“Give with a warm hand, not a cold hand”

Dad and Mom wedding

Today is my parents’ 64th wedding anniversary. This is an impressive milestone. They are healthy, still enjoying the home they’ve lived in for the past 38 years, still full of love, wisdom and great humor. On this occasion, which will be my final post in my 1954 blog, I’d like to pay tribute to my parents. After all, I wouldn’t be here to celebrate my milestone birthday if it weren’t for them. That’s obvious but still worth saying. What better appreciation for my own life than to honor their 64 years of marriage by sharing a few life lessons I’ve (almost) learned from my father and my mother:

  • From Dad: learn to tell a joke. My father has an enviable memory for jokes. He times them just right, he remembers them accurately, and he tells them well. Sadly, I don’t have this gift. I always forget the punch line and end up giving away the joke through my awkward pauses and equally embarrassing interjections like “Oh wait, I think this is how it goes…” I’m still working on it, Dad. I know it’s been 60 years, but I hope to get it right eventually.
  • From Mom: send cards. My mother has the gift of remembering the celebratory dates in other people’s lives—birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, retirements—and an equally sympathetic heart for the hard times—sickness, struggle, and loss. My mother sends cards. To everyone. On the right date. It never seems to be an obligation for her. She, of course, sends cards to those she loves, but she’ll send cards and notes to complete strangers or mild acquaintances—her hairdresser, the young man who helps her with the groceries, the receptionist in the doctor’s office. I strive to be like her. But, those who know me know that I’m often late with my cards or say things like, “I meant to send you a card.” I’m still working on it, Mom. I know it’s been 60 years, but I hope to get it right eventually.
  • From Dad: memorize poetry. From early childhood on, I remember my father sitting in the living room on Sunday mornings and listening to LPs of recorded poetry. Poe, Whitman, Frost, Longfellow, Shakespeare. In high school, he secretly memorized his favorite poems, something unusual for a teenager. I love this story he often tells us: in his high school English class, his teacher asked the students to memorize the first few stanzas of “Wreck of the Hesperus.” She gave the class a few minutes to quietly work on it. While everyone else was trying to commit those lines to memory, my father was leafing through the textbook and reading other poems. His teacher caught him and in a stern voice asked, “Edward, do you have your stanzas memorized?” My father replied that he had. Of course, she didn’t believe him. How could he have memorized those few lines when he wasn’t even looking at them? So, she asked him to come up and recite them to the class. To her surprise—shock—he stood up and recited the entire poem. Not just the first few stanzas, but the entire poem of 16 stanzas, 64 lines. Way to go, Dad! Those early years of my childhood, hearing those beautiful oral renditions of great classics on our living room stereo, must have stayed with me. I’m now an English teacher. But I don’t have the gift of memorizing poems that he has. I’m still working on it, Dad. I know it’s been 60 years, but I hope to get it right eventually.
  • From Mom: be organized. My mother is not a procrastinator. She sees what needs to be done and she does it. Her home is orderly yet comfortable. She cleans up after cooking. She mails her bills within days after they arrive. She doesn’t wait for the due date. She reconciles her checkbook as soon as she gets her bank statement. Yes, some people still do this, and she could teach a class on it. My parents and my brother used to work together, so one day my father and brother decided to play a trick on our mother. They pretended they ran out of staples and mentioned it to each other, within earshot of Mom who was busily at work on her side of the office. They wanted to see how long it would take Mom to run out to Office Max and get some staples. She wasn’t even part of the conversation, but they knew she heard them talking. Within minutes, Mom was up and out of the office, on her way to buy staples. She can’t relax if she knows something needs to be done. While I’m writing this, my breakfast dishes are in the sink, I’m still in my pajamas, and I’d like another cup of tea but don’t feel like getting up to make it. I’m sadly not my mother’s daughter on this front. I’m still working on it, Mom. I know it’s been 60 years, but I hope to get it right eventually.
  • From Dad and Mom: be generous. I would not be exaggerating to say that my parents are the most generous people I know. They give if they see a need. They give if they don’t see a need. They look for excuses to give. They are thoughtful, caring, kind. For 64 years, they faithfully have stood by each other’s side. They appreciate one another. They are an example of love and commitment and faith. And, they are generous. My mother often quotes her own mother’s Arabic proverb, “Give with a warm hand, not a cold hand.” This is how they live. Giving gives them pleasure. I want to be as generous as they are. I’m still working on it, Dad and Mom. I know it’s been 60 years, but I hope to get it right eventually.

