Spring Snow


Just…..yuck.

I hate spring snow. I just hate it. The fat, slow falling, dreary clumps of slush that pour down on us, masquerading as snowflakes. The wet, cold, raw air.

The sad little tips of the daffodils poking up through the icy mud.

Yuck.

I hate it.

Today the spring slush is falling on my still snowy yard. The kids and I are inside the house, huddling near the wood stove in an effort to keep warm. Why does it feel so much colder in March when it snows than in January when the frigid winds are blowing?

This weather makes me physically yearn for warmth, sunshine, a dry sandy beach.

But I’m stuck here in New England with spring slobbering its way through the woods.

So I’m casting my mind back, through the many years, to another March day in this very same part of the world.

I’m going back 29 years, to the spring when we had just moved into this house. I was about 4 months pregnant with my second child. It was early in the pregnancy, but I was already awkward and off balance.

One morning I woke up to see heavy flakes of slush falling through the air. The sky was low, gray and forbidding. I didn’t feel like sitting at home in this neighborhood where I didn’t know a soul. It seemed like a good day to drive around, maybe get to know the area a bit.

My daughter Kate was four years old. A happy little sprite who was always up for an adventure. The two of us set off to see the world, trying to ignore the blops of mush on the windshield.

In the town next to ours, I found a big furniture store, housed in an old wooden building. There was a wide farmer’s porch running the length of the building, and rows of rocking chairs were set out for sale. They made me think of summer nights, and I was intrigued.

I got Katie out of the car and we headed up the worn planks of the front steps, onto the porch. The interior of the store, I remember, was kind of dark and felt damp. The furniture was way out of my price range, but it was nice to just walk around a bit. I like the old timey feeling of the place and it made me happy about our move.

There was an “older gentleman” in the store. (Looking back, I’m sure he was younger then than I am now. Still, he seemed old to this young momma!) We chatted a bit, but it didn’t make a big impression.

Then Kate and I headed back out toward the car.

The slush was falling thick and fast at that point, the the wooden steps were coated. As I reached for Kate’s hand, I felt myself slip. My fit went out from under me, and I landed gracelessly and painfully on my rear. Before I could really react, the older man came out of the store and helped me gently to my feet.

“Come sit down,” he said very calmly but firmly.

I was embarrassed, and also soaking wet. My knees were shaky from the shock of falling, but I knew that I wasn’t hurt. “I’m fine,” I said, intending to slink off into the car with Kate and forget the whole thing.

“Momma,” the man said, “You need to sit for a minute. We need to wait just a bit till you catch your breath.”

I remember that he had very blue eyes, and that they looked worried. I realized that he was worried, not about me and my snowy bottom, but about the baby I was carrying.

“OK,” I said. He lead us inside, and I sat in one of the comfortable wooden rockers. I held Kate on my lap. We started to chat again, but this time both of us were paying more attention.

The man asked about Kate, about her age and her name and her favorite toys. I told him that we had just moved to town and he gave me pointers about local stores, parks, restaurants.

I don’t know how long I sat. Not long, I’m sure. After a few minutes, it was clear that all was well and that other than my pride, I hadn’t hurt anything of importance.

I shook hands with the thoughtful man, whose name I have either forgotten or never thought to ask. Kate and I went back home, through the slush, into the safety and warmth of our new house.

A house which now felt cozy and comforting, because I knew that we had landed in place where people were naturally kind.

Remembering that long ago encounter, I am feeling just a little bit better about the stuff that is falling relentlessly from the sky.

Step By Step


One of the interesting parts of getting older, according to this aging Nonni, is gaining the ability to see the difference between reality and what people have perceived.

For example, I remember my childhood with so much warmth and love. My family was never, ever perfect (uh, we were humans, right?) but we did our best. My parents were first generation Americans with a strong Italian immigrant flavor. We grew up with pasta on Sundays, red wine in the glasses, lunches made of salami and provolone.

Our parents were dealing with all of the pressures of the 1950’s. Dad had served in the Army in WWII. Mom had grown up as the oldest child in an Italian immigrant family, and she gave up her dream of becoming an artist because that’s what women did in the 1950s. She got married. She gave birth to six of us. She raised us while my Dad worked days and studied at night.

