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Signs of election times by
50
(94 Stories)

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I don’t have any political buttons in my possession, so at first I thought I wouldn’t write a story this week. However, the pandemic has afforded an opportunity to walk frequently in my neighborhood in Santa Clara, California. For the past month I have watched campaign signs sprout. The signs practically butt up against the homes; it’s the Bay Area, so the yards are postage-stamp size. And the neighborhood is completely blue. Trump signs are thankfully MIA, and Biden signs are relatively rare, since this preference is assumed.

Trump signs are thankfully MIA, and Biden signs are relatively rare, since this preference is assumed.

Most signs, like the politics, are local: city council and school board candidates. Based on the number of signs, the neighborhood is engaged, which is great. I confess that I normally don’t vote in the school races, leaving that choice to the area’s well informed parents. This year, the city council elections mean a lot, and alas, are fraught with issues of diversity, money, and a monster offspring of an 800-pound gorilla and the elephant in the room: Levi’s Stadium and the San Francisco 49ers football team.

In this place where there is no majority ethnicity (we are about 1/3 white, 1/3 East Asian, and 1/3 South Asian), the council has been all white for almost a generation. After many legal battles, last year the court agreed that the city, which had elected council members at-large, was not being represented fairly. It ordered that district elections be put in place. For the first time, we are voting in six districts, and now several well qualified “minority” candidate challengers have a real chance of winning. So far, so good.

Alas, the current city council has been in a pitched battle with the 49ers, the issues too intricate to describe here, and the 49er owners are backing the challengers–with a lot of cash. About a week ago the campaigns turned negative, hit mail started arriving, and TV ads (really, for the city council?) became ubiquitous. Despite the 49er owners’ backing, I voted for the challenger in my district because she is well qualified and she is willing work with the team, but not cave into their demands, to straighten out some of the issues.

This morning I received a robocall from a local PAC that stated that $3 million has been spent on city races. Oh, what that $3 million could do to help people who are at the local food bank! I wish we could just read the yard signs and candidate statements, but the era of simplicity is gone and big money has arrived. Who will win I can’t predict. But these elections, national and local, money aside, really matter in 2020.

A Mixed Bag of Tech Then and Now by
50
(94 Stories)

/ Stories

Author’s note: Computers, or more accurately, computing power, is everywhere in 2020. With powerful microchips, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things, most of what we touch can be considered a computer, or is driven by one. During this pandemic, our new communication tools have been a godsend. There is much to appreciate in this time “after” computers, but there are a few obsolete things I miss. When we can congregate and travel, I’d encourage anyone coming to the San Francisco Bay Area to stop in at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, for a fascinating look at all aspects of computing and software. You’ll enjoy the trip!

Our phone number was CE9-2609. CE stood for the Center exchange. No area code.

I was about five years old. “Mrs. Comisky’s talking, Mom,” I shouted, after having lifted the phone receiver. My mother was putting dinner in the oven, having lit the gas with a match. I kept looking at the grandfather clock, with its pendulum swinging, and the hands slowly moving. Mrs. Comisky was a prolific talker, so I gave up on the phone and put a yellow 78 rpm record on my record player. My dad was outside working on our car, a 1952 Ford. He could tell what was wrong by looking at the mechanical parts under the hood. A few years later, he’d have a little red transistor radio in his shirt pocket and listen to the baseball game while he worked.

In the late 1950s, we had a party line with our neighbor and used one black phone attached to the kitchen wall. Sometimes my little fingers had difficulty dialing it. Our phone number was CE9-2609. CE stood for the Center exchange. No area code. I don’t miss the party line or the dialing, but I loved that phone number, so simple. Now, I can’t fathom how we operated without voicemail, with just a message note if we were lucky and someone happened to answer the phone. It seems miraculous that anyone connected at all, but we did! The downside now? We are always connected and reachable; no escape from our mobile phones.

