The Worst Thing About Us. And the Best.

On April 16, 2007, my son called me at work to tell me there had been a shooting on the Virginia Tech campus where he was a graduate student. He was at his apartment — safe — and he wanted me to know that before the news came across the Internet. I asked about his girlfriend. “She’s fine, too,” he told me. They were the only two people in the world I knew in Blacksburg.

I am not proud of what I did next. I took a breath. And I was thankful.

For a long time, I let myself off the hook about that. It was human nature. It was what we do in the face of imminent danger to those we love.

But this crazy summer, I no longer give myself a pass. I think my reaction is the worst thing about us.

This summer we’re spending a lot of time talk about our “tribes.” We’re fond of that term. It makes us sound loving, collegial, connected. But increasingly it’s nothing more than code — for the people who look like us and agree with us. The ones on our side.

We’re getting too good at boxing ourselves into social media corners, where we scream about who is right or wrong. Or which lives matter. Or where all the fault lies. We search out the perfect meme that makes our point in the snarkiest or cruelest way, and hit keys that launch it out there to do our speaking for us. We can’t wait to tell people in other “tribes” all the reasons they are wrong.

Because this summer is crazy, I’m resisting that though I’m not always successful. One refuge is that I’m having long email chats with a friend from high school. We mention kids and grandchildren, but it’s mostly politics with us, as it has been since we were in high school. He is a judge and a staunch conservative. I am not.

He promises he won’t quote Milton Friedman, but I can tell he wants to, and he makes me smile as I read. We have been diametrically opposed in every political point that has ever crossed our paths since we met in 1966. And though we went years with no contact while our lives got busy, for fifty years I’ve loved this man, and I know he has loved me. And we’ve done it from across the aisle.

What his friendship brings me is the comforting truth that people who disagree with us are not automatically haters. Good citizens and decent human beings can be on the other side of most arguments though that’s hard to see this summer. And those memes — easy to reach for — only contain a lick of truth half the time anyway.

So I’m searching for moments of clarity these days wherever I can find them. In the library last week, as I walked through the automatic doors and into the lobby, one was waiting. I noticed an old woman leaning against the wall, probably waiting for her ride to pull up. She could have been 85. She could have been 105. She was clearly working hard, using her cane just to stay propped up.

Just at that moment, a librarian left her post behind the counter and was dragging a chair over so the woman could sit. I watched as she gently got her comfortable for her wait.

There was nothing about these two women that signaled they might be part of the same “tribe.” Not their age. Not their race. Not any physical or socioeconomic attribute I could see. For all I know, they’ll get to the voting booth on November 8th and go in opposing directions. It was simply one pure act of kindness, unheralded and often missing in this crazy summer of ours.

And I’m holding it close. Because that’s the best thing about us.

Linda DeMers. From High School?

People frown at you if you wear flip-flops to a funeral. This thought came to me as my plane touched down on Long Island, and I realized I was due at one in a few hours and had forgotten to pack shoes. Luckily I was in my hometown. Giving myself the requisite half hour to get lost in traffic on roads I used to know, I finally pulled into the shoe store I’d frequented as a teenager. I started looking.

“Do you need some help?”

I turned to the clerk in back of me to say, “Yes” but stopped.

It was Bobby Werner. From high school. Class of ’68. His hair was all gelled up, committed to a bad comb-over I wish someone had talked him out of. He’d lost those full cheeks he had as a kid. But it was him.

Before I even say my next words aloud, here’s where I’ve been in my head: Bobby Werner made Honor Society our junior year, which was the province of kids whose fathers were internists, so it was doubly impressive because his father worked at Grumman, like mine. He scored touchdowns against rival football teams. He lived on Forest Avenue. His house was green.

There’s more, and I retrieve that, too. He sat in front of me in English class junior year, where he turned around to pass me the SAT practice ditto every morning. So if my math is right, Bobby Werner was forced to look in my direction 180 times, give or take. I had such a thing for Bobby Werner, and I was wondering — now that we were face to face all these years later — if the feeling had been mutual.

“Wow,” I say as if we’re old friends who just haven’t gotten around to seeing each other in several decades. “How are you, Bobby?”

I see blank. Of course, it’s probably not Bobby anymore, I’m thinking. He’s probably ratcheted it down to Bob. Hence the void, I’m sure. So I hop right back in.

“Linda DeMers. From high school?”

Not a glimmer yet. But he’s squinting a bit, so I think he’s trying.

“Massapequa?” I add, just in case he secretly went to more than one high school.