We were unremarkable.

We were an American family in the years that followed the second great war. We were polite, we were respectful, we were good students.

We were NOT ever perfect.

The six of us learned how to push back against our parents when the Beatles hit these shores. We lobbied hard for long hair (the boys) and short skirts (the girls). We argued. We fought. We yelled at each other about the Vietnam War and the peace movement and the supposedly incomprehensible lyrics of rock songs.

But we were a unit. Six kids. Six attractive, healthy kids. Well loved by our parents, even when they drove us nuts.

And we loved each other.

I was a part of the “big kids” group. My older brother, me, my sister Liz. We were the first set of kids in the house. But we were followed, very closely, by the “little kids”. A baby brother, a sweet little sister, and another baby boy.

The “big kids” did our best to take care of the “little kids” as we all grew up in a middle class American family.

We were not perfect. We argued. We fought. We rebelled (although the big kids didn’t do it as well as the little kids). We did our best to take care of each other.

Life is never a straight line. Life is never the careful step-by-step that most of us hope we can achieve. Life is full of totally unexpected, out-of-left-field hits. All we can do is reach back into our pasts, into our lives, into our earliest selves, to make everything all right once again.

It doesn’t always work. But what else can we do?

I know that my family life has been 61 years of step-by-step. Sixty one years of trying my best to do my best. Trying to be the most loving and supportive family member I can be, while realizing that perfection is a myth.

Step by step.

We all do our best to be our best.

If we aren’t perfect, we are not to blame.

We’re only human after all.

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Every small step counts.

My Dad


My Dad could fix anything. He fixed pipes, cars, broken toys, cracked walkways.

He was a builder. He built shelves and storage sheds. He created furniture and toys and additions on the house. His hands were sure and capable. He frowned when he worked, puzzling over a problem, a pencil always over his left ear.

On Saturdays, he’d work in the yard. He would weed, screen loam, spread grass seed, prune the bushes. There always seemed to be something for him to be doing.

I remember him coming in for lunch, in a white t shirt or a sweatshirt, that pencil still on his ear. We would have Italian cold cuts. Mortadella, salami, capicola, provolone cheese. He’d put hot peppers on his sandwich if he had a cold.

On hot days, Dad would sprinkle salt into his beer. I never asked why, but in my childhood it seemed like a right of passage.

Dad could make pancakes. On Saturday mornings he’d let my Mom sleep in a bit, and he’d sit with his kids watching the Three Stooges and the Little Rascals. He’d sit on the floor, his back against the couch. We would perch on his legs and nestle into each side of him.

He’d laugh. Loud and exuberant, unrestrained, big open mouthed guffaws at the antics on TV.

Then he would make us pancakes.

Eventually, Mom would come down the hall, in her robe. Dad would always grab her and kiss her with the ardor of a teenager. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he’d ask his wide eyed children.  We readily agreed.

Dad was patient. He tried like a saint to teach me the concept of algebra. I never mastered it, but he never gave up.

Dad was generous. He was honest. He had more integrity than anyone I’ve ever known.

When my Father died, the line to get into his wake was so long that it wrapped around the building. People he’d known for years mixed with people he’d met in his job. They came with thanks, and they came with sadness. They came to tell us how much he’d meant to them.

Our Dad was loving. His adored our Mother, the love of his life. He loved all six of each children, and every one of his grandchildren. He made time for us. He listened.

I see him in the dark brown eyes of my granddaughter, and I see him in each of my children. I hear his voice as I walk in the quiet woods. I feel his breath on my cheek as I drift to sleep with a baby in my arms.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.

I love you.

Rompers, Uncles, Memories


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What an interesting, emotional time of life is middle age.

I’m finding so much joy in the smallest things. Watching Ellie sleep. Rubbing my puppy’s little belly. Eating olives and cheese with my Momma.

I’m finding so much sadness in the speed of life and how it changes. I miss my old profession, and I miss my teaching friends. Those supportive relationships meant more to me than I even knew.