Today’s digital clocks and watches are convenient, but I understand that many children don’t know how to tell time on a clock with hands, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. While I still use my oven occasionally, I’d gladly pick a microwave over it if forced to choose, perhaps because I’m domestically challenged.

In college I spent a weekend with a few classmates taking apart the engine of our RA’s husband’s Ford pickup truck. It was terrifying and very greasy, but I learned enough about how cars operate to put me in a better position with the (male) auto mechanics of that era. Today’s cars thankfully are a lot more reliable (my niece looked at me quizzically when I mentioned that cars used to break down often), but are close to impossible to maintain, let alone repair, without hooking them up to the auto shop’s computer. This has leveled the playing field between women and men, since the guys no longer have a big advantage when it comes to cars.

The biggest impact of computers for me was the transition from typewriters to word processing. In the eighth grade I took a required typing class on a manual typewriter, and although I hated practicing, I’m eternally grateful for my touch typing ability. In my sophomore year of high school, I received a portable Smith Corona typewriter. It was big and heavy for a portable by today’s standards, but robust enough to last for almost 15 years. One of my difficult experiences was having to type a term paper that required footnotes on the bottom. A lot of guesswork and retyping went into it!

Remember when the keys got tangled?

The ultimate typewriter trauma occurred in my junior year of high school when I worked for a CPA after school and tried to master a special machine for accounting. It had rows of ruler-like strips and levers for setting decimal tabs so that columns of numbers aligned. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get it, and the CPA put me back on doing ledger work with a fountain pen. I’ll take Excel, despite my novice ability, any day. And, while I no longer use a fountain pen, my boomer colleagues at work have joked that we are the only ones who can write with a pen. And, once we retire for good, no one will edit with a red pen anymore, and I’ll miss that a bit.

When I started working after college, I used an IBM Executive model typewriter. Everyone hated them because, although the proportional spacing looked great, errors were maddening to correct–backspacing by whole spaces and halves, inserting correction tape or using wite-out, and then retyping. So, when I went to my next job and had an IBM Correcting Selectric, I was in heaven. Proportional spacing was gone, and the keys replaced by a typing ball. The correction tape was incorporated, so no more fumbling with tapes or liquids.

In 1983 I got my first PC when I started my freelance business, a portable that I called a luggable, and despite how primitive it seems today, at the time I was thrilled to leave typewriters behind. But last year, before the pandemic, I walked into a store in an upscale shopping area called Beta. The store was really a showcase to allow companies to display new products to consumers.

A young man was standing next to a tablet-style computer that had a typewriter-like keyboard that made clacking noises when you pressed the keys. I had to smile when I saw the carriage return lever, placed just for show. In conversation with the young man, I discovered that he didn’t know what it was for, so I went into a detailed explanation of how a typewriter actually worked. He had no idea how you would insert paper (remember the platen?) or how to advance the lines, or that a bell dinged a warning at the end of the line. I laughed for days afterward!

One Decade of Pretty Shoes by
50
(94 Stories)

Prompted By Shoes

/ Stories

Best. Shoes. Ever. No, not the featured photo, which shows my best shoes in the present. I no longer have my best shoes ever. They were a pair of snakeskin pumps, from Italy, with notched open toes and slender heels, dyed in patches of blue, violet, and green, some of my favorite clothing colors. Sexy, yes, but in a classy way. Expensive for a single-income freelancer at the time, yet remarkably comfortable and rugged. When I put them on, I stood almost 5’9″, an asset when I had to deal with men in business. I wore those pumps for years, during my “pretty shoe decade,” my 30s. Before and after that, a very different story.

No Buster Browns, Keds, or Thom McCanns for me. Just, ugh, saddle shoes ...

