Year after year, since my daughter was born, whenever my mom called or said my daughter’s name, Alexandra! (always with the sound of an exclamation point at the end), she squealed as if she were waking from a dream come true: her youngest granddaughter really did carry on her name.
She was grateful for everything, but she especially relished in the notion that she had left a legacy that she was privileged enough to experience while she was still alive: hearing her real name said out loud. You see, this wasn’t always the case in her youth.
Many people experience hardships, but my mom fell into the group of survivors who lived through enormous tragedy and in doing so, life took on a completely different meaning for her. I thought I did, but I never did, understand what living through tragedy meant, until I lived through one of my own.
And so on what would have marked your 97th birthday yesterday — this blog post is for you, Ma! It’s in memory of the long ago little, dark-haired girl who, like a perfectly tuned violin, had a soprano voice that could melt steel. When she sang in concerts, it certainly did melt audiences’ hearts in her beloved European city of Minsk. Her father, my grandfather, Nicholi, a merchant, as well as a part-time bootlegger, recognized and supported his young daughter’s talent by hiring a voice teacher to train her professionally.
For a number of years, my mom made the weekly trek on foot to the voice teacher’s house to study with her. My mom’s own mother passed away when she was still a toddler and even though her dad had remarried a “nice enough” woman, as my mother referred to her, her beloved voice teacher, whom she endearingly called “Cho-Cha,“ meaning “Aunt” had become her surrogate mother.
Cho-Cha went beyond helping my mom with her vocal range. She became a trusted mentor, built her up with compassion and wisdom and as World War II broke out, became an increasingly important anchor.
Prior to the bombing and total destruction of her beloved home in her native Minsk, the Capital of Belarus, and the surrounding area, there were insidious occurrences that transpired, such as my mom’s neighbors mysteriously disappearing. without further investigation. Nazi troops, too, grew and ballooned throughout the city.
For me, two books helped widen my perspective of how war can be a slow build —just enough to be noticed, but unremarkable enough to be conveniently denied.
In spite of the fact that World War II was moving in on my mom’s own personal world, she was about 15, and was walking to Cho-Cha’s house for her weekly vocal lessons. I imagine she was warming up by singing.
Suddenly, as she retold the story, the sky turned into an evil pitch of darkness. Rounds of machine gun fire sounded in the distance. She immediately took cover, hiding alongside the city’s buildings. She did not, however, turn back. Eventually, she snaked forward, toward her Cho-Cha’s residence.
When she moved closer to the voice teacher’s house, the gun fire subsided. At first, she said she thought it was a hallucination. But then, the piercing reality hit her in front of her young eyes as her song books unleashed into the brittle dirt of the pathway. There, on the sidewalk, laid her beloved Cho-Cha in a pool of her own blood. It was obvious that Cho-Cha had unsuccessfully tried to run for her life. Her only offense was being born a Jew. My mom’s devotion and loyalty propelled her to run into the center of the scene, gunfire still in the distance. She flung her young body over Cho-Cha’s and draped her corpse with her own distressed body — my mom’s love spilled over Cho-Cha like her mentor’s blood had spilled out of her.
“Cho-Cha! Cho-Cha!” My mother cried, losing what felt like her mother for a second time, as she weeped and bawled into the night without consolation.
Some war narratives have no endings, such as this one. I don’t know why the Nazis did not shoot my mother dead too. I don’t know if, as I would think, someone finally picked my mother off Cho-Cha’s lifeless body and then hauled the corpse away.
I do know, either days or months later, as I’ve written before, the Nazis snatched my mom up from the street where she was roaming and kidnapped her to Germany. She eventually became “forced labor” for a German family. In actuality, the appropriate term was “slave labor.”
The Germans also changed my mom’s name from “Alexandra,” as she was called, to “Lysa,” pronounced in German as “Leeza.”
And now, you understand why her real name meant so much to her, Alexandra; Alex, for short. How she lit up every time someone mentioned her name, especially in relation to my daughter, Alexandra. (Their birthdays are also a mere 12 days apart!)
The point is, the Nazis stripped my mom’s name away from her, but only temporarily. Then the honor of identity was bestowed on my mother, not once, but twice!
But that’s not the end of this story, and this story still pertains to the effects of war, but it does have a clear end, sort of.
Mom did sing again after she immigrated with my dad and two older brothers to America. When I was growing up, I heard her sing in church, and every part of my body and soul would rise to the steeple when I heard her euphonious voice. Then, without the slightest indication, she’d stop abruptly and cry. Cry! It made no sense to me, but, as a child, I was publicly mortified. (Fortunately, everyone in church pretended they didn’t notice.) When I was an adolescent, to my relief, she ceased singing all together — at least in public.
Once in a while, though, I’d overhear her in her bedroom singing and then wailing. I never understood and finally asked her very irritated.
“Why do you have to cry, Ma? Why? Why can’t you just sing like everybody else?”
“Because happiness always brings sadness.”
Well, after that, I didn’t broach the obviously difficult subject too often. Then, a few months ago, I was revisiting the two books I mentioned, thinking about tragedy, real, honest-to-God tragedy where God, or any sort of higher power, has vanished and faith is zapped in an electric chair of fear.
All at once, I realized for the first time ever that the Nazis had stolen my mother’s name only temporarily and then stole her voice almost permanently when they murdered her voice teacher. The long and the short of it is she still sang, regardless of how she couldn’t get past a few lyrics, she still sang!
Best of all, my memory of her singing voice has become the breath of life for me! When I am particularly struggling amid the realities of life, I ask her in my mind to, Sing, Ma! Sing! And I hear her flawless musical talent as natural and flowing as the doves’ wings that visit my garden.
Sing, Ma! Sing! As if there were never wars. Sing, Ma! Sing! As if life were a birdsong without sad tears, only happy melodies. Sing, Ma! Sing! I say, and go forth through the darkness in a backdrop of her high notes, and the music helps strengthen my diaphragm and fills my lungs beyond a capacity of unimaginable proportions.
