Hiding in Jane Austen

I hide from reality in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries.

A lifetime ago, when I was a little girl in the third grade, astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth three times. And despite the dust and decrepitude that has settled over me in the intervening decades, I still recall that morning (oh!) so clearly. I vividly picture my mother, sitting on the right side (her side) of that ugly Nile green brocade couch in the living room, eyes glued to the old black-and-white TV, as she braided my long hair. I can almost hear the voice of the announcer (Walter Cronkite?), talking, talking, talking, as the mission ensued. I remember my dismay at having to leave to catch the school bus—a dismay that, for once, had very little to do with how much I disliked school or the fact that I wanted to concentrate on my upcoming birthday, just two days away. I recall the almost-contagious excitement of my teacher, Mrs. Dryer. And finally, I remember my mother describing to us children the wonderful gesture of the residents of Perth, Australia, who turned on every light in the city, hoping that Glenn would be able to see the illumination from space.

But beyond all my memories of that day, I recall a feeling of pride; intense pride, and hope. Hope for the future—my future, the future of my someday-children; the future of the world. Space, the final frontier….

The world has turned many, many times since the day of Glenn’s orbit, and the once-astronaut, later Senator, has passed on, while I have grown old and, well, beneath the L’Oreal, white-haired, not grey. But my spirit—my spirit has greyed. The pride I once felt in my nation has evaporated, bludgeoned from existence by undeclared wars and unending lies; by revelations of historical genocide; by horrific mass shootings; by the hypocrisy of generations of politicians; by watching miserably as the democratic experiment that was America crumbles in waves of divisiveness and burgeoning fascism. And despite the recent, magnificent photos from the Webb space telescope, the hope my child-self once experienced for the future has dwindled. Space exploration has done nothing to prevent the glaciers melting, the forests burning, while we remain trapped on this scorched pale blue marble, winging its way through the solar winds.

Depressive, I know. Grim. But grim is what I feel most mornings, as I scan the latest news coverage. Oh, there is the occasional heart-warming human interest story scattered here and there throughout the carnage. But the rare story of kindness or environmental protection fails to overwhelm the simple, unutterable awfulness of it all.

And so, unable to continue, I ditch both the reports and the TV (where breaking news might interrupt any pleasant viewing I manage to find) and pick up my books. Eschewing even my favorite, light-hearted cozy mysteries, I take refuge in tales written a century or two ago: Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters; Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I escape to Avonlea and Pemberley; to Mansfield Park and Misselthwaite. I keep company with Anne-with-an-E Shirley, and young Mary Lennox. I worry not over the latest police brutality, but whether Sunday travel is really a permissible activity. I weep over the death of Anne’s firstborn, rather than children dead in a school shooting. I empathize with Jane Eyre’s inability to capture her visions in her paintings, rather than stress over how poorly my own written words convey my meaning.

The worse the world becomes, the more I hide.

When Covid was in ascendancy—when there were no home testing kits, no vaccines, and the only available masks were those we cobbled together from teeshirts and elastic and coffee filters—when we all dwelt in our separate spaces in lockdown, I hid in movies; specifically, superhero movies. The Avengers, Wonderwoman, Thor, Guardians…. Again and again, in 90 minutes, they saved the universe, the planet, their friends; struggling their way through battles, joking their way past villains. But watching movies palled; there are no superheroes to rescue us, and I can only suspend my disbelief so far, even for the purpose of respite and entertainment.

And so, now, as the world around me contracts and worsens; as forests burn and species dwindle; as the curtain is pulled back on revelation upon revelation of treasonous behavior by a former national leader; as blood and death are visited in my own backyard in such innocent venues as the mall where I shopped as a teenager and the park around the corner from my home–I hide. I hide in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries; that touch only lightly upon lies and hypocrisy and faithlessness and cruelty and wrongdoing. I hide in a gentler version of life that probably never, in truth, existed beyond those printed pages.

And it comforts me.

If this sad little missive appealed to you, you might also appreciate the post, “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below; it was published on April 22, 2020.

Everything Ends, and So Will This Tea Party

There were other phrases which I could have taken as a lifetime mantra, but…

One of my all-time favorite novels, which I’ve reread multiple times since first discovering it on my mother’s bookshelves over 50 years ago, is Desirée, by Annemarie Selinko. The book (and it’s important to note that I’m speaking of the novel in its original, 1953 translation from German to English; later translations completely lost all the charm of the original), is the fictional diary of the genuine person, Desirée Clary, the first and callously discarded fiancée of Napoleon Bonaparte, who later married General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and finally became Queen of Sweden.

I absolutely adore the story, which traces Desirée’s life from the age of 14 until her coronation in 1829. It is, as I said, charming, delightful—and also sad, funny, and thought-provoking. It was a perfect novel for my then-17-year-old self to be reading; it is still the perfect anodyne for my 68-year-old-person to a world now gone as mad as the one in which the real Desirée dwelt.

But of all the captivating scenes in the book (and there are many), one of my favorites is the moment in which Desirée, confronted at an afternoon tea by three still-living former Queens of Sweden, endures a host of censorious and disapproving comments, criticizing every aspect of her behavior, antecedents, and person. Unable to defend herself against their combined and determined condemnation, she simply folds her hands into her lap and shuts out the vitriol by observing silently to herself, “Everything ends, and so would this tea party.”

