Walking Through My Mother’s Life

Mom profile by Nina005The medium sized cardboard carton was waiting for me to open and sort through the contents. My mother lived to the age of ninety eight, and it looked as though she never threw anything out that she received in the mail. I had brought it back with me from the storage unit in South Carolina. It contained paper of all sorts, including old photographs, that she had seen fit to keep for many years. Until I opened it I had no idea just how long those years had been.

Now for weeks and then months it had waited for me to go through it. In an effort to motivate myself I kept moving it around. I knew it would take the better part of several days to do, and I was reluctant to set aside other tasks to address one that had no deadline. Finally I put it where I could not ignore it: right under my desk. I had to look at it every time I sat down to do anything. Finally I got tired of looking at it and set to my task.

Some of what I found was reminiscent of my mother’s life in the 40’s and 50’s: bills and sales slips from department stores, electric bills and bills for milk delivery, drycleaning, and so on. The prices of things from those days were interesting. It was both surprising and sad to see what a dollar used to buy.

The names of the stores brought back memories of being with my mother when I was small, taken along on shopping trips. To my young eyes, the department store was a wondrous place holding all sorts of interesting things to look at. She also kept paid bills for expenses related to her art and the galleries she had under her own name. I set these aside for my daughter who is planning a future retrospective exhibit of her grandmother’s art.

The quantities of letters on thin airmail paper were impossible to read. Plus many of them were in German or Spanish. The dates on some envelopes went back to before my mother married my father. It seems she had quite a collection of boyfriends and there were many letters, some I could decipher a little addressed to her in endearing terms. It amazed me that she had managed to keep and haul around that collection for so long. The earliest went back more than 70 years. I had a wonderful walk through her life and times, and I found myself happy to have been able to touch into my own memories of those days..

It seems to me that things were far more innocent then. There were rules to be followed. These had been handed down from generation to generation and applied as long as life was stable and people’s roles mostly well defined. There was more safety in living that way. There are people who wish it were still like that today, however their numbers are dwindling. Once change begins it cannot be stopped or the results will be like a cancer that devours its host. Growth often comes about with pain. However, the freedom of being out from under the rigidity of the life my mother lived with is precious. I am grateful for it.

 

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Memories of a Very Special Neighbor

Laura Dodge's Dancing Dolls        I grew up in the country, and the only neighbor I really knew was my Great Aunt Alice, because we lived in a smaller home on part of her property. There were no children for me to play with except some siblings across the street. My parents did not know theirs and I was not permitted to invite them in or to go to their house. To be fair, they were not a very kind bunch. There were two sisters and their brother, who was rather rough. They went to a different school than I did and I had very little in common with them. It is lovely to have neighbors, and once I had one who was special indeed.

I was recently able to get back in touch with this neighbor of many years ago. Her children and mine were of an age and we lived in a small town on the North Shore of Boston. In our suburban neighborhood our houses were only a few yards apart. Some days when I was upstairs, even without the windows being open I could hear her playing her recorder. A musician and an artist by avocation, she had a dachshund that she had taught to accompany her when she played happy birthday on the piano.

We were able to share only a couple of phone calls in the few months I had rediscovered her. Now has come the news that she has passed on. Memories of our years as neighbors flood back to me. One favorite is the time I was grilling a boned leg of lamb on my charcoal grill in the back yard. To my dismay I looked out and saw her German shepherd running off with it in his mouth. She bravely rescued it from him, cooked it for her family and gave me another leg of lamb that was even then roasting in her oven. Many times after that over cups of tea we laughed together, remembering.

Our children played together in our yards and she shared produce from her garden with me. Generous with her time and energy, she taught me a lot about sewing, and helped me whenever I was stuck trying to do something too advanced for my sewing machine skills. She helped me out when my younger children were born, brought food and kept me company. I was sad when she sold her house and moved away. Later after he was grown and on his own she took in my late son and as he helped her with hers, taught him a lot about gardening. I was very grateful to her for her kindness to him.

