This and That

Musings on Being a Writer and My Life
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The Last Noel

  • December 23, 2011 2:05 am

                      In the waning afternoon sun on a Christmas Eve many years ago, my daughter, husband and I anticipated a snowy drive to Buffalo from Angola, where we lived with my husband’s father. As the gloomy afternoon wore on, snow began to fall. Not the fairy tale, picturesque snow of maudlin Christmas movies, but big fat, serious snowflakes that rapidly coated the road in front of our house, and weighted down the tall spires of evergreens lining the road that led to the Lakeshore Road, a tricky drive even in good weather.

           The phone rang shrilly, disturbing my anxious thoughts as I watched out the mullioned windows at the snow piling up in marshmallow mounds in our yard. My sister’s voice crackled through the phone wire.

“Are you going to try to make it?” Susan asked.

“How much snow do you have there?” I asked anxiously.

“It’s starting to pile up, but the radio said that the south towns were getting a blast of lake effect snow. You know, we want you to come, but…” her voice trailed off.

We’d never missed a Christmas Eve at the Joyces’. It was part party, part dance, part feast, and just plain fun. Everything and anything happened at our Christmas eves-    square dancing in the front hall as my sister played the piano, singing Christmas carols, a frenzy of gifts, hugging, crying, saying ‘I love you”, and of course feasting on great food. We topped the evening off by trudging through the snow to St. John’s church on Seneca street to Midnight Mass. Sisters and brothers traveled from miles to gather in our parent’s home- even keeping this tradition long after both of our parents had died, and I wanted this Christmas Eve to be no different.

I muttered a little prayer under my breath as I went outside to assess the situation. It soon became clear that we were staying put that evening. I looked up into the nighttime sky, a swirl of snow, as hot tears of disappointment stung my eyes. I couldn’t even see across the two-lane road. A phone call from Dan’s brother, a NY State Trooper, confirmed the diagnosis. He warned us to stay home; they were pulling the state troopers off the roads for a while until things improved- probably sometime after midnight.

So here, we were, stuck in Angola, for what should have been the most festive night of the holiday season. Worse yet, I really needed a break from taking care of my father- in -law, whose brain was ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease, changing one of the most creative, vital people I have ever know into a child in a man’s body.

To make matters worse, when I went to the pantry to try to invent a make- shift meal, all we had, other than the holiday turkey, was some frozen pizzas.

I put together a hurry -up meal of frozen pizza, salad, and our Christmas cookies.

           We all sat down to dinner, surrounded by the soft glow of our charming Christmas tree, and munched on the pizza and salad. We then topped it off with the festive cookies Brenda, our daughter, and I had decorated so lovingly.

The snow continued to fall, blanketing the house with silent winter coziness. We put holiday music on the record player, and exchanged gifts.

Grandpa Joe, as we called my father-in-law, delighted in the winter hat and gloves we gave him, putting them on and insisting on wearing them all evening. He took great pleasure in sharing his box of Danish cookies with Shadow, his ancient black Labrador.

We found ourselves laughing and exchanging funny stories. Could it be? Was Joe a little more aware that evening? I’m not sure, but I do know this, that that snow storm that night was part of God’s great plan for my family and me.

Fast-forward another year. A different Christmas Eve, crisp and clear; with roads that were easily traveled over as we hurried into Buffalo to my sister’s home. This would be the first Christmas that my father –in- law was no longer with us. The impromptu Christmas Eve from the year before was his last on earth, it was indeed, Joe Glascott’s last   Noel.

 

          

 

Glasses

  • December 14, 2011 5:28 pm

When I was forty I finally gave in to the fact that I needed glasses all the time. Up until that point, I wore them only for reading.  I had glasses from the time I was thirteen, but like most teenage girls, I resisted them. I thought I looked better without them, a notion that was reinforced by my friends.

Well, time marched on and my sight got worse and worse. I found glasses perched on the end of my nose more and more often. I wore them all day and only removed them for social occasions. I guess I didn’t mind everything being fuzzy at parties!

 Then the inevitable happened, I found that I no longer could get away without corrective lenses. I tried contact lenses, but they were impossible to put on because I can’t stand anything in my eyes. My vision changed, and finally, even though I was young for bifocals, they were my fate.