And death is a more common part of my life than it once was . Losing my father, my grandparents, beloved aunts, uncles, in-laws.

But it also strikes me that one of the strangest parts of being this age is how the happy and the sad keep bumping into each other.

I have a story from today that shows that confluence of feelings. It shows how circular life is, and how nothing seems to ever really go away.

Today I opened a package of clothes I had ordered last week for my granddaughter, Ellie. It contained summer things, including the adorable little romper in the picture above. I had been planning to buy her some shorts and t-shirts, but her Mom told me that those cute one-piece rompers are popular now, so I ordered some.

And my first thought as I pulled the clothes out of the package was that my baby sister Liz and I used to wear those back in about 1960. I immediately pictured a matching pair of rompers, one pink and one blue. I remembered, more than five decades after wearing mine, how it felt with elastic gathering the material around my middle.

I also thought right away about my two Uncles, Bob and Joe. When we were little kids, and our parents were in their thirties, our Uncles were only in their teens or early twenties. They often baby sat for Liz and I and our older brother, Ed.

We were in awe of them.

We called them “Bobby and Joey” and to us they were an amazing mix of grown up and super fun. They always made us laugh. They usually gave in if we asked for something, like a cookie or a popsicle from the ice cream man.

They seemed to think we were amazing and fun, too, which made them seem like not-quite-serious adults.

One of my memories, so clear in my mind no doubt because it was traumatic, was a hot summer morning when Bobby and Joey were getting us dressed for the day. I think we were planning to go to the local playground, but I’m not sure.

I remember being excited, and I remember that I put my romper suit on. I was hoping that one of the big kid/grown ups could manage to put our hair into pony tails.

Suddenly, Uncle Joey said something that sounded alarming. It might have been, “What’s the matter?” or “What did you do?” I looked up from zipping my blue suit.

Uncle Bobby was kneeling in front of my baby sister, who was probably about two years old. She was standing perfectly still, but tears were pouring down her cheeks. Bobby and Joey both looked slightly panicked.

I remember one of them slowly unzipping Liz’s pink romper. And I remember the red line running down her skin.

She’d been caught in the zipper. Poor little kid!

I remember a whole bunch of reactions running through my four year old brain.

These two guys were definitely NOT real grown ups! And wasn’t it sweet to see how bad they both felt and how they cuddled Lizzy to make her feel better. It was funny to hear them kind of blaming each other, too. Like kids!

And, boy oh boy, this little problem better not stop us from going to the playground.

Today I smiled as I picked up Ellie’s little romper. I lifted it to my cheek to feel how smooth and soft it is. I thought about Ellie’s Uncles, Matt and Tim. My boys. How much they love her and how they play with her.

I hope that she grows up with memories of her time with them. I hope that they inspire her, as Bobby did when he refused to give up on his dream of becoming a doctor. I hope they make her laugh years after a great joke, like Joey did with me.

I hope.

We lost my funny, kind, smart, tender Uncle Bobby this morning. Right about the time I was unwrapping Ellie’s little summer outfit.

I’m definitely going to take her to the playground in it one day soon.

Oh, and I made sure that I didn’t order one with a zipper. I know my own limitations!

Thanks, Uncle Bobby. For the laughs, the love, the tender care. Sempre La Famiglia.

 

Islamists?


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I find myself in an odd place.  I know I’m not alone, but I still want to share this strange experience with you.   Maybe I can make some sense of things if I do.

Forty two years ago I was an exchange student. I was seventeen years old, completely and unbelievably naive. I was sent to Tunisia, to live with an Islamic family.   I had a fantastic time!  I’ve written about my experience before, thinking about how comforting it was to find a family across the world that was so very much like my own.

But in the past three days, I’ve been really looking back, and thinking about my time in Tunisia.

I remember that my family had an Uncle, a jovial man of middle age, who was a retired general in the Tunisian military.  He had a lovely little house just outside of Tunis. I remember going there for dinner. I remember that he hunted for little birds, which he brought back to the house in the afternoon. They were dressed and cooked and served over couscous. I remember that he was so proud of himself, and I remember that the dinner was delicious.

