Friday, March 24, 2017

Life with Jack and Jane: Part II Jane, "Queen of Queens"

I gave a little character description of Uncle Jack in Part I of Life with Jack and Jane (read: Jane, Aunt Jane, Uncle Jack’s common law spouse, was in complete contrast to my Uncle Jack. My Uncle Jack was 100% Irish Catholic. Jane was 100% Jewish. Uncle Jack, six foot something plus, Jane, four foot eleven on a good day. Jack was a comedian, never to be taken too seriously. He drank and ate too much and did other stuff too much. He even cussed. Jane did not. She laughed all the time, mostly at Jack, but she had not a comedic bone in her tiny frame.

Speaking of her tiny frame, Jane was one round ball from head to toe. She ate like a bird but looked like a hippo. There were no lines stopping to define where her head met her chin all the way to her ankles meeting her feet. Her hair was a frizzy, mousy brown, cut short with big, dark rimmed glasses, sallow skin that makeup may have addressed, and a really large gap in her two front teeth. She smelled like lilacs and intense body odor with maybe a hint of moth balls and soot she picked up from living with Jack.

Appearances don’t matter when you are the sweetest "Queen of Queens."

Jane was one of the finest people I have ever known. Not only was she lacking a funny, comedic bone but she also was missing a mean bone. I never heard her speak a bad word about anyone or anything. She always saw the best in everything. She was also extremely respectful of everyone, she never judged, her manners and taste were impeccable. She was dainty and polite.

Generous and thoughtful with Jane were a given. She minded her business and never got in anyone’s way. I honestly do not think she ventured much past Queens other than to travel to work. Maybe she took the occasional trip to New Jersey to visit her sisters or our family. But other than that, I really don’t think she left Queens. She may not have been a worldly queen but she guarded and preserved her territory like any great ruler.

That’s why I crown Jane "Queen of Queens!"

Jane, a native Jew from Queens, was married once before to another native Queens Jewish man whose parents escaped a Nazi concentration camp, or were rescued by the Americans from a camp at the end of the war. Whatever the specific details of the story, that’s how they ended up in America. They were Holocaust survivors that went on to live the American dream. They built a fortune in American in, if memory serves me, the steel industry. They had a son, Jane’s husband. Jane and her husband had a child named Jill.

Jane and I would spend countless hours talking, mostly every Friday evening when she would end her work week at the United Nations and mine at Simon and Schuster publishing firm. We’d commence the long week by ordering Chinese, sitting at her traditionally appointed mahogany dining table, eating our broccoli with chicken and brown sauce. We would talk and talk while Uncle Jack, um, hmm... tended to his plants.

I often wondered what happened in her marriage and why she and my Uncle Jack after all these years of committing to one another had never married. I began to inquire, like any novice investigative reporter, in a very nonchalant, quasi manipulative manner. Knowing such an answer to my question would require her to delve much past the point of my inquiry’s origin I proceeded to ask, "How did you and Jack meet?"

In her Minnie Mouse voice, in contrast to my Uncle Jack’s Frosty the Snowman loud, husky diction, she told me Jack had just returned from Vietnam and she was recently a widow.

“Yes, I was told your husband had passed away. How did it happen if I may ask?”

Now one thing about Jane, "Queen of Queens," she was so sweet she put a sugary spin on everything. She never would say a single bad word about anyone or anything. In her thick Queens’s accent she began to tell me her story, “Oh, he was verwee, verwee sick. He was in horwible pain. He had, sorwt of like a brwain tuma, you know like a big mass in his brwain, cawsed him terrwible, terrwible pain. It got werse, and werse and he eventually died."

I’m thinking he had a brain tumor and that’s what killed him. No, that’s not what happened. She continued with her story, “He shot himself in the head from the tuma. I trwied to take the gun frwom him but he pointed it towards me and my little gurl and luckily we were fine but he shot himself.”

