My father grasped a plastic bag in his dry, reddened, calloused hands, a mirror of the good earth that he loved to work on. During our frequent train trips to the East Village, a part of Greenwich Village in New York City, my dad’s blank face pointed one way: forward.
“Come on!” he commanded in his broken English when we arrived at the station, finally breaking the silence after the nearly two-hour ride. He grabbed his other half-dozen or so bags and boxes in the train’s overhead compartment and slid some over one arm and the rest over his other arm.
He ricocheted across Grand Central Station. My short, young legs fell farther and farther behind. He streamed outside, squeezing through the crowd on Lexington Avenue and hailed a cab. By the time I caught up, I could see the cab driver’s face as he veered towards the sidewalk. The driver parked, and we got in.
The cab snaked through the city streets to a retail clothes store on Second Avenue. Inside, the shiny skinned, Russian-Jewish shop owner, with his one lazy eye, mildly greeted us. My father hoisted his items on the counter for him to inspect every inch of the clothes, shoes, socks, purses and scarves, so many scarves, that my dad and mom had collected for my dad’s mom and the rest of his family in Lviv, Ukraine.
My dad, who was fluent in French and a number of Slavic languages, spoke to the man in Russian. I didn’t comprehend many of the words, but I detected a stiffness in my dad’s tone. At last the store owner approved my family’s goods to be shipped to Ukraine (and I believe he always did), and began packing everything into a large parcel. My father cracked the first smile of the day, retrieved his faded cowhide wallet from his pocket and enthusiastically purchased about a half dozen extra scarves to add to the package. In addition, he also handed him an envelope addressed to my relatives to also enclose. After that, the store owner copied the mailing address from a tattered, folded up piece of paper that my dad kept in his wallet and finished preparing the package for shipment to Ukraine. At the end of the exchange, my dad paid for the scarves, postal fees and services.
Once the door closed behind us, back outside my dad always said the same two phrases and nothing else, “Hope it goes through. Damn communists.”
He bought me a hot sweet potato from a street vendor down the block and refrained from spending any money on a treat for himself. His steps were lighter and easier for me to follow as we walked partially back to Grand Central Station before hailing another cab.
My dad passed away in December of 2000. Since the attack on Ukraine by the Russians last Thursday, I find myself remembering so many things about the man whose legacy of action outweighed any of his promises, because, in fact, I don’t ever remember him promising anything. He lived his motto: promise low, deliver high.
I am relieved that my dad is not alive to watch the atrocities and devastation in his beloved homeland. I don’t think the Ghost of Kyiv, an anonymous fighter pilot who is said to shoot down Russian planes, is just an urban legend. I think it is my reincarnated dad doing all he ever did, being his real self and fighting for freedom, family, country and tradition.
I was a first-generation American who spent most of my childhood playing and riding my bicycle in my affluent, white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant neighborhood in Connecticut. Days were rare when my dad didn’t stand outside on the porch and echo, “Nastuna!”
The name, as far as I can figure out, was a child-like rendition of my actual name, Anastasia.
I furiously pedaled home and begged him to shush. He yelled it louder and started throwing out a few other choice Ukrainian expletives that intercepted his usual lecture about loyalty, heritage and truth and made sure everyone in earshot could hear his Ukrainian words mixed in with English ones. I didn’t dare cup my hands over my ears. Apart from a few isolated minor strikes on my rear, my father did not employ corporeal punishment, at least not on me, the only daughter in the family. In spite of that fact, I still held an innate fear of my father.
My dad exasperated the bullying situation, and the neighborhood kids snickered and laughed and instead of calling me “Anastasia,” they mocked my father and called me “Petunia.”
I never lived down the foreignness of my dad even after the second grade teacher took it upon herself to change my name to “Stacy.” (That’s another story for another blog.)
I never was able to purchase a pack of petunias without my heart beating inside my eardrums until I was around forty years old.
