Twenty-five years ago today…

We ran into the Emergency Room. I was still in my swimsuit and was barefoot. They wouldn’t let me see him. They kept me at the desk with forms and questions. Someone put a cotton blanket on me, and soon my sister arrived with my t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. And my purse with the magic health insurance card.
It seemed like hours but it was not much later when they let me in to see him. He was on the table in the middle of the room, draped in a sheet. I saw his cut up swim suit lying in a sodden mess on the floor. There was an oxygen mask on his face and an IV tube in his arm. Dried blood was in corner of his mouth. His eyes were closed.
“What happened?” I asked them and they asked me at the same time.
“Did he have a heart attack?” I whispered.
“Did he dive into the shallow end of the pool?” they demanded.
“No.” We answered simultaneously.
“He didn’t dive, he did a cannonball…you know where you jump in with your arms wrapped around your knees, pulled up against your chest. He didn’t hit his head.”
“His heart stopped twice in the ambulance, but we don’t think his heart caused the accident. We are sending him to Plattsburgh via helicopter. They are the trauma center for this area. You can follow him there.”
“Will he live? Will he be okay?”
“We don’t know.”
I had been holding his hand. It was cold, and he didn’t squeeze me back. I leaned over and kissed his forehead.
“I love you. If you die on me, I swear, I’ll kill you.”
They shuffled me out. I went to my parents’ house to change. I told my frightened children that daddy was in the hospital and I was going to stay with him. I think I told them that he would be fine. I called his parents. They were speechless.
I drove with my sister and her husbandto Plattsburgh, past the Mohawk Indian enclave. I wondered if they had taken shots at the helicopter transporting my husband over their territory as they had sometimes done in the past. Is he already dead? If he is not, what is he?
We wandered through the halls at CVPH until we found the Intensive Care Unit. They wouldn’t let me in to see him until the doctors met with me. They put me in a conference room with two doctors. They told me that Mitchell had broken his neck, a C1, C2 and C3 fracture, the very worst kind. His heart had stopped in the helicopter. They had intubated him to keep him breathing. I told them he had a living will and that I was his health care proxy and that he did not want extraordinary measures taken if he was not going to have quality of life. And that he had a “do not resuscitate” order. They tried to tell me that it had no effect. I told them he was a lawyer and I was a lawyer. They pushed back from the table in unison, putting distance between me and them.
That is when they said they wanted to drill four holes in his skull to fit him with a halo from which they would hang weights to stabilize his neck.
“You want to drill holes in his head?!” I squeaked, too astonished to scream. “This will help him get better?”
“He isn’t going to get better.”
“Then why do you want to drill holes in his head to stabilize his neck?”
“In case he gets better.”
“You said he wasn’t going to get better. Is he going to die?”
“He might not make it through the night.”
“Then why drill holes in his head tonight if he will be dead by morning?”
“He might live.”
“For how long?”
“We don’t know.”
“What do you know?”
They proceeded to bombard me with statistics for spinal cord injuries. Most people died instantly, especially with this kind of fracture. Mitch was paralyzed from the neck down. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move his head, he couldn’t move anything. His muscles would atrophy; his internal organs would start going haywire because of the havoc being played with his nervous system. The prognosis was not good.
“So he is going to die, if not tonight, then soon. Why put him through the ordeal of drilling holes in his head? Why not let him go peacefully.”
“Well, he’s awake.”
“Then why are you talking to me? Is his brain damaged?”
“Not that we can tell.”
“I want to see him and I want you two to come with me and explain the halo deal. He’ll decide. He’s not dead yet.”
I stood and marched to the door. They followed me. We got to the ICU and they made me wait again. A nurse in raspberry scrubs came to get me. The ICU consisted of a nurse’s station in the center of large rectangular room, with curtained cubicle along the perimeter of the room. Mitch was on the far side, just across from the main desk of the nurse’s station. He was lying flat in a hospital bed. A tube was taped to the corner of his mouth; IV’s were running into both arms.
His beautiful brown eyes were blood-shot but open. He looked at me in alarm, and then looked away, his eyes skittering around the small enclosure which now held me, two doctors and two nurses. I took his hand as his glance returned to me.
“Tell him.”
They told Mitch about the halo, told him it would stabilize his neck until the swelling from the broken vertebrae went down and they could ascertain how much damage had been done to his spinal cord. Mitch looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
“They say it will give you your best chance at recovery. Your neck has to be kept still so it can heal. The holes won’t hurt and you won’t feel the halo once it is on your head.
He looked at the doctors and then at me.
“Okay.” He mouthed the word to me.
“He says okay, you can do it.”
I leaned over to kiss his cheek. I couldn’t get near his mouth. I put my face next to his and whispered in his ear.
“I love you, I will always love you. Try to get better for me. Try for the kids. I love you.”
They sent me out to the ICU waiting area, three sofas, three corner tables and a wall-mounted TV. My sister was there, her husband had gone home. It was almost midnight and the lights dimmed and the TV clicked off. I told her what was happening. I was exhausted. I lay down on one of the couches, the one across from the door into the ICU. I was freezing. One of the nurses came out with two pillows and two blankets. My sister and I tucked ourselves in after thanking the nurse and making her promise to get us if anything happened.
I lay there in the dim light, hospital noises fading, until there was only the whoosh of the air conditioning and the bell from the elevator down the hall.
Then I cried.

