Dinner Parties From Hell

Judging by the many tales I’ve heard over the years, many a dinner party ends in total disaster!

My mother-in-law gave perfectly marvelous dinner parties, and, in fact, taught me everything I know about holding one. And although I have rarely had the opportunity to do so except for very special events such as Christmas Eve or significant family birthdays, I’ve been faithful to her instruction. A proper dinner party requires days of preparation, and there are never any guarantees that everything will go smoothly. I still recall the total mortification of The Apple Crumble Catastrophe, and cringe at the memory of the Too Many People Crowded Around the Small Table Due to Unexpected Guests Christmas Eve dinner. (With regard to the latter, just thank heaven I always cook too much!) Still, most of my dinner parties came off well enough that guests were sated and satisfied, if not impressed, and I myself recall them, if not with pride, at least with relief.

However, judging by the many tales I’ve heard over the years of dinner party disasters, my experience has been the exception, rather than the rule.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as I recounted in The Dinner Party (you’ll find that in the Archives from September 4, 2019), most of the truly awful dinner party stories I’ve heard have involved brides and their newly-acquired families. Maybe that’s because family hierarchy and interactions haven’t been decided when someone marries into the group—or simply because some in-laws are really, really rude and judgmental. But of the many Dinner Party Disaster tales that were related to me over the years, there are some that I still recall vividly, and most involved newly-minted family members.

The first, told me by an acquaintance about her sister, was The Spaghetti Dinner. Now, spaghetti is a meal that many young people serve to guests when they’ve first begun housekeeping. It has the simple honesty of a well-loved peasant dish. Add a salad, garlic bread, wine and a dessert, and one has all the ingredients for a jovial, easy meal.

In this case, the Young Bride invited her new husband’s parents and his younger brother for a meal. With five for dinner, she made her mother’s meatball recipe, which was meant to yield two dozen large meatballs. Instead, as an inexperienced cook, she ended up with 19 very large meatballs, and a single little small, squashed meatball that looked more like a ping-pong ball. YB spooned them all into a bowl and placed everything on the beautifully-set table.

When the meatball bowl arrived at her place after having been passed around the table, there was a single meatball left. One. Just one. The little spare squashed meatball. YB looked around at her husband and guests. Her husband had taken five giant meatballs; her mother-in-law, two. Her new brother and father in-laws each had six on their plates.

Her new mother-in-law helpfully offered to refill the meatball platter from the kitchen, and YB, abashed, had to explain that there were no more. Since none of the carnivores offered to relinquish any of their kill, she nibbled her single ping-pong meatball and filled up on salad and pasta.

But, as her sister concluded the tale to me, when YB served dessert, she served herself first.

Another dinner party disaster tale told me was The Vegetarian Dinner. In this case, the hostess was the Unpopular Fiancé making a special effort to ingratiate herself with her soon-to-be mother-in-law. Having interrogated her almost-husband regarding the food preferences of his family, including his unmarried, disdainful adult sister, UF received only the not-very-helpful information that Mom and Sister were vegetarian, while Dad (who already liked her, anyway) would basically eat anything put on his plate.

So UF read recipes, and experimented with unfamiliar forms of cooking, and finally put together a lovely vegetarian meal with a carefully selected, expensive accompanying wine.

Only to learn, as they all sat down to the table, that her future mom and sister-in-law were not, after all, vegetarian. The were vegan. And teetotalers.

Dad packed away everything that was placed in front of him in calm enjoyment and tossed back multiple glasses of wine, while Mom and Sister nibbled on the salad and home-baked bread, sans butter, eschewing the cheese-laden vegetarian lasagna. They concentrated on the green beans almondine, of which there was obviously not enough, since it was only a side dish. The dessert of baked-from-scratch cake with ice cream was a total disaster, also.

As they left, Dad congratulated UF on a fine dinner. Mom only remarked, “Well, at least you didn’t give us food poisoning.”

Astonishing though it was, UF still married the guy whose clueless information had provoked this dinner party disaster. But they never invited his family to dinner again.

So, as I say, even those of my most imperfect past dinner parties come off looking pretty well, by comparison. Although I must admit to never again having served apple crumble!

As mentioned, you’ll find “The Dinner Party” by scrolling down to the Archives links. It was posted September 4, 2019.

When We Weren’t White

This blog post was actually scheduled to publish during the week of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day. But Mercury Retrograde was in full swing at that time, supposedly causing everything technical to go totally whack; somehow, the post never appeared. So let’s blame it on Mercury Retrograde! Here it is now, belated and totally out of sync with the holiday, but heartfelt nonetheless.