I became a glasses wearer. Finding just the right pair of glasses was a quest every time my prescription changed. I wore every type of frame from metal toned to a pretty pair with shades of lavender that worked well with my hazel eyes.

I reached the next plateau recently—I developed cataracts. I realized something was drastically wrong on one of our trips to see our daughter in California. We landed at night and rented a car. To my horror, I realized that I couldn’t see very clearly when I pulled onto the maniacal traffic on the freeway. (Freeways, for the uninitiated, are the highways everyone uses in California. The slow traffic travels at about sixty miles an hour.)

At first I thought that I was going blind. It was terrifying! I drove without my glasses because it seemed that I could see better without them. Needless to say, I went to my eye doctor immediately when we returned home. I needed cataract surgery. I was pretty excited thinking that at last, I could do without my glasses—I would have young eyes again.

But a funny thing happened. The surgery was a great success—except for one thing. I didn’t realize that I should get a near vision lens and a distance vision lens. Instead, I got two distance lenses. Which is great if you want to see well enough to drive but a pain in the neck if you want to read or even see the food on your plate clearly. It was annoying to have everything near me  look fuzzy.

So I bought several pairs of over the counter glasses which I left in strategic places. Instead of one pair of glasses, I have many pairs of glasses all over the house.

Sometimes, I long for the good old days when one pair of glasses was placed firmly on my face, and I could see everything easily.

Here’s looking at you!

Babies R Us

  • December 7, 2011 4:26 pm

We just returned from a rather rushed long weekend to Buffalo. We were anxious to see my husband’s uncle who is very ill and is in his late 80’s. We were warned that it might be now or never.

It was a great opportunity not only to see Uncle Tom, but also to meet my sister’s granddaughter (and my grand niece) for the first time.  Pictures of the baby have been posted and emailed, and I read updates on Face Book extolling her extreme adorableness. Needless to say, all of the stories are true. She is beautiful, sweet, cute, and smart. Adalyn is a delightful baby girl who may be the most loved child in the universe.

We gathered at my sister’s home on Sunday afternoon for a wonderful family dinner. The dinner is a weekly event, and the door is open to anyone who is available. It was a great opportunity to see two of my brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews, their significant others, a cousin and of course, the baby.

We enjoyed a delicious dinner and visited. But the highlight was holding the baby. Actually, not just holding her. There is a whole other component.  Everyone admires her great beauty, and comments on how much she has learned, and how smart she is. Everyone talks to the baby, telling her how wonderful she is, how much she is loved and how special she is. Adalyn seemed quite content with all the attention she received.

While I was there, the men in the family were the primary caretakers, including my brother –in –law  ( her grandfather) who fed Adalyn, my brothers ( her uncles) who held her and cooed at her and finally, her father ( my nephew) who changed her diaper and took care of her.

It occurred to me at some point how wonderful this whole scene was—and how happy I am for the men in my family to be so comfortable nurturing Adalyn. They reminded me of my father who was a nurturer, too.

What a blessing it is for the men—and for Adalyn and the whole family—to be empowered to take care of and enjoy a baby so freely!

I couldn’t help thinking that a child who is showered with love by everyone around her has a great start on life. And how fortunate we all are to be surrounded by men who are comfortable in the role of nurturer.

 

 

 

Thanksgiving

  • November 25, 2011 8:33 am

 

It seems trite to say that Thanksgiving is a day to reflect on our blessings—after all, isn’t that what the word thanksgiving implies? We are blessed and we are grateful—most of us to a Deity. And some of us are just—well, grateful.

I contemplated being thankful today. Even though, for at least part of the day, I was in my traditional holiday funk. This is something relatively new for me. It started when we moved so far away from our family, friends and all that was familiar. The holidays often leave me feeling rather adrift and lonely now.

This is not to say that we don’t celebrate holidays, we do. And this year, as in years past, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner with cherished friends—my husband’s childhood buddy and his wife.

It seems obvious, bordering on hackneyed, to say I’m thankful for friends, family, health, plenty, and so on. Aren’t we all?

So, here is my list of what I am blessed with on this day of celebration:

*      Knowing that I am loved.

*      Being able to love others.

*      Knowing that I have people who care about me.

*      Being able to reason.

*      Having the ability to think about complex ideas.

*      Being able to revel in the pleasure of reading.