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July 1

I don’t do well in summer. I grew up in Northern New York where one, maybe two, days a year, the temperature reached 90. Most nights were cold enough for a sweatshirt and even the hottest days could not raise the water temperature at the Rec Park above “blue-lips-teeth-chattering-goose-bumps” cold. Heat can bring me to my knees.
I don’t like June. Father’s Day usually starts my doldrums. Graduations can be rough or bring on a major depression. Flag Day is okay, I usually buy a new flag for the front porch.
I mostly hate July. My son’s birthday is July 4. And I can be caught up in fireworks and barbeque and fussing over his party. On our last date on July 6, 1988, my husband and I went to NYC to see “Phantom of the Opera.” I loved it and he tolerated it, having a much better time at the dollar bins at Tower Records before the matinee. We headed north for a Family Reunion on July 8, 1988. That is where he broke his neck. He was completely paralyzed and hospitalized in the ICU of Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, NY. The rest of the month was blazingly hot but I didn’t feel it. I was freezing within the confines of the ICU, praying for my husband to live. I saw my children only a few times. I exerted most of my efforts on directing my husband’s care and trying to wrangle a transfer to a hospital closer to home.
It is August that I really loathe. The transfer of my husband to Ellis Hospital in Schenectady took place on August 8, exactly one month after he sustained his injuries. We arrived at Ellis late on the night of August 8. My in-laws arrived on August 9. My children were returned to me by my parents that same day. On a hot and dry August 10, I visited off and on with my husband, pondering when I should stop by my office and his. My return to work was interrupted by his death in the late afternoon. He was buried in Brooklyn on August 14, 1988. I sat shiva for the next week, and then went back to work.
My husband would have turned 36 on August 21. Our tenth wedding anniversary would have been August 26. Both celebratory events turned into days of “what-might-have-been.”
I don’t really start coming out of my bad mood until after Labor Day and then the Jewish holidays followed by the regular ones, all centering on family, pretty much kick my ass until New Year’s. Valentine’s Day, my birthday in April and Mother’s Day in May are not good either. I’d say my one good month is March; I don’t tend to get into much trouble in March, except on St. Patrick’s Day.
But, the summer is a time when I go a bit crazy, when one perfectly fine day can turn into a day when I dive under my covers, triggered by the smell of hot dogs on the grill. When laughter at the sight of a guy with a bad body cutting grass without his shirt on can turn to sobs. When a refreshing swim in the cool waters of the pool can be heated up and ruined by hot tears spilling from my eyes.
I couldn’t sleep last night. At first, I blamed it on a piece of cake I nibbled on in the late afternoon. But as random troubling thoughts raced through my head before dawn, I reached for my cell phone to check the time: 4:20 a.m. July 1, 2013.
I can’t wait for summer to end.

A Book of Prayer

Holiday Season 2007 was upon us. Plans for the office celebration were well underway and I had already collected money from my reluctant bosses for our secretaries’ Christmas gifts.
The newest lawyer in the office, Melanie, appeared in my doorway shortly after the lunch hour. She seemed nervous as she entered, her hands clasped behind her back.
“Do you have a minute?”
“Sure, what can I do for you?”
“Oh, nothing, really…I have something for you.” She placed a bag from Barnes & Noble on my desk. I spied a gift-wrapped package inside. I looked up at her quizzically. The professionals in the office did not exchange holiday gifts.
“I know we don’t know each other really well but I was in the bookstore today at lunch and I saw this. It made me think of you. I wanted you to have it for Hanukkah.”
I was taken aback. She was right, we didn’t know each other very well, but she was very nice. As was the case with most lawyers new to our agency, she had come to me for advice from time to time and I was glad to help her when I could. Our office was not what one could call “gender-neutral.” The women professionals stuck together and we watched out for the female administrative and clerical staff.
“Do you want me to open it now?” I asked as I took the gift from the bag.
“If you want…I hope you like it.”
I unwrapped the book. The cover was cream with fine green filigreed trim. Hours of Devotion. I looked up at her. A Book of Prayer for Jewish Women. I am Jewish, but Melanie is Russian Orthodox.
“I hope you don’t mind that I got you a religious book, but it said it was for Jewish women and it just seemed to me that I should get this book for you.”
“Well, thank you, Melanie. This is so nice and I really appreciate you buying me this book.”
She seemed relieved that I liked the gift and left my office. I was a bit perplexed. A book of prayer is an “iffy” gift even for someone you know well, even for someone of your own faith. A religious book for a co-worker of short acquaintance and of a different religion was a risky move at best; and certainly a potential disaster. I put the book in my briefcase and got back to work.
Later that night, at home, I remembered the book and took it with me when I climbed the stairs to bed.
Hours of Devotion is a book of prayers for all occasions for Jewish women written by Fanny Neuda, in the mid-1800’s, in Germany. The wife of an esteemed rabbi, Fanny had been concerned that young women of her day were drifting away from Judaism as they became more concerned with secular life. Having lost her husband at a young age, Fanny sought to put prayers to guide and comfort Jewish women into book form, to honor the memory of her late husband. The book enjoyed moderate success for the next 50 or so years, but disappeared from print with the onslaught of the Nazis and World War II.
All this I read in the forward written by the book’s editor, Dinah Berland. Ms. Berland, divorced and living in California had happened upon a used copy of the book in an old bookstore. Raised a devout Jew, she had suffered a crisis of faith and was now estranged from her son. Adrift and looking for guidance, Dinah was immediately taken by the simple and thoughtful prayers written by Fanny a century and a half before. Deciding to edit the book for modern times, she re-wrote the prayers as verse, included Fanny’s original forward and wrote a new forward detailing her own struggles and the impact Fanny’s book had on her. She told how she had begun reading one of the prayers, For A Mother Whose Child Is Abroad, in hopes that it might bring the son who she had not seen in 11 years, back to her, in time for her father’s birthday. My hands shook as I read about her son’s phone call from out of the blue, accepting the invitation she had sent him for his grandfather’s celebration. Her son returned to her life and her heart.
With thoughts of my own daughter studying in the mid-West, I turned to that prayer. The opening lines brought tears to my eyes: All Gracious God – far from his parental home, Far from his mother’s care and concern, My child lives in a foreign land, and I, Who would find delight in watching over his health, In guarding his every step, In lavishing my undying love and faithfulness on him, Am separated from him.
I could not put the book down as I read a prayer for the success of your children, a widow’s prayer at her husband’s grave, a prayer for livelihood and the prayer for bedtime: Sleep – you peaceful, tender angel, Whom God has sent down to this valley of tears, To dampen life’s suffering beneath your soft wings – Descend on my eyelids and bring me rest.
I was as transformed as Dinah had been. My Catholic upbringing had taught me many prayers but they were lost to me since I had converted to Judaism. I still had the urge, however, to talk to God and explain in great detail what I wanted and needed and felt I deserved. Afterwards, I often felt empty and embarrassed that I was harassing the Almighty about my children’s grades, my mortgage payment and my unreasonable supervisor. But, in Fanny’s simple words, I found a voice. For almost every want, every need, every worry that I had, Fanny had written a beautiful prayer, praising God while reminding Him that women – daughters, wives, mothers – had special needs in the world He had created.
I told Melanie the next day that the book she had given me was the best present I had ever received. And gave her a bottle of what I had learned was her favorite wine: Manischewitz Elderberry. And I have done so every holiday since then. Just as I have passed on copies of Fanny’s book to my daughter, my mother-in-law and most of my friends. Some have smiled and thanked me and never opened the book. Others have fallen into its simple beauty and have found comfort there. A few have followed my practice of giving the book to their family and friends.
Hours of Devotion is on my nightstand unless it is travelling with me. I have turned to it on countless occasions, searching for the right words to send my message to God. Every time Fanny’s book answers my plea. My thoughts and her words wing their way to God, who, in His Ineffable Way, has always answered us.
Amen.

