Saturday, June 24, 2006

One giant leap

Well, it's official. I've given in my letter of intention to the boss, shared my retirement news with my colleagues, and will announce to close family and friends this weekend just what I'm about to do.

What I'm about to do is huge. After spending the first six decades of my life in my immediate area, I am packing up my worldly belongings and traveling up to the Berkshires to be near daughter and family. No job, no apartment, no medical coverage. I've decided to forego the metaphorical parachute and do a free fall.

It's taken me a long time to make this decision. I can blame part of my resistance on the stars. I'm a Pisces. For those of you who don't dabble in this kind of stuff, Pisces are the old souls of the universe. They like to dream and draw their energy from the mystical and musical. Artsy-fartsy types, slow to change. Philosophers. Think Yoda.

Dreaming doesn't pay the bills though.

The fact that I've been earning my paychecks for the past 19 years as a university administrator (fancy term for paper pusher) leads me to believe that the universe does, indeed, have a warped sense of humor. I'd rather be playing my accordion or writing fanfic than figuring out how many courses we have to offer at which campus for the new semester. Then there are the mandatory board meetings. I give it my best shot but they usually turn into bored meetings much of the time. My Muse nudges me into doodling or scribbling on the backside of a legal pad often producing some brilliant ideas for my fanfic.

What I've loved about working in higher education, though, are the students. I work with a diverse adult population, students returning to school to finish what they had started years before. This is always challenging and fun - to see the unique persons in front of you, hear their often inspiring stories, and advise, coach, motivate them to succeed. Working with adults is never boring. It's often complicated, frustrating and exhausting but it's also very rewarding when the students succeed against sometimes heavy odds. I consider myself a cheerleader, standing on the sidelines and rooting them on. I hope, by advocating for and believing in them, that I've made some small difference in their lives. We are kindred spirits.

I never went to college until my kids were in grade school. At first it was terrifying. I had been out of high school almost twenty years. I came home from the first night of my first class in a cold sweat. Sat down on my daughter's bed and gently woke her up. Jenn was about twelve at the time. I told her that maybe I had made a mistake, taken on too much. Silence. And then a tiny voice of wisdom: "Mom, you always tell us to finish what you start." It was time to walk the walk.

As a non-traditional student, it took nine years to the bachelor's degree and another four to my master's. I did homework at the kitchen table with my children. Pulled all-nighters to make term-paper deadlines. Watched them grow and succeed in their studies beyond my wildest expectations just as I was growing in the classroom too. I graduated with the B.A. the same year my son graduated from high school. What fun that was! I now see my own students reaching the same milestone with their kids.

It's been good, all good. I am not rich in money from a career in higher ed but very rich in memories from having served such a special population.

Now, though, my heart lies elsewhere. A new generation is opening up to the world of learning, my grandkids. I want to be there to share in some of their discoveries.

I hope the universe provides a soft landing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Birthday girl

Hey Jenn,

I drove home from work and thought of you tonight. I passed the hospital where you were born. I tried to remember that night. You were Monday's child, fair of face.

New to this, you were our firstborn. We waited patiently after midnight until your demands to make an arrival could no longer be ignored. We got to the hospital about 3:00am.

New to this, we did what the doctor ordered. I went into stronger labor and your dad left the room for the waiting room down the hall. I remember feeling so alone and praying a lot. I made a wager with the Virgin Mary to help me muster through the waves of strange sensations taking over most of my lower body and to keep you safe on your journey. I forget what my end of the bargain was but she held up hers. You were born beautiful and healthy.

It was a very small space, just me and you and a blue wall that I turned to. No nurse telling me to be brave and breathe correctly, no husband telling me that it would be alright, a young doctor who appeared occasionally and murmured a platitude and then walked down the hall to tell your father that I had a high threshold for pain.

This was my annointing. You tested me. I would hold that pronouncement close to me for the rest of my days. High threshold for pain. It got me through some rough times, emotional and physical.

Finally, my own doctor appeared on the scene and I was wheeled to delivery. By then, you and I had a pretty good thing going - a nice rhythm. I think it was a predictor of things to come. We clicked from the very start.

Six hours after my arrival (spending much of that time by myself), you were crowning and the doctor asked if I wanted nitrous oxide or whatever it is that they let you whiff. I labored to that point without meds and before I could say "I'm almost there - just let the baby come", the mask covered my face. It could not have lasted more than a couple minutes because I heard someone say "It's a girl".

