And Time Goes By


It’s really funny what little things in life make us aware of the passage of time. There are the big life milestones, like births and graduations and retirement. Moments which are designed to remind us the years are flying and that we are all marching onward into whatever the future holds.

But sometimes it is a very little thing that grabs us by the heart and squeezes. Sometimes it is almost nothing, but it feels like everything.

Time is moving. Life is passing. The only constant in life is change.

Today was one of those days for me.

I went for a haircut, as I do every 5 weeks. I got in the car and drove to my local hair salon. I’ve been coming to this same salon for my cut for about 25 years. When the place was sold by its original owner, I stayed. When it moved down the street, I stayed.

I’ve met my neighbors there. I’ve set up appointments at the same time as my friends on summer days, so that we could go out to lunch after our cuts and colors. The woman who cuts my hair was in elementary school when I started coming; she was a girl scout friend of my daughter back then.

They are both Mommies now.

For twenty five years, I’ve heard the town gossip while sitting in this chair. I’ve seen the flyers for fundraisers, for hockey games, for PTO events.

Years ago, when I was a girl scout helper, I met other moms and talked about upcoming scouting events. When I taught in town, I saw my students and their parents here. When I served for a few years on our local School Committee, I got more than one earful of unsolicited advice.

Long after my children graduated from our local schools, when the band concerts and hockey games were over, the salon was my one remaining connection to life in this small New England town.

The local grocery store on our Central Street closed long ago. The library is wonderful, but there is another one closer to my house. Most of my old town friends have moved away or have drifted from my life as the connection of our children has gone.

The salon was the one thing that drew me back into town, once a month, to catch up on the news and renew old ties.

But time marches on. The salon is closing.

Today I had my last haircut in the familiar, homey place. My last look at the photographs on the wall, done by a local photographer who I knew as I little girl. My last time checking out with the friendly young women who were babies when I started to come here.

Many years ago, when I looked in these mirrors, I saw a smiling young mother with thick, dark brown hair. Her brown eyes were clear and her jawline was smooth and slim.

Today I looked into that familiar mirror, from that so familiar chair. I looked into my tired eyes, framed now by glasses. I saw the white of my hair and roundness of my face.

I shared stories and laughs with my sweet hairdresser (who I will follow to her new salon). I paid for my cut, made my next appointment for the new place, and sadly closed the door behind me.

All that is constant is change.

It may be a while before I head back into my little town again.

Rock maple and dovetailed joints.


 

32235_398975950898_543400898_4765939_6508281_nMy Dad could do anything with his hands. When we were little, he used to spend a weekend taking apart a car engine, cleaning everything, then putting it back together again.

He could fix leaky pipes, he could paint walls and trim. My Dad could lay down carpet, strip wallpaper, rewire lights, plane the bottoms of doors so they wouldn’t stick.

Most of all, though, my Dad could bring out the life and the beauty of wood.

He made shelves, and little stools and steps and work sheds.

My Dad made my sons tiny wooden train sets that fit together perfectly. Each car had one of the boy’s names on it.

They are still here, in our house. The golden stained wood still gleams. The pieces still fit, 25 years after he made them. They are still beautiful.

Last weekend I drove two hours out to the small city in the Berkshire Hills where my boys live. I got a tour of the classic Victorian house where my son Matt is living.

As soon as I saw the old wooden floors, and the built in shelving, and the gorgeous dark wood bannisters on the stairs, I though of Dad. He would have loved that house!

We went up into Matt’s room, and there I saw his bureau. An old, golden hued wooden bureau, in Matt’s bedroom.

And it was if Dad was standing there beside me.

I started to laugh, but there were tears in there, too.

“Oh, man! I forgot that you have this bureau!” I said, running my hands across the smooth top.

“This is rock maple.” I said it reverently, although I have no idea what “rock maple” is. I could hear Dad saying those words to me, and they were filled with respect and pride when he said them.

So I repeated them to my boy.

This old bureau had belonged to my husband in his childhood. He doesn’t know where it came from, but he grew up with it. When we got married, it became our bureau. It was in our first apartment in the corner of the bedroom. It travelled with us to grad school in New Jersey, and then to our first apartment after graduation.

When our baby was born, we moved for a while back into my parents’ house. We needed to save money and we needed a safe, clean place to live. So back “home” we went.

And that’s where my Dad taught me how to refinish furniture. We took that old bureau, scratched and dinged and dirty, down into Dad’s garage workshop. And he stripped the old stain off, and sanded it, and sanded it again. I learned about the grades of sandpaper, and the use of a good “tack cloth”. I learned to use mineral spirits to clean up every speck of dirt and sawdust.

