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...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Monday, September 21, 2020

We're Not Toast Yet

God I'm so tired. I'm so tired of politics and vicious ads and the endless griping. My friends are tired of it, too. If I bring up politics I can hear them sigh and want to change the subject. So I'm changing the subject.

I've been having a toaster issue. I'm crazy about toast, my mother's child. Sometimes at night I make buttered toast and tea to calm my troubled mind. A couple of years ago my toaster stopped working so I went to a discount store and bought two toasters for five bucks apiece. An heir and a spare. The first toaster worked for a while, maybe for six months, and then it started acting up. The five dollar toaster burned the bread on one side and left the opposite side untoasted. I had to keep flipping the bread and watching the process carefully. Fiddling around with the light-toast-to-dark-toast dial didn't work, so I had to keep popping up the bread to make sure I could get the kind of toast I wanted. If I walked away for even a minute I'd return to find smoke blustering out and when I popped the toast it was burned up. Then that toaster died. I pitched it and installed "the spare," the second five-dollar toaster. That one made it for almost a year, until it made a big sparking sound and was dead as well. I vowed I was going to buy the most expensive toaster on the market and tossed the five-dollar toaster in the garbage can, muttering to myself that what you get when you buy a five-dollar toaster is a five-dollar toaster.

Another year went by.

In this twelve-month period, I made toast with my oven broiler. Ridiculous. All I had to do was go to Walmart -- or for heaven sake order a decent toaster online and have it delivered at my doorstep in two days -- and solve the problem. Still, every day went by and every day I didn't buy a new toaster. Until a month ago. I pulled myself together, got in the car, and drove to Walmart. There was some sort of something going on at the Walmart near me, some seven-year re-organization situation where the aisles were all screwed up and I entered a maze trying to find my way to the toaster aisle. Which I finally did. 

There in the toaster aisle, I found many toasters ranging in price from twenty dollars to seventy. I was determined to buy the most expensive toaster. Maybe it'll last me for the rest of my life, I thought. Oddly, though, all the toasters in the toaster aisle were out of the box and bolted to the shelf. There were no boxed toasters at all. None. This sent me on a journey to find a salesperson. Not one in sight. I finally wandered into the make-up aisle and found a young girl with a Walmart employee tag. We were both wearing masks. I said, through my mask, "Excuse me, but I'm trying to buy a toaster and all I can find are toasters bolted to the shelves. Can you help me?" She shrugged, dead-eyed (since I could only see her eyes), and said, "I guess we're out." Then I came closer and said, my own eyes blazing a bit, "Please call your supervisor." Astonishingly, she said, "No."

Now yes indeed. I am older. I worked in customer service in my younger years, and in those days, I subscribed to the idea that the customer is always right. My bosses told me to think that way. I would have been fired if I hadn't. With this said, I stood staring at this Walmart girl and was truly amazed. "No? You won't call your supervisor??" The answer was no.

So I drew closer to this young lady, probably closer than social distancing advises, and said, "We are living in a third world country, and it's because of you." Then I and my cart stormed off.

Before leaving the store I ran into a man who had a handheld computer thing, one that tells him about what's in stock. I explained my problem and he said, "I'll check it out." I asked him, "You mean on that computer thing?" "Uh...no," he said. "I'll need to go into the back and look."

Apparently this nice-enough man thought I was going to stand there for who knows how long while he rummaged around in some giant stock room looking for a boxed toaster. I told him, getting close, "Forget it." Then I added, "We're living in a third-world country."

I have no doubt he thought I was nuts.

When I got home, I got online and searched "toasters." I found one that I liked, a retro appliance that promised perfectly-browned toast. I read the reviews, did my due diligence, went through all the appropriate online stuff, name and address and credit card and so on, put the toaster in my virtual cart (it cost $169), and when I got to check out I was told by the toaster-buying site that the toaster I'd selected could not be delivered to my address. No reason. Just, you know, "Sorry!" I'm afraid the frown that formed between my eyes is permanent. What the hell are you talking about?? I'm about to spend almost two hundred bucks on a machine whose sole purpose is to toast bread and you all can't deliver it to my address? I don't live in the outreaches of Siberia, I live in Central New York! But there was no one to talk to, no one to whom I could say "WE ARE LIVING IN A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY!" I collapsed in frustration.