You were whisked away and I was now shaking uncontrollably, my limbs refusing to cooperate and a deep chill settling in. Someone murmured something about falling blood pressure and shock and then a warm blanket, so welcomed, covered me. But you were gone. No baby to look at and check like new mommas do. I lay there wanting to see you, hold you, welcome you into this world of blue walls and painful thresholds. It wasn't quite the welcome I had pictured but you know what? It was honest. We both made it through the night. We were companions from the start. We survived the pain and discomfort together. We've done that a lot through the years, sweet pea.

Eventually, a nurse walked back into the delivery room and held up a baby. A blond baby boy. Did I have a brain fart giving birth? I could've sworn I heard "It's a girl" or maybe the laughing gas really did destroy some neurons.

"That's not my kid." DUH, we don't have the blond gene to begin with. They realized their mistake and brought you in - dark hair, not much of it, bright eyes and little fingers that already seemed to be reaching out and grasping at something ... at Life. You never stopped with the curiosity and wonder.

You hold everything close to your heart, Jenn. Lucky I passed on that high threshold for pain.

Happy birthday special daughter. My life is so much richer because of you.

Love, Mom xxoo

Monday, June 19, 2006

Follow your bliss

Jenn: "Shall we tell them now? Or do you want to wait?"

the Mater: "They're all looking at us. I'd like to make the announcement now ..."

Jenn: "Go for it, mama. Tell your good news."

the Mater is packing it all up and moving to the Berkshires!

Jenn: "Let's drink to that! Life as we know it will never again be the same."

Sunday, June 18, 2006

My son, the doctor

It’s Father’s Day and you’re so far away
I wish I could be there to share in your day
I picture the kids rushing to give you your gifts
And hand-written cards which will give you a lift

Katie will be tired from orchestrating the event
With new baby soon due, she is easily spent
She’s proud of her man, she did choose a good one
I’m also so proud of the man you’ve become

You studied for years to earn your degree
And easily could have chosen a "rich" specialty
You followed the wisdom of your heart instead
To family practice is where you were led

Besides being a husband and father in life
You are a healer of others, a comfort in strife
You bring such a blend of knowledge and wit
That all of your patients leave feeling the gift

There is something paternal about all that you do
You’re a father to your children but care for others too
I am so pleased to watch you grow in the art of compassion
Seeing the doctor you’ve become gives me great satisfaction


The hot tub dialogues Part I

"Mom, this is so lame. We should be out back, barbecuing for David. It is Father's Day after all."

"I know but he's such a good hubby that he wanted you to have quality time with me in the neighbor's hot tub. And to think he lugged all this ice in just to cool us off."

"I'm just not getting it. People will come to your blog on Father's Day and see a picture of me and you in a hot tub. It's meaningless!"

"Gosh, Jenn, chill out and enjoy the water while I tell you that I think you married the perfect mate. David is your lover, your best friend, the father of your children, a great cook, a superb director, a promising professor, and he paints such lovely pictures. A real artiste. All that in one man. Amazing."

"Yes, I'm one lucky woman ..."

"So let's both offer him a hardy HAPPY FATHER'S DAY! Hmm, do you smell steak cooking on the grill? This guy is so selfless."

"And narcoleptic ... that's his one weakness."

"Did you make any money on the t-shirts?"

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Comfort zone

It’s been a rough week. I’d say grueling, but that’s been banned from my vocabulary.

First the tooth fairy and then a two hours’ wait in the doctor’s office yesterday to have my ear examined. I walked out of that visit with a bagful of sample antibiotics and ear drops. I’ll be popping pills and squirting my ear for at least a week. Meanwhile, I had to rush back to school for evening advisement appointments. Fatigue washed over me on the drive home.

Today, while holding my head at a 90-degree angle and juggling the noon application of ear drops, I glanced up and saw an anticipated email from my daughter. Subject line: Screen Door Options. Sure enough, she was surfing the web looking for the elusive cranberry storm door of her dreams. I had promised it as a birthday gift and time was running out.

With head at full tilt, I clicked on the link and started looking at the merchandise. Nice stuff. I decided to call the daughter so we could discuss her options.

Jenn: “I think a country look, old-fashioned, would fit the house.”

Me: “Yeah, but are you sure you want wood instead of vinyl? (Then diverging from topic because the ear drops are running down my neck and my ear still hurts.) You know I had to go to the doctor’s yesterday. Would you believe I’ve got an ear infection? It’s been blocked all week and …”

Jenn (interrupting): “Mom, you’re doing it again.”

Me (clueless): “Doing what?”

