Archives for category: family relationships

IT’S IN THE JEANS

“Blue jeans are for farmers,” said my father.
I heard that pronouncement throughout childhood, first directed to my older brothers and, eventually, to me.
Lou Sanders’ Menswear in Philadelphia stocked Wranglers and Levi’s for customers but never for home consumption. There were few things my father, who had been born to a poor family in Ukraine, felt so strongly. He had no objection to selling work clothes to laborers, but his children were not to appear like proletarians. This belief was ironic, given that my father was far more sympathetic to the politics of the Red Army than to the White Army when the two alternately over-ran his childhood neighborhood.
I never managed to understand my father’s fickle political philosophy. I recall him reading the Socialist Workers’ newspaper when I was little. He was so sympathetic to Communist ideals I wondered, sometimes, why he ever left Russia in the first place. I understood, on some level, that it was a matter of economic opportunity and freedom from religious persecution, but he would not express distaste for the Soviet Union even in the face of Stalin’s obvious depredations. Perhaps, he held an idealized memory of his childhood there. But considering his family chose to flee the country, how ideal could it have been?
On the domestic front, my father disliked Johnson and despised Nixon, but he complained bitterly about those who demonstrated against them, too. He was equally dismissive of politicians on the liberal side, such as Humphrey or McGovern.
The picture painted above is more negative than I mean to depict. When my father skewered someone or something, it was, fortunately, usually leavened with wit and insight. A listener might wince at first, but a nod or smile often followed.
In race relations, he appeared colorblind in his dealings with customers. He found something negative to say about whites, blacks and hispanics, without discrimination. He derided members of all the world’s religions, including his own, without distinction. In fact, the more devout a person, the more harshly they would be criticized for their presumed hypocrisy. Somewhere, in his rarely-discussed formative years, my father developed deep skepticism of human motivations.
None of my father’s commentary prevented him from being an effective salesman, however. Anyone who shopped at his store was treated like a prince, at least until they were out of ear-shot. Thus, it was difficult to know exactly where he was coming from. His positions were strongly-held, even if they were completely contradictory. “Consistency? Ech, who needs it?” he would say, if confronted.
The subject of blue jeans bridged the gap between my father’s two realms, the store and home. Of course, he supplied his sons’ clothes. When he was young, my oldest brother, Barry, was indifferent to his wardrobe. Whatever my father brought home was okay with him. But David, two years younger, fashioned himself a rebel, relatively-speaking. In most families, he probably would have been “normal.” If my father would not bring home jeans, David earned his own money to buy them. This teenage flashpoint presaged subsequent battles over car choices (my father preferred a staid Buick; David a red Camaro), facial hair (David grew a full beard during a college-era camping trip which my father made him shave as a condition to re-entering our home), and girls. My father conveyed his disapproval wordlessly in that area, with just a withering stare. But that’s a different story.
I observed the fashion and other disputes from the advantageous position of being ten years younger. Some suspected and others declared my conception had been a “mistake.” Nowadays, the euphemism is “unplanned.” According to family lore, my father, who was fifty at the time, fretted during my mother’s pregnancy that I would be born with grey hair. Once I was born, however, he was dutifully positive and loving towards me, if rarely home. He worked, after all, seven days-a-week.
I grew up lacking rebellious impulses. I figured if my father worked everyday to feed, educate and clothe me, why should I aggravate him? Thus, my warm-weather pants were khaki and my cold-weather pants were corduroy. This wardrobe never struck me odd as a child but, as I reached my teen years and, especially during college, I realized I was unique. This fact appealed to me — initially self-conscious about my “squareness,” it gradually occurred to me I was the true non-conformist among my classmates, thanks to my over-arching conformity. (If the reader is confused, I understand. Any psychologists out there are welcome to weigh in).
In my twenties, several female friends took note of my lack of “style.” They bought me “designer jeans,” as gifts, with elaborate stitching and buttons. Depending on what I judged my prospects with a particular girl, these were either returned immediately to the store or placed in an obscure corner of my closet, just in case a desire for continued romance in the future made my stubbornness expendable. But the necessity of wearing jeans never became clear and, by the time I reached thirty, it appeared I would lead a jean-less life.
My father sold the store a few years before he died. Many things had bothered him, including: politicians; stale rye bread; cold coffee; and, rock-and-roll. Several things about me had also bothered him, such as: my lack of interest in the store; my lack of enthusiasm about practicing law; my choice to attend a college other than Penn, which he called “The Greatest University in the World.” But my wearing blue jeans was never one of them.


WHERE WERE YOU WHEN YOU HEARD?

The fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination has revived the question that has meant only one thing to most Americans over the age of fifty. More recently, 9/11 has taken on the horrific role for a younger generation. Still others, with their focus on other aspects of the American experience, may apply the question to the OJ Simpson verdict, the Space Shuttle explosion or Magic Johnson’s first retirement from the NBA.
I heard about President Kennedy’s shooting during morning recess from second grade on the playground at Gompers Elementary School in West Philadelphia. A first grader interrupted my idle pondering of a frozen puddle with my friend Bruce Levin to announce “the president got shot.”
“Did not,” said Bruce, who was inclined to disagree with anyone’s pronouncements, especially those of a lowly first grader. If the kid had told him three plus three was six, he’d likely have responded: “Is not.”
When we returned minutes later to the classroom, however, we instantly knew the report was correct. Our teacher, Mrs. Stein, who we thought was about eighty, but was probably forty-five, appeared ashen before us.
“Something terrible has happened,” she said, daubing a handkerchief to her eyes.
I don’t remember what else she said, exactly, but I do remember Eileen Johnson, a tall dark-skinned girl with two stunningly long pig-tails on either side of her head, collapsing with hysterical grief. It was as though the President were her father. I have a vague recollection of school closing early, and my mother retrieving me that day, just as I was to retrieve my fifth and sixth graders thirty-eight years later when violence again rained from above to sear our collective sense of security. I knew the assassination of John Kennedy was a bad thing but I could not comprehend how it affected my immediate life.
The 1962-1964 years were not bad from the perspective of my youthful self. I knew there was a “Cold War” going on and the opposition was vaguely called Communists. I recall huddling in the hallway at Gompers during drills attached to the threat of their attack. But I didn’t know what a Communist was, exactly, and I couldn’t comprehend how the scary photographs of Hiroshima I’d seen could possibly have application to leafy West Philadelphia. My father listened to news radio each morning and I detected tension, especially when the talk was about Cuba, where I knew my parents had traveled for their honeymoon. But I was more interested in the dire performance of the Phillies; what could be worse than rooting for them?
We occasionally assembled in the “audio-visual room” at school to watch films of nuclear testing taking place out west, somewhere. These newsreels seemed to involve a lot of our soldiers hunkering down in ditches wearing sunglasses, watching a mushroom cloud and the resultant windstorm sweeping over them. More often than not, the film broke or the projector malfunctioned, and we were returned to our regular routine of arithmetic and reading.
Bruce was my best friend at school, but he did not live within walking distance of my home and my mother did not yet drive. At home, the ONLY kids near my age in the neighborhood were Danny and Stevie O’Malley. They were my exclusive playmates after school, on weekends and during the summer. They were one year older and one year younger than I, respectively. In appearance, picture Dennis the Menace and Timmy from the Lassie show, both bountiful in blondness and freckles. My neighborhood and Gompers Elementary School were populated almost entirely by Jewish people and black people, but the O’Malley family was Irish Catholic. As such, Danny and Stevie did not attend public school but instead went to a school called St. Mathias. It was located on the other side of City Line Avenue, “in the suburbs,” and may as well have been across the ocean.
Danny and Stevie’s house had pictures of the Pope and President Kennedy in every room, along with a cross that I knew had something to do with their religion. My parents were both upset when President Kennedy was killed; I observed my mother wipe her eyes and saw my father’s grim and sad expression, but I was warned that the O’Malley’s felt grief beyond the ordinary.
“Be sure to behave quietly at the O’Malley’s today,” my mother told me shortly after the assassination. “The President was very important to them.”
“Wasn’t he important to us?” I asked.
“Yes, very, but he was like a…” she hesitated, and continued, “…a special family member to them.”
Their stone-clad house was larger and older than ours, and it held several major, intriguing attractions. A huge swing set dominated their large, grassy yard, and we could fly “to the moon” and “over the mountain” to our hearts’ content. Even better, they had an old, detached garage containing an abandoned coal pit along with several rooms that were grist for our imaginative mills. We could be cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. In the pit, we could dig towards China. We did not have a plan for what we would do when we arrived on the other side of the earth, but we dug deep enough that Mrs. O’Malley eventually made us cease, lest the foundation of the structure be undermined.
“What do you boys think you’re doing?” she asked. “You could bring down the entire building. Don’t make me have to tell your father about this.”
We obeyed her thankfully; I rarely saw Danny and Stevie’s father. When I did, he was a non-speaking, gruff-appearing presence behind a newspaper and a pipe. I recall thinking I would not like to see him angry. Their mother was nice, though. She made grilled-cheese sandwiches just the way I liked them and sometimes included a slice of Taylor ham I would never have been served at home. The boys and I never discussed religion, but I knew mine was different, and food had something to do with it.
In the basement of the O’Malley home was a huge bar, carved to resemble a ship’s prow. We spent hours and hours fighting pirates there. A shadowy water stain on the ceiling brought to mind ghosts and goblins and further inflamed our fecund minds. If we chose to watch television, my house had a rabbit-eared set in the basement where we enjoyed the Three Stooges and cartoons like Mighty Mouse and Underdog. I was not a fan of Felix the Cat, but Danny and Stevie were, and this difference provided one of our only bases for dispute.
The most tangible evidence of the Cold War for me was that at some point in 1962 or 1963, the O’Malley family constructed a bomb shelter in their backyard. That was the coolest thing ever! A green, square metal hatch, adjacent to a ventilation pipe, signaled its location. For several months, after the shelter was finished, the garage and swings and ship-bar were nearly forgotten in favor of this play-space from heaven. Danny, Stevie and I used our combined muscle to pull open the hatch and climb down twelve feet or so (it seemed like thirty) on a metal ladder to the concrete floor below. There, constructed in the same stark, green metal as the entrance door, were six bunk beds screwed into the walls and shelves holding cans of food.
I am not certain we were “allowed” to play in the shelter. But we were not expressly forbidden, either, as far as I knew. In that space, we could be space travelers, or soldiers, or explorers, or the meanest prisoners in Alcatraz. We could survive for years on the cans of food that surrounded us, we imagined, while we beat back the Communists or space aliens, or whoever it was that might attack us. I don’t recall there being a specific plan for HOW we were going to fight back from our subterranean position, but the seven-year-old mind need not necessarily work out all the details.
