29 05 2010

Our friend Jackie died last week at the age of 42 from breast cancer. I met Jackie the same night I met Kelly, the love of my life. After a Thai dinner, Kelly convinced me to join her and Jackie for ice cream, which I would soon learn was her favorite thing. Jackie’s warm friendly demeanor instantly put me at ease in a room full of strangers. Her close friendship with Kelly, born of countless racquetball games and movie nights and ice cream runs meant that Jackie would be a big part of my life as well and I couldn’t have been happier. She was a vibrant, upbeat woman who seemed to gather friends and admirers around her everywhere she went. Her memorial service was an uplifting testimony to her spirit and an emotionally wrenching time for her wide circle of family and friends to say goodbye.

While we waited for the service to begin, Kelly’s good friend Diane gave Kelly a gorgeous bracelet sold by the Friends of Mel Foundation to help raise money for cancer research. The multicolored beads and simple design make it the kind of jewelry you can wear with anything and I instantly coveted it. Our friend Michelle commented, “oh that’s the new breast cancer bracelet!” I learned that the Friends of Mel Foundation was started by friends of a woman who lost her cancer battle, and has since grown into a nationally known effort which has raised over $2 million for cancer research. Jackie’s own friends too have started a foundation in her memory, the Jackie Williamson Sisters of Hope, with the admirable goal of raising funds to help women, and in particular members of the lesbian community, who are facing the financial burden of dealing with critical or terminal illnesses. Yet another of Jackie’s closest friends has been training for her third 60-mile walk for the Susan G. Komen foundation to defeat breast cancer. Audrey started walking three years ago when Jackie was diagnosed, this year she sadly will be walking in her memory.

As we rode home from the cemetery I started thinking about all these lives cut short and all the ‘warriors’ left behind to fight the battle. My own losses to cancer are numerous and have been well chronicled on these pages before: my father to melanoma, my sister to multiple myeloma, my mother (and her mother) to breast cancer, my friend Dani to breast cancer, my friend Kim to a rare cancer of the bile duct, and now Jackie to breast cancer. In the early days of my time as a cancer warrior I too would cycle and walk, wear the ribbons, and the t-shirts. I too was like all those groups of friends running, riding or walking for someone whose face smiles bravely from their identical t-shirts. Sometimes they do it to “fight the fight” with them, and all too often to “keep their memory alive.” All these friends of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people living quietly remarkable lives all taken by variations on the same disease. These efforts provide a means to cope, to celebrate a life, to mourn a loss and to feel as though we have the power to make a difference, to be a warrior. When I started my own journey as one of these cancer warriors I had only my dad’s name to write on my “in memory of” ribbon…then I added Dani, my sister, my mom, Kim, and now Jackie. And while I haven’t tried to get my gargantuan body on a bike in a while I have thought of training to join Audrey or my friend Margaret in a marathon walk next year, because I know in my heart this battle can’t go on without me in the midst of it. And each year more and more warriors join this fight, walking, running, making bracelets, selling t-shirts, even skydiving like my fearless friend Audrey, all in an effort to try to stop the relentless march of this insidious disease. For every friend of Mel, of Jackie, of Dani, there are a thousand more each year who join the fight, wear the ribbons, sell the bracelets, plant “gardens of hope” and release balloons and sing songs in memory of their friends and raise sneakers and bike tires to honor the survivors. And you know what? I’m tired. We’re all tired. You can see it in the shell-shocked faces of those who have just experienced their first loss and in the hardened set faces of people like me who know this latest loss will be far from the last. This needs to stop. This battle should not have to be fought with dances and raffles and bake sales. This generation of warriors is ready to put down our weapons. We want to know our children won’t be fighting it a generation later. I want to know that Liza won’t be walking with her friends someday with my name on a ribbon or a t-shirt, making the same macabre jokes I make about coming from ‘the cancer family.” It’s time. It’s past time. Find the cures. End it now.


My Real Mother’s Day

15 05 2010

May 15, 1999 fell on a Saturday, just like today. The weather was spring-warm, the way I like it – not yet too hot. Outside our neighbors on our quiet cul-de-sac were already appearing in their yards to mulch their gardens, plant flowers and mow the lawn. This meant that virtually the entire neighborhood was there to see me lower my enormous 9 months and 3 days pregnant body into our tiny Dodge Colt and head off to the hospital. Finally. It was time, time to meet the restless daughter who had grown inside me for 9 months, sticking her feet under my ribs, kicking in indignation anytime I rested anything on my giant belly (my ex husband used to delight in putting the TV remote there only to watch it fly off after a well placed kick from the baby), and plaguing me with the kind of heartburn that made me feel like an ad for Tums. Our journey to the hospital just a mile or two away felt like something that had been scripted for an old 1970s sitcom. The road we took was under construction, unpaved and bumpy – just the way women in labor like it! A boy on a bicycle darted out into the street causing my ex- husband to slam on the breaks and me to actually utter the line “do that again and this baby is going to be born in the car.” Once at the hospital we watched an elderly couple board the elevator and as David said politely – “we’ll get the next one,” I countered with ‘HOLD THAT ELEVATOR!” There are times when the ability to project to the back row of a theater comes in handy. This was one of those times. Finally safely ensconced in the labor and delivery room as I clung to the cool calm hand of my L&D nurse (A woman I will never forget by the way, I may not remember what I had for breakfast an hour after I eat it but I will always remember her cool hand and her calm, caring demeanor.) Continuing our streak of zingers and wacky set-ups I remember telling her that as hard as I was trying to be strong it really, really REALLLY hurt and I thought I needed something for the pain. Assuring me she would do so as soon as she checked my progress she suddenly got a funny look on her face and said “oh honey, I can’t give you anything.” “WHAT? WHY?”, I wailed. “Because I have your baby’s head in my hands that’s why. She’s almost here!”

