Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thus spake the ostrich

I’m lovin’ this town. The folks up here are much more laid back than the big city and certainly don’t take themselves too seriously. On Halloween, my daughter’s neighbor seems to enjoy himself as much as the kids.

“In the true man there is a child concealed – who wants to play.” Hard to believe this is a quote by Nietzsche. Somehow I can’t picture the great philosopher dressed up as Mr. Ostrich Man but, then again, most philosophers are strange birds.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Real estates

Now that I’m up here in my new location with a job and an apartment roof over my head, I’m starting to think about my options regarding home ownership. I am not a part of that expendable-income boomer generation who seems to be having a swell time investing in multiple properties, paying off their kids’ college debts, and lunching on the Riviera. My post-divorced single status has left me in a more humble position. I’m happy to make ends meet each month while exploring ways to expand my budget to allow for a little place of my own - the cottage where I’ll do my creative writing, entertain new friends, and settle in front of a fireplace on a cold winter’s night. I’ll probably have to relinquish the fireplace but would still love to keep the dream of owning something alive.

Is it foolish to consider home ownership at my age? Would I prefer to have a 30-year mortgage and do my own mowing, shoveling, roof and heater repair rather than letting a landlord cover day-to-day maintenance? I did own a house for thirty years but there were a hubby and retired parents to help in the upkeep. Paneling a basement or pruning a tree was taken care of by family members. Now I really am on my own and can’t expect the kids to run over to lend a hand when they have such hectic lives and responsibilities under their own roof. So it’s a dilemma.

It’s hard to find a modest bungalow among ostentatious mansions that rival the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. How can folks afford to live in these large estates commanding upwards of a million or better? Where does everyone go? To separate rooms and wings of a house that’s supposed to be a home? A house which spreads itself so high and wide that the family probably has to use an intercom to be in touch? Two bathrooms, I can understand. Six bedrooms and baths are beyond me. I’m sure, though, that one bedroom and bath must be reserved for the live-in maid.

I’ve looked into the tiny-home movement but am laughing because most of these exquisite environmentally-friendly experiments are taking place at least 1,000 to 3,000 miles away from the Berkshires. (See The Boomer Chronicles for excellent links to this kind of option.) Oops, did I mention the $4 per mile shipping cost of having your tiny home plopped down on your pre-paid lot? Don’t think I’ll make the cut on that one either ….

I keep checking the local listings, calling realtors and visiting some of the current offerings. Maybe I’m dreaming too high. I’d love to walk into a small home and be comfortable with the present owner’s sense of interior design. However, it seems like such an expensive proposition to know that, besides paying off the mortgage, I’ll be needing money to paint and paper too. Holy Hannah, grass and snow and inside renovations … when would I blog?! I thought these were to be my golden carefree years?

Yes, home ownership seems preferable to merely renting but I’m fighting conflicting family history. My mom and dad always owned and generated income from their property until dad died. Two years later, mom sold the family property and came to live with me and mine. A few years later, we found her a lovely apartment nearby. She was so happy to be free of the house and the burdens of home ownership. She lived her later years in an apartment community. I hear my dad saying “own a house and build up equity” whereas I hear my mom saying “I like being in an apartment”.

No matter the age, life always manages to end in trade-offs. The bottom line will be whether I can even afford to entertain the option of home ownership.

I think I should step back, celebrate how much I've accomplished in these past couple months, take a breath and enjoy the new apartment for the winter while preparing a careful budget. In other words, get real.

Time out.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Finding her voice

Dear Iris,

Thanks for talking to me the other night. Your daddy held the phone up to your ear and you were certainly not shy about introducing yourself.

In fact, you took over the conversation with your non-stop oohs and coos and ahs and gahs. The inflections and timing had me laughing with delight. I could barely get a word in (and for me that’s highly unusual). Proud dad says he thinks you’re ahead of the curve on verbal expression. I agree and realize that your cousin Sophie was not exaggerating when she told me that you had already talked to her.