I learned about the proper use of stain, and how to smooth it on evenly. Dad pointed out the dovetail joints in the bureau drawers, telling me that you don’t see those very often any more.

Together we chose the stain, a very light golden oak that brought out the warmth in the hard, hard wood. Dad showed me every grain in that wood. He showed me how to be sure that every rough bit was smoothed away.

“Like a baby’s bottom,” he’d say when we got a drawer face perfectly smooth.

It was so special to work there beside him. He never got impatient. He never seemed in a hurry. I saw how the wood came to life under his hand. I saw how he was able to coax beauty out of something rough and old and stained.

I had wanted to toss out that old piece of furniture as soon as we could, but Dad was horrified at the thought.

“This is rock maple!” he’d said. “Those are dovetailed joints!”

Together we worked on the old wooden bureau, and I learned that my father was an artist, though he never described himself that way. I learned to be patient when polishing the top of a refinished piece of furniture with wax.

I learned how to listen, to watch, to imitate. I learned how to see the strength and the beauty under the rough exterior.

I learned how much my father loved a job well done, and I learned how much I loved my father.

Last week, standing in that bedroom in that old Victorian house, I caught sight of that beautiful bureau, with my son’s belongings sitting on top.

“This is rock maple!” I told him seriously. I pulled out one of the drawers. “See?” I asked him and  his bemused friend, “These are dovetailed joints.”

They agreed that the bureau is a real beauty. They were smiling at my earnestness.

We left then, turning off the lights and leaving the old rock maple bureau in the dark, in that old, old house.

It’s hard to say how much I love the thought of my son sleeping every night beside that wood that had felt my Dad’s loving hand.

I hope Matt keeps that bureau. I hope he gives it to a child of his own one day.

I hope that he tells that child, very seriously, “This is rock maple, you know.”

 

 

When old folks argue


Yesterday we had an experience that has me thinking.

Thinking in a good way, but also thinking in a kind of serious way.

It was a pretty typical weekend day for us. We had invited some guests to come for dinner and spend the afternoon with us.

Not “guests” as in “people you need to impress” but “guests” as in “family, people who get it, people you just really want to spend your day with.”

All would have been well as we prepared to make dinner for two young couples with little kids if only Nonni here hadn’t come down with a nasty bout of asthmatic bronchitis.

Nonni woke up yesterday feeling (as my mom used to say), “Like something the cat dragged in.” My husband, also known as “the sweetest man in the world,” let me sleep late while he dealt with our old hound and our new puppy. He even took said puppy to the vet.

But when it was time to make dinner, I asked him for help. This is an unusual request from an over functioning, over controlling Italian woman, but I did. I asked for help.

Then company arrived. Our beloved young folks, with babies in arms, arrived as planned. And “Papa” went straight into Grandfather Host mode. He was charming, hugging babies, pouring beer, chatting and laughing.

Meanwhile, Nonni was sauteeing and coughing in the kitchen.

Nonni was NOT amused.

Nonni was, in fact, crabby, cranky and slightly snarling.

Both young women asked how they could help.

All of the men stayed on the couch.

Finally, Nonni growled at Papa.

And here is the point of this post.

When a couple argues during a more than 40 year relationship, this is what it means.

It means that sometimes humans misunderstand each other. Even humans who love each other and want what is best for each other.

I remember, back in about 1980, every argument felt like the end of the relationship. Every time I lost my temper, every time my husband lost his, it felt like the end of the world. I tried so hard to always push down my irritation, swallow my needs, keep the boat from rocking.

But now that my one true love and I have come through graduate school, two separate careers, raising three children, falling head over heels in love with a grandchild, and even living with three different dogs….well.

Now I understand that when I’m mad at Paul, or when he’s mad at me, it means “I’m mad at you.”

It doesn’t mean “I hate your.” or “I want a divorce” or “You are a terrible person.”

What freedom.

The best part of getting older, maybe, is the realization that you can get really annoyed at the person you love, and still love them in the morning.

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My honey and I, back in the day. At Dolly Copp Campground.

Puttering Around


When I was a little girl, I remember that Saturdays in our house were full of activity. My mom would give all six kids our chores. We’d clean our rooms, vacuum, help with laundry. Mom often did grocery shopping on Saturday mornings, and I remember the kitchen being filled with paper bags and food and noise.