No matter how long someone you may cherish lives–and she was 92 when she passed on, it is never long enough to do and say all the things you wish you had done and said. I have to be content with what remains of my memories and of the conversations we had before she went to her final rest. She was a very special friend as well as a wonderful neighbor and I am sure many besides me have fond memories of her. A giving, sharing person, she set a good example for everyone who knew her. She lived a kind and caring life and will I am sure continue her loving ways now that she has her angel wings.

GPS Adventures and Misadventures

Red TracatorLong ago when I first used to drive myself places I hadn’t been before, following directions I had been given, I used to get lost three or four times until I found my way. Later on I would try to use a map, however having issues with right and left and getting them mixed up, I often just had to rely on asking wayward strangers for help. Then the GPS came along and it seemed miraculous to simply plug in my destination and tell the kindly machine to take me to it. Alas sometimes it works differently than one might expect. Which is what happened to me and some friends on our way to a performance in Medfield.

That evening I climbed into their car with my friends and we set off with time to spare to our destination. “Isn’t it wonderful to have a GPS,” I said, “I never get lost any more.” My friends agreed and as the driver plugged the address of the performance we were going to into the GPS, we settled back for the ride. Chatting amiably, we drove down 495. I pointed out a highway sign indicating the town of our intended destination, however the GPS took us past it, so we obeyed and proceeded to follow the directions as they unfolded.

They continued to unfold at length until we found ourselves passing a sign that said “Welcome to Rhode Island.” That can’t be right,” the driver said. We all agreed that certainly something was wrong. We turned around, and headed back the way we had come. The GPS continued to direct us. As it chattered on we found ourselves laughing harder and harder. Eventually we found our way to our intended destination. However, although we had originally allowed plenty of time to get there, we were half an hour late for the performance and all the seats were taken. There was standing room only.

Two of us, including me had hips that would not allow us to stand for a long period of time. Reluctantly we turned around and headed back to my apartment. Fortuitously the GPS was able to find us an ice cream stand on the way and we stopped for a treat. “I think we cursed ourselves by praising the GPS,” one of my companions remarked. “And we could have taken the route you pointed out,” said my other friend. We all agreed that it was probably wise to follow a map as well as the GPS, and returned home.

We could have been more upset but it really was quite funny the way the GPS kept saying things like, “Your destination is in X number of miles,” as it led us farther and farther away. At the time we turned around it was still insisting we only had three miles to go. Why it chose to take us somewhere that was clearly not where we intended to go is still a mystery. However, while we didn’t get where we were going in time to do what we intended, we had a lot of fun riding around laughing hysterically as the GPS attempted to do what it clearly did best, direct us where it wanted us to go.

 

Perspective Makes All the Difference

Cherry Blossoms on a rainy dayAt the time I was born my mother was newly come to the US, a bride of less than a year. Except for my father, she was very much alone in a big city, and I was her only companion for quite a while. I have often thought that my persistently positive perspective on life may have had its roots in my trying to cheer her up when she was sad and missing her family and friends back in her home country. Over the years since I have come to understand the power of a positive perspective on a potentially negative situation or experience.

This has become essential to my work. When I tell people I am a writer, they often ask me what I write. If I say I write essays, it sounds as though I am writing from a scholarly point of view. If I say I do inspirational writing, it sounds as though I am coming from a religious perspective. In truth, what I am doing in my columns is to simply present a different or alternative point of view from that which some might take about any given situation or experience. I write to be helpful, but it is self help I write about. Helping others to help themselves is my intention and my goal.

There is little we can do about circumstances. Daily life presents us with issues and difficulties we must deal with. The school of experience is our ever-present teacher, one we cannot escape no matter what we do. I’ve often felt that maturity or adulthood truly begins when we’re willing to learn from this teacher rather than moan, groan and feel as though we are victims of fate, circumstance or those who might perpetrate it. It is a lot easier to complain than it is to “bite the bullet” and admit there might be something to learn from any given situation.

