Second Hand Rose

 §  To celebrate our upcoming Independence Day, I will extol a different way to buy American!  §

One of the worst aspects of the Indiana coronavirus lockdown was, for me, the inability to spend my free time shopping at flea markets and thrift and consignment or charity shops.  Tracking down wonderful and unexpected treasures at these markets has been one of my favorite pastimes for the past couple of decades.

Now, to be quite frank, there was a time in my youth when I would have been horrified at the notion of bringing second-hand goods into my home or wearing them on my back.  Even the name “flea market” (yes, it is unappealing!) sent a shudder down my spine.  That was, however, until one rainy weekend afternoon when I was convinced by an acquaintance to give the activity a try.  With nothing better to do and utterly bored, I agreed to traipse with her through a local flea market, figuring it would at least get my butt up off the couch.

Joining her on that first marketing adventure, I was amazed and astounded.  Yes, the shops contained an immense amount of junk, much of it dirty and obviously unloved, but there were also hidden riches just waiting to be unearthed.  I was astonished and delighted. Shopping at a thrift store or flea market was, I realized, a whole lot like a treasure hunt.  Often I came away empty-handed, but other times, why, at other times I was rewarded with masses of unexpected and unlikely prizes.  My “fleaze” I called them, the lovely things from furnishings to beautiful china and glassware that I delightedly discovered on my thrift shopping trips.

My obsession with second-hand goods has been possibly helped by the fact that my family is in no way pretentious or supercilious about gifts.  Instead, tightfisted and genetically bequeathed with the thrifty habits of our Scottish forebears, we are thrilled beyond measure when the giver, handing us something we really love or want as a birthday or holiday gift, can exclaim in excitement, “I found it at a consignment shop! You wouldn’t believe how little I paid for it!”  Yes, we are definitely all anti-snobs, gleefully gloating over our Scrooge-like frugality.

Some—most—of the furnishings and accessories in my home that I best enjoy have been purchased at flea markets, or at thrift or consignment or charity shops.  My adorable distressed dining room table and chairs and gorgeous antique rocker; the favorite green armchair that comforted me through a bad bout of flu; my converted-from-an-entertainment center china cabinets–all were purchased second-hand, and I genuinely value them.  Recycled goods have also nearly saved my bacon on a few occasions, such as the time when I, newly divorced, had to furnish an apartment for my teenage daughter and myself. I was leaving nearly every piece of furniture I owned behind with my ex-husband. But my sister-in-law contributed a loveseat that had been stored in her mother’s garage, while a friend provided a used entertainment center for our living room. Another friend bequeathed me a cast-off bunk bed for my child, while a neighbor sold me a daybed that she no longer needed.  Without those furnishings, my daughter and I would have been laying our heads to rest in sleeping bags and sitting on the floor to watch TV.

Despite constantly patronizing the second-hand shops and garage sales, I’ve never made so wondrous a discovery as an aunt who purchased a used cedar chest at a garage sale and, upon arriving home with her prize, discovered it had a false bottom where a hand-made antique quilt had been secreted.   I’ve never been that lucky.  Nor do I anticipate ever being one of those fortunate individuals who stumble upon a Van Gogh hidden in a rack of amateur artist’s paintings.  Instead, I’m over-the-moon if I can just find a fine piece of the hand-blown glass my brother treasures to add to his collection.

But perhaps the best thing about buying and using and really enjoying these recycled bits and pieces is that I am supporting the very smallest of small business owners: the little people who scour the moving and garage and estate sales and auctions, and who then rent a booth to peddle items ranging from the odd and unusual to the astounding.  The merchandise they sell, no matter where it might have originated, has been bought and owned and then discarded or contributed; purchased again and then prepared for resale.  And by the time any product has been through all that, been passed through so many citizen’s hands, no matter where it was once manufactured, it is an American product!

So I, proudly and happily, will continue on my treasure hunts to buy American “Fleaze”.

The Many Faces of Hate

§  To wear the mask of a stranger is to see merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision.  §

While a young woman, I had a coworker—let’s call her Angela–who endured troubling memories of her paternal grandmother. At the time I knew Angela, I’d just begun re-establishing a close relationship with my own paternal grandmother; years of family squabbles had kept us apart. So I was shocked to hear of the treatment this likeable woman had received from her grandmother.

Angela explained that Grandmother absolutely despised Angela’s mother—had hated her from the very day Mom and Dad began dating. It’s been 40-odd years since our conversation, but I still recall the troubled expression on Angela’s face as she told me that her mother and father tried countless times to heal the sorry situation. Sadly, nothing had ever worked.

