An Old Friend

One minute read

I was giving him a quick hug the other day, when I suddenly realized that my teddy qualifies for Medicare. His name is Mish, Polish for teddy bear. An old man, he sits in the bedroom, looking dapper in the tuxedo and bow tie I found for him in a toy bear shop in Vermont twenty years ago. He has no fur left, to speak of, and his eyes, a choking hazard these days, I’m sure, were replaced long ago. My mother regularly sewed his arms Continue reading

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2017 Christmas edition

I’m sitting at my desk, here in Connecticut, looking out at the icicles hanging from the living room roof as yesterday’s thick layer of snow, begins to disappear. The sun is out and the local birds are feeling quite encouraged, I can tell.

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Tahiti

Almost a year ago, in January, my friend Liz and I were in Tahiti. And Huahine, Bora Bora, Rangiroa and Moorea. Just the names make one feel warmer. I understood why Robert Louis Stevenson and Rupert Brooke, two of my favorite authors, were captivated.

The cloudless sky visible through my window today is nothing compared to those of Tahiti. In fact, the place turned out to be a riot of color, from the thirty-eight shades of blue counted by a local photographer, to the many tints of Tahitian pearls, which make white ones look as though they haven’t really tried. I managed to restrict my shopping to one or two single black ones, imperfect in shape, but striking just the same. I could hear Jay nagging me to buy more. He would probably have come back with a freckled fistful of them, delighted at the thought we’d all have a string to wear.

As if to make the transition to Connecticut easier, winter wasn’t making much of an effort this year, so we had hardly any snow, but I went down to Florida in February to visit several old friends. I made my royal progress from Sarasota (West coast) to Palm Beach (Atlantic side) and back to Naples (on the western shores) studiously avoiding the topic of our new president, except to agree with Palm Beach locals that the man and his entourage were an infernal nuisance whenever they visited Mar-a-Largo. Funny, I thought he was more of a nuisance in Washington…

My peripatetic friend Liz called me in March, to say a fellow traveler had dropped out of a projected stay in Tuscany – would I like to take her place? I’d never been, so I said yes, of course. Only to find, about two days before departure, that a twinge of muscle pain in my left leg was turning into sciatica. “Ouch!” was putting it mildly. 2017 gardenI exchanged travel plans for a bottle of prescription pain killers, and settled back in my only comfy chair by my new picture window to watch the garden slowly coming to life with spring bulbs and flowers. I barely walked anywhere for about five months, and decided if something like this could cramp my style without warning, I would do the things I wanted to do while I was feeling fit. (Which I can now, thank heavens, as though I’d never had a problem.)

I did manage to limp to my daughter, Helenka’s, graduation in May, where she received her master’s degree in education. Sitting under a big tent, with rain and thunder pounding down outside, I thought about the teenager who had rebelled against school and was now a (highly qualified) teacher.

In an extraordinary turn of luck, other old friends asked me to join them in Tuscany in September, but I still wasn’t confident I could walk further than a mile, especially up the hills. So I watched all the movies ever filmed there, and admired the countryside from afar.

As autumn approached, I decided to practice traveling again. I started with a car trip to Boston – three hours each way – to check in on the children and grandchildren who live up there. I stayed with Amanda & Co (Jay’s daughter) who organized a wonderful lunch with sons Freddie and Bertie and their girlfriends. Much hilarity ensued as we played a board game which depended on some skill with words. I turned out to be hopeless at it.

Progressing from driving to flying, I crossed the country to Carmel, where the smell of smoke hung in the air, from the forests burning 200 miles further north. There had been a similar fire as I drove across Florida in February. It seemed the whole country was going up in flames. Still is. Nothing to do with climate change, of course, which officially doesn’t exist.

My final trip was to a very sparkly London in late November with my son Adam. My apologies to those of you I didn’t manage to see, but this was Adam’s vacation, mainly, since he hadn’t been for twenty years or so, and wanted to revisit his roots.

Being virtually immobilized for so many months gave me time to write, and I’ve been adding memoir pieces to my blog (you can find them on the right). My cousin John, who lives in South Africa, has become my de facto editor. This is terrific, because not only is he an author himself, but he remembers some of the people in my stories. These are largely about my childhood, that don’t fit into my longer book about Jay and me, which has far too many pages, so I’m working on making it shorter. I’m encouraged by the fact that some memoirists I’ve talked to have taken ten years to publish theirs, and I’ve resolved mine won’t take that long. I started a monthly group for writers to come and read something they’ve written, and am still running the one I’ve had for a few years now – the one where I promise those who come that we don’t actually write anything at all – we just encourage each other.