I believe the expression “bite the bullet” comes from battlefield medicine when in the days gone by the surgeon had to amputate or otherwise operate without anesthesia. After whiskey was poured liberally into the patient, a bullet was put between his jaws to bite down on as a way to keep from crying out. Whether this is actually true or not it makes a good metaphor. When our focus is put not on complaint or disappointment but on what can be gained from whatever is happening to us, coping becomes easier and wisdom more accessible.

In my own life right now I am dealing with a change in lifestyle and a need to take better care of myself. I have learned that much of what I used to take for granted, I no longer can. Exercise is not an option it is a necessity. I need to do additional work on my body to restore it to better working order. I could complain, or even bemoan my fate. Instead I rejoice that I now have a good way to lose weight, that I can become stronger and healthier with effort and that it is good and helpful to be made to do that. Therefore I bless these circumstances and state firmly that I am exceedingly grateful for them.

When Less is More

My mother was born in 1913 in Germany at the outset of World War I. Times were very difficult for German civilians, and there was often little to nothing to eat. She told me members of the family had to stand in line for hours to get simple items like bread and milk. As a result she had a horror of wasting food. I grew up feeling like it was important to have plenty of it on hand and to make sure there was enough for all. I did my best.

Lily and garlic bud067However, with my large family and my small budget I had to make sure everyone got enough and my children still remember how they had to cross off each fruit or cookie on their list whenever they took one. That was how I made sure no one felt cheated. These days with just me and Stephen to feed, I don’t have to ration treats. However, my recent diagnosis of diabetes means I cannot indulge my taste for sweets or for fruit the way I would like.

Now that the local summer fruit is available, this is daunting. Recently I slowly savored the taste of a delicious white peach from our local farm stand. I had peeled and cut up several and mixed them with a few native blueberries and a little almond creamer for Stephen and me to have for dessert. As I ate another spoonful I thought about the special quality of white peaches and the brevity of their season. I realized that eating this locally grown fruit is to be cherished. I took my time tasting this wonderful treat. “Less is truly more,” I said.

Stephen nodded and replied, “like fillet mignon.” I asked him to explain. “Well it is expensive so I don’t have it very often,” he began, “and it’s usually served in smallish portions, so you don’t get as much. I suppose because it is so rich. Then,” he went on after a pause, “there’s the idea that beef of any kind is not as good for me as fish or chicken, and I am aiming for longevity. So less is more, just like your peaches.”

I nodded; together we gathered up the dishes, put them in the sink and went on with our day. I continued to think about less being more. For instance, eating less means more room in the clothes as I lose weight, and because I can’t eat as much sweet fruit as I would like to, the small amount I allow myself becomes even more special. This can be applied to other aspects of life too. For instance we recently had a rare visit with a dear friend we seldom see. We made the most of our short time together and enjoyed every moment.

One theory for losing weight is to eat only three bites of any treat. I have noticed that the first few bites of anything do tend to be the best. Perhaps the tongue gets used to the flavor and no longer notices it. Once when I went to Italy to visit my daughter she gave me a small piece of chocolate candy from a very old and prestigious maker. It was wonderful. Having such a small piece was actually perfect, better than having a large one. We cut it into even smaller pieces and enjoyed them slowly, letting the taste linger on our tongues.

Saving What Is Useful

useful bags.jpg  When my mother and I went to Russia in 1991 among the places we visited was the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It was very impressive. My favorite part was the room with six Rembrandts. Sitting among them was an extraordinary experience. As we left we bought some postcards and other souvenirs and when none seemed to be forthcoming, asked for a bag to put them in. The cashier gave us a sour look then finally dug out a used plastic bag– an obvious treasure from her hoard and placed our items in it. Recycled bags were more common there than new ones were then.