Everything ends, and so would this tea party.

The first time I read that line, it both drew a smile and a gasp from me. As a victim of both childhood abuse and of school bullying, I’d so often told myself, “It will all be all right when I grow up and get out of here”. (Not true, but that’s a subject for another blog post.) However, at the time, reading those words and smiling just a little over them, I realized that, historical fictional or not, this woman—no, everyone—had something: something awful, something painful, something degrading, something humiliating—to endure in a lifetime. Even being a queen did not protect one from ill-treatment. (Or a princess. But I was still decades away from seeing the abuse that would be heaped upon the heads of Princess Diana and Duchess Meghan, events which simply confirmed the truth of my long-ago teenage analogy.)

I decided then and there to take the line, almost as written, as my mantra. Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Mistreated by teachers and bullied by fellow students; stormed at by temperamental supervisors; verbally abused or neglected in relationships: Everything ends, and so will this tea party.

I found that I could apply those words, also, to my tendency to become easily overwhelmed when responsibilities and onerous tasks piled up seemingly without end. The mantra served me a lot better than a deep breath, or even several deep breaths. I could tell myself, “It will all get done, eventually” until the cows came home, but that did not serve to relax me, or to remove the sometimes-crushing burden of overwhelming responsibility from my shoulders, not half as well as my longtime mantra. I could mutter it under my breath, and nearly laugh.

Administrative Assistant to a group of 103 people, each of whom needed something from me, usually at the same time? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (It did; the 50-plus temporary staff were discharged when an immense paperwork backlog was at last cleared away.) My mortgage transferred by the lender to what was possibly the worst mortgage servicer in the country? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (I paid the damn loan off.) Dealing with the drunk who lived next door? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (He moved, and the new neighbor was, is, a gem.) Bored absolutely out of my mind at a ridiculous required employment training session: Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Wading through the pain of family members who seem bent on controlling and causing hurt and harm? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Horrified beyond belief at a governmental administration? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (Unfortunately, not soon enough, and not without immense damage to our country.)

As a lonely teenager, I read constantly; still do, as an adult. Rather than the one I chose, there were many, many phrases I encountered in the endless books that I read which I might have taken as a personal refrain to guide me through the reefs and shoals of my existence.

But I chose the one that spoke most clearly and simply to me. And as lifetime mantras go, it hasn’t been half bad.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Lessons in the Thimble”, which was published July 17, 2018. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

Vintage Treasure

Two friends are celebrating  significant birthdays this month. So for them, I am reprinting this essay from September 18, 2019. Happy Birthday, Kim, and Belated Happy Birthday Dani!

My late mother-in-law, Mary, was a world-travelling, spirituality-seeking whirlwind. She was bright, intelligent, graceful, and had a marvelous sense of humor. I absolutely adored her. The destructive evil that is Alzheimer’s robbed Mary of all these qualities, but until that happened, the woman I lovingly nicknamed “La Comtesse” was everything I wanted to be as I aged.

One of my favorite memories of Mary stems from the days when she was still a healthy woman who travelled extensively. Arriving home from a cruise, she related a story from her vacation, and to this day I recall the look on her face as she concluded the tale. At the time, Mary was on the far downhill side of 60, rapidly ziplining toward her next decade. One of her shipmates on this seniors’ cruise was a silver-haired lady, tidy, quiet and retiring, who participated in few of the ship’s activities. This quintessential little old lady, Mary remarked, observed a birthday during the cruise, and La Comtesse asked her which birthday she was celebrating.

“Oh,” the little old lady replied, “this is the big one! The big Five-Oh!”

I had cause to recall the irony of this story not long ago, when an author whose books I generally enjoy put dreaded words into the mouth of a youthful character: the young woman referred to an aged character as an “old biddy”. Judging by this youthful writer’s perspective, my beloved La Comtesse would have qualified as an “old biddy”. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth! Then, with dismay, I recalled that “old biddy” was actually the very phrase my own Grandmother used to reference those in her age group who’d stopped really interacting with life; who spent their days bemoaning their aches and pains while disparaging everything modern and recalling the past in a pink-tinted haze of inaccurate nostalgia. (Grandma, too, was a whirlwind, one who drove everywhere in her huge yacht of a car, couponed madly, fed everyone home-cooked meals no matter what the time of day or night, drove to work at an office until she could no longer shovel her car out from the snow in harsh winters, and generally had a rip-roaring good time.)

I have walked a few weary miles since the days when I was a mere teenager, sitting through a boring classroom lecture about semantics: the value of a word beyond merely its definition; the weight and worth of meaning given to it by opinion and understanding. And so as I now deal with the reality of my own aging, recalling Mary’s humorous tale of her “old” shipboard companion and my life-loving Grandmother’s behavior, while encountering demeaning phrases in books and being treated with thinly-disguised impatience by the very young, I’ve had reason to truly mull those long-ago lessons in semantics. I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s often sadly true that those in the latter half of life are treated with disrespect and contempt in modern society. And I’ve decided that some, perhaps many, of those attitudes center less around one’s personal behavior and ability than around the semantics of the word “old”.

