Photos

Cameras, like the type professionals use with large lenses, shutter settings and more filters than you can count or the common everyday phone camera the rest of us use, are very picky. They either like your face or they don’t. Some people when photographed always look good and others aren’t as fortunate.
I believe people are born with ‘camera faces’. Those who have the ‘face’ can’t take a bad picture whether posed or impromptu, they always look like they should be on the cover of some fancy magazine. For others, like me, it’s better to stay behind the camera. Remember when Glamour Shots were the big thing? I decided to surprise my family with a Glamour Shot. They were always complaining that there weren’t any pictures of me. They were right. I destroyed most of them. It took the Glamour Shot photographer four tries with several outfit changes to get one that we both agreed that was the picture. He said it was ‘on the house’. It’s wasn’t the camera’s fault and it wasn’t mine. I just don’t photograph well. Either my eyes are closed, my face crinkled up, or I move. Behind the camera is where I’m most comfortable.

Besides taking pictures, I love sharing and displaying them. When I lived in El Paso Texas, I took rolls and rolls of pictures, especially of the mountains – the Franklin Mountains being one of my favorite subjects. I sent dozens of them to my Dad to show him where I was travelling and to keep him in the ‘loop’ of my life. His response – “It’s a rock. Where are the people?” From that day on I made sure someone, whether I knew them or not, was in the frame.

In our former home, we had close to 975 photos. They were in the kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms and, in particular, one long hallway wall that acted as the ‘gallery’. When friends or family would come, inevitably they would make their way to the ‘gallery’ and search for their photo…and it was always there! You see, I learned a valuable lesson from my Mom in making people feel important. In her tiny kitchen, the side of the Frigidaire was Mom’s ‘gallery’. When someone was coming for a visit, she would dig their picture out of a drawer that was filled with hundreds of photos and attach it the refrigerator with a magnate. She prayed that not too many people would visit at once since she had only so many magnets. Her visitor would sit at the tiny red-topped Formica kitchen table, talk a bit and within minutes their eye wandered to the frig looking for their picture. When they found it, they beamed, drank another glass of wine and told Mom how much they enjoyed visiting with her. When they left and their car was pulling away from the curb, Mom would take down their picture and put it back in the drawer. When asked why she did this, she’d smile and said, “Everyone, no matter who, likes to feel important and special and their picture on my fridge makes them feel that way.”

When downsizing and preparing our home for sale, we tackled the ‘gallery’ first. It took hours to remove all the pictures, deciding what to keep, what to store and what to give away. However, it took even longer to fix the wall. There were so many holes, it looked like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds where the focus of the birds’ pecking was our wall. There wasn’t  one square inch that didn’t have a hole. Next home, I promised myself and, especially my husband, no ‘gallery’. Well, that promise lasted about a year before a picture went up here, then another picture there, and then a small grouping and that’s when I realized that the memory ‘holes’ the photos filled where much more important than the holes they left. Where are your photos?

Sitting on the Couch

Peggy and I have been friends for…well, forever. She was one of the first people I met when I joined LeMasters Racquetball Club. We became instant friends. You know how that is. You meet someone and the next thing you know you’re sharing your life stories like you’ve know each other for a hundred years. You instantly formed a ‘forever bond’. Over the years, our bond grew. Through ups, downs, boyfriend drama, job changes, families, weight gain –mine not hers – weight loss –hers not mine, and vacations. Then it happened, she moved. Our daily conversations became weekly then monthly then on birthdays and finally Christmas card exchanges once a year. We were still there for each other – just separated by miles and life.

The other day, Peggy sent an email telling me about the death of her ‘Aunt Bessie’. Bessie, who lived in Philly, was known for being a meticulous housekeeper. Her home was one of those you could eat off the floor. She had many lovely things but one piece held center stage – her couch. In order to preserve it and keep it showroom new, she had it covered in clear plastic which was a 40’s and 50’s phenomena. Her couch was never sat on it by family or friends. When Bessie died, the couch was as new as it was when she purchased it 30 years before. Peggy was sad, by Bessie’s passing but also for her beloved aunt never completely ‘enjoying’ her couch. Peggy vowed that no matter what, she would never leave this life without ‘sitting on her couch’.

This got me thinking. How many things do we cover with ‘clear plastic’ only to be looked at, kept clean and admired? My Mom had 6 cut crystal glasses given to her as a wedding gift in 1939. They were so thin, a heavenly song played when you ran a wet finger around the rim. This special gift was prominently displayed in her china hutch for all to see but not to be used. For years I asked her to designate those glasses to me in her will. I guess I said it so often that one day she gave them to me saying, “I’m not going to die just for you to get the glasses. Take them and enjoy them while I’m still alive!” I took my treasured gift home and put them in…my china hutch, where I could admire them. One day my husband asked why we didn’t use them. That’s when it hit me – I had ‘clear plasticed’ these beautiful glasses, admiring but not fully enjoying them. Today, even after one was broken, we use them every chance we can. And I must admit that everything taste better in them – even my White Zinfindel.

‘Clear plasticing’ isn’t reserved just for things. People ‘clear plastic’ feelings, thoughts, affection, basically anything they don’t share completely with those they love. Maybe it’s time to take off the wrappings.

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Stupidity

Growing up I was taught never to use the word ‘stupid’ to describe a person. People may do ‘stupid’ things but they aren’t ‘stupid’. Jeff’s cousin, might be the exception. The following, in his words, serves as a warning.

“I was looking for a protective device for my wife when I came across a 100,000-volt, pocket/purse-sized Taser. The effects of the Taser were supposed to be short lived, with no long term adverse effect on your assailant, allowing her adequate time to retreat to safety. Perfect.

At home, I loaded two AAA batteries and pushed the button. Nothing! The directions stated that if I pushed the button and pressed it against a metal surface at the same time, I’d get the blue arc of electricity darting back and forth between the prongs. It worked however, I now need to explain what the burn spot is on the face of the microwave.

