Home Improvement: Do It Yourself or Maybe Not At All

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Now that I have retired from my twenty year career in education, I theoretically have the time and energy to devote to tasks and projects that have been begging for attention for the past few years. I made a list: new bathroom fan, ballast on the fluorescent light in the basement, replace the motion sensitive light in the backyard, new sill cock on the backyard faucet. All small and annoying jobs that contractors hesitate to take on. The small jobs are just not worth it and the effort that it takes to find a reputable craftsman deters my efforts. 

I take to Google – “how to change a ballast on a fluorescent light”, “replacing a bathroom fan”, and any other jobs that have come to my attention now that I have time to notice them. Having wired most of the lighting fixtures and some of the outlets in our house over the past 38 years, I fancy myself an amateur electrician. “Black to black, white to white, and the ground wire. Don’t forget the ground!” My self-talk through the process is derived from my father’s demonstration of the skill and my subsequent attempts to master electricity. So far, so good! My attention to detail, to shutting off the breaker at the electrical box, and to applying lots of electrical tape ensures that I have not been electrocuted or that I haven’t sparked a conflagration. 

Presently, I am at the mercy of a contractor who is replacing the front stairs of our house. A job that I could not Google, I needed to find a contractor who came well recommended. Three interviews later, we went with someone that had done work for one of Tim’s co-workers. When we met with the contractor, he took copious measurements and pondered on the approach that he would take to attack the chore. We were encouraged. We were assured that the job would take two weeks. We were hopeful. Half the cash down now, and half when the job is finished. We signed on, eager to be ready for a harsh New England winter with shiny new and safe stairs. 

Now four weeks into the process, we have stairs but the job was not complete. We are at the point in the job where the contractor has started his next job and we are an afterthought. Breezing in and out, I never know when the driveway will be off limits due to the onslaught of work vehicles. Days go by with no activity. Promises of “the next day” come and go. I text, he responds. I am cordial but my patience is wearing thin. Finally, I held on to the promise that the job would be complete before we set off to an out of town family wedding last week. It was not.

In our absence, a crew appeared and “finished” the job. Back from the airport, I pulled into the driveway. I was sure that they were not finished. I called for a meeting and the contractor obliged. Apparently the lattice that we expected to cover the foundation and footings was not included in the original price on the contract that we signed in August. Add to that the foundation for the stairs, which apparently was another extra charge. Now over the original contract by almost $2500, I was concerned. There was confusion despite a contract in hand and the cost was over budget. The railings that we had planned and contracted going down the lower front stairs were not done to our satisfaction and became another sticking point . The adjustment became another expense. When the change order came through, I lowered the boom. “No more! Finish the stairs and we are all set!” Desperate, the contractor  tried to negotiate to get me to agree to additional work, but I had paid enough and was glad to at least have the original stairs that were needed most. I was willing to eat the cost of what we were forgoing to get the job finished.

Having built two houses and renovated another one from the studs, I have been to the contractor rodeo too many times. As a landlord of a two family house close by, I have hired my share of skilled craftsmen for all sorts of jobs. Unfortunately, good workers are hard to find and way too rare. Every time I need to find someone to help with a job, I cringe. And when I do find someone who is reputable and honest, I hold on to them like grim death, knowing that the world out there is teeming with the unscrupulous as much as it is full of good and decent people. It’s a crap shoot. I know that the good ones are out there, it’s just a little difficult to know if even the most highly recommended worker will follow through. 

My father always distrusted contractors, but I chalked it up to his paranoia and frugality. In the end, he let things go and his house fell into disrepair.  I have vowed not to repeat history yet I have learned, to my detriment, that even when corners are not cut and workers are hired in good faith, things go wrong, sadly more frequently that one would expect. I won’t say my father was right entirely. Good people exist, and due to their credibility, are in demand. For that reason, I never take Frankie, my plumber, for granted. I value my electrician, Greg, for his fine work and honest practices. Brian, my carpenter and handyman, is skilled, clever, and decent. I rely on them and, whenever they work for me, I profusely thank them for their service. They must think I’m a bit daft. If they only knew what a rare commodity they are!

As I sit here listening to the hum of saws and drills just outside my door, I hope that we are near the end. I know that this will be the last project I will undertake for a while. I lack the stamina required for these endeavors, even though I haven’t lifted a hammer or a screwdriver. In the meantime, it’s back to Google for the small jobs and I will pray that nothing else breaks, decays, or otherwise needs a fix, at least until I replenish my bank account and get the nerve to go a few more rounds in the boxing ring of home improvement.



Guilt and the Art of Blogging

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Poor Mami! Since I embarked on my full-on memoir writing journey, my beloved blog is my very neglected and under-loved extension of me and I feel guilty.  With its inception in December 2017, Mami has been my focus and creative outlet.  I have dedicated myself to creating and promoting new Mamis on a regular basis. Over fifty blog entries have been read in seventeen countries, with over 1800 visitors to the site. Mami is my passion and my “baby”, but if lack of blogging was a case for mandated reporting, I would have called DCF on myself!

Guilt is something I come by honestly. As a Catholic, I feel guilty about everything. Instilled in my home and parochial school education, I live on the straight and narrow (most of the time) because of guilt.  And I don’t always see it as a negative. Guilt holds me to a higher standard. Because of guilt, I make my bed, send greeting cards, and empty the dishwasher. It’s a master motivator when plain old responsibility doesn’t quite do its job.  Without guilt, I would be a lot less productive most days and watch a lot more “Family Affair” and “Petticoat Junction” reruns. Instead, I keep busy. Guilt wrecks all of my best attempts at being idle.

My mother was really good at guilt. Laying it on nice and thick, she guilted me into just about everything I accomplished in my early life. In the end, I appreciate it.  As for my own children, the products of a different generation, they are less thankful and blame my parental guilt trip on their collective long standing anxiety.  I guess that the plan: guilt->anxiety->accomplish something.  The key is to not get stuck at “anxiety” and as Nike said, “Just do it!”

So here I am at the keyboard on a Monday morning, concerned that I haven’t written a Mami in a few weeks, banging out a short essay on “guilt”. Once again, without guilt, I would be doing any number of other things, such as scrolling through Facebook, liking pictures on Instagram, and playing with my bitmoji’s fall outfit. Instead, I write. And from here, I have a goal to generate ten pages of memoir writing before sundown. Goals and guilt go hand in hand. I have both, most of the time.

So for now, I write a Mami on a half-assed topic to allay my guilt. Nevertheless, my writing machine and my brain are revved for today’s marathon so I guess my guilt paid off once again.  And barring any disaster and a “That Girl” marathon, it looks like today may just a be one of those guiltily productive days.  At the very least, I wrote a Mami and I call that a guilt-free success!

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Two Weddings and a Shopping Trip

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Isn’t it exciting when the thick envelope appears in the mail signaling an upcoming wedding? How about two?  Within a month, we are invited to two weddings, two weeks apart – one of the son of very dear friends and the other, our nephew. Both require travel and some advance planning. To that end and looking ahead, flights were booked, hotels were secured. Tim’s tuxedo is being altered at the tailor.  I am on top of the process. All the pieces are in place, leaving what I will wear the greatest challenge and frustration. A feeling of dread at the highest level seizes my psyche. Yet I must meet my fears head on. I must go shopping.

It sounds simple. Run to the mall, try on a few dresses, pick from/or a few dresses, purchase said dresses, and go home. If only. Months of sitting at my computer writing have done their work to alter my figure. I refer to it as a “shift” since, while the weight has remained steady, the measurements have not. I ventured into my closet to see what was already in the stable and, while there were many options, none quite fit the way they did originally. Panic set in. I considered my options and, since it was too late to become a fashion designer or sew a frock of my own creation, I graciously accepted my daughter’s offer to accompany me on the quest for a dress to hide, as my mother would say, “a multitude of sins”. With my nine year old granddaughter, Molly, in tow, we embarked last Friday evening on our adventure.

Our first stop was Lord and Taylor, a solid go-to for the dressy dress since they stock a range of designers and cater to evening wear. Amassing an armload of “not quite what I was looking for but there’s nothing else” dresses, I set off to the dressing room with Molly. First piece of advice- never take someone, who holds you in such high esteem that your flaws are non-existent, to try on dresses that you know won’t fit. Too big on top, too tight on the bottom, just plain horrid, yet every modeled mishap was met with “Oh, Mami, that’s so pretty!” “You look so nice, Mami!” Fortunately, her mother came along to set her straight. She’s a little more scathing with comments like “Oh my God, take that off!” “Never!” “Hideous!” The reality check now in place, I made the Mami executive decision to move on to the possibly greener pastures of Macy’s garden of formal wear. I had little hope since my ego was sufficiently mangled already. Undoubtedly, the dress for me was still on the drawing board, or not. 

I trawled through the racks, armed with the knowledge of what won’t work, gleaned from the L&T debacle.  I marveled at the plethora of stretchy fabrics fashioned into narrow, form fitting, glove-like designs but left those behind for those poor malnourished would-be party goers. With disgust, I wondered if the fashion designers got the memo that 41.1% of American women over the age of 20 are overweight. Going up a size (maybe two), I plucked a few possible options of the Calvin and Tommy varieties, with low expectations. Downtrodden and hopeless, I once again took to the dressing room for my visual dope slap.

Ten dresses later, I emerged with four possible options that were better than workable. Even Lisa thought that they looked good, but unfortunately used the word “underpinnings” one too many times, leaving me to believe that some form of restrictive, “shapewear” undergarment would take the look to the next level. That’s a problem for another day. The store was about to close and I had to make a decision.  Never one to not hedge my bets, I refused to leave any of these options behind and bought them all. Granted, two of the dresses are the same dress – different lengths, different colors – but I still had four viable dresses in hand. I declared victory! 

I walk past the dresses now, as they lay on the bed in the spare room, and avoid eye contact. I know at some point we will need to have a conversation, one that includes underpinnings and accessories. But for today, I revel in the knowledge that I have a strong case in the matter of “the dresses vs. Marie”. And a choice, or four! My new shifted body has never felt freer!

As I settle into the empowerment that this situation affords, I let my guard down and say “Bring on the dreaded underpinnings! Truss me up like a Thanksgiving turkey, if you must.”  And I think of Billy Crystal’s portrayal of ‘Fernando Lamas’, “It’s more important to look good than to feel good!” I must say, I live by this mantra on most days. In truth, I have come to learn that breathing is so overrated, at least in the cause of fashion.

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Writing Responsibly: The Surgical Art of Memoir

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For the past eight years, I have been working on a memoir chronicling the life of my family; actually, I started eight years ago, but put my feeble attempt to bed. I thought very little about the project for a while since, at the time, my father was still alive. As the major character in the quasi-tragedy, if not the hub of the story, I avoided telling the tale until he was no longer here to take offense or challenge my assertions. But even after his death five years ago, I honestly didn’t give much thought to going back to the task. Now, all these years later, I am deep into the first 20,000 words of a story that divulges details, excerpted,  crafted, and  cradled in a blanket of empathy, love, and understanding.

Writing a family memoir requires a deep sense of responsibility: a commitment to the truth as the writer saw it, attention to the history concurrent with the story, and a gentle touch.  While the story burns inside the writer, those about whom the tale is told are owed a degree of deference.  For me, the most amazing part of the experience is the unpacking of a lifetime of experiences, one detail begetting the next, unlocking memories long forgotten. I may be unusual in this aspect due to a monumental and admired ability to remember “everything”, a great aptitude for a memoirist to possess. Even with this trait, memoir is exhausting work, revealing not just the larger story but also unearthing clues to my own personality, my innate foibles, and their origins.  As one friend projected, “It must be very cathartic.” And my answer surprised even me. “It’s a story now”, was my unrehearsed answer; and, in truth, it is someone else’s story, with my own past woven into the account. In any case, I write because the story of “us” burgeons inside of me now, fully incubated and ready to break through its semi-transparent shell.

The proverbial baggage of being anyone’s child can leave behind a residue that gnaws at one’s psyche. In my adult life, I hear others lay claim to having had “great parents”, practically canonizing them for their aplomb at handling the task of parenthood. Or is it that they avoided critically assessing the standard of parenting they experienced?  Should it be enough that parents provided a roof over our heads, allowed us to make mistakes, or supported us unconditionally? Rather, the truth is that our parents can leave us grateful, bewildered, or incredulous.  When all is said and done, can we truly confine our memories to the good ones alone and still appreciate the plethora of life experiences found living within the complicated dynamic of a family?

While the detritus amassed in a lifetime gives birth to a story, the writing of memoir demands obligation to a few truths: to storytelling so as not to shame, to revealing the roots of behavior without indictment, and to unconditional love despite the pain.  I liken the responsibility to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians: Do No Harm. And like a surgeon, the writer comes dangerously close to nicking veins that potentially unleash the flow of emotions that have the potential to trigger resentment and anger.  In these cases, not unlike a surgeon, the memoirist must know just when the cut is close enough without causing a bloodletting, to tell the story to entertain but not destruct the integrity of each situation and character. In memoir, the writer as surgeon uses the pen like a scalpel, with attention to closing the wound with care so as to minimize the scars left behind.

Cautiously, I embark on this journey, owing to those who came before a respect and a responsibility to tell their stories accurately and fairly. While the events unfolded in real life, so many years ago, contempt, anger, befuddlement, and incredulity may have been some of the emotions experienced.  Now they are replaced with a measure of understanding and a great love. It is the catalyst that pushes the pen point across the page with a velvet touch as the emotional history unfolds in my mind, cushioned in a reality of arriving unscathed at other end of my own life, in spite of it all.

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Being Italian in Boston: The Feast of St. Anthony and my DNA


Every year, as the Boston summer begins, the tradition of “The Feasts” reestablishes itself with the stringing of red, green and gold lights from tenement to tenement across city streets in the Italian enclave of the North End.  Central to Italian American culture in the Boston area, the “feast” offers an unrivaled experience and a genuine ethnic immersion, as the throngs wind down narrow streets that have been shut off from traffic to accommodate the processions.  On a platform hoisted high in the air by its handlers, the statue of the “Saint of the Week” is paraded through the lanes, accompanied by the “Roma Band” (probably not the real name but that’s what we always called it) and a crowd of “bodyguards”, followed by a group of the faithful.  The statue, draped in dollar bills (and a few other denominations) that are pinned along the way to attached ribbons by those observing from the sidelines, is the main attraction of the entire affair.  It is a sight like no other, a display of “real Italian-American” culture, and a part of the rich tradition of the Boston Italian community.

As a teenager, I remember going to my friend Gail’s grandmother’s house on Snow Hill Street, on the high ground near the Copp’s Hill, where we would assemble prior to being released to the mayhem.  Once on the streets, carts selling arancini (by the way, none of my Italian friends remember those being made in our families), fried dough, pizza, sausages and peppers, and all sorts of quasi Italian fare lined the narrow lanes, with aromas  so unforgettable that I can smell them as I type. Nearly fifty years later, I draw easily upon the memories of those experiences, mostly because they haven’t changed one bit since that time, as I can testify from my recent visit to “the Feast”.

This weekend, my entourage of three including my Irish husband, Tim, and my Italian friend, Rick, ventured into the North End to experience the “100th Anniversary of the Feast of St. Anthony”.  Rick, a Wellesley native, had never been to the “Feast” and his prior impression in his own words was that it was “the closest you will ever get to human sacrifice in these parts.”  Oddly, his Italian family jumped the line and went straight to the suburbs, never hailing from the North End like the rest of my friends’ families. In the early part of the 20th century, the progression of the newly landed Italian immigrants dictated the move from the West End, to the North End, to the suburbs, usually north of Boston, and most of my friends could claim this history. Without this inborn connection, the North End, while culturally interesting, lacked the same natural familiarity to Rick that those of us with these roots share.  In any case, he was intrigued and determined to pin a dollar bill on the Saint, bringing a lifelong dream to fruition.

Perhaps Rick’s impressions of the potential for “human sacrifice” were confirmed as soon as we walked into the North End neighborhood. It was mass, directionless confusion, which reminded me immediately that some of the traditions of the feast might be considered an acquired taste to the unschooled.  If the Tony Manero- John Travolta style of Italian is not your cup of Limoncello, the feast season is not for you.  While the familiar scent of sausage and peppers filled the air, the long, winding lines awaiting the delicacy made for tough navigation through the crowd. Tables and portable awnings, where family and friends gathered, were set up in the streets just steps from the front doors of the three deckers, owned in some cases for over one hundred years by the same family.  Down the street, we spied the main stage, the site of performances that included accordion players and other musicians, accompanying singers belting out Louis Prima and Andrea Bocelli songs. Once we finally made our way to the venue, the performers did not disappoint as they engaged the audience in banter punctuated with thick Boston accents of the “fugetabout it” variety. Tans, muscles, black v-neck t-shirts, gold chains (so many gold chains), and Louis Vuitton satchels abounded, making for an interesting attraction and a confirmation of stereotypes that really don’t seem to bother the “real” Italians. It is all part of the allure of the North End and its original inhabitants.

Just around the corner from the stage, we found the evening’s resting place of the statue of St. Anthony, housed in a makeshift grotto of fabric and gold trim, with its loot proudly on display.  As Rick mounted the stairs to the statue, a woman handed him a tiny pin to use to apply the dollar bill to the collection. I wildly snapped photos with my cell phone and my real camera, determined to memorialize this moment. Somehow, this rite of passage was necessary and important for Rick, even if he was from Wellesley.

In terms of my own North End history, my father was born on Cooper Street, on the kitchen table, as the story was told. These facts legitimize my own connection to the neighborhood and my native Boston Italianness. As a child, my father often walked me by the door of 11 Cooper, sharing tales of his faded remembrance of his time there. Since his family relocated to Medford when he was only 5, the story was a short one but nonetheless provided a belonging to the place.  Today, whenever I am in the North End with my family, I make a point of leading the tour to the doorstep of #11, sharing this history with my children and grandchildren. In addition, I include a visit to St. Leonard’s Church where my father was christened.  It’s important that they understand their birthright to this neighborhood and the experience of being Italian-American.

This year, since it was the 100th anniversary, a special attraction was added to the celebration.  St. Leonard’s hosted relics from St. Anthony himself.  As Catholics and Italians, this was a big deal and we were determined to set our gaze on these holy objects. In true Catholic form, the relics were of a gory nature; yet, we were spellbound. Skin from the cheek of the Saint, in addition to his “floating rib”, was held in suspended animation, ensconced in gold, and prominently placed near the altar at the front of the church. The exhibit added to our evening’s adventure and, in an odd way, confirmed our Catholicness since we were not grossed out totally by the nature of the display.

The Feast of St. Anthony, the last feast of the summer, holds additional significance for me and my progeny. My parents often spoke of the feast in 1955, which was the scene of the first meeting of my mother and father. Despite being in other relationships at the time, my mother clearly made an impression on my father who wasted no time in contacting her once they each had broken up with their respective love interests (who just happened to be brother and sister).  They dated, married, and the rest is history – I’m here, as are the next two generations behind them, making the Feast of St. Anthony a legendary and formative event in our family’s story.

While the celebration of “the Feasts” marks time and upholds tradition, for me, there is an inherent value in remembering and connecting with my roots through the experience. As generations are born and our elders pass away, we move farther away from those who came before us and the history that molded them and their personal stories. Honoring the past and appreciating the richness of the culture and customs that are part of our history and our faith ensure that their memories live on. And I am surprised that I feel a deep “pride” that this experience is in my DNA. But as I walk the streets of the North End, I am a part of the pavement, the bricks, and the celebration of what it means to be a “real Italian-American” Bostonian.




My Life in Three Acts: A Love Story

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Last evening, as we walked into the decrepit, magnificent building on Boylston Street, I was nervous but less so because I held his hand as we mounted the elevator to the fifth floor. As the door opened into the space, we entered the offices and classrooms of GrubStreet. I handed the envelope containing my acceptance letter to the young man signing us into the Open House. We grabbed our crackers, cheese, fruit, and wine, and eagerly sought a corner where we could be invisible as we observed the attendees. Once we settled into the room where the showcase of talent was planned, I finally breathed, less anxious and more eager to see just what I had gotten myself into.

When I left my final job in education last February, I had no idea what was next for me and my hard fought career. Multiple degrees in my field dictated what I was meant to do, yet I was adrift and bereft. When I started my own company, I believed that the “next thing” was taking shape and that I was tapping into my learned skills. Spending my days at the library, church, but mostly, home, cowering from reality, I hammered out a plan, creating flyers, business cards, promotional materials, and took out ads promoting my college counseling business. I was a school counselor by trade, after all. It was easy and safe, and I wrongly believed that it was one of those “if you build it, they will come” sort of things. In the meantime, I sought other entertainment and diversions from wallowing.

During one of my library visits, I picked up the monthly newsletter where an eight week Memoir class was advertised. It was being taught by a local author, who was an instructor in a local college, as well. I was intrigued since I had been writing Mami for about fifteen months at that point, and my blog was a forum where I had toyed with memoir, peppered with personal essay and opinion, and sometimes, just plain old ranting. With my psyche still scattered and battered, I signed up for this “next, next thing”, seeking an outlet and maybe some professional feedback for my writing.  In the end, what I got was so much more.

In the class, we read other memoirists’ pieces, dissected their styles, and shared our own work. Since I have never studied writing as an academic subject, I was a bit lost as my classmates, all older women who were semi or fully retired, batted around terminology like ‘style’, ‘arc’, and ‘voice’. Unbeknownst to me, I was a novice in this world of would-be writers.  Some members of my cohort had taken more than a few courses at some place called “Grub Street”, where the library course instructor taught in addition to his college level work. I made a mental note to research this place since I had no idea what it was. I didn’t expect this level of instruction, feedback, or support in a free 8-week library seminar but here I was, immersed in a culture that more than piqued my interest and forced me to write in a more prescribed way.  In the past, I just wrote, without a roadmap or an eye to the “practice” of writing.  This way of thinking and writing was different and, I admit, a bit challenging!

Each week, I would bring a writing piece, or two, generated by a prompt supplied by my instructor. Confident in my raw ability as I writer, I was always ready to share and get meaningful feedback but it seldom came. After I  read my contribution to the class, my classmates would commend me for my talent and my instructor would tell me that I had mastered “voice”, which I guess takes a long time (who knew?). I had good arc and a style peculiar to me. I was chuffed to say the least, fueling my interest in pursuing something of a larger scope than my beloved Mami blog.

By the time the class ended in May, my group had gelled into a supportive writing community, now based in friendship, with a connectedness rooted in our sharing of deep thoughts, ideas, and our histories in memoir form. Sad to see it end, we committed to continuing our group, meeting weekly at the same time as our class was held in the spring. For the past few months, we have worked around summer vacations while rotating our meetings at each other’s homes and local coffee shops. The outcome is more than I ever expected from a free, two hour a week, library class meant to keep me occupied and less self-pitying.

Over the course of the spring and summer, I did my GrubStreet research, learning that it is a cutting-edge “think tank” dedicated to breeding, cultivating, and connecting writers with like-minded instructors, editors, and publishers. As I perused the course offerings, my interest gravitated to the memoir cluster of master classes, generators, and incubators. Still not totally sure where my talents fell, I decided upon the Memoir Generator, a competitive program capped at 14, where I would be guided through the completion of a full, book-length, draft of a memoir. As part of the application packet, I needed to enumerate the classes that I previously had taken (my free library class?), share information about my published work (my CAGS thesis at Salem State, I guess, and oh yes, Mami!), and secure a recommendation from someone who knew my writing ability (who else but my instructor of eight weeks, since he taught at Grub). Most importantly, I needed to submit an excerpt from “my memoir” (oh, that’s rich) – I didn’t have one. I had started work on a memoir eight years ago and, since my father was still alive at the time, I abandoned the project in deference to him because my recollection did not paint him or his antics in a positive light. Now an orphan, I applied myself to the task and within days, I had pumped out thirty pages of gory, bizarre, and salacious details of my history that even intrigued me! Only needing ten written memoir pages for my application packet, I proceeded to amass the other required elements and made the deadline, despite lacking anything resembling a memoir just a week before.

When the notification arrived that I had been accepted to the Memoir Generator, my uncertain future instantly took direction. The next day, I walked into the Teachers’ Retirement Board and finalized my departure from the field of education.  I had other things to do now and mourning my career was not one of them.  The retirement counselor assured me that I was doing the right thing, summarizing my three acts: I had been fortunate to stay home with my children, I had a great career, and now I had a pension. His words solidified my resolve and lifted the final edge of the curtain on my “Third Act”.

Last night, my husband held my hand as we ducked into the elevator leading to my “Third Act” and I thought back on all of the times he held my hand throughout my life. As a full partner in child rearing, he supported the idea of a “stay at home” mom while our children were young.  While it was never easy, especially financially, our grip as we walked the path of parenthood never weakened. When I proposed a graduate degree (twice), he never flinched at the responsibility that would fall to him in my absence or the financial burden on our family. His unwavering support was invisible yet palpable, and his pride in my accomplishments spurred me on. Last night, as we listened to the talented writers showcase their work, once again I felt his hand hold tight and then release its grip, allowing me once again to explore the “next thing.” He knew that this is where I need to be in my next adventure.  While the warmth of his hand in mine provides an incubator for my dreams, it is in the letting go that I have realized my life’s goals, always knowing that when I need it, his hand is a far away as my fingertips and heart.

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When the Past Meets the Present: A Canadian Vacation Reunion

In the past, when Tim and I planned our usual summer vacations, we practically closed our eyes and let our collective, unguided finger decide our destination on a map of Europe. For some reason, Europe was the place to be. We tended towards Ireland, the British Isles and France, but ventured to Belgium, The Netherlands, and Italy, as well. Last year, due to uncertainty around work commitments, we stayed in the U.S. and it felt strange, like we were missing out on something. However, our summer trip took us to Austin to visit our son and then on the Lake Charles and New Orleans so it was not a total disappointment. We saw ‘merica and it was intriguing to say the least.  

This summer, we chose to stay on the continent, but our destination was not in the United States. When our friend, Bernie, proposed visiting Prince Edward Island for a joint getaway, we were intrigued. Canada, while just a short ride away, was never on our vacation docket. And aside from dinners out, concerts, and just hanging out, we had never traveled with Bernie and Deb. This adventure could get very interesting.