Family heirlooms: made to last

Drill

I choked up when I saw the drill bit. A silvery spirally treasure. My 28-year-old son, a new homeowner, sent a picture of it, the one he was using for the workbench he was building. This was the drill bit that did the job, he wrote. He thought we’d want to see it.

He was right.

This drill bit was made on the assembly line of the Cleveland Twist Drill Company more than 60 years ago. Made by my grandfather, my son’s great-grandfather.

My grandfather was proud of the work he did during his nearly 40 years at Cleveland Twist Drill, and he had a workshop full of drill bits, crafted by his own careful hand. Coming to the United States from Syria, all alone at the age of 15, he found his way to Cleveland and to this assembly line job. This was his American dream: a steady job enabling him to own a home and raise his family. These drill bits were their bread and butter through the Great Depression, when the company stayed open a few days a week while other companies shuttered their doors.

After my grandfather passed away in 1969, the many drill bits and some of his tools got passed down like heirloom jewelry to my father. When my son bought his house earlier this year, my father sorted through his tools–hammers, screwdrivers, saws, garden tools, and a collection of those drill bits in every size imaginable–and gave some to his grandson, named after his great-grandfather. Keepsakes for his namesake.

I remember as a child spending time with my grandfather in his basement workshop and watching him putter around with his own do-it-yourself projects. I never imagined that 50 years later I’d have a son named for him and he’d be puttering around his own house, building shelves, making a workbench, setting up pegboards in order to put at his fingertips his own hammers, screwdrivers, and saws.

So, rummaging through his sets of new drill bits that day, my son couldn’t find the right size he needed. Then he went through his great-grandfather’s supply—likely made to standards incomparable to today’s manufacturing of things with practically single-use status. He found the right drill bit, and that was the one used for his DIY project: a drill bit more 50 years old, a still shiny heirloom made to last.

Sometimes it’s the old things that have more usefulness than the new.

 

Apron strings: re-tying the frayed cords of the past

Image

Every morning when I look in the mirror, I see a holographic image of generations past. I see my maternal grandmother’s nose and broad round cheeks superimposed on the curly-haired coif of my paternal grandmother. The eyes of my mother’s encouragement stare back at me. I see my aunts and cousins smiling through each of these images. My father and grandfathers are there, too, but it is the women who dominate this overlay of faces.

When I see my daughter, I see my mother. The way they both lean their heads when talking. The playful expressions of their dark eyes. Their brows, arms, and hands wired to mannerisms that can’t be taught or even copied.  My blonde, blued-eyed granddaughter looks just like my son-in-law.  Yet, I see my dear daughter at the age of five charging through in this little one’s words, actions, interests. Bug collection, mud pie-making, an emotional attachment to animals and nature, a love of paints and markers, sobbing over the sad parts in books and movies, changing her clothes ten times a day in wildly mismatched outfits, an affinity to pink and purple, and the ability to dig her heels into the ground so deeply that a mother can be left defenseless, even in tears. This is a familiar chapter in a book I’ve read many times.

Several years ago, after my Aunt Helen passed away, we went through her things and found a drawer full of pressed aprons that belonged to my paternal grandmother. Many were handmade out of old house dresses or my grandfather’s discarded shirts, many still stained with olive oil splatter, some with worn holes around the waist, a place of rest against a sink or counter or stove top. Others were fancier with ruffles and embroidery, rarely worn, probably gifts from those who wanted her aprons to be more presentable, less practical. As we divvied out her things, I went home with the aprons. It was like owning a living part of my grandmother, lost many years ago. She passed away just a day after my 40th birthday, so her memories are still fresh in my mind, part of my childhood, my adulthood, and my motherhood.

I kept these pressed aprons in a box for several more years, but periodically I looked at them, tried them on, refolded them, and put them back into storage. The aprons brought back a long mental film footage of my grandmother kneading dough, grinding lamb, pounding chick peas by hand with a mallet in a wooden bowl, hanging clothes on the line, then hurrying back into the kitchen to finish the kibbee, hummus, and tabbouleh of her Syrian heritage for the night’s meal.

My maternal grandmother lived a similar life of domesticity and aprons, except that she took some of those aprons outside the home. She and my uncles ran the Brothers Lounge, a combination tavern, restaurant and jazz club. They sold the place some time during my preteen years, but it was recently restored into a rock and roll venue on Cleveland’s West Side. The new owners even kept the original name, Brothers Lounge. On its website is a link to the club’s history, and it mentions its early years when it “was a place where you could enjoy great ethnic food.” That great ethnic food was the product of my Lebanese grandmother cooking in the bar’s tiny kitchen, back in the 50s and 60s. Occasionally, when I went with my mother on her errands, we’d drop in to see my grandmother at work. I can picture her garbed in full apron attire and perspiring over the hot stove in the windowless kitchen. It’s funny now to think that her cooking carries a legacy that has found its way to the hip Brothers Lounge of today.