Even though I have not yet been able to fly across the country and make your acquaintance in person, we have already had our first meaningful encounter. The melodic ring of your voice still echoes in my mind. If you’re this outgoing at three months, I can hardly wait to see what you will be like when real words take shape and float from your tongue.

For now, I’m so grateful to know that you are thriving and letting those who love you know how happy you are to be a part of the family.

It’s been claimed that, as they grow up, little girls seem to lose their voices. They start to doubt what they know and become more quiet in the company of boys.

My precious granddaughter, may the fledgling sounds you are making now grow into a strong and beautiful voice free to express who you are and what you believe in. And may that gift never be taken from you.

Love, Babci xxoo

P.S. You look a lot like your daddy at the same age. He wasn't as chatty though.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Chips and cinnamon buns

It was grandparent's day at Sophie's school. I picked her up and we spent the morning together in kindergarten. I got to share in drawing and reading and side trips to the hospitality tray where Sophie indulged in her mommy's worst nightmare: cinnamon buns. Those of you who are regular fans of my daughter's blog may remember the escapade which led to Jenn's declaration that "cinnamon buns = death". Well, that was then and this is now. I let Sophie have the forbidden fruit. She seemed none the worse for wear by noon. Of course we were in a fairly safe contained environment and I didn't have to worry about her jumping into traffic.

The teacher handed out mementos on which each child had written what they love to do with their grandparents. One kid said "go to a museum"; another wrote "read a book". Sophie wrote "eat potato chips".

I'm beginning to think I may be sending the wrong message.

Later in the day, I made a big pot of healthy chicken soup to balance out the oatmeal raisin cookies baking in the oven.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

There's nothing like a dame and a sexy old man

When I think of a classy broad, I think of that British triad of thespians who are the epitome of spunk, intelligence and graceful aging - the Dames: Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Diana Rigg. These three gals speak to me. They show that women in their 60s and beyond can keep their creative spark burning and do some of their best work later in life. Of course, I will never meet them but they continue to amaze me with their talent and zest for life.

I just viewed “Mrs. Henderson Presents” the other night and the chemistry between Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins was so much fun to watch. You could tell they were perfectly comfortable in their roles but I think I saw something more on the screen – they are perfectly comfortable with who they are not just the characters they are portraying.

There’s something rewarding about reaching midlife and beyond. The jokes abound, sure, but the fact is that some of the heavy baggage gets thrown out and, if lucky, the stuff left behind is the real pay dirt. No fool’s gold here. The need to please or live up to a certain model or standard of behavior wanes. You are more at home in your own skin. Hell, you may even be willing to stand naked in your own skin before the world as Bob Hoskins did in “Mrs. Henderson”. There was such an honesty to that moment - baring it all as a metaphor for the authenticity of growing older.

I may never have to strip to prove my point (unless I meet a sexy old fart like Bob Hoskins). I just know that something new and exciting and genuine opened in me when I climbed my first mountain a couple years ago. I spent a week in the company of strangers and I was not the only 60-year-old making it to the summit. There was another gal, two years older than I, who had already climbed Mt. Indefatigable on a previous trip! She and I were the grand dames of the hiking party, outflanked by much younger males and one other younger woman. I learned a lot about myself that week. I liked what I saw.

I want to remember how alive I felt in attempting the daily hikes, the pleasure I gained from putting myself out there with folks I had never met. I became vulnerable and shared my fears of keeping up with the other more experienced hikers. The need to compare or compete quickly disappeared as I found out that who I was trumped who I thought I had to be. Every day brought new challenges and surprises. I delighted in playing the piano in the lodge at end of day surrounded by people who enjoyed what I had to offer. Self-doubts were replaced by warm acceptance. I returned the favor by listening and affirming the others in my group. It was a week of renewal and rebirth. I don’t think I could have found the courage to move this summer if I had not first found the courage to climb those mountains. I’m trying to carry that experience with me into my new life here in the Berkshires.

Judi, Helen and Diana may have led far more glamorous and newsworthy lives, yet we would be no strangers if we sat down to tea. I think we all look forward to growing older, on our own terms in our own inimitable style.

