Three – Count ’em – Three

2 May

Mothers-in-law, that is.  This is a nitty gritty fact of being married three times that I gave any thought to only recently.  I mean I didn’t have them all at once.  Each of them was a truly unique individual and might show up in other stories, but with Mother’s Day lurking, I thought I’d mention a little something about each of them.

The first one I met a few months before my marriage.  I was 18 and from an undemonstrative family.  To find myself welcomed warmly in the arms of the vivid woman who was to leave her mark on my life was a very touching experience.  For no discernible reason, my husband-to-be called her “Grace.”  She was probably about 56 with upswept pale hair, long beautiful legs and a scattered nervous manner.  Eventually I learned how very hard her life had been, incredible stories of loss, betrayal, hardship and abuse.  Then I knew of little, except the story of her widowhood.  When I told my own mother about Grace’s warmth, her hugs, my mother humphed that those huggy ones were suspect.  It was Grace’s hand I held and nearly broke in the throes of my first labor, she who taught me little domestic things, giggled with me about her son, shared endless coffee and cigarettes.   A little paragraph cannot contain all of Grace’s wrenching glory.  Eventually we broke each other’s heart.  Isn’t that the way of it?  The more living that goes on, the more the potential for hurt.  Grace died a few months before both of my own parents.  There’s no one I wish peace more.

My second mother-in-law protested the marriage on the basis that I was old enough to be her son’s much, much, much older sister.  There.  Think about that one.   I think she was about 46, very attractive in a buttoned down way.  I always felt a little slutty next to her crisp shirts and neat hairstyles.  Despite their strong feelings, she and her husband showed up at the wedding and were gracious.  We ended up living in their area and they helped us out in various ways.  She remained an enigma although clearly a controlling repressive force in her marriage.  On holidays, she threw bourbon into everything, but those meals were struggles we all dreaded.  My poor children.  At least the adults could drink.   Mother-in-law #2 worked very hard behind the scenes; by the time I married her son, the damage was already done – to him and ultimately to us.  She made a great shrimp and cream cheese dip and as far as I know is still making it.

My last mother-in-law, Flo,  was a gift and ultimately a model of gentleness and courage.   Really, our life stories today  pale beside those her generation lived – and particularly those living in England during WWII.  Like Grace, she was warm and welcoming to me in her modest retirement apartment in Dalkey, Ireland.  Like many partners, she lived most of her life away from her home country.  She had one evident affliction.  If she kept walking quickly, she was fine; if she stopped, her legs would give way.  Think of this:  our reaction with the very elderly is to walk slowly and to offer rests.  I nearly had the poor woman flattened on our first excursion to a rest room!  She made no fuss of herself, was clearly used to adapting and accepting, was full of life and humor still.  I loved to touch her, her soft skin, her warm hands.   Long marooned in Ireland, she returned in the last year of her life to England, to her sisters, to home.   Herscattered family scattered her ashes on a beautiful hill in the Cotswolds.  Her patient loving ways were reflected in many that day.  I do wish she and Grace could have met and laughed together.

So…any words from you about your mother(s)-in-law?


Strange stories for Monday

30 Apr

As sometimes happens, all kinds of little stories have been catching my eye and ear and memory.  See what YOU think. The first two are from my hometown paper the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

April 12, 2012 Headline: Baby found alive in morgue improving in Argentina.  Story: On April 3, 2012, a woman gave birth three months prematurely to a baby girl who was pronounced stillborn.  20 minutes after the child was born, doctors gave the mother a death certificate and the baby was quickly put in a coffin and taken to the morgue’s refrigeration room.  12 hour later when, at their insistence, she and her husband went to the morgue to say good-bye to their baby,  and, armed with her sister’s cellphone, to take a picture of the baby for the funeral.   Her husband struggled to open the coffin lid.  The woman at first thought she imagined the trembling she saw – but then there was a “tiny little cry” and the woman stated “…I stepped back and saw her waking up.”  The couple has four other children.

April 12, 2012 Headline: Utica man attempts to rob bank with toilet plunger.  This was a Key Bank, and the headline says it all.  The toilet plunger was recovered, but my husband wanted to know:  was it loaded?

Back in the day:  A friend told me about her own birth in the backwoods of Tennessee.  She was born at home, and then, thought to be stillborn, was placed on a table in an adjoining room while the new mother was attended.  A storm was raging outside and eventually the heavy rains trickled through a hole in the roof strategically located over my friend abandoned on the table.  The shock of the cold rain awoke her, she cried and the rest is her history.