Saddled at first

As a child, I had what were called “bad feet, “weak ankles,” and the like. Adults clucked their tongues and shook their heads at my slender feet and delicate toes. “Have her go barefoot,” the doctor told my mother, who was horrified. “No, never let her go barefoot,” others said. Most kids’ shoes didn’t fit. Either my feet swam in them or I walked right out of them. No Buster Browns, Keds, or Thom McCanns for me. Just, ugh, saddle shoes, brown and white with laces. No one but the girls who went to Our Lady of the Lake parochial school wore them!

By middle school I began to rebel, and finally found a pair of penny loafers (and did put pennies in them) that I could wear with very thick socks holding them on. In high school, I managed with boots and Mary Janes, and by college in the counterculture era, with sneakers and sandals. In my early 20s, life was still casual. For my first real job, which was in a dangerous part of Oakland, I wore jeans, carried a backpack rather than a purse, and laced my hiking boots tightly. For my next job in San Francisco, I had to walk 15 minutes from the bus terminal to the office, so I kept shoes as practical as I could.

The Italian revelation

Shortly before I turned 30, I discovered beautiful shoes from Italy. Not only stylish, but they actually fit! I could get them in 7-1/2 AAA or 8 AA and they were comfortable. By this time I’d given up impact sports, my feet feeling “delicate,” so no stiletto heels or pointed toes. I chose carefully because of the prices, but really enjoyed being fashionable, especially in my best shoes ever.

A catastrophic crash

A few months before I turned 40, early one morning I padded out on my driveway, barefoot, to pick up the newspaper. I felt a sharp pain under the ball of my foot and thought I must have stepped on a twig. That night my foot swelled, and the pain was severe. When I broke down and went to the doctor after a few days of limping, he told me to wear good shoes for a few days–nothing apparently wrong. The pain got worse, and I couldn’t move my toes. The second doctor shrugged and told me he didn’t know what was wrong, but I could have nerve damage and probably wouldn’t walk normally again. His advice was to get a cane.

After 10 days, panic set in, but in a miraculous coincidence my then husband, a competitive middle distance runner, was pals with Dr. Saxena, an acclaimed sports medicine podiatrist. The following day I was in his office and had a diagnosis, both the acute problem and the root cause. I’d stress fractured a tiny sesamoid bone under my middle toes, which had displaced and cut ligaments and nerves. “It’s lucky you came in when you did,” Dr. Saxena explained, “because in another couple of days the nerves would have been completely dead and you’d have lost the use of your leg below the knee.” He then showed me the x ray, full of little bumps on the bones, indicating a long history of other stress fractures that I hadn’t even felt.

The root cause? A hereditary, congenital, degenerative malformation of the sesamoid bones, the worst Dr. Saxena had ever seen. The next months were filled with rehab with June, my wonderful physical therapist, including tissue massage so painful that it was like childbirth every time, and nerve patterning exercises twice a day to rebuild the lost connections from my brain to my foot. My walking would never be totally normal, but I could gain the appearance of a natural gait. After I completed the rehab, June told me that 90% of the people would have given up and gotten the cane.

My first shoes during and after the rehab made me look like a mail carrier: size 9 medium, with ties and/or straps, very incongruous given my slim ankles. They needed to accommodate my still swollen foot and my custom designed orthotics from Dr. Saxena, which I would need to wear for life to protect both feet from future fractures. About a year later, we moved, and it was time to accept the inevitable. I gave away all my Italian pumps, including my best shoes ever.

Making peace with my feet

The first couple of years after my rehab were challenging for finding shoes that looked remotely normal. Athletic shoes were fine, but dressy shoes were another matter. Occasionally I’d luck out with Mary Janes, and I was allowed a heel of 1-1/2 inches. My feet were now an 8-1/2 narrow, but the shoes needed wide toes to fit the orthotics, and a very narrow heel so that they would stay on. I soon learned to avoid department stores, where the salespeople snickered at me, and stick with specialty shops, where the people were more knowledgeable and had empathy.