But Grandmother’s hatred extended to, when they arrived, the children of the marriage. She never put aside her contempt for her daughter-in-law for the sake of her grandchildren, who were, after all, her son’s children. No, in ways both overt and subtle, Grandmother made certain that those youngsters knew that they did not measure up to her other grandchildren.  Her favored offspring were not “contaminated” by a birth relationship to the despised daughter-in-law.

Angela recounted Grandmother’s worst insult, which centered on the kids’ school photos. One wall of Grandmother’s house displayed her grandchildren’s school pictures.  But the photos of Angela and her siblings were not flaunted among the rest. Instead, they were hung in the bathroom, facing the toilet.

Hearing the ache and indignation in Angela’s voice as she described this stinging memory, I felt heartsick on her behalf. To be the victim of such spite and cruelty from a person who should have loved her unconditionally—well, it stunned me.

The memory of that conversation has never left me. Many times after our discussion I daydreamed, inventing scenarios to bring resolution and revenge to my coworker’s bitter experience: Of all the Grandmother’s children, only the marriage of  her son and despised daughter-in-law thrived. The marriages of all her other children failed, and bitter divorces meant that she was separated from her favorite grandchildren.   Or:  Mean Grandmother lived out her final days quite alone and helpless in a substandard nursing home, visited by no one except the despised daughter-in-law.  Or, best of all:   Those other, favored grandkids all grew up to be ungrateful little wastrels who scammed Grandmother for money, became drug addicts and alcoholics, and were jailed for multiple crimes. Meanwhile, Angela and her siblings lived quietly successful, happy lives, but obviously never bothered with the Mean Grandmother who had treated them so badly.

That’s not the way life works, of course. Mean Grandmother probably wound down her life warmly surrounded by the love and attention of the children, in-laws and grandkids she preferred, smugly self-satisfied with her contemptible treatment of her reviled daughter-in-law and unloved grandchildren.

Hatred can wear so many faces! It can be disguised as the face of a grandparent or an in-law; someone who should be both loving and beloved, but is instead malevolent. It can wear the face of an abusive spouse or parent, or even a job supervisor.  It can focus on skin color, or ethnic origin. It can manifest as religious or even generational intolerance. It can be masked in passive aggression, calling itself teasing when it is in fact intentional torment and insults.

Or it can wear the face of a total stranger.

This last really struck me, and is the reason I recalled my former coworker’s sad little tale, as I sat one recent morning watching a video examining the causes and motives behind the many mass shootings of recent times. Unlike the malicious Grandmother, these cases so often involve total strangers who go on a rampage, wounding and murdering innocents with whom they have absolutely no connection. Is it easier, I wondered, to do so? To harm those with whom a person has absolutely no relationship? To wear the mask of a stranger, and see, not other human beings with lives and loves of their own, but merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision? Is exterminating unknown strangers guilt-free?

Or does it all—murdering strangers or murdering the spirit of those who should be loved ones—come with consequence?

I have no answers. I only know that I clicked off that video, and sat, remembering Angela’s long-lasting emotional wounds. Then I sighed and selected some financial work I needed to do on my computer. But as I tapped the mouse, I noticed in surprise that my face was wet, and that tears had splashed onto my keyboard.

I had not even realized that I was crying.

Puffy Socks Finds a Home (Sort of a Pandemic Story)

§   Pandemic has changed everything… §

Every summer for the past four years, my twin great niece and nephew, Mya and Kai, have arrived in Indiana to spend the season with their grandparents, my brother and his wife.  Every summer we all gather together for family picnics, and afternoons at splash parks and pools.  We visit the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the zoo together.  We play card games and spend time in the kids’ room at the library, and visit the playgrounds at every single park within a 30-mile radius! The twins ride bikes and ponies, hold squirt gun battles, stay overnight with their Aunt Paula, and climb trees. Together we all eat mounds of mac & cheese and chicken nuggets.  We color and watch videos and go to movies.  Mya and I paint each other’s nails, and I comb her long hair into braids and ponytails.  Kai builds forts out of my furniture.  The big baskets of toys that I keep on hand just for them are always filled with fresh playthings that I’ve picked up through the year at garage sales and flea markets. GrampsCrop4 The whole family troops out together to watch a July 4th fireworks show.  And, finally, after we’ve kissed a tearful goodbye and seen them winging their way home, I send letters—one letter every week—and homemade books; books filled with photos describing their summer adventures and telling them stories about their “Indiana pets”.