I should have known then. I should have known that one miss Elizabeth Rose (named for St. Elizabeth Seton and my favorite aunt Rose) was going to make her entrance a dramatic one. Forty-five minutes later there she was, red-faced, screaming at the indignity of the bright lights, and submitting to her bath where a flock of cooing nurses exclaimed over having a baby with so much thick hair they needed to shampoo and comb it out with the world’s tiniest little baby comb. (Thinking about this moment eleven years later I realize it was her first stop in hair and makeup).

Eleven years. Eleven years since that warm Saturday in May. I realize in the grand scheme of motherhood this is nothing. I know that women with older teens or grown children, smile indulgently at this statement (or roll their eyes) the same way I do when I talk to the mom of an infant or a toddler. We’re all thinking the same thing “Oh honey, that’s nothing. You have no idea what you still have to get through.” But eleven years of being Liza’s mom has taught me a great deal. I’ve been surprised at the things (good and bad) I am capable of and comforted by the confirmation of things I have always known – surprised at my capacity to love and my capacity for anger and frustration, surprised at my ability to care for another human being so completely, and comforted by how complete I feel at the touch of a small hand in mine or the sensation of my body curved around a smaller version of myself during a midsummer thunderstorm.

Never a big believer in giving things for the sake of giving, I’ve always tried to do special things for Liza’s birthdays – tickets to a concert or a special day trip for example. This year, at her request we gave her a complete room makeover – new paint, new comforter and curtains, new ‘wall art,” — the works. Gone are the ballerina lamp and comforter we picked out when we moved into my condo when she was five – replaced by bright polka dots, pink baskets for her scarves and accessories, a new mirror for the endless analyzing of the right shade of lip gloss, and bulletin boards full of photos of her and her friends from school, dance and theater. As I surveyed Kelly’s painting handiwork and the new and improved ‘ready for tweendom’ accessories, I felt a tug on my heart at the little girl trappings that had been boxed up and put away – replaced by “body mist” from Bath and Body works, a stage makeup kit, a journal, and a stack of novels. My baby girl was really gone, embarked on a journey toward adolescence and all the heartbreak, laughter, and angst that accompanies it. This morning as we paused at Liza’s door with her ready for “the big reveal,” as they call it on reality television I said a silent goodbye to her infancy, her toddlerhood, and her young childhood and readied myself for the years to come. Yet after the squeals of excitement and the “O M G”s , Liza asked if it was ok to put back up a fabric she made in daycare 10 years ago – a print of her tiny 1 year old hand with the sentiment ‘put your hand in mine, and I’ll be there any time.” It had been my first Mother’s Day gift from her and we had placed it on her bedroom wall after my divorce as a pledge that we would always be there for each other. When we redecorated I took it down, thinking it might be too childish for her now. When she asked for it back I got my Mother’s Day present all over again. Her hand in mine, now twice the size of the tiny hand on the fabric print. And while that hand doesn’t reach for mine as often as it used to, and while those newly 11-year old eyes roll at me a dozen times a day or more, and while cute tiny overalls and onesies have been replaced by tiny denim shorts and tank tops, underneath it all is that same baby who screamed head-long into my life this day eleven years ago. Happy birthday Liza Rose and thanks for the best Mothers’ Day ever.

Counting Chickens

21 03 2010

This week I came face to face with some serious disappointment when something that I was 100% guaranteed, positively sure was going to happen…didn’t. What it is doesn’t really matter, we’ve all been there — convinced we were going to get that part, that job, that contract, that call, that date, that opportunity. I had allowed my thoughts to get ahead of me and was cocky about the outcome, right down to what I would wear and how I would announce my spectacular success — the success that didn’t come after all. At first I was confused. You see I had been planning this scenario for over three years, knew how it was all supposed to play out and somewhere along the way the script had gotten rewritten and I had gone from star to “special cameo appearance by” player. What had happened?

What happened is that I had been cruelly reminded that while I may play the leading role in the story of my own life, when that life intersected with other lives where other people take center stage, I had ended up in the wings, a bit player with a two line bio in the back of the playbill. Yeah I know, enough stupid theater metaphors, you get the message. The Cliff Notes version of this would say: “Katie thought she had it all figured out. Katie was wrong. That will teach Katie to count her chickens before they hatch.