I continued to listen. “It wasn’t his fawlt ya know, he was verwee, verwee sick. He hearwd voices and stuff so he didn’t know any better. And so I was verwee, verwee sad. My little gurl, she was verwee young. But he died. He had a lot of demons in his head that herwt him so I can’t blame him. He had no choice.”

"My little gurl and I ran to the closet. We were vewry scaed. I was worried. Ya know, back then we didn't have cawdless phones so I could cawl anyone. We just waited and hearwd the gun and well, he died. We came out of the closet and he was on the flowa and he must have been in so much pain from the tuma, I can only imagine. He was suffering so much he had to do it. He was vewry sick."

I didn't know what to say so I said nothing. I felt I had pried too much, perhaps overstepped boundaries for her to share such a painful memory over Chinese food, on a Friday, after a long work week. But Jane was happy to continue down memory lane.

“I met yaw Uncle Jack on the street one day. He stopped to tawk to me. Yaw Uncle Jack was so sweet to me and my little gurl. And he was so vewry handsome. And chaming. And from there the rest is histowry.” She ended with a little giggle, covering her mouth as her body jiggled from laughter.

Handsome and charming? I was startled, “Uncle Jack, handsome?" I said.

"Oh yes, vewry handsome." She covered her mouth again as she giggled a body jiggle. She was so proud and glowing as she spoke of him. "Heyr, let me show you some pictchas." She pulled out some pictures of her and Uncle Jack, circa 1970 something, with bell bottoms and platform shoes, hairy chests sprouting from collared polyester shirts. My Uncle Jack was, to put it in a non-weird niece way, hot! Tall, tan, golden, blond hair, no mustache, no oversized tie-dye t-shirt, muscular, obviously carrying the confidence of someone who feels the world is their oyster and they are young and invincible. Jane likewise was hot! Slender, curvaceous, stylish, well-coiffed hair, accessorized, beautiful makeup, just drop dead gorgeous.

“Who were these people and what happened to them?” I asked myself.

Upon viewing the photos I began to string together my own answers to my curiosity about Jack and Jane. It was like “Bizarro World” out of the movie Superman, reenacted in the popular sitcom of the times “Seinfeld” nothing was as it seemed but it all made sense.

They had both been to battle and were survivors, living with their scars, keeping them tucked away in a compartment, occasionally recounting them in a soliloquy for the young and stupid like me. 

I was given a glimpse into my future. Who I am today may not be who I am tomorrow. Of course we're always changing and growing but to an unrecognizable point? Yes, quite possibly, what happens today will catch up with my tomorrows and over power my yesteryears. Today I have youthful exuberance glowing from my naïve and untested soul.  Years from now I could become a vestige of my former self, unrecognizable to me but judged by strangers for my imperfections carved by life’s trials, in what form, in what story, I yet to know will present themselves but I know they're waiting.

I was haunted, once again.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Life with Jack and Jane: Part 1 “Moving On Up”

“I installed a skylight in my apartment…
the people who live above me are very furious!” Steven Wright

With my few belonging I packed up and headed to Queens, NY. I left my sheltered, suburban life behind. In one trip, all that I knew was a thing of the past and what lay ahead I hadn’t a clue.

Jack and Jane were common law spouses. They had lived together for over twenty years. They resided in a rent controlled, pre-war apartment building in Forest Hills, Queens, NY. Forest Hills was considered a ritzy borough. To me, it was a city: dirty, crowded, and concrete. They did live in a really nice building. The lobby was grand, with black and white marble floors, brass accents, spacious, like a page out of a featured art deco design in an Architectural Digest magazine.

Their apartment was comfortable and loaded with character. Beautiful built-ins and shelving, crown molding everywhere, hard wood floors throughout, a modest dining room with French doors, a large landing that stepped down into a generous living room. The kitchen was galley style but it had a nice window. A long hallway led to two very spacious bedrooms with windows that let in a lot of natural light. And of course one bathroom for three adults to share.

I had my own room with a king size bed, a black and white TV, and a pretty, peach satin fabric chair and ottoman. I moved in the summer of 1996.