April 28, 2012:  While I was paying for purchases in my favorite consignment store, Something Olde Something New, I told the first story above.   We all  took a few moments to consider how many had no doubt been buried alive, not just in bygone days when people were buried with bells to ring “just in case” but even today.  This reflection caused one of the women to remember a story a friend had told her about her mother, a woman in her 90’s.  Apparently, the woman was not seen for a sufficient time (days? hours? who knows?) to cause anxiety.  When (family? police? landlord?) entered her home, they found her feet sticking out under her bed, and presumed her dead or at least unconscious.  However, when the bed was moved to gain access to her body, she surprised them all by sitting up and asking: “What took you so long?”  Apparently, she’d had a stroke, fallen, and in her efforts to get up had positioned herself under the bed.

Come on, folks – you have any good stories of your own to tell?

You know who you are…Happy Administrative Professionals Week!

26 Apr

     Wow, here we are at Administrative Professionals Week (2000), formerly Professional Secretaries Week (1981) and National Secretaries Week (1952). According to Wikipedia:

“The idea began with Mary Barrett, president of the National Secretaries Association, now called IAAP (International Association of Administrative Professionals), and C. King Woodbridge, president of Dictaphone Corporation. They served on a council addressing a national shortage of skilled office workers. Together with Harry Klemfuss, public relations account executive at Young & Rubicam, they originated the idea for a National Secretaries Week. …[The expanded category originally had] ” two objectives in mind: to recognize ‘the secretary, upon whose skills, loyalty, and efficiency the functions of business and government offices depend,’ and to call attention ‘through favorable publicity, to the tremendous potential of the secretarial career.’ “

     I was in a variety of office and secretarial positions for over 40 years, and except in movies or books, neither observed nor much experienced potential in “the secretarial career.”  That’s not to say some don’t make it out; they do, and I raise my glass to them.

      No insult is intended for anyone in this role.  IN THE DAY the secretary’s position definitely demanded skills and efficiency, a cheerful nurturing disposition and a bit of the martyr.  If you satisfied in the position, you received the praise accorded to a good dog, a good loyal dog, and no one had any interest in interrupting by promotion the comfortable service they were receiving.  Why then they’d have to break someone in all over again!   If you went into a coma listening to your boss’s stories,  raised your blood pressure covering for him or her, or felt as invisible as the garbage disposal, well then those situations were the way it was and did not much dampen your self-esteem.  As a good dog, you licked your wounds at home.  Despite all, you knew your worth.

     When computers changed the way work was done, they also changed the way secretaries’ work was regarded and their worth was measured.  All sorts of office workers got cozy with technology and called themselves Administrative Assistants.  Secretaries languished within their outdated titles until they learned to become Executive Administrative Assistants and reclaim some of their old power and self-respect.

    From my observation, two things didn’t change:  there was still little potential to move beyond these positions of service, and good dog praise remained albeit now sterilized in careful and complicated evaluation processes.  What did change were the meat and potatoes of most secretarial type positions.  The Secretaries, now often known as Administrative Assistants, lost their autonomy, felt the scope, responsibility and substance of their work dwindle and, as a result, faced the reality of their expendability, not to mention their boredom.

     So the country gets to that week in April when there is often a last-minute scramble by managers and bosses to honor the efforts of their assigned Administrative Assistants.  Many times they didn’t hire them and don’t like them.  Other times the dislike and lack of respect are mutual and encoded in careful communication that no one dares to decipher.  Sometimes the necessary words of personal thanks and praise are so foreign to management that  flowers and candy must be substituted.  HR departments and even the Administrative Assistants themselves are called upon to organize something appropriate, something that will make management look like it really cares.

     Most companies and offices fall back on the old way, once one-on-one and kindly personal, if sometimes awkward:  they eat together.  Workers who are sick to death of one another and their managers must, for the sake of this clumsy mandated occasion, sit through a lunch, making strained conversation.  When will it end?

     My apologies to those sincere and caring bosses and delighted recipients of restaurant lunches, flowers, cards, candy and other symbols of gratitude and affection.   You know who you are.

It Could Happen to You

24 Apr

Will they share?

