notquiteold

Nancy Roman

Blame

An old friend from work is in a very messy situation.

She’s a wreck. Her family is a wreck. 

And there is no way to get around it – she brought it on herself.

I’m sure you know someone like Maggie. If there are two choices, she will pick the worse one every time. It’s as if she confronts every decision by saying, “Oh, this way will probably screw up my life, but I’m going to do it anyway.”

And the “anyway” NEVER works out. I wonder if maybe there was a time, way back before I knew Maggie, when a bad decision did work out for her. When she skated away from a mess. Perhaps it was so exhilarating to come so close to disaster – and escape – that the thrill of a bad decision is irresistible.

Honestly, though, I don’t think so. I don’t believe Maggie makes terrible decisions because they are exciting. I think the answer is more mundane. Maggie has no capacity for prediction. There is no “cause and effect” gene in her. Simply stated, she has no imagination.

Imagination is a necessary skill in decision-making. We need to be able to see what could happen. And Maggie’s lack of imagination is specific. She can’t imagine the bad outcome. 

Most of us excel at picturing the worst. That’s why we worry. I wrote once that my mother turned worry into an art form. I named it “Ditch-picturing.” No one could conjure up more vivid images of loved ones lying in a ditch than my mom.

But Maggie can’t picture the worst. (It’s probably one of the reasons she has so many friends, despite our frustration with her.) She never sees the worst when it is right in front of her, never mind imagining future troubles. She has no idea why her life is such a mess.

Oh, we friends advise her. We try to steer her in the right direction. But Maggie is like the Titanic, moving inexorably in the direction of disaster. We may say, “Why don’t you take care of that now, and we’ll help you, instead of missing another deadline?” And she says, “Oh, thanks. I will.”  

But she doesn’t.

And the authorities, whoever they are at the time, eventually come swooping down with demands and penalties and blame.

Of course, she deserves it.

Every lousy thing that has happened to her in the years I have known her is her own fault.

There are bills not paid, calls not returned, forms not filled out, jobs lost, cars abandoned.

And yet, what I feel for Maggie is not blame.  

It’s empathy.

Talking with a mutual friend recently, the friend said, “I can’t feel sorry for Maggie any longer. She brought in all on herself.”

I understand how my friend feels. It’s maddening to watch someone make the same mistakes over and over. We help Maggie, but is it helping or enabling? Can she ever learn to save herself if we keep rescuing her?

And yet. Empathy.

I see that Maggie has made a disaster of her own life. But I also see how easy it is for small disasters to pile up. Or to accept that your life is a mess, and just go with it. To turn a blind eye to your own complicity in the mess.

I can still feel sympathy for Maggie, even as I recognize her responsibility. If someone had cancer from a lifetime of smoking, wouldn’t you still feel sad that they are in pain? Can we find the same sympathy for a person who cannot manage her life decisions as we can for a person who couldn’t manage her physical addictions? Both made bad choices. Can we love them anyway?

Can we forget blame?

Can we forget about what people deserve?

Or at least give people the kind-hearted thing we all deserve – to recognize their humanity, their imperfections, and their pain.

Empathy without blame is a good definition of Kindness.

‘Not Quite Old’ Is Now Quite Old

Another birthday.

A big one.

I’m 70.

Dear God – could that even be true?

Seventy.

I’m not sure what 70 is supposed to feel like. But I didn’t expect it to feel like this.

Like …

Nice.

I just received a card in the mail from a sweet cousin. It made me laugh out loud.

Oh, it’s true. It’s too late to be young.

But – entirely unexpectedly – I don’t want to be.

I have spent the last ten years – or perhaps fifteen – trying rather desperately to stay young.

But I turned 70 anyway.

And to my amazement, I kind of LIKE the idea of being old.

It feels …

Easier.

Certainly, it will be easier to look old. Not that I don’t love fashion and makeup and being in style. So I’ll still be stylish – just ‘old’ stylish. I’m not exactly sure what that means yet, but I’m pretty sure being stylish at 70 has got to be easier than being 60 trying to look 40.

For one thing, I don’t have to weigh what I weighed in high school. Or wear stilettos. Or give a minute’s thought to the perkiness of my lady parts.

More importantly, I feel the burden of ‘accomplishment’ falling from me. Oh, I can still have goals, and I do. But I don’t feel much pressure to accomplish anything more in my life. I wrote and published three novels. I think there is a fourth novel in me – but three is good enough. A fourth will be a bonus. A pleasant surprise if it happens. But I am not a failure if I don’t write it.