What I’m left to grapple with is not so much the reason for my recent disappointment but my reaction to it and what it’s taught me. After my initial confusion I instantly channeled my mother and went straight to “Oh don’t be silly it’s not a big deal at all I’m FINE!” But the truth was I wasn’t fine. And the more I tried to be fine the crankier I got. I snapped at Kelly, got mad at the cats, was caustic around my friends, and turned into a female Lewis Black ranting at the stupidity of it all. I felt my dejection oozing from my pores and manifesting itself into bitter barbs and lame jokes in an attempt to show how above it all I was after all. “Oh THAT? Oh please honey, I’ve barely given it a second thought. These things don’t bother me.” And I realized as I often do how hard it is for me to let people express any kind of empathy. To be honest I know that people are well meaning I really do, but I always feel uncomfortable in these situations, especially when faced with the ‘how are you feeling?’ question. “I’m feeling like I would really, really love you to not ask me how I’m feeling,” is what I want to answer. But of course I counter with my stock answer “oh I’m fine..” and quickly change the subject. For all my dramatic and sarcastic tendencies, and for all my desire to want comfort my friends in their times of need, I am at heart a Yankee who gets uncomfortable when my emotions are the ones put under the magnifying glass. When that happens, I shut down quicker than a mom and pop hardware store when a Wal Mart moves to town (credit for this analogy goes Kelly). And truly, the actual details of this specific disappointment are truly not worthy of the “hey….you ok? need to talk?” approach. Or worse the “hey how’s she holding up?” Inquiry of Kelly. Really. I mean, I know people care but I start thinking “enough already, this is becoming more about your need to ‘be there’ than it is my actual feelings.” (Although I must give props to one wonderful friend who left me a card and a jaunty pair of earrings telling me everyone needs some sparkle to cheer them. Fittingly she’s as uncomfortable with the whole caring and sharing thing as I am). And I’m not speaking of just this situation in particular, anytime I’m feeling down or grappling with a loss trivial or monumental I’m faced with this. I’ve tried to remind myself how blessed I am to have friends who care about me so much, to damp down my discomfort and listen, and to learn the value of a well placed, simple and heartfelt “thank you.”

I do believe this has all come about for a reason still unknown to me with lessons to teach me about being open to possibilities other than those I had planned for myself and to refresh my point of view and shed my cynicism even if only a little bit. My new-agey friends would tell me it’s “the universe” speaking to me. Honestly I think the universe really could give a damn about my petty little set back but I guess I understand what they’re trying to tell me. Being a person of faith, Catholic faith in particular, I’ve gone to my go-to-gal and prayed to Mary for guidance and insight. (My own mother used to tell me to go right to the mom with my prayers – you get further that way). The answers, as is so often the case, are not always clear. (Leave it to a mom to not coddle you, maybe that’s why I pray to Mary so much). Maybe this is a lesson in humility. Maybe this is a lesson in grace. Maybe this is a lesson in how to thoughtfully take in the good advice I received from friends of mine who have faced similar disappointments.

So what next? Will I pick myself up and dust myself off and start all over again? Let’s not get carried away here, after all I’m not some plucky orphan in a Dickens novel. I’ll move on. I’ll get over it. I”ll find a new hill to climb eventually, I”ll thank my friends for caring, I’ll apologize for being a sarcastic pain in the neck, and I’ll be careful to avoid anything that smacks of counting chickens.

Well, Since You Asked….

18 03 2010

No, actually, I haven’t any idea what I’m going to write about next. Oh I have snippets of ideas that come to me in the shower or in the car and I think “yes! That’s it.” But then the day goes on and I get caught up in work or driving Liza to rehearsal or, let’s be honest, hanging out with Kelly on our groovy new sectional sofa watching reality television. Then before I drift off to sleep I think, “oh shoot. I meant to write today.” But by then the idea is gone as fleetingly as it arrived and I’m left to realize that I’ve hit a dry spell.

This is where you should feel free to ask me if I’ve run out of dead family members to write about. True, my pieces about my sister and my parents are among some of my favorites. And while it is tempting to regale you with stories of my Uncle Frank, the Colonel, who parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day, or my Uncle Billy who worked for Shasta soda, which seemed like the coolest job ever to my10-year old self, or my Aunt Rose, who smoked endless cigarettes and wore glamorous blonde wigs, there’s only so much publicly-sanctioned mourning one can endure so I think I’ll let my dead relatives be for the moment and move on.

But move on to what? What’s on your mind Katie? Well since you asked, my wedding for one. Oh sure we have the caterer booked, the tent, tables and chairs reserved, and even our wedding rings bought but the question that occupies my mind the most these days is this. “What does a 44 year old, gray-haired, 60-pounds overweight lesbian ‘wear to her wedding?” For it never fails that immediately following “congratulations,” Kelly and I hear ‘what are you wearing?” And you know, I’m not someone who gets easily flustered but that question can send me straight to stutter-ville. “Uh…uh… “ I stammer, ‘I have kind of an idea of silvery gray.” “Silvery gray what?“ is really the question. Oh I’ve seen photos of things I’ve loved – wide legged suits with snazzy full backed vests, or long, flowy, empire-waisted dresses with beaded spaghetti straps, but putting those outfits on this body is where the problems start. You see I have a classic fat girl problem when it comes to clothes, I think I’m skinnier than I am. When confronted with the reality of what I look like in an elegant gown I’m slightly confused. ‘Who is that old lady?” I think “and why does she look so ridiculous?” I’m not a very “girly girl” as my daughter would say. I like nice jewelry but rarely wear make-up and my short gray hair is hardly conducive to dramatic tossing or classic up-dos. Of course the one day Kelly and I ventured out to a bridal store we were given a dressing room smack in the middle of two different bridal parties of 20 something women who collectively probably weighed less than I do. Oh sure, our sales associate was sweet as can be and extremely excited about our upcoming nuptials, and the girls outside my dressing room parted helpfully every time I took a hesitant step out to look in the mirror but I have a feeling they were thinking “aww…someone’s mom is here!” I found a photo of a suit that seems right up my alley, but it’s from a British clothing catalog that stops at size 16. That’s right peeps…sixteen is just a size I dream of seeing again someday. I know myself and there is no way I’m getting this body into that suit by October. So, right now I’m deep in classic denial about the fact that eventually I’ll have to come up with something to wear unless I want to get married in my usual weekend outfit of jeans and a 3 button Henley from the Gap (size XXL). I’ll keep you posted on the great wedding outfit search of 2010.

