Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day

For the Young and Brave

What more can one give?
Leaving friends and family
Trusting to come home

Following the call
Putting greater good ahead
Knowing the danger

Wanting to believe
That what you do will matter
Dying not in vain

Life and war not fair
Who validates the outcome
Blood and tears the price

Who once was, is not
Heart beating fast now silent
All around go on

Politicians talk
They do not have the answer
Answer lies within

Only those who die
Have the right to talk of war
Can we still listen?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

In remembrance

We never met.

He was the oldest cousin of the clan. I was the youngest.

He was a promising musician. People spoke of his talent and his potential. He was handsome and personable. Everyone loved Johnny.

There was a war raging across the sea. He, grandson of Polish immigrants, was called to duty. He served with the Ninth Infantry Division in Africa. He was wounded, awarded a medal, and sent home on leave. I was not yet born.

He was my father’s nephew but seemed a younger brother instead. We were a very close extended family. My parents had been childless for many years. Johnny felt their excitement over my upcoming arrival and was happy for them. He returned to his regiment with a sad heart. My mother told me that he had a premonition that he would not be coming back.

He continued to write my parents as his division was re-assigned to the European front. By now, my birth announcement and first baby pictures were being sent on. He got the letter and wrote back, wistfully hoping to see me one day. I think my mom was right. I think he knew that he and I would never get to know each other. And, yet, I think we did.

He was a staff sergeant and his unit was among the first in those hellish bloody days after the Normandy invasion to slog up the French coast and into the French countryside to liberate towns along the way. He was point man and died in a burst of machine-gun fire in the streets of St. Lo. He was buried in the Normandy American cemetery in France. His final laurels included the Silver Star and Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster.

When news of his death was delivered to the family, my uncle ran screaming into the backyard, almost out of his mind with grief. This was the firstborn of the family’s new generation, the golden boy. Everyone loved Johnny. I’m sure that my mom and dad were just as grief stricken.

I wonder, as an infant, if I somehow internalized the family’s sorrow. If somehow Johnny and I crossed paths spiritually as he, the oldest cousin, left and I, the youngest cousin, arrived. Two souls meeting briefly.

As I grew, I found myself strangely attracted to this missing cousin. We would visit his parents’ house and I would sit at the piano that was Johnny’s piano and play from the music books that were Johnny’s. I would look at the handwriting in the books, his handwriting. And I would feel as if I knew him, as if he were there, sitting next to me on that piano bench. My musical ability continued to grow. I thought that maybe it wasn’t so much my talent as Johnny just sharing his with me, that I was playing and carrying on a part of Johnny which had been so vibrant and so suddenly extinguished in his youth. He was only 26 when he died.

He came to me once in a dream. I was now in my early 20s, staying with my parents at another uncle’s country house for the weekend. It was early July. There was much laughter and teasing and giggling before getting to sleep. My father’s family was full of fun. We all settled down and sometime during the night, I had a vision of a closed coffin with a skeleton dressed in an army uniform sitting on the floor, leaning against it. A spectral hand was reaching out and motioning for someone to come closer. I just knew this was Johnny. It didn’t frighten me so much as make me worried about just who he wanted to join him. Of course, I told the family the unnerving dream at breakfast. None of us could be sure of the interpretation. Until …

We returned home to find out that my aunt had suffered a massive stroke. Her prognosis was not good. This would have been Johnny’s aunt too. Our fathers’ sister. She lingered for a week or two and then died. She died on July 16, 1964. Twenty years to the day that Johnny was killed in France.

Johnny, may you rest in peace. Thanks ... for the ultimate sacrifice ... and for the music.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Out of the closet

I grew up in a musical family. My dad and his brothers and my cousins and I were happiest when playing pianos, accordions, organs, guitars, mandolins, banjos, and just about whatever we could put our hands on. Family parties always had live entertainment.

My first instrument was the accordion. I grew up over a music studio. We lived in a duplex and my uncle, the music teacher, lived on the first floor. Daily practice was the norm. His calling up the stairs to tell me what I was doing wrong was also the norm. Other kids played with their dolls. I was often tuning up with my dad for some after-dinner duets.