Joy

Unadulterated joy. A lightness of spirit, a swelling of warmth in your chest, a lighter beat to your heart, a smile that stretches wider than usual, so wide it actually hurts the corners of your mouth. Enhanced hearing that catches even the smallest nearby sounds and acuity of vision that sharpens every object, brightens the color to almost cinematographic brilliance.
Absence of worry. An almost void in that part of your brain, that part of your soul that clenches first thing in the morning, before you even open your eyes, in that “Oh, my God, no” moment where the worries of the night before push into your consciousness before any other thought is possible, picking up the threads of dismay and weaving them immediately into the dread with which you fell asleep.
I had felt this kind of joy before. I was sure that I had. I just could not remember when. Maybe when I fell in love the first time and realized he loved me too. No, I was too worried that I was not good enough, that he didn’t love me as much as I loved him, that we would drift apart and I would be heart-broken. I was right about that. Certainly, I had felt joy when I graduated from college, the first in my family to do so? No, my thoughts were full of the details of moving home then on to law school. Maybe when I graduated from law school three years later? Not then. The specter of studying for and taking the bar exam loomed in my immediate future.
Surely, I was joyous when I met and fell in love with my husband on the first day of law school and when we married three years later. I think I was close to joy when I walked out of the country club doors and saw him waiting for me under the chuppah, the brilliant sunset reflecting off the foothills of the Adirondacks providing the backdrop for the gathering of our friends and family. I was ecstatic for a few seconds until nerves about bobbling my vows and the strained faces of the rabbi and the priest who had been arguing about Jesus right before the wedding dampened my happiness.
I did not feel joy when my babies were born. You come up out of agonizing pain to the cries of your newborn son or daughter. Your first thought is about your child. How many fingers and toes? Breathing? Apgar scores? Learner’s permit, college tuition, orthodontia, prom dates. Then measles, mumps, chicken pox, autism, leukemia, crib death all crowd into your brain before they even place your infant in your arms. Then you feel momentary relief, but not joy.
Losing my husband at the age of 35 pretty much wiped joy out of my realm of experience for the next two and a half decades. There was happiness, satisfaction, pride, contentment and a vast array of positive emotions in those years. But everything was tinged with his shadow, with the shadow of loss, with the nagging thought of what-might-have-been. And worry about the next loss, danger, tragedy.
Joy found me on Friday night. My daughter, my oldest child, was about to receive her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology. We arrived at the University of Indianapolis at the appointed hour. Standing by my car, she donned her gown, three black velvet stripes on each sleeve of itchy black polyester. Her velveteen hood, of gold, lined in crimson and gray was draped on her arm. On her head was a doctoral tam of black velvet, eight-sided, with a heavy bright gold tassel, jauntily hanging to the side. My gift to her, white gold hoop earrings, encrusted with diamond dust, sparkled on either side of her beautiful, if anxious, face.
“I love you, I’ll see you inside,” she said as she turned toward the area where her fellow graduates were gathered.
“I love you. Good luck.” I waved as I made my way to the gymnasium where the ceremonies would take place.
I found a seat at the end of the third row, left side of the sunken gym. The usher had informed me that graduates would cross the stage from right to left, so I was in position to get a good photograph of her as she walked back to her seat after she was hooded by her dissertation adviser and received her diploma from the University president. I was alone. No one from our far-flung family could attend and her friends were either away or graduating with her.
I waited for the feeling of emptiness that had accompanied me at her high school, college and masters graduations to cast a pall over the evening. I waited for the tears of sorrow that her father was not with me, with us, on this great day that culminated her 26 years of education. I waited for the worry that something would go wrong, that they would make her trade her doctoral tam for the standard-issue mortarboard, that I would not be able to see her enter or cross the stage.
I heard a noise to my right and realized that the graduation procession had entered the building and the graduates were lining up before they walked down the stairs to the rows of white folding chairs that faced the stage. I turned the camera on and looked for my daughter. I found the cluster of gold-hooded men and women (Doctors of Psychology) lined up right behind the turquoise-hooded Doctors of Physical Therapy. My eyes focused in on my daughter’s curling auburn hair topped by the jaunty tam. Her eyes found me (hard to miss in a lime green tunic). Her lovely face lighted up and she waved.
Joy. My spirit soared as I snapped shots of her, my eyes blurred by tears. Then I sat. Waited for the worry, the loneliness, the sadness to intrude on this long-fought for moment. Instead, I felt the comforting presence of my husband, her father, as real as if he sat right next to me, his arm around me. I had not felt his spirit in a long, long time. I could hear his voice in my ear, in my mind, a voice I had not heard in many, many years. Years crowded with worry and fear.
“We did it.” I whispered to him.
“No,” he whispered back. “You did it.”
No. She did it. And we made her. Joy.

