Saturday, January 30, 2016

Happy Birthday, Dear Mom

"Mom, did you have birthday parties as a child?"

"Oh, it was so long ago, who remembers?"

To make room for her, I scooted over to the corner of my daybed that doubles as a couch. Although my mother died in December of 1981, she annually visits me on her birthday, which is today, January 30.

I loved that she hadn't primped for this pop-in. She was wearing a white chenille bathrobe with blue embroidered flowers, and her long black hair with hardly any gray, fell loose down her back. (When Mom was alive, she piled her thin strands atop her head, like movie actresses of the time.) Her face, still absent of wrinkles, lacked her usual rouge, lipstick, and mascara. And the wedge house slippers she wore to add height, were on the floor nearby.

Before reaching over to put an arm around me, she hoisted the stuffed dog that I nightly nestle. "Oy vey," she said, as she tossed it off the bed. "How about finding a guy?"

"Let's not go there." I said. In my mother's dreamy visits, she often worried I would remain single. And although she had a lousy second marriage, to a guy 20 years older than her -- who had her clipping coupons and counting pennies -- she insisted a woman needs a man. "I never want to be a burden to my kids," was how she framed it.  

To shift the conversation, I said, "Happy 103rd Birthday, Mom!"

"Shah! That's a horrid thing to say."

"Okay, okay, sorry, no years. I know you never wanted to be an old lady, but I'm just trying to bring us up to date." (Whenever Mom saw a hobbler with a cane or walker, she'd wince. A heart attack just shy of 69 foiled that fate.)

I continued: "So, what I've been pondering, along with my question about birthday parties, is why I was not more curious about your life when you were alive?

"Why did I never ask you about your childhood, your teen years, your relationship with your own mother, romances? Now, all of your siblings are gone, and other than photographs, I have no clue as to who you were before I came along.

My mother laughed. "You and your daughters put your whole lives out there, so you think anyone who doesn't share is meshugah. Well, some of us are happier being private. Especially in my day; we didn't hang out secrets as if they were damp dresses on a clothesline."

"Nice metaphor," I said, impressed with the imagery. "So, did you want to be a writer, too?"

While I waited for her answer, I snuggled closer. I felt her body's warmth and sniffed the familiar scents of her Lux soap and Prell shampoo.

"Writer? That was out of the question in my day," she said. "Back then, as soon as you were old enough -- I was 19 -- you got out of the house and got married. Remember, I had three sisters and four brothers. My mother pushed me towards your father."

"I know the story," I said, glum as I recalled their testy marriage. "I used it in my memoir. When you protested and said you didn't love him, Bubbie said, 'you'll learn to love him.' But, you never did, did you?"

We were both silent for a few minutes. "What can I say?" she said. "We were married for 25 years before he died. He was only 48. You said in your book that I nagged. But if your father had listened to me, had stopped smoking, stopped noshing, paid attention to his diabetes, maybe he would've lived longer.

"Okay, Mom, this is your birthday. I don't want to bring either of us down. I know you're not going to hang around too long, so before you go, tell me what I can get you as a gift."

"Tell Faith and Jill how much I kvell about them. That would be a gift. Such talent, such good mothers. I'm a very proud grandmother."

"Mom," I said. "Isn't there something you'd like, just for you? I know it'll be make-believe, but I'd like to give you something you've always wanted."

She turned to kiss me on the cheek. Somehow, she had changed her appearance: She now wore face powder, rouge, mascara, and lipstick. Her hair was back in its upsweep. And instead of the chenille robe, she was dressed in an eye-catching sweater and slim skirt.

"Remember me like this," she said, staining my cheek red. "That's my gift." Then, she swung her legs over the daybed, slipped into high-heel pumps, and was gone.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


As I climbed the translucent steps, I felt as if I were in a 1940's M.G.M. musical.  In my mind, I was on a staircase to heaven, with chorus girls in feathery gowns and snazzy guys in tuxedos dancing each tread.

But this was no Hollywood scene. I was at the Apple Store on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, on my way to a 10 a.m. workshop, when I paused to spy on the action below.  About two-dozen young people in red logo t-shirts stood quietly while their leader addressed them. As I watched, my mood sagged. Why can't that be me, I thought.

My self-pity was not far-fetched because I had indeed been one of them. The year was 2010; I was 72. And after a hiring event at the Old Orchard store, where I had shone in role-playing and interviews, I became a part-time specialist.

"I can't believe it," I said in a three-way call to my daughters. I was about to enter the inner sanctum where my first orientation was to take place, and gushed as if I were an Oscar winner: "I'm surrounded by Macs!"

After I completed the training and joined the team, I scooted the sales floor in my own logo t-shirt and name tag. And despite being the age of my fellow employees' grandmothers, I felt at-home. I joshed with peers as we gathered for our own morning meetings. I excelled at calming older customers who feared technology. And I shared in the excitement of new product launches.

