Archive for the ‘family’ Category

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Dog Days

June 20, 2017

For those who are inexperienced in such matters, life with a dog is significantly different from life without one. I am particularly aware of this because I happen to have a foot in both worlds.

I do not own a dog myself, so the majority of my time is spent dogless. However, since both my brother-in-law and niece are dog owners who go away fairly often, I thus become de facto caretaker of an intensely loyal Schnauzer named Rocky and a cute but rambunctious Morkie named Max.

Rocky and Max

I love animals in general, but dogs have a special place in my heart. The unconditional love they share with the humans in their lives is unmatched (very often by humans themselves), and there is no price that can be put on the joy they bring us.

But, as with everything in life, there are pitfalls as well, ones about which the dogless are oblivious.

Dogs, for instance, do not know how to use a toilet. Such an incongruous idea never occurs to those who are not in the position of walking a dog in pouring rainstorms, freezing cold, or sweltering heat (one becomes hyper-sensitive to weather forecasts in such situations) or at inconvenient hours (such as 5:00 in the morning or after you have already gotten ready for bed). At least cats, for all their faults, know how to use a litter box. But I digress.

Dogs (many of them I hear, and certainly the two in my life) like to sleep with their humans. Now I am not so fussy as to object to a pup snuggled at the foot of my bed, but when he insists on cuddling up right next to me on my pillow, that’s where I draw the line. Dogs, unfortunately, don’t understand the lines that one draws.

Dogs like to bark, some more than others. Chloe, the pit bull that lives down the street, never barks. In stark contrast, Rocky and Max make a living barking. At the mailman. At the children passing on the way to or from school. At birds that fly by, at squirrels that prance teasingly on the branches outside the window knowing they are immune, at chipmunks that scurry by the front door, and at cats. Especially cats.

This is particularly problematic for us since we maintain a small group of feral cats who have lived in and about our yard for years (now all neutered). They are friendly and entertaining and keep down the rodent population in the garden. It is not difficult, in my opinion anyway, to live at peace with them.

Rocky and Max, on the other hand, have quite a different perspective. It is their mission to relentlessly pursue them (a near impossible task if you are at all familiar with cats) and, failing that, to bark their fool heads off whenever they see them (like when lounging in their favorite spot on our deck). I have taken to keeping large cardboard sections handy to strategically place in lines of sight by doors and windows to control the racket.

My brother-in-law employs shock collars to deal with this problem at his house, but I don’t have the heart to do that. I’ll just stick to the cardboard.

Dogs like to eat. They like to eat just about anything, above all whatever you happen to be eating. At the table during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. On the couch snacking during TV time. In the car after a stop at the drive-in or ice cream shop. Dogs also don’t quite get the impropriety of begging.

During this current period of dog days, it is only Max that is staying here. He is watching me right now as I write this from his customary perch on the back of the couch (he has a Snoopy complex in that regard). I had considered letting him look this over before posting it, but his editing skills don’t quite match his barking ability. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my minor criticisms, for he knows well my tender feelings toward him as does Rocky.

Though at times I look forward to being free of the inconveniences of their presence, each time they go, I end up missing them. And I think perhaps that is the most essential measure of the quality of life with a dog.

Whaddaya mean the cats are your friends???

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The Italian in Me

October 2, 2016

Though many are likely not aware of it, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. No doubt quite a few jokes have been made at the expense of this commemorative designation, but in spite of many widespread negative images and stereotypes of Italian Americans, there is much to be proud of.

Almost 6% of the population of our country, some 15.7 million people, are of Italian heritage. Though most of the original immigrants started their journey in the United States low on the totem pole, the successive generations have made their mark in virtually every area of endeavor. Best known, of course, are those who achieved prominence in music, film, and sports (and yes, unfortunately, crime), names familiar to all: Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, Joe DiMaggio, Al Capone. However, others, though perhaps not household names, have excelled in politics, jurisprudence, the sciences, and the arts.

