In the middle of October, my thoughts naturally return to my father.
His birthday is in a few days. He would be 95.
He died at 88, and so he had a good, long, and happy life. I don’t think he had too many regrets. He worked hard. He was honest. He was unceasingly cheerful. He loved and was loved.
That’s what I would call a successful life.
Recently, I saw this image on Facebook:
The same day, I was discussing my retirement (in glorious terms… I love it), and I recalled my father’s own retirement.
Here is how he retired:
After my mother retired, Dad started to consider his own retirement. He liked his job very much, but understood that there would come a time to let it go. To move on and enjoy the leisure years with his wife.
He had no pension from his job, but he and my mom had been saving, and so, when he was eligible for health coverage under Medicare, he retired.
He decided to ease into retirement by cutting his hours. (I did the same… it makes for a nice transition.) And when he was finally ready, he stopped. He was well-loved at work – he was the inside sales manager for a factory that produced precision gauges – and they threw him a marvelous retirement party.
All done. And ready to enjoy retirement.
It wasn’t too long afterwards that his employer called him and asked him to come back – at least part-time. They needed his skills. And since he had always enjoyed it, and had no burning quests to fulfill at the moment, he agreed.
So he went back and worked for a while again.
Dad was happy.
Then the economy took a turn for the worse, and there was a correspondingly downturn in business at Dad’s plant.
And he saw plans in the works for a layoff.
Dad went to the owner of the business and made a request.
“Please keep someone on who has a family to support, and let me go instead.”
And they did.
Dad was happy.
He sent the elevator back down.
And he finally retired.
My father later said to me that everyone should get a turn. And his turn was great, but it was the next guy’s turn.
If I have become a good person, it is because I have had such good examples.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
You sent the elevator back down for me too.
One of my least favorite Bible verses is this one:
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
And yeah, I get it. We grow up and we have to behave as grownups. We go to work. We pay our bills. We keep our house clean. We make sure there’s gas in the car and food in the fridge.
But – oh, for those childish things!
In this time of worry, uncertainty, and sadness, may I please give a shout-out for childish pleasures?
Make time to regress a little.
Don’t put away the childish things permanently. Take them out – once a week or so – just for a little while, and play with them.
Let’s clear away the stress that has been pounding at the place just behind our eyes, and delight in a simpler pleasure.
What did you love as a child?
Do it again.
Here’s some suggestions:
Ride a bike. Take your feet off the pedals as you go downhill.
Sing. Sing in the shower or as you make dinner. Sing in the car. (that’s my favorite place.)
Maybe instead of a quick shower, take a bubble bath. Make a bubble beard.
Bubbles… oh yes, blow bubbles too. With your gum if you want. Or with a wand and some dish soap. I have a photo of my aunt (whom I miss so much) blowing bubbles with my sister’s children. She had cancer and yet her face shows only joy.
Did you love your tinker toys? Lincoln logs? Erector sets? Legos? Get some. If you can’t borrow them from a child, or from your library, buy a set. You spend money on stupider stuff all the time. (I spent $20 on a ham sandwich the other day. Ham. $20.)
Make a puzzle. My parents had a jigsaw puzzle on their dining room table at all times. We made puzzles together as kids. As adults, when we visited, we always took a few minutes at the table. I never left their house without the satisfaction of finding that one piece of sky.
If it was a Barbie that rocked your world, rock one now. Lots of grown women collect dolls. It’s not for the investment. It’s for the feeling. Or stuffed animals. When my husband’s aunt could no longer take care of a pet, she liked to sit with a soft toy cat on her lap. It made her feel more comfortable in her chair.
Once in a while, eat marshmallow fluff instead of your fancy boysenberry preserves. Drink your classy beverage out of a curly straw.
Keep a Pez dispenser in your purse instead of mints.
Dig in the dirt. Adult people call it ‘gardening’.
Don’t eat that orange without tossing it in the air a few dozen times.
Write something – maybe just your grocery list – and dot every ‘i’ with a little heart.
Give out with a big ‘Mooooo!’ when you drive by a cow.
Get yourself a pair of silly pajamas. Watch your favorite tv show in them.
Change your ringtone to Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Splash in a puddle. Wade in a brook. Pick up pretty rocks and keep them in a jar.
Make a chain with the paper clips in your desk. Or a nice big ball with rubber bands.