Perhaps, it was the innocence of the times, or the lack of complication from such a small trio of friends, but Danny, Stevie and I were self-sufficient in our play. Parental involvement was non-existent, in stark contrast to modern-day parenting, where the parent/chauffeur/coach is integral. It was only when we decided to take off the wrappers from the canned food that we got in trouble. Mrs. O’Malley was not pleased when she happened to come down and notice it was now impossible to tell canned corn from baked beans. Even after we explained that we were trying to find a secret code that spies might have written on the cans, she was not satisfied.
“I won’t tell your father about this,” she warned the boys. “He would be EXTREMELY angry. But you can’t play in the shelter anymore, or he will hear about it.”
“Please don’t tell dad,” said Danny and Stevie. “We won’t go down here again.” I noted how fearful they were of their father’s wrath. Duly chastened, we returned to above-ground activities. One hot day in the summer of 1964, Mrs. O’Malley set up a sprinkler on the lawn for us to play in. After she went inside the house, we found some metal supports from an old badminton net underneath a bush. We wielded them ecstatically from opposite sides of the stream, slashing through the water as though each drop of water were a fly to be swatted.
“I hit one to the street,” I yelled.
“I hit one even further,” shouted Stevie.
“Whoa, I clobbered that one,” said Danny.
Our shouting and laughing reached a crescendo when I swung as hard as I could through the sun-splashed stream and connected with a solid object that felt like a watermelon; Stevie and I stood in stunned silence when Danny collapsed to the ground clutching his head. He began to moan as Stevie dropped his stick and ran towards the house. “Mom, mom,” he shouted. “Stuart hit Danny with a stick.”
I dropped my stick, too, and ran towards my house in the opposite direction, experiencing my introduction to the effects of the adrenal gland. No one was home when I arrived, my heart pounding. I went upstairs to my room and shut the door.
“I’ve killed Danny,” I thought to myself. “I’m going to jail. I’m going to be punished by Mr. O’Malley.” I wasn’t sure which fate was worse.
My mother came home shortly thereafter. I said “hello” but didn’t tell her what had happened. I thought a police car would show up at any time. I stayed in my room picturing terrifying scenarios, with Danny dead, his father chasing me around the block. I tried to concentrate on studying baseball cards, but I was trembling with fear. Once, the telephone rang, and my heart pounded anew, but I heard my mother engaged in normal conversation with my aunt. An hour or two later, my father came home from work, and I was called down to dinner.
“Is everything alright?” my mother asked me, apparently noticing my discomfort.
“Yes,” I said, trying to appear nonchalant.
“Did you play at Danny and Stevie’s this afternoon?” she asked.
“Un-hunh,” I said.
The conversation turned to my father’s day at the store. Now, I was starting to wonder if we would ever hear from the O’Malley’s or the police. Not hearing was almost becoming worse than hearing. Finally, after dinner, while I was upstairs trying not to think about Danny’s demise and my new role as a murderer, I heard the doorbell ring downstairs. I heard my mother open the door and exchange greetings with a man.
“Oh, no,” I thought. Either a policeman or Mr. O’Malley had come for me.
The adults spoke for several moments until my mother’s voice sounded from the bottom of the staircase.
“Come down here, Stuart,” she said. “Someone is here to speak with you.”
I exited my room and approached the stairs like a prisoner going to the gallows. At the bottom, looking up, were my mother and Mr. O’Malley. He was dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt, with black glasses and a blond crew-cut that matched the severity of his expression.
“Did you happen to hit Danny with a pole this afternoon?” he asked, his tone neutral, when I reached the third step from the bottom, and met his gaze.
“Yes, I did,” I said. It occurred to me that he did not look grief-stricken, just angry, but I didn’t know him well enough to be sure. Perhaps, Danny was still alive. “I didn’t mean to,” I added.
“I’m sure you didn’t,” said Mr. O’Malley. “You must have been scared when it happened.”
“I am, uh, was, uh, am, uh, scared,” I stuttered.
“He has quite a bump on his forehead,” said Mr. O’Malley.
“He’s alive?” I said, feeling a huge boulder of worry lifting off my head.
Mr. O’Malley’s face dissolved into laughter.
“Did you think you’d killed him?” asked my mother.
“I wasn’t sure,” I said.
“His head is harder than you’d think,” said Mr. O’Malley, smiling. “How ‘bout if you come over and tell him you’re sorry. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“That’s a good idea,” said my mother sternly, clearly unhappy I had not told her what had happened.
I followed Mr. O’Malley through several yards to his house, taking the short-cut that Danny, Stevie and I usually used. We didn’t exchange any more words. When we arrived, he ushered me into the living room, where Danny was laying on a couch as though he were a knight on a casket in Westminster Abbey. A bag of ice clung to the side of his head. I noticed that Mrs. O’Malley and Stevie were on another couch watching television. The Pope and President Kennedy gazed down upon us from their photographs on the wall. Stevie gave me a small wave.
“Sorry I hit you,” I said to Danny.
“It really hurts,” he said, grimacing.
He pulled down his ice-pack to reveal an ugly knot just below the hairline.
“I was afraid you were dead,” I said, my nervousness making me begin to giggle.
“I thought so, too,” interjected Stevie, laughing.
“It’s not funny,” protested Danny, fighting hard to sound angry, before he started laughing, too.
“Oh,that hurts,” Danny added, catching himself.
The incident of the hit-in-the-head is the last I remember from my relationship with Danny and Stevie. They moved to the suburbs shortly thereafter. I’m sure it wasn’t because I hit Danny in the head, though it probably didn’t help, either. My mother arranged for me to play with them two or three times after they moved, but we were in different orbits. They had tons of new friends and I felt awkward. Life changes a lot in just a few months when you are seven.
The former O’Malley home fell into disrepair over the years. The shrubbery around the property grew out of control, and the yard was not even visible for a period of decades. But in my last visit to Philadelphia, I saw that a new owner had recently renovated the house and brought the landscaping under control. I stopped my car adjacent to the side yard and gazed in. The swings were gone, of course, and the garage was rebuilt nicer than it had ever been, to match the main home, like a formal carriage house. But poking up in the middle of the yard was the green ventilation pipe from the bomb shelter, the last vestige of a time gone by. It summoned memories of a dangerous time for our country, of a world scary and on edge. I pondered the hugely important incidents which took place, largely beyond my comprehension, and I recalled a less earth-shattering, but seriously scary incident for me, too.


