from Russia—at the dawning of the 20th century—carrying her already overly used satchel (pogroms were among the first frequent-flyer motivators) and sporting a sign which dangled from her 7-year-old neck. This unbecoming necklace was bestowed on her at Ellis Island. It read: “Stockton, California” and was to be her long journey’s destination. Her various siblings soon followed as was the well-worn path of many an immigrant. There were no aliens then just alien experiences and unfathomable circumstances. Some weathered these travails through luck or connections or money; others, like my family, plodded through the filthy, teeming streets and made their lives into something enviable. Along the way, though, familial relations were strained and often severed. Religious traditions were at times observed with reverence but often discarded when the temptation of assimilation was too seductive. Money was shared when possible, but usually there wasn’t enough of it to divvy up.

Rose, however, married well and she and my Uncle Max raised two children in a part of Oakland where the backyards were large and lush. Each child had their own bedroom, and the home’s living room furniture was expensive enough to warrant keeping the crimson velvet drapes drawn so there was no exposure to sunlight. Ever.

Our drive to the Shermans’ lasted about 45 minutes and always took place in the evening. We arrived for cocktails and stayed through dinner, dessert, and a hand or two of bridge. For this reason, I never recall our departure because I had fallen asleep in my cousin Vera’s childhood bedroom upstairs. My father carried me out to the car when it was time to go home. It was late enough to have won a rubber of bridge; early enough to avoid helping his sister with the dishes.

My aunt’s home was filled with fringe-hemmed couches and chairs, plush and upholstered with buttons and scratchy top stitching. The main staircase had a shiny, solid wood banister the width of which was wide enough to accommodate my bottom on its dare-devilish slide down from the second-floor landing to the marble entry. In the home’s first-floor den was a green-felted surface atop a card table intricately inlaid with colorful stones in raised mosaics of clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds. Aunt Rose’s home was a treasure trove of tactile delights that provided endless moments of diversion for me.

For my aunt’s daughter Vera, her daughter-in-law Claire and my mother, their pre-dinner but post-cocktail diversion was equally gleeful. Or so it sounded and looked to me. Rose’s daughter, my first cousin, was a grownup whose age was closer to my mom’s than mine. This was also true of Claire. Rose, being so much older than my father, who himself was 13 years older than my mother, was more akin to a grandmother as I think about these events now. So, to my mother, she must have seemed more like a mother-in-law than a sister-in-law. I tell you this because what happened next, each and every time we visited, had little to do with Rose. Aunt Rose would greet us with wet, sticky kisses and in her thick, nearly incomprehensible Yiddish-infused English she might say, “Dahlinks!!! Vhy dun’t you come in, set dun your tinks on the sofa. Velvel (my dad’s name), did you get everysing from da makchine (car)?”

And I scooted off but not before watching my mother hang up her coat and then open up her handbag to reveal her newest shade of lipstick. This was my mom’s way of bonding with her two contemporaries with whom she had nearly nothing in common—not in style, nor heritage; not in religion, nor in interests. Her peace offering was her lipstick and in this arena, my mother was a goddess who came bearing information and, better yet, presents–from department stores Vera and Clair felt excluded from. Were these stores too expensive? Too pretentious? Probably just too hard to get to–of these 3 women, only my mother drove. She often gifted the ladies their own tubes of luxurious tubes of paint: thick, glossy sticks in shades of mandarin orange, deep magenta or subtle lavender. As time moved along, the early 1960s hosted palettes of frosted whites and opalescent pinks—the modern shades were snickered at but quickly applied.

Off to the tiny and aptly named powder room the ladies scampered to share the same tube of lipstick–or to gawk as they applied their own paint. In the tiny space, they giggled and communed. If I were within earshot, I would attempt to reconcile grownup women being as silly as I was with my own adolescent friends. I was observing what was possible within the world of women. I felt their anticipation and their joy and most of all their female camaraderie. Thusly madeup, for often the addition of powder or rouge was called for, they exited the cramped space leaving remnants of color on their lips. Sometimes, though, their lips were wiped clean before emerging for one of Rose’s bowls of borscht. The soup was nearly the same color as their shade of lipstick. Maybe Chanel’s, “Beet Red”?

It was at my aunt’s home where I first heard my mother rhapsodize about her newest discovery: Cherries in the Snow. Only she was able to pull off the color of that fire-engine red lipstick. Fashion sense and curiosity could get a woman to the cosmetic counter, but it was her unmitigated sparkle and panache that made the sale.

Visits to my aunt’s house decreased in frequency as my mother’s health took a turn for the ever worse. And, after she died, my father had less and less desire to see his family. A shame, really, because the diversion and the company would have been good for him…and for us.

It was nearly a year after my mother died, when we once again made the trip to the enchanted forest that was my aunt’s home. But, now I was older physically, and certainly spiritually I was raw and unraveling. The fussy living room furniture did not fascinate nor distract me. The fringed skirts dangling from the couches and chairs belonged to the fingers of children now—not to dour adolescents. I was, however, a dutiful companion to my father and as such I accompanied him to the Sherman house, however sullenly.

Upon our arrival at the Shermans’, both my cousin Vera and her sister-in-law flew at me as soon as we entered the foyer. While Rose jockeyed in position to plant her lips on my cheek, they scooped me up and removed me to the den making the excuse to Rose that they needed some girl-talk time. I was numb. Being with anyone in these recent months after my mother’s death was hardly diverting, but revisiting a familiar place, one that almost smelled like her, was nearly intolerable. I was walking on recognizable turf that was too quickly morphing into quicksand.

It was after one such visit, on the drive home, when I reached into my purse to retrieve my hairbrush. I pulled down the car’s visor so I could make sure I combed my bangs into a straight window shade of hair that duly covered my eyebrows mimicking the Twiggy look of 1966. As I placed my brush back into my purse, I felt the enormous void of space within…where my wallet should have been.

I cried out to my father to turn around at once. My Mary Quant trifold wallet, I said to him, must have fallen out at Rose’s house. He asked me if it belonged to Mary Quant why did I have it? Fathers! I told him that Mary Quant was the designer of the wallet; I was the owner. Remember? Mom bought it for me! How dense could he be? We returned to Rose’s house, to the foyer, and to the little tufted loveseat where all incoming purses were laid. The wallet wasn’t there.