We treat merchandise with disdain when it is merely old. To be old is to be outmoded or outdated; unfashionable. We begin to appreciate it when it becomes vintage, but it is not until it is antique that we regard it with awe and reverence. When we speak of “elder” it is with respect; i.e., “the elder statesman”. Yet to be elderly conjures up a picture of frailty and infirmity.

Old is old-fashioned; out-of-date; old is an outlook that is behind the times. Old is a pensioner, a senior, a geriatric—yet mature is a superior condition. Songs can be “oldies but goodies”; cars can be classics. Yet attitudes can be scathingly considered traditional and even archaic. Aged is a sad condition, yet historic is valued, while ancient or antiquity are regarded with wonder. Old, though, is time-worn, hoary, antiquated.

With all of these words firmly in mind, each of them denoting a different semantic variation of that which is old, I’ve decided that I shall never, ever again refer to myself using the word old. I will not even disrespect myself by remarking that I am aged, or aging. The words I use to refer to myself need to be free from heavy and unintended meaning, weighting me down with subconscious consequences.

So from this point forward, I plan to be Vintage. Vintage is treasured, special, worthwhile, valued, appreciated. Vintage is desirable.

I’m not nor ever will be an old biddy. But I’m already Vintage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay “Dying to be Seen”.  Scroll to the Archives, below, and you will locate it published September 4, 2018.

My Shabby Old Green Armchair, Redux

We imbue the physical objects in our orbit with worth, adding to them a value far beyond their price.

My old green armchair was on its last legs, almost literally. It was growing ever more shabby…and ever more comfortable and comforting. It was just an overstuffed chair, not even a recliner, but that scruffy old chair was my salvation for at least 15 years. It’s been the chair where I sat to read every morning since my retirement, sunlight pouring in from the living room window behind me. It’s the chair where my cat Lilith has come almost daily to lounge across my chest as I sprawl in the laziest position, my feet propped on the ottoman in front of me. It’s the chair where I collapsed, feverish, coughing and wheezing with what was quite likely Covid one December night in 2019, feeling sick enough to die, after what had already been a long, long day spent at the hospital with my even-sicker Dad. It’s the chair where I cuddled my cranky little grandbaby, trying to soothe her to sleep as I watched her through the night. And it is the chair beside which I knelt to stroke and kiss my darling little black cat, Belladonna, who lay there so peacefully and quietly as she began her journey across the Rainbow Bridge.

The green armchair wasn’t new even when I bought it. In the early 2000s, I’d discovered a store which sold second-hand hotel furnishings—sturdy pieces which were still in good shape, usually disposed of because a business was remodeling. In the days before bed bugs had become a resurgent menace, these pieces were an excellent bargain. The furnishings had heavy-duty springs and were covered in substantial, thick fabrics; upholstery meant to last through the worst that careless guests could offer. Best of all, the pieces were within my limited price range. So I bought a set consisting of a sofa striped in bottle-green, rose pink and fawn, with two matching bottle-green chairs.

The sofa had already seen the most wear, but still lasted a good eight years; I finally disposed of it when moving from an apartment to my little condo. The two bottle-green armchairs, though, moved with me. Despite being a pair, one was a bit more worn than the other, and finally, its springs sagging, gave up the ghost. Prior to putting it out on the curb for heavy trash pickup, though, I removed the fabric from the seat. A bit of cutting and stitching turned the rescued cloth into slipcovers to disguise the worn arms and back of the remaining chair.

It was those covers which were themselves now beginning to show wear. Picked at by cat claws and rubbed a thousand times by my forearms (and, regrettably, my knees, as I’ve sat sideways on the cushion with my legs slung over the arms), the covers were growing shiny with use and knobbly with picked threads. When they went at last, there was no reprieve for my shabby old green armchair. But saying farewell to it was genuinely sad.

It’s strange how these little bits of household detritus worm their way into our hearts and memories and lives, becoming more than just the sum of their being. Yet it happens. A wall is not just a wall, but a record of a child’s growth; a stuffed animal not merely a toy, but the friend that comforted us throughout our childhood, and one whom we cannot bear to abandon. And, for me, a chair that is not simply an old, battered, and comfortable armchair, but the foundation of a hundred precious and important memories. The more spiritual among us may scoff at this habit of making a material object something more than it seems, deriding our connection as a foolish physical attachment, and perhaps they are right. But there it is, nonetheless. The broken down beater that was one’s first car, or the too-small first apartment; the maple tree climbed by a succession of children, itself grown tall from nothing but a spindly little volunteer; the old rocking chair that comforted many a sick child—they mean something to us, these little incidentals in our lives. We imbue them with worth, and they take on a shining patina thereby.

Yesterday, with my son-in-law’s help, I dragged that battered, sad, and wonderfully comfortable easy chair to the curb to await the trash truck. Chairs don’t have souls, of course. But I nevertheless patted the back as we set it in place, saying (yes, aloud; my neighbors already know I’m crazy), “You’ve fought the good fight, old thing. Well done, thou good and faithful servant: Well done.”