My thinking – I need to try this out on a real target. My cat Leo was looking at me lovingly and for a fraction of a second I thought about zapping him and then thought better of it. But, if I was going to give this to my wife for protection, I did want some assurance that it would work. I removed my jeans, placed my reading glasses on the bridge of my nose and sat in my recliner with the directions in one hand, and the Taser in the other. The directions said that a one-second burst would shock and disorient; a two-second burst was supposed to cause muscle spasms and a major loss of bodily control; and a three-second burst would purportedly make your assailant flop on the ground like a fish out of water. Any burst longer than three seconds would be wasting the batteries. All the while I’m looking at this little device measuring about 5″ long, less than 3/4 inch in circumference, loaded with two itsy, bitsy AAA batteries and thinking to myself, ‘no possible way’!

I’m sitting there alone, the cat looking on as to say, ‘Don’t do it stupid,’ reasoning that a one second burst from such a tiny little ole thing couldn’t hurt that bad. I touched the prongs to my naked thigh, pushed the button, and…

HOLY WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION! I’m pretty sure Hulk Hogan ran in through the side door, picked me up in the recliner, then body slammed us both on the carpet, over and over again. I vaguely recall waking up on my side in the fetal position, with tears in my eyes, body soaking wet, my left arm tucked under my body in the oddest position, and tingling in my legs! Leo had jumped up on the fireplace mantle in an attempt to avoid getting slammed by my body flopping all over the living room.

A minute or so later, I collected my wits, sat up and surveyed the landscape. My reading glasses were bent and on the top of the TV. The recliner was upside down and about 8 feet from where it originally was. My triceps and right thigh were still twitching. My face felt like it had been shot up with Novocain, my bottom lip weighed 88 lbs. and I had no control over the drooling. Gone was my sense of smell and a faint smoke cloud came from my hair.

My wife loved the gift, laughed at my experience and now regularly threatens me with it! Word of advice. If you think something is stupid – it probably is.”

Ok, Boomer

Recently our 20 year old grandson came for a 3-day visit. Needless to say my husband Jeff and I were thrilled, shocked and a little wary. After all, how often does a 20 year old want to spend time with grandparents, let alone 3 days.

The visit went really well. We planned all of his favorite activities – Costco’s, Longwood Gardens, and just spending quality time together. We started with a trip to Costco’s for clothes, hiking ‘stuff’ and, of course, orders of chiros. These are sticks of dough, fried then rolled in cinnamon. Wonderful for a 20 year old’s metabolism but an extra inch to the hips for those of us whose metabolism has left the building! Oh the sacrifices we make for our grandkids.

Next stop Longwood Gardens. I wish I could explain his fascination with this beautiful treasure. We’ve been taking he and his brother there since they were little and the thrill still exists for both, especially during the Christmas season with the dancing fountain display, the animations along the lake and, of course, the hot chocolate and trains. Seeing this specular garden through his 5, 10 and 20 year-old eyes gives us a new appreciation every time. Of course, walking for 3-4 hours has given me a new perspective of just how out of shape I’ve gotten over the years. Oh, the sacrifices we make for our grandkids.

Of all the activities we shared, spending quality time together discussing ‘whatever’ is our favorite. Jeff and I get a chance to share our ‘wisdom’, gentle guidance and sage advice with him. And I know he’s getting what we’re saying because lovingly and respectfully he would say, “OK, boomer” – a phrase he used frequently throughout our conversations.

When he left to return home to Baltimore, Jeff and I relived the visit, amazed at the openness in which he listened to our sage advice. Our ‘glowing’ however, was short lived! That evening we were watching the news and a report entitled “Ok, boomer” flashed on the screen. We smiled at each other and just as we were about to pat ourselves on the back, the report shattered our illusion. “OK, boomer” is a viral internet slang phrase used, often in a humorous or ironic manner by the Gen Z, iGen or Centennial generations, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people more generally. We looked at each other in utter disbelief. Can we be THAT gullible, innocent and out-of-touch? Just then the phone rang. It was the soon-to-be-removed from the will grandson laughing hysterically. He was watching the same report and thought he’d better call and explain. After saying “OK, boomer” several times, he realized we didn’t know what it meant but couldn’t stop himself. He assured us that he took our sage advice seriously. After we hung up, Jeff and I looked at each other and said Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Growing Up Rich

I grew up rich – not wealthy. The difference? According to the dictionary, a wealthy person has sustainable wealth and will always be wealthy. Someone who is rich will only be so for a short period of time – until the money is gone. Well, if this definition holds true, then my family wasn’t rich – not by a long shot.

My Dad was a car salesman. He wasn’t the stereotypical kick the tire, sign here, and move onto the next customer type of salesman. He really cared about his customers and if he didn’t think you should buy the car you wanted he wouldn’t sell it to you. Some appreciated this and some didn’t…especially his boss! Dad was rich with integrity and honesty not money.

Our home was like grand central station with a revolving door. There were always one or two extra people seated at our dinner table whether they be friends, neighbors, Dad’s customers or someone just needing a hot meal. Some stayed for dinner while others stayed overnight. Not sure why they wanted to sleep over since the house was small with one bathroom and three matchbox bedrooms each with a closet that held, at maximum, five-hangers. A mattress pulled off the bed and placed on the floor served as the ‘guest’s’ ‘bedroom’ while the ‘bed’s owner’ slept on the box-spring. Not exactly the Ritz Carlton, Holiday Inn or even Motel 6 but a place people wanted to stay.

One of my college friends frequently asked to spend the weekend. I never knew why and never questioned it. During Christmas semester break one year, I received a call telling me to quick turn on the TV. There was my friend being introduced as one of the twelve international debutants for that year. She never told anyone that her family owned one of the largest companies in the world and they consistently appeared on the ‘millionaires’ list. When we returned to school after the break, she again, asked to spend the weekend. I laughed and said, “Of course, your mattress awaits you.” That evening as I lay on my box spring she looked up at me from her mattress on the floor and said, “Do you realize how rich you are?” I guess I looked surprised at this remark so she continued. “My family owns multiple houses. You live in a home. My parents are always jet-setting somewhere seldom knowing or, at least from my perspective, caring what I’m doing. Though at times it might bug you, your parents are interested in every aspect of your life. You sit down together for a home-cooked dinner. I can’t remember the last time we did that as a family. You’re the richest person I know.”