Let’s hear it for the ladies and gents who can let it all hang out.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Mom's apple pie

We may both come from sturdy Polish peasant stock, but Martha Stewart I am not.

My intentions are pure though. I awake with the grand idea of rounding up all those apples from the birthday party and turning them into an apple pie. I look in my mom’s recipe box and try to find the recipe for her killer apple pie. I’m soon sifting through index cards that include: apple fritters, apple pancakes, applesauce cake, apple crepes, Jewish apple cake, apple streusel, apple cobbler and, finally, one or two versions of apple pie with pie crust directions too. Do I want to add chopped nuts? (No, David’s allergic.) Raisins? (No, not Jenn’s cup of tea.) I’m just looking for a basic apple pie, the one that mom used to make. The one I remember and can still taste. It was a classic. She loved to bake. Her cakes and pies were culinary masterpieces.

I re-read the cards. Are either of these handwritten recipes the real thing? The holy grail? She would often make some notation on her favorite recipe cards that gave a hint but there’s nothing written here to solve the conundrum. She may not have needed a written record for something she did often and so well, just like her pierogies (Polish dumplings). When she died, the art of cooking went with her. It took several Christmas holidays and much trial and error to duplicate mom’s pierogies. All I ask now is a clue, a compass. I’m a lowly pilgrim looking for the right path.

And I’m a virgin. Yes, it’s true. Here I am, almost ready for Medicare, and I’ve never baked an apple pie. Blame it on the mother who baked like no other. Blame it on my taking her for granted. Blame it on my interest in making music rather than baking bread.

Redemption is at hand. Today I shall make it all right. Today I shall prepare, with my own hands, a culinary treat for my granddaughters and family. How hard can it be? (Mom made it look so easy.)

Armed with good intentions, I grab the two recipe cards, stuff them in my jacket and drive off to the nearest supermarket. I pick up extra sugar, spices and flour but come up short trying to find the Crisco which was a staple in my mom’s kitchen. Yes, I can substitute butter for the shortening and am debating how to proceed when suddenly a brightly colored box of ready-made pie crust catches my eye. Amazing grace. The kitchen gods are smiling at me.

I arrive at Jenn’s and tell her my plan. She is thrilled to turn her kitchen over to me. However, Hannah is now home from daycare and looking to help babci with the apple pie. No problem. Benevolence rules. We set her up with a bowl and spoon and I teach her how to sift the flour and then add water. She plays at making dough while I cheat and pat my ready-made dough at the far end of the table. Now I can concentrate on the filling. The recipes I brought with me are similar to the one on the ready-made package. I decide to take the easy way out again and go with the apple-pie directions on the carton. One-stop shopping.

Hannah putters happily while I start peeling the apples. I’m making memories with my grandchild. Everything is going well until I cut my finger with the knife. All operations are suspended while babci tries to stop the bleeding. Hannah clucks and extends her sympathy. Jenn returns with Sophie and promptly bandages my finger. The kitchen is now quite crowded, not even counting the friendly household ghosts. Sophie wants to get into the act. I hand out more measuring cups and spoons and let her mix the ingredients for the pie filling in a large bowl. Jenn and I keep peeling and cutting apples. Six cups of apples take a heckuva lot of time. I have new respect for my mom and Martha Stewart.

Just as we are about to add the apple slices to the sugar and spices, Hannah reaches for something and knocks the bowl off the table. Half the measured dry ingredients are now on a kitchen chair and the floor.

I look at Jenn. She looks at me and gets up and pours us both a glass of Canadian beer.

The kids are now starting to fidget and whine and we send them off to the living room with Shrek to keep them entertained.

By now I have started dinner and manage to overcook the broccoli. “Every time, mom, every time. Even when we were little.” I have a sudden urge to escape to a keyboard. Instead, I take another swig of beer and finish what I started. As I work with the ready-made crust, I think how much longer the whole project would have taken if I did this from scratch. At last, the pie is looking decent and we pop it in the oven.

