(published in Kelsey Review)
My mother grew up on Coney Island. Every evening, amid the smell of burnt onions, my mother could hear the Schramms below, screaming at each other, throwing pots and pans. The house would rumble as if it were under the Cyclone. (Read more…)
(published in Iconoclast)
Work all night on a drink of rum/ Daylight come and me wanna go home.
The lyrics involuntarily came into her head whenever she passed the sign for Bellafonte, Pennsylvania, even though she’d looked it up and learned the town was named for its spring, “la bella fonte,” and had nothing to do with Harry Bellafonte.
“Stack banana till de morning come,” she sang to herself, marking 229 out of 480 miles to Ohio. (Read more…)
(published at Soft Cartel)
Before leaving the car I used a toothpick to free the particles of garlic and mint lodged between my incisors, remnants from the lentil salad my wife served for dinner. I took the last few swigs of Diet Coke, hoping it would mask my breath, then hauled my gym bag from the back seat, taking care (Read more…)
(published at Parhelion Literary Magazine)
The neighborhood search posse was still there, looking at Anna, suspiciously. Even the beautiful girls eyed her. Was she some kind of child molester or pervert? She licked the honey off her fingers. (Read more…)
DRAWN TO THE OTHER SIDE; THE RED ROOM; TWO DOORS DOWN
(three works of flash fiction published at Former People)
Father died again in the middle of the night. His vapor evanesced out the window as if drawn by the halo of the gas lamp. (Read more…)
THE FAMILY NEST
(originally published at HerStory)
Even in the musty Catskills cottage my parents rented during the summer I was coming of age, their bed was the place we went to heal. Even as tiny satin ballet slippers hung from the mahogany headboard and a pink chenille spread covered it, like a sticky sweet frosting, this lumpy mattress was where we found succor. (Read more…)
CELEBRATION OF LIFE
(originally published at Foliate Oak)
At family gatherings we always told the story of the pot roast. How the husband of a newly married couple watched his wife cut the end of the brisket before she placed it in the pot. When he asked her why she did that, she said because it was what her mother did. The husband went to the mother and asked why she cut the butt off the roast. Same response: her mother always did it. The man went to the grandmother, who told him she cut the meat because the pot was not big enough to fit the whole piece.
Now I can see that the reason you told Veronica to have an abortion was because Grandma’s pot was too small for the roast. (Read more…)
GETTING A JADE TO BLOOM
(originally published in Penny Shorts)
The jade sat on the windowsill, leggy and dusty. Euna watered the plant once a week, but now Jasper’s mother was warning about over watering. “It’s a succulent,” Jasper’s mother told him on the phone. Although she was two thousand miles away she seemed omnipresent in their lives. “Succulents thrive in the desert,” came her words. “They don’t need much.”
Euna wasn’t so sure if she could thrive in the desert. (Read more…)
(originally published in Unlikely Stories)
My childhood was spent in my mother’s studio, watching her adhere little objects to shapes formed in clay. She took me on guided tours through art books, from the sculpture of Louise Nevelson, with whom she’d gone to art school, to Georgia O’Keeffe, into whose paintings I’d drift.
One Saturday, we were interrupted by an uproar in the street as a mob jeered a shackled man. (Read more)
(originally published in The Oddville Press, Summer 2017)
When the boys left home, they said I could throw out anything but the stuffed animals. NOT the stuffed animals! I packed them in large plastic bags and stowed them under the beds. When the boys settled into homes of their own, they still weren’t ready. “Don’t get rid of the stuffed animals!” (To read full story, download pdf and scroll to page 12.)
SUMMER OF SAM
(originally published in Kelsey Review)
The first Star Wars movie blasted across the screen in the summer of 1977. At the end of the movie, as we got up to leave, we heard loud explosions outside the theater. We thought it was the Son of Sam, coming to get us. But it was only firecrackers, as it turned out. It was just a year after the nation’s bicentennial celebration, and the spirit of ‘76 was still flying that July night in Brooklyn.
