Friday, September 26, 2008

One Two Three Kick

October is right around the corner and thoughts of Nan are on my mind. For those of you who don't know, Nan is my grandmother, Domenica Esposito, whom we called Nana Mickey. She passed away in October of 2000 and life hasn't been quite the same without her. You may think you have a wonderful grandmother, but you don't have mine. Only one was made before they broke that mold.

Nan babysat for us every, and I mean every, Saturday night. She claimed it was to give my parents some quality time together, but my siblings and I knew better. There was nothing she loved more in life than spending time with her grandchildren. And the feeling was mutual.

Saturday nights started off with Mom getting us fed. Then, we'd go sit on the front stoop and wait for Nan to round the corner. She loved to take buses and walk and would often refuse my mom's offer of a ride. As soon as we saw her walking down the block, we would start screaming and jumping up and down.

My childhood was lived in a modest home where everything had its place. One toy was played with and put away before another one was taken out. Cushions remained on the couch and there was NO jumping on furniture. You ate three square meals before you got dessert. You didn't disturb the neighbors with excessive noise. You went to bed early. Hell, in the winter darkness, my mom would have us in bed by 6:30 PM. You get the picture.

When Nan showed up and Mom and Dad had pulled away in the car, ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE. First, there was a visit to the candy store--actually, a numbers running joint fronting as a candy store, as I now understand it--where we could buy whatever our little hearts desired. When the ice cream man made his rounds later, we'd get that too. And maybe a knish or hot pretzel to go with it. Strung out on lots of sugar and Nan's enthusiasm, the cushions on the 1970's, crushed-velvet, orange sofa would be ripped off and thrown around on the floor, and we would pretend we were floating on rafts in the middle of the sea. Beds were jumped on with great exhilaration, pigtails flying in the air.

The Saturday night line up on TV back then was All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, and, our favorite, Carol Burnett. But TV viewing required more snacks. So, the Jiffy Pop popcorn came out and we'd shake it over the stove top and watch that silver foil turban grow and shoot out wisps of steam. Along with the salty, we needed a little sweet. Out came the marshmallows and a long fork. They got toasted over the flame on the stove and many of them caught fire and melted all over the metal grates. Any idea how hard it is to get melted marshmallow off of those? I'm actually surprised that Nan wasn't banned from babysitting after a few such adventures.

To get us up to our beds, she'd form a conga line with us and we'd one-two-three-kick up the stairs. Then we'd beg for a story. She rarely read to us from a book; she made up her own stories and told them in installments week after week. They were mystery stories about pickpockets, smugglers, and kidnappers down at the South Street Seaport. I can imagine how she'd gaze out her work window and dream up tales for our Saturdays together. We would whine and beg when she'd leave us with a cliff-hanger.

She was a lover of new experiences, exotic foods, world travel, and foreign accents. Guess I got that gene too. ;-)

After the jumping and snacking and TV viewing, we'd settle down in bed. By now, Nan was snoring away, but I was always still awake. At that time of night, Chiller Theater would come on, and that horrible hand with the six fingers would rise out of the ground, and that voice would say "Chiiiiiiiiiiiiiilllllllllllllllllllleeeeeeeeeerrrrrr." Eeek. It used to freak the hell out of me, and I'd put my hands over my eyes and watch through my fingers.

At some point, the sound of a car door would slam, and Nan would jump up and run downstairs. Cushions would be tossed back on the couch, dishes gathered and placed in the sink. My mom always had a kitchen to tidy up after a date with dad. Meanwhile, I'd pretend to be asleep when my parents came up to my room so Nan wouldn't get in trouble. But when Nan sneaked up to say goodnight, I'd open one eye and she'd wink at me.

People often debate whether certain traits are the result of nature or nurture. I’m not sure which transmission method is responsible for my sense of awe and wonder, but I do know that in some major way, my grandmother was responsible.

Children have no problem appreciating the miraculous, but as we mature, we begin to take life for granted—the sunset goes unnoticed or is cursed as we’re heading west in rush-hour traffic. The chirping of the birds is a nuisance to our Saturday morning sleep. A drenching spring rain makes us feel gloomy rather than foreshadowing new life.

Nan had as strong a sense of awe as any child I know. To see her out in nature was to see a 75-year-old child—eyes bright, wide smile, face turned up to the sun, and occasionally a foot missing the curb as a result.

She taught me to listen for the sea in a seashell, to jump waves, to crush herbs between my fingers and inhale their sweet and spicy scent, to identify birds, and appreciate flowers and trees. I watched ants for hours at a time when I was a child, amazed at the cooperation of insects--something so often absent in our own species. I remember pulling kitchen chairs in front of the back door to watch a summer thunder shower and then watching the sunlight return in a reddish-orange wash across the late afternoon sky. Rain was never to be dreaded; you could always walk between the rain drops or just have faith that you’d dry soon enough. And in late summer, I loved sniffing the cool, night air to catch a scent of the ripe grapes from the arbor next door.

All of these things are a part of me, handed down from a woman who had no equal. What a blessing to have been mentored in the art of living life with abandon. And when I do my final one two three kick out of this world, I hope my love of life will remain with those I leave behind. I love you, Nan.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Death of a Salesman

Last night as I was chatting with my Inked-In friends, my husband came in to tell me some terrible news. The salesman from whom we had leased our car had been struck and killed while crossing the street to get a cup of coffee. Whew. It really threw me. We spent only five hours with the guy one day in June. I imagine I drove him crazy with my negotiating and spouting of money factors and the number of times I sat back and said "no go" and watched him walk off to chat with his boss. But he never lost his cool and was respectful of my wishes to not be bombarded with options I didn't want.