I remember, too, that the same smiling, stocky Uncle took me and my Tunisian sisters to the famous Bardo Museum.  I don’t remember many details, but I do recall that the grounds were absolutely lovely, that the exhibits were amazing and inspiring. I remember a mosaic stone floor in the courtyard, and I remember that we were given a special tour because the Uncle was a member of the military.

I watch the news now, as we talk about “Islamists” and “terrorists” and I am struck by how we use the terms interchangeably.  I think about the fact that most American parents now would never send their innocent daughter to live in Tunisia.

And then I close my eyes, and I remember what happened to me when I had to travel across the country by myself, on a bus, to a city I’d never seen. I remember that I got onto the bus in tears: I knew that I was saying goodbye to a family I’d grown to love very much.  And I knew that I would most likely never see them again.

It was the last week of my journey, and I was leaving my host city of Kairouan to join up with the rest of the exchange students in the coastal city of Sfax.  My Tunisian family said goodbye to me at the bus station, and I boarded a big old bus to head southeast.  I was sobbing as the bus pulled out, so I barely noticed the old woman with the chickens in the seat behind me, or the man with the two small goats who sat in front of me.  I wasn’t really aware of the handsome man and his wide eyed son who sat in the seat across the aisle.  At least, I wasn’t aware of them until the man reached across the aisle and patted my shoulder.  He murmured gently in Arabic: I didn’t understand him, but his face showed sympathy and caring.  It made me cry a little harder.  The man and his son moved across the aisle to sit with me, and he kept talking and patting my back.  Little by little, we found a way to communicate. He introduced me to his son, I told him about my Tunisian family.  We gestured, we nodded, we gazed out the window at the passing desert together.

I remember that we came to a stopping place, where small boys sold water from huge clay jars. I remember the man buying me a water, which I sipped gratefully from a shared cup.

And I remember arriving in Sfax, and getting off the bus.  The man and his son embraced me, and he handed me a gift.  It was a beautiful handmade clay ashtray, shaped carefully from the red soil of the country.  I remember him pressing it into my hands, his long white robe touching his shoes as he leaned down toward me. “Pour toi” he said, and I thanked him.

I don’t know his name, and I can’t recall his face.  But his kindness to a weeping young stranger has always stayed with me.

And I remember what happened after I got to Sfax and the bus pulled out.  I sat in the bus station, as I’d been told by our group leader to do.  I’d been told that I should stay in place and wait until he and the other students arrived. So I waited.  And I waited.

The day went by, and sun began to set.  I was the only foreigner sitting in the tiny, dusty bus depot. I began to notice a group of older men, middle aged, in traditional robes.  They stood around, speaking softly to each other, but eyeing me as I sat alone on my bench.   I tried to look confident, to ignore them, but I was starting to worry.

Now this was well before the time of cell phones, and there was no way for me to reach my friends or my group leader.  All I knew was that I was supposed to wait, and that the sun was beginning to set.  I didn’t know what to do.

Finally, I remember, one older man, sporting a full gray beard and bushy eyebrows, came to where I sat. He began to ask me questions in Arabic, which I barely spoke.  I managed to finally understand him, and to explain that I was waiting for others.  He looked upset and began to speak urgently to me. Finally, through a combination of Arabic and broken French, I came to understand that no more busses would be arriving that day, and that the man and his friends were worried about leaving me alone on that little bench.  They asked where I was headed, but I only knew that last name of my group leader, whose family home was my destination.

I remember that the group of men argued and waved their arms and shook their heads as they shot me worried glances. I can only imagine their thoughts.  “What is wrong with those crazy Americans!? They send a little girl halfway across the world and leave her on her own in a strange city?”  They didn’t know what to do with me!

I don’t remember how it happened, or how I managed to understand it all, but I remember that I was placed carefully in the back of a cab, and that the name of my host was given to the driver. I remember that we drove all around the city, and that the young cabbie stopped over and over again to ask if anyone knew where my group leader’s family lived.

At last, after dark, I was brought to the house where I would spend the night.  I don’t have any idea who paid the kind cabbie for his long trip, but I know that it wasn’t me.