And since you asked, no actually I haven’t lost weight. Although GOODNESS KNOWS I’VE BEEN TRYING! OK, both those statements are only partially true. I’ve lost a few pounds since I started seeing a nutritionist in December and I have changed a lot about the way I eat. No more bagels, no more pizza, pasta only every other week when Liza is in residence, lots and lots of protein and vegetables. And as usual when I make any attempt at changing my habits I discover my one true essential truth: I’m really, really good at being a fat person. When presented with communal munchkins at work or the prospect of an appetizer with my wine when out to dinner with friends I abandon those healthy eating resolves quicker than NBC abandoned Conan O’Brian. And you know, it’s not as if I’m not presented with daily evidence that changing my habits will result in a better body. I count among my best friends two women who have severely had to restrict their eating due to allergies and both of them now sport the bodies of teenage girls. Ok. Ok. I GET it. I’m just not sure I’m willing to DO it. Recently one very, very, thin acquaintance told me I got “too much blind support” for being as heavy as I am that allowed me to think my size was ok, and really it wasn’t rocket science I just had to cut calories and work out more. (DUH). And yes I realize the irritating contradiction about bemoaning my size when it comes to searching for a wedding dress and celebrating the joy of a really, really good cookie dough ice cream cone. And yes I’m human. I’m jealous as hell of women who have the ability to cut out bad things and be all outdoorsy and post on Facebook about their “awesome workouts” or their refreshing hikes. Sometimes I’m so jealous of them I could spit. (This is where you have my permission to say ‘ok Katie, we get it. Move on.”). Well, all I know is that I’m torn between just settling down at the age of 44 and loving myself already and constantly being reminded every day that I am just too large, too tall, too gray, too wrong. Yeah I haven’t figured out the answer either. I’ll get back to you when I do.

And since you asked, all this talk of my weight has put me in a somewhat fragile “place.” Oh please, I’m kidding. For one I’ve never been remotely described as fragile and two, I loathe the use of the words “space” and “place” to describe feelings. If I hear one more person say something like “wow…Tuesdays put me in a really, really bad space,” (which is usually accompanied by some sort of rueful head shake as if to indicate some deep dark pit of despair that only Tuesdays can trigger), I just might loose it. All this spacing and placing is just a way to avoid using actual descriptions of actual emotions. How about trying this on for size? Can we all get behind using words like “angry” or “sad” or “excited” or “frustrated.” I know I’m on the verge of sounding like Dana Carvey’s “Cranky Old Man” character but seriously…enough already. No more space. No more place. Deal?

And since you asked, yeah, do realize I come off as a cranky pants about 99% of the time. My pals on the Mothertalkers site call me the cranky Yankee, one of my best friends has had to explain to her friends that ‘really, I swear, she’s a nice person, she just writes cranky.” My young teenage pals humor me when I ask them things like “who is this annoying girl named Ke$ha, why does she have a dollar sign in her name, why is she on my TV and how can I make her go away?” Yes I realize that at some point I have to be more conscious of this lest I end up like Andy Rooney alone in my office with stacks of books ranting red faced about things like automatic paper towel dispensers or the fact that the world ‘small’ has lost all meaning at movie theater concession stands. Fortunately for me (and possibly unfortunately for you) I am surrounded by several dear friends who make my cranky ravings look like the mellow sounds of Doris Day singing to her puppies and who love me for the snarkmeister I am. But I’ll work on it and let you know how it goes.

And since you asked. I’m ending this piece with no more of an idea what to write about next than I started with. I often wish I were like my friend T. (whose most excellent blog “Uncharted Parent” is linked on the right hand side of this site) who writes gorgeous pieces on really relevant topics. When I try it I feel like a poseur. But, As Kelly has pointed out I do have an opinion on pretty much everything. So I’m open to suggestions. What would you like me to write about? Good Lord that sounded incredibly self-important didn’t it? Trust me, I don’t for one second believe that anything I have to say about anything is remotely important. But yeah, I do like the sound of the keys clack clacking on my Macbook so go ahead and, as Linda Richman would say, “give me a topic.” And no, wiseguy you can not use something like “The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire.” So throw something my way, and I’ll get back to you. And by the way, thanks for asking.