But most have not achieved fame. They are policemen, firemen, mechanics, nurses, teachers, and office workers, the ordinary people in all walks of life, each bringing some degree of their Italian background to their American lives. I believe the American culture has been enriched by their contributions as well.

My Italian-American mom Ida.

My Italian American mom Ida.

I happen to be half Italian, that half coming from my mother. She was named Aida after the opera, though everyone knew her as Ida. Her family was 100% Italian. During my entire childhood, we would make weekly Sunday visits to the Brooklyn home of Sal and Mary Laporte, my grandparents, where I learned about my Italian heritage. Most of what I know about the food, language, and customs came from that small second-floor railroad apartment on Bay Ridge Avenue.

My mother had not only married a non-Italian, but someone from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake. I suppose these Sunday family visits were a necessary part of the deal for my father, not that he minded once he sat down at my grandma’s dinner table. That alone was worth the drive.

My grandpa would “reserve” a parking space right out in front of the building by placing his beat-up garbage cans in the street and then standing guard on his stoop so no interloper could sneak in. When we’d pull up, he’d greet us, cigar jutting out from his big smile showing his single front tooth. Grandma would be upstairs cooking, and as we were ushered up the steps, she’d come down the hall to deliver her smothering hugs with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand.

My cousin Bobby (taken in by my grandma as a boy after his mother died) would pop in from his daily duty of hanging around the neighborhood and sometimes pull me aside into his tiny room to show me some teenage treasure of his (a switch blade, a Cadillac hubcap he’d “found”) or tell some story of his latest adventures. A few years older than me and a whole lot more street smart, I learned most of the curse words I knew from these sessions. Soon my Uncle Mike and Aunt Josie who lived downstairs would come up with cousins Mike and Gerry.

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave.-- Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave. with a young Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

Of course the reason for the trip was to see family, but the main event was the food. As my grandmother, mother, and Aunt Josie finished up in the kitchen, we would all congregate in the dining room in eager anticipation.

The eating would begin around noon and continue on and off until coffee and desert time around seven. In between, plentiful courses were served in the warmth of the old-fashioned dining room, foods that resonated with the sound of Italy: braciole, prosciutto, provolone, pasta e fagioli, rigatoni. These courses would be separated by adult conversation and kids going off to play or nap to return again for the next round.

First came the antipasto, a table full of all kinds of delectable finger foods, cheeses and olives and crusty bread. Then the part I loved best, the pasta with steam rising off the huge platter along with extra gravy bowls full of red, rich, aromatic tomato sauce. My taste expectations for pasta were set here, seldom to be met elsewhere until I got married; my mother-in-law’s gravy turned out to be almost an exact match! Then there would be meat dishes accompanied by vegetables and followed by salad. Grandpa presided over the whole operation, wine bottle by his side. These meals were legendary, and we would all stuff ourselves to the point of near exploding amidst the loud and animated conversations liberally peppered with Italian curses swirling about the table and the unmistakable feel of family bonds.

As the day drew to a close, coats were retrieved and goodbyes were said, and we headed back through the dusk to my other world on the Jersey side. I would often nod off in the back seat, dreams fueled by the tastes of my forefathers. Those Sundays in Brooklyn captured that irreplaceable time in my life when the connections to family roots were so strong. I cherish the memories, and I am thankful that I can look back and see where I came from and recognize those parts of me that are indebted to Sal and Mary and pasta that was nothing short of paradise.

My adult life received a second infusion when I married an Italian American girl. My address book took on many additions to the LaPortes and Rizzos with Vendittis, Bertuccis, and Butricos joining the list. Her parents, Mary and Tony, provided continuity in the fueling of the Italian in me.

The Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much involved sitting around the table in the dining room at my in-laws. On Christmas Eve we held the traditional dinner of seven fishes. Then on Christmas day once again, the food — oh, the food! First the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

After Mary could no longer manage all the preparation, the tradition carried forth at our house for Christmas Eve and then at my brother-in-law Anthony’s for Christmas. Though the gathering may have grown smaller in number over the years, it has remained great in spirit.