FARAH DIBA
Farah Diba is a historical figure of dubious distinction, the widow of the man deposed in 1979 as the Shah of Iran. He is said to have married her for her potential to produce off-spring, particularly male off-spring, that would allow his royal line to continue, a task at which she succeeded. Her fame was, thus, both vicariously and somewhat crudely earned. As described in Wikipedia, however, their union became one of mutual love and admiration, and she used (and continues to use) her wealth to support humanitarian issues and the arts. Photographs of the younger empress show the stunning physical beauty that captivated the twice-divorced Shah when he first encountered her, in 1959. I’d like to think the story below, which opens in 1968, would please her.

“She won’t come out,” I said.
“Not even for the cat-nip?” asked my mother.
“She just sits in the corner shaking,” I said, miserably, peering beneath the buffet in the kitchen.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t return her?” asked my mother.
“I am not taking her back,” I said, unusually resolute in the face of apparent failure.
We had resolved to buy a kitten shortly after our previous cat had frozen to death. (See maudlin account of Impy’s demise at stuartsandersblog.wordpress.com/2012/12/17) This was to be “my” pet to select since I planned to use my own money, gifted to me by my aunt, to purchase her. Though I understood she would be the “family” pet, every bit as much my mother’s as my own, my monetary investment made me feel rich with decision-making power. At eleven years of age, that was a rare sensation for me.
I was vaguely aware that a kitten could be obtained for little or no money. However, for reasons I can’t recall, I wanted a purebred Persian, the long-haired cats with the smushed-in faces. My mother, my aunt and I drove to a breeder they located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. In a small row home, we encountered a collection of impressive specimens. Most of the available kittens were large, orange fur-balls, imperious in their gazes, destined to become twenty-pound terrorizers of mice, birds and small dogs. They lounged on every horizontal surface of the home, on couches, on steps, and on tables. The sheer splendor of these cats stunned me and I didn’t know how to choose.
My mother and aunt whispered with the woman in charge, probably concerning the cost of these fabulous, seemingly full-size felines. In view of my possession of only $35, and my determination to make the chosen cat “mine,” the breeder reached into a shoe box and withdrew a tiny handful of brown and orange fur.
“This one’s a runt,” she said, indelicately. “You really shouldn’t consider her. She won’t amount to anything.”
A trembling creature thrashed in her hand seeking to return to the cardboard box. I caught a glimpse of her copper-hued eyes, huge in relation to her head. She appeared so vulnerable, so terrified. The idea of saving her captivated me.
I remember proudly holding the box as we departed, the breeder standing on her porch. She looked at me piteously out of a flat, round face eerily similar to most of her cats’.
“I don’t usually do this,” she said, “but I’ll let you bring that little thing back if you change your mind in a few days. Runts have a lot of problems.”
As soon as we arrived home and I placed her on the floor, the nameless kitten rushed under the buffet and cowered in a dark corner. Each morning, for nearly a week, I hurried downstairs to see if she had emerged. I kept vigil for several sessions each day. But the kitten remained too terrified to overcome what must have been near-starvation.
Finally, on the sixth morning, some of the food we’d left out showed signs of having been nibbled overnight. When I looked under the furniture, the little fur-ball stirred and her eyes gleamed in the darkness. She edged closer, half-an-inch at a time, never blinking.
“sppppppppssss,” I sounded, saying the only encouraging word of cat I knew. I daubed my finger with peanut butter, a passion of our previous cat.
The kitten approached, tentatively, and licked my out-stretched finger tentatively. Her tongue was shockingly rough, like sand-paper. She kept licking, with increasing enthusiasm, until the peanut butter was gone, and then moved over to a dish of water, all the while gazing at me. I was in love.
My mother came downstairs and was delighted to see her eating.
“She’s so pretty,” she said, “a little Persian princess, like Farah Diba.”
“That’s perfect,” I said.
It took only a few days for the now-named Farah to become devoted to us. Wherever we went, she went. If we were in two different rooms, she alternated between them. She was even devoted to my father, who never had a kind word to say to her or about her.
“Eccchhh,” he would say, each morning, at the smell of her litter box. “Feh,” or a syllable to that affect, he would sometimes add.
Regarding the litter box, Farah had one unfortunate habit from her time at the breeder’s. Apparently, in order to save money, the breeder didn’t buy kitty litter, but trained her cats to go on shredded newspaper. Farah stubbornly refused to be retrained and required us to comply. I told disbelieving friends and relatives this indicated her dignity and independence. Most just declared she was stinky, since newsprint is not odor-suppressing like kitty litter. I felt this was small price to pay for an “exceptional” pet.
“Where’s the dumb animal?” some visitors demanded upon entering our house. It truly irked them that Farah would not emerge from under furniture until they departed. I thought it was one of her greatest characteristics: Farah discriminated and only members of our immediate family passed the test.
Farah grew to only six pounds though she appeared much larger due to her fur. Her fur was reddish brown, with gorgeous black and cream highlights. Her face was so flat it appeared she had no nose. A cousin of mine, who was particularly bothered that Farah would not socialize, called her “pan face.”
Eventually, though it was not supposed to be possible for a cat so small, Farah snuck out one evening and became pregnant. She managed to give birth, with my mother as midwife, to four kittens. Three were stillborn, as the veterinarian had predicted, but one was alive. It was orange, a legacy of Farah’s family. Farah appeared to have no idea what to do with the kitten, and my mother used towels to clean it and start its breathing.
Her initial cluelessness reinforced the narrative that Farah was not intelligent. I maintained that she was just traumatized and, indeed, she figured out after several days how to be a mother to a male we named Cubbie. Over time, the two evolved into inseparable companions, sitting together in whatever room they chose, beating a path beneath the nearest furniture at the approach of a visitor, going crazy at the smell of bacon or the sound of the can opener.
Cubbie grew to be twenty-pounds, but betrayed no particular intelligence. Unlike his mother, he never figured out that leaves are not alive and dove for cover with every breeze. I felt that Farah, on the other hand, conducted herself, like her namesake, regally. It was frustrating to have no specific anecdotes to refute what skeptical people said about her. For years, I silently endured their barbs about my “dumb animal,” “stupid cat,” and “brainless blob.”
One day, we accidentally confined Farah to a bathroom when we went out for the day. When we returned, hours later, we were surprised she didn’t greet us, and were alarmed when we saw the closed door. Upon entering, I saw Farah sitting contentedly on the windowsill, looking as though she had accomplished something. On the floor, a pile of unfurled toilet paper supported what looked like a miniature log house; it stank.
“Look,” I shouted, amazed. “Farah figured out how to unroll the toilet paper and poop on it!”
Indeed, she had, though people were remarkably unwilling to accord her the same level of “genius” that I claimed. They refused to surrender their well-worn conception of her stupidity. But I knew. I was right to pick her, right to keep her, and right that she was intelligent. It may be an understatement to say eleven-year-old boys are not renowned for judgment and perception, but Farah represented a proud exception to that rule for me.