Inside was my library card, my paltry sum of babysitting money, and some form of identification that predated a driver’s license. Within the folds of the wallet were two treasured photos of my mother: one of her in a luscious, shimmering-green brocaded hostess gown complete with lime-colored pants. The floor-length hostess coat had a thigh-high slit in the front to reveal the silky pants on her legs as she crossed them while sitting on our living room couch. The other photo was of me, as a little girl, tightly hugging her. I’m holding on to her as if we both knew she would be leaving too soon. It was meant to be a playful and not an ironic pose, I’m sure.

In the years that followed, I began to practice driving by chauffeuring my father and me to the Shermans’ house. Eventually, I had replaced the Mary Quant wallet with another and it was now the protector of a driver’s license, a few more dollars, and a photo of two of my boyfriends. My aunt’s house, however, seemed captured in the tangles of time. Nothing changed. The borscht had been simmering on her Wedgewood stove for years and years. The dining room was usually filled with the same supporting cast of relatives, but the conversation became more strained with 1970s political tirades by me, resulting in tongue-clicking disapproval by my uncles; my father was increasingly hard of hearing. My responses to him were often more shrill and certainly more forceful than, in retrospect, seemed necessary.

One evening, when the tension seemed to tug at my neck and stiffen my jaw, I excused myself rather abruptly and ascended the stairs without asking permission. I found Vera’s bed again and lay there in the dark listening to the now-muffled voices of the relatives in the dining room below. Years had passed since I had been in this room, and it seemed just as I remembered it. The dresser still stood by the door; but now it was no longer too high for me to see its surface. I reached out to grasp one of the perfume bottles that was placed on the dresser right next to a hairbrush with its captured hair from Vera’s scalp, I guess. There sat three framed photos: two of Vera with her husband and one of Vera with my mother and Claire. The three ladies, my mom in the middle, arms around each other sitting in Rose’s den—at the inlaid card table. As I reached to pick up the photo, I saw my Mary Quant wallet…the one I had lost so many years before…tucked behind it. Along side my wallet was a tube of Cherries in the Snow lipstick. Here before me was an altar to my mother. Someone else, besides me, had loved her. Some other female missed her regal style, her heady laugh, her kind and generous spirit. Someone else needed to hold on to her—to be reminded of her. I hadn’t thought of her as anyone other than my mom, and her absence was not just my loss.

I knocked over the tube of lipstick as I grabbed my wallet and opened it up to retrieve those two photos of my mother, which I carry in my own wallet to this day. Placing the wallet back where I had found it, I carefully positioned the lipstick tube next to it.

I looked again at the framed picture of the three women, holding each other while intently looking at the photographer. It was not a spontaneous shot. Instead it was carefully posed, and my mother is holding up her gold and black tube. The portrait is of three women wearing the same shade of lipstick. This photo too was meant to be playful and not ironic. Cherries in the Snow? I imagine so. Clearly, only she could pull off that color.

Do I have lipstick on my teeth?


Posted on February 24, 2017

I had a funny feeling. Friday, February 22, 1966 didn’t start out right.

For one thing, this wasn’t the plan. My mom and I had strategized the after-school itinerary before I left for school in the morning. I had a lot on my mind: my eyeliner, for example, hadn’t gone on smoothly. The hem on my mod, mini pleated black-and-grey wool skirt was falling out, and to make matters worse, I was not all that prepared for my oral book report on “Kon Tiki.” So, the plan we had formulated over my morning pop tarts was not, at this moment, so relevant to me. On the other hand, and from my perspective as a high-school freshman, our plan was all that my mother had to think about.

When it was time for her to pick me up from school, the plan was that I would call my mom from the pay phone located on the bare, cement wall outside the gym. She would know that I was ready for a ride home and that would shave minutes off my pre-Friday-night dance preparations. Otherwise, taking the lumbering school bus home, with its too-frequent stops for the disgorgement of students, would be a mind-numbing waste of my time.

I kept my end of the bargain. I called home but no one answered the phone. I pictured it otherwise. My mother would hear the phone ring and choose the closest extension to her. If she were in the kitchen, the obvious choice would be the avocado-colored kitchen wall phone with the stretched out curly-cued cord now dangling close to the floor. But, if she were napping on the couch, she would run to answer the black rotary phone with the fabric-covered cord that sat atop the desk in my father’s den. This was the room that my mother had fashioned in a décor resembling a stage set for “How The West Was Won.” The desk on which the phone rested had faux gouges chiseled into its surface and an uneven perimeter…you know, like a real cowboy might have in his ranch house. My dad never went in there. Our family unit of 3–mom, dad, and me–gathered in the living room. That’s where the TV was.

Instead, it was I who used that phone once I arrived home to find an empty house. I must have jumped the gun when I hung up the pay phone’s receiver with a satisfactory click and decided with 13-year-old’s logic that if my mother didn’t answer the phone she was just not paying attention. It never occurred to me that she probably was on her way to school because the lag time between the end of my school day and her not hearing from me indicated to her that she better just come to the high school. I contrarily decided that no answer equaled no problem; I took a ride with a neighbor’s mom.

It was my mother who used the pay phone from school once she arrived to find her daughter wasn’t there. She called home and I answered.

“Did you see me?” I asked my mother over the phone. “Because I saw you!” I chirped into the receiver. I had seen her in her white Corvair with red interior that, as we sped by in my neighbor’s brown Buick station wagon, made me immensely proud of my mom. She commanded the steering wheel of her sports car behind two-toned, sleek sunglasses. Her striated grey hair twisted into a chic and modern chignon. Even sealed up in that car and whizzing by me, she didn’t look like anyone else’s mom. But, she hadn’t seen me.

“No, honey, I didn’t,” she replied. “But how did you do on the test?” she asked.

“I got a B+!” This was a significant outcome to us both as she too had an investment in the result. She had repeatedly quizzed me from my stack of 3×5 lined index cards long past my bedtime. My mom told me I would do well on the quiz. If she had confidence in me, I would be o.k. She had trust in me and had helped me believe in myself. We were a team.