Every summer that is, until this year.  Pandemic has changed everything.  The plane that would transport them here would be, we fear, little more than a container for incubating the Covid-19 virus, and there would be almost nothing for them to do, anyway, even if they arrived, for all the city pools and splash parks are closed, as are the museums and movie theaters; the zoo is open by reservation only.  The Independence Day celebrations, those open-air gatherings crowded with people, will be canceled. The park playgrounds are shut down.

The collective hearts of our family are breaking over this sad reality, yet we know that keeping the twins safely in their home state is for the best.  Nevertheless, my thoughts keep zigzagging back to last summer,  remembering a moment when Kai, while petting my big old orange kitty, explained seriously to me that they, the twins, were the reason I have Puffy Socks the cat.  I agreed; Kai was absolutely right.  Three years earlier, Puffy, a homeless feral, spent a whole summer coming to play with the twins each week on my patio.  At the time, Puff was living under a neighbor’s mini barn.   Each week he waited eagerly for the moment the three of us stepped out onto my patio.  A clatter of sound would announce his presence as he darted through the spare lumber stored behind the barn before leaping majestically over the fence to rush to the children: “The twins are here!!”  Their mutual admiration society was touching to watch.  And when Kai and Mya left for home that summer, I (after a failed attempt to rehome him) adopted the big old softy of a cat they loved so much and had named.

So this week, in honor of my beloved great niece and nephew, who I am missing so much that my heart feels shattered–in their honor, I’m printing here the little storybook that I wrote and sent to them the following winter about the sweet, homeless orange kitty who became so dear to all our hearts.

PS Pic     Puffy Socks Finds a Home  

There was once an orange kitty with white feet who lived in a nice house.  But his owner moved away, and she left Orange Kitty behind.

But Orange Kitty was a smart little cat.PS3 pic  He made lots of friends in the neighborhood.  They petted and fed him, but none of them could give him a home.

So Orange Kitty slept under barns to shelter from the rain.  He curled up with his tail over his nose when it snowed.PS4 Pic

Then one pretty summer day Orange Kitty made two new friends.  They were the twins, Mya and Kai! 

PS 6 Pic (2)PS5 pic (2)They were playing on the patio at their Aunt Beckett’s house.  They liked Puffy very much.  And he liked them, too!

Since their Papaw and Nana had an orange kitty named Puff, Kai and Mya thought this Orange Kitty should be named Puffy.  Their Aunt Paula had a kitty with white feet named Socks, and this new Puffy cat also had white feet.  So they decided Puffy should have a middle name: Socks!  Kai thought Dragon would be a good name, too, just like Puff the Magic Dragon. And Aunt Beckett believed they should  add Esquire, because he was a gentleman cat. 

So  Orange Kitty became Puffy Socks Dragon, Esquire!

When the summer ended and the twins left, Aunt Beckett found Puffy Socks a new home. But that lady could not keep him, after all.  Puff was very sad!Puff Visits 2 (3)

So Aunt Beckett decided she would keep Puffy Socks as her very own kitty.  She even bought him his first Christmas stocking!  PS 14

At first, Aunt Beckett’s other kitties, Zoe and Bella and Lilith, were a little upset to have a new cat in their home.  But slowly, they all began to get along and to love each other.  IMG_20181208_144305066_HDR (2)

Happy PuffSo Puffy Socks found a happy home at last!

                                               The End

 

I miss you both very much, my darling great niece and nephew.  And Puffy Socks misses you, too.

Racism Knows No Logic

§   This post originally appeared on January 18, 2018, as a continuation of previous posts, and was titled, “And Speaking of Prejudice…”  With all that has so painfully happened in our country in recent days, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit it.  §

Marie Gregory
Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s High School  Graduation Photo

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960’s.  Bias against the faith did not fade until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today have never learned the truth about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess eleven Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Ruggiere trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Postscript:  On April 12, 2019, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a woman of color, did the next right thing, making an effort to heal this century-old wound by formally apologizing for the mass lynching of these innocent Italian Americans.  “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward,” she said.  I believe it brought peace to my Grandmother ‘s spirit that this conciliatory gesture was made, coincidentally, on the birthday of my daughter, her great-grandaughter.

Be Prepared

§   Throughout my life, I took Otto Frank as my role model. “Be prepared” might have been engraved across my forehead.   § 

I first read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl when I was about 12 years old. It fascinated and enthralled me; horrified me and completely broke my heart. I loved every word of it. Yet I can’t say, even now, that Anne was my hero. Oh, I loved that teenager; felt that I understood her and empathized with her highs and lows; laughed over her astute, witty, and oftentimes rude descriptions of the inhabitants of the Secret Annex. But, no, my real hero in that story was Anne’s father, Otto Frank. Without Otto Frank’s sagacity, without his careful preparation that took his family into hiding and the precious two years of life he gained for them and their companions—well, without that, Anne’s diary would never have been written.