I had known Bernie from my childhood as a grammar school classmate and a shy, quiet, freckle-faced little boy and, although we had lost contact over the years, we reconnected a few years back through our mutual friend, Janine. Janine attended our local Catholic school, Saint Raphael, for only a year during our seventh grade but she made an impression. This tiny blond girl from Prince Edward Island, an unfamiliar place a million miles away to the twelve year old me, had a quirkiness and impishness that we attributed to her being Canadian. Janine was a novelty, speaking with a funny accent that was punctuated with a few well placed “Ehs?” Our class adopted her as a sort of a “pet” since she was so different and she had a natural magnetism that helped her to connect with everyone. When she left us in June of that school year, we were sad to see her go and Janine and I pledged to stay in touch. Over the years, we wrote frequently, visited only once when she came back to Boston a few years later, and eventually found our way to Facebook. With technology, our written correspondence evolved into to a mere annual Christmas card with a quick signature. It was sad in a way that our our extensive letters detailing our lives of boyfriend stories and house moves, marriage, and babies, were reduced to a quick post or a few emojis as we plodded through our grown-up lives in our respective countries. 

In the end, it was Facebook through which I reconnected with Bernie. In our Facebook posts, Janine and I could see each other’s “friends” and the ranks of our mutual connections grew through our continued friendship. “Is that THE Joe Smith?” (insert any number of names) became a common question between us and usually it was a “Joe” in common. Hence, when Bernie’s name popped up on a comment, I sought clarification – “Is that THE Bernie?” – and it was. Despite the fact that Bernie lived only a few miles away, we had not spoken since 1978. Once our friendship was reestablished,  Bernie and I conspired to find a plan for our spouses to meet, hoping that we could cultivate friendships between us all. Over the past few years, Bernie and Deb, and Tim and I, successfully have become frequent ‘double daters’, sharing history and filling in the spaces between teenage and old age.

However, the connection between Bernie and Janine was deeper than just a Facebook “friend”-ship.  Janine had been Bernie’s neighbor during her time in the U.S., enhancing their familiarity. In addition,  Prince Edward Island was a family vacation destination both in Bernie’s childhood and as the scene of Deb and Bernie’s honeymoon. When he proposed the joint vacation for our foursome, he thought that using his faint memory as our map and tour guide would be sufficient to show us all a good time.  Always up for a road trip and an adventure, and in Tim’s case, the additional attraction of having a built-in vacation golf buddy, we accepted the challenge and the planning began in earnest. 

As an additional contribution to the plan, Bernie endeavored to find a time that would coordinate with Janine’s annual trek back home to PEI from Ontario. The prospect of seeing Janine almost fifty years we after we first met was amazing to me. For Tim, he felt like he already knew Janine since I always shared her letters and Christmas cards; in turn, he had also been added to the ranks of Janine’s Facebook “friends”. Tim was intrigued by the prospect of meeting this “mystery woman” almost as much as the prospect of a round of golf or two on a storied PEI golf course. 

A little over a week ago, Tim and I embarked on our first visit to Canada in almost forty years with our travel companions, Bernie and Debbie. Once on PEI, we applied ourselves to the task of hammering out the details of our reunion. When the moment finally arrived that Janine and I shared an embrace long overdue, it was hard to believe that a friendship, cultivated and nurtured via the mail and internet, had endured for so many years. During lunch, the conversation flowed, with very few lulls and ebbs. We shared a common history in writing and in life that made friends out of strangers. The reunion was more than any of us expected: a gathering of old friends in a new and very beautiful setting.  

During the week, Janine and I, and our companions, met a few more times for dinners out, for ice cream, and at our cottage on the strait. Stories filled in the holes found in the history shared only in truncated letter and electronic form. Our spouses and significant others sat back and listened, and perhaps dozed, as we recounted tall tales and exploits of our youth and young adulthood. When names from our grammar school were mentioned, Janine remembered the who’s and what’s while Bernie, who attended our school for a few more years than one, didn’t. I feigned outrage at Bernie’s memory gaps, which in turn became a source of entertainment. It was a new kind of fun that I never imagined; without this opportunity, I would have missed something that I didn’t know I needed or wanted, and I am complete in a new way with another box ticked on my ever growing (and depleting) bucket list.

A lifetime ago, I met a spirited, little, blond-haired girl from a far away island.  Never did I think back then that we would still be friends as “almost old” people. Now home, my visit to another country, just a short distance and a world away,  is a mental souvenir enhanced by a reunion that restored memories and created new ones. I am grateful for the years of dedicated communication between Janine and me that provided the foundation for this gathering. It required commitment on both sides and, if one of us had not maintained our resolve to stay connected, Janine would be just a memory from long ago instead of a part of my today, as well.


The Stuff of Fairy Tales

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(Today is the thirty-eighth anniversary of the marriage of Charles and Diana. I wrote this piece a few months ago for my memoir writing group.  I thought that it was an appropriate tribute to this event.)

When I prepared to be married in 1980, at the age of 21, I dreaded the chore of planning the event, devising the guest list, picking bridesmaids’ dresses, and surviving the day, in general. With a goal of an understated affair, there was little joy in the process. Since our union was not blessed fully by our families, we possessed a combined resolve to “show them” and despite the objections, both verbal and tacit, we professed our vows. It was a day to endure rather than enjoy.  And amazingly, thirty-nine years later, we have endured, to everyone’s surprise.

Just a few short months after our own wedding, the excitement of a Royal Wedding seized the attention of the media and the world, making me feel a bit gypped!  How I had missed the boat, sacrificing my own happiness at the hand of the naysayers?  I somewhat had been robbed of the joy by my own circumstances.  In response, I threw myself fully into the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. She, like me, was quite young, making her a comrade in life inexperience.  I pitied Diana, so shy and reserved, as she assumed a position that thrust her and her life in a spotlight with a lens set on zoom. In the days before her wedding, she dodged cameras and paparazzi while making her way to and from her work in a preschool. The simple act of getting into her car caused mass hysteria. I watched rabidly anytime she appeared on my television screen. I purchased every People magazine with a cover picturing her or alluding to an article about her. I was obsessed, along with the rest of the world, all the while mourning my own loss.

The day of Charles and Diana’s July wedding was a work day for commoners like me.  While getting dressed for the day, I interrupted my routine as I scanned channels, assessing the quality of the news coverage and turning the dial of the mammoth Motorola T.V. set until I was satisfied with the camera angles and narration. Setting my VCR to “Record”, I left for work at the last possible moment, trying to not miss a moment of the simulcast festival of pageantry and fanfare.

That evening, my friend, Csilla, and I planned an evening dedicated to viewing all that my recorder had captured. Sitting on the floor in front of the screen, we watched eagerly as the carriage, reminiscent of the one that converted from a pumpkin to a coach for Cinderella, emerged from the palace with a glowing bride and her dad inside, off on a fateful journey to meet her Prince. As the gold and black orb made its way through the streets of London, the throngs along the route cheered. Once at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the ornate door of the carriage opened and the bride emerged, enveloped in a mass of layers and lengths of silk taffeta, which ballooned into a glorious cloud of fabric that seemingly lifted her up the stairs and into the church.  There were ruffles! So many ruffles! It was the world’s first glimpse of ‘the dress’. On first glance, I noticed that it looked a bit rumpled, perhaps indicating a poor choice of fabric, but that was where my critique ended. I was spellbound and more than a bit envious.

Once inside, the coy ‘Princess in Waiting’ portrayed a palpable timidity, teetering between being nervous and poised all at the same time. At the appointed hour, Diana floated down the aisle, with her procession of bridesmaids and pageboys and her trailing veil, transported on a puff of ivory to her Prince, who waited expectantly, bedecked in his military uniform.  I took in an excited breath, anxious and eager for the melding of these two hearts and for the possibilities of the royal life ahead for this young couple.

The ceremony was enchanting, with ethereal angelic singing and selections of instrumental classical songs written by British composers. As they spoke their vows, Diana stumbled over hers, transposing Charles’ many names, to the delight and amusement of the news correspondents from across the globe and the viewers at home, including me and my friend. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his sermon, noted that this “was the stuff of which fairy tales are made”.  An ocean and a fantasy away, the image on my television was magical and spellbinding.   For Diana, in her speaking her vows, she unknowingly solidified the prospect of a future life of scrutiny and the end of her privacy forever.  For me, this glorious day gave birth to my life-long obsession with all things Royal.

Years later, armed with the knowledge of “the end of the story”, I fondly remember the very royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana with melancholy. Very common issues marred the fairy tale ending that I expected for them in my fantasy.  In the years after the excitement of the storied nuptials, Diana and I shared many life milestones. We had babies together and raised them in tandem. We wore similar hairstyles and loved designer clothing.  We shared a connection, while one sided, that was the commonality in being a wife, a mother, and a woman. Yet, my memories are tainted with sadness now that the story is done: a troubled marriage and the loss of Diana at an early age. I accept that child rearing, hairstyles, and a great wardrobe were where our connection ceased. In the end, my far less royal, understated wedding and somewhat uneventful, enduring marriage is the ‘true stuff’ of ordinary, common, and enchanting fairy tales.


Losing My Mind: A Weighty Conundrum

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When I got on the scale today, I had gained weight.  Since yesterday, that is.  I wasn’t shocked.  It was a number I had seen before in my collective two hundred pound lifetime weight loss. That’s not to say I was two hundred pounds overweight at any time – I just lost the same twenty-five pounds, repeatedly, for the past twenty-eight years.  My choices of vehicles to lose the girth ran the gamut of trends and organized movements that not only helped me to lose weight (maybe) but also made my wallet a bit lighter, too.  Meetings, books, online programs, and websites, all promoting the keys to being svelte, wonderfully thin and, less importantly for me, healthy, have taken up more of my time than I like to admit. Yet, I repeatedly continue to seek the cure for my compulsive need to eat, not eat, get skinny, and get fat.

I am proud to say I am a Lifetime Member of Weight Watchers, for what that’s worth. In truth, it’s worth the price of not paying for meetings, if you stay within a few pounds from your goal weight.  Given my stature, five feet if I stand up really tall, my goal weight from my very first attempt in 1991 was so low that, when reached, I could not put a morsel of food between my lips, let alone swallow.  I maintained this starvation mode for the better part of six months, until I needed to eat really badly.  Before I knew it, I had not only revisited the weight that brought me to WW initially, I surpassed it. I think back on the number, forty pounds from where I am now, and I chuckle. At the time, and at the age of 32, I was mortified. How could I have let myself go?  I was sure that people snickered and sneered that I had really packed it on.  Things got out of control when I fully committed to eating again. I crawled back to “the program” once I was twenty-two pounds over the restrictive, non-eating original goal set by the Weight Watchers program and eight pounds over my initial WW weigh in.  Willpower was not my strong suit, apparently.

My less than triumphant return to WW was repeated nearly every summer, and never again did I enjoy the benefit of meetings without a fee.  While on my ride of my pendulum swings and ups and downs, I saw the value in Weight Watchers but I just couldn’t sustain it. In the meantime, I tried no-carb, low-carb, high protein, fasting, and any other premise-of-the-month.  Some really worked: the South Beach Diet, for example, netted a fifteen pound loss in just two weeks. As long as I stayed away from carbs, I enjoyed a flat belly and suffered from constipation.  Then I had bread…and beer…and anything else not on the plan, and the numbers on the scale skyrocketed, once again.

A few years ago, I started Weight Watchers for the millionth time (ok, that’s an exaggeration), but this time I did it in earnest (again).  My husband, who also needed to drop thirty pounds, joined me. As his weight melted away with a few minor lifestyle changes, my numbers stagnated.  I would lose a few, gain some back, lose a few more, and gain some more back. The trajectory was downward but never as profound as his result. He was smug about his success, adding to my angst.  Yet, I minimally persisted.

As I sat in the meetings, I dissected the atmosphere and the business model. The room was filled with women, and a few men, all telling the same story that I lived. Yet, they returned, as had I, and I was more than intrigued so I invested in the company.

At the time, in late 2016, the stock was reasonably priced, trading in the low teens.  When I invest, I like to have an idea of the marketplace and the product and, clearly, there was value.  The company successfully reinvented itself repeatedly over the years, with ever adjusting “points” values and revamps to the program that seemed to appeal to the constituents.  My hunch was correct and my stock rose quickly, unlike my opposing minimal weight loss.  Broker friends called it the “Oprah” effect and my portfolio benefited with a healthy infusion of cash. Unlike Oprah, I was less successful on the weight loss front.  And not so curiously, as soon as I backed off from the program, my weight increased: concurrently, the stock price plummeted. Fortunately, I got out before I lost all of my profit but it was an interesting ride.  Update: The stock is still rock bottom and I am still overweight.

My revolving door at Weight Watchers continued until a few short months ago. The weight packs on, I go to the meetings, I change my evil ways, I lose, I eat normally again, and I gain. It’s the life cycle of my fat.  This time, I’ve come to embrace it. Maybe I was meant to be minimally overweight and happy.  If that’s the case, I’m good with it. Svelte is less important at my age since shallow is unbecoming in an older woman.  That’s my convenient theory.  At the very least, I am going on that premise for now while I enjoy my carbs – and if necessary, buy bigger clothes.

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Simpler times, simpler pleasures

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A few weeks ago, I spent a lovely weekend visiting friends in a beautiful area of Maine that’s a bit more down south that Downeast. Purchased just five years ago, the house in which Tim and I stay has become Dave and Gail’s hobby, passion, and occasional bane. A beautiful antique center entrance colonial built in 1834, the house is expansive with an extension that houses a kitchen and a spare multipurpose room (or as I call it, “my room”), and another further offshoot that is an embellished “barn” (the word ‘barn’ doesn’t do this structure justice). It is the epitome of New England living in a simpler time, with a modern tweak.   From an open window, the rushing sounds of the Sheepscot River, just across the road, soothe the soul of the weary city dweller.  For entertainment, we watch the colorful birds clustering at the multiple feeders outside of the kitchen window, an arrangement that Gail calls “Bird TV”.  Needless to say, we seize the opportunity to partake of the peace every time an invitation is extended.

As an added attraction, our visits north always include a ride on the Waterville, Wiscasset, and Farmington Railway, a living museum, and reconstructed railroad system assuming the pathways of a defunct means of transportation that was a lifeline to the area over one hundred years ago.  The trains we ride are originals, unearthed in storage throughout the country, or from donors who collect the vintage railcars and early steam engines. As the train rumbles through the woods and countryside, volunteers who are dedicated to the endeavor of restoring and retelling the history of the WW&F regale the passengers with stories that craft a portrait of a time long gone, but it all becomes so real in the telling of the tale.  At times, I find myself compelled to put my hand through their seemingly corporal bodies, but I resist. I know that these men are of this time; yet, their passion for this place and its history paint them ghost-like as if channeling specters of another era.

As I became lost in the bliss of days gone by, stark reality shook me from my reverie into 2019 consciousness.  After a dinner out in nearby Damariscotta, we embarked on the ride back to Head Tide, a good distance by city standards. An urgent alert on the screen of Tim’s BMW replaced the Sirius XM display and intruded on the streetlight-less ride.  The vehicle now in distress was my 60th birthday gift to my husband and the epitome of modern, complicated living.  Heated steering wheel, the ability to park itself, and the miracle of run-flat tires all promised a driving experience that was unsurpassed with its state of the art technology.  Now demanding attention,  one of the storied “run-flat” tires rapidly lost viability as air escaped into the night from its thirty-two pounds per square inch chamber.  Unspoken panic ensued as we watched the PSI numbers drop (picture Walmart’s falling prices).  Within minutes,  nerves won out over the chatter and the car fell silent.  Once back in the driveway at the house, we plucked the never-read manuals from the glove compartment and set about the business of seeking roadside assistance.

When I purchased the car, my salesman sang the praises of BMW and its customer care. With a promise of 24/7 coverage, he advised me to cancel AAA, since BMW would now be my safety net. In the heat of my emergency, I soon discovered that safety net had a big hole in the form of no roadside service on a Saturday night, or for that matter, Sunday.  The advice of the person at BMW: “Can you extend your trip until Monday and we can help you then?” Her non-answer, the equivalent of “Gee, that’s tough”, frustrated me and I told her as much.  After a fitful night of sleep, we arose the next morning, not quite ready for what the day would bring.

The Sunday morning weather could not have been nicer as I hoisted myself into the cab of the flatbed tow truck for the sixty-five mile trek to Saco, where AAA, my hole-free safety net that I, fortunately, had not canceled, had secured replacement tires. The tire on the Beemer was beyond repair with a massive gash in the sidewall. Since we didn’t have a spare (you don’t need those little details when you have these wonders of automotive advancement), there was no choice but an hour and a half in a flat-bed. The driver was a skilled storyteller, sharing tales of the road, the military, and life on the farm. His pleasantries made for a nice enough journey and the cab of the truck was moderately clean and comfortable, despite the broken seat belt fixture that impaled me for the entirety of the ride as well as leaving me unsecured. In any case, we were making progress, or at least, heading south, in the direction of home, with the little X1 in the rearview, secured and ready for its rubbery infusion.

Ah, but as for the tires? When you are greeted by the salesman at the destination with “Sorry, we don’t have run-flat tires here. They are too expensive to keep in stock. Can you stay in the area until tomorrow?”, your only option fizzles and you get a little crazy.  In a few short hours, we had heard a mantra repeated by every expert to whom we had spoken: “Run-flat tires – they’re great in theory.”  This theory, clearly tested, inspired a cleanse of the entire complement of run-flat tires on the car, resulting in four new high-performance tires of the less fancy variety.  At that point, we had run out of options. The cost for all four was comparable to the purchase of two run-flats and now we were outfitted with brand new, safe, and less complicated tires.  At the time, it seemed a little reactionary and extreme, but my instincts were correct and confirmed by my BMW dealer, to whom I ranted on Monday. He knew the mantra, too – “Run-flat tires are great in theory.”

All the while, I could see in my mind’s eye, my father, shaking his head, reminding me that what is sold to us as conveniences occasionally backfire.  At the same time, I remember that he also never owned a car with electric windows (what if you went into the water and the car shut off?), air conditioning (I just open the windows), or a credit card (I use cash).  In any case, I get his point. Sometimes, simpler is better, if not the best way to go.  When I brought the Beemer for service on this past Thursday, the litany of recalls and upgrades to the computer system made my head spin and required a day long commitment to the remedy.  I recounted the story of the now defunct run-flat tires to the service coordinator and the mantra rolled off his tongue – “Run-flat tires are great in theory.”  I hate that my father might have been right but I relent to his posthumous guilt trip.  Simple things, like riding the rails of the WW&F or crank windows, really appeal to me at the moment.

Today is another beautiful Sunday but this time I am sitting in my house, cowering from the heat outside, in air-conditioned comfort.  Now that’s a convenience that I refuse to relinquish.  The rest I can do without, or so I say at the moment. Nevertheless, I do wonder how the Beemer parks itself, but that’s a project for another day.

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Coming to America:  My Grandfather’s Gift

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Once upon a time, there was a young man, timid and frightened, who boarded a ship bound for America. With a promise of a place to live, as confirmed by a Western Union telegram, and a few dollars in his pocket, he embarked on a journey that forever would change him, his life path, and his family back in the Old Country. At that time in Italy, Mussolini was in control and his regime actively drafted young men for service in the Fascist army.  Knowing that he could not stay since his fear of war was greater than his fear of the unknown, he took a chance.  And so begins the story of Frank Conte, my grandfather, my hero, and an immigrant American.

While I could tell virtually the same story for three out of the four of my grandparents, Frank’s story is the most profound. A genteel man of exquisite taste and a love of culture, Frank’s appreciation for America and the life he found here fueled his determination to survive. Born in 1902 in Cisternino, Brindisi, near Bari in Italy, Frank was one of eleven children. He was the oldest, and the first, and one of the few to leave. In turn, his emigration cast a pall on the family, with my grandfather deemed a defector since he was a conscientious objector. It wasn’t that he was a coward; he just couldn’t embrace Facism and its constraints, or the rule of Mussolini, or the thought of being a soldier. In leaving, he knew that he may never see his home again, or his mother, whom he loved dearly.  Yet, he persisted.

Once he arrived in the United States, Frank applied himself to the business of “being American.” He was a keen observer of the American way of life and assimilation was a vocation for him.  He met and married my grandmother, a woman of means and Italian descent, already established since her family had come to America in the late 19th century. My great-grandfather was a tailor and a shrewd business man, working his trade and buying up numerous properties on Chelsea Street and other places in East Boston.  My grandmother was “gifted” a house on Eutaw Street by her father upon their marriage, a gift that my grandfather was determined to repay. To do so, he worked at all sorts of low level jobs.  When he became a father in 1928, he seized the opportunity as a way to be as American as possible.  Studying an American baby name book, he searched for as un-ethnic a name as he could find for his baby. For a boy, he decided on the name “Arnold”; but if the baby was a girl, she would be called “Ethel”, after Ethel Barrymore, the silent film actress. Neither name quite particularly desirable, “Ethel” became Mary and Frank’s only child. Later on, my mother, by her own admission, was grateful for her gender, despite the still-awkward moniker.  In essence, she saw the name “Ethel” as the lesser of two evils.

After the Great Depression, the year after Ethel was born, things became dire and my grandfather gratefully took any jobs he could find. He swept streets for the WPA and accepted the free food offered by the government, even though it bothered him greatly.  In time, he found work in a casket factory, where he learned the skill of furniture finishing. Terrified of the idea of death, caskets freaked him out, but never more so than the day that someone closed the lid of the casket in which he was working.  My grandfather was always an anxious person and this event was truly formative.  He never returned to that job after that day. Fortunately, the war effort was burgeoning and Frank soon found work in the Charlestown Navy Yard, as many patriotic Bostonians did. It was noble work, and it paid well.  And Frank never felt more American.

I always thought that my grandfather’s anxiety sprung from being psychic. He just knew too much.  For example, when his mother died in Italy, he knew long before the arrival of the telegram. My grandmother found him one day, standing by their third floor bedroom window in the middle of the night gazing out on the quiet street. Concerned, she approached him and asked what he was doing. He replied, “I am watching my mother’s funeral going by.” Within days, confirmation of his mother’s passing arrived in the form of a telegram.  While I think that his other worldly ability was a blessing, he was terrified of what he knew, without even knowing.

Deeply religious, my grandfather had a sense of the mystical. His Catholic faith, combined with his underlying psychic abilities, made for an interesting combination. Every May and June, he created altars in his home, out of reverence to the Blessed Mother and the Sacred Heart, respectively.  He created an oasis in the city in his back yard with the installation of statuary recreating the events and participants of the visitation in Fatima, all colorfully painted and strategically illuminated. It was actually quite beautiful, with abundant roses, snowball bushes, bleeding heart vines, and a trellis covered in ivy, under which a cushioned swing was housed. A fountain with a young boy, created by him, where the water spewed from an unmentionable place, made for a humorous addition to all the sanctity.

Returning the favor bestowed upon him, Frank assisted my great uncle, Dario, in attaining a sliver of the slice of the American Dream that he had attained.  Dario, who was highly educated with a ‘Doctorate in Engineering’ from the University of Pisa, came to live in the spare room between the second and third floors of the tenement, created by closing off an extra room in the second floor apartment.  He found work in Boston at Stone and Webster, a prestigious engineering firm. Born after Frank came to the United States, Dario became the son that my grandfather never had.  Frank was happy for the connection to his home that Dario provided and, even though his life in America was all he could have hoped for, he never stopped longing for his family and his beloved Cisternino.  I guess that’s just the life of the immigrant.

After the war, Frank found a job at Rapid’s Furniture, a preeminent establishment in Boston’s West End. The company’s furniture factory, located in Charlestown near City Square, was a cement fortress with high windows and little ventilation.  It was there that Frank became sick and was forced to retire.  Years later, this building was the scene of a horrific conflagration where fire fighters died due to the poor construction.  Ultimately, it killed my grandfather as well.

It was during his years at Rapid’s that I was born. I was the pinnacle of joy for my grandfather and he couldn’t get enough of me. A collection of photographs remain as testimony to his doting on me, fussing and cuddling his precious and only grandchild.  I can still remember him squeezing me as if to meld our lives and energies permanently. When I find myself over-kissing or hugging my own grandchildren, I sense a channeling of Grandpa. At least, he always comes to mind, making the connection between us strong despite his passing almost fifty years ago.

Frank eventually went back to Italy in the late 1950’s and again in 1966. In the latter trip, he took my grandmother “home”. It would be the last time. A few years later, Frank became desperately ill with liver damage as a byproduct of his years inhaling denatured alcohol as a furniture finisher in an unventilated shop.

On the day he died, I remember feeling ill in Sister Gemella’s seventh grade Math class and I asked to leave the room. It was 8:45am on the morning of November 18th, just two days after my twelfth birthday. As I stood there, by the twin white porcelain sinks of the third floor girls’ lavatory, I sensed something, but I had no idea what. Relieved that the nausea passed a few minutes later, I returned to class and my day’s activities. Later that day, both of my parents picked me up from Girl Scouts, which I knew was a bad omen.  Grandpa had died that morning at 8:45am, leaving me with a never-ending psychic and emotional connection to a man of courage, determination, and faith.

As I think back on Grandpa’s story, this quiet, gentle man was a survivor.  Never above whatever it took to get by, he was the epitome of the American Dream and a casualty of it, as well.  I wonder sometimes if I don’t get some of my scrappiness from him, although on the surface, you would have never detected this trait in the man that I knew. But when I think of him and all of my immigrant predecessors, I know that I would have never had the strength or courage to seek a new life, even in the midst of poverty or repression. I think of Grandpa especially as I consider the immigrant heart. He was fearful and fearless, all at the same time. But in the end, his gift, and the gift of all of my grandparents, is this life of comfort, privilege, and perhaps excess that I enjoy.  Would I ever sweep a street? Am I above taking government food? I am fortunate that I don’t have to. But I recognize the burning desire of those who want to better themselves and their human condition, and the sacrifices that they are willing to make to attain their goal.  And who am I, with traces of the immigrant heart in my DNA, to judge or refuse them that privilege?