My dad, on the other hand, rose above the element of exclusion that followed us as well as many other first-born Americans of foreign parents.
“Ehhh. I’ll outlive them all,” my dad insisted.
And in the end he did. He lived to be 86.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s and even into the 1990s and after, oddly, Americans weren’t familiar with Ukraine. My mother, who was born in Belarus but adopted my dad’s family heritage, advised me just to tell my first grade class that my family was from Germany. Everyone, of course, knew about Germany. I even wrote a paper about my family’s “native” country of Germany. The idea of “coming from Germany” wasn’t totally inaccurate because my parents were “displaced people,” refugees, without a country for about seven years, after they lost their homes to the Nazis before they immigrated to America. My mom and dad met and married and birthed my two older brothers in Germany.
After working a number of jobs while learning the language, he met Peter Martini, a first-generation American from Italian roots, who owned a septic cleaning business. He gifted my dad with the best thing you could ever give someone: a future. He taught him everything there was about septic systems. My father, in fact, asked Mr. Martini to be my Godfather, and Mr. Martini obliged. Because of his generosity, my dad landed a job at the town’s sewerage treatment plant and worked there until he retired.
My dad was the most predictable man on earth and never missed pulling down our driveway after work at 4:08 p.m. When he stepped inside our house, it was one of the few times he wasn’t his stoic self, because he had a smile as wide as his face.
His lips were sealed with gratitude. In my dad’s book, if you worked hard and did the right thing, you were a good person. Simple as that.
Years later, I learned from one of my dad’s former co-workers that my dad’s boss sent my dad to investigate any underground sewer gas leaks or other toxic sewer systems emergencies. Long before organizations like OSHA appeared with safety measure implementations, my Ukrainian-American dad’s “alien” status ranked him as the low man on the totem pole, and, thereby, he was the scapegoat of the department and was the one to have his life jeopardized by fixing hazardous sites.
A WWII war refugee, my dad never went beyond grade school, but to this day, he is the smartest man I’ve ever known and I am quite certain, he knew he risked his life during those toxic emergencies. Leave it to “pops,” he did it fearlessly, honorably and humbly because he was also the most loyal man I’ve ever known. He did it for his family and those he loved.
He was a man of pride. I think one of his proudest moments was when he learned the man who took over his job after he retired held a degree in engineering.
Over the years, my Ukrainian father never stopped correcting people who insisted he was from Russia. He would grow frustrated, saying, “One day, they will know. The world will know about Ukraine and its people.”
“Today,” I wish I could tell my father that the world knows. THEY KNOW! In the eye of evil and calculated, intentional injustice and genocide of the Ukrainian people, the nation without divide of class or jurisdiction – former beauty queen alongside 80-year-olds – has entered the ring to fight against the evil dictator, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his consort of dark angels.
As horrified as I am witnessing the destructive path of one man, I am honored by my dad’s Ukrainian roots.
I am lifted up by the humanitarian efforts of people across the globe and the people in my own tribe, including Kathy, an old-time friend whom I’d lost touch with over these last few years, asked me over the phone: “What can I do?”
I intended to write about how the developing news of this loss since last Thursday magnifies other losses, and, yes, we do have family still in Ukraine. Instead, I ended up writing about my dad, because so many times when I am lower than low, he is my ghost pilot that lifts me up and gives me faith like no other: “Get up and do what you’re suppose to do. I don’t care you hurt.”
So, thanks to the legacy of this mighty oak of a man, I am proud to report that I am organizing a Stand with Ukraine rally on March 5th….. and invite my blogging community to join me IN PERSON if you can — and certainly in spirit!
Jordon, around the age of my now deceased son, was always a proud nerd and geek. He’s a chemist by trade and also builds PCs from amassed components as a hobby. Jordon is tall and linear in appearance and in his mind. I’m not going to guess his IQ score, but I know for certain that I can’t decipher the book titles in his private library since they are all written for geniuses, a group into which I wouldn’t try to fake my admittance.