As those aprons began to circle their way through the memories of my childhood, my daughter was pregnant with their first child, our first grandchild. I wanted to find a special gift for this baby girl, something memorable, something that would be a reflection of my love for her. I decided to make her a patchwork quilt, and as I began to look at designs and fabrics, I was drawn back to those aprons. For the years those aprons were stored neatly in that box in my closet, I wondered what would become of them. I felt so attached to each apron, but I knew that no one would ever have that same attachment. It was then that I called my mother and asked if she had any of her mother’s aprons. She did. Did she have any of her own aprons that she wasn’t wearing anymore? She did. Would she mind sending them to me? No problem.

So, I gathered together all those aprons of my mother and my two grandmothers, and in the fabrics I saw the stories of many generations of women who loved their families. This would be the raw material of the quilt for my firstborn granddaughter. These aprons would find new life for a new life. I decided to use the Ohio star pattern, since I grew up in Ohio and wanted some of “me” in that quilt. Each of those stars is made of pieces of those aprons. They don’t really go together: some are calico muslin, others are wild neon prints from the 60s, while others are more delicate pastels with tiny hand-embroidered roses.

The quilt now hangs above my granddaughter’s bed. It is a combination of odd and pretty fabrics, pieced together like that holographic mirror of faces. When I look at it, I see one grandmother’s laughter, another grandmother’s sorrows, one grandmother’s delicious rice pilaf, another grandmother’s famous Syrian bread, and my own mother’s sweet smile. My granddaughter may never see what I see in the fabrics of that pieced quilt, but I will tell her their stories. Those apron strings may become frayed, but they will forever be connected.

List-Blogging is a Fantasy Sport

I like lists. Readers like lists. Many of us want our nuggets of wisdom in an easy-to-read package the length of a Sesame Street segment. And, many of us bloggers write these lists. Here are some recent blog lists that drew my attention, in descending order of items, with a bit of personal commentary:

  • “101 Things to Do Rather than Revise”: I can think of 102 things.
  • “50 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do”: This list is so good that it should be required reading for teenagers.
  • “35 Gifts Your Children Will Never Forget”: No child needs 35 gifts.
  • “21 Things They Never Tell You About Poor Countries”: Who are “they”?
  • “19 Things I Learned Before 19”: I like this writer’s humility.
  • “13 Things I Can’t Even Handle”: The truth? Criticism? Starbucks?
  • “11 Universal Truths in Nutrition That People Actually Agree On”: Eat more butter.
  • “10 Reasons Why I Will Continue to Give My Children Handheld Devices”: So that I can take a nap.
  • “9 Things You Should Know about the Story of Noah”: It really happened.
  • “8 Things You Should Never Be Ashamed Of”: Number 3 on this list encourages people to take more selfies. That’s preaching to the choir.
  • “7 Simple Truths about Dressing with Less”: Buy six scarves and a black T-shirt.
  • “6 Reasons Curling is the Best Olympic Sport”: There are six reasons?
  • “5 Reasons You Should Never Settle”: Settle on? Settle for? Settle down?
  • “4 Things Jesus Never Said”: Cleanliness is next to Godliness. God helps those who help themselves. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Name it and claim it. They’re in a better place. (Oops, that’s five.)
  • “3 Things to Consider Before You Hit Send”: If you have to consult a list like this, you should NOT hit send.
  • “The One and Only Thing People Need to Stop Doing on Facebook”: Apparently, the one and only thing is this: Don’t make Facebook rules for other people. That’s actually a good life rule.

One thing I’ve noticed about blog lists is that no one has a Top Two of anything. At the least, a list might pronounce a one-and-only something or other, and after skipping the number two, list-makers boldly increase their numbers, just short of infinity. People—myself included—read these in a rush for some snippets-to-go. It’s like parachuting into the self-help section at the bookstore. Somehow, I might learn what to eat, what to say, what to believe, what to like, what to buy, where to travel, where to live, who to be. All during my lunch hour.

When I noticed that so many bloggers write lists, I wondered if I should write one too. I must admit: lists are attention-getting, and we bloggers all want attention. What might my list look like? Top 10 reasons to embrace getting older? Seven gift ideas for someone turning 60? 101 important life lessons from a 60-year-old? Don’t worry, I won’t subject you to those posts.