I learned that night that the true measure of ‘richness’ is in health, faith. love, family, friends and laughter and that I was truly living the wonderful life…just like George Bailey.

Growing Up Italian

The Godfather, The Sopranos, The Green Book – all great shows that portray life in an Italian family. For the most part, they were spot on. Italians have a distinct way of life that’s almost impossible to mistaken for any other nationality. If you’ve truly lived it, like I did in South Philly, or spent time in the homes of your Italian friends, you’ll might recognize some of the following food and family ‘traditions’.

Whether our home or my grandparents’, no one understood the concept of ‘being full’. Basically we ate when we were hungry and, because there was enough food to feed an army, we were forced to continue eating. If you stopped and pushed back from the table, the guilt remark was made – “Remember there are starving children…” in whatever country they chose at that time. So we ate. I believe there is no Italian translation for the word ‘calorie’.

Every Sunday after church my Mom and me made 2 stops – the corner grocery store to pick up cold cuts, ordered in specific amounts like a third of a lb. minus 2 slices of mild Genoa salami – sliced thin. The second stop was the bakery where the scent of freshly baked cinnamon buns with nuts, raisins and gooey caramel added 5 lbs. to your hips without touching your mouth. Besides the cinnamon buns, a dozen fresh, warm Italian rolls were always on the list. White, wheat, rye or whatever bread was sold in the supermarket never compared. My Mom always carried a small container of butter and a butter knife so we could indulge in a buttered fresh, warm roll on the bus-ride home.

Sunday dinners were spent with family at my grandmother’s. Dinners consisted of pasta, meatballs, sausage, roasted chicken, vegetables, salad and, of course, three or four desserts. There was so much food, you were full until the middle of the following week. Best of all, everyone went home with enough leftovers to last until the next Sunday dinner.

Back yard lawns – no bigger than the depth and width of two cemetery plots were the pride of every man in the neighborhood. They were the captains of their lawns in charge of raising tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, basil, parsley, broccoli rabe and watermelons. Competition started at the first planting and ended when the last vine died. The winner? Every neighbor who shared in the abundance of crops all season long.

As for family…you probably haven’t met all of your cousins. And the cousins you have met are your 1st, 2nd and, 3rd maybe even a 4th. Of these most were named Tony, Joe, Frankie, Rose and Maria. Conversations went something like – “So I was talking to cousin Frankie. No the other Frankie. Not tall Frankie. Short Frankie. You know the one with the one blue eye.”

If you were single, your relatives were always asking when were you going to meet a ‘nice Italian boy or girl?’ Even if you were married to someone who wasn’t Italian, they always asked when were you going to meet a ‘nice Italian boy or girl.’ Ma don!

Finally, the two most consistent and recognizable Italian traits – our volume dial had only loud and louder settings – no low. As for our hands, they had a mind of their own.

Growing up Italian – more a blessing than a curse!

Forgiveness

As a child, I seldom gave my parents reasons to worry, punish or, heaven forbid, ground me. Raised in the 50’s, when the unthinkable included sneaking a cigarette, hiking your school uniform ABOVE your knees or using words like heck and darn, I flourished. Weekends were spent with grandparents, family card night, and watching the 12” black and white TV. The quiet interrupted only when we fought over which of the 3 channels to watch. Faith, family, friends and food were the staples of life

When Dad died, Mom stayed in the ‘neighborhood’. Good neighbors whose hearts were always open, doors unlocked, opinions vocalized, and refrigerators full. Mom blossomed. However, over time the parent-child roles reversed. I became concerned -is she eating, is she safe, is she watching too much TV, well, maybe not the TV. During the 8 years she lived alone she became frail. I kept in touch daily, calling, visiting, begging her to come live us. Her answer was always the same, “someday, maybe someday.”

One evening, I surprised her with her favorite Boston Market chicken. She was worse than I had ever seen her. Her pallor was the color of slate, she could barely speak above a whisper and hunched over her plate pushing the food around rather than eating. Something was wrong. All she said was “I’m tired. A couple hours of sleep and I’ll be fine.”

After dinner she asked if I would give her a bath. I bathed her, washed her hair and carried her to bed. She smiled and asked me to lock up before I left. I waited until she was asleep and left. On the drive home I convinced myself I was doing the right thing. My heart said you’re wrong but my head said you have a TO-DO list to complete. You see, I was a business owner with responsibilities.

When I told my husband what happened, he asked me why I didn’t stay. My answer, Mom said to leave and anyway, I have a TO DO list to complete. His response shall remain between us. The next morning I called but there was no answer. I panicked. Just then the phone rang. It was my aunt telling me Mom was in the hospital with congestive heart failure.

She never returned home. After weeks in the hospital she moved in with us. Every morning for the next two years, I’d bring her a cup of coffee and we’d talk. One day I brought up that night and asked for her forgiveness for not staying. She said, “There’s nothing to forgive. You’re a business owner with responsibilities. It never crossed my mind that you should stay.” To her, leaving that night didn’t mean I loved her less it just meant I had my priorities in the right place. Only a Mother can be that loving, understanding and forgiving. That night I learned about love and forgiveness and to make people the priority. You see, I still have a TO-DO list but I don’t have my Mom.
Who are the priorities in your life?

Bowling

Like many father-daughter relationships, I was ‘Daddy’s little girl’, his princess, and the one who almost gave him a heart attack. It wasn’t intentional and I didn’t even know it was happening. I was sixteen and a member of my Mom’s bowling league. Yes, they were desperate for bowlers and since my Dad worked and my Mom didn’t have her license, I was the only means of transportation. I had a blast bowling with all these ‘old’ people, some even in their 50’s, listening to them complain about my generation with all their crazy Rock ‘n Roll music, dungarees, flat shoes with bobby socks, and Elvis. “What is this generation coming to?” was a frequent remark.