Christmas Eve seven fishes, now at our house

Christmas Eve with the seven fishes, now at our house.

Since the influx of Italians into America, our society has been influenced by and in turn has influenced those who stem from that southern boot of Europe. This unique blend of Italian-American-ness has manifest itself in both positive and sometimes not so positive ways. I choose to celebrate the positive and revel in the warmth, passion, friendliness, and generosity so typical of this heritage which has become an integral part of the American fabric. So to all my connazionali out there, full-blooded or otherwise, I wish you buona salute, lunga vita, and felicita, and may we keep the best of ourselves flourishing.

 

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Pop

July 30, 2016
Pop (on the right) during his Army days

Pop (on the right) during his Army days

Unbeknownst to many, today happens to be Father-in-Law Day. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to do so can honor someone who, though not blood, is certainly an important part of family. So today I take the welcome opportunity to celebrate Pop.

Pop is Tony, my father-in-law, who is 95 years of age. I have known him since 1968 when I was the long-haired boyfriend on the motorcycle dating his daughter. I can only imagine what he thought of me then. However, over the ensuing years we have come to know each other well. He is kind and gentle, a salt-of-the-earth type of man in its best possible sense.

His has been a life filled with the struggles that made up the pursuit of the American dream by those of his generation. He followed the rules, worked hard, fulfilled his duties, and kept his faith and integrity intact while doing it. He lived through the Depression and was a soldier in World War II. He did masonry work, owned a small grocery store back in the 50’s, and worked as a butcher well into his 80’s. Until recently, he was maker of homemade sausage, walker of impetuous Schnauzers, and washer of dishes. He took loving care of Mary, his wife of sixty-plus years who suffered from Alzheimer’s, staying by her side in their home right to the end.

Simply put, Pop is one hell of guy.

He is living history with many stories to tell of by-gone years. One of Pop’s favorite things to talk about is his army days during World War II, a singularly important period in the life of so many like him. Some of his memories are quite vivid in spite of the time that has passed, and his stories offer insights into the individual experience of that period one doesn’t often get in history books.

First arriving at Camp Sibert in Alabama before shipping out, Pop got his initial shocking glimpse of Jim Crow in action. As the bus to town made its many stops, he didn’t understand why all the black folks headed for the back when there were seats available in the front. When he saw the sign posted above the driver, it finally dawned on him what was going on. Then he saw the restaurants that couldn’t be entered, the fountains that couldn’t be used, the bathrooms that were off-limits. When stationed overseas, he ran into Ace, one of his friends from high school. They spent time together chatting about home. Afterwards, Pop was confronted by some guys in his outfit, southerners who took exception to his association with someone of color. Their way of thinking baffles and astounds him to this day.

Pop remembers well his Atlantic crossing on the way to the war, his transport part of a large convoy. A problem much greater than the seasickness rampant on board occurred. His ship, the Washington, developed engine trouble and was left behind by the convoy. Pop said he stood on the deck with a sinking feeling watching the rest of the ships shrink and then disappear on the horizon. The only thing he could see in the vast, swaying ocean was a single small destroyer which circled them as protection from enemy submarines while the repairs were being made. After a seeming eternity, the Washington proceeded at full steam and rejoined the convoy, making an eventual landing in North Africa.

Pop describes his time in North Africa with awe, both for the exotic nature of the places — Casablanca, Tunis, Oran, Bizerte — as well as the surrealistic experiences which sound at times like vignettes from Catch 22. His outfit had been given the task of guarding the Italian prisoners who had surrendered (quite gladly, as he remembered). Since Tony was of Italian heritage, he became the translator. He told me of the practice of sending some of the Italian prisoners to the perimeter with unloaded rifles to “guard” the camp. When German bombers attempted to destroy the American ships in Lake Bizerte that had gathered in preparation for the upcoming assault on Sicily, the men watched the anti-aircraft fire bursting in the air as though they were watching fireworks.

