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.

What Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Parents (and Mine) Knew

I came to my obsession with Lin-Manuel Miranda much later than most people. I didn’t discover him until well after tickets to Hamilton had reached mortgage-payment levels. So I tried my best to catch up without actually ever seeing the play. I searched news stories and You Tube videos about him, and – if I do say so myself – I did pretty well at becoming a fan of the first order without, you know, being a complete stalker.

The pieces of his life that struck me most, though, weren’t the obvious. Not the trips to the White House, or the interviews where he told about his dismal days as a DJ at Bar Mitzvahs in Queens, or how his bus driver taught him old-school rap on his long rides to and from school in New York City. It was watching him on the videos his parents had saved of him — holding court — when he was a little boy.

My favorite is when he is about eight years old. He is doing a video book report on The Pushcart War. As narrator, he’s dressed in a little boy suit and tie, reading from copy. He changes into costume several times as the plot progresses. His father is behind the camera, his sister in charge of cue cards. In one extended scene, his mother, his abuela, and his great-grandmother play the parts of striking teachers, marching around the room, holding signs and chanting. Convincingly.

When I was eight, book reports were relegated to pencils and lined paper. But I recall with great clarity, the times I got it into my head that I could sing or dance (usually at the same time) with the likes of Doris Day or Peggy Lee. I would prance down the stairs into the living room, where my parents would already be seated on the couch, waiting for my rendition of a song I’d heard on the radio. Standing ovations every time. It never once occurred to me I was mediocre at best. Never once. That realization came to me much later, slowly, when I had moved on to my next potential occupation. I decided I’d be a writer instead. My parents changed course accordingly.

These days I spend lots of my time with a little boy who’s four. He is partial to acting out Fairy Tales in great detail, with voices and inflection we marvel at. He’s not shy about giving out (or abruptly rescinding) speaking parts to the adults in the room. We’re all thrown into the narrative, whatever it is at that moment. We have no idea if he will still be loving this so much in another year, or if we’ll be riding another train with him by then.

Broadway was a long way off on the day of Lin’s video book report. But everyone in the room knew their parts by heart and played them with relish anyway. They circled around him, holding their props and reciting their lines. And saying — without saying it directly — “This is the most terrific kid ever.”

I turned out to be a pretty pitiful singer and dancer. On the other end of the spectrum, Lin-Manuel Miranda is finding the world crazy in love with his talent. Isn’t it funny, then, that he and I have something in common.  Those moments when you remember their beaming faces, taking a bow, hearing the applause. We both came from a home of standing ovations.

Notes on a Shorter Life

Twenty-five years ago, I saved an obituary written for someone I never met. Her name was Danielle. The paragraphs were written by a newspaper reporter, but really the story was written by Danielle’s mother, who is quoted for most of it: “She liked being in school and got good grades, her mother said. She loved dancing, running, climbing fences, and listening to music. Recently the nurses at Hopkins took Danielle to the ninth-floor playroom to enjoy Christmas caroling.” She was five.

In those days, my own kids were still small. I constantly found myself always looking ahead, toward things that hadn’t happened yet, unable to be grateful for the small stuff: When would he learn not to interrupt at the dinner table? Would she learn to swim before summer was here? Was he behind his classmates when it came to reading, or was it my imagination? They were silly, niggling worries, but I didn’t see that until I read what Danielle’s mother had written.

In a shorter life, there is no room for insignificant fears like mine. Danielle’s mother realized she needed to take stock every step of the way and be grateful for each tiny milestone. She knew she would never see her daughter in a prom dress, or what her smile would look like on graduation day. So she went as far as she could in the story of her life: “Danielle was not a finicky eater and liked seafood, steak, and all green vegetables. She even looked forward to taking her medicine. She dealt with it like a champion.”

I carefully clipped that newspaper story and put it in a file folder, where it would ultimately get old with me. That year I also took a part time job in a pediatric rehab center. I was the fill-in person on weekends, called a child life specialist, which sounded much more important than I was. My job was to play with the young patients who didn’t get to go home on weekends. My job was to make a long Sunday afternoon less long.

And that’s how I met Johnny, who had been in a horrific car accident several years before. As bodies went, there wasn’t much left of his. His facial muscles were intact, but sometimes there was a delay in his reaction, like a bad telephone connection. He could move his right arm. Brilliant smile. No speech. Many opinions, usually about what he would or wouldn’t eat for lunch.

His favorite thing to do on Sunday afternoons was to cruise the hospital’s parking lot with me and look at cars. My role was secondary — push his wheelchair and ask him questions, to which he’d give me hand signals that left no doubt about his feelings on the automobile industry. I was often the straight man, giving him chances to silently laugh at my ignorance. He always gave convertibles a thumbs up. Anything red got his attention. As we passed minivans, he would hold his nose and then look up to see if I was giggling behind him.

Without his ever saying a word, I knew his dream was that one day I’d scoop him up in my arms, strap him into a Corvette, and the two of us would speed up and down country roads for the afternoon.

That never happened. What happened instead was that one day a crash cart went sailing into his room, and in a matter of hours, everything about him had changed. But that’s when a funny thing happened.

“You were such a character, Johnny, you and those crazy sunglasses you used to wear,” his nurse said as she studied the monitors over his head. Someone else in the room laughed and said, “Remember this?” and in front of his closed eyes she duplicated the motion he’d make with his good hand whenever music played. We called it The Snake. She kissed that hand and sighed, “You sure were a dancin’ fool.”

That was the funny part. Were it not for the frail body of a child under the blanket, you might have thought we were at the deathbed of a very old man we had known and loved our whole lives. One memory triggered another, and there was enough material to fill a newspaper column, full of his unique history.

I searched the newspaper for a week after he died. Nothing was ever printed. I found myself foolishly wishing a newspaper reporter would call and ask, “Do you have anything you’d like to say about Johnny’s life?” or whatever it is they say when they have to make that horrible call. I had the words ready anyway. So I wrote them down, and put them in the file folder.

“Johnny P. loved to mold clay in his right hand but had no use for finger painting. His smile was legendary. Nerf basketball was his specialty. Johnny made a mess when he ate peas but never wasted a drop of applesauce. Without words and with facial muscles that had seen some hard times, he always let you know when you said something brilliant or when you had totally and woefully missed the point. He sparkled. He was eight years old.”

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, Syracuse.com, NPR This I Believe, and NYPress.com. 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.