Favors

Waiting in the pharmacy for my prescription this afternoon, I watched as the cash register refused to accept credit and debit cards. Musing how technology has really made our lives easier, I poked around inside my wallet. Nothing.  Uhhhhhhh oh. (Not really a surprise since J says Queen Elizabeth II carries more cash than I do.)

The clerk called my name. “How much is it?” I asked as I burrowed in my bag, hoping a twenty from tutoring remained in a pocket or under a flap. 

“Sixty-nine cents.”

“Sixty-nine cents?!” My head snapped up. “I am so embarrassed. I don’t have any cash and your machine isn’t accepting debit cards.” 

“Oh, I have sixty-nine cents!” exclaimed the woman next to me. “And I am paying for mine, anyway. Just add hers onto mine,” she instructed the clerk. 

I turned to face her. “Thank you!” I burst out.

You read about Pay It Forwards in trashy British tabloids and see it on the local news, but you never experience it in real life.  At that moment, I remembered why I wanted to move into this small northern New Jersey town where everyone knows practically everyone else. It’s because almost everyone in this small town knows and helps their neighbors. 

So, thank you to the anonymous woman standing behind me in line at Miller’s Pharmacy. Now it is my responsibility to pay it forward. 

It’s A Good Thing She Doesn’t Know How to Use Yelp

My mom was confused when we first moved her and my dad from their assisted living community into our house. Wherever she thought she was I don’t know, but she knew it wasn’t their last apartment, their last house, or any of their vacation homes.  For some reason, despite having visited us here for thirty years, our house was completely unfamiliar to her; she seemed to think she was staying at a holiday resort. 

My dad’s Parkinson’s was so advanced by then that his ability to drink from open vessels was almost gone so I devised all kinds of cup-lid-and-straw apparatuses for him.  On one particularly harried evening, I rushed in the door with my father’s favorite, pastrami and Dr. Brown’s Diet Cream Soda from his second-favorite deli, and plopped the heavy bag on the kitchen island. Diving in I began to distribute packets and cans around the table. Vikki grabbed plates, silverware, and napkins so we were organized pretty quickly.  My mother turned her head and saw my father lifting his soda can.  Turning to Vikki, she sighed then said in a disappointed voice, “This accommodation doesn’t provide straws.” Stifling a laugh, Vikki answered, “Maybe you’d better ask to speak to the manager.”

Rolling my eyes, I walked across the kitchen to the glass-fronted cabinet and retrieved the glass from Wo Fat’s Chinese Restaurant in Oahu, in which I stored a array of colorfully striped paper straws like those I remembered from my childhood. Selecting one, I popped it into my dad’s soda can. 

I don’t know how this multi-year adventure in pandemic elder care will turn out. Probably an amalgamation of really happy, extremely sad, and profoundly surreal. However it turns out, though, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Well, maybe a month in Tuscany but not for much else.

“There once was a union maid, she never was afraid, of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.” 

Today is Cesar Chavez Day.  I know that because my mother was a supporter of unions, all unions, any union.  In fact, when I was very small, she taught me to sing Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid.”  I suspect I was the only three-year-old on the swings in Devoe Park in the Bronx belting “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union, til the day I die.”

Now, my father majored in Business Administration at Fordham and, later, in grad school at Northeastern. He started in the Westinghouse Management Training Program immediately after graduating from college. This made him less than completely empathetic to the union cause. It also made for some interesting dinner table conversations. 

“Where’s the salad?”

“No salad.”

“Why not? I like a salad with dinner.”

“I am not buying lettuce: Cesar Chavez said to boycott lettuce.”

“I don’t give a fuck what Cesar Chavez said! I want a salad!”

The conversation was replicated with grapes, strawberries, and whatever else Chavez mentioned. (Later, attending a class at Stanford where I learned about the chronic back damage caused by the short-handled hoe, I knew my mother had been right to speak up for abused workers.) 

So Happy Birthday, Cesar Chavez and thank you, Mom for teaching me about him. 

My Day Will Come

When my dad’s health began to fail precipitously, I moved into their assisted living community and distance-worked.  It was odd and also kind of tedious to be the only totally ambulatory resident as well as the sole inhabitant not requiring a hearing aid. 

The high point occurred one day while I was taking the garbage and recycling to the trash room: I passed an elderly couple tottering together in the hall. They said hello so I replied “How are you?” When I was a few feet beyond them, the man asked his wife loudly, “Did that girl say ‘I love you?’”

Only there am I still a “girl.” 

When I’m Ninety-Two

My mother loves Ricola wild berry flavor cough drops. She eats them constantly and rather than dropping the wrappers into her pocket or finding a waste basket, she plops them wherever she happens to be. 

While moving my parents from assisted living into our house, we pulled the huge brass bed away from the wall and discovered the mother lode: There were hundreds – literally hundreds – of Ricola wrappers piled in drifts in the narrow space between the bed and the wall.  Shocked, I called my mom. As she navigated around the half-filled packing boxes I pointed to the the tumble-down stack of tiny waxed papers.  “Why don’t you toss these in the waste basket?” I asked.