Despite the betrayal that doomed them to the horrors of the Nazi death camps, Otto Frank did his best to protect his family, and for that reason, he became my hero. He thought ahead. He prepared. At only the age 12, I was in awe of his wisdom, his far-sighted perception.

All these many years later, I realize that throughout my life, I took Otto Frank as my role model. “Be prepared” might have been engraved across my forehead. Think ahead. Plan ahead.  Have a contingency fund as part of my household budget; keep a fire escape ladder in my second-floor bedroom. Buy a gun and learn to shoot. Be ready, not just in my personal life, but for where I thought the world might be heading.

As a young adult living alone, part of that preparation involved a technique which I came to call “a pair and a spare”. Even when I lived in a one-room apartment, my tiny larder and under-counter fridge were always as full as I could afford to keep them. After all, I lived alone; were I to be sick, unable to get out to shop, I would need supplies on hand. (Only once did this far-sighted plan fail me, when a long week’s housebound illness preceded one of the worst blizzards that Indiana had ever experienced.) Later, when I had more storage space, my technique evolved further.  A pair and a spare. One bottle of liquid soap beneath the sink; two in the pantry. Six onions in the vegetable bin; twelve potatoes. An open box of breakfast cereal; two in abeyance. A roll of toilet paper on each dispenser; three more in a basket in each bathroom; a full package in the bathroom closet. A box of tissues in each room; an equal, unopened number of boxes stored.

Much later, I read about preppers.  While not quite convinced of their sanity, I  nevertheless incorporated a few of their ideas. I laughed my way through the Millennial Bug nonsense (smiling smugly when all the clocks went on ticking and computers running),  but disease was, I believed, a different matter.  The very first cases of Legionnaire’s Disease tumbled into headlines, and then the threat of Swine Flu.  The SARS outbreak splashed into the news, and then MERS, and then Ebola. It was reasonable to expect that if a pandemic, or even just a plain old epidemic, arose, getting out to make purchases might be a fraught experience.  With each outbreak, I made certain I had more than I would usually have on hand my home: canned goods, paper goods, soup, pasta, rice, beans, peanut butter, OTC medications. Utilities, too, might be disrupted, so keeping some jugs of water available seemed like a sensible idea, along with candles, matches, oil lamps. If nothing else, it was all very useful during power outages! Nothing I ever bought was to outrageous excess; each time when the threat passed, my extra supplies were very quickly absorbed into daily use. But, had they been needed, they were available.

So when the first whispers of the coronavirus arose, I began my usual routine. Very early in January, long before the initial case of the disease was identified in the U.S., I began storing essential items. A pair and a spare, not just for myself, but a bit of extra for my daughter and son-in-law and their toddler, just in case. I might not need powdered milk, but it would be there if needed for my granddaughter.   My pets, too–my elderly cats eat a special diet, but I  keep only a week’s worth in the cabinet.  Now multiple cans went into the pantry, and I made room in my garage for several more cat litter sacks than would usually be stacked there.  And, yes, there was a spare package of toilet paper!

And this time, finally, all the supplies were needed. Indiana went into lockdown status on March 23, days after panic buying had all but stripped the shelves bare. Secure in my preparations, I did not need to brave the possibly-infected, rude rush of people out storming the stores. My pantry and garage were stocked with goods enough to see me through at least a few weeks of quarantine, with enough to spare for the people I most love, if needed.   I was prepared.  A pair and a spare…

I like to think Otto Frank might have smiled, just a little.

 

Proudly a Cynic

§   An open mind is like a window—you have to put up a screen for the bugs. §

I’m proud of being somewhat cynical.

Never did this fact become more clear to me than when it was chosen as part of our weekly topic at the Monday night meditation and discussion group, Many Hearts, One Spirit, that I attend.  The actual point of that discussion was, I believe, to renounce cynicism–something along the lines of becoming as a little child again.

Happily, our open and receptive discussion group (unlike our nation’s current President) welcomes differing viewpoints, calm, courteous debate, and new insights, because, huh-uh. Nope. Ain’t doing it.

I was, for most of my adult life, profoundly naïve and gullible.  And that—trust me on this one—is not a good path to go strolling down.  I have worked hard to develop a healthy skepticism; hence my motto, “An open mind is like a window—you have to put up a screen for the bugs.”