In retirement, I’ve rediscovered the joy of painting.

My watercolors please me. They are even profitable. But the second they stop being a pleasure and start being a chore is the moment I stop. I don’t anticipate that happening, but I don’t fear it either. When I paint a portrait, sometimes I don’t succeed. It doesn’t stress me out. It is paper and paint and a little bit of time. I throw away my failures and try again. Did you know that you can try as many times as you want? How easy is that?

No one cares if an old person’s house isn’t spotless. No one cares if an old person’s hair needs a trim. No one cares if an old person’s library books are overdue. And if by any chance there is someone out there who DOES care – well, they just can offer to help out. My mother’s neighbors fight over who gets the privilege of shoveling her drive. I will let my neighbors fight over me.

I will ask for a senior discount on everything.

I will laugh when I want to laugh and cry when I want to cry, and say no whenever I want to. And everyone will love me anyway. Because everyone loves old people.

Not so, you say? Old people are invisible, you say. Well, I’m okay with that too. If no one can even see me, I can do whatever I want.

Except for maybe the neighbors doing my chores, it seems that I could have had most of these pleasures long before I turned 70.

I just didn’t know it.

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly ten years. And every year, on my birthday, I post an unretouched selfie.

I’ve always said that the reasons are two-fold:

1. To say that getting old isn’t so bad
2. To say, “Screw you, Mother Nature!”

But I find that I am down to just one reason, since Mother Nature and I have reconciled.

Getting old isn’t so bad.

Me. 70.

ABECEDARIAN

Recently a friend directed me to a story on Medium.com. (I publish there once in a while too.) My friend’s friend had posted a little writing exercise that I just adored.

An ABECEDARIAN is a 26 sentence story, with each sentence beginning with each sequential letter of the alphabet.

It’s a fun exercise that really gets those creative juices flowing. Although I admit I am being lazy using a cliche like ‘creative juices flowing.’ How about this: the structure both confines you and opens you. How creative can you be and still stick to the rules?

Go ahead and give it a try. You may surprise yourself .

Here’s the link to the story by Amy Selwyn that inspired me: Amy’s Abecedarian story. It’s marvelous – I hope you will go over to medium.com and give it a read.

And here is my crazy little exercise. (with additional thanks – and perhaps apologies – to my Kentucky librarian friend.)

THE LIBRARIAN’S SECRET

A librarian in Kentucky had a secret.
Brainy (is there any other kind of librarian?), Laurie pursued art history and medieval icons.
Cathedrals had been visited.
Dostoyevsky had been read.
Every one of her co-workers knew that Laurie’s brain was better than Google.
For arcane trivia or political significance, they knew who to ask.
Go to Laurie,” they advised all the students looking to pad their research papers.
However ridiculous the request, Laurie smiled and answered.
I don’t mind,” Laurie said, aware that the other librarians had nothing much to do.
Just as long as I have Sundays off.”
Keeping secrets, thought the staff.
Laurie hoped she had kept her secrets well.
Many had tried to discover Laurie’s mysterious Sundays.
No one had succeeded.
One day, however, Laurie made a mistake.
Perhaps she was just tired of the secrecy.
Quite possibly, she was proud of her hobby.
Really though, Laurie just momentarily forgot her reputation for being esoteric and sophisticated.
Star Trek,” she said one day, when a student asked her for the definitive reference for space exploration.
That old TV show?” the student asked, and the other librarians suddenly got very interested.
Unequivocally,” Laurie said, as she unbuttoned her smock to reveal the Star Trek uniform underneath.
Vice President,” Laurie explained, pointing to the flyer pinned to the bulletin board, which advertised the Sunday Star Trek fan club.
Wow,” the kid said.
Xenophobia,” Laurie whispered to the kid, nodding towards her co-workers.
You don’t know how hard it is to be an alien, until you live in Kentucky,” she added conspiratorially.
Zany,” said all her co-workers, and Laurie was happy they were right.

Facing Reality

My latest novel, SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM, is set in high school in 1969, which, by sheer coincidence, is where I happened to be in 1969.

The book is fiction. Untrue. Made up. Has no basis in reality. Except, of course, like all fiction, pieces of my life weave in and out of the story. 