I’ve evolved a shoe shopping strategy that entails stopping off at a few shops every couple of months (before COVID) and now in addition scouting for possibilities on their online stores. If I find shoes that work after I try them on in person, I buy them immediately, whatever the price, because if I don’t, they will be gone. Should I find anything in a distinctive color (other than black or brown), that’s an incredible bonus. I keep shoes for a long time.

The bright side

The good news is that shoe options have improved somewhat because many baby boomer women have abandoned their high heels, and there is a growing market for shoes that are attractive but healthier for the feet, like those in the featured image. Also, I learned a lot about men from this experience, because a couple of years after the “crash” I was divorced and starting dating. At dances and dinners, meeting strangers, I couldn’t wear the sexiest shoes, although I did the best I could. It became easy to weed out the jerks who made nasty comments about my shoes without asking why they were different. I found out a lot about a man’s character and priorities.

Finally, my bare feet are really pretty, with straight toes the way nature intended, and no bunions, callouses, and other annoyances, because I have to wear shoes that don’t deform my feet. I may have missed the Manolos, but my feet, with help from orthotics and good shoes, should carry me well into the next decade.

Way to Go by
50
(94 Stories)

Prompted By Final Farewell

/ Stories

With each loss, I’ve learned. In addition to the emotional pain and healing process, there were valuable insights gained from the “death rituals” that helped me, an understanding of what didn’t help, and revelations about my own quirks and preferences. For me, there likely will be a role for fire and water.

While at first I didn't relish the extra burden, the experience turned out to be a gift.

Two of my grandparents and an aunt died when I was young, and I wasn’t involved directly other than attending the funerals. My first real experience with decisions about death came when my mother-in-law at the time became terminally ill. My then-husband’s family began to fall apart quickly, because my mother-in-law was the glue that held the family together. I had to step in and deal with hospice, her death, and her funeral arrangements.

While at first I didn’t relish the extra burden, the experience turned out to be a gift. I was close enough to my mother-in-law to care about her but not be paralyzed by grief, so I intimately experienced what was involved. I learned I could deal with a lot more than I expected, but there was one thing that freaked me out. I went with my father-in-law to the funeral home to select a coffin. When I entered a room full of empty coffins, I almost blacked out.

My claustrophobia had kicked in. Later I remembered another time my claustrophobia kicked in, at the funeral of a friend’s father, when instead of doing a burial in the ground, they raised the coffin and placed it in a slot in a very tall wall. It looked like a safe deposit box being replaced in a bank vault and felt very creepy.

In 2001, when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, there was time to plan and say goodbye. I was able to cut back my business to be very involved in his care for about two months, and we brought him home from his final hospital visit to make him comfortable. My father and my mom chose cremation through the Neptune Society. This group arranges the cremation and schedules the family for a scattering of the ashes in certain approved sites in San Francisco Bay. My father loved California and particularly the waters of the bay.

My father died on the first night of Hanukkah, which was December 9 that year. Given the time of year, my father’s non-observant status, and that we had very few close relatives in the area, we did not sit shiva. Instead, right before Christmas, my mother, brother and family, a cousin, and I went to San Francisco and got on a small Neptune Society boat. It was was rainy and blustery. There was supposed to be another family with us, but they didn’t show because of the weather, so we motored out near Baker Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge to scatter my father’s ashes. Tears were on our cheeks, mixed with raindrops.

On January 9, we held a lovely memorial celebration for my father, with many of his friends attending. I chose the date deliberately because it marked “Sh’loshim,” 30 days after a death, when life returns to normal. The event gave closure to a difficult time and helped me start to move on.

So what have I learned about what works for me? Jewish rituals work really well. Even though we didn’t sit shiva for my father, shivas have presented me an opportunity to comfort the families of others and remember the person who has died. I have attended two Zoom shivas since the pandemic, and while not the same as being there in person, they were an opportunity for connection. I wish there were a formal ritual for Sh’loshim, but there isn’t. I’m glad we acknowledged that time for my father. Saying Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer, is meaningful to me, although not as much for the others in my family.