So I heartily admit it:  I am somewhat skeptical.  I am minutely mistrustful.  I am always ever so slightly suspicious.  And I’m PROUD of it.

Taking people at face value, unquestioningly, trustingly, resulted in many a painful moment in my life: the narcissistic friend who played upon my caretaker personality and constantly gave me veiled commands and orders, all careful cloaked in compliments and kudos, so that I would not realize I was being manipulated; the husband who drank, took drugs and had affairs, all the while looking me directly in the eye and denying that any such things had taken place.  The boss who praised me for showing up, sick and bleeding, during the weeks of my prolonged miscarriage—and then denied me a raise by grading me down on my annual review due to the few sick days I’d taken during this devastating personal disaster. The repentant man who had totally screwed up his life and begged me to trust his transformation, but proved to be a sly emotional abuser; a misogynist and con man who preyed quite effectively on my caretaker tendencies and easily-bruised self-esteem.  The woman at my job who smiled to my face while behind my back claiming I’d stolen money from the office sympathy fund that I managed.

Such lessons did not come easily to me, and had to be repeated time and again before I finally learned not to give my trust until an individual had proved worthy of it.  And I simply don’t believe there is anything wrong with that stance: with requiring that trust be earned, rather than freely given.

Perhaps it is unexpected that I find one wonderful thing about being a skeptic, about mistrust, is that I am, happily, often proved wrong.  These are astounding and delightful moments, when my façade of cynicism is cracked like an ugly plaster mold, revealing the shining statue hidden within.  When that happens, it is more than a pleasant surprise; it feels nothing less than a miracle.

But the converse is also unhappily true. The crash of my spirit, the aching disappointment, when I am confronted, yet one more time, with proof that my lack of trust was appropriate–yes, those repeated disappointments are difficult to endure.

Still, my hardened shell of cynicism provides me with some protection.  No matter how great my disenchantment, if the disillusionment was not totally unexpected, it is less painful.  That is, I find, the greatest benefit of being ever so slightly mistrustful: the mitigation of recurring disappointment.

There are qualities of becoming a little child again that I dearly love to evoke in myself: a sense of wonder, for instance, and awe at the unleashed and unexpected beauty not just of the world, but of many of the people who dwell within it.  But the naïveté of childhood is a condition that I gladly leave behind.  I will always strive to remain, proudly and carefully, just the slightest bit a cynic.

Three Things

§   I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude.  §

I was experiencing a fully-justifiable meltdown not long ago, and turned to a trusted friend for advice.  Her reply was not the one I anticipated, and at first I was taken aback: Right this minute, she told me, right now, name three things for which you’re grateful.  Write them down, she advised.

My initial response was resentment.  Was she minimizing my feelings?  Did she believe my depression and fears weren’t warranted?  But I know this woman very well, and trust her even more, so I had to conclude that minimizing or belittling my feelings was in no way part of her agenda.

So I took a deep breath, settled myself down, and picked up a pen and paper.  Three things.  Just three things.

It was hard…and then it wasn’t hard at all.

I was grateful for my family.  Once–for many years, in fact—sundered, we were now united once more.  I was grateful for my toddler granddaughter, whom I love beyond life itself.  I was grateful for my dear little condo, the home I had never thought I would have.  I was grateful for my four porch-rescue cats.  I might have saved them from a life as ferals, but they daily saved me with their love and attention.  I was grateful that my Dad, age 91, was still with us.  Few people get to have a parent in their life that long, and even at the times when he drove me nuts, I still loved him.  I was grateful to have survived cancer, to have had two years cancer-free.

I was grateful, I was grateful….  I filled an entire page with statements of gratitude, and possibly could have kept on going.  But when I put my pen down, I realized that, although nothing that had caused my meltdown had actually changed, I  had changed.  Oh, I was still distressed over a very dreadful situation, but at the core and center of my being, I felt calmer—not relaxed, not at ease, but calmer, and better able to deal with my problems.

I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude when what I really wanted to do was write out a list of people whose noses I wanted to punch!  I learned that, as a result of early childhood abuse, ‘fight or flight’ was always my go-to response, even when it was not really warranted; that I felt constantly beleaguered.  I learned that there is a difference between a healthy, justifiable anger, and simple rage.  I learned that my feelings were, actually, under my control.  No one could “make” me feel anything; I chose my responses.

I’d like to say that this exercise taught me a lesson, and that it’s a strategy I now always employ.  I’d like to say that, but it would be a big, fat lie.  Three Things is usually the last thing I remember to do when I’m caught in a distressing situation.