The apartment had no air conditioning and New York City summers are hot and humid, sticky and stinky. I slept with my window open as wide as it would open just to let some type of breeze blow through and reach my clammy, perspiring skin. Every now and then a light, feathery gust would whisper through but mostly the sound of JFK airport two miles away, car alarms, and neighbors arguing and shouting their home life dysfunction was the only breeze I felt.

The building was a block away from the subway so I could walk and then ride to my city job at a large publishing house. Groceries could be delivered or a quick walk across a four lane highway could fetch one the necessities of nourishment.

Forest Hills had a street lined shopping district which was fun to browse. The original US Open tennis stadium was around the corner, and a slice of suburbia was tucked away, filled with glorious and gorgeous historic Tudors and mini-mansions. I loved walking those streets. I would catch families coming out of their homes, getting in their cars for a weekend excursion. I wondered, “Did their mom just finish making them blueberry pancakes?”

Yes, I very much missed my family but this was a new chapter in my life. I was an adult, still not fully independent, but those days of Saturday morning pancakes made by mom with Bisquick and blueberries, would have to be saved in a box and pulled out years later like a recipe passed down from generation to generation.

Life with Jack and Jane was good. They rescued me and I am eternally grateful. If I could ever repay the favor, not sure how, but maybe someday I would if I could. I was still in survival mode though so such a thought was brief.

Jack was my mom’s oldest brother. He was about six feet plus and inch or two, looked like Santa Claus with his big belly on his 300 pound frame. He sounded, and picture this because this is truly how he sounded, his voice sounded like Frosty the Snowman. Like when Frosty comes to life and says “Happy Birthday” that was my Uncle Jack’s voice.

Jack was always cheery, happy, easy going, thoughtful, kind, and generous. He always liked to try to make you laugh or put a smile on your face even if he paid a self-deprecation expense. He reminded me so much of my grandmother, his mother, except with a mustache and shorter hair. Even their hands were the same. I think they even smelled the same. Like moth balls, cologne, and soot with a hint of body odor.

Yes Jack always seemed happy. A fifty something Vietnam veteran hippie with a green thumb. He grew these funny looking plants in his living room window. They had these little brownish, black seeds I used to find all over the apartment. I’m not sure what type of plant it was but it sure made him happy – and hungry!

Every night he’d hunker down in his room after a long day of cleaning the subways. Some funky smell emanated from under the crack of the door. I knew he had a six pack of beer that he finished every night so I gather he had a touch of the Irish in his bones. But then he’d get the munchies and finish off a gallon of milk and an entire Entenmann’s yellow cake with fudge icing.

I learned not to mess with his cake. One day I couldn’t resist and figured he wouldn’t mind if I had a slice or two. I probably should have asked before I ate but we were family. Never again! That was the first time I saw Uncle Jack cranky, anger, and quite frankly bitter. Never again would I touch his chocolate cake.

Life with Jack and Jane was so easy going. We were three peas in a pod. They said I was like a ray of sunshine to them which was nice to hear. We would talk and talk and talk about anything and everything. One time Uncle Jack even broke out some old photos of his days in Nam. After two tours of duty, he told me he’d go back there in a heartbeat. He told me part of him never left and there was the happiest days of his life.

I asked him, “So you really enjoyed being a cook?” He said, “Cook?! No darlin’ I was on the frontline.” And then he proceeded to tell me how he was crossing this field in Vietnam, by himself and out from the woods or jungle comes another American soldier, his cousin Noelle whom he grew up with in Bel Harbor, NY. Neither one had any idea the other was in Nam. They stood there, just the two of them in the field, talking, reminiscing, very surreal, a moment of extreme euphoria and then headed back towards their assigned platoons.

I said, “Hmm, I always thought you were a cook.”

He said, “Nah, that’s just what I told my motha so she wouldn’t worry.”

Yes, life with Jack and Jane would teach me a lot.