It was strange to roam around an empty house. In my very early elementary-school years, my mother and father both worked and did so far from our suburban home. There were highways and even a tunnel involved in their long commute. It was best for them, I guess, to have me attend school closer to their offices. But, once my mother was defined by the limitations of her nebulously described “heart disease,” her life…our lives…were recalibrated. For a year, she was told by her doctor to remain in bed. She wasn’t allowed to drive, to travel to places in high altitude, to fly, to iron, to walk up hills unless she did so backwards. Obviously, she refrained from hill climbing entirely. And, most startling was that she, now, was always at home. This I loved. It was novel, reassuring, and felt like the normalcy I had both imagined and craved. My mother grew restless, however, without a purpose—once I left for school. She required naps, and her body craved them. She also found that a cocktail at the stroke of 5:00 p.m. was something cheery to look forward to each day.

The enormous glass clock that hung over the mantle in our living room chimed 4:00 p.m. This was the clock that marked familial events. The big, gaudy timepiece noisily reminded us when it was dinnertime or when Ed Sullivan was on. We never missed an SF Giants baseball game that aired on the radio. I was never late for school; my father left for work at exactly the same time each morning. My mother knew when it was time to take her next pill.

So, I saw, by glancing at the time that now was the hour to indulge myself without repercussions. It was time to watch “Dark Shadows!” It absolutely was the very best afternoon daytime soap ever with its grown-up, twisted plots and sultry characters all of whom hung out in a creepy, Gothic mansion situated on some undisclosed rocky coastline. Usually, my mother and I watched this show together and would laugh at the stilted dialogue and outrageous, but so enviable, costumes. Once my mom got home, she would be so relieved that I could fill her in on the closing episode for the week—always a cliffhanger. Even that detail never escaped our amusement. A cliffhanger from the people who live on the cliffs! She would get such a kick out of that.

I was immediately sucked into the world of my TV show curled up, catlike, at the end of our crimson-colored sofa where the fading sun’s filtered light warmed up the corner. It became my spot and was to the side of where my mother always sat in her brown-and-gold tweed-upholstered club chair with the matching ottoman. The side table to its left had an empty coaster placed there that in an hour would serve as mini throw rug to my mother’s highball glass.

Then, I heard the sirens. They were faint and in the distance but nonetheless I was aware of them. At first, I thought they were coming from the television show, but within seconds I knew they were approaching from the direction of the main road a few blocks away from my house.

I looked up at that living room clock with its ornate glass panels streaked with gold as if its beveled edges and sheer size weren’t decorative enough. It was 4:20 p.m. It was way passed the time it took to get from my high school back home. Where was mom?

I listened again to the oncoming sirens and could sense their direction as they headed from our town’s fire station to the direction of my high school. It took me only another minute to rush to the Ponderosa den’s black desk phone. I called my neighbor and mother’s best friend, Jeanne.

“Jeanne!” I blurted out. “Can you hear those sirens? They are headed toward my mom. She should be here by now. She’s not here. Where is she? We need to go find her!” My hysterics were not getting through to Jeanne. She never interrupted me.

Instead she replied calmly, “Honey, please. Your mom probably stopped by the market or went to get gas. She’ll be right home. I’m in the middle of getting ready for company, but you call me if she isn’t home in 20 minutes.” She hung up the phone.

Twenty minutes? This outrageous reply was making me desperate. I was terrified. I called her back.

I pleaded through my tears, “Jeanne, you have to take me to my mother. You have to! I’ll be right over.” And, I hung up.

I ran out the door but quickly ran back to the house because I had forgotten to turn off the TV, and I needed to grab the bottle of pills that always stood sentry next to her living room chair. I flew through the garden gate, hearing the jangle of the bells which my mother had hung off the gate to better hear people entering the front yard. Across the street and up the steep driveway I ran. Jeanne was already in her car and the motor was running.

“Get in. You know, honey, this is not like what it seems. You’re mother is fine,” her calm voice did nothing to appease me because I was certain, as irrefutably convinced as I had ever been, that my mother was dead. And, so I did not reply to Jeanne. We drove on in silence.

As we turned the corner on the school’s street, the same corner that was the school bus’s first stop after leaving the parking lot, there was her white Corvair—seemingly abandoned. The scene didn’t make sense to me. The familiar car, of course, was a clue. But where was my mom? There too was an assemblage of emergency vehicles. The driver’s door of my mother’s car was open to reveal it’s plush, red interior — the exact same red as the fire engine that blocked the street from traffic. We couldn’t pass through. I heard Jeanne say softly, “Oh my God,” as I threw open her car door and ran toward my mother’s car.

I couldn’t find my mother. I was running faster and I thought that as I approached I would surely see her. We would laugh about this; she would spot me and immediately she would ask if I brought her nitroglycerin pills to relieve her angina, which of course I had thought to bring with me. Instead, the fireman stopped me and said that my mother was inside the ambulance and I could help by telling him what sort of health problem my mother had. He stopped me when I began to list her 11 medicines. Too much information, I guess. I begged him to let me see her. In the kindest way possible, the fireman put his big, comforting hands on my shoulders and looked directly into my eyes. Gee, he was handsome…and so tall!

“The ambulance has to leave immediately to take care of your mother. You won’t be able to see her now. I’m very sorry.”

“Here,” I said to the attentive fireman. “Take her pills. She will need them.”

It wasn’t until we had followed the ambulance about 100 feet that I said to Jeanne, “They didn’t turn the siren on, Jeanne. My mother is dead. I know that. I’ve always known that.”

Jeanne drove me back to her house and in the interim between being with Jeanne and reuniting with my father, I ran through the plot of Friday’s “Dark Shadows” program so I wouldn’t forget to tell my mother everything that happened. She couldn’t really be dead. I alternated between two possible outcomes…the one where my mother lives and the other, the one I feared to be true, where she doesn’t.

Eventually, my father came to Jeanne’s door but he didn’t step inside. I saw his glistening eyes and his loosened necktie. His hair wasn’t combed and looked almost silly as if he had been in a wind tunnel. I knew which outcome had prevailed. He softly made a proclamation of sorts, “Nomi, your mother has died.” I pushed myself into his chest so I could inhale his comforting scent and be absorbed by his commiserating embrace. The man was numb and reflexively folded his arms around me as if he didn’t know where else to place his limp limbs. We were holding each other upright.