What would I want for my final farewell? I haven’t formulated the details, but given my claustrophobic experiences, I’m strongly leaning toward cremation, to being symbolically released rather than confined to a space. And, since I love the water as much as my father did, I hope to have my ashes scattered somewhere in the sea.

A Degree Day of Observations by
50
(94 Stories)

Prompted By Rites of Passage

/ Stories

It was a very warm May day on the meadow at Mills. Our black robes were uncomfortable in the sun, but we loved our Oxford caps and white-and-yellow hoods draped over our shoulders. As with lots of aspects of Mills, the distinctive outfits made us, the graduating class of 1975, feel special. We sat up front on metal folding chairs, with our guests behind us. The crowd didn’t feel like a crowd, but rather was intimate, as befitted a small school with a small class. Just my parents and my boyfriend were somewhere back in the meadow, toward the main road.

Seated there was a very elderly, diminutive woman, dressed in black, with wild white hair and a pixie-ish expression, very quiet but observing everything carefully.

For a graduation (or Degree Day, another Mills moniker), it was a relatively relaxed affair, even with the excitement of Maya Angelou being our Degree Day speaker and being awarded an honorary degree. She was an imposing but not scary presence. Preoccupied with the sensory experience of the day, and perhaps the heat, I don’t recall much of what she said, but I like to think it was something akin to the theme of her quote, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”

Maya Angelou at President Clinton’s inauguration, 1993

Why then, did my eyes keep drifting to a row of chairs in front of the stage, facing us? Seated there was a very elderly, diminutive woman, dressed in black, with wild white hair and a pixie-ish expression, very quiet but observing everything carefully. It was Imogen Cunningham, the photographer. She knew our campus well, having been married to Roi Partridge, who taught photography at the college in the 1920s. Her photos of the amphitheater and of dancers outdoors documented some aspects of the college, and she is well known for her self portraits and nature photos. Why she was at our graduation I don’t recall. She didn’t give a speech, or appear to whisper a word, for that matter, but might have been recognized by a speaker.

I couldn’t help feeling that, by her presence, I was experiencing a rite of passage. I was learning something, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. I was grateful that at age 92 she was at my graduation (in fact, she died a year later). But my attention shifted to the awards and diplomas being given out, and then to the lovely brunch we had on the lawn. We drank punch and ate strawberries dipped in chocolate, with everyone talking about their plans for the summer and for their future.

This rite of passage began a time of great change for me, moving into an apartment and working part time as a secretary while I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley, where my department was the size of the entire Mills College. Periodically over the years I would think about Imogen Cunningham sitting at Degree Day and wonder what was so compelling and what I was trying to learn from her. It’s only recently that the learning coalesced: how one can contribute by producing something of value based on careful observation rather than succeeding by talking. Maybe it’s my introverted nature, reticence on Zoom, and the nonstop media chitchat, but somehow I relish the idea of quiet artistic output more than ever.

A few days ago, when I looked in the mirror first thing in the morning, in a way I experienced an informal rite of passage: a recognition of aging and moving to another stage of life in this crazy era. I saw a not-so-young woman with wild, fly-away light gray hair and I couldn’t help thinking of Imogen Cunningham and her self portrait that’s the featured image for this story. Her art speaks for her, and in this world of jabber and noise, it speaks volumes.

 

 

 

Listening to words by
50
(94 Stories)

Prompted By Brain Games

/ Stories

Like many Retrospecters, I have been an enthusiastic crossword puzzle and Scrabble fan since grade school. I started doing crossword puzzles in a friendly competition with my dad, and by the time I got to high school, was doing reasonably well with the New York Times puzzles. I tried jigsaw puzzles as well and quickly found the limitations of my spatial abilities. This in contrast to my jigsaw puzzle wizard mom, an artist who still does them at age 92.

Every Sunday I listen to this amazing, funny, and very challenging game show that involves words ...