I am, as confirmed by DNA testing, half-Italian. My grandparents were each born in America, but their own families, including some older siblings, were born in Italy: Lucca, in Tuscany, and Vasto, not far from Rome.

One of my great-grandfathers actually arrived on the shores of America pre-Ellis Island, coming through Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Mansuetto Gregori arrived with his wife and children sometime during the 1840s or 1850s, long before Castle Garden stopped processing immigrants in 1890. Family legend, related to me by my grandmother decades ago, held that, having arrived in New York and before moving to what would eventually be Sioux City, Iowa, Mansuetto quickly changed the spelling of the family name to Gregory, hoping to be taken as “Black Irish” (the name once given to those dark-haired, olive-skinned Celts who descended from survivors of the 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada). The Irish, as Mansuetto quickly determined, had assimilated and were accepted in America, as Italians were not. I’ve never quite understood why Mansuetto would have believed that his accent, as he learned English, would fail to identify him as Italian rather than Irish, but I suppose that logic would have been his least consideration at the time.

We Italians weren’t White, you see. We would not be considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist quotas on Italian immigration would finally be overturned.

So although many people–people of color, indigenous people, and those of Asian, Pacific Islander or Jewish descent–might easily glance at me and think, “privileged White person”—and although I, personally, suffered quite little of the anti-Italian sentiment which was once rife in the United States–well, no, not quite. My experience falls nowhere near the same classification as that of many Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the racism experienced daily by most Black people in the United States. But it was not all smooth sailing, either, especially for my paternal Grandmother and Grandfather. As I have reported in prior blog posts, they endured terrible incidents of bigotry throughout their lives. For my Grandmother, especially, those incidents left emotional scars; I will never forget my feelings of disbelief, shock, and grief as she related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in her early childhood from her teacher, an Irish-American Roman Catholic nun. (See “And Speaking of Prejudice”, from January 18, 2018.)

For, yes, as Italians, we were also Roman Catholic. Few people today realize or recall just how detrimental to his campaign was the Roman Catholicism practiced by John F. Kennedy. Yet it was not long after his assassination that I sat in my fifth grade classroom, listening fearfully, as my teacher explained to the class that, should the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion ever be revoked, “THEY” would come for us, just as they had murdered our President.  Fortunately for my peace of mind, there were many Catholic children in the neighborhood where I first grew up, since Holy Name church and school were literally around the block.  But the one little girl who was just my age (all the others were older or younger) wasn’t permitted to play with me, the “Car-tholic” girl.

Still, most of these fears and slights touched my life only peripherally, fading away as I grew to adulthood. Perhaps that is why I reacted viscerally to the reframing of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. Please do not misunderstand! I genuinely believe this is a long-overdue reparation for and acknowledgement of the horrific damage suffered by the native peoples following the arrival of Europeans on the American shores. Nevertheless, I also have a heartfelt personal investment in Columbus Day, as an Italian American aware of the sad truth of the origins of the holiday: that the celebration (originally intended as a one-time event) was declared by the short-lived President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the horrifying New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian immigrants. The murders brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war; the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States until President Harrison’s paltry act of reparation.

So while I rejoice at the new national consciousness and acknowledgement of wrong doing, at the truth and justice brought to the reframing of the day, for me, personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be known as “Murdered Italian Americans Day”. My racially-profiled ancestors are to me, you see, quite as important as yours are to you. And none of them, yours or mine, deserved to be treated as less than human because of the circumstances of their birth and heritage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “You Dirty Wop”, which you can find in the Archives, below, from February 1, 2018.

The Secular Light Show

I decided to rerun this post from January, 2020, because…well, because!

In early November (2019), a local family initiated their holiday light display—an astounding and impressive effort; simply lovely. It was, perhaps, a tad early, but what with the invidious daylight savings time having begun two weekends prior, the winter nights were certainly quite long enough to make such a light show worthwhile. They noted the display on our local neighborhood website, posting photos and inviting people to drive by and enjoy the spectacle. Several website members commented on the exceptional light show, and I punned that it was “delightful”.

But, as always seems to happen these days, a sourpuss simply had to comment. “This is a very secular display,” he groused. “Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.”

Other members quickly shut him down, pointing out that not only does not everyone celebrate Christmas, but that a light-up baby Jesus in the front yard really made no more of a statement than a reindeer; that religious beliefs were best celebrated in the home and the heart, not on one’s lawn, and not just at a particular season, but throughout the year; that at the holiday season it was best to be building people up, rather than tearing them down; and, finally, that whatever else it might be, the light display was certainly fun and festive and was bringing smiles to the faces of those witnessing it and wonder to the eyes of children.