Jenn: “Honestly, you just start to dwell on your aches and pains and go right into the organ recital.”

Me (whining slightly): “Jennnnnn, I’ve had a hard week. First I get attacked by the dentist and then I have a honkin’ stainless-steel plunger poked into my ear. Give me a break.”

Jenn: “Mom, you are not old. You dwell too much on the negative.”

Me (back on topic): “Okay, so which screen door do you like?”

Commotion in the background ... kids clamoring for a DVD.

Jenn: “Sophie, come here and talk to babci while I get ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ inserted for you guys.”

Sophie: “Hi babci. How are you?”

Me (do I dare?): “Well, honey, babci had an earache and she had to go to the doctor's. And he had to look in my ear and put some drops in and give me medicine.”

Sophie: “Oh you poor thing.”

Fireworks exploding on the horizon. Visions of angels dancing on the head of a pin. Rainbows everywhere.

This is why God created grandchildren.

My daughter is still getting her screen door.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Silly Sophie

This just came across my email screen ...

Dear Babci,

I'm sending this picture of silly Sophie. Silly Sophie is my friend. Silly Sophie has a pony tail. Silly Sophie has a grandma -- I love her! And I love you too!



See? I am so blessed.

Selective memory

I’m sitting here totally baffled by my inability to remember those maternal moments when my two kids really made me wish I had become a nun. I know there had to be some meltdowns, especially during the toddler and teen years, but frankly I can only remember two.

There was the incident with my son, during the heady independence of his second year, wanting to use my dad’s key to open the car door but shrieking and throwing a tantrum when he couldn’t succeed. He refused to give up the key. My dad, who loved taking care of his cars, realized at that moment that the key would probably be next used to run a large scratch across the outside finish. He got Joseph’s attention by whacking him once on the behind. Kid stopped screaming; pop-pop retrieved the key. No one reported us to DHS.

And then there was my sudden encounter with my teenage daughter who had just dyed her hair a bright orange or red. It was a shocker. “You look like a brick $hithouse” were the first words that came out of my gaping mouth. I honestly can’t remember if this was the time that I slapped her. She slapped me back. The air was cleared and life went on. Did we laugh after this attack on each other’s faces? I seem to think we did but I’m drawing a blank. I just know that we never laid hands on each other again in a moment of anger. The hugs definitely won in the long run.

This is what I do remember. Stuff like my best friend giving baby Jenn a “pony ride” down the hallway. I remember my dad carrying his first grandchild up and down the same hallway, singing Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” to her as she fell asleep on his shoulder. I remember bathing new baby brother on the kitchen table, with big sister having an up-close-and-personal view of brother’s tool kit.

“What’s that, mommy?” said the alert Jennster at my side.

“Joseph is a boy. Boys have a penis. And girls have a vagina.”

There you go! It came out quite naturally and I felt proud of myself. A teachable moment.

Jenn went running down the hall, excited to tell the world about her newfound discovery.

“Joseph has a peanut and I have a ‘gina!”

Who could forget the Animal Olympics? The two kids had so many stuffed toys. My mom contributed to the menagerie by crocheting even more. Sometimes I couldn’t find them in their sleep because the beds were covered with their cuddly friends. During what must have been an Olympic year, we held an Olympiad of our own in the hallway. We took turns throwing the different critters down the hall and measuring the distance each one flew. A gold, silver and bronze medal were duly awarded.

I remember our imaginary campouts in living room and bedroom. I would pull a blanket or mom's afghan over us as the tent. We would picture a campfire and roast pretend marshmallows and tell stories. That was always fun.

I remember helping Jenn write her first book. She was about ten years old. It was to be called The Kingdom of Ugly about a land where misshapen and misbegotten people and animals lived and where they came to find, because of the goodness of their king and queen, that being different was not ugly but beautiful indeed. I illustrated some of our story and we have yet to finish the book. It’s still a work in progress. I hope we do complete it for Sophie and Hannah, Ben and Olivia.

I remember Joseph getting a set of drums for his fourth birthday. Mr. Cool, playing alongside his dad on guitar and me on the organ. And Jenn taking music lessons and amazing me when she started playing Bach, keyboard and pedalboard (better than I).

I remember teaching Joseph how to pitch a baseball and making up imaginary call signs as I played catcher. I remember signing him up for a junior bowling league and soccer too; getting up before 6:00am to drive him to early mass so he could serve as altar boy.