In these frightening economic times, I viewed retirement less as a goal and more like winning the lottery.  And yet, other people were braving it or at least planning (thank you, Carol).  I’d thought I’d be working until they unpried my fingers from the computer keys and canceled my paycheck, but – glory of glories – my husband announced HE would work until they pry HIS fingers off his inspection tools.  He carries this idea that there are only about six months between a man’s retirement and his rendezvous with the graveyard.  I wonder if a lot of people feel this way.

There are definite anxieties attached to the goal of retirement, besides the obvious ones:  will I be sharing the cats’ food within a year?  how will I manage without structure?  without deadlines?  without a specified time to get up? will I get depressed?  And, sadly, will I have any value in the eyes of the world at large if I am not earning an income?  And, more sadly, will I then be old beyond redemption, fit only for coupon cutting and recycling plastic bags?

One day you are laughing with your women friends, talking about future retirement as you did menopause –  as some distant crossroad event.  A few years later when the subject comes up, you state firmly that you are not planning to retire any time soon.  More time goes by.  You notice that topics like social security, Medicare, exhaustion and discouragement are slowly creeping into your conversations and your mail.  You make random calculations of your financial situation, apply for Medicare and find yourself actually reading the AARP Magazine from cover to cover. You plod on.

Then one day, all other life experiences aside, you realize you have been forcing yourself to get out of bed for a long time. Your zest for life is at an all time low. You wonder if you really are pulling your weight at work, or if they are just feeling stuck with you and tolerating your mistakes.  And, finally, you don’t care.  Before it’s too late, before you are sick or disabled by fear or make an embarrassing error on the job, you want out.  You feel the terrible wrench of leaving good friends and coworkers behind, but you smell the roses and they smell mighty fine. 

Let me make clear that I realize how lucky I was to even have had the choice to retire.  Retirement is less than ever a viable opportunity  in US economic culture.  As my husband reminds me, in Ireland you retire with a livable pension, subsidized housing and utilities, free medical care and even food assistance.  Here far too many of our seniors scramble for survival.  This country supports a shameful disregard for what it pretends is important:  education, healthcare, poverty, equality, and its veterans, children and elderly.  

At the time of my leaving, almost everyone seemed to ask the same question:  “What will you do now?” At first I felt like I was being asked to produce a five-year plan to justify my retirement;  then I realized how kind and wonderful it was that most felt there was a life after retirement.  A wonderful excitement flooded through me.  I thought – yes!   Another crossroad, another adventure, another story.

I’d love to hear how other people made this decision and did the deed –or if you find you cannot retire or will not retire, what your thoughts are on this subject.  And if it’s not you, but your mom or dad at this crossroad, what are you observing about them?  And if mom and/or dad are gone or too young or already long retired, how do YOU think about retirement?  With longing?  Or fear?



For Tripe’s Sakes!

23 Apr

A few months after the tripe dinner adventure, the marital home was sold and I moved to Albany, where I planned to return to SUNYA and hopefully obtain a bachelor’s degree.  My second husband and I were separated but at that juncture no divorce was on the immediate horizon.

L and I continued an intermittent  friendship mostly  by mail, but my first years in Albany were  filled with my studies .   Later, after a failed reconciliation attempt and now properly divorced,  my  correspondence with L picked up, and a level of comfort was established.   This man was very good on paper.  I invited him to visit me.

L arrived in a car I recall only for its age and size, some 3-mile long model of pimp car –  not old enough to be a quirky antique and not young enough to melt into the landscape. (what is it with me and men and cars!)  When I went downstairs to greet L,  he  opened a trunk the size of a small cottage to reveal the gifts for his hostess.  I found myself staring at industrial sized boxes of  laundry detergent; gallon bottles of  bleach, fabric softener and shampoo; giant jars of oregano, and other spices.   I, who had asked only for a cutting from his lilac bush, was truly dumbfounded.   He said he knew I was on a tight budget and had made a practical trip to BJ’s.   I  was grateful.   I had as yet no idea this was the man who would give me Oil of Olay skin cream for Valentine’s Day.  The man was a goldmine of surprises.

The downstairs apartment was occupied by Kay, a nervous senior who watched (and listened to) my every move.  At 52 I really did not want to be called on to account for my overnight guest, so despite our staggering upstairs under the weight of a year’s supply of everything, thankfully Kay did not hear us.  Or so I thought.

Museum day with L.