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The Backyard of My Lifetime

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Today, as I sat outside reading on this beautifully warm July day, my memory wandered to my childhood and the extended backyard, now shared between me and my daughter. Having never left the place where I was born and raised, I was inches away from where, summer after summer, I embarked on my vacation reading adventures.  When I was young, summers were boring and hot and many of my friends went away, leaving me to provide my own entertainment. Since I was an only child, my vacation destination ended steps from my parents’ screen door.  An enormous pine tree, so large that it could be seen from the bridge a quarter of a mile down the street, graced the cool, shady backyard of my parents’ house. While not Cape Cod, it was the scene of my vacation, and to me, it was idyllic. Under this tree, I read for hours on end, with books supplied by frequent trips to the Medford library. Daily, I set up shop with my stack and my mother’s pumpkin-orange chaise lounge, the kind that pinched the tender skin behind the knee if it was not fully extended and locked in place. Purchased with S&H Green Stamps, it was the only lawn furniture that my parents owned and a safety hazard. An entry strategy was necessary to avoid a blood-curdling scream and a certain blood blister.

In the early days of my backyard residency, I depended on my father to take me to the library for my fix. My frequent requests for more reading material resulted in my mother’s demand that I read more slowly. Those books provided minimal challenge since they were in larger type and designed for early readers. As I got older and more independent, I was able to walk to the bus stop and board the ‘95’ bus to Sullivan Square that stopped across from the library on its route through Medford.  By then, my tastes had expanded to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and the entire catalog of Trixie Belden mysteries to date. Once I could drive myself and had access to a car, my trips to the library occurred more frequently.  With more unpressured time spent grazing through the stacks, I unearthed well-known and obscure titles that appealed to my quasi adult tastes. Once ensconced on the chaise, I read and dozed with commitment until the days turned colder and school began again, always too soon and before I had read my fill.

As I think back to some of the books and authors of my fancy, I chuckle at the racy and worldly topics to which I gravitated. I voraciously read Philip Roth, John Updike, and Jacqueline Susann. Under that tree, I learned about life from the literature of the day. I peeked into the real world, so different than that of a Catholic schoolgirl’s experience.  Through the tutelage of the likes of Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, Marry Me, ‘Rabbit, Run’, Valley of the Dolls, and Once is Not Enough, I matured.  Through the lives and internal struggles of these characters, I experienced religious questioning, internal sexual conflict, social issues, infidelity, and other themes about which I had no clue. While one might question the status of these novels as “classics” in the strictest sense, they represented a time and place in history and culture, and most importantly, a catalyst to my development. The orange chaise and my book companions provided the setting for my own coming of age, a place of fantasy bordering on the obscene.

Today the grown-up me settles into my cushioned chair on my patio, book in hand, breathing in the air and atmosphere of my youth. The pine tree, now long gone, became a casualty of the construction of my own home thirty-eight years ago, yet I still can sense its strength and legacy in the land. A huge oak tree, on my side of the fence that divides my past from my present, now provides the shade for me and my passion. The 2019 me resists the urge to nosedive into my cell phone or grab my Kindle.  I eschew my penchant for the trashy novel, having learned all I needed to know about life years ago from my mentors: Updike, Roth, Susann, and their contemporaries.  Rather, I revel in the feeling of a light fiction novel in hand and the enduring comfort found in this familiar setting:  this backyard, the memories of a solitary childhood under my beloved pine tree, and the calm beauty of this forever sanctuary.

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The Reality of Living a Life of Fantasy

To my advantage or detriment, I am an extreme fantasist.  For me, it is not enough just to observe; some images inspire me to become part of the scene. Over the years, I have perfected the practice of designing experiences that remove me from the mundane and transport me out of my condition.  Finding inspiration in unconventional places, I look to my favorite characters, real and manufactured, and crave ways to share their experiences. I make a plan, address the details, and once there, I insert myself into the setting.  Since travel is often required, it’s an expensive hobby that is safe, fun, and habit forming; the material for my adventures is as close as my television or a People magazine.  With a little imagination and creativity, I make fantasy a reality.

Take the case of me and the British Royal Family: I am an expert.  Rabid for all things Windsor and beyond, I buy every magazine that alludes to a story within that will release another royal secret, with the knowledge gleaned enhancing my status as a Royal insider.  Royal weddings especially are my passion, having taken personal days off from work for one woman viewing parties that begin at three a.m. As an official nod to the nuptials, I completed the Kate and William celebration by hosting a Royal Wedding party for family and friends complete with Pims and sausage rolls.  Years later, I was beyond grateful when Harry and Meghan chose to marry on a Saturday since I didn’t miss any work on their behalf. Even better, I left my house at 5:30 a.m. that day with my entourage of likeminded friends in tow to attend a Royal Wedding Party at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.  In my mind, my nifty fascinator, made of feathers and satin that matched my coat and dress perfectly and fancy enough for a stroll up the drive at Windsor Castle to the chapel, made me one with my “people”. I supped on a “Full English”, sipped champers, enjoyed a slice of wedding cake, and viewed the event remotely on the big screen in the ballroom. The experience transported me to a place in my imagination where I was myself a Royal, or at least an American version, thereof.

In addition to my Royal preoccupation, it is common knowledge in my circle of friends that I obsess over British and Irish television.  Once again, my interest tips into the blurred lines of fantasy and reality.  More peculiarly, I watch a daily British soap opera called Emmerdale.  While the show has been on the air since the early 70’s, I became a fan in 2005 during a trip to Ireland.  At 7 o’clock every evening (or 1900hrs, to the locals), ITV airs this iconic serial drama.  The Emmerdale theme transports me to the countryside near York and Leeds in the north of England.  In truth, I have designed entire vacations so that I can visit the sets where the show is filmed, deep in the Yorkshire Dales. Watching a foreign show in the U.S. can be a challenging affair and I keep abreast of the storylines with frequent trips to the U.K and Ireland, spoilers from Facebook groups, YouTube clips, and now with Britbox (there were a few other means by which to view shows, but since the legality is questionable, I will refrain).  Having brought my husband, Tim, into the Emmerdale flock, we often find ourselves chatting about the fate of a favorite character over dinner. Occasionally, the conversation begins with reference to a character’s name and, I, not ready for a foray into “fantasy” mode, have no idea to whom he is referring.  His response, “You know, David’s Alisha!”, jolts me into the “make-believe” and I contribute my opinions, hopes, and dreams for the storyline and the poor, unfortunate Alisha.  Escapism comes in many forms, and, for us, often it has a British accent. 

On our destination “Emmerdale” vacations, we strolled the streets of the town, taking pictures in front of the local, the Woolpack. We pulled pints behind the bar and took a seat in Rhona’s living room. We stepped inside St. Mary’s, the generic, non-denominational church that is the center of the community.  We paid our respects at the graveyard where many of the more unfortunate characters (those who are totally written out of the show) are buried.  We posed in front of the sign, “Emmerdale”, at the town limits, solidifying our belonging to the community at large, despite our American accents.  Duly noted by the young man at the concession (as we bought up the entire catalog of mugs, pens, magnets, and tote bags), he admitted that he doesn’t see many Americans at the attraction.  Tim, eager to spill the beans on our furtive viewing habits, spewed a few of our secrets until I kicked him vigorously, abruptly ending his confession.

Vacations to “Emmerdale” provide only one example of my fascination with manufactured reality requiring international travel.  A few years ago, on another trip to England and Wales, I designed a tour that focused solely on the locales of favorite, more accessible, television shows – that is, those on Netflix and Hulu.  Our visit to Wales, designed solely to ‘become one’ with our favorite Brit television characters, netted experiences that edged on the surreal. Tim and I recreated scenes from Gavin and Stacey in Barry Island, with a local sitting on the beach offering to help us recreate the final series episode by taking a photo of us sitting on the wall in front of the arcade where Nessa worked. And in spite of looking foolish, we took turns taking pictures of each other on the sidewalks in front of Gwen, Bryn, and Doris’ row houses. Back in Cardiff, we were surrounded by Weeping Angels and Daleks, and took a spin on the Tardis at the Doctor Who Experience. Moving on to Cornwall to the south, we walked in the footsteps of Doc Martin and Louisa on the Cornish streets of Port Wenn (Port Issac in reality).  More fun than we ever anticipated, the next year we were sure to visit the Cotswolds and the world of Midsomer Murders. Walking the deserted streets lined with houses donning thatched roofs and secreting budding crime, I could hear the mysteriously haunting theme music in my ears. I imagined the possibility of running into Barnaby and Troy on the case, or worse, the increased risk of being murdered at the hand of a cricket bat wielding lunatic. In any case, another box was ticked on my list of real life “pretend” experiences.

Not limited to things Brit, occasionally the depth of my immersion into my fantasy life even surprises me.  In a writing class not long ago, we were discussing writers, their styles, and their voice. I presented Carrie Bradshaw as my choice of a writer who had a particular style as she posed a question early on in her pieces, which became the catalyst of her musings.  A pall came over the class, with my teacher explaining gently to me that Carrie Bradshaw was not a real person.  Shocked on some weird level, I took the news badly.  While she may be the main character in the show, Sex and the City, in my mind, Carrie is a friend, of sorts.  She certainly is my “go-to” when I am looking for mindless entertainment.  More than occasionally, my six-season boxed set, along with the two movies of the same title, provide a respite from a stressful day or the background noise to a day of housework.  To me, Carrie is very real, as well as an inspiration, and a survivor.  And I follow her, or SJP, on Twitter – how much more real does it get?

While possibly perceived as foolish and trivial, my silly hobby offers an escape mechanism that requires a measure of creativity, detail orientation, and belief in a reality based in fiction.  Perhaps I take all of this imaginary reality too seriously; yet, each of these adventures and connections fuels my memories and are as accessible as closing my eyes, transporting and inserting me into a reality that suppresses the residue, distractions, and defeats of the day to day grind.  I am temporarily free of worries, immersing myself fully in the shallow waters of fantasy.  This distraction feeds my soul.  My quirky passion, harmless and consuming, entertains me. And as I plan my next vacation or afternoon of housework, I will look to my collection of the unreal for inspiration. Thankfully, the repertoire is as endless as my access to Hulu, Netflix, and the BBC, and as close as my imagination.

The Kindest Goodbye

When we assume responsibility for a pet, we tacitly accept the good and the bad, and like a marriage, the “for better or for worse.” We vow to be there in sickness and in health, until death do us part. We pledge care and protection that ensure a happy, long life. And in the case of a dog, the many years of shared joy and deep connection reflect the abiding trust and love given and received mutually. It is a relationship like no other: unconditional, dependable, and enriching.

Over the past 39 years, my husband, Tim, and I have been fortunate to share our lives with four dogs – Tasha, Taffy, Muffy, and our daughter’s dog, Bailey. Each one of our pets possessed a unique personality that completed our family. Having parented Tasha in the days pre-first baby, we were broken in for the challenges ahead by this boundlessly energetic black Lab mix. She understood her role as the protector as our family grew and she taught us all so many lessons, not the least of which being how to say goodbye. She was our first child as well as my children’s first loss and, at the ages of ten and eight, they mourned their dog despairingly, until we added Taffy soon after Tasha’s passing. The tiny Cairn terrier mix offered a completely different experience. She was portable – versus Tasha, whom they rode like a pony in the early days. She was smart and sassy, with a propensity for nipping at strangers. At the age of nine, Taffy was diagnosed with an invasive tumor and we prepared for her demise. Clearly a misdiagnosis, Taffy persevered another seven years, making for the longest wake on record.

When our daughter, Lisa, married Jeff, we had a feeling that they were on the hunt for a dog since both of them had grown up in dog families. When they found Bailey through a rescue site, her picture with a caption, “Marsha”, captured the essence of her soulful brown eyes and stole their hearts. Renamed forthwith, Bailey, a rescue from Tennessee, was a blend of terrier and possibly coyote (as was the family joke), with a lineage that was unclear from her appearance. She was a pup and may have been anywhere from 14 weeks to six months old at her adoption. Her paperwork was sketchy at best but, as a dog, she was gem. A few months later, we inherited Muffy as a result of the passing of my godmother, Julie, who was her owner. The dog, a peppy little white poodle ball of fluff, needed to be cared for so I volunteered. Against Tim’s initial protests (his angst lasted 2 minutes), she stayed with us for good, where she joined the aging Taffy, who was miffed to say the least. Within the year, we added a non-fur baby, our little Molly, to the family, exponentially increasing our ranks, both human and four-legged.

Bailey and Muffy formed a sibling-like partnership early on while Taffy, too old for the antics, sat back and observed. And when Taff died five months later, we were grateful for the long life we all shared together. The sadness, while not remedied completely, was cushioned by the addition of Bailey and Muffy, just months before, offering a welcome distraction to the hole in our hearts.

Eventually, my daughter and her growing family moved next door to us and, in that setting, the relationship of Muffy and Bailey blossomed. Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Lion and the Lamb,’ the dogs had the run of the dual backyards, individually fenced but connected by a gate that, when open, allowed for easy movement to and from either house. Our days were filled with text messages asking, “Is Muffy over there?” or “Have you seen Bailey?” and with this system, we always accounted for an errant pup. Each morning saw a meeting punctuated by a nuzzle, or as we called it, a kiss, and a tandem trot to the grass to assume their positions in various states of recline. A singular unit, Bailey and Muffy always had a sense of the other’s location. They taught each other tricks like sneakily eating sticks (until scolded), feasting on the detritus from the bird feeders (until they got sick), and chasing squirrels (Muffy lacks any killer instinct).

As they aged, things became slower but not very changed. Bailey liked spending time with “the old people” (us) next door since our house was more peaceful minus the activity of kids. Both dogs were clever about securing an extra meal by visiting each other’s house at dinnertime, stealing from the other’s bowl, and then chowing down on the regularly scheduled meal at home. Always underfoot while cooking, the odds of falling over a dog were high, requiring vigilance in the prevention of a tumble. As I worked at my desk, both dogs tucked themselves under my chair, and I reveled in my co-workers, who were compliant, non-complaining, and lovable.

Last week, we said goodbye to our Bailey. Her passing was unexpected; she went to the hospital to have a tumor evaluated and, in the testing, a number of issues came to light. Bailey was seriously anemic and in pain, and the proposed surgery, which included an amputation, would not cure her problems. We anticipated more intervention in the future, if she even survived the operation. Our first instinct was the “at any cost approach” to saving her life, but it was clear to all of us what was humane. The decision, once made, gave us little time to process what was about to happen. We piled into our cars for the fateful journey, knowing that we would be coming home with one less.

As a participant in the euthanasia of our dogs in the past, I have experienced how powerful that moment, at life’s end, is. With each event, an overwhelming, anti-climactic peace pervaded the space. The finality was palpable, the despair piercing.

And, for my family, once we get beyond the emptiness of our home and yard, we will slowly become whole again, but changed. Another dog will not repair the void, even though we entertain the thought, albeit colored by the dread of potty training and puppy teething. No, now is time to mourn, reminisce, and pine.

I knew innately that I had to write a Bailey piece even before my family’s pleas for a ‘Mami’ in her honor. My heavy heart provided a monumental case of “writer’s block” and it took me days to sit at my desk and ponder on our loss. As I watch Muffy, listless and displaying the effects of her loneliness, it is clear that she feels the loss as she misses her friend. We, as the human members of the tribe, mirror Muffy’s feelings, although we understand it all a bit better. Or, in truth, do we?


Fate is not Fair

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In my play with my grandchildren, sometimes things get dicey. A toy is suddenly disputed, with both of them claiming ownership, and when I, as the arbiter, make a decision about the ultimate winner, the loser inevitably cries out, “That’s not fair!”  My usual snappy retort, “Life’s not fair”, does little to remedy the situation and pouting, or worse, ensues.  It is one of our earliest lessons – what is fair, for which we develop ways to cope with matters when the scales of ‘fair’ tip against us. I doubt any of us really masters the skill of accepting the unfair in life, but if we didn’t on some level, chaos would reign, not just at home, but in the world at large.

When I think about the idea of ‘fair’, the premise can be applied to so many scenarios. For example, when we choose a line at the grocery checkout and the person in front of us requires a price check, or forgets something and runs back to the aisle to retrieve the item, we watch as the surrounding lines move seamlessly. Now, that’s not fair, but it is reality. Sitting at a traffic light, the driver of the car in front of us is not paying attention, and by the time they realize the light has changed, enough time has passed that he clears the intersection but we are once again hostage to the red light. That’s pretty unfair but getting angry is not productive since in thirty seconds, the situation is history. When a co-worker, who appears to work less hard or with as much commitment as we do, is promoted, we think to ourselves, “that’s not fair”.  While the candidate may have had different credentials or skills, we view the travesty from our perspective and believe that we are somehow wronged. Our sense of ‘fair’ is piqued frequently every day in minor and major ways, with one thing always certain-humans bristle at being wronged.

Today I pondered the more important “fair” – the one that involves life and death. I just finished reading an article online about a young woman who has battled cancer for the past ten years. The decision was made to seek comfort care, or hospice, until the end of her life, which is eminent.  In one of his tributes to her, her husband posted a letter he wrote in which he made a reference to the situation as not being fair. I agree that, while being robbed of old age and life experiences, is extremely sad, I question the premise there being a ‘fairness’ when it involves on our fates.  When we begin this journey, projections as to our potential, our futures, our long lives, are made. No one ever thinks that there will be complications and that the road may not be straight or long. Like any beginning, hope drives our joy and aspirations. When the journey takes an unexpected turn, the cry of “unfairness” rises from our thoughts and lips.  Is it really unfair or is it our fate?

I am not above claiming a keen sense of ‘fair’; but the older I get, the less it matters.  The things that I let get under my skin about being wronged at the hand of ‘fair’ are fewer, with the more mundane becoming inconsequential.  And in truth, is ‘fair’ in the eye of the observer, or the person who is dealt the fate?  Finding peace in our lives gives rise to an acceptance of ‘fair’ as being the situation in which we find ourselves.  We, as observers, might assess ‘fairness’ in any scenario; nonetheless,  ‘fair’ is a personal judgment, owned in full by the one to whom the cards are dealt; and as in a card game, chance and fate go hand in hand, making our sense of ‘fair’ a complication of what is truly the product of a grander scheme.  Fate mocks the idea of ‘fair’ in the conventional sense and, in many ways, preempts and defies it, while becoming the essence and mystery of life, in all of its wonder, beyond our comprehension and control.

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A Brief Friendship, A Lifelong Legacy

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During my career as a school counselor, I worked in public and private settings and saw the best and worst of humanity-natural born scholars, engaged students, supportive families, and inspiring administrators balanced by inept parenting, teachers who should never have entered the profession, profoundly disabled students, unfathomable meanness, and questionable leadership.   During one tremendously formative year, I worked as a counselor at a small Catholic high school in the Greater Boston area which served a mostly urban population from all parts of Boston and its closest suburbs. Sadly, it had attained a negative reputation and was the object of some bad press in the local newspaper, claiming ongoing, systemic drug issues in the student body.  Years before, I had applied for and had been offered a job at the same school, which I declined, to work in the public school where I had interned.  With a major crisis at hand, I was contacted and recruited for the position by the administration, in the hopes that my experience would be a means to stabilize the situation.   I considered taking the position as a vocation versus a job since my son was a student there and I was taking a twenty five percent pay cut from my public school job.  This decision changed the course of my very settled, orchestrated life.

While I only worked in this role for one year, it was an intense experience. In the course of ten months, my mother unexpectedly passed away, my son was in the throes of teenage and pre-adult issues, and the school itself was in financial difficulty, with its student body shrinking rapidly. I witnessed the expulsion of emotionally, behaviorally, and financially compromised students, who clearly would have benefited from the support and message of a religious education, but the school lacked the resources to address these issues. In one of my most difficult situations, a pregnant senior, months away from graduation, was sent packing, not because of her condition, but because her parents had thrown her out and she could not pay her tuition.  My heart broke for her, yet I had no influence to alter the decision. That spring, on the evening of Holy Thursday, a tenth grader overdosed, just after having assisted as an altar server at the vigil in her parish.  While she survived, she remained permanently in a vegetative state. Sadly, her boyfriend, from another local, all-male, Catholic school, was not as fortunate and died that evening in his sleep.  In the meantime, the school staff and administration was shaken by the Boston Archdiocese’s decision to get out of the business of running high schools as it dealt with its own issues due to the mismanagement of the clergy scandal.  As a byproduct, the archdiocesan teachers’ union was disbanded, causing a work-to-rule atmosphere and the start of a mass exodus. Teachers, some of whom had spent their entire careers at the school and were committed to Catholic education and the vocation of teaching, now looked toward the future with fear and sadness.  All the while, I questioned my decision and plotted my escape.

Today, a lifetime and a career later, I sorted through some old notes and papers that had accumulated in my back of my 2018-19 (educator style) personal calendar. Between the last page and the cover, I found an email, dated July 14, 2004, sent to all of the teaching staff of this Catholic school by a colleague. Jay was in his mid-twenties at the time yet he had lived a lot of life, including a stint in the Army immediately after college. He had graduated from this high school ten years earlier and was a “Golden Boy” with the staff, not just due to his history but because he was a fine person. Warm, affable, energetic, genuine, and kind, Jay was the glue. Always maintaining and projecting a positive attitude as the walls of his alma mater, turned employer, crumbled around him, he trussed up the shaky emotions of the staff with his unbridled zest for life. Most importantly, the kids loved him; he was an inspirational teacher, mentor, and role model as he strove to do his best for them. He is one of my fondest memories of this challenging experience and his words, fifteen years later, on a gray, rainy morning that matched my own psyche, were a blessing and a souvenir.

In his note, Jay graciously thanked us for the wonderful experience that he had, both as a student and a teacher at this school, and acknowledged the contribution of the teachers, past and present, to the lives of the students whom they prepared for life after high school.  He also informed us that he would be leaving to accept a job outside of education, and that his only regret was that he did not work with each of us longer.  Encouraging us to stay in contact, he assured us that, if he could ever be of help to any of us, he would be at the ready. In closing, he wished us “the best of luck and healthy and happy days” and hoped to hear from us soon. I was truly touched by Jay’s sincerity and printed the email, tucking it into my agenda book, where it found a new home in each successive year and calendar. 

In the fall of 2004, I received word that Jay had been diagnosed with cancer, the bad kind, and his prognosis was not good. His condition deteriorated quickly and in a few short months, he died. His death invoked profound sadness in me, equal to the pleasure in life that his upbeat, joyous nature had given. In twenty-eight years, Jay had managed to connect deeply with so many, to serve his country honorably, and leave behind a legacy of kindness and grace. His short life reminds me of a meteor blazing through the sky, provoking awe in those lucky enough to get a glimpse. His spirit glowed with such a bright light that perhaps was too bright to endure.  I knew I was lucky then, and have been reminded of my good fortune to have known Jay every time the rumpled and dog-eared printed email surfaces to feed my memory and soul.  

I often think of Jay. He was a person for whom everyday was a mission dedicated to others, imbued with positivity, energy, and joy. He lived without knowing that he would be cheated out of so many life experiences; yet, he lived as if every day was a gift, even without that foresight.  I fantasize that he died knowing that he changed the world, even if just a small corner of it, in a short lifetime.   His work in life was done quickly and well.   His memory prompts the lyrics of the song, “Vincent” by Don McLean: “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”.  And as I question the why of Jay’s short life, maybe that is the answer.

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The Art of Aging: The Voices and Choices of Our Generation

When I began my “Mami” journey a year and a half ago, I jokingly touted my style and message to my friends as the “Voice of Our Generation”.  Hoping to appeal those of the “slightly old” set, I wrote on serious topics that I observed and assumed were global to us: toying with the idea of retirement, the fear of aging, and the death of a friend.  For fun, I wrote about dressing appropriately in the later years, Barry Manilow, my obsession with the Royals, and the pressures of Christmas decorating. In between, retrospection and remorse took hold. In any case, my ramblings were musings of the pre-elderly me.

As for getting old, my initial reality check happened years ago when I received my premature invitation to AARP shortly before my 50th birthday. I was somewhat offended and minimally amused, knowing that this reality was years off.  As I anticipated the joys of a life free of the daily grind, the idea of being referred to as a “retired person” was incomprehensible.  The years flew by, it is suddenly ten years later, and retirement is a daily topic. When I left my job earlier this year, the first question with which I was bombarded consistently was “Are you retiring?” It would be my guess that this question seldom is asked of a 50 year old in “transition” (the new term for not knowing what the Hell you are doing).  But at 60, the expectation is that you will just roll over and play dead in terms of career and spend your days on the golf course or joining a Mall Walking Group (yes, there is such a thing).  In light of my family’s life expectancy keeping us alive well into the 90’s, thirty years of “pididdling” was not an option.  

Thinking back on my years as a guidance counselor, a term evolved to refer to our middle school students – ‘tweenagers’ – not quite a child but certainly not a teen. Perhaps, our pre-elderly stage might be referred to as ‘tweenelder’ or ‘twelderly’, a gray area somewhere between middle age and old.  Unlike tweenagers, we are not in any rush to reach the next developmental stage.  In truth, we tend to look backwards rather than forward, holding on to every shred of what we perceive to be the definition of youth. We are a subset by our own design, with a youthful vibrancy not found in our predecessors and, in turn, we have redefined “old age”.

When I think back to my mother at my age, she was old! I remember the agony as she bent over to pick up something that she dropped or the moans from the act of rising from a chair. Everything was a physical challenge. Was it that being elderly happened sooner in those days?  In any case, this clumsy version of aging remains in my mind’s eye and I ask, “Am I there yet?” And I answer with determination, “God, NO!” Perhaps a delusion, I see myself as spritely, youthful, and energetic. I walk with a spring in my step. Old, or any connection to the term, is unacceptable.  Although Mami was designed to be the mouthpiece for “my people”, over time I realized that the “generation” with whom I hoped to connect as its mouthpiece had a diverse voice. We collectively have lowered the bar and adopted a determination to retain not youth, but simply all vestiges of midlife.  We have mobilized against aging.

Stemming the tide of aging has become an art form and an industry unto itself. As I stand at the checkout line in the grocery store, my attention is drawn to magazine covers promising all sorts of cures to reboot our thyroids, reverse the effects of time with simple yoga, workouts that can be done in 45 seconds, and all manner of youth recovery.  After a lifetime of sun exposure, drinking, eating Hostess cupcakes, enjoying a steady diet of red meat, and sofa surfing, I do believe we may be a little late to the triage. But still, I am intrigued at the thought of ’60 being the new 40′ and my wallet is $2.99 lighter for my interest in the promises within those glossy pages.