Sculpt. Not like grown-up sculpt. Play-Doh sculpt. Modeling clay feels so smooth warmed by your hand. Silly Putty too.
Buy a Chia Pet. Grow something hairy.
Color. There’s a reason why adult coloring books are so popular right now. Coloring can calm you. I remember years ago walking in on my mother when she was babysitting for her granddaughter. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table coloring. By herself. My niece had wandered off to do something else, but Mom was still coloring. When I laughed, my Mom said, quite seriously, “I just wanted to finish my picture.” Mom was ahead of her time.
Run. Not like ‘workout’ run. Like ‘celebration’ run.
Be a kid. Just once in while. You’ll feel a lot better.
I give lots and lots of advice.
Just as if I know what the hell I’m talking about.
I don’t have any qualifications for all this advice – except that I’m intelligent, good-hearted – and old.
Old people are allowed to give advice, because they have so much experience. Of course, in my case, I’m sort of an introvert and non-risk taker and non boat-rocker. So my experience is limited in some areas.
On the other hand, I’m relatively happy and relatively easy-going – and it seems that lots of other people would like to be those two things too. So I can offer my own little strategies that haved helped make me so.
For whatever it’s worth.
When I was growing up, my mother gave me lots of advice. But as I matured, she always added this caveat.
“I give you advice because I’m your mother and I love you, but you don’t have to take it. You can make your own decisions. But because I’m your mother, you shouldn’t argue with me either. Just say ‘Sure, Mom’ – and then go do what you like. ”
And that is good advice on taking advice.
I’m not even your mother.
So you don’t have to even be polite. Do whatever you like. It’s okay.
(Did you ever notice how often I use ‘however’ as a paragraph all by itself? That’s called STYLE. And I’ve got it up the wazoo.)
There is a kind of advice that I HATE. And so you absolutely should take my advice when I advise you to disregard this advice. And if you give this kind of advice, I have some advice on a better substitute.
It’s those short little pieces of advice that are actually unsolicited, often judgmental, orders.
And there are two commands-disguised-as-advice that I particular hate.
Isn’t it amazing how the person who says this to you is almost always the person who sent you off the rails in the first place?
But anyway, there are many times we have the right to be angry. And although there are lots of times when people (meaning: ME) overreact, telling people (meaning: ME) to Calm Down is most likely going to have the opposite effect.
And this was the inspiration for writing this today:
I recently had cause to become a little agitated (unglued might be closer to the truth). I had a cell phone failure. You’d think someones had mugged me, for God’s sake. But phones die. And I am addicted to my phone, and I was going through withdrawal. Most of my anger stemmed from the fact that my cell phone provider was not helpful. I have been a customer for 18 YEARS. Being a little helpful would have been nice.
And at my third trip to the cell phone dealer (and dealer is totally the right word) – I went just slightly unhinged. I wasn’t screaming… I am not a public screamer… but I came pretty close.
And the store manager said this:
“I can see how frustrated you are, and you have every reason to be. And I am going to do what I can to help. But being this stressed out isn’t going to make this problem go away any faster, and it will only make us both feel worse. So let’s sit down and see what we can do to fix things.”
And it worked. I calmed down. Without being told to “Calm Down!”
Which would not have worked.
Holy Crap, does this infuriate me.
And have you EVER heard a man say this to another MAN?
And it is very rare for a woman to say it to another woman. Mostly because woman know how maddening it is to hear.
No. This seems to be “Advice” that men say to women.
And here’s my advice to men who do:
Women find this patronizing. Always.
So here’s my alternative advice for men:
If the woman is a stranger there are two ways to go:
- If you are trying to pick her up, let me assure you, “Smile!” will not work. Try something else. How about – “You seem like someone I would like to get to know. Would it be okay if I talked to you for a bit?”
- Don’t say anything. Women are allowed to be serious.
If the woman is someone you know, there are also two ways to go:
- If she truly looks distressed, and she is a close friend (not just an acquaintance) you might say, “You seem (not ‘look’) a little down (not ‘upset’). Is there anything I can do?”
- Don’t say anything. Women are allowed to be serious.
Autumn is here.
I love Summer. I hate to see it go.
But there is something so appealing about Autumn. The colors, the clear sky, the rustle of the leaves. The kids headed back to school. The shopping.