SCRABBLE, ANYONE?

This story is about a ninety-six-year-old woman. I promise, however, it is not one of those heart-warming, tear-inducing tales of sweetness and light, of life gone by and now only the basis for retrospective adulation. No, this nonagenarian is still tough-minded and forceful, and can only be overcome by her opponents with intelligence, patience and what she would doubtless declare to be a lot of luck.
Rose Galfand is a Scrabble fanatic. She has rendered opponents miserable over a period longer than most people live. This woman, who never attended college, and studied shorthand as the high-point of her academic career, knows every letter of the Greek, Egyptian and Hebrew alphabets. She knows the monetary units of Latvia and Cambodia, and the spelling of every word that starts with “Q” and does not contain a “U.”
“Qat,” she explains, when questioned, “is the mild narcotic chewed by the male inhabitants of Yemen.”
Rose was not expected to live into the twenty-first century. In fact, persistent tuberculosis kept her bedridden for years in her late teens and provided an anxious drumbeat for her family throughout the 1930’s, when additional depressing circumstances were neither needed nor deserved.
While she was ill, an aspiring librarian named Sidney visited nearly every day. Rose initially referred to him as “The Nebish,” a word that hardly requires translation – it is not a compliment. He came to sit by her bed.
“Go away,” she said.
“No, honey-bun,” he replied.
“You’re bothering me,” she said.
“But I adore you, dearest,” he said, not the least bit discouraged.
He reached for her hand. She pulled it away.
“Please leave me alone,” she said.
Over many months, Sidney’s sheer persistence wore away her defenses. When they were married, the ceremony took place in the bedroom. Rose’s mother cried throughout the ceremony, perhaps for joy, but perhaps also for concern that her daughter would not survive. Sidney’s parents were livid, certain that their son was foolishly falling into a hopeless situation.
Defying the predictions of her doctors, Rose survived; she emerged from bed several months after the wedding. She found work as a secretary and, eventually, raised two daughters. She ran her household while Sidney rose up in the hierarchy of Philadelphia’s library system. Since money was never abundant, Rose decorated their home with art and crafts she had made herself. With Sidney’s dutiful help, she created beautiful gardens filled, appropriately, with rose bushes. As they progressed through life together, Rose came to appreciate the gift of Sidney’s love; yet, she never failed to roll her eyes at Sidney’s endearments, even while she luxuriated in them.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “let me rub your back.”
“If you want to,” she said, moving closer.
“Darling, can I make you some tea?” he asked.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” she said.
Decades before the evolution of “the sensitive male,” Sidney set an insurmountable standard for husbands. He died after sixty years of marriage. Rose mourned for her husband and it would have been understandable if she had faltered. But Rose carries on, full of “piss and vinegar,” to quote one of her favorite phrases. Though she has other interests, she has made a virtual religion of conservative, defensive-minded Scrabble. Accordingly, she pronounces principles that may as well be set on a tablet and carried down from a mountaintop.
“Never get stuck with a V or a C,” she instructs. “Always block the triple word spaces. Don’t squander an H or an F.”
When you play against Rose, she gums up the board with so many little words that it is nearly impossible to attach anything. If you take more than a moment to think, she is apt to drum her fingers and declare, forlornly: “You’re wearing me out.”
Rose is gracious in victory, not so much in defeat. “You had all the good letters,” she will note. “You really know how to pick.”
Rose is not apt to dwell on her longevity or to seek profound answers to the mystery of the meaning of life. “Life is like a Scrabble game,” she maintains. “You either get good letters or you don’t. Either way, you have to play them intelligently. And, if you happen to pick up an S, which I hardly ever do, don’t waste it.”


