Tuesday, January 22, 2008

For my cousin, Darlene

I can't find a photo to post here. She'd be smiling about that. She never liked to be the one in the picture, the focus on her. She was usually the one taking the photo, the one behind the scene. The observer. The quiet presence. The audience of one. She never knew that about herself but it was a hidden grace. She was a humble person. My cousin, my sister, my friend.

We grew up together under the same roof. Her dad was my dad's younger brother. We lived in a duplex and she was only a couple years younger - both of us, only children. We were the product of a tightly knit Polish-American family, kind of The Waltons of Nicetown. Our grandparents arrived and settled in Philadelphia; supposedly the family farm and three-story home was a prime location and our grandfather wealthy enough to purchase the land which may have originally been deeded to the family of Mother Katherine Drexel. There were horses and eight siblings born to the clan; they then married and produced our generation of cousins. There was all the drama of living in a large homogeneous circle of blue-collar relatives. Aunts and uncles lived on three floors of the original house and, later, across the driveway, in my father's duplex. Many newly married kin got their start in these apartments. There were feuds, fun, and plenty of live music.

Through all the family drama, Darlene and I were playmates. That was a constant. She was always my sidekick, the Tonto to my Lone Ranger. Our bikes were our horses. I can still remember racing up that driveway with her and around the large back graveled yard, surrounded by my dad's garages. This was our playground. We had large Schwinn bikes, lots of glittering chrome and bright colors. Hers was maroon; mine, blue. Translation: she rode the black horse and I always rode the white horse. She never seemed to mind. Again, it was a role that was comfortable. Sidekick. Pal. Companion.

We both took music lessons from her dad. He had a music studio in the front of the duplex. Now that I think of it, her accordion was black; mine was white ... still riding those horses. She played the keyboard well but she always praised my talent.

When we were teenagers, she would often come upstairs and we would hang out, sharing Elvis records or sitting in the front living room, reading Nancy Drew mysteries, side by side.

When I was getting married, I asked her to be in my bridal party. She was at my side on my wedding day, along with other cousins. I have that photo somewhere, one in which she had to pose but, even then, she was looking at the bride and not looking directly at the camera.

Years later, after we had both married and raised kids of our own, she stood by me as I went through a divorce. Afterwards, she was right there to offer a hand in helping me pack for a new life, for my very first apartment. She did a lot of heavy lifting.

She repeated this task twice more; nothing was too much to ask. The second time around, she backed my decision to move upstairs after a noisy neighbor kept me awake and, finally, less than two years ago, she helped me pack for my relocation to the Berkshires.

By then, she was dying of cancer. She knew what the odds were. She was living with a tracheotomy tube in her throat already for over a year; the cancer caught her at a very vulnerable time, shortly after she had lost her mom to Alzheimers. I would go with her to the nursing home and watch as my aunt faded. Darlene, once again, was at her mother's side, doing what she could, doing it quietly, not calling attention to herself.

She came to my apartment twice the weekend of my Berkshires move, that hot August weekend which would be the last time we'd see each other. We drove to find more U-Haul boxes and packing material because I under estimated. She wasn't surprised - she knew me and my foibles. She couldn't talk but her eyes held the amusement and teasing she would have delivered. I got the message.

When I made my very first move, she agreed to help me put together two barrister bookcases (which she and I struggled to fit into her car trunk) and she also helped me "build" a computer desk and a bedroom bureau. She was the handyman at my side when we took on the huge task of hanging multiple pictures, prints, and bamboo "art". God, what fun we had! Two take-charge women with one Sears variable-torque power drill and a level. I couldn't have done it without her.

She flew to Portland Maine with me when Jenn was in a regional theatre production. We shared a hotel room; she took me and Jenn to dinner and insisted on picking up the tab - lobster yet. She sat next to me for two performances and, of course, she thought that Jenn was just the best thing ever! When I played my NYC gig in the NuYorican Cafe, Darlene took the train up and brought a camera to take my picture and capture that special occasion. She took a photo of everyone who came to see me in the show but bowed out of the picture once again.

She loved live theatre. When things got her down, she would take the train to NYC and treat herself to a really good show. Alone. She didn't need the world at her feet. She was a trooper. I think of the courage she showed after the cancer had ravaged her. She continued to travel into Philadelphia to keep working as a bookkeeper. Only a couple months before her death, after multiple surgeries and the hole in her throat, she bought herself a ticket to Barbra Streisand's Philly performance. She went alone, sitting at the top of the arena. I was in the Berkshires; I would have gone with her if I had known. But it wasn't Darlene's style to ask for something. She knew what she needed that final autumn. And I'd like to picture her up there in the rafters, getting an early taste of heaven from Streisand's concert. Streisand and Liza Minnelli, her favorites. A few years ago, she treated me to fantastic seats for Elaine Stritch when she came to town. That was a fun time, a time free of Alzheimers and cancer.

I always over packed. She knew that about me and would tease me mercilessly about the baggage I carried. She was as generous with her money as with her time. I know that she treated my own two children to many small gifts and then little gifts to their children. She was so happy to see me as a grandmother.

I miss her so much. She raised a darn good kid, a son who did her proud by staying at her side through her final journey with cancer. I know where he got that from. He was faithful to his mom just as she was so faithful to me.