Following is the link to the prelude if interested in starting from the beginning:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Life with Jack and Jane: Prelude to a Story

“I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. And this is one: I’m going to tell it – but take care not to smile at any part of it.” Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

I was alone and scared, and desperate, living beneath the eaves of a great home, filled with young children and a loving couple, who gave me refuge within their castle. Cast away in the basement, I hid from shame, I covered my mind from fear, cowering at my present situation. I was homeless and penniless when it seemed just yesterday I was a princess in my own castle, with a family filled with love and warmth. But that time passed and I was alone and cold.

I would hear noises in the basement. They sounded like voices of demons and ghosts and they frightened me, but I knew it was just the air conditioner preparing to exhale. The basement was so dark I saw visions floating past me, but I realized my eyes were just closed and my imagination was catching me.

I couldn’t sleep for when I did, I was haunted. I would dream of her but she was unreachable. I dreamt we were at a large arena filled with familiar faces of everyday life. Sitting in the stands I was at the bottom of the bleachers searching for her and I spotted her way up top. I called out to her “Mom!” but she did not hear me. She was too busy talking to others. I reached out to her for one last embrace, to cherish her being, but the dream ended and she was gone. I dreamt this dream over and over, waking to tears flooding from me, dripping onto my already cold skin.

As much as I wished, and wrenched my heart wishing it so, those were days long gone. Instead I found myself alone, shunned from all I knew, knowing I must leave. "This is not my home. I am not a guest. I am a bum who has graciously been given temporary shelter. I don’t belong here and my welcome is a burden."

My wound still had not even begun to heal, and it was fresh, raw and hurting. The healing process had not even started. I wished I were a little girl again when my mom was there to hold me and make it all better. She would always say to me that the pain means, “It’s getting better, getting better” as she'd sing a little tune. And I believed it. But she was gone and the pain was getting worse.

My wound couldn't be seen, but my anger spoke of it, “Till it happens to you, you won’t know how I feel.” I needed to pull myself together, and I’d be fine. Hold my head up and be strong, I needed to get up and move on. But what the hell did I know?

Tears still poured from me. My fear of the ghosts and demons paralyzed me. My eyes clenched shut I prayed for reprieve, for an answer. And then my prayer was answered. I saw my grandmother, with her bright red hair, glowing skin, eyes filled with rays, her full and portly figure. I loved and missed her very much. She always had a smile on her face and gave when she had nothing to give.

She spoke to me, “Call your Uncle Jack.”

The next morning, light filtered in from the basement window well, reminding me the day was new. I called my Uncle Jack. I had a job offer in the big city but the pay was too little for me to afford rent. But it was a job. If I could find a way to make it work things would work out. Maybe if Uncle Jack would let me live with him and my Aunt Jane, things would be ok?

I dialed his number. The phone rang. My Aunt Jane picked up. Before I could even get the words out to ask, she said, in her Minnie Mouse voice with thick New York accent, “You come live with us.”

I asked him how they knew why I was calling. My Uncle Jack told me that he was at church one Sunday and this lady was in front of him. She had bright red hair, glowing skin, eyes filled with rays, and a full and portly figure. “For a moment, I thought it was my mother,” he said. “And when you called, we just knew.”

And just like that, I moved on.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Allman Brothers

“Lord, I was born a rambling’ man, Trying’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can. And when it’s time for leavin’, I hope you’ll understand, That I was born a ramblin’ man.”

The Allman Brothers Band “Ramblin' Man”

The other night Magnum* and I had a lovely dinner at a local pub. We hopped in our car and headed home. We randomly popped in the first CD we grabbed (I know, who uses CD’s anymore?!). The Allman Brother’s Band began to play.

Instead of heading home we decided to go for a drive on a long, country road with nothing but the evening stars above us, farm fields beside us, and the open road in front of us. Traveling with the top down, cruising at 60 mph, the glorious sounds of the Brothers emanating throughout.