I remember Jenn not being tested in grade school for “a special program”. I investigated and found out that only little boys were being tested for the “gifted program”. I was furious. I made some noise and Jenn got a chance to participate as well as the other girls in the grade. Of all the kids who started with the program, Jenn stayed with it from middle school into high school. She won science awards throughout. So much for not testing the girls.

These kinds of memories just pop up when I think of raising my kids. I hope I’m not in the minority, but the good moments continue to outweigh the bad. I was … I am so blessed.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The tooth fairy is dead

I just killed her. The annoying little brat kept chirping in my ear all week that today’s visit to the dentist would be “a piece of cake.” And then I’d get my quarter.

My daughter got on the Mary Poppins bandwagon too. I casually mentioned that I was going in for a new crown and dreaded the grueling prep work. An email soon came flying back.

“Oh Mom, don’t use the word ‘grueling’ for the dentist. Digging out from a hurricane is grueling. Lighten up, lady. It may be a bit uncomfortable but, really, you are so blessed.”

Pumped up by clich├ęs and shamed by reprimands, I got up this morning determined to face my non-ordeal with a stiff upper lip. I should have known that would come later.

I love my dentist. Let me set the record straight in case he ever happens to read this blog. The guy is cool - young, easy on the eyes, pleasant personality and a perfectionist. The last one’s a great trait to have when you’re mucking around in someone else’s mouth. I had a really bad fall several years ago and this man managed to realign and save my front teeth … for that alone, I’d follow him anywhere. His dental assistant is my cousin’s wife, wonderful woman, very calming. It’s nice to have family in the room as the drilling begins.

So off I go, counting my blessings. All shall be well. On a whim, I grab my iPod from the dining-room table and throw it in my purse. I know that they have Muzak in the office but what the heck … maybe I can still find some use for my popsicle stick. (Tiniest iPod – oh I’m so in, thanks to my kids!) I arrive early, ask to use the restroom and notice that my cousin’s wife is not around. Kim, the nurse of the day, tells me that she has gone to Bermuda. I feel a little nip of tension. I often rehearse stressful events in my mind. Now, all of a sudden, I have to replace a constant with a new variable. Kim is sweet; she sees the iPod now hanging around my neck with the adjoining ear plugs. I, the digital diva, promptly show her my toy and she seems impressed – like she doesn’t know how to operate one of these things. Hehehehe. Score one for the senior citizen. I’m making chit chat with Kim, comparing favorite female vocalists. I show her mine; she shows me hers. We promise to write down recommended albums before I leave, which should be in about an hour and a half. I’ve had crowns done before. It usually takes about that length of time.

The doc comes in. More chit chat and then he peers into my mouth, briefly turning into the Godfather and making me an offer I can’t refuse. “How about we do both today? They’re both on top and you’re my last patient.” Bingo! I see the tooth fairy hovering behind the assistant’s shoulder, grinning broadly and gesturing the a-okay sign.

I swallow hard. What a lousy dress rehearsal! Nothing’s going as expected. I was really preparing myself for the one crown today and the other later in the month.

“Oh, sure. Let’s go for it.” This is said without any enthusiasm whatsoever. What would you say to a medical professional leaning over you with sharp instruments in his hand? I could sense his eagerness to dive into my mouth and muck around big time – two for the price of one! It seems expedient and economical, but so did that online dating service which led to love in the afternoon.

What I forget to factor in are the logistics of the whole operation. The one crown is going to live on the east side of my mouth; the other crown is taking up residence on the west side. Before I can say, “maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all”, he looms over me and pops two wads of pre-needle anesthetic into both sides of my mouth. At this point, I fumble and turn on my iPod. The earplugs are already where they belong and soon Eva Cassidy is belting out one of her classics. This is good – mind on Eva, mind off what’s coming next.

Doctor Bob is ready to rumble. Before the last notes of Eva’s tune drift away, he’s back with two needles for the east side and two matching needles for the west side. My gums are starting to panic. Luckily, I’m not feeling any pain … physical pain that is. Mentally, I’m trying to think of every damn stress-management technique I’ve ever learned because now I start to feel a culprit sneaking up on me. Post-nasal drip awakens in the back of my throat. Timing is everything in life. I popped my allergy pills all week hoping this wouldn’t happen.

I go back to counting my blessings as my dentist prepares the silly putty which is about to clamp my jaws together. Before kd lang can whistle Dixie (on my iPod), I am the captive recipient of a full mouth of glob and put back into an upright position so a) I don’t choke while b) I attempt to master swallowing the other glob running down my throat from the post-nasal drip. Challenging, yes. Grueling, no. How dare I even entertain the thought?