A few people I know have husbands like Jordon. He’s the kind of man that if he gets married, he’s a keeper. That being said, I introduced him to my daughter about five years ago. She immediately canceled out any ideas in my scheming head when I heard her verdict. “Nope. Not my type.”
Some bystanders over the years have labeled him with a case of social anxiety. I, too, have witnessed women his age roll their eyes behind his back and sarcastically whisper his name, “Jordon,” in a mean-spirited way. He, by no means, even remotely resembles the alpha male in hot-selling women’s fiction.
He is, however, who he was born to be. He is the kind of guy that will drive an elderly woman to the hospital in an emergency, the way my son had done. Unlike my son, though, he has a solid tribe around him, a few members reach as far back as grammar school.
Still, I sensed a loneliness about him. These are the years in his life that, while he grows bonsai trees in his kitchen window, many of his friends are getting married and starting families of their own. In fact, once I didn’t see him for a string of days and became overly concerned. Right when I was going to investigate further, he waved at me with his toothy, silly grin as I drove by when he was taking a walk. In solidarity, I understand how it is to suffer from loneliness and disconnection.
A few weeks ago, I again spotted him walking. Upon closer look, I saw that his bony arm was around a woman who looked like she could walk with swagger and determination down a model’s runway. Her hair was silky and long, a brunette photo-perfect image for a hair dye product. Symmetrically refined, her face could soften the mean waves of an ocean.
As long as I’ve known Jordon, he has seemed content with his loveless life. How did this happen? He isn’t on the dating circuit. He doesn’t even have a night life. What? For days I fell into the black hole of no return. This is the usual route I travel when I start comparing my son’s life with someone else’s life. A losing battle, my therapist Louis continually reminds me.
Despite knowing better, I lost a string of days while engaged in a mindless battle. Wondering how a recluse like Jordon, against all odds, could have ended up in the relationship that he did and how, on the other hand, my recluse son never once found a suitable soulmate and, in turn, ended up the way he did. My many lectures beginning with, “The best way to get anyone back is to succeed,” fell on my son’s deaf ears.
I think, too, how my son, if he could have just waited a little longer, one more day even, things would have turned around. He would have garnered the attention he deserved. He would have had an opportunity to connect with someone special as Jordon had done.
Of course, you have to play the game in order to win, even if this means failing to win every battle year after year. I don’t know if Jordon was privy to other people’s judgment towards him. If he was, he had the mental capacity to say, “No thanks,” to the judgments as if they were an offer of cheap wine. He defined himself and forged on. Faith forward thinking catapulted him.
In order to move forward like that, the first step is to get up, even on the days when it feels like everyone is belting you down. Rise up. Sing, off-key or not, an anthem of resolve. Improvise as much and as long as necessary, because the only standing ovation that matters is the one standing eye-to-eye with yourself in front of the mirror.
(The following post contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.)
Since 1986, I’ve harbored a secret resentment against Hallmark Cards. In that year, in my 20s, I though it was a slam dunk to apply for a job opening at the company that I saw advertised and was all psyched to move from New England to their Kansas City, Missouri, headquarters.
Growing up pre-internet days, while some kids played baseball, bowled and participated in other leisure activities, I bicycled to the drugstore downtown and browsed through greeting cards that I later personalized, writing about my life’s rather mundane updates. Just like an evening ritual glass of milk before bed, I had my trip to the mailbox at the end of the street where I would deposit a handful of Hallmark Cards addressed to friends and family.
Understandably, I had one hundred percent, unshakable faith that I would land the Hallmark Card writing job. Plus, I possessed the required education and background and enough creativity to grow old with the company. For a solid week after my day job, skipping dinner, I typed my application into the late-night hours, which included brainstorming and writing a variety of sample greeting card sentiments. Upon completion, I packaged the bundle and mailed the application. Afterwards, I even mentioned to a number of people my impending Kansas City move. I spent weeks elevated behind my rose-colored glasses, visualizing a future made for a sappy greeting card.