That was the way it was that summer. Everyone was on edge. Everywhere you went, every corner you turned — Sam might be there (Read more)
SUMMER OF MOM
(originally published in Kelsey Review)
My mother surrenders her jewels. She empties three purple velvet sacks on my bed. One contains the gold, another the silver—bracelets and pins that had been gifts from me. The final sack contains the glittery antique costume jewelry she bought as a young working girl in the 1940s. My parents are up from Florida for the summer. Having sold their northern residence, they are finding the unloading of tchotchkes and bibelots liberating. (Read more)
LETTING ELIJAH IN
(originally published at Huffington Post)
At 4 in the afternoon, the aromas of Italian food began wafting up the Brooklyn street where I lived. Manicotti, eggplant parmigiana, meatballs with a thick red gravy – my brother and I grew up craving these far more than the blintzes, kasha varnishkas, kreplach and pot roast our mother and grandmothers were cooking.
My family didn’t go to shule or light the yahrzeit, but they were religious about cooking latkes at Hanukkah, hamantaschen for Purim and all the foods of Passover. (Read more)
HONOR THY NEIGHBOR
(originally published in The Grief Diaries)
With my mother, Noah talked about his strained relations: His parents, ex wife and new husband, a series of ex girlfriends, various neighbors, his son. He’d driven halfway to his daughter’s college graduation and then decided it wasn’t worth it – having to spend time with his ex and her new family – and informed his daughter he would give her an iPad instead, which would be much more useful than his presence. She accepted with grace. (Read more)
(Originally published in Huffington Post)
“Of course you’ll keep the house.” It was my parents’ refrain in the final years of their lives. They proudly told their shepherds — friends, doctors and caregivers — how their son and daughter would share the place they called their dream home.
We listened silently. You don’t argue with your parents as they make their final wishes known, but any sane person knew this could never work for a million reasons. Who would maintain the property? Manage the finances? Clean up? Would we occupy the space at separate times, or did my parents expect us, with our spouses and collective brood, to vacation at once in the home they’d retired in? Read more…
HOO COOKS FOR YOU
(Originally published in Atticus Review)
It’s 5:39 pm. The nurse has just called the funeral home. She is bathing and dressing my mother for her final trip out the door and I’m planning what to cook while waiting for the undertaker.
“You still have to eat,” I can hear my mother say.
First, I cut the onion – I want thick slices that will brown sweetly. I cut and I weep. Then I chop the garlic, also in big chunks that you can taste. It opens my pores, and tiny beads form on my skin. Pouring the olive oil into the pot, I saute the onions and peppers over a high flame. Then the peppers, the celery. It’s Easter Sunday – not a holiday my family celebrates, but still an occasion for a Sunday feast. Read more…
I’D RATHER FORGET
(originally published Kelsey Review)
The waitress wore a smock that covered her full figure. “It must be hard for that waitress to toil on a steamy night when she’s so pregnant,” the spouse said. I had barely noticed her until his sympathetic remark.
When she came to clear our dishes, I asked “When are you due?”
She looked up from the dishes, her eyes narrowing. “I’m not pregnant.” (Read more)
LOSING MY PLANNER WASN’T THE PLAN
One morning last week, when juggling lunch, mug and planner, I must have left the last on the roof of the car, because when I got to work I no longer had it. I searched under the car seats, under the car, in the trunk, in between the seats. I retraced the route, but there was no trace of the Franklin-Covey leather- bound planner with zip-shut case I’ve had for 16 years.
It contains all the valuable information I need to function in life – address book, appointments, important dates, places I want to travel, lists of projects I hope to embark on, career goals, life goals, books I hope to read, movies I want to see, stories I need to write. It contains a list of useful Web sites, ancient pictures of my children, and even a set of pens in my favorite shades of purple and turquoise. In short, all of me was bound in its pages.
I felt certain it would eventually show up – in the house, in the garage, under a pile of mulch. I believe humankind is basically good, and surely someone would find it, recognize its worthlessness to them but value to another, and contact me to make the return. I planned a reward.
But as the days went by, no one returned my planner. I envisioned it in a ditch somewhere, encrusted with mud. I cruised the roadways like a broken-hearted lover, pulling over when spotting anything vaguely brown, but it turned out to be a rusted sewer cap, a dead squirrel.
When you think about losing things, and what would be the most valuable, my planner was definitely it. Years back, when teaching the Holocaust in Sunday school and trying to create the feeling of what it must have been like for the Jews who had to suddenly flee their homes, we’d ask the kids, “If you could take only one thing, what would it be?” For me, I always knew it would be my planner.