The guitar, the piano, the voices became intoxicating and hypnotic. Amazed at the talent of the band, we jokingly mimicked a fictitious account of their parent’s discovery in their children. Good Lord, their parents must have been proud. Their mama sure popped out some talented boys. Can you imagine, giving birth to these boys, washing dishes and all of a sudden you hear this talent coming from the garage? The conversation must have gone something like this:

“Mama, what’s that sound?”

“Papa I done don’t know but it sure sounds real good.”

“Mama, that’s them our boys. Well shoot, who knew they could play? I think we got ourselves something here.”

“Darn Papa, we sure do have some good genes. Let’s go make us some more.”

Well I did a little research and their mama was indeed referred to as Mama, Mama A to be exact, but their Papa died when they boys were very young. He was murdered. Then Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash at the age of 25. Drug addiction, trials, stereotypical popular band tribulations…Boy I’m sure glad I didn’t know about this tragic history when we were cruising on the country road. That’s just darn near depressing!

Instead we immersed ourselves on an adventure, sheer joy from the Allman Brother’s Band guided us. My favorite Allman Brother’s song is Jessica. It’s strictly an instrumental song. Nothing but pure Southern Rock, interspersed with blues and jazz played out on an epic, musical journey.

Starting with the guitar, piano joining in, electric guitar, just riding along, happy go lucky, bouncing, little drum, then a little depth and soul climaxing back to the happy go lucky tune. Like climbing a mountain, or running a marathon, the instruments single out then slowly build, joining, teasing the listener, and then POW, the piano breaks out and WOW! It’ an adrenaline pumper for sure and it goes on and on for over seven minutes. It’s such a happy, confident, carefree, revolutionary tune. It’s genius. The antithesis of every wandering instinct inbred in man.

I remember the song Jessica playing in the movie “Field of Dreams” when James Earl Jones and Kevin Costner were cruising in their VW van to go find the ghosts of baseball past. There they were, two grown men, acting like kids, out on a country road, pursuing a crazy scavenger hunt to find The Babe.

Then my mind wandered to a more personal memory, back when I was a young teen, oh maybe 14 years of age. Summertime on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Hot, humid, salty, sailing and heaven. I was sailing on the Chesapeake Bay as part of a summer camp my grandmother had given as a gift. My cousin Jimmy would pick me up at the end of each day in his little, blue MG. And we would cruise back to our grandmother’s house on a long, 10 mile open road from Oxford to Easton with farm fields beside us, the bay beyond the fields, the blue sky with scorching sun above us, and nothing but youth in front of us.

Jimmy must have gotten that little blue car up to 100 mph. And Jimmy wasn’t and isn’t a reckless boy. Highly intelligent, calculated, cautious, play by the rules sort of guy. I don’t know if he was just showing off to his little cousin but we were flying and it was awesome! And Jessica came blasting on the radio.

Such freedom with carelessness abandoned, with the wind and the sun and the salt air, I was giddy as I felt my independence on the horizon, clueless to the impending finality of my childhood. We were young and the song sang out to our youth and rebellion. Such a fond memory immortalized by a song.

Magnum and I continued to cruise down the long, country road, living freely in the moment, with no destination, just enjoying the ride and the legends. Two crazy kids on the open road.

*Magnum is my husband’s character name. Any likeness to a similar character is strictly coincidental.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Good Fella

“You mean, let me understand this…cuz I…maybe it’s me, maybe I’m a little f---‘d up maybe. I’m funny how? I mean funny, like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to f----in’ amuse you? Whattya you mean funny? Funny how? How am I funny?” Tommy DeVito, Goodfellas

A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Why the long face?” I tell this joke all the time. It’s the only one I remember, it’s usually not offensive, no cussing or crudeness involved, and I like horses. And quite frankly, it makes me laugh. Not because it’s so funny, though I think it is, but the person whom first delivered it to me was a very funny man, and pretty much any joke or story he told was funny no matter how bad the joke. So when I tell it, because it’s the only joke I know, I always think of him and chuckle because I picture him telling it, with everyone laughing because he’s funny.