When you spend a few hours in someone's company, you tend to hear some of their life. He was looking forward to his son's wedding in July and laughing over the fact that when you're the parents of the groom, you just nod and smile and do whatever the bride's family says. One of his co-workers later told me that he had been through some health problems, including a kidney transplant.

In the end, I got the price I wanted and we shook hands. I walked away feeling that I had met a man who was one of the decent ones in the sometimes sleazy car-selling industry. I had intended to send him a card in July to congratulate him on his son's wedding. But, as often happens, the whirlwind of life swept me up and my good intentions blew away.

So now I sit and think about how total strangers can touch you deeply. I think about how short life is and how death is often a surprise. I wonder, in this world of online friendships, if people will just disappear one day and never be heard from again. Most of all, I am reminded of how important it is to do what makes you happy, follow your passions, and tell people how much you care for them. All we have is this moment.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Eat My Words

My mother always said "be careful what you put down on paper; you're creating a lasting record." I suppose it proves how much of a rebel I was that I became a writer.

I'll admit there are a few letters I wish I'd never sent and a few emails I wish I could recall. That's for reason of content. But in written correspondence there's also the problem of absence of intonation, inflection, facial expression (especially the very useful wink), that can make something you intended as a joke seem like a serious insult.

And God forbid we forget to put that crucial piece of modern punctuation at the end of the sentence--that clarifying smiley face--then there's no hope of averting disaster. I can imagine the friendships that have been ruined with that one omission, and I pray that major discussions between world leaders do not take place over email. Consider the difference between:

We're launching our missiles at 3 PM sharp.

We're launching our missiles at 3 PM sharp :-)

(For added security, I might even add an LOL to that second one.)

On the other hand, as readers of written correspondence, perhaps we should take some extra time to analyze what someone might mean before jumping to conclusions. After all, why would someone who just wrote 14 lovely lines of correspondence want to stab you through the heart on line 15? It's just not done. With the truly evil ones you usually find yourself impaled by line 2.

Then there's the whole blogging thing, which basically has the same risks as other forms of written communication. Except you get to unintentionally insult many people at once. Quite efficient, actually.

I wonder if other writers are as paranoid as I am or if that childhood message just did a number on my brain. (Note to self: Send email to mom complaining about childhood issues. Be sure to end with a smiley face.)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Back to School

School starts tomorrow. The budget wasn't passed and a class was eliminated in each grade, meaning class size is slightly larger this year. Apparently there won't be a second to spare, not even to sharpen a pencil. So here I sit, sharpening 24 Ticonderoga #2 pencils, as per the official school supplies list. I suppose the theory is when your point breaks or wears down, just take a new pencil and be done with it. Quick and efficient for the kid and teacher--mind-numbing for the parent doing the sharpening. Luckily, I have one of those battery-operated gizmos.

I wasn't having too much luck at first, but then I remembered I hadn't changed the batteries in about 15 years. Went in search of a Phillips-head screwdriver and managed to undo the very tight screws. Guess what? Not the battery compartment. Now I'm frickinfrackin under my breath. I screw those babies back in and the last one won't go all the way. Of course you realize I'm not using a good Phillips-head screwdriver. I'm using this teeny tiny one that came in the handle of a pink floral hammer--because some marketer thinks that when a woman needs to screw, her tool doesn't need to be as large as a man's. No pun intended, I swear.

Finally, I find the battery compartment on the end. Pop four new ones in there. Wow, it's like a lumberjack's saw. Totally buzzing. I'm tempted to go put on a red-plaid, flannel shirt, but it's about 80 degrees out. I put the first pencil in and stare at my computer screen. I have to keep taking it out to check my progress. By about pencil 16, I realize there is a slight give when the pencil is finished being sharpened--no checking required. I guess I was numb. Probably shouldn't be operating heavy machinery. Does a battery-operated pencil sharpener count as heavy machinery?

All done with the sharpening. What's that fine print at the bottom of the supply list? All supplies must be labeled with child's name. Great. Do they mean the box of 24 pencils or each pencil? Better play it safe. Thank God I named my kid Jon--no "h."

24 pencils, 24 crayons, 2 highlighters, 5 large glue sticks, 4 packs of Post-it notes, 12 washable markers, 26 colored pencils, 4 Sharpie markers, 5 marble notebooks, 3 folders, 2 erasers, 1 pair of scissors, 4 rolls of Scotch tape, 1 container of wipes, 1 box of baggies, a freakin' partridge in a pear tree and one grown woman's index finger (what can I say, I was on a roll).

More fine print: Please bring these items in for the first day of school. Additional items might be requested by individual teachers at a later date.

What more could he possibly need? We have at least one of everything in the Staples catalog.

I'm finally finished and start loading up his backpack. I'm still seeing "Jon Jon Jon" flash across my eyes--kind of like when you play too much Tetris and you see colored pieces falling even after the game is over. Frightening, but it will pass.

I sit back and take a deep breath and my eyes glance one more time at my now checked-off supply list. There's a box at the bottom of the page with some more fine print:

. . . and finally, children learn BEST when parents and teachers work closely together. Make the next school year "the" year that you maintain frequent contact with your child's teacher.

It's official. The summer is over.