In my household now, I am the sole crossword puzzle fanatic, which is just fine. With Dick’s children at holiday times, I play the occasional Scrabble game (will have to check out the online world), while his in-laws do jigsaw puzzles. We also do other board games, which I enjoy. However, about seven years ago I added a new brain game to my repertoire that involves both words and listening.

During a conversation, an editor friend mentioned (off-handedly) a radio program called “Says You” that she thought I’d like. I filed it in the back of my mind, until a few months later, when I got my first pair of hearing aids. I learned that people with hearing loss benefit by keeping up their listening skills because our brains have to work harder to understand speech. After a few tries, I found the program on my local NPR station and was immediately hooked.

Every Sunday I listen to this amazing, funny, and very challenging game show that involves words, featuring off-the-scale clever panelists. Instead of looking at a screen or page, the audience plays along with its ears, although some people like to use a pen and paper. There are bluffing rounds when one team of three people tries to fool the other team with three definitions of obscure words, two made up and one real. And the words are obscure. In the seven years I’ve been listening, I’ve known only two words without the teams supplying definitions, although I do guess the right definition from time to time.

Other Says You categories are “Definitions and Derivations,” “What’s the Difference,” “Odd Man Out,” and several with witty puns. Also wicked-hard geographic questions, which are my least favorite. All test your logic, memory, and “pun quotient.” I find I’ve enjoyed the different pathway to fun with words by listening instead of seeing, and if Says You keeps me sharp, so much the better.

A Garden of Visual Delights by
50
(94 Stories)

Prompted By The Garden

/ Stories

I’ve never had a green thumb or much interest in hands-on gardening, although I appreciate the efforts of others to create areas of beauty and grow good food. Probably this has to do with being allergic to flora–and I mean all flora. As a child I sneezed because of the lilac bush near my bedroom window. In my 20s, living in small apartments, I didn’t think about gardens very often. I had to remind my dates not to give me flowers, or if they did, they were placed outside on a balcony or patio where I could see them but not sniff them. Jasmine makes me nauseous. At my wedding, I carried a special bouquet with scentless flowers. On the tables were simple plants without blossoms.

I resorted to wearing sunglasses and a painter's mask to do any gardening, even trimming the lemon tree. Upon seeing me, my cat recoiled in horror.

At the first suburban house I owned, I didn’t have to worry about gardening. On the east side of Menlo Park, California, the O’Connor tract where I lived had been a chicken ranch in the early 20th century, and the soil was rich with … you can guess. Every seed that wafted into my yard grew, even east coast trees that weren’t supposed to be there.

When I moved to a small condo I considered having a little garden on my patio to accompany the nice lemon tree there. My enthusiasm waned as my eyes teared and my nose clogged. I resorted to wearing sunglasses and a painter’s mask to do any gardening, even trimming the lemon tree. Upon seeing me, my cat recoiled in horror. At this point my doctor recommended that I be tested for specific allergies, so I was poked 40 times along my arms and back with various pollens, molds, and related substances. I tested positive for 38 of them–basically all plants, trees, flowers, and even the natural mold in the soil.

At this point I reverted to my previous strategy of experiencing gardens by looking. On my patio at my current home there are some plants and citrus trees, but no flowers, and during the right season we grow tomato plants in pots. I have to remind my sweetheart that I can water but not dig up soil. Occasionally, if the season and time are absolutely right, I can sit out on the patio for a short while. Mostly, I use my eyes to appreciate the beautiful, varied greens I can see, and the swarming of hummingbirds against the red feeder.

Should the wildfire smoke ever abate, I’ll go back to walks with my painter’s mask (good for social distancing as well) to appreciate the neighborhood plants and flowers, in all their colorful beauty. While it might not be the same as active gardening, looking at nature is wonderful.