Life Upon the Wicked Stage

31 01 2010

The scores and books of classic musicals are full of the warnings: “Life upon the wicked stage ain’t never what a girl supposes…” sings a winsome young gal in Act Two of “Show Boat,” (widely considered the first American ‘book’ musical).   An aging chorine in Sondheim’s brilliant masterpiece “Follies”  remembers “walkin’ off my tired feet, poundin’ 42nd street, to be in a show….,”  Margot Channing, the heroine of “Applause” (the musical version of the classic show biz story ‘All About Eve”) welcomes Eve to the theater with the warm lines ‘welcome to a life of laryngitis, welcome to dark toilets in the hall!”  The daughters of that stage mother of all stage mothers in “Gypsy” lament how normal life could be if only “Momma was Married” rather than bellowing “Sing out Louise! Smile baby!” from the back of countless vaudeville theaters.   And truthfully, what sane responsible parent would want this for their child?  A life of constant competition, a merry go round of dance, voice and acting classes, perennially cold rehearsal spaces, scratchy costumes, far-too-late-for-your-age bedtimes, throat lozenges, and homework done while spread out on the dusty musty floors of theaters and studio spaces?

The answer of course is no sane parent.  What responsible mother would say to their child “why yes it’s a fine idea to spend all of your formative years learning skills that if you’re supremely lucky and are in the right place at the right time and know the right people and look exactly the right way possibly maybe could one day net you some unreliable and low-paying work!”  This isn’t exactly what the stuff of sensible parenting is made of.  And yet, when theater is as much a part of your world as your morning coffee, when words like “blocking,’ “off-book,” and “downstage” are as much a part of your vernacular as ‘bread and milk,” when “call” is not something you get on the phone and “house” is not the place you live, how could you deny your child the chance to also learn about, live, move and be in that world?

The love for theater runs deep in my family. My  father grew up in New Haven in the 1920s and 30s when all the major Broadway shows had their out-of-town tryouts.  He and his best friend Keith Brown were classic stage-door Johnnies, even one time sneaking into Katherine Hepburn’s dressing room only to be thrown out when she found out they were not in fact Yale men.   From this world my father carried his love of musical theater into the rest of his life as a husband and father taking my mother to New York for their honeymoon to see the original production of “Guys and Dolls,” and, years later, singing his youngest daughter to sleep with medleys from “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” and “Anything Goes.”  (Although I do need to point out that my father knew about 5 lines of every show tune ever written he never seemed to know any song in its entirety.  Only in my adulthood did I discover that not all of these songs shared “la de dum dum” as a lyric).  This early exposure to Rogers and Hammerstein, Hart, and Porter, instilled in me a love for and fascination with the world of musical comedy and an often unsettling feeling that I should be ‘doing that.’  My parents indulged my interest, taking me to five shows a summer at Maine State Theater ( formerly the Brunswick Summer Music Theater) where I insisted we sit in the front row so I could be as close to the stage as possible.

When I was in the fourth grade a troupe from the Children’s Theater of Maine came to visit my elementary school.  At the end of their riotous performance they invited any of the students to come sign up for their summer theater camp.  At ten I was pudgy to put it politely, awkward and quite shy but I remember marching up to one of the actors and announcing I was going to go to their camp, then praying I could convince my mother to let me.   Well of course she let me, if anything my parents were probably overjoyed I was finally venturing out a bit from the safety of the cocoon of my family life.   I will never forget that summer, the long hot days spent in a dilapidated warehouse doing odd acting exercises and playing a court jester in a show about the princess who wanted the moon. To this day I still remember the lesson one actor taught me about how to make it look convincing on stage when you’re drinking out of a cup with nothing in it.   To say that summer changed my life might be a bit of an exaggeration but it was the first time I felt truly at home, truly with people who understood what I knew – that there was no better place to be, no better way to spend your time.  And my parents gave me what was quite possibly the greatest gift ever.  They never tried to talk me out of it, to tell me it was a foolish pursuit, or I should spend my time studying something more practical.  They never missed a performance – even the edgy experimental student written shows in college that they didn’t understand. And at every show my mother would cry tears of pride and my father would announce ‘that’s my daughter” to everyone around him.  After college my inherent cowardice and fear of being able to navigate a big city kept me from ever making a full-time career out of acting,  but I  have been able to carve out a satisfying life working in arts management by day and occasionally treading the boards at night.

Flash forward thirty -our years from that summer with Children’s Theater and now I’m the one driving my ten year old to theater camps, rehearsals, dance classes, and performances.  When Liza was a baby I used to say I didn’t care if she ever set foot on stage I just wanted her to grow up loving the experience of going to the theater, nothing else was important.  Then, one fateful night as I was bathing three year old Liza she sat up in the tub, looked at me, frowned and said “momma, this is how I look angry…!”’  Then she laughed and said “this is how I look happy,” after making a wide-eyed faced she announced “and THIS is how I look surprised!”  I knew in that moment it was hopeless.  It was in her blood.   At first I humored her, not really ready to believe that maybe there was something there in her.  But after nearly eight years of dance classes, acting classes, summer theater camps, she continually surprises me with her tenacity, her drive, and yes her talent.  Believe me I’m no Mama Rose, (much as I would give anything to play her).  I never seem to have the right makeup or hair accessories for a given recital or performance,  I never embellish her costumes so she’ll stand out on stage.  I run errands or do crossword puzzles during her rehearsals rather than watching her and the chubby shy girl I was as a child keeps me from fully entering into conversations with the moms around me.  I don’t enroll her in the glitzy programs at better equipped theaters where local Baby Junes smile from the stage in sparkly outfits at their clapping moms, but rather in a comfortable challenging program in a run down old church basement where her teachers embrace the funny, smart, quirky girl she is while pushing her to try a little harder, reach a little higher, and soar on her own wings.  Where she comes home spouting about Chekhov, Sondheim and “the fourth wall” and “realism.”  Where she has found friends that are closer to her than her school friends. Where she is home.