Nothing that was said to him, however, no matter how thoughtful or theologically sound, altered the Religious Grinch’s opinion; he remained stubbornly resistant to these various peaceful remarks, responding emphatically with his opinion that the light spectacle was insulting to the true meaning of Christmas and intimating that he felt picked upon for having stated his opinion.

Mindful of our ever-watchful website “Lead”, who had deleted my comments before, I merely replied with a carefully-pointed remark that I thought it was a lovely gesture that this family had taken so much time, effort, and expense to make so beautiful a display just ahead of World Kindness Day on November 13th. It seemed to me, I continued, a truly kind thing to create such beauty for one’s neighbors to enjoy, and I, for one, was most appreciative of their efforts. Then I private-messaged two of those who had made the most rational and courteous responses to the Religious Grinch, and told them how much I appreciated their efforts, receiving in reply their thanks, good wishes and blessings—blessings and good wishes that they also offered publicly to the Religious Grinch, and which were (perhaps not surprisingly) not returned by him.

Although my true thoughts remained unsaid on the website (at least by me; some others dared make some of these points), there were so many things I wanted to say to Mr. Religious Grinch. I wanted to suggest that perhaps the light display had been set up by a Hindu family celebrating a belated Diwali, not Christmas, or even a NeoPagan family whose spiritual holiday, celebrated with light, is not Christmas but Yule, the winter solstice. I didn’t know, I pondered, if light displays comprised part of the celebrations of Hanukah or Kwanzaa, but those holidays, rather than Christmas, might be what the lights represented. Soyaluna, Saturnalia, Festivus—even the 6,000-year-old holiday of the Kemet Orthodoxy faith, called “The Return of the Wandering Goddess”, might be the reason behind the glorious twinkling and blinking and racing lights in the front yard of a neighborhood home.

I wanted, too, to ask Mr. Religious Grinch what he had done, or planned to do, to bring a smile to the lips of his neighbors during this holiday season; to provide them a moment’s joy. He certainly had not provided his good wishes to those on the website, so was he planning some other random act of kindness?  How would he express his Christ of Christmas during the season?  Would he speak a word of  loving encouragement to someone sad and depressed, or haul an elderly neighbor’s trash bin through the snow to the curb? Would he be dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s outstretched hand, or volunteering at a food pantry, or giving a contribution to a domestic violence shelter?

Finally, furiously, I typed my reply to Mr. Religious Grinch–the reply that (lest I become a Grinch myself!) I ever so carefully deleted before my finger, hovering anxiously over it, could press the SEND button:

“Well, sir, since this light show disturbs you so much, perhaps you should set up on your own lawn a very non-secular display, full of stables and Holy Families and angels and stars and Magi and shepherds and sheep and oxen—and YOU could be the ASS!”

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like to read “The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past” from December 18,  2019.  You can scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

A Ghost Story (Only It Isn’t a Story)

As promised, the second of my two cat-related ghost stories….

My three cats have very distinct personalities. Since their clowder alpha, poor little mink-furred Belladonna, passed away in 2020, none of the three has assumed that role. Instead, they jockey for an ever-shifting Top Cat position.

But Zoe, at 19 by far the oldest and most frail of the bunch, is definitely the most psychically tuned—the Familiar, if you will. Despite the fact that the two of us merely tolerate one another (she was my daughter’s cat, left to me when my errant offspring moved out and developed a cat fur allergy), I appreciate Zoe’s finely honed ability to sense the Other Side. Over our years together, numerous friends have witnessed this plain little striped alley cat suddenly assume meerkat sentinel stance, her frightened eyes following something unseen as it moves across the room. Occasionally, terrified by the Invisible that she has witnessed, Zoe has rushed to hide beneath the furniture, to be coaxed out only with difficulty.

Lilith, on the other hand, is the Scaredy Cat. The Growler. From the moment she was rescued as a feral kitten, she has trusted no one or nothing but me. She is my sweet baby who sprawls across me each morning, purring and bestowing tiny kisses. But the moment anyone else walks into the house—in fact, the moment that anyone even walks by the house—Lilith becomes her alter ego, The Invisible Cat. Growling, she scurries as fast as her fat little legs will take her, rushing up the stairwell to crouch at the back of the closet or under the bed.

Puffy Socks, though, is the Greeter. So friendly that he would hold a flashlight for the burglar, Puff assumes that everyone who enters our home has come to see him, and does his utmost to welcome the guest. Crawling unbidden onto laps, kissing noses and licking cheeks, Puff is ever The Cat Who Thinks He Is a Dog.

So, it was bearing these three personalities in mind that I pieced together a strange encounter on a hot, sticky night in August.