GENNARO

Strolling along the oceanfront path in Playa del Coco, my wife, Katie, and I were anticipating a typically dazzling sunset to top off another day on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  We were enjoying a ten-day visit to the Central American country where we once owned a second home.  Our vacation was almost over, so we were looking for a nice spot for one last seafood dinner.

“Hey, check us out,” said a friendly-looking, fortyish waiter indicating a chalk-board in front of one of the beachfront restaurants.  “We’ve got especiales tonight.”

“Thanks,” we said.  “Mas tarde (a little later).”   Something about the man struck me as familiar but I could not place him.  After we reached the end of the walkway and turned around, we decided to try his restaurant.  He emerged with a broad smile upon our approach.

“You know me,” he said.

“I think I do,” I said, “but how?”

“Catching fish?” he said.

I searched my memory bank to withdraw all my previous fishing-related experiences.  There were only two:  the time I caught pneumonia at the Jersey Shore and the time my son and I thought we were going sight-seeing in Costa Rica.

“Gennaro?” I said.

“Si, senor!” he said, joining me in an enthusiastic embrace.

When I first met Gennaro, ten years earlier, he was known as an “operator” around Playa Hermosa, the neighboring town.  He helped to manage two local hotels, a taxi service, and affairs with at least two local women.  He was always dressed in a ragged tee-shirt, bathing suit and flip-flops.  His head was covered with black curly hair that cascaded to his shoulders; sunglasses dangled from a string around his neck.  His English was nearly fluent spliced with occasional Spanglish.

When Gennaro encountered an American, Canadian or European around town, he did not discriminate.  “Hey, Gringo,” he would say, “can I get something for you?  A room?  A ride?  A senorita?”  He would wink.

Gennaro usually resided at the Cabinas Motel with Maria, a tica, as Costa Rican women are known.  She cleaned the motel’s rooms and was also available to clean private homes between renters.  According to Gennaro, Maria was insanely jealous of other women.  “That makes my life exciting,” he would proclaim, pointing proudly to several scratches on his cheek.  Maria was a beautiful girl, with deep brown eyes amidst a coffee complexion.  A thick, braided ponytail reached down her back.  Though thin, Maria was physically well-endowed.  “I can hold the national monuments of Costa Rica in my very hands,” Gennaro declared more than once, lasciviously.

Gennaro also assisted at La Hotel Montreal, an establishment owned by Louise, a middle-aged French-Canadian.  Louise controlled numerous investment properties around town.  She did not care whom Gennaro slept with when he was not favoring her with an impromptu visit, so long as her guests were picked up or dropped off at the airport when scheduled, and the air conditioners functioned more often than not.

One morning, when I was visiting Playa Hermosa with Sam, who was then twelve, I encountered Gennaro on the street after breakfast.  He knew by then that I was not a candidate for his usual product line, so he just gave a casual wave, but I stopped to ask if he’d recommend someone to take us out on a boat.

“I can take you,” he said.

“I didn’t know you had a boat,” I said.

“Absolutamente,” he said.  “I have a boat and fishing equipment, and I know where all the fish are.”

I had not even thought about fishing.  I just wanted Sam to experience the water and for us both to see the coastline and the mountains.  “Qaunta questa?” I asked (How much will it cost?).

“Twenty dollars,” he said.

“Per hour?” I asked.

“No, for the whole morning, if necessary, as long as it takes to find tuna,” he answered.

I was reminded why I liked Costa Rica so much.  But then, thinking how I’d once become queasy on the Circle Line tourist ride around Manhattan, it occurred to me to ask:  “How big a boat is it?”

“Big enough,” said Gennaro.  “Meet me on the beach as soon as you are ready.”

Thirty minutes later, with Sam in tow and Dramamine in stomach, I arrived to see Gennaro wrestling a motor onto the back of a small skiff bobbing in the surf.  Maria was assisting him in the role of first mate.  He smiled at us and brandished several flimsy, wooden sticks with straightened metal hangers attached to the ends.

“Are those supposed to be fishing rods?” whispered Sam to me.

“I think so,” I said, skeptical.

“Come aboard,” said Gennaro, holding steady as possible the fifteen foot boat, a battered aluminum tub with peeling blue paint.  Maria, who did not speak English, smiled shyly.

“Can we really catch fish with those?” I asked, indicating the sticks.

“You will be surprised,” he said.

Once underway, we headed across the bay that extends from Hermosa Beach towards the then newly completed Four Season’s Resort on the Papagayo Peninsula.  The sun shone and the surf was calm.  Brilliant blue sky extended to the open ocean and reflected off the glistening water.  We could see mountain ranges to the north extending, Gennaro said, as far as Nicaragua.  To the south, the coast also appeared mountainous and luminously green.