It’s kind of an old-fashioned thing. In fact I’d been thinking of replacing it, but with what? Blackberry? Palm? iPhone? My notes on some possible systems were inside the planner too.
People in their 20s I’ve talked to don’t keep planning systems like this. They say they keep everything in their heads. “I guess I don’t have as much to remember as you do,” one said sweetly. A woman I know who made a move toward simplifying her life keeps track of everything on the little calendar on the back of her check book register. (Remember checks?)
Some people have religion to guide them through life. For me, it was a brown 5-by-7-inch affair with tabs to help me get to where I was going.
In the beginning, refill pages cost about $20 a year – high, but worth it to stay organized and focused on my goals. Then, this past year, Franklin-Covey stopped selling the pages. I went to Staples for a replacement system, and found my replacement pages – but they were $50! Unprepared to ante up for a smart phone, I paid the horrible amount, vowing to starting investigating alternatives.
I set up a Google calendar, but it takes too long for my brain to compute 16 o’clock. And only seven items can be included in the to- do list. They say only Dave has more than seven items on his to-do list. Who’s Dave? I always have at least 14 things on my to-do list.
At this point, it was looking highly unlikely that I’d ever see my planner again. Perhaps I’d become a new person with a new agenda. As someone steals my identity, I can assume a new one.
Driving home, I saw a homeless man walking along the road pulling a wheely suitcase. Maybe he had my planner in there. Maybe he’d show up at my appointments. If I could only remember some of my appointments and show up at them, perhaps I’d meet the person with my planner.
I went to Staples to look for something else. Even though it was June, all the planners were still full price. The only items on sale were leatherette cases for Franklin-Covey planners, but without the refill pages. Even the cheapest At-A- Glance calendar was $13, and stepping up to a slim leather folder brought it to $18. Leather case that snaps shut? $27. And up and up. Who buys these things anyway? They’re so outdated. So I bought one.
I bought the cheapest model but was miserable even before I left the store. “Have a nice day,” said the sales clerk, eyeing the sour expression on my face. The minute I got it home I knew I’d bring it back and left it in the car with the receipt.
Every time the phone rings, I believe it’s going to be the person returning my planner. At home one night, I heard a thump outside, and ran out to check if anyone had returned it. The mailbox was empty. Nothing in the milk box. Nothing under the rocker on the porch.
Although phone numbers are on my cell phone, e-mail addresses in my address book, I’m lost. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next. I don’t have my goals, broken down into the tasks it needs to get there. Where am I going in life? What will I read next? It took 16 years to compile all those lists, after reading Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Yes, there are those who have suffered greater losses – I still have my home, my family, my job. I still have a foundation from which I can rebuild, and maybe the old lists weren’t working. Maybe I need to learn to take it a day at a time … tomorrow.
Today, I pull the At-A- Glance from Staples out of the bag, tear up the receipt and start a new list.
TANGLED UP IN YARN
As the old year turned into the new, fluffy balls of colorful yarn began invading my dreams – soft-as-a-cat mohair, heathery tweeds, French-poodly boucle. On New Year’s Day, I taught myself to knit from an instruction booklet, cussing under my breath all the way – and I’ve been in knitting nirvana ever since.
Like a quickly growing infection, the obsession had actually begun to fester a year earlier, while visiting my parents in Florida. Due to a death in the family, it was an extended visit, and there was a lot of sitting around.
I had been reading the modern Russian classic The Master and Margarita, when my mother set a tray of canapés in front of me. My father was mixing Virgin Marys. “Put the book down,” my mother said. “It’s rude. This is the cocktail hour.”
My father started to make excuses, but I knew my mother was right; it was rude. It was time to take up knitting, a more socially acceptable form of escape.
Nearly four years ago, when Justin, my eldest son, was a freshman at college, a friend taught him to knit. They went to farms and bought wool freshly shorn from sheep. By Christmas, he was talking up the virtues of home-made gifts. He made a hat for a girlfriend, a hat for me and a hat for his dad – but left the hat for his little brother up to me.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hand-made sweater from my mom?” he hinted the following year.