Now, Puff’s preferred nightly resting place in the summer months is the living room couch. He condescends to saunter upstairs and sleep on my bed only if the night is cool enough that I’ve opened the upstairs windows and turned on the big box fans to send cooling draughts across the room. Lilith, on the other hand, prefers sleeping in the bathroom sink. She enjoys the cool porcelain, and since I always make at least one, if not more, nocturnal runs, she can chirrup at me to be petted. Zoe, frail, as I mentioned, sleeps away both nights and days curled into the rocking chair in the corner of my bedroom.

That is why, on this very hot night, with not a window open or a breath of air stirring, I was startled as I lay in bed, reading before bedtime, when Puff rushed up the stairs and plopped himself on the foot of the bed, angling his body to look at the doorway. A moment later, Lilith, eschewing her sink, rushed in and huddled on the bed beside him. And Zoe, sound asleep on her rocker, woke to lift her head and assume an alert stance. All three stared at the apparently-empty bedroom doorway.

After a few moments, uneasy, I watched as Puff hopped off the bed, and, carefully edging out the door, proceeded to his food dish in the hall. I followed him, switching on the light, and watched as he looked upward a few times before finally eating a few munchies, arching his back as he would if I had stroked him while he ate. Then he ambled downstairs. Puzzled, I returned to my bed, but had just picked up my book again when Lilith, hunched and nervous, began to growl…to growl and glare at the doorway. And Zoe, the somnolent, jumped from the rocker and onto the foot of the bed, assuming meerkat stance as she scanned the doorway.

At that point, I’d had enough. I felt no threat, no uneasiness, but I was terribly unsettled. “I don’t know who You are or what You want,” I announced loudly, “but You’re upsetting my cats. You need to leave. Now.” Then I marched into the hallway and switched on the salt lamp. Looking over the balcony railing, I noted that Puff had not gone back to sleep, but was sitting up, attentive and watchful. From his vantage point on the hassock downstairs, he could view the whole upper hall.

Perhaps five minutes later, the whole crew suddenly relaxed. Zoe climbed back onto her rocker cushion and settled down to sleep. Lilith marched into the bathroom and hopped into her sink. And, downstairs, Puff curled up on his favorite couch cushion.

Greeter, Growler and Familiar. Each of them sensed, reacted to, something I could not see, just as they would react, individually, to any other person who entered my home.

As I said, I felt no threat, no coldness—nothing, in fact, that would usually be associated with an Otherwordly Visitation.

But I left the salt lamp burning all night, just the same.

If you liked this tale, you might also enjoy the fictionalized story of the real Ghost Kitty who has always lived in my home. You’ll find the poem, Ghost Kitty Walks, in the Archives, published October 30, 2017.

Belladonna Night Moon

We’re approaching Halloween…All Hallows…Samhain.  So I am re-posting the tale of my lost, beloved little black cat, gone since last December.  For you see, Bella is central to the first of two true cat-related ghost stories that I am going to narrate.  On Thursday, August 3, when she had been gone for eight months, I stood downstairs in my kitchen, all three of my living cats within sight…yet heard Bella, my lost little Bella, upstairs, crying out her distinctive, hoarse little cry “Gak-gow!”.   All three of my living cats looked upward, hearing her, too; then, unconcerned, went back to doing catly things…. 

On a wall of my upstairs hallway hangs a framed poster from the 57th Annual Halloween Festival in Irvington, Indiana.

Irvington is a most unusual place.  Named for writer Washington Irving, author of  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, the entire town is one large historical district.  Among its many claims to fame are the home where Sojourner Truth once spent a week as a guest; the building that housed a pharmacy which John Dillinger robbed; a stop along the route of the Lincoln Ghost Train; and the house where America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, dismembered and buried a 10-year-old child.

With these and a dozen other tales of ghosts and fame and antiquities, Irvington, with some justification, goes a little bit nuts at Halloween.  Even during pandemic, Irvington’s famed Ghost Walks were held—somewhat subdued, but ending, as always, at the Lincoln Ghost Train corner.  And each year the festival sponsors a contest for artists to design the official Halloween poster.

Poster (3)Before it, regrettably, became a banal chain pancake house, I’d eaten at Dufours, the Dillinger-robbed-pharmacy-turned-café, and seen these Halloween posters adorning the walls.  All were marvelous, but my unquestioned favorite was the almost-photographic likeness of a black cat peering out from a background of orange-red sky and leafless black trees. It caught my attention because my own cat, Belladonna Night Moon, might have modeled for the painting, so much did she resemble the cat in the poster.  I yearned to own it, but the Halloween poster prints were always of a very limited run, expensive and rarely available.