Oh, yes, definitely the shopping. The fall clothes are so beautiful. I window-shop online – you can call it screen-shop. And I get a ton of catalogs that I browse through as I have my morning coffee.
And to go back to the kids returning to school. How I loved college. Grammar school, high school – well the first day was nice, and the last day…. but everything in between was only just barely tolerable. But college! Strolling along the university paths – smelling the fall air and the overwhelmingly beautiful scent of KNOWLEDGE.
I wanted to go forever. And I nearly did. I stayed in college as long as humanly possible, which for me meant that my parents finally said ‘Enough already. Graduate.’ At the time, at the University of Connecticut, one needed 120 credits to graduate. I had 148.
I did convince my parents to give me one last semester. I decided to get certified to teach. I was an English major and did complete my courses for teaching. But I needed a student teaching experience. So I went to the meeting where you registered for student teaching. And somewhere towards the end of the meeting, the professor said, “Would anyone like to go to Puerto Rico for student teaching?”
Well, why not? I raised my hand.
And I went for three months in the Fall of 1974 and taught middle-grade English at the Baldwin School in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. I lived nearby in Guaynabo with a family who picked me the same way I picked Puerto Rico. In church one Sunday, the minister said, “Would anyone like to host a student teacher?” And they said,”Why not?” And we found that we loved each other.
I took the school bus with the kids. The bus ride taught me everything I needed to know about Puerto Rico. Because the school bus driver kissed every kid each morning as they got off the bus at the school, and kissed them again as he dropped them off at their home at the end of the day.
That is Puerto Rico.
Where people love every kid. Not just their own. Every child is loved by every one.
So, back to Fall shopping for a minute.
I spent this week screen-shopping and catalog shopping and found the perfect sweater for Autumn. It is so beautiful it makes my body ache a bit for wanting to wear it.
It’s from Garnet Hill, whose clothes are always lovely and of high quality. It’s $98.
Also this week, I mentioned on Facebook how bad I felt for Hurricane Maria’s devastation in beautiful Puerto Rico.
A relative I love very much (despite usually disagreeing politically with on just about everything) sent me this link:
I clicked on the link – and I sent $98 to United for Puerto Rico (Unidosporpuertorico.com), spearheaded by Beatriz Rossello, Puerto Rico’s First Lady.
I love that sweater.
I love Puerto Rico more.
I have a pretty cardigan in an autumn print from a few years ago. I will wear it instead and think of my love for Puerto Rico every time I wear it.
Please think about doing the same. Find something that you would really like to have this Fall – something specific. Find something truly beautiful. Give that money to relief efforts instead.
In this report from ABC News, the reporter speaks of the destruction of my sweet town of Guaynabo.
This is a story of Three Little Kittens.
They were found behind a diner on a very busy road in Connecticut. It was a Greek diner, so the rescuer gave them Greek names:
Thor. (The rescuer may not have been an expert on Greek names….)
These tiny kittens were so small they had to be hand-fed for several weeks. But they were strong and they thrived.
There were no takers for these kittens, however, and the rescuer still had them when they were fifteen weeks old. The rescuer thought that for sure they would be adopted by that time – and she had vacation plans that were made a long time ago.
So she asked a friend – the PUSHOVER #1 in this story – who happens to be married to ME – to take the kittens while she was on vacation.
So Pushover #1 agreed.
So we got 3 little kittens for ten days.
On August 10th.
Oh, they were so cute.
Niko and Athena were very timid.
Thor was very, very cuddly.
And we had sadly lost our sweet Stewart just a month before.
So it was decided. We would keep Thor.
He had an eye infection. But Pushover #1 brought him to the Veterinary Opthamologist. (Yes, there is such a thing. They have little tiny eyecharts with with mice pointed in different directions. Just kidding. But not about the Eye Vet.) Thor got his medication and his vision is okay, although his eye will always be a bit deformed.
But we love him just that way. And with his weird non-directional eye, he sort of looks like a pirate.
He certainly has read lots of pirate stories. Here he is playing the pirate’s parrot, with some shoulder-sitting.
He is also a wonderful hairdresser, and so very valuable.
When the ten days were up, we still had all the kittens.
The rescuer was in stealth mode – a gentle, loving stealth mode.
“We need to decide,” Pushover #1 said. “Of course, we should keep Thor, but I think Athena is just the prettiest cat ever. Maybe we should keep her too.”
And Athena was indeed very pretty.