How could they not? If I need to describe my protagonist’s favorite outfit, well, I had a favorite outfit in 1969. And a favorite TV show. And a smart little brother. And nice parents. And two wonderful sisters that I could easily merge into the best sister ever.

Even in fiction, you write what you know.

Although the major storyline is invented, it also has some basis in reality. A favorite teacher is sexually inappropriate with his pretty female students. This did not happen to me or my sisters, but it happened in my school. 

Oh, we heard rumors. I think everyone in every school hears those rumors. And we don’t want to believe them. That teacher is amazing. We all adore him. We don’t want to know. 

But gradually, reality insists.

My graduating class has a Facebook page. We reminisce and share photos. We keep in touch with our friends, celebrating their successes and, especially now that we are older, grieving their losses.

Recently, a classmate posted a memory about a favorite teacher, and asked people to add their own anecdotes of their beloved teachers. Among the responses, one guy posted his fond memories of a teacher – the same teacher who was sexually involved with several of the girls, over a period that spanned many years.

And one of our female classmates responded to the post.

She told our classmate that this teacher had pursued her relentlessly. He called her; he came to her house. And that she was not the only one. Only one of the many who had refused his advances. And that there were several who did not refuse. Years later, this man’s behavior was finally revealed, and he was fired. 

Why did the girls not come forward at the time? I can tell you why they kept quiet in 1969. I was eighteen then. Girls were supposed to be flattered by sexual attention. Almost anything that men did was the girl’s fault -you were just too pretty, or immodest, or you teased them. You needed to ‘control yourself’ – and also to appreciate any male advances – at the same time.  

Confusing? Contradictory? Of course.

But I know there are still the remnants of this attitude today.

As for the man who wrote the flattering post about the despicable teacher, and got the true story: To his credit, he said that he did not know this was happening. (And I believe him – we girls kept our secrets well). And he said he was so sorry for the woman and for other women that they had to experience something so terrible. He said he was wrong about the teacher.

I think of this now as I see how hard it is for people to admit they were wrong. 

No one ever wants to admit they were duped. That they believed lies. Someone (some say Mark Twain) said, “It’s easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled.”

That’s why con men so often get away with it. Because it seems to be human nature to feel shame that you were cheated. Instead of being angry at the liar, you are ashamed to have believed the lie.

For some, it means that the lie cannot be admitted. In the face of overwhelming evidence, some will still choose to believe the lie. It hurts too much to admit one was wrong.

And so I come back around to women who keep their terrible secrets. 

It’s shame that keeps people silent.

Maybe the hardest thing for humans to say is, “I was wrong.”

And whether the lies come from a teacher, an advertiser, or a politician – we need to learn how. 

Click here for the Amazon link to SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM.

Near Miss

I am a daydreamer. I come from a family of daydreamers. We’ve been quite happy being daydreamers.

I remember many years ago when my brother was in elementary school, my mother attended a parent-teacher meeting, and the teacher told my mother, “Tommy is a daydreamer.” My mother replied, “Yes, we’re really proud of him.”

Because there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming. That’s when you find creative answers to questions. It’s even where you find creative questions.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, I was daydreaming as I drove home from visiting my mother. My sisters, my brother, and I had a careful, socially-distant little lunch with Mom to celebrate the holiday.

Cars are an extraordinary place to daydream. We all do it. How many times have you driven somewhere and were surprised when you arrived that you had absolutely no memory of the drive?

But – daydreaming in the car is dangerous.

Not too far from my mother’s house, a post office truck had stopped in the street. I don’t know if it was making a delivery or waiting to make a turn. I didn’t notice. I was daydreaming.

I realized the truck had stopped way too late. I slammed on the brakes, but there was no chance of avoiding disaster. I hit the truck hard.

Fortunately, the old BMW I drive (and I mean old – 20 years and 240,000 miles) was built like a tank. Unfortunately, the USPS truck WAS a tank.

The whole front end of my car was demolished. But I was not demolished. Fortunately, I was wearing my seatbelt, and the airbag sprang out like it is supposed to. Unfortunately, the combination of seatbelt and airbag hit me like a hand grenade to the chest.