But one spring my sister-in-law declared her preference for a birthday afternoon spent combing the fascinating small shops of Irvington.  In the midst of that expedition, I came across one of the last framed posters of the black cat.  With some trepidation, I asked the price.  Forty dollars.  Forty dollars?!  How could I justify spending that much money? I didn’t even have a place to hang it! But…it looked just like Bella.  My precious Bella, my best cat ever.  And the poster was a collector’s item.  How could I not buy it?  Fighting a swiftly-losing battle with the remnants of my common sense, I slapped down my credit card.

Hauling my prize home, I discovered the perfect space waiting in my upstairs hallway, and proudly hung what I now thought of as Bella’s portrait.

The real Belladonna Night Moon had come to me as a porch rescue: a half-starved, lost kitten found by a friend one cold November BellMimi (2)night.  After some minimal arm-twisting, I agreed to take the kitten.  It was a decision I would never regret.  Although not the brightest bulb in the shed (“The only thing she knows is, My name is Bella,” my daughter joked), Bella brimmed with good nature and sweetness…unless she was angry with me.  Then she would jump up on her back feet, and, displaying ‘jazz hands’, smack me on either side of my knee and run like hell.

She was a cat who came when called; who saw me to the door in the mornings and met me there when I came home at night.  When I could not sleep, she would lay stretched out beside me, my hand gently stroking her fat little tummy, until we both drifted off to dreams.  Despite her lack of brainpower, she ruled my other three cats as alpha, and they all but bowed to her.

But as time went on, it was obvious my little black cat wasn’t completely well.  Repeated bouts of respiratory infection and pneumonia robbed her of her meow; “Gak!” was the best she could manage.  Eye infections followed, and anorexia.  At last I received a diagnosis: FHV.  Feline herpes virus.  A disease which would flare any time the animal was stressed.  A disease for which there was no treatment, and no cure.

But I was not about to give up on my best baby cat, not without a fight.  Nursing her through repeated bouts of the virus, tempting her with exotic foods for the anorexia, we struggled on together for close to 18 years.  But thyroid disease and renal failure compounded her ailments.  Time after time in the final two years of her existence, I was sure that I had lost her.  Each time, valiant, determined, she rallied to experience months, then weeks, and finally days, of seeming wellness.  But at last, her strength failing, I knew it was time to give my sweet little friend rest.

I knelt beside her as, at the hands of an experienced and kind veterinarian, Bella went ever so gently across the Bridge. To the Ancient Egyptian afterworld of Amenti, I whispered to her, stroking her mink-soft fur; to the great Golden City of the Cats, Bubastis, where she would rest at the feet of the Goddess Bastet.

The next morning, heartbroken, I stood before my familiar Irvington Halloween poster and, perhaps for the first time, noted the date at the bottom of the print.  October 25, 2003.  Fifteen days before a starving kitten struggled onto a friend’s porch, and so into my life.  Perhaps the very day that she became lost—or went in search of me.

For any animal lover, there is always that one special pet who holds our heart cupped within their little paws.  On my wall, then, painted by the hand of an artist who never knew her, hangs a portrait of my little soul-mate cat, Bella.  Belladonna Night Moon, who sits at the feet of Goddess Bastet in the everlasting grainfields of Amenti.

Belladonna Night Moon
2003 – 2020

I invite everyone to tell me in the Comments section
about their own contact with beloved pets on the Other Side.  And read next week’s post for the second of my True Ghost Stories.

A Time for Tears

In Minimizing Is Not a Bra I remarked, “But that’s a subject for another blog post.”  Well, here it is.

A man I once worked with, a strong, proud Vietnam vet, had married an Asian woman he’d met during his tour of duty.  They’d had a long and (at least according to his side of the story) happy marriage, successfully raising well-adjusted, responsible children and living normal, middle-class American lives.

Mr. Veteran attributed the success of their marriage to the fact that his wife never made excessive emotional demands upon him.  His marriage was free, he once commented, of  “emotional instability”.  “I’ll tell you this,” he would say, chin raised high and lips thinned in a proud smirk, “In 40 years of marriage, I have never seen her cry.”

The looks he received at this remark from female coworkers were usually either disbelieving or simply aghast.  I was certainly unimpressed.  But after the third or fourth time he made this statement, a woman far more forceful than I am spoke up and said what we were all thinking.

“The operative word in your sentence is ‘seen’,” she said firmly. “Tell yourself anything you want; that woman has cried, and cried plenty—all alone.  She knows she doesn’t dare display her feelings in front of you.  She wouldn’t get any compassion or comfort.  You’d never put your arms around her and hold her while she cried.  You’d just walk away or get angry.”