I often hear from other moms, “I can’t believe how much performing she does!  It’s unreal.”  I wonder sometimes if my co-worker with the two children on multiple travel hockey teams and soccer teams hears the same thing.  If that children in sports are granted a pass that children in the arts may not be.   I hear that surely Liza must need more “down time,” and yet when she has that precious down time she spends it singing, dancing and putting on shows in our living room.  Our conversations in the car and at bedtime are about the plots of musicals, backstage goings-on, and what colleges offer good theater majors. She pores over my Broadway books, my sheet music collection and obsesses about what part she could play in Chorus Line or Wicked someday.

I’ll admit I do worry for her,  worry that my sensitive, funny girl will be lost in the shuffle of a business that all too often is based on looks.  (And let’s face it, we don’t exactly grow ‘em tiny and blonde in this family).  But mostly I worry the opposite of what the women on the ivillage messageboards think I should worry about. ( On ivillage, to publicly admit you have no qualms about your child pursuing a degree and career in the arts is right up there with admitting you didn’t breastfeed and that your child watches Family Guy – both also true in my case).  I worry that she’ll repeat my pattern and be too timid to really give it a shot.  Yet as Kelly points out to me time and time again, Liza is not me and her successes are not mine and her mistakes and triumphs will be different than mine were.   So for now, I drive her where she needs to be, I never miss a performance,  I hug her when she cries because a show is over,  and I cry tears of pride when she sings, and tell everyone in earshot she’s my daughter.   And somewhere, my dad is smiling as the tradition continues.

Sing out Liza.   We’re all listening.

Goodnight Joseph. Goodnight Mary.

9 01 2010

Joseph and Mary.  When you see those names does your mind go to that famous biblical couple that gets so much play around this time of year?   Of course. That’s only natural, they’re a pretty big power couple round the holidays.  But when I see those names I think of another couple.  I think of my Joseph and Mary. I think of my parents.

My  father was born in 1916 in New Haven Connecticut to deaf parents — an Italian mother and an Irish father, both first generation Americans.   His family life tended to be on the boisterous side with an Italian grandmother who more than once got in trouble during Prohibition for making wine in his family’s basement, Irish relatives who ran a speakeasy (where he tended bar well before his teens) and a mother fond of placing bets with the local bookies.  He took a young woman named Marian Bergeron to his high school prom.  Marian would later go on to become Miss America 1933.   Swarthy and dark with a cigarette eternally on his lips he went on to college at the University of Miami and was stationed on the Panama Canal during World War II.   As a child I was fascinated by his stories of his pet boa constrictor and his trip to Cuba with his father to tour the rum factories, of his endless parade of cousins with names like “Doll Doll” “Big Al,” and “Chop Chop,” of his stories of riding street cars to school and being taken to a brothel by his dad as a teen to “become a man.”   Even though Connecticut was only a few hours away from our home in Maine, his life seemed worlds away from anything I could comprehend and I wondered what it would have been like to know this grandmother who dried pasta over the backs of her dining room chairs every Sunday and this grandfather who smoked a pipe and carried a pocket watch and had a smile that said “here kid, here’s a quarter go buy yourself a pack of gum.”   For me they did and do exist only in the photo that now rests on my living room shelf.

By contrast my mother grew up in the squeakiest clean city in the country – Salt Lake City.   Born in 1926, also to deaf parents, she lived a life of ice cream with her older brothers on the front porch of their big house, of Pioneer Days and taking care of her baby brother 16 years her junior.  She remembered her childhood as being ‘very poor,’ even though her mother insisted there was “always room for another pair of feet under the kitchen table.’ Hers was a life where being Catholic in a Mormon city meant not being able to be in her best friend’s wedding. Her college studies kept her close to home at the University of Utah.  The photos of her mother looked like what Norman Rockwell would have painted if you prompted him with the word “grandma,” large and gray haired with a permanent smile that said “come in so I can make you a tuna sandwich and a glass of milk.”  As a child I used to stare at her photos wondering what it would have been like to sit on her lap and bury my head in that expansive bosom perennially covered by an apron in nearly every picture.   I was fortunate enough to know my mother’s father however as he lived with us for most of my childhood.  He was the son of a southern gentleman and former slave owner from Arkansas.  An elegant man who dressed in a shirt and tie every day well into his 90s, someone who’d spring for a lobster dinner without thinking but giggle with glee if he managed to get through Sunday mass without putting a dollar in the collection basket.

From these two disparate backgrounds the Catholic good girl from Utah and the chain smoking charmer from Connecticut met in Washington DC where they were each doing graduate work in their studies in education of the deaf at Gallaudet College.   My mother used to tell me when she saw my father in the dining hall she declared “that’s the man I’m going to marry.”  Seven years later my father finally proposed at a DC gas station with the tremendously romantic proposition “Well….how about it?”   On subsequent trips to DC with my family my father would always try to find that same gas station (now in a less than desirable neighborhood) to pay homage to this historic occasion.