I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come
I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come.
That was my theme song that I sang to myself as the days rolled into weeks. By week six, I received a form rejection letter from the company that floored me. Like all form rejection letters, it basically said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
After receiving the bad news, I felt utterly dejected for weeks. My dreams of becoming a greeting card writer were strip cut and made undistinguishable as if they were forced through a paper shredder. Deep inside, decades later, I still feel a tad resentful over the missed opportunity that when I least expect it, kicks in the “What if’s.”
My failed career experience, however, did not stop me from being a loyal Hallmark customer. I still purchase Hallmark cards along, of course, with other brands, to send to family and friends. Though I’ve cut the volume down immensely, thanks to the internet, sending a few cards for special and “Just Because” occasions is still like a secret mission of mine that I like to keep up on.
Needless to say, I am part of the Hallmark Gold Crown rewards program, which means I receive monthly promotional coupons.
Here’s the dicey part. After our family tragedy, I felt like an out-of-control mechanical bull was bucking and spinning in my belly when I realized that every Hallmark Card coupon code started with four letters: “SUIC.”
Granted, to 99.9% of the population, those letters are an innocuous, random combination. To “survivors” such as myself, the manual control joystick on that mechanical rodeo bull in my belly malfunctions, gets stuck in “10,” the highest speed, and cannot be disabled.
Each and every time I wanted to reach out to the company, but between my PTSD and my age, I don’t stray too far from my safe bubble. So, month after month, I “let it go” and turned a blind eye to the coupon code.
Recently, I opened my Hallmark Gold Crown rewards email, and the bull straddled my belly, kicked and spun so hard that, without a second thought, I immediately sent Hallmark customer service a note. Part of it stated: “….As a loyal customer, every time I receive a Hallmark Gold Crown rewards certificate, I am distressed to see the following promo code at the beginning of all promo codes: ‘SUIC.'”
To me, I always fill in the rest of the blanks SUICide. Aren’t there any other letters you can start your promo codes with? Is it in anyway possible to change this letter combination considering the sensitive nature of suicide loss survivors?”
I hit the “Submit” button and didn’t expect much. This time, 24 hours later, Hallmark sent me much more than I expected. It might have been partially a form letter, but not completely.
“We are deeply sorry to know about your loss and appreciate the time you have taken to let us know your thoughts about the initial name of the promo codes. We understand your concern because we strive for great customer service. We hope you will accept our apologies for this inconvenience. As with all of our incidents, this will be sent up to our feedback department so it can be reviewed by them in their next discussion and take into consideration. We can assure you that your feedback will be heard, but we can not guarantee a change will occur.”
Rose-colored glasses removed, cynical me, I figured, “I’ll never hear from them again.” Surprise! Surprise!
So a few hours after the letter, I receive a new coupon in the mail:
2021 August | EXPIRES: 10/31/2021
Use this PROMO CODE online: SUIA459890056
Notice the SUIA instead of SUIC
I don’t know if this is a result of my feedback, but, man, that helps gives me faith. Perhaps, during one of those rare moments in my life, I’ve been heard and influenced a tiny smidgen of life. My long-ago resentment is wiped clean, the mechanical rodeo bull disabled, and I’m taking my newest coupon to the Hallmark store to stock up. I’m fired up to restart my spreading-good-cheer mission initiative. Who knows, maybe while on a high note, writing notes, I’ll revisit my resume, research what greeting card writer opportunities are out there these days.
So much for helping me keep the faith. I received a new code coupon with the SUIC code again. Bummer. I think I’ll write an old-fashioned letter to the corporate office. 😞 (I will keep my blogging community updated!)
In all my days, I’ve arrived late, on time, but never early for a function. When my daughter, her godmother, who is my best friend, and I arrived for the Connecticut Press Club (CPC) awards banquet, we had 20 minutes to burn before the banquet started.