Mr. Veteran scoffed, but we women nodded and agreed with our gutsy coworker.  And I don’t believe any of us ever heard him dare make that reprehensible remark again.

The memory of this incident, though, came sharply to mind recently when a male member of a group I’m involved with intentionally belittled an emotional remark I made.  I recognized his bullying and responded to it; I snapped right back at him.  But experiencing his attempted intimidation in response to the feelings I displayed, and recollecting Mr. Veteran’s remarks, made me wonder why and how it is that women are still considered by many in Western society to be excessively emotional; why, in fact, the expression of feelings, especially sadness, continues to be considered, by society in general and males in particular, to be a “bad” thing.

I recalled an article written by a man describing his viewpoint of the male reaction to women’s tears: men were, he explained, very disturbed by any evidence of sadness, any weeping, because it might keep happening. And, he expounded, men just didn’t want to feel called upon to provide comfort by even acknowledging a woman’s sadness.  They simply didn’t want to deal with it.  Men, the author claimed, preferred a stiff upper lip to distress, no matter what was happening and in spite of every provocation.

This writer’s explanation sounded shockingly similar to the 1950s marital advice provided in women’s magazines, in which a wife was encouraged to make her home an oasis of perfection and quiet, ensuring that her spouse was undisturbed by any domestic problems.  It flabbergasted me to realize that, 70-odd years after that era, a good many men are still expecting the same thing.

That led me to consider just how many books (many of them bestsellers) had been written, by men, for women, explaining to females just how they needed to treat their men to keep them happy.  At least three-quarters of the “relationship books” of the past 50 or 60 years, I realized, were written in this vein.  Why wasn’t the converse true, I wondered belatedly? Why weren’t the bestseller lists studded with books written by women, for men, advising them on how to make their female partners happy?  Why was it assumed that the success of a relationship was predicated upon a woman doing all she could to make her male partner’s life a paradise: bending to his every whim; understanding his every requirement; meeting his every need?

With sudden and startling illumination, I belatedly realized why my misogynistic coworker had always made it a point to state that his wife was Asian.  The shameful myth that Asian women are docile, subservient and submissive was part of his worldview.  Sadly, his wife, transported following a brutal war from a country in tatters to life in what was nearly another world; dependent on him; feeling it incumbent to keep her marriage intact for her own and her children’s’ survival, fell in line with his demands, even to the point of suppressing her every emotional need–not because she was Asian, but because she, like so many women of all nationalities, everywhere, had been taught to caretake the needs of men to the detriment of her own.

That this has been the way of the world for centuries is appalling.  That a marriage of such inequality could have been contracted in the 20th century is unspeakable.

But that such attitudes continue to exist is enough to make one weep.

If you’d like to read the prequel to this essay, you’ll find “Minimizing Is Not a Bra” by scrolling down to the Archives link below, and checking the post of June 9, 2021.

My Last Leaf

On this the first day of the autumnal equinox, it seems the right time to reprint this post, first published in October, 2019.

When I was a young teenager, around the ages of 13 and 14, I was enamored of the stories of O’Henry. I thrilled to the surprise endings, and, being of an emotional age group, I loved the almost sappy sentimentality of many of the stories, as well as the rollicking humor. No matter how badgered and belittled O’Henry’s stories were and often still are by literary critics (all of whom probably have some type of stick up their butts), I enjoy these rare little gems to this day. If I could find somewhere a book containing all 600-some of O’Henry’s short stories, I wouldn’t jib for a minute at the cost; I’d purchase it immediately. For years I’ve found that, when my world seems dreary to the point of misery and difficult beyond bearing, I can turn to the pages of my old O’Henry books and escape to that world of 100 years ago: to love and laughter and surprise. Each year on Christmas eve, I re-read The Gift of the Magi, always feeling my throat tighten and tears sparkling behind my eyes as I reach the well-known ending.

But love The Gift of the Magi as I most certainly do, one of my favorite O’Henry stories is one less well known: The Last Leaf. If you have never read it, then I will not give away the ending; you must find it on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it—thought of it, and of the lessons it taught my young self about surrender and survival, courage and compassion,  true talent and recognition, ultimate sacrifice, and genuine acts of love.  But The Last Leaf  wasn’t really on my mind a few weeks ago as I trotted out my front door to wander down the drive and pick up my mail from the box. I didn’t really get very far on my mission, for as I stepped down from the porch to the walk, I glanced at the ground and saw a single fallen autumn leaf.IMG_20191004_170142266

It was astonishingly beautiful. It could not have fallen from any of the nearby trees, all of which are soft maples, so it had to have been swept there on the wind—swept to just that perfect, bare patch of earth where I would glance down and see it.