The accordion is a happy instrument. It knows its social standing and is quite content with its humble state in life. Yes, it may never be welcomed in the better salons of the world, but it has been seen in many a saloon. The accordion, in the 1950s, was the instrument of choice for blue-collar families who wanted their children to learn the keyboard. A lot of kids from Polish-American and Italian-American homes were carrying red-and-white-faux-marble Sonola and Rivoli accordions around while actually becoming decent musicians. If you practiced your daily scales and fingering techniques and mastered the Clarinet Polka, you were secretly admired by your peers and knew that you could hold your own against any piano-playing rich kid.

By the time I was in my late teens, we had an electronic organ in the living room and I’d be entertaining friends and family with “Sound of Music” sing-a-longs. Stop laughing. I know it sounds corny as hell. I almost auditioned for Lawrence Welk. Looking back, that would have been the CORNIEST, but I’d be living in Branson now and collecting a decent residual paycheck. There’s something to be said for all those bubbles.

My first job while going to high school was for a piano company. None of the salesmen could play a note; I was brought in to clinch the sale. My job was to sit down and make the customers fall in love with the product. Play a familiar tune, smile a lot, and make it look so easy that the buyer would go home with a piano or organ expecting to soon have my repertoire mastered. I was about 17 at the time and had been playing since I was nine. The five free lessons that came with the sale didn’t exactly turn the customers into virtuosos. It was a good experience though because it introduced me to the world of business and acting. My eccentric boss was a competitive guy who would do anything to make a sale. He would sing “Galway Bay” with an Irish dialect if necessary or take me with him to a poor black church and belt out “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”. Marty was Jewish. I learned to go with the flow and I even ended up playing with an all-girl combo for awhile. I gave music lessons and thought about what I really wanted to be when I grew up. No visions or mandates appeared. So I kept a song in my heart and continued to make music.

This all came to an end in my 20s when I got married. I never reinvested in my music as fully once the kids came along. I was too consumed with the demands of being a wife and mom. It was great to see both kids get interested in organ and guitar. And for awhile the sound of music was heard once again in our house. I did manage a brief stint as church lady and played the organ for funerals, weddings, and Sunday services. My accordion’s high-profile days, however, were long over.

Years flew by. The kids left home; husband left wife, and there I was - living alone in my very first apartment, still trying to figure out who I wanted to be when I grew up. The accordion, my beloved accordion, was sleeping in my closet. A deep slumber.

Wake-up call. My new son-in-law phones from New York city. “Hey MIL (mom-in-law), I’m directing a friend of Jenn’s in her first show. It’s called ‘My Mom Across America’. She does this one hour of stand-up comedy about a bus trip she takes with her mom across Canada. It’s hilarious – a Korean-American rite of passage! Mother-and-daughter vignettes. I think it’s gonna be a hit. One problem though. The script calls for an accordion. Jenn mentioned that you used to play. Would you consider giving it a try?”

Jaw drops. What did he say? He’s got to be kidding.

“You know, MIL, accordions are really making a comeback. Cajun and French accordionists are playing up a storm.”

Okay. “Er, David. I grew up with ties to Frankie Yankovic and his Polka Kings.”

“Omigod, do you mean Weird Al’s father?!”

“Er, yes, I guess so. Is that good or something?”

“Yeah. It’s terrific! I’m sure you can do the show! Why don’t you come on up and meet the actress and we’ll do an informal audition in our living room.”

So, gentle readers, after years of gloom in a dark closet, my accordion had its rebirth. In fact, I had my rebirth. I pulled that puppy out and, hot dang, it was still good to go. It was 40 years old but the reeds and bellows were fine. I just had to invest in new leather straps.

The rest is show-biz history. Tina Lee, beautiful in her Korean folk outfit, and I, more demure in my black Capri pants and red blouse, played two major venues in New York. One was the Nuyorican Poet’s Café in the East Village. I heard later that this was really “in”.

I’d love to know what the audience was thinking when I came out onstage and plopped myself down stage right - middle-aged broad hauling her squeezebox. Tina then came onstage and regaled the crowd for almost an hour with a really funny true story of mom-daughter dynamics and clash of cultures.

Me? I was so cool. I got to play the Canadian national anthem, “La Vie en Rose", Korean folk melodies, one polka, "Stouthearted Men", and closed the show with “New York State of Mind”. Yeah, the gig went really well.