But I mostly remember my Dad, in a white T shirt or an old sweatshirt, a pencil tucked behind one ear. He would move around the house and yard all day long, hammering, sawing, building, taking apart. He planted, pruned, raked, mowed. He was usually either humming or whistling as he bustled around.

I remember trailing after him, asking, “What are you doing, Daddy?”  His answer was always the same, whether he was planting a garden or building a shed.

“I’m just puttering,” he’d say.

“Puttering?”  It sure looked like work to me!

Now the years have passed, and Dad is gone. Today would have been his 89th birthday. I miss him.

I felt a little restless this morning, a little sad and irritable.

I decided to clean out the cabinets under my bathroom sinks, so that all will be safe when Ellie starts to crawl. As I did, I noticed some spots in the bathroom that needed to have the paint touched up. So I did that.

And while I was in the garage finding the paint, I saw that the garden tools were all disorganized and needed cleaning. I wiped them down, placed them in a clean plastic bucket, threw out old rags and bits of string.

When that was finished, I came upstairs to grab a second cup of coffee. But I noticed that my ceramic Easter Bunnies were still out on display. I wrapped them carefully and put them in a bag to go back in the attic. Realizing that I’d be going to the trouble of pulling down the attic stairs and climbing up there, I decided to put away some of the things that the baby has outgrown. Which lead me to pack up my sweaters and winter clothes. I hauled all of it upstairs and moved around some boxes to make it easier to find things.

Two hours later, I sat down to catch my breath.

And looked at a smiling picture of my Dad in my living room.

“Hey, Dad,” I said out loud. “I think I’ve been puttering.”

Thank you, Dad.


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My Dad loved to work with wood.  He told me that he loved the feel of the wood in his hands, and the look of the grain while he was working with it.

My Dad taught me how to refinish furniture.  We had an old maple dresser, a roughed up piece of furniture that Paul had used in his childhood.  I looked at it and saw the scratches and dents, and wanted to throw it out to buy a new one.  But Dad looked at it and saw treasure.  He showed me that the drawers had been made solid and strong, without a single nail or screw. He taught me the words “dovetail” and “mortise”.  He taught me that maple is one of the strongest, most durable woods, and that it is now so expensive that I’d never be able to buy it.

“Look,” he told me, pulling out the drawer, “You’ll get rid of this, and you’ll end up with particle board drawers and a laminate top. It won’t last ten years.”

We brought the old bureau into Dad’s garage, and he showed me how to strip it of its varnish, how to sand it smooth.  He taught me to use a “tack cloth” to remove the wood dust, and then the two of us stained the now gleaming wood.  I thought that we would put varnish on it, to protect it, but he told me that we should use wax instead.  So we waxed it, we smoothed it, we polished it.

It was beautiful.

i put it in my daughter’s room, and later in my sons’.  It was filled with pajamas and shirts and socks.  It had stickers applied, and wax dripped on it from various candles.  But it was still beautiful.  And sturdy.

My Dad was creative.  He used his love of wood to make beautiful gifts for his grandchildren.  When my boys were very small, Dad made them wooden trains.  One for each of them.  Every car was lovingly sanded and shaped and put together.  Every car was inscribed with the name of the little boy who owned it.  They used to lie on the living room floor, pushing those trains around mountains of pillows, using them to transport plastic “army guys”, letting them crash down the stairs.    I can see them now, two little tow headed boys with big green eyes, dressed in red pajamas, so deeply engrossed in their games that they don’t even see the Mother who stands there watching them with so much love.

My Dad is gone now.  There won’t be any more furniture refinished, or trains built, or sheds put up in the yard.  I miss him every single day, but I miss him most at Christmas.

So this year, as I was thinking about decorating for the holiday season, I picked up the wooden trains from where they had been resting on the living room floor.  They had been sitting, untouched, under the branches of a big old dragon tree, gathering dust. I brought them into the kitchen.  I wanted to clean them up, but I knew from Dad that I shouldn’t immerse them in water. Instead, I wiped them clean with a damp cloth, then rubbed every bit of them with lemon oil.  As the shine returned to the wood, I could see the grain in each piece.  I ran my fingers over the lovingly carved names, and put the trains together again.

I placed them on the shelf above my front door; a place of honor.  There they sit now, with a Christmas candle, and a basket of greens, and a pretty wooden sled that my Aunt Ann gave me years ago.

I am looking at them now. So sweet.  So well crafted. So filled with memories and with love.

I wonder what I will be able to create when it is my turn to love a grandchild.

Thank you, Dad!