If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m an extrovert. I express myself best by talking and interacting with people. With my jaws sealed tight, I can do neither and, oh, breathing would be nice too. Breathing through my nose is tricky. My nose keeps reminding me: “You’ve got swollen nasal passages, you twit. Breathe through your mouth.” My mouth refuses to answer as it is occupied at the time. About now, I decide that I just may sell my firstborn child to a traveling circus to be with that kick-me-clown who’s been threatening her. The word grueling keeps demanding my attention. I tell it to take a flying leap. I’m busy just trying to breathe.

The tooth fairy is fluttering about the room, trying not to meet my steely gaze. She knows I’m not happy.

I close my eyes, try to stop the urge to gulp and swallow, and do the only thing I can do well at the moment: listen to my iPod.

Soon Doctor Bob and his trusty assistant return. He pulls the reluctant putty from my mouth, smiles, and the drilling begins. I think people become dentists just for this part alone. Look at all the playthings – big honkin’ drills, tiny delicate drills, drills that go super fast and spit out water, drills that go agonizingly slow. Hey, variety is the spice of life as long as my dentist doesn’t choose a category like ‘drills that break while in patient’s mouth.’ Luckily, this doesn’t happen. I swear the man is energized by the dual opportunity. While I’m listening to my stereo ear plugs, he’s working on my stereo mouth. I decide to close my eyes again as I do not really want to see him with a drill in each hand. Thankfully, he’s not into showmanship. Methodical and precise, he begins with my east side and then cruises over to the west end of town. I try to be a good patient. He tries to be good and patient. The Drip is getting worse. There is soon a routine: whrrr, whrrr, swish, whrrr, hand up (that’s my I’m choking on my own mucus sign), drill stops, I try to swallow and breathe, we begin again. By now, the iPod isn’t helping all that much and scenes from Marathon Man are running rampant through my head.

And then the unexpected twist makes it appearance. The dentist’s and assistant’s faces turn a bit serious. I notice that their light chatter has stopped. And stuff keeps pouring down my throat. I also notice that Doctor Bob recommends a new bib as mine is getting a bit tainted. Would I like to rinse and spit? Yeah, anything to push Dustin Hoffman out of my brain. I swish and spit and think, “Wow, I’m really bleeding here.” There’s that moment of holy crap, is this supposed to be happening?! Coward that I am, I don’t say anything, thinking that if there’s something I should know about the new holes in my mouth, he will tell me. He stops drilling and asks if I’d like to use the restroom. That’s a new one. Okay. This signals that we’ve got a lot more work ahead of us and he doesn’t want me to pee on his floor while I’m bleeding in his basin. I go to the bathroom and look in the mirror and smile. It ain’t pretty. My mouth is, indeed, full of blood. I try to stay calm and return to the scene of the crime. He tells me that I should have a blood test for clotting factor. We interrupt the drilling as he tries to clean me up and then apply pressure, cotton pads and medication to both sides of my mouth. He is very calm. That’s good as he’s in charge of making it better. The tooth fairy, however, is sitting on the sink, eating a cookie. She doesn’t look upset. Bitch!

I guess it takes about twenty minutes before we can begin again. Oh joy. By now the anesthetics are wearing thin and I really do believe I’ve crossed over into the Marathon Man. We stop. He understands. He pumps me up again.

Finally, after three hours in the dental chair, my temporary crowns are in. Nothing is running down my throat (think blood). I can breathe. Life is good. I wipe the spots of blood off my iPod as Doctor Bob reminds Kim to “sterilize the room completely” after I leave.

The tooth fairy tries to follow me out the door but I turn quickly and catch her with a slam. When I open the door, she is lying very still on the threshold. I don’t bother with CPR.

I’m too busy smiling through my stiff upper lip.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


The market square was alive with the sound of tourists' chatter and multi-lingual conversations. It was a brisk, sunny day in the heart of Warsaw. The medieval town square, destroyed during WWII, had been rebuilt, carefully and lovingly. The new square was a mecca for artists and vendors. My friend stopped to look at some lovely paintings of the city. She and the artist were soon engaged in conversation and she bought two of his works to take home as gifts. A real find! We had already bustled our way through the crowds, stopping at many of the stalls and looking for potential souvenirs, but much of the younger sellers’ merchandise looked mass-made, cheap and counterfeit. I didn’t see anything of merit. I assumed that there was a stamp on my forehead which glowed and pronounced “American. Easy pitch - easy sell.” So I kept moving on. When I joined my friend at the art exhibit in the middle of the square, it was refreshing to see original and well-done work. I was happy that she found the perfect gift but disappointed that nothing was speaking to me.