This one Wednesday night, our team was fighting for first place. I stepped up and threw my first strike, then came the second and the third. I’ve had three strikes in a row before so no one got excited. Then came the fourth and the fifth strikes. I looked around and realized the bowling alley had become quiet and bowlers from the other lanes had started to huddle around the back of my lane. Among the crowd was my Dad pacing around and wiping the sweat off his brow while trying to remain calm. I waved but he gave me ‘the look’ meaning, pay attention, concentrate, and stop talking! Strikes six, seven, and eight followed. Now, you could hear a pin drop. My Dad was gripping the rail in the back so hard I could see his white knuckles from where I was standing. Strike nine, strike ten, and then the final frame. Dad stood ramrod straight clutching his hand to his chest, eyes closed in prayer. Tenth frame, first ball a strike. Two more strikes and I would achieve the ultimate in bowling – a perfect game of 300. Next ball – a strike. One more. I stood on my mark, aimed at the board I’ve been hitting all night, and made my approach. The ball rolled over the board, hit in the pocket, and 9 pins flew while one stood upright never wavering…299. I turned to walk back to the bench to the sound of people cheering, my Mom crying, and my Dad with the biggest grin I think I’ve ever seen. The game wasn’t perfect, but the night was.

Over the next thirty-five years, I bowled on and off on various leagues even making it to nationals before finally giving away my ball and shoes to another perfect game hopeful. Time has marched on. Our 55+ community has a bowling league and with visions of that 299 game still in my head, I jumped at the chance to be a substitute. First game, first frame – 6 pins and then a gutter ball followed leaving more pins standing than falling down. First two games I didn’t break 100. In the third game when I strung two strikes together, I looked behind me and swore I saw my Dad grinning ear to ear.

WD-40

My Dad had two go-to tools when it came to doing handy work around the house, WD-40® and Duct Tape. He once read “if it moves and shouldn’t, use Duct Tape, if it doesn’t move and should, use WD-40®.” He took this to heart.

He used Duct Tape so often, for years we thought it was wallpaper. This miracle of the tape world could be found anywhere in the house – on chairs to support a wobbly leg, on pants to hold up a ripped hem, shoes, gloves, sports gear and even on the dog! Sheba, our Scotch terrier, had a loose nail and Dad duct taped it until we could take her to the vet. It worked.  She did however, get a little grumpy when the tape was pulled off her fur. We use to make fun of Dad and his Duct Tape obsession until it was validated years later when the TV show MacGyver hit the air. MacGyver could fix anything with Duct Tape, a paper clip and some old fashion ingenuity.

Dad’s use of Duct Tape was only exceeded by his fascination with WD-40®. He used it to clean, repair, unsqueak, lubricate, untangle and fix anything, anywhere in the house.  He even kept a can of it on his bed stand just in case something needed his attention during the middle of the night. I understand WD-40® has many uses but Dad took it to an extreme.  Why? Because he wasn’t a handyman. He was good at many things, but handyman wasn’t one of them. His red toolbox contained 10 screwdrivers, all the same size; 3 hammers, one without a head and a sundry of other tools still in their original wrappers. The one power tool he owned was more a lethal weapon than a helpful tool. WD-40® always made him look like a hero whether he was unjamming a zipper, opening a rusty lock, cleaning a stain off the carpet or crayon marks off the wallpaper. It didn’t however, work on the ketchup and mustard that, by accident, landed on the dining room wall after a food fight between my brother and me. But that’s another story.

 In his pursuit of making a home repair, a simple turn of a screw could result in a 3 hour disaster. Try as she might, Mom could not convince him to call a repair man until the day the seventh wonder of the world happened. The washing machine in the basement in their small row home was out of alignment. It shook, rattled and banged like a 50’s song. Dad, armed with his WD-40® went into action. He sprayed everywhere he could reach but the ‘song’ continued. As the last resort, he took out the red tool box. We all shuddered and ran for cover. In a half hour he called us to see his accomplishment. The washer sounded more like Silent Night than Shake, Rattle and Roll. Dad gloated with an ear-to-ear smile until we heard my brother shout from the third floor, “The sink in the bathroom is leaking.” Yes, Dad accomplished the impossible, he caused an upward leak! Mom called the repairman. An hour later, the washer ran smoothly, the bathroom sink was fixed and Dad relinquished his red tool box.

 For the most part, our beliefs are formed by our experiences and, based on this, I thought all Dads were hammer and nail klutzes and the main reason repairmen existed. I was so wrong. My husband Jeff comes from a family of repairmen, tinkers, do-it-yourselfers, handymen and handy women. I’ve never met so many people who could make something out of nothing, transform a solid wall into a book shelf or move a kitchen from one side of the house to the other. Even more amazing, nothing collapsed, leaked or forced you to walk on an angle. All of these abilities stemmed from one person, Al Taylor, Jeff’s Dad. Al has never met a tool he couldn’t master, or a project he couldn’t handle either inside the home or outside. He’s the first person we call when a motor needs fixing, a blade sharpened or a downspout replaced. Jeff happily follows him around making the repairs under Dad’s watchful eye and supervision. Jeff can probably make these repairs on his own. His talents aren’t as bad as my Dad’s but not as masterful as his Dad’s. However, can you think of a better way to spend time and make memories than working side-by-side with your 96 year old Dad?

Unexplainable Bonds

Connection. Bond. Link. Not sure how to describe what my Grandfather and my brother had but they had it. Worlds apart in every aspect yet, linked so tightly nothing could come between them. My Grandfather was an Italian immigrant coming through Ellis Island at the age of 13. He had no money, no trade and only the address of a family he was to live with. This family were friends of his parents and Pop was told their daughter, Annie, was to be his wife, an arrangement forged when they were toddlers. Pop lived with my Grandmother’s family, apprenticed as a tailor and married when she was 17 and he was 19.

Pop’s heart was golden, his manner mild and the connection with his first grandson, my older brother Steve, was unexplainable. For hours they would sit and talk about baseball, politics, and food. How they understood each other, no one knew. You see, Pop’s English was poor and Steve’s Italian was nonexistent. A favorite subject and common interest was fishing. When Steve was 15 he persuaded Pop to leave his Singer sewing machine and join him at FDR Park in South Philly for a day of fishing. Pop jumped at the chance and they make plans.