And so it was decided.
And a few weeks later, we still had all three kittens. And they were getting big.
The rescuer – in a gentle, stealthy mode – warned us that if she need to place Niko, we had to give him back right away, before he was too big.
And Niko was still very very spooky.
“Oh Lord,” said Pushover #1, “Niko is so timid, and he depends on his brother and sister for everything. He will be lost without them. He NEEDS them. We cannot separate them.”
And that is where PUSHOVER #2 laid down the LAW.
“Okay,” said Pushover #2.
And we now have THREE LITTLE KITTENS.
Lillian and Theo are adjusting.
It may take a while.
Over my many years, I’ve received lots of advice.
Overwhelmingly, it’s been good advice.
Like from my mother:
“If you have to choose between getting a chore done and having fun, pick the fun. Years later, you won’t remember how many chores were done late, just how much fun you had.”
And from my father:
“If you need a really big favor, go right to the top. People with only a little bit of power are often stingy with it. People with lots of power don’t have anything to prove. They can afford to be generous.”
And from my “Aunt” Rachel:
“Use the good china. Treat yourself like company every day.”
And my first boss:
“Hire the brains, not the experience. You can teach someone smart any job. You can’t someone to be smart.”
I’ve had lots of good advice like this over my lifetime, and it has served me well. And I’ve been happy to be able to pass it along.
But as I was thinking about all the good advice I have been lucky enough to have, I started to think about the bad advice I’ve received too.
And interestingly, I can’t really think of too many times I was given bad advice.
There are a couple of reasons for this:
First, because I was lucky enough to have extraordinary parents and extended family. I had mostly good advice because I was raised by good people.
Secondly, because I think I was prone to dismiss stuff that just didn’t suit me. I don’t remember bad advice because I disregarded it so readily. And how did I know as a kid what to disregard? Because of the first reason.
Here’s a piece of advice I dismissed that I do remember – because I was not a kid any more, and because it is part of a time that was important to me: An unpleasant boss told me in a review that I was too soft on my subordinates. I needed to be tougher. I never considered for one moment taking that advice. Because I did not want to be tougher. I like being kind. That boss was mean. I am not mean.
So what was the worst advice I ever got?
I’ve thought about this a lot lately.
I can’t think of anything too terrible.
But there is one piece of advice where I can clearly see a consequence that did not serve me well.
I’m not sure whether this advice came from my mother or my father. My guess is both. Because it is part of an ethic that runs very strong in my family.
“Don’t brag. If you are good at what you do, people will see it. Excellence shines on its own.”
I can see the truth of this.
There’s a lot of mediocrity in the world. At best, there’s a lot of average shit. That’s why it’s AVERAGE, for God’s sake – because there’s so much of it. So good performances do stand out.
And it worked for me – in some ways. I worked hard and I was bright, creative and honest. So I got ahead. In school and in work.
Here’s how it didn’t work for me. And doesn’t work for a lot of people. Most especially: For GIRLS.
Being modest. Not bragging. Waiting to be noticed.
I’ve had ideas dismissed. The same ideas that are praised when someone more forceful (like a MAN) presents them. And I’ve had ideas stolen… because no one noticed when I said it.
Worse – way worse, and I mean it – I have belittled my own ideas, because I presented them with overly modest disclaimers.
“This may sound silly, but….
“I’m not sure this would work, but what if we try….”
And what I should have said? What most men WOULD say:
“I’ve got a great idea! We should….”
Self-deprecation with girls seems to be insidious, pervasive, and counter-productive. We seem to apologize for even having ideas.
We girls need to stop it.
(Some might criticize me for saying ‘girls’ instead of ‘women.’ But I’ve always liked the the word ‘girl’. It’s not a subset of ‘boy,’ like ‘woman’ is to ‘man.’ I like being a girl. I am a unique person – and a girl.)
And for a very practical reason, we girls should brag a lot more.
I NEVER (and I’m not exaggerating) got the same pay of any man who had the position before me. NEVER. If I got a job – or a promotion with the same employer – and a man had held the position previously, I was offered less money than my predecessor.
And here’s the real crime: I took it. I ALWAYS took it.
And the reverse is also true. For every job I left – through promotion or whatever – where I was replaced by a man, he ALWAYS was offered more money TO START than I ever made at the SAME JOB. ALWAYS.