I didn’t lose consciousness. The first person to approach me was a teenage girl. I remembered seeing her, just moments before, in my daydreaming semi-attention, walking with a boy at the side of the road. My first thought was that of pure relief that I didn’t try to avoid the truck, which would have perhaps steered me into the kids instead. But there she was. Peering into my car. She was terrified; I could tell. She had probably never seen such a bad wreck take place right in front of her. But she was there. She wanted to help despite her fear. I opened the door – the car was full of smoke from the airbag propellant. I tried to speak. I managed a croak that said to her, “The airbag hit me hard, but I think I am okay.” She attempted a halfhearted smile and disappeared. 

Then there were fire trucks and police cars and an ambulance. 

Some guy – maybe an EMT – came to the car and got in on the passenger side. I had by that time turned the engine off, but I had not shifted into park. He did that. Then he tried to collect all the stuff from my handbag that was all over the place. I asked him to hand me my cellphone. I called my husband. “I’m in an accident. I’m hurt,” I said. And I tried to describe where I was. 

By this time, the guy on the passenger side was a police officer. “Can I open your glove compartment and get your registration?” he asked politely. 

An EMT was then at my door, asking me if I could get out on my own. I thought I could. It was painful, but I did it. I cried a bit as they put me on a stretcher, but not too much. I watched it all like I was a spectator. Maybe I was still daydreaming.

I caught a glimpse of the car as they wheeled me to the ambulance. 

“Oh, my poor car,” I said. Someone said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Then I remembered. I hit the Postal truck. “Is the other driver okay? Did I hurt anybody?” “She’s fine,” someone answered. 

The ambulance took me away. On the ride to the hospital, the EMT asked me how old I was. He asked me more than once. I remember thinking, This is because I look so young. He doesn’t think I’m as old as I’m saying. He thinks I must be confused. Oh yes, I am that vain.

The EMT said, “You were going 30, right?” That was the speed limit on that road. He was trying to save me in more ways than one. “Yes, I think so,” I said. And that’s what he recorded. I have no idea what speed I was going. 

The ride took a long time. I was in my home town. I have driven that route a thousand times. It is not long. It does not have as many turns as we seem to have made.

At the hospital, they put a mask on me and asked me Covid questions. Oh no, I thought, they are already overworked and now they have to deal with me.

The police officer who followed the ambulance came in with my registration. He gave me only a written warning for following too close. A Christmas gift. “That car is a 2001!” he said. “Wow. It really held up. I am going to get myself one of those!” “My poor car,” I said.  My poor husband, I thought. 

And sure enough, there he was. My husband. I have this image of him pushing his way through the corridor, saying, “My wife, my wife!” But of course, I didn’t see or hear that. It’s just that he would do that. I know.

The ER nurse could not get me out of my top to put on a hospital gown. My chest hurt too much. She said I would get a CT scan. 

CTs. Cats. And then I thought of some guys who depended on me. 

The dogs! The cats! “Go home and let the dogs out and feed everybody,” I said to my husband. He didn’t want to go. “I need you to go,” I said. “When you get back, I will probably still be here, waiting for them to take me for a CT scan. They have to do blood work first and get results.” I had been in the ER too many times with my father. Everything takes forever.

He finally left, and they immediately took me to Radiology.  Uh-oh, I thought. They will want to discharge me, and my husband will be home feeding the dogs.

But it all took a long time after all. 

Finally, the Physician’s Assistant came and said that everything looked okay on the scan. I was badly bruised, but they would give me some pain medication, and send me home. I wanted to go home. I certainly did not want to hang around in Covid Central.

My husband reappeared around then. He had a bag with him. 

“I stopped and bought sandwiches,” he said. “We could be here a long time.” Now that was truly him.

And then the PA came back. He sat down at the end of the bed. “We made a mistake on your scan,” he said. “Your sternum is fractured.”

I wasn’t surprised. I was no longer daydreaming. I knew the pain was real. (I have learned since that fractured sterna are almost always due to car accidents, and almost always happen to old ladies. But I look so young.)

The PA continued, “That’s an injury that just heals itself with time. You can still go home now.”

And so I did.

And so I have been sitting doing nothing for two weeks. 

But now I am finally feeling better.

I am painting again – with more rest breaks than usual, but painting. And I am cooking dinner sometimes. My husband is walking the dogs – and I am surprised at how much I miss that. But honestly, they are horrible on leash – I could never handle it if they pulled me hard. But soon.

I think of this accident as a Near Miss.

Oh yes. I didn’t miss the truck. But I missed the kids.

And it was a near miss of MY LIFE.