I don’t suppose the new, giant puffy rose lounger will last nearly as long or ever mean as much, but as I put it into place in the living room, I slapped the back lightly and told it, “You’ve got some very big shoes to fill, youngster.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay, “My Blue Willow Tea Set”, which was posted June 26, 2018. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Tales of the Office: Jackass Bosses I Survived!

Administrative Professionals don’t need flowers. They need respect and a raise!

Every time I find myself sliding into “Retirement Guilt Phenomenon”, I remind myself not just of the forty-four years I worked full-time, but, even more importantly, the incredible number of truly awful supervisors I endured.

Their names are legend. Actually, some of their names were Schuster, Tom, Lois, Gloria, and Evil Troll. (There were others, but these were the most memorable.)

And I, the lowliest of the low (and trust me on this one: in an office environment, there is hardly any lower life form than the formerly-known-as-secretary-now-called-Administrative-Assistant-same-shit-different-title) anyway, lowly little me survived them all to emerge, victorious, un-fired, and finally, safely and happily retired. (Here picture middle finger extended high into the air. Perhaps on both hands.)

For, let’s face it: some of these people—no, a lot of them—were genuine jackasses.

Schuster was the first one, and, no, I don’t recall his given name, because we lowly file clerks were not permitted to speaketh it aloud. He was addressed, always, as Mr. Schuster.

To be fair, the toxic environment in which Schuster operated contributed to his view of himself as sitting enthroned high upon Mt. Olympus while we mere worker bees scurried far below, just waiting for his thunderbolts to fall. This being in the early 1970s, conditions existed at

IMG_20220521_143240532_1
An iconic “Railroaders” coin bank.

“Railroaders” (the nickname with which we parodied the bank) that would now be unthinkable. Sexual harassment and promotion-by-office-affair were the norm, yet male and female employees were segregated into separate lunch lounges. Female employees were required to wear hideously ugly, uncomfortable polyester uniforms, because women could not be trusted to dress appropriately for business. (!) Resembling the office of Nine to Five infamy, it was a sadly real hell where Schuster reigned supreme, with we, his “girls” ensconced in a tiny back room, invisible to the public and even most of the other employees. Funnily enough, fifty years on, I can’t really recall the precise events that made me completely despise Schuster, but any person who supported and empowered such a revolting office environment deserved a whole lot worse than mere contempt.

Next came Tom. Promoted to first-time supervisor of a group of, yes, female secretaries and clerks, he solved every problem by creating worse problems. One coworker had the habit of taking overly-long breaks and lunch hours, while the other half-dozen of us adhered to the correct schedule. When confronted by our complaints regarding the unfairness of this situation, his solution was to institute a system of rolling breaks and lunch hours, so that we never knew from one day to the next what our schedule would be–thereby punishing all for the misbehavior of one. A wiser supervisor finally intervened, but the damage was done. After that, we all pretty much came and went as we pleased, Tom and schedules be damned.

Then there was Lois. Ah, the joys of working for a self-important, dictatorial, tyrannical, officious narcissist! This was one time in which difficult lessons (learned by careful management of a relative who suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder) came in handy. Extremely handy. Despite an occasional road-bump in which I upset Lois’s self-delusional little applecart, I survived several years under her autocratic rule, even emerging with a favorable employee rating. But it was a near thing, always. I did a bit of a happy dance when Lois moved on to greener pastures, there to devastate a fresh raft of hapless victims.

And how could I forget Gloria, the supervisor who always assumed that everything was my fault. I came within inches of being fired one day, saved only by the honesty of another employee, when the message regarding an important meeting requested information on the wrong topic.

Following the meeting, Gloria stormed back into the office like the proverbial fire-breathing dragon, furiously telling me to start packing my bags. Thankfully, the secretary who’d sent the message intervened, corroborating that I’d been given an incorrect request. Gloria, neither shamefaced nor apologetic, simply told me I was off the hook. But, neither then nor any of the other hundred times it happened during her tenure, did she express any regret for her immediate assumption that I was at fault.

Finally there came Evil Troll, the sexual harasser. The female sexual harasser who backed me (and other women) into corners to invade our body space and sometimes press her extremely large breasts up against us; who made constant sexual innuendos in work conversations…and got away with it. Because in the 1990s we knew the cards were stacked against us. We had children to support, jobs we had to keep. Decades later, I turned cartwheels and handsprings when the Me, Too movement evolved, recalling Evil Troll and everything she put me through until I escaped to another job.

Every office worker has tales like this, some (many) I’m sure, far, far worse. To them I say: I salute you. I know what you’re enduring. Stay strong, keep on, and emerge, eventually, the victor on the other side. Or, as the mock-Latin saying goes, Illegitimi non carborundum.

Happy Administrative Professionals Day! If you enjoyed this essay, you might also appreciate Administrative Professional (or, A Tale of Popularity). You can locate it by scrolling to the Archive files, below, from April 25, 2018.

Crinkles

This all came to mind when I dropped my cell phone into the bathwater.

I am old enough that I can recall a time when drugs that are today either banned or at least strongly regulated were sold over the counter. As a child, I clearly remember my parents dispensing paregoric (a type of opium) mixed with kaolin clay to treat diarrhea—one of the more horrific tastes one can experience in a lifetime, I assure you. It was almost better to endure the diarrhea. The cough mixture we kids were given was a sugary syrup compounded with cherry bark extract, alcohol, and codeine. (That was absolutely delicious, by the way.) I know modern parents will shudder upon reading about these treatments. I shuddered myself as a young parent, treating my child’s illnesses while recalling what I’d been given. Nevertheless, the mixtures were once common; everyone used them.