No wonder girls make 80% of what men make at the same job.
Check out this chart from the Department of Labor. It doesn’t matter the occupation, girls make less.
And look at the HUGE gap for Financial Managers. Guess what position I held before I retired?
And this haunts girls all their lives, since Social Security and pensions are based on your earnings.
I am not entirely blaming my employers for paying men more. Although they certainly seemed to have little problem offering me less and offering men more.
I did not sing my own praises. I did not claim my own worth. I was modest.
The man who replaced me when I retired last year is paid considerably more than I ever made on the job. I’m not angry with this guy. From what I hear, he’s doing a great job. But the company DID NOT KNOW he would do a great job when they made him the offer. I WAS doing a great job, and they DID know it. So why did he get more money? BECAUSE HE ASKED FOR IT.
And I did not.
On job interviews, when asked about salary requirements, I always started my answer with:
“Well, although salary is always negotiable, I think….“
Oh, how I wish I had said:
“I know that the responsibilities of this position usually command $xx – and I am worth every penny of it.”
I sound like I am blaming myself for a societal problem. Yes and No. I will say again that my employer may have been more than willing to pay a man more. Which is just not right. But we girls have to help make it right.
Of course, there is a risk to women speaking up. In claiming their worth. In bragging. Oh, my, it is SO unattractive for girls to brag. Am I right?
Here’s my advice to girls today:
Brag more. Claim your worth.
Isn’t wonderful how our loved ones are completely perfect?
My loved ones drive me crazy.
A single friend once told me she admires the way I so generously accept my husband’s faults. I laughed really hard at that one. I don’t accept his faults. They really irk me. (I love the word ‘irk’, don’t you? We don’t use it often enough.) Marriage does not mean you love someone’s faults – it means you love someone DESPITE his faults.
Oh, and HER faults. It’s quite astonishing that my husband loves me – despite my mass of insane insecurities.
But let’s not just talk about marriage.
All my loved ones make me nuts.
But, oh, how I love them.
I love someone who just never, ever feels good. This person complains constantly about headaches, stomachaches, backaches, foot aches, fingernail aches… whatever it is, the suffering continues.
I love someone who frequently criticizes someone else I love. Person #2 will start telling a story, and Person #1 will say, “Oh, no, it didn’t happen like that.” Person #1 just will not let Person #2 have his own memories.
I love someone who works part-time (out of choice) and yet cries incessentantly about not having enough money. Time is precious – and that’s what this person chose. So don’t moan about the bills mounting up.
I love someone who insults my taste. If I say I like a book, this person says, “I detested that book.” If I like a movie: “That movie was a waste of time.” If I like a song: “I hate, hate, hate that song.” (I get a lot of triple-hates.)
I love someone who will tell you about a TV show in such detail, it takes longer than the original show ever did (including commercials). And sometimes more than once.
But here’s the thing:
I don’t love these annoying bits of those people. I hate those bits.
I love THESE bits:
In no certain order:
I love someone who took several days off from work to drive a friend 300 miles during a family tragedy.
I love someone who brings a tool kit to my mother’s – just in case there is something that can be tightened up, loosened up, oiled up.
I love someone who makes me laugh till the tears roll down my nose.
I love someone who rescues dogs and cats – and children.
I love someone whose clothes are so cheerful, everyone feels better.
Which group of traits are more important?
I think of my loved ones’ faults like this:
Oh, we’ve all been there.
We go to a restaurant – sometimes a little hole-in-the-wall where the eating implements are wrapped in a paper napkin, sometimes an upscale restaurant where there is a plethora of sterling spread before you, and the waiter can hardly wait to bring you more.
And there it is – wrapped in the paper napkin or basking in candlelight – a spoon with a dried speck of something stuck to the bowl.
And oh, we are so annoyed. We are grossed out. We are ready to complain.
And sometimes, mostly when we are aggravated at something else anyway, we do complain.
But most of the time, we just discretely wipe off the dirty spoon.
And then the meal comes. And it is SO DELICIOUS. Whether it is a cheeseburger or duck confit, it’s glorious. Our mouths sing. Our bellies celebrate. We toast our good fortune.
Even if the spoon wasn’t perfect.
So what the hell…
We love someone whose chronic lateness is an annoying dirty spoon.
We love someone who buys wigs for cancer patients.
The spoon is dirty. There’s no denying it.