Like so many of his era, raising a family and buying a home became the priority after the war ended. Most of Pop’s family were involved in the building trades, so they each helped the other out building houses in Middlesex County. A son and daughter grew up in the one he built, were educated, got married, and moved away. And it was in this small brick house that Pop and Mary lived until she died and he could no longer bear to live alone.

Things have changed considerably over the years. Pop now lives at our house every other week. New routines have been fashioned to shape his day. Sometimes he’ll take a book we’ve gotten him about World War II and sit on the deck and read a bit. He loves watching sports in their season, especially golf, the Yankees, and the football Giants. Fare like The Steve Harvey Show and The Price Is Right occupy his day, though his TV viewing is now interrupted by more frequent naps.

Gone are the family vacations, senior bus trips to Atlantic City, bowling, and playing golf. Newfangled gadgets like the TV remote or his cell phone sometimes confuse him. He frets about official-looking letters from banks or insurance companies and angrily talks back to recorded corporate calls on the telephone. Though walking has become more difficult, he still helps out as best he can, folding clothes and drying dishes. He misses Mary, he misses his house. But he soldiers on.

As I watch Pop deal with all the difficulties of his present existence, I feel fortunate to have the chance to observe someone attempting to overcome the unforeseen obstacles of aging with the grit and grace and heart that he has shown. He may not have been a famous general or scientist or athlete, but he is a special man none-the-less. He is Pop. I am proud to know him, and I consider myself lucky to have him as my father-in-law.

Pop

Pop, 95 and still ticking

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Nurse

May 6, 2016

 

I am not a nurse. But I do know quite a bit about the life of a nurse, for I am married to one. Not just any one, but a very special one, in my opinion. And that one is Bernadette.

Bernadette’s journey in this nurse’s life was a long one. Forty years long, to be exact. It was the summer of 1972 that Bernadette entered the world of NYU Medical Center as a staff nurse, at first in urology — which lasted for two weeks — and then in pediatrics, which lasted the remainder of her career. Many of her recent colleagues had not even entered the world yet.

Quite a bit happened in those 40 years. There were eight presidents and four wars. Elvis Presley died. Justin Beiber was born. Gone are the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, the eight track tape, and disco. We since have gotten home computers, smart phones, Facebook, and the Kardashians.

The nurse’s life can take up quite a lot of time, as those who are involved in it well know. I spent many an hour waiting for Bernadette to come home, at first outside Penn Station in Newark in the days before cell phones where I’d park myself at what I assumed would be the appointed hour and then mark papers until she arrived. I probably could have written the great American novel in the time that I waited there. Advances in communication technology eased this process as did the advent of the Midtown Express train, but since I knew that Bernadette was delayed in the course of doing this most valuable vocation, it was but a small sacrifice to make.

I also have seen first-hand the effects of the many extra hours and late arrivals home, of working nights and weekends and holidays, of the constant stress of what is surely one of the most difficult and unappreciated jobs in the world. I have witnessed the many tears that have fallen over children who have suffered and died and their parents who had to bear this inconceivable burden. I have felt the sorrow and the pain of personal losses that befell staff members over the years . And through it all, I saw Bernadette’s faith and inner strength emerge to help deal with each crisis as it arose.

I am not alone in recognizing this. I have saved the many cards and notes from parents Bernadette aided in their time of need and nurses who worked alongside her. Though I am in awe of the great impact she has made, I am not surprised, for this is who she is. She has been called devoted, compassionate, understanding, selfless, and kind. She has been thanked for her encouragement, advice, fairness, support, guidance, and inspiration. Many have learned from her, vented to her, cried with her, and most of all shared in the love and passion which arise from this noble endeavor. I believe Bernadette has touched the hearts of more people than she will ever know.

Yes, I know well this caring and nurturing and deep compassion, for I have not only seen it in Bernadette’s life as a nurse but experience it every day of our lives together. For that I am blessed, and I truly believe that is also so for the unit to which Bernadette had so tirelessly devoted her time and energy and body and soul all those years. Albert Einstein once said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Those who know Bernadette also know this is so.