Sing, Ma! Sing! This song is for you, Ma! Happy Birthday, Ma! My love for you is an endless melody!
Butterfly season is winding down. When I go outside to pick tomatoes in the garden, even on the high-temperature days, I feel a lack of warmth in the air, and it’s not only because we are headed into autumn. I search around the perimeter of the yard as if I am a grammar school kid waiting for my neighborhood buddy to meet up and play.
In my case, I await the “Painted Lady,” but she has disappeared. I suppose she already migrated south to Mexico, although I wish she stayed around just a little longer. I had become accustomed to my daily garden visitor. I’ve never really paid much attention to butterflies until I met this one. She was fearless. A few times when she orbited near my face, she startled me. Each time I went outside, I began to long for her peaceful presence. Her delicious tangerine-colored body made me yearn for a ripe summer fruit. The white spots and black markings on her wings drew me in further. It was as if I were stalled from my daily routine and, instead, standing inside an art gallery, meditating on a painting’s technique and imagery. Her appearance awakened my senses as if they were young and keen again.
One day in mid-July, I had a sudden feeling of recognition at the sight of her. “Is that you, Beach Lady?”
Could the Painted Lady possibly be a reincarnation of the Beach Lady, an extraordinary woman I met in the early 2000s during my travel writing days?
You see, I was working on a story about Amelia Island in Florida and was introduced to MaVynee Betsch. In the same year she was born, 1935, her great-grandfather, A.L. (Abraham Lincoln) Lewis, one of the seven co-founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and Florida’s first Black millionaire, bought the American Beach property on Amelia Island.
As racial segregation and oppression escalated across the United States, A.L. purchased what, thanks predominately to Mavynee’s influence, today is designated as a Florida Heritage Landmark. His vision was to create a beach resort to benefit his company’s executives and also use as a sales incentive for his employees. What’s more, he opened up American Beach to the Black population. In essence, it was a safe haven for the marginalized population to experience sun, respite and fun.
I only spent a weekend with A.L.’s great-granddaughter, but the environmental activist reinforced my views of the preservation of our natural resources. She, too, inspired me to believe that positive outcomes were possible. After all, she had spent a core of her life fighting to preserve and protect a historically African-American beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast. She additionally provided me with enough food for thought to help fill my insatiable appetite for American history.
When I first met the Beach Lady, as she was lovingly called, she lived predominately in a trailer on the property where she was as much a fixture as the land she loved, a diamond by the sea. The most unique diamond that I can imagine. Actually, she preferred to wear shell and beach stone-themed jewelry, and when she walked, she rattled.
Whenever I picture her crease-less face with her hair packed on the top of her head like a solid soup tureen and free falling dreadlocks down past her ankles, I first remember her sandy, bare feet. Her dark toes were full of the contrasting light-colored American Beach sand. The little shells wrapped around her ankles were as distinct as the bold orangy colors that draped her body. Her statement was loud and clear in the many button pins, including political and pro-vegetarianism, attached to her hair and clothing. Her ageless-aging process was an example that builds me up as I now watch liver spots form near the palms of my hands. When, for example, I dare to go against convention and wear my rose tinted, lizard-patterned boots that shout “totally inappropriate for my age,” the Beach Lady’s legacy fuels every step in my soles.
Her six-foot height along with her over foot-long nails curling from her fingers on one hand matched her big, beautiful personality. Everything about her was as natural as the sun, sea and sky. For over 20 years, she allowed her hair to grow without touching up the grays or cutting any of it. Some of her tresses, in fact, measured over seven-feet long. Her stretched-to-the sky fingernails proved the point that things could have natural, healthy growth without any meat protein.
“All I want is to be reincarnated into a butterfly,” she announced to me on numerous occasions.
A few years later, I learned that the Beach Lady died from cancer at the age of 70 in 2005. She was posthumously honored as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by the Dalai Lama in the same year.
So nearly twenty years after meeting her in person, I suddenly see a bright and beautiful butterfly greeting me at every turn. Is it possibly her in a new form front and center in my backyard? Did she get her wish? If anyone should have been granted everything she wished for, it was MaVynee Betsch.
All summer long, every time I spotted the butterfly, I couldn’t help but inquire out load, “Is that you, Beach Lady?”
Whether it really was the Beach Lady reincarnated into a butterfly or my pure imagination or not, the Painted Lady gave me a little faith to realize that when we are beaten down to soil level proportions, sometimes all we need is a flutter of hope to defy gravity.
The following post contains content that may be disturbing to some readers
I always took my coffee with an extra shot of Half-and-Half cream. Black, like a charcoal-colored suit for a funeral, that was my friend Alan’s after-dinner preference. Careful to sip our coffees gently without burning our lips, we swept the bread crumbs left over from our meal onto the floor. The scattered morsels did a good job to assimilate into the pistachio cream-hued speckled design on the linoleum table. It was the waitress’s oversight. We never voiced our complaints and, instead, acted graciously to compensate for our extended coffee hour that stretched into six or more cups as the night wore on. During each passing hour, we were well aware that there was a strong probability that another party was anxious to secure a proper nicotine fix at one of the few tables that we claimed in the roped off, “limited smoking” section of Athena Diner.
I met Alan through one of my dearest girlfriends in the fall on 1984, a turning point in my life. Many Friday or Saturday nights through the end of the 80s, she and I, and at least a handful of other friends and colleagues, gathered at a local club to hear Alan play the drums in his band at the time. We were the band’s proud sober groupies that channeled Bengal tigers with our roars, while we tore up the dance floor.
The diner was not only where we went to feed our stomachs. It was where we went to feed our minds and souls. Diner talk was honest talk, undiluted, untainted and presented in purest form without mincing or sweetening words. “I really don’t know if he likes me,” I said one night to Alan. “I mean, he hasn’t asked me out on a date. At first I thought he was shy. Now I’m wondering if he likes me more than just platonically, but he’s taking his time asking me out,” I added to further clarify the situation involving a fellow co-worker, who symbolized my non-love life perfectly at the time.