Sadly the magazines go unread in my bathroom but being of a terminally shallow nature when it comes to “looking old”, I accept the memories of my mother as a cautionary tale and take action. I exercise minimally as to keep marginally active and reduce the snap-crackle-pop of daily movement.  I refuse to groan or moan when I move around and I even occasionally ride my bicycle for enjoyment.  My lifetime membership to Weight Watchers affords me the ongoing privilege of attending meetings, resetting my intake, dropping a few pounds, quitting, gaining back the weight, and repeating the process. Yet, it keeps me honest and only a bit overweight.  As for externals, I drive a cute car, having graduated from a Solara convertible (the poster child car of the old) to a snappy Audi A3. I attend to the things that are somewhat under my control, the ones set apart from the run away, unwieldy decay of time that defy resistance.

As I contemplate my physical attributes, I observe others and make comparisons to myself. I assess the number of wrinkles on a 60-something visage and I make all sorts of assumptions about sun exposure and skin care, and then, rushing to a mirror, I take account of my own deterioration. All those years of Mary Kay moisturizer and a commitment to SPF 30 have really paid off!  Then there are the clothes about which you need to reconsider. Hesitant to wear sleeveless shirts and dresses, I look quizzically at those who bravely “bare” arms at my age.  Unless they work out regularly (and even those allegedly sculpted arms scream “old”), their arms are ravaged with crepey skin as are mine (as in resembling crepe and yes, it is a word), yet their wagging, flaccid biceps are cold comfort for my own modesty.  Truthfully, working out is futile in an effort to stem the tide; crepey skin is like a tsunami, and once you stop working against it in a concerted way, it comes back with a determination that only ancient, collagen-deprived skin can.  And gray hair?  Unthinkable, and I am not shy about my commitment to a color and a cut (the color being most necessary) every four weeks.  Roots would be a dead giveaway to advancing time!

In respect to my wardrobe, I acknowledge an impending progression:  JJill to Chico’s to Coldwater Creek to, if you are unfortunate to live long enough, Blair’s! Styles range from the tunic to stretch pants/leggings to the unashamed elasticized waist to a fully committed polyester ensemble of carnation pink pants and jacket to match, paired with a floral top.  Still at the JJill stage, I imagine a future relegated to brands created “for the older woman in mind” and I cringe.  And men, it’s a future of Sans-a-belt and sandals with black socks.  Sadly, there may come a point when you don’t even realize how ghastly that fashion statement truly is! Yet, with a new self-awareness in place, stretchy pants and polyester may never invade our closets.  We are the new brand of “old”!

As for living arrangements, terms like ‘aging in place’ and ‘downsizing’ define the housing arrangements of many of my aged compadres.  I employ neither term or embrace either approach. The thought of relegating myself to an “over 55” living arrangement terrifies me.  Somehow similar to a leper colony, the corralling of the ‘slightly old’ and ‘truly old’ connotes a “putting out to pasture”.  Leaving the home where I resided my entire married life to move into communal living is not my taste. I enjoy my privacy, my backyard, and my life, as is, until it is not possible, hopefully many years from now.  I watch curiously as a number of my neighbors and some of my classmates from my childhood sell their homes and move to these elderly compounds. It must be a culture shock of enormous magnitude.  In the same way that I avoid polyester, I resist the trend to abandon the peace of my little home and garden.  Yet, these options exist and work well for others, providing independence and carefree living for those who choose it-just not for me!

A “new age” old age has been created by the growing numbers of Baby Boomers as they reach their 60’s and beyond. The last chapters of life have been narrated in the cadence of many voices that direct each of our futures. We have choices that support a happy, healthy, late adulthood.  So in the end, it is my personal voice that sets a goal to remain a productive and contributing member of society for as long as I wish. I also plan to have a wrinkle-free face, have hair without gray roots, don clothes that lack synthetics, drive a cute car, and sit in my shady back yard. The “voice of our generation” sounds as different as each of our goals, hopes, and dreams.  We have awakened to the myriad of possibilities available to us. We know better than anyone the meaning of the saying, “It’s not over until it’s over!”

Like the years since my AARP invitation, time will fly by and Mami, ten years from now, may be in a very different place. Her graying hair and crow’s feet, despite her best efforts, may be more evident. But, undoubtedly, her voice, perhaps a bit more gravelly, will be fueled by a rabid determination to live with passion and tenacity; and, if she’s lucky, she will give in to a little “pididdling” and the continuing shallow and frivolous desire to drive a really cute car, that is, until the Registry pries her license from her mangled arthritic fingers.

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May and AP testing: A Retrospective Indictment

(For the past 19 years, Mami has worked as a guidance counselor, department head, team leader, and Director of Guidance.  Now semi-retired, she looks back on one of the many responsibilities of her tenure, the role of Advanced Placement Coordinator for the College Board program at her former school. Mami’s statements in this essay are solely her opinion yet she knows, through conversations with colleagues, that her criticism of the AP program and the College Board, as its parent organization, is not unique.)

Every May, a fearsome sheriff called Advanced Placement testing rolls into town wielding the law of the College Board and all of the trepidation that comes with the name.   For some reason dictated by past practice that no one seems to question, public and private high schools in the United States and beyond provide a venue and a cash cow for this expensive and questionably worthwhile program. As a former AP Coordinator in a public high school  for twelve years, I marveled at the amount of time that is required to pull off a well-run AP program, that is, in line with to the rules and regulations of the College Board.  The process really begins in the early Fall when high schools are asked to report the anticipated participants and complete a lengthy questionnaire.  On the multi-page document, the same questions year after year are asked that yield answers of a historical nature and, I would assume, most likely accessible by the College Board in its own record keeping.  Yet they persist with the interrogation, giving AP Coordinators a new respect for the tedium of “bubbling”.  During the next six months, every detail is reinforced, prescribed, and monitored in repeated emails and letters to the Coordinator that dictate seating distance between testers, test storage procedures, packing directives, and payment expectations so as not to incur a penalty.  Dutifully, I followed the rules since I did not want a visit from the fabled “AP Police”.

For the first time in thirteen years, I have not laid hands on a single Advanced Placement test, dealt with students who have not prepared for the test and now want out, or argued with parents who refuse to pay on time despite months of warning.  I can’t lie – I haven’t missed it.  The six months of stress generated by the preparation for the two weeks of testing is rough on someone like me – a perfectionist.  The process is rife with details: room assignments, attending to student disabilities and separate test venues, counting (so much counting) of exam booklets and answer sheets, creating piles (so many piles) for each test administered, and other juggled requirements.  I lived in terror that I would miss something! In the build up to the testing, great effort is expended in keeping everyone from teachers, students, and parents in line. It’s exhausting and thankless work where I became a shill for this organized and legalized syndicate.

What is the value of AP testing, you ask? The benefits are pedaled to parents as a way to defray the cost of college. In most cases, a student may be exempted from taking a lower level “101” college level class but often another course must replace it in order to attain college graduation credits. Parents often misunderstand this fine point. In addition, a student must get a score of at least a “3” out of “5” in order to apply the class, if their prospective college even will allow the substitution.  There are no guarantees of an acceptable score or any college level benefit.  

And then there’s the soccer field chatter – parents have been known to brag about their kids and these conversations rev up other parents whose student may not have been ready for or chosen AP. These concerns eventually land on the desk of the school counselor to field.  Parents also tout a perceived badge of honor connected with their student taking multiple tests. However, once the bill for hundreds of dollars arrives for one to five or six tests, parents balk and occasionally refuse to pay, despite signing a contract a year earlier at the time of course registration.   Although the circumstance was rare, when it did occur, tension abounded and I became a one woman collections agency. This situation was somewhat peculiar to my school since, where I worked, there was a requirement to take the AP test in order to get the weighting and designation of AP on a transcript, but we did not fund the test, as do other districts.

As for the students, AP sounds like a great idea until they receive the syllabus on day one of the class and realize just how much work is required.  For the most part (and I know that this is a generalization), today’s students are not eager to expend extreme effort to complete a task. AP is one of those places where slacking is not an option. And when slacking does happen, teachers quickly sound the alarm, alerting the school counselor of the situation. Often, parents are at the ready to defend the student and request to remove them from the class.  Unless the student’s struggles are a byproduct of a lack of understanding and ability even with extensive effort (after school sessions, independent work with the teacher, etc.), high schools are hesitant to allow a transfer out of the class, knowing that this sort of response becomes a precedent and an invitation for a one way revolving door out of the AP class.

On the school side, the AP teacher is breed set apart. As a rule, they are a tad more high-strung than the teacher relegated to College Prep levels alone. Since they answer to a higher power, the College Board, and are under the gun to ensure that their students perform well as measured by a single three hour test, things from April 1 on get tense!  Review sessions interfere with field trips, assemblies, and the day-to-day operation of the school and pit teachers against their peers. It is as if a higher score average will merit a raise but we educators know that is a pipe dream.  And then there is always that AP teacher who wields his or her lofty calling to AP instruction as a designation of quasi-royalty, believing that they are more erudite than those who have not been called to this “noblesse oblige”.  Even with all of these observations, as a former coordinator, I truly enjoyed my work with the AP teachers overall. They offered brightest spot in the ordeal and were great support to the process.

In the final analysis, as a preparation for higher level course work, Advanced Placement offers a leg-up if a student takes the coursework seriously and understands the value.  However, AP is not for everyone and all students are not quite ready for college level work while in high school. There is a reason that high school is four years long. It is a place to grow academically, emotionally, socially, and personally, allowing for experiences and relationships that nurture and inspire. And since life is full of stress, I suggest that AP may be one additional area that hastens along the trend toward anxiety in our kids.  

Perhaps our educational leaders should begin to question the purpose and value of AP as well as the wisdom of allowing an organization like the College Board to have unlimited access to our students, school staff, and our already stretched school resources. While the College Board offers a kickback of approximately 10% on each AP test, it is minimal consideration for the complication that is the school based AP program. In a recent development, the College Board is offering school-day testing of the SAT, once again tapping into the resources of our schools and interfering with our students’ learning. We, as educators, need to question the true value of a program like Advanced Placement, or the stronghold that the College Board has in our students’ education, in light of the tremendous cost to our kids, their families, and our schools.

Thoughts on Becoming a Writer

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This spring, I enrolled in an eight week memoir writing class at the local library. It was risk-free as well as being cost free, with no grading and no cash exchanged. As an additional bonus, I gave myself permission to quit at any time. It was a place where I could test drive my writing vehicle, this blog I affectionately call Mami, to see if I was on the right track and if my writing had a wider appeal than my loyal friends and family. Aware that they are a biased audience and know my story first hand, the cheerleader role that they have assumed delights me, but I needed a true critique. And if the criticism hit too close to the heart, I planned a speedy exit back to the bosom of my dedicated and slanted followers.

While it did not always flow readily, I always knew that I could write, at least at the perfunctory level of business memos or the college brand of term and research papers. Professors, coworkers, and friends over the years have commented on my writing. From their feedback, my personal style apparently shines through, as evidenced by the frequent, “I bet Marie wrote this”. I accepted this recognition as compliment yet I never imagined that writing could ever be my calling. It was a passion but never a vocation. My skill, however, traces its roots to my high school experience and a teacher, a man named Bill Murray (not the actor), whom I greatly feared. However, it was through this fear that I developed my craft. It was Catholic school, after all, and we were bred on fear which, in theory, would give birth to our future success.

Mr. Murray, a cruel taskmaster and a purveyor of snappy commentary, would return essays to his students in a state that nearly was unidentifiable. My class assignments, handwritten on crisp white composition paper turned a sea of red ink, convinced me that I had a problem – I clearly could not write. To address this issue, during my Junior year, I enrolled in Mr. Murray’s Composition 101 class, knowing that I needed focused assistance to correct my wayward grammar and usage.

On the first day of the semester, I walked into Mr. Murray’s classroom, sheepish and contrite, ready to be shown the proper way to basic writing. He looked up from his desk and, in his patented, caustic style, sniped at me, “What are you doing here?” Already terrified of the man, I lowered my eyes, responding with a trembling, “I can’t write.” He looked at me with confusion and retorted, “Yes, you can! This class isn’t for you. Go to the library and you’ll do an independent study.” Shaken by his borderline complement and banishment, I scurried off to my new Period 3 home. Throughout the semester, Mr. Murray assigned writing prompts to me and, as I sat in my solitary confinement of the school library, I dutifully pumped out essays. The time spent alone to write for writing’s sake offered me the opportunity to hone my style for the first time. Through this formative experience, I grew as a writer, with the proof being papers progressively less mutilated by the harsh scourge of red corrections.

Unfortunately, my confidence never quite caught up with my writing ability. As much as the written word came easily to me, I never imagined a life driven by the need to write. I stood on the sidelines and observed as my friend, Gail, who was a journalist and editor by trade, enjoyed the perks of her work. Annual assignments took her to Fashion Week in New York, her weekly columns required dining at the newest, cutting-edge restaurants, and frequent nationally syndicated articles fueled my envy. Another graduate of the School of Murray Hard Knocks, Gail knew her life direction early on. As she pursued her career, I floundered, working at an array of jobs, and finally landed in the field of school counseling. My passion for writing, while confined to college recommendations and staff emails, smoldered under the weight of the daily grind of my work life. Not interested in serious discourse, I burned to write a blog about silly, inconsequential things about which I have an opinion. In the end, Gail encouraged me to give into my curiosity. Directing me to what I needed to launch my idea, which included all manner of social media and a domain (Mami Knows Everything just happened to be available), I secured the pieces. In her antique home in Maine, the birthplace of the poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Mami Knows Everything was born, as well.

With time, Mami transformed into a place where I could share my joys and sadness, my high and lows, and my story. Amazed that people found interest in the thoughts that lived in my head and drove my script, I discovered freedom in my essays, as well as a sort of therapy. I watched as the metrics on my blog site rose and ebbed, in direct relation to the scope of interest in the topic. The writing became easier, more fluid, and more fluent. Mami provided a hobby and an outlet that evolved into my own personal forum for which there was an audience. Yet, I was not a “writer”.

On the day that I was told that I had a ‘voice’, I became a writer . The actual moment happened in my memoir class, the one for which I prepared an exit strategy. Apparently, the development of ‘voice’ is a big deal since developing voice does not come easily to some writers. ‘Voice’ is developed with time, practice, and the willingness to offer a glimpse into the soul. I’m pretty sure my ‘voice’ sounds like me, saddled with a thick Boston accent and blessed with a healthy dose of sarcasm. In any case, I write from the ‘heart, baring my emotions fearlessly and honestly. My ‘voice” in real life mirrors Mami‘s'”voice’ in the writing.

A fellow student in class, who was struggling with technique, directed a question to me as “a writer”. I forced myself not to look over my shoulder, wondering to whom she directed the question. I answered with command, surprising myself. In that moment, I sensed a palpable evolution as a “writer” with my confidence, long lost, fully restored.

A few weeks ago, a publisher reached out to me about Mami. The communication took me by surprise and, in turn, I considered my response with care. Being of a suspicious nature and a rabid ‘Googler’, I first researched the credentials and on-line presence of this person. The verdict: very real. I engaged the expertise of my son, another writer, who also backed up my findings. Clearly, one hundred and twenty nine thousand followers on Twitter don’t lie! Intrigued and honored, I responded with interest and trepidation, not knowing my readiness for where this opportunity might lead. That part of my story has yet to be written.

For now, my ‘voice’ and I will sit tight and infuse our message into Mami . In the meantime, I can feel my transformation taking hold. I write daily. I dream about ideas and sentences. I wake up in the middle of the night with topics swirling in my head. I outline my next essay in the shower. I suspect that those traits define a “writer”; if so, perhaps, the metamorphosis is complete.

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A Lesson in How to Accept Graciously the Gift of Time

“The Gift of Time” – the idea sounds simple but, in truth, I never truly understood the phrase until the past few months. For the first time in my life, things came to a screeching halt as my days of work in the conventional sense ended and I reinvented the possibilities of what a day could become. In the early days, I envisioned sitting in front of the television with a bowl of cereal tucked under my chin, catching the errant drips of milk from my mouth as I sat mesmerized by the likes of Judge Judy and The Price Is Right.  Since I see Judy as a mentor in the snippy responses department, studying her could be considered an education.  I honestly welcomed the idea of becoming skilled at guessing the ‘right price’ through the study of games like ‘Price Tags’ or cringing as the little mountain climber tipped over the summit in ‘Cliff Hanger’.  Then again, I could always embark on a full day of vintage TV – Family Affair, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and That Girl, stacked like cards in the deck of the Me TV viewing schedule. The possibilities were endless and I looked forward to the utter mindlessness of it all.

In reality (and somewhat sadly), none of these lofty goals were attained; rather, quite the opposite occurred. After the initial shock to my unemployed system subsided, my mind ignited.  I made a point of starting my day early, looking to the list of ‘To Do’s,’ created the day before and offering focus and structure to my day.  With the Beatles Channel on Sirius as a soundtrack, I vigorously checked off items like ‘Call on insurance bill’, ‘Return library books’, and ‘Clean bathroom’. For fun, I took lessons in writing and photography.  When at home, I often watched from my dining room window as birds gathered at what I refer to as the ‘Birdie Buffet’.  The ‘Buffet’, an array of feeders of shapes, sizes, and purpose, arranged by my husband, attracted all manner of native birds as well as squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits.  I embraced the research as I indentified the breeds of my feathered friends; on other days, I employed my new found photography skills, combining them with my bird watching, as I waited, still as a statue, perched on a patio chair, to capture moments of birds in flight, a testimony to my ability to set effectively the controls of my camera.  Clearly, this was progress and some level of success. While I loved being the master of my daily destiny, a surreal specter hovered over the idyll that was my existence and stark reality set in when too many transfers transpired from savings to checking. At that point, I knew that I needed an income, as well as my well-developed taste for distraction. In response, I invented my own little company, attended seminars in all sorts of small business mastery, and sat back, awaiting the influx of dollars to refill the coffers.  Once again a contributing member of society, a new equilibrium emerged as I awakened to the realization that time was a gift, one that should not be squandered. I could do anything I wanted and my newfound, heightened level of consciousness was exhilarating!

Despite my hobbies, my diversions, and my fledgling business, I still had time on my hands so, in addition to these activities, I contributed to the operation of my extended family as the chauffeur to my grandchildren. While there is a bus available for school transport, three generations of Dello Russos, Cahalanes, and Kanes, all of whom have attended the local Catholic school, St. Raphael, have managed, for the most part, to avoid the torment that is a school bus ride. For all of us, riding the bus was a horrid fate and solely an emergency measure for when there is no ride available. Happy to continue our family legacy, I gladly assumed my new job, and in a surprise move, announced to my family that I would combine this commute with a commitment to daily Mass. I observed their sideways glances and could sense their fear that Mom was on her way to becoming a “Holy Roller”.  Little did they know that daily Mass has always been a life goal for me and now I had the time to achieve not just my goal, but secure my place in the afterlife.

Now months into my church habit, I have become a “regular”, along with all the ‘old people’ in my parish, many of whom I have known since my childhood.  I revel in the spirit of the students in the rows before me, who attend Mass by grade, depending on the day – Grades Three to Five on Wednesdays. Grade Two on Thursdays, and Grades Six to Eight on Fridays. I assume my usual seat, right in front of the huge oak column.  There is a familiarity in the wave to my fellow attendees during the ‘Sign of Peace.’ And, in the end, I emerge more peaceful for the time spent in the presence of God in that holy place.

Today was particularly special. Arriving a few minutes earlier to school than usual, I took a few minutes to visit my grandson Declan’s classroom.  Formerly assigned to Grade One in the ancient times of my era, this space had been the Kindergarten home to both of my children and now to both of my grandchildren.  Alive with color, children’s work, familiar early reading books, and palpable energy, my tiny escort, eager to show me everything, waltzed me from one end of the room to the next, pointing out items of particular interest because they were of his creation. The experience jumpstarted my day with a joy found in family legacy, the pride of a grandparent, and historical belonging, all of which have blessed me beyond description.

My reverie and tour ended abruptly when the bell rang for the beginning of school. I descended the stairs of my childhood and proceeded to my daily constitutional – Mass.  It was Friday so I knew that the row ahead would be filled with awkward, uniformed sixth graders and that we would be treated to a sermon by the Deacon, whose energy, as he preaches, permeates the church.  Asking the students directly about their favorite music, their hands raised, and when called upon, the kids shot out responses like “Panic at the Disco” (he had no idea) or “Ariana Grande” (he had heard of her) or the “Eagles” (he asked that student her age).  In response and brotherhood, he shared his own favorite, “The Beatles,” and pinpointed his favorite Beatle (we all have one), “George Harrison.”  I smiled involuntarily. This man was my spirit animal, sharing a love of both the band and the man, and I hung on his every word. He recalled some of the ideas that George expounded. A spiritual man, George Harrison never hesitated to acknowledge the presence of a higher power.  The sermon alluded to the glory days of fame and affluence in George’s life and George’s frustration with it all. He acknowledged George’s words: “Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait.”  George’s reference to the need to connect to “God,” the universal God not dictated by sect, presented a challenge and a path. I love a meaningful sermon and today’s powerful message offered not only meaning but purpose in my need to connect, both spiritually in daily Mass and in the experience of  everyday.

It is a rare and brave person who uses his fame to express ideas of a higher power; George Harrison is one of those unique beings. In another of his many profound quotes, he states, “You’ve got as many lives as you like, and more, even ones you don’t want.” I stumbled into a life I really didn’t want only to emerge with a newfound appreciation for nature, writing, creativity, my own story, and my faith, all things I most likely would have never realized without the gift of time. Due to circumstances, I was forced to slow down, to take it all in, and truly to be present. In slowing down, every day offered a chance to understand what was important: using well the gift of time to feel deeply our moments of joy, the grace of inner peace, and our connection to a God. And George was right. Everything else truly can wait.  

The Accidental Entrepreneur, or How I Started My Own Business Without A Clue

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“Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel

Two months ago, newly unemployed and pretty bereft, I committed to a life of multiple self abuses including emotional flagellation, indulgence, and pity. I took to this mindset pretty naturally, spending hours on the sofa contemplating the ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’. In addition to promising myself and others that I would get up and dressed most days before 2pm, I set daily goals like buying up all of the sugar raised donuts at Donuts with a Difference or a CVS run for shampoo. As a corporal work of mercy, I visited my friend who was recovering from an extensive surgery. Other days, I went to the library and borrowed trashy novels and piano sheet music books like “Best Break Up Songs of All Times”. I played “The Long and Winding Road” ad nauseum on the piano. I knew it was time to stop when my grandson complained that the song went on forever and I barked back, “Well, they don’t call it “The Short and Winding Road!”. When I became a regular at the Dollar Tree, I knew that I was losing the plot in a big way. Something had to happen soon to reverse the trend and stem this systemic shutdown.

As heartening as it was to hear the encouraging words of friends who still believed in me and my skills, I had lost all faith. I was a casualty of a bad work situation and my career was the road kill. While a core group of my nearest and dearest stayed in touch, others disappeared, teaching me a lot about who you can depend on in a crisis. Angry at myself for allowing this disaster to happen to the post full-time Mommy, mid-life career that I worked so hard for, everyday I could sense some of the weight lifting. Knowing that I could not stay in my house wallowing in misery forever, I sought some enriching experiences that were stimulating and, at the same time, non-committal. At Christmas, my husband had given me a gift certificate for photography lessons, in direct response to an impulse purchase that I made of a Canon camera to celebrate my sixtieth birthday. With my camera and its multiple lenses sitting idle, he capitalized on my despair and thought that I would love these lessons. He had no idea that he was throwing me a life preserver to counteract my rapid sinking. This experience was just the emotional massage that I needed to begin the rebirth of my psyche. Not only did I learn all about aperture and exposure, I learned about my own resilience.

Two classes later, I could take pictures where motion stopped, where backgrounds faded, and where things were generally in focus, all of which I considered major successes. With the art of photography mastered, I now needed a new frontier. I scoured local community education catalogs, websites, and supermarket information boards until I found just the thing – ‘Writing Tight: Short Memoir Writing’ at the Medford Public Library on Tuesday mornings from 10-12 for 8 weeks. Since it fit my schedule (oh right, I don’t have one) and my budget (it was free), I signed up, but the class didn’t start for another 3 weeks. In the meantime, I needed something to fill my days.

When I chose the career of school counselor over 20 years ago, I employed a graphic organizer, the versatile, two column type that lent itself to any purpose – this time, with pros and cons. I broke my life down into a primitive “Things I like to do” and “Things I don’t like to do”. Simplistic, yes – but the information that I gathered about myself fueled my decision to go to graduate school and work towards my Masters degree. I was 39 and a bit of a dinosaur, with my classmates considerably younger, less jaded, and lacking life experience. However, I believe to this day that my advanced years enhanced my attractiveness to employers, with a few job offers upon graduation while others were not as lucky.

Now, more than 20 years later and at another crossroads in my life, or as my friend calls it, “My Third Act”, I returned to the trusty Pros and Cons list to inform my goals. Once again, my age deterred me momentarily but knowing innately that I was not quite done with a work life, I forged on. The pros: I love working with kids, I know education, I have a tons of college application and advising experience, and I am relatively pleasant and easy to work with (if you do things my way, that is). The Cons: I never want to work for “The Man” again! That was it – the one and only negative to a work life, written at a dark time and possibly over-reactive. Not even sure who “The Man” was, I was resolute in my intent to avoid him. Combining these revelations with encouragement from colleagues who know well my abilities and professionalism, I decided to dive into the deep end of self-employment and start my own college advising business.

Terrified of my good friend, the IRS, I needed to make this endeavor legitimate and unquestionably legal. When a lawyer offered to incorporate me for $1995, flat rate, I was shaken but not deterred. Now on a “fixed income”, as my husband often jokes, with no cash flow to speak of, I needed to find a way to create my company on my limited budget of approximately $0. One evening of research netted a company name that was available and catchy, a domain address, and an offer of an LLC filing for $799. Mami, the aging but enthusiastic entrepreneur, was born!