That was last month. And let's be clear: all I've been trying to do is buy a freaking toaster!

I returned to my computer last week and ordered another one. A nice stainless toaster that cost around fifty dollars. I closed one eye when I got to check-out and Behold! The stainless fifty-dollar toaster people said they could deliver to my house. The toaster arrived today. I opened the box as though it contained the treasure of King Tutankhamun. The toaster is beautiful. I plugged it in and immediately inserted a piece of bread. The toast popped up, lovely brown on both sides, not too light, not too dark. I buttered the toast and sat in a chair, munched on my prize. 

Good grief. Two years later and I finally have the perfect piece of toast.

Maybe this staying home business is starting to get to me. Or maybe staying home, being away from my friends and staring at these walls for six months, is a strange and secret blessing. I appreciate well-toasted bread again. I appreciate listening to the birds sing early in the early morning when Harry is snuggled in bed against the back of my knees, sighing his dog sighs. And how Sherburne's weather has been sunny and glorious most days this past summer. I appreciate my friends' sweet voices at the other end of the phone, friends who are far away in Virginia and Tennessee and Mississippi and California, and look forward to seeing their faces when, one of these days, I can see their faces again. Living in the midst of a pandemic has been a remarkably weird thing. I'm painting walls and rearranging furniture and ordering toasters. We are living in history, something that will be written about for decades to come. The politics, the unnecessary deaths, the masks, the fear, the hate, the fighting with our friends and families and neighbors who we love in spite of the fact that they think differently than we do. In the end, we are not living in a third-world country. We're living in the greatest country in the world. And we'll get through this.

I'm going to go downstairs now to have a piece of toast, prepared by my new toaster. I'm going brush my teeth and wash my face and hug my dog and go to bed. 

Then in my pajamas, I'm going to climb into clean sheets and pray. I'm not much of a praying person, but tonight I'm going to pray. Sorry, but I guess I'm talking about politics again. I'm going to pray that the name-calling will stop, that the lying will stop. I'm going to pray that the true leaders of our beautiful country will rise, that the good guys of America will do the right thing. I'm going to close my eyes and pray. 

And hope.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Teach Your Children

I grew up in Sherburne, New York. My father's parents were Lithuanian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in the early 20th century, what family lore reports was a successful journey escaping the Russian Revolution. Somewhere along the way my father's family ended up in upstate New York. My mother's ancestral background is somewhat murkier, though certainly upstate-New-York based: French, Dutch, Native American and likely other bits and pieces of Europe that added up to become a genetic background that produced a tall, blue-eyed, high-cheekboned White girl.


Sherburne when I was growing up -- and, indeed, Sherburne now -- is not particularly diversified. Back then there were a few Black families in the area whose children attended my school: the Thompsons, the Hadleys, the Picketts, and the Moncurs, although I didn't know the latter back then. Dawn and Kim Thompson rode my school bus. Larry Hadley and I were in Drivers' Ed together. And Carl Pickett was in my grade, the only Black person in the SECS Class of 1974. Carl played the tuba in band and is still today a fine musician. I never thought of Carl as anything but...Carl. A great diver on the swim team. Fine sense of humor. A friend with a good-natured smile. Not Black Carl or White Carl. Just Carl. 

In 1979, after graduating from college with a degree in journalism, I moved to Northeast Arkansas to take a job as a newspaper reporter in a town called Blytheville, a place distinctly more diversified than my hometown. I was a cub reporter, and as the most recently hired I got what no doubt were considered the lowest-level assignments: working the wire desk (which required getting up at 5 a.m. and opening up the office), taking obituaries over the phone, and snapping local pictures of questionable news value -- a fallen tree blocking traffic, the biggest squash grown in the county, and school pictures. Lots and lots of school pictures. Parents loved seeing their kids in the paper, and The Courier News owner, Hank Haines, understood his audience. Photos of kids in the paper meant more papers sold. Hank was a smart man.

Blytheville was a wake-up call for me. Back in 1980, the White to Black ratio there was about 60/40 -- that's 40% Black, something to which White-girl me from predominantly White Sherburne had to adjust. I'm embarrassed to say it, but at 23 years old I did have to adjust. My upstate New York upbringing played a part, as upbringing does for us all.