As with most fishing, some days the fish bite and some days they don’t. Steve, always prepared, after all he was a Boy Scout and later a Marine, packed a fish in a cooler just in case the lake fish weren’t cooperating. His goal was to have Pop catch a fish. They got to the park, set up their chairs, baited their hooks, said a prayer that something other than the bugs would bite, and settled in for a day together. It was sunny, warm and perfect. A nibble here and a nibble there got their blood pumping but never resulted in a catch. As the day came to a close and before heading home, Pop excuse himself to use the restroom. Steve jumped on the opportunity to put the fish on Pop’s hook. He hooked it and then threw it back into the lake. When Pop returned, Steve said, “Pop, I think I saw your line bob up and down.” Pop reeled in his line and, low and behold, there was the catch of the day, a 2 lb. large-mouth bass. Steve took the fish off the hook, put it in the cooler and they headed back bringing the ‘catch of the day’ home for my Grandmother to cook for dinner.

Proudly they brought the fish into the kitchen where my Grandmother was getting ready to make dinner. She opened the cooler, took out the fish and exclaimed “What’s this? It’s frozen!” Neither Pop or Steve said a word. They just turned, arms around each other’s shoulders and smiles on their faces.

Different worlds, different generations, Grandfather and Grandson – a bond forged in respect. A connection made of steel. A love forever linked.

Traditions


When I hear the word tradition, I mentally picture a fiddler on the roof in the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof where the Papa, the Mama, the sons and daughters did specific things because they were a tradition. Traditions are symbolic in meaning with special ties to the past. Some go back farther than anyone can remember and some begin out of necessity like the chicken’s tail.

I was preparing to roast a chicken using my grandmother’s secret recipe. Jeff came in and asked me why I was cutting off the tail, “Because my Mother did” I replied. When we visited my Mom he asked her, “Mom, why do you cut off the tail of the chicken before roasting.” “Because my Mother did.” she replied.

Not satisfied with either answer, we drove to the source – my grandmother’s home. My grandmother, the oldest of 13 children, was born in America. She was a voracious reader, a midwife, an excellent cook, had a heart of gold and a temper that would flared if you crossed her the wrong way. Her kitchen was her domain and that’s where we found her. After consuming some of her mouthwatering ricotta cookies, Jeff asked her the chicken tail question. She looked at him and said, “I don’t do that. I only did it years ago because the pan was too small to hold the whole bird.” Traditions.

For me, there’s nothing sadder than the ending of a tradition. I’m Italian by heritage and raised Catholic. The number of Italian traditions is only exceeded by the number of Catholic traditions. Combine the two and you can write a 365 day calendar! The Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fish is one of my fondest memories and traditions.

Why seven fish? No one really knows. Some insist it’s a religious symbol and others a marketing ploy to get people to eat more fish. Regardless of the origin, it was a tradition in our family dating back to the early 1900. It carried with it no hard and fast rules regarding what fish to serve however in our home, it wasn’t complete unless baccalà and smelts were on the table. Over the years, the Feast of the Seven Fishes moved from my grandmother’s home to my Mother’s and finally to me. That’s when the change started. The younger generations turned their nose up to the traditional fish dishes wanting only mac and cheese, buttered spaghetti and chicken fingers. The tradition didn’t just die – it vanished!

As some traditions die others are born. Every New Year’s morning my nephew, who lives in Southern California, drives his family of 5 to a specific beach. Here they write the former year in the sand and watch as the tide takes it away with all its good and not so good happenings. They then write the new year in the sand, sharing their hopes and dreams for the upcoming year. Traditions.

In the words of Tevye, the Papa in Fiddler on the Roof, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” Keep your traditions and pass them on.

The Way We Were (1936)

Recently, Jeff’s Dad who is 96, came to stay with us for a week while Jerry, Jeff’s older brother with whom Dad lives, and his wife Sylvia were doing missionary work in Ecuador. Dad’s new hobby is to sleep, nap, take siestas, rest and go to bed. This is more out of boredom than anything else. After he retired he stayed active – working in his Church in varied capacities, fixing small motors, rewiring anything electrical and helping to build houses. A couple of years ago when his sight and hearing betrayed him, his favorite activities stopped and boredom became his constant companion.

On this visit, Jeff asked Dad to go through a box of pictures, certificates and memorabilia that belonged to Dad’s older brother Albert. In this treasure trove, along with a bible given to Albert in 1935 by his mother was a typed letter entitled “The Way We Were.” We’re not sure if Albert, a former Army Colonel, politician, and humorist, wrote this or copied it from an unknown author. Regardless, it describes a time unknown to many of us but well worth reading. Enjoy.

“We were before television. Before penicillin, the pill, polio shots, antibiotics and Frisbees. Before frozen foods, nylon, Dacron, Xerox and Kinsey. We were before radar, florescent lights, credit cards and ballpoint pens. For us, time-sharing meant togetherness not computers; a chip meant a piece of wood; hardware meant headwear and software wasn’t even a word. In those days bunnies were small rabbits and rabbits were not Volkswagens.

We were before Batman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Snoopy. Before DDT and vitamin pills, vodka, at least in the US, the white wine craze, disposable diapers, jeeps and the Jefferson nickel. Before Scotch tape, M&M’s, the automatic shift and Lincoln Continentals.

We were in college when pizzas, Cheerios, frozen orange juice, instant coffee and McDonalds were unheard of. We thought fast food was what you ate during Lent.

We were before FM radio, tape recorders, electric typewriters, word processors, Muzak, electronic music and disco dancing. We were before pantyhose and drip-dry clothes. Before ice makers, dish washers, clothes dryers, freezers and electric blankets. Before men wore long hair and earrings and women wore tuxedoes. We got married first and then lived together. How quaint can you be?

In our day cigarette smoking was fashionable, grass was mowed, coke was something you drank and pot was something you cooked in. We were before coin vending machines, jet planes, helicopters and interstate highways. In 1936 “made somewhere other than the USA” meant junk, and the term ‘making out’ referred to how you did on exams.

In our time, there were five and ten cent stores where you could buy things for five and ten cents. For just a nickel you could ride the streetcar, make a phone call, buy a Coke or buy enough stamps to mail one letter and two postcards. You could buy a new Chevy coup for $600, but who could afford that in 1936? Nobody. A pity too because gas was eleven cents a gallon.

We were not before the difference between the sexes was discovered, but we were before sex change. We just made do with what we had.