Spending my days writing a business plan, creating marketing tools, and attending small business seminars, I prepare for the curtain to rise on my Third Act. I think I can make a go of it, maybe. If not, I always can write my memoir or take pictures. In any case, my project keeps me busy and minimizes my self-loathing. Sometimes I feel like I am just throwing the possibilities in the air to see which ones stick on the way down. Other times, I wonder if I am anesthetizing myself from reality, immersing myself in my still imaginary company (it’s always imaginary until the first paycheck). In the end, I am blessed to have those airborne possibilities, and the imagination, interest, energy, emotional glue, and most importantly, the hope that they stick.

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“Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel

Girlfriends’ Weekend: a coming of a certain age story

This past weekend, I experienced the sublime pleasure of spending time with “old” and dear friends in the framework of a “Girls’ Weekend”. For my college friends and me, the Girls’ Weekend became a thing when we all turned 50, a mere ten years ago now. Since then, our gatherings have assumed many forms: usually just a once-a-year dinner or a spa day,
occasionally a weekend, and sometimes a quick evening minus a player or two. Each time, the gathering is a place to share joys, pains, sadness, accomplishments, and a history that spans over forty years.

The celebration to mark our collective fiftieth birthdays was quite momentous. Due to the gravity and excitement of our mid-century milestone, we embarked on a three night spa-casino extravaganza. We rented a condo on the spa compound, enhancing the ability to roam the grounds in robes while sipping fruit infused waters and eating crisp, delicious apples as we awaited the next treatment. Restful and blissful, we revelled in the time together, as well as in our hot stone massages, mani/pedis, and facials. We participated in belly dancing lessons, and more in our element, a wine tasting event. Our guards were down when, on night number 3, we set off to the nearby casino, where I introduced my friends to Cosmopolitans (a la Carrie Bradshaw), and it was a case of “one martini, two martinis, three martinis…floor”. Sadly, I am not exaggerating. After a few Cosmos, we dined and enjoyed more than a bottle or two of wine. All a little tipsy, we returned to the spa property for a night cap, and to this day, where I believe where it all went truly wrong. Some of us were queasy, some of us drove the porcelain bus, but all of us fled on that Sunday morning much worse for wear but with a story that is told in humor, embarrassment, and camaraderie – a battle wound that only solidified our connection. Our legacy remains: we are the only people in history who went to a spa and emerged damaged from the episode.

Now ten years and the blink of an eye later, armed with more life experience, repaired egos, and a resolve to avoid a repeat performance of our 50th celebration, we planned a weekend of theatre, dining, and conversation in Rhode Island. In the planning stages, I depended on my friends to take the reins of planning, since I was in the middle of a personal crisis and didn’t have the energy to assist. And as friends do, the slack was taken up by the other three and the plans fell into place – two nights at a lovely hotel in the shadow of the Rhode Island State Capitol building (rooms with a view, of course), restaurant reservations, and tickets to The Phantom of the Opera matinee. Upon arrival we set off to lunch at a restaurant recommended by the hotel staff, a distance away. As a veteran of Uber and the parent of a sometimes Uber/Lyft driver, I suggested “Ubering”. Showing their ages and relative distrust of social media types of thing, a general lack of knowledge and trepidation around the miracle of Uber was exposed. As I took the reins, we secured a ride, using my app, and we were off. It was a moment of wonder and I felt oddly empowered and youthful, as I showed off my iPhone app prowess.

Once at the restaurant, we were met with by a maitre d’, who was chilly, aloof, and condescending. We were “sans reservations” and clearly very low on his list of priorities (I wanted to tell him I was Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago, but I was pretty sure the reference would have been met with a stony glare.) In our younger days, this treatment might have offended us. Instead, with limited time left (we are 60, after all), there was no room for attitude. And so, we proceeded to the bar where the explosion of news and chat ensued, as well as our first toast and cocktail of the weekend. And Girls’ Weekend was officially in full swing.

As if no time had passed since our last meeting, a familiarity that comes with years of connection took hold and, without hesitation, we shared the details of the passing of a parent, another elderly parent’s broken hip, a family member’s cancer diagnosis, and late career unemployment. Our collective empathy in this setting, so removed from our problems, provided needed comfort and respite. Interestingly, we each revealed that we had rethought the timing of our mini-break due to these life complications, which would have made it too easy to slip into our own thoughts and worries. Instead, we fought the urge to retreat, with an outcome that surpassed any expectations.

By the end of the weekend, without effort or intent, we affirmed the reason for our getaways. We all had learned a little more about downloading apps on our phones (some of us have none), mastered the world of Uber (we had an Uber virgin or two in our midst), drank moderately (no replay of 2009), and discovered that some of us have never had an avocado (ok, I confess) or ever been on a cruise (and probably never will). We also exposed our fears of elder care, parent loss, cancer diagnoses, and parenting our now grown children. But most importantly, we remembered why we still cling to this time together after all these years. Our time together is truly ours and, while the spectre of the life we leave behind for even a few hours is palpable, we are present for each other. We do not proclaim to feel 20 again in each other’s presence, because we don’t. We bear the scars and memories of the experiences that link us as humans, connect us as friends, and call us to return to each other, if even for a few hours, every year. So, to 61, or sooner, I pledge to raise a glass in the presence of my “old” and dear friends, for a evening, or a weekend, as we forever become “a certain age” together.

The Pressures of Having Too Much Time

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-with apologies to Styx

In the past few weeks, I have found myself in the enviable position of having an income and not having to go to work. While this is a fleeting phase, I greeted the possibility with great expectation and hope for productivity. While the way that I arrived at this condition, through unexpected and premature unemployment due to resigning a job, probably is not the best means to be free of the day-to-day grind, it has taken a modicum of effort to get my sea legs in the ocean of undone tasks and household chores long ignored. Images of springing from my bed at sunrise have been replaced with the reality of questioning just what the heck I am doing in this mess and what happens when the tasks, chores, and money run out. I am lost, unfocused, and inert, a victim of malaise in the greatest degree.

In the past few weeks, I must admit that I have not been a slave to my situation totally. No, quite to the contrary. On the heels of my work exit (and in truth, the same day), I embarked on a magical trip to Paris, planned in advance yet amazingly timely. However, the Parisian whirlwind, a means to delay the impending new “reality” that awaited me at home, wasn’t fully a distraction and dinner conversation often wandered into the subject of picking up the pieces of career and passion, and of the feel of a life of unscheduled days. It was exciting and terrifying, all at once.

As those unscheduled days unfolded before me, I found myself only moderately productive as I migrated to too many hours spent in the throes of Words With Friends and Candy Crush Saga. There were the few odd loads of laundry, a closet or two dissected and reassembled, and a more than a few Konmari moments – my pajama drawer is a work of art. On other days, I have been forced to rise at an early hour for occupational therapy to address my December hand injury, having set the early appointments to accommodate my prior work schedule. And then there were the days when I purposefully dove into that recently realigned pajama drawer and thoughtfully chose my previous night’s pajamas so as to be comfortable as I anticipated and pursued a full-on “duvet day”, replete with vintage game shows and British television. On some level, I see that self-direction as progress.

Yet, barely two weeks into this altered reality, I find myself adrift, while at the same time, finding an equilibrium. I do think that there is a fear among my nearest and dearest that Mommy has lost the plot a bit. I could sense this belief when I announced that I would be attending daily Mass during Lent, and with this pronouncement, I committed to driving my grandchildren to school in close proximity of both time and location. A great cheer went up from the crowd – not only would Mom be getting up and dressed daily, but in addition, she would take the kids to school, saving the parents the daily trip. It was relief for the masses on two levels, and for me, as well. I found a purpose in life and a way to pave a clear path to the afterlife, all in one fell swoop!

I can’t lie, I have accomplished a few important tasks – like the new wall hangings installed in our bathroom, referring to various bodily functions in an artful way. Some would find this offensive; I am entertained. My favorite: “Please Remain Seated for the Entire Performance”. Classy, huh? And I visited my dear friend, Gail, who had surgery and I had yet to see since her convalescence due to a cold and my world travels. For those of you keeping score, chalk that one up to a “Corporal Work of Mercy” – Visiting the Sick. And I sewed – all of the sewing tasks that accumulated between my blinding eye issues this summer and fall, and my hand issue this winter. As I make my list everyday of tasks to attack, I know that there will come a time when all of the items will be ticked in completion, and I will take to the sofa and the British telly permanently.

At some point, I hope to wake up and say, “It’s time to go back to work”, but I am not there yet. However, as I move beyond a bad experience, I know that there is more to be done, both personally and professionally. I know that I have more to offer than an organized drawer or a lousy decorating project. I also know that I need to add one more item to my to-do list – update my resume, just in case.

The Effects of Second Hand Worry

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It’s a great feeling when everything is going well. Good health, finances in order, nights of great sleep, joyful times spent with family and friends, and a fulfilling work life fuel a sort of euphoria that unfortunately is not recognized or appreciated until the spell passes – that is, unless you live in my head. In my case, while I relish the joy of every single moment of the good, I wait expectantly for the next disaster and work against any possibility. I control my environment to thwart life’s best efforts to destroy me and make only the most informed decisions. Yet, despite my best efforts, “stuff happens”, opening the door to the “The Worries”.

I can’t take credit for the term, “The Worries”. It was coined by my granddaughter at the age of 4 while in the throes of anxiety. In our family, we come by “The Worries” honestly, having sprung from a bloodline rife with hoarding, agoraphobia, and panic attacks. I prided myself on being relatively sane, despite my genetics. I was productive, organized, focused, and driven, which are just a few of the traits that suffer with unmanaged mental health. However, while not at a clinical level, I will admit to being a “worry wart”. I worry about everything, in a truly absolute kind of way.

I am a champion worrier, having legitimately won the title in the boxing ring of hard knocks. Not unlike many people, I’ve been through some tough times, especially in the area of child rearing and elder care. The epitome of the baloney and cheese in the proverbial “sandwich generation”, I tried my best to manage the struggles but I will not deny that the challenges and triumphs and missteps came with a cost. My guard is up all the time, bracing for the worst and ready to fight back.

Now confronted with new, scary and very different challenges, I brush off the title belt and enter the ring this time with trepidation and crippling fear. This time is different. Normally, I have a scrappy determination to “not let the bastards get me down”. This time, I am not sure I have the fight left in me. Did they get me this time? Am I washed up, a “has been”? While the cost of retreat is dear, I am defeated, with the world as a witness.

Of anyone in our family, I have mastered the effects of “The Worries”. Instead of giving in to the fear, I am the problem solver, the maker of magical outcomes, the rock. But when the magical, problem solving rock is down for the count, there is panic in the kingdom.

Since the “The Worries” run deep in our family, ‘Second Hand Worry’ elevates itself to an art form and provides the catalyst to create a safety net as strong as family ties. They are clearly worried. In the past few weeks, I have been told daily that I am loved via phone, text, and in person; received Bitmojis affirming me and cheering me with a “You Da Real MVP”; received notes of encouragement from my grandchildren; and made to eat pizza – there has been a lot of pizza, our family’s comfort food, as we gather together in an effort to bolster my weary ego. But underlying all of these beautiful gestures, there is an extreme case of “The Worries” and, in turn, my family’s ‘Second Hand Worry’.

With the tables turned on the ‘Magical Rock’, my own fears awaken more vividly as I see myself through the eyes of others. Clearly, the concern is not limited to my blood tribe as I have experienced an outpouring of concern from friends as well. I am changing before their eyes and what they are seeing alarms them. In turn, I am alarmed, as well. This is serious.

Exposed to ‘Second Hand Worry’, the sense of others worrying about me pervades my soul. It exposes like a mirror reflection, and it warms like a fuzzy blanket. Gazing boldly into that mirror to assess the adjustments necessary to repair the damage done, I struggle to see the future. Yet, to grasp the warmth of their concern is a comfort. While mired in the darkness, the distant light of what will be evades me and desperation takes hold. Only time will tell the outcome and the reveal what remains.

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When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go to Paris

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One thing I have learned, repeatedly, is that life is tough, everyday. The unexpected, the predictable, the drudgery, the fun – all are accompanied by minefields of nasty that are substantially more distasteful than imagined or anticipated. Each day, some of this unpleasantness seeps into my soul and leaves me weary and exhausted. To counteract the misery, I travel.

For the past fourteen years, the chosen antidote to the nasty that life doles out (coupled with the winter doldrums) has been a winter/spring trip to Ireland. A cure like no other, it transports me to a place where I immerse myself in beauty, peace, and inner joy. I drink my fill of Guinness, devour multiple bags of Taytos daily, and drive with abandon like a local on the tiny, rugged Irish roads. I revel in the encounters with shopkeepers and barmen, where I gather my best stories. Life thwarted my best efforts a few times over the years by calling me to care for my dad versus assuming my wild Irish life, but the possibility is always as close as my passport and a delay only makes the visit sweeter.

But once in a while, something happens to change the path of predictable and comfortable, and even in my pre-determined wandering world, the course alters and realigns. A few weeks ago, scenes of Paris on the television screen sparked a conversation between me and my beloved about the possibility of a trip to France. Our last trip was magical! Cafe life and quartinos of wine, full blown cane sugar Coca-Colas and shops with racks of colorful macaroons – the images were palpable, transporting us back to the wonder we experienced. And that was it. Impetuously and impulsively, we decided, this year, to go to Paris.

Paris – in my mind’s eye, the setting fills the senses with romantic images of bridges over the Seine, the evening sparkles on the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Mona (only first name needed), and my own moment standing in the shadow of the L’Arc de Triomphe. My wounded and bruised psyche, a casualty of life, craves a Francophile redux and perhaps, I will once again dust off of my cobwebs from my sketchy ability to communicate in the native tongue of the locals (interestingly, eight years of French in school surprisingly kicks in once immersed in the environment). Of one thing I am certain, I crave a distraction and a change of scenery to anesthetize me from my aching soul.

So in a few short weeks, we will escape from the everyday to a place where magic and beauty and romance abound, which I hope will be a welcome change in an otherwise acutely difficult spell. I depend on this adventure to transport and transform my weary mind, at least for a short time. And if asked about my destination, I will reply, “Quand les choses se compliquent, les difficiles se rendent à Paris!” I think that’s a pretty “tres bien” reason!

A little w(h)ine on a welcome change of year…

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2018 began like most years – full of resolutions and hopes for great things ahead. However, why is it, when we reach the end of each year, and this one in particular, we are thrilled to be rid of it, like an old moth eaten sweater that makes us sad because it was our favorite but now is so much less than it was before the assault? How does something so promising, so shiny bright, and so exciting turn into something so full of negative connotation? Interestingly and unavoidably, life happens yet we are surprised when life becomes so exhausting, so terrifying, and so challenging that we question just what possibly could be next.

As for me, now at the start of a new year, the same hope for the future persists, yet this time, I am different. The challenges of the past year have hardened me, weakened me, and changed me for what I believe (and fear) may be forever. Struggles with my health, regrets around job change, and the realities of age have hit me hard and have infiltrated my psyche. While it was a year full of peak excitement, sad goodbyes, new experiences, and devastating loss, each moment stole a bit of my heart and my confidence. The passing of time and the celebration of each of these events, happy or sad, molded the “me” that I am today. As I embark on new “resolutions”, I acknowledge that the nature of the foci has changed. In the past, at the start of a new year, I focused on what could be defined as superficial: losing weight, developing better habits, keeping a healthy schedule, or reading more. Now, the changed “me” seeks to be happy – that is all – and whatever it will take to be there again, that is my goal. At this moment, I am not sure exactly what will be the ticket to this destination, but I am certain (or at least, hopeful) that the journey will evolve into the joy of regaining myself.

In my life, I believe that everything happens for a reason and, in turn, I question the why of what happens. I want to believe that there is a lesson hidden within each joy and misery, yet why are the lessons so hard to comprehend in the moment? And once the siege has passed, why is it so difficult to remember just how deep the despair was felt? In essence, those experiences fuel our need to return to the baseline of “happy” when we are not, and the drive to sustain “happy” when we are.

So on the first day of this new year, I wish for myself the strength to seek new experiences, discover new opportunities, and embrace the possibilities that will lead to being happy, because in the end, happy is all that truly matters.

Christmas Decorations and the Scourge of Being Merry

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Every year, I promise myself that I will not succumb to the competition that is Christmas hall decking.  And every year,  I find myself guilted into upping the ante with another addition, or five, to the Christmas decor stable.  I try to be good, but once I spy the first twinkling light on an otherwise nondescript shrub outside an otherwise uneventful house that is suddenly transformed into a winter vision of wonder, my resolve is dissolved and I become a fiend for the red and green stuff.

This year, I began my enslavement to the chore of being festive just hours after the Thanksgiving bell tolled. Compelled to participate in the madness that is “Black Friday”, I meandered through the likes of “Bed, Bath, and Beyond” and “Joann Fabrics”, looking for nothing in particular. But with a promise of 70% off on ribbon, and text messages teeming with links to coupons of all sorts, who could refuse?  Six rolls of ribbon later (soon to join the long time residents of the 3 boxes of holiday ribbon amassed previously), a pang of “Buyer’s Remorse” gripped me and I suddenly regretted my purchase. Heck, it’s only ribbon, I lamented internally. Yet, the purchase symbolized the cultural conundrum that is Christmas. Can it be really be Christmas without the Christmas schmutz?

It was still Thanksgiving weekend when the need to deck the halls became acute. An audible moan arose from my husband’s gut as I announced that it was time to put up the tree. Yes, put up the tree – the one that is housed in the box in our basement. Prelit, modular, narrow, short by Christmas tree standards at 6 feet, the Cahalane Christmas tree is a Lowe’s special. It’s important to note that our family didn’t always have a “fake” tree. God forbid! In the early days of the Medford Cahalanes, we wouldn’t have dared an imitation. Ensconced in a neighborhood where “go big, or don’t bother going to Mahoney’s” was a mantra, you overbought.  Your ceilings were 6 1/2 feet? – go for the 7 footer and then realize it’s too tall, forcing the executive decision – chop from the top, or the bottom.  Who knew that, once you unleashed the soon to be blazing Yule from its protective transport wrapping, half of your living room would become unnavigable? The annual dilemma of visual tree measurement was real and driven by the need for the “perfect tree”, the one that you couldn’t wait to get out of your house by January 1.

The year that broke the back of our quest of the perfect real tree came at the hands of our children, who were teenagers at the time. With drama club and sports schedules to accommodate, the opportunities were few to gather the flock (we were a family of 4…) for the annual trek to the tree lot. We scheduled a time agreeable to all yet, when the hour arrived, there were complaints of the weather being too cold and other manufactured obligations, limiting our offspring’s availability. With the window of opportunity thrust open wide, we jumped into the car like hormone-crazed teens running from an overbearing parent and fled to a nearby Bradlees’ (who remembers?).  As gratifying as any visit to Mahoney’s, there stood the “perfect tree” – 6 feet of green polyvinyl chloride, promising to bring years of Yuletide joy to our home, all for the meager price of $99, plus tax. As we slipped the parcel into our 1992 Oldsmobile Cutlass wagon, a sense of accomplishment and freedom washed over us. Arriving in the driveway, we beckoned the children, who miraculously arrived home despite their other commitments, to come and help with the “tree”.  I will never forget the moment when realization overtook our daughter as she exclaimed, “YOU DIDN’T!” As a parent, I momentarily felt a little guilty – and moments later, weirdly powerful! And so began the era of the Cahalane Fake Tree.

Many years have passed after the initial shock of the fake tree infiltration but the work of decorating seems interminable. Weeks in the making, the chore refuses to be finished. Thematic collections of snow and gingerbread men and women call to me from their chilly cellar coffins, begging to be sprung. And I succumb. Furniture must be relocated, and day to day decorations are tucked away for three weeks, replaced by the “Christmas schmutz”. It’s a lot of work, and I swear, the supply of Christmas accoutrements begets itself. Entire boxes are overlooked from year to year, suddenly to be discovered and needing a space for display. But no space exists. The house is full, my brain is full, and the fun of it is over.

I imagine a day when Christmas is a table top tree in my tiny assisted living apartment and I will wax nostalgic for my days of decking the halls, and the kitchen, and the dining room… Until then, I will continue the dance of relocation, decoration, and restoration. And I truly wonder if it would still be Christmas without the “schmutz”.  My guess is, after the initial shock, Christmas will be Christmas, for the right reasons, and the time that we spend together, surrounded by our family and friends, will help us to understand that love is truly the best decoration of all.

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Mami REALLY does know everything…sometimes

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When life and fate take me by the hand and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of not knowing what could possibly happen next, my mind races. As I strive to regain my balance and right the ship of my life, I wonder how I ever lost control of my destiny. Fear, uncertainty, and dread seize my body and mind, and like a captive audience, I ride the wave of trepidation, with an acute hopelessness tinged with a tiny speck of optimism that it will all work out. But during that time in between, I always have my go-to, and when the going gets tough, the not so tough go to the psychic.

It was forty years ago this week that I first stepped into Regina Russell’s Tea Room in Quincy, Massachusetts. It was a day of firsts – on that very morning, Gail and I set off to get our ears pierced, again, adding an additional hole to one of our lobes, solidifying our renegade, “bad girl”, 70’s personas. No strangers to the world of fortune tellers, we had frequented the “Gypsy” in her tiny storefront on West Street, near Jordan Marsh,  for years. She told us of foreign men in our futures who would become our husbands, and tallied our future children by assessing the lines on our palms. It was dark and mysterious, and being “good” Catholic girls, we were dabbling in things forbidden. When she prepared to close her shop after many years, she offered us her home address in Somerville so that we could continue the conversation, but that just seemed a bit too dangerous. With no GPS tracking in those ancient times, we were pretty sure we disappear without a trace. So we abandoned our soothsaying friend and moved on to greener, psychic pastures.

When we arrived at Regina Russell’s on that fateful Thursday in November 1978, we paused in the angled parking lot surrounding the tiny white house, unsure about taking our curiosity to the next level. It was clearly some sort of organized operation, far from the dingy West Street storefront. On that day, and every time since, we were greeted by a “hostess”, who seats you at a table designated with a zodiac sign. Handing you a “menu”, she asked if we would like a drink, offering a limited choice of tea, coffee, or lemonade.  As we sipped our pink lemonade from little plastic cups, we perused the psychic options: tarot cards, playing cards, tea leaves, palm, crystal ball, jewelry, fire…or a combination, thereof. So many choices! The Gypsy was clearly an amateur! We were in the big leagues now.

On this inaugural day, I became a true believer.  Our reader, who is still there to this day, warned us that sitting together at the same table could be problematic to the reading since we were very close friends and, in so many words, the wires might get crossed. We poo-pooed the idea to separate, mostly out of fear, I think. Yet, true to his disclaimer, he confused our readings, warning me of a a kitchen with a red floor and a dropping glass that would smash into a million pieces. He noted that I would not drop the glass by accident but because of a startle. On the other hand, Gail would find herself in a hockey rink, wading through trash, cans, and newspapers. And it happened, except it was I, at Boston Garden, at an Aerosmith concert, navigating the trash filled ramps (the old Garden, that is), on my way to my seat. It was the ultimate “ah ha” moment. I knew instantly that this was the moment referenced in Gail’s reading. On the other hand, the next morning, Gail called to tell me that she broke a glass, on a red tile floor, while at her job at a bar, because someone slipped a piece of ice down her back. Armed with this credible proof, my psychic love life began.

Throughout the years, I have introduced many friends and family to the RR Tea Room, some of whom emerged as converts, others as confirmed skeptics. I can only speak for my own experiences and they have been powerful. In one spirit reading, the reader was in contact with a man, who was standing behind me (spooky!). He referenced a “J” name, and then a Tom, a Mike, another T (Terri?, no that’s not it…). In the end, she tapped into the names of all of my brothers and sisters-in-law, leading me to believe that it must be my father-in-law, Charlie. But when she told me that he was very excited about the baby, a girl, I pretty much told her she was full of it! Why, Lisa had only been married about 10 months at the time so a baby was not quite in the plans.  You can imagine my surprise (and hers) when three weeks later, Lisa announced her pregnancy. Apparently, I (and Charlie) were the first to know.

Around the time of the “big baby reveal”, my godmother passed, which was really why I sought a spirit reading that day. While I was not disappointed to hear from Charlie, I had hope that Julie would have come through. Fast forward one year, Lisa and I trekked once again to Regina’s, hoping to connect with my mother. While Lisa ducked into a small alcove with her chosen seer, I remained at a table awaiting my reading. When she emerged, in tears, twenty minutes later, she recounted the experience where my dear Julie came through. She thanked our family for taking care of her little white dog, for helping to clean out her house, and few other details known by a very few. In truth, Muffy, the little white dog we inherited the day Julie died unexpectedly while awaiting my visit that afternoon, was taking care of us. Julie worried about me and my caretaking role with my dad and I am sure that she left Muffy behind to supervise.

These are but a few anecdotes of the history of 40 years of readings. Using the information gleaned from my psychic encounters, I have planned trips, sold homes, and dealt with unruly teenagers. In one of my favorite experiences, while awaiting a closing date on our Hampton home that dictated our exit to the U.K. for ten days, I sought the guidance of a R.R. psychic. As we flipped the cards, she sought a clearer picture of the situation. She commanded me to pull four more cards from the tarot deck, all of them 7’s and 8’s. Taking a stab at the information revealed, she pronounced that the closing would be on August 7th, and that I should feel confident planning the trip for a departure from that day on. And so, the details unfolded – the closing was at ten a.m. on August 7th, and I was on a British Airways jet by ten that evening.

However, I do believe that you need to be of a certain sort to be open to these messages and to allow the psychic in. As a client, I have been identified by many readers to be gifted psychically as well. This fact I acknowledge, I fear, and I embrace, which causes me to dabble in the mystical. My grandfather also was whacked with the psychic stick and “knew things”. I know things. A lot. But I can never predict the accuracy or interpret the meaning, until it happens. In one case in 1979, while driving home from work with Gail (she is a theme, clearly), we came upon an accident scene and I knew that a friend was involved. I verbalized my concern in my usual impulsive way (when I “know” things, I just blurt them – without proof or reason), drove home, and then, troubled about the message, returned to the accident to assure myself that it was not his car, and hence, could not be him. When I received the call the next morning that the accident did involve my friend, Gail queried me as to how I knew. I had no idea but I was shaken.