It has been four years since she arrived at what many characterized as the end of a chapter. In actuality, it was many chapters with a constantly changing cast of characters and multiple plots with unpredictable twists and turns and not one single climax and resolution but innumerable ones, some joyful and some tragic. However, there was but a single theme, that of helping others in whatever way help could be given. And there is also a moral to the story: inherent in this impossible job is its own reward, the seeds sown through the caring for and nurturing of others in their worst of times that blossom in heartfelt gratitude, sometimes unexpressed and often out of sight, but there nonetheless. And despite the many pitfalls and hardships, the memories of care and kindness given will be carried in grateful hearts forever, and that is as it should be.

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Christmas Tree Memories

December 17, 2015
"It should be," muses my friend, "twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can't steal the star."

“It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.”

For many years when I was still teaching, as Christmas season approached I would present Truman Capote’s wonderful story “A Christmas Memory” to my classes. It is funny and sad and beautiful, weaving the themes of friendship, memory, and Christmas so magically together. We would spend time talking and then writing about how certain memories are triggered by a sight or sound or smell of the season as it was for Buddy in the story, his friend each year exclaiming, “It’s fruitcake season!” I know this well, for when December rolls around and it is time to get the traditional evergreen Christmas tree, a flood of these memories washes over me, plunging me into a period of nostalgia lasting well past New Years.

When we were young, my sister and I would go to bed on Christmas Eve filled with all of the expectations of a Norman Rockwell American childhood. Cookies and milk had been left for Santa on a lolly pole in the rumpus room and empty stockings hung on the fake fireplace our father had built. Upon awakening, we would dash downstairs to discover the cookies all eaten (and even a bit of beard hair somehow caught under the plate in Santa’s haste to complete his route), the stockings stuffed, and a Christmas tree all lit up and decorated complete with presents below. We assumed, I suppose, that Santa lugged our tree in along with the toys. It was only later that the normal process of parental acquisition became clear, and my sister and I eventually eased our way into our roles in the operation.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

One year we had a real Charlie Brown kind of tree experience. Our father often worked a second job as a part-time seasonal janitor to earn extra money for the holidays. Things were tough in those days, so he had gotten our tree for free from the school he had been cleaning. It had graced that happy classroom for weeks but was now discarded since winter break had arrived. He brought the tree home Christmas Eve, and it was decorated as usual. However, when we ran down Christmas morning to revel in our usual festive glory, every last needle on the tree had dropped off and lay in a pile on top of our gifts. Apparently the cumulative effect of the hot school classroom had been too much for the poor thing, and the timing was such that the mass shedding took place in our living room at the most inopportune moment.

When we were a bit older, my sister and I got to participate in the decorating. In those days, most of the decorations were made of glass and were rather delicate, so my parents would put those on after stringing the lights, no small feat back in the good old days of series wiring (one goes out, they all go out). Our main job was to put on the tinsel. For those modern souls who may not know what tinsel is, it’s strands of very fine aluminum foil made to resemble glistening icicles. It came in flat boxes, all stretched out in neat rows, ready to become the final touch on somebody’s Christmas tree.

My sister, who is two years older than I, thought that she, in the absence of my parents, was the boss, a condition shared by most older siblings. I usually accepted her self-proclaimed rule, partly because I was lost in my own world of imagination and partly because she could (and would) beat the snot out of me.
However, in this instance, there was more to it; there was a major clash of philosophies. I was of the opinion that tinsel should be painstakingly placed strand by strand on carefully selected branches. My sister, on the other hand, thought that the haphazard flinging of clumps of tinsel was the best (and fastest–she apparently had other things to do) approach. It may seem like a minor conflict, but I was stubborn despite my age, and a battle of words would always escalate into pushes and shoves and finally the inevitable “MOMMM!!!” from whomever was getting the worst of it at the moment (usually me). Then came the ominous threat of being accused as the one to have ruined everyone’s Christmas.