But, what do I believe? What have I experienced? What do I know? When asked that way, I just want to hide behind my book and hope the teacher doesn’t call on me.

God must have a sense of humor

angel pic

I like to picture God with a sense of humor. Not the laugh-at-people-tripping-over-their-shoelaces kind of humor or the sarcastic putdown.  Not even the self-deprecating jibe.  After all, He’s the creator of the universe, so He has nothing to deprecate about Himself.  I can’t picture Him telling ethnic jokes either. But, I don’t think He’s a dour humorless God who just shakes His head in disbelief over mankind’s foibles.  He certainly would be justified in doing so, but He’s much more loving than that. Thank God.

He made us in His image and made us to be laughing creatures, so there must be funny things out there that still make nice with mankind.

Lots of us say, in times of dire mishap, “God must have a sense of humor.”  After all, if we don’t laugh when we drop our cell phone in our morning coffee, just before we accidentally send our boss a lovey-dovey email meant for our spouse, only to come home to a skunk who invited himself into our kitchen through the dog door, then we’d have a nervous breakdown. You know, if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry, so we assume He too is chuckling at this collection of calamities.

This pondering came about unexpectedly as I began looking at the Old People of the Bible to find out what lessons were to be learned from them. Their stories, though inspiring, really made me laugh. Suddenly, at my age, they are much more relatable.  Bonding-with-buddies is, after all, one type of humor.

So, in this little investigation, one Old Person of the Bible who grabbed my attention is Sarah, who actually laughs at the Creator of the Universe.  Not really at him, per se, but at His message to her and Abraham, that they’d have a son in their old age. Here’s a modern-day retelling of her story:

“Abraham, someone’s at the door.  Can you get it?”

Sarah is in the kitchen, overcome by the heat of the day, finished with most of her day’s chores, when Abraham answers the door, then calls out, “Honey, bring some water and make some bread for our visitors!”

“Bread?  At this time of day?  When are you gonna get me that bread machine you promised?” 

Sarah’s arthritic hands knead through the dough in the hot afternoon. She peeks out to listen to the conversation between Abraham and the Stranger at the Door, who tells Abraham that next year he and Sarah will have a son.  Sarah, already achy with old age, past the possibility of having a kid, laughs at this idea and says to herself, “Why now?  Why when I’m too worn out to enjoy this? Why when I can’t bend down anymore to pick up all those Legos?”

The Visitor, who we now realize is God Himself, hears her laugh and says, “Why was she laughing? Is anything too hard for me?”

Oops, Sarah gulps, He heard me. So she quickly fibs:  “I didn’t laugh.”

“Yes you did.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Huh-uh.”

We know how that ends.

How can we not laugh at poor Sarah? Who among us hasn’t snickered a bit when we heard of someone past her prime having a late-in-life baby?  What older woman hasn’t worried about that herself?  Who doesn’t relate to eavesdropping and laughing at the preposterousness of this possibility?  Only to be caught in the act of eavesdropping and laughing?  By God Himself?  And, who doesn’t laugh at her trying to wriggle her way out of her mishap? Suddenly, accidentally sending that lovey-dovey email to your boss isn’t so bad, is it?

Dream come true

Water

(With a nod to Anne Lamott and her “aunties”)

For most of my adult life, I’ve had dreams about swimming. When I wake up from these dreams, I feel weightless and liberated. Not like the dreams about forgetting to take an exam or trying to run but your legs are stuck in concrete. In these swimming dreams, I’m gliding through a pool with the ease of Michael Phelps. The water is just the right temperature, my arms and legs coordinated, propelling me forward, and my breathing is even. No flailing, no gasping, no begging for someone to save me. As calming as these dreams are, I rarely wake up looking for a swimming hole, rarely seek to duplicate this experience in the waking world.

When I was a child, swimming was my favorite thing to do. I bugged my parents every hot summer day to take me swimming at our community pool. When I was a little older, about 10 or 12, they let me take the city bus to the pool all by myself. Many times, I went alone, even at that age. It didn’t matter to me if a friend joined me or not.