“You went to Massapequa?” he asks. I nod. He stares, and the pause sashays over, right into awkward.

“Impossible,” he says. “I know I’d remember you.”

At first I think he’s flirting with me, but maybe he sees this conversation as an attack on his powers of memory. Whichever it is, I bet he never guessed he’d end up working in a shoe store in his hometown. Or come across a woman who knows the details of his illustrious past.

There’s another pause — even longer than the first one — signaling that we’re finished dancing down memory lane. So remembering why I’m here in the first place, I break the silence.

“Do you have this shoe in black?”

When he returns from the back, he has a shoe box in his hand. He doesn’t say he recognizes me after all, now that he’s had time to think. He doesn’t say he’ll look me up in the yearbook when he gets home.

I bet Bobby Werner remembers graduation day when we smiled for the camera with our proud parents. Our class motto was “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” When we screamed it at pep rallies, we emphasized the middle sentence, believing we were immune to the chips and scratches that would eventually find us.

“Anything else today?” he asks.

I hand him my credit card.

If Only It Were True

In the village of Skaneateles, NY, at the base of its gorgeous lake, is a war memorial. Bronze plaques list the names of those who died. The first one, dedicated after World War I, is simple in its optimism. Above the names is its title: “The World War.” And then, of course, in a steady stream of more plaques next to it, comes the truth. Still, I love that bright anticipation. If only it were true.

I posted this blog entry about growing up in Massapequa with Ron Kovic last year on the Fourth of July, his birthday. And because this weekend is Memorial Day, and Memorial Day is more than picnics and mattress sales, I’m placing it here again.

 

***

 

“I don’t like this,” my mother said as she set the dinner table. “It’s getting to be a bad habit.”

The rest of my family out-voted her. So my brother placed the portable black and white TV on a snack table in the corner of the kitchen.

It was fall, 1967, and I was a senior in high school. Between bites of dinner and sips of milk, my family watched the news unfolding from Vietnam. As a student who thought history was her best subject, I was interested in the logistics of it all, the politics. My ability to watch young men being ripped apart on a 16-inch screen and then say things like, “Please pass the potatoes,” evidently didn’t bother me.

Then Ron Kovic got shot.

Ron Kovic grew up one block over and two blocks up from our house. He and his friends were a staple of my childhood. For one summer I worshiped his broad-shouldered body as he played ball every day in the neighborhood. He was — as were many others — the older boy who never looked my way. For three hot and humid months that year, I made up a reason to walk past his house ten times a day. I hoped for a “hello.” I never got a nod.

I’d lost track of him when he graduated from Massapequa High School in 1964. I had no idea he’d become a Marine. His little sister was at our bus stop on Broadway, but by the rules that governed bus stop protocol, I couldn’t talk to her because she was younger.

And then one afternoon in January, 1968, I saw his sister sobbing on the bus ride home from school, hunched over in her seat. Her friends crowded around her, and I heard one of them say, “Her brother got shot in Vietnam.”

Starting that day, I had two images of Ron Kovic that I couldn’t reconcile. In the first, he wore his letter sweater with the blue and gold M. He had a crew cut and was tan and smiling. In the second — only a few years beyond that — he lay in St. Albans Naval Hospital, paralyzed from the chest down.

 

Ron

In 1976, when Ron wrote about his life in Born on the Fourth of July, he graced the front page of The New York Times Book Review. He was renewed, strong in his anti-war convictions, still handsome. My brother bought a copy of the book for me and walked around the corner to the Kovic’s house and asked him to sign it.

“He was very pleasant,” my brother told me. “We talked for a long time. I asked him, but he said he doesn’t remember you.”

 

IMG_1904

When you’re the cool kid on the block, you don’t recall the skinny 13-year-old in the shadows, even if she is adoring your every move. And that wasn’t the big role Ron Kovic was going to play in my life anyway.

January, 1968, my family stopped watching the Vietnam War unfold on the TV screen at dinner. I no longer needed Walter Cronkite to shepherd me through the Tet Offensive or the DMZ. Ron Kovic — that beautiful boy from Toronto Avenue who did perfect handstands — took over the job.

If I questioned what war was, or what it did, my answer was close by now. Two blocks away. At the bus stop. Every morning when I looked into his sister’s eyes.

 

T-T-Talking ‘Bout My Generation

Facebook and Baby Boomers. When Mark Zuckerberg and his pals at Harvard sat around in their dorm rooms and envisioned the future, you can bet this did not happen: “Someday, people in their sixties, anxious to cling to a time when their knees didn’t ache and they could read menus without glasses, will turn to our invention and see what’s become of all their high school friends. It’ll be fabulous.”