So I went to the schools with my camera, schools with fleshy pigment very different from my own. The schools were divided into three: elementary, junior high, and high school. I visited these schools every week, not interviewing anybody but taking shots of kids in the hallways, on the playground, the football team, or photos of kids who had achieved certain awards. I don't remember much of those visits after the first time, but it was that first time I remember best. The elementary school was my initial stop, where I watched grade school children -- Black and White -- play together and hug each other and kiss each other, holding hands and rolling in the playground grass like little kids do. Half an hour later I was at the junior high school. Black and White kids were still in groups, but with decidedly more reserve. By the time I got to the high school that first day, there were two sides: The Black kids and the White kids. A portrait of...dare I call it racism? Albeit silent, but yes, there was a racial divide. In two hours' time and right before my eyes, I captured it on film. At the tender age of 23, I understood the tragic divide between Black and White and it broke my heart. The grade school kids didn't see color. By the time they reached high school, color was all they saw.

In the early 1980s after having moved to New York City -- a fabulously diverse place to live -- I organized a reunion of my Courier News co-workers, one of whom was Frankie, a Black girl who worked the front desk. Everyone loved Frankie, and while she wasn't in my immediate social circle I considered her a friend whose warm smile greeted me every day for almost two years. I was looking forward to seeing her again at the reunion and was disappointed upon returning to Blytheville that she didn't come. I asked someone at the reunion if they knew why. "Yes," they told me. The place I'd booked for the reunion because of its great barbeque "didn't allow Blacks." In 1982. I was speechless. Horrified. Disgusted. Embarrassed. I'm sorry, Frankie, wherever you are. Such a thing never even occurred to me to ask.

I will not sit here at my keyboard and say that today, 40 years later, I don't see color. Obviously I do if I can name the four Black families in my home town decades ago. If I see a turban I see Muslim; if I see a yarmulke I see Jew. I see Asian and Latino and White. I see them all, but what I don't do -- and maybe never did, if truth be told -- is judge. When I see Andrew Yang, I don't see a man with a Taiwan ethnicity, I see a man who ran for President. When I see my neighbor, Frank, I don't see a White guy, I see my cousin's husband who tends my front flower bed. When I see Tiger Woods, I don't see a Black guy, I see the greatest golfer who ever lived. Am I aware of color? Sure. But I also see that we all work toward the same goals, of freedom and acceptance and kindness. We all want the same things for our kids and our loved ones, don't we? A comfortable home and good food, a way to earn money to pay the bills, and a safe place to lay down our heads at night. We all want good health and a government that pays attention to our needs. And we all bleed the same red blood.

Sometimes I wonder about those Blytheville kids whose innocent faces filled my camera lens. I especially think about the grade school kids who hadn't yet been poisoned at home with racism. Because that's what happened, right? They didn't see color when they were five or six or seven, but by the time they hit 15 and 16 they had turned their backs on each other, White and Black both, because of what they heard at home. I hope at least some of those grade school kids held onto the moments when they hugged each other and tumbled in the Arkansas grass, hearing giggles not slurs, understanding in their five-year-old minds that skin color and nationality and religion have nothing to do with what is in a person's heart. While not perfect people, my parents set me on the path to understanding -- maybe by accident, I guess I'll never know -- but they did. Though they are long dead, I honor my parents every day for teaching me some simple concepts. To look deeper than skin color. To see a poor person and think maybe they aren't lazy, but instead need a helping hand. To know a lie when I hear it, and in kind to recognize the truth. The most important thing they taught me, though, is the difference between right and wrong. That's the bottom line, isn't it? To understand the difference between right and wrong? And to act on it. To do our best to do the right thing, and to speak up when what we see is  something that is simply and always wrong.