I look back now, and I am so touched and so astonished at the gentle, unselfish kindness that was heaped on me that one day in Tunisia.

And I think of the word “Islamist”.  I think of those thoughtful, gentle, fatherly Islamic men who took such care of me that day, with no possibility of reward.

I don’t understand how the Islam that I learned to love could have been twisted into the horror of what happened at my beautiful Bardo Museum.

I don’t understand it.

I find myself in a strange and sad place.

You see, for me the world “Islamist” brings to mind gentle, funny, generous men who go out of their way to take care of strangers.

A Priceless Gift


1497715_10151793825170899_1174165898_nIt is Christmas Eve, toward the end of the big family party,  when my sister Liz hands each of her five siblings a wrapped gift. “Don’t open them yet.”, she instructs.  “Wait until everyone of you has one.”  When all five of us hold a matching package, Liz says simply, “The title of this gift is: What I’m doing right now.

And we open them.

As one, we gasp. Each of us holds in our hands a grainy black and white photo of our Dad, gone now for five Christmases. In the photo he grins out at us, so filled with youthful assurance that it still shines through, some seventy years after the moment.  There he is, maybe sixteen years old, one arm casually draped around each of his parents.  He is slim and strong, and happy.

My heart clenches, then begins to pound.  Tears fill my eyes.  I have so many reactions all at once, but everyone in the room is talking now; I don’t know what to say or how to say it.  The picture is a treasure, in so many ways.

“He looks just like me”, I think.  I miss him so much that a little spurt of anger flies through me: I want to show the photo to him! I want him to comment on how much I take after him.

“MammaNonni looks so content.  Her baby boy is beside her”, I think. My mind turns quickly to my own youngest son, absent on this holiday.

My eyes take in the setting of the photo; the familiar grape vines behind the family, draping down the arbor fence. The old potting shed over PappaNonni’s shoulder.  I can smell the grape leaves, and the sharp pungent tang of the tomato plants that I know were growing in rows behind the fence.  I know just where the cameraman was standing, can feel my feet on the cement walkway and picture the back door just to my right.

I have so many questions!  How old were you there, Dad? What was the occasion?  As the youngest of twelve children, it was the rarest of events for my father to be photographed alone with his parents. Why were they posed this way? Was it his high school graduation, maybe? It looks like a summery day.  Who took the picture? What year was it?

The voices of my family swirl around me, asking the same questions, making guesses about the answers.  I hold the photo like a priceless artifact.  I search my father’s face, looking for signs of my sons.  Finding them.

I share my father’s dark eyes and round chin; the shape of his smile can be seen in mine.  I see hints of him in my son Matt, in his manner and his facial expressions. In the shape of his face and jaw.

But it is my son Tim who seems to be echoed back to me in this picture; filled with life and eagerness, quick to embrace, quick to grin.  Ready to take on the world.

Dad, I wish you were here to see your grandsons, all of them so much like you!  I wish you were planning to dance at your granddaughters’ weddings.  I wish you were here to laugh at this photo and  to tell us stories about your parents. I wish you were here to reassure me that I really do look a little bit like you.

Liz; thank you!  I am positive that you were right.  I am absolutely certain that Dad was with MammaNonni and PappaNonni on Christmas eve, grinning with delight, filled with love, sure of whatever comes next. Buon Natale, Dad.

Mon Papa


Grande_mosquee_Kairouan2_SIt was 1973.  I was a high school junior.  I was scared to death.

Somewhere in the course of the school year, for some reason that I can no longer recall, I had signed up to join the “American Field Service” program.  I had signed up so that I could become an exchange student and travel somewhere abroad.  I had filled out all the paperwork, signed all the forms, gone through all of the interviews.  I was ready to travel.

To Germany. Or Austria. Or maybe to Wales.  I imagined myself chatting comfortably with English speaking people in beautiful European settings. I imagined just enough quaintness to feel as if I was somewhere “away”.

I never envisioned myself living on the edge of the Sahara dessert, under a red African sky, listening to the call of the muezzin as the sun set into the dusty hills.