But when I do settle down and remember to do it, it opens a gateway to an entirely new perspective on any situation.

Oddly enough, there had been a time in my life when I spent a few minutes every morning writing out a sentence—or sometimes four or six or more–of gratitude.  I usually chose to do this as I rode the bus into work each morning, putting that empty time to good use.  And then, when I had been engaged in this process for several months, my entire world collapsed around me.  My husband walked out to live with his “true love”, and I became at the stroke of a pen a divorcee and single parent.  I recall now the rage I felt, asking the Universe exactly why, WHY, when I had been practicing daily gratitude, such a load of total crap had fallen upon my head.  Emotional anguish, not just for me, but for our child.  Financial distress times ten, as I paid for the divorce, found us a place to live, acquired used furnishings, moved.  Physical suffering, as the stress I was experiencing led me to fall ill one time after another, so that for over a year, I was constantly sick.  Depression so severe that suicide began to seem a viable option.  Why, when I had been practicing gratitude so unfailingly?  Why did all this evil befall me when I had been doing the right thing?

I don’t recall that the Universe ever answered my questions, but I do remember that, perhaps a year later, I came to the realization that, had I not been making a daily practice of gratitude when my safe and familiar world collapsed around me, I would have been in a far worse mental state than I actually endured. I had not seen at that time—perhaps had not wanted to see—that my practice of gratitude had acted as a shield around my emotional state, buoying me so that I did not completely drown in my own misery.

Three things.  Just three things, on the worst of days, in the most dreadful of situations.  It is hard, sometimes even painful.  But it makes all the difference in the world.

My “Nosy” Encounter

§   Thinking back on this incident, I’m both sad and proud. Sad, because I can see why vicious hate speech is so common in our society; proud, because I avoided my first reaction to grab the little snot and slap her. §

Well before the advent of the current social distancing, I was tooling about the Super Big Evilmart, when I happened upon an acquaintance (and, following what occurred, I suppose I’m glad that she was merely an acquaintance, not a friend, and now is no longer either). This woman was shopping with her pre-teen daughter and the daughter’s friend, and stopped to make conversation for a few minutes.

At a slight pause in the “Hi, how are you, what’s been happening” remarks, the pre-teen daughter, with a maliciously gleeful look crossing her young face, broke in with a question of her own. “Why is your nose SO BIG?!” she demanded. She and her friend broke into uproarious giggles at her non-joke.

The young woman’s mother, looking uneasy, exclaimed her daughter’s first and middle names.  (As we all know from childhood, one name = Mom Conversation; two names = Mom’s Mad; three names = Duck and Cover!)  Her tone was that scolding timbre that mothers use exclusively to upbraid their misbehaving offspring. The girls paid her no mind, continuing to giggle, collapsing upon one another in their Mean Girl success.  The mother looked away from them, facing me with an sickly smile, unable to quite look me in the eye. Notably absent, though, was any apology from her for the girls’ misbehavior or even verbal acknowledgement of their insolence.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I know that my nose is, indeed, quite large. NoseWhile perhaps not of Cyrano dimensions, nevertheless one could probably mold at least two, if not three, average-sized noses from my beak. I’ve worn this honker on my face for 66 years, so I have no illusions about it. But those of my generation who weren’t headed off to Hollywood didn’t rush out to the cosmetic surgeon to have every body part from eyelids to labia altered to meet some insanely unrealistic cultural standard. Still, had I ever possessed both the funds and the time, I might have chosen to have my nose “fixed”. But, there you have it: it’s my nose, and I’ve worn it for a lifetime. It serves its purpose—to keep me breathing—and I’ve learned to accept it.

But it’s one thing to know I have a nose the size of Montana, and quite another thing to have some obnoxious, flippant little smartass point it out. My nose was bequeathed me via the Italian genes in my family, and staunchly half-Roman as I am, standing there in that humiliating situation, realization struck me in one blinding flash of comprehension: Although my family members casually and even proudly refer to one another on occasion as “Wops”,  it is done only amongst ourselves. Woe betide the outsider who uses such an appellation to reference us!

The same rule, then, applied to my facial appendage. I could say all I wanted that I have a snozzle the size of farm machinery, but no one else, ever, got to make that comparison.

So, after waiting the required beat for this kid’s Mom to grab her offending offspring by the upper arm and haul her forward to face me while demanding, “Apologize! Right this instant!”—well, with none of that forthcoming, I waded into the fray with my reply. “That was rude, cruel and unnecessary,” I addressed Miss Preteen, narrowing my eyes and dropping my vocal tone into the “verging on nuclear meltdown” registry. “It doesn’t show you to be ‘cute’; it just shows you to be badly behaved and not particularly intelligent. And it reflects badly on your mother, who I’m sure did not raise you to be so ill-mannered.”