Another cousin sent me this link tonight which prompted my thoughts about Darlene.

This tribute was long overdue. No photo to post but I will always carry a snapshot of her in my heart. She did not live long, but she lived well.

Her favorite saint was Therese of Lisieux, the Saint of the Little Way. That seems so right.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Scooby Scooby Doo

When my son was little, he became a big fan of Scooby Doo.

Somewhere, hidden away in a packing box, is a tape recording of three-year-old Joseph confessing his love for Velma. I couldn't believe he didn't fall for the blonde. Well, he did but that was years later ....

So here we are in 2008 and Joseph and Daphne, oops, Katie have adopted a dog. Three kids and, heavens, we all know that "every kid needs a dawg" (Jack O'Neill, Stargate SG1). The dog has shepherd and bloodhound in her. KoKo is her name; scooby doing is her game.

I now have three granddogs. They seem to be as inexpendable as grandkids. KoKo on the west coast; Nina and Eli in the Berkshires. Here are the east-coast puppers.

They're all mutts. Bless 'em and the kids for choosing shelter dogs.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy Snowy New Year!

It's snowing. Again. We've been blessed with this white stuff through the holidays. Thought I'd share some pictures to keep the season going a bit longer. Tomorrow, I, and many others I'm sure, return to work. Soon, all the trees and tinsel and decorations will be put away for another year. And the beautiful new white snow will be plowed back and turn all gray and muddy. Yuk.

So what endures? How do we get beyond all the hype and cut to the chase?

I've decided to go to my neighbor, Mr. Snow, who seems to have years of experience in dealing with the transient nature of winter.

Me: Sir, you seem quite happy to be out here, weathering the newest snowfall and extreme temperatures.

He: Oh my, yes, of course. Brisk and cold is how I like it. Had an uncle who moved to Florida. Poor guy. Bad retirement decision. We lost him the first Christmas.

Me: Well, I can understand that; after all, it is a southern state. But now, with all this talk of global warming, do you really feel safe in the Berkshires?

He: I've been following the Gore reports for years. The guy was ahead of the game long before all his prizes. It is a worry, even here in winter wonderland. If you notice, I'm now wearing a lighter scarf (100% cotton, environmentally correct) and no longer need ear muffs. Heck, I've even stopped adding anti-freeze to my morning prune juice.

Me: Do you plan to move elsewhere? The Arctic perhaps?

He: Are you kidding? Poor polar bears are having their own problems up there. And don't even mention the South Pole. Last I heard, penguins were organizing for mass migration to Iceland but are having trouble getting their entry visas. There seems to be a run of expatriate American bloggers flocking to Iceland and the current political climate and discriminatory policies against the penguins are turning into a real hot issue. No pun intended.

Me: I, myself, am a new resident of the Berkshires, having relocated here over a year ago. I have to admit, though, I was not expecting to see so many of "your kind" around and now realize that snow people will probably be my lifelong companions.

He: Do I need to call my lawyer? Be careful of what you say.

Me: Oh, sorry! It does sound a bit discriminatory; however, I grew up with happy memories of snow people in my backyard in Philadelphia. It was a great social experiment and we all got on well. That was, until the GW.

He: GW?

Me: Global warming. The Philly snow people had to relocate to a colder climate, just like these present-day polar bears and penguins. Such a tragedy. So many ice caves and igloos are now up for foreclosure but no one wants to live in a place with leaking roofs and plumbing problems.

He: Tell me about it.

Me: So, here's the question of the day. Old Man Winter seems so fickle. He comes and goes quickly. How do we make sense of it all? What is the essence, the substance of the winter holidays? What endures?

He: This is 'one question'? Before I answer, let me point out that Old Man Winter retired last year. We've a smart lady in charge now and I wouldn't dare call her 'old'.

Me: Excuse me? A mature woman in charge of winter?

He: You'll recognize the name; however, she plans to return to her maiden name after the divorce is final. Mrs. Claus has a lot to offer in the way of snow organization and development.

Me (checking watch): I think we've drifted a bit.

He (groaning): What's with all the puns?

Me: If you'd just answer my final question.

He: Which was?

Me: What lasts? What do people, human and snow, take away with them after the winter holidays?

He: Oh, that's easy. The memories. The love. The giggles and the pat on the head as a bright-eyed youngster stretches to put my hat on me. Yeah, you may think that snow people and humans are quite different but I kid you not. Our hearts beat as warmly as yours.

Me: I hate to end on a dark note but, when the spring comes and you have a meltdown, just how do you remember all the good things, the sensory things like touching and patting?

He: My gosh, I think I may have to create a Snow Academy for human learning and development. (He touches his head with his stick hand.) It's all in the mind. It's up here. It's very quantum theory. Love is energy. All forms of love. My body melts; my heart doesn't. I evaporate each season but always find a home again when little hands put me back together the following winter.

Me: Wow. That's ... almost profound.

He: Nah, it's just molecular deconstructive/reconstructive surgery. Much better than the kind of stuff you humans do to your bodies.

Me: How did you get so wise?

He: It's what I do. "They also serve who only stand and wait in the snow." Now I have to run; I can feel some sweat dripping from my armpits. Need an iced latte, fast.

Catch you next year!