But while I clearly recall the taste and texture of the medicines, I also have a faint memory of the bottles from which they were dispensed—bottles that did not have, as those today do, labels adhering to the plastic (or what would then have been glass). No, those old bottles had paper labels attached to the bottle with just a dot of glue here and there on the front and back. But the most significant feature of those old-fashioned labels was that the sides of the paper were crinkled. Corrugated folds and creases marched up and down the edges of the labels where one grasped the bottle. And these crinkles served a purpose—a dual purpose, actually. If one picked up the bottle in darkness, feeling creases beneath one’s fingers alerted the user to the fact that the contents were poisonous. Take too much paregoric, or too large a dose of codeine, and sickness, if not death, would be the result. The corrugated sides also served a second practical function; they provided a grip. It was much harder to drop the bottle and spill a dangerous substance if the label provided a firm grasp.

This all came to mind the other day when I dropped my cell phone into my little granddaughter’s bathwater. Oh, SHIT! I retrieved it quickly enough that no damage was done, yet it struck me immediately that, had the sides of the case been wavy, there would have been far less chance of this accident. Like those old poison bottle labels, a few crinkles could have averted disaster. That led me to think about the bath scrubby that was so often the bane of my existence as I tried, and failed, to find the little ribbon to hang it up after using it. That stupid little ribbon was always the same color as the nylon net scrubby itself, and, standing there, cold, naked and with dripping hair pouring water into my eyes, I could never find the darned thing. Often after fighting and failing to locate the ribbon, I just furiously tossed the scrubby down into the tub rather than hanging it up to dry. If the stupid ribbon had just been a contrasting or darker color, I could have located it immediately and hung the thing up properly.

Extrapolating from this, I considered how many times I’d dropped the blasted shampoo or conditioner or bodywash bottles because the sides, slippery with water and product, were impossible to hold. The bottles slid right through my fingers and crashed to the bottom of the tub, usually on my toes, and usually when the bottle was still mostly full and heavy. Oww-Oww-Ouch! Extremely bad words deleted, ouch! Just a few wavy crinkles would have solved the problem and saved my cringing feet from yet another onslaught.

Ditto the olive oil bottles. I don’t even want to think about the 2018 Olive Oil Disaster on the Freshly Mopped Floor. I was cleaning up that mess for days and days and DAYS. Not to mention what I found when I did the annual “stop pretending like you don’t know it’s there and pull that bottom drawer out from beneath the oven” cleaning.

Contemplating all this, though, it struck me to wonder why we tend to think of every idea, every concept, from previous generations as “old fashioned” notions that can have absolutely no modern relevance. I’m certain contemporary manufacturers, who spend a fortune on designing products for eye appeal, would never even consider a bottle that did not have a sleek, up-to-date appearance. Not for them a papery label with corrugated sides to provide a grip and alert one that the contents could, if misused, be dangerous. How unattractive a bottle, meant to be used in a wet environment, with wavy indentations that made it easy to hold. How ugly to string a black ribbon on the pale pink scrubby so that it would be easy to spot. How foolish to make a sleek cell phone with ridged and grooved grips.

How old-fashioned.

How sensible.

We could all just use a few more crinkles.

Liked this essay? Then you might also enjoy ” ‘New and Improved’ Just Isn’t”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from March 25, 2020.

Home Economics

“Not a Domestic Goddess!”

I was re-reading a favorite childhood book a while ago, and came to a section describing two little girls being taught to sew, not by their mothers or grandmothers, but in elementary school. The passage made me grin wryly. Taught to sew. In elementary in school. Imagine that.

Now, I was taught to sew, and to embroider, by my mother, who was a master at both arts. Although I never achieved her degree of skill, I got pretty good at both. Later, my grandmother taught me to crochet, and until carpal tunnel took over, I enjoyed all three domestic arts. As a young woman, I actually sewed an entire full-length barred muslin gown by hand, without a machine, and a plaid jumpsuit, as well. The medallion lace which trimmed the entire border of my six foot wedding veil was added laboriously, stitch by stitch, by hand. For years I crocheted endless afghans and baby blankets; my daughter still uses the Christmas tree skirt I crocheted in my 20s.

Despite this fact, though, I never learned any of this—not cooking, cleaning, budgeting, marketing, nor, in fact, anything connected with keeping a household up and running–in school. In fact, I once shocked a fellow student at my high school by being unable to follow a teacher’s directions to take some materials up to a certain room in our vast and sprawling building complex. “Go up toward the home ec rooms,” the teacher’s directions began, and I had to stop her immediately. “I don’t know where the home ec rooms are,” I interrupted. The female student standing beside her was flabbergasted. “You don’t know where the home ec rooms are?!” she exclaimed. I noticed a slight, odd smile on the teacher’s face as I snapped back, “No, because I never took home ec! I learned at home.”