But that is just where I found myself in June of 1973.  In the dusty Tunisian  city of Kairouan, surrounded by the 3,500 year old walls of the ancient Medina.  The air smelled of jasmine and heat and spice.  It was so dry that it seemed to crackle, and I felt the sun like a pressured weight on the skin of my neck. I hadn’t even known that the world could feel so foreign. Nothing was familiar.

I had met my Tunisian sisters, young women who were beautiful, graceful, charming and totally foreign to me. They all spoke English, but it was the musical sounds of French and Arabic that were swirling around me as I tried to make sense of my new surroundings.  I knew that they were all trying hard to make me feel welcome, but I remember that on that first afternoon, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of strangeness and confusion.  The whole world seem a bit surreal to me at that moment, filled with dangers and enticements that I had never imagined.  I met my Tunisian mother, a quiet, smiling woman whose kindness did nothing to alleviate my sense of dislocation.  I felt as if I had traveled all the way around the earth, leaving behind my sense of belonging, my sense of the rightness of the physical world around me.  I felt a little bit lost that first afternoon, sitting on the little balcony of the family apartment, desperately trying to understand the conversations of the family.  Desperately trying not to miss my own home, my own familiar family.

Suddenly I heard a man’s voice, calling loudly and somewhat forcefully, “Ou est ma nouvelle fille!?”  (“Where is my new daughter?”) I remember feeling suddenly embarrassed, inadequate. And supremely out of place.

Then he was there, Papa Barrack, smiling broadly and warmly, without even a trace of awkwardness. He wore a white robe and black plastic sandals.  He was not tall, but he was a force. His personality filled the room, embraced us all, pulled me in.  From that moment, I never doubted that I was a member of that wonderful family.  Papa Barrak made it so, and it was so.

Over the course of the three months when I lived with the Barrak family in Tunisia, I learned many, many things.  I learned a lot of French and bit of Arabic. I learned about a new culture, and new foods and new music. I learned how to dance to that music, how to make my hips move independently of my shoulders and my feet in time to my hips.  I learned how to cook and eat couscous, I learned about the mosques and about the beautifully haunting call to prayer.

Most of all, though, in that wonderful summer of ruins and Carthage and French pop music and skinny dipping in the Mediterranean, most of all, I learned that people are just people. I learned that a Moslem Dad in North Africa and an Italian Catholic Dad in Massachusetts had more in common than anyone could ever have described to me.  I learned that Dads of teenaged girls are proud and loving and protective and annoying and wonderful.  I learned that Mom’s living across the globe from each other faced the very same trials, and the same pleasures.  They shopped, they cooked dinner, they beamed when the kids ate what they had cooked.  They wanted more help around the house, but they understood when it wasn’t forthcoming.  I learned that kids are just kids, that families are just families, complete with love and arguments and annoyances.

From Papa Barrak, I learned that when someone is there to greet you, you can be at home wherever you find yourself. Even at the edge of the dessert, in a land that smells of jasmine and heat and spice.

Adieu, Papa Barrak. Repose en paix.

Baseball Voodoo


I became a baseball fan way back in June of 1967.

To be specific, I became a Red Sox fan in June of 1967.

My fifth grade teacher brought us all to a night game at Fenway, and the Sox won in the tenth inning on what had not yet been labelled a “walk-off homerun”.   It was fun, it was exhilarating, Tony Conigliaro was cute and heroic and not that much older than me. I fell in love, and I fell hard.

I became a Sox fan, and that meant pain. I watched my Sox come close in ’67, then founder and drift and struggle and come close a few times again.

But it wasn’t until 2004 that all of our baseball dreams came true.  It felt like a miracle when they won the World Series. It felt like a dream.

It felt like a once in a lifetime experience for everyone who ever loved the Boston Red Sox.

My boys were young back then.  Matt was 14, Tim was only 12.  Kate was a freshman in college, so she wasn’t at home as we suffered through the first three ALCS games against the dreaded Yankees (“The evil empire”).  But the boys were here.  And they were pulled into the crazy magical thinking that went along with each of the wins of that series.