In the clearest demonstration of any psychic prowess, I became physically ill (not illness in the strict sense, but a sense of dread permeated my body) prior to my mother’s passing in 2003. For two weeks prior to the event, I experienced a psychic heaviness, a weight, a darkness. I had changed jobs of my own volition just a month before and I was miserable. In my last conversation with my mother (who was not ill), I shared my concerns about my decision and she assured me that I would figure it out, I always did. I connected my dark feeling to my work situation and wondered just how long I could bear this pain. I often took in deep breaths and tried to release the tightness. I spoke of the feeling to Tim, and he, being firmly centered in this worldly plane, struggled with what I tried to convey. Three days later, as I sat in restaurant eating dinner, a sudden lightness pervaded my body. I felt better than I had in weeks and I noted this feeling saying, “Wow! I suddenly feel good!” and took in a huge, unencumbered breath.  Moments later, the phone rang and I was summoned home. At the moment that my darkness transformed, my mother had taken her last breath.

So, once again, I find myself questioning decisions, seeking a path to the future, and tapping into that part of me that rears its head occasionally.  I am not feeling dread, so I am pretty sure that no one is going to die, but I need some assistance in navigating my reality. And maybe for me, that is what psychics do. While they tap into their abilities, my own are enhanced and empowered, informing my thoughts and outcomes. In any case, I think it’s time for a trip to Quincy for a little pink lemonade and a chat – and, hopefully, a little empowerment, knowing that it all works out in the end, once you figure it out.

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Baseball and Me: Mrs. October, or My Accidental Fair Weather Fandom

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I watch the World Series by default. Every night, year round, I assume my usual position on the dual reclining sofa and hunker down for a dozy few hours watching mindless television, like “Family Feud” or “Britain’s Worst Teeth”, before moving to bed for the duration.  This scenario is dependable and sacred, except on World Series game nights in October, when my viewing is preempted with the arrival of my husband and his cell phone, his reader glasses, and a glass of seltzer water, signifying the end of my respite. He needs all of these tools to communicate with the outside world while the game ensues. Communication via text message goes out to family and friends, while frequent “dings” emanate from his lap where his phone is cradled. Most importantly, it has become his new means to watch the game with our son in Texas since his move last winter. In truth, I am amused yet mildly  annoyed, especially since there are only six other televisions in our house.

My history with baseball is long and storied. My mom, a fervent fan of the Boston Red Sox, taught me the game from her armchair, never having gone to a major league game herself. When my mother was a teenager, she became quite ill, turning to the ballgame on the radio for comfort and distraction. A true fan, the excitement of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” was the culmination of years of dedication.  Her excitement was contagious and I became a forever fan. Armed with a decent knowledge of the game and a fervor that only a mother can instill, I set off with my friend Noreen, in the summer of 1971, on the MTA to Kenmore Square, to my first Wednesday afternoon Red Sox game. It was the day of Yastrezemski, Tiant. and Petrocelli, and despite their talent, the chances of a post-season playoff berth, let alone a World Series opportunity, were slim to none.  Presenting ourselves at the ticket booth twenty minutes before the first pitch, we purchased two tickets for $4 each, affording us the privilege of entrance and two box seats, four rows behind home plate, just to the first base side of the much abbreviated backstop screen. It was a dream come true and a bucket list tick, even before I knew I had said list.  And to make the experience even more complete, a foul tip by Carlton Fisk hit me in the shoulder and popped into Noreen’s hands. Pretty much, my life was complete at that moment, at the age of 12, and I could have died happy, right there, right then.

For the next few years, my visits to Fenway were frequent, and I was in a constant search for willing partners in crime. With time, it was clear that my go-to comrade would be Gail, a neighborhood friend who yearned to be a sports writer and loved the Red Sox with a depth that match mine. Gail and I embarked on our intrepid journeys to the far end of Boston via a combination of bus and subway, experiencing all form of sights and sounds. We could rely on the man on the Mass Pike Bridge perennially collecting donations for “Wheelchair Basketball”, or be shocked with an unexpected assault like the man who exposed himself to us from the opposing side of the platform in the Haymarket subway station. Buying a cheap bleacher ticket for 75 cents, we anticipated the fourth inning when we would pay an extra 50 cents to cross over into the grandstand for an new and different perspective. Games were invented and goals were set, like Fenway Frank eating contests – my personal best is six – or sitting in every section of the ballpark during the course of one game (it was the 70’s and the place was a ghost town!).  On warm August Sundays, we would ride our bikes to South Medford early in the morning to buy Italian cold cuts and thick Italian bread from LaCascia’s to be packed in grocery bags (yes, you could bring bags into the game back then) for our early arrival at the park where we watched batting practice, gorged ourselves on capicola, and worked on our bleacher tans. Oh, and we met boys – which was an additional draw to the full Fenway experience. We relish these crazy memories to this day as part of our shared history and  our love for our hometown heroes.

One of our favorite hobbies involved scoring the game in the program purchased as we entered the park. If I must say, we were pretty good, often checking our accurate decisions with the scoreboard or against each other. When our high school formed a girls’ softball team, Gail and I decided to put our vast knowledge of games involving bats and balls to the test and tried out for the team. Failing at athleticism flamboyantly, the coach, aware of our scoring skills, named us co-managers, a position we proudly held for two years, alternating equipment management and game scoring between us.  Who knew all these years of fun and frivolity could be something that could enhance our college applications?

If I had to put a finger on when the Fenway frenzy ended. I would say it coincided with finding a boyfriend who lacked the fascination with the game that I had. Sacrificing my own interests for “love,” as so often happens, I found my Fenway pilgrimages to be fewer and less entertaining. It is baseball, after all, and once I had to just watch the game instead of involving myself in competitions and goal setting, it became a bit more tedious. And despite marrying a Red Sox fan, my baseball interest never sparked to the same level as those of my teenage self.

However, like riding a bike, you never fully lose your ability and knowledge, and your real passion for the game. For me, baseball is like riding a bike, or that comfortable, fuzzy blanket tucked under your chin when you doze on the recliner as the game blares.  Admittedly, I still love to watch a good baseball game. And in October, when the Red Sox are involved, a special comfort comes to mind. On the day before my mother died in October 2003, she called to discuss the Martinez-Zimmer scuffle with my husband. Their agitation and excitement were such fun to watch and the encounter offered the last time I had contact with her, even if indirectly. Red Sox baseball and October, woven like a tapestry into the fabric of my life, offer a security blanket, a connection, and a memory overload that always bring a smile to my face, and perhaps a tear to my eye, as well.  And, for that, I thank you, Mom.

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The (not so) Complete Guide to Raising Adult Children

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A few weeks ago, I visited our youngest, a son, who I affectionately refer to as “The Defector”. Having left the bosom of his family and hometown of Boston, he set off to a new life in Austin, Texas, where, I must admit, he has made a lovely life. Interestingly, he hates that I call him “The Defector”. In response, I chuckle, and continue my assault.  That’s part of the lesson here. When our kids were younger, there were trigger topics that we just knew would incite an outburst or, at the very least, a pointed retort.  And because of that possibility, and in the interest of peace, we avoided these minefields – or not.  In any case, now that they are adults, those trigger comments remain, albeit adjusted in quality and content for the stage of young adult development. The truth remains – we always will be the parents and they always will be our children.

The relationship between a parent and a child embodies the gamut of emotion – extreme love, extreme loathing, unbridled joy, pride, annoyance, embarrassment, and guilt, for a start. When our children do well, the feeling of accomplishment for both them and us overwhelms and affirms. It is why we parent, after all. It offers license to brag and boast, and somehow reflects our skill in raising such a gifted human!  Conversely, when our kids mess up (and if you tell me yours never did, you’re fibbing!), we struggle to  absorb the possibility that the fruits of our loins could screw up so badly, especially when we warned them of the dangers of certain decisions. If we are lucky, they survive all of the bad choices. But in the end, we all come out on the other end changed, having experienced life altering love, loss, pain, and joy.

Being the parent of an adult demands a new approach. If you really did your job well, your kids enjoy your company and maintain a connection to you.  Creating a method to communicate, develop boundaries, and co-exist, whether next door or two thousand miles away, presents a tricky balance that dictates your success as a parent when the children are no longer children.  In the case of “The Defector”, my own angst over his departure divided us more than the distance from Boston to Austin.  Communication was rare for the first few months of the transition and my despair was palpable. Mired in my own cultural and ethnic mores, I believed that one did not leave “home”, especially one where you were “all set” – a place to live, a good job, and most of all, family – to pursue “the unknown”, surrounded by strangers.  As the car, loaded to the brim with his Boston life, departed the driveway on that cold December day, I struggled to fathom that I would not see my son for five months.  And I secretly (ok, not so secretly) hoped that he would not find his way in Texas and make his way home posthaste.

Now almost eleven months and two visits to Austin later, I feel a pride that surprises and shocks me. “The Defector” has made a “life” – a beautiful apartment, a good job, an expanded palate that includes Torchy’s Tacos and kolaches, and a young, vibrant city at his feet.  With time, a system for consistent communication has developed, which has included a weekly phone call, at a minimum, and intermittent daily texts. Topics range from the weather, to politics, to work, to concerts, to Boston sports, and the conversations are lively, engaging, and genuine. And, yes, I ask the minefield questions – like “who are you dating?”, but the answers are less volatile.

It was my daughter who said it best, as she bade her brother ‘goodbye’ at the airport. Through her tears, she admitted to hating leaving him behind; yet, she conceded that he needed to be there, in Austin. Maybe that’s the lesson. Adult parenting is all about hating the distance but recognizing the benefits in a new life, anxiously awaiting the joy in the occasional visit, anticipating a lively phone call, and asking the minefield questions, trusting that the result will be a conversation, not a detonation, between two friends who just happen to be mother and son.

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Hey, I thought I was Jewish…or The Day “23 and Me” Moved My Ethnic Cheese

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As an only child, I always wanted to know more about my ancestry and heritage, especially since my own circle of close blood relations was small and easily identifiable. Surrounded by cousins in my youth, I found it difficult to relate since they were all connected to a sibling and had a “family” identity. In my case, not only was I an only child, but my mother was as well, closing the circle tightly on the maternal side. Over the years, I would troll through Ancestry.com to see if anyone was looking for me or my bloodline, but no one ever did. I once fell upon a family tree through a Google search with members on my mother’s branch listed prominently and completely, right down to my own children, which disturbed me on some level. Somehow, someone was able to track my own tiny branch without my input or knowledge. Yet, despite my discomfort, I persisted in my need for ancestral awakening.

On the day that I received my first (and what I thought would be only) “23 and Me” results, the revelation shocked me to my Apennine core. After a lifetime of telling people that I was 100% Italian, I wasn’t – to a large extent. Yes, while confirming that I could claim 84% Italian heritage, the rest of me was a big, old, ethnic mishmash! Apparently, my DNA revealed a Balkan connection (5.5%) and another 3% Middle Eastern. Suddenly, visions of me, dancing with scarves, on a sandy floor of a clay hewn house, popped into my head, and then, an image of my deceased father, always the realist and the speaker of truth, saying, “Ah, they’re full of shit!”  He always had a way of summing up things!

But most interestingly, I had a very (very) distant grandfather who was an Ashkenazi Jew.  I was dead chuffed… and a collective cheer arose from my Jewish friends, one of whom declared, “I always knew you were one of the Tribe!”  The idea made sense. The Askenazi, the Jews of the Diaspora, set off into Europe and one of their entry points was the port of Bari, which was very close to where my mother’s father and my father’s mother originated. I imagined what interfaith marriage was like back then, in the 1600’s, and I was intrigued. Known for their collective intellect, I embraced the urge to claim  my connection to the Ashkenazi and their tremendous contributions to the politics, arts, and literature.  I like politics, enjoy going to a museum, and read a lot, after all.

Then, last week, an unexpected day of reckoning arrived – a revised report dissolving my newly formed Jewish roots. The profile, adjusted just enough to confirm the 84% of Italianness that I had known all along, now deleted my Ashkenazi DNA and replaced it with Western Asian and Northern African blood to the tune of 3.3%. In a huge cultural and political shift, I became an Arab and a Russian in one fell swoop! Interestingly, I revisited this report repeatedly in the past few days, clicking on every pulldown on the multiple reports, looking to unearth some mistake or re-formed connection to my ‘people”. But, alas, to no avail, I am an Italian, Greek, Turkish, Russian, Armenian, Cyprian, Libyan, Jordanian, Moroccan, non-Jewish mongrel.

This shift in my DNA profile leads me to believe that this whole ancestry biz may be a bit of a sham. And now, I am tempted like many of my friends to buy another product and conduct some half-assed comparison study. In the meantime, I may for once give my father’s cynical commentary some credence and perhaps, they are “full of shit”.  Nonetheless, I am intrigued and still 84% of whom I thought I was at the start. I do like pizza, after all.

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Counteracting “the Fear”

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When you’re young – anything younger than 50, that is – you have a sense that you have time. And by time, I mean all the time necessary to get all of your goals accomplished. But if you are one of the lucky ones (?) who lives without goals and vision, then you are immune to “the Fear”.  But I think these people are few and demand our pity.  The ranks of the age fearing are burgeoning and the answers sought, evasive. And despite the varied breadth of our goals, hopes, and dreams, how much time is really enough?

Now, let me tell you about “the Fear”. It arrived one day about eight years ago when I thought that ‘the rest of the story’ would be to ride it out. I resolved to make no changes. It was too risky, since anything done at that point on could delay retirement, make me sick, ruin my reputation, or worse! So I seethed with a fire inside my head, whose flames whispered “Do it!”, and with a sense within the same space eager to extinguish the spark. I settled for settling, for a brief moment, until I realized the magic question to every answer – “What is the worst thing that could happen?” And when I discovered that, short of dying in the process, there was no situation that was unfixable or permanent.  A new freedom emerged from ‘the Fear’ and a ‘Fearlessness’ was born.

When you are in your 50’s, you embrace a boldness that empowers decisions and choices. A sense that you already may have seen the best of it offers a frustrating cold comfort and a modest relief.  We are off the hook – we have raised our children, worked, and if we are lucky, had a “career” that was successful, or at the very least, profitable.  But is success the same as passion?  Is the paycheck that buys the summer home or yacht, or finances the Disney vacations worth the sacrifice of our time and creativity?  Inspirational posters admonish us to pursue and do what we love.   And if we are lucky, a  realization occurs to us that our careers keep us from our passions only if we lack the imagination to design a way to meld the two. With admiration, I observe friends who abandon profitable careers to pursue passion.  And with a morbid determination, I wrack my brain for a way to combine passion with a modest income.  In the end, I come up short and ultimately, I am somewhat deterred, but not completely without hope or desire.

In any case, with each passing year, there is a sense that time is fleeting. Every birthday is one less that you will celebrate, every new year is a step closer to the end. Christmases, Thanksgivings – they are markers on the road to ‘Old’. When you are younger, these events lack this additional dimension, and I long for these happier, light hearted days.

To counteract “the Fear”, I actively seek ways to maintain joy and fuel passion despite the grim prognosis.  With a few more than 60 days remaining until a milestone birthday (at this point, they are all milestones), and to assist in the crossover to a new decade, my granddaughter created a plan to make “a thing” of me for the last 60 days of 59 (and honestly, if you don’t make a thing of yourself, who will?).  The event, titled “60 Days to 60!”, is a two month long extravaganza designed to acknowledge the importance of feting yourself.  With the goal of inciting a “peak experience” every day until November 16th, I embark on an adventure that identifies the little and big joys, and the passion, in the everyday.  The last leg of the journey – the “12 Days of Mami” will replace the traditional birthday week.  With great excitement, I accept this challenge, offered by an eight year old who, despite her youth, understands mortality on some level – and the need to have fun while your here. Now that’s a reason to make a “thing” of yourself, isn’t it?

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The Joys of Getting a Facial and/or Saving my Poor Pores from Skin Shaming


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Cue the whine fest of First World Problems.  Fresh off a visit to the esthetician, I feel a bit battered, not just from the abuse of the suffocating misting machine or the assault on my enlarged pores, but the condemnation of my skin care regime and condition of my aged skin. Now no one likes a pampering more that I do – nails, hair, massage – bring it on! One of my favorite spa moments occured at the hands of a young man (careful, now!) who gave me the best hot stone massage of my life. It was dreamy and at that, I actually fell asleep. On the other hand, I had a deep tissue massage once that left me bruised. The woman was Eastern European, with a thick accent and large hands, and in response to the pile of knots my muscles was in, she went at it. After calling out in pain a few times, she backed off minimally, but it was too late. Luckily, I did not have to see my doctor soon after because my response to the “Do you feel safe at home?” question would be in question as well.

In my latest self-indulgence , I kept the abuse above the shoulders and opted for a facial to stem the tide of sagging and wrinkling.  With a $100 gift certificate in my wallet, I set off with my daughter, Lisa, to enjoy a lovely Friday night of pampering.  As she was whisked off for her “deep pore cleansing facial”, I waited, sipping my fruit infused water and snacking on a pumpkin seed and cranberry melange. I knew that my treatment was a facial called “City Life Oxygenating”.  Apparently, my choice to live in the city starves my face of oxygen, a dire situation that must be addressed. 

Once in the room, the esthetician left me in the dark to prepare and to slip myself under the deliciously warm blankets. As I lay there, cozy and relaxed, I felt the stress of the week. ok, the summer, slip away. A gently rap on the door, an “all clear” from me, and the treatment began. Then the moment that I dread happened – the wrapping of the hair, which is the death knell for any good hair day or any further social activity for that evening. I semi-subconsciously spent the next fifty minutes envisioning my mangled hair under the wrap, a buzz kill for any positive relaxation result. But, as soft hands caressed my face with a firm yet gentle touch, I settled in as best I could, and tried to focus on the music – one minute, an Native America inspired tune replete with bird calls; the next, an Asian melody wrapped in the sound of the dizi, or flute, that invoked an image of a bamboo and tea. Even the juxtaposition of the musical selections jarred me from my tranquility, partially defeating the goal of calm and peace. My mind refused to give in to the essence of chill.

As the treatment progressed, the questions and commentary ensued – ‘what do you use for a moisturizer?’, ‘do you know that your skin is congested?’, ‘you would really benefit from the facial that your daughter is having?’ – and my mind shifted to a place of ‘self-skin-hating’ – and defensiveness.  Isn’t that why I’m here, so you can fix me, little esthetician know-it-all girl? And anyways, my moisturizer costs $85 a jar! And congested?  Whatever! Clearly, I am a mess in the skin care arena and this expert intended to set me straight! Eventually, the treatment ended and I was instructed to take my time as I prepared myself to face the world, bad hair on full display.

I emerged, with head dipped low in shame and disarray, and I requested directions to the nearest ‘Ladies’, eventually arriving at the “Dressing Room” at the end of the hall. My eyes brightened at the sight of a hair dryer and a can of hair spray in the distance. As I localized the hot air flow on my bangs and other errant strands (think “There’s Something About Mary”), I knew things were too far gone, short a shower and a curling iron. So I swept some blush across my newly (now formerly) pristine cheeks, and applied some lipstick. It was a feeble attempt, at best.

Once in the hallway, I met up with Lisa, also stinging from a skin shaming tongue lashing. In her case, her facial included a session with a miniature “vacuum”, designed to free the pores of debris. Apparently, the outcome was disturbing, with the esthetician commenting with disgust!  Lisa was mildly amused and shocked, all at the same time. We arrived at the counter to settle up, only to be greeted with an array of products that undoubtedly will mend our substandard skin care regimes. Obviously in worse shape, she was left three products to consider. I, on the other hand, had only one package waiting for me. (I suspect that my advancing years led one to believe that it already may be too late – the deed is done.)  Understanding our desperate skin care situation and frantic to take my leave, I purchased my product and one of the three for Lisa. And despite our appearances, we scurried off to dinner and a large dose of prosecco, to soothe our bruised egos and faces.

The experience left me questioning the culture of the spa treatment. As someone who enjoys, in theory, a day of pampering, especially a facial, I hate that I question myself and my ability to manage my self care after every encounter.  I have been to enough spa venues to observe that this type of “shaming” is standard and I do believe, motivated by the need to sell products.  Often, I only succumb to the desire to be “pampered” when I have a gift certificate, feeling like I owe the gifter the pleasure of knowing that I appreciate their generosity, while preparing myself for the onslaught of criticism while on the table.  Perhaps the issue is in the delivery.  Is there a better way to direct the client to embrace the need for a shift in regime than condescension and belittling? Or are we as clients just a little too touchy when it comes to our faces, and in turn, our identities?

In the end, I wonder about the large percentage of the world’s population that will never know the “joy” of  the spa experience or the benefits of the treatments found within?  How do they survive? Just fine, I assume.

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Vacation Travel Blues: America’s tragedy

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One of my favorite things to do is travel.

Since 1973, when my parents sent me on a trip  to Italy, during Holy Week, with two nuns and 10 Catholic school girls, travel bewitched me as I sought adventures outside of my tiny sphere of life. Despite the Rome trip being a total misery, I experienced culture, food, and even a kiss from an Italian waiter, who clearly didn’t understand the taboo of molesting a fourteen year old. But, from that time on, I was bitten by the travel bug and since then, the excitement of planning and executing a journey creates an energy inside me that drives my need for more. It is an adrenaline rush that borders on addiction, albeit a safe one – except for my bank account. My brain houses a catalogue of possibilities and I check off the list as the adventures unfold.  The list expands and contracts as destinations are added and ticked, promising never to be exhausted, since the best are visited over and over, and become “home”.  Such is the case of Ireland, but despite the urge to visit over and over again, I force myself to venture to new and interesting places.

When I total the number of times I have been to Europe, even I am shocked that the number is well in excess of 20.  Granted, most of those trips have been to Ireland and Northern Ireland; however, I have also been to Great Britain five times, leaving mainland Europe to make up the difference.  The experience is magical, in every case, with the unexpected and unusual at every turn, and I seek the off the beaten path route to engage in the culture of each destination. In my travels, I uncovered marvelous moments like when I missed getting my ashes on Ash Wednesday and was consecrated by a local on the street in Athlone right in front of Sean’s Bar, allegedly oldest pub in Ireland (there are many). Of course, he had a small parcel of ashes in his pocket, lifted from the church earlier in the day, and he was more than happy to oblige me with a smear on my forehead.  Or the time I visited my favorite Dublin restaurant for dinner and was greeted with a soap opera magazine as a gift from the owner, who was well aware of my love of the serial drama, Emmerdale.  And then there was the evening in Paris when we met a man from Kazakhstan, who just happened to attend Suffolk University, like me, and we sat in the restaurant with his family, until early morning, drinking champagne for hours while I spoke fluent French (that became more fluent with every glass).  These moments illustrate the magic and the allure of travel and adventure, and why I feel the pull acutely.

This year presented a different challenge as we planned our summer European exploits. Health issues, as well as my job change, complicated our strategy and with time, our dream of an extended stay in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark evaporated.  Shaken, but not deterred, we regrouped and decided to “see America second…” and stay domestic.  Having visited San Francisco in late May with friends, we had swallowed the pill of domestic travel, although I kept asking my friend about local customs “in this country”. She testily would remind me that we were in our own country, and with that declaration, I was shaken back to American reality.

Our vacation destinations revealed themselves rather easily, once we decided to begin the adventure in Austin, Texas, our son’s adopted home. Knowing that his limited time off limited his time with us, we added another leg to the journey, a road trip to New Orleans via Lake Charles, Louisiana, a minor resort with casinos, grand hotels, and beaches. The route, flat and uneventful, smacked of southern culture. Billboards touted the ease of attaining a gun license on line, or the availability of legal services at the end of a repetitive phone number like 444-4444, the ultimate in the KISS method. Pickup trucks were large and plentiful, as were the rows of corn and ranches along the roadside. As Tim drove, I dozed lightly, always ready to offer my two cents in altering direction as prompted by Waze.

The journey now ended, I am overwhelmed with emotion. After visiting three large American cities in the last few months, I consider myself a worthy observer and assessor of our American culture. As Americans, we wave our flag with blind pride. Yet our streets, awash in homelessness and poverty, tell a story that sadly evokes an embarrassment that we have no idea about fixing. Whether in San Francisco, Austin, or New Orleans, the “State of the Union” is evident and we are in trouble. People live on the streets in large number. Mental illness is rife and unaddressed, in one case  evidenced by the unfortunate man walking down the street calling out to no one in particular. The streets are littered and pungent. Unfortunately, one doesn’t need to travel to see the images that bombard us daily of mass shootings and unbelievable violence against humankind.  We, as a country, have lost the plot.  Our Facebook lives belie the sad reality of the unsavory elements of our journeys and experiences. However, that is what remains for me and I am sad. A change is needed in leadership and direction to address the true issues plaguing America. And those issues do not include a “Space Force”.  We are in trouble as a society and no amount of flag waving will correct our faults.

Back from vacation, I wax nostalgic for the pre-travel images I projected of my impending experience. Now enriched, yet saddened, I reflect on the role each of us plays in this tragedy. Those of us fortunate to travel freely, lodge in the best of hotels, eat sumptuous meals in the finest of restaurants, and pass by the less fortunate like they do not exist are not the problem, but we have the means and the call to change this condition. Everyone owns the ability to be of a generous spirit in our little worlds, to vote wisely, and to acknowledge that we are not the America that we should be.  I dream of my future travels, and of a better day for the U.S.A.

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Contemplating Fate


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I have always believed that there was a plan for each of us, and whether you buy into the idea of a higher power, or God, I would bet there were times you thought the same. As much as we humans like to think we are in charge, things happen that sometimes seem illogical, unpredictable, or unexpected, but seem so right at the same time (or maybe not). Sometimes these events frustrate us, the possibilities intrigue us, and perhaps,  despite the warning signs, we forge blindly ahead, without much in the way of a road map or a direction. These are the times that we put our trust in God, or fate, and wait expectantly to see what could happen next.