As an adult, things changed. My love of swimming gave way to walking as my exercise of choice. Walking the dog. Walking through my neighborhood. Walking on the beach. Walking on an indoor track. Walking with my husband. Walking with my kids and grandkids. Walking with friends. Then, it happened. Last June, I got tendinitis in my foot, and I temporarily couldn’t take any long walks. The student papers were graded and the semester was over, and all the things I planned to do on my summer break involved walking. How was I going to enjoy the summer if I couldn’t walk on Crane Beach, through Appleton Farm, and all around Boston? I had a new pedometer and planned to speed-walk my summer away. The doctor, trying to be encouraging, said I could swim until my foot healed. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve had access to my campus pool for 25 years, but it may as well have been in another country, not a five-minute walk from my office, a 10-minute drive from my home.

So, I looked in the mirror, told myself to get over myself, ordered a new bathing suit from L.L. Bean, and began doing laps at the pool. In front of my students and the whole world. I think I can safely say that no woman my age wants to walk around in a public area in her swimsuit. I’m fine at the beach, where I can hide in plain sight, but this parading around in close quarters took courage. Not the kind of courage it takes for a soldier to put himself in harm’s way. But the kind of courage it takes to let the world see your flabby thighs. The kind of courage it takes to swim a lap in slow motion while the college swim team and the triathletes zip by in the adjacent lanes. The kind of courage it takes to shower and dress in the college locker room. If there’s an Olympic medal for this, I will humbly accept it on behalf of all out-of-shape women throughout the globe. National Anthem, please.  Actually, it hasn’t taken much courage at all.  I had forgotten how much I love swimming.

A young friend recently asked me to write a blog entry sharing advice I’d give my 30-year-old self, and the only thing I could think of is this: get over yourself.  Who cares what people think of your thighs, your lack of athleticism, your inability to walk, talk, text, tweet, chew gum and drink tall café lattes with soy and extra Splenda at the same time? I was told that the lifeguards at the pool chuckle together at the lap swimmers who, like me, don’t have the best of form. They chuckle? Really? To that, I can only say, with a smile on my face,  “God will judge them.” I know, I know, he’ll judge me for saying that. But, it felt good.

Shabby Chick

My husband and I were recently browsing in a store selling re-purposed furniture and other home decorating items. Way back in the 20th century, we called the latter knick-knacks. Nowadays, I think they’re called distressed vintage doodads, something my grandmother would have considered not elegant enough to place on her mantel.  Anyway, this tiny shop was the only place in a 10-mile radius that carries chalk paint, so I was busy deciding between two colors of ridiculously expensive sample jars, while my husband was overhearing a conversation between two women our age, navigating the tight quarters of the tchotchke-infested store. Tchotchke. That’s another word for knick-knacks. I’m using a thesaurus, in case you hadn’t noticed. Curio. Objet d’Art. Annoying-stuff-that-requires-dusting-and-breaks-if-you-have-small-children-in-the-house. That’s one word. Look it up.

Meanwhile, here’s the conversation between the two ladies browsing through the store:

“This is what they call Shabby Chick.”

“No, you mean Shabby Chic. C-H-I-C.”

“Right, Shabby Chick.”

“No, it’s pronounced, sheek. It’s French. Shabby Chic.”

“Oh, that’s how you say it?”

When we left the store, my husband relayed the story.  Shabby ChickShabby Chick. It has such a nice ring to it that I want to own that phrase and trademark it.  But, I wonder, is it a person, place or thing?

Shabby Chick (A Person): a thrift-store-shopping female hipster.

Shabby Chick (A Place): an upscale organic restaurant specializing in free-range gourmet chicken entrees. Shabby used ironically here.

Shabby Chick (A Thing): grungy poultry. (Is there any other kind? A clothespin on your nose wouldn’t help within a 100-yard radius of a henhouse. Try shopping for shabby chick products at your neighborhood Pottery Barn. I don’t think so.)

My second favorite line in the conversation between Woman 1 and Woman 2 is the question, “Oh, that’s how you say it?” It evokes a time, a good ten years ago, when the word “diss” first came out in American teenage vernacular. I thought it was pronounced “dice.”  One of my students included dialogue in a story, where one of her characters said “diss.”  I was reading it aloud to the class and pronounced it “dice.” Everyone laughed. Someone corrected me, “It’s diss.”

“Oh, that’s how you say it? But, dice makes so much more sense. As in chopping something up, right?” My students weren’t buying it. As I looked out at the class, I felt like my hair was turning grey, my shoulders slumping into old age. Starting teaching at the age of 27, I had always felt like I was close to their age. Now, I had crossed a line, and I was the age of their parents. Even older.

It was at that moment when Cool Professor M became Old Professor M.

All I can say, though, is, Just don’t diss me. ‘Cause I’m one not-so-shabby chick.