My parents tried various methods to settle the dispute. One year they had us each decorate our own half of the tree. The result was a disaster that looked like a hurricane had struck just one side (guess whose). Another time they forced us to use each other’s method (one of those psychology-induced “learning experiences,” I suppose); that lasted about three minutes before turning into a tinsel-throwing brawl. Finally they imposed an every-other-year system on us. This worked during the decorating itself, but it didn’t prevent the continuous stream of whiney complaints and negative comments about the other’s “masterpiece” on alternate years.

Eventually the problem solved itself. My sister became involved in other activities (boys) and was content to leave the decorating to me. I actually kind of missed the battles we’d had, though I was glad to not have to look at Christmas trees buried in a disorganized avalanche of silver.

So as I put the tree in its stand each year and smell the scent of pine filling the room along with the sound of seasonal music, my thoughts inevitably drift back to those good old days. I remember the unbridled joys of childhood tearing open the wrapping paper in our pajamas as we sat on the floor around the glittering centerpiece we had helped create. As I decorate, I think of my big sister and the raging tinsel wars we had. Though I no longer use tinsel, most of the decorations I do use are filled with memories as well: some of the old glass beauties I had saved from my childhood, various humorous ones received from students through my years of teaching, the gingerbread hands of my niece Emma from when she was a tot, the handmade paper and clay creations from my nephew Luke. I linger during the process, pausing often to reflect and sigh, savoring each image as it wafts up from the depths of my past. And though I realize Christmas can never be the same as it once was, this ability to preserve and relive it in memory has become perhaps the most precious gift of all.

emma hand

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The Creel Affair

April 13, 2015

Each of us gathers an assortment of knowledge throughout our lives. Some of it was the result of a directed effort, as in school, to attain a specific goal. However, much like that one drawer in our homes that has a wild assortment of odds and ends that were picked up incidentally along the way, so too does our brain have a miscellaneous collection of strange and often useless information.

Useless, that is, unless you play Scrabble.

I think Scrabble is an acquired taste. I say this because those times when it is suggested as an activity, quite a few members of whatever group is present will opt out, often immediately and vehemently.

I happen to like Scrabble. I like the combination of chance (getting good letter tiles and spaces in which to use them) and skill. Most of all, I like the opportunity to dip into that assortment of extraneous knowledge residing in the back corner of my brain.

One such occasion occurred while on a family vacation in the state of Washington. We were staying in the gloriously rustic Timberline Lodge (the hotel in The Shining) on the slope of Mt. Hood. After supper as we relaxed on the balcony overlooking the lobby, someone in the family found Scrabble in the game bin and asked if anyone was interested. I was willing, as was Paula, my sister-in-law, with whom I had played before. We had a bit of a history with this game; she often accused me of making up words when we played (untrue, of course). She, an eminent New York City children’s book publisher, was highly competitive, so the games were usually rather lively. This time proved no exception.

The game was drawing to an end; few letter tiles remained. Paula and I were far in the lead, and our scores were fairly even. Each move would now be critical.

It was my turn. I studied my letters and the spaces available on the board that would get the highest return. I had my eye on a “double word score” spot. There was a strategically located “c” on which to build. Then I spotted it: the perfect word. I coolly placed the tiles down, reaching the double word score space with the final one.

“Creel?!?” Paula cried out in disbelief. “What kind of word is that? You’re making them up again!”

“No, Paula, it’s a word. It’s a piece of equipment used for fishing.”

“Well, I never heard of it. What the hell is a creel?”

Now had the movie Slum Dog Millionaire been out, it would have been an easy analogy. The accidental, or fateful in the view of some, acquisition of certain random pieces of knowledge is unplanned but can suddenly become useful in ways one would not have predicted. I was never that deeply involved in fishing, but somewhere along the line, I learned about the creel.

“You mean ‘reel,’ don’t you?” Paula continued.

“No, creel. It’s a basket hanging from the shoulder that fishermen use for the fish they catch.”

Normally I would follow this by, “Look it up if you want.” However, as we were tourists in the pre-smart phone era, no dictionary was available, and Paula was not about to take my word for it.