I fed my platonic friend across the table each detail as if I were feeding krill to the unending appetite of a blue whale. His head tilted down until his linear nose came into full view, and I pictured a fish lunging into water. Alan listened, sometimes for thirty-minute spans. Perhaps it was because I was 12 years younger than he was, and I represented the sister he never had. He also lost his mother through illness when he was an adolescent. His father was, at the time I knew him, frail and riddled with numerous medical problems. His brother, like most of my peers back then, ran important lives that required their full attention, which left Alan as his father’s primary caretaker.
When I finished my incessant chatter, Alan, like a fish jumping out of water, would tilt his head back up toward the buzzing florescent light. Then would look deep into my eyes.
“He’s either, A: Scared to ask you out. B: Not interested. C: Not interested D: Not interested.”
Deep inside I already knew my work colleague was, as simple as A-B-C-D, not interested. Fortunately,Alan was the kind of guy who could soften any dagger.
When he said “You’ll be okay.” I believed him.
He played his drums with the same special touch. Furthermore, he used the same kind of talent when he worked his day job, employed as a professional house painter.
He was a darn good musician in the same way I was a darn good writer, which was my side gig. We were both Good, but not GREAT in the sense that we weren’t stand-out creative types enough to pave the road to stardom. We did corner the market with the courage we possessed. The courage to look within, and it helped us settle with and accept our compromised, lonely and longing lot in life.
As far as I know, Alan had one love in his life. Her name was Regina. She was slim and sensible, a “trust- fund baby” who grew up within an elite circle of investment bankers. Alan felt he was inferior to her from the very start. To that end, he relished every let-me-pinch-myself-now moment that he spent in her company. Eight months after the couple met, she dumped the tall, lanky, t-shirt- and jean-loving Alan for a man with a medium height and build, who owned his own brokerage firm in New York City, and regardless if it was a holiday, weekend or weekday, he preferred to dress in a pinstripe suit.
When the focus turned off my non-existent love life, the floor turned to Alan ruminating about Regina. Regina this and Regina that. I think it was a solid seven years, before he finally threw the anchor she had on him into the high seas of sanity and never mentioned her name again. As far as I knew, too, he never dated anyone after Regina.
I was in my twenties during the window of time when all the kids I graduated from high school with turned into bona fide adults: getting married, having kids, securing mortgages and car loans. Alan and I, on the other hand, were deemed nonconformists, and for that reason, we were loners. We worked day jobs, dreamed big, but love interests and big-time opportunities seemed to by-pass us and, instead, land on others around us.
Our relationship was one hundred percent platonic – as long as I avoided wearing red shoes. I found this out one night when I appeared at the Athena dressed in red sneakers with white laces. Alan’s glossy eyes twinkled like flickering Christmas tree light bulbs. He could barely murmur a word and acted like a love-struck teen.
“What the heck is up?” I questioned, partially astounded, but yet tinged with anxiety and fear.”
“I fall in love with women who wear red shoes. Any style of red shoes. Any kind of woman. Old. Young. Fat. Thin. Beautiful. Ugly. Girl-next-door types.”
Girl-next-door types? I loved Alan but not in any romantic sense. It stands to reason that I did a bee line swiftly tapping the floor tiles on my way out the diner’s door through the vestibule and into the parking lot, only to point the car north and drive home.
From that day forward, I never wore a red pair of shoes and, to this day, Alan’s starry eyes superimpose any real, photographed or rendered image that I encounter over a red pair of shoes.
No matter how much daily heartbreak and disappointment we shared during our regular weekly conversations, Alan’s comic side lightened the load with his impersonations of the people we knew. When he laughed, he closed his eyes tight and all these lines formed on his face, making it look like soft rock crumbling all at once.
Through our musings, we tried to understand ourselves in relation to the world. One unforgettable night, Alan taught me a lesson that I have carried like an extra dose of bone marrow.
That night, I was particularly loud and self-absorbed, chewing over the injustices at my workplace and in the family that I had been estranged from.
“See this,” Alan announced. In the air with his hand, he drew an elongated rectangular shape, bigger than our linoleum table at Athena. “Imagine the size of this table. Think of how much bigger the diner is. Now, imagine how big this town is, especially in comparison to the diner. Now, imagine the size of the state with millions of people. Imagine the tri-state area, and add the millions of additional people. New York City alone has over seven million people. Now imagine the entire United States. All the continents. The entire world with a population somewhere over seven billion. Billion. Masses and masses of people, not to mention all the animals and living creatures. Billions and billions of living creatures. Imagine?”
Each time Alan made his point, each new sentence forced my anxiety level to crank up a notch. I found myself breathless by the time he I heard him say, Imagine?
“Now,” his voice receded like the tide away from the shore. “Where are you?”
Where am I?
After I left the diner that night with a full stomach as well as a gross amount of food for thought, I pondered over just how insignificant and small I was in the scheme of things, realizing that I was only one grain of sand (as Alan also described) among the endless bodies of ocean. From that time forward, the intensity of my life, my needs, my wishes and desires deflated. I became less stressful. Less self-serving. I started to listen more and talk less. For the first time in my life, I took comfort nesting in a back seat of life. I realized that in the same way the desert triumphs in the process of erosion, so does a person’s being when it rewilds to its peaceful place of belonging — humility.
Some nights when I met up with Alan at our diner table, other friends joined us.
Usually, the latecomer in the group, everyone laughed after I arrived, because I elucidated my preferences for whom I wanted to sit next to in the group at the table by chanting: “AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL.”
Between Alan and me, there was no superficial talk. Nor did we argue about politics (I never had an inkling as to his political affiliation) or converse about religion (he was non-religious). Nope, we just bonded, heart to heart and our doubled strength helped us survive an endless string of lonely nights and isolated days that in the strongest sunlight could be inked out with indigo ink. “The Sound of Silence” was our theme song, as it is for so many who fight through the battlefields of depression.
Alan, though, like faith on an endless skewer, bridged me through. He helped me trust that not all men were beasts and the possibilities of putting one foot in front of the other grew not only stronger, but I learned to walk a graceful step through life — no matter how I ached.
Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year. Even though we saw less and less of one another, we got through.
Alan went on and etched out an extraordinary retail management career for himself. After I married in 1991, it wasn’t until I saw the video a few weeks after our wedding that I realized Alan sang a song alongside another friend during our wedding reception. Today, I don’t remember what song it was, but at the time we got married, Alan’s band had fallen apart, so I thought he wanted to leave me a song for old time’s sake, and it was like a personal gift to me.
As our family grew, I saw Alan less frequently, but around 2012, I called him out of the blue during a family crisis. At the time, my 22-year-old son had plummeted into one of the worst states of depression in his history. Who, but Alan, who lived through so many years fighting the same foe, I thought, could help me save my son.
Upon requesting Alan’s help, I was shocked over his response. “No one can help him if he doesn’t help himself. He’s an adult now.”
Fortunately, my dear friends, Effrim and Kathy, flew to my aid and, to make a long story short, the four of us ended up laughing together that night over life’s hardship and, in essence, we turned the horrible experience into comedy gold.
From that day on, Alan and I were lukewarm to one another. I forgave him for not answering my pleas, but, understandably, I felt hurt, disappointed and, in some respects, betrayed.
Fast forward 2018 when I met up with Alan again. He had just recovered after a difficult battle of fighting a rare cancer illness and was miraculously in remission. I was relieved and happy that, from all accounts, he was healthy and getting his life back on track. After that meeting, we again lost contact with one another.
At the end of August this year, three days after my birthday, I learned from mutual friends, Alan had died by suicide two weeks earlier. He had poured an emollient over himself and lit himself on fire in a public park. By the time the police arrived, he was burned beyond recognition. It took nearly two weeks for the coroner to identify him, one of my first male friends who taught me about unconditional love.
As far as I see it, there are two groups of people in life. Actually, three. The first group lives a pretty straightforward, smooth life. The second group lives through hardships, such as divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure. The third group, that’s my circle. We, at least for most of us, don’t want tragedy to define us, but even though we have somehow impossibly survived it, it continues to follow us around like our shadow self. When we see the latest breaking news headlines of horrific crimes and atrocities, like the terrible war in Ukraine, we are the ones who do not “imagine” the horrific circumstances and consequences. We are brave. We are honest. We live a life of far-reaching sight – and accept the reality – as unreal as it may seem. We are the consumers who see a brand of mountain water named “Liquid Death” in the local drug store’s fridge and nearly hyperventilate, anxiously fleeing the aisle, knowing the founders are likely not former POWs of any war or have they experienced first-hand a serious crime or injustice that strips you from the life you once fit into like a soft moccasin. In addition, “Death Saves” hats are not our form of comical marketing merchandise. Instead, this kind of marketing makes our hearts heavy, and we view it as irreverent trash that kills our landfill further.
We are the tiny circle of people who are much too keenly aware of how it is to sit down at the diner’s table together and relish everyday pleasures like a hot cup of full-bodied coffee, only to be detonated by a cruel bomb that robs your “good” life – full of worries, feuds and foibles – away for good.
After I heard the news about Alan, and after I dealt with a surge of emotions, involving regret, guilt, anger and, of course, inconsolable sorrow, in my own personal way, I came face-to-face with why Alan did not come when I beseeched him to come and help me during our family crisis. Day in and day out, he had his own daily crisis to deal with. His own personal demon.
I had tried to draw water from an “empty well.” In other words, he was depleted. Shockingly, I realized that if he had tried to help my son, it may have led him to his own demise much sooner. When it came down to it, he could name his demons, but not face them. He spent years running from them, until, in the end, they literally inflamed him.
Even though I had in the past forgiven Alan, I really, really forgave him this time, because I was able to see the bigger picture, even though it horrified me. I understood.
I went outside and sat in a far corner of the yard in the stark dark night, allowing the memories and thousands of tears to tear me. There was nothing left to do or say, only be at peace with living tragedy after tragedy, thereby creating a tragic life.
“It sucks.” That’s the way I see it, as my therapist says to me so many times.
What I am left acutely aware of is that living through a tragic life makes me keenly sensitive to the fact that circumstance is on the outside and virtues, such as humility and courage, are seeded inside by the honorable, honest people who have influenced me. People like Alan, who, when they are at their best warrior places in their lives, leave me everlasting impressions and mellow tunes to follow with every stride I take on the battleground.
Good night, my beloved friend. Rest now. At last. I love you from the bottom of my heart that you so long ago helped mend with your sweet words and melody. Wherever you are, I hope you and everyone dances to infinity in a pair of red shoes.
“Light must come from inside. You cannot ask the darkness to leave; you must turn on the light.” –Sogyal Rinpoche
There is a tall and svelte woman Peggy that regularly jogs in my neighborhood. She works as an accountant at a startup company where her husband is the chief executive officer.
She spends more on keratin hair straightening treatments than most people spend on their monthly grocery bills. Temperatures and humidity could be soaring, and Peggy won’t break a sweat.
While I listened to the news on my car radio about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, that left 19 children and two adults dead, adding to an alarming series of mass killings in America, she rolled past my view like a smooth, scarlet-colored ribbon.
I was headed to Trader Joe’s for a bag of reduced fat cheese puffs. It was my usual justified, self-trickery. Predictably, I would return with two bags of additional snacks and ice cream.
During my shopping trip, in my mind, I pictured the families of the deceased as well as the families of the perpetrator. Faces seized by shock’s fire. Raging in sorrow, grief. Confiscated homes that were once smooth and sound and as predictable as compiling a grocery list. Lives similar to normal plane mirrors, a mirror with a flat (planar) reflective surface. Sure, you wipe them off. Remove the smudges and streaks. In turn, they work for you. Not so.
Men, women and children now trapped in a not-funny fun house of distorted mirrors where every turn from here on means smacking into another jarring convex and concave section. Where to go? How to go? Direction is lost in a maze of thick grief, ground sodded and planted with inescapable emotional booby traps.