And so it was in 1936. This is “The Way We Were” and we loved it!”

Guilt

Jeff and I were cruising the back roads of Chester County one beautiful Sunday morning. The sun was bright, the sky a robin egg blue and the temperature, a perfect San Diego 75. Jeff was driving while I was road gazing. As we came to a bend in the road I spotted an arrowed road sign with the number 1963 pointing up a graveled road. An address? Road marker? Regardless of the reason, all I could think of was the year 1963 and the guilt came flooding back! This was the year JFK was assassinated and the feeling of being somewhat responsible hit me like a ton of bricks. I was a freshman in college, seated in an amphitheater style classroom waiting to take a math test for which I was totally unprepared. I thought, if only something ‘big’ would happen like a tsunami, volcano eruption or earthquake, to postpone this math disaster I would be forever grateful and promise to study for the next test. Just then the professor burst into the room and announced that the President had been killed in Dallas. For a fleeting moment, I thought my wish had come true. Of course it hadn’t, but you need to understand, I’m Catholic, seated in a Catholic University surrounded by portraits of saints too numerous to name with my ‘Catholic guilt meter’ ready to fire at the drop of a hat.

Of course, I had no influence on the dark history made that day but ‘guilt’ has a way of playing with your mind…throughout your entire life! So where does ‘guilt’ come from? Are we born with it? Do we inherit it? Is it something drilled into us by family, teachers or religion? For me I think it was the nuns I had for 16 years of Catholic education. Not a complaint just a statement of fact!

Guilt however, isn’t specific to Catholics. My friend Adele is Jewish and we frequently discuss the part ‘guilt’ played in our growing up and agreed that Jewish ‘guilt’ and Catholic ‘guilt’ are similar. Both are drummed into our ‘being’ from the day we were born and proliferates like a fast growing weed shadowing almost everything we do.

So what does ‘guilt’ look like? It could be a stare, an eye-roll or an innocent statement like ‘You’re not coming to Sunday dinner? That’s okay, I’m sure your Grandmother won’t take it too personally’. This is implied ‘guilt’. Serious ‘guilt’ would be ‘That’s okay, but you know, at her age, it may be her last.’ Either way, you have two courses of action. First, cancel your plans and go to Sunday dinner making each and every minute miserable for everyone around you or second, miss Sunday dinner and worry the whole time that Grandmother will fall over dead, which if she did, would be your fault. The perfect ‘guilt’ trap.

Erma Bombeck summed it up well – “Guilt – the gift that keeps on giving.” Please don’t pass it on.

Rhythm

I love to sing and dance. The problem is I can’t carry a tune in a wet paper bag, and I was born with two left feet. My singing is so bad that my husband asks me not to sing in the shower. As for dancing, that doesn’t bother him so much. You see Jeff is a little over 6’ tall and I’m a little under 5 feet. When we dance, as long as I’m not stepping on the tops of his feet, he’s gazing around looking over my head watching what’s going on while I’m looking at the 3rd or 4th button on his shirt – and trying to lead.

 I credit my parents with my love of song and dance. Our home was always filled with music: pop, swing, rhythm and blues, opera – you name it. Something was always playing on the Victrola console that stood proudly in the living room. As a car salesman, my Dad’s dinner hours varied from an early dinner at 4:30 pm to a later dinner at 6:30. I loved the early dinner, because that’s when ‘I caught Mom & Dad’. Caught them doing what you ask? Dancing. I’d come home from school and opened the front door to Tony Bennett, Louie Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, the Andrew Sisters, and many others. No matter who was singing, Mom and Dad would be dancing in the living room, oblivious to the world. Dad would spin Mom this way, then that way and always finish with a twirl, a hug, and a kiss. They were the original ‘hoofers’.

 Watching the joy song and dance brought, I begged and begged to take piano lessons. There were two reasons that should have made Mom and Dad stand their ground and say no. First, I’m tone-deaf, and second, we didn’t have a piano. Being Daddy’s little girl and so adorable, if I say so myself, Dad convinced Mom to sign me up for lessons at my school. Lessons were held 2 days a week in the convent at St. Edmonds. Since we didn’t have a piano, I was given a paper keyboard to practice on. It’s not the same. The last straw for Sister Mary-No-Patience was when I got off the left side of the piano bench and walked over to the right side to hit a key. You see, the other student, with whom I shared the bench, was rather large and I couldn’t reach the key from where I was seated so I improvised. I was impressed, she wasn’t.  She called my Mom and told her I didn’t have a musical bone in my body, and she was wasting her money. The lessons were 25 cents a week! That was it.  If Sister Mary-No-Patience said I had no musical talent then I guess I didn’t, because nuns don’t lie.

Time both marches on. It eases pain, lessens sadness, helps anger, fear, and bad memories fade and gives us hope. I can vouch for this because years later my hope to play the piano again raised its ugly head. Why? Because of my husband Jeff’s family. They’re all musical. All three brothers sing, write music and play a variety of instruments. Jeff played five. All this singing and playing got me enthused to try again. Over the next 15 years, we purchased an old upright piano and 3 electronic keyboards all of which were given away. I guess Sister Mary-No-Patience was right about playing an instrument, but she never heard me sing. So off I went to join a local choir. When I was asked to stand in the back and just mouth the words the message was received – I can’t sing.

Not being able to sing however, didn’t stop me from singing. Jeff and I attended a musical production of 50 and 60’s music. I closed my eyes and was back in my childhood home listening to the Victrola. The gentleman next to me must have been having a similar experience as he and I sang along to each and every song. Ugly glances from the row in front of us and kicks from the row behind along with well-placed elbows from Jeff and my fellow singer’s wife only lowered our volume but didn’t stop us. When we returned to our seats after the intermission, my fellow singer and I had been separated with Jeff and the gentleman’s wife sitting between us.

I still love to sing and dance and do so every chance I get following the words of Mark Twain – “Dance as if no one were watching, sing like no one can hear and live life every day as if it were your last.” Good advice.