Gennaro pointed out birds to Sam and explained that he had a son almost the same age.  “He lives in San Jose,” he said, matter-of-factly, “with his mother’s family.  I saw him a couple years ago.”  I thought I detected a flash of sadness in his always-sunny expression.  I could not imagine having such a distant relationship with one of my children.  My reverie was broken when a school of dolphins leapt out of the water in the distance and we all reveled in the breathtaking beauty.

Pleased that my stomach was holding up, I was still relieved when Gennaro declared:  “This is the spot.”

It looked like every other spot to me, but he immediately busied himself with attaching hooks to the end of the hanger wires and placing bait fish on the hooks.  “Do you want to try?” he asked us.

“I’ll let Sam do it,” I said, not desiring one iota to touch the bait, and still skeptical that a stick with a hook could catch a fish in the ocean.

Sam eagerly held a “rod” out over the side of the boat, as did Maria.  I sat back and listened to Gennaro tell tales.  The first described when he played for the national soccer team; next, he told about the cargo ship he had captained; finally, he told about the coffee plantation he had once owned.  I had the sense he had told all of these stories many times before.  My “full of baloney” alarm was screaming, but appreciation for his boat ride prevented me from asking questions; I just nodded and smiled when I thought it was appropriate and hoped he would eventually subside so we could enjoy the splendid scenery in silence.

Suddenly, Sam shouted:  “I’ve got one!”

He strained to hold on to his stick.  Gennaro leapt to his side and, together, they wrestled the struggling catch into the boat.

“It’s a tuna, a black fin!” shouted Gennaro.  To me, it just looked like twenty thick inches of shiny muscle.  While Sam and I watched, he disengaged the fish from the hook and subdued it.  I cannot describe exactly how, since I deemed it wise to look away by then, but after another moment, the fish was packed in a cooler with ice and Maria was sloshing water on the floor of the boat to clean up the resulting blood.

Sam was proud and amazed.  “I caught a fish! I caught it!.”

“Way to go,” I said.

Gennaro patted him on the back and motioned “thumbs up” to me.  He baited Sam’s “fishing rod” again.  Sam caught four more tuna in the next hour and was glowing with excitement when we headed back to the beach.  Once there, I insisted, over his determined refusals, that Gennaro and Maria take all but one of the fish.

“We’re only here for two more days,” I said.  “We can’t eat that much.”

Finally, he relented, on the condition Maria would prepare our fish for us.  Served with rice and beans she also prepared at their motel’s kitchen, it turned out to be an amazing meal.  Even Sam, not a seafood eater at that age, loved it.  When we said “adios” to Gennaro, we did not think we would encounter him again.  But we fondly recalled the improbably successful fishing expedition many times in the ensuing decade.

I regarded the now-short-haired man standing before me, wearing a white shirt, pants, and shoes.   His face was tanned but creased with wrinkles.  Grey surrounded his temples:  “How have you been?  How’s Maria?” I asked.

“Maria, Maria” he said, with a wistful expression.  “Oh, she got sick.  She lives in Puntarenas with her mother now.  It’s a four-hour bus ride,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It happens,” he said.  Brightening, he added, “My son’s got a job.  He works as a security guard in San Jose.  I hear from him once in a while.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“How’s your son?  Was it Sam?” he asked.

“You have a great memory,” I said.  “He’s fine.  He’s still in school,” I said, not wanting to boast that he is working towards a PhD.

“Louise went back to Canada a couple years ago.  The economy….” Gennaro tailed off.  “I had to give up my boat,” he added.  “Now I work at this restaurant.  But, hey, pura vida,” he concluded, using the Costa Rican expression used to express every aspect of life: its joy, its beauty, its pain.

I felt sad to see Gennaro in his diminished circumstances, no longer the “operator” in Playa Hermosa, but a humble server.  The restaurant was not busy that evening and Gennaro circled back to our table several times.  A soccer game was playing on the television behind the bar and Gennaro noticed me glance at it.

“Did I ever tell you about when I was on the national team?” Gennaro asked.

Katie looked at him with interest, and he launched into a detailed story about a match he allegedly played against Argentina, full of fanciful details.  I did not listen to every word, but let his voice wash over me as I contemplated the passage of time and how much kinder it is to some people than to others.   Hearing the enthusiasm in his voice, it occurred to me, thanks to its repetition over a period of decades, Gennaro experienced his imaginary past as a soccer star, a ship’s captain and a coffee tycoon, as truthful.

Upon reflection, taking into account all the circumstances, I question how important it is for someone like Gennaro to be exactly truthful.   If it were necessary for him to rationalize, he probably would point out something like the following:  he played soccer in his youth; he worked on a fishing boat one summer; and, he once applied for a job at a coffee processing plant.  The rest is just a matter of degree.


The Proof is in the Putting

 

Four months after quitting golf for life, for at least the fifth time, I found myself hosting my cousin, Eddie, on my community’s championship golf course.  I ended up beating him decisively… on one of the eighteen holes.

Golf is an activity that remains mysterious to me.  If I can hit a moving tennis ball or baseball or soccer ball, why is the stationary golf ball so infuriating?  Each swing presents an opportunity for something wonderful to occur, but a fortune could be earned betting on the opposite result.

Eddie is the “patriarch” of the nine cousins in my extended family.  He is sixteen years older than I, eight inches shorter and proof that those metrics mean nothing at all in golf.  Eddie has lived most of his life in Chicago where I have rarely visited – we’ve seen each other sparingly over the years.  The last time I played golf with him I was sixteen.  Eddie did not even remember that event so forgettable in the pantheon of his golf experiences.  We played at a Philadelphia public course that barely qualified as a “real” course.  In fact, in most of the country, particularly in North Carolina where I now live, the course would long since have become a housing development or alpaca ranch.