I remember that I had to stop at the grocery store before game 5, and I bought Boston baked beans and Boston brown bread to go with the meatloaf that I had planned.  The Sox won.

We ate Boston Baked Beans and Boston Brown Bread for the next two games.  And the Sox won.

What I had forgotten before today was that at the beginning of the series I had made a simple ground beef dinner.  My kids always had a yearning for sauteed ground beef over noodles.  Whenever I was away overnight, Paul would buy a box of Hamburger Helper, and everyone was happy.  Of course, being the healthy food fanatic that I am, I would gripe and complain and point out the dangers of all of those chemicals.  So I had tried to come up with a healthy, no-preservatives version of “Hamburger Helper” that would make all of us happy.

Apparently, I had made the dinner at some point during the baseball playoffs of 2004.

I had forgotten all about that meal until today, when I thumbed through a notebook of recipes, looking for a lemon cake.   As I turned the pages, passing pancakes, shrimp, Asian meatballs and various cookies, I came to a page that was recorded in my own handwriting.  It described a meal of ground beef, onions, tomato paste and spices.  I had named the dish “Yankee Noodle Dandy”.   But I laughed out loud when I saw the word “Yankee” crossed out, and in Tim’s youthful scrawl, the words “Red Sox” written just above.SONY DSC

Such sweet memories, of my own childhood, and of my children’s.  Such sweet memories of pulling for a team, wishing for something that is so out of our own control.  Of feeling that we are part of a team, a group, a collective of hope.

Go, Red Sox!

The Memory Keeper


Every family has its stories, its legends, its folklore.    Mine is no exception.

I was raised in a big Italian family.  On my mother’s side, the stories focused on the earliest days after my grandfather immigrated from Sicily.  They were stories of how he met and fell in love with my grandmother, a first generation Sicilian American. We heard about the years when my grandfather sold vegetables in Boston’s North End market. How he worked in a local candy factory.

But on my father’s side, the family folklore has only two real themes.  The sheer size of the family (12 children!) is the dominant story.  Six brothers in one bed, sleeping head to foot.  Babies born in the tiny living room. The matriarch, my “Mammanonni” stirring gigantic pots of tomato sauce on the small gas stove.  The crowd, the numbers, the list of aunts and uncles; those are the stories of my childhood.

But there was another theme that was inextricably wound throughout the first.

That theme was baseball.

I grew up hearing about the exploits of all of my uncles, but the most famous stories belonged to my Uncle Lennie, the baseball Uncle.

Of the twelve children of Carmine and Angelina, Lennie was the only one who was born in a hospital. He was frail, somewhat sickly as a baby. But he grew up, he grew tall. He was a gifted athlete who excelled in baseball. He was handsome and charming and filled with a natural confidence.

Uncle Lennie played baseball in prep school, and went on to Villanova University where he was a standout on the field.

And from 1941-1947, he played shortstop for the Chicago Cubs.  I grew up on the stories of those years.

Uncle Lennie was famous to us; we loved hearing him talk, feeling the thrill as he casually mentioned Phil Cavaretta, Jackie Robinson, Mr. Wrigley.  And then there were the World Series Stories. So much fun to hear those tales of fame and fun and excitement.

Family gatherings for us always involved a cluster of our Uncles, laughing their big booming laughs, trading stories of life in East Boston in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Tricks they played on their Mother, exploits with friends and girlfriends, memories of those crowded years in that tiny apartment. The Uncles would be in the center of the room, and all the rest of us would be scattered around them, eating, drinking wine, listening in on the familiar tales.

Now the years are passing.  The Uncles and Aunts are gone. Now only Uncle Lennie remains from that huge gang of twelve.  He is the last repository of all that lore, all those shared memories.  The last one who lived in that little house in East Boston.

Now the years are passing, and baseball is changing.  Now only Uncle Lennie remains from the last Chicago Cubs team to play in a World Series.  He is the last man who remembers taking the field to try to bring a Championship to the Windy City.

He is the last.