And then I saw her. She was standing at the far end of the square, somewhat apart from the hustling crowds and hawking vendors. She was alone. There was a small plastic bag at her feet. And she was holding something tiny in her hand. I had to meet this woman. I pushed my way over to her corner of the world and, as I got closer, I saw the doll in her hand. It was a replica of what the Poles call “krakowiaki” – rural dancers in colorful costumes. There were other dolls like that on the shelves of the surrounding stalls, mass produced. This little doll was different. I smiled and held out my hand. She offered the doll to me to examine. I felt as if I had just stepped back in time, into my grandmother’s house.

This woman, in her worn coat and scarf (babushka), was an outsider – just like me, the traveler. I could tell that she came from peasant stock, from the country. She reminded me of my own babcia (grandmother) who, once in America, worked as a seamstress and loved dolls. She collected dolls as she aged, dressing them up in pretty costumes. I always thought that she tried to fill an unmet need from her impoverished childhood in Poland.

The plastic doll had been lovingly dressed in a delicately stitched skirt, blouse and babushka. This was not a cheap copy to sell at inflated prices to the wandering tourists. This was the real thing. The lady had worked on the tiniest details – fine embroidery on the blouse and skirt, a tiny straight pin to hold the scarf onto the dolly’s head, lace on the panties underneath. It was beautifully done.

I inquired how much in Polish. She timidly told me the price. She was selling these dolls at bargain prices but didn’t seem to realize that she could ask for more. I asked how many more were in the bag. She pulled out the remaining two. Three handmade dolls for my three granddaughters. I had found the perfect gift! I paid her beyond her asking price and she pressed my hand. “Pani, dziekujie.” A heartfelt thank-you. She was done for the day. She could leave her solitary post and return home.

It was I who had the most to be thankful for. A passing encounter with a poor stranger awakened memories of my grandmother, great aunts, older cousins - all now gone. Women who learned at an early age that life was not kind. Women who had calloused hands and tired feet. Women who labored in fields and laundries and kitchens. Women who came from the country. Women who were brave enough to travel to America and let new generations reap the benefits of their hard lives.

Dziekujie bardzo. Thank you very much.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The other two

It’s hard living a distance from your big kids and little kids.

My daughter and family live 300 miles away which involves a jump in the car, along with a small cooler and an iPod, and a six-hour jaunt north through four states and multiple highways. I’ve been doing this for a few years now and it’s become routine. I play mind games as I travel up the pikes … I have my favorite rest stops and landmark mile markers. I think I could put the car on auto-pilot and it would get me there while I just sat and munched my power bars and listened to my eclectic music collection on the iPod. Programming the iPod is a whole other matter (I’m digitally challenged), but I digress. Today’s topic is progeny.

My son and family live 3,000 miles away. The logistics change, a six-hour airplane ride or longer depending on non-stop or connecting flights. And then the fun really begins. A taxi ride into Seattle seaport and a ferry ride across the Puget Sound to shorten the kids’ pickup time from the other end. Once I get into their van, we still have at least another hour’s ride to go. I grew up on the east coast. Imagine my surprise, the first time out to Seattle, to discover that the west coast did not really end there but continued on for another several hours’ drive before reaching the Pacific Ocean. I was expecting Seattle to be the end of the line. I discovered that there’s an Olympic Peninsula which attaches itself to the state of Washington and bulges out like a cauliflower. And I found out that it’s one of the nation’s best-kept secrets: it is amazingly beautiful - a rugged, pristine beauty. I fell in love. I’ve been to see the kids about four times now and have yet to explore the many locales: rain forest, Olympic mountains, lavender and strawberry farms, and finally the Pacific coastline. Oh, I’ve also got the ferry ride to Victoria, capital of British Columbia, on my to-do list.

Joe became a doctor and chose the good old-fashioned profession of family practice. He wanted to do it all: babies to senior citizens. He also wanted to move to a location that was semi-rural and offered his own growing family a beautiful place to live and to enjoy the outdoors. Katie, my sweet DIL (daughter-in-law), is a social worker and wanted to continue to play a part in the community too. So they chose a small seaport town, with Victorian houses and crafty main-street shops, to set down their roots. Joe gets his wish, a diverse population to treat. His practice has continued to expand. Meanwhile, Katie has become a doula and has been offering childbirth education in the same hospital. Their kids are blooming. And so is Katie. Baby #3 is due next month. Before their third baby arrives, I want to talk about the other two.