Just at that moment, a gentlemen with camouflage pants and a cap with fishing flies attached — surely an outdoorsman — walked by. Here’s my chance, I thought.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you fish?”

“Yes, I do,” he amiably answered as any fisherman with a prospective audience would do.

Paula stiffened, watching attentively in case an attempt at some conspiratorial clue were to be made.

“Do you know what a creel is?” I asked in my most objective tone, eyes fastened on Paula to show my compliance with her unstated demand.

“Why, sure,” he replied, smiling at such an elementary query. “It’s the basket we use to put our catch in.”

I raised my eyebrows in a gesture asking Paula if this was acceptable evidence. She scowled and conceded with a dismayed, “Oh, all right!” The points I gained turned out to be the game-winning difference.

I haven’t played Scrabble with Paula since. I believe she still harbors suspicion that I somehow set up that encounter with the fisherman. I have never had the occasion to use the word “creel” again, either.

So if you ever worry about the clutter of facts floating around in your noggin for no good reason, don’t fret. One of them may come in handy one of these days. After all, there’s always a Scrabble game going on somewhere.

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Sidekick

December 31, 2014
a moment of innocence at Nana and Grandaddy's

a moment of innocence at Nana and Grandaddy’s

I had the good fortune of growing up with a big sister. Well, good fortune most of the time. Being older than I by two years, she did sometimes take advantage of her lofty position to manipulate her little brother. But on the whole, what I remember most about life with Laraine are the many adventures I had as a sidekick to my big sister.

Some of the most notable of these occurred at our grandparent’s. The weekly visits we made to that big old house in Tenafly took place with clockwork regularity throughout our childhood. My Nana, as we called her, would be taken food shopping at the local Grand Union by my mother and father while my Grandaddy would sip wine in his rocking chair on the porch to keep a supposedly watchful eye on us.

This arrangement allowed the two of us — at the direction of my sister, of course — to have a wide range of activities at our disposal from playing in the stream down the road to poking around in the rhododendron bushes which were big enough to pretend were forts to making improvements to our bottle cap tree.

Now it was a surprise to me when I later learned that every kid didn’t have a bottle cap tree. What exactly is a bottle cap tree, you ask? Well, in our case it was a giant old oak tree at the end of the gravel driveway by the root-heaved sidewalk on Columbus Avenue. How it started I don’t recall, but it was a very big deal through all those years. Laraine had one side and I had the other, and we would take all the soda bottle caps we collected at home, were donated by kind relatives, or found on the street and would nail them in rows to the trunk. I’m sure it couldn’t have been that healthy for the tree, but it was so old and its bark was so thick that I don’t think it had any effect. We had scores and scores of them, and as the years passed, the rows would rise as the tree grew and the earliest would eventually be swallowed up by the bark. There were Nehi, A&W, Canada Dry, White Rock, Hoffman, Dad’s, and virtually every other brand available in row after colorful row in various stages of rusty decomposition. My grandparents probably were not crazy about the public defacing of their tree, but it kept us out of trouble, so I think that was the overriding factor.

However, it was getting into trouble that became our most memorable activity during those weekly trips. On one occasion we (meaning of course my sister, the perpetual ringleader) got the idea of replacing grandaddy’s glass of wine with a concoction that we made up from ingredients found in the kitchen. Grandaddy was from England, and he drank a somewhat syrupy dark wine, most likely port or sherry of some kind. He had asked us by about the fourth glass to refill it for him, and that’s when the plan was hatched. The refrigerator had an array of condiments: catsup, Worcestershire sauce, beet juice, salad dressing. We busied ourselves like two chemists, trying to match the color and consistency to the wine as best we could without taking a suspiciously long time. We ended up with a vile brew that was in the general vicinity of deep red, so we returned to the porch with the glass and scuttled away, barely able to contain our giggles.