Some thoughts on turning 60

My house is full of children today. It has been a long time since I could say that. The youngest is 27 and the oldest is already 31, but to me they will always be children. And, even though I will be turning 60 in a few days, I have recently added more children to the son and daughter to whom I gave birth.
There is my “adopted” son, one of my son’s best friends, who joined us when his mom moved away at the end of high school. Since that time, my house has been his “home.” My daughter calls him her “bonus brother.” He came to me when he finished his military service and, even though he no longer actually lives here, he still comes home several times a week.
Often accompanying him is his girlfriend of about a year. She is the little sister my daughter always wanted. They always say that even if she and my adopted son break up, she will get custody of our family.
My daughter’s dear friend from college is here for family celebrations and many weekends. Her own, often chaotic family, lives a couple of hours away. After the six years that my daughter attended graduate school in the mid-west, the two young women are trying to make up for all the months when they did not see each other and to commiserate with each other about their sometimes crazy families.
And, now, my son’s girlfriend has come with him from Seattle to meet our family and friends. The occasion was the birthday party planned by my daughter and executed by all of them to celebrate my 60th birthday. A crazy initiation into the extended family and many friends who fill my life, but all agreed that that my son’s girlfriend is a “keeper.” I think she is “the one.”
Yesterday, my nephew arrived for the day from New Hampshire with his wife, daughter, son and puppy to help celebrate my big day, but mostly to see my son and meet his girlfriend. My brother and his son came for a few hours to enjoy the time with family. Last night, the house was filled with the “lost boys” who, as always, left huge sneakers scattered by the front door and made a dent in the food left over from the party. The big difference from a decade ago is that they are no longer boys; a fiancée was included in the group. They gathered in the family room to watch something on HBO or Showtime, just as they used to gather to watch The Sopranos, their now deep voices drifting up the stairs to my room, in bursts of laughter or in needling remarks directed at my son, holding court, as always, from his recliner near the fireplace.
My daughter and her friend were giggling and whispering in her room down the hall. I slipped into sleep with that now rare feeling of peace, knowing everyone I held most dear was safe at home with me.
This morning, while the children slept, I arose and got ready to go to shul in Saratoga, as I do most Monday mornings. The warbling of the robins and the hint of magnolia blooms outside my bedroom, as well as the impending start of my sixtieth year on Earth, caused me to reflect on my life so far.
I had completed my first dream list by the age of 27. Travel to Europe to see the Pieta and the David was on the top of the list and that was done by 21. Completion of law school and passing the bar exam came the year I turned 25. My husband and I bought our first house, with an upstairs bathroom, when I was 27 years old.
I’ve made a good start on my second dream list, one that took me the next 25 years to compile. I finally learned to balance my checkbook a few years after my husband died. At the age of 55, my first non-legal work, a romance short story, was published. My dream of climbing all 46 Adirondack High Peaks is on hold until I am in better shape, but I have hiked up one of them and I am working on getting into shape to climb the other 45. I don’t know if I will create a third dream list to carry me through the next 25 years.
I’ve never been bored with my life. Unhappy, stressed, depressed, anxious, blissful and content, but never bored. The Chinese have a curse, I believe, that one should live in interesting times. If that is the case, I have been cursed with an interesting life. I prefer to think of it now as having been blessed.
The best man I ever knew loved me the best. I could not ask for more in the love department, although I do wish that I had had more years with him. I now think I would like to fall in love one more time, for the last time in my life.
My children, all of them, are complete. They do not need me very much  anymore. That was my most recent realization, happening within the last few days. Of course, they still seek my advice. They still want to be home for at least some of the major holidays. They will still let me give them money for gas, buy their contact lenses, postage and lunch and handle their traffic tickets. But, they have created their own dream lists and taken steps to bring those dreams to fruition. They have formed relationships with each other, with the important people in each other’s lives and with people who love them for who they are, with no input from me or each other. They have started worrying about me as adult children are wont to worry about “aging” parents. I think they have conversations about my well-being that I don’t hear about, those “what-do-we-do-about-mom” conversations that we had with spouses and/or siblings about our own parents. The thought of this makes me chuckle and it gives me peace because I know they will always be on my side. They will follow my wishes about my future and likely will be frustrated, amused, anxious and loving, much the way I have been about them for the last 32 years.
Now, I’ve finally come to realize that I am the most important person in my life. I need to take care of me. That being said, I now need to figure out what that means. What do I need and what do I want? These are complex, yet simple, questions for a brisk spring day.
I just want to live the rest of my life. I can’t wait to see what will happen.