The subject, on which I was now a little testy, arose again a week or so before graduation, when I went to the school office to determine my class standing (in the top ten percent of my enormous graduating class, as it happened). The counselor, smiling, gave me my number—I think it was 72—saying, “Well, you’re right up there, aren’t you?” Standing next to him, the popular, pretty, smug student office volunteer, snapped, “I’m ahead of her!” The counselor started to murmur something about how to praise one was not to belittle another, when I, in a rare burst of outraged courage, stood up to the Mean Girl. “Yeah, but my score is based on real classes, not four years of home economics!” Then I blushed and darted away. Standing up for myself was too uncomfortably unfamiliar an experience.

However, I find it’s true that these things tend to skip a generation. The kindest thing one might call my daughter is “Not a Domestic Goddess” (and that’s just fine; at least she doesn’t suffer from my dreaded OCD house cleaning compulsion!) This despite the fact that she did endure a semester of home economics while in middle school, learning helpful skills such as whipping up instant banana pudding. (She also suffered through a semester of shop class, which was equally calamitous. But I digress.)

Home ec class was, for my beloved offspring, one disaster after another. Instant banana pudding was, in fact, just about her only success. She failed at sewing on buttons; the bobbin popped out of the case when she tried to insert it in the machine and rolled wildly across the classroom floor, unwinding as it went. She loathed the teacher (see “Teachers Good and Bad, Part 1”, January 22, 2018) and the feeling was mutual.

The breaking point came when she, enduring anguish over my divorce from her father, desperately needed help. Her guidance counselor suggested that a new group counseling program the school had established might be valuable to my child; the only catch being that she would have to miss some of her home ec classes in order to attend counseling sessions. Considering this to be a blessing, not a problem, I readily agreed.

The counseling sessions began to make an immediate difference to my daughter’s emotional health (and launched her on her eventual career as a mental health counselor), but also an immediate difference in her already pathetic performance in home ec class. Finally, the Teacher From Hell cornered her one afternoon, telling her, “I don’t know what it is you’re going through, but if you keep missing classes for counseling, you’re not going to pass.”

Daughter, wrathful and devastated, came home and reported TFH’s remarks to me.

But 28 years had passed since the day when I, confronted by Mean Girl in the school counseling office, blushed and hurried away from my rare burst of self defense. I was on the phone immediately with the school counselor, reporting TFH’s remarks to my suffering child. “If there is any class I care nothing about her passing, it would be home ec!” I stormed, and the school counselor agreed.

My child continued with her group counseling, and still somehow managed to pass home ec, slipping through by the skin of her teeth, but making it nonetheless.

Anyway, all this came back to me as I reread my favorite childhood book the other day. I smiled to myself, knowing that home economics classes have gone, are going, the way of the Dodo. And that, I feel quite sure, is a very, very good thing.

I described that favorite childhood book in the blog post “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower”, published April 22, 2020. If you’d like to read it, you can locate it in the Archives, below.

Aging Prayer

If I live long enough….

I’ve worn glasses or contacts most of my life, having gotten my first pair while in the fourth grade. Ugly things, glasses, and I never liked them, but (having needed eye correction long before my parents conceded the fact and took me to an optometrist), I liked even less being sniped at by my teacher, a nun at the Catholic grade school which I attended. When I begged her to move my desk further to the front, explaining, “Sister, I can’t see!”, she berated me, snarling “It’s not my fault that your parents won’t take care of your eyes!” (I’m quite sure that Sister-Whatever-Her-Name-Was firmly believed in the Roman Catholic church’s doctrine of Purgatory. Well, in her case, I really hope that place of torment does, in fact, exist, and that Nameless Nun earned at least extra decade or so there for her bitchy retort to an innocent child.)

Whether Nasty Nun is suffering in Purgatory or not, I, not being a candidate for laser surgery due to an old eye injury, have worn my glasses or contact lenses without complaint through all the decades since. And now, realizing that my hearing is beginning to diminish (yep, I have to turn on the subtitles when I’m watching TV, and not just when I’m watching British shows!), I’m preparing to get an audio exam and invest in an OTC hearing aid, which I will also wear without complaint. I do not want to miss a single whisper from the lips of my beloved little grandchild.

Which begs the question: Why do so many elderly people simply refuse to wear hearing aids? The jokes abound between all of us afflicted by an elderly family member who (despite having worn glasses throughout all the years of their own lives) simply will not put in a hearing aid. Instead, these old quirks snarl, “Speak up!”—and, when one does just that, snarl again, “Don’t yell!”

Please God—don’t let this ever be me! Don’t let me be the person demanding, “Look directly at me when you speak!” Let me just put the damned hearing aid in my ear, and smile, and converse pleasantly with people. And, when I occasionally still can’t hear, let me remember to say politely, “I’m so sorry; I missed that. Can you repeat it?”

Now, I haven’t yet reached that stage where my thinning layers of skin and disappearing subcutaneous fat layer (oh! for some disappearing fat!) render me more susceptible to feeling the cold. I still prefer chilly or even cold weather to hot, humid heat. But this will change, and I know that day is probably just around the corner. So when it does arrive, when I am finally feeling cold all the time, please God, please Goddess! Let me recall that my guests’ comfort supersedes my own. Let me remember that I can put on extra layers of clothing, but my guests can’t take off their own epidermis!