Last week, I wrote about my surprise when I realized I won the 2020 CPC second place for my blog post. After some arm-twisting from my daughter, I agreed to attend the awards banquet. What sealed the deal, as I also previously mentioned, was when I auspiciously discovered an inexpensive but beautiful turquoise necklace at a local store that seemed custom made for my black pantsuit that I planned to wear for the event.
“Turquoise, focus on turquoise.”
I know this is a nontraditional mantra, but repeating these four words helped me release most of my anxiety and PTSD symptoms on the day of the event. In my mind, all the negative, black thoughts were switched out. In their place rolled out a mellow turquoise the color of a New Mexico sky, moments after sunrise, very much akin to many of the photos that my friend sister Anne shoots.
What I am now aware of, that I was unaware of before, is that individuals suffering from mental health challenges cannot employ a mantra to slay their demon minds. Their demon minds slay them. For my son, this meant, outside of his workweek, total isolation.
I remember shortly before our family tragedy, I tried to help a close friend who was undergoing a tremendous amount of anxiety. I advised her to incorporate self-talk into her daily routine. Frustrated, she replied, yelling, “Self-talk doesn’t work for me.”
It was the first time that I started to comprehend the extent of individual variations of mental illness. Still, slaying my private demons decades ago, I fell into the group of positive psychology proponents. I believed that if you incorporate strategies like self-talk, mantras, positive affirmations and the like, it can help turn on a fluorescent light inside a darkened mindset. “Attitude adjustment” was the core belief. Now I know, you have to deal with mental illness before dealing with the attitude. In other words, if your mind is programmed differently as my son’s was, void of windows that allow the healing light to flow, there is no magic mantra to pull from a magician’s hat.
So, lucky me, last Tuesday evening, I possessed the mental clearance to leave the safe confines of my home. Upon arrival, wearing my turquoise necklace and saying my turquoise mantra, I can’t get enough of the turquoise sky crowning the Greenwich Water Club in Cos Cob, CT, a neighborhood in the town of Greenwich. The establishment is a private dinner/recreational club with an emphasis on water-related sports and boating activities for members, I gather, who never have and never will have to poke their rubber gloved hand into the cool water of a ceramic goddess and wash her majesty, a toilet.
As we make our way through the nearly full parking lot, the dust and sand from the spew of pebbles seems to undermine the club’s reputation. The clubhouse building ahead is impressive, but not imposing, perched on the Mianus River. The grounds are overrun by children and adolescents rather than adults. Members eat, swim at the built-in pool and, most obvious, relax, wane with the waning summer’s day that has turned into early evening. It is a Tuesday, my least favorite day of the week, but the sound of the children’s light laughter feels like a massage targeting just the right pressure points on my brain.
Inside a reserved space upstairs from the main restaurant, we are greeted with friendly CPC members who dispense name tags and apparently have no qualms about our early arrival. I scan the other name tags on the table, spotting one familiar one, Amy Oestreicher. It is a young woman and, although I haven’t been on Facebook for a number of months, a Facebook friend and fellow writer, not to mention artist and actress. If given an opportunity, I make a mental note to approach her after she arrives.
Our trio nests in three leather, oversized chairs. I am stationed like a cut-down tree stump. I am there, but not really. My daughter prods me, “Go network.” Fortunately, it is the crowd I’ve grown up with: writers, journalist, PR professionals and all creative types that evenly pump my blood flow. I can do this. I rise and converse with a man who turns out to be the contest director. He informs me that the blogging category was fiercely competitive. Boo-yah! Ego found after being lost through 20 months of grief, isolation and sheer trepidation.
Later, in my seat, CPC officials, along with the evening’s emcee, award-winning journalist and TV personality, Mercedes Velgot, graciously greet us.