Fennel and Figs


I love Thanksgiving for all that it represents. I love the idea of being grateful; most of us have so many blessings in our lives. How lovely to have a holiday that helps us to recognize them all!

I love the history behind the holiday.  It makes me feel grateful to think about the Puritans celebrating that first harvest.  And whether or not their Wompanoag neighbors were invited or simply showed up makes little difference to me. I love the idea that on that first harvest celebration, all of the people in the area were happy to have had a successful growing season.  I love the fact that this small celebration happened before the outbreak of war between the two groups. Whatever else it was, the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful celebration.

Thanksgiving means a celebration of bounty, of luck, of health, of our ability to survive in harsh conditions.  I love it for all of that symbolism. Even though I am able to feed my family just by going to the farmer’s market or the store, I still feel as if I am one with the rugged settlers of the past who carved out a new life for their families in a dangerous wilderness.

And I love Thanksgiving because Abe Lincoln was the one who made it a real holiday. I love that it gained its status as a national day of celebration out of the President’s desire to recreate a sense of forgiveness and gratitude among us. After our four years of war with each other, after all of those thousands of deaths, I love the idea that this holiday was created to help us to celebrate our continued unity.

Mostly, though, I love Thanksgiving because it is so uniquely made of a mix of so-called “American tradition” and all of the multi-national traditions we’ve brought to the day since 1863.

For me, Thanksgiving will always make me think of figs and dates; those beautiful Mediterranean sweets were always a part of our after dinner ritual on Thanksgiving.  Before the pie, before the sour cream coffee cake made my Nana, we would sit with a big bowl of perfectly ripe fruit, a bowl of nuts and smaller dishes of those luscious dates and figs.

Thanksgiving is full of memories of special family foods, family rituals, family traditions. In my family, the meal used to start with turkey soup, and then moved on to big platters of ravioli.  My Sicilian Grandfather wouldn’t eat turkey, so we had ravioli and meatballs.  Then the traditional meal of turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, squash.  But there was always a dish of fennel on the table, too.  Lovely, crisp fennel that we would dip into a little bowl of olive oil, salt and pepper.

Just thinking of those meals makes me miss my grandparents so much.  Grampa, my Sicilian Grampa, could crack two walnuts in one hand, with no nutcracker. I thought that was the greatest feat ever.  And he would eat roasted chestnuts with us, letting us sip his red wine as we did.  He would eat those plump sweet figs, and talk to me about the fig tree in his yard in Augusta, Sicily, when he was a boy.

And I remember Nana, all 84 pounds of her, eating her Thanksgiving dinner at the big table at my Mom’s house.  She would take dainty bites of everything, from the turkey soup to the pumpkin pie, commenting on all of it as she did.

I will never, ever forget the holiday of 2001, not long after the terrible attack of 9/11.  At that point, Nana was losing her hearing and often simply faded out during large group conversation.  On that day, as about 30 of us sat around Mom’s long table eating, drinking wine and talking, Nana suddenly looked up from her plate and said, “This is so delicious!  I bet that Osama wouldn’t have been so mean if he could have had food like this!”

It was hilarious. We all imagined the US Army ordering up an airdrop of eggplant parmigiana.  What a simplistic idea!  And yet…..there was something so poignant about it for me; Nana realizing and expressing that “food is love” and that if only we could all be nurtured well, maybe we would be more peaceful. Maybe the world would be kinder, if only we all had enough to eat, enough to feel nurtured.

Thanksgiving in our house also meant Liz’s birthday.  My sweet baby sister Liz, my funny, smart, loving, amazing sister Lizzie; her birthday was always on Thanksgiving, or a day or to to either side.  We always stuck a candle in a pumpkin pie, and she was always so good natured about it.  Thanksgiving meant giving Liz her presents, singing to her, hugging her and telling her that we loved her.

I love this holiday because it is about repeating old themes.  Repeating recipes and birthdays and jokes and traditions.  The same foods on the same serving platters, with the same faces gathered around the table, sometimes telling the same stories.  I picture my Dad, seated at the head of the table.  Jovial, warm, funny, pouring the wine and telling stories.  Complimenting Mom on another job well done. My Dad.

But then enough time has gone by, and the faces around the table have changed.  Babies have grown up, grandparents and parents are gone.  The table is different, the platters are new, the wine glasses are from a different set.

This year we will be celebrating Thanksgiving at the new home of our daughter and son-in-law. It feels so very different from all of those celebrations of the past.

But you know what?

There will be fennel, and there will be figs.   And we will remember.