When I was his age, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, I took a week off and crocheted an afghan. At the end of the week, I was no closer to the answer, but I had learned that it didn’t matter.
People tell me I spread myself too thin, but knitting is the calm between the storms of other hobbies. All winter long, I prayed for snow so severe that the governor would declare a state of emergency. I wanted to sit by the fireplace, cup of tea at my side, knitting to my heart’s content.
I love turning the skeins into balls, artfully arranging them in the baskets I bought after my husband complained about the shopping bags full of yarn taking over the living room.
So far I have knit two scarves (one is too itchy, the other too frou-frou), a stole (what does one do with a stole?) and two hats for my sons.
“Oh, you made us funky hats,” said Justin.
I made Everett’s hat first, and it came out a bit large. So when I made Justin’s hat, I decreased the stitches.
“You made a little-boy hat for Justin,” joked Everett.
Everett wears his hat indoors, at his desk, while doing homework. Never in public. I tried washing it, hoping to shrink it; it grew larger.
As everyone who has ever been given a hand-knit gift knows, hand-knit garments never fit. As every knitter knows, it costs far more money to make a sweater or scarf or hat or afghan than to buy one readymade. The more earthy and natural the wool, the more outrageously expensive.
Justin introduced me to the Halcyon Yarn catalog. Here, you can buy looms, spinning wheels and unspun wool. The more you do, I am learning, the more it costs. You can buy a carding tool or spinning wheel for hundreds of dollars, a loom for thousands. And then you have to pay a good amount to buy that unspun wool – even if you have your own sheep or alpaca, it still costs.
Not only is knitting expensive and nothing ever comes out the right size, but how many scarves, mittens, hats, afghans and socks do we need? Socks! Yes, I know people who knit socks. You work on these tiny little double-pointed needles where it’s all you can do to keep the yarn from falling off both ends. It takes an experienced knitter 20 hours to make a pair of socks.
“Don’t ever knit me socks,” says Everett, a runner, who wears holes in a package of socks per week.
In order to feed their obsessions, knitters often make useless garments, such as ponchos, serapes and shawls. Did you ever try putting on a seatbelt while wearing a serape? I guess they’d be best while riding your horse through the desert. Try carrying a backpack while wearing a poncho without looking like a dromedary.
Another annoying thing about knitters is, they approach coworkers and ask, “Did you make your sweater/scarf/vest/hat?”
Of course not, say the annoyed coworkers, who bought it on sale at the Gap for one-ninth the cost of the hand-knit version.
But despite some people’s practicality, knitting is all the rage, say the purveyors of yarn. Have I caught it at its crest?
Earlier this month, I rounded up my knitting friends to go to the Christine Lavin concert at Passage Theatre. Christine holds knitting circles in the lobby one hour before the concert begins. When we gathered for dinner – just a quick bite because we didn’t want to be late for the knitting – I learned that none of my friends had ever heard of Christine Lavin. All were going because of the chance to knit.
We were the first group to arrive, and moments later, Christine sat next to me, working on a sparkly shawl with gold lame mixed into the wool. She chatted about where to buy yarn in New York City, whether or not to slip the first stitch when starting a new row. Soon a crowd had formed, wearing gorgeous woolen ponchos and sweaters and scarves, clicking away and chattering about the benefits of bamboo needles versus metal. It was almost disappointing when we had to take our seats in the house, but my friends continued to knit in the dark during the show.
I had a temper tantrum, because it turns out that the wad I had spent on my project was only going to yield something large enough to cover my fingernails.
Another way to look at the cost of knitting is compare it to the price of psychotherapy. Accounted that way, knitting is an out-and-out bargain.
“And,” says my friend, neighbor and knitting mentor Jo Doig, who raises sheep, llamas and alpacas, “it keeps you from spending money on other things.”
Knitting is productive meditation.
I make my husband do all the driving these days so I can knit. I’ve purchased one of those flashlights that straps onto your head so I can knit in the dark. When we arrive at our destination, I tense up like a smoker who has to tamp out her cigarette in order to enter a public building.
When I started knitting, I told myself it was only to be worked on while attending meetings (will somebody please tell me the etiquette of this?), talking on the phone and… and… well, soon I found it so addictive, I was knitting instead of doing the dishes, knitting instead of cooking dinner, knitting instead of getting ready for work in the morning.