The girls are allowed to stay up post-Shrek and pre-pie, waiting for dessert. The kitchen fills with the wonderful aroma of apples and cinnamon. I have now drained my glass of beer and am patting myself on the back. There are pots and bowls and apple peels everywhere. Martha’s kitchen would never look like this but she probably has a fulltime staff to clear and clean as she moves methodically through her prized recipes. All I have are two little girls waiting impatiently to taste their grandmother’s apple pie.

We end the night with warm syrupy apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream.

I wouldn’t trade my good fortune for Martha’s fame, ever.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Taste and see

We took the girls to a birthday party in an apple orchard. They ran through grass and brambles to get to the sturdy little trees where they climbed and plucked the boughs heavy with autumn’s harvest. Delight filled the air. It was a perfect setting for a birthday celebration, giggles and good friends to share the fruit of the vine. Parents hovered and provided a boost here and there but, for the most part, the day belonged to the youngest generation. Little girls in party dresses and blue jeans perched in apple trees.

Maybe that’s what the original garden was supposed to look like after all. Forget that nonsense about Eve taking the blame. Why would a benevolent Spirit not expect the fruit of creation to be admired and tasted?

Everything in the world of a child seems new and fresh. It was such fun to sit in the warm autumn sun and watch the kids entertain themselves with apples. Simplicity as abundance.

We should all get back to the garden.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Rock and stroll

Jenn’s friend asked me to mind her baby for a couple hours while she ran an errand in town. With my own grandkids past the infant stage, I thought I may have lost the touch. So, with some anxiety, I agreed to baby sit little Charlotte.

Mom arrived with a wide-awake baby snuggled into her portable car seat. I decided to let her call the shots. We eyed each other carefully while mommy outlined the logistical plan. Three bottles handy: a) breast milk, b) similac, and c) the last line of defense, powdered formula and sterile water. Surely I wouldn't need all three.

I kept the eye contact going since Charlotte seemed to be relaxing and I waved momma off behind me. This was the first time that her precious charge was being left with someone other than mommy and daddy. (I didn’t know this until the end of the visit and, in this case, ignorance was bliss. It probably would have made me more nervous.)

As soon as the door closed, our real introduction began. Charlotte started to look around a bit more frantically and whimper a bit.

“Okay kid, it’s time you and I get acquainted.” We had been in each other’s company the past three months but never really had any quality time for bonding as the parenting manuals would call it. We had one brief encounter on a rocking chair in a friend’s house and I got the sense then that Charlotte wasn’t into sensory overload. She seemed to like quiet times and gentle moves - low on lots of talking, high on curiosity and visual cues.

Following my gut feeling (another overworked cliché), I gently extracted baby from her car seat and slowly moved down the hall for a trial run. Charlotte looked around at the strange sights but did not accelerate into loud crying. In fact, the whimpering stopped and since she still had her little sweater on, I took her out onto my back porch. Someone nearby was working on a car or truck and there was a loud hum of a motor. That caught her attention for a few minutes. My mums are in a state of autumn decay but the swinging flower pot provided another diversion.

Playing by her rules was actually quite freeing. I tuned into her body language and rhythms. When she started to squirm, I brought her back into the house, walked a bit more and then plopped down on my mom’s rocking chair (which I had the good foresight to drag into the unfinished dining room). This proved the saving grace of the whole three hours. She lay in my arms taking her first bottle and playing with her hands. She didn’t seem to mind the lack of scintillating conversation. I rarely spoke at first, just holding her against me and feeding her. She kept watching me and drifted off to sleep after polishing off momma’s breast milk. I didn’t know how sensitive she was to being moved so stayed on the rocker and let her use me as the crib. Sitting there gently rocking a sleeping baby helped to center me too. She slept for about 20 minutes and opened those big eyes to stare at a stranger’s face. Moment of truth. I was expecting a sudden wail but she seemed to like the accommodations. The Polish genes and buxom bosom do come in handy. She snuggled a bit and then I took her for another walk around the apartment and sang some nonsense syllables and even jiggled her a bit. She likes facing forward much better than looking over a shoulder to see where she’s been. Sounds like her momma.