*      Having a career as a teacher because I think that intrinsically my work mattered.

*      Having the determination to be writer.

*      The ablilty to be kind to others.

*      Having many people in my life.

*      Being a mom, sister, daughter, wife and friend.

*      Having you as a reader of this blog.

 

I hope your day of thanks was all you wanted it to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Christmas Here Already?

  • November 20, 2011 7:18 am

Christmas has arrived. Or at least it’s arrived at Wal Mart, Target, Kmart, Walgreens, CVS and many other stores. We even have the public Christmas tree and menorah on display here in Solivita.

By my reckoning, it’s at least six weeks until Christmas. So that means by the time Christmas does arrive at the end of December, we will be sick of it—Christmas-ed out, if you will.

I was taught that Christmas is a primarily religious holiday when I attended Catholic School in Buffalo many years ago. Now it appears that merchants have completely co-opted this holiday to sell more stuff—most of which we don’t need. Of course, this is nothing new. Christmas always was the season to spend, spend spend.

Ads encourage parents to buy expensive toys and husbands to purchase lavish jewelry to express their love. There is even a TV ad that shows a teenage daughter giving her mother a beautiful, obviously expensive locket. It’s for a jewelry store, of course. I can’t wait for the Lexus commercials on TV! The greed and overindulgence they promote is so over the top, that they are almost iconic—and sickening.

Now I enjoy giving gifts to those I love, and I appreciate getting gifts, too. I think most people do. And Christmas is traditionally the time to do that. It is a wonderful tradition.

But I think the selling of Christmas has exceeded any reasonable limits. This year, stores are decorated for Christmas almost two months early and the Salvation Army Santa is ringing his or her bell outside my supermarket before Thanksgiving. I feel like Christmas has lost its meaning. And I know that by  the time Christmas arrives, I will be sick of the tinsel and trees and hate the sound of Jingle Bells.

So I don’t know how to feel about those who rush the season for ruining it for me.  Maybe I should boycott them, but it is literally impossible. I have to buy groceries and actually can’t hibernate until January.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Christmas decorations magically appeared after Thanksgiving so that we wouldn’t be bored by the Santas and candles by Christmas? Wouldn’t it be even nicer if retailers didn’t exploit a lovely holiday so greedily?

 

 

My Novel

  • November 14, 2011 6:46 pm

I am in the midst of editing my novel, Looking for Love. It is, to say the least, a daunting task. I worked on this novel for what feels like forever. And now I am going back through again, fixing flaws that my editor found.

At first, I felt resentful about this task. After all, I worked very hard on it. It was read by several trusted critical readers, and my critique group helped me during the writing process.

But I eventually hunkered down and stated the re-write in earnest. I hope the outcome will be a more readable, more dynamic novel.

Writers have a style or voice that is distinctive. At first, I feared losing my voice in the re-write. The novel is about Irish- Americans, my ethnic group.  It is important to me that my characters stay true to themselves. I want my novel to be authentic above all.  I hope that my editor understands the experiences I am sharing in this novel: growing up in a traditional Irish-American community which clings to a world that used-to-be while everything around them changes.

The art of writing is about work, and a lot of it. Hard work: tearing your own writing apart and taking a step back, removing your emotions from it. If you want to be a writer, you have to accept criticism which isn’t always delivered kindly.  A writer loves her writing—it is part of her. Writers are supposed to accept critiques professionally, listening attentively to the advice that is offered. Sometimes the critique hurts, offends and is harsh. A professional writer is expected to smile through it all, and then rewrite the book she has worked on for months or years.

I plod through this labor hoping what evolves is a better novel, one that will fly off the shelves, and will be downloaded onto hundreds of Kindles and Nooks.

Now it’s time to get back to work.

 

 

Don’t Be Cruel

  • November 9, 2011 8:14 am

   “Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true.” Elvis’s voice crooned out from the radio which was smack dab in the middle of the dashboard.

She looked over at him. He looks wounded, like a puppy that had been spanked with a rolled up newspaper, she thought.

Well, damn it, why is he such a … you know… a piece of work. Everything has to be his way. All she wanted to do was go to the party and stay more than an hour. But, no!  Restless Frankie, Mr. King of the castle, who must be in charge, insisted on leaving even before the cake was cut or the kid had a chance to open the stupid God- forsaken cheap gift she had to buy—a coloring book and crayons.  Her own nephew! First born kid in the whole family! Her God child. And her shiftless, lazy, can’t- hold- a- job- -husband insisted on leaving!