"How can you stand the noise?" I remember my friend Ruth asking on the occasions we'd meet on my lunch hour. I'd look around to view the staff chatting with customers, and realize I had absorbed these sales talks, plus the blares of computers, and heard a symphony rather than a din.

"What noise?" I'd say.

Naturally, I had experiences that weren't favorable. Two have stayed with me. In the first, I was advising a young man on the model of computer that I believed fit his needs. As I pointed out its advantages, he stood with his arms crossed and his face dour. When he wasn't scowling, he was searching the store.

Frustrated, I said, "Is there something wrong? You don't seem pleased with my selection."

"You don't know what you're talking about," he said, "I want someone else."

My reaction was midway between fury and tears. I stifled both and sought out a replacement. As I lingered in the background, I heard my fellow Apple worker recommend the very same Mac. My nemesis clapped him on the back and said, "Perfect." I shook my head and whispered, Asshole.

The second blunder was more serious. I had sold headphones to a middle-aged man. For certain small transactions, cash registers were in drawers that sprung out from beneath a display table. "Please stand back," I'd joke to customers, "these can be lethal."

While others laughed, this man reacted differently. "Is it because I'm black?" he said. "If I were white, would you have told me to stand back? Did you want me far from the cash?"

I was mortified. How did my wisecrack go so wrong? I apologized over and over, as wrought as if I had just totaled his car. Eventually, he was mollified and we completed the purchase. We shook hands and he left the store. But I worried he would file a complaint. With my heart beating and hands shaking, I sought out my floor manager. "That's unfortunate," he said, "but I'm glad you gave me a heads-up."

As far as I know, that customer generously forgave me and never tattled. Now I wonder if the incident affected any chance I had of ever being hired again. For recently, I applied for the same part-time specialist job, but instead of Old Orchard, I chose the Michigan Avenue store, walking distance from my apartment.

After a hiring event in September of 2015, I received a, "Sorry, we're going in a different direction," email. Did I lose the opportunity because I quit my first Apple job after less than six months to be closer to home as Tommy declined? Or, did my former floor manager -- who was now part of the Michigan Ave. crew -- recall the drawer debacle and shut me out? Perhaps, it was just that HR had their pick of hundreds of other candidates who were younger, taller, and smarter than I?

"It's probably for the best," I said to my daughters in another three-way call. "At my age, it'd be tough to stand on my feet for eight hours."

I lied.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Happy Anniversary

"You hit the wrong note."

"Since when do you know piano keys?"

"Don't you remember how much I loved to sing?" Tommy said, as he nudged me over on the piano bench. "You'd play a song from your 'Easy Rogers and Hart,' and I'd croon, like Sinatra."

"Of course, I remember," I said, as I conjured his lean hip next to mine. "You wanted to be a lounge singer, right? It's sad you never got your wish."

"Who's sad," he said. "Do I look sad?"

I lifted my fingers from the piano keys and turned to take him in. It was only his apparition, for he had been dead for more than three years, but I welcomed his occasional appearances with his restored voice.

The image I selected was not the one from his last days in our home with hospice. Instead, I chose his likeness from our wedding day in Las Vegas -- January 13, 1998, 18 years ago.

"Actually, you look happy. Is it because it's our anniversary? Is that why you've dropped in for a visit?"

"Bingo," he said. "Our wedding day was the second happiest of my life."

"And the first?"

"When I met you," he said. "Two years before our marriage."

"It was a whirlwind romance, wasn't it?" I remembered how we had bumped into each other early mornings when he was out for a jog, and I was walking Sasha, my Golden Retriever. When I learned Tommy was about my age, and also divorced, I boldly asked him out.

"One date; that was all it took," he said, turning around on the bench to lean his elbows on the keyboard. "I knew right away I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you."

I was pleased to see him so relaxed. It felt familiar; for Tommy was an easy-going guy. Even when he was challenged by his brain degeneration and aphasia, he was a low-maintenance husband. "So, sweetheart," I said, continuing our chat to keep him near. "I assume you've been monitoring me. What's your view from on high?"

"First the good stuff," he said, as he pulled out a scorecard and pencil before shucking his suit jacket that had the boutonniere still pinned. I smiled when I saw the tiny golf pencil that he often stowed after games. Evidently, Tommy had been keeping score on his wife.

He studied the card and said, "I love that you're still wearing your wedding band. Eighteen years. Quite an accomplishment for a second marriage." Then, he reached over to touch the inexpensive gold ring we purchased at Service Merchandise. His left hand was clear, for I had removed his own ring and saved it with his watch, wallet, and other long-favored possessions.

"So even though you're no longer around," I said, "I should consider us married for the full eighteen?" I didn't think this was accurate, but I liked the sound of it. "Okay, what else is on the plus side of my score?"