I saw my friend Carl Pickett the other day in a store parking lot. We were both masked and at first I didn't realize it was him as I walked to my car. When I recognized him, we approached each other and gave a virtual hug from a safe distance. SECS classmates. Not best friends maybe, but without a doubt, old friends with chocolate skin next to pale white, sparkling brown eyes greeting light blue. We chatted and I reminded him of a conversation we'd had back in the 1990s, when I'd just gotten back from a trip to Kenya. I told him back then how strange it was to be in a country where everyone was Black, and that to be the only White person in a sea of Black faces was...unsettling. I could only see his eyes (those pretty sparkling eyes), but I knew behind the mask he was giving me a sad smile. This was something he certainly understood. Then I told him to be careful out there, America is in a strange place. As Carl walked away and I was getting in my car, a man was getting into a pickup truck next to me. I saw him scowl and give Carl a funny look. Carl didn't see it I don't think, but I did. I think I did. Did I?

Indeed. America is in a strange place. Or maybe it always has been.

Please teach your children not to see color, or if they do see it, teach them not to judge. Teach them to base opinions on character, not pigment. Teach them to be kind and not to name-call. Teach them that diversity is a good thing. Teach them to love others, all others. Please. Teach your children well.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Hard to See Clearly Sometimes

I've lost my glasses again. I lose my glasses all the time, or crush them in bed, or step on them when they fall on the floor. I have two pairs of regular glasses, not reading glasses but the kind I need to see to drive or watch TV. The first pair went missing two weeks ago -- they're still gone. The second pair, vanished on Friday, finally turned up on a shelf in the laundry room, which was a great relief. I didn't want to have to go to the vision people in Norwich to say "I've done it again. Both my glasses have disappeared (or are crushed or stepped on)." They are kind and don't say so, but I suspect they think there's something wrong with me, and there are days when I think so, too. On the subject of glasses, I have an issue. Sally Psychologist might say I don't want to see the world clearly.

Finding my regular glasses, though, hasn't helped reading. I was always near-sighted so didn't need the "regular" glasses to read. I could read easily without glasses. Then time marched on, and suddenly I realized I couldn't read comfortably anymore. So recently I put on reading glasses that I once only used when I wore contacts. And sure enough, my eyes have changed to the point where I need reading glasses without contacts. Okay. Whatever. Aging is funky. I'm just happy not to be blind.

Once I figured out the reading glasses thing, I picked up a book called New York by Edward Rutherfurd. It's the story of New York City specifically, and New York State generally. The book starts in 1664 in lower Manhattan and ends on September 11, 2001. It's the story of a family who started out as Dutchmen in New York City when the Algonquins still populated the area and ends when terrorists attacked the Trade Centers. The following excerpt about the Civil War touched me, fiction I assume but who knows what research the author came across. I was touched because it made me think of what's happening in our country today, the divisiveness that tore America apart in the late 1800s and the divisiveness that's tearing us apart now. This excerpt is told by one of the book's characters, Theodore, who was a photographer accompanying the Union troops in Virginia.

     Theodore paused.
     "Well, it was the night before an engagement. In Virginia. Our Union boys were in their trenches, and the Confederates in theirs, not more than a couple of stone's throw away. It was quite silent. The moonlight … was falling on the scene. There must've been all ages, I suppose, between those trenches. Men well into middle years. And plenty who were little more than boys. There were women in the camp, too, of course. Wives and others.
     "I supposed they would soon fall asleep. But then, over in the Confederate trenches, some fellow started singing 'Dixie.' And soon they were all joining in, right along the line. So they sang 'Dixie' at us for a while, then stopped.
     "Well, sure enough, our boys weren't going to let it go at that. So a group of 'em started up 'John Brown's Body.' And in no time the whole of our trenches were giving them that. Fine voices too, I may say.
     "And when they'd done, there was another silence. Then over in the Confederate trench, we heard a single voice. A young fellow by the sound of it. And he started singing a psalm. The twenty-third psalm it was. I'll never forget that.
     "As you know, in the South, with the shape-note singing, every congregation is well practiced in the singing of psalms. So again, all along the line, they joined in. Kind of soft. Sweet and low. And maybe it was the moonlight, but I have to say it was the most beautiful sound I ever heard.
     "But I'd forgotten that many of our boys were accustomed to singing the psalms too. When you consider the profanities you hear spoken every day in camp, you might forget that; but it is so. And to my surprise, our boys began to sing with them. And in a short while, all along the lines, those two armies sang together, free for a moment of their circumstances, as if they were in a single congregation of brothers in the moonlight. And then they sang another psalm, and then the twenty-third again. And after that, there was silence, for the rest of the night.
     "During which time, I took a photograph.
     "The next morning there was a battle. And before noon, Mr. Slim, I regret to say, there was scarcely a man from either of those trenches left. They had killed each other. Dead, sir, almost every one."
     And caught unawares, Theodore Keller suddenly stopped speaking, and was not able to continue for a minute or two.