“Just one more row,” I’d tell myself.
I now arrive half an hour early to appointments so I can knit while waiting. Going to doctor and dentist appointments is a new thrill. And I love to visit people in the hospital.
“Mom, you could be writing a novel,” Everett said one evening after dinner as I hunkered down with a cat-sized lump of mohair.
“Mom, you could be listening to books on tape while you’re knitting,” he suggested another night, handing me the latest Joyce Carol Oates tome on CD, a birthday gift. (I doubt Joyce Carol Oates wastes her time knitting. If she does, and still writes all those books and plays and short stories and poems and reviews, I don’t want to hear about it.)
It could be the empty nest thing. A colleague whose son will soon be off the college says she can’t find enough people to knit scarves for. Another friend is knitting an afghan for her son to take with him to college next year, a reminder of home and his mother’s love.
In half a year, Everett, too, will be off to college. One of my favorite times to knit is while I listen to him play the piano. Something about keeping your hands in motion makes listening to the music even more visceral.
Now I’m working on an afghan, a big project, so I don’t stress out after finishing each little project and before starting the next.
“I think I’ll make this afghan for Justin’s birthday,” I tell Everett one night.
“I think I’ll make this afghan for your birthday,” I tell him another night.
“I think I’ll keep this afghan,” I finally say. “It has your music knit into it. I can put it on my lap and listen to your music when you’re not here.”
GIRAFFE IN MY GARDEN
AH, gardening. Such a peaceful and relaxing pastime. After a particularly stressful week at work, you look forward to the weekend, surrounded by greenery, alone with the heady scent of lilies, the songs of birds.
It’s a sunny day, and in preparation, you slather yourself with sun block. Slick and scented, you head out, only to be assaulted by ravenous mosquitoes, then head back in, slathering on more ointment, something organic that alleges to ward off the pesky creatures. Out again, and you find your sunglasses slipping down your nose because of the greasy unguent. Back inside for a hat, and achoo! Better dose up on allergy meds.
Gardening is far from a lonely pursuit. There are Japanese beetles who eat your roses, the leaves of Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick and hibiscus. They try to eat your ferns, but the fern tops form balls trying to capture the beetles. Then there are the aphids who eat the roses, but also your cherry tree and purple loosestrife. And white flies cover the stems of most of your plants. It’s a jungle out there!
There are deer who eat everything in sight; groundhogs who eat and destroy what they don’t eat; squirrels who play ball with apples and tomatoes and leave them, half-eaten, on your lawn; chipmunks who enjoy moving the soil out of all your containers and onto the porch; and birds who eat all the juicy berries.
I even had a giraffe visit my garden. One morning, when I went out to water, I noticed that all the tomatoes in my fenced in garden had their tops nibbled off. Deer, probably. But then I noticed that my squash plants, crawling along the garden floor, also had their tops nibbled off. Only a giraffe has a neck long enough to reach down inside the fenced area.
This year is my year of spray gardening: spraying against the apple cedar rust on the crabapple tree; spraying a garlic-pepper-rotten egg solution to keep deer and groundhogs away; spraying all the non-native invasives that are colonizing the beds.
I am thinking about the sign in the dentist’s office: “Only floss the teeth you want to keep.” In garden terms, spray only the plants you want to keep. But to spray everything in my garden would cost more than outfitting an army for a mission to a small country.
Gardening brings you into closer contact with nature… and her cycles of flooding and drought. Last year’s daily rainfall brought tomato blight and other funguses. I had almost forgotten how to use the sprinkler at the start of this season’s dry spell. Is it me, or do gardening product manufacturers make sprinklers that only last a single season? Mine always seem to get clogged, and when I attempt to unclog them and redirect the flow, the sprinkler fights back with a squirt to my face.
One year, while untangling the garden hose, which was getting wrapped around my legs spreading its green slime to my skin — apparently I was cussing the sprinkler that wouldn’t sprinkle — my son, who often questions the virtues of growing your own, opened the window and asked, “Mom, is this the part of gardening that you enjoy?”