Never in my lifetime, not even in childhood, have I known what it is to sleep well. A pattern of waking at night and being unable to sleep again easily has always been my bane, and, as I age, is growing distinctly worse. But, please Heaven, please—let me never begin whining about this difficulty. Let my attitude for the whole day not be predicated upon how well, or not, I slept. When, after a particularly bad night, I am asked how I feel, let me just smile and say cheerfully, “Hey, I’m still topside, so I can’t complain, right?” Or, if I can’t be that jovial, let me at least have the grace to admit, “Well, I slept poorly, so I’m grouchy—but then, I’m retired, so I can take a nap, right?” Please, please, let me acknowledge the silver lining!

And, above all, let me not become the elderly person who conflates age with entitlement; who feels that the younger people in one’s orbit must serve and attend and assist and oblige, totally without acknowledgment of their service or sacrifice. Simply put, let me never forget the lessons of courtesy that I imbibed in earliest childhood: the “Two Little Magic Words”, please and thank you. Let me proclaim those words (and all the attendant phrases) with regularity: Would You, I’d Appreciate It If, That’s So Kind of You, I’m Grateful. Let me say, and mean, the words, “I appreciate that you’ve taken this time out of your day. I know your life is busy. It’s good of you.”

And, if it should happen that I do not, when (if) the time comes, remember these prayers; if I should, despite my plans and supplications, become the worst version of myself, then, please, all gods and goddesses and heavenly beings who look over such matters, give someone the strength to hand me this essay and say, “Read this!” Let me put on those ugly glasses and read, as those mean nuns taught me, carefully and with comprehension. Let me read, and then practice everything within this instruction manual for being aged yet not entitled; friendly, smiling; likeable, even lovable, and, most of all, beloved.

Usually at this point, I refer you to an earlier post that you might enjoy. However, this time, let me just say that this essay was inspired by my Dad, who passed away 12/12/21. However much I loved him, he was everything that I mention here. He drove me–all of us–completely nuts! And I miss him.

Let Me Not Forget

If we ever get through all of this…

“What do you want to continue doing, to remember, from all you’ve learned during the pandemic?”  An acquaintance of mine posed that question to several of us.  “What’s the most important thing?  And what have you done to take care of yourself through all of this?”

For me, the answers rose steadily and quickly:  The most important lesson I have learned from months of plague and lockdown, the one thing that I want to remember always and to continue, is appreciation. And the one vital thing I’ve learned to do to take care of myself is to intentionally express gratitude.

Never again do I want to look at a calendar and say to myself, “Great.  Five family and friend birthdays this month!  I’m not going to have any money or any weekends!”  Rather, I want to think joyously, “Time to be with the ones I love, gathered together, without masks, without fear; hugging, grabbing up the little ones to lift them high into the air, jubilant to be in one another’s company.”  I no longer want my sense of astonished wonder and absolute delight to be invoked only by astounding sunsets or exquisite rainbows or rare astrological phenomena (although I certainly don’t want to relinquish those experiences, either).  But I want to retain the lesson that we, all of us, have learned and sometimes still are learning from isolation: to value the most unpretentious enjoyments of daily life; all those things we had always taken for granted and then were suddenly denied.

I want to go to that restaurant a friend prefers, the one that I’m really not crazy about, and appreciate being out, having a meal together.  I want to be humbled by the opportunity to hug my family members.  And I want to know, in humility and gratitude, what it is to sit at the bedside of a sick friend, or to bring them meals or help with their housework, or to have the privilege of holding the hand of someone who is dying.

Put most simply, I never want to forget what it has been, still is, to not have these things.

And that is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  We humans forget so easily.  Oh, we say we will remember—that history will not repeat itself, because we shall never forget, but we do.  Life moves on; we place one foot ahead of the other and walk away from the sad, the bad, the painful and uncomfortable memories.  We forget.

And it is for that reason that, every day that I am still privileged to go on walking this weary world, to breathe and live, I want to remember what it was to spend days in continual isolation while intentionally expressing gratitude.

I recall the long hours of lockdown, and the anguished, unbearable loneliness, as I recounted in “Surviving the Lockdown” (April 8, 2020).  As I waited vainly for an occasional e-mail, text or phone call from friends and family who did not, as I do, live alone; who did not even comprehend how desperately I needed communication, human contact of any type, I realized I had to find some way to make myself care about whether I survived.  And that way, it turned out to be, was not just to find, each day, something for which I was grateful, but to intentionally mark that gratitude in verbal or written form.

And so I found myself being grateful for all the time I had to catch up on long-neglected chores.  Without the excuse of social interaction to distract me, many of the things I’d been meaning to do forever, such as washing all the crystal in my china cabinet—those things were done at last.  On the rare occasions when I had to drive somewhere for necessary groceries or to care for an elderly family member, I was grateful for the lack of traffic.  A nervous driver always, tooling along roads that were almost empty was heaven to me!  I was grateful for my pets, as talking to and petting them sometimes kept me sane—and I told them so, sometimes weeping my loneliness into their furry coats.  These and so many other aspects of my life during lockdown I learned not to merely think about with gratitude, but to speak that gratitude aloud, or write it down; note it, with intention.  “I am grateful; I am grateful…”  Gratitude, I discovered, was a bridge from depression and angst to acceptance and peace.