Widows-R-Us

It is a small, almost exclusive club: Widows-R-Us. There is only one, grisly requirement for membership: your husband must be dead. If you re-marry, you can stay in the club, because once you are a widow, you are always a widow.
I was the founder and sole member for over ten years. Then a friend’s husband died on their kitchen floor from a bee sting. Our casual friendship deepened into a best friendship, given our now unseverable bond. My friend brought in a woman who had become her friend about the same time. We had not known each other before, but now we shared the kinship of sorrow and loss. Her husband had died from a long battle with leukemia a few years after mine. Now we were three.
Another friend lost her husband a few years later, not to the cancer he had beaten but to an infection that could not be controlled given his weakened auto-immune system. Then we were four.
All these husbands had been relatively young; mine was the youngest at 35. None was older than 50. We were not traditional widows, we had been married for only 10 or 15 or 20 years. We had young children or teenagers, Social Security was nowhere on our horizon, we were still making mortgage payments and saving for college. We did not fit in with traditional widows’ groups; we were the age of the children of those widows. We forged on alone, coming together from time to time, for bagels on Saturday morning, movies on Friday night, and late night phone calls when it all seemed too much to bear.
One of us remarried, one became engaged to a high school sweetheart, one has not dated and I waited until I was 50 to commence my decade of marathon dating. Eventually, my own mom joined our merry band of mourners when my dad died at 76. I could always get Mom to laugh by referring to us as “the Merry Widows.”
At 58, I decided to go on a dating hiatus. I started to reconnect with my inner self. I became a regular at Monday and Thursday early morning services. There I met a woman who was saying Kaddish for her recently deceased husband. They had been married for 30 years when he died suddenly, shortly after his retirement. We became good friends, sharing the bonds of religion and common tragedy. And our group expanded again.
Recently, we attended together the funeral of a 97-year old gentleman from our shul. He and his wife had been married for 52 years. There seemed to be less grief and more joy at this funeral than any other I had attended. The deceased had been joking and singing until a week before his death from pneumonia. He left life the same way he had lived it: on his own terms. While we both felt a deep sense of loss for this sweet man, it was difficult to mourn.
Now, his widow attends services on Thursday mornings, catching a ride with another couple who are members of our shul. She is tiny, frail, well into her late 80’s. We sit near her so that we can say the Mourner’s Kaddish along with her. We support the newest and oldest member of our sorority of sorrow; it’s what we do.
Last week, I mentioned at the breakfast we share at shul after services , that I was heading to the Social Security office in Schenectady to sign up for Surviving Spouse benefits since I was fast approaching 60. If you are a widow or a widower, you can collect the Social Security benefits due your deceased husband or wife when you turn 60, you don’t have to wait until 62. You can then collect your own benefits, if they are greater, when you turn 62.
My friend and another woman, who it turns out, lost her first husband to divorce then death, both walked me through the process. “Go to Glens Falls,” they said, “it is much cleaner and safer than Schenectady and is about the same distance from Saratoga Springs. They are very helpful there and you will be in and out in no time.” The woman whose husband died after their divorce then told me something I had not known: if you qualify for surviving spouse benefits at 60 (or 50 if you are disabled) and begin collecting the benefits, you will not lose them even if you re-marry. Damn. Maybe I will have to start dating again!
After an hour-long interview, I left with a packet of papers, including my enrollment in Social Security. Starting on May 24, one month after my 60th birthday, I will receive a handsome benefit from the government based upon my late husband’s earnings. It made me sad to think of how hard he had worked to build his law practice, only to die in the middle of his most profitable year. I had been the major bread-winner in our family during the ten years of our marriage.
“Don’t worry,” I would tease him, “I plan to retire when I am 55. My salary will have topped out by then. You can still work, though, since you will be making more than me in your successful law practice. I expect you to support me in the manner to which I plan to become accustomed.” We would both laugh at my prediction.
I smiled into the sun that was breaking through the clouds as I drove home from Glens Falls last Thursday. As I had “threatened,” my dear, departed husband was now taking care of me once again. And I smiled, too, because my new “widow” friends had steered me in the right direction and I would share the information I had gathered with the other members of our club. It’s what we do.

Men in Kilts

Men in Kilts (Edited from 2010)

The colors are vivid red, yellow and green in the Buchanan tartan, more colorful even than the intense red predominant in the Royal Stewart or the bright red and green combination belonging to Clan Bruce. Dazzling blue mixes with white and true green in the Gordon Highland tartan, the dark navy and darker green in the Black Watch plaid contrasts with the almost turquoise and aqua of the Campbell Clan pattern. The Caledonia tartan features brilliant purple and pure white while the MacGregor Rob Roy is almost garishly Halloween orange and black.
Matching flashes encircle muscular or frail calves covered to the knee in heavy wool hose in cream or green or navy. Tucked into the hose, a sgian-dubh is often found, its blade hidden, only the hilt visible on the right leg. Sporrans of rabbit or fox dangle from simple silver chains or more ornate decorated links of silver and gold hung low on the hips. These man-purses might feature full heads or have just one rabbit’s foot in the center. Above the plaids, the tops are as varied as the men. Jacobite full-sleeved blouses in cream or brown, lacings half way down the chest, or crisp business shirts, buttoned tight to the chin, with neckties in the clan’s plaid are common. The traditional Argyle jacket in blue or heather green wool, silver or pewter buttons, marching down the front is evident, especially among the older men. Military sweaters in olive drab or khaki are favored by the younger men, with soldiers wearing service blouses, the sleeves rolled back to reveal muscular forearms, adorned with tattoos of Celtic knots and fighting insignias. Some wear the plaid draped across chest and one shoulder, held in place by a Scottish crest badge. Head coverings are also varied, with everything from Tam o’shanters to Glengarry bonnets seen atop balding heads or perched jauntily over graying ponytails. From top to bottom, traditional wars with contemporary. The older men sport Ghillie brogues or regular leather business shoes, other men wear combat boots or hunting boots. Sandals or sneakers are not a good look.
Then there are the Scots wanna-be’s. Dark and fore-boding, they look like refugees from some late-night Dungeons and Dragons computer marathon. Swirling black capes conceal the two-handed Highland claymore, strapped across frail white backs that, in the days of the Battle of Culloden, would not have been fit to carry even feed for the horses, much less the mighty weapon of Scots Highlanders. They flit and flicker along the periphery of the gathering, massing around the vendors selling dirks and swords, fingering the sharp grey blades with long nail-bitten fingers, stroking chins bereft of whiskers.
Above it all, the whine of the bag pipes echoes on the cool early morning air. It is the Highland Games and Celtic Festival at The Meadow, just outside of Richmond, Virginia. Southerners love their traditions; they seem to love those of the Old Country even more than those of their Confederate fore-bearers. Vendors selling haggis and colcannon war with those offering she-crab soup and barbeque, Confederate flags and Celtic knots adorn bumper stickers on a variety of pick-up trucks and Cadillacs. Southern drawls and the brogue of the Highlands drift from the open doors of the cavernous Farm Bureau. I am in my glory.
What is it about the sight of hundreds of men wearing kilts? Lines of men in Gordon or MacDougall or Stewart plaid, bagpipes or drums strapped to chests or waists, marching in order down the field, crisply stopping or turning at the Drum Major’s whistle. Then, in two’s and three’s, they walk abreast over the field, almost always with a dark Irish beer in hand, even before the morning’s mist has burned off. I watch them with real appreciation. The sway of the pleats below nicely shaped behinds wrests a longing sigh from me. Too many Scottish romance novels, perhaps, but there is something about a man in a kilt. The oddly masculine swagger of a man in plaid, knees just peeking out, the sporran swinging low on the hips, beneath the thick leather belt, and my heart quickens. And it is not just because I know what hides beneath those kilts if the men are dressed in “regimental” style. It takes a special man to wear a “skirt” in this day and age.
My admiration for them aside, I am enough of a realist to understand that some of these men no matter their pedigree, should not be wearing kilts. For example, under no circumstances, should kilts be worn with regular black dress socks, the flashes circling thick ankles. Likewise, men should refrain from the mini-skirt version of the kilt, no matter how pretty their legs are. While most pants can be worn beneath the bulge of protruding beer belly, kilts hung that low in front, tend to ride up in back, a sight better left to the imagination. As I observe these men in kilts, I wonder if there is a book of kilt etiquette. There are numerous guides to appropriate Scottish attire: when and where the dress kilt as opposed to the hunting kilt should be worn and when the Prince Charlie jacket is too dressy or the Argyle jacket too casual. But, I have not found a book that tells men how to wear a skirt. Men need a guide that explains that it is NOT okay to bend over from the waist to pick up something on the ground; this is a situation that requires crouching. When sitting down, the proper way to ensure that one’s kilt is tucked beneath what might be a bare butt, is to reach behind while sitting and smooth the fabric over the bottom; one should not plop down, lifting one leg and then the other to tug the fabric under, unless one is in the seat behind the wheel of one’s pick-up truck. Finally, men must learn the proper position of their knees when sitting in a kilt. They do not need to be pressed primly together as the nuns instructed all of us, but they certainly should not be spread apart as if in a seated plie´. Especially if one is wearing beneath the kilt the traditional Scottish undergarment: nothing.
As I sat and watched the men in kilts from my vantage point beside the stage, it came to me that there are even more subtle rules for men who wear kilts. There is a romance surrounding a man in a kilt. Part of it is the tragic struggle of the Scots to be free of British rule, the men who followed Bonnie Prince Charlie on his fruitless quest, and men like Rob Roy and William Wallace who were fighters and lovers. And part of it is the romanticizing of the rough Highland lord with the tender and poetic heart. I watched a man in a kilt dancing with his lady, holding her tightly to him; I watched an older couple, he in full regalia, she in a long skirt and picture hat, tied up with a plaid ribbon and rosette, holding hands in the folds of his kilt. I stared at the tall, dark and handsome man who came striding through the crowd, his kilt swinging jauntily above legs clad in traditional hose and work boots, his white teeth flashing in a ready grin, his eyes sparkling with the knowledge that most female eyes were on him and the promise of appreciation for all the feminine attention. I looked at the man I once knew wearing his kilt (the bright Buchannan plaid) and I admired how his tush looks in a kilt and his legs sexily encased in dark green hose and flashes. Then there was his prowess with the mandolin. And his whistles softly blowing while his voice blends in the low harmony of a Celtic love song:

Come over the hills, my bonnie Irish lass
Come over the hills to your darling
You choose the rose, love, and I’ll make the vow
And I’ll be your true love forever.

Yes, men in kilts need a guide book. They need to learn how to live up to the promise that their love of history and clan, tradition and song, make to women.
Men in kilts, gotta love them.

I Step Back

I step back. In confrontations, I step back. I am a peacekeeper and I shy away from anger.
In competition, I step back. If I believe I cannot be the best, I lose my desire to continue. And I rarely believe I can be the best anymore.
Largely uncoordinated as a child, I never participated in sports. Never. Even now, I stay away from tennis and volleyball and softball games, even at family gatherings or impromptu social events. I play few games, only Poker and Trivial Pursuit and only with family. If the tide is not going my way, I fold. I step back.
I write. I have always written. My first published work was a story I wrote as a second grade student; it was featured in NYS Creative Writer. I wrote more stories but none reached that pinnacle of success or surpassed it, so I stopped writing creatively. I stepped back.
It took almost 50 years for me to pick up the creative pen again. Retired from the law, I vowed to complete the romance novel I had been playing with for years. In the meantime, I wrote a short erotic romance. It was published by the first publisher to whom I submitted. So was my next short story. I finished my novel. Several agents and editors were “very interested.” But, a few rejection letters and silence from the rest, and it sits in my “Submissions” file. I’m not going to be the best at this. I am no Nora Roberts or Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I lost my heart for writing romance. I stepped back.
I moved on to non-fiction and wrote a memoir of my dating-after-50 adventures. My writing teacher praised each of the essays I penned. My writing sisters complimented my humor, my honesty, my voice. Everyone loved the title “Cocktales.” Once again, agents and editors were “excited” about my manuscript. But, no takers. The manuscript and the beautiful cover illustration also sit in my submission pile. I stepped back.
I stepped back from love too. I never believed that anyone would love me the best, that I would be the most important person to the person who was the most important to me. There, I was wrong. The best man I ever knew loved me the best. I knew I was not good enough for him, even without the constant reminders from his mother and my own. Being the middle of five children had taught me about my own short-comings in the “loveable” department. But my husband, I still believe, loved me as much as I loved him. And my confidence grew. Then he died. And I stepped back.
I waited a long time to try to find love again. Even then I disguised my search as one for romance not love, because who could love a 50 year-old, overweight, scarred widow? But, I found my heart opening and I realized that I was looking for love.
I started to give my heart to an old love, a love I had known for decades. But then I realized that, just as when we were teen-agers, I was not his first love. And I would never be his last love. I was his “waiting-until-my-next-true-love-comes-along” love. I caught myself before I let down all my defenses and loved him. I stepped back.
I read a silly romance this morning about a young woman who “steps back” from the man she loves because she believes he loves her prettier, wittier, younger sister and not her. It was like a bucket of cold water had been dumped on my head. Of course, the heroine will decide to fight for her man and he will realize that she is his “true love” and sweep her into his arms. It will have a “happy ever after” ending. It is a romance novel after all.
I will never be the best romance novelist, but I write great romances. I will never win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature but my essays are wise and witty and honest. I am not Georgia O’Keefe, but my paintings make me happy and make others smile.
I may never be the best love of another man but perhaps I can be the last love of someone who will be my last love, too.
I step back in.