Mr. T was a funny man. He was also a good fella. I didn’t know him all that well but I knew him well enough. He was a good family friend and all us kids grew up together, the adults led the way. Now we are all grown with our own families and kids.

Mr. T built a sandwich shop franchise and, while he may not have realized it, was a local celebrity. Everyone from the area knew of him and his sandwiches. He even had a United States president stop in for a sandwich!

He worked all hours, day and night, every day of the week. And with all his hard work and earnings, he was very generous and humble man who always made everyone feel welcome. A quiet man but the headliner of the show. He always had a funny story to tell, such a natural in his delivery, yet so humble he never seemed to want to take credit for being such a great story teller.

The adults spent many nights around the kitchen island countertop of the T's home snacking and sipping cocktails. Heading into the wee hours of the morning, jokes and stories were told with Mr. T the headliner of the show. The room filled with comraderies of families forged throughout the decades, laughter the enduring fabric.

The old saying goes "the show must go on" but it also says "all good things come to an end." Mr. T was diagnosed with cancer. Hard to put a funny spin on that story. This was a very unfunny diagnosis for a man whose life blood seemed to infuse humor into the veins of everyone around him. Fortunately, he was told, his diagnosis was not an immediate death sentence. Medicine would prolong the inevitable for years. So while this horrible black cloud hung over him and his family and all who loved him, there was time enough for plenty of acts. 

Until after only a year of treatment an emergency trip to the ER proved otherwise. The medicine was failing him. After a week or two in the hospital he was stabilized enough to go home. He was acutely aware though that his trip home would be just a visit and a final goodbye. He was terminal. There would be no second act.

He would not go silently into that good night. He had one more punch line for the crowd. On the final leg of his tour, he shared a room with another terminal patient. The roommate, surrounded by family, brought in a reiki therapist. The reiki therapist proceeded to perform reiki therapy as perhaps a last rite sort of ritual. Incense burning, music droning, the therapist proceeded to utter sentences of abstraction and unsoundness, “I release you, continue on your journey, your soul is free like a bird, you are releasing like a butterfly from your cocoon, fly, fly, fly. Lift yourself up. Hum, hum, hum.” Incense burning, smoke drifting. “Your darkest hours upon you, your mind and body but a vehicle, free your soul, free yourself, rise above, feel my energy as I touch you and lift you, release, release, release…”

Mr. T lay in the bed next to his roommate listening to this bizarre affair. With a puzzled glance, he listened and watched this strange performance. When it was over, the reiki therapist grabbed her incense and exited the room. There was silence. Then in true Mr. T fashion, with his wife at his bedside who later recounted the story, he turned to her, paused for a moment, and in a calm and serious voice, a hint of annoyance and expression of confusion, a grimace under his breath, steady and with perfect delivery said, “What the fuck was that all about?”

In a time of immense sorrow and finality, Mr. T put on a brave face and told the crowd that the show must still go on. During even the hardest and saddest of times, he made us laugh and continues to make me laugh. He was a good soul. He was funny.

Mr. T left me, just a little family friend, with a joke about a horse and a story that I would tell to another great headliner, my mother in law. Less than a day after Mr. T passed, she too would pass unexpectedly from cancer.

They say the last of our senses to go before we leave this earth is our hearing. As my mother in law lay in hospice, body swollen, breathing labored, I told her Mr. T's story. I chuckled as I delivered Mr. T's punch line, and I know she did too. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Up on the Roof

“I don’t know if we have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.” Forest Gump

I used to ride the New York subway. I believe it was the blue “E” or the orange “F” train if memory and color recollection serve me. My route was from Forest Hills, Queens to Rockefeller Center, NYC. Sounds like swanky real estate for those familiar with the city. And in many ways if I had to be a city girl, unable to afford city rent, which I couldn’t, it was as swank as I was going to get.