I feel a bit guilty because, what with Jenn’s blog and all, I spend a lot of time making comments about Sophie and Hannah. This has been such fun for me as a proud grandmom. But, truth be told, I have a Benjamin and Olivia on the west coast who are just as dear to my heart - precious and rambunctious those two.

Benjamin, firstborn of our clan, made his debut the week of his Aunt Jenn’s wedding celebration in the Catskills. I can still remember sleeping in the farmhouse where the wedding was to be held and being awakened to be told that Katie was in labor. She and Joe were hundreds of miles away at the time. So, while I was getting ready to be mother-of-the-bride, I was also preparing to become first-time grandmother. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Benjamin is now five years old and all boy. He thrives on action-hero figures and Scooby Doo adventures. He’s always on the move. And then there was the serious phase of being Captain Underpants. “Mr. Naked Man” was the hero of the day and Ben just refused to keep his clothes on. He has striking blue eyes (like to think they come from my side of the family – good-looking Polish men) and is always ready for a good nighttime read or, better yet, a made-up story. I began spinning some tales about Captain Gruffy Face and his sidekick, Razatazz, which grew and grew. It was hard to remember when I’d fly back to visit just what my pirates had been up to, but Ben remembered and pleaded for more. He was so into it that I drew the pirates for him and sent them to him for his birthday. On one of my departures, Ben accompanied his dad and me on the long drive to the airport. As I reached in to kiss him goodbye and said “I love you”, he looked at me with those big blue eyes and shyly whispered, “I love you too.” Other spontaneous moments have included, “You’re the best, Babci!" (Polish for grandmom) and “Don’t go, I’ll miss you.” Maternal meltdown. I’ll be back! Ben is super inquisitive and questions come rapidly. We were taking a family hike in the nearby state park at Christmas when he casually asked his mom and dad “So why did you decide to have another baby?” That floored all of us. It means that he is no longer such a little boy and starting to figure out his place in the family circle and in the universe. As of this posting, he is the Crown Prince, the only male child, with a sister and two girl cousins.

We were all together at Jenn’s last Labor Day. Joe and Katie flew in and I drove up. What a rare joy to have all your treasures under one roof. That week was so special. The little cousins had a surprisingly good time getting acquainted. The defining moment, though, was my walking into the living room and seeing Sophie, Hannah, Olivia and Ben all sitting on the floor watching a favorite DVD. Ben looked up at me, rolled his eyes and lamented: “Too many girls!” I hope he can handle another sister on the way.

What can I say about Olivia Jane? This little cherub, sunny and blonde, has an infectious smile and a mischievous twinkle in her eye. She’s also sturdy enough to withstand the many assaults of big brother. She can hold her own. This is good in a woman. She loves her baby dolls and is such a snuggle bunny herself, likes to climb up on your lap. But when she gets upset, she lets you have it. Another funny memory: we were sightseeing when Olivia was a baby and she was startled awake. The screams, the fury! She was inconsolable and we all wished we had earplugs. I think this kid is gonna sing opera one day. The storms blow over though and then she’s back to being her sunny self. This past Christmas, she was right there on the floor with me and Ben as we played Scooby Doo and drove in our imaginary ghost-catcher van. I can still hear her giggles.

Lots of excitement and anticipation as these two get ready for a new baby in the house. Benjamin, no doubt, may be disappointed at first with another bundle of pink. But he will be six years old in the fall and moving on to new friends and experiences in school. I think it will be Olivia who will be more interested in the newcomer who will eventually be sharing her sister’s room. Olivia, rocking and soothing her baby dolls, will have a little sister to transfer all that little-girl affection to … after she accepts the fact that the new kid is here to stay. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Love handles

Did you ever notice those “before” and “after” pictures in the diet ads? What would people do if the images were reversed, eh? What if plump was pretty and thin was out of fashion?

It’s really in the genes. I was traveling in Poland, land of my ancestry, last year and couldn’t help but notice that the natives tended to resemble quite a few of my family members when it came to hips and bosoms. Hardy Polish peasant stock. The euphemism seemed to fit.

The Poles love their meat and potatoes … and cabbage and pierogies. It may have been that trip to Poland that started some serious weight gain. I’m still paying for the vacation starch. Yep, the pants and tops have either shrunk or I’ve gotten bigger. I’m afraid it’s the latter. My moment of truth came two weeks ago. I kept telling myself it was my imagination. Finally, I was brave enough to get on the bathroom scale (which had dust on it from disuse). I managed to regain the eight pounds I lost on South Beach a while back. Nuts!