I Thought My Father Was God

When I was a child, I thought my father was God. Or at least a god. He wasn’t a big man, but of course to a child he was a giant.
He was very strong and I loved to have him lift me way up over his head and then toss me into the air. I remember shrieking with giggles so hard the air left my lungs. When I was older, he tossed me out of a boat into the chilly waters of Chateaugay Lake to teach me to swim where my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. I wasn’t afraid because I knew he would save me if I got into trouble.
Dad had a great laugh and a great sense of humor. He didn’t tell jokes, but he could regale a group with stories of his poor childhood during the Depression. His nickname “Bud” was bestowed on him by the pastor’s wife who lived next door to his family in Tupper Lake. At her first look at the infant Lloyd, with his shock of red hair, she pronounced him “as pretty as a rosebud!” And the name stuck. Dad told “G-rated” stories about his many dating conquests, including the one about cajoling “Betty Sue Somebody” to let him into her house after a date so he could steal a few more kisses. He only stole a few because her father returned early and Dad had to dive under the dining room table to wait for him to have his dinner, then drink a cup of tea while he read the paper. Dad cowered there for what seemed like hours before the old man went up to bed. The only benefit of it, Dad said, was his up close and personal look at Betty Sue’s great legs.
His stories about my mother were sometimes funny but always laced through with his deep and abiding love for her. She was attending secretarial school; working at the lunch counter at F. W. Woolworth’s when he first got sight of her. He was the Produce Manager at the Malone A & P Market and he was furious with the pretty brunette with the outstanding legs (Dad was a “leg man”) who picked through his bananas every morning, pulling one from this “hand” (bunches of bananas are called “hands,” he would inform us every time he told the story) and two from another. Then she moved on to the tomatoes he had so carefully arranged into a pyramid. Mom would pick one from here and one from there, so that the pyramid teetered off-balance, until Dad rearranged it. But he quickly forgot how much she annoyed him when he saw her sitting alone one Saturday evening at a local dance hall. She was “dressed to the nines,” but her “date” had left her alone while he hung out at the bar, drinking beer. Seeing his opportunity to score with the attractive bane of his existence, Dad asked her to dance. My mother had a bit of a temper herself, so she gladly accepted the invitation from the skinny auburn-haired man, just to annoy her date. They danced and, much to the chagrin of her hapless date, Mom let Dad drive her home in his 1939 Packard and they were together for the next 55 years. I loved that story the best.
I was awe-struck, though, at his ability to fix anything. My father was a general contractor. But, that encompassed more than his building skills. He had been an airplane mechanic and instructor during WW II, so he was comfortable tinkering with most machines, whether it was a car engine or a troublesome vacuum cleaner. He had owned an appliance and bottled gas business with his brother after the war and there were very few washing machines, furnaces or water heaters that he could not install or repair. Dad was frequently called out late at night or in the pre-dawn hours in our frigid Northern New York climate to get someone’s furnace or boiler started or repair the water heater. He was often in our basement, cajoling one more year out of our fussy furnace or piecing together the haphazard maze of pipes that criss-crossed the ceiling of the laundry room. Rolls of gray duck tape or black electrician’s tape could be found throughout our house, piled next to needle-nose pliers and crescent wrenches, easily retrieved by whatever child was “helping” Dad that day. (That task usually fell to my brothers as my father had very old-fashioned notions about what was “men’s work” and that did not include vacuuming, dusting, making beds or doing dishes). Sometimes, he would share his secrets with me. My favorite tidbit was that when you need to solder a water pipe, after your turn the water line off and disconnect the pipe, you wipe it dry. Then you stuff the pipe with a slice Wonder Bread. The bread will soak up any stray drops off water so as to keep the area where you were soldering bone-dry (“The solder won’t hold if there is any moisture.”). Once the repair is complete and the water is turned back on, it will easily dissolve the slice of bread (“You have to use Wonder Bread, not homemade bread, it’s too dense.”) and wash it down the pipe. I have never personally had the chance to use that trade secret.
I grew from childhood to adolescence and became a mouthy, rebellious teen-ager. My battles were often fought with my more conservative mother. She was in charge of disciplining the girls while my father meted out punishment to the boys, who could get out of almost anything by helping Dad in his “shop” on Saturday. But my father connected with me when I entered several public speaking competitions. Dad had excelled in public-speaking in high school and was often called upon to speak at Kiwanis or the Holy Name Society. I competed for American Legion Oratorical scholarship money and delivered the Gettysburg Address during our town’s Memorial Day celebration. My father coached me, drove me to out of town events and was almost always in the audience. It was the only one of his talents that I inherited: I can’t sing, I’m not a great dancer and I can accomplish only simple mechanical tasks.
Through college, he continued to support me as best he could. Dad had regretfully informed me when I was 12 that higher education would be on me; with five children there was no way he and my mother could pay for any of us to attend college. But, he drove me back and forth for those first two years before he bought me a used 1969 Volkswagen Beetle for $600. And there were frequent notes in the mail; a few sentences signed “Love, Dad” and a five-dollar bill for gas or to “buy some beer for the girls.” While he and my mother thought I should be a history teacher, once I enrolled in law school, his support and the notes and visits continued.
Sadly, a year or two after my marriage, Dad and I had a falling out over, as was so often the case in our family, money. In order to buy our first house, we had written to my father to ask if he could remove our names from a loan note we had co-signed for him. My father hurled some harsh words at me and at my husband in the letter he sent back, closing with the damning “You are no longer my daughter and your bedroom will now be known as the big upstairs room and not your room.” I felt as if he had died. I mourned my loss as if he had.
A few months later, he called to apologize, asking me not to ignore my mother on Mother’s Day. I accepted his apology, but the father I had known was dead to me. We resumed a relationship of sorts, for my mother’s sake and for the sake of my two children when they were born. I wanted them to experience the fun and wisdom of my father, at least the father I remembered from my youth. And they grew to love Pop, as they called him. But, I never did again.
Having battled depression since the war and having to stop working in 1990 due to complications from a car accident, Dad became bitter and self-involved before he died at 76. And we had not made peace. He said to me once during those final years, “I wish we were as close as we once were.” I responded with a nonchalant “well, we don’t always get what we wish for.” That was that. But, I was with him through his final hospital stay and I held his hand as he died. I wrote his eulogy, but couldn’t read it at the funeral; my big brother delivered it beautifully.
It took me some time but several years later, after a visit to his childhood home in Tupper Lake and some soul-searching of my own, I finally made peace with him. I chose to focus on my happy early memories of him and forget about the bitter, broken man he had become. But, even so, I rarely gave him much thought.
Until last week. We were in the midst of a bitter cold spell. Temperatures at night were way below zero. I knew what to do to keep my pipes from freezing: open the doors of the under-sink cabinets in the kitchen and bathrooms and keep a trickle of cold water running in those sinks. But one night, I forgot to run the water in the upstairs bathroom sinks. At 6:00 a.m., I was faced with no water in the upstairs toilets or cold water in those sinks and no water in the showers. Through the day, I used heating pads and blow dryers to try to warm the pipes I could reach. Still no water. That night, I left the hot water faucet dripping, hoping the heat would radiate to the cold water pipes. At 4:00 a.m., before heading downstairs to use the bathroom, I checked and found the situation had not improved. As I climbed back into bed, I sent a prayer heavenward, at first to my dead husband, to ask for help. Remembering his ineptitude with tools and home repair, I amended my plea. For the first time since his death in 1995, I prayed to my father. “Dad, I’ve done everything I can, everything you taught me. I really don’t have the money for a plumber right now. Can you please talk to the Patron Saint for Plumbers to get my pipes thawed and my water running? Thank you and I love you.”
There was still no progress the next morning. I left the house to run an errand, resolved to start looking for a plumber when I returned. At 11:00 a.m., when my daughter and I went upstairs, she popped into her bathroom. “There’s water in my toilet…there’s water in my shower! Thank you Daddy!” There was water in my bathroom, too. “No,” I corrected her, “thank you to Pop.”
“Thanks, Pop! Love you!”
I whispered to myself: “Thank you, Dad. You’ve still got the touch. I love you.”