"I'm happy to see you at the piano again," he said, "but I don't see much progress." He tousled my hair and smiled, just to be sure I knew he was kidding. "And, I'm relieved you're surrounded by so many friends. I don't have to worry that you're helpless without me."

"So, I take it you're glad I left L.A. and returned home?"

"Actually, I understood why you moved there," he said. "I saw that my death left a hole in your life and you missed being married. I think you believed your L.A. family could fill that void. But of course, no one could replace me." Then, he rose and danced a bit of a shimmy, as he often did when he wanted to show off.

He placed the scorecard on the piano's ledge so I could read more. It was lovely to see his familiar handwriting, the same script he used for daily post-it notes to me, and the matching loops and curves in the long, joyful letter he wrote after our wedding.

"Let me play this piece I'm trying to learn," I said. "Remember?" Then, I plunked out the notes to I'm Glad There Is You.

Tommy grinned. "Faith and Jill walked me down the aisle to a CD of Johnny Hartman. How could I ever forget?"

As I started to play and sing, In this world of ordinary people, I felt a kiss on my cheek and then a draft on the piano bench. "Wait, sweetheart," I said, grabbing thin air. "Happy 18th Anniversary!"

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


"Don't take this the wrong way," my friend said, as she placed a hand on my arm to assure me of her affection. "But, you have a habit of telling everyone how to live their lives. Because you do certain things, you think everyone should follow suit."

I thought for a moment, and then said: "You're right; I'm pushy."

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, listen up: I know what's best for you. In no particular order, here are suggestions -- honed by me -- that can assuage loneliness, lift depression, curb procrastination, improve efficiency, and build self-esteem. (Okay, let's scratch can and substitute, may. It's possible I'm not actually omnipotent.)

-Write in a journal every morning. I prefer a spiral 6-x-8 notebook and Pilot V Razor Point fine pen. But you can choose your own journal and writing instrument; no electronic devices permitted.  A cup of coffee is a lovely companion as you mentally review your previous day and record accomplishments, disappointments, anger, happiness, prideful moments, despair, or anything else that pops into your brain at that early hour.

Important: the journal is for your eyes only, no competition as if you were a member of a writing workshop. This practice is not just for would-be writers; it was extremely therapeutic for me when I was a caregiver for Tommy. My pages were akin to a support group where I could pour out my frustration and fears without getting well-meaning, but ill-fitting, advice from others.

-Enroll in a class or three. Currently, I'm taking lessons in Spanish, piano, and yoga. You may remember that I have attempted these three things in previous years and then abandoned them for one reason or another. No matter, currently, the schedules, locations, and teachers of these disciplines fit into my life. So, I'm back at the chair, bench, and mat. And, along with improving at each, I'm meeting new friends.

I'll throw in another nag here: don't avoid trying something anew because others will remind you that you're previously bailed and re-upped on the very same class. So what; give it a go again.

-Use a timer for tasks. This practice works well for writers who procrastinate about getting anything down on a blank page. But, I also recommend it for those who stall on doing household chores, paying bills, preparing taxes, or any other onerous job.

I use the clock on my iPhone, but a simple, plastic kitchen timer will suffice. Set it for 30 minutes, and then hunker down. When it signals, you are permitted to pop up, and then do something more pleasant. But, as is often the case with writing, you may find that those 30 minutes have unleashed some buried creativity. If so, you are permitted to silence the buzzer and continue to follow your muse.

-Become a morning person. I realize this will be tricky for those of you who enjoy sleeping late and staying up till midnight. But, if you can massage your body clock to go to bed earlier and rise before sunup, you'll be amazed at the amount of stuff you can accomplish.

I'm not suggesting you incorporate my hours -- 8 pm bedtime and 4 am wake up -- for even I recognize its absurdity. Yes, I need a nap at midday, and ditto to my fading at evening events. I'll trade those hindrances for the calm of being on top of tasks.

-Prepare the night before. This habit works well if you plan to visit a gym in the morning, but find yourself scrapping the goal. It also succeeds for any other first-thing-of-the-day meeting, class, or appointment. Before going to bed (early, remember?), fill your gym bag with workout clothing, stack your class books and notebook, assemble folders and notes, or gather anything needed to make sure you get out the door on time and arrive prepared.

-Take a walk and talk to yourself. I have a bountiful gym in my high rise, but when weather permits, I do a mile jaunt outdoors. I eschew ear buds and audio, but instead talk to myself. Sure, passersby may think I'm bonkers, but because I live alone, I don't use my voice often enough. Not only does this help vocal cords, but it also forces you to take in your surroundings and perhaps comment, as in: That's a good-looking grey-haired guy. Wonder if he's got a ring? Maybe I'll smile as I get closer. (See the possibilities?)

-Express appreciation. If any of my directives feel reasonable, fitting, and potentially fruitful, try my custom: To profess gratitude, send a thank-you note. Electronic can suffice, but handwritten is awesome. (Too pushy?)