Let us all remember, in this strange dark time in our history, that we are all brothers and sisters. With or without seeing as clearly as we should, with or without glasses, let us learn from history that fighting amongst ourselves only ends in heartbreak.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Every Day is a Gift

I've been hearing this for years: Every Day is a Gift. Hearing, not always listening. I've been on this earth 64 years and lots of good things have happened to me. And some not so good. But that's life. There are days when I'm full of vim and vigor, springing out of bed and charging into the morning, gulping coffee and patting Harry's wagging behind, dressing and brushing teeth and painting a room or writing. Going after the kitchen ants with vinegar. Tending tomatoes and doing laundry, scrubbing floors, visiting The Sherburne Inn and demanding holes be filled and light fixtures hung. Then there are other days. I drift out of bed and watch some news. Look out the window. Put my feet up. Never start the car. Never hear another voice.

I'm inevitably sorry for those languid days. At night, when I climb back into bed I wish I'd done more. Talked to someone I haven't seen lately. Written something meaningful. Spent a few hours outside among the flowers.

We never know what's coming, do we? One day all is well and the next is rocked by unexpected heartache. We take each other for granted and assume tomorrow we can make the call we didn't make yesterday. I remember when my dad died I was going to call him on Saturday, but I got busy and didn't. On Sunday he was dead. I was never to hear his voice again, the chance to call missed. Hard to recover from those flippant decisions. "I'll call tomorrow," we all say. Another old adage: What if tomorrow never comes? (We hear it, but we don't always listen.)

We're all going to die, eventually. We know that but don't always grasp it. We assume at 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 and even 64 that it won't happen today. We order mattresses and organize books, thinking we'll be around in a week when the mattress arrives or when we find another novel to put on the shelf. That birthday card can wait a few days, after all … the birthday isn't until next week. Then suddenly, startlingly, next week isn't there for someone. The lightning bolt hits and time runs out. Did I say I'm sorry? Did I say I love you? Maybe. We hope so.

My town was rocked by an unexpected death last week. A special young man in his prime. Handsome, kind, gruff on the outside and gentle on the inside like his dad; tender and sweet like his mom. A brother and an uncle, an artist, a joker, a listener, skilled with his hands, skilled with his heart. One day kayaking, days later gone. Not even 30. 

A family crushed. A community in tears. 

Hearts are with you Vincent and Anna, Josh and Kris and Eddie (Chad), Teresa and Matti and Karen and Julie and Kate and little Bentley, the cousins and uncles and aunts and uncounted friends who cry for you. Darling Jeramie, you touched our lives with your humor and humanity. I hope you knew that. 

The last time I saw you, dear Jeramie, you were helping to move a freezer into my basement. I never imagined -- being thirty-some years older than you -- that on a chilly March morning would be the last time I would see your sweet smile. We never know, do we? I will miss you and will always remember your bright eyes. Today, we're all listening: Every day is a gift. With all else that you left with us, maybe most importantly, you left us with that.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Where's the Soap?

I'm not much of a social media person. I suppose this blog is considered social media, but I don't have an Instagram account and peek at Twitter only occasionally. I do have a Facebook account and peruse the posts of others on a fairly regular basis though I don't post much myself. I like happy animal videos and will share those. Not big on memes. I'm involved in some local projects so I post about that. But for the most part, I read what other people are saying. Politics and our divided country, not surprisingly, are popular topics these days. 

When I was growing up -- as older people like to say -- times were different. Not always wonderful, but less complicated. There was a midday family dinner every Sunday and lots of outside time, twilight hours spent with cousins playing hide-and-seek and kick-the-can; climbing my uncle's cow-strewn hills in summer and tobogganing down those same hills in winter. Corny maybe, but looking back those activities seemed pretty wholesome and were certainly fun. No staring at cell phones or laptop screens. "Social media" was hearing my cousin Judy's opinion in the horse barn, or commenting on my cousin Sally's views on the turtles that hatched in her dad's sawdust pile. 