But what a magnificent entree!
So just wipe off the spoon.
As I watch the scenes from the Texas floods, I am overcome with awe for the bravery I see. People heading TOWARDS disaster, not away, in order to save others. I watch the confirmation that all Life is precious, especially as I watched one woman working with others to save baby bats from the rising water under a bridge. This is what she could do, and so she did it.
And I am struck not only by acts of significant heroism, but by the ordinary bravery of ordinary folks.
Because I see how brave you have to be just to leave your home for a makeshift shelter, not knowing if you will have anything to return to. How brave it is to wait – if that is all you can do. Or even to be safe somewhere, and wonder who you know that may not be safe yet. To reassure your children when you are so very frightened yourself.
I was thinking about writing about this ‘ordinary’ bravery, when I listened to an old radio interview from 1989 with John Updike. He was speaking, without excess emotion, about growing up with a stutter, and about living with disfiguring, but oh-so-ordinary, psoriasis.
And I knew I was on to something. I knew I had to write about ordinary bravery.
Updike spoke of how impossible it was to pass by a reflection in a window without stopping to glance – to see if maybe he had changed.
And I think of the bravery of people with disfigurements – however simple or complex – who get up every day and face the world anyway. The very bravery of people with limps who walk by us on the sidwalk. The boys with acne who ask girls out on dates The girls with crooked teeth who smile at us.
Those bats under the bridge may have been afraid – but most likely they have no knowledge of what could happen next. They live in the moment. But human beings can imagine all sorts of futures – all sorts of bad things that could happen next. And yet they go on.
I am impressed by the bravery of first-time parents as they bring their infants home. Women who have never been mothers, and men who have never been fathers. They are so very aware of the magnificant and terrible responsibility in their arms. And they smile with true joy and take this grave responsibility and go on.
I admire the bravery of every person who signs a mortgage or a new lease – or even a buys a car. No one is sure he has made the very best decision. Nor is sure it will all work out. But after a sleepless night or two, plunges ahead. Makes it work.
And like Updike with his stutter, how brave it is for those with speech impediments, or thick accents, or the unheard voice of the deaf, to speak up. To say what needs to be said, in spite of their imperfect sound. And even those with clear voices – how brave to address a meeting, or answer a question in class. There is always the danger they will be wrong, will be ridiculed. But they speak.
How brave it is to face the judgment of others. To risk criticism in small actions – singing or dancing, selling a handmade item, writing a book that some may not like. Putting it out there anyway. And even the very private bravery of every overweight person – and there are many in this country – who worries at the supermarket that someone will criticize what they put in their cart.
And those who start a new job, as they enter a strange building where they have no mastery of the job, no friends, no lunch plans, no map to the restroom. Yet they get dressed up in what they hope will be appropriate attire and walk through the unknown door in the hopes of a future.
And children trying new foods, taking the training wheels off the bike, jumping for the first time off the diving board. And teenagers figuring out their high school schedule, trying out for track, getting behind the wheel of the car for their first lesson. College kids being dropped off at the dorm. What trepidation they must feel in growing up. We all felt it – that combination of exhilation and apprehension. How brave they are every day.
There is also bravery in growing old. In coping with illness. With taking new steps after hip surgery. With managing on a fixed income. With confronting death that visits now with more frequency – friends, family, a spouse of fifty years. Saying, “Thank you for coming,” at the funeral, and then returning to a now-emptier home.
And here is my own small bravery:
Three times a week, I put on my skimpy gym clothes and go off to Yoga or Zumba class. I stand at the front of the room. And everyone behind me can see that I am not perfect. I have scoliosis. I show my crooked back to the world. But I still go. I still smile. I do my best.
We are all brave.
In honor of the new school year, here’s a post from five years ago:
THE BEST DAY
When I was a kid, do you know what my favorite day of the year was?
Yeah, okay, Christmas. (Good guess.) After all, I was a little girl who loved dolls and clothes and anything wrapped up. And unwrapping stuff. And tree-trimming and angel decorations. And parties and singing. And staying up late and getting up early. And Christmas lights, and cards in the mail. And tiny hot dogs wrapped in dough. And cookies. And having my hair curled. And money. And pie.
That’s pretty hard to beat.
So you do know what my second favorite day was?
The first day of school.
I loved summer – long hot days filled with swimming and biking, and warm evenings with night-time hide-and-seek and fireflies and the ice cream man and late bedtimes.
