The Governor, a Birthday Cake, and That Inch

The last time I was measured at the doctor’s office, the young woman doing the measuring said, “5 foot 9.” I told her that couldn’t be right. I’d been 5’10” since before the Beatles played Shea Stadium. She tried again. Then she gave a little nod that meant she was right the first time. She absently said something like, “This happens to women a lot.”

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss that inch.

I never thought I’d say it because for most of my life I had inches to spare, inches I would have happily given away to girls who moaned about being short. I never thought I’d say it because for most of my young life, I felt too “big” standing next to most people.

At 14, I thought that if I slouched, I could take inches off my height by inserting a curve in my spine that no one would notice. Once I got the hang of it, my parents kept flicking me between my shoulder blades every time I walked by, and saying annoying things like, “Stand up straight.” So I got in most of my slouching at school.

I didn’t go for the usual style of slouching, where you just cave in the upper part of your body and spend the day looking down at your feet. Mine was more of a clever maneuver in which my knees were also called into action. I got so good at it that I probably would have continued on through college if it hadn’t been for the governor of New York.

I was waiting tables at the Boardwalk Restaurant at Jones Beach the summer before college, 1968. I was still taller than most people, but when called into action, my spine could do some amazing feats of containment. I was sure that through optical illusion alone, I was fooling everyone.

One morning the manager excitedly called the waitresses together and said that Nelson Rockefeller, who was then governor, would be visiting the next day for a press event. Since it would also be his birthday, the governor’s people had asked that a cake be rolled out as a “surprise.”

“I need two girls to push the cake out and stand on either side of the governor as we sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” the manager said. He scanned the room full of young waitresses. “Okay . . . Karen and . . . Linda.”

I was thrilled. My mother wondered if I’d be on the front page of the newspaper. I rehearsed my smile. And in an act of teenage overkill, before I went to sleep that night I actually practiced the words to “Happy Birthday” so I wouldn’t mess it up in case television cameras were focused on me.

The next day, a few of Rockefeller’s people arrived just ahead of him. They checked out the table formations, the stage, and us. As Karen and I practiced rolling out the cake cart, one of them pointed at me and said something to the man next to him. The other man nodded.

The manager walked over. I could tell it was bad news. “Uh, really sorry about this,” he said to me, “but you can’t be on the stage after all. Turns out the governor doesn’t like to be photographed with people who are taller than he is.”

My first reaction was to argue that although I was, indeed, 5’10”, the clever way I rearranged my skeleton made it seem like I was only 5’6”. But everyone was now in a rush with the last-minute change, so I didn’t. I left the stage and watched 5’2” Esther Kaufmann from Wantagh take my spot.

The governor was a smiley man, shaking hands deftly as he moved to the stage and saying something I couldn’t hear to the reporters, who laughed politely. He did a credible job of acting surprised when the cake got rolled out, and I could see that Esther was flush with her good fortune.

Annoyed, I thought, “Well good for you, short people.” But then, my epiphany hit me as I watched the governor towering over his cake pushers.

Suddenly, my spine straightened, and my shoulders relaxed. And it was the last time I ever thought about being anything less than 5’10”. I would have belted out “Happy Birthday” like nobody’s business if given the chance that day, but I figured out something bigger. I was going to stop pretending I wasn’t tall. And I hoped the governor would stop pretending he was.

I can only report that I stuck to my plan. Which is why I miss that inch.

The Woman in the Parking Lot

I learned to love a supermarket because it was the place I’d go to cry when I first moved to Baltimore. I missed my life in Buffalo — in the house that felt right, surrounded by friends I didn’t want to give up. My transition plan — such that it was — included driving to the supermarket a few times a week, ostensibly telling my husband that I “needed a few things,” when what I needed was to call my friend Carol (collect) from the pay phone that was right next to the produce aisle.

Not wanting to let my kids know what a terrible mistake we’d made moving to this “southern” place where I couldn’t understand the language sometimes, I’d do my crying at the supermarket, near the zucchini, in Carol’s ear. In those months when I had one foot in each city, she’d say, “Just give it time.”

She was right, of course, and it only took a few weeks until I could pass that pay phone and just keep walking. I broke the code of this new language Marylanders spoke. I made friends.

My supermarket is part of a local chain, nothing fancy. High school and college kids would come back to work there summer after summer. My favorite was one who, when I told him I would miss his great service once his last summer was over, said, “Well, uh, I’m graduating from the University of Chicago. You knew I wouldn’t be here forever, right?”

The person who may have been there the longest is the woman who walks you to your car and helps you load your groceries. I think of her title as The Woman in the Parking Lot. I’m guessing she’s now in her forties. I’m also guessing that she makes minimum wage plus tips.

I think she is the sole reason this store is overrun by elderly people who probably shouldn’t be driving any more. They seem to flock to her. The Woman in the Parking Lot knows every one of them by name. The Woman in the Parking Lot asks, “How’d you do in Bingo last night — lose your pants again?” “Did your son get good news from the doctor?” “Why don’t you get a head start to the car? You always beat me anyway,” and they think she’s hilarious. She’s learned to speak loudly and clearly over the years, part of her on-the-job training. The rest of her repertoire comes naturally.

If there is a person with white hair moving slowly and deliberately out the door, pushing a cart, I know The Woman in the Parking Lot will ignore me. And I love that.

One year at Christmas, I watched her helping an old man who looked like my dad, who was living hundreds of miles away. And though he had my brother and other relatives close by, I was sad and guilty that I wasn’t doing my part. I heard her tell the old man about something funny her husband had said. She gave him a quick lowdown on her kids’ holiday concert. He smiled broadly and said something I couldn’t hear. Then she hugged him.

As she was pushing the empty cart back to the store, I rushed over. I told her about my father and how he was far away and how I’d been watching her for years and knew how kind she was to old people. She had a slightly panicked look on her face because apparently I wasn’t taking a breath. I knew I was oversharing but I didn’t care. I pressed money into her hand — a lot of money — and kept talking.

After that she still ignored me in favor of someone old enough to be my parent. And I loved her more.

Once in a while, if there wasn’t someone older to wait on, she would take me on as a parking lot client. We’d do the usual chit chat — weather, Orioles, Ravens — in that order. Years of experience had taught her the least awkward small talk when she had to wait for you to fumble in your purse for her tip. And she always, always, ended with “How’s your dad doing?” I would say “He’s good. He’s fine,” the answer I continued years after he had died.

The supermarket chain announced last month that it’s closing. I no longer live in the neighborhood, so my shopping allegiance has moved on anyway, but I felt a little sad. I drove over last weekend, not on a nostalgic mission, but because logistically it made sense. And there she was, nodding to a woman with her keys in her hand, ready to get in her car, but obviously remembering something important she had to tell The Woman in the Parking Lot.

Someone who never watched this woman work once said, “Whatever you are, be a good one.” Summer, when it is brutally hot and humid. Winter, when your face gets red and chapped from the frigid wind.

The Woman in the Parking Lot waited until the conversation was finished. It took a while. They smiled at each other. Then there was a hug.

Words for a Horrible Week

I don’t have any. But I’ll leave some from a writer whose work I love, Scott Russell Sanders.

“Even the disciples, who at times could be dense as bricks, realized that the true neighbor was the one who showed mercy to a stranger.”

Back next week with some words of my own.

“I Haven’t Got All Day”

My mother was famous for calling me out on never finishing most things I started. She had a point. But a few months ago, I looked at the manuscript I’d been working on for two years and realized I needed to go on to the next step. That included finding an agent, which was daunting and sometimes (lots of times) deflating. But Maryann Karinch, of The Rudy Agency, saw promise, took me on as a client, and here I am (below) in her agency’s spring/summer catalogue.

Now it’s just wait and see. And believe in myself and my writing. Which is what writers do more than they have their fingers on the keys. Thanks for all of you who tune in on Thursdays.

I  Haven’t  Got  All  Day

My reaction at hearing my baby brother would live with us

           In her frank and funny memoir, Linda DeMers Hummel takes her reader — via a collection of connected essays—from the sweet but inherent awkwardness of growing up in a 1950s Long Island suburb, to her coming of age smack in the middle of the sexual revolution, to her days as a grown woman who was all ready to follow in her mother’s footsteps until the 1960s changed everything. I Haven’t Got All Day is wickedly charming—whether Linda is finding old boyfriends on Facebook, jumping into online dating after 50, or recounting the pratfalls of her life with unflinching truth. Her fine storytelling proves there is no road map for how we’re supposed to age, and that Baby Boomers are still making it up as they go along, as they always have. I Haven’t Got All Day will speak to those who remember their pasts with just a little wincing, lots of laughter, and gratitude for a journey during a most captivating time.

The National Association of Baby Boomer Women, whose constituents are the primary target market, serves 38 million women in the United States between the ages of 52 and 70. They won’t be around forever, of course, and this comes as a great shock to them, so they read about their generation as much as they can.

Linda’s print credits include Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Writer’s Digest, Family Circle, Baltimore Sun, Newsday, Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Sasee, Maryland Magazine, The Sun, Parenting, and others. Her most recent online credits include Washingtonian, The Big Jewel, 1010 Park Place, Author Magazine,, NPR This I Believe, and For ten years, she taught writing courses at Johns Hopkins University.

It’s a Toddler Harness, not a Backpack. And it’s fine.

I first saw the monkey “backpacks” last month. I was on a field trip with my granddaughter’s preschool class to the zoo. As our group assembled outside the gates, I chatted with my daughter-in-law and watched the usual (and amusing) herding of cats that goes on when preschoolers have to wait longer than five minutes for anything.

Two of the younger siblings in our group had these “backpacks” on them. The long “tails” are actually the end of the harness (which it really is) where the parent holds on for dear life in a crowd and hopes for the best.

I bet there are people who tsk tsk about the monkey backpack. In fact, I’m sure of it because why else would parents feel obliged to pretend it’s anything but a harness? With a monkey backpack you can say — without uttering a word — “I actually have total control of my kid. This? Oh, this is just a cute little accessory. He really loves it! It’s not a harness. It’s a monkey backpack. See? We put snacks inside the pouch.”

Toddler harnesses were all the rage when I was a little kid, in the 1950s. They were leashes for humans, of course, devoid of cute monkey faces. Let’s face it. Kids had to toe the line in a big way back when we all liked Ike, and any child who was a runner, a climber, or even a wanderer, needed a constant reminder of who was in charge.

When I had my own kids in the 80s, harnesses had fallen out of fashion — along with feeding schedules and crying for any reason — because you never wanted to limit your baby. And because somehow the toddlers of the world had now taken charge of the universe.

Parents today are cagier than we were. Sure, they might use a harness on their toddler, but they’ve had the forethought to give it enough spin that, for a minute, you actually believe it’s not what you think it is.

When that little boy wandered into the gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo, tirades about  poor parenting are flying through the air. “Should toddlers be leashed?” CNN wanted to know in its morning headline. News flash to CNN: Toddlers are leashed all over the place. Check the backpacks.

If you’ve ever been in charge of a three-year old (I am, several days a week, along with his year-old sister) and you’re honest with yourself, you’re able to say this: “I can’t always predict what will happen next because I’m not a psychic. If he gets too much of a head start, it could be big trouble. I can’t call her name in a crowd and believe she’ll stop dead in her tracks at the sound of my commanding voice.” If you’re honest with yourself and not actively engaged in the mommy wars that have you mistakenly believe you’re a better parent than everyone else, you may come to the harness decision.

The good news is that those of us in the last generation of mothers may not even notice — because of the clever monkey tail design — that they’re even harnesses. Not that you should care what we think. Not that you should care what anyone thinks. You know your kid. And you just want to keep him safe. However you get there.