Before the presentation, though, I catch the eye of a woman directly across the way, who is with a dapper-looking gentleman. I smile and quietly admire the bright colors she wears.
“Do you know her?”
“No,” I reply to my daughter.
The presentation begins as Mercedes takes her place behind the podium, svelte and towering in a little black dress that elevates the word “perfect” to a higher level.
I’ve attended a vast array of awards presentations through the years and, overall, they are boring, not due to monotone speeches, but because the ego inflation makes my gut heavy, like it’s a soda can depository.
In total contrast, Mercedes’ opening remarks are succinct but packed with the kind of compassion, empathy, and honesty that makes you feel like you are listening to a dear friend’s counsel in your living room. The theme, of all things, is how every cloud has a silver lining, and how we need to learn to discover it.
She goes on to elucidate the many COVID-19 challenges of the prior year and how our world suffered in the eye of death, illness and separation. She also explains how her nine-year, award-winning travel show was canceled. Amazingly, too, she speaks about her voluntarism in different capacities during the height of COVID-19 as a front line worker, including training as vaccination assistant.
“This year has really taught us to be resilient. It’s taught us how to pivot. It’s taught us how to be grateful for each and every day. “
In addition, she credits prayer and “spiritual strength to persevere through all of life’s challenges.”
And adds, “Here’s to all of you … your talents in finding beauty in the human spirit through your pens. Keep writing and keep looking for your silver linings.”
I am blown over by her loving kindness and if the mind demons kidnapped me, instead of sitting in this lovely room with an extraordinary group of people, I would be alone in my bedroom faced with a three-D movie screen in the maniac projection room of my mind in morbid reflection of things best forgotten.
As if listening to the awesome speaker and watching other award recipients claim prizes wasn’t enough, when the award is announced for Amy Oestreicher, Mercedes informs the crowd that the recipient’s parents are present to accept the posthumous award for their daughter.
Posthumous award? How can Amy be dead? She was so young, talented – intent on living.
Question your thinking. I remember one of Mercedes suggestions during her opening remarks. Question your thinking. Self-centered was I to think I would be the one and only griever among the group. The one and only pain-ridden person.
Immediately, after the ceremony, I offer my condolences to Amy’s parents whose daughter died at the age of 34 from medical complications only four months prior. The grieving dad, it is obvious, is the mom’s anchor. Mom is a ball of fire. In spite of living through out-of-order death, the mom is an optimist. Her mission is to spend her life honoring Amy’s memory. The mom’s positivity is contagious and my faith-o-meter brims over.
My brilliant daughter advises me that I should mirror the grieving mom’s optimism. She winks her eye when she asks, confidently, “What are the odds of you meeting her and her husband on the same night you win an award?”
I nod my head. Is it coincidence or fate?
Looking back, the entire evening is lifted high in my memory by a faith muscle, fueled by the encouragement and support of my blogging community (thank you all!) and my close friends and, of course, propelled by my spitfire daughter.
To sum it up, I recall a well-known mantra that is intended to help anxiety: “Soham,” meaning “I am that” or “I am the universe.”
The idea reinforces the knowledge that I am one tiny brush stroke in a massive piece of artwork, a mixed-media, collage of life. The awards banquet last Tuesday is significant in my life because it reminds me of my insignificance. It reminds me how I can comfortably take a seat in the arena of life because whether we are in Cos Cob, Connecticut, or Canton, Ohio, or south of the Congo River, there is a designated space for everyone of us if we are wired properly to see it.
I am reminded, too, that no matter how stationary I am at any given moment, time is fleeting. Nothing remains the same. Everything is temporary. One day we are there, sitting. The next day “Poof!” we disappear. Paradoxically, as if on a magnificent piece of artwork, all parts, seen and unseen, make a whole, a never-ending composition of triumph.
It is all there is and ever will be. Right now as my own life fleets by, I can’t stop time, but I don’t have to wait until it is too late to say and claim it: I am that.