I even took the chance and placed her on my bed, not knowing what to expect. The risk paid off … she was quite happy trying to hit a green plastic frog (part of the baby paraphernalia I held onto from my own grandbabies). And then she and I had our first serious conversation.

Charlotte: “aah, gah …”
Babci: "ooh, aah, Charlotte.”

Big smile at that. Charlotte knows her name. I tried to mirror whatever sounds she was making and her little legs and arms were pumping excitedly. She was so into communicating that she made me laugh out loud. That drew more smiles from her. I was loving this positive feedback loop. So much more fun than sulking teenagers, eh?

Following her lead, we played until she seemed to be ready for something else. The something else was the second bottle. I balanced her in my arms while I heated the bottle. Back again to the rocking chair and our second round of refreshments. She drained the formula in a couple minutes. Eat. Burp. Sleep. Not a bad routine.

When she was sleeping in my arms again, I realized that I had placed my cell phone in my pants pocket which was now directly under her head. It was not on mute and I prayed that neither momma nor Jenn called me while sleeping beauty dreamed away. I looked at her innocent face and thought of another baby face, three-thousand miles away, my new granddaughter, Iris. They were both born in July and I have yet to make Miss Iris Kathryn's acquaintance.

Luckily, the cell phone was on good behavior. Charlotte awoke a bit later. We took another stroll while I sang “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” and kissed the back of her fuzzy head. We settled for one more play time on the bed. As she played with Mr. Frog, I poured the powdered formula into the water bottle and shook vigorously. I couldn’t believe we had reached the final line of defense. No storms or outbursts though. I was winning the war.

Once more, she was nestled in my arms and drinking her third bottle. We had spent some quality time together indeed. In fact, when her mom showed up, she seemed perfectly content to stay in my arms a while longer and give me a final round of tender shy smiles.

I think I’ve made a new friend.

What's in a name

I seem to be the community grandmom up here. I noticed that the children of Jenn’s friends are starting to call me “Babci”. I can’t help but smile. Music to my ears. To think that I fought against the title.

I remember my two kids requesting that I use the Polish form of grandmother as my calling card for the next generation when both were expecting their first babies. At first, I felt uncomfortable with the idea. My image of a “babci” was a peasant woman in a head scarf representing the older women of my heritage, the illiterate babushkas who came from the “old country”. I couldn’t see myself being a babci. Yet my kids wisely reminded me that they had no history with my experience and thought it would be neat to have their kids call me babci. Reluctantly, I agreed.

It had its selling points. “Babci” (bob-chee) seemed to be an easy first word to master once the babies were learning to talk so I usually was the first of the grandparents to hear my name spoken aloud. It also had a lovely alliterative ring to it. When little Ben first exclaimed “Babci, you’re the best!”, it clinched the deal.

Ben’s hero worship made me realize that I had the same strong feelings for my own babci. I loved this hard-working woman with calloused hands who could only sign her name with an “x”. I became her companion in her final years when she lived with us as an amputee. We would watch Hopalong Cassidy together and I would try to make her understand that the characters who died onscreen were just acting. She was often amazed when they would appear again on other shows, hale and hearty. She was a very simple woman, almost childlike in her beliefs and expectations, but her arrival as an immigrant took courage and strength. It was she and countless other women like her who braved the journey to a new land and gave their children and grandchildren the opportunities to learn and grow beyond what their generation was given. I feel guilty and sad that I first wanted to distance myself from these babushkas … that I deemed myself above and apart from their humble history. I was uncomfortable in accepting the old-world name of babci, yet I am standing on my babci’s shoulders.

Just about anyone can be a grandma or granny, but not everyone can be a babci.

I hope I live up to the name.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Birthday Boy

Six years ago you made your bow
Look at the big boy you are now

I wish I could be there to watch you play ...
Benjamin Joseph, Happy Birthday!

Love, Babci xxoo

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


I come home from the new job. It’s been an intense day. I’m still learning the ins and outs. I’m tired.