My mother’s brown eyes grew indignant. She drew herself up and huffed, “Those aren’t mine.”

“You’re the one who sleeps here in this bed,” I pointed out. 

Narrowing her gaze she stated, “This is an apartment. Someone lived here before me you know” and with a flourish she strode from the room. If she’d been a cat, she’d’ve swished her tail.

I hope I am that sassy when I reach her age. 

The Mugger

I was looking out the back door and calling Spencer when a worried-looking opossum popped out from the arborvitae. He stared straight ahead and trotted under the garage soffit lights across our driveway. He had an odd expression on his face, like someone leaving the subway late at night and, afraid he is being followed, tries to get home quickly without looking as though he is trying to get home quickly.

The opossum WAS being followed. Hearing a bell jingling in the wind, I turned my head back toward the arborvitae and out hopped Spencer. He trotted after the opossum with a smile on his face like “Cool! Where are you going? Can I come?”

Fortunately we had no attempted mugging and Spencer is home now.

My Mother, My Dearest Friend

I am losing my mother. Oh, she is still alive, however she has dementia and forty percent heart function so little pieces of her disappear every day.

People who have read my stories for years say their favorite character is my mother. While my mother is a terrific “character,” she also really did all those things. A patisserie-quality baker, she wondered where she got a daughter who called hazelnuts “acorns without hats.”  She bought me a canning set so I would learn how to “cook something, anything” and although she seemed pretty surprised when my strawberry jam turned out fabulous, she refrained from criticism when my version of my grandmother’s homemade chicken noodle soup became only a pot of soggy, chicken noodles because it never occurred to me to cook the noodles before dropping them into the broth.  

Yes, she stole all the copies of Highlights for Children from most of the doctor’s offices on Fordham Road when I published my first poem at age eight. She squeezed through a construction fence surrounding a condemned building so I wouldn’t “go to jail all alone for trespassing.”  She actually lost her wig on the Universal Studios Mummy ride and she even asked a sheik in Saudi Arabia what he wore under his robe. (“Boxers, madam,” he replied.) 

A few weeks ago, a day or two before my father’s death from Parkinson’s, she had no idea who he was and was shocked when I said he was her husband. She stared at me accusingly. “My husband?!” she gasped disbelievingly. “Why didn’t you tell me I was married to him?” Sighing, I answered, “I presumed you knew; you were at the wedding.”

I have learned lots of things from my mother like trying new things sometimes leads to success. If you don’t know the answer, ask the question. When someone offers an opportunity, accept it. Always wear and say precisely what you like. And love with all your heart. That’s how she loves me and God knows, it’s how I love her, too.

Pussycat, Pussycat, Where Have You Been?

The first time Jamie’s parents came to our new house for dinner, we got them comfortable on the sofa in front of the fire with drinks while we continued preparing the meal. Not ten minutes had elapsed before his mother called me from the living room. I trotted in.

“Laura, the cat’s on the sofa.”

I looked at Tuxedo who was indeed sitting on the sofa. Tux returned my gaze: She raised one cat eyebrow at me then swiveled her head and stared meaningfully at Jamie’s mother.  I turned back to my mother-in-law. “You know what she’s saying? She’s saying, ‘Laura, the old lady’s on the sofa.’”

I spun on my stiletto and returned to the kitchen.

No wonder Debbie was her favorite daughter-in-law.

The Heart of the Mouth of the South

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I remember once winning a team game of Trivial Pursuit because Jamie knew that two-time America’s Cup winner Ted Turner was nicknamed the Mouth of the South. He had read a biography of him but I never knew much about Mr. Turner beyond his ownership of the Atlanta Braves and Superstation TBS and that he was a marketing genius. (TBS broadcast its shows at five minutes past the hour, ensuring that each show received its own line in TV Guide.)

I hadn’t really thought about Mr. Turner in years until the other day when I read that he is suffering with Lewy body dementia, a disease that leaves him tired and forgetful. Described as “a mild case of what people have as Alzheimer’s,” this made me sad, as Ted Turner was incredibly kind to me on one of the worst days of my life.

My grad school friend Jonathan Levin was murdered in May 1997 just a few years after we left NYU. He was tortured then shot execution-style by one of his former students who wanted to rob him. The window of time between the discovery of Jon’s body and his funeral was jammed with shrieking headlines and jangling telephones as the story dominated the national news, due to Jon’s personal relationship with media power (his father was Gerald Levin, CEO of Time Warner Inc.) and because it checked most of the significant New York City crime story boxes – black on white coupled with class disparity combined with the overarching randomness of how lives cross paths in New York.

The day of the funeral dawned hot and humid. I was thinking and feeling a panoply of things as I showered and dressed in a black and white silk Chanel suit and black stiletto pumps. I had attended funerals before but they had all been low-key, family affairs.   Judging by the news coverage of the crime, I expected this, the penultimate act of the drama, to be pandemonium.

And it was. The blocks surrounding Park Avenue Synagogue were closed to traffic so we explained to the NYPD officer manning the barricades why we wanted to drive there. Noting our formal attire, my red nose, and the damp, balled Kleenex surrounding me on the car seat and carpet, he waved us through. A dark-suited employee of the funeral home then approached Jamie and handed him a placard through the open window and told us to put it on the dashboard. If it weren’t visible we would not be permitted to join the funeral procession from the synagogue to the cemetery on Long Island.

When we were within a block of the temple, another funeral employee approached and motioned for us to exit the car, explaining that we needed to walk from here. He seemed to be explaining something to Jamie but I wasn’t listening. It was too crowded and far too noisy. Mourners from every aspect of Jon’s life thronged the wide sidewalks and spilled into the street. The nation’s media elite huddled together near small clusters of people my age. Dozens of wailing teenagers hugged one another while more photographers than I had seen anywhere except the Academy Awards snapped frantically at all of us.

Clutching hands we walked toward the surging crowd tentatively, unsure where to go. Another funeral employee approached us and, after determining our relationship to Jon, directed us to an area of the sidewalk that appeared to be reserved for graduate school friends because immediately I saw Rachel, Patti, and a few other former classmates.

The entire event ran with the precision of a military maneuver. Friends from each segment of Jon’s life were catalogued and ushered into the cool building in a particular order and seated together in one location. I have no idea how the social status of each group was determined but somehow Jamie and I ended up next to Jane Fonda and Ted Turner.

After wiping my eyes with a tissue, I poked Jamie. “You know if Jon could lift the lid of that coffin and look around he’d be embarrassed at all this fuss. And when he caught sight of our seat mates, he say, ‘Holy shit! Jane Fonda is at my funeral!’” Jamie stifled a snicker as the cantor began his song and Jon’s family started their long and sorrowful progress to the front of the church. The siblings and step-siblings clung to one another so tightly that they seemed to move as one undulating entity. Carol’s face was ashen but her head was high. Keening in agony, Jerry staggered, leaning on his bodyguards for support. Filled with my own anguish, I barely noticed the service.

Exiting afterward the hot sunshine seemed almost cleansing after the grimness of the sacrament. More dark-clad factotum led us to our car and instructed us to observe the traffic patterns carefully and not become disconnected from the procession as we would probably be unable to find the cemetery on our own. Pointed north on Park Avenue, Jamie steered his car into place and soon we were following the screaming sirens of the NYPD as it escorted us to the city limits.

Eventually, the long, sad, parade turned right through enormous wrought iron gates into a cemetery. Regretting my shoe choice, I stumbled over the dry and clumpy ground to the graveside.   While much of what the rabbi said that day has receded into the mists of my memory, I do remember his calling upon each of us to toss a shovelful of soil onto the coffin as a way of sharing the labor and saying a final goodbye to the corporeal remains of Jon, but to do so holding the spade backward so we never forget the unnaturalness of the act.

Jamie and I joined the line snaking forward listlessly. Funeral home employees handed a series of shovels to mourners as they approached and soon Jamie and I were separated and pushed to opposite sides of the grave. Crying so hard I could barely see and feeling rather than seeing the wooden handle shoved into my hand, I approached the mound of dirt trepidatiously. Time after time I attempted to dig a bit onto the curved head of the shovel but I couldn’t make it work. Suddenly, standing in the burning sun in a pencil skirt and five inch heels while clutching an uncooperative garden implement seemed like the nadir of my life. I couldn’t even say goodbye to my friend properly. I began to wail and if I could have handed the spade to the next person without looking like a bigger fool I would have done so. Staring shamefacedly through my tears at the mound of dirt in front of me, I realized that two indistinct but shiny cowboy boots had appeared next to my pointy toes. A gentle baritone wafted into my ear. “Let me help you.”

Two strong arms went around mine and guided them to the dirt, gracefully scooping a large portion, and then helped me toss it into the grave. That finally over, I flung the shovel and stumbled to the safety of the pavement where I could nurse my humiliation in private.

I felt Jamie’s presence and, looking up, blew my nose into an already-sodden Kleenex. “Well, that didn’t go well,” I muttered. “I feel like an idiot.”

Jamie cocked his head. “Why?”

“Because I couldn’t make the damned dirt stay on the shovel.”

“No one could. That’s the point of the exercise.”

I stared at him wide-eyed. “You did.”

He shrugged. “Not much. No one got very much.”

“That man who helped me did. He was really strong and knew what he was doing.” I blew my nose again.

“Do you know who helped you?”

Digging in my handbag for Kleenex I shook my head. “Some guy wearing cowboy boots. That’s all I saw.”

“It was Ted Turner.”

My head snapped up. “Really?”

Jamie nodded. “Yup. He owns a pretty big ranch so I guess he has had some shoveling experience.”

It wasn’t his shoveling ability that impressed me. It was his kindness to an emotionally shattered young woman at one of the most horrible moments of her life.

I have never again met Ted Turner; I have never even seen him except in magazines and Internet news stories. I doubt he thought twice about what he did that day, but it has remained with me forever.