Retirement

Years ago, it seemed like a dream. Being a small business owner, would I ever be able to turn the page on that chapter of my life? Well, through the grace of God, hard work, diligent financial strategizing and a lot of wishing, hoping and praying, I made the leap – later than what I dreamed and sooner than I expected. Now what do I do? My retirement benchmark was my Dad’s retirement. I remember the day so clearly, so clearly in fact that it might just have been yesterday rather than 1985. I received a panic call from my Mother. “You won’t believe this. It can’t be happening. What will I do?” she said and my mind started to race.  Who died? What black plague had descended upon that row home in South Philly? What member of our family, a very colorful one I might add, did what to whom, when and how did they get caught? Questions like these streamed through my mind while my Mother talked and sobbed simultaneously. When she finally took a breath I asked, “Mom, what happened?”  She paused and in between sobs said “Your father retired! He came home last night and announced that he retired! What will I do?”  WHEW…no calamity!

 A little about my Dad. The first to graduate college, he tolerated a short-lived career as a high school history teacher. He left after less than a year for his sanity but more so for the safety of the students. He just couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited about medieval wars and ancient Rome. His next career – a car salesman!  His knowledge of cars included how to drive them and how to curse at them. Despite everything, he was successful for the 45 years he sold Buicks. He provided a good life for our family including putting my brother and me through 4-year colleges in which we boarded. In the early part of his ‘sales’ career, he worked from 9 am to 4 pm with a short break for dinner, and then back to work until 9 pm. He did this 6 days a week, and a half-day on Sunday.  He was a man we recognized more from the pictures around the house than the person himself. A great man, a good provider and, for the most part, a missing husband and father and now, someone who would home, 24/7. I’m happy to report that after several months of adjusting, my parents settled into a comfortable routine…Mom upstairs and Dad in the basement where he enjoyed his cigars, the Philadelphia Eagles and his Scotch.  They stayed married, sane and best friends until his passing in 1991.

  Now I’m facing retirement. My story is different from my Dad’s. At 40, I married for the 2nd – and last time might I add. At the same time, I became the stepmother to a beautiful 14 year-old daughter, Jacki. She was potty-trained – a good thing however she was FOURTEEN. My husband Jeff & I were building our dream home and I was starting a business. Obviously, I’m a true believer in multi-tasking! Everything was planned with the exception of starting a business.  It sort of evolved when I became a ‘displaced executive’ or fired however you’d like to describe it and was encouraged by the two most influential people in life, my husband and my mother, to ‘do my passion’. When Jeff suggested that I start my business, I thanked him for his support, rolled my eyes and called my Mom. She agreed with Jeff. However, it was her closing comment that started my entrepreneurial journey. She said, “What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll have to go back and work for someone? Don’t look back on your life when you’re 65 and say maybe it would have worked.” She was 65 when she gave me that sage advice. So with a lick and a prayer, RCTaylor and Associates was born. It worked. I sold the business 24 years later…and it continues to this day under the new owner. Thanks, Mom.

 So what to do in retirement? After moving into a 55+ community I traded my briefcase for bocce, my car for a golf cart, writing proposals for playing pinochle and business meetings, volunteer work, and that was just in the first year! Retirement has given me more time to do all the activities I whined about not doing because of work. More time to try different things. More time for naps. More time for family and friends. More time to appreciate all my past and present blessings. More time to ‘give back’. More time to live life.  I now wear nothing but elastic, and every day when I wake up it’s Saturday.

 In the words of Bill Waterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbs, when you retire “There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.”  Amen.

Funerals

Funerals play an important role. Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things that anyone will ever experience. Unexpected or the end of a prolonged illness, death leaves a void that is seldom filled and leaves us ‘different’.

Funerals give friends and relatives the opportunity to express the love and respect felt for the person who has passed and to show support for those left without them. Whether it’s solemn like a traditional memorial service or joyous as the dancing and music of a New Orleans jazz parade, funerals help begin the healing process.

Years ago, a friend was killed in a senseless and preventable car accident. She left behind a loving family and a business. At the funeral home, with hundreds of others, we stood for hours in a line that snaked from the church to the parking lot. People shed tears, shared stories and agreed that she was too young to die and her death a tragedy for her 5 and 8 year old children. While walking back to our car, I said to Jeff “I don’t ever want that. For my last hurrah on this earth, I want a theme party where everyone dresses in costumes.” He asked, “Like the Wizard of Oz?” I leaned over to kiss him but stopped short when he started singing, “Ding dong the witch is dead…” He was so close to being perfect.

Funerals have been a means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings for thousands of years. Providing an emotional outlet for all involved. This outlet comes in many forms – tears, stories and if fortunate, laughter.

My Dad died suddenly. Taken so quickly, none of us had time to prepare. He, however, was prepared, leaving a list of dos and don’ts. His requests included a ‘cheap’ casket, no viewing and a celebration with red wine, cheese, and crackers. He ended his list with, “do this, or I will haunt you.” Mom went along with the wine, cheese, and crackers but stopped short of his other wishes. As people spoke quietly with Mom and other family members, Pete, Dad’s friend of 60 years, came running in waving a Mass card in his hand. He handed it to Mom apologizing profusely for being late. He was paying his respects at an open casket in an adjoining room when he realized it wasn’t my Dad! Mom laughed as did everyone around her and she thanked Pete for providing some levity during such a tough time.

Life is for the living. After the loss of a loved one, life is different. At a Jewish funeral, a Kriah is performed. It’s the partial tearing of a cloth or ribbon symbolizing, though still whole, life is ‘different’ and continues. When something tragic happens or a loss is felt, our friend Stan says to his wife Adele, “Book it Dano” meaning, book a cruise and let’s live life while we can. Good advice Stan.

Recipes

If Cleopatra was the face that launched a thousand ships then “how did Grandmom make those breaded asparagus?” is the question that launched our family’s cookbook. I come from a long line of wonderful and imaginative cooks. A treasured recipe my great-grandmother brought with her to America was her biscotti. Her secret ingredient, we’re told, was red wine. Of course, my family put red wine in everything including my brother’s milk to stop his crying…it worked.