I decided to switch beaches and surf elsewhere (the Web). Ended up having a box of pre-planned diet food delivered to my door. I work fulltime and often have crazy schedules. I don’t have a personal trainer or chef or nutritionist waiting for me with a well-balanced meal and candles on the dining-room table when I get home. Sometimes, living alone is the pits. Feed me please!

Then I had to spend a half day cleaning out my pantry to unpack the huge amounts of incoming food and organize my breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. It’s good that I finally mustered up the energy to do this because I kept tripping over the damn box of diet food on my way to raid the refrigerator.

It’s a start. I’ve been drinking my water and nuking or stirring my meals for the past week. My tummy looks bigger – maybe it’s water retention. I plan to get on the dreaded scale only once a week. My next moment of truth is Monday. I will remind myself to laugh if the scale shows that by some fluke of fate I’ve managed to gain rather than lose. And then I shall calmly throw the scale down the steps of my apartment.

I want to lose a modest amount of weight; some people have a more ambitious agenda. I don’t expect miracles – I’m a realist. There’s the age and metabolism factor. And that pesky reminder to exercise is not too inviting. I’m an only child who grew up as a non-jock. I was not allowed to sweat and was the odd kid on the block who roller skated on one skate. You could say my parents were a bit over-protective. Thank God I learned to ride a bike. My idea of exercise is unloading the box of diet food; I swear I lost a couple pounds right there.

I am a little concerned about all the drop-dead gorgeous pictures of men and women in their “after” state, losing 140 pounds or 95 pounds or 200 pounds. Heck, if I lose that kind of weight, I’ll disappear. More power to them, the real heroes of the battle of the bulge. But why do all the pictures show an asterisk and note that say “not typical results”? If not, then what?

There was a time, centuries ago, when a woman’s body was appealing with all its fleshy curves and girth. I think I belong to that forgotten era.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

And the beat goes on

I seemed to awaken some longings for homegrown, do-it-yourself song and music when I came out of the closet with my accordion and shared some of my musical background. Thank you, readers, for the heartwarming comments.

Yes, I grew up with accordions and I'll share a secret: I think learning the bass (left-hand) side of the instrument actually gives a richer understanding of chord structure and theory than the piano. I transitioned to the foot pedals on organs so easily because my right brain was already set to "take the chord apart" and add my foot for a bass line. There’s also the touch of the instrument. Accordionists develop a different, softer style than pianists. You caress the keys more than hitting them. I like stroking things. The accordion is portable; the piano is not. It's a fun instrument and yet it's versatile too. There are virtuosos in jazz and even classical arenas. One of my male cousins is now in his 80s and the man can still play up a storm even with arthritis in his hands. He's my role model for senior jamming when the time comes!

My dad was a banjo man - four-string tenor and then electric tenor guitar. He made sweet music. We made sweet music together. He taught me a lot of the depression-era tunes, many of which were actually good foot-tapping music. Guess if you were working your way through the Great Depression, you had to keep up hope and write happy songs.

I still gravitate to the classics of the great pop composers: Gershwin, Kern, Porter and others who turned out some wonderful songs in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Their lyrics and melodies personified romance. The ‘50s brought new stylists and many lounge singers and crooners. Then the ‘60s produced those terrific Broadway musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Leonard Bernstein and more. Superstars were born – grand dames of the musical stage like Mary Martin, Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand. I got to see Streisand, front row center, in “Funny Girl”. Wow! I just think the 1930s through the 1960s were the golden age of American songwriting. The songs really told a message and gave hope and inspiration. Wouldn’t it be loverly if we had a new generation of fine pop music like that again?

And then there were the polkas. This was a genre all to itself. Learning how to play a polka (meaning lots of notes, fancy bass work, and very fluid and fast keyboard runs) got you promoted to the front of the class. As I wrote before, the accordion was the poor man’s substitute for the more expensive piano. Yet it challenged the musician every bit as much. Chopin played the piano as a master; wonder what he would have done with a good, folksy polka on the accordion?

Recently, I began to get this crazy idea … move on up to the Berkshires and start a polka band of my own. Who knows? If Lawrence Welk didn’t hire me (and I have the letter to prove it), then I may just have to go out there on my own.

If I do, then all of you who have forgotten instruments in your closets or new dreams of music lessons for yourself or kids, will have to follow my lead. Double dare?!