Yet, that’s pretty much what’s happened. I’ve learned everything I know about the Class of ‘68 from Facebook. The biggest revelation? No other generation has been able to conclude, the way we have, that the cool kids got much less cool as time went by. Past generations have had to live long enough to get to that 50th high school reunion to get the final word. Not us. We’ve got newsfeeds.

And conversely, something wonderful has happened to the glasses-wearing, science-loving geeky kids, who were always in the background. I know because I’m friended to two of them — lifelong friends of each other — who were so sweet, smart, and dorky you almost had to look away. If they were boys who got their lunch money stolen or got stuffed in someone’s locker between classes, Facebook tells me this is no longer true. They’ve had lucrative careers and long, happy marriages. These days, they upload glorious photos of the two of them hiking mountain ranges together. I don’t know how this happened, but they’re almost athletic.

The football team, many of whom ended up with bad backs and regrets about two-a-day practices — sure didn’t see this coming when they tossed around these guys on the bus. And as for the surfers whom I worshipped from afar, like the rest of us, sun damage hasn’t done their faces any favors. But the science nerdy boys, who tried to stay under the radar of the locker room crowd and have been wearing sun-proof gear for decades, look remarkable. Even when they smile they don’t look weathered, the way — ahem — some people who peaked early and went around saying “Kowabunga” all through high school do now.

In the garden of the late bloomers, the kids who were in the background have blossomed. Facebook tells me so. And it’s the news I’ve been waiting to read. So thanks, Facebook.

 

Good Intentions and Horrible Blunders on a Country Road

It’s hard to tell this story because it sort of breaks my heart. It was 1933, and my mother was five. She and her parents were driving along a country road at the eastern tip of Long Island, long before it was called The Hamptons. Suddenly traffic stopped, and cars began to line up and inch toward what they figured must have been an accident. They crawled along for a few miles, my grandfather running out of patience.

When they got to a fork in the road, they realized that a car had run out of gas just where the two lanes separated, and right there was a black man holding a gas can, his thumb in the air, hoping for a ride. My mother stood up in the back seat and watched car after car in front of them slowly go around the man.

“Stop and pick him up,” my grandmother told my grandfather, exasperated by the behavior of the drivers in front of them. I like this part of the story, of course — my grandmother so ahead of her time. But there’s another part.

As they got close to where the man stood, my grandmother glanced at the back seat next to where my mother was sitting. She took a newspaper from the floor by her feet and handed it to her small daughter.

“Spread this out on the seat next to you,” she told her.

“Why?” my mother wanted to know.

“Diseases.”

My mother did as she was told, and they stopped. The man, jubilant that this would end his humiliation, went to get in. My mother watched him closely. He saw the newspaper. His smile faded. He got in anyway. My mother remembered the sound his body made as he sat down on the paper designed to keep his “diseases” off their car seat. He took off his hat. He thanked them.

My mother told me that story when I was a young teenager, deep into my “Peter Paul and Mary Know the Answers to Everything” years. My reaction was harsh. How could my grandmother — my smart, kind grandmother — ever do such a thing? And why was my mother telling me this story with nothing more than a little frustration, saying, “Well, they did what they could do.” All I could see was that they were just another smack in the face to the black man who’d stood in the hot sun waiting for someone — anyone — to drive him to a gas station.

My mother told the story because all those years later, she still remembered the hurt look on the man’s face, and it haunted her. She told it because she also understood her parents’ actions in a way I refused to. Because the world evolves in fits and starts, brave take-offs and hard landings, good intentions and horrible blunders. She told me the story slowly and quietly because I thought I knew everything about the universe and how it worked. And she knew that wasn’t true.

And now I know it, too.

 

One Year In

My blog is now one year old, and — if anything — I’ve learned that I’m more consistent in getting words out every week than I’ve ever been at finishing all those needlepoint projects that went to die in my closet.

In a year, the blog has garnered 91,387 hits and now has 2,341 subscribers. I have resisted looking into whether that’s good or bad in the big scheme of stats. What I really care about are the comments I get to read from people who take the time to write back. Even after all these years of writing, that thrill has never left me.

My original intent in starting this was to present pieces of the memoir I’ve been writing and see the reaction. Now the book is finished. It’s similar to pushing out a baby and finally getting to see just what the last nine months were really all about. Now begins the process of finding an agent who reads my query letter and smiles and writes back. I like the belief that — even at my age —when we tend too much to look back, there will be a next step that will take my breath away.