My parents story is a love story, of a New Haven boy raised on Italian wine at dinner and bourbon afterwards and his Salt Lake City girl who never had a drink until they met; of two people bound together by the unique experience of growing up with deaf parents, by their tremendous faith and devotion to their church and their firm belief that family was everything;  of a couple that moved  from DC to California to Maine as my father’s career in deaf education progressed until their lives finally settled on an island with a son and two daughters, where lasagna and sauce cooked in the kitchen and scrabble games were played over bourbon manhattans.    They wrote love notes to each other bought each other cards for their ‘half- anniversaries.”  They hugged often and kissed under the mistletoe (and every where else much to the mortification of their teenaged youngest daughter).  My mother, a great correspondent, would sit at night writing cards and letters and my father would watch Pavarotti sing ‘I Pagliacci” on PBS and cry.   And every night from my room across the hall I would hear them say “Goodnight Joseph.  Good night Mary.”

My father died twenty years ago today after a short battle with malignant melanoma.  Once in the waning days of his illness as I felt his life and my tether to a family history I would never recapture slipping away I brought home a copy of “Moonstruck” to watch with him.  After the movie I asked him if it reminded him of his Italian relatives.  From his bed on the couch he smiled wanly and said “my family wasn’t that quiet.”   When I lost my father I lost my biggest fan, who never missed a school, summer stock or community theater performance.  I lost my walking partner who’d tramp for hours with me around our island or our subsequent neighborhoods telling me stories of his past and guiding me as I started uncertainly toward my future.  I lost the man who’d lie on the floor with me in front of the Christmas tree playing game after game of “I spy.”   I lost the man who taught me to love Broadway musicals and Pauline Kael’s movie reviews in the New Yorker.  In many ways when I lost him I lost my childhood and while I no longer can hear his voice in my head to this day the smell of Old Spice instantly makes me think of his bear hugs.

My mom lived eighteen long years after my father’s death, finally giving in to the aggressive breast cancer that took her from us two years ago  (almost exactly to the day that my father died).  Where my father was everyone’s friend and was greeted with shouts of “hey Joe!” wherever he went, my mother, the eternal schoolteacher, was always “Mrs. Youngs” much to her chagrin. Lacking my father’s bon vivant embrace of life she was the navigator guiding our family’s ship through waters both calm and troubled.  She drove carpool and made lunches of tomato soup and grilled cheese.  She made sure we never missed mass, that we wrote our thank you letters before we played with our toys at Christmas, that we knew how to sign so we could communicate with our grandfather, and that we always respected our teachers.  She oversaw our household chores but turned a blind eye when my brother and I would try to clear everything off the kitchen table in one trip or when my sister and I would have water fights while doing the dishes.  She made cookies with me to send to my brother in college, weathered my sister’s tempestuous battles with my father and had a tendency to get weepy at any play, assembly or  sporting event where one of her kids had a chance to shine.  Her door was always open to students needing someone to talk to and her lap was always available for the sobs of emotional daughters struggling to understand life.  Every once in a while she’d break her own rules and let me or my sister stay home from school for no reason saying that “sometimes you just need a day.”  Of course it wasn’t always perfect.  My mother often frustrated me – her worship of my older brother and her way of pursing her lips in disapproval at my choices grated on me and I often felt I couldn’t do anything right.  But when I lost her I lost my confidante, my companion in watching the Kennedy Center honors, my political debate partner, my resource for everything from how long to cook a pork roast to how to weather my infant daughter’s colic.  And of course I lost that lap to cry on.

At my father’s funeral, just before the casket was closed, I knelt with my mother to say goodbye.  She whispered to me “every night I would say Goodnight Joseph ….”  And then she touched my father’s hand and through her tears said it one last time. For years after my father died she would insist that the cracking of her ice in her nightly glass of bourbon and ginger was him saying good night to her.  At my mother’s funeral I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘goodnight Mary” but I knew that somewhere somehow they were together to say it to each other.   For me, time has healed that first intense rush of grief and now on this anniversary weekend of both of their passings, I will say it tonight and know they are with each other and that they are with me.

Good night Joseph. Good night Mary.

The Cat Who Crashed Through the Ceiling and Other Tales of A Family Christmas

20 12 2009

The other day someone asked me how long Kelly had been living with us and as I stopped to add up the weeks I realized it was just shy of three months. Three months?  That’s it?  So seamlessly has our family life shifted and expanded to include Kelly and the cats that it feels as though we’ve always been a family of three (well ok seven if you count the cats).  Oh sure there have been the “why do you leave the dishes on the counter instead of putting them in the dishwasher?”, the “Is there a reason you like to leave cupboards open after you get something out of them?” and the “I JUST swept that floor and now there’s shredded cheese all over it” er…discussions.  (And no, I’m not going to tell you who the culprits were in any of those examples).   And of course there have been the delightful “you folded and put away the laundry and started dinner?”,  “YOU scooped the litter box?” and the “why don’t I pick up the girl today to give you a little extra time at work?” surprises.   The other night when Kelly worked an additional 3-11 shift I found I couldn’t go to sleep without her there, so accustomed I’d become to our pillow talk at the end of the day.