We had a lovely time during Eddie’s visit.  Meals were delicious, Scrabble victories over his wife, Sherry, were mine.  A long ago defeat at her hands on the ping pong table (she took out my pacifier before we played) was avenged.  We introduced them, or subjected them, depending on your viewpoint, to Carolina barbecue, the Durham Bulls and the local version of a traffic jam, the occasional red light.

It was interesting to discuss family events and personalities with Eddie from our disparate ages and geographical perspectives.  He knew different versions of the same people – a mutual uncle, for instance, whom he knew as young, hopeful and fun to be with and who I knew, a generation later, as burdened and somewhat embittered.  He described his own mother’s deep intelligence while my memories are sadly clouded by her later bouts with illness and anger.  On the other hand, Eddie was able to describe to me the transformation of a contemporary I once met in Chicago and thought of as unstable and troubled; as a middle-aged man, he has built an admirable life for himself.

One subject I cannot discuss comfortably with Eddie is politics.  Somehow, though spawned in the same genetic line, we may as well be from different planets.  All we could finally achieve was a reasonably respectful impasse.  We each conceded several points, namely:  I agreed the President is not all I’d hoped for in 2008 though I still share most of his viewpoints.  Eddie agreed with the President’s dithering on Syria.  Basically, “stay the hell out of there.”  We both agreed that the recent retirement announcement of the shrew from Minnesota is a good thing; me because she is insane and a liar and dangerous; he, as far as I could comprehend, because she is a distraction from the core of Republican values.

Golf, fortunately, is a politics-free zone.  I have enough to worry about without arguing tax policy and the right to choose.  First, we went to the practice range.  Eddie’s shots all went straight and for distances that he had in mind.  Mine were as varied as the menu at a New Jersey diner.

“Feel free to make any suggestions,” I invited.

He observed one shot.

“I’m not going to say much, since it will be confusing,” he started, “but:  keep your left arm straight, cock your wrist at this point in your backswing, don’t put the club so high on take-away, follow-through, and make sure your feet and chest are lined up properly.”

I tried to accession all of that information and hit three consecutive grounders.  I switched to a different club and smacked a few more balls off to the right, then overcompensated with a grip adjustment and blasted several to the left.  Meanwhile, various golfers who know me to be a star of the tennis courts, at least in the dimness of the local constellation, were probably delighted to see me hacking away so futilely.

“Perhaps we should try putting,” I said, noting that we were scheduled to tee-off in fifteen minutes.

“Sure,” said Eddie, before smacking one last perfect shot.

My luck did not change at the practice green.

“I have the yips,” I said.

“I have them too,” said Eddie, with touching empathy.

“Mine are worse than yours,” I said.

“I’ve been known to miss a four-footer,” said Eddie.

“I commonly hit a four-footer so it ends up twelve feet past the hole,” I said.

“You win,” he conceded.

I yanked a ball to the right of the hole.

“I think that hole is cut too small,” I said.

“I’ve never seen anyone slice a putt,” said Eddie.

“Is there anything I can change?” I asked.

I could tell that Eddie was holding back some thoughts; he did not want to overwhelm me with suggestions moments before we went to play with two other experienced golfers.

“Just this,” he said, demonstrating with his putter.  “Put your left thumb here, your right index finger here, square your shoulders like this, bend over the ball like this, be sure your eyes are above the ball, be sure the backswing is exactly as far as the fore-swing, don’t move your head and don’t bend your wrists.”

“Is that all?” I asked.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” he said.

We went to the first tee and met the two friends who filled out our foursome.  Both are accomplished golfers and fine gentlemen.  Still, their participation may have initially struck them as charitable – playing with non-golfer Stuart and his unimposing-looking cousin from out-of-town.

The first hole gave no particular indication, as Dennis hit a par four, Eddie and I both managed fives and Hayes scored a six.  On the second hole, however, as I settled over my tee-shot, one of the men decided to suggest a change to my grip.  “And roll your wrist over,” he added.  “Like a cross-court shot in tennis.”

His effort to relate the suggestion to something I could understand was appreciated, but there are no trees in the middle of a tennis court.  I lost two balls so far into the woods that we did not even bother to look.  I was embarrassed even amidst the easy camaraderie of the golf course.

“What if every hole is like this? I said.

“Don’t worry,” said Eddie.  “I have a lot of extra golf balls.”

“Do you have thirty six?”

“Not that many.”

My play improved from that point.  Perhaps, I was freed from the modest illusion of competence I had gleaned from the successful first hole.  At least I never lost two balls on one hole again.  And on a short hole that required a tee-shot over a lake, I somehow managed a par that beat everyone else.

Eddie, too, was rallying.  I was proud, and a little relieved, to see how his flawless form impressed the men, along with his ability to master a new course.  By the end of the round, Eddie’s 83 had nearly caught Dennis, a renowned local star.  I scored 102, which is nothing to brag about, but was politely lauded by everyone.

“If I could just have you for three weeks,” said Hayes, twenty or thirty modifications to my swing doubtless coming to mind.

Eddie and Sherry departed the next morning and we all look forward to seeing each other again.  In this case, if I can stay away from politics as though it is a sand trap, the course is a pleasure to play.