Monday, September 16, 2013

The last time I saw Paris

... was the first time I saw Paris. It took me fifty years to realize a dream.

Four years of high-school French with a fiery little nun, Sister Zita Marie, had planted the seed. By senior year, we were only allowed to speak en Francais in the classroom. It was a heady time of hope and vision. We wrote glowing biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy, the elegantly bilingual First Lady, seated at the side of our handsome President.  Refrains of Camelot filled our innocent young minds. Somehow, teenaged illusions of mythic kingdoms and immortal gods provided the perfect backdrop for our newly "crowned" First Couple. They, and we, were invincible. Jackie took Paris by storm, charming DeGaulle. The French were in love. But, then again, aren't the French always in love? French class was the perfect place to nurture fairytale dreams of romance and happy endings. Paris, the City of Light and Love.

Sister Zita fanned the flame. Looking back, I am certain that the good sister had quite a history of her own. She, who warned us not to wear the color red nor patent-leather shoes, was a passionate woman at heart. I can see that now. It was just hard to picture any nun, almost totally covered in black, as a real woman. I suspect that my teacher had at least walked along the Left Bank with a lover before she took up her vocation. There was just too much life in the lady to contain her to rosary beads and the color black. Seriously, how did she deduce that "red excites men"? Oh, Sister, you were imparting much more than a French vocabulary lesson in that classroom!

Camelot crumbled on a sunny day in Dallas. Dreams and illusions of youth, romance, and enduring love dissolved in the wake of gunshots. Later, other assassinations would follow. As children of the '60s, we paid a terrible price for our coming of age.

Yet, my desire to see, to experience Paris, endured. It remained a distant possibility through many years of marriage, children, divorce, and new directions.

It wasn't until I found a group of younger friends online, that my trip to Paris became a reality. Oui, I spent one glorious week en Paris last November. It seems that some dreams do come true.

Look for a Paris Retrospective, coming soon!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Man with a banjo

My dad, Joe, was a banjo man. He lived through two world wars and a great depression. For him, music was a way to make sense of life's more painful and confounding moments. It was blue-collar therapy.

He was mostly self taught. The music was in his genes. He played through his sorrows but also his joys. I don't think I ever heard a more striking sound. It was a constant in my growing-up years. And, when I was old enough to learn a keyboard instrument, Dad was ready to teach me the songs of his youth: the depression-era jazz tunes, the bluesy sounds of New Orleans and, of course, the polkas and waltzes that were so much a part of our Polish American heritage. I learned gladly. This was something so special ... I on my accordion, dad on his banjo. He was passing down his favorite songs. We didn't need music books. This was just a hand-me-down form of fatherly love. I lapped it up like a puppy.

The years passed. I grew up, married, and started a family of my own. Dad became a grandfather. The music that was such a part of my early life seemed to fade away amidst the newfound responsibilities of parenthood. Dad, too, became more involved with his new role as "pop pop" and somehow did not feel the need to play his banjo anymore. It was put away. Sadly, I don't think the kids ever heard him make music. He died, quite suddenly, when they were still very young. And the banjo music was, indeed, forever silenced.

Yet, life is full of surprises and serendipitous moments.

The first Christmas after my dad's death, a close friend who was a social worker asked me to entertain at a Christmas party for a local housing project. There was such a void in my life that Christmas. I was still grieving my loss, missing Dad so much. Something made me take my accordion to this event. I figured that providing a bit of holiday music for others might help mitigate my own sadness. The only thing missing would be dad at my side with his banjo.

So I went. The party was a great mix of young and old, residents of the apartment complex and nearby youth centers. About halfway through my repertoire of Christmas songs, I noticed a silver-haired gentleman standing on the sidelines really watching me play and tapping his feet to the music. I smiled and he came over to talk. He was about 60-65 years old and shyly asked if he could join in.

His name was Joe and he played the banjo.

Once I nodded an okay, he went up to his room and came back in a few minutes with his instrument - a tenor banjo, just like my dad's. Now that the kiddie Christmas music was mostly done, we tuned up and started to play one song after another. It was like we had been playing together for years. All the songs my Dad taught me, this Joe also knew. We played on and on. It was such a gift. I felt like my dad was there with us, just lighting up the room with his smile.

The party ended. Joe and I packed up our instruments and shook hands. I told him how much his music meant to me and why. He just smiled and seemed to understand. And then he went back to his room at the project and I went home to my life as a wife and mother. We never saw each other again.

Many years later, I watch with pleasure as my granddaughter, Sophie, becomes very interested in learning the ukelele. Playing the strings seems to come to her quite naturally. She is with me when I take my dad's old banjo to a family friend, a master woodsman, who actually restores the instrument to its former glory. He offers it to her to pluck a bit. She plays some chords and smiles shyly back at me. I have a lump in my throat.

There is something about a banjo ...

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Disturbingly informative

This past summer I took Sophie on a road trip to my hometown, Philadelphia. While there, she got to see where her mom and uncle grew up, learned to play pool, enjoyed a cheese-steak hoagie, took a train into Center City, and cruised South Street.