I’ve had an extremely short story published, and won a couple of contests (or, more accurately, been one of the winners) and those stories will be in an anthology next summer. And I’ve been asked to read my Christmas story (the one about Jay trying to fit into a Santa suit…) at an evening called Dickens by the Fire, next weekend. No doubt Charles himself was unavailable, which is why they asked me.

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She’s a voice for her mother, too

Oh, and in my spare time, I attended a large rally of women on Fifth Avenue in New York in January (with Helenka), and a couple of demonstrations about gun control later in the year. Unlike my mother, I’ve never been particularly political, but I’m fed up with apologizing to my friends abroad for That Man.

Right now, though, I’m getting ready for Christmas. I’ve put my own twinkly lights up. I might have overdone it, since the house now looks like a fairy grotto, inside and out. My sister Jane will be here from England, and I shall be on an expedition to make sure I see all the family. Luckily, they’re clustered near Boston and in Connecticut, which makes it easy. This is something of a rarity in America, where families tend to be spread out, so I’m grateful.

Don’t Bette on It

I fell in love with Bette Midler when I first heard her, shortly after I arrived in the USA in 1979. Her face had too much personality to be beautiful and she was too buxom for the fashions of the day, but she didn’t care. Actually, she seemed to revel in her own Bette’ness.  I played a tape of her songs over and over in the car, and my daughter, Helenka, became a real fan too. Years later, in homage, she nicknamed her daughter, Madelyn, the Divine Miss M.

bmWe pored over articles and photos of her as a mermaid in a wheelchair, or as a uniformed member of a 1940’s singing group harmonizing over The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. For birthdays, my daughter would give me the latest CD, or a kind-of memoir, half-invented, of the Divine Miss M’s life. We went to the movies she starred in, and wept or laughed as the screenplay demanded. We even watched her doomed sitcom.

But we never got to see her live.

So, when, in 2003, Helenka managed to get tickets Continue reading

1965 – Enchantée? Oui.

3 minute read

My French hosts had set me adrift in Paris at the age of fourteen. I was resourceful, thank goodness, and relieved that I wouldn’t have to hang out with the family, but part of me wondered about the manners of hosts who invited people to stay and then ignored them.

I began to explore the city by myself. My mother had given me her pre-war guide to Paris, and not much had changed. But on the Champs Elysées I did stop to ask a gendarme the way. I wasn’t really lost. I just wanted to speak to this typical policeman, dressed in his short cape and smart peaked hat, his képi. He had a moustache, too, luckily. I needed the locals to be Continue reading

1965 – Enchantée? Non.

3 minute read

“What do you miss most about London?” they asked me, when I went to live in Chicago in 1979.

“Paris,” I said. In answer to the blank stares, I explained. “If you travel 300 miles south of here, you’re still in Illinois. 300 miles from London, and you’re in Paris.”

I was probably making the mileage up, but they got it.

 

I first traveled to the French capital when I was 15, to stay with the de Beaumonts, an elegant Parisian family with a sixteen-year-old son, known to us only as friends of friends. The idea was that he and I would converse, using the other one’s language, in order to improve my French and his English. And of course, there was always the chance of romance, Continue reading

1963 – Working for Mrs. S

3 minute read

I was fourteen when I found my first job. My mother was friendly with the local chemist, Ruta Strachowska, who was looking for a babysitter for her five-year-old boy, Paul. Mrs. S. was a middle-aged Jewish lady of about my height, with eyes that crinkled up when she laughed, which she did surprisingly often. My mother told me that she had escaped from Poland during the war by swimming across the River Dnieper to Russia at the dead of night, with Nazi soldiers shooting at her as they ordered her to stop. My mother would never have made up anything so incredible, so I believed her, but it was difficult, looking at Mrs. Strachowska’s pixie face and the dumpy figure she had now, to imagine her going for a swim anywhere.

She owned the tiny chemist’s in a row of small shops not far from our house. The bell would ring as you entered, and she’d appear Continue reading