My mind’s photos create a juxtaposition between scenes from the recent Texas tragedy and Peggy’s face, smooth with a ladybug complexion. I picture her scouring the pages on Amazon’s website, searching for blankets, sheets and pillows, helping her son get ready for his first year at an Ivy league school …. Gearing up for her jog the next morning.
During the rest of the week, the Texas tragedy unfolds on the news. I see the victims’ faces. Each one represents a wrinkle- and scar-free youth. I see the families’ faces. Each one, muscle lost, thin skin, ten-thousand tomorrows lived in a moment.
I repeatedly spot Peggy jogging out on the road. Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s “stunning” Italian wedding plaster the other news sections on my computer screen. By the time last weekend arrives, Platinum Jubilee celebrations of England’s queen steals the limelight as she hails “a renewed sense of togetherness.”
Maybe because it is my brain of COVID-19 (I was recently diagnosed), but I feel like I’ve lost my bearings, and I am out of touch, caught in unfamiliar terrain. I ponder, why can’t we all live a royal life of jubilation? Wander around, spending our days in a fun house where we can laugh at distortion, because it’s not real.
Why is it that some adults and children never seem to get a lucky break? Have they broken mirrors and it resulted in bad luck that exceeds its seven-year limit? Or is it that infants are born already swaddled in bad luck? Always by-passed. Never chosen to play on a sports team, while others seem to live life enjoying a daily picnic spread with plenty of no-calorie desserts?
Whether you consider yourself one of the lucky ones or not, the real question is, how do you find faith when there’s so much disparity? I don’t have the answer. I do know when I stay off the national news and social media and do something more productive like water ivy houseplants, I feel less anxious, less sad, less mad. I float on my sea of grief, cease the mean fight against the waves. It puts me back in my own shoes, and I can forge the walk-the-walk trek in life that I was taught 37 years ago. Pick up the discarded empty cigarette packs along the roadside in my teeny-tiny landscape. Pick up extra snacks at the store and give half away. Choose listening over talking. Stop thinking so hard and just be, because I am most precious to myself and others when I am humble, brave and free of distracting airwaves.
If you recall, the press club awarded, Am I in the Right Room? a second prize in the blogging category for CPC’s 2020 contest.
As a side note, one of my travel stories also won an honorable mention in the 2021 travel writing category.
The awards will be presented in June, and I will keep you updated.
I am humbled and, at the same time, honored to be recognized. It has been a bittersweet, 40-something year writing journey. When my children were growing up, and I spent every weekend and holiday “working” on a project, I never doubted for one minute that my earnest efforts would pay off and, in the future, I would have ample family quality time. One day, I thought, I would be able financially to “retire” or, at least, have weekends off. Of course, living in my writer’s fantasy, my dreams were simply illusions, pipedreams dribbled down on paper. I am left with thinking about the years of Sunday movies at the theater that I did not have the opportunity to watch with my young and growing family.
When it comes to writing this blog, sometimes I fear that I shouldn’t be transparent and, instead, keep my vulnerabilities to myself. At this point in my life, though, I work hard at steering clear of judging others and keeping my opinions about others to myself and, as such, the only opinion about moi that matters is my own. This mindset has proven to be of great therapeutic value to me and allows me to express myself during the times I need to. In turn, I am grateful to you, my blogging community, for providing me with a judgment-free zone that is my safe sanctuary and certainly my faith muscle and a “winner’s circle” all around.
Sometimes it seems as if certain people are granted an easier road to travel in life. My mother, though, always reminded me not to judge because, “You never know someone’s ending.”
What she meant by this lesson is that everyone has to face his or her final hour on earth, and we never know when, how or what the extent of that suffering will entail. The point of what my mother meant was not let it be but it will be.
After my personal tragedy, I fully appreciated my mom’s lesson in mortality. Take for example my former college roommate Susan, just a few years older than I. A recent retiree, she had led an extremely successful career in education. Susan brisked through a fairy tale life, with endless chapters of characters derived from a large, loving family and also a small, tight-knit community where she grew up. I can tell you firsthand that she loved her roots. No matter where her life’s travels brought her, she toted her treasured family and small town pride everywhere.
One month before my tragedy, the doctors diagnosed 64-year-old Susan with cancer. I do not recall the exact kind of cancer that it was, but it was the type that you have no doubt you will beat. After 18 months of surgeries and treatments, while she and others prayed dozens of prayers and never lost faith, it beat her down to a skeleton, and she died in the middle of savoring her ripe American Dream lifestyle. Bam! Just like that she disappeared right before the eyes of her loving, doting husband of 40 years, not to mention her healthy, successful children and their adorable offspring.
Sometimes even before our family tragedy, my eyes, bulging green with envy, inspected her Facebook pages full of the knitted scarfs, hats and mittens that she crafted for each of her grandchildren. I observed, too, how she toiled away on her month’s long project of converting her childhood Barbie and Ken playhouse into a revamped vintage toy dream house for her grandchildren.
When you have “it all,” or close to it, it’s so easy to believe life here on earth is eternal. In this way, the end is always a nasty surprise or, perhaps, a complete shock. There is no way around it. Years ago, I watched a freaky movie. In it, a young boy could foresee the death of people that were alive in front of him. So often, this is the foresight I now have, carrying my mom’s interpretation of life. No one, not even people like Queen Elizabeth and Kim Kardashian, can escape our human fragility. We can fool ourselves to think differently, but it will be.
I remind myself of it will be and, in the interim, let it be. Accept it. Embrace it. Just be. There’s a dark alternative and some choose that path of finality, but I’m not here to analyze, preach or judge. I’m here to hear my pain, your pain, the world’s pain and face the raw reality and, maybe, just maybe if we have a little faith in the universal language of human vulnerability, we can surrender our search for happiness, because we have made peace with ourselves.
And, when I am not in my own sorrow and mourning my own son and the consequences of his final act and what it means to us left behind, I can lift my thoughts to Susan and her family and the others she has left behind. I can remember my friend Mary. And I can think about how some of the pain people suffer behind the walls of their million dollar mansions is to the same degree as those of our homeless brothers and sisters in New York City. In this muck of feelings, failings and fallings, I can pull through a divine thread that is naked to the human eyes, but felt by the human hearts of those who surrender to the vision of how it will be and allow it to be because that’s how it is.