Gardens are beautiful. I frequent garden tours to remind myself. In other gardens, potatoes grow rampant. Their greenery is crisp and not dotted with bug holes or slug slime. Flowers bloom continuously. Even in shade, plants and flowers thrive, and there is nary a weed.
I’ve been gardening this property for a quarter of a century. In the beginning, I planted baby trees and shrubs, looking forward to the day they would mature. But many of those pretty plants pictured in catalogs, planted as bare roots in the fall, have turned out to be nonnative invasives. Houttuynia, or Chameleon plant, is promoted for its pretty leaves of green, yellow and red. Always beware a plant that is described as “filling in.” After watching houttuynia populate all the beds, colonize the desirable plants and take over, I’ve decided to go to war.
Actually, I made this decision 10 years ago, and have been waging the battle ever since.
When my sons were teenagers, I paid them each to eradicate the houttuynia, but the houttuynia came back. I sprayed the plants with herbicide, but back they came. I tried pulling them again, but that seemed to encourage their growth. We covered it with landscape fabric, but the houttanya was determined: it sent underground shoots and started coming up in the lawn.
At Lowe’s, I forsake my commitment to organic gardening and stock up on industrial quantities of Roundup. My son, who once worked in invasive species management for the Nature Conservancy, told me it’s the preferred method, short of a controlled burn. Online research shows that Roundup is the only effective method for houttuynia eradication. As bad as the chemicals are, it’s better than letting this toxic plant invade your suburb. And yes, the plant is toxic — it colonizes other plants and puts a stinky substance in the soil that stunts the growth of the desired plant.
My neighbors look at me like I’ve become a terrorist — well, OK, maybe it’s the gas mask and goggles I don to protect myself. Down on my haunches, I spray each leaf. It’s an arduous task and takes hours, after which my bones and joints are shot. Two weeks later, a second application, and two weeks later, another application. But just like the cat, the houttuyniacame back the very next day.
Coir mats and human hair mulch arrive with the UPS truck. I am determined to lick this. Meanwhile, the deer come through and eat the hydrangeas and turn the Emerald Isle of hostas from White Flower Farm into little green stubs. I am still waiting for someone to invent “sauce” I can pour on the houttuynia to turn them into a tempting culinary treat for the vermin.
Not only does gardening help you understand survival of the fittest, it helps you look on the bright side. Fall will come, and whatever remains will become jewels of color. It will all be covered with snow in winter, sleeping peacefully, and then a new season will begin, with tender buds and scented flowers. “Bah humbug” are not words you hear this time of year, but that’s what I have to say as I dream of moving to a condo surrounded by brick.
FREE(CYCLE) AT LAST
I’VE been thinking a lot about stuff lately. Swimming in it, actually.
My summer started with viewing the 20-minute film The Story of Stuff, about our consumerist society and all the junk we buy at big box stores and clutter our lives with (www.storyofstuff.com). But for me, the issue is much larger than controlling the amount of incoming stuff – I need to get rid of a lifetime’s accessions, not just for me but for various members of my family. I’m calling this my summer of purge.
I’ve never been a stuffaholic. I remember reading, years ago, something the photographer Minor White said about three stages of life: Wanting to possess a thing; wanting just to photograph a thing; and, finally, being able to observe it and let it go.
My older son left home more than eight years ago, but until recently his room was a repository of every possible tchotchke that had ever entered his life: love letters from former girlfriends, old Transformers and Matchbox cars, Monty Python posters and flags from Nicaragua. We even found uncashed birthday checks and Chinese New Year red envelopes filled with dollar bills!
When he comes home to visit he sleeps in the guest bedroom and refuses to look at his old room, and when we ask if he can clean out his old junk, he just rolls his eyes in a way that lets us knew we are abusive parents. “Ma, that’s the room of the 14-year-old boy I no longer am, I can’t go in there.”
OK, honey, I know. I feel the same way. It’s too emotionally draining to encounter a lifetime of gifts I’d given you, and that you abandoned along with old school notebooks.
Intellectually, I knew I had to sort everything into three bags: 1. Trash. 2. Giveaway. 3. Save. But it was the “save” category that challenged me most. Where would I save it? I’m a firm believer that anything you haul up to the attic is trash and should be disposed of now, rather than turned into insulation.