We hadn’t thought beforehand about any adverse reactions our grandfather might have, like being poisoned or gagging on the horrible fluid. But nothing happened. We strained our ears and peeked as best we could, but there was no reaction at all. In retrospect, he could have very easily smelled that it wasn’t his usual but probably figured discretion was the greater part of valor since he wouldn’t have had that extra glass had nana been there to monitor him. Wisely not willing to tempt fate, this shenanigan was never repeated.

Playing with matches was one of the distinct no-no’s for young kids, which of course, along with the natural attraction to fire, made it all the more tempting. Somehow Laraine was able to procure a book of matches, not too difficult considering both my grandfather (cigars) and father (Pall Malls) smoked. After anxiously awaiting the shoppers’ departure and grandaddy’s settling in, we snuck off to the garage. This ancient structure was more like a small barn with a very high-peaked roof covered inside with immense cobwebs spanning the inside beams. There was all manner of old-fashioned gardening implements and boxes and barrels inside. We generally were not allowed in there, but it was perfectly secretive for this latest mission.

After a few furtive test lightings, we spotted a bale of peat moss in a hemp-like sack. The strands of hemp sticking loosely out at the top looked so much like the fuses on those round black cartoon bombs that we couldn’t resist. We lit a strand. Before we knew it, the flame spread rapidly to the rest of the hemp and then the peat moss itself until we had a major conflagration on our hands. Panic escalated as the flames shot upward, igniting the webs and threatening the structure itself. Beating the blaze with brooms contained the fire enough so that we could drag the bale out the door to the neighboring florist’s field next door, now fallow, luckily for us. The smoldering peat finally submitted to our pounding, and when the last wisps of smoke dispersed and the charred remains were safely buried, we surveyed the damage.

Other than the gaping holes in the webs and the lingering smell of smoke, there wasn’t much evidence of a fire after sweeping and dispersing the ashes, but the problem was one of the now-missing peat moss. Could such a large item be overlooked? We had no way of knowing, nor was it within our control, so we headed back into the house to lick our wounds. Up in the bathroom, after washing up and calming down, my sister sat me down on the edge of the bathtub. As I stared blankly at the chick on the can of Bon Ami cleanser next to me, she made us both swear an oath to never, ever touch a match again for the rest of our natural lives. I don’t think we did, either. Again, somehow, much like the wine incident, nothing ever came of it.

That was most definitely not the case with our biggest escapade, however. The funny thing is, this one was the most innocent of the bunch.

There was a very odd candy store around the corner and a few blocks down to which we would sometimes walk. It was strange because it was really just some lady’s house, and in her living room there was a glass counter with candy that she sold. One afternoon after going there, Laraine got the idea to walk farther down the street. Upon arriving at an intersection, it excited her to realize that this was one of the ways our father would sometimes drive to Tenafly. The spirit of exploration swept over us, and we continued walking.

After quite some time, we realized that we had gone very far from Nana’s house. Another bright idea: since we knew where we were going, why not walk all the way home to Bergenfield! Won’t Mom and Dad be surprised!

Oh, boy, were they. Except surprised is really not quite the right word. Perhaps irate? Incensed? Livid? It was getting dark by the time Laraine and I walked the last leg of our journey down New Bridge Road to our house. Only one problem. We had no key. These were the days before the ubiquitous cell phone, so what do we do now? A knock on the neighbor’s door, a phone call, and a nervous interim while awaiting our doom.

Other than the thunderous waves of parental tirade we endured that evening, I don’t remember specifically what our punishment was. I believe I played up the innocent-little-brother angle to save myself. I was confident that Laraine, experienced as she was at this business, had the wiles to make her own escape.

This incident signaled the end of our adventures at Nana and Grandaddy’s house, though our long walk home would eventually take its rightful place in the family annals of infamy, the crown jewel of all our childhood capers. As we grew older and teen-aged interests overtook us, our paths diverged. But our tales of those days when we were inseparable have lived on, told and retold at many a family gathering, and the richness of our shared adventures are a gift to each other as we age, a fond remembrance of those long-gone days of our childhood together.