Some 20 years ago, my then husband and I attended a Dwight Yoakam concert in New York City. We were in our 40s, and our lives brimmed with the hallmark of blessings: an amicable marriage, a stable home, two young, healthy children and a future showing nothing less than promise.
Dwight was one of my favorite musicians, and my ex-husband went out of his way to not only secure the concert tickets, but also backstage passes to meet the singer. After the foot-stomping concert, which was worth the one-hour tardiness of the singer, the audience milled around. Waiting to be admitted to the private backstage party, we encountered a married couple in their 20s and started conversing. We learned that the couple traveled from England, I kid you not, to attend the concert. They didn’t have a sad story but were just starting out. I detected our one-time vulnerabilities, our long-ago future uncertainties in them that all seemed to have worked out for us. We were blessed.
I glanced at my then husband, who was on the same wavelength. He looked at me approvingly because he sensed what I was about to do. I gifted the couple our backstage tickets. I did have a condition.
“Please drop us a letter (this was pre-internet times) and let us know how it was meeting Dwight and the other band members. We would appreciate that,” I explained as I gave them our address.
They were more than happy to oblige and promised us that they would send us a follow-up letter.
Though my ex-husband and I never mentioned the promised letter again, with my rose-colored glasses cemented on the brim of my nose, I anticipated that the letter would materialize.
My ex’s motto was, “Don’t expect anything, and you won’t be disappointed.”
After about three months passed, it was only then that I knew the couple had “moved on” with their lives and didn’t take the time to write the letter.
Frankly, if I had been in the woman’s shoes, I would have fulfilled the promise. My father raised me, repeatedly saying, “Promise low. Deliver high.”
For the last 37 plus years, I also have followed a program for living that is based on vigorous honesty.
Plus, I am a writer by trade. Writing a letter would have been easy for me. In the couple’s defense, everyone has different talents, interests and priorities. I mean, maybe the couple sat down and experienced a debilitating case of writer’s block and quit. Who knows what could have happened? Maybe a tragedy occurred. Maybe …
I will never know the reasons behind their broken promise. For me, one broken promise can be like a domino effect, and I begin to ruminate about so many other broken promises made to me. In fact, if the broken promises that I’ve received in my life were shattered pieces of quartz and feldspar, I could construct a granite counter that stretches the length of a football field.
Over these many years, I’m learning to put my faith into real rock — myself — and not depend on rocky humans. My life story may amount to a backlash of unmet promises, yet I do not have to contribute to the scrap pile. I, in fact, can raise above the scrap pile.
Coincidentally, my friend sent me a quote that said: “Don’t treat people as bad as they are, treat them as good as you are.”
I have learned the hard way that life is inherently unmanageable, and I’m powerless over people, places and things. The only power I possess is over my own behavior. So, do I feel bad about giving that young couple our backstage tickets? Rarely, if ever now. If given another opportunity, I would guilelessly do it again, again and again. Let the couple have their backstage views. I have the best seat in a house built on gratitude, humility, compassion, authenticity and a wealth of other gifts that I can bank on without disappointment.
In the two years, this Friday, you’ve been gone, I discovered that anyone can purchase poison on eBay, and there are companies in China that will deliver it in an unmarked package via USPS mail for exorbitant costs.
About three weeks before the unspeakable happened, I heard Britney Spears perform “Lover” for the first time on Saturday Night Live. The song was on the album released in August, ironically, a day after my birthday of that horrible year. (In fact, I believe she debuted “Lover” live on YouTube on my birthday before the album’s actual release date.)
Can I go where you go … can we always be this close? Forever and ever, ah
So many things, like one of our final nearly two-hour conversations led me to believe we were close. I told you I was preparing to pack my personal belongings and move them to what I thought would be a second home in your home some 600 miles away.
Can I go where you go … can we always be this close? Forever and ever, ah
That song can push me to steep cliffs where the view is not pretty. If I hear the lyrics in some random store or any other public place that I have no control over, and they start to pierce what little whole surface is left in my Swiss cheese heart that now replaces my healthy heart, like the one you were born with before it was surgically repaired, I put my hands over my ears and let out a shrill scream to cancel the sound. Bystanders simply avoid me. By the looks on their faces, they assume I am on a day’s furlough from a psychiatric special care facility.
Other songs, too, have a nails-on-a-chalkboard effect. Would you believe, thanks to you, I can’t listen to country and western music anymore? To think, you and your sister were raised on what was once my favorite genre of music. I now realize how the lyrics so often involve white, Christian heterosexual alpha male cowboys and helpless soon-to-be dependent wives and, as such, marginalize diverse populations. I feel excluded. In the same way you did, son. Instead of you growing up to be like me, I have grown up to be so much like you.
In actuality, there isn’t much music I can listen to any longer. You’ll likely be happy (or maybe not so much, because it used to irritate you!) that I do still sing dumb songs. Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee, Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee. Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee, Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy.
I don’t, though, sing my silly songs as often. I sure don’t pray any longer. Instead, I curse in my mind at you all day long. I’m sure people would judge me, but you know how I feel about judgment, especially watching how you deteriorated from the bullies over the years until the end when they won your soul. Let the hypocrites, the judgmental bullies spew their well-meaning sermons on forgiveness. I’ll keep my new cursing habit; thank you very much. It’s has the monotone sound of a daily prayer and is one of the few things that keeps me here.
When you took your life. You took mine.
I say this along with the cursing in my mind. I only wish I had conveyed these notions to you out loud and saturated you with guilt in response to the threats you made to me a million times; threats that fell on deaf ears.
I wish I could prove to you how much I have changed, and how well I can listen and engage in conversation. Without the preaching. Without the positive psychology and affirmations. Without the quick-made solutions. Without the holier-than-thou attitude and putting my ego-inflated, false pride into the equation.