In those days there were three channels on TV (and one was fuzzy). There was no cussing or anything even close to it on television back then. The news came on for an hour in the evening and was not a 24/7 deluge of information. My parents read the newspaper for news and read books for leisure. Dad liked westerns, Mom liked romance novels. There were some cusswords in my house but were mild by comparison to today. I might hear an occasional "Damn!" if someone hit their finger with a hammer or other choice words if the dog peed in the house. I've often told the story of the only time I ever heard my dad say the f-word, and that was when he was teaching me how to drive ("Stop this f-ing car!!"), which, as I review his reaction now to my driving 40 miles an hour over potholes, seems reasonable. I didn't curse or call people names when I was a kid. I'm not saying I was perfect, but I was taught not to do that. 

My mother, Iva, was the teacher of that lesson. I can't remember exactly how old I was, over five, under 10. I know I was in school, which is where I imagine I picked up the salty words I aimed at my sister one day in the kitchen. I didn't know what it meant for, surely, if I had, I wouldn't have said it in front of my mother. I also don't know what my sister did or said to elicit my response. But whatever it was, I told my sister to "eat me."

Now you have to understand. When I was growing up in the 1960s, parents ruled with a different kind of hand. There was no, "Oh honey, you shouldn't say such things." No discussion. No 'time out' to think about one's sins. My mother took hold of my arm, frog-marched me over to the sink, and washed my mouth out with soap. Ran that bar of Ivory under the faucet, got a good handful of bubbles going and filled my mouth with suds. I'm sure there was also some yelling though I don't really remember. What I do remember was the lesson: watch what comes out of your mouth or suffer the consequences. Got it, Iva, lesson learned. Never again was my mouth washed out with soap. 

This is not to say by any means, and as my friends will be quick to tell you, that I don't swear or make off-color remarks in 2020 (so, dear friends reading this, there's no need to comment). And while my mother's intention may have been for me to keep my language squeaky clean, what she actually taught me was to use words with care. If you're going to let loose with a barrage of expletives, know your audience. Use your head. Don't let it affect your goals, business or otherwise. Don't be insulting and don't be cruel. Name-calling fell into that same category. As I mentioned, I have not been perfect over the years, but if something cruel or coarse has left my mouth aimed at another person, it was not done so without the image of my mother's face rising before me with a bar of soap in her hand. 

What I have read on social media over the past few years has been astonishing to me. People I know or with whom I am vaguely acquainted, some of them local business owners, not to mention politicians and world figures whose job it is to lead the way for the people who elected them, saying the most vile things to or about each other. I am not a delicate flower who swoons at the slightest oath (again, consult my friends). Still, the name calling and cursing shocks me, then makes me sad. Then it makes me sick. 

Technology has opened doors for the ignorant bully to emerge, albeit often hidden behind the glowing computer screen -- and sometimes speaking to us from the glowing television screen -- who has been waiting for the opportunity to voice an opinion, vitriol they would rarely say to your face. What are these people thinking? Do they really believe they're making a difference in the world or convincing anyone of their views by prefacing a person's name with ugly adjectives? Did their mothers not have a bar of soap in the house? 

I'm hoping this isn't who we've really become, men and women who cheer and think it's funny when listening to people curse and attack each other. I'm hoping it's a phase, a unique blip in time. I wonder: do those spewing this hostility really believe theirs is the voice of "the common man," something I keep hearing about? The voice of "the common man" is deeply embedded in who I am  because that social designation is where I come from: my parents were small town factory workers who never finished high school, who gave up a piece of their life for me, regular people who went to work every day in a dark, loud factory to put me through college so I might have better opportunities than they did. No...don't talk to me about the voice of the common man. I know that voice, and it is kind and generous and dedicated and hardworking and knows how to teach children that the words they say have consequences.  