I stooped and picked up the leaf, turning it gently in my hands, holding it to the soft and fading afternoon light. Had I been a Millennial, I suppose I would have just reached for my phone and snapped a photo of the leaf, posted it to various social media and picture sites, and gone on my merry way. But a Millennial I am not; I stopped for the leaf.  I picked it up and held it and admired it—communed with it, if you will. I don’t know how long I stood there, enjoying its delicate beauty and amazed by the fact that it had lain there, waiting for me, but I do know that for as long as I stood there, holding that leaf, wondering over its brilliant colors and tracing the tiny veins with my finger—for those moments, I was mindful. Truly mindful. My last leaf became a meditation of sorts.

Eventually, I continued on my way down the drive to pick up my mail…but I did not let go of my leaf. I carried it with me, brought it into my house, and finally photographed it, so that I would have not just a reminder of its beauty, but of those few moments when the world slipped away and I became genuinely one with the Spirit of Nature.

It was then that I recalled the O’Henry story The Last Leaf, and considered that this little gift from the gods and goddesses of Autumn had waited there to teach me a lesson that I–that we all–too often forget: to stop. To stop for just one moment, and be mindful. To notice. To marvel and wonder and admire, for just an instant, all the incredible, astounding and overwhelming loveliness of this world wherein we dwell. To appreciate.

To (like the heroine of the story) learn to live.

If you have never read the O’Henry story, then I will not give away the ending; you must find it on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it.

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.

 

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

In response to the recent action by the State of Texas to ban abortions after six weeks, I reprint this post from May 22, 2019.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show during which the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which are now common. As an example, the speaker mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, commenting that the seeds of this non-native plant were inadvertently carried to these shores, hitchhiking in blankets and caught on the clothing of European settlers.

I could not stop laughing at such blatant ignorance. I was well aware that the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, taken as a morning-after tea, were the most effective of all the early forms of birth control–at least since silphium was hunted to extinction by Roman and Egyptian women desperate to prevent conception.Queen-Annes-Lace11  The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace weren’t ferried to the Americas accidentally, hitchhiking on property, but quite purposefully, by women who preferred not to be worn out or die due to too-frequent childbearing.

For centuries, knowledgeable midwives instructed the women they served in the lore of birth control—difficult, and not totally reliable, but not completely impossible in the centuries before the development of the diaphragm and the contraceptive pill. And, yes, their knowledge also included methods of abortion, customarily using herbs. Compounded from celery root and seed, hedge hyssop, cotton root, Cretan dittany and spruce hemlock, mistletoe leaves and horseradish, cinchona bark, ashwagandha and saffron, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed. Though those recipes have been lost to time, the concoctions were so prevalent that ads for patent medicines to cure “delayed menstruation” were common in women’s magazines throughout the 1800s—that is, until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873  (both written and passed by men, of course) criminalized even the possession of information on birth control.

The world has turned many times since the Comstock Act, through the invention of the contraceptive pill, to the self-help clinics of the late 1960s that instructed women in the practice of menstrual extraction, through Roe vs. Wade. The morning-after and abortion pills were introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from Queen Anne’s Lace to the present day. To me, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience and personal situation. But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of great ignorance, yet it was then that midwives—wisewomen–practiced, sharing their expertise and knowledge with the female population at large, easing the pain of childbirth and preventing many maternal deaths by their skill. And it was then, too, that such women were hunted down, burned and tortured and hung as witches, effectively silencing their knowledge for generations. Women were left in the hands of male doctors who, shrugging, pronounced, “Maternity is eternity”, reconciling countless numbers of women and infants to easily-preventable deaths as babies were delivered in filthy conditions with unwashed hands.

Circle the world a few times on its axis, and enter the 1900s, when horrific deaths by botched back alley abortions were common. Young and desperate women bled to death or died horribly of septicemia. Circle again, and information on contraception was readily available, along with new forms of birth control. Contraceptive creams and condoms were sold over the counter. Legal abortion gave a measure of safety to the procedure. The morning after pill became available for those who had either been careless or experienced the horrors of rape.

History, they say, always repeats itself. And so as society swings perilously close once more to the era of illegal and back alley abortions, so it may also oscillate to women who reclaim the ancient knowledge that gave them power over their own reproductive processes: to the natural methods that provided women a way to make their decisions in accordance with their conscience.

The morality of these decisions is not truly the question, for no matter what is legislated, women will continue to fight for and gain absolute control over their own bodies. They will continue to make their personal choices regarding reproduction. The Pendulum of Queen Anne’s Lace, you might call it. History will, genuinely, always repeat itself.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also appreciate “MURDER”, the story of my 1985 miscarriage and the vicious accusations hurled several of us at my workplace who were grieving a pregnancy loss. You will find it in the Archives below, from June 19, 2019.