 

Long lost, newly discovered by
50
(94 Stories)

Prompted By Lost and Found

/ Stories

This prompt made it easy for me to remember many things, people, and opportunities lost over the years. At first I thought of my father, whom I miss terribly, then my most important mentor who died young, and everything related to the pandemic. However, there is also joy in things found, especially when they are given up as lost forever. And, the disappointment of losing something can eclipsed when you unexpectedly find it again.

With a sigh, I gave the earring up for lost but kept its mate as a memento.

A small example. When I first got my ears pierced as a teenager, I received a pair of jade stud earrings, just slivers of stone smaller than my pinky fingernail. The deep green color was beautiful, and although later I gravitated toward larger jewelry, I kept those earrings and would occasionally wear them. After college, during my “gypsy” time, I moved often and rather than pack my jewelry box, I would take it in my own car to my new place.

During one of my earlier moves, I brought the box into my new apartment, opened it, and began reorganizing the scattered content. I had one jade stud. Carefully I looked through the box again, even turning it upside down and shaking it. No luck. I went to my car with a flashlight and painstakingly searched every inch of the passenger seat and floors. No luck. With a sigh, I gave the earring up for lost but kept its mate as a memento.

More than 10 years later, during one of my later moves, the same scheme repeated, except this time, after I removed all my jewelry from the box to reorganize it I accidentally knocked the box with my elbow hard against the wall beside my dresser. The lid slammed closed. When I opened it, I noticed a tiny lump under the interior silk lining, and a microscopic tear. I felt something hard and gently pushed to reveal: the second jade stud. The earring had slipped into the lining during that early move, only to be dislodged by accident by some rough handling. It now has a place, with its mate, in a smaller box. I do occasionally wear the earrings when I need a mood boost to remember a happy surprise.

Another happy surprise was finding a cousin I never knew I had. More accurately, she found me, made possible by DNA databases. A few years back I had my mother’s and my DNA analyzed on Ancestry. As the very fair “outlier” in a family of dark-haired people, I’d always wondered about the location of my genetic roots. (Those results turned out to be inconclusive, but possibly pointed to a third great-grandparent of British or western European ancestry.) In their small villages in the Polish/Russian pale of settlement, my mother’s parents’ families had intermarried for generations. She has cousins she is related to on both sides, so I wasn’t surprised when long lists of possible third and fourth cousins began to show up. Nothing as compelling for me!

Then, out of the blue, I got an Ancestry message from a woman living in Long Island named Kathy, who, as a possible second cousin, asked if I was related to one of the eight siblings in my father’s father’s generation. Because she accurately named my grandfather and his seven siblings, I knew we had a real match. When we corresponded, we put together that indeed our grandfathers were brothers. Mine was the second oldest child, and hers the youngest, which explained why we were a generation apart in age. “You must be either my cousin Lenny’s or Charley’s daughter,” I wrote, and it turned out that Charley was her father. I’d lost touch with these cousins when I moved to California and they stayed on the east coast.

Because her mother is not Jewish, I helped Kathy with the intricacies of Romanian Jewish surname spellings and changes, and helped her figure out that in the family tree people were using both English and Hebrew names interchangeably, so that as Kathy tried to find Leah, I explained that she likely was the same person as Lily. We had a fun time, although we didn’t keep up with our correspondence, and we haven’t met, living so far away. It was a lovely surprise, though, learning that there are relatives out there to be found.

All Sales Final on Vinyl by
50
(94 Stories)

Prompted By Yard Sales

/ Stories

I’ve never been one to make yard sales a destination, but I did have one, once.  On a June day in the late 1990s, my neighbors Courtney, Kathy, and Candace came up with the idea of having a joint sale. We lived on a quiet street in Menlo Park, California, where the yards were unusually big. My yard was almost 1/3 acre, huge by California standards, and a large portion of it extended to the street from my set-back house, so this made the perfect area for us to set up the yard sale, which we scheduled for two weeks out.

The little girl stared and asked, "Daddy, what are those?" "These are records," he replied, "they play music."