As we walked down Jeanne’s steep driveway, we grabbed onto each other like two old ladies needing each other for support. On the street, he reached for my hand. I turned to my father and asked, “Daddy, do you think I should go to the high school dance tonight? Should I call my friends?”

“Probably not this dance–not tonight,” he said. “Your friends will understand,” he added. “You and I need to be together.”

But we weren’t. We each found a crumb or two of comfort in our solitude; he sat in the living room and watched T.V.; I went to my bedroom. As I scrunched myself between my bed sheets without undressing, I wondered if the fireman remembered to give those pills to my mother. If I could have handed them to her myself, I thought, things might have turned out differently.

May I put you on hold?


Posted on January 13, 2017

This might surprise you: I have a Master’s Degree in communicative disorders. That translated on a paystub to speech-and-language therapist, and the disorders I expertly remedied were maladies like lisps in the young, stuttering among the adolescent, and aphasia with stroke patients. Now, however, in my retirement from that field, I’m ironically colliding with more and more communicative roadblocks—which I find disorienting. I have become my own disordered client. I miss my days of fluency; I long for the time when I could retrieve a word the nanosecond I needed to use it. I am trying hard not to blame my chronological age. I prefer to blame the age in which I live.

As for communicative elegance, I miss the old tried-and-true forms of letter writing. If it weren’t for me, stationery stores in my area would have gone out of business long ago. Give me, please, envelopes with my return address embossed on the flap. Let me cull the racks of greeting cards for the perfect get-well note. I have a stock of sympathy cards ready to go. As soon as someone drops dead, I’m at the ready with a beautiful card to convey my sadness over the loved one’s departure.

But, where can I find those aerograms (aerogrammes?) of long ago with their sky-blue expanse tempting the writer to think, “I have a yawning blank slate on which to write to my father from Europe”? I must ask him to please send money to get me through the remaining weeks here as I find my European adventure inhales my 1974-Europe-on-$5/day-allotment. And, I’ll write legibly if microscopically–filling the aerogram’s expanse with my loopy handwriting. I’ll consume every inch all the way to the gummy margins and the news will be all about the sights and sounds and smells of Europe. My dad will think, “She has so much news and yet sadly is limited by the dimensions of this sheet of paper. She is so thoughtful to write to me. She probably needs some extra cash.” I’ll leave off the parts about riding on the back of motor scooters through the alleyways of Paris, followed by a night of passion (or just sex). Probably wise not to mention the run-in with the Italian police the night a group of us drank too much vino and one (extremely handsome) Italian young man threw a chair into the café’s plate-glass window. This news will just take up precious real estate on the aerogram.

I sent the letters home from the American Express offices adjacent to the squares, piazzas, and avenues across Europe. And, those offices are where I’d go, two weeks (!) later, to collect my funds. Except for this one time. I had mailed the letter from Rome and had expectantly appeared at the Paris Amex front desk 10 days later after depositing my increasingly shabby backpack in the anteroom of the drab office. No letter was forthcoming. No letter meant no money. And, in Paris, having fewer-than-expected resources was a complete bummer. In fact, after spending weeks abroad and burning my way through hundreds of parental dollars, I had to cut my trip short. This confirmed my notion, of which I had convinced myself: My father wanted me home. He was not playing fair, which wasn’t like him. And, a few hours after arriving home and dumping my now thoroughly disgusting backpack next to our washing machine, I confronted my dad in a voice so whiny and accusatory that I could see his eyes beginning to tear. As he waxed poetic about how much he missed me, how relieved he was that I returned home safely, and how thrilled he was that I enjoyed myself, I barked a response that actually caused him to cry. Some choice phrases included, “How could he?” “Didn’t I deserve to be happy?” “I was counting on him!” Clauses that now make me nauseous even as I write them. It turns out my father never received my letter from Rome. I know this because that letter arrived a couple of weeks after I had returned home.

What I don’t miss, however, are telegrams. I have personally received only a couple in my life, and neither of them were good news. My parents, too, seemed to attract bad news like metal filings to a magnet. Distressing news arrived on these bland-colored small sheets of paper looking like anonymously sent ransom notes. Stop. The ones I recall coughed up news of a fatal car accident (a cousin); stop. Cancelled travel plans; stop. Reunion cancelled; stop. And, one epic news flash of a nephew’s murder. Stop. Ok, I’ll stop with the stop. No one probably remembers what I’m referring to anyway.

But, speaking of telegrams, who doesn’t miss Western Onion? That being a send-up of Western Union’s telegram-delivery service. Disappointingly, I have received only one. Actually, it was for my husband. A strapping young man came to our door during Marty’s 40th-birthday celebration. The messenger sported an askew cap and an epaulet-adorned jacket and held a telegram in his hands like it was the Torah. Placing a red-and-white sash that read, “Kiss Me. It’s My Birthday,” around Marty’s neck, the telegram bearer proceeded to tear open his jacket and fling aside his hat in a Mary Tyler Moore-meets-Minneapolis manner to reveal his astonishingly fit torso and teeny tiny underpants. He sang “Happy Birthday” to the birthday boy. I mean, who wouldn’t miss that?

Here’s something else I miss: Christmas letters. Not the short nonsense found on social media. I’m talking about the luscious, bloated testimonies of success, joy, health, and happiness. The ones I’m referring to came typed, single-spaced and the writer used up both sides of the flimsy paper before lovingly folding and inserting it into a glittery holiday card with an artistic representation of a fireplace adorned with Christmas stockings which were, as they should be, trimmed with velvety swatches of fabric. Digital shots weren’t part of the Yuletide repertoire back then—at least not that I can remember. You had to trust the sender’s writing skills to evoke how good looking the new wife was or how adorable those grandchildren were. If they mentioned a vacation to Tasmania, it was up to you to go look up what that locale had going for it. Isn’t that why you held on to the World Book Encyclopedia?

Communication was simpler and less disorderly back then.

But when email started to replace the mailed-with-the-Christmas-card annual friends’ updates, I was optimistic about the possibilities. First of all, the internet allowed us to throw out the World Books. Another plus? Reading email missives now took little time; I could use my mouse to hastily scroll to the salutation. Or, a particularly obnoxious letter, once cut and pasted, made quick fodder for a sarcastic email to our mutual friend with the insertion of OMG before sending it off. Time to get creative with cutting and pasting.