Then there are the times when a choice must be made, and since I have been taught that God gifted humans with “free will”, I see this as the sticky wicket of fate . This, my friends, is where trouble resides.  It’s when that “best laid plans” thing bites us and we must live with our choices, or adjust. In adjusting, we create a new fate – but again, we are fated to live out the mistakes, the choices, the successes.  Damn, life is complicated!

Over the past few months, I have contemplated the idea of fate, or destiny.  Hearing so many times that you find yourself exactly where you are meant to be, the changes afoot in my life boggle my mind and keep me on an unsure footing. Every day introduces a totally new challenge requiring creativity, a fresh approach, a learning curve, and tremendous emotional strength that is almost too much. But apparently, I am where I am meant to be – or so they say.

As I approach 60, I realize that fate disguises itself as health concerns, career decisions, and future planning, all of which hold one hostage at a moment’s notice. The day has passed where I breezed through life, thinking that I had it all in hand. Any plan in place presents itself a sitting duck to “fate”, ready to be reconfigured with the unexpected.  To survive it all without a fatalistic viewpoint requires a taste for adventure and a solid ability to problem solve to combat the sirens’ song of giving up.

And so, in my life, fate presented a crossroad to be navigated so I engaged professional assistance. Before making the choice to leave the position I have held for years to assume a larger role in a totally new place, I sought the input of a fortune teller. With a deck of tarot cards as a guide, and a few leading questions, she quickly homed in on my dilemma.  She began her reading with an incredulous “Why would you do this to yourself at this age?”, verbalizing my feelings exactly. As I pulled cards in sets of four, we explored the breadth of the possibilities and by the end, her comment morphed into “Why wouldn’t you do this?” While this was not the final word on my decision, I have heard her words in my mind’s ear, revisiting them frequently since our meeting.  In essence, this moment presented the ultimate in seizing my fate.

In her last words to me, the tarot card reader admonished me that there would be regrets, but that there would be regrets with a decision in either direction.  If ever there was a non-answer, this was it – and I paid for it! But,  in essence, that is fate – life moving forward with the understanding that there may be regrets, but new and different opportunities  to bring your “A” game, because where ever you are,  it is where you are meant to be.

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The Thrill of The Journey that Begins at Another Journey’s End

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I have done something I never thought I would do: I quit a job I love to take on a new challenge. I’m already exhausted at the thought of it! Yet, at a time in my life when I should be slowing the pace and seeking the refuge of the familiar and comfortable, I have seized a once in a lifetime opportunity to try something new and fresh, in the hopes of breathing a new life into a life that was already pretty good. More than once, I have questioned the sanity of it all, yet I struggle to find a negative.  It is time – and how often does life offer such a clarity of thought in the choices presented. So, as life holds out its hand, I grasp it with gusto and joy.

Twenty years ago, I walked into an open enrollment night at Suffolk University, armed with a charge card and a desire to study “School Counseling”, or my perceived notion of the career. At thirty-nine years old, I was a dinosaur. The other students in the program were young and fresh faced, unjaded by the world.   On the other hand, I was the mother of two teens, schooled in life experience and laden with opinions. It was a long shot, but with the support of my family, I assumed my studies with energy and great interest.  At its culmination, the program required a one-year, six hundred hour internship. To me, the internship offered the greatest challenge, testing my skills as well as my ability to relate to kids. But my supervisor identified in me one trait that is an intangible – intuition, or as she would say, “a good gut”,  It is this “good gut” that has been my greatest asset, carrying me through the day to day, and year to year of “my career”.

Years later, I once again returned to school – and over the past eleven years, I doubted why I ever did. The degree, a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies, offered a license to be an administrator and twenty one credits towards a doctorate. However, as the years progressed, comfortable and satisfied in my current position, I chalked the experience up to enrichment, figuring that the opportunity to do more in an administrative sense had bypassed me, not that I ever truly pursued the possibility.  Over the course of the past few years, chances presented themselves but none worthy of uprooting my life. But when it happened, I just knew.

Now, at a fork in the road, my “gut” directs my decision to leave the nest of my happy, settled life to shake it all up. Tomorrow, I begin a very different journey.  Now officially an “administrator’, a “Director”, I realize that sometimes life give you chances and it’s the decision to take that chance that makes it all so exciting and worthwhile. I keep reverting to self talk, reminding myself, “You got this!”, or as my mom said to me in some of her last words, “You’ll figure it out, you always do!” And as many have encouraged me, “Change is good!” Or lastly, as a former boss from my college days would say, “Onward and upward!”  We can only hope.

To those who have been with me on this “journey”, my sincerest thanks for your encouragement, support, friendship, and love.  I couldn’t have wished for a better experience.  As good as it has all been, my gut somehow tells me that the best is yet to come.

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How to (or not to) Parent a Child at Any Age (Yours or Theirs)

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(After a short hiatus, Mami returns with more insight, angst, and perspective.)

I love to watch people. From these observations, I glean a sense of where society is heading, for better or worse, and place my poor aging self in this picture. Today for example, I attended Mass, a great place to people watch and get a perspective on the human condition. In front of me, a young family: Mom and Dad, expecting their third little offspring, flanked by the first two, seemingly are blind to the jumping up and down of the at least 6 year old, who was mimicking a ballerina in the pew. The younger of the two had no less than six stuffed animals lined up on the bench, moving them around like some sort of plush chess pieces. Mom looks over at the holy show without expression or correction, and turns her attention back to the altar. Dad has zero sense of what is going on – he has never turned his head to take in the antics even once during the service. In the rear, twins who historically rampage week after week, are screaming and slamming items taken from the large bag of tricks hauled into the church weekly.  The place quiets momentarily and I look over to gaze upon one of the children, perched on his father’s shoulders, as one might view a parade.  All this makes for quite a case for the now extinct “crying room” – not for the kids, but for me!

I remember back to raising my own kids. As I reminisce, I am sure that I was a stern task master, spewing expectations and shooting looks that would kill. However, my kids behaved. Today, they would be considered “stifled”, but there is something to be said for knowing one’s place in public. My husband and I additionally hedged our bets by enrolling our children in Catholic school, where the guilt and expectations were extended to the classroom. It was a marriage of both worlds – home and school – and it worked for us as a family. The experience couldn’t have been totally traumatizing, as many report, because my grandchildren attend “Sister school”, minus the “Sisters” but not minus the rules of expectations.  It is a very different place now but still provides a strong foundation: academically, behaviorally, and spiritually.  And there are rules, which are enforced, not subject to change due to parental whining or bashing or social media assault. In private school, one is on “foreign turf” and the mentality is one of “like it or lump it”. This approach, while not inclusive, maintains the purity of the enrollees and ensures the participants buy in to the mission of the institution.

Now, I live in the secular world of education, where there is a belief that education is a the property of the masses, a right, and a democracy.  And while those in charge (teachers and administrators) are highly educated, as prescribed by the state and federal governments, their judgment and skills are questioned, scrutinized and assailed by those they serve.  By the time that June rolls around, teachers are in shreds and in dire need of a break from it all. It makes for a long nine months when we try to create and enforce rules that are undermined and mocked. Parents and students claim that certain teachers “do not know how to teach” or “have no classroom control”. The cause and value of homework is belittled, with parents saying that kids just won’t do it or that it is a waste of time, which become the teachers’ issues. One can only assume that teachers are defamed in the home in many cases, contributing to the lack of respect for the person or the profession in the classroom.

When I try to discuss my concerns with my daughter, a young mother herself, I get the disapproving side glance, letting me know that I am a dinosaur in the Jurassic Park of child rearing. However, she is seldom guilty of the atrocities of parenting that I witness daily – which makes me fear for the social toughness of my grandchildren.  Sense of self in a social setting is instilled by our family, while the world rampages. Sadly, I fear that they will be trampled, cradled in their cushion of kindness, caring, and relatively good behavior.

In any case, it is the home that is the first teacher – at any age.  Parents are the example by which a child absorbs the rules of decorum, fairness, respect, and decency.  When a child is allowed to run loose in a supermarket, a department store, on a street corner, or in the park, the message is clear – there is no role model. When a person has no sense of self in the world, the outcome is selfishness. When no sense of personal mission is instilled, a life is lived without cause. Most of these outcomes happen without a conscious decision – they occur organically. Modeling behavior is an effective teacher, while speaking the message of expectations is another.  By failing to instill these values at home, a teacher has little success in introducing them in the short time that he or she has with students. As educators, we hope to be an extension of what is already ingrained.  Without this foundation, we begin our work at a deficit and, with limited time to teach what is the prescribed curriculum, we have no possibility of teaching and reinforcing the soft skill lessons of life.


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My Fascination with Fascinators: 37 years of Royally Fascinating Weddings

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When my daughter Lisa married in 2008, I set off to Ireland (as I am prone to do) to purchase a dress for the event. I popped in and out of boutiques, department stores, and shops, seeking just the perfect frock -not too frou-frou, not too plain, not too “old lady-ish”, just the perfect combination of elegance, understatement, and comfort. In each shop, the salesperson asked the question, “What are you looking for?” inevitably followed by the next–“Do you have your hat yet?” When I answered that I would not be wearing a hat and that we didn’t do that in America, the look of shock was comical. Apparently, it was unthinkable to be looking for a dress without having the “hat” be the driving force in the purchase. Clearly, everyone considered the hat to be the centerpiece of the ensemble, the element that dictated style and color. Its absence rendered one under dressed. It was then that my personal  interest in the hat, or “fascinator,” was born.

Not that I haven’t been observing the evolution of head coverings over the years. Growing up in the sixties, I watched as the formality of head gear shifted from the pill box hat as a daily accessory to the Vatican granting permission to wear the “mantilla” or chapel veil at church. Sadly, it was the beginning of the end for the millinery trade. I connect the demise of hat wearing to the end of the Kennedy presidency and the reign of the high couture, Chanel wearing, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Camelot ended and the bare headed prevailed.

When Charles married Diana in 1981, hat wearing was rampant at the affair and in my repeated viewings via VHS tape with my best friend, Csilla, I studied the phenomenon ad nauseam. Having married in the fall of 1980, I regretted that only one woman in attendance wore a hat (that would be my eccentric Aunt Hope, who considered herself the resident “family fashionista” due to her lifelong career in high-end women’s retail). Even my bridesmaids wore small hair clips of blue flowers designed to match the dress, a look that was safe and customary for the era. But on this day in July, the Royals, in their color coordinated hats and dresses accessorized in their pearls, promoted a dimension of pageantry and formality in every photographed moment. My heart bled for what could have been just a few short months earlier had I insisted upon hats at my own nuptials. The assumption that I was already a bit mad would have been confirmed.

Then came Sarah Ferguson and Andrew a few years later. Despite Andrew’s multi-level removal from being an heir to the throne, the prospect of a “Royal Wedding” kept us rapt and intrigued. Once again, through the magic of VHS, Csilla and I watched the pomp with a critical eye, examining and rewinding repeatedly, in an effort to catalog mentally all of the features of the spectacle, and once again, hats were pervasive. How were we missing this trend in America? So I decided to take matters into my own hands.

In the next year or so, our family experienced a flurry of weddings and I tested the waters of hat wearing at the nuptials of one of Tim’s cousins. The hat was a big one, beige and large brimmed, with a grosgrain ribbon for embellishment. In retrospect, I pity the poor schmuck sitting behind me, who probably compared me to the obstructed views at the original Boston Garden. I certainly stood out and I remember spending much of the time tugging at the silky straw, seeking to keep it propped and in place. In the end, my flattened hair spoke volumes of the feeble attempt and I abandoned my one woman campaign to bring formal hat wear and personal style back to America as a whole.

When Wills and Kate married in 2011, my daughter and I hosted a Royal Wedding party, replete with British food, drink, and the DVR’d wedding from earlier that day on a loop. We decorated the room with framed pictures of the Royal family and of Royal Weddings past. The boys, William and Harry, were always very special to me. In many ways, I shared the child rearing years with Diana and in my delusion, we were somehow connected by motherhood. When Diana died, my connection to the boys led me to believe that I needed to be there to support them in their loss. I followed their growing up closely and now, as Wills married, I resumed my mission to “make hats great again.” Dress code: Hats or Fascinators! In response, the attendees sported embellished headbands, but nothing even close to my vision for a hat wearing revolution.  Disappointed, I retreated back into my fantasy of a world where people ascribed to a fascination with fascinators.

Yesterday, the world waited with baited breath for the parade of guests invited to the wedding of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry. At 4 a.m. in America, I anxiously awaited the headgear. The beautifully sunny Windsor procession teemed with fascinators and hats of all colors! And for the first time, as an active participant in the festivities remotely and vicariously, I would don my own fascinator at the 6:30 a.m. Royal Wedding Viewing Party at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Giddy with excitement, I dressed hastily to make my way into the city to be with “my people.”

As I entered the ballroom, I was speechless. My people flooded the room with color, the room awash in hats and fascinators. My unbridled bliss provided a weightless cloud as I floated my way to Table 16, passing all manner of feather, pearls, and netting.  My dream, now a reality, filled my heart with joy.  Hope for a new day of hats and fascinators in America may not be so unlikely after all!

While I know that the sustainability of the fascinator beyond the Royal Wedding party is uncertain, for one bright shining moment, once again, it was Camelot on this side of the Atlantic, and we were all a little Royal. And it was fascinating.

The Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, with its big screen, hosted a royal wedding viewing event Saturday morning.

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Prince Charles and Meghan Markle.


A Mother’s Tale of Regret

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I am wracked with guilt. I was too busy to celebrate Mother’s Day. Despite my kids’ plans for a Castle Island outing this afternoon and my husband’s plans for dinner out tonight, I respectfully declined their offers and secluded myself in my downstairs family room, seated at the computer, forcing myself to complete overdue evaluations for work. I am a bad mother – I didn’t want to celebrate my status as the matriarch. Instead, I put work ahead of pleasure and “adulted”.

I was honest.  I admitted to being exhausted to the bone and, looking ahead to another stressful week, I needed to get this work done. But now tormented by my lack of engagement, does progress on these evaulations feel better than spending the day with my family would have felt?  I guess I will never know since the opportunity has passed and the evaluations are not finished, a testament to failure on every level.

I am lucky. I have my family close by, for the most part, and they are a supportive, wonderful presence. So, in a way, everyday is Mother’s Day. How many people can say that they get a hug and a kiss from their grandchildren daily? -that is, when I get home from work on time.  The window of opportunity is small and their bedtime routine is rightfully sacred. So once again, I sacrifice the time that should matter most.

I am a cautionary tale.  Regrets are like a cancer and in many cases, there’s no “do over”. Fortunately, I have an understanding and forgiving family. Dinner reservations can be changed and there’s always next week for Castle Island. But life is short, and as Ferris Bueller once said, it “moves pretty fast”.  Grandchildren grow up and, with that growth, the love stays the same but the kisses and hugs will be fewer. “Adulting” will turn into “elderly-ing”, when there are no guarantees. Health diminishes and the mind fails. How awful!

I am sorry for being a “bad mother” who did not celebrate “Mother’s Day”.  I propose a “do over”. And I promise to come.


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The Many Faces of Disordered Driving

EGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 13: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) HM Queen Elizabeth II drives her Jaguar car as she leaves after watching the the final of the Harcourt Developments Queen's Cup polo tournament at Guards Polo Club on June 13, 2010 in Egham, England. (Photo by Indigo/Getty Images)

There’s a full moon out tonight and, for the few days prior to this marginally historic event, the perceived tension of the lunar phase gripped the streets of the Greater Boston area. For some reason, we can reason away the sub-par driving skills of angry, misguided and distracted drivers by blaming their shortcomings on the “Full Moon”. However, in a few days, the Moon will transform into its third quarter visage, and motorists will continue to demonstrate a level of flagging ability only is seen in a bad drivers’ ed training film. I will go out on a limb and say that these people are just lousy drivers, regardless of the moon phase or planet alignment.  As for myself, in the driving arena, I consider myself an accomplished motor vehicle Class D operator (as deemed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts), and with this skill, comes a critical eye. Most notably, my reign as an authority was established when I was awarded the “Fastest Driver” accolades in the Superlatives of the Class of 1976 of Arlington Catholic High School. Thus, on this topic, I am an expert.

When I assume the challenge of my daily commmute, I am amazed by the stupidity and ineptitude that assault my senses and sensibility in my short 12 mile journey. Along the way, I encounter all manner of skill level, arrogance, machismo, and maneuver. As a result, I have cataloged these personality types according to their vehicles, creating a modified DSM-V of Driving Disorders. Here are a few descriptions:

The American Flag Flying, Small Pick-Up Truck (truck usually of American origin): This driver sees no issue with driving at rush hour, despite the fact that they are clearly in no hurry. Obnoxiously, their clip on American flags snap and crackle loudly in the wind, despite flying in the draft of speeds no higher than 25 miles an hour.  Now, I love America as much as the next guy, but I resist the compulsion to fly Old Glory loud and proud on my car, especially in multiple quantities, if just to avoid the annoying noise level alone. Get behind this guy and you will not only kiss your goal of on-time arrival good-bye, but you start to hate anyone wearing a wide brimmed trucker baseball cap.

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The Souped Up 1991 Toyota Corolla, Fully Equipped with Spoiler and Dual Exhausts (muffler optional): This driver is out to prove that, despite the antiquity of his ride, they are louder and faster than you. As they bob and weave around you in an attempt to intimidate and gain advantage, you stop and pause in an attempt to discern the origin of that thumping noise that you hear, fearing that it may somehow be emanating either from your own vehicle or the onslaught of nuclear war. This driver presents one of the few situations where being behind him is preferable to having him follow.  Most likely under insured, keep a safe distance to preserve your sanity, and your own auto body integrity.

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The Extremely Oversized, Japanese Luxury Vehicle (driven by a woman with blonde hair, holding a cell phone – maybe): Now I have this particular driver at the tip of my nose this week (hence, the specific description) since one of this ilk cut me off while taking a left turn at a traffic light. I was on the straight away and the “luxury monster truck” forcibly entered my lane and interfered with my momentum.  Worse still, my husband, in his little Beemer SUV, traveling close behind, nearly joined me in my backseat, stopping just short of violating my little A3.  (As a co-worker said, “That would have been one hell of an insurance claim!”) These monstrosities of motor vehicle design are the overblown mini-tractor-trailers of suburbia and should be banned in the interest of safety and aesthetic sensibility.

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The Fast Lane Hogging Swerver – Cell Phone Not Optional, No Particular Vehicle Assigned: The most distasteful and heinous of all motorists, the boldness with which they text while driving flies in the face of decency. These people think nothing of the Amber Alerts cautioning “Better Left Unread Than Dead”. Easily identifiable by the tilt of their heads, these drivers resist adjusting their heads from the semi-permanent 110 degree texting angle.  Once you clear these scofflaws, you glance over at them and they have no idea, nor do they care, that their cover is blown.

Subcategory: The Red Light Texter:  We all know this one – the light turns green but they are so engrossed in their thoughts and thumbs that they have no idea, not only that the light changed, but that the ten cars ahead of them have cleared the intersection. Inevitably, the idiot guns it and makes it through the light just as it turns back to red, leaving the rest of the line to wait one more cycle. Is there anything more infuriating?


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I could go on but you get the idea. And whether or not the moon is full, waxing, waning or “void of course” (thank you, Cosmic Muffin), the roads have never been more dangerous. Grateful to return home in one piece most days, I won’t say I don’t own a little road rage in my own right. But I come by it honest and defensive driving is a vital skill in these desperate times. So as you venture out tomorrow, remember what Sergeant Phil Esterhaus said in Hill Street – “Let’s be careful out there!” Sadly, you might be the only one.

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When the “Finish Line” is in Sight


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As the Boston Marathon starting gun sounds, I sit comfortably in my house, thinking about those poor runners, embarking on their journey of 26.2 miles in this miserable cold and rain, and I am deterred. I usually attend this event, perched on the down side of Heartbreak Hill across from my Alma Mater, Boston College, to cheer on the athletes as I eat another tuna sandwich or take a break from the cheering to grab an ice cream cone at White Mountain.  A tradition of over 40 years for me and my family, I beg off due to the nasty conditions this year, welcoming a cozy day at home.

As I consider “marathons”, I realize as I survive each day, a marathon can be short or long. It can last a day, or a year, or a lifetime. It can be physical or emotional, of a duration dictated externally, or a hell we create for ourselves.  In any case, sometimes, when we are in the midst of one of these personal “marathons”, we lose sight of our goals, our resolve, or our sanity. We persist, or we bail. But just what motivates us to stay the course or go home?

As I contemplate today’s marathoners, I liken their challenge to the place where I am in my career. As I mount the “Heartbreak Hill” of my years in education, I look back on what I have accomplished and think too much about quitting.  I am tired and defeated. The reasons for my vocational passion have clouded over with doubt and everyday is a mini marathon within a greater one. Yet, I persist. And I question what is next. Every day. Every minute.

When I chose to become a “Guidance Counselor”, in true educator style, I employed a graphic organizer – a two columned “Pros and Cons”- what did I like about what I had done and what I must avoid in a work setting. I loved working with kids, especially teenagers. I loved summers off. I had experience on school boards, P.T.O.’s, and in the business world. I liked working in schools but not necessarily in the classroom, due to tendency to boredom and need to move.  After assembling an extensive list, I settled on the idea. Now for a plan – grad school?  Am I smart enough? (In retrospect, a silly self-doubt – have you met the people in grad school?) And a test – I chose the Miller Analogies, and if I did not succeed, I would scrap the plan and regroup. The result of the test placed me in the 98% percentile for my chosen field (and apparently a ticket to MENSA, imagine!) so one hurdle was eliminated. As a test run, my husband and I decided to commit $3000 to the experiment and I enrolled in two graduate courses at Suffolk University before applying for the program. On the evening of “Open Registration”, I appeared at the event, armed with a charge card and a boatload of trepidation, and as I inquired of the program director if I was too old (at 39) to embark on this “marathon”, he assured me with an edgy, “We’ve had older” and, taking my $3000 without hesitation, my grad school career began and, ultimately, my guidance career.

Over the course of my years in education, there have been very high highs and ridiculously low lows.  I rose to the ranks of the Guidance Director within five years, partially due to my age and life experience, and I, like Goldilocks, found just the right temperature “porridge” twelve years ago when I landed my current position.  Despite being happy overall, a nagging desire for something else overtakes my thinking, tormenting and taunting me persistently. The challenge that is every day’s marathon defeats and exhausts me. The things that brought me to my profession, the kids and the schedule, still exist and are a driving force. However, the externals – societal changes, technological interference, and parenting style shifts – have made the job nearly impossible, leading me to question if this is how I want my personal “marathon” to end.

Due to overload, I work long days and invest myself fully, bringing everything I have to the task, which is why I take comments like “You have failed my child”, or “Nothing you say matters”, to heart. Yes, both of those comments have been said to me and, in each case, due to a failure on the home end and not my doing.  Still, mean words hurt. As educators, we bear the brunt of parental shortcomings and busy schedules, putting much of the responsibility on schools to pick up the slack. And as educators, we must sit there and take the mean words, and step up to help since we would be deemed unprofessional otherwise. But must I? Is my self-respect that easily sacrificed for a paycheck? Haven’t I already done my part by parenting my own children? Is it my responsibility to raise society’s children as well?

So now with my “Heartbreak Hill” looming in the career marathon, I know it’s most likely too late to make a career change since “we”, the mature members of the workforce, clog up the process by hanging on as it is. But I am not ready to give up either- at least I don’t think so. I cherish time off as a means to refuel and go back into the race for a few more miles.  So for know, I’ll take a break from it all, at the educational water station of life, or school vacation.  Or I could pull a Rosie Ruiz, and just hop in at the end, in a new place, and still “win” the race. I guess I could.

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Easter – the Second Stringer

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Another Easter holiday is finished and it was quite a lovely day with family.  As always, there was Mass at St. Anthony’s in Boston,  brunch at Anthem, and the obligatory Easter egg hunt in the backyard, all coming together like clockwork since we have repeated this same progression for years.  And the baskets!  Since I just ended the tradition a very few years ago for my adult children, the math proves that I have been making Easter baskets for just about thirty-five years.  I am passionate about basket presentation and components – the wow factor, you might call it- and I pulled it off again, as evidenced by the reactions garnered. For me, the traditions of Easter are as cherished as those of Christmas, yet they pale to the grand Yuletide season festivities.  And I wonder why.

If there were a competition among liturgical events, Easter, by far, is the mystical champion. Hence, I believe Easter deserves its due. I marvel that Easter is like a second cousin to Christmas. In terms of substance, the story of the Easter is far more extraordinary than that of Christmas, with the whole resurrection thing and subsequent reappearance of Jesus in a few weeks of scripture later. And the build up – what a tale!  Palm Sunday readings of the Passion of Christ, as the precursor to the sadness of Good Friday, describe the ultimate example to all of us that you can be on the top of your game one minute and then find yourself at your lowest point the next. Last year, I sat beside my granddaughter Molly during the reading of Christ’s passion at Mass. Her head, deeply tipped while reading the words, caused my daughter and me to query whether or not she was crying.  I certainly knew that she was taking it all in and after Mass, when we were sitting outside in the backyard, I asked her what she thought of the Gospel. “That was one sad story, Mam,” she replied without hesitation. Before I had a chance to ask her to expand on her response, she continued, without taking a breath. “Jesus’ friends did not stick up for him. And I’ll tell you something else, if the apostles hadn’t fallen asleep, Jesus Christ would be alive today.”  I resisted the urge to laugh but her interpretation was pretty spot on – except for the being alive today part. However, her words proved that the story of the Palm Sunday and Easter have meaning in the modern day. The message is not lost, if we listen. And this child heard the message.

For years, when our children were young, we traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Easter weekend.  In height of cherry blossom season, we explored the various Smithsonian museums, roamed through the state buildings, visited monuments, and celebrated Easter at Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. This last event punctuated these adventures, especially since we attended the nationally televised Mass at 11 a.m. The basilica, heavily decorated in flowers and filled with the sound of angelic voices of the choir, was ethereal.  Today, when my daughter suggested that we travel with the family to Washington for Easter in the future, I realized just how special these memories truly were.

So as I assume a campaign to “Make Easter Great Again,” I gratefully muse on the memories made today and in the past, and look forward to the years ahead with egg hunts, and Easter Mass, baskets (at least another 20 years, I suspect), and brunch. But most importantly, I will remember the mysticism that is the reason for this blessed day.