She had a choice of museums and chose the Mutter, much to my astonishment. Forget the walk-through artifical heart at the Franklin Institute. This kid went for the hard core. Even med students enter the Mutter with awe and trepidation. It's not for the fainthearted. Housed within a quite respectable 19th century brownstone, the museum is a forensic treasure of polished skulls, preserved tissue, deformed skeletons, and myriad medical oddities all made even more surreal by the grand marble staircase, rich wooden paneling, chandeliers, and other genteel trappings of the past. Kind of the Age of Innocence meets Goosebumps. Sophie loved it!

She then picked a small plush "microbe" from the Gift Shop. (Yes, I was amazed that there was a gift shop. How does one choose a gift after viewing preserved body parts and ancient medical tools of dissection?) Her "germ" was the organism responsible for acne. It seemed appropriate since she's on the cusp of tweendom anyhow. Her pink cuddly was aptly named "Pimple".

Next, we take a tourist trolley to Independence Mall and walk to South Street, the mecca of all things hip and fadworthy. Wow, did I just make up a word? After browsing all the bling in the various trendy shops, I treat her to a pair of feather earrings. We then top off the experience with ice-cream sundaes as we watch and listen to the many strange sights and diverse languages of Philly's melting pot, certainly a far cry from rural Massachusetts.

On the walk back to the train, Sophie keeps reading the shop signs and comes to a sudden halt, pointing across the street to "The Condom Factory". Cough.

"You really don't want to go in there, Sophie."

"Why not?"

Cough again.

"Because it's ... for grown-ups. Did mommy ever tell you about ... condoms?"

Pause. Widened eyes.

"Ohhhh. It's that kind of store." The kid is savvy. Knows much more than I did at her age.

We keep walking and come to another store window which looks like Victoria's Secret lingerie until I see the sign above. Crap! The Erogenous Zone.

Sophie stops again, puzzled. "Erogenous" is not a word she has seen on Word Girl.

"Well, Soph, it's kind of a grown-up word for feeling good but it's not a store for kids either."

She looks at me. Puts two and two together. I smile and suggest that The Erogenous Zone should actually be next to The Condom Factory in the previous block.

And we keep walking.

Months later, we are lying side-by-side in my bed during one of her regular sleepovers. She has always loved to read. We are long past bedtime stories. Each of us has our favorite authors now and one of our pleasures is reading ourselves to sleep. She has also become a sci-fi enthusiast, sharing my love of all things Stargate. A typical sleepover usually includes a DVD marathon of Stargate SG1 and Atlantis. And then to bed with our book selections. This particular night, Sophie is browsing through my collection of Stargate books and reading quotes from the show's episodes.

I'm deeply absorbed in my Kindle until Sophie interrupts.

"Babci, what's a eunuch?"

Holy Hannah, I'm back on South Street!

I turn to her, not quite believing what she's asked.

She points to a Jack O'Neill witticism: "Eunuchs! As in snippitty doo-dahs?"

Oh joy. Another learning opportunity.

Considering my daughter, Jenn, has done such a fine job so far of sex education, I hopefully ask: "Hasn't mom talked to you about ... eunuchs and ... boy parts?"

Well, the kid is clueless - not about the boy parts, but the status of a eunuch.

Double crap!

Thus begins the grandmother's rather clinical explanation of just what can happen to some unfortunate lads and men with regards to "snippitty doo-dah".

Sophie asks all the right questions and I try to give all the right answers. Heck! This is a far cry from handing out the Time Life "underwear" books I gave my own two kids on the cusp of adolescence. I am having a bonafide, face-to-face discussion of male appendages with my ten-year-old granddaughter. Who woulda thunk?

Of course, once I step into the deep water, it gets even deeper. I find myself trying to explain the Middle Ages and boy choirs and just why those boys never lost their angelic soprano voices and youthful faces.

Sophie is enthralled. I am appalled. Our eyes meet and we giggle and cannot fall asleep. Snip, snip.

Tears running down our faces, we try to put the eunuch information out of our minds but it is hopeless. More muffled laughter.

Sophie stares at me, enlightened, as she squeals:

"Justin Bieber!"

Monday, May 30, 2011

For those who did not ...

When Johnny comes marching home again,
Hurrah, hurrah!
We'll give him a hearty welcome then,
Hurrah, hurrah!
The men will cheer, the boys will shout,
The ladies they will all turn out,
And we'll all feel gay,
When Johnny comes marching home.

The old church bell will peal with joy,
Hurrah, hurrah!
To welcome home our darling boy,
Hurrah, hurrah!
The village lads and lassies say,
With roses they will strew the way,
And we'll all feel gay,
When Johnny comes marching home.

Get ready for the Jubilee,
Hurrah, hurrah!
We'll give the hero three times three,
Hurrah, hurrah!
The laurel wreath is ready now,
To place upon his loyal brow,
And we'll all feel gay,
When Johnny comes marching home.