And now, almost daily, I remind myself: Let me not forget.  Let me not forget appreciation and intentional gratitude.  Let these be the lessons that I take from the long and fearful months of isolation and anxiety.  Let me remember, always, what it has been and sometimes still it to not  have the simplest pleasures of daily life; to not have contact and communication with other human beings.  And let me now, having those things once more, be fully sensible of them, completely appreciative, and forever intentionally grateful.

If something in this post appealed to you, you might also enjoy “Three Things”, which you can locate by scrolling down to the Archives below.  You find it listed May 20, 2020.

 

Clickbait

When did mockery become an accepted standard of behavior?

When I was a young woman, both my grandmothers wore little cotton housedresses and soft leather shoes.  If they wore hosiery at all it was when they attended Sunday church services; most of the time, their veined legs, evidence of their years of childbearing and hard work, were bare. 

It never occurred to me to question or mock their “style” choices.  They were elderly women, wearing what they found comfortable.  That I didn’t find their clothing attractive or fashionable was not an issue; I respected them.  They’d lived through world wars and Spanish Flu; through the Great Depression and Richard Nixon and innumerable personal disasters,  both of them surviving it all with an intact sense of humor.  They deserved the right to dress and do as they pleased, without criticism.

Turn the world a few thousand times on its axis: I am now the old woman.  But the world has turned; respectful behavior towards one’s elders is no longer a given.  Those who have spent lifetimes working, paying their taxes, raising their young to adulthood and funding their educations, possibly doing military service, and generally being upright citizens and decent human beings are all too often the subject of contempt and impudence, with never this behavior more rampant than on the Net.

So it was with a sense of both trepidation and scorn that I have, a few times recently, tapped  on one of those “about Boomers” clickbaits. (Oddly, I have never seen a corresponding clickbait about Millennials, or Gens X/Y/Z—or, again, perhaps not odd, since they are the people writing this ludicrous material.  Their time will come, though.)

I have to admit, a few, if not more, of the “OMG!  They do/dress/eat/behave” complaints were spot on for me—guilty as charged, and not in the least regretful to admit it.  I do, for instance, still write in cursive rather than “normal” writing.  I shall continue to eschew the kindergarten printing and write as an adult, too.  So sorry you’re not educated enough to read it, youngsters.  Tell me, how do you read the signatures at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, hmmmm?

In the most recent clickbait I so masochistically read, though, no fewer than half the remarks were geared toward clothing choices.  Virtually none of them applied to me, and the rest, well, my automatic response was, “Who cares?!  Why is this non-issue even being remarked upon?” Yes, I do find white socks with sandals to be rather an odd choice (if your feet are cold or you don’t like the feeling of sand, don’t wear the sandals), but it’s not really any of my business.  It’s their feet, after all.   

Footwear seemed to occupy the minds of the younger generation to an excessive degree. But then, those who have stood upon their own  metatarsals for only perhaps 25 to 30 years are probably unaware of the extraordinary pressure their bodies are exerting on that support system.  Given twice or more that length of time, they, too, will find that their footwear choices extend to comfort, not fashion, and that arthritic fingers find Velcro tabs so much easier to manipulate than laces.

The funniest entries regarded food, the most hilarious of which was, “They eat TOAST”.  Apparently, it did not occur to the youthful writers that their alternate breakfast suggestions–waffles, for instance–have also been available to those of my generation throughout our own and our parents’ and grandparents’, ad infinitum, lifetimes.  Toast is quick and easy to prepare, lends itself to an infinite variety of toppings, and is an excellent way to use up stale bread, not to mention tasty.  Why on earth do these blockheaded kids think it was invented, after all?

Another remark that sent me into gales of laughter was the complaint about Boomers buying their bread off the grocery shelves when “artisanal bread” was so much more delicious and enticing.  There speaks a person who is not yet a parent with three hungry kids needing sandwiches slapped together as quickly and inexpensively as possible!  Granted, I gave up spongy white Wonder bread along with my early childhood, but I’d like to see the average financially struggling parent try to fund “artisanal bread” enough for a houseful of famished children wanting lunch.

The clickbait criticized hairstyles, vacation choices (face it, kids, the reason some Boomers choose cruises is because, unlike your frenzied, financially precarious existence, they have the time and the money.  Jealous, much?) and countless other petty, ludicrous minutiae until I finally grew tired of waiting for all the ads to finish loading before I could click “Next” and exited the link.

But, in the end, I wasn’t left laughing, but with a sense of discouragement.  Why, I wondered, did any of this even matter?  Who were these individuals, the writers who took such glee in contempt and disdain, in derision and scorn, of other people?  Is the fate of our future world truly being placed in such pettish hands?

Sighing now, I think I will close this essay.  It’s time for breakfast, so I shall wander downstairs and pull the last two slices of non-artisanal oatmeal bread from the frig, where I will pop them into the toaster, and then smother them, perhaps with butter and blackberry jelly, or cream cheese and raspberry jam, or cinnamon sugar….

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Mindless Headlines”, which you can locate in the Archives, published June 5, 2018.