The phone rings. It’s my daughter.

“Mom, we’re celebrating. The local paper did a really neat article on David’s paintings. Come on over for dinner. David made Shepherd’s Pie.”

I almost decline the offer because I’ve brought some notes home to review for an early-morning meeting tomorrow. However, my growling stomach reminds me that this is an offer of free food – all gain, no pain – all I have to do is walk on up the hill.

Hunger wins out.

The girls are upstairs playing when I arrive. A stack of newspapers sits on David’s desk. I help myself to one and proudly note the photo and read the front-page article which really spotlights David’s new hobby. He’s become local hero for a day.

In this house, he’s always a hero. It takes courage to raise two kids and be totally involved in their care while traveling an hour away to teach drama, paint on the back porch, paint the front porch and storm door, and do a hundred and one other mundane duties. He paints; he teaches; he directs; he cooks a mean Shepherd’s Pie.

Sophie and Hannah come down for dinner. I almost feel like wallpaper. They are no longer running into my arms, surprised by my presence. In fact, they are running past my arms. I’ve been living up here for two months now. I’m a part of the family landscape. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad. I tease Sophie about it. She reluctantly holds still for a kiss. But she does insist on sitting “next to Babci” for dinner. We discuss the origins of the main course and I tell her that my Babci was a shepherdess.

Dinner, which is often quite chaotic, is quite civilized tonight. David serves and the girls dig into their Shepherd’s Pie although Hannah decides that she doesn’t want the ground beef. She falls in love instead with the olives in the string-bean salad, while Sophie waits for the mashed potatoes to cool. There are “thank you Daddy” pleasantries and no one spills milk or ends up crying. David and Jenn actually get to sit and enjoy their food. David looks relaxed and pleased, as he should be. We toast his success with some red wine that has been waiting to be appreciated. The wine and David are both appreciated this night.

Hannah reveals that she did one of her best paintings today in daycare. Like father, like daughter? Sophie proudly announces that she went into the pool without her flotation device. Life is good. Blessings abound.

The girls get a special treat of push-up lemonade pops for dessert because they have eaten well.

“Daddy bought them!” Sophie tells me as I help pull the top off her cherry lemonade. The pink matches her pretty blouse. Hannah gets a lime version and seems content. Has someone sprinkled fairy dust on these two tonight? No disputes and more “thank you Daddy" for buying the dessert.

Jenn smirks and David looks up. “What? They are fruit pops.”

Super mom gently reveals that there’s an awful lot of fructose syrup in what super dad thought was mostly pure fruit treats. His face falls and he looks stricken. The girls’ faces are beaming as they consume a delicious dessert and know that they got the best of the bargain tonight. Desserts don’t come easy in this house. Babci’s house is another matter. Another generation. Sugar was not a banned substance when the girls’ mommy was growing up. It can still be found in Babci’s cupboards and fridge. Sophie and Hannah are getting wise to the hidden stash.

The girls finish their dessert and calmly, calmly head up the stairs to continue playing in their separate bedrooms. Each is happy and needs private time. Hannah gets mommy to put her to bed tonight; Sophie gets daddy. Shifts rotate. Babci has the night off and must return to her homework for tomorrow’s meeting.

I give my son-in-law a kiss and hug before I’m out the door, telling him that he is a good, hard-working man. My daughter is a lucky gal.

Walking back down the street, I gaze at the mountains which are just starting to shed their muted colors of brown and green for something richer. The air is milder than it has been recently. Oddly, no dogs bark as I pass their houses. All is peaceful and still. A dazzling splash of mums in a neighbor’s garden catches my eye. I can see that these hardy mums are going to put up a fight as the days grow shorter and the air turns colder. Their bright faces will want to keep shining a bit longer.

Bright faces ... in the garden, at the kitchen table.

I feel calm and content, so thankful that I decided to walk on up the hill and accept the invitation to dinner. I think of what had been missing in my life these past several years. Eating alone. Being alone.

I was hungry for more than a good meal.