Let love and friendship on that day,
Hurrah, hurrah!
Their choicest treasures then display,
Hurrah, hurrah!
And let each one perform some part,
To fill with joy the warrior's heart,
And we'll all feel gay,
When Johnny comes marching home. - Patrick Gilmore

My cousin, Johnny. KIA July, 1944, liberating France.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Turning ten

Sophie celebrated her tenth birthday today. My oldest granddaughter went to have her hair cut and streaked (blue) with her momma. I spent the afternoon with little sister, Hannah, who graciously allowed the older sibling to spend some quality time alone with their mater.

The girls had just spent the weekend in Boston with their dad and had driven back this morning. Both were wilting by the end of day but exhaustion didn't preclude the trip to the beauty salon. When Sophie arrived back home, Hannah took a very close look at the new blue streak and promptly observed, "Sophie, you look SO Goth!"

Sophie, at ten though, is a not-so-little girl who defies categories. She loves "Goosebumps", a British telly series of Steven-King proportions; possesses a ready and dry wit; sings Irving Berlin and current Broadway tunes like a lark; has read all of Harry Potter (a couple years ago); asks me intriguing questions such as "What was the most advanced technology you had when you were growing up, Babci?"; shows compassion and care for those younger and weaker, be they human or pet; has a strong sense of right and wrong and the need to find fairness; is appreciative and voices her gratitude for even the little things like a milkshake treat on the way home from singing lessons.

Oh, Sophie, dear heart. I probably should find a way today, as you begin your next decade, to write a poem or a letter expressing just what it means to have you in my life. I guess this will have to do ...

Your tenth birthday. Scary movies. New earrings. A fashion scarf. Jewelry box. A chic new hairstyle with a signature streak! (God bless your momma who is much more tolerant than I was when she dared to color her hair in the bathroom and it turned orange-pink. I now wish I had taken her to the beauty salon instead.)

Your past few years have been a bit rough. You've had to make peace with life's not being so fair after all. And, yet, you continue to shine. You are brave and funny and bright and kind. I look at you now and catch a glimpse of the beautiful woman you will become. Your mom and dad have done their job well. But I think you already know that.

You were so tiny when you were born. I held you carefully, in awe of my first granddaughter. You still have the lifelike dolly I bought for you when I came to the hospital. (So big, it barely fit in the elevator!) Now, you tower over the doll and are almost ready to tower over me. Soon, we'll be sharing the same shoe size.

There may be some changes in both our lives this coming new year. We may be moving away from each other. It's too soon to tell what our immediate future holds.

For now, I play "Happy Birthday" to you on the piano and you smile back at me, your special Sophie smile. We share a moment.

That, my sweet girl, is enough.

No matter what happens in the months ahead, we will always be connected.

So Happy New Decade to you ... and me.

Continue to do what you've been doing. Go gently. Be kind while being tough enough to weather the storms. And, always, always keep a song on your lips and in your heart.

I am so proud of you.

Love, Babci xo

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Sweet little-boy sounds

Another cold, blustery day. Knock on the door. My neighbor's car won't start. He thinks his battery needs a jump. I throw my coat on and trudge out onto the seemingly perpetual ground cover of crunchy ice, snow, and gravel which comprises our apartment parking lot. It's been a brutal winter and all of us are just about keeping up. Dead batteries only add to the misery. Last night we had a blast of freezing rain which leads to scraping all the car windows free of ice before we can even drive out the parking lot. Gabe helps me with my windows and I then back my car up and next to his. His younger son, Seth, is huddled in the back seat of dad's car, patiently waiting for the motor to turn over. Cables attached, Gabe continues to turn the ignition key but the car just cranks, coughs, and fails to start. Somewhat embarrassed, he grins at me and realizes that he may be out of gas. No problem. I offer to take him to the nearest gas station for an emergency fill-up. He brings Seth over to my car and straps him into one of the girls' rear car seats. Then Gabe goes to find a container for the gasoline.

Seth and I are alone in the car. This little four-year-old kid is fairly shy but seems to be handling his time with me okay.

Suddenly, out of the back, I hear him playing out loud, making imaginary sounds and creating his own special world of sound effects.

I feel like I have just been transported back in time about 30 years or more. I'm hearing my son, Joseph, in the back seat doing what little boys love to do ... making all the excited inflections that only a boy fighting dragons, or flying an airplane, or swinging a sword against a pirate can utter.

I turn in my seat and Seth is, indeed, holding a slightly raveled crocheted football in his hand and, most likely, running down field for the touchdown in his mind.

What a beautiful sight to see this little guy totally self-contained, playing out loud, unaware of the older neighbor lady in the front seat grinning back at him.

This is exactly how I remember my little boy playing. And his little boy playing too ...

Joseph and Ben. Son and grandson. The two guys in my life.

I am so used to the play sounds of my four granddaughters that I completely forget just how different the energy and tone of boys can be. Girls coo, giggle, sometimes sigh and shout, but boys seem to express a much more primal energy. They thrust, weave, choreograph and swish in another dimension.

A neighbor's child helps me revisit that wondrous, magical kingdom once again. And I remember just how much I miss it.

For a few precious moments, I'm hearing my boys ... being boys.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Who knows? If we keep practicing, we may take our act on the road ...