The two girls stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. But the truly remarkable reaction was that of the mother. She just gathered up her bags in a close embrace and remarked, “Well, we’ve got to be getting home.” She turned and made a rapid exit with both girls trailing in her wake, casting wide-eyed glances at me over their shoulders.

Reflecting on the incident now, I’m both saddened and proud. Sad, because I can easily see why vicious hate speech, insults, trolling, and threats are so common in our society, from our reporter-insulting President on downward. Proud, because my actual first reaction, carefully reined in, had been to grab the little snot and slap her until her head rolled off her shoulders and bounced across the floor. It took an amazing amount of personal restraint for me not to do this, so, as I say, I am proud.

It’s painfully clear to me now that manners, as well as self-restraint, are rarely being taught to, far less required of many of  today’s children. And that is, I think, a tragedy, and one that we, as a society, will come to greatly regret.

The Color of Grief: A Very Different Mother’s Day Tale

§   I  passed those months in the Valley of the Shadow…  §

Long after my mother’s passing, I attended a grief support group. Despite the length of time—years—that had elapsed since my mother’s death, I nevertheless gained much benefit from the class, learning a great deal about the varied and painful paths people must take on their long walk to healing, and why mine was not so unusual after all.

But my mother’s death, while it had a profound effect upon my life, was far from being the worst grief I had ever experienced. Because our relationship had been so difficult, I mourned her actual passing less than I grieved the woman who could have been, and never was.

But I had already experienced a grief so deep, a mourning so overwhelming, that it required interminable months of recovery. I went through this dark and harsh landscape of heartache when I miscarried my first pregnancy in a terrible event known medically as a “missed abortion”. Put simply, the fetus that I carried died, but my body refused to miscarry. I carried my longed-for baby dead, knowing it to be dead, for a full three weeks before medical intervention became necessary to prevent infection.

Never in my life have I done anything harder than carry my potential child, dead, for three weeks. My mourning began the moment the doctor said the words, “You do not have a viable pregnancy,” and did not end for months after the D&C had scraped the useless contents from my uterus.

Other than having left work early on the day I began bleeding, and for two days following the actual surgery, during those three weeks I held my head up and struggled into the office every day, working in a haze of emotional and physical pain so deep that it now leaves me breathless, remembering. (A few months later, my supervisor would grade me down on my annual review for using too many sick days…) But, beyond coping with my grief, the hardest thing I experienced during that time was not the necessity of dragging myself to my job, or being deemed a slacker, or even the agonizing process of packing up all the baby items I’d already purchased or crocheted.

It was dealing with the fact that I lost all my color vision.

Never, never have I read anywhere, then or since, of this inexplicable phenomenon that I experienced, when the grieving process stripped nearly all the color from my vision. All hues become muted; some were nearly  invisible. Wrapped in the dark cloak of my mourning, I didn’t really notice at first. But after a few days, I recognized that my vision had changed. A coworker wearing a strident hot pink dress seemed to me to be clothed in a pale ash rose. The normal blinding white of typing paper appeared a muted ivory. The burgeoning spring weather, with with flowers bursting into bud and trees cloaked in green lace, seemed to me almost as greyscale as the end of winter had been. Everything I looked at was filtered through a lens of grey and sepia.

I wondered idly if I should see an optometrist, or if the change would be permanent. But it didn’t matter; nothing really mattered. I scraped through the days, always thinking about how far my lost pregnancy would have advanced had I not miscarried, and wondering if I would ever have a child.

Then, finally, my grieving process began to wind to its natural close. Slowly, almost like spring appearing in fits and starts and regressions, normal tints and hues began to return, albeit palely, to my world. Finally, one day I looked at the indicator on a positive pregnancy test—and awoke the next morning to vision that was once more capable of seeing the world in a Disney-esque “paradise of color”.

I had passed months, though, in the Valley of the Shadow; in a world that was as dim and muted as though filtered through cloudy lenses of pale brown and subtle grey.

As I say, I have never read of this phenomenon anywhere, although I’ve researched it since, many times, looking for some explanation of the loss of my color vision for those  months. I suppose a psychiatrist would diagnose some type of conversion disorder—what would once have been termed a hysterical syndrome. Hysterical blindness and deafness have, I believe, been well-documented for centuries. So why not hysterical color-blindness? That may be as good an explanation as any.