We even had our own webpage.

I could almost read my accordion’s mind. “Now that I’m out of the closet, I don’t ever want to go back in. Free! Free at last!”

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

How sweet it is

Just another day at the office she thinks to herself. Herself has been feeling down this week. Clothes are fitting a bit tight. The ever-nagging question of "What do I want to be when I grow up?" has been making its perennial appearance and throwing more gray and blue into the mix. Herself is generally a cheery person and doesn't like to dwell on the less vibrant colors of the spectrum. Even though herself isn't Mary Poppins, she does believe in rainbows and happy endings (most of the time). This past week was just not delivering.

So, another day at the office and herself is feeling sorry for herself. Hmm, that's redundant, isn't it? Suddenly, something unexpected happens. A large bouquet of quite colorful spring flowers arrive for ... none other than HERSELF! A gift from a graduating student who takes the time to say "Thank you for all your help." Nirvana! The beautiful flowers sit on herself's office windowsill and remind herself that, basically, the universe is a good and kind place. The flowers are just the first surprise. A large yellow envelope is delivered. Inside, a gracious note from another student telling herself that she is one of the main reasons this student chose this university. Herself made the other feel "not like a number, but like a real person. A person you were interested in." Herself smiles. She had the privilege and pleasure of handing this student her diploma at commencement.

Things are looking up. Flowers and thank-you notes. Herself finds Hope perching on her shoulder, commiserating about the tight clothes but absolutely gushing about the students who remembered to say thank you.

And the day isn't over. Once home, herself finds a surprise in her mailbox - a small package from Scotland from a close friend who has collaborated with a mutual friend in California (herself's Internet friends) to produce a very unique set of playing cards, photoshopped and laminated and cleverly containing images of herself's favorite sci-fi show. A "belated Mother's Day gift" and "sickie pressie". New friends here, women who could be daughters or sisters. Women who take the time and make the effort to create something unusual and quite special for a long-distance cyberspace companion. Herself.

Life is good. Herself will tackle the problem of the ill-fitting clothes another day.

Monday, May 22, 2006

How am I doing?

I really never expected to be doing this ... you know, blogging along on a semi-regular basis. It's a brave new world. Thanks to my daughter's example, I've gotten on the bandwagon. I've begun surfing around - checking up on a little family in Scotland, my new friends in Canada, and some other lovely people who have wandered over here from Jenn's site. It's a hoot. I'm amazed at the freedom of expression. The younger generation certainly knows how to let it all hang out.

This is a social experiment at least and a whole network of new friends at best. Just a thank-you as I continue to blog and slog along with the rest of you. I've really enjoyed your comments and getting to know some of you online.

Let's keep it going, eh?!

Oh, I'm trying to post my first photo - a creation by a cyberfriend who seems to have captured the family dynamic. Now, let's see if this really does go up ...

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Critical thinking

Now, about the play. I saw it twice – front row, back row. The audience laughed and cried. One night I turned to the woman on my right and saw tears streaming down her face. The power of words. Sometimes the lines I thought would draw a laugh, didn’t. And lines that were more enigmatic, did. Go figure. I also got to hang out with the actors and my favorite director and playwright. Everyone was psyched about this show. Well, not everyone. Read on.

The power of words. That’s what this blog is all about.

Did I tell you that my daughter’s a writer? The Muse came to visit when she was just a toddler and decided to stay. This has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s a bit like Tree’s amazing talent. It’s a gift that keeps on giving and never lets a person rest.

Jenn’s mind is usually on overdrive. She is constantly thinking about Life (capital “L” again) and its many manifestations. Add to that, kids and dogs underfoot, a narcoleptic and loving husband, and a house that is constantly in need of attention. I’ve decided to treat her to the cranberry storm door, but that’s another story.

The play seemed to be going well but Jenn seemed anxious all week. Just like good drama, she was waiting for the denouement – the passing judgment of the local critic. This guy supposedly has some credentials and knows what he’s doing. Is being a theatre critic like going to med school? I think not. At least in med school you take the Hippocratic oath and promise to do no further harm. If there is a school of film critics, I think they teach the hypocritic oath – find the most tender part of the writer’s anatomy (usually the brain) and stick a needle in. The power of words.