No Pleasure In Being Right

Saying, or at least thinking, “I told you so!” is usually one of life’s evil but genuine little pleasures.

I’ve seen the words written, heard them said, time and time again. “Believe me,” they always begin. “Believe me, I take no pleasure at all in being right.”

Bull puckey, I’ve always thought. Saying, or at least thinking, “I told you so!” is usually one of life’s evil but genuine little pleasures. It is vindication, justification, and smug certainty all wrapped up in one self-satisfied and self-righteous package, and it feels great. Absolutely great. I rarely actually say those words, but I have been known to think them loudly. Very, very loudly. And never so much as with the Covid-19 pandemic.

From the first whispers of news about the virus, I felt concern. This could be, I told myself, every bit as bad as Ebola, and quite possibly worse. I mentioned this to a few acquaintances, who accused me of fearmongering.

Predictably, those same acquaintances never referred back to that conversation once the pandemic was underway, but I had the grim satisfaction of knowing my worries had been justified.

Next came the photos smuggled out of Wuhan showing hospitals beleaguered: dead bodies lining hallways where the still-living sick awaited treatment. Having learned my lesson, I said nothing to anyone, but told myself, “This is going to be worse than bad.” Again, sadly, I was right.

The newswires hummed with the first officially recorded U.S. case of Covid. I shuddered; I knew what was coming. A few weeks later, Trump announced that the virus would “…go away in April”. I rolled my eyes so hard they almost lodged in my hairline.

Deaths attributable to the virus began to soar, and I held one hand to my aching head—sadly, again correct.

I compared my own experience with a mystery respiratory illness, and those of family and friends, to the officially-recorded arrival of Covid-19 in the U.S., and disbelieved the official timeline. Months later, my supposition was proven right as postmortems and testing of blood bank contributions confirmed that the virus had been circulating much earlier than originally thought.

As each new stage of the pandemic was encountered, I questioned the endorsed stance. I should have been placing bets; I would have raked in the cash! We don’t need to wear masks. (“Yes, we do.”) Ah, we DO need to wear masks, but it won’t be necessary to lock down the city, the state, the country… (“Yes, it will, and it’s going to happen.”)

Then, blessedly, the vaccine was developed. Though breathing a sigh of relief, I continued to worry. After all, I was admittedly not a fan of the way children’s vaccinations are administered, considering some of them to be poorly-tested, and a few even outright dangerous. Would everyone accept the necessity of being vaccinated for Covid? I doubted so. Again, sadly, I was correct.

The CDC made the startling announcement that those who were fully vaccinated need no longer wear masks in public situations. “That’s insane!” I remarked to myself. “An honor system? Are they crazy?” Well, yes. It quickly became clear that this strategy had failed just as badly as their initial, “no need to wear masks” policy.

Meanwhile, in those states where both vaccination and mask mandates lagged, case counts began to mount, overwhelming local ICUs with the sick and dying. Once again, unhappily, I had been right.

As each of these missteps and errors and failures to take the virus seriously mounted up, my satisfaction in being right became ever more bitter. Each step of the way, I had accurately predicted a terrible outcome; each time, I had been proven correct.

It was awful.

Finally came the recent August afternoon when I, watching an Indy auto race with my Dad, was horrified as the camera swept over a packed infield: wall-to-wall people, and no masks at all. No social distancing, no masks. It was the second of three races being held in Indy that day, my Dad commented casually, and I felt my heart skip a beat.

Superspreader.

The vaccination rate in our county was less than 50%.

Assured that I was, as I had been all along, on track to a correct conclusion, I dared send an e-mail to several contacts considering the possibility that these auto races would prove to be a superspreader event. I was quickly and roundly lectured by one relative, who deviated from my actual question to soapbox about individual freedoms, pronouncing didacticly, “We can’t lock down the country again!” Another derided my concerns, noting that the Indy 500 in May (which had been held with both a mask mandate and social distancing requirement) had not proven to be a superspreader.

Less than two weeks later, by August 23, the New York Times reported that Marion County, Indiana’s Covid case rate had soared by a terrifying 79%.

I did not bother remarking on this predictable outcome to those who had disputed my remarks.

But I finally–genuinely, sorrowfully–understood the truth of that old saying which I had always disparaged. I took no pleasure whatever, none at all, in once more being right.

If you can stand yet one more article or essay about the restrictions of Covid-19, you might also like reading “When Life Was Simple (Sigh)”, which you can locate in the Archives from February 24, 2021.