But for me, looking back on the long weeks that I dealt, silently, with the loss of all the color in my world, the phenomenon was a blessing. Seeing a world of vivid, bright, beautiful spring and summer colors during my weeks of bitter anguish would have been almost more than I could bear.

It was, perhaps, a strange way to grieve for my lost child. But it helped me heal. And I will always remember the wonder of the newly-bright world on the day when the color returned.

 

 

 

There’s Always One

§   Heaven help all of us who have a Looney Tunes neighbor!  §

Everybody has one. A looney neighbor, that is.

The particular thorn in my side, best known to me as The Old Curmudgeon, seemed fairly normal when I originally moved to my small condo seven years ago. Oh, there was the time when he insulted my status as a State employee, but after 30-plus years, I was accustomed to that. People who arrive at a government office to make any one of the many transactions required by official entities think nothing of berating and disparaging the very employees who provide those services.

Despite the insult, I am the sort of person who attempts to be a good neighbor. The Old Curmudgeon was retired; I was still working. I’d often return home on trash pickup day to see that his bin, emptied, was still sitting out near the road. So, after wheeling my own bin back into my garage, I’d haul his up the slight incline of our conjoined driveways and park it in front of his garage door. I never received a word of thanks from T.O.C. for this neighborly act. Perhaps he thought the elves and fairies were doing him the favor.

Our condo association does not trim shrubbery, so I took care to maintain the small bush that was positioned between our two garages, as well, shaping and mulching it regularly. I weeded the area within the low brick enclosure surrounding our mailboxes, then cleared out the overgrowth of wild plants and saplings that had taken root around our  air conditioning units where they sat side by side behind our condos. Again, no thanks were forthcoming, but I reminded myself that I was doing this act as much for my own benefit as his. We had a bit of a tussle, though, over my rotted mailbox post, which the condominium association was supposed to repair (see Laughter in the Midst of Grief, December 27, 2018), but the problem was eventually resolved, and I, in absolute innocence, got my revenge, anyway. (Yes, you’ll really have to read that earlier post!)

And then I got The Letter.

I have The Letter to this day.   The victim of a careless postman who left the mailbox door slightly open in a rainstorm, it is waterlogged and smeared and difficult to read, but basically claims that I had moved my central AC unit closer to his, thereby causing the compressor of his unit to fail, and he was allowing me two weeks to move it back to its original position.

I was flabbergasted. MOVED my central air conditioning unit? That piece of equipment was huge! I was at the time age 61, and asthmatic, but even in the rudest of health and youth, I could not even have shifted the darned thing.

Ever the little peacemaker, I simply knocked on his door and asked what the heck he was talking about. That was when I learned the truth: While having his own AC repaired, he interpreted a “look” on the part of the repairman, glancing between our two machines, to indicate that my unit was too close to his own and had caused the failure. (Six and one-half inches closer than it had previously been, he claimed. I forbore to point out that there was something strangely Freudian about this claim.) Basically, T.O.C. was looking for something to blame besides the age of his AC unit, and hoping to make me pay for it.

I explained that I had not, would not, could not, have moved the machine, but promised to have my own HVAC tech look at the problem during my upcoming maintenance appointment and determine if the units were badly positioned. (They weren’t.)  An exchange of more letters—straightforward on my part, rude and accusatory on his—didn’t really conclude the problem, but it eventually drifted away since absolutely nothing supported his position.

However, inadvertent clues in his letters revealed one thing: Whenever I was outside on my own patio, Looney Tunes was watching me. Keeping an eye out. Running survillance. Snooping on me. Gladys Kravitz, without the comic relief.

This, more than anything, totally freaked me out. (Think: head spinning backwards!) What on earth did he think he would see?! And how long had this been going on? Since the day I moved in?

Terribly disturbed, I began installing a careful shield of garden trellis and ivy to block his view of my patio. Now, years later, with the ivy having grown thick and tall, I at last feel comfortable sitting out on my own patio once more. Look away, you nutcase! All you’re gonna see is a thick veil of ivy leaves.

However, necessity demands that I sometimes step off the patio into my tiny postage-stamp of a yard, as I did recently when an overnight windstorm carried my outdoor rocking chairs out and down the grassy alley to drop them behind his condo. Hurrying out the next morning to retrieve them, I glanced up and saw the faint shadow of what was surely a face peering out his window.

But time has made me stronger and a touch more brazen. Instead of quickly scurrying away with my furniture, and aware that he could not hear me, anyway, I merely smiled and gave a quick little finger wave as my inner rascal took over.

“Hi there!” I sparkled. “Don’t worry! I’m just moving my air conditioner!”