But by September I was ready to go back to school.
And that first day of school was so very thrilling.
I went to parochial school that required homely navy jumpers. But we didn’t have to wear our uniforms the first day. I got to wear something pretty. And new too. My mother would buy me a special first-day-of-school outfit. No hand-me-downs for that day. And the whole school would go to Mass first, where I also got to wear a mantilla. A dress AND a lace headscarf. Very special. I loved that triangle of white lace, but if I could go back I’d like to wear my mother’s black lace mantilla. How cool.
I’d fidget all through the long Mass, and then Father What-Ever-His-Name-Was would come to the pulpit and start reading names.
“Grade One,” he’d start. “Sister Saint Adelaide: Denise Nadeau, Stephen Bernier, Janice Houle…” and all the way up to Eighth Grade.
And the children would get up as their names were called, and go stand by the Sister. And she’d line them up two by two and they’d march down the aisle and out the door and over to the big brick school across the street.
It was so exciting to find your new desk in your new classroom, and discover who would be your classmates for the year. Saint Anne School had two classes for each grade, and it took just that one day to be certain you had the better teacher and the best kids. You’d sneer at the “other class”, even if your former best friend was in it.
The September weather was fine and we’d go out at recess and run around the schoolyard. We had jump-ropes and cat’s cradles.
We’d get new textbooks. Well, not new, really – most of them were written about 1910. But they were new to us and we took them home in our new bookbag (I liked red plaid) and covered them that night with brown paper cut from old grocery bags. And I always had a new pencil case with ticonderoga pencils and a pink pearl eraser. And a protractor – though I had no idea what to do with it, except I could rub my pencil along the ridges and make a design on my new composition book.
Sister would give us lots of tests that first week to see what we knew. I sucked up like nobody’s business.
I got to write on the big old blackboard.
And be almost the last person standing in the spelling bee. Damn you, Andre Dorval.
Of course, it didn’t take long before I couldn’t wait until my third best day – the last day of school.
But that first day was so sweet.
I went to school until I was thirty. (My parents told their friends that I was majoring in Transferring.)
But that first day was glorious every single time.
When I retire, I am going back to school. I’ll find a class in an ancient brick building with heavy scratched-up desks and a real blackboard. The whole semester will be worth it for that first day.
There was a large old bottle on the floor of my parents’ closet. What it originally held -wine or whiskey, I don’t remember. The neck of the bottle was just big enough for a dime. Pennies and nickels didn’t fit. Just the dimes.
And when my Dad emptied his pockets at the end of the evening, if he had any dimes and he could spare them…which wasn’t all the time, they went in the bottle. Mom too, I think… once in a while a dime from her purse went in the bottle.
(Mom kept her quarters so we kids could go to the Saturday matinee movie – fifteen cents to get in and ten cents for snacks – and you got a double feature!)
But back to the bottle of dimes. We kids all knew where the bottle was, and during the course of the year, we’d watch the dimes start to grow. None of us would ever touch the bottle. I never once in all those years stole a dime.
Because I knew what it was for.
Yes… that was our spending money for vacation.
The factory where Dad worked would always have a shutdown in the summer – a week, sometimes two, and that is when all the employees planned their vacations. Families made their plans around the factory schedule.
And when the time came, my mother would pull out the (hopefully) heavy bottle of dimes and give us kids some coin wrappers and we’d count out the dimes. OMG, we were rich! Some years there were THREE HUNDRED dimes in there! THIRTY DOLLARS in there!
Of course, we could never go away for two whole weeks. One week was rare. A few times, my parents rented a little cottage on Highland Lake in Winsted, Connecticut – only about 25 miles from our home. And those were amazing vacations! A full week on the lake! Swimming right in the backyard! And company! Because it was so close to home, all the relatives would take at least one day and come up. That was the best part. (The worst part was rainy days. With no TV.)
More often, we would travel up to Vermont for just a few days. Staying in a motel instead of renting a cottage was a bit more expensive, so three days was about our limit.
But it was LUXURY!
A Motel With A Swimming Pool!
I did not want anything more.
We had no exotic vacations. We didn’t see the world. We didn’t get on an airplane – although once in a while we would drive to the airport on a Sunday and watch the planes take off. (I was 20 before I flew for the first time.) Trips to restaurants were scarce. The farthest I ever traveled as a kid was to Washington DC. We went by train to attend my father’s military reunion. It was like a dream come true.