This, in fact, is what I thought I was doing when, upon finishing a lengthy year-end monograph from a friend we met on an cruise several years prior, I forwarded the email to my husband with the following insertion at the top of the email:
“More than I need to know.”

About an hour later came a reply—not from my husband but from the original email writer:
“I am so sorry that our Christmas letter offended you. I will take you off our annual list.”

Here’s where my communicative skill set actually paid off, I thought. No more soporific musings from this guy; I was on his shit list and I was better for it. But, I felt so guilty because I had never intended to let him know how I actually felt—I was trying to live an honest, authentic life and not be a hurtful wise-ass. I was simply sharing my frustration with my husband so that we could roll our eyes simultaneously as one does in a loving marriage.

Instead of letting this go, though, I communicated with the writer once again—this time intentionally:
“Otis, I am sorry that I hurt your feelings. It was never my intention to do so. Instead I thought I was forwarding the message to Marty and mistakenly I hit “reply.” I imagine that something like this may have happened to you at least once.”

Otis replied with the most amazing response—although it took him two weeks to do so:
“Actually, Naomi, your email made me think about the fact that this letter contained information that was indeed more than you needed to know given the brevity of our friendship. From now on, I will send out two versions of these letters so that our friends like you are spared the lengthy details.”

I never received another year-end, wrap-up email but there he is on Facebook. So I can read snippets (or not) if I so choose. I love happy endings.

But before there was a simple error in button pushing where emails were concerned, and prior to the post office’s tardiness at delivering an aerogram from Europe to its intended destination in the States, and way before I was picking out personalized stationery to have on hand for thank-you notes, there was my mother communicating with her young adult son through the mail. Monthly. Like clockwork.

My mother would wait for her son, Michael’s, letters like an underfed wild animal. If it were around the time a letter might arrive, my mother would pace, check her watch, open and shut the living room curtains to see if the mailbox showed evidence of delivery. I was just a small child watching my mom and her frantic obsessive behavior wondering if one day I too would hold such power over her. I must have known, even then, that I would not. After all, she lived with me; our bedrooms were adjacent to one another; I rode in her car and sat at her kitchen table; she dried my hair after a bath and kissed me goodbye when I left for school. This intimacy played out in a parallel universe to the one that she shared with her son, Michael, who was 12 years old when I was born. He was never allowed—or at least invited–to live with us. In fact, in 1941, when Michael was 2 and my mother and Michael’s father divorced, my young brother went to live with his aunt and never again lived with his mother. Our mother. I can’t tell you what a loss that was to have missed out on being in the same house, on a daily basis, with such an extraordinary, iconoclastic woman. And the loss to my mother of not living with her boy—never packing his lunchbox; not going to his school performances; did she ever meet even one of his teachers or friends? The enormity of such grief undoubtedly initiated her battle, for the rest of her life, with her heart’s health.

Michael did not live a long life. He died at the age of 25 under what in those days were termed mysterious circumstances. To me, however, at age 12 when he died, there was nothing mysterious about any of what I was witnessing at home: a mother whose sorrow was swiftly killing her and rupturing the lifeline she and I shared together. The day Michael died, she took to her bed, and each night thereafter I would bring her both her 5pm bourbon-on-the-rocks and the daily mail.

About a month after Michael died, a letter came addressed to my mother in Michael’s boyish, scratchy penmanship. I delivered both the letter and the cocktail to her and stood sentry outside her bedroom door because even I knew that this weird turn of events was unexplainable and unprecedented. But, I never heard a peep from inside my mother’s bedroom other than the clinking of ice cubes as they rattled against the glass and the stationery rustling in her hands. I heard her clear her throat and blow her nose. When I went to check on her, I saw the bourbon had been drained from her cocktail glass. But, the letter was nowhere to be seen. She coolly asked me if I were hungry and if I might help her with dinner preparation. I tell you now that even I could have used a shot of bourbon. Instead, I poured her another round, and she didn’t refuse it.

My mom died two months later. Probably it was a broken, make that shattered, heart. Her doctors said it was not mysterious; it was a heart attack. That was when I started pouring evening cocktails for my dad, who was just as needy of a stiff drink as my mother had been.

Then one day I discovered the letter that Michael had written. Placed by my mom, perhaps haltingly and with tenderness, between her nightgowns, the letter seemed to levitate—begging for attention. This was the letter that she had received after he had died. The envelope had been addressed to my mother, but the letter itself unbelievably began with:

“Dear Carol”

Michael went on to say how much he missed her, loved her, and would see her soon. He was thrilled that soon they would have a child together and he would find a home for them that was comfortable and cozy – just as any young couple would dream of as they started their life together. He signed it:

“With love from your husband, Mike”

Michael must have sent his letter to Carol in an envelope addressed to my mom; perhaps he sent a son-to-mother letter in the envelope intended for Carol. There is no way for me to know. I do know, however, that my mother was informed of her son’s marriage and his impending fatherhood through a letter never intended for her. And, she died never understanding why communication had been so cruelly distorted and certainly disordered.

Reply All,

P.S. There’s more to read this week in à la mode!

In Left Field

Posted on October 28, 2016

It was a great day for women, I suppose. The news came in 1972 that institutions of higher learning were now legally bound to provide equal athletic opportunities for women as they had been doing for male students since Ben Hur drove his chariot around the track at his homecoming game back in the 1st century. Before the federal law was passed, athletically enthusiastic girls had two sports to choose from: cheerleading and, in my high school, hula dancing. As the new law took effect, brand new women’s locker rooms, many of them with running water, were built in schools across the U.S.; female coaching staffs were hired and given shiny new whistles to wear around their thick necks; and scholarships, long the only way many male students could secure a higher education especially at top-tiered schools, were also doled out to deserving female high school students who showed promise on the athletic fields.