I no longer, believe it or not, for the most part, attend support groups. The people in them all sound like they are on fire with miracles that don’t exist for most people in the world. It boils down to false hope and it feels as real to me as “FakeBook,” which, by the way, I’m off and don’t miss at all! Don’t even start me on any kind of religious groups and how I fear them. Thank goodness for Father Ivan. He is still a kind and compassionate man. He’s right up there with the saints. I am sorry, son, though, that he forgot to add your liturgy on the church calendar this Friday. I readily accepted his apology and told him we are human and make mistakes in the same manner you would have done. I, however, declined his offer to add your name to a later date on the church calendar to “celebrate” your life. Take the money, I insisted, and put it toward a new church roof. I don’t need any more remembrances of how marginalized and painful your existence once was.
Can you believe this is me? If anyone ever told me that my major goal for each day is to dodge songs, prayers, social media, people, group gatherings as well as ropes, strings, belts or any kind of cord or suspended pendulum that swings back and forth, I would have reacted to the thought like my old laughing hyena self. Even though we still share that goofy giggle that irritated the heck out of me when I heard it from you, most things do not strike me as funny any longer. I am trying to remove the words “kill” and “hate” from my vocabulary.
I think you would really, really like this new version of me. Once you realized who I am now, you would really, really stay. At least a little longer.
Maybe I should have told you that my greatest aspiration was to see you and E grow up. Motherhood is far greater than any other role. I should have told you the reason that I toiled on pipe dreams was because I was certain they would pay off and make it possible for me to be with you, especially since your sister was always so much more independent and resilient. They did not pay off. In the end, before the unspeakable happened, I was ripped off in trying to get that web business going. Michael B. was the perpetrator’s name. He is your age. I forgave him. Last I heard, he was still alive and living in Florida.
I should have stopped “strategizing” so much and started finding ways to be alongside you. Before you relocated to KY, you asked me to go on a hike with you to Sleepy Giant State Park. It was mid-week, and I was working with Michael.
Love is showing up. Putting down the phone. Walking through hot coals if necessary. Regardless of my intentions (intentions can’t form a hug around anyone), I should have dropped everything and joined you on the hike in Sleepy Giant. I would have appreciated the memory. Who knows, maybe if I joined you instead of being left behind sitting in the home office, I wouldn’t have been duped into the lame website.
These “new normal” days I would dedicate to taking hikes with you even in a hailstorm, because I have brand-new, excellent all-weather gear. On the hike, I would at last speak the words to acknowledge how I reveled in your development and your mind. How I appreciated your accomplishments that were done completely independent from me. How I admired that your character was so much better than mine was at that age. The person I am today would have spent the rest of her life hiking with you, Marshall. Ultimately, the canteens have run dry.
You were always quiet in a noisy world. Subdued and humble in an entitled, egotistic world. With this in mind, few, if any, care to remember you. Even Father Ivan forgot. Steve Irwin gets a day on November 15. I wish I could get a day for you every year on the universe’s calendar, but what matters, really, is how much you matter to me. I would have given my life over a zillion times to spare yours. That was always the way it was. I only wish I had let you in on my secret. Instead, I kept telling you how your brain would clear up at 26 when the “logic” center developed. How I couldn’t wait for that year to come. This was because of some dumb brain documentary that I watched in the auditorium at your genius-only high school. A “top school” that’s tops in creating equality by making perfect products out of all people who enter through the doors. I can still hear myself saying, I can’t wait until you’re 26.
Now, I can’t wait to get through all the days. I’m sure you know that Saturday through Monday are especially painful. We could have saved you in those three days if we were there. Whitney and Bradley tried on that fatal, unbearable fourth day, a Tuesday. It was, obviously, too late. I think you would be pleased to know that Whitney and Bradley have joined our incomplete family, and it doesn’t feel as miniscule in size as it really is. They are the only reason I would return to KY. We still have family graves there, too, son, don’t forget. I have discovered that six hundred miles is not far after all.
When you took your life. You took mine.
I looked outside the window the other day and imagined you jumping in complete abandon on the neighbor’s trampoline. It made me recall one of those rare times when you were the star at the middle school dance, and you let go of all your inhibitions, and you danced as if no one was watching, although the entire eighth grade class gathered around and cheered you on the dance floor. It was all for you, my boy, my son, my first born. All the worldly applause. It was all for you. For you, Marshall, who was named after an American entrepreneur who became a famous multimillionaire. Sadly, from that night forward, you stopped dancing just as you stopped crying, because, marking your adolescence, you proclaimed to me, “Real men don’t cry.”
I wish you had kept dancing. I wish you had kept crying. I wish you had allowed yourself to be comfortable with all the uncomfortable things that made you feel like you didn’t belong to us or anywhere you traveled. Shame, of course, killed you. I’d like to think you are finally at peace. Maybe even dancing or crying or, at very least, just at ease.
In your note that “fell from the sky — you know what I mean” to me and your sister and Pat, you said you hoped the next world was kinder than this one. I hope so. There are no signs. No feelings I can sink my hope into. No muscle of faith that can pull me up and inspire me to sing, “Hallelujah!”
I’m still here. Maybe that is enough of a sign for now.
LOVE YOU ALWAYS AND FOREVER, YOUR HEART-BROKEN, SHATTERED-IN-PIECES MOTHER
The date repeatedly magnified in front of my face on the oversized black- and-white 2010 calendar, the only wall décor in the attorney’s office where I sat for three and a half hours (no, she didn’t tell me she was charging per hour!) rehashing a month-long account of what had propelled me to file divorce proceedings against my then husband.
Trying to grasp the end of my 19-year marriage, my stressed brain couldn’t differentiate between November 1st and November 2nd, and which one commemorated All Saint’s Day and which one was All Souls’ Day.
If you are not familiar with the dates, the internet definitions are below:
All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, the Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian solemnity celebrated on November 1 in honor of all the saints of the church, whether they are known or unknown.
All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead, is a day of prayer and remembrance for the souls of those who have died, which is observed by Latin Catholics and other Christian denominations annually on November 2.
