Christmas edition – 2018

It’s been an eventful year, as always. To begin with, a few hours after I sent out last year’s letter, my son Adam had a TIA (mini-stroke), followed by a couple of others, and was barely out of hospital in time for the Christmas festivities. Much drama followed in the New Year, with recurrences, diagnosis of an unusual condition, talk of brain surgery and the like. All this concentrated my mind wonderfully, as you can imagine.

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They could have danced all night…

Adam continued to improve, so in July I wandered off to Poland for my cousin Stefek’s wedding. He and his bride are in their seventies, and I could only watch in amazement as they danced for ten hours on and off (mostly on) through the day into the evening. They met at a dance class and will obviously live forever if their current state of health is anything to go by!

It was a wonderful chance to catch up with other cousins and their children. And to my amazement and delight, IMG-2647Stefek gave me the small perfume bottle, shaped like a watering can, that had contained Violettes de Toulouse. My father had bought for his mother in France in 1939. It’s mentioned in a post on my website. If you’re reading this online, you can find it here.

I travelled on to Krakow, where I’d booked a night in a hotel, not realizing that it had formerly been a residence for priests visiting the city. I was eleven years old when I (and my twin sisters) first visited Poland. My uncle, a priest, took us to see Krakow, where we lodged with some nuns, but he stayed at this hostelry. I wondered if I might be sleeping in the same room he’d used, but decided I probably wasn’t — I feel sure that even so many decades later, I’d have been able to detect a lingering trace of eau de cologne, his favorite aftershave.

I took the train from there to Zurich, to meet up with my friend Liz, who normally lives in Carmel, California. We spent a few days exploring the city and eating far too much chocolate. (At least, I did…). I found out how much I enjoy traveling by rail. As the train rocked me to sleep in my little bunk, the memories of my first long-distance trip – London to Warsaw – many decades ago, flooded back.

I squeezed in a three-day writers’ conference at Wesleyan University, to get some feedback on my memoir, which I did. “Clean writing” said a famous writer for the New Yorker. I’d been hoping it might be a bit risqué, but apparently not… Also got a crick in the neck from sleeping in my own luxurious dorm room on a dauntingly firm bed, with the air-conditioning blasting as if it were cooling the dairy section in the supermarket.

2018 London Eye

On the London Eye…

Only a few weeks later, my daughter, Helenka and her two daughters traveled to London with me, and suddenly I was longing for the air-conditioning, even if it came with a crick in the neck. The temperatures were around 95F (35C) during the day and 80F (27C) at night, and the flat I’d rented hadn’t managed to provide a single fan! We found ourselves entering any establishment that looked air-conditioned – and taking boat trips along the Thames to cool off. At least Helenka and the girls reconnected with all their cousins, and Helenka treated me to tea at the place where she was born. Yes, that’s right. The former hospital, a lovely Regency building at Hyde Park Corner, is now an extremely luxurious hotel, with an English afternoon tea so lavish that we didn’t need to eat again that day.

Back home in early August, Amanda invited me to join her and her family in a house she’d rented on the shores of Lake Sunapee, where we used to live. It turned out to be delightful, and we found time to attend the local barn playhouse, for old time’s sake.

But I needed to focus on writing. I finished the memoir (because I’d made a bet with a writer friend and wasn’t about to lose!) and got the manuscript edited by two editors, one English and one American (two countries divided by a common language, as you know). Then I began researching publishers who might want it, only to discover that the market for memoirs is in a slump. So I’m considering plan B: a small independent publisher or plan C: publishing it myself.

2018 WTN reading

Reading my story at a book signing…

I rashly agreed to help organize the first literary festival in the neighboring town of Westport, which turned out to be great fun. And at the same time, I was asked to contribute when-to-now-cover-final-shortera short story on a time travel theme to an anthology, When to Now, which was published on October 1st. I knew nothing about sci-fi or speculative fiction, so of course I said yes. You can find it on Amazon…  And throughout the year I kept running my monthly writers’ groups, meeting other writers, taking a class or two, and generally soaking up the culture round here.

Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and an excellent 2019!

 

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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

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

Give someone a Tangerine for the holidays: 1

As my regular readers know, some of my personal essays and a poem were published recently in a great little book. Great, because the writing is good, and little, because, well, it’s small. A perfect size, in fact, for a holiday gift for a hostess, mother, stocking stuffer or just for fun. (Only $8.35!)