Purple socks

My dreidel earrings are turquoise and gold plastic with a purple stone in the middle. Bought years ago when my children were students and I was a teacher at the Hebrew School, they had survived my ten-year absence from teaching. I was dressing for class on the first day of Hanukkah and, after some searching, I had found my dreidel earrings. However, my Hanukkah sweatshirts, also from my teaching/principal days, were not options. One was too small and the other featured a menorah comprised of Disney characters, with Mickey Mouse as the Shamash, or center, candle. Too cute, way too cute, for my 59-year old body.
I selected a new purple sweater to wear with my jeans. Simple, comfortable and it coordinated with my earrings. My only pair of Hanukkah socks was blue and gold, so I shoved them back in the sock drawer. What a mess! I thought as I sorted through pairs and mismatched singles looking for my black socks, since I was wearing black suede flats. I was trying to dress it up a little for the Temple Hanukkah Party that would follow Hebrew School that day. I need to sort through all these, get rid of the old stuff and see what I need.
Socks would be a good, inexpensive gift to put on my Hanukkah list. The only people who would see my Hanukkah list would be my children and their budgets were too tight to afford an iPad, diamond tennis bracelet or new microwave oven. Better to list socks, shower gel and emery boards that I could always use and would not break their banks. I sighed, thinking back briefly of better, more prosperous days.
My fingers tugged on a peeping piece of purple, wedged against the side of the drawer. A pair of faded amethyst cable-knit cotton socks popped into my hand. Tears welled up in my eyes as memories of better days flooded my mind.
Our first year in our four-bedroom Colonial in Clifton Park and I was newly pregnant with our second child. Our careers as lawyers were moving along, we were making more money than we had imagined in our law school days, but mortgage, car and school loan payments plus the costs of one child and one on the way ate up most of our income. There were, therefore, no big-ticket items on the Hanukkah list in 1984, because we were saving for living room furniture and a decent dining room set. And our three-year old daughter needed dolls and books and pretty outfits.
I don’t really remember what my husband and I had mentioned to each other as possible presents for the holiday. There were probably books and CD’s. I am pretty sure my husband had wistfully requested a drill or power screwdriver or staple gun; he so wanted to be handy with tools (he never was). But I do recall one thing I lusted for: a purple, turtleneck, cable-knit sweater from The Gap. I don’t remember why I wanted that sweater. Purple was not one of my usual colors, but I thought the sweater was luscious and beautiful and would look good with the reddish hair color I sported in those days. My husband, Mitch, was pretty good about following lists so I was looking forward to that sweater. Then I spied a Gap bag in the back of the closet one afternoon and, thinking it was some gift I had bought, I opened it. Inside was a purple sweater but not the one I wanted. It was some boucle-like material and had a cowl neck.
The next night over dinner, I asked Mitch if he had finished all his shopping.
“Yes, I’m pretty much done. Just a few little things to still get, I think.”
“Oh, well, you know I was at the mall at lunchtime and I was walking by The Gap and that sweater I have on my list… the purple, cotton, cable-knit, turtleneck one…is 40 % off this week.” I smiled guilelessly at him.
“Turtleneck, cable knit…is a turtle neck the tight neck or the drapey neck?” He was such a fashion maven.
“It is the tight neck that you fold over and the sweater is really heavy,” I innocently replied.
The next day, the bag was gone from our closet.
On the first night of Hanukkah, I opened a large box from The Gap. Nestled inside was the very sweater I had wanted. Underneath the sweater, was a pair of purple, cotton, cable-knit socks. I looked up at my husband.
“The sweater was so on sale that I got the socks for you, too. It was still less than the sweater I bought…I mean… than the sweater was when I first looked at it.” I was the one with the innocent smile now.
“You’re so good to me. Thank you. I love you.” And I did.
And I still do, I realized as I held the faded purple socks in my hand. Twenty-eight years later, the socks have endured almost three decades of wear and tear. As has my love for the bargain-seeking man I married.
Both socks and man were, as he would say, “good value.”

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