Or I could haul it off to Maine, where he lives, not far from the Recycle Barn, where residents drop off their pots and pans, canning jars, fabric and toasters they no longer need. Other residents come and “shop” for free. Perhaps if I leave my son’s discards at the Recycle Barn, he may find and acquire them anew.
Rather than cope with his room, I instead started a blog about cleaning out the empty nest, and then my parents phoned from Florida. They had put my aunt into assisted living and wanted me to help clean out her condo. Visiting her new facility, I admired how my aunt now lived in a single room with just a bed, two night tables, a dresser and a chair. No desk, no clutter, all her possessions carefully edited by caregivers. There were common areas where she could go to read in overstuffed chairs, or listen to music and dine with friends.
My parents assigned me to go through the photo albums in my aunt’s breakfront. There were sepia images of my grandparents, aunt and father as children, riding ponies; my aunt and uncle on honeymoon or at the beach at Coney Island, and everything right up to crisp color pictures of my children it seems I’d sent just yesterday. There was even a printout of my grandson, born in April.
I had about an hour-and-a-half to process 90 years in pictures, sorting them into piles for each of my sons, for me, for collage projects… and then I just merged them all together and mailed them off to Maine. Take that for abandoning your own stuff! Then I hauled the picked-apart albums to the garbage chute and watched them fall into the abyss.
A few months ago, before she went into assisted living, my aunt gave me a tour of everything in the breakfront: The make, model and year of every tea cup, saucer, vase and bibelot. Some came with stories of the trip she took to get it.
When I’d asked my Maine son what he wanted from her things, he said “anything with a story.” But I couldn’t send all that china, and even if it arrived intact, surely his hound dog would break it when his tail whipped by the box of stuff my son would open to look at, then leave in a pile. I found a trove of short stories I’d written years ago that my aunt had dotingly archived, and into the “ship to Maine” box it went.
I shipped some kitchen utensils and an old kitchen scale to Maine, and when my mother saw what I took, she emptied her own kitchen cabinets and began loading me up with more stuff.
“Anything you see in this house that you want, take it,” my mother practically begs.
When I returned home, feeling sad that I’d left my parents with so much more to deal with, my husband surprised me: he had emptied our son’s room of everything but a bed, a desk and a bureau, and had painted the walls my favorite color, periwinkle blue. He had turned our loss into a thing of beauty.
Inspired, I started to think about how we might take over my younger son’s room. A recent college graduate, he starts grad school this fall. He, too, would not want to come home to the room of his 14-year-old former self.
We drove to the northernmost tip of Vermont to pick him up, where he’d hiked the Long Trail for the month of July. I carefully formulated how I’d break the news. I wanted him to empty his room of everything he wouldn’t be taking to Ithaca. He could leave his furniture, some bedding, and anything that fit in his closet. “Honey, you know how much we love you and you’re always welcome home – your home – but we just don’t want to store things that even you no longer want.”
I never had to say it.
Meeting him at the pre-arranged spot, I recognized the skinny torso and familiar T-shirt of our now-bearded hobo traveler. After all the hugs and kisses and food we forced on him after 280 miles of freeze-dried tofu, he surprised us: “I’ve decided that no one needs more than can fit into a backpack.”
Perfect! So here my aunt, living in one room, and my Son, living out of a sack, were new models for me, foundering in the morass of a messy summer.
Once home, he became an expert at using Freecycle.com. Every few hours, a stack of games, an old computer or camera, CDs, sports equipment, a box of yo-yos would be set out on the porch. I would peek out the window, but I never got the timing right to see the people who came to give a new home to our discards, acquired with love. It was so liberating, I began to understand what freecycle really means: We are free! Free at last from the cycle of stuff.
Now, I must confess: I am, at heart, a dumpsta diva. But my son taught me, when out on a walk and eyeing some treasure in my neighbor’s trash catches, I can set up a Freecycle Alert, and someone else can rescue that antique vase or 1950s chaise lounge before the trash collector comes.
My parents have told me they’re packing their bags, and since they’ve also told me they’ll never get on a plane again, I know what they mean. You really can’t take it with you – and who would want to?
END OF AN ERA
For nearly a quarter century, The Princeton Packet has been my second home. With its highs and lows, these have been the most enriching years of my life. In many ways, I was perfectly suited to this work.