Why a cookbook? Family recipes are a way of keeping our ancestry alive. The smell of most foods can evoke vivid memories of our childhood and the family members who made them. Food itself can remind us of experiences helping us relive feelings of comfort and love. I remember having breakfast with my Aunt Kay at my Grandmother’s home. Her breakfast consisted of 2 pieces of toast, a cup of tea and a soft boiled egg. She would break open the shell with a knife, scoop out the egg leaving a little of the white inside the shells and give them to me. Comfort and love.

I contacted many relatives asking for their favorite recipes. Some included pictures and stories along with the recipe so I decided to use them here and there. One day as Jeff was looking through the mountain of pictures and stories he asked, “Where does this person fit into the family?” This is an example of insanity breeding insanity – I decided to include family trees! The labor of love began and nine months later, “Relatively Cooking” was born. I had 85 copies printed and sent them to family and friends. The response was overwhelming, but not what I thought it would be. You see, I was so excited to get the books in the mail I failed to have someone proof my work. The mistakes and typos were quickly and humorously called to my attention. My cousin Tony asked me if I considered him a ‘bastard’. “Why would I do that?”, I asked. His answer, in his family tree I had him born two years before his parents were married…and he was their second child! Oops. Another relative asked what type of organs should be used to make the Cranberry Relish. Organs? Oh, that’s supposed to be oranges. Oops. My brother asked what year our Dad passed. I replied 1991. I had him dying in 1987, 1989 and 1991. Oops. Finally, my Aunt Kay called in a panic! Her eggplant recipe was wrong. Not only was an essential ingredient left out but the baking temperature was too high and the time to bake it too long! I ended up sending a 3-page revision entitled “Don’t Make the Eggplant”.

Making, sharing and passing down recipes is a wonderful way to honor and immortalize family. The memories and emotions triggered by the aroma of a pot of ‘gravy’ simmering with garlic, onions and tomatoes or homemade bread or cookies just out of the oven have no rival. Sorry TV dinners.

Allegiances

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Recognize these words? If you grew up in the 50’s you probably started your school day repeating them. At St. Edmonds grammar school, every day for eight years we stood, faced the flag, placed our hands over our hearts and pledged our ‘allegiance’. We were taught the meaning of ‘allegiance’ but, I can guarantee you, none of us understood the real meaning of ‘allegiance’. That insight was gained as we grew and matured over the years living through events that would be our continuing history.

My Grandfather was an immigrant. He came to the U.S. from Italy. Why? Because his parents told him there was a better life across the ‘pond’, the woman he was pre-arranged to marry was there and, most important, they already purchased the ticket. Once processed through Ellis Island his life in America began. He became a high-end tailor at Louis Goldsmith Clothier, married, bought a home and raised three children. Life was good but, for him, something was missing. A connection to country. He had fond memories of his Italian roots but, after so many years, America was his country and he should be a citizen. After completing the application, establishing his eligibility, passing an English and civics test he stood proudly with twenty-four men and women of all races, nationalities and religions and pledged his allegiance to the Constitution of the country he had grown to love. One he now considered his home.

After Pop became a citizen, things changed. Being the head of the household, or so my Grandmother lead him to believe, he made two new house rules – only English was to be spoken and everyone, when asked their nationality, should answer “American-Italian.” He put America first because that’s the way it should be. Over the years, he wavered on speaking only English but always referred to himself as an American-Italian. “I will always be proud of my Italian heritage but I am an American. I live here, work here, have raised my family here and have pledged my allegiance. America is my country and I would give my life for her.”

I’m third generation American and like my Grandfather, I love this country. Being granted the rights of citizenship by birth, I didn’t fully and probably still don’t appreciate exactly what that means, including the advantages, benefits, and responsibilities. Living and traveling internationally gave me an idea of just how lucky I was to be an American and living in the best country – warts and all!

I think we should go back to pledging our allegiance every morning before coffee, tea, and juice. Perhaps then, before all the news about what’s wrong with this country filters into our day, we’ll appreciate what we have and help make her better. “…with liberty and justice for all.”

Christmas Traditions

Jeff and I had been dating for about a year and I thought it was time for him to meet my family and experience a traditional Italian Christmas Eve. I didn’t however, warn him about the Twilight Zone he was about to enter. However, I did give strict instructions to my family. No interrogation, no Rosanne stories and please don’t mention Uncle Guido or the cash hidden behind the wall at Grandmom’s. We’ll save those for his second visit.

Upon entering the house, Jeff asked “What is that”? “It’s our aluminum Christmas tree” I answered. That’s right, we had an aluminum tree proudly adorned with bubble lights and tinsel. My Dad called it the tree of the future – no fuss, no muss, saves time and money. Put it up, take it down and store it. He was right except for the year he jammed the branches in upside down making the tree look like an arrow spearing the carpet. It took Mom and me hours to reassemble.

Our celebration consisted of dinner, singing carols, and reading The Night Before Christmas. Jeff was amazed by the variety of seafood served. I was grateful he liked fish otherwise it could have been a long night for him and a short relationship for me. Fried smelts were his favorite. Smelts are small fish eaten whole – eyes and tails included. They’re delicious especially if they’re floured and fried so you don’t see the eyes.

After dessert, Mom put Perry Como on the turntable and handed out the sheet music. Everyone was singing off key and loudly when disaster struck. Uncle Tony’s false teeth flew out of his mouth and landed on Uncle Fred’s knee. We all laughed as Fred chased Tony screaming “You bit me”. These two brothers were the best people for such a happening. Uncle Tony was a shrewd self-made contractor. Once, to insure payment, he placed a sheet of glass halfway down a client’s chimney. When the home owner called raging that his house was filled with smoke, Tony ask for the payment, got it then dropped a brick down the chimney to break the glass. Uncle Fred was also successful having worked his way from the mail room to the C Suite at the largest bank in Philadelphia. As down to earth as Tony was, Fred was just the opposite and the perfect recipient of a bite by a set of false choppers. As a grand finale, one of my nine uncles – usually the one who could still stand and read by the end of the night, read the classic poem.

Jeff survived my family and learned how to use a spoon to twirl his spaghetti. He also came away with an appreciation for an aluminum tree and the importance of Italian Christmas Eve traditions. Do you have holiday traditions? Continue them, pass them on and hold them in your heart. This is the best present you can give or receive.