However, I really don't think there's anything swanky about the subway. And for a young twenty something, naïve girl from the burbs moving to the big city, uneducated and inexperienced at the time to political correctness and city hustling and crowds, homesickness for my boring, small commuter town grew all the more. But there I was.

Most people start their day off with a good cup of Joe. Subway riders wake up their senses to urine aromatherapy mixed with the distinct scent of oily soot, followed by a game of “Don’t Step on the Mother Roach” and “I Spy a Giant Rat!” played in a dark, dank cave deep underground where sunlight was an anomaly.

After spotting the rat it was time to enter the race, fighting for an inch on the train. Then a little role play of acting like a sardine in a can of stinky olive oil, just to claim an ounce of territory for the commute. Cussing from strangers for space invasion or happy nappy time on the shoulders of a stuck passenger pigeon holed into another were common occurrences. I often chuckled and cringed at those who played their Walkman cassettes or CD’s, either air singing and dancing, or flat out shouting the tune because the music blared so loudly in their ears. They looked so silly.

I often witnessed courteous acts of train sacrifice which reminded me on the bleak ride that humanity wasn’t extinct; those who’d give up their rare seat to the pregnant or elderly. People watching was pretty good. My eyes wandered around the car analyzing each individual, creating stories in my head about their history or being. Sometimes a rider would give the dark lord stare like they wanted to kill for reasons unbeknownst to me. Perhaps they didn't want to be included in my people watching game.

Acclimation took hold and I was soon part of the daily subway grind. I became oblivious to those around me even though our bodies were pressed up against one another. I honed my Walkman CD and spent the summer closing myself out from those around me. I too became the silly fool that sang out loud.

I learned to ride the subway and I even learned to like it. It became a comforting cocoon in my daily ritual of a world I wasn’t sure how I had arrived, if I even had arrived or perhaps I was just a passenger on the train waiting for my stop.

Overnight I became a city girl living in a cockroach infested apartment, stone’s throw from the incessant noise of JFK airport, no air conditioning on a humid city's summer’s day, away from home with a new set of characters. And I rode the subway.

One day, on my usual route home, I hopped on my usual train line. The car was empty, which was so unusual but welcome. I had the whole car to myself. I had whatever seat I wanted. Just the sounds of the ball bearings screeching as the car jumbled over tracks and turns. Then suddenly an interruption to my peace and blissful serenity, as a homeless man that reminded me of Mr. Bo Jangles, straggly, scrawny and disheveled came passing my way.

My new city instincts took over as I did not let my glance meet his. I kept to myself, my guard at high, bracing myself until he’d move onto the next car. Did he want money, was he a drunk or druggie, a lunatic, a rapist? I didn’t know of his purpose or direction but I was alone with this strange man.

He swung from pole to pole like Jimmy Stewart in "Singing in the Rain" and began to sing to me. He serenaded me with The Drifter’s tune “Up on the Roof." I lifted my head and gave him my full attention, released my tensed brace and embraced his fluid and melodic voice, immersing myself in the lyrics:

When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me

Let me tell you now

When I come home feelin’ tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up the roof (up on the roof)

At night the stars put on a show for free
And, darling, you can share it all with me

I keep a-tellin’ you

Right smack dab in the middle of town
I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof (up on the roof)
And if this world starts getting you down
There’s room enough for two

Up on the roof…Everything is all right (up on the roof)

He was a stranger who seemed to appear out of nowhere. He appeared to have nothing but a song. He put an unexpected smile on my face that awakened my spirit to the everyday drudgery of a lone subway ride. I thought to myself that no matter our lot or place in time we can shut out all the ugliness and escape in our minds until we are ready to move to the next car. We are free; the rest is just a distraction. We may not know our destiny and we may be drifting along like a feather in a breeze floating aimlessly in a strange land but we have purpose and a destiny. Until then, there’s room enough up on the roof.