I certainly do save and either use or recycle lots of plastic bags, however I have a stash of various sizes of paper bags as well as small gift boxes that threatens to erupt from its container. Some are saved for when we give people gifts. The ones with decorations for Christmas or birthday, for instance come in very handy. Others with no decorations or simply printed with the name of a store can be used for any occasion, and also for carrying things. I only wish I knew just how many of these decorated bags I would need in the near future so I could pass some of them on to others.

I simply cannot bear to throw out anything that is ultimately useful. Take for instance the elastics that come on things. I haven’t bought any rubber elastics for years. They come in various sizes, shapes and colors, mostly on vegetables. The small bag I have stays full because what I use gets replaced. Twisty ties are something else I tend to save. They too come in various lengths and are useful for tying up many things as well as substituting for the difficult to reuse flat plastic closures most bread bags come with. The long ones are good for wrapping around electric cords and small tools.

I seldom use paper towels unless I want to clean up a mess, thus saving paper. I tear appeal letters and ads for insurance and so forth on 81/2 by 11 sheets with a blank side into thirds, pinch them together with a clip and use them to make my grocery and “to do” lists. Smaller scraps of paper become notes, though I have to be careful not to lose those. String of any length of course gets reused, as does ribbon, and of course wrapping paper. Unless it’s torn, I fold and save Christmas and birthday wrapping paper, as did my parents.

Being of a saving nature runs in my family. My father once told me he found an envelope among his mother’s things with bits of string in it labeled “pieces of string too small to use.” However I have since heard this story from other sources, so it may have been something he borrowed rather than experienced. My mother, my father, my grandmother and my other relatives all followed the Yankee thrift rule: recycle, reuse or do without, so it’s not surprising I developed this habit and needless to say as I have discovered, passed it on to my children.

A Valentine to Loves Found

stephen-and-tasha-kissing-2087When I was in grade school I fell in love, or more accurately had a gigantic crush on a boy with blond hair named Teddy. I don’t think he even knew I existed, and I certainly made no advances toward him, being far too shy to do so. I simply gazed at him from afar and thought he was wonderful. In my seventh grade year another fair-haired boy I yearned over named Dana replaced Teddy in my heart. Some years later I discovered that before she met my father, many of my mother’s boyfriends had been blond, and I wondered if her predilections could have subconsciously influenced me in my choices.

My passion for blond men dissipated. When I was sixteen another boy named Teddy though with brown hair, became my first real love. My parents labeled it puppy love, but I knew better. Our dates were conducted via the bus because neither of us had a license to drive. We danced in his parents’ living room to the tune of “Unforgettable,” and snuggled in the movies—it didn’t much matter what was on the screen. When he went away to camp for two weeks he wrote me each day and I waited anxiously by the door for the mailman. I wore his felt beanie with pins on it constantly, which drove my dear parents crazy. I was their oldest child and their initial experience with their children’s first loves.

My first husband and I met at a dance and fell in love quite quickly. I was a rather romantic seventeen-year-old senior in high school. He was from New York, a sophomore in college and quite sophisticated. Our love blossomed over the summer and culminated in an elopement the following year. This was exacerbated by my parents’ protective attitude. They were not happy about our burgeoning relationship and had threatened to send me on a long trip the following summer to visit relatives abroad. They did what they thought best, though their antagonism probably fueled our passion. I was a young bride and soon a young mother. Our children became the focus of our marriage and of our love.

Now so many years later I look back on those early loves and I smile. In those days I knew so little of what love really was about. Most of how I viewed it came from romantic novels and magazines. With time and experience I learned about it for myself, and sometimes this was painful. Yet as I look back I have no regrets. I am married now to the love of my life. Our relationship has endured for nearly forty years. As I age I am grateful for his presence and for the love he brings to our days. As Shakespeare said, “Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds.” We have grown together, changed together, and remained together with all the joy and happiness that our experiences have brought to our relationship. He is my always valentine.

Tasha Halpert