I’ll continue to write here, but I’m not sure yet what form it will take. And to the thoughtful, smart, funny people who read “me,” every week (and you know who you are) thanks.

And for any agent who has secretly become a visitor to this page, I’ll be waiting for your call.

 

The Single, Most Terrifying Moment of Motherhood

A few months ago at a supermarket, with a snowstorm on the way, I realized what is so terrifying about motherhood. It had to do with locked shelves and a sea captain in 1926.

Bear with me.

Where I live, worrying about snow begins about a week ahead of the storm. I usually do my food shopping the first time I hear television newscasters losing their minds over the weather map. But I didn’t get to the store early this time, and I knew I was in for a long wait at the checkout.

In front of me, against the wall, was something I’d never noticed before — a large series of caged shelves, secured with a padlock. It was full of baby formula. That’s all, just baby formula.

I wondered if the supermarket got tired of so much of it disappearing from the baby aisle and locked it up here, in plain sight of everyone, so desperate mothers couldn’t slip a canister or two inside their bulky winter coats. I pictured those women in my mind, women who might steal, frantic to get home to a hungry baby. And that led me to the sea captain.

Ninety years ago Captain George Fried struggled to keep his ship afloat in a fierce January storm in the Atlantic. He received a weak distress call from a sinking British freighter and set out to find her. In blizzard conditions over the next 85 hours, the captain tried several times to rescue the crew of the sinking ship. When it looked hopeless, as it did many times throughout the rescue, he sent them this famous message: “I will not abandon you. I will not abandon you.”

When my first baby emerged from me, the doctor gently placed him on my stomach. I instinctively grabbed onto his squirmy body. He looked at me. And there. Right there. The single most terrifying moment of motherhood hit me.

Before that instant, I’d walked away from lots of stuff in my life. I’d stopped corresponding with friends who no longer suited me. I’d left boyfriends to deal with their broken hearts. I thought nothing of leaving projects half completed, conversations unfinished, and relationships in ruins. There was nothing to it.

That moment you become a mother, you tell your baby lots of things. Even if you’re just holding him and not saying anything aloud, you find yourself making promises you never made before. “I would steal for you. I would brave freezing water for you.”

And as the list goes on, you realize the one thing that will not happen. The thought arrives in whatever language you speak: “I will never, ever abandon you.”

 

 

Can We All Just Take a Breath?

As scandals during my childhood in Massapequa went, this one had legs. I didn’t understand it completely, but I could tell by my parents’ tone it was bigger than the brouhaha about the Townsends refusing to pick up their dog poop, which had rocked Hamilton Avenue the summer before.

This one started the day my mother drove me to our family dentist — a man I’d known all my life — for my 6-month appointment. While we sat in his waiting room, I silently recited my usual prayer to the molar gods about no cavities. My mother immediately noticed that Dr. McGarrity had placed a copy of Barry Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative, on each end table. And as if that weren’t enough, instead of the usual pamphlets about brushing your teeth after every meal, there were now red, white, and blue brochures explaining why people should vote for the senator from Arizona.

“And not just one table,” my mother told my father that evening, “but all five!”

“Did you say anything to him?” my father wanted to know.

“Of course not!”

We talked politics often in my house — the keyword being “in.” I knew that Goldwater was diametrically opposed to everything my parents held dear because they were liberals of the highest degree. If any of our neighbors actually believed in Goldwater (and undoubtedly there were a few on Hamilton Avenue), they kept their leanings to themselves. As did we.

And this — to put it simply — was the way the world worked before Facebook. It was a place where your dentist throwing his conservative beliefs out there on a table could horrify people who were just there to get their teeth cleaned. Long before Twitter came along and we realized how cleverly we could condense our opinions into 140 characters, my parents were aghast that Dr. McGarrity would want the world to know how he planned to vote.

Anyone reading my blog for the last year knows I’m not above hauling out parts of my youth and giving them nostalgic air time. And anyone who is lucky enough to make it past forty begins to see how “simple” life was then. Some of us pine for the past  — loudly and often — especially this year, when the world seems to be upside down.

I’m not one of those people.

Every time someone talks about the Fifties and how perfect they were, I shift to other thoughts: Separate water fountains. Polio. Gay men cheerfully described in their obituaries as “lifelong bachelors” by family members who didn’t know the truth. Or the unrealized dreams some women mourned when they signed up to become housewives and spent every day of the rest of their lives slowly disappearing.