It was an odd encounter.
How could a stranger, a drifter, a wandering figure, etch such a memory in my mind and heart decades later? He sang for me as he floated along. He asked for nothing, no money, nothing. Maybe he was crazy, mentally ill, maybe he was lost? Maybe he just felt like riding the subway and signing a song to any who would listen. And I did listen. To this day whenever I hear the song either on the radio or in my head, I think of that moment, am thankful for it, and I smile.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Reflecting on this Snowy Day

“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

I remember the hill today, in particular. And I feel a small pit in my heart for I’m not there, the moment has passed.

Today I sit under a warm roof, watching the snowflakes fall delicately on the bare branches. The sky gray, the earth silent. I sit in remembrance of days like this on the hill.

The evening before great anticipation swelled in the house, ready to burst with excitement for a day off and a day of play. Childhood memories are built upon such nights. Procrastinating bedtime in preparation for school the next day but overtly hoping to wake up to mom saying, “No school today!” then back to a warm bed to finish a dream then rise with great vivre.

Maybe pancakes would be made or a steaming bowl of oats but as soon as the energy was gobbled down the time came for the great bundle.

Ah, the great bundle. I dreaded these times. The toil and sweat to prepare three kids for the cold, dressing them in bulky, obstructive snow suits, squeezing their little piggies into rubbery, fleece lined boots while shoving mittens on their little kittens, placing the cherry of a pom-pom hat on their head, remnants of baby hair making one last stance before the strands of time fade to extinction.

The fussing and whining at such an effort. Boy, I was frustrated. Shame I couldn’t savor such fleeting tears.

Then out the door, a wave of arctic air flushing through, waking up whatever senses still lay sleeping. Sleds and saucers gathered and off they went. At this point I was typically still in my pajamas and robe, skating through the snowy, icy driveway in slippers, long enough to get the kiddies set up for some fun on the hill before I returned inside for a grasp at silence.

We lived on quite the hill. Not great topography for a family with three young kids, but when a winter storm hit, our house was the place all the neighbors, young and old, flocked. Life and limb was risked tearing down that hill, sometimes fast and far enough to skirt across the road and down the wooded ditch. Those were fun times, filled with reckless abandonment, liberatingly wild and carefree.

At first I would watch through the frosty window and laugh and giggle from a distance. I’d watch as the kids would fly down the hill, getting smaller and smaller from my line of vision until they’d crash to a stop laughing all the way, then trek back up for another adventure. It looked like such a joy ride and it was! I’d break out the camera and take some shots, then I would drag myself to partake in the fun, reminding myself that such activity would invigorate my aging soul.

It was cold outside but the smiles and excitement from the kids at their mom showing up to be a kid motivated me to brave the elements. And we rode down that hill, dodging trees and gullies. Gathering branches and stones, carrots, old scarves and hats, we built snowmen and named them. Stepping back into my childhood, I became one with my own kids, for that moment and that day, investing in a memory that I didn’t realize would become so etched in my mind.

Time to come in from the storm and have some hot chocolate and bake some cookies. Sipping coco by the fire, cheeks defrosting and pink, mittens hung to dry until a second wind blew by ready to start the winter dance all over again.

Today I sit in my warm, new home on a flat lot perfect for a young family, except when there is snow on the ground and no hill to ride down. And as happy and at peace as I am, I reflect with a dull ache in my heart on those days and times on the hill. All is quiet here.

I longed for today, a day to savor silence, not having to deal with the great dance of a winter bundle and attendance to three dependent, young heartbeats. Today is that day. There are no suits to stuff mittens in kittens and cherries on tops. Visions of hot coco and cookies are saved for another snow fall. This storm is calmer. Yet as calm and as peaceful and as blessed as today is, I have a small ache as I remember the hill and those days. And the memory pleads to ride them once again. If just for a moment.

Today, on this quiet, kid free day, in the warmth of a new life, I pause, close my eyes, take a sip from a phantom vision, knowing and grateful that life is good, then swallow the nostalgia triggered by a gentle flake falling on a tree under a gray, wintery sky.