I'm sure many will disagree with me, and that's okay. You wanna call me a name? Have at it. I learned at a young age from a wonderful woman who left this earth 28 years ago that people who say repulsive things to someone else don't reveal the character of the target, they reveal the character of themselves. In a way, I'm glad Iva isn't here to see this. There aren't enough Ivory bars in the world to wash away the hate speech and cruelty that so many Americans have embraced. 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Do it for Laura

There's a place in Earlville, about five miles from where I live, called The Christmas Shop. The store isn't open year-round, only at Christmastime, and sells, as its name suggests, Christmas things: garland and ornaments and lights and other trinkets, not your Saks Fifth Avenue overpriced fifty-dollar glass baubles but nice basic stuff at very discount prices. I've bought lots of things there to fill out the holes in my holiday decorating, tiny silver trees to go with my tiny tree collection, oversized gold balls to hang from my porch eaves, window candles to replace those whose fuses have blown for the last time. I haven't gone there every season, just discovered the shop a few years back when my cousin, who volunteers there, told me about it. The store is set up nicely in a side-street building, a temporary spot, and is staffed by volunteers like my cousin. All the merchandise is donated and raises money (I think) for a local charity or church. The atmosphere is jolly, in no small part because of the people who take time out of their lives to work there.

The last time I visited the Christmas Shop I met a woman who was cashing me out. I could tell by her accent that she was from downstate and we struck up a conversation. I told her I lived in the New York City area for 30 years before moving back upstate to my hometown, she said she came from the Bronx. We shared city stories and talked about our lives now in decidedly more rural surroundings. I was amazed, and told her so, that her accent was still so pronounced after decades in this area. The accent I might add, and her staccato conversation style, were welcome to me: my many years in Manhattan, and Queens, and ultimately Long Island, were great ones that were filled with a good career and many dear friends. I left the store uplifted. How nice, I thought then, to have met someone from my old stomping grounds. 

The woman, whose name was Laura, was a bright light. She was effervescent and charming and full of life. She was easy to laugh and bright-eyed, a kind person doing good things for her community.

I learned today that Laura died on April 2. Of COVID-19. I further learned that her husband passed away today of the same virus, just 20-some days later. Laura was 63.

I didn't know Laura at all, really, only met her that one time. But I've been crying all morning, for her, for her husband, for the children they left behind, and for the other 46,000+ American people who have died from this disease in the past month. On March 17, when I started keeping track, there were 183,000 cases globally and 7,167 deaths. In the U.S. there were 4,661 cases and 85 deaths. As of today, just five weeks later, there are 2.6 million cases around the world and 825,306 cases in the United States. And those are the cases we know of. 

For the love of god, people, take this seriously. This isn't a Chinese virus, or a European virus, or a New York City virus or a virus from outer space. It's a virus and doesn't care what you look like or how old you are or who you vote for or where you live. Listen to the medical experts, not the talking heads with political agendas. The virus is here in our communities in upstate New York. You may think it's inconvenient, or that you'll look silly, but wear a mask if you have to go out. Essential workers, thank you for being out there for us, but please wear a mask. Everybody, wash your hands when you get home, wash your clothes when you get home, but if you don't have to go out for food or prescriptions or other essential supplies, and if you're not an essential worker, stay your ass in the house. Stop worrying about being bored or how to entertain your kids or that you haven't bought your vegetable seeds yet and instead worry about getting infected. Worry about infecting other people. Worry about dying. Worry about people you know dying. Wear a mask, wash your hands. Do it for your family. Do it for your neighbors. Do it for your community. Do it for your country.

And the next time somebody tells you COVID-19 is a hoax, tell them about Laura.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Tailgate

When I think of my friend Amy Boise, I think of something really stupid we did years ago, when we were seniors in high school. My dad had a red and white pickup truck that for some reason Amy and I were driving around in one day -- normally I took my mom's car, a serious-minded Oldsmobile. I guess the truck made us feel reckless because at one point on this foolhardy afternoon I turned the wheel over to Amy and decided to stand on the rear bumper. Thinking I was in the truck bed, she stepped on the gas and I flew backward, saved only by my quick grab of the tailgate, which thankfully was up and locked into place. I have no memory of the before or after of my bumper-riding. I just remember, in slow motion, feeling her hit the gas, feeling my body jolt back, and then feeling the relief of the tailgate's hard metal in my hands. Had I fallen off the back of that pickup ... well, who knows what my future might have been: broken leg, broken spine. Broken neck.