If I were athletically inclined, this could have been a very good thing for me. Although, quite frankly, I attended Cal back when the tuition was free and an A- high school student, like me, could be accepted even without being elected class president of her high school or discovering the cure for cancer. Imagine, if you can: The term “community service,” hadn’t yet found its way into our lexicon. But, had I been “sporty,” as we used to call the girls in my high school with unshaved legs, cropped hair, and a propensity for all sorts of sports particularly on the offensive side of their teams, I might have been nudged to apply to a prestigious college out of state. The girls who did shave their legs and their armpits, who had tossed around their lustrously long and straight tresses, and who could throw a ball or run a decent race found their place atop the high school pecking order. For athletic prowess, exhibited in the right dosage and in the appropriate manner and executed with long and denuded legs could yield fantastic results: Popularity! A position on the cheerleading squad, maybe. Certainly a shot to be on the arm of the blue-eyed quarterback at the next dance, which was the brass ring most of us coveted. Talk about the 1%.


Although a nearly straight-A student, I was on the high school roster B list of coolness. It was a manageable perch, being there, because I rarely worried about slipping to the netherworld below me; and I could aspire, no matter how unlikely, to higher ground. It was the stuff of my dreams, in fact. Like marrying George Harrison, it seemed anything might be possible if luck shined its high-bright beams on me. To my way of thinking, I could make friends with the A-listers, catch a fleeting glimpse of what one might experience atop the peaks and never have to don an oxygen mask because I wasn’t staying but a minute in that heady, high-altitudinal atmosphere. Like Groucho said: Hello, I must be going.


And, I knew the code. If you stayed in the background, you had plenty of scenic points from which to surveil eternally desired popular behavior. I shaved my legs and had much-admired long, red hair. I could make people laugh on occasion and help them with homework when humor wasn’t called for. In other words, I made myself useful but certainly was not indispensible. To feel as though I were necessary would be to set myself up for disappointment. Physically, I was as coordinated as the next girl. In the 1960s, who knew from concepts like stamina, conditioning, being in shape, or finding your core? You just did it—like the soon-to-come Nike slogan espoused. What I lacked was self-confidence, and what I feared most was participating in any sport activities when boys were around. In fact, the one-two punch of doom was comprised of boys AND team play. Either was scary to contemplate let alone to experience. But both? A paralyzing nightmare.

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On my street about ½ mile down the way and tucked back from the road there stood a wooden three-sided structure that looked like something my nearby girlfriend’s handy father could have slapped together. Inside the shed was a bench about 2 feet off the ground, so that no one ever sat on it. Maybe two small kindergarteners could sit there, side by side, but only if they put their lunchboxes on the dirt floor beneath them.The bench would have been fully occupied just with those two tiny bottoms. It was a handy shelter for those occasionally blustery winter or hot autumn mornings where little children could cluster together to wait for the school bus.


This wooden bus stop served the sole purpose in my childhood of being a place marker. “Meet you at the bus stop,” my little girlfriends and I would say to each other with as much delight and eager anticipation as we might say a few years hence when we would rendezvous at the mall. My parents would demand that I was not to bike or walk farther than “to the bus stop,” as if the beyond its boundaries lay land mines. And, I never did go beyond it. But that was solely because to do so meant you had to bike up a steep hill on the return.


Biking to the bus stop started, I’m not sure when, to become a competition. And, once the neighbor boys got wind of this, my problems really began. I was painfully aware that even though my bike was worthy of the task, just the thought of interacting with boys made me grab the handlebars too tightly. My balance was therefore in jeopardy. When I fell in front of Brady Hendricks one day as a group of us sped to the bus stop, and he broke out in laughter, I never again got on that bicycle. Instead, I feigned a painful injury and limped home. The bike remained in our garage until my dad finally gave it away. The fear of ridicule brought me to my knees and kept me off my two-wheeler for decades.

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There was no physical education that I recall at my small private school, which I attended from kindergarten through third grade. Instead, at recess, we played jacks, marbles or hopscotch in the playground. Blissfully, I floated through those early grades and the requisite outdoor play as if my hardest task were to find a place to rest in the shade.


But when my parents transferred me to our local public school in the fourth grade with its burdensome emphasis on the benefits of intramural sports and prescribed team play and the concomitant co-educational existence, my world order was kicked to the side like an out-of-bounds soccer ball.


Picking teams was a particular nightmare. In today’s pseudo-inclusive culture, this is anathema. But my young world was headed by those who got to pick the team and those who were picked. Or not picked. Somehow two special children were knighted as captains and they stood sentry in front of their classmates…eager soldiers ready to serve… forming a long line that faced the small-fry generals who held others’ destinies in their sweaty little hands. The sport rarely mattered; what was the defining qualification for being picked was popularity—or maybe allegiance. And, it was that last requisite that was my only saving grace. For years and years, grade after grade, my best friend and I were always the last two remaining to be chosen. Until one day when Clementine was chosen to select her team members. Clemmy was one of those aforementioned “sporty” types—unshaven legs, chopped off hair, who walked through life like a truck driver. But Clemmy was a team captain who wanted a winning team and also wanted to have fun. If you wanted the latter, especially, you picked my best friend and me to be on your team. We might not add much to the final score, but we sure as hell made you laugh. We were the merry pranksters in this monotonous but gruesome physical ordeal. If we laughed at ourselves first, what else was there to make fun of? A useful and life-affirming tactic always.


It was at my 20th-year high school reunion when I finally was able to thank Clemmy for helping me survive that team-picking trauma. And, when we found each other at the bar that evening so many years after the asphalt jungle of high school P.E. classes, she introduced me to her wife as I did my husband to her. Clemmy was now Carl and sported a full beard. Obviously, she still hated to shave.


When I arrived at Cal, mercifully there was not a PE requirement to meet. It was all we students could muster to get to classes each semester. We had war to protest, after all. But, somehow I managed to find a sport, more like a recreational activity, that defied my past and those accompanying traumatic experiences with team play combined with boys. I know you’ve guessed it already…


Balkan Folk Dancing. It had it all: movement, music, and the smell of marijuana. I had found my way in to a socially manageable and physically rewarding experience. If I got to class early enough, I could even manage to be partners with the cutest boy in the room, Steven. The call-and-response from the teacher combined with the most curiously exotic music created an enticingly foreign atmosphere for all. None of us knew what we were doing and so there was no benchmark by which to be measured. We all needed each other to create the movement, and together our intricate weaving patterns and clunky stomping steps fashioned a bizarre and hypnotic realm. It was as easy to be in that class as it was to play hopscotch on the playground at my small, sheltered primary school.