I totaled the car. I didn’t total myself.

I will always be a daydreamer. But not while driving. If I so much as turn on the radio, or take a sip of coffee, or reach for my sunglasses, someone please yell, “Post Office Truck!”

Lifting Up

There is a Facebook page that I follow for its kindness and optimism. I am not alone. More than 5 million people have liked this page.

There is never any criticism in its posts. There is just support, understanding, and acceptance.

For example: 

Recently, they posted this:

More than 9,000 people responded.

I read the first thirty answers. And then I stopped.

Of those thirty, only three were positive. 

“Tell the people you love that you love them.”

“Be nice to yourself.”

“You are stronger than you think.”

Twenty-seven comments – 90% – were negative. Sad, pessimistic, bitter.

“Never trust anyone.”

“Don’t expect people to come through for you.”

“People will not treat you with the kindness you show them.”

“Always expect the worst.”

“Just because they are family doesn’t mean they won’t abandon you.

“Your friends will talk behind your back.”

So I stopped after thirty.  

I don’t think these percentages would hold if read all 9,000. I think those who are unhappy or angry were just more likely to respond right away. It’s sort of like negative reviews. If you love something, you might be inclined to post a review. But if you hate something, you can’t wait to complain. Anger is a great impetus.

But reflecting on those I did read breaks my heart a little.

This Facebook page is meant to be uplifting. Its purpose is to make you feel better. I go there to calm my soul. I believe that is why all five million followers go there.

These people who wrote such unhappy life lessons went to that site to be uplifted. But they could not themselves be uplifting. I believe that what they wanted was for someone or something outside themselves to help them feel better.

Maybe writing those dark thoughts was a release in itself, and did help soothe them. Maybe they were just hoping for someone to say, “I understand.”

Certainly, this has been a difficult year. Even happy people are dealing with depression. If one’s life is already a struggle, I can only imagine how hopeless it might seem.

I want to be the person who gives them those uplifting words to help them through their dark times. I want to ease their pain. But that’s just my ego. How can I help?  

Can I loan them my dogs for a day? Or my lovely amazing mother? Can I give them a nicer past?

I can’t say “things will get better” – that’s just a platitude in the face of hurt and sorrow. And besides, I don’t know that things will get better. Not for them. Not for anyone.

All I can say is, 

I’m here.

I’m listening.

I’m trying to understand.

My Acapulco Admirer

Ages and ages ago, when I was about twenty, I went on a bargain vacation to Mexico.

A high school friend was attending college there, and she found a cheap hotel and I found a cheap airfare, and I met her over Christmas break for a week in Acapulco.

I had never traveled alone before – I had never even been on a plane before. But I went. I went alone to a foreign country and just hoped that my friend would be there at the airport to meet me.

I was happily terrified (a state that does exist, and it is not necessarily a bad thing), but I went. And after a long unhappily terrified hour alone in the airport – there was Patti, smiling and waving to me.

I made it! I didn’t even know I could be so brave.

There are so many things about the vacation that I don’t remember – after all, it was nearly fifty years ago.

I don’t remember the name of Patti’s roommate, who was also with us on vacation. I don’t even remember what she looked like, except that she was pretty.

I don’t remember how we got from the airport in Mexico City to Acapulco, but it must have been by bus.

We changed from the original hotel, which turned out to be worse than dreadful, without even working toilets, to a plain, but clean, hotel. And I don’t remember how Patti found us the better place. Or got our money back from the first one.

I don’t remember how we discovered that we could go through a small overgrown path from the public beach and end up on the fabulous private beach of one of the luxury hotels, where there were umbrellas and waiters. But I do vaguely think the unquestioning, doting, smiling waiters had something to do with Patti’s pretty roommate.

I don’t even remember how we got back to Mexico City and then back to the airport.

But I have one clear memory. And it is sweet.

###

I’m standing about knee-deep in the aqua Acapulco water. My friends are asleep on the lounge chairs that were reserved for the rich people we were pretending to be.

I’m wearing a skimpy string bikini – my first bikini ever; the only string bikini I would ever own (though I did not know it then). The sun is hot, and although I have tried to be careful, I am a little sunburned, and the lukewarm water feels soothing.

A man approaches me. He’s not a kid, but he’s not old. He’s maybe ten years older than I. He’s a man that you would not remember under ordinary circumstances.

He says, “Excuse me. But could I ask you for a favor? It’s nothing important, but it would mean a lot to me.” He’s American.

“What do you want?” I ask.

“I’d like to take your picture.”

I’m sure I look confused, because he blushes a little. He has no sunburn or tan. He’s very pale.

“It’s weird, I know. But it’s this: I’m really shy, and the guys back home tease me about it all the time. How I can never talk to a girl or anything. So I was hoping to take your picture and show them when I get home that I talked to you. Maybe even dated you.”

He adds quickly, “But not really. I’m not trying to pick you up. Because the guys are right. I’m too shy. But I’d really like to make them stop teasing me.”

I don’t even think about it.

“Okay,” I say.

I walk through the water a little closer to him. I put a hand to my hair and I give him a huge smile. Like I am flirting and smiling at a lover.

The man takes several shots.

“Thanks,” he says. And he turns and walks away from me.

###

I never saw the guy again.

Because these were the days long before digital cameras and cellphone cameras, I have no idea whether the photos came out well.

I hope so.

I look at that moment – all these years later – and I see it through a different lens. I thought back then that he was a shy man trying to impress his friends, maybe even make them a little jealous. And he was, but I see something more.

There were lots of beautiful women on the beach in Acapulco. Patti was prettier than I was, with a much better figure. Her roommate was prettier than both of us. And all those rich girls who didn’t have to sneak onto the beach like us – who took such precious care of themselves -every one was perfection.

I think that this man chose me because I was not beautiful. He never would have been able to approach those lovely women. And his buddies would never have believed him.

He asked me because I was not beautiful. Oh, I was not ugly, far from it. But I was no beauty either.

What I was – was approachable.

I looked nice. I looked happy. I looked like maybe the kind of girl a shy man might actually get to know. A girl who might like him. Appreciate him.

And I do.

###

BONUS: I have a short story published on Medium.com. Here’s the link if you’d like to read it. “Aggie’s Genes”

Some Nostalgia – and a good deal

A Thanksgiving special.

Amazon is offering the Kindle version of my new novel – SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM – for just 99 cents.

Offer ends Thursday night.

The novel, set in a suburban high school in 1969, is a nostalgic trip for those of us of a certain age. And it’s fun for the young adult reader too.

If your sister did something dangerous, and you adore your sister, would you do it too?

Here’s the link: SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM

Down in Mom’s Cellar

Last week, I went down to my mom’s basement to do her laundry.

Except for the washer and dryer, no one ever uses the basement any more. The stuff down there has been down there for years. Anything useful was rescued years ago.

On the beam that runs across the ceiling, there are a bunch of little wooden toys and Christmas ornaments. My father, when he retired, tried his hand at woodworking. When he had a success, he brought his creation up out of the cellar – he had a shelf in the den with little cars and cats. If he had an especially good doodad, he usually gave it to one of us grown kids – for our corresponding shelf.

What my father defined as especially good was as magnanimous as he was. By which I mean, he was always generous in his praise. He wasn’t hard on us and he wasn’t hard on himself. Doing your best made you worthy of admiration and applause.

Dad’s woodworking skills were primitive. He didn’t mind. I didn’t either. I still have one little ornament – Santa driving a car (for some unknown reason) – that adorns my tree every year.

In the cellar, on that beam, sits the evidence of how hard he tried. Because there are rows of Santas driving cars that are – well, not so good. I think he must have made a dozen terrible car-driving Santas before he had one good enough to make it out of the basement and into my hands.

Every week, when I go down to do Mom’s wash, I like to give a nod to those imperfect projects up on the beam. I can picture my dad concentrating on tiny faces and wheels and headlights. He would be saying to himself, “Not too bad this time. I’ll try it again.”

Dad taught me that you get an unlimited number of chances. No one in the family had only one shot to succeed. We all could try as many times as it took.

There was no time limit.

I remember complaining to my father when I was about twenty-five that I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. And Dad laughed and said, “I’m in my fifties and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” Which, now that I think about it, is probably why I – a financial executive – was able to write three novels in my sixties.

My mother’s cellar is a testament to trying.

On the opposite side of the basement, invisible when you are only interested in the laundry, is an old piano.

When I say old, I mean ancient. This is a player piano. The player part only worked occasionally but we kids worked hard to pump out a song every so often. Mostly it was the piano we all learned to play.