As it happened, though, my future turned out fine. Amy and I and the rest of us in our "clique" went our separate ways and headed off to college (I didn't really know it was a clique back then, it felt more like clinging to compatible girlfriends who could help each other navigate the stormy, uncertain waters of high school). Amy's college career took her to Kentucky where, after college, she decided to stay. My path kept me in New York state for awhile, then took me to Arkansas, then back to New York, to Manhattan and surrounds. As any one of my friends will be quick to say about me, I have a hard time saying goodbye to people. With that said, I've been diligent about maintaining contact with friends all my life and Amy was no exception. Even though we were 800 miles apart, we always kept in touch. Amy and I weren't phone friends, and neither did we -- when the technology arrived -- communicate much by email. We were a bit old-fashioned: we wrote letters and cards and made a point to see each other in person, albeit infrequently. But the frequency didn't matter. Our friendship was cast in stone.

Time went on. Amy married and divorced, I almost married then didn't, Amy pursued a career in the insurance industry, I pursued one in medical publishing and conference management. We exchanged newsy Christmas cards and, as I said, saw each other occasionally, maybe once a year, maybe once every two years. Then I moved back to Sherburne in 2010 and not long after -- and I'm still not sure why -- I wrote an email to my high school friends saying it was time for us to start getting together more often, that we weren't getting any younger and sooner or later (and maybe sooner) one of us would "go" and we needed, I thought, to take advantage of days when we still had our health to spend time in each other's company. This was not an easy thing, as we were flung far and wide: Sherburne, Syracuse, Rochester, New Jersey, Boston, Kentucky. But we're a willful bunch and made it happen, which is when the Annual Memorial Day Girls' Weekend started. Not all of "the gang" came every year, the gang being Jen, Teresa, Jackie, Ann Kathryn, myself, and Amy, but there was always a good showing. We'd have food and drink and great fun at a grown-woman pajama party at my house, would allow our guy friends to participate for a few hours, but ultimately kicked them out around 9 p.m. so we could be just the girls, lounging around in bathrobes, sometimes (depending on dicey Central New York weather) with a fire crackling and feeling 17 when we were far from it. Amy came only once, that first year, because it was a 12-hour one-way drive for her, though in the years since 2010 Amy and I did see each other more often. She made a few trips to Sherburne, I made one to Kentucky around Christmas 2013. We had a lovely time that holiday, reminiscing about the old days: winters sitting on the heated kitchen floor in her parents' house; summer weekends with boyfriends at my parents' house; our trip to Disney World; band performances; class reunions. Curled in chairs in her beautiful Kentucky living room by the Christmas tree. Her cats purring nearby. Friends of forty-odd years as comfortable with each other as a sock and shoe.

Amy died today. Cancer, diagnosed last summer. The first of our high school crew to go. In November Jen, Teresa, Jackie, Ann Kathryn, and I got in a car and drove 12 hours south. We spent four days with our friend, who but for rather dramatic weight loss was just the same: stoic, blonde, beautiful, kind, a gentle humor, and determined to stay as independent as she could for as long as possible. We did our best for her: folded clothes, cleaned, made an early Thanksgiving dinner. We took her out to eat a few times, but mostly we sat around and talked, letting her know as best we could how much we loved her. One afternoon she put an old album on her turntable: the song was the SE band playing "Temptation" and we cried, which many who read this will understand. Our final glimpse of Amy was that night we drove away for the last time. She stood there alone in the lighted window waving goodbye as we pulled out of the driveway. It's a moment none of us will ever be able to unsee.

As I mentioned, I don't do this goodbye thing well, and of course I know many more are ahead unless I'm next up at bat. The truth is we never know, do we? We look into the eyes of those we love and just don't know ... is the last picture I snapped of you on my phone actually the last? Is the last time I hugged your neck never to be repeated? Will I never touch your hand again, or hear you laugh?

Amy has moved on, and those of us who loved her should not be sad because the good part of her life was gone. And for friends still here by but a tenuous thread of breath and heartbeat? Let us take no moment for granted. Let us gather as often as possible and lounge in bathrobes by warm fires and clink glasses and acknowledge the pointlessness of political arguments and earthly things; let us be grateful that we have clung to that tailgate this long, because some of us have let go. More than anything, let us be thankful that by the grace of god there are dear ones who will stand by us until the end.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum