I have always liked strong, free-spirited women. They have been my role models since I was so little that I didn’t know what role models were. Today, the breaking dawn of a new year, comes my reflection upon the women who shaped me. They did this soundlessly, without even trying, simply by the way they fashioned their lives.
Ironically for someone who became an avid gardener, I didn’t like worms when I was a child. Rubbery and squiggly, they lay across the damp pavement in Central Park after a rain like Slinky toys flung from an exploding chest. A stroll to the playground or carousel became an obstacle course as I hopped sideways to avoid their slithery presence. One day, upon spying a worm of anaconda-like proportions, my mother crouched, released my hand, and gently picked up the errant creature between her index finger and thumb. She strolled into the wet grass and gently tossed him into a flowerbed where he immediately wriggled under some leaf debris. At my open-mouthed stare, she dug a Kleenex from her purse and, as she wiped her moist and wormy fingers on it said, “Always pick up worms from the sidewalk and place them gently in the grass. They are having a bad day through no fault of their own and don’t deserve to die just because they were flooded out of their homes.” Intentionally or not, at that moment my mom demonstrated the principal of kindness. Yes, there are people in this world that she dislikes – she is no Pollyanna singing, “Always look on the bright side of life” – but life is easier and more fulfilling by realizing that the world is bigger than just you. Others have problems, too, and no one needs their day made harder by malice, or even insensitivity.
There is a photograph on a table in my living room, wedged snugly inside an old, pockmarked, silver frame. It is a studio portrait of my grandmother at about age fifteen. She wears a white dress with a sailor collar and a huge black satin hair bow. She is seated on a bench holding a bunch of flowers with her left leg tucked under her coquettishly as she gazes, smiling, directly at the camera. Only she doesn’t have her left leg tucked under her; she has no left leg. She lost it from the knee down due to a childhood playground accident when an unsecured wrought-iron school gate swung into her from behind and sliced her leg, damaging it irreversibly. Yet, here she is – meeting the camera’s cold eye unflinchingly. Not long after this photo was taken my grandmother learned bookkeeping; she then married, raised children, and ran a successful business with my grandfather in New York City. It couldn’t have been easy. I remember the awkwardness of her gait on heavy crutches, especially as she aged, and her telling me of the relentless pain in the stump. I also remember the stares visited upon her by strangers in those unenlightened days. But she persevered. She determined that while she may not have the life she wanted, she was damn well going to want the life she had; so she fashioned her world into something she could enjoy.
One summer afternoon I was sitting in the basement of a house on Sciota Street in Pittsburgh watching The Newlywed Game on television with my mom’s favorite cousin, Patsy. I was six years old. Patsy was ironing and we were trying to guess how the spouse contestants would answer the silly questions posed by Bob Eubanks. We had each chosen our favorite couple to win the grand prize chosen just for them. I liked Couple Number Four, the steamfitter from Detroit, MI and his wife, probably because his occupation sounded so exotic to me. Patsy wanted Couple Number One, the accountant and his wife from Yorba Linda, CA, to win. It was the eve of Patsy’s wedding to Don Adams; the clothes she was ironing were for her honeymoon. I asked Patsy whether she’d like to be on the show and win a big vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico or Rome, Italy. She laughed and told me that their plane tickets to Bermuda were already bought so she didn’t need another trip. That afternoon was over fifty years ago and Patsy and Don, like my own parents, are still married. It hasn’t been easy; life is full of disagreements, pain, and trauma; but if you choose carefully and well with whom to share your life, you have a stronger chance to live contentedly.
My childhood best friend, Patti, married when I was nineteen years old. The morning of her wedding I was seated at the kitchen table in her family home in upstate New York. It was a time fraught with emotion for me, not just because it was Patti’s wedding day, but it was the first time I had been upstate since my grandmother’s death. His parents’ deaths had hit my father hard and, like many bereaved people, he cleaned out their house with a vengeance, tossing boxes of family collectibles on the trash heap. Ignoring my mother’s steadying influence, he pitched nearly every childhood keepsake I had kept there, valuable or not. Patti’s mom, Arlene, waited until my father had gone to meet with the estate lawyer, then she gingerly picked through the debris, pulling out tiny things I had treasured and played with my entire life. She wrapped them in cotton and placed them in a cardboard box. That morning as I watched Patti’s hair get swept up into an elaborate style, Arlene handed me the box. Puzzled, I opened it; inside were a few of my cat’s eye marbles, a ceramic Snow White and Dopey, pink and blue beads on a string, and six china tea cups and five matching saucers. I burst into tears. Arlene’s kindness had given me back my childhood; a childhood spent playing in the dusty upstate sunshine with Patti, her sisters, and our assorted cousins. Arlene knew that family memories have no monetary value; they are priceless and irreplaceable and should be treated with care.
My armoire is stuffed with sweaters; one, however, has a shelf all to itself because it is my favorite. It is a cream-colored, knee-length, sweater-coat, hand-knitted in the popcorn stitch. Bev, my high school best friend, has one just like it. Her mother, Jane, made both of them for us when we were sixteen. It is a little tight in the upper arms now, but I still wear it exactly as I did then – with jeans and a white tee shirt. I think of Jane every time I see the sweater; I see her knitting on the tweed sofa when we burst through their house’s front door, laughing, and laden with art projects and McDonald’s bags. Jane knew that creativity mattered in life and, like my mother, she knew that saying I love you wasn’t always done verbally. Bev thinks it’s funny that at age fifty-six I have begun knitting. My mom knits. Her aunts knitted. My niece knits. Jane knitted. It’s calming; plus you get something to wear when you are done. There must be something to it.
My friend Debbie’s mom died recently and she posted a tribute to her on Facebook. The photo shows a beautiful young woman riding a Palomino, throwing her head back and laughing with her arms spread wide to the world. I never met Debbie’s mom, but the picture embodies the spirit I gleaned from Debbie’s stories about her. She lived her life with a joie de vivre that few equal. Wherever life took her – gain, loss – she seized the day by the arm and bent it to her exact specifications. Things may be what they are but that doesn’t mean that they have to stay that way forever. Her optimism lives in Debbie.
My friend Helen talks about her mom roller-skating around the kitchen. My college roommate’s mom raised seven kids successfully while her husband, an Air Force colonel, flew bombing missions in Viet Nam. The world is full of women like this. I only hope I am one of them.