Mom grew up poor, but she made her impossible dream come true – that she would one day have a piano. She bought this old enormous relic for a ridiculously small amount of money that was a fortune for her at the time. It was a scene from a slapstick comedy getting it into the second-floor apartment we lived in at the time. I don’t remember it since it was close to seventy years ago; I only know the hilarious stories about it. But I do remember getting it back out with the same amount of insanity when we moved to the house we live in now. The new house had a walk-out basement. No stairs. So that’s where the piano was carried. And stands to this day.

It’s a testament to effort. The effort of my mother to be the owner of a piano. The effort of getting it in and out of a house where it didn’t fit through the door. The effort of us kids who sat at that piano every day and painstakingly learned to play it. The effort of affording those lessons – we could afford $4.00 for two lessons a week, but there were three of us girls (my brother was a baby), so we alternated who skipped a week. My mother’s effort, sitting with us, going over what we learned, learning to play from us. And the effort of getting an old piano roll to play every once in a while, just for the peculiar joy of it.

When I did the laundry this week, I gave my usual smile to my dad’s woodworking flops, and walked around the corner to take a peek at the old piano.

Another homage to effort greeted me.

Ivy from the back yard had pushed its way through the edges of the door frame. The whole door was covered on the inside with happy, healthy, determined ivy.

And one long tendril reached for the piano.

Trying.

That ivy knows it’s in the right place.

The piano. That’s me hamming it up on the left.

Losing Control

This week the carpenter came to do some repairs.

The dogs did their typical thing. Theo was all over the carpenter, insisting on attention and constant petting. Henry stood four feet behind the guy, barking his silly protective head off.

Which one was annoying?

Both, of course.

Too much love gets in the way of getting any work done. And too much suspicion is unnerving and just as distracting.

“Control yourself!” I said about 700 times.

I am very big on control.

I have not been an emotional person since I was ten. Before that time, I cried and whined about everything. My sisters can attest to that.

And good excitement was also almost too much to bear. My mother had to carry a change of underwear for me at all times. She can attest to that.

But I grew up, and I discovered that being in control felt good. I may not have been able to control any given situation, but I could control my reaction. No screams, no tears, no more hysterical laughing until liquids poured out of all my orifices. (Too much? Sorry. I guess I went overboard about not going overboard.)

But now that I am old, I am finding that I regret my self-control.

Years ago, I heard someone describe me as cold. It surprised me. I thought I was warm, but reserved.

I’m good in emergencies. Unflustered by mistakes. Calm in times of fear. Composed in times of sorrow.

My control has served me well.

But I don’t want it anymore.

No instead, I would like – once in a while – to be an emotional wreck.

Because the question I now ask myself is, how have I – or my family – or the world – benefitted from my stoicism?

Oh, I can think of one emergency when a co-worker fell hard on a slick floor, where I was the coolest head in the room and I dialed 911, and calmed everyone else down until the EMTs arrived. That was decades ago. I guess I am ready to do that again if the need arose.

But who did I help by not crying when my father died?

Or by not having any wine at my own wedding?

Or by saying, ‘it’s okay,’ when I lost my job?

I have not hugged or kissed my mother since March. I was never a demonstrative person, but now that I cannot safely kiss her, it is excruciatingly apparent that I should have done so at every opportunity. How I hope there will still be a future where hugs and kisses are welcome. I will not be stingy any longer.

And my laughter! I laugh easily – there is no doubt about it. I find so much of life funny. But I have tempered my amusement too much. I want to howl with laughter. I want to laugh till my sides aches – till tears run down my face – until I am gasping for air. And I want to laugh out loud every day. No polite teehees. Let me shriek.

I want to get furious. I want to swear and scream and march in the streets. I marched in protest against the Vietnam War. Fifty years ago. And I took a small, unassuming role in the protests against the Iraq war fifteen years ago. It seems unfathomable to me that I have tempered my outrage now. I need to get mad when it is appropriate to be mad. I deserve to be angry.

I need to cry.

I wrote above that I did not cry when my father died. That is not quite true. When getting dressed for the funeral, I could not find my beautiful pearls. I tore my drawers apart to no avail. And finally exhausted, I sat down on the floor of my bedroom in my sedate black dress and sobbed my heart out. For ten minutes. Then I got up, searched more calmly and found the necklace, and went to the funeral.

I was composed at the funeral.

I cry now that I did not cry then.