We had a really nice week-end.  Like me, L was prone to bursting into song, the only man I ever knew to do that.  He was good company and fun.  He joined my family for dinner that Thanksgiving and hosted a dinner for some family and friends in the new year.  It all sounds good, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t.  I never met any of his friends or his daughter.  His involvement with his daughter, a bright young woman soon to graduate from college, gave me a little bit of the creeps sometimes. There were strange metal instruments in his bathroom, possibly dental in nature, but….?  He was a good date (in fact, through one of my daughters, I found out he had “dated” pretty widely, possibly leaving no date unturned!).  I knew he cared for me but his first loves were his daughter whom he had regained after her mother’s death, his country and its history, and the Hungarian community, which had been his family for many years.   All well and good, but not for me.  Bottom line:  We weren’t kids; the worlds we had created with our lives would not mesh.

We both moved on.  When I take out my Oil of Olay, I cannot help but think of him.  When I threw out the 10 lb. container of oregano, I remembered his kindness.  Sometimes in the market I find myself staring down at tripe and laughing, laughing.

I count on all of you to be thoughtful readers, to discern between the lines of the story yet another story.  Perhaps it is your own.




Oh no. What am I eating here?!!

20 Apr

In the late 80’s, between marriages two and three, I had an interesting romance with a Hungarian gentleman we’ll call L (have to watch out for those Google searches!).  L and I were casual friends during marriage two, having met as volunteers at GEVA Theatre.  At some point during the GEVA years, he took an interest in me and began to send me little notes in the snail mail, always with a ginkgo leaf enclosed.  Because he was so excited about the produce, I agreed to meet him at the Farmers Market early one Saturday morning.  I was dismayed when he kept trying to hold my hand and behaved in the manner of a suitor, ignoring my discomfort.  Sometimes as we enjoyed the perk of viewing the dress rehearsals, he would whisper comments into my ear causing me to shiver in the stuffy darkness.

L was a survivor of Hungary’s 1956 revolution.  He told how one night his family, with him carrying his little sister on his back, fled imminent danger by traversing mountain and wood not unlike a scene from The Sound of Music.  Awed by this glimpse into a past far more exciting than my own, I felt like I was hearing the outpourings of a celebrity.  L was a Kodak engineer, divorced from his wife who had returned to Hungary with their daughter. He answered my no doubt intrusive questions about his marriage, but he was a man sharing facts, not feelings.  He was attractive enough, very much into the culture of his country, determinedly cheerful and resilient.  Absorbed in my marriage, I had no romantic interest in him and was annoyed at his refusal to acknowledge my marital status.  However, I was not above flirting mildly.

Fast forward a few years, and my second husband and I are living apart.  I am heartsick as our marriage crumbles around me.  Out of the blue L invites me to dinner at his home, a neat duplex, and, rashly overwrought, I decide to go.  I sit on his sofa sipping from the contents of a number of interesting bottles that are brought out amidst stories of their respective origins, while L dashes back and forth to the kitchen.  As my alcohol content rises, I find myself both more and less nervous – go figure.  At one point I am standing in the living room and he dashes in and plants a kiss on my calf.  My calf!  Suddenly, I am torn between laughing hysterically at this “second base” after handholding and on Red Alert.

As it turned out the Red Alert was on the mark – but not because of any romantic overtures but because of DINNER.  After the calf episode, I decided to join L in the kitchen and watch him cook (always a profound pleasure to watch a man cook).  I should have watched more closely.  He dished up our plates of food and placed them on the table.  The only two things I recognized for sure were the cucumbers in sour cream and potatoes.  Another Something sat on the plate and he urged me to begin eating.  I played around with the cucumbers and potatoes avoiding the inevitable but finally, under L’s scrutiny of my plate, was forced to taste the Something.

All alcohol assistance drained from my being and I was suddenly sober, too sober.  Now I think: why didn’t I just ask him what it was, find some light clever way to do that.  Then I felt it would just be rude.  Shouldn’t I know what it was?  Bravely, I dug into the mass and raised the fork to my open lips and chewed while he smiled at me.  WHAT WAS IT?  WHAT WAS I EATING?  I felt the air go out of bits and the snap of them in my teeth. OH MY GOD, WHAT IS IT?    I swallowed, grateful to have dispensed with the mystery food in my mouth and retreated to the potatoes.  “You know, I’m not really very hungry,” I whined, offering a string of excuses.  He was gracious and forgiving. Later I learned that tripe* features in any number of Hungarian dishes.

*Tripe is the stomach lining of animals usually beef.

To be continued……

Living the story

19 Apr

The past has no power over the present tonight so the next story must wait for its moment.