To give you some idea of the kind of book it is, I thought I’d share some of the pieces with you between now and Christmas. The book’s available at Amazon in either paper or digital form. Here’s a sample of writing from the editor, Lisa K. Winkler, my internet friend. Here you go.

Lisa Winkler and I – good fun!

There’s nothing like an ice cream cone.  And this summer, there are more flavors than ever to choose from. Creative expression has pervaded ice cream, exposing our palates to culinary experiences akin to dining in ethnic restaurants.

Cheeses- feta, goat, ricotta or blue can be found mixed with fruits and vegetables. Savory spices such as paprika, basil, rosemary, curry, pepper and even garlic are offered next to traditional chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.  In New Jersey, the Garden State, I’ve seen “Fresh Corn.”  For those who skipped breakfast, maple syrup and bacon flavors abound, and for those thinking salad, there’s olive oil.

Then there are the flavors invented by creative vendors whose names tell the customer nothing. Why don’t the stores tape an explanation of these flavors to the front of the case? Instead, customers have to ask what each is, wasting the scooper’s time and annoying the impatient Little League team waiting in line.

One stand offers a flavor named for the town’s zip code.  And “Special Flavor,” which changes all the time. Last visit, it was peach.  And the imaginative names, like Dirty Diaper, Elephants Never Forget, and Kong. 

GC: Wow – buy the book to read the rest – which includes a recipe for chocolate fudge sauce. Yum.

You can find Lisa on her website, on Facebook and on her blog

Weddings…

The only people who were really happy about our August 6th, 1983 wedding were Jay and I, my mother, my sister Susan, and Jay’s best man, Carl. That’s why, on our wedding photos, we are the only ones smiling with our eyes. My son and daughter are scowling at the camera, as much as to say “You made us come from Chicago to live in Connecticut for this?” Jay’s two girls are smiling, but their eyes look sad. They’re pretty sure they’ve lost their father. Jay’s mother and her second husband are trying to look gracious, but there’s a hint of disapproval there.

It’s 29 years later and things have changed. We acquired two extra sons along the way when my sister Susan died 16 years ago. Then we were presented with two sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law and six grandchildren. Our six children look amazed when we remind them we’ve been married so long – it makes them feel old. Our six grandchildren have never known us as anyone other than Grampa and Grandmama.

Remembering our wedding days, it’s a miracle we got married at all. Yes, days, because we were married twice. We’d married first on a cool Spring day in May, without telling anyone. I wore a chain store dress, and our witnesses were two people we rounded up on the day: Jay’s landlady and her gardener.  I was living in Chicago, Jay lived in Connecticut, and my Chicago immigration lawyer told me that I needed to get married because my US work visa was running out. It seemed like a terrible reason at the time, but I didn’t really mind, so long as, at some point, we had an actual wedding, for our family to attend.

We decided on August 6th, because it was a Saturday, not realizing that it was the 37th anniversary of the day the US dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. We found out that morning when the radio news reminded us. It was a hot sticky day, and we had no air conditioning in the small cottage we’d managed to afford. We switched on the fans, but were glad to go out on the deck for the wedding itself. The sun had disappeared, and the Justice of the Peace (who’d married us in May and kindly agreed to do it again) was casting worried glances at the lowering clouds.

We read our vows, which we’d written ourselves, and as the JP said “I now pronounce you man and wife,” the heavens opened with an almighty clap of thunder. We made a dash for the French doors, piling into the dining room in disarray.

After Jay’s family had left, we newly-weds, with Adam, Helenka, my mother, Susan and Carl, sat around, exhausted by the heat and the emotions of the day. Sweat dripped slowly down the back of my neck. We had fans on, but it was still humid, and wasn’t due to cool down ‘til later. I can’t remember who suggested it, but we all agreed with alacrity – we would go down to the beach for a moonlight swim. There was a moon by now, because the skies were clearing and we knew there’d be a breeze by the shore. We had the beach to ourselves – until a night watchman came up to demand what we were doing.

After we’d explained, he decided to turn a blind eye. He even wished us luck. We returned home, cooler and happier.

Our marriage has been like that. Sunshine and thunderstorms, family and friends, time alone and  time together, cool days and hot days. And through it all there’s been love, to keep us hanging in there.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. But now I’d do it somewhere air-conditioned.