Why she might just write a letter to Elvis. He had been on the TV just last week- all handsome and country -boy charming. Those girls in the audience were screaming as if he was there buck naked, making love to them.

All right, maybe she had been cruel. Maybe she shouldn’t have yelled at him in front of her sister and the family. Maybe he has been down on his luck…but isn’t this kind of misery a form of cruelty? Don’t I deserve something better than this, she thought, as tears started burning in the corner of her eyes. She pressed a gloved finger- hard- to keep the tears from falling. She looked down at the white polka –dot print of her navy shirtwaist dress. It was a favorite, but it felt cruelly hot in the stifling car.

“Don’t be cruel…to a heart that’s true.” 

“Sing it Elvis, baby,” she whispered aloud.

He looked at her.

“Hey look, baby, I wasn’t trying to be cruel. I just, I just… It’s hard, you know. Your Dad keeps asking me when I’m gonna buy you a bungalow and how my job prospects are…I just can’t take it sometimes, Charlene!”

His hands gripped the steering wheel of the Chevy as they zipped along the asphalt under a canopy of oak trees dripping Spanish moss. The air was oppressive, the humidity was like a gigantic wet blanket, and it was only April. Florida is like that, all hot and humid way too soon, she thought. Sometimes even the weather seemed cruel.

“Don’t be cruel…to a heart that’s true.” 

“Com’n, honey, you’re the only one for me…you know that.” Frankie looked over at her and touched her dimpled chin with his calloused finger.

Charlene looked at him. “I don’t know, Frankie. Maybe this is just a huge mistake. Listen to the song, Frankie. He’s tellin’ the truth, don’t be cruel.”

“Oh, is that it? Now you’re taking advice from Elvis? “

The car screeched to a halt.

“Just get out Charlene. Get out. You have a heart of stone. You don’t give me a lick of credit for trying. You’re always accusing me of some dad- gum thing or another. And now I’m cruel?”

Charlene stepped out of the car onto the boiling sidewalk.

“I’ll just walk from here, Mister. And when I get home…”

As the car sped away, Charlene screamed, “You’re so mean, Frankie.”

Then she removed her toe- pinching high heeled shoes that she wore to please Frankie. Man, her feet hurt!  Talk about cruel. It was torture to wear those things. On impulse, she turned and headed back toward the birthday party. As she walked along, hoping for the blessed relief of shade, she began to compose a letter to Mr. Elvis Presley, in Memphis, Tennessee. She imagined writing these words: “Dear Mr. Elvis Presley, thank you for recording the song ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’  It has helped me to escape a cruel, cruel fate.”

She pulled a folded paper fan from her white patent leather pocket book, and as she cooled herself, a smug smile spread across her face.

 

Moving Away

  • November 5, 2011 7:34 am

   We left Buffalo, hoping to trade her harsh winters for the never –ending summer of Florida, almost 15 years ago. The day that we packed the last of the plants, books and CD player in our grey van and headed south to settle into our home in Central Florida signaled a seminal change in our lives.

We left behind a lifetime of friendships, memories, and family. I thought that I knew the implications of that decision back then. Now, I’m not so sure.

So much has happened since then. A whole generation of my family has passed away. Nieces and nephews have grown up, married, had children and even divorced. Our daughter earned her doctorate, got her first teaching position and was married. While we have retained ties with a few special friends, many of our friends have moved on.  The teachers I worked with in the Buffalo Public Schools have seen extreme changes in education, and I am sure that the vast majority have retired.

We have elected two Presidents and fought two wars. The nation lived through 9-11 and even observed the tenth anniversary of that event.

Dan and I have re-invented ourselves to a certain degree. We both eventually retired after working in Florida. I’ve become adept using various computer programs to create presentations and newsletters for clubs that I belong to and I have launched a writing career. I learned to play Canasta and have dabbled in the arts. My husband’s prowess at Canasta is well known, he is friends with a number of dog walkers and he has survived cancer. We both have a rich social life and our group of friends has expanded to include people from places other than Buffalo. We’ve traveled a little. And I have even escorted a few cruises for the Travel Club. I, too, survived a very serious medical emergency two years ago.