This election cycle looks like it will get crazier before it gets better, and as much as social media is something I can’t live without, these days I feel like I’m drowning in it, especially when my fellow Baby Boomers are at the keyboard. In one corner, we miss the civility and quiet of the Fifties. In another, we’re generating memes and comments — about our candidate, our issue — at an astonishing rate. We need to feel right. About everything.

Maybe it’s time to take a breath. Which is what I’ll do. As soon as I update my Instagram account.

 

 

 

“You got a boyfriend?”

Auburn is not just any city in central New York, and I found that out on my first day of student teaching. There is a maximum-security prison right in the middle of town. It was built in 1812 and takes up square city blocks, its walls and guard towers made of forbidding gray stone. When it rains, huge black splotches appear on the walls, making it look even more ominous. Auburn Correctional Facility is famous for being the site of the first electrocution in the United States, which, I thought, might be hard to get behind in the hometown pride department. But the prison comes up a lot in conversations.

A bell rang and the kids swarmed in and took their seats. They stared at me as Mr. Donatelli went through a solemn introduction of their new student teacher, making me sound like I had lots of reform school experience. One of the kids thought Miss DeMers sounded like Mr. Mers and blurted out, “You a man or a woman?” and his audience erupted in laughter, because for all the things I was not in 1973, a man would have been at the top of the list even to the most casual observer. Mr. Donatelli quickly showed me the way this was handled in his world.

After lunch, one of the boys feigned a question he already knew the answer to, and took advantage of having me all to himself as we stood in the back of the classroom. After I gave him a much too-long answer to whatever his fake question was, he scanned my body up and down and his gaze lingered at my breasts.

“You got a boyfriend?”

I don’t remember what I said, but I’ll bet money it had the word appropriate tucked into it.

He backed down, like all of a sudden he remembered he was ten and not his 13 year-old brother, who was most certainly getting some. Mr. Donatelli gave me a thumbs up from across the room.

When I got to school for my second day, Mr. Donatelli was already in the classroom.

“Well, you’re on your own! You know where I am if you need me, but I don’t think you will.” And he whistled as he walked to the faculty lounge with the newspaper under his arm.

We never knew when, but one day a week Mrs. Ambrose, the student-teacher supervisor from Cortland, would show up for a surprise observation. Never knowing when she’d pop up, Mr. Donatelli and I had a scheduled sit-down every Monday morning before the first bell.

He’d start by saying, “So how was your weekend?”

Since I was spending weekends back in Cortland cozied up with my boyfriend, doing things I knew Mr. Donatelli had never dreamed of, I usually went with, “Great! How was yours?”

His wife cooked Italian on weekends, and he took his dogs for long walks, so pasta and the weather usually headlined his recaps. Then we’d get down to a review of the previous week, and by that I mean he would say, “So how did things go last week?” and I’d assure him Piaget couldn’t have done a better job.

He’d say, “Alrighty, then!” and give me his sweet, toothy grin. And then I’d wait for Mrs. Ambrose to appear out of nowhere. Sometimes, if the gym teacher was holding his class outside and he’d see her car pull up, he’d send a kid running up to my classroom ahead of her with a note: “Eagle has landed.”

Most times, though, Mrs. Ambrose would just appear. She was forty years into her job, without a hair out of place and a purse to match every pair of shoes she owned. After she sat down in the back and smoothed out her skirt, she would rip a piece of paper out of her notebook and fold it in half with (+) on one side and (–) on the other. And for twenty minutes she’d watch your every move and take copious notes. You tried not to notice if she was writing on the left or right side of the page.

Afterwards Mr. Donatelli would pop back into the room to give Mrs. Ambrose time to critique me in private. He seemed to show off a little as he strode in with, “Hi, boys and girls!” Maybe he wanted to stay on her good side so he’d continue to get a stream of student teachers. Maybe he was just happy to see the kids after another week of seclusion in the faculty lounge.

I’d thank her for the feedback, although at least half of the time I thought she was sadly out of touch when it came to the pulse of young children, of which I was now an expert. These sessions tended to end abruptly, like she had to get extra time in with poor Patsy Rossi, who lately was breaking into hives as the first bell rang. But then one day she paused.

“There’s one more thing, Linda. I just found out about an opening for September. Fifth grade. It’s in Skaneateles, right down the road. I’ve arranged for you to interview on Monday. I told the principal there you’re my strongest candidate, so don’t let me down.”

I had the job a week later. And just like that my bravado evaporated.

 

[Next Thursday: A Teacher’s Regrets in Skaneateles, NY]