But, OMG – A Motel With A Swimming Pool!
We’d go during the week – to avoid the higher weekend rates. Sometimes my parents’ best friends and their kids would come, and we’d play follow the leader in the two cars.
There was a racetrack near the motel. Green Mountain Race Track, near Bennington Vermont. Horseracing, which my parents loved. (I do too, even now.) My parents would go to the track one evening of our vacation – especially if their best friends had come along. Of course, kids were not allowed at the track. And although I love the horses, not being allowed was… Spectacular! Because: PIZZA! For us kids by ourselves at the motel! We were absolutely forbidden to swim at night, but who cares – we had pizza and TV and we were in a Motel!
We ate out for breakfast. We could have pancakes! OMG, pancakes in a restaurant tasted so good! The cream for the grownups’ coffee would come in a tiny glass bottle – like a miniature bottle that the milkman left in the aluminum box on our porch And my mother would let me keep the bottle!
Lunch was usually a cook-out by the side of the road. My father had a little hibachi in the trunk and charcoal, and we’d have hotdogs. Hotdogs were my favorite thing in the world. Besides pancakes. Lunch would take a really long time, because it took forever to get the coals going, and then another forever to cool off the grill enough to put it back in the trunk. Our day often consisted of breakfast in a diner, driving to a good spot for those take-forever hotdogs, and then back to the Motel With A Swimming Pool!
We did some sightseeing. A musuem or a monument. Vermont is not exactly the museum capital of the world. But we’d find something. And we could buy a souvenir! Oh those dimes! I liked little change purses with embossed leather. Or colored pencils. Or a miniature monument. My sister Claudia leaned toward tiny dolls made of brittle china dressed as Indians. Christine liked charms for her charm bracelet. I don’t remember what my little brother liked. Anything, I’d guess. He was always really easy to please – happy with anything he could hold in his hands.
We all liked this:
So did my parents, since at least one of us would be quiet in the car. I was not allowed to play with this in the car, though. If I looked at anything but the road, I threw up.
We sometimes went out to dinner. Usually it was a Howard Johnson’s, or any restaurant that was almost identical to Howard Johnson. I had a hotdog. But this was different than the hot dog I had for lunch. It had a grilled roll. And it came with french fries rather than the potato chips we had for lunch. And the best thing of all: we were On Vacation – in a Motel With A Swimming Pool – so I could have a hotdog for lunch and a hotdog for dinner if I wanted. Because: Vacation!
Sometimes other relatives came too – I remember my great-aunt and uncle, Catherine and Rocky, came once. We went, I think (I can check with my Mom, but I love remembering it in my eight-year-old mind, and so I don’t really want to be corrected), to see some property that my Uncle Rocky had bought or won, sight-unseen. We drove through wooded nothing for miles and miles until everyone had to pee so bad we had to stop the car and pee in the woods – which I had never done before and so was both mortified and enthralled. And when we got to this “resort” property there was nothing there. The swimming facilities that were promised in the brochure turned out to be a muddy hole dug in the dirt.
The grownups laughed themselves silly. Which was just wonderful. How I loved seeing adults laugh like that!
And, so that the trip was not a total waste, we went to a local ski resort that ran their ski lift in the summer for a ride up the mountain. A ski resort! I had never heard of such of thing, except in a Bing Crosby movie. The ride was amazing – better than any ferris wheel for a great high-up view and a cool breeze. My uncle Rocky was so scared, he would not get back on the lift for the ride down, and the operator had to go up in a golf cart and bring him down. It did not upset me to see a grownup so terrified – somehow, it felt reassuring – that it was okay for everyone to be afraid once in a while – even when you grow up.
My father had my brother with him in his chair lift, and my mother was on the chair behind them with me. And she hollered the whole time for my Dad to hold my little brother tight and not let him fall to his certain horrific death. Miraculously, Dad managed to keep my brother alive.
And my father had the opportunity to save my little brother’s life later too. Back at the Motel With A Swimming Pool, enjoying said pool, Tommy inadvertently waded to the drop-off at the deep end, and went under – and Daddy jumped into the water fully clothed and fished him out.
So sometimes grownups are afraid and sometimes grownups are heroes.
That’s what I learned on vacation.