Steven, the cute guy in Balkan Dancing, even came with a motorcycle. He actually walked to class but when he picked me up for our first date, he pulled up on a Harley. I tossed my long red hair to one side and gracefully picked up my left leg to straddle the vehicle’s enormous leather seat. My flowered bell bottoms were so tight I was relieved that mounting the bike didn’t result in splitting my pants. He revved the engine, asked me over his right shoulder if I were cool. I said I was and with that we took off. Actually, he took off and I fell off the back. But, unlike Brady Hendricks at my local bus stop back in fourth grade, Steven, aghast at the sight of me on the pavement, rushed to my side to help me back on the bike. Astride that motorcycle, and this time, with enough sense to hold onto my handsome date, we took off—his hair and mine tangling up together in the wind. I quickly made a joke to diffuse the situation and to foster a future date possibility. Steven, I could tell, admired my wit (and my hair) and was relieved that I didn’t pout or cry or sue his careless ass.


And, I could tell that something shifted for me. I fell and I recovered. Nobody laughed but me; nobody could tell I hurt because I just climbed back on and flew down the road on a scary machine driven by a really cute guy who picked me, for a few more dates anyway, to be on his team.


Backfield in motion,

Boxed In

Posted on September 16, 2016

“Those damn Shapiro girls,” my father said as he drove my mother and me to one of his sibling’s Oakland homes on a Sunday afternoon. “Why don’t those pushy women let my brothers drive through the tunnel to come see us for a goddamn change?” he asked no one in particular. Sitting side by side by side on the front bench seat of my dad’s brand new 1960 powder-blue Cadillac, with the champagne-colored leather interior, my mother indicated to me with an elbow to my ribs to turn up the volume on the car’s radio.


I could see why these old people I called my aunts and uncles would fear any excursion through an ominous bore drilled into a mountainside just to get to unfamiliar and often roughly paved roads. Never mind that their baby brother, despite being in his mid-50s when I was a young girl, abandoned the urban known for the wild west of fenced-in backyards that staked off one yawning suburban patio from the one next door. He was the one who blazed new trails; not them. Let him make the drive. Plus, there were hardly any Jews on my father’s chosen side of the tunnel, and what the east side of the mountain lacked in Jews it made up for with bothersome insects and heat. As a result, two of my uncles and their wives, rarely came to visit us; so we periodically shot through the Caldecott Tunnel rolling up our windows once we were through to guard against the unpredictably cooler climate and the equally sketchy city denizens. To my father, these inner-city dwellers were much more worrisome than the bugs in our backyard.


The Shapiro girls were my two big-boned aunts who were somehow related to each other. Somebody’s cousin married someone else’s relative back in the old country and nobody ever thought twice about it. Presumably, they felt lucky to have escaped with their lives—even if their genes were co-mingled somehow. The Russian Jewish population was rapidly being murdered; who could afford to be choosy about marriage proposals?


My third and eldest Oakland aunt on the same side of my father’s family was a runt of a woman especially when standing shoulder-to-boob with her sisters-in-law. The two Shapiro women each lived in their small houses crammed with overstuffed chairs and sofas, most of which were upholstered with heavy and darkened-by-wear brocade. As if further embellishment were necessary, silky fringe dangled like neatly trimmed bangs from the seats of the furniture to the floor. I warded off incessant boredom during these afternoon visits lying prone on top of a deep-piled musty-smelling carpet and passing my fingers through the gaudy trimmings like a kitten with her play thing. From this vantage point, I could see my aunts’ thick ankles and the hemlines of their mid-calf housedresses. I could hear the ice tinkling in their high-ball glasses. Depending on the time of day and the corresponding meal being served, their dresses might be hidden behind elaborate and flouncy aprons—the pockets of which always held their handkerchiefs.


Deposited, as I often was, for a night or two at one or another of the aunts’, we had projects that were in stark contrast to those of my mother’s sparse domestic activities: sewing doll clothes, for example, or making borscht. These were day-long escapades into an exotic domain (Aunt Teresa) filled with pungent and unfamiliar odors and elaborate china plates and bowls (in the case of borscht, applesauce, or tzimmes). The doll clothes we sewed were miniature creations of my Aunt Betty’s and resembled her own fashion sense—or lack thereof. My beloved Barbie Doll, with her pointy boobs and negligible waistline looked oddly like a drag queen in her homespun shirtwaist floral dresses and shapeless housecoats. Barbie was mercilessly spared the fussy aprons.


No matter what we were up to, however, my aunts never removed their enormous gold charm bracelets that clanged like dissonant wind chimes when making the slightest move from borscht bowl to kitchen sink or from sewing machine to the nearby TV dial. Hanging from these clunky links were all sorts of charms the size of salad plates. These were mementoes of trips to the sea (an oyster shell with a pearl inside, larger than the shell itself) or to the mountains (silhouetted trees with pearls festooning the golden branches) or to Las Vegas (tiny slot machines, where pearls replaced 3-across cherries). More than once, I worried about these bracelets like a knight might fear an oncoming lance. Swung at a certain angle and velocity by one of my aunt’s pendulous arms, a hefty charm could knock out a tooth.

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Damn, those Shapiro girls could really rock big jewelry. They were my early mentors.

There was one aunt on my mother’s side with whom I spent less time visiting but more time studying. Her look was iconoclastic from her ice-white wispy grey curls raked up from the nape of her neck to form a nest on top of her head. Jewel-studded combs held the semi afro in place. Her nails were painted apple red except for the half-moons nearest the cuticles and the pointy nail tips. Never a chip of polish; never a hangnail…these slender fingers caught your eye for their artistic flair and wonderment about why anyone would take the time for this odd manicure. It really was hard to look away.

Her knitting was legendary, and possibly because she was one of only two of my aunts born in the United States, and not in Minsk, she had spent easy days perfecting her skill. She was not a cook nor a housekeeper. She never wore a housedress nor a shirtwaist nor an apron. And, all her jewels hung around her neck so as not to snag the cashmere yarn of a sweater, or full-length coat, or shawl that she was constantly knitting for her sister, who was my mother. The ropes of pearls, though luminescent white and pale in comparison to the color of her hair, were silent displays of elegant accessorizing unlike the Shapiro girls’ gaudy and clamorous collections of jewelry.