Now, what to sell? This was during my “broke” era, and I didn’t have a lot of possessions, although there were many small items I considered junk that people would like. Mostly I had clothing that needed to go. Then I looked in my living room and noticed my LP collection. The records were all relatively old and very much played, with the expected pops and scratches. My turntable hadn’t worked for a number of years. It was time to sell my vinyl.

In the few days before the Saturday sale, our little group priced our items. Mine had yellow Avery circles with numbers. For my records, I asked 25 cents each or five for a dollar. At 7 AM the day of the sale, we carted out all our stuff to my yard. Kathy and Candace brought pastries and coffee to keep up our energy. Even before 8, the serious “yardies” started arriving, and the next few hours were mostly a blur as we haggled, took cash, and made change.

About mid-morning a quiet man came by with a little girl. He began looking through my collection of records very seriously and picking up one, then a second, then a third, and so on. The little girl stared and asked, “Daddy, what are those?” “These are records,” he replied, “they play music.”

For a few moments I wondered if I should be selling the vinyl and if any of the records the man selected were really valuable, but I let out my breath and decided, even if I had some unknown treasures, the era of vinyl for the masses was over, and the records would get another home.

By 2 PM I had made about $200, which was nice money for me then. I still had some clothing left, but the visitors were gone, so I would have bags for Goodwill. There wasn’t a single record left, though. However, I did keep one record behind, which I still have. It’s a very early Beatles album that was only released in the U.K. My uncle brought it back when he was on a business trip.

I’m glad to have it as my vinyl reminder, and if needed, to show children what a record looked like. I have to smile now, thinking how vinyl has evolved into an elite product for audiophiles. Bottom line, though, I don’t regret having given up my record collection.

Right, then wrong, then almost right by
50
(94 Stories)

Prompted By I Swore I'd Never

/ Stories

It started with Grandma Rose, and when I think back, the practice made sense. After all, when my grandmother came to this country at the turn of the 20th century, she lived in a tenement, and no one had heard the word “antibiotics.” Getting dirt into a skin opening could mean infection or worse. Hence, the hand washing I remember when my grandmother lived with us, before she handled food and whenever she came into the house.

... it got to the point where her hands were raw, and the doctor told her to ease off. She didn't work in a sewer, he said.

My grandmother taught my mother well, but my mother took things way too far. As a child, my mother had severe rashes, which we now understand was eczema, an autoimmune condition that had nothing to do with cleanliness or the lack of it. But back then, the doctors were mystified and tried many treatments. According to my mother, they smeared her with a vile-smelling black ointment, and she had to wash with caustic soap. Anything other than absolutely clean was bad.

Between my grandmother’s caution and the thought that being clean could cure her rashes, my mother became germaphobic and obsessive about hand washing. Now I understand how the trauma might have triggered my mother’s hand washing, but growing up it was maddening to me.

During the time I lived at home, I remember her scrubbing and scrubbing her hands–a lot. She pestered my brother and me do so as well. When I was a teenager it got to the point where her hands were raw, and the doctor told her to ease off. She didn’t work in a sewer, he said. This helped to a degree, although at times of stress my mother would start washing her hands more frequently. So I swore that, while I’d wash my hands “normally,” I would never be that crazy about it.

Then, when Covid-19 hit, what’s the first message we heard? Wash your hands! Frequently!  At first I followed the “every two hours” rule religiously. I badgered my partner: “Why aren’t you washing your hands?” After the first month, when I realized how dry my hands were, even with moisturizing soap and hand cream, I thought things over. Was I picking up my mother’s behavior?

I was rarely leaving the house, and no one was coming in, and during those times, there would be no virus to wash off. So I have largely reverted to what would be considered a conventional level of hand washing, except I am diligent about it when I return home after shopping, and I have my hand sanitizer to use between stops when I am out.

It took a pandemic to get me close to my mother’s hand washing practices, but I’ve stepped back from the edge and tried to find the balance between right, wrong, and almost right.

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