The number 25 has been important to my history here. I started as a freelancer for the Lifestyle section, making $25/story. Soon, I learned that I could do sidebars and increase my income. Then, one summer, my editor told me there were cutbacks. The company could no longer afford to pay me $25/story. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Soon I was freelancing again, and then I became Lifestyle editor. On my first day, when I showed up, there was no orientation or greeting, just a ringing phone at my desk, a big gray metal tank.
“Go ahead, answer it, that’s for you,” someone with a raspy voice said.
I picked up the phone, and it was a reader calling to complain that we had the wrong answers to last week’s crossword puzzle. I didn’t know what to tell her, as I’d just walked in the door. Over the next 16 years, I would learn that running the wrong crossword puzzle answers was a time-honored routine.
The next call came from a freelancer, complaining that she couldn’t afford to write for us anymore because of what we paid, berating me for this unfairness. I expressed my regret. That freelancer, by the way, blogs for us to this day.
In the beginning I worked in what was called the soft news salon. Not only was the furniture old and beat up, but the floor was covered with a dirty green indoor-outdoor carpet that was torn in at least a dozen places. It had been taped down with duct tape so that people wouldn’t trip on it.
About three months later, workers came in. I was excitedly thinking new carpet, but no, they were installing new duct tape.
Hey, I didn’t come here because of the décor. I liked working here because it was something I believed in. It was an honest business, and we provided an important community service. I always believed this and still do.
Years later, the soft news salon finally did get a facelift, but I was moved out to the newsroom, with its buckled old carpeting, where I developed adult onset ADD.
There were good times and bad times. As Lifestyle Editor, I hired a social reporter, a feature writer and an editorial assistant. And I hired a social reporter, a feature writer and an editorial assistant. And I hired a social reporter and editorial assistant. I learned that turnover here was quick, and in my eight years as Lifestyle Editor I hired six writers, four social reporters, and I can’t even remember how many editorial assistants.
Hiring at the Packet was always challenging. You had to find the right person for the right price. Someone who was OK with the aforementioned décor; with computers that were broken more often than not and that could barely do what we needed to do; and who was really smart and talented and easy to get along with.
Over the years I became better and better at selling the job to prospective employees. My enthusiasm was infectious, and I would tell the esteemed history of the Packet ship, the story of our publisher’s father who was named journalist of the century; and about our salt-of-the-earth publisher, who would chow down alongside you in the press lunchroom. I saved the juiciest stories for once they were hired.
In the best of years, I became editor of the TIMEOFF group: TIMEOFF was up at 40 pages, with beautiful covers and centerspreads. We published a Bucks County edition, and two editions of Tempo, with arts and entertainment content that went to non-subscribers. We had seven great writers in the department, writing about theater, music, film, art, and a cadre of freelancers writing reviews. What I always loved about the Packet was the phenomenal community we covered. So many great thinkers and artists and scientists and professors and even groundskeepers to fill our pages with colorful, sometimes provocative, stories.
Over the years, we got rid of the hideous magazine names “Homes of Prestige” and “Prestigious Living” and created PM Fine Living. People from all over would tell me how much they enjoyed reading PM and TIMEOFF. It was the reason they bought the paper, they said.
And we created blogs. We started with Fab & Fave, not so successful, but then branched off into blogs on film, gardening, nature, bicycle tours, wine – these would come and go. My own, The Artful Blogger, has always been a challenge to keep up with, and again it thrills me to hear how many people read it and enjoy it.
Most recently we’ve entered into video, a new challenge and one we’re still working on increasing its visibility.
I am very sad to leave the Packet. As Jules Schaeffer would say, “It’s been a great ride.” I’ve met so many people who have enriched my life. Possibly the greatest moment was when I was “crowned” employee of the year for creating 25 events to celebrate 25 years of TIMEOFF (see, it’s 25 again). I remember shaking for 25 hours following the announcement.
But times change, businesses change, life changes, and now it is time to move on to the next stage. Although I was no spring chicken when I arrived, in many ways I came of age here at the Packet. Let’s just say my character has ripened, for to be a Packeteer is to be a character. I’ve watched others come and go and now it’s my turn to go. I thank you all for this wonderful opportunity.