I finally realized that November 2nd was indeed “the Day of the Dead.” From that bleak day forward, the day slapped a bookmark into the pages of my life and paused a full spool of memories made prominent with lace-up-the sneakers, leaf-peeping adventures. From that autumn on, it took eight years to refill the fall time colors into my black-and-white, gray-hued calendar world. Finally, the afternoon arrived when I drove through the neighborhood, and the sudden sight of crimson, golden leaves inspired me to recite poetry out loud in the car.
A year after color poured back into the lines of my life, little did I realize that the bottom of my world would completely unhinge, and I would be left fluttering around in a pool of profound grief that became my permanent autumn shadow.
Recalling the eight years of robbed autumn color, I appreciate the reawakened awareness of the hues. Consequently, they will never represent the same brazen fire irons they once did. Long lost are the years when the children were young, and we sipped fresh steaming apple cider that wafted through our sunny kitchen with an aroma that was a recipe to create optimistic dreams that seemed as real as finding the perfect fit in a new pair of lace-up sneakers.
Of course, some memories can be like leaves running their final course and dropping silently like dribbles of rain, composting and disappearing into the good earth. Clearly, in the cycle of life, there are new seeds to sow, harvest and grow.
Time takes time. There are no magic seeds that bloom instantly. From November 2nd, 59 days remain until the end of the year when the earth is frigid and stubborn. From there, all we can do is mull around in the new year and wait until spring softens the ground. Live a day at a time. Drink steaming hot cocoa to compensate for winter’s barren wasteland and warm us with the faith of knowing we have passed another day of life’s test, and we are in the process of learning an important lesson: patience. Colors may fade, strip and vanish, but year after year, cycle after cycle, the master painter’s palette is infinite.
When my children were young, the first sharp breeze, autumn’s precursor, stirred my enthusiasm. It signaled for me to uncover a special jewelry box and open the top drawer gathering dust from the year before. Inside was a treasure of assorted inexpensive trinkets that I spent seasons past unearthing at flea markets and tag sales. To me, though, the pieces were priceless because they helped me amplify the excitement of holiday time. Halloween kicked off the tradition. Two weeks before October 31st, I reached for my favorite troll pumpkin earrings and cottony ghost pin.
Earrings dangling and pin attached to my top, I performed the annual traipse up the attic stairs and started to pull out the jack-o’-lantern and fall leaf wreath. Christmas carols played in the background simply because I lacked a repertoire of Halloween music.
As a first-generation American child, my parents, both Eastern European immigrants, were not accustomed to Halloween. When I trick-or-treated around the neighborhood, I either went alone or joined a family a few blocks away. Each holiday, I wore the same old sheet I had worn the year before. My favorite part was at the end of the night when I came home and uncovered the scarcely distributed Hershey Bars among the bag of loot. An hour later, the juicy crunch of a fresh apple lessened the overly sweetening taste in my mouth from my consuming endless tootsie rolls and candy corn pieces.
I’ll never forget the Halloween when the TV news broadcast warned about evildoers hiding razors in apples. Learning about the deplorable act marked my innocence with its first blemish and elicited a spooky creaking door effect on my world, my first experience in adult boot camp.
After Halloween passed, my parents were big on church during Christmas, but, apart from that, they both worked tirelessly and viewed Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays as a burden. Looking back, my mother was completely bereft of organizational strategies, and her cooked meals turned out to be so late that my much older brothers had typically disappeared by dinnertime. She was exhausted and couldn’t eat. My father rushed through his meal, famished. I ended up eating my holiday meals in solitude.
It made sense that when I celebrated the holidays with my own family, I compensated for what lacked in the holiday memories of my youth. It all started with cracking open the dusty jewelry box and then pulling out the big decorations from the attic. A lot of the household décor I purchased the day after Christmas, long before frugal consumers understood the extent of the meaning behind “After-Holiday Sale!” savings. Christmas, in fact, got to a point where all the household décor was switched out for holiday ornamentation. Instead of one tree, we had two. We started with one fresh green pine and one white artificial that later transitioned into another artificial tree.
My then husband was not as keen on Thanksgiving and Christmas as I was. I feared I had recreated a familiar pattern, but I did appreciate how he loved escorting our kids trick-or-treating. Looking back, his crafted jack-o’-lantern had to be the spiffiest looking one in our neighborhood.
There wasn’t a moment that I did not burst with gratitude during any of the holidays, always feeling as if I were given a second chance to experience the magical component in them, and it started with flipping the lid open on the one dusty jewelry box. Even when some of the mostly China-made jewelry broke, I kept the pieces. To dispose of them was like discarding joy.
Some women might, rightly so, feel privileged by wearing mega-sized diamonds. For me, nothing could replace the delight I felt from the colorful plastic holiday turkeys on my jacket’s lapel and Christmas light bulb earrings catching on the collars of my clothes.
I am sure, if tragedy had not struck, I would continue to keep the jewelry box in my over-protective hands while woolgathering about myself dressed as a real-life ornament, a walking signal of joy among my future tribe of grandchildren. Instead, my hands are robbed by grief. The first sign was last year when I discarded the broken jewelry, only to slam the box shut, unable do anything else.
This year, I sorted through the rest of my holiday jewelry and then cleaned and polished the box before donating everything to Goodwill. As I did, I pictured the young children out there and moms who are cozy and busy with their lives, so much the way I had been. I know someone will uncover the stash at Goodwill with new eyes and hope for the future. Someone, I anticipate, who felt the same blissful way at Goodwill when they unearthed my freshly cleaned wedding gown that finally I was able to part with three years ago.
Like seasons, holidays are the ebb and flow of life. I read recently something I never knew. “Ebb and flow” means that sometimes our life flows toward our hopes and dreams, and sometimes it flows away. I see it as the rising and falling ocean, a harmony that can only continue if we hold tight while learning to surf, because the raw truth is, at one point or another, we realize we are all novices and there is no mastery at life, especially when it shocks us into knowing how true this is, and we are left grappling with abstract ideas like the meaning of faith.