Grace, this prolific and mesmerizing craftswoman, had another sister too. But, this aunt I never met. She died before I was born. Had she been alive she never would have visited us. Despite her own Jewish ancestry, which was kept as a furtive and filthy secret by her own parents, she was ironically so anti-Semitic that once her sister was married to my anything-but-closeted Jewish dad, the relationship between the two women imploded. There’s nothing like racial prejudice and hatred to dampen the mood of a family dinner.

While the Shapiro aunts were doting—wet kisses with left-over lipstick stains on my cheeks–Grace was in a class by herself. She was all discretion and elegance, soft-scented powder instead of the cloying, thick Shalimar perfume the Shapiros favored. She gifted me pale-colored nail polish and porcelain jars of cold cream, both of which my mother confiscated. Once my mother had died, all bets were off, however. I got to keep her gracious gifts, and Grace replaced the knitting projects for my mom with ones for me. A woman who despite her age and visage understood the decade in which her niece was now floundering as a teen; and she macraméd plant holders for my room and crocheted mini skirts in neon colors. But her real value in my life had nothing to do with the needles she held in her garnished hands but the comfort and company she provided.


In those early days after my mother died, Grace would drive an hour or more to be at my home when I arrived there from school. She kept herself busy and extremely useful: Food was bought, the table set, and the washing done. And then one day it wasn’t—none of it. Three short months after her first day as my doting, there-when-I-needed-her aunt, she disappeared from my life. I found her explanatory note taped to my bathroom mirror. In her flowery handwriting heavy with curly inky sweeps, she wrote that it was too sad for her to see me every day. Each day with me was a painful reminder of how much she missed her sister, my mother. The drive was too arduous for her weakening vision and the Buick’s balding tires; the housework was too exhausting, the chores too numerous, and my father was not adequately grateful. She said she would be moving to her former home in the Midwest and once situated she would write to me again.


I would have much preferred a knitting needle stuck into my eye than to have received this notice conceding her defeat. The only other adult I could absolutely trust, other than my father, had vanished and what was worse, she seemed to blame us. Abandonment is one thing, but avoidance is quite another. She could write to me if she liked. I was never–not ever again–going to let her into my heart. She could try in vain to crochet me a granny dress and matching headband for my excursions to Golden Gate Park, but I would refuse to wear them. Unless they were totally cool. It’s hard to say.

Over a decade later, with still no word from Grace, I received a letter from a cousin of mine whom I had never met. She invited me to her Sonoma home for lunch and a chance to meet each other for the first time. This woman, about 20 years my senior, was the daughter of the asocial aunt I had never met. Extremely cordial and welcoming, as if making up for the poor choices her own mother made, she brought me into her dining room. There on the massive dining table that was laid for lunch was an ornate wooden and ivory-inlaid (whoops!) box, which my cousin indicated was a Mah Jongg game set. It’s funny how the brain first tries to make sense of incongruity before relinquishing that futile effort when things just don’t add up. Why was this exotic box near my plate? Where was hers? Was this the centerpiece that just hadn’t been properly centered? My cousin invited me to sit and then to open up this elaborately constructed yet totally unfamiliar box. It was she who tried to explain the how the game was played and therefore why it housed intricately carved tiles and other esoteric objects—all of which were mysterious and confounding. I was losing patience and running out of pleasantries when my cousin instructed me to open the bottom drawer of the set. There, among the numerous carved tiles, I found a yellowed piece of paper with that undeniably recognizable and trauma-inducing handwriting. It was a note from Grace. She must have placed it inside the box; did she also leave a clue someplace else as to the note’s whereabouts? Was this a message meant to be found or was it just a way to get something off her chest and into a tiny wooden one? My cousin said she had found the Mah Jongg box among Grace’s possessions after my aunt’s death. Her death, by the way, was news to me.


I opened the tightly folded note and read:

March 11, 1958

Dear Darling Daughter,
That is correct. I am referring to you as my daughter and not as my little baby sister. That is because I gave birth to you in 1913 and yet you were raised by my mother to believe you and I were sisters. I was only 18 years old when you were born. I was far too young to raise a child and I was not marryed [sic]. I became pregnant when I worked as a stewardess on the ocean liner–the Mauretania. I fell in love with a handsome but married man—a scoundrel it turned out– who was a first-class passenger on a voyage to the Orient. It was he who gave me this box as a present. But, he never knew the real present he gave me was you, my dear child.

I wanted to tell you this story and always thought one day I would. In person, as a mother should tell her own daughter something this enormous. But I have failed to do so as yet. No one except my own mother (and the mother you now must understand is your grandmother) ever knew the truth. When you read this, please forgive me if you can find it in your heart to do so. Maybe one day, when you are much older and have experienced much of the world, you will be able to sympathize with the choices I made. Citing my youth as the reason for my actions you might think is suspect.  I meant you no harm.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I felt I had no choice and received no guidance.  But these are poor excuses for keeping secrets.

All my adoring love,
Your mother, Grace

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Lunch was served; my cousin pushed Exhibit A away from my plate and began to scoop heaps of food in front of me as a means of diversion. But there was no way for me to simultaneously eat and make any sense of what this seemingly innocuous box had coughed up.


My mother never saw this note, of course. Grace’s weak attempt at reconciliation and her pitiful explanation whizzed right past the intended reader as life took an ironic and unfair detour. Instead, the news landed on the lunch plate of her unsuspecting granddaughter. The pain Grace must have suffered from the loss of the child she could never claim was undoubtedly surpassed by the anguish of withholding the truth once again. What was the point of her secrecy, I wondered? Although the answers I now conjure up are filtered through the lens of modernity—our current era’s worship of the total reveal–for better or for worse. It’s hard to keep any secrets anymore.


The high seas and the floating cities that traverse them have always fascinated me but never enough to succumb to their claustrophobic lodgings. The sense of being held captive is unnerving. My grandmother formerly known as my aunt must have had the conflicting sense of freedom from the tethers of her contemporary society’s morals and the unmitigated shame of knowing that her actions resulted in duplicitousness whose rippling effects created more than waves–more like a tsunami—in a family that was never again to be whole.

All ashore that’s going ashore,