Life moves forward. Every day is a new adventure and there are new family stories being lived out everywhere.  Somewhere a young girl is listening wide eyed as her larger-than-life Uncle teaches her how to field a grounder in the backyard.  Somewhere a handsome, charming Uncle is regaling his relatives with stories of his famous friends, adding little details that may or may not have happened, making everyone laugh and sigh and feel just a little bit closer to an exciting world that they will never know.

So here’s to Uncle Lennie.  Here’s to family history and baseball history and honoring the past.

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Barley Sugar Memories


Christmas is the season of family. Of warmth and home and memories.

The Christmas season is the season of nostalgia.  As the days grow colder and darker, and the first soft flakes of snow begin to fall, we are swept with emotion, and the special memories of days gone by.

For me, most memories are centered on my children.  I remember the excitement of buying just the right toys so that I could bring the magic to Christmas morning.  My heart would pound with excitement as I watched my little ones rush to the tree.  The sound of their voices, amazed and delighted and somehow always surprised that their wishes had come true; I can hear those voices even now, echoing in my heart and reminding me of how much joy it gave us to give to them.

I remember the stockings, filled with candy and puzzles and tiny, silly toys.  How I loved sitting in my bed, watching as they poured their treasures onto the rug and called to each  other to share what they had found!

But sometimes my Christmas memories go farther back.  Back to the time when I was the little one in my brand new flannel pajamas, lying awake in the magical glow of the orange window lights, wishing with every ounce of my strength for snow, for reindeer, for that one special gift.

As always, this Christmas season has been filled with catalogues and offers of bargains. Now that I no longer have a list of special wishes to fill, I find myself overwhelmed with page after page of glossy offerings, from outdoor gear to electronic gadgets; it seems that I can have it all.  For the most part, I quickly flip through the pages, and add the shiny booklet to my recycle bin.

But tonight, as I went through the mail, I found myself enraptured by the pages of a little catalogue called “The Vermont Country Store”.  It was selling maple syrup, cast iron cookware and old fashioned jelly glasses.  Each page contained a sweet, but expensive, trip into Old New England.  I turned the pages, smiling at the reminders of my childhood: Turkish taffee, Skye Bars, Boston Baked Beans.  I laughed at the idea of anyone buying the silly glass “log cabin” filled with maple syrup.

Then I turned the page, and found a picture of “barley sugar candy”, and I went rushing back in time.  Back to my childhood. Back to the time when we would travel from our home in the suburbs into the city of Boston, either to shop for Easter clothes or to visit the “Enchanted Village” and the Christmas lights on Boston Common.  Each of these trips was exciting, magical, memorable.  My siblings and I would put on our best clothes, holding tight to our Mother’s hand as we gazed with wide eyes at the buildings and the hurrying people. We knew that our parents had grown up in the city, but it was a foreign land to us. It was scary and seductive, mysterious and so much fun.

And as I looked tonight at the picture of the barley candy, one clear memory came back to me, as sharply as if it had happened today.

We were in Boston with my mother and her mother, my Nana.  We had gone to the Boston Public Gardens for a ride on the swan boats. It was probably spring, and we were most likely shopping for our annual Easter outfits.  I’m not sure.

What I do remember is that we had gone to “Bailey’s” for ice cream, and that I had eaten a dish of butter crunch served in a silvery metal bowl shaped like the petals of a flower.  I can remember my spoon clinking against the side of the dish as the creamy sweetness melted into the bottom; I can remember the sound of my Nana’s laughter as she talked to my mother.

As we got up to leave, and the grown ups went to pay the bill, we saw a big glass jar standing on the counter, next to the cash register. It was filled with bright red lollipops, in the shape of little lobsters.  I remember how the light glowed through the cellophane, and I remember my Nana reaching out and grabbing a whole handfull of those treats.  “These are barley sugar!” she told us, as she handed them into our waiting hands.  “They’re special.”

I remember how sweet and how special those pops tasted; like nothing I had ever enjoyed.  Like honey, like maple, like something totally unique.  They were hard, and thick and they lasted the whole long train trip home.

I had forgotten all about barley sugar pops until tonight, when one page of one Christmas catalogue brought me back to a special memory of my Nana and my childhood.