While we were living our new lives here in the land of always summer, our families back in Buffalo have continued to live their lives. I know that we still intersect and that we will always be family. But now, we are the out-of-towners—the relatives who come to visit.  We hear about the joys, struggles and challenges of our family by phone calls and emails. And we are too far away to actually do anything—to take the sickly uncle to the doctor, to go to the baby’s christening or even to attend a funeral. These familial duties fall to others.

Many times, I’ve thought of just getting in the car and driving back for family events, and then reality sets in. The time, expense and sheer effort of such a drive are daunting.   So, with the assurances of family members, we stay here and keep tabs as best we can, always wishing there was some way to bridge that distance—and knowing that there isn’t.

And eagerly awaiting the visit, the phone call, the email, or the Face Book post that connects us to the family we left behind when we moved away.

 

 

Words

  • November 1, 2011 7:42 am

 

“Sticks and Stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me..”

(Children’s Nursery Rhyme)

 

Words are powerful.

I was reminded of that after my last blog post. The piece was a fictionalized account about when my husband was diagnosed with cancer four years ago. The night I posted it, I was tired and realized that a new entry was due. So, I went into my archives and picked that short story out. Another reason for using it was that I had submitted it to an e-zine and they rejected it.  I wanted to publish it.

The reaction from that piece was humbling. Several people emailed me or called to ask if my husband was okay. They offered their support and prayer.

I was really touched. And a little guilty.

I should have put a disclaimer on the piece and explained why I used it. In a way, I feel that my words played with my friends’ emotions in a way that was unintended.

It reminded me of  the power of words. Words do wound and heal and build and destroy. That is why we have to be so careful with them.

People who write and speak use words as a currency. We see  that in politics all the time. But we also do that in our day-to-day relationships. In a way we are all politicians of a sort, using words to smooth over the rough spots, convince others that we are worthy and to present a persona to the world.

The currency of words can become inflated. Use a word too often and it loses any real meaning—it might as well be a jumble of sounds.

Use a word carefully and the sounds flow, joining us in the human family, allowing us to relate to one another, helping us to understand and be understood, to love and be loved and to make sense of our lives.

I promise to respect the power of words. To handle them carefully. To use them judiciously. To honor the covenant I have entered into with you, the readers of my blog—to never use my words to unfairly manipulate your emotions.

And I am grateful to know that my words do affect you. It is the highest compliment any of you can pay me as a writer.

 

A Soft Sound

  • October 23, 2011 6:55 am

                 

I lie in bed, waiting for the overwhelming fatigue of the day to finally settle in my bones and to quiet my racing thoughts. Tossing and turning, I grab the blankets and pull them toward me. The house is unnervingly quiet.

I hear a soft noise like a kitten’s mewl. I shoot up in bed, every sense alerted. I cock my head and listen. There it is again.

The noise, which now is an ethereal humming, fills my head. It shatters the preternatural silence of the house. I jump from the bed and cram my feet into my slippers. 

The hum vibrates through my body. Sensing that its source is somewhere other than the bedroom, I allow myself to be guided by it.

As if in a trance, I walk through the house, flicking lights on in each room. Nothing is out of place. The TV is off—no unearthly glow emanates from it. Every chair, every plant, every book is where I  left it earlier. But still the sing-song sound beckons me.

Totally exhausted, I fall into a chair as it grows louder and steadier.

I close my eyes.

A gentle breeze wakes me. The sound of waves pounding the beach fills the room. I breathe deeply.

 The last few days have  overwhelmed us as my husband faced ruthless tests and relentless prodding by doctors and nurses. His patience seemed to be infinite, even when every move he made wracked his body with pain.

I pull an afghan around my shoulders looking for comfort as I recall the doctor decribe  a torturous treatment plan to defeat the out of control cells that have taken over my husband’s body. His voice is disconnected and clinical.

Those  words hung between us that day, taking on form and substance. But we spoke only of recovery . We promised one another to not allow the thought of defeat to have any place in our lives.

The family room is cool and quiet. The ethereal sound has diminished and in its place is peace.

Dawn will soon color the sky like it has for so many millions days.

Later, I will go to the hospital and bring my husband to our home.

And for an uncertain number of days, we will be together.