Jenn lives by words. As an artist, she is so sensitive of what she writes and what she reads. Her energy and ideas are transmitted through the painstaking crafting of words. She is invested in her product. She is, actually, her own worse critic. She cannot not write. The power of words.

The review was not good. Jenn read the first line and would not read the rest. I, in super-protective mother mode, ventured ahead and read the entire piece. My heart sank. The power of words.

Even if she were not my daughter, I would have disagreed with this guy’s point of view. But he’s on somebody’s payroll and has credentials and is entitled to his opinion too. The power of words.

I wanted to make it better, but could not. David and friends consoled her but I knew the review had an impact; hopefully, it was just a glancing blow. The power of words.

This is her craft, her art. It takes courage to write and then to have what you’ve written displayed onstage. It requires a giant leap of faith. And Jenn, who is a kind and generous spirit, is a trustworthy soul. She is also a trouper, my kid. She believes in her work and was so happy with this show’s cast and the beautiful and funny and poignant ways they brought her words to life. That’s why the review seemed so unfair. The power of words.

I am always in awe of her gift. She tells stories of the common man and woman. They sometimes make you squirm and wince, but the dark humor always leads to naked truth and, if you look hard enough, you will see yourself or someone you know in Jenn’s funhouse mirror. My girl never takes the easy way out. She goes deep. And I’m proud of her for that. Jenn makes you think. She’s definitely not a 30-minute sitcom, “slam, bam, thank-you ma’am” kind of gal. The power of critical thinking.

Jenn’s writing reminds me of Flannery O’Connor. I had to read some of O’Connor’s work in a college lit class, actually it was a religion course. At first, some of the more outrageous characters seemed so strange and shocking but, slowly, I tuned into their struggles. They were (like all of us) seeking redemption of one kind or another. There was grace to be found among the ruins.

So, on this Mother’s Day and on this blog, here’s to you my dear daughter. I watched you scribble as a child and later begin page after page of stories and pictures, always telling such imaginative and colorful tales. You were born to write, Jenn. You have stories and characters yet to be conceived. And those you've already birthed have been lovingly tended. You’re a darn good mother!

The show was terrific.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Twinkies and singularities

I just drove back from Jenn’s. It’s almost a six-hour trip but I’ve learned to pace myself and tune in to some of my favorite music which, depending on my mood and the iPod’s random selections, could be anything from klezmer to tango to blues or pop or a good polka. Eclectic tastes for sure. “Variety is the spice of life”, right?

I was planning to do a nostalgic essay tonight on my time with J&D and the munchkins but it seems that my daughter’s blog du jour has detoured me. I need to set the record straight regarding my use of language and somewhat colorful imagination. You have to believe that I’m not really all that risqué. I live a pretty tame life - a single woman in her apartment, no boyfriend (or girlfriend for that matter). My palette contains muted colors. Heck, I don’t watch much television or even go to the movies. I usually ask Jenn for the latest gossip about the stars.

Sometimes, though, Life (capital “L”) does take a turn and add a little excitement or the proverbial “spice” to a mundane existence. You just never know what will be the catalyst. It can be a new play or a college classroom.

I drive up to the artsy-fartsy Berkshires for a week to see Like Home (which contains a lot more naughty words than my spontaneous remarks on Blaine’s anatomy) and suddenly I’m out of my element – I’m WOV (woman on vacation). For a blissful week, I forget my graduating seniors and their term papers. I’m here with my beloved artistes and their progeny and community of like-minded artistes. I get to see the play twice and hang out with the actors. It’s exhilarating. I even cover the box office when someone doesn’t show up. I greet the ticket seekers, collect their money, hand out playbills and restrain myself from revealing that I’m the mother of the playwright (and mother-in-law to the director). There I am, smelling the greasepaint and hearing the roar of the crowd. Hot dang - I’m a theatre groupie!

Seeing Jenn’s play probably loosened me up a bit - so much so that seeing that Blaine guy in his fishbowl just triggered some unexpected thoughts which surprised even me. Never, in my entire life, had I ever thought of the male appendage as a cupcake. Now I’m having such feelings of guilt. Being from Philly and all that, I can’t believe I conjured up a Twinkie instead of a Tastycake! What a traitor I am.