Spatz the Christmas Cat in a deceptively peaceful moment

So all in all it’s your basic family life with all those “ little things” (with apologies to Mr. Sondheim) that make it all worthwhile and maddening at the same time. And for me, someone who’s felt rudderless with little family for so long, it provides that mooring, that safe harbor to return to each night.  So of course I was looking forward to a ‘real’ family Christmas this year and making our home warm and full of holiday cheer.

After five years as my partner, Kelly is indulgent of my penchant for decorating at Christmas, and humors my endless “No! the Santa on the bike goes on the phone table not the coffee table!” decrees.  However, this year we had to navigate new furniture and the absence of old, resulting in Kelly gallantly clearing her sideboard to give the Santa mugs a new home, and my agreeing to cull down some of the duplicates so they would all fit.  The crèche and the nutcracker collection found new spots as well and it all seemed to work out ok.  Much to my relief the cats left things alone for the most part, although Spatz does show a marked preference for alternating between tipping over and sleeping on top of the  basket of lights and pinecones I have in the living room.  But then there was the issue of the tree.  “In 43 years I’ve never had a fake tree!” I declared.  But Kelly would hear none of it as she worried about cats eating the needles, drinking sap infused water out of the tree stand and dying horrible pine scented deaths.  When she finally uttered the magic phrase “oh for heaven’s sake I’ll even BUY the tree” she finally had a deal.  We managed to find one that wouldn’t break our bank and looked somewhat realistic so one night we set out to set it up while Liza was off at a friend’s house.  The minute we took endless bunches of color-coded branches out of the box and read the instructions I started to cry.  This was so wrong!   Christmas trees came from our annual trip to the lot near the Dunkin Donuts and arrived at our home precariously balanced on the jeep and leaving a trail of needles as we wrestled it through the door – not FROM A BOX.”   Kelly,  bless her heart gently offered to take the tree back and throw the fates to the wind with a real tree so I dried my tears and persevered.  By golly it started to look like a tree.  By the time we got the lights on I felt much better and announced Liza and her friend and I would decorate it the next day while Kelly worked.

The next day while Liza and her friend played up in her room I decided to fold a quick load of laundry before bringing up the decorations.  As I knelt on the floor near the washer/dryer closet folding and sorting I heard a rustling above my head followed by a meow as our cat Spatz suddenly poked his nose through the foam ceiling tile of my drop ceiling.  He had jumped from washer to storage box and into the ceiling tiles quicker than I can polish off a bag of Ruffles.  Did I mention the celing tiles are foam? As in non-cat-body-weight supporting foam?   Much to his dismay I wrestled him to the ground closed the closet door, replaced the tile and sent him on his way.  Less than 30 minutes later as the girls headed down to the basement we heard a thud followed by “mommmma…you better come down here.”  Sure enough Spatz had repeated his new trick and surfed the foam tile down to the carpet below, sauntering away with a look that read “something happened to your ceiling.”

Fortunately I had the tree to distract him.

For the entire first week following our tree trimming we’d return home to find branches knocked off, ornaments rolled across the room and one particularly lovely Clara Nutcracker ornament repeatedly taken down.  While the other cats regarded the tree with mild confusion Spatz saw it as a challenge.  He chewed on lights, batted at ornaments and climbed the fake trunk of the tree in a quest to find those antique breakable family ornaments I’d placed on the  topmost branches in an effort to keep them safe.   After days of me pulling him out of the tree and threatening to banish him to the snow we finally came to a truce the day I returned home to find his favorite toy (a stuffed dog he stole from Liza’s room) lovingly tucked under the tree as a peace offering.  He hasn’t so much as bothered a branch sincet. I can’t say the same for the basement ceiling but in exchange for his leaving the tree alone I daily replace the ceiling tiles and go about my day.

The holiday season can be brutal when you work both in a theater and bookstore and have a daughter who performs in dance, music, and theater.  Between the multiple nutcrackers and Christmas Carols (last tally 4 of the former, 2 of the latter) and the shelving and scanning and the “my wife wants some book that has blue in the title, or maybe the cover is blue. I forget. Anyway do you have that one?”s, it’s easy to just want to wish the holidays away so that life can return to its peaceful ordered existence free of misshapen gingerbread houses and mad dashes to Target and “which costume do you need for today?” conversations.   But the other night when I returned from the theater around 9pm, we ended up all gathering round the dining room table as Kelly researched honeymoon destinations and Liza created virtual rooms on Barbie.com and I relaxed with my nutritionist-sanctioned one glass of Shiraz. I looked at the room bathed in the glow of the tree lights, at the Santa mugs in their new spot, and at the cats curled up near the heating vent and was suddenly gripped with the kind of Christmas excitement I haven’t felt in years.  “You guys!” I said, “look! It’s our first real family Christmas!”  Kelly smiled and murmured ‘mmmm’ without taking her eyes from her search for special Napa Valley Inns, but Liza looked up at me, rolled her eyes and gave me the best Christmas gift she possibly could have.  “ Mommmmma! We’ve been a family for years! The only difference this year is that we all live together..duhhhh!”   Of course Liza, of course.   It may not be “God bless us everyone,” but for my family it’s pretty darn close.  Merry Christmas.