‘One bright blue rose outlives all those
Two thousand years, and still it goes
To ponder his death and his life eternally’

Bright Blue Rose, Sung by Mary Black, Lyrics by Jimmy McCarthy

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I’m Not Irish. Kiss Me Anyways!

“I’d like to find a way to be in two places in one time, for it’s easy going back again but it’s hard to say goodbye.” – 

from “Home Away From Home” by Sean Keanef

When I return from my annual trip to Ireland every February, the one solace on which I depend is the knowledge that St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner. In some odd way, it extends the bliss I derive from my visit, even though a St. Patrick’s Day celebrated in the U.S. doesn’t quite have the same allure as Paddy’s Day observed in the “Auld Sod”.  Even so, the idea of immersing myself in the “culture”, ok, the Guinness, and the connection to the place in this world where I am most happy make the last days of winter bearable.

Now, it is widely known that I am not Irish. Not even a drop. This truth has been confirmed by “23 and Me”.  It was no surprise but I take little stock in the importance of this fact.  For some reason, I am drawn to Ireland, like a magnet to iron, with a joy that is indescribable. When pressed for a reason for this obsession, I have often referred to my time in Ireland as a gift that I open every day.  It is beauty, it is peace, it is adventure. Truly, nothing makes me happier (except for my family – they are my life, a blessing, and nothing I chose) and this is the joy that I choose for myself. Thinking back to my first trip, armed with no more than an airline ticket and a rental car, Tim and I set off of an aimless journey through the countryside, depositing ourselves in small towns, B & B’s, and pubs, without a plan, and barely with a map. It was 2005 and GPS was in its infancy, so a Michelin map (that we still employ to this day) was our only guide – well that, and an “Ireland for Dummies” manual.  It was a magical six days and I pledged, weeping as the aircraft departed the runway, to return very soon. It is a promise that I have honored fourteen more times. Returning is not optional; it is a compulsion.

Since that first trip, I have shared my passion with my family, bringing both my son and daughter with me on adventures, leaving Tim, the “real” Irishman, behind in some cases.  Scott is far more interested in the history and culture, while Lisa, less enamored of the “piles of rocks” or as they are known, “ruins”, looks forward to walking the streets of the small and large cities like Dublin, Kilkenny, and Killarney.  I fashion their experiences to address these stylistic differences. This February, a new level of elation took hold as Molly, my amazing granddaughter, walked through the door of Arrivals at Shannon Airport, ready for a Mami adventure!

It was a magical experience to have three generations of Cahalanes in the hometown that Tim Cahalane – grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather – left behind to pursue a new life in America in the early 20th century.  Sharing the land, so far away that I know so well, allowed me to peer at the wonder through the eyes of a joyful eight year old. I am not sure if she more enjoyed running from one hotel room to the other or the view of Lough Leane and the mountains of Killarney, but her heart mirrored mine.  My own childlike awe awakened at her ebullience, and as I walked the streets I love with her tiny hand in mine, a deep euphoria confirmed what I already knew about this special place.

Despite this purity of emotion, a gnawing question bordering on guilt eats at my mind.  My Italian-American friends, offended by what they perceive as a “desertion” of my people, taunt me about my “hobby”, while others tease me with “You’re not Irish! You can’t like Ireland! What about Italy? Don’t you want to go there?” Well, I have, and that is a topic for another entry.  But Ireland is what I call “my heart’s true home” – a connection that transcends blood and roots.  It is a country of warmth, beauty, and humor, the joys I seek in life in a microcosm.  While I would never choose to live there, Ireland is home for ten days a year. I never would want to make these magical days mundane by setting down roots. Instead my roots deeply traverse the ancient hills, ruined castles, coastal cliffs, cobbled streets, and turf-warmed pubs and once again, once a year, my heart is home.

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-W.B. Yeats

Can you not forget and truly forgive?

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How many times have you heard someone say, “I forgave him, but I’ll never forget?” As I plod through this life, I often think about people who have wronged me, or just been total jerks, and I must be a real jerk myself since I have not found the means in many cases to forgive, let alone forget. Yet, I marvel at this saying and wonder if it is really possible to forgive but not forget.

In relationships, there are so many levels of intimacy that may make the ability to “forget” nearly impossible. When I think about some old boyfriend and the antics that broke my heart or caused the relationship to break entirely, I forgive him-maybe.  I mean, what does it matter now? The relationship has ended, people moved on, you learn about the things that you will never let happen again. Maybe that’s part of the “not forgetting.” Perhaps it’s in the “not forgetting” that we catalog the things that work for us and the things that we will avoid in future. When someone breaks your heart (and it can be anyone, not just a “love” relationship), you learn a lot about yourself.

And what exactly are you forgiving? The pain that was caused, the way that person made you feel, what? In the Prayer of St. Francis, the words, “It is in forgiving that we are forgiven,” come to mind.  I guess that’s why he’s a saint and I’m not. Perhaps I am the car wreck on the soft shoulder of the two way street of forgiveness.

So back to forgetting – is the need to “not forget” a protective coating in which we cloak ourselves to prevent being hurt again? If so, is the need to maintain a relationship that requires equal measures of forgiving and forgetting worth nurturing?

As I reflect on my own weaknesses, perhaps my inability to “forgive and forget” readily and automatically is a flaw. Yet, it is a flaw that I struggle to change or relinquish. I attribute some of my “issues” around forgiving a part of my ethnicity. As an Italian, I belong to a nationality of serial “non-forgivers” who have memories as long as time itself. What a great excuse! I come by it naturally! I was born that way! But, as much as it’s a great excuse, it isn’t a rousing affirmation of my humanity. Oh well…

Is it worth trying to hone the skills attached to forgiving and forgetting? I am not sure, especially at this point in my life…or is it now, at my age, vital to try? At the end of life, there are always regrets around things unsaid and relationships broken. Since I should have a pretty good run left in me, I may contemplate fighting against my genetics and general stubbornness and try to forget the things that I may or may not have forgiven. I can try. And forgive myself if I fail.

I forgive and forget because I have a good heart and a terrible memory.

The Lost Art of Selflessness


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When I visit Ireland every February, there are a few things that I can count on: the first “hit” of Irish air at 6 a.m. as I emerge from Arrivals at Shannon Airport; the first time I have to say “Mar-i Ca-hill-an” versus my usual flat American pronunciation; my first bag of Taytos; and my first really fresh pint of Guinness. Other things for which I yearn include driving on the wild Irish R and L roads (all on the “wrong side,” as Americans say), eating my first bowl of “vegetable soup and brown bread,” hearing the obituaries on Clare FM radio, and attending Mass spoken in a mixture of Latin phrases spoken in an Irish accent. Roman Catholic Mass in Ireland is truly a cultural experience, where occasionally one receives Communion at an altar rail and “Prayers of the Faithful” include pleas for things like “a reduction in the use of the Lord’s name in vain”.  I have to chuckle at the latter since Ireland is a country where  “Jaysus” is invoked at every turn and “Mother of God” punctuates many a sentence where the narrator conveys shock and dismay. But this time, church offered a very different and unexpected lesson.

As we walked to St. Brigid’s, just up the road from the inn where we were staying, the rain pelted us and we hustled to the churchyard. Clearly a popular Mass, parking was at a premium for those faithful who drove. But most interestingly, parked just outside of the door of the sanctuary was a flower-filled hearse. Momentarily deterred, we pressed on and walked in mid-church, the congregation assembled and a casket prominently displayed before the altar.  With the pews full of mourners and townspeople, we made our way to the rear and mounted the stairs to the “Gallery” or as we Americans would say, “the balcony.” In the gallery, we gazed upon the full church from, arguably, the best seats in the house.  As Mass proceeded, references to “Mary” and the “repose of her soul” were peppered in the priest’s comments and the church was heavy with sadness without visible emotion (the Irish don’t really do that).

As the priest mounted the pulpit to deliver his sermon, our voyeuristic urges to hear more about “Mary” and her life ignited.  Mary, it seems, was a wonderful person. But aren’t we all after we die? However, in Mary’s case, she epitomized the image of a saint on this earthly plane. As the priest shared the details of Mary’s life, we learned that Mary’s mother passed away when Mary was only fifteen years of age and Mary assumed the role of “mother” in the home, leaving school and raising her siblings. Years later, she married “Jack,” and she and Jack had five children of their own, to whom she dedicated her life. Sadly, Jack died at the age of forty-two, leaving Mary to raise her children alone. The priest expounded on the virtues that Mary possessed and the life of service to others that clearly defined Mary. Her family, now expanded to twelve grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, all beneficiaries of Mary’s goodness, dabbed their eyes as they considered the virtuous soul now lost.

When the priest shifted his focus to her family, he acknowledged their dedication to their mother and grandmother and the fact that Mary remained at home, despite her declining health. Everyone pitched in and Mary’s care was delivered lovingly by those seated there. Hearing this approach to elder care, I felt a little sadness and some regret that I was not strong enough or had the time to deliver that same level of care to my own father.

As I sat there listening to the story of Mary, I wept. For Heaven’s sake, I didn’t know Mary, or even how she died, but Mary and her deep love and commitment struck a chord with me and I felt the loss. The story was one of a simpler, yet complex, life. Despite the amazing opportunities that our American way of life affords us, I fear that we have sacrificed a deep connection to our families and our roots. We often hear that we should “live our lives” and when family life becomes complicated and presents challenges, find the geographic remedy and move away. Now when things get difficult, we turn inward to ensure that we are “taking care of ourselves” and “making ourselves a priority”.  Yoga and mindfulness to address the stress in our lives, and big cars and swish houses in desirable zip codes that cause the stress are the rewards and byproducts of our frenetic lives, motivating our view of success. But as I ponder the life of Mary, her selflessness was her success. It is her legacy. It is the lesson that she left behind, so well learned by those who so selflessly cared for her.

It has been two weeks since Mary’s funeral and I think of her often, and marvel that I cried for her, a total stranger who touched me in death because of the way she lived.  Rest well, Mary…

And as they go, it was a hell of a funeral! As the Irish would say, “She got a great send-off though, didn’t she?”

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On Life, On Death…


This week, I buried my friend.

I met Tony as a freshman at Boston College and honestly, we had lost touch over the last ten years or so, yet the event touched a part of me that was visceral. As our college friends gathered to celebrate Tony’s life and the memories we shared, an uncomfortable awareness closed in on my psyche. Each of us, months from our 60th birthdays and Tony just 20 days short of the “goal”, had seen the best of times – wild, crazy youth when we traveled in a pack, partying our way through four Jesuit themed years with reckless abandon and miraculously, all of us surviving.  The boys referred to themselves as the Five Kings and their connection was on a different level from the average “bromance”.  They were a unit – and the rest of us, grateful to be allowed into at least the first layer of the inner sanctum of their friendships. In the days after B.C., the friendships continued, and we remained close knit. As time went on, couples formed while others chose to be singletons, yet we were connected and the girlfriends and boyfriends of our core group became husbands and wives.  Being the first to marry and have children, my husband and I were a novelty and although we couldn’t keep up with the debauchery as we once did, we were still included in years of July 4th parties at Tim’s parents’ home in Plymouth, Pete’s New Year’s bashes in North Reading, and Tom’s cottage rentals on Cape Cod. It was a closeness that ran deep and despite years of distance, as we gathered as mourners, the fondness was palpable among the friends, now one less.

In 2005, a flurry of milestones brought us all together again – our 25th B.C. reunion, Tom’s ordination into the priesthood, and our 25th wedding anniversary. After years of raising our children, nurturing our careers, and growing up, we brought our much older selves to each event with excitement and an awareness of our maturity. The reunion was held in the Rat in B.C.’s Lyons Hall, a place where many a class was skipped, games of cards were played, jokes were told, and friendships formed.  Just weeks before, we gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to celebrate Tom as a newly minted priest, bringing a smirk to many of our faces as we called up memories of our salad days and few wild nights.  And there was one last gathering, in the fall, where we celebrated the 25 years of my marriage to the “other” Tim and the fact that we all hadn’t changed a bit.

My first reaction to the news of Tony’s passing was the acknowledgment of the fact that death could come at any time – as we are living our lives, working at our careers, enjoying our children and our grandchildren. Today could be it! The end! Fini! I felt a panic in my gut – I’m not done yet! I’ve got so much left to do. I wondered if those same thoughts ran through Tony’s mind as his heart seized and he lost consciousness. Is it easier to go without warning?  Or is a terminal diagnosis with a designated expiration date a chance to make it all right with the things undone and to say the unsaid words that are often regretted?

As I stood at Tony’s funeral with the “B.C. side of the family” (it happened that the whole group clustered, seemingly naturally), I gazed at Tony’s parents, both still alive, burying their son. The sadness that they felt must be immeasurable and almost unbearable. But even more, I was drawn to Tony’s sweet, gentle wife, Judy.  I took in a sharp breath, placing myself in her spot vicariously and thinking that I never want to be standing there, cloaked in sadness, knowing that life is forever changed and questioning the purpose of my life without my best friend, the love of my life.

I think about the quote on the gravestone of the poet W.B. Yeats in Drumcliffe Cemetery, at the foot of Benbulben near Sligo Town in Ireland.  On the slab of Kilkenny black marble, the inscription reads, “Cast a cold eye, on life, on death. Horseman, pass by.”  These words are the last lines of one of Yeats’ last poems and most likely intended by him as his epitaph.  Perhaps his message is that it is pointless to focus on life or death. Life, like death, happens without much effort since the life force springs from a place yet to be understood fully. However, how can we not focus on a life that offers such wonderful joy, such tremendous sorrow, and such amazing lessons that serve as guideposts on the way to the next trial?

So I, like Tony, will continue to live not knowing the day or time when it will be finished, that is, my time here in this world.  I will cherish it all, good and bad, joy and sadness, the easy lessons and the difficult ones. I will travel and seek experiences that take my breath away. I will love even more deeply than I have before, holding tight to my husband, my children and grandchildren, my friends that are my family, and hope that in the end, it is memories of recklessness, and Cape houses, family and friends, joy and a life well lived that remain.


Fashion Rules for the Over-55 Set; Common Sense for Everyone Else

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I love my clothes. No, really, I love them. They bring me joy. I spend entire afternoons with them, putting outfits together with jewelry and scarves, considering shoes versus boots, and ironing a repertoire of ensembles for the upcoming weeks. However, as I get older, I find myself striving to keep things simpler and more direct. And as I create these outfits, I realize that my style is changing in subtle and “appropriate” ways. That word – “appropriate”! I use it only because I was once told that my attire was always appropriate… for my age. That thought prompted me to create my fashion rules (opinions) for women of “my age”. (I thought about writing a book but apparently what I need to say can be expressed in a page.) But then again, they really apply to anyone and I feel it is my duty to share with the world my style opinion – whether or not it asked.

Shoes: First of all, heels – the best friend of the height impaired.  Unfortunately, there comes a day when heels become the enemy. Feet just can’t take it anymore (not sure they ever could) and now they let you know it loud and clear. I used to force the issue but now there is no leeway. Flats or bust!  Or is there an alternative? In some cases, I have adopted a bit lower heel, sometimes with a hidden platform in the front of the shoe.  Otherwise, I embrace the wedge as an option and if all else fails, a flat with a small heel. After years of loving my heels (and all my 176 pairs of shoes, garnering a nickname of “Imelda” in my family), it has been a difficult transition but it sure beats a broken ankle!

Pants: Next, let’s consider bottoms… pants, trousers, leggings.  In the case of a tailored pair of slacks, never underestimate the power of a hem tailoring. It’s a quick fix but so many people (ok, the younger ones) think nothing of letting their pant cuffs drag. What the heck! That’s just messed up! Your pants are worn, and worse still, filthy! Think of all those ladies rooms with the manky floors! Yuck!

While we are on the topic of bottoms, who doesn’t love leggings? However, they were never meant to be pants! And unfortunately, too many people wear too short a top with them. Honestly, it’s shocking for the rest of us so please cover your bum.  A lovely tunic or longer sweater can polish your look and save the world the need to look away.

Accessories: – In my opinion, the name of the game. When you choose an outfit and there is something that’s not quite right, in many cases all that you need is the right necklace, a scarf, or some great earrings.  I tend to buy a lot of fun necklaces and earrings, as well as scarves and sweaters, that can help pull a look together. The key is in how you store these gems so that they can be easily tapped when needed. I separate by color – reds, greens, blues, etc. – and metal – silver or gold.  I buy containers intended for other uses – embroidery threads, nails and screws, crafts – and I adapt them, labeling each compartment for easy access.  I am still working on a compact storage solution for my scarves (aside from winter versus lighter weight) but I’ll keep you informed on the progress.

Hair: Now this is a dicey one since for many, including myself, hair is a defining element of a persona.  Let’s start by focusing on hair color – and I won’t even consider the trend of dying hair colors found in the rainbow. In no case is this acceptable – it’s frivolous and certainly not “cute”, a bit of fun, or a means of self expression. It’s just dumb!  Now on to the more serious and sensible – depending on your natural color (original, birth, or what you remember it to be before you started down the hair dye rabbit hole), go lighter. Roots – they will own you so just give in and take it up a few tones. You will be able to stretch the time between touch ups. In the meantime, invest in a good root touch up (aerosol is great, there are also powder forms).  You will be able to tip your head without fear that your roots are staring someone in the face. It always amazes me when people seem to have the exact width of gray roots…all the time. What’s with that?  Cover it up, girl!

Now cut and style – there comes a time when hair length screams “I refuse to get old so I will leave my hair long – that should trick them!”  Sorry, honey! Your dry, frizzed aged locks do not shave years off – they just beg for a hot oil treatment.  I often hear that people keep it long and simple because they just wash and leave the house with wet hair. Hold, please! Nothing says “I don’t give a damn!” like wet hair on arrival at work.  A few well placed layers and a tutorial and you will be a “new you”! The hair dryer is not your enemy and, better yet, take a spin with the straightener or the curling iron. Your well styled coif will give you a well deserved pick me up!

Skin care and Makeup or lack thereof: My best advice to the mature woman is to go to a reputable non-commission cosmetics store like Sephora and sit yourself down to a makeover. With age, skin changes and so should our skin care routine.  A few years ago, my daughter treated me to a makeover with an older makeup artist and it was life altering! She understood the issues of older skin and changed up my entire routine. I purchased the products (there was no pressure to buy) and I have maintained the process. The big take aways: the value of primer and no more creme blush. And highlighter! It makes for a fresh face and a dewy glow that’s natural looking when it doesn’t come naturally. A good moisturizer is also key – mine costs $75 but I am a believer.  (My skin care roots go deep. I started at 27 to apply Mary Kay daily and I do believe that it made a difference – I mean, have you ever seen Mary Kay, when she was alive, that is!)

I could go on forever…but before I risk becoming more impassioned than I already am on some of these topics, I will end this rant. I am sure that I will return to whine more on the subject but for now, I will be watching.  And trying not to judge – although that is not my strength. And when I see your style evolve, I will know my work here was not wasted.


Fashion: Facts and My Fiction


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A few days ago, one of my “fashion fantasies” became a reality.  Fashion designer and Japan Vogue editor, Anna Dello Russo acknowledged my post on her Facebook page. Ok, she didn’t make real personal contact but she did reply with a “Thank you!” to my comment of “Fabulous!”  I count this moment as a personal fashion “coup” since I am obsessed with this fashion world icon. In my fantasy, we are family, since we share the same last name, “Dello Russo”, and I purport a family resemblance in every photo I see of her in her many poses on the streets of Milan, Paris, and whereever in the world she surfaces. She expounds a collection of fashion beliefs and tenets and I am a believer. She is everything that I would have hoped to attain if I had pursued a life in fashion. Sadly, I didn’t realize that I could even try until it was too late…or is it?

I also have rules when it comes to fashion. I thought they were mine alone and, if I shared them, I would sound a little bananas. For example, I avoid being photographed in the same outfit twice. I plan my packing for vacations around this rule, often hogtying myself to dig deep into my archives or run off to the store to beef up my already extensive wardrobe. Apparently, I share this belief with “Anna” (I feel like we are now on first name terms). She has a list of fashion rules – #7 “You must wear outfit only once.”  (She has an endearing command of spoken English that is enchanting!) She also believes that photography is the death knell for any ensemble. I guess I’m not so original after all!

Anna warns against wearing two different shades of black (who knew?) because light plays on fabrics differently, advises you to revel in the moment when someone is wearing the same outfit as you are (because it’s fashion – you got it right), and encourages excessive accessorizing (it’s sexy!).  Accessories make your look personal and “will turn an ordinary day into a sensational fashion week day.” God, I love this woman!

Anna is fearless and exuberant, owning with her every strut and pose even the most extra-ordinary and unconventional outfits. She is the epitome of the idea of runway fashion, except she takes it to the street. Gutsy and glitzy, she glams it up to a degree that is exclusively Anna. Oh, to be so bold!

Of course, Anna Dello Russo is an ideal, a caricature of style and design, not translatable in the day to day of the average person.  For this reason, I seek other perspectives and approaches to style.  As I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem this afternoon, I was struck by her attention to simplicity that evolved into a style. When assembling her wardrobe, Georgia would purchase a particular frock in numerous colors or a suit from a particular tailor in a few slightly different styles.  For many years, Georgia would wear only black and white, not changing her palette until her New Mexico phase.  What would Anna say about that? Interestingly, as the museum patrons hovered around Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, I instead studied the clothing on display, examining each garment working to glean insight into the artist’s mind.

So tomorrow, I will dress for work with an approach somewhere between that of Anna and Georgia. This is not Milan (sadly) but I will aspire to be as bold and outrageous as Anna and, as a nod to Georgia, I will admit to owning a few of the same styles in different colors. In any case, my fashion fantasy is all mine – with a few fabulous influences

The Beatles…and the Meaning of Life

“In winter 1963, it felt like the world would freeze, with John F. Kennedy, and The Beatles…” – “Life in a Northern Town”, Dream Academy

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I was five years old when The Beatles came to America. Even as a little girl, I was transfixed, glued to the TV screen, awaiting their first appearance on Ed Sullivan. It is one of my earliest memories and for the rest of my life, The Beatles have been a part of my heart and soul. My parents even encouraged the obsession, that is until the band embarked on the drug and politics part of their career as an ensemble. Being young, didn’t really understand their concerns – Who was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? Why did they go from wearing matching suits and ties to love beads and flowered shirts?  Why had their music changed, too – from ballads and upbeat rock and roll, to experimentation with offbeat, and sometimes dark, themes and images? And what did it mean to “give peace a chance” while the Viet Nam war raged on? The Beatles were my 1960’s. It was the beginning of my education in pop culture, fashion, music, politics, and life.

The Sixties were a tumultuous era of tremendous division and discord for our country.  I was old enough to understand the horrible images of destruction and violence on the news on the little TV in our kitchen during dinner every evening. And I was old enough to realize that what The Beatles professed was not a bad thing. But it was hard growing up in a home where the war was a non-negotiable – you had to buy in. Anyone who did not support the war was a Communist, or at least a sympathizer. The Beatles were in that category.

So I frequently snuck over to my friend’s house to get my Beatles fix, since my supply was cut off – my parents would not support the careers of anyone they perceived to be un-American. My friend Sheryl was the youngest of four sisters in a traditional liberal Jewish family.  It was in their home that we dissected songs like “I am the Walrus” – (who was the Walrus?), attempted to play “Strawberry Fields Forever” backwards to find out whether Paul was really dead, and sang songs like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Lovely Rita” at the tops of our lungs. It was quite a bit of subterfuge on the part of a ten year old, and it was intriguing!

I cherish my memories of my Beatles childhood. On my transistor radio, I listened to songs like “Yesterday” and “The Long and Winding Road”, ballads that touched a sadness inside me, even at my tender age. It was a lonely life as an only child and sad songs always made sense to me.

When I visited Liverpool in 2016, it reawakened in me the connections I had made as a child with the music of The Beatles. The museums displayed a collection of history that was my history as well. Album covers, dolls, even bubble bath bottles in the shape of Paul and Ringo, just like I had – I was transported. Visiting the grave of Eleanor Rigby and standing at the gates of Strawberry Field, I was spellbound. It was a magical experience.

Now I get my Beatles fix daily on my Sirius XM app as I listen to The Beatles Channel incessantly. I think it’s getting to my roommate (ok, husband) but I don’t care. The songs bring me to the place in my soul where I went from innocence to worldliness. I learned about life from The Beatles. Perhaps there will come a time when I will get tired of the songs, but I doubt it. I just remember…

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Snow Days, and the Fallacy of Relaxation


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January 4, 2018 and we have our first snow day. This event does not bode well for the rest of the winter or our June escape from the school year. Yet, I am invigorated by the prospect of a bonus day to get the things accomplished that I just didn’t get to finish on Christmas vacation – like sorting the Christmas decorations before storing them, trading some stocks, sending a few notes to friends who are ill, dealing with an overfull iPhone that barks warning messages at every click. Lofty goals, but one can hope…

While I say I will spend my day in pajamas while sipping coffee and watching The Price is Right, I am at work. Yes, work work. Not at my desk at the high school but what fancier people call “telecommuting” (how glamorous!).  It’s a great opportunity to get things accomplished that are in that pile on the side of the desk for those down times that are so rare and often fleeting. In my business, the best laid plans for productivity are interrupted by a crying kid, or a teacher on prep with a student concern, or any other emergency.  Guidance counselors are the jugglers of education; responding to a new, unique crisis everyday, or hearing a new scenario requiring problem solving, all the while doing the job that the world thinks you are doing.

So a snow day for me is a dubious gift – and for my district, a bonus. In essence, I work for free because this day off that I dedicate to my job will be tacked on at the end of the year to be worked all over again. Sounds like a good deal, right? Or is this what grown ups call “being professional”.

So as I read emails from parents asking me to call them today, or transcribe transcripts, or write reports for the town, I focus on how much I love what I do – at least the ideal of what a school counselor does. We have the most misunderstood role in education – the dumping ground for everything, and when things go pear-shaped, the ones who get dumped on! Yet, we persist. Even on snow days.

Maybe I’ll get to the decorations or my e-trade account today…one can only hope.