As to the “bl*w job” remark, it’s something that I picked up from watching all those sex-therapy movies in grad school. Another revelation: I attended college as a non-traditional student. I was already in my menopause years by the time I got to study and learn about the many varieties of human love. This was definitely not a “spice” found in my mother’s kitchen.

The kids know how naïve I was when it came to s-e-x. For instance, Jenn went off to college and became a cartoonist for the college paper. She sent me copies of her weekly offerings, really cute and clever stuff. One time, though, she was illustrating an event where some cartoon figure was holding up a scorecard, reading “96”. As soon as I looked at this, I panicked and called her to voice maternal concern: “Er, Jenn, isn’t this really going too far? You know, people are gonna see this and think dirty thoughts.” Luckily, Jenn set me straight on that one and I was no longer numerically challenged, just in time to prepare me for my grad class in human sexuality.

My most memorable teacher was a sex therapist who insisted on having the class over to his clinic for an entire day of indoctrination and desensitization: training films and pillows to recline on. What a guy – he even served popcorn. The movies showed men with women, men with men, women with women, multi-positions, one on one, two on one, groups. Everything you wanted to know … and then some. Eyes were glazed by the end of the day. Popcorn did not take the edge off. We went outside for a break and my classmate looked stressed. I tried to do some compassionate counseling: “Hey, Joe. Are you okay?” Poor guy shook his head and then confessed, “I’m so horny I could hump a tree.”

This teacher even invited us to go swimming nude in his pool. (We all declined. I think he was disappointed.) Looking back, he was a likeable (albeit eccentric) fellow, very touchy feely, and into that whole sharing dynamic that we, as future therapists, were supposed to learn. He would invite his past clients for a little “show and tell” at our weekly classes. I got to meet the nicest people (even before Jerry Springer discovered them). There was a huge guy waiting for his sex-change operation and he had the boldest red nail polish and long blonde wig. He was a telephone lineman and I’m not sure how climbing a pole was gonna hold up after he lost his … and then there was the sweetest pair of senior citizens. She and he were married for years and looked like they just stepped out of Good Housekeeping or AARP magazine - gray-haired elders who happened to have a thing for an open marriage and some ménage a trois every now and then. They placed ads in local papers. Gosh, I wonder if they ever went on to make a documentary: “Grandma and Grandpa do Dallas.” A prominent businessman also made an appearance; he belonged to a transvestite club in center city. The wife supported his, er, proclivity and even helped him shop for his lacey underwear.

Now you see that I’ve done some multitasking of my own, some years back. Education certainly does open one up to the world - in this case, the world of froufyhouhas and hoojackapiffies. Any singular notions I may have had about s-e-x were dispelled when the popcorn was dispensed. And I’m a better person for it, Ollie.

I think I’ll go eat a Twinkie.

Monday, May 01, 2006

It's all in the eyes

There’s an epilogue to my previous post. The last time I spent with my Dad was two days before we lost him. He was retired and he and mom would drive up to visit and play with the adored only grandchildren (Jenn and Joe) maybe two, three times a week. He always enjoyed making or fixing things and this time he had crafted a swing for the kids to be hung from our big old mimosa tree on the side of the house. He needed help so I supported the ladder as he lifted the chains and twisted them around the largest and sturdiest limb of the tree. It was a hot and humid late afternoon and the sun was already starting to sink in the sky, a very peaceful and mellow time of day.

Dad was about three feet above me on the ladder and looking down at me when suddenly the golden rays from the sun reflected in his eyes. What happened next was a gift. My Dad was never one to loudly proclaim his love; he did it indirectly with a touch or the use of an endearing nickname. But looking up at him in that moment, time seemed to stop and I saw all the love in the world coming from his eyes. It was a silent and fleeting affirmation and yet I never felt more loved. The message was there in his eyes – a deep love, a proud love. I think we both sensed that something very profound had just happened as he seemed a bit embarrassed and we went back to the task at hand. Neither of us spoke aloud about what we had just